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Friday, November 25, 2011

Small talk

I’m living in a foreign language movie.  The line that absolutely killed me was when the kindergartener at school quietly uttered a short, simple and declarative sentence.  I murmured encouragingly in response, knowing absolutely nothing about what she said.

This is only one of the characters in this film.  Her compatriots hail me (TEACHA!!!!!!!) with exuberant enthusiasm in the school yard at every chance they get.   The bevy of teachers that have extremely limited English, welcome me to lunch with them and proceed to discuss all manner of topics in a lyrical, rapidfire chatter that leaves me running behind on a single word I recognize three or four sentences back.  There are my incredibly patient co-workers who see me struggling every single day.  The primary students who are learning a new English word of the week (generated in response to hearing “I’m fine” about a hundred times a day), but who also enjoy hearing my attempts at the Thai language.
The few English speaking contacts (including a British male teaching three classes a week) that are able to share observations and the occasional translation of the dialog, speeches and shouts that I’m hearing.   In the dark moments, I am convinced that I will live in this stupefied oblivion forever.

In the past, I orchestrated my life as a series of campaigns when the going got tough.   The “lose weight/train more” crusade is a perpetual, followed closely by “meet new people and attempt at mate finding”. Neither of these has been very successful over the years.   After the initial shock of the job termination wore off, I schemed and saved my way to a two year “sabbatical” with three goals:  do something completely different, immerse myself in a cultural experience and move forward to a yet unknown outcome.   However, in order to be happy, develop community and take care of myself here in this rural provincial capital for the next nine months, I have to communicate more effectively.


The good news is that I can buy the food and conduct most business with a combination of sign language and use of the Lonely Planet Phrasebook or the iphone dictionary in a pinch.  The bad news is that most of time that I try to articulate the Thai language in various forms beyond the “Hello, How are you? Thank you. How much is it? This is delicious” category, I am met with a series of puzzled looks.   It doesn’t help that I am a habitual nodder and smiler, which many people across the world interpret as actually understanding.   Yesterday, I almost walked away with a shirt that didn’t quite fit before I looked up “decide” and added the negative before it.

In terms of intellectual capacity, I seem to be failing hard.   I can’t remember the words.  Sometimes I reverse order of the words which makes people confused.  Once and a while, the meager Spanish I learned twenty years ago appears unexpectedly.  The other night, The Director and her son Coon took me over to the Monk’s school for an evening visit to a Chedi (a place where some remains of Buddha are interred).   On the way, we made a quick stop at the ATM, where Coon explained that the Thai word for ATM translates to “box buttons money”.  Shortly after, I repeated the new word back to them as a check that I got it right.   The Director looked at me quizzically, “Why do you say “good man?”  “Really?” I replied.  “Good man?  I meant to say box buttons money.” We all laughed, but inside I was feeling a bit embarrassed. What will it take to imprint this lyrical, melodious and nuanced language in my middle-aged brain?


Just before I was waylaid a  nasty sinus infection of last week, I got the idea to learn how to read Thai first.  It’s a phonetic language so the way it is written is the way it is said. I’m a visual person so perhaps it might work.  This will take some work but it might be the key to figuring it out.  Of course, then I’d need to actually understand what the words meant.  This will be the epic battle of my experience here and I suppose I need to muster the forces to overcome.

In the meantime, one can dream.  I have a few fantasies about how this foreign film will end.
  • Science fiction ending:    I will miraculously awake one morning and the variety of verbal expressions I hear every day will manifest in perfect translation.   I will gloriously understand more of what is being said. 
  • Love story ending:  I find an available, attractive tutor and as we transcend the boundaries I become passionate about assimilating all elements of the language. 
  • Disney ending:  I bumble my way through the year as a well-meaning but clueless character, stuck in the rudiments of language but never moving forward to any significant character development.
  • Dark ending:  I never learn.  I am consigned to the great unknown.    I fumble my way through this contract and then work to find a new teaching gig in Latin America where head back to the familiar cocoon of romance languages. 
But, in fact, this movie will go on for another nine months.  It’s a day by day process that requires steadfast commitment.  I have to face it- I’m not a person who pursues things single-mindedly for sustained periods of time.  I’m all about the short-term project and the love of efficiency that is most of the time not that effective.  I tend to get distracted, bored by the repetition, not really willing to do what it takes to really succeed.  However, physically I’m finally starting to feel better.

