When Worlds Collide

Two weeks ago, I had the good fortune of attending a Moth GrandSLAM in Portland. Live storytelling is an exhilarating experience. The theme of the night was “When Worlds Collide.” This is the story I would have told if I was on stage that night. 

 *** 

I taught a classroom full of sixth graders for 10 months during college. I had the travel bug again. You see, I grew up in Hong Kong and had traveled to many different countries by the time I was 16. After a few years of not going anywhere I decided it was time to go back to Asia. So at the end of July, I left for Thailand. 

Growing up in Hong Kong, I was used to comments about my appearance because I looked different than the majority of people. We had our heads touched. We heard people talking about us as we quickly learned the Cantonese word for foreigner. Somehow, even as a preteen, I learned to accept the “compliment” that I was getting fat. 

Thailand was similar in many ways. I quickly learned the Thai word for foreigner. It was amazing to walk down the street and hear the stage whispers, “farang, farang,” follow you. 

Many of my students at this international school had been around foreigners for many years as they had attended the same school since first grade. They were polite and didn’t talk about my foreignness in front of me very often. 

Let me tell you, 6th graders are 6th graders wherever you are in the world. The girls liked the boys. The boys, for the most part, didn’t notice the girls except to bother them, and were more interested in wrestling. I punished them with sit-ups and push-ups to try to get more of their energy out during the day. 

I can’t remember what subject I was teaching or what we were talking about, but I was having a particularly difficult time keeping their attention that day. And then out of the blue, one of the students said, “Miss, why are you so fat?” I didn’t have a comeback. I didn’t know what to say. I just knew that this student, who was well aware that he had just insulted me, wasn’t complimenting me like some of the older Thais. Seriously, fat and plump people are considered rich and it is nothing to comment about a person’s weight. It was so hard to get used to again, even though I was accustomed to it growing up. And in Thailand, I was definitely fat compared to the majority of the population. 

So I did the only thing I could think of as a response. I walked out, leaving 20 6th graders on their own. My classroom was isolated at the end of a dirt road and as I walked away I honestly didn’t know if I could ever go back. 

As I walked in the hot sun, sweat pouring down my back, I felt my spine stiffen. I was not going to cry as I had at 13 after returning to Hong Kong from the states and hearing all about how I gained weight. I wasn’t going to let them win. So I walked back and started teaching. No one apologized. 

And that’s not the most humiliating thing that happened that year: that was the conversation I had about bras with the principal’s wife. But that’s another story. 

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