Trying to blend in

Our good friend, a local organic farmer, told us how happy it makes the Thai people to see farangs (white foreigners) engaging in local traditions and work. Well, it makes us happy too. Here are some of our favorite “Thai” activities and a look at our chamelon-like efforts to blend it.  Our skin is tan and we are lighter than when we left. Do we fool you?

On the Farm
Old Pee-pa-deep had a farm. E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm he had some rice. EIEIO.

Here we are helping our friend plow his field and water his plants.

planting lemongrass

watering on the farm

In the off season, he plants these yellow flower which help enrich the soil when mowe down and mixed into the soil. They are also gorgeous and make for a great photo opportunity. Jeff and I actually came for some real work, but our friend Pa-deep was so excited to see us with the flowers that he ended up following us around and taking about 20 pictures. This is Thailand, after all, and if you don’t take a picture then it didn’t happen.

plowing field

Teacher Sports Day
I insisted I was a good athlete. They decided I should be a cheerleader. I smiled and gave the Asian 2 fingers to show I was a good sport, but secretly thought “Why can’t girls play soccer here!”sports day

Loi Krathongletting off a hot air kathong

Loi means ‘to float’, while krathong refers to a usually lotus-shaped container which floats on the water. I made my very own krathong for this annual Thai festival of lights.jens roy katong

Before you get too impressed. Look at this legit one made by one of the teachers!nois katong

Not only is teacher Noi a great florist by day, but he is a gorgeous lady by night. He competed in the lady boy beauty pageant that night and won a lot of money by placing 3rd. I believe he won Miss Congeniality as well.noi beauty pageant
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In addition to the lady boy beauty contest, there was the lighting of the paper lanterns, a regular beauty contest, Muay Thai fighting, and “ring a duck” game. The nyoke, mayor, spent about half our salary of his own money winning this duck!

Harvesting Rice (see below)
Note, pee Miek is not Muslim. She is just a typical Thai “glua dom” scared of getting too tan or dark.

harvesting rice 2

Jeff and TN singingAnd here is the famous duo of Mr. Jeff and the Nyoke (mayor) singing their two go-to karaoke songs “Why Do I Love You So?” and “More Than I Can Say.”

ASEAN Day at My High School
ASEAN stands for Association of South East Asian Nations and is sort of like the EU of Southeast Asia. This ASEAN community is starting in 2015 and the common language will be English. Thus, at school we have many activities preparing the students for ASEAN, including an ASEAN dress-up day. I got lucky and drew “Laos” which is quite easy to do. The typical outfit consists of a long silk skirt, white long sleeve shirt, sash, and this white flower tucked in a high bun.

Shockingly I didn’t have to buy a single item for this outfit. My skirt was made by a tailor for 200 baht (6.5 dollars) out of some Laotian silk I had bought on the border. The two guys on either end are my co-teachers, Song and Gung (means shrimp in Thai). Thais love food and animals for nicknames!asean day

SONGKRAN – Thai New Year
Songkran is the most important holiday of the year and takes place in April, the hottest month in Thailand.  It has got to be the biggest water fight in the world!  In the village, there are parades, beauty contests, and dancing. Our first Songkran we were asked to hold the banner for our village, village 15. Below is a picture of Jeff all dressed up in traditional garb. We had to wake up at 6am for our fitting and make-up. Jeff politely refused the lipstick and powder:)

534522_10100193473359647_1834842842_n380770_10100193474512337_1055680843_n540526_10100193476548257_225260636_nThe above two pictures feature yours truly in a Thai beauty pageant that I got duped into.  I have never been more exhausted or disassociated from myself! My cheeks twitched, I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror, and everyone kept shouting Jengira (my Thai name). Make-up and hair (in this case fake hair) started at 4pm and the contest didn’t end until 1am, when I got my own special sash “Miss Peace Corps.”  It was my biggest effort thus far to get integrated, but nearly failed as I had to navigate a catwalk twice in heels one size too small and a “talent section” that I was not ready for. No one thought to tell me until the day of! All ended well, but suffice to say year two the community came to learn that “Jenjira ga-see-an leeo.” (Jen has retired)

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Random Vignettes from Daily Life

Below are a series of notes in my journal from life here. Hope they shed some light on some of the differences between life here and there.

