For anyone coming to visit Thailand, there’s a chance that, depending on how long you visit, you’ll learn just as much Vietnamese, Cambodian and Malaysian language as Thai. This is because the ten member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been working for years to create a European Union style economic zone of freer trade and immigration to boost the region’s competiveness. To promote the idea, infographics of the ten nations’ traditional dress, language, currency and other country-specific information cover whatever free wall space can be found. If you’re especially lucky, the effects of the upcoming ASEAN implementation (January 2016) will reach beyond your metro commute and into your wardrobe.
As I’ve mentioned before, Thai government schools are constantly looking for a reason to cancel classes and have a schoolwide celebration. Thus, it was no surprise when one day I was informed that I should come to school early the next day to prepare for…ASEAN day. I assumed this meant another day of sitting through slideshows, presentations, skits and occasional Buddhist hymns. Little did I know how foreboding a full 12 hours’ notice really was.
Not the Usual Day Off From Class
Usually the school parking lot is a crowded mess of teenagers driving dilapidated scooters to their favorite shady parking spot, giggling at the difficulty of precision driving with two and sometimes three passengers on the back. But on this particular morning the chaos had been replaced with the sixth year students erecting the metal frames of what looked like circus tents. At this point I had taught in Thailand long enough for this to be a pretty standard way to start my morning. I drove past the child labor with nothing more than a snarky comment inside my bug splattered helmet.
When I got to the English department, I was greeted by the pandemonium of a Broadway dressing room. One of the more fluent teachers greeted me and started explaining what ASEAN day actually was. I’ll spare you the messy details, but as I had quickly learned from teaching in Thailand, I was basically to be a mascot: the token westerner that the school threw in front of a crowd whenever they wanted to show off how progressive their language education program was. My cooperativeness in this aspect of my job wavers from day to day, but on that particular day, I was ready and willing.
The Mascot Gets Fitted
Like any good mascot, I needed a costume. The floor of the English office was barely even visible underneath the piles of clothes new and old, personal and rented. I can’t even decide what to wear to the grocery store; I was terrified by the prospect of selecting an outfit. This is where my two new friends come in. All of the rented clothes belonged to these entrepreneurial businessmen, and they were busy doing someone’s hair and makeup when my co-teacher called them over to me. Seeing as I taught in an extremely rural area, they had less English than Mr. Bean.
First up was fitting my new clothing. One of the two men, the one who looked like a man in every single way except for the oversized breast implants hanging underneath his loose-fitting deep v-neck shirt, began putting together my ensemble. My co-teacher translated that he wanted me to take off my pants.
It’s worth noting that there’s a weird dichotomy in Thailand about extreme modesty amidst an overly sexualized culture. No one in the room was on my…“team.” All were either female or shared the same attraction to men as their female counterparts. Though I was twice the size of everyone in the room in height and weight, I took off my pants and shrunk in stature to the approximate size of my confidence at that moment.
Costume man number one began wrapping a bright purple sequined sheet in a complicated pattern through my legs and around my waist. With the addition of a suit coat buttoned to the neck and a sash to match the pants, I was transformed in to a real life incarnation of Aladdin.
I sat down and reflected on how things as unorganized and unplanned as this…nope. No time for reflection. Costume man number two, the one with cheek implants (I can’t stress enough how much I stand by that assumption, regardless of its lack of believability), snuck up on me from behind and began blow-drying and moussing my hair like we were five minutes from a curtain call. I had no say in any of this. With my puffy purple pants and hair moussed so intensely you could see my scalp, I was ready for the show.
A Silent Tour Guide
Everyone moved to the main assembly area and began the opening ceremony. As was customary, I was sat on the stage next to the school’s director. There was a lot of talking (that I obviously didn’t understand) and eventually I was snapped out of my daydreaming by someone offering me the microphone.
I may have been working long enough to not be surprised by being asked for an impromptu speech, but unfortunately I was too new to have learned what fun you can have with these speeches. I spoke quickly about how great ASEAN will be and how lucky I was to be a part of the celebration; without any innuendos, bad puns or third conditional in the perfect tense to entertain myself while glazed over eyes stared back at me.
The activity itself was a hodgepodge of booths with foods, games and history lessons from various ASEAN member countries. I spent most of my time at the English booth (ASEAN has committed to certain levels of English education and capabilities for international competiveness) running a BINGO game and coloring some language worksheets with students and local residents who came to check it out. I was asked to take a short stroll with the head of some provincial government office, but he didn’t speak any English and no one translated.