There may be hope ahead.   Two days ago, one of the 4th graders stopped by my classroom after school was let out.  “Speak Thai.” He said, I think secretly hoping that this could lead to some opportunities to make fun of me.   I came out of the classroom, brought out my Thai language textbook and some other reference materials, and before I knew it he moved on but  a team of fifth graders five girls helped me through the pronunciations on the Thai alphabet and some basic vocabulary. Ditto for yesterday... I just find a few kids who are hanging out waiting for their parents and ask them to help me.  The tone marks on the alphabet have me a bit flummoxed, but progress will be measured in very small steps.   Now… what was the word for rice noodle?   


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

There's a frog in the laundry

I’d finished washing clothes and they were hung out to dry on hangars in the metal rack on the porch when I went to fold it up Sunday afternoon.  As I reached for the shirt off the hangar, I noticed the frog inside the sleeve and smiled.  Perhaps the frog thought my shirt was a big flower.  “Nan,” I went inside the house and gestured to Tuy’s younger sister, “Come here.”  I don’t have the Thai vocabulary to say, “I have something to show you.”  She approached the laundry skeptically. When I revealed the frog she screamed and lunged for it. 


The tree frog jumped to escape, bounced off my arm and landed on the adjacent wall with all feet sticking, then leapt in a panic inside the house.  I’m used to frogs that stay on the ground.  He found some perceived refuge on the dark wood of the door, then leapt to the wall and up a few feet, faster than I could have imagined.   Tuy comes out of her room to see the commotion, has a short yell herself and runs for  the broom.  With some guidance, he gets a sharp kick out the door to the liberation of the front yard.

Laundry seems simpler here even though you really have to follow the load. I am grateful for the machine in the house.  The washer gets filled from the hose in the kitchen sink. Add some soap, the clothes and set the agitation for 12 minutes. There isn’t a lid so you can watch things moving around it you like.   Then let gravity do the work and drain the hose into the shower/bathroom complex.  Then rinse the clothes, agitate for a few minutes, drain, and put the clothes in the spinner for four minutes and on the line to dry. Your choice of inside (we have a drying room) or outside.

Food is a bit more complicated.  To clear up a few preconceived notions, Thai food is not necessarily healthy.  Much of it is breaded, fried and covered in salty or sweet sauces.  Fresh fruit is not immune; Thai people often use a combination of sugar, salt and chili spices on many fruits including pineapple.  With all the hoopla surrounding the Thai cooking classes for tourists in Chiang Mai, Thai people eat out habitually.  Between street vendors, small sidewalk set ups and more formal restaurants, Thai people have plenty of options.


Over the past couple of weeks, dinner generally has three tangents:  eat rice noodles at home, Nan brings over take out from somewhere or Tuy and I go out to pick it up ourselves.  One night right after school ended at 5pm, Tuy told me that I was joining her and her fellow teacher friend Apon for a ride over to the market.  It was the first time I had a chance to look at the day market, which was filled with more items for cooking instead of the prepared foods of the night market.

 When we get there, Tuy and Apon are clear about what they are looking for, but I’m mesmerized by the large plastic tubs filled with squirming eels, floppy snakefish and placidly swimming orange Talpia like fish that I haven’t been able to identify.   There are the frogs and squid on skewers and the piles of beetles and what are either maggots or worms piled high on wide bamboo plates. The vendors are chatting, the crowds are lined up like a crowded art show perusing the goods.   I’m entranced by the variety and health of the vegetables:  green leafy basil. Asian broccoli, spinach and what looks like collards.  I’m going slowly, with the gentle reminder of Tuy’s hand guiding me along so I don’t get left behind.

