I’m currently in Thailand with my 2-year-old and partner, Rob. We came here half for me to do more extensive research for the YA science fiction trilogy I am currently writing that is set in this area, and half for Rob to research Thai cooking and woodworking. I also want to expose my child to as many other cultures as possible throughout his life, so that his understanding of the world is built upon his experiences rather than from words on paper that he reads from the inside of a classroom. Books are amazing, but seeing things firsthand is something you just can’t replicate on the page.
This first post from Thailand is more of a logistical one than one of reflection because I’ve decided to keep track of our expenses for other people out there who are like me. Before going somewhere, I always wonder things like – how much does it really cost if you only eat street food or if you try and find the cheapest guesthouses? How much is a good budget for extra stuff, like fisherman pants or a brass wok?
Today is day 8 for us in Thailand, and from spending a few days each in Bangkok, and Chiang Mai, I’m ready to give a small breakdown of costs:
Food and water – if you stick to street food (which, honestly, is the most authentic experience, the food is fresher, and it tastes amazing), two people and a toddler can eat three meals a day and spend only about $10 USD. Water depends on where/if you buy it. We planned to buy it from stores until we came here and found a bunch of water booths on the side of the roads (see below) that boast fresh water through reverse osmosis and you can fill up a 1 gallon bottle at one of these for only 3-5 Bhats (10-15 US cents)!
Otherwise water runs at a cost of about 50 US cents per litre when bought by the litre (or $1 USD for a gallon).
Guesthouses – again, this is all a matter of preference, but we are fine with shared bathrooms and the possibility of only cold showers, which you can find for around $10 USD per night here (in Bangkok, however, a room with just a double bed that you share with your toddler can set you back between $12-15 USD per night).
So, without moving between cities much or doing tours or filling your hiker backpack with scarves and jewelry and small elephant statues, this comes down to about $20-25 a day. (I’ll write more about the stuff you can buy here in another post.)
We commuted between the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai by train. The second class sleeper trains (non A/C means you have open windows and can take photos or just enjoy the breeze) cost roughtly 500 Bhat ($15-16 USD) from Bangkok to Chiang Mai per person (toddlers are free), and you sleep in what resembles a bunk bed with one person on the upper narrower berth and the other on the lower berth with your toddler. Bringing a lot of snacks, even on the overnight trains, is recommended because sitting for so long made us just want to eat stuff!
I recommend spending 1-2 weeks (or more if you can!) at a time in one place in Thailand, especially if you have a toddler. It gives you time to get to know a place and time to get your child used to a new country. And, most importantly, time to make a few friends, both local and foreign, that you can visit on your next trip!
In comparison to other countries I have spent time in during my solo travels, Thailand is easier and feels safer in a lot of ways than India, Kenya, and Morocco. I’m glad we didn’t try one of those countries on our first trip abroad with our son, but I still want to go back to them within the next few years.
I’ll post more soon, but I just want to get this out there in cyberpsace, because I think a lot of Americans are afraid to backpack in SE Asia alone, and likely more afraid to do it with a toddler.
But honestly? You shouldn’t be.
It’s amazing and children under age 7 will be able to take in so much more than anyone else from these kinds of experiences – especially when it comes to language skills. I may not be able to hear my son try and speak Thai words, but I love that he’s doing it as well as picking up on the gestures and body language of the local people more so than a hearing child who isn’t already bilingual with ASL and English. And despite my own deafness, I love trying to speak Thai. It’s a challenging language, but when you speak even a few words of Thai to a local person, their faces light up and they open themselves to you. It’s beautiful.
I successfully made it through all of November without a single blog post!
Was I busy writing a novel in a month, like many other writer friends of mine?
No. I was actually taking a break from my usual writing-like-crazy to let other people do the writing-like-crazy. I submitted my latest book to a literary agency that prefers exclusive reading time and have been just—waiting.
The waiting has been good, though, as you saw in my last post about making blocks for my toddler. I made blocks, then I sewed the entire inside and outside of a handbag, painted stars on a new Ergo baby carrier, sewed a tank top for myself, sewed patches onto pants, sewed some other things. You get the picture. I’ve been crafty this November, and waiting ever patiently to hear from the agents (which is probably the only time I am able to be patient).
I am reaching that point where I feel like I’m sitting on my hands all the time to stop myself from writing, though,—because—the only thing I wish to write is the second installment of my YA science fiction trilogy. But I’ve learned my lesson from literary agents and the “Big 6” publishing houses already. Never write the second book in a trilogy unless you’re pretty confident the first is going to get published NOW.
