Restaurants and Peace Corps

Alternative title: “How my shitty job prepared me for my not so shitty job”

Hi, I’m Shannon. I’m in the Peace Corps. Before that I was in charge of maintaining health and safety standards, ensuring sales of quality products, I was a consumer to provider liaison, I was often in charge of organizing a team to open and shut down an establishment, and finally I was in charge of representing a company and it’s intercultural family focused image.

I was a waiter and a bartender in a Mexican franchise restaurant. Now I am in the Peace Corps and everyone in my cohort has spent their years doing impressive things and kudos to them. But I was in the restaurant industry and that gave me a set of skills that sets me apart from my group. Here they are:

  1. Pressure:

“My food still hasn’t come out and my family is eating before me” “Can we get more salsa?” “I ordered Grey Goose this is obviously Absolut, don’t try to trick me, go get your manager” “I know your section is full, but can you take a nine top with a baby?” and “I NEED RUNNERS AND TABLE 42 HAS A BIRTHDAY” This would all happen in mere seconds at my old job and it would last until whatever rush you had was over, and god help you if you’re short-staffed. I’ve seen that pressure make people drink until 2am and cry. I’ve seen that pressure make people cry on the spot. I’ve been that person crying on the spot. But you get over it. Suddenly you either adjust to the pressure or you just stop caring, either or. So now when I hear 15 first graders all wanting my undivided attention at the same time. No sweat, and no lie sometimes I do what I did with Mr. Extra Salsa, and pretend not to hear them.

2. Time management and multi-tasking:

Welcome to Thailand. The country where time management has been 86’ed and will be 86’ed until further notice. Everything is laid back and sabai sabai. Oh, but your director wants you to tutor the students going to an academic competition that’s happening in 3 days. Well time to manage that time. Restaurant Industry Shannon knows how we are going to play this game, consolidation is key. Carrying 2 plates on one arm, with a dessert in hand, and another plate in the other hand. Those kids are about to get tutored while Teacher Shannon makes materials, lesson plans, and grades papers. The Lord gave us two eyes, two ears, and two hands for a reason. (Not to be ableist)

3. Fake it till you make it:

I received and share lessons that I learned in restaurants surprisingly frequently. The first one is “Don’t let them see you struggle.” The next one is “Don’t let them affect you. In an hour they will be gone and you’ll likely never see them again.” Now both of these bits of info are based on when the customer is on a REAL power trip, and that’s an essay for another day. But for me there’s truth in it all. Don’t let them see you struggle, dude that’s classic fake it till you make it. If they don’t know that the walls are falling down on a project or a class then it’s okay. It gives you the time to rework it and play with whatever ideas you have until you can fix it, but if they see you losing faith in your own project then why would they cosign on it? And don’t let people affect you. This turns into a situational. Whatever situation you have won’t last forever, there’s always a new day. There’s always another perspective. There’re always other options.

Now never trust crocodiles’ tears and never trust a waiter’s smile.

“Oh, you’re telling me now half way your meal that you are lactose intolerant even though you got the queso, and extra sour cream? And now you want me to return it and take it off the bill? Right, of course, I am so sorry, it must not have been properly communicated and I’ll go get you my manager. Can I interest you in another Margarita while you wait?” Waiters can say all of this with a smile. And yeah this happens regularly. So now when I’m in school and these words happen “So all of the classes are cancelled today and tomorrow but the test still has to be next week, will the students be ready? Also, the students don’t have time for English club or extracurricular activities this week.” I smile. Because what else are you supposed to do. Cry? Probably, but do it in private so no one sees you struggling. (kidding that’s not great for the mental health. PSDN is there for that)

4. Unwanted touches and comments:

Hi, welcome to Mar******* Grille, my name is Shannon and I’ll be serving you tonight; can I get you started with some……why are you touching my arm sir?”

“Sa wa dii ka, di chan chuu Shannon……” And Yai (old lady/grandma) went in for the butt grab. Okay. “Ka”

Guess what, when you’re a foreigner with a crazy different body, expect some grabs. Expect some comments. It’s part of the game. Set some boundaries and you’ll be fine. But waitressing taught me how to call that out immediately. Why? Because it’s my body and last time I checked I wasn’t doing some all you can grab performance art. But as it goes, remember that smile. In all honesty what I have experienced here in terms of inappropriate grabs and comments is nothing compared to the states.

5. Health, safety and commiseration:

Know your allergies. Let people know your allergies. Know your emotions. Find people you can express your emotions with. Know your limits. Know your body. The more you have an understanding of your body and emotions the more it’ll help you in Peace Corps. How does this fall into the restaurant industry? Because I have seen people eat food off of dirty tables and blame the cooks for them getting sick. I have seen people with allergies order things they are allergic to without giving the server a warning then going into shock. Because I have seen people so down in a funk that they drink until they are not responsive anymore. Because I have seen people smoke away and snort away their pain until there is nothing left to feel. Know yourself. Find solace in your group and take care of one another.