Tuy asks me “what you eat?’ and I’m frozen in the internal storm of indecision. I’m blinded by the brilliant light of so many options and unknown tastes surrounding me.  I wish I had the language to explain that I want to look around a bit and then decide, but the girls seem to be on a schedule.  In that moment inside my brain, I’m a large, white, ancient balloon  that requires transportation and translation everywhere she goes.  I settle on the usual fish and vegetables, with a variation on a roasted eggplant.  I hustle through my wallet and embarrassed that I mistake a 500 baht bill for a 50 and it’s the only money I have.  This is a fortune for the vendor who balks at the bill.  A single eggplant sells for ten baht.  The girls simultaneously chide me a bit while Tuy reaches for her purse.

In this moment, I’m tortured by my need for independence.  I so badly want to explore and soak it all in, muddle through the problems and figure it out.  On the other hand, I’m grateful for the diligent  attention and boundless caring.  With the limited amount of daylight at the end of the school day, the extra 15 minutes gained through the use of Tuy’s motorbike are valuable. I’m hoping that there is some prestige for her in carrying around this large white language impaired blimp.  I’ve never been this dependent before.  I should be more diligent in sharing new vocabulary and pronunciation lessons.  Make sure I think of her with a small gift.  All of these experiences are learning lessons, but this is one of those uncomfortable moments.

On the way home, the cumulus clouds are showing their nightly alpenglow pink in the night sky.  It’s rush hour:  hundreds of mynah birds have begun to congregate on the trees on the riverfront.   Their collective evening songs turn into a humming that escalates past every tree, then reaching a crescendo on the utility lines that traverse the second stories throughout downtown. Everyone is moving in cars, motorbikes and a few bicycles.  Past the Wat with the city’s shrine where everyone honks as they go by to the long curve and look both ways before crossing the street and down the small dirt road to our house.  Dinner, some brief conversation and pronunciation guidance shared and then it’s to the bedrooms for reading and lesson planning.

On the weekend, Tuy is off to her parent’s house and I make a pilgrimage to the market on my own in the relative coolness and quiet of the morning.   My one speed bike is steady but clunky, the brakes are bad and the chain needs oil.  I am delighted to be finding my own way.   I discover the local retail bike shop and  buy a  tail light to complement my headlamp for my evening rides in the park.  I come across the local version of Three Bears/Costco, stocking up on soaps of a few forms and the ginseng instant coffee I’ve grown to like.



I realize that I am close to the riverfront, so I stop by the tourist office and ask for a map (there isn’t one, but I am given a large paperbound book on Kamphaeng Phet’s local attractions.) Meandering back through some side streets I pass a shack with a few second-hand bikes for sale.  With a quick u-turn to pull in, I demonstrate the squeaky brakes and the father-son pit crew gets to work.  Some wrenches are turned and a few drops of oil are applied for less than a dollar.  The brakes are improved and I'm feeling confident.

With the need to pick up a little lunch before my English class with a couple of Thai teachers later that afternoon, I swing through the open market to pick up a snack and buy my own produce for making a stir fry on the hot plate for dinner.  I experiment and buy a relatively large package of what looks like dried fruit without trying to ask what it is.  When I get home, I realize it’s a seedy, sour, face wrenching awful package of dried tamarind.  This was my official first independent market mistake and I find great satisfaction in the rebellion of my tastebuds. I know someone at school will think it’s a bonus.  And probably laugh a bit at me at the same time.

n.b.  This post includes images from the internet.  Sometimes I got caught up in the heat of the moment and couldn't take a picture.  These are likely better anyway.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

School Daze

For the past few days, Tuy has been giving me a two minute ride to school on her motorbike.  As she starts up and I get on, she always asks, “Are you sure?”  I think she means to say, “Are you ready?”, but I like the associations of security and assurance in addition to the connotations of confidence.  It’s a great way to start the work day to say, “Yes, I am sure.”
With the first week completed, school is settling into a routine.  I arrive at around 7:00 and head to my classroom in the cool of the day. Shortly after, either Ubon or one of the other kindergarten teachers comes in to start the PA system, which broadcasts cheery and cheesy music as the Anuban (preschool and kindergarten) teachers sweep the courtyard of last night’s leaves and the sweet smelling long flowered blossoms from the “peep”  tree.   No one knows the English name for this tree, but the blossoms are fragrant.