Only last year at this time, I was in the throes of editing the first volume of a YA Urban Fantasy trilogy. I wrote the first draft of that book during Nanowrimo 2010, while sailing south from Block Island, Rhode Island, to Key West, Florida. It was a mess of a story about a wolf girl journeying from New Hampshire to New York and then passing in and out of stories. I put it down when I discovered I was pregnant in January of 2011, and didn’t start editing it until November of that year.
The single volume turned into a complex trilogy about fairy tales, myths, and the doors between reality and stories. Werewolves escape their stories and a wolf girl named Blue has to put them back. I sent the 6th draft of that book out and it wasn’t finished—I needed much more world building, I needed to know what all the action of this book was leading to, I needed to know my characters better. So I did 9 more drafts of it and resubmitted it in April of 2013.
By this time, however, the “Big 6” publishers (who I sometimes imagine as six mythological gods sitting around a round table discussing what would be popular next year and what would absolutely not) had decided that werewolves were out and so were shapeshifters that turned into wolves. I knew that my story was great, but if the “Big 6” said it wasn’t the right time for it, then I knew that only smaller presses would even consider publishing it. It made me sad to put that trilogy aside, but I feel pretty confident in the fact that wolves will resurface someday—and in 5 or 10 years, I would probably rip up that story and write something vastly different, but it’s okay. Sometimes that’s what happens. As writers, we can’t stop growing and changing and making decisions based on what is important to us.
I feel in my heart that my current project is going to get published. But I don’t have the heart to start writing the second book right now—not because I am uncertain the first will get published—but because I realize the whole agent and publishing process will change this first book into something else…which will change what happens in the second.
So—what do I do with my time now?
Lately, I’ve been devouring the brilliant science fiction Ender Series and reading some more contemporary paranormal YA like Everlost, the first book of the Skinjacker Trilogy.
I’ve been dreaming of the second book of my science fiction trilogy and adding little notes about it to my Index Cards iPad app that allows me to just throw a bunch of scenes and pieces of storyline together—so that I can sit like Dumbledore staring into the pensive as the details rearrange themselves into what they are supposed to become. I often feel like my characters are telling me their story, not the other way around.
Aside from the writing, I am going through some inner cultural conflicts.
I am back to thinking about not wanting to voice again.
I go through this every few months or so. I am Deaf, but I went deaf in my teens, and I still have enough hearing to hear some voices and sounds and to be able to speak clearer English than most hearing people (because I grew up with a deaf mother who lip reads, so I needed to annunciate my words very carefully from a young age). I love voicing, too, because I love using the English language, my first language.
My deafness, however, makes it so that any social interactions with other people are hard if they are not in ASL. When I voice, I am not just meeting hearing people half-way and asking them to meet me half-way in our communication. I am bending over backwards for them, making it so that it’s easy for them to know what I am saying.
The problem is—that doesn’t make it any easier for me to hear them. And it makes them want me to lip read, which is exhausting and it gives me headaches. But they hear me talking and they automatically want to talk back. It’s a natural response, so I don’t blame them for it.
But if I start the whole conversation with writing on a notepad, or typing on our cell phones, then we’re on the same page from the start. We’re BOTH typing to each other, we’re both communicating in written English. The communication is balanced—it is equal.
I know these things, but when I go home to my parent’s house and I see my family, I am pulled back into hearing culture and voicing. Most of the women in my family, even the other deaf ones, speak loudly and tell stories. Dramatic, repetitive storytelling is a huge part of American Italian culture and I’m not outside of its compelling influence. When I want to tell a story, even to my partner (who is hearing but knows ASL), my first instinct is to tell it the way my grandmother does—in English with wild gestures (though now, my hands move with ASL signs instead).
When I am especially excited, I probably sound like other bilinguals (who might yell something in English and then yell more in Spanish or Russian), but I’m even more confusing because sometimes I yell in English and ASL at the same time, ripping something away from each language by mashing them together, but illustrating how divided I am at the same time.
I can speak volumes faster than I can sign, which is what I am hoping to change as my toddlers becomes an older child. I want him to be as fluent in ASL and I wish I could be and I want to never feel like I need to voice with him.
And I want to remember to STOP VOICING with him NOW.
I am Deaf, but I used to be hearing. When I go to sleep, sometime I dream in ASL, and sometimes I can hear and I dream in spoken English.
I’m writing these struggles out there for all the other people who I am sure are also straddling cultures, whether it is French and American cultures, or Eastern and Western cultures, or hearing and Deaf cultures.