There is no bond like that of a restaurant family. The dynamics are always the same.

There is no bond like that of a Peace Corps Group. The dynamics change. But the bond is there.

(Also remember to First in, First out your food. It’ll help save you money and time)

And finally, for all the couples out there. Tell your partner they are beautiful every day, or else the kitchen staff will.

Judging The Book

So, my students found my Facebook, and it’s nothing I am ashamed of. But of course, they find the photos of me playing model in New York City, Miami, Barcelona, and Paris. Back when I wasn’t on a painful Peace Corps budget, I would solo travel and pay photographers to do their thing and boost my confidence, of course the memories attached were very much worth it as I reminisce daily of my time at the Louvre or in Times Square. But now my students have found me online and they ask if I am a model.

“No. I am a teacher.”

“But why? You are so pretty; models make more money.”’

Pre-Peace Corps I was serving looks.

I think of how my mother would often tell me how she wanted to put me in modelling classes when I was a baby only to be stopped by my father concerned at the over-sexualization of his daughter.

“I don’t want to be a model because you are only pretty for so long. I want my job to mean something more.”

My students (Mattayom Two) all hum in agreement. Then they begin to ask me if I think they are pretty.

“Of course, you are all beautiful.”

“Even ________?” (I don’t want to be naming all the names because privacy)

Now, I note that this student is noticeably darker than the others, even though they are all pretty dark.  

“Yes. Even______. I think she is very pretty” and she is, inside and out. She has a face that lights up, and expresses every emotion she knows. Her face is narrow and very angular, she reminds me of those ancient marble busts found in museums. She gets bullied a lot for her appearance by staff and students alike, but she continues to show everyone love and offers me hugs daily.

They show their confusion because the beauty standards of Thailand have deemed this particular student to be ugly. She is too dark. They even try to explain this concept to me through bringing her arm up to various items, other students, and they even bring her up to my printer paper and try to explain that’s how she should look.

“In the United States a lot of us want to be dark. I wish I could be a little darker, that’s why I like going to the beach, to tan.”

Now their minds are thoroughly blown.

I hear a plethora of comments made daily about appearances. Thai people are very concerned with beauty. An unhealthy obsession when you take into account the skin bleaching. When I was first introduced to my school I was not introduced as the new teacher. I was introduced as the new pretty foreigner. Never mind my degree, or bilingualism, or any of the other knowledge I possess. And my students’ introductions to me were no different. I was not told which students were fast-learners nor which did well in tests, or other academic areas. I was told which were prettiest or most handsome, and which were too dark, too fat, too short, or just generally displeasing to look at in the opinion of the Thai people.

So how do I go about fixing this problem at my school? Subconsciously of course. My students are little artists you see. Nothing makes them happier than coloring. So daily I have students old and young color a variety of pages featuring Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, Ellen Ochoa, Dolores Huerta, and Frida Kahlo. I explain who they are and why are they important to me. When they are done, I praise their art, I tell them “she’s beautiful like you”. Now this method only works for so long. Because enter the damn Disney Princesses. One student got her hands on a Disney Princess coloring book and from that day on they were back on the “light is right” train. So, I hit back harder. Currently in my room hangs photos of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sonia Sotomayor, Rita Moreno, Juliana Rotich, Maria Da Penha, Mae Jemison, and Gladys West. (The italics specify they are women of STEM) and removed the Disney Princesses from the vicinity. They see these women and I tell them they are not only beautiful, but smart. And that’s also a statement said religiously from me to my students. “You are beautiful and smart.”

This addresses another ongoing problem in my community, and honestly, it’s one I have also seen in the United States and Puerto Rico. Now, if you are a teacher in Thailand you may have a student or two whose nickname is Grace. Why is she called this? Well in my school it’s because they are pretty. They match the beauty standards down to a T. The other teachers will praise these girls for that and that alone. Ignoring the fact that these pretty girls are regularly doing bad on tests, and any of their other subjects. But it’s okay because she’s pretty.

 Now every little girl loves to be told they’re pretty and I’m not saying we should stop. But imagine what would happen if we called them smart instead or even in addition to. I would hope they would aspire to intellectual greatness. I tell my students at least once a week “Beauty fades. Knowledge stays” and when they ask me what do I want to do with my life I tell them all of my goals. “I want to be a lawyer, I want to continue my education, I want to defend those who have experienced injustice, and I want to change the world for someone.” Of course, these big borderline philosophical statements go through my counterparts. But they get the point, some still try to convince me to model and I mockingly vogue down my classroom runway, but then it ends when I tell them “Now let’s learn.”

