Jason Gilbert ’09, an aspiring writer, is teaching English in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through a fellowship with Princeton-in-Asia.
Three days after I graduated from Princeton, I boarded a plane for Thailand to complete a 10-month fellowship as an English teacher at Chiang Mai University. I never had been to Thailand — the only “Thailand” I had ever visited was a booth in the Jersey Gardens Mall specializing in men’s neckwear — and so I did not know what to expect. I imagined myself living in a pastiche: stampedes of wild elephants kicking up dust on unpaved roads; eating spicy monkey organs for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert; juggling the difficulties of teaching English to the royal family, assisting secret lovers Luna Tha and Tuptim escape to Burma and appeasing the wishes of temperamental, shiny-headed King Yul Brynner. Typical Thai stuff. After having lived in Thailand for three months now, this seems ridiculous: The wild elephants here stampede almost exclusively on paved roads. But on my last night in America, my anxiety led me to seek a farewell meal that somehow would encapsulate everything that I would miss while living my strange months abroad.
I sought a delicate balance for this last dinner: A KFC chicken bucket seemed to have insufficient fanfare before a 10-month journey; eating a Hungry Man Quadruple-Sized Pot Roast microwave meal while watching Deal or No Deal with my shirt off and Twittering about it in real time seemed a bit too American.
My parents and I found middle ground in T.G.I. Friday’s. I always have had a soft spot in my heart (and most parts of my torso) for Friday’s, with its outrageous flavor combinations and its menu that is longer than most Toni Morrison novels; and besides, I thought there was something uniquely American about a restaurant so excited by jalapeño poppers that it must praise a deity (though this was before I knew of the popular Thai family dinner chain “Let Us Extol Buddha For Today Is Wahn Sook!”).
So we found a Friday’s nearby and settled into our booth, as I hungrily searched that beloved menu in search of my Great American Meal. I ruled out any dishes I thought that I might be able to get in Thailand, and thus passed on the Jack Daniel’s Curry Powder and Pig Blood Soup. And I did not want any foods that are not essentially American, which eliminated items like fettuccine Alfredo, quesadillas con carne, and vegetables.
I was hungry, as I had not eaten since finishing the bacon cheeseburger I bought from the Wendy’s drive-thru on the way over, and so I ordered a full rack of BBQ ribs, with French fries, cinnamon apples, and an extra-large soda that was served in what appeared to be an overturned Darth Vader helmet. My parents forked their salads as I gorged myself with the meats and sweets of American mass cuisine, and my mother made me promise I would call if I needed anything: money, clothes, a subscription to a Jewish dating service — anything. But I grunted these concerns away, for I did not want to spoil with worry what was surely a perfect and perfectly American meal.
And yet, looking back on that night, I can see that I was mistaken — that, like a field-goal kicker who forgot to tie his shoes, I had badly missed the point.
My farewell meal had many things that I would miss badly when I moved to Thailand, but none of them had to do with pork ribs or Coca-Cola, because — well, because, Joni Mitchell, I guess I didn’t know what I’d got till it was gone. When I first arrived, it was not that big rack of ribs that I longed for but rather everything that surrounded the ribs, what appeared to be the ephemera of that night: being able to identify a restaurant from the road and asking the hostess for a table; knowing how to read the long menu and tell the difference between the men’s and women’s rooms, and being able to ask for a refill, and for a clean fork and condiments and napkins and more ice and the check, please.
Now I can ask for all of those things and more, including pig’s blood and curry powder (luad muu, pong garee). And though my initial failures to communicate made me feel frustrated and alone, it was a productive frustration and loneliness, as I learned what I wanted from my time here: I sought out not BBQ restaurants owned by English speakers nor fellow ex-pats, but a patient Thai tutor and giggling waitresses who were willing to help me with pronunciation and reading in the minutes between taking orders and rushing back to the kitchen.