First Day of Work at Kasetsart University

Three delightful young women from Kasetsart University’s International Undergraduate Programs office take me to lunch.  Their names are Ing, Kade and Puy. I’d been told they speak English. They speak English the way I speak Thai, which is to say virtually not at all.  From that point on, it’s Google Translate at 10 paces, tapping in words or phrases, showing each other our smartphone screens—and giggling.

They order an amazing assortment of delicious dishes:  King of the Sea–minced shrimp rolled up and baked in an aromatic garlic/parsley sauce; fried fish cakes; sautéed cabbage (ga-lam bplii, says Google Translate. Nods. Giggles.); fish balls in green curry, served with crispy Indian-style roti.

The table is set with forks and spoons. No chopsticks.  “Don’t you use chopsticks?” I ask.  With Google Translate’s help, they tell me no, Thais eat with forks and spoons—and occasionally knives.  Except for noodles.  “With noodles, chopsticks,” says Kade, making scissors-like/chopstick-like motions with her fingers.

After lunch, they help me get a Thai sim card for my phone. The idea is to avoid international roaming charges. It takes all four of us to do it, but boy, did we ever do it. Now my phone won’t make calls or receive email at all. Instead, I get a recording in rapid-fire Thai. Then I’m disconnected.

Looking left for oncoming traffic at an intersection near my hotel, I’m almost sideswiped by a motorbike coming from the right.  Aha. I finally notice that Thais drive like the British, on the “wrong” side of the road.  Steering wheels of cars are on the right, not the left, and traffic stays to the left, not the right.  Our cars with steering wheels on the left and traffic on the right must be as discombobulating to Thai people visiting the US as this mirror-image system is to me.

Soon it is Monday morning, my first real day of work. I manage to get lost on my way to the International Undergraduate Programs office, but the third person I ask speaks enough English to show me the way.

All around me are young men in black slacks and white shirts and young women in short, black pleated skirts with white blouses. Clearly uniforms. Curious, I ask my friend Puy when I get to my office. Uniforms, yes, she agrees. University students in Thailand wear uniforms, just as elementary and high school students do. They don’t like it much, she adds. Here and there, you see rebellion: jeans, T-shirts touting rock groups. But students who refuse to wear the uniforms risk being kicked out of class or not allowed to take exams, losing credit for courses because of their dress.

Puy invites me to accompany her and a very pregnant colleague to lunch. We head over to the Faculty of Science food court, a noisy chaotic cavern of a cafeteria where I choose duck with noodles. An incredibly complex, soupy dish full of delicious textures and flavors, it cost 90 cents, one of the more expensive choices in the cafeteria line.

After arranging some meetings and making plans for a multi-university seminar that we are going to host week after next, I head back to the hotel with a growing craving. As much as I love Thai food, I am craving my traditional comfort food—peanut butter and cheese.

“No problem,” says the woman at the hotel desk. “Tops Market is right over there.”  She points out the window. Yes, I can see it, barely a block away.  But … When I head in that direction, I find myself facing a roaring eight-lane highway with no traffic lights and no intersections. How do I get across to the market?  A friendly student points out the pedestrian bridge over the highway—72 steps up, 72 steps back down on the other side. And I am a woman who takes the elevator rather than walking one flight down to my office in the Administration Building at Tech.  Is peanut butter and cheese really worth it?

Yes, I decide.  Red-faced, sweating and panting, I make my purchase and head back toward the torture chamber—I mean, bridge.  As you can see, I made it.  And the peanut butter and cheese was delicious. Worth the effort—I think.