The two faces that occur most frequently in class.

But looks attribute to so much. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t care about my appearance. Hell, I’m a vegetarian, who does juice cleanses, and with a 16:8 intermittent fasting schedule to stay bikini body ready. I regularly make face creams, exfoliators, moisturizers and hair masks. I put ice on my face to shrink my pores, and steam my face to detox them. I don’t leave my house without mascara, eyebrows, lipstick, and eyeshadow on. I still shave despite the fact that no one here cares. I have even worn heels to my school. And I don’t always do it for myself. I’m Latina with a mom who was critical on my appearance daily. She even told me to always make sure my underwear matches my bra because “what will happen if you get into an accident and the EMT is a good-looking man? If they don’t match, he will think you don’t have your life together and not want to be with you”.   Mom, my bra and underwear match and my life’s still not together. It’s ingrained at this point and that’s fine. However, my goal isn’t to just be aesthetically pleasing for the EMT or for anyone else. It’s to be smart. When I look at the Law program I want to study in the states, I get turned on. “Immigration Law. Science of Implicit Bias or Critical Race Theory. Administrative Law.” Thinking that I can possess this knowledge is such a seductive idea to me. Talking about law and politics is the equivalent of fine champagne and filet mignon for me. But I digress.

The Queen of not-so-great advice.
But best believe I hook my mom up with a photo-shoot too.

Sometimes I do think about the things I would like to physically change about myself and the comments that had been made in the past. My ex-boyfriend used to make fun of the fact that I had a large forehead pretending he could see his reflection in it if I got too sweaty. Another ex would comment on my hips saying they were “proper birthing hips” WHAT? Then the countless people who tell me I have the worst case of RBF they have ever seen. And as an elementary student I remember being one of the only curly haired people in school, so that was always being discussed, more mocked actually. The worst has been the criticism from myself, specifically about my chest. That area didn’t get the memo when puberty hit.

Of course, it’s all water off the ducks back when you have the confidence and comfort to love yourself the way you are. When you realize accomplishing your goals is what really matters. But still there are times when I think if I could just get a procedure and like my body more, would I do it? Even though it’s still too early I think about my re-adjustment allowance and the things I want to do with it. Part of me wants to go to Bangkok and finally fix what genetics failed me on. The other part says “Masters. Fordham. New York City B****” and that other part also says “This body has been a work in progress for 24 years. Why get in the way of that hard work when you don’t know what’s to come?”

It’s human nature to enjoy beautiful things. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have art. We wouldn’t have stories, fables and mythology. We wouldn’t have amazing architecture. But the line with beauty is drawn when there is no substance behind it. Students are like books, and it is the job of the teacher to ensure that those pages are full of something meaningful. After that the student can make the informed decisions to either share their knowledge with the world or stay on the shelf. But those pages need to be filled regardless, and we all know never judge a book by it’s cover. 

Crack a few

Today’s big adventure was to make an omelette. The idea came to me last night when I was getting ready for bed, thinking to myself that this omelette would jump start my day. Especially since I just found Rosemary in the market, and I love Rosemary.

Then morning came. I didn’t want to get up, not out of being tired. I just couldn’t find it in me to get up. The room was hot from the morning sun and I have to turn on the A/C to change that but then I’d have to get up. I lurch across my bed ungracefully and reach for one of my larger paintbrushes sitting on my bedside table, then I stretch up with it and manage to turn on the breaker that controls my A/C. Okay. Problem one has been managed. Comforted by it’s low humming and the assurance that the room will start to cool, I grab my phone. E-mails(21 new, mark them as read) , Facebook(Memories that I don’t have) , Whatsapp (no new messages), Instagram (friends out doing awesome things this three day weekend). Then I feel a quick pang of emotional pain. I didn’t get invited to not one single event. Whatever, that’s fine. I comfort myself with the typical thoughts I have whenever this happens. I.E. “I had adulting shit I had to do anyway.” “I should be saving money.” “I bought groceries this week and wouldn’t want them to go bad” I continue on and make tentative plans with myself to have a me day, a me trip. Fill my trip with everything I want to see and do, art museums, wine tasting, lounge bars, and boutiques. My mind flashes back to Saturday.

Saturday. I spent my morning drinking cheap rum and painting every surface on my body. Covered in water colors, acrylics, and self expression I felt free, uninhibited, a feeling that I must say is quite fleeting lately. I had dedicated that Saturday to find something to make me happy. But was that it? I dance with complete abandon. I sing not worrying about the notes coming out right. I burn my sage and bless my house. I smash eggshells for my Cascarilla powder. Get connected with my brujeria. I paint sunsets on my right leg and abstract thoughts on my left. I ponder the concept of blue bloods and make the shade I imagine it to be and trace it along the veins along my left arm. My right hand is covered in a motley of colors that I use to create hand prints along sheets of paper and on myself. Fleetwood Mac and Whitney Houston blared in the highs but in the lows I found myself forgetting the music and just painting red and blue streaks over my arms and legs until I submitted to the sounds and the energy and would lay down on the floor, drink in hand. I think to myself at one point, “Is this it? Is this a mental breakdown? I feel everything and nothing at the same time, surely that means something.” Then I remind myself that if it was a true mental breakdown I probably wouldn’t be aware of it, would have experienced a true break in reality, and after all my self awareness is something I have always bragged about and prided myself on. I go to my bathroom and clean off, Whitney continues to play. I sit in the now desert of emotion. I wonder if all of that was true, genuine, happiness, or was it forced? And if it is forced doesn’t that cheapen the whole experience? Is it time for me to come to terms with the fact that this may be how I express myself for the next two years? A silent, solitary declaration of emotion.

Sunday. Woke up and made egg in the hole. Burnt the bread and somehow put the cheese on the wrong side. How did I manage that? Well it’s beyond me. I taste the rosemary in it and think “Why on earth does this taste somewhat like a McGriddle? Has it been that long?” Answer is yes. But on with the day. Start the laundry and call a friend stateside. I bitch on the phone for far too long and vent until it’s time for her to go to bed. As always I’m thankful to talk to her. One common Peace Corps concern is that your friends stateside forget you. Consigned to oblivion in their memories. Truth of the matter is Peace Corps makes you lose your common grounds with them, all points of reference change making conversations foreign. How am I to explain to my friends stateside all of the intricacies of Thai culture over the phone. I explained to her this week what my typical shower is and she responds “I think I would lose it if I had to shower like that.” I tell her “It’s easier than it seems and trust me when you got a million other things on the table a bucket shower is the least of your concerns.” I continue to explain to her that after five months the foreign doesn’t feel so foreign anymore and it just becomes commonplace actions, part of the routine. We hang up and the laundry is done. Now of course, I don’t have a washing machine, it’s all done by hand so when I say it’s done I actually mean its done its final soak and I can hang it out to dry. At this point it is just shy of noon, and I don’t know what else to do. I look in my fridge and see all the vegetables I had bought for the week and I can tell they’re about to go bad. I bought them all intending to make Habichuelas Guisadas but I lack the proper spices (note to Goya, please start shipping to Thailand.) But whatever, I start making Asopao. A Puerto Rican gumbo. I play my bomba y plena and feel at home while cooking, I can hear the rapture and cacophony of my families voices. I can hear the rapid fire Spanish, and music, and I can feel the bendiciones when I am cooking. If I imagine hard enough I can smell my grandmothers perfume, and the petrichor of the rainforest. But this is another feeling that is forever fleeting.  Once I hear my landlords talking in the next room the vinyl scratches and I am reminded I am in Thailand.  Now I keep reminding myself as I cook, stop adding too many ingredients, you’re only cooking for one. I can remind myself this until I’m out of breath but the trouble is I’ve only seen this cooked in large quantities. It’s funny, when I cook American food I know how to portion it out so that I only make enough for one. But Puerto Rican food, I make enough for the town to eat and still have leftovers. It must be a cultural thing. But at the end I have an entire pot of Asopao and no one to share it with. I keep thinking about how much I would love to have a dinner party with my friends from the other provinces but I don’t know how many of them would care to come all this way just to entertain me. Then the lights go out and it’s raining, hard. It’s 6 p.m. I quickly clean my kitchen so that the bugs don’t take up residence. Then follow up I go to take my bucket shower in the dark using my phone as the smallest of lights, and then I have a slight Maria flashback. I panic in the bathroom and quickly run out forgetting to wash the soap off. Once I am out I think, “Well that’s new.” I have never panicked in the dark. What set it off this time? I think to call my friends to calm down, but then I decide they wouldn’t understand. I barely understand. Then as I resign myself to another night without the fan and without A/C the power comes back. I hear my mother say “Dios te desafia pero no te rompera” God challenges you but he won’t break you.

Monday. I struggle to get up, but I make my omelette. I get some work done. Go home and the lights are out. I’m irritated but I clean. I go outside for some fresh air, pet the dogs, and sit down and again accept the lack of electricity. Then it comes back. The day is left for me. I get up and drink some coffee and begin to write. This is probably the most emotional writing I have done in awhile, and hopefully it shows a vulnerable side of me that I often push away. I keep my emotions close to my chest and never wear my heart on my sleeve. But allowing my emotions the freedom to leave has been relieving. Thanks for sticking through it.

God will challenge you but he will not break you. So long as you keep getting up.

Meeting the world my way