When the school arrivals reaches the right crescendo, I move over the Prattayom (primary grades 1-5) and Mattayom (grades 6-8) student morning assembly.   Arranged in orderly rows, the assistant principal Diyo addresses the students with general announcements.  The flag is raised while the anthem is played.  Afterwards, students pray to the Buddha and recite the  five Buddhist precepts:  refrain from harming another living thing,  do not take what is not yours, don’t engage in sexual misconduct (not sure how this is addressed for the Prattyom students), do not lie and refrain from alcohol and drugs.   Then, the students formally address the teachers standing in front of them with a Wai and the word Sawadee (the general greeting), and then formally address each other.

By this time, the anuban have finished their  mini flag raising and prayers and it’s time to do a little singing, handclapping and general simple movements to the songs.  As the new teacher, I am able to bring a new energy to the moves.  The kids go wild and the teachers appear supportive.    At some convenient point, I retreat to my classroom and let the other teachers take over for the rest of their gathering.

Thai teachers are extraordinarily hard working.  Each day, they act as campus greeters to orchestrate student comings and goings (complete with the announcements for students to come to the front gate for a pickup) ,  purveyors of breakfast and lunch snacks, cleaners of their classrooms, and supervisors at the canteen.  At lunch today, one teacher had students showing her their plates as lunch finished up.  For the one student who couldn’t eat their chicken, it was shared between a couple of  teachers who couldn’t let the protein go to waste.  Incidentally, lunch is included with my job and typically includes white rice and curry, vegetables and a small bit of protein.  Students use tokens to purchase extra sausages, buns, eggrolls, beautiful little white cakes and ice cream.   Thai teachers have about 35 students in their classrooms and are generally on campus until after 5pm.

English language is a mandatory part of Thai education, and Supsathit Wittayakarn (my school) uses the Express English textbook for levels 1-3.  These texts are filled with many internal work-at-the desk activities which the students seem to love in the safe and familiar way that we all gravitate to the known.   Students wish me a good morning all day and all levels of students recite the  now familiar conversational routine.  If I deviate from the script, profuse giggling and hands covering the mouth generally follow.  Their  English is word bubbles and  memorized scripts, but I can relate.  If someone goes off my script of basic words and phrases, I am befuddled, smiling and nodding.

My first week is punctuated by surprises:    A teaching schedule that changed within days,  groups that showed up unexpectedly or never showed up at all and  classes that are wildly motivated and receptive, others that exhibit the notorious Thai elementary school student naughtiness.

I have a fabulous group of second graders that is very excited about the letter P lesson plan.  The  P song sung to the tune of John, Jacob, Jingleheimer Schmidt  that  I miraculously found on the internet is punctuated by visual cue cards I made depicting princess P and her pink pumpkin.  After about ten solo renditions in the first class, the next day the kids are all over it.  They take turns holding the cue cards and raising them when their character is mentioned.  They are all singing along enthusiastically.   Then they sit quietly for an English reading of a story of Pigs packing a picnic of peaches, pickles, pumpkins, pears and plums. “So awesome!”, I both think to myself and tell them.  The teacher’s aide that was assigned to my classroom looks a little bored.

Later in the week, another class of kindergartners shows up unexpectedly without an adult to help me.  I hindsight, I wished that I’d mustered the authoritative command in the universal language of teachers and sent them back to their Thai classroom.  But in the spirit of always providing a welcome environment, I bring them in.    The K.2 group appears completely underwhelmed by the butterfly song.  In an attempt to get them moving around and singing the song I just taught, a few start fake tripping and falling from their socks on the tile.  I have visions of bleeding heads which dissipates when half the group floats off to play with the abacus while the others are pitiful with a beseeching look for either some new action.   In a slacker version of panic, I google the online video of the butterfly song  on my computer and set the forlorn  group to watch  that while making an effort to corral the miscreants who are now trying to pull the bookcase away from the wall in an effort to rescue the marble that’s fallen out of the run.  Just in time, my supervisor Kim appears at the door looking  pristine in her beautiful  size 2 suit.   She makes a quick call to their teacher who was still operating on the first schedule, not the second one I just got.  After all this, I vow to have lesson plans galore, activities that can fill more than every second of a 50 minute  hour class and a standby of old favorites that the kids know and love.