FrogToday Jeff opened the fridge and a frog came hopping out. I think it is his version of AC.

My friend, who is well ehitler_shirt_1ducated, had the following two icons pasted onto his computer: Che Guervera and Adolf Hitler. Yup! Hitler is “in” in Thailand. Hip shirts featuring Hitler have been seen in an almost andy warhol-like way. I have also seen a notebook from an art student that had Hitler with a coco chanel arm band. Source of the picture and more info here.

My landlord sometimes wears shirts with English words. Proof that this nice lady can’t really read English, here is what her shirt says in big block letters: FABULOUS FUCK FROGS FASHION FUNGUS

Today some chickens wandered into our house while we were playing scrabble. They started eating out of our compost. Fine. Then they started eating rubber bands. No wonder people are vegetarians! These things eat everything!

The above mentioned chickens and I are now in an all out war. They eat my vegetable garden, sneak into my kitchen to eat our compost then fly out the window kicking over our dishes as I approach, and steal mangoes off the kitchen table!

Buffalo

Whenever I pass the buffalo that live behind our house they just stop and stare at me as if to say “how on earth did you get here farang?”

I opened the bathroom in our house today there were hundreds of ants. Another time I forgot to turn off the light switch in the bathroom and when I got up at 2am there was a locust of may flies! I was forced to use the “full moon” toilet.

Today we didn’t have a schedule for the school day. It is already the 2nd day of the school year. The kids are outside playing and I seem to be the only one perturbed.

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Pizza is made and PREFERRED like this (see picture to the left): take a sweet dough and bake it, then add ketchup, then add boiled seafood, cover with mayo.

imagePicture 2 is my attempt to introduce US food.

Jeff and I were excited to introduce Jeff’s family’s red sauce to our  imagebest Thai friends here. To our dismay, fish sauce was requested “to make it tastier” and promptly doused.  Fail! Same with tacos and spicy mango salsa.

Successes have included chili, ribs, black bean burgers, all cookies, and brownies.

Do note, however, that yai is digging in! (picture to the left)

Today I said hi to two of my elementary school students as I was passing them on my bike. They were also biking (2 kids on one bike) and when I said hello the driver got so distracted that he ran right into a bush!

Today I was not able to teach my 6th grade as they were helping to move the library. When I went to find the principal, I found four of my 6th grade students giving him a leg and foot massage. Students have also been known to pluck gray hairs from older teachers’ heads!

Yesterday my student was distracted by something he has playing with. When I asked to see it, he pulled out a gigantic, 5 inch bug, still struggling for life. Unsure how to handle this situation, I called over my Thai co-teacher. She merely told me the name of the bug in Thai, the student smiled, and slid it back under his desk. I resumed teaching.

imageMan with squirrelI was on a bus back to Khon Kaen and decided to take a nap. I awoke to a commotion. A squirrel was loose on the bus. I watched drowsily while a man tried to catch it…that is until the squirrel jumped on me! Finally the man nabbed it.

Turns out it was not a stowaway squirrel but the man’s pet, complete with a Winnie the Pooh squirrel carrier!Here is a picture of the dedicated squirrel owner. He is holding his pet squirrel up the fan as the squirrel has overheated. I guess even squirrels like to go on vacation

At the Korat bus station I saw a Thai hipster. How did I know he was? He had a Thai buddhist candle through his ear, wearing it like an earring.

Today I had to ride through a herd of cows to get home.

Today Jeff and I got chased by some wild turkeys on our run.