We’re all different. And we’re all beautiful and ugly in our own unique ways. I don’t think any of us should ever stop learning about other cultures, but sometimes it’s good to remember and honor (all) the cultures we belong to, however they may conflict inside of us.
I was 35 weeks pregnant when I flew from Rhode Island to New Mexico in order to attend the AROHO Women’s Writing Retreat back in 2011. Many people were concerned about me flying alone to spend a week at the high elevation of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, when I was so close to giving birth. I also wouldn’t have a reliable cell phone signal there, and the nearest hospital or birth center was hours away. I listened to my body and I took that risk because sometimes, we are faced with risks that we absolutely need to take, and it’s a personal, private choice that no one else can make for us.
I needed the opportunity of that retreat for my writing, and I needed it as one last trip before my entire life was about to change with the birth of my first child.
The retreat was amazing. I made contacts with other writers and with a wonderful literary agent who has given me a lot of guidance with various writing projects throughout the past two years.
I gave a presentation, called a “Mind Stretch”, while at the retreat. A lot of people enjoyed it, so I am happy to post it here (because I am currently still in the process of my latest YA novel, and I’ve got to get back to it):
I’d first like to begin by saying that most Deaf people who also speak American Sign Language and are part of the Deaf community, which has its own culture revolving around the sign language of its members, do not view deafness as a disability at all. The reason for this is that deafness is not something that limits any of us physically until we encounter a hearing person trying to speak to us. We can all do everything that a hearing person can do and everything we need to survive. In a sense, deafness is like perpetually living in a foreign country where most of the people around you do not speak your language.
I also believe that deafness becomes a disability when a deaf person chooses to be in an environment where they are surrounded by hearing people conversing and expecting them to be part of a conversation. In this instance, deafness is literally a disability because the deaf person cannot follow a conversation. I don’t think it’s possible for a deaf person in these circumstances to ever feel equal to the people around him or her.
In the deaf artist, Susan Dupor’s, painting, Family Dog, she is in the position of a dog under a coffee table while the rest of the hearing people in the room have blurry faces to signify that they are speaking things she cannot understand. Her deafness makes her feel lower than everyone else, like a pet dog that sits on the floor with their tongue hanging out. I’ve often felt this way in groups of hearing people, and I know this is a component to my lifelong attachment to animals and dogs especially. This feeling drove Susan Dupor to paint the scene exactly as she has felt it happen to her, and for me, this feeling has prompted me to fly to India and help stray dogs and to train my own dog as a Hearing dog and companion. I literally do not feel complete without my dog or any dog by my side, and it’s because of how marginalized I’ve felt growing up and going deaf while everyone just kept talking.
As a side note: I wanted to bring my Hearing dog on this trip, but my current disability of being pregnant has basically made me decide to make this trip on my own and have as little as possible to worry about. Although my dog helps me to feel more comfortable and equal in groups of hearing people, he is still like a child in many ways because I haven’t yet been able to train him to feed himself or take himself for a walk or carry my bags for me. So, it was easier to leave him home.
The painter, Frida Khalo’s, disabilities greatly influenced her self-portraits. One example is her painting the Broken Column:
Carole Maso, in her cross-genre work Beauty is Convulsive, The Passion of Frida Khalo, explains:
“Three concerns impelled her to make art,
she told a critic in 1944:
her vivid memory of her own blood flowing during her childhood accident,
her thoughts about birth, death, and the conducting threads of life,
and the desire to be a mother.”
Frida was never able to be a mother and suffered through three abortions before she stopped trying.
Anne Finger, in her short story Helen and Frida, imagines a meeting between Helen Keller and Frida:
“So now the two female icons of disability have met: Helen, who is nothing but, who swells to fill up the category, sweet Helen with her drooping dresses covering drooping bosom, who is Blind and Deaf, her vocation; and Frida, who lifts her skirt to reveal the gaping, cunt-like wound on her leg, who rips her body open to reveal her back, a broken column, her back corset with its white canvas straps framing her beautiful breasts, her body stuck with nails: but she can’t be Disabled, she’s Sexual.”
I think what Finger means here about Frida being “Sexual” not “Disabled” is how Frida has painted her perfect breasts despite all the nails sticking into her skin. She is emulating her sexuality, and was known for her many affairs with both men and women. I find myself wondering if Frida is actually hiding behind her sexuality and using that as well as her art as a means to escape the feeling of being disabled.
In a poem by Kenny Fries, Excavation, he is focusing on the scars that mark his disability, but he is also digging deeper, trying to figure out who he was before such scars were made. His poem reads:
“Tonight, when I take off my shoes:
three toes on each twisted foot.