The following day, the K.2 students  showed up on time and ready and each wearing uniform shirts in green, yellow, red and blue. The butterfly song goes much better this time. Shortly after our lesson,  they all got up to leave.   I’m a bit confused but figure they know something I don’t.  A few minutes later I heard some unusual commotion around the school yard and  walked to the sports field in  a beautiful colorful spectacle.  It was primary color day and the classes were facing off on a tug of war competition.   There was terrific cheering and all sorts of good natured effort.   Before the kindergartners went home for the day, they lined up to get their faces powdered and looking fresh for their bus ride home.

On Friday, there was an especially long assembly that required additional time.  As the day borne onto 9am, the teachers began moving the students to the shade.   The Director addressed the group, academic achievement certificates were awarded  and the head teacher and new friend Tua talked to the group about hygiene, exercise and making an effort in school.  This assembly cut into class time for the English Club, which ended early for the mattayom meditation practice before lunch. 

On this brilliantly sunny and steamy late Saturday  afternoon and amidst the drone of fans and the occasional bird song, my 24 year old  roommate  Tuy is diligently grading 52 workbooks from her sixth grade classes.  Through the trials of the first week, I’ve been tested.  I have also heard some of the internal whispers of my work ethic and my western career coming to visit me in some moments of uncertainty.  What lessons of my past work in effective group process can I bring to 20 kindergartners?

This next two years will involve many lessons on many fronts.  I have to let go of my western career ethic, slow down and focus on the keys for opening the doors and joining this community.  Fundamentally, I know I must approach all problems with an open and cool heart and keep the patience to allow information to be revealed at the right time.  My work, both for the students and myself, is clear:
  • Build an environment for creating confidence and trying new tasks,
  • make a diligent effort to learn new vocabulary with a strong  focus on speaking and listening, and,
  • continue my effort to sing new songs with a sure voice and a strong sense of สนุกสนาน (fun).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Glossy tiles are dangerous when wet but the ancient temple at sunset will be worth it

It was a long journey leaving Bangkok on Friday.  Crowds were stacked up in front of the monitors waiting for information on flights.  Many who could afford it were to leaving to visit family and the white travelers seemed to be relieved to be headed to Phuket or any other part of the country.   A number of Thai professionals were plugged into one of the few power stations like elephants at the watering hole.  
My flight was first delayed from an early evening flight to one at 11pm and then again projected to leave well after midnight.  On the second delay,   I called my local contact, Kim, to let her know I would just get a hotel in Phitlsanulok for the night.  I had no idea when I would arrive and it seemed more sensible to avoid driving so late at night.  Kim had errands to run in Chaing Mai over the weekend, which while I was invited to participate in. With the uncertainty of my arrival and a need to preserve my mental functioning, I declined.   I think she was relieved about this.

The plane landed at 2:30 am.   While the rest of the western teachers were met at the airport by their hosts, I stoically waved goodbye and made it out to the curb with bags in the cart.  There was a harried conversation with an apologetic farang (forienger) who was trying to catch a bus to his next destination and thus took the first cab that came along.   Little did I know that would be the last white person I would see, let alone converse with.

 In that moment, I experienced a   thought that seems to recur with relative frequency.  “Really Ellen.” I said to myself. “What were you thinking?”  I waited by the curb in a bleary acceptance of the current reality.  Within moments, a cab driver pulled up, understood me and deposited me at the hotel where the night manager spoke enough  English to check me in.  Within the hour, I was sleeping.

With a morning phone call from Kim to confirm, JeJee and and Nuy came to get me around noon the next day.  JeJee is a “lady boy”, a term used to describe very effeminate homosexual men in Thailand.    In the school’s small truck, we bounded  across the countryside, passing the rice fields, motorbikes and farm trucks.  In typical Thai fashion, JeJee talked on his funny red  Ferrarri cell phone (it honks when it rings) and dodged around and through incoming traffic while sharing his dreams of finding an American boyfriend and bantering on in combination of Thai and broken, heavily accented English.  He was proud to share the photo of himself as “beautiful”, with wig, makeup and an engaging smile.    There was the obligatory stop for lunch at the rest stop, complete with a Pepsi and a toilet that required squatting and water scooped from a nearly receptacle to flush.


We arrived at the house where I am living and located just a few minute walk from school. The  entourage from school pulled up in motorbikes shortly later. Everyone swarms around, with concerns about the A/C (aa, prounouced aaaaah, like the Thais would pronounce air) not working, the condition of the washing machine (hose is broken).  I am simply impressed by the gleaming and polished 2x2 tiles all over the living room floor, the relatively new leather living room set. I am intrigued to see the hose connected right next to the toilet and then delighted to not need toilet paper.

No one speaks much English.  Nuy picks the travel hula hoop from my duffle bag and we exchange a few giggles on technique.   Once the initial move in has been completed, JeJee runs me into town for some quick groceries at 7-11.  Thailand has one of the highest per capita prevalence of these stores and one can top up a pre-paid phone card  in addition to getting a slurpee.  I ask to go to the hospital for a bandage change and relived on three fronts:  expedient healing, bandage materials and only 120 baht ($3.)

Shortly after we return from the store, the contingent returns with packets of “Super Coffee” (Nescafe, sugar and creamer with a dash of ginseng encased in small packets), a case of bottled water, two packages of kleenex and a fan.  Uben (head kindergarten teacher) ,Chan (the janitor) and the  aa repairman show  up and replaces the propane tank on the unit, which goes a lot faster with the headlamp I provide.   Everyone wishes me a good sleep and leaves me locked inside the gate around the house.  I feebly unpack a few items, close the door to the house, fire up the shower that encompasses the entire bathroom,  revel in the noodles and crawl into my silk sleeping sack without opening the book.   This is the definition of delicious relief and security, landing softly with an extended stretch of runway for the night.

Roosters wake me up with the early morning light, with the thunka thunka of what I think is a washing machine in the front yard of the very simple shantytown complex across the street.  Uben and the aa repairman show up to finish the work on the aa, and Uben and I  look at my photos from Alaska. She also notices the hoop and gives it a whirl.  JeJee comes at noon to run me through the washing machine, which is not his not his best skill set.  This results in a lot of water on the kitchen floor and a "Near Whoopsie" slip on the gleaming tile, to which my new Thai friends laugh nervously.  JeJee runs me through  the UNESCO world heritage site of ancient temples that is located just down the road then onto the “Big C” the supercenter mall. Kim calls and we make arrangements for the pre-semester teacher’s meeting the next morning.


The first day of school arrives for Ellen.  I put on the long skirt and yellow shirt because it’s Monday, and Thais have special colors for each day.  I wait at the head office for a bit and eventually, I am escorted to the teacher’s meeting and seated at the front of the room.  There are presentations by a person that I think is the assistant principal and a number of other senior teachers before  The Director and her daughter Kim (my supervisor) show up.   There is more discussion, which Kim translates as reports from the project-based learning workshops other teachers  have attended.   Eventually, The Director nods in my direction.   After my new roommate and fellow Thai teacher, Tuy,  introduces herself.  I stand up.  I say (in Thai and read from the script of written materials we were given at orientation)  “Hello.  MY NAME IS ELLEN. THAILAND IS BEAUTIFUL. THE THAI PEOPLE ARE VERY NICE”.

The teachers look at me a bit stunned, then break out into applause. I grin.    I sit down and realize that I neglected to put the feminine polite at the end of each sentence, which sounds rude to the Thais.  One must carry on.  In Thailand, if you try hard with open heart, all will be forgiven.   After the meeting, I am greeted with smiles and the typical Thai way of touching on the arms and the waist. This seems common with the women in this country. My new roommate and fellow English teacher, Tuy, gave me a ride home on her motorcycle with an arrangement for Kim to pick us up for another Big C shopping trip later in the evening.  I got the verbal memo to wear pink tomorrow.


The evening falls slowly here.  The neighbor’s pool table has the occasional subdued interaction of both the balls and conversation.  The papaya trees, larger unidentified deciduous trees and the low forest scrub punctuate the background as the prolific  dragonflies wave around in circles in the late afternoon light.  This place has a very strong identity, which I can appreciate. The students start tomorrow and I suspect my first class will be sometime later this week, where I can teach “Hello. My name is…  and it will be pronounced “Helro my naay if…”    I have finally arrived.