A week or so ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop in Chiang Mai with a friend of mine. As we were digging into our French toast and iced cappuccinos, we struck up a conversation with a man sitting next to us. He was an American in his early sixties or thereabouts. He informed us he had just sold his house in California and had ditched the good ol’ U.S. of A. to pursue his dream of living in a beachfront bungalow in Southern Thailand. He had the giddy look of someone who was planning to live the rest of his life in a hammock… either that, or he’d had a lot of cappuccinos that day.
We got into a conversation about life philosophies and the quest for happiness (as one occasionally does while hopped up on caffeine and French toast in the coffee shops of Chiang Mai). At some point in the conversation he was talking about karma and was giving an example of how he had recently gotten a dose of good karma after pitching in to help build a school in a nearby village. He reported that for each day that he went out to help build the school, he’d receive a phone call that day from his real estate agent informing him that the value of his property had just increased. If he didn’t volunteer, he wouldn’t get a phone call.
“See,” he said, smiling, “If you do good things, you’ll get good things in return.”
Ahh, karma. Isn’t it grand? Maybe you won’t get a good return on your real estate investment just by doing good deeds (particularly, if you’re like me and don’t own real estate… or even a decent pair of pants). But, giving back is sure to give you a few warm, fuzzy feelings about yourself (and maybe some nice photos to post on your Facebook page of you out there in the world being a good person… despite what your high school counsellor predicted for you.)
Until now, though, I’ve done a pretty good job of resisting the siren call of warm-fuzzy-inducing-good-deed-doing. It’s not that I’m an evil person (Okay, maybe a little evil… especially before my morning coffee). After all, I’m an English teacher. I’ve been preaching the wonders of the present perfect tense for the past decade, not killing puppies. (Admittedly, I’ve never owned a puppy and don’t particularly like puppies and have, in fact, directed a few murderous thoughts towards puppies in my day — but only when they’ve deserved it!). Before I returned to teaching full-time five years ago, I worked in theatre administration — musical theatre administration. So, yeah, I’m no Hitler.
The reason why I’ve been resisting doing good is that I worry I won’t have anything to write about. Sure, it’s good to feel good from doing good. But it’s also incredibly hard to be snarky when you’re all warm and fuzzy inside. As I mentioned in my last post, snarky is my style and negativity is my muse. I don’t so much write — I whine… and occasionally moan. Sure, I could whine and moan while doing good, like while knitting nose-cozies for dolphins or creating Facebook fan pages for orphans, but that would just make me feel like a jerk. (And, just imagine how the poor dolphins and orphans might feel!).
My whole reason for taking this trip was not to make me feel good about myself but to give me inspiration for my writing. (Hey, if I wanted to feel good about myself, all I need to do is pour myself some red wine, break open a box of cookies and read the personals on craigslist. Seriously, if you’re ever feeling a bit down, spend a few hours reading ads entitled “Anyone here who is NOT a LOOSER??? – 38” or “I’m a okay looking girl – 20” and you’ll be feeling better in no time!) So instead of picking volunteer assignments that pay me back in warm fuzzies, I’ve been picking jobs that give me free room and board… along with the occasional bed bug and sanding-induced hand wound.
These days, though, I’m doing something a bit different. I’m actually, dare I say, doing good. I’m teaching TOEFL prep classes to underprivileged, immigrant students in Chiang Mai. All of them had to leave their homes and families behind to seek out jobs, opportunities and a quality education. The school where I work is a non-profit that can’t afford to pay teachers, so it depends on volunteers to teach the classes. If the students study successfully in their classes and pass the TOEFL, they have a chance to win scholarships to universities in Thailand or in other parts of Asia. If this happens, they win a chance at a better life — thanks, in a very small part, to me (and my extensively ridiculous knowledge of the present perfect tense).
I have to admit — this doing good thing feels pretty good.
Admittedly, my original purpose for signing up for the program wasn’t completely altruistic. I had a sudden free spot in my schedule after my volunteer gig in Laos fell through. After volunteering in locations that were well off the beaten track, I was ready volunteer on the road well-traveled… or, at least, on the road that had a Starbucks or two. And after spending two months traveling, I was tired of living in guesthouses and washing my skivvies in the sink. When I heard about the post in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand’s bustling cultural capitol, and learned that the post promised a small stipend that could be used towards rent, I quickly applied. These days I’m living in my very own studio apartment in the swanky, cafe-ridden Nimmanhaemin district, and I wash my skivvies in my very own bucket.
Life is pretty good.
But still I worry.
