Spice and running children: a lesson in simplicity

Spice and running children: a lesson in simplicity

My mouth is on fire. I feel like I just returned from a cavity-filling Novocain party at the dentist. My lips feel nonexistent and Angelina Jolie-massive at the same time. I may never recover. Will I ever feel my mouth again? My stomach may disappear from acid erosion. Give me water. Give me water now.

Well, that’s actually an exaggeration. In my mind however, that is the truth of eating some dishes here. Eating should be an Olympic sport when done in Thailand, especially in the northeast region of Isaan, where I live. By far the spiciest, most in-your-face flavorful dish I’ve ever had is papaya salad (som tum), a traditional staple to Thailand and particularly Isaan. When ordered it is expected of you to request it to be made to your taste, meaning spicy or really really spicy. The som tum I eat here is bought from another Thai teacher who has an incredibly high spice tolerance so I usually get the full-on experience.

While much of the spice we’re used to in America takes its form in a certain sauce such as Sriracha, or hides quietly in a dish such jalapeños in corn bread, Thailand’s spice is just chili. When eating Mexican or Indian food the spice builds, each bite getting our mouths more and more numb until finally we’ve reached our desired peak spice level. This gradual build up does not exist in Thailand: When you take a bite you are immediately smacked in the face with chili, tearing up, drowning your mouth with water, and sitting mouth gaping, hoping the air will relieve some of the pain.

I always thought I had a high tolerance for spice but let’s add that to the list of things Thailand is making me question.

I had an experience in my first weeks here after taking a bite of som tum when I found myself staring at a spot on the table, mouth wide open, eyes droopy, just lost in the effect the spice was having on me. I’m not sure how long I was like that. I swear I had an out of body experience that day. Now each time I eat som tum I wonder why I keep eating it. I have a bite, take 10 minutes to recover from that one bite, and then do it all over again. Why do I do that to myself? I actually like the taste and texture of it, but neither of those last too long until my mouth goes numb. Do I enjoy the feeling of food this spicy? I can’t say I do, it’s actually quite an ordeal and usually makes my stomach hurt for a while after.

I think it’s because I have this weird urge to adjust to those around me, which means trying new things and “proving myself” even if I don’t necessarily want to. Much like children. Chalk it up to one of my many faults or perhaps it’s really my kids running off on me.

At the risk of sounding annoyingly cliché, I’m starting to realize that teachers can learn as much from students as students learn from them, maybe even more. The life lessons they teach us are endless and that has never been more clear or obvious to me than teaching kindergarten.

At morning assembly the other day, all the kindergarteners participated in foot races as practice for our school’s Sport Day, which is coming up. It was 8 in the morning; the kids had woken up probably 30 minutes ago and were looking fatigued and bleary-eyed. They reluctantly lined up on the starting line, unenthused and tired. I was wondering if they even knew what they were supposed to do or if they would collapse in sleepy daze right then and there. But once the whistle was blown, they started running and something really amazing happened. The goofiest grins and cackles of laughter erupted from the kids as they were running, like they couldn’t believe their bodies were capable of providing them with such a fun activity. I found myself laughing harder than I have in a long time just watching them.

The other day I thought I’d try to run the way my 4 year olds do to see if I could have as much simple, unadulterated fun as they had. I wish I could say that I realized that running actually is that fun, that it’s cool that our bodies can take us places faster than walking, that it’s neat to feel a breeze slightly more powerful than if we were standing, but it was hard and tiring as usual. I tried to smile and laugh and probably ended up looking a crazed maniac. Let’s add that to the list of things that are cute when kids do them and aren’t when adults do them.

The more I thought about it though, a child’s real joy of simple things makes sense. We are born with a clean slate, a clear mind and a naked view on the world. Everything we think, do, feel, or say now is a result of many things and whether that is mostly innate or environmental is yet to be determined. Whereas adults teach children things they do not yet know, children teach adults things they once knew but have forgotten or have retired in favor of new ideas. That day I learned the beauty in simplicity and the real wonder of things we take for granted everyday.

I had never thought of having kids of my own and always thought it wasn’t going to be in the cards for me for many reasons (too selfish, too many personal goals, poopy diapers…the list goes on and on) but my views may be changing.

I recently went through something that, if it had been at home would have been extremely hard. I would have felt alone, lonely, somewhat depressed. Going through this particular situation was almost “easier” here in Thailand because I already felt somewhat alone. For the past two months, my family and friends have not been here. I made new friends but they don’t carry the same amount of comfort as the familiar faces of old friends, at least not yet. For two months I’ve been on my own, questioning who I am and why I’m here, going through sporadic personal realizations that no other experience could bring out of me.

Teaching makes me feel less alone.

Seeing the smiling faces of kids everyday makes me happy, watching them run-laughing makes me giddy with laughter too, and when that rare lightbulb goes off in their brains, I feel proud. I’ll forever owe these kids for getting me through a rough patch of loneliness, doubt, and fear. I owe them for offering me something I had no idea I needed.

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