My daughters and I watch “This Is the New Year” by Great Big World on YouTube. “Doggy,” notes the two-year-old. “Hige.” (Japanese for whiskers, on a male dancer.) The five-year-old repeats lyrics about “voices of the underground.” I sweat in the Bangkok heat.
School is underway and our firstborn, who went to preschool in a converted house, attends kindergarten at the 1,900-student (PreK-12) international school where my husband teaches. She wears a uniform, stays at school all day, and learns division-wide theme songs like “New Year,” which her class views on a SMART Board at snack time.
My kindergarten was half-days with a nap. No uniforms, no screens, no music videos. We knew it was clean-up time when our teacher placed a certain red children’s LP in the record player. I watched for her to slip it from its sleeve.
The same teacher gave us each a copy of Morris Goes to School, a picture book about a moose who learns to count, spell, and pretend with a class of orderly children and their teacher, Miss Fine. My daughter came home from library time with a Dumb Bunnies book, the one with a cover that parodies Goodnight Moon—boy’s underwear hanging where the mittens should be. Be still my panicky heart.
I imagined big-kid school would be more like Morris’s, more back-to-basics, more like my past. International school in Thailand, public school in Kansas in the eighties—same thing, right? In a new century and hemisphere?
Of course I snap to and see the students here from sixty countries, the Thai support staff, the Japanese surname on my campus ID. The parents who gather for grade school pick-up are from Holland, Australia, and Brazil, and my daughter’s teacher, a Taiwanese-American, just moved from South Africa. Faculty leaders exude passion about technology and inquiry-based learning. School will look different than in Morris’s world: desks in rows, chalkboards, uniformly white faces. Even Miss Fine would approve—once she got past “voices of the underground” and boy’s underwear.
Can the strange and unsettling be beneficial, even liberating? I recall my parents’ mild shock to see video of me dancing in a Bollywood group, replete in sequins and bindi, at a food fair here last term. Bollywood was a self-care strategy, a way to exercise at times when we had childcare. I learned of the class and recalled childhood ballet and tap lessons, and watching my grandparents square dance, and purchased gold shoes. Soon I was rehearsing a number called Chaliya, Hindi for trickster, and learning moves like “John Travolta,” “namaste,” and “the sexy sexy” (as in, “Let’s take it from the sexy sexy, ladies!”).
Some moves in Bollywood were ladylike; others, when brought to tempo, reminded me of when a friend phoned in high school and made me say “shee, ut” at increasing speed to make a pastor’s kid swear. But Bollywood energized me. Before the performance, I practiced extra on our living room tatami with the girls and rushed to rehearsals, jogging the steps to our apartment faster than usual. I felt like Koji Yakusho’s character in Shall We Dance? (1996), who zooms through his commute while he studies ballroom.
The night of the fair, the other Bollywood moms and I giggled in our warm-up room. We affixed fake eyelashes and hair sparkles. We got nervous. We got our groove on. We danced Chaliya with our husbands and kids and curious onlookers watching, and did not fall off the folding stage. We were a little late on the entrance. We were sexy, sexy.
Of many things to love about Bollywood in an expat burg, was how diverse the group was. The Israeli teacher studied in New Delhi and started teaching in Beijing. My classmates spoke Hebrew, Russian, Japanese, Thai, and Scottish English, and their bodies spoke still more languages: jazz/Broadway dance training, ballet, Thai classical dance. My body recalled moves from marching band and an exercise video called Fun House Funk. In rehearsal, we all discovered which moves from the past worked with Chaliya, and which to learn from scratch. We were doing an exercise one executes often as an expat, student, parent, spouse: learning which parts of a task are essential, and which discretionary, like the bottom of a lowercase q. (I learned a checkmark shape; my daughter’s school teaches a curve.) Both kinds make up the dance.
I did not expect kindergarten to be to preschool what Bollywood was to tap. Then again, no one expected me to reduce stress after a punishing year by taking Bollywood. Combined with less work, more sleep, wise counsel, walks or yoga four nights a week with my husband—worth a column by themselves—and prayer, sequins and “sexy sexy” were right.
Maybe the basics in life, and learning, vary with time and place. Maybe steps we thought were key were in fact flourishes, or can be danced a new way. And maybe “voices of the underground” matters less than “This is a new year / A new beginning” and a child’s excitement about school. And her sister’s catching her glee, and the two convincing me to bounce them on my lap to the new tune—a good workout, given their size. I launch them both to the backbeat, and inhale the popcorn scent of their hair.