Not only do I worry that my writing might suffer, but I also worry that I simply don’t have what it takes to be a do-gooder. I’ve never participated in the Peace Corps. I never even participated in those informational meetings about the Peace Corps as I’ve always known sleeping on the floor of a mud hut is simply not my style. I don’t wear patchouli. I eat meat. I recycle irregularly. I buy cheap clothes that are probably made in sweatshops. The few things I know about human rights campaigns were learned while shopping at the Body Shop.
And, well, I’m selfish.
In fact, I’ve perfected selfish! This is just one of the perks of being single and childless at thirty-four. (Other perks include: your friends’ endless attempts to set you up with anyone else who is single including “that guy in accounting who wears the elastic-waist pants”, and being absolutely certain that the drool on your sweater is your own). I never have to share my apartment or my remote control or my Texas Taco Platter for Two with anyone if I don’t want to. I don’t do anybody else’s dishes or laundry or homework (Heck, I hardly do my own!). I never have to wake up to feed anyone at two o’clock in the morning… besides myself (Hey, nights can be long and those Texas Taco Platters for Two are not as big as the menu says they’ll be!). After over a decade of doing my own thing, how on Earth am I going to be able to do the right thing?
When I showed up for my volunteer orientation this week in the tiny town of Mae Sot on the Thailand-Myanmar border, I was worried that the other volunteers participating in my program would see right through my charade of good-deed-doing and know instantly that I wasn’t one of them. Would my fellow do-gooders scoff at my inability to sleep on floors and deprive myself of bacon? Would they be the type of people who know how to dig wells and rescue puppies from trees? Heck, would they be the type of people who actually like puppies? Maybe they had spent last summer volunteering in clinics in war-torn Rwanda. I spent last summer eating taco platters… in Buffalo, NY. What would I even talk about with these people? Would they just want to discuss their plans for saving the world? Or would they be capable of having conversations about things that mattered to me — like their favorite reality TV program and whether or not they felt a jumbo-sized margarita qualified as one’s daily vitamin C intake?
When I arrived at the designated meeting spot on Monday and met my fellow volunteers, I was relieved when they all seemed nice… and, dare I say, normal. The group consisted of a tall Spanish guy, an upbeat couple from Florida, a Portuguese woman, and two, skinny blondes from the States. All of them had had some volunteer experience, but none of them confessed to having recently dug a well or having cured the common cold.
After introducing myself, I announced that I was volunteer teaching in Chiang Mai. I didn’t know that, unlike me, the other volunteers had applied through the volunteer placement agency and didn’t yet know where they’d be teaching. I, on the other hand, had applied directly to the school in Chiang Mai, so I knew exactly what I’d be doing… and exactly how swanky my neighborhood was. I also didn’t know that the other volunteers had all been told there were no more placements available in Chiang Mai; instead, all of the available teaching positions were with schools in Mae Sot or even smaller towns in rural Thailand. For those desiring a truly do-good experience, there were a few placements available in refugee camps — a job which would involve long hours, huge classes, plenty of hardships and, most likely, no chance of a proper cappuccino… or even a proper bed.
Compared to the other postings available, my job — teaching a few TOEFL prep courses while sipping lattes in cushy coffee shops in the chic Chiang Mai — was a gig fit for a princess (A sweaty, frizzy-haired princess whose clothes are noticeably showing the wear and tear of being washed in a bucket… but a princess, nonetheless!). When the blondes heard about my posting, they pouted. Even the upbeat Americans looked wistful while the the wife cooed, “Oh, I love Chiang Mai.” (An expression you hear from pretty much anyone who’s ever been to Chiang Mai. In fact, I think saying anything negative about this place is akin to badmouthing rainbows… and puppies).
At the end of our first day of orientation, the other volunteers were told they could pick their placements. The blondes were still upset that there was no chance they’d be able to move to Chiang Mai. The Portuguese woman announced she didn’t want to live anywhere that didn’t practice proper mosquito prevention techniques. No one seemed particularly interested in sleeping on the floor or in a refugee camp.
By the end of the three-day orientation, the two blondes had quit the program and headed back to Chiang Mai and the other volunteers had all settled on placements in Mae Sot, a town which I grew to like for its dusty charm (Sure, it is no Chiang Mai… but, then again, according to traveler lore even heaven itself is no Chiang Mai!).
On my last night in Mae Sot, I bid farewell to my new volunteer friends and promised them all that they had a place to stay should they ever come visit me in Chiang Mai. Mind you, I didn’t mean they had a place to stay with me. After all, I just have a teeny little studio apartment. If someone came to stay with me, either they’d have to sleep on the floor or I’d have to (and I’ve already established that sleeping on the floor is simply not my style!). But I’d be more than happy to help them find a guesthouse should they need one.
Hey, maybe I am getting a hang of this do-good thing after all!