I touch the rough skin. The holes
where the pins were. The scars.
If I touch them long enough will I find
those who never touched me? Or those
who did? Freak, midget, three-toed
bastard. Words I’ve always heard.
Disabled, crippled, deformed. Words
I was given. But tonight I go back
farther, want more, tear deeper into
my skin. Peeling it back I reveal
the bones at birth I wasn’t given—
the place where no one speaks a word.”
We are left with the questions:
Where do we end and our disabilities begin?
Is it even possible to separate ourselves from our disabilities?
I’d like to call up the concept of disability as something that everyone faces at one point or another in their lives. We all can’t physically do something we want to do at some point, whether it is due to pregnancy or a broken leg or arthritis or old age. I’d like to present disability as something people should be more accepting of rather than marginalizing because of the fact that disability is part of being human.
We live in a society that does help each other and has moved away from Darwinism in the sense that, in the animal world, a disabled animal is a target, it’s something that will die much faster than any other animal in its herd or its pack, and no one will help it. Everyone is focused on their own survival and a disabled creature is a liability to the whole pack if they all try and help it. With humans, we have created a different sort of society here where disabled people often live as long as other people. We do help each other. But I think its hard for us to do this, somewhere inside we are all still animals, and disability is often a social stigmata because its something no one wants to face or experiences for themselves.
Chistopher John Heuer has written a poem called Visible Scars, which details his desire for deafness to be as well-known and as the persecution of black people. Deaf people are just as marginalized as other minorities of America and in other countries, but we look just like everyone else and our language is silent. In many ways, the discrimination against us happens privately, but it’s understandable that Heuer wishes it were more public. I’ll read and sign his poem:
“In my dream the old black woman
said My but ain’t you an uppity nigger
for a white boy,
and threw a copy of the Americans with
Disabilities Act at my chest.
She said What whip were you ever under?
What land did you ever lose?
Then she showed me her back, tugging down
the heavy brown sweater that protected
her oppression. Her scars were black
in the way that skin visibly shudders
when ripped open, black in the way
that melanin reasserts itself in fury.
I reached for my ears but could not pull them off.
I felt in my ears but nothing was there.
I wished for scars like hers.
I wished to stand up and scream Look!
Look, look, look!
I wanted proof to show her, I wanted
centuries of songs to the Lord, I wished
for a hearing overseer
with a whip, I wished for rows of deaf men
in the cotton fields, signing in the sun.
I wished for the hearing man you could see,
so that I could point and shout
Look, look, look!
She said Don’t bring your anger here to me,
white boy, and pointed at the door.
I left the interview with a deaf man’s guilt,
Because I had no proof.”
Disability, for me, can often be frustrating to deal with (especially in groups of hearing people who are not trying to slow down their conversations, or who are trying to over compromise and slow things down so much that I can feel myself holding everyone back)…but if I was not gradually going deaf, I don’t believe my imagination would be as powerful and my writing wouldn’t be the same either.
I’ve learned to use my deafness as a way to reach out to people through both writing and art, as many other deaf and otherwise disabled artists have also done. I think its something everyone can use, regardless of how obviously disabled they are. Think of disabling emotions like fear, anxiety, paranoia, pain, depression…these are disabilities that begin in the mind or the heart but they can easily extend to our bodies… most people have these feelings at one point or another and as writers – we need to be able to tap into these universal human emotions in order to make our characters accessible. So in a sense, I feel that disability is the key to making a character we are writing about more human. It’s about making sure there is conflict in a story or a poem – because without some sort of tension, your reader isn’t going to be interested or feel connected to it. Disability becomes not just how we connect but WHY we connect.
It’s only when you consider a person or character’s disabilities – the things they can’t do – that you are able to figure out what things they are able to do best and what might be the gift or lesson you can learn from their disabilities. Humans often find the strongest communities through the things that they struggle with – like deafness or blindness or depression, or addictions or writing – they come together in support and compassion for each other and are able to help each other really figure out what they can do and where their strengths are.
I’d like you all to consider your characters and fellow humans this way as you write and live. See someone’s disability – but also look past it to find their talents as well, and connect their strengths and weaknesses with your own. We aren’t whole without this balance of disability and ability.
John Lee Clark is a deaf/blind writer and he illustrates the beautiful community that Deafness, other disabilities, and writing, CAN PROVIDE if we are able to reach out and connect with other people. I’d like to read and sign this poem of his to you in closing: