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Archive for the ‘AFS Year’ Category

#18 of Blogging with Friends

“What is the scariest thing you’ve ever eaten?” one of my blogging friends challenged us to answer last week. I assumed she didn’t mean the overcooked schnitzel my husband made once, and so my mind immediately went to Asia. I specifically didn’t eat a bowl of huge (it seemed to me at least), grey, rubbery-looking octopus tentacles in Taiwan, breaking all diplomatic rules by refusing this offering, but delighting the Taiwanese men around me by sharing my uneaten tentacles with them. I also specifically didn’t eat from the buffet of bugs in a Filipino restaurant, when I was taken there by some of my local staff members on a project. The most unordinary thing in the buffet were brains or offal. The bowls of bugs  – big ones, and small ones – were not sufficiently appetising to either me, or Phil, yet we had both spent years living in Asia, and were not usually too squeamish (despite this post) about foreign foods.

As a student in Thailand, I went out with my host family to restaurants quite a lot. (I should note that before I went to Thailand I was not a particularly adventurous eater – mainly perhaps because I simply never got the opportunity to eat a variety of food. And I was quite picky too. I lost that almost as soon as I joined my host family and fell in love with Thai food.) My Thai father, in particular, liked Chinese food, Bangkok was renowned for having great Chinese food, and I suspect there was an elevated status in being able to eat at and host meals at these restaurants. Even when we coincidentally were in London at the same time about 30 years later, we met at a Chinese restaurant. So we had either bird’s (or is it birds’?) nest or shark’s (sharks’?) fin soup, and always Peking duck (my favourite, and that of my Thai host siblings), and other stuff. I discovered then that if you don’t know what you’re eating, it is always best not to ask. The black slimy stuff on your plate? Just eat it! At a different seafood restaurant once, instead of the copious numbers of prawns the siblings and I always devoured, I was given sample after sample of food I couldn’t identify, and didn’t want to. One of the dishes was sea urchin. The others shall remain unknown. And that’s fine by me.

But probably the most adventurous and scariest thing I ever ate was at a party in Thailand with a big bunch of other AFS exchange students. Nicki, a fellow kiwi AFS friend, and her school, hosted an AFS Weekend. A large group of us converged on her remote town in north-eastern Thailand for several days of fun, and after a long bus trip to get there, we were billeted out with different families. It was a poor town – few cars, or telephones amongst the 3000 inhabitants. Nicki’s host family was a single mother who survived by making kanom (sweets) to sell at the markets, and her older sister. So the arrival of a group of conspicuously foreign teenagers was a big event for them.

On our last evening, the local Police Chief – who had, I think, been hosting one of the students – put on a farewell party for us. The highlight of the meal was the wok filled with stir-fried grasshoppers (or were they crickets? I’m not sure). It was compulsory, our host declared, to eat at least one. They had a large wok heated over hot coals, and it was full of these large insects (about 5-6 cms long) which they stir-friend quickly. I don’t remember who ate the first one. I know for certain it wasn’t me! But my friends tried them and declared they were okay, and I knew there was no backing out. I didn’t want to be the last to eat either, so I took one. The key was to pull off the scratchy back legs, which would rip up the inside of our mouths, before eating. I dreaded the squish of the body between my teeth; it’s one of the things I don’t like about sultanas, the way their little bodies (well, that’s what they feel like) burst in my mouth! But there was no “squish”. They were crunchy, and tasted of oil, and were not at all offensive, if you forgot what you were eating. I don’t really recall any other flavour. In the end, the reality of eating the grasshopper/cricket was a lot less scary than the idea of it.

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I shared my post  about my AFS year a few weeks ago with those very students who were such an important part of my year, and remain an important part of my life. 33 of us are on a Fbk group, and we’re individually in touch with one or two others who don’t “do” Fbk. There are a few who continue to be elusive, having lost touch in the intervening years before the internet reunited so many of us.

As it was our 40-year anniversary, we had talked previously talked about whether there was a possibility of a reunion there. I’d been planning a trip, another person was waiting for a wedding date there before she could commit, but the likelihood of more than one or two of us getting together there was slim. I was sad about that, but resigned to it. It is 2020, after all, and there’s a global pandemic, so travel is pretty much impossible, and if not impossible, then it is definitely unadvisable. But then Sharon B had the brilliant idea to do what lots of people are doing during this pandemic.

“Let’s have an online reunion!” she suggested.

After a little organisation – mostly because the Kiwis complained about getting up at 3 am – we fixed a time. Cocktail hour for many of the Americans on  Friday night, and early afternoon for the Kiwis the next day worked perfectly. Those of us who had never used Zoom downloaded it. We tried to link in a few who weren’t part of the Fbk group too – at the last minute I realised Madeline wasn’t in the group, and linked her into it just in time.

At the appointed time, we logged on. It was fantastic, watching each person sign in to the meeting, seeing their face for maybe the first time in 39 years. Exclamations of delight, helloes, waves, and big grins all round. It took quite a while for everyone to get on, especially as many of us had learning curves. A few didn’t quite realise their discussions with the families would be heard (Jane putting in a crucial beer order, for example), but we all figured it out eventually. And at least we weren’t like the young woman I read about last week, who was on a Zoom meeting with her workplace, took her laptop into the bathroom, placed it on the floor, and sat on the toilet, before she realised they could all see her! We may almost be boomers, but we’re technologically capable, thank you very much.

Fifteen of us signed in, which is not a bad turnout given the circumstances. We had a great catch-up, finding out where people lived and what they’ve been doing the last 39 years, who had been back to Thailand, were still in touch with their Thai families, etc. Of course, we indulged in some reminiscing. Some of us drank tea or coffee or water, others enjoyed wine or cocktails, one fell asleep on the couch after a busy work week, Jen dialled in briefly from her car (when she wasn’t driving) in Australia, and right at the end, Cee cooked her dinner. Gradually people started signing off, all with commitments to do this again, sending love and safe wishes.

When it got down to the last six or so of us, it was a more manageable conversation, and my goodbyes when it got down to three of us were lengthy, as we chatted easily, and didn’t want to sign off, but after three hours, figured it was time.

Technology makes life so much easier, so much richer. Even in times that are hard, when people might feel isolated from others, when people were already feeling divided, technology allowed us to come together. I’m still smiling now as I think about it.

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Forty years ago today, I spent my first full day in Bangkok, Thailand. I was with 46 other AFS exchange students for an orientation programme at a hostel in Bangkok, having arrived in the dark the night before with the ANZAC contingent. I remember being hit by the heat and humidity as we left the airport, and later, my diary recorded my disgust that I could feel so hot and sticky immediately after a shower.

As it was a Sunday, there were no classes organised. Instead, we were all sent out to discover Bangkok. The newly-arrived Australians and New Zealanders were escorted by the one New Zealander who was finishing her AFS year. We were amazed at her confidence, her language, her level of comfort in this foreign environment. Would we ever be that relaxed here?

The bus into the city was crowded, and I remember being amazed at the sheer numbers of the road, and the variety of buildings. We arrived at the Sunday Market – which in those days was a collection of stalls under canvas across a large field (Sanam Luang) near the Grand Palace. I’ve written about that day before, here and here.

My diary doesn’t say much, but I remember some things very clearly. I don’t remember having lunch at the Sunday Market, which I duly recorded as consisting of “rice and stuff on top!” I don’t actually remember going on the boat ride, shocked at the poverty side by side with the glorious golden temples. But I do remember going to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, amazed at the beauty and exotic architecture. It was the first place I went to in Bangkok, and was the last place I visited when I left Bangkok 13 years later after my diplomatic posting there. It has etched itself into my heart, or perhaps I left part of my heart there, even on that first visit.

After the grandeur of the Palace and Temple, we went back to the market to explore. It was, I noted, “very dirty and smelly!” I remember that the heavens opened for my first experience of a tropical downpour. I remember the muddy floors.

We were thrown into Bangkok in the deep end. And it set the scene for the coming year.

But how could I know that day that most of those students in the bus with me, or the ones I met at the hostel, would become dear friends? How could I know that Chai, the language teacher we met the next day, would become an important part of our year too, and would still be part of our lives? How could I predict that I would be back ten years almost to the day to live and work for another three years? That I’d get to visit Sharon and Chai in Delaware, and have dinner with Amy, or stay with Madeline in Dayton, when I made work trips to DC in the 90s? How could I imagine that my AFS friends would become part of my everyday life through social media? That Fe would make me a quilt?That I’d Skype with Cecilia on (her) Christmas Day 39 years later? That in February 2020, almost forty years later, I would be thrilled to have lunch by the beach on a sunny day in Wellington with Jane and Vicki (one Kiwi, one Californian), the first time we’d seen each other since 1981!

How could I even have imagined that we’d all have such a strong bond after that year? That love and laughter (sanuk) – with the help of technology – would keep us together, all these years later? I couldn’t imagine it. I’m not sure any of us could. But isn’t it a wonderful thing?

 

 

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