Today it rained. The good news is that the farmers will be thrilled. The bad news is that I found out in the bathroom. Yep, I got rained on while using the squat toilet.

Today came home to see a snake slithering across our downstairs.

water monitor

Jeff and I were in the “central park” of Bangkok when we came across this fellow “jogger” otherwise known as a water monitor.

On the bus I was sitting in a bad seat up front. 2 monks got on and were very visibly concerned about how to walk past me with not touching me. Women can’t touch monks nor hand them anything directly.

Today I saw two monkeys sitting in the back of truck with Leo beer. Not sure why they were in my community.

Today a drunk Farang aka white foreigner stumbled into the awbawtaw (town hall) where Jeff works. He sees Jeff and says in English “you can pretend you don’t know me.” It was noon.

busSometimes the bus I take breaks down, has to go in first gear for 15 minutes, or needs oil every 10 or so minutes.

Jeff and I were hitch hiking home from a national park and not only got picked up, had some great conversation, but also got a bag of the most delicious mangoes from our driver.

Today I went to do a wash only to find a giant lizard in my washing machine. The poor guy was scared of me and so it took me awhile to get him out. Then he played dead. Now he lives behind our machine and grows bigger each day.

tokayJeff and I have a giant “too-kay” living in our roof. Last night he started singing his favorite song, which goes something like this “tookay, TOOKAY, tookay, TOOkay, err.” He did that at 11pm, 2am, and 5am.

Picture source: www.thefeaturedcreature.com

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Monk Ordination and Thai Field-trips and Why I Can’t Hear

About a month ago, I had one of the loudests week of my life. And the culprits? A monk ordination and a school field trip. The central ingredient linking these two community events and all important Thai occasions is extremely loud, boisterous, Thai music and karaoke for prolonged periods of time; a trying test for even the most patient and assimilated Peace Corps volunteers. And living in “upcountry” Esan, this means its own special brand of “country” music. Below is part 1 of a two-part blog on the “high decibel” events.

Monk Ordination

Day 1: An inkling of what is to come

Some context: our landlord and neighbor’s son is ordaining as a monk for nine days in order to marry his fiancé. This is common practice in Thai society, though it is becoming less common as Western influence penetrates the culture. As the ordination was happening in our yard we were privy to the event from start to finish.

It started like this. Jeff and I arrived home from work and had to fend off ten requests to “gin kao” (eat rice aka dinner) immediately as we were leaving to go on a run. Back from our run, we decided to eat at home first and go over afterward. Upon arrival, we were recruited by a group of grandmothers to separate balls of string into hundreds of individual strands (it is custom for guests to tie bits of strings around the monk-to-be’s wrist and give a blessing.) Highly skeptical of Jeff’s ability to carry out this task, the group clucked knowingly as he began to fall behind Jen and the rest- an obvious result of his gender handicap.

Below is a picture of our friend Dar getting the string tied around his wrist. The string on the sticks stuck in the tree is what Jeff and I helped prepare the night before. Tying the string

After about an hour, we headed for home, respectfully wai’ing (hands raised to chest as if you were praying) the work crew that was ominously setting up 2 speaker towers, each roughly the size of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, about 100 yards from our front door, and making sure we told them we were going to bed.

So much for subtlety. Not 5 minutes after walking through the door, the work crew started blasting Thai country music while setting up a stage and tables. Jeff and I didn’t fall asleep until around midnight when the music finally stopped. For perspective, things in our house felt as if they were vibrating because of the decibel level. It was that loud. Due to “greng jai” it is unthinkable for anyone to say anything or complain to the police.

Day 2: If you can’t beat them, join them
Saturday began bright and early as the music started blasting at 6am. At 7am we admitted additional sleep was not going to happen and got up. By 8am we went for a run to escape the noise. This was after deflecting another barrage on “gin kao” (eat rice) comments. With most of our house, including where we eat, located outside, it was not going to be easy to “hide out” undetected and Thai culture seeks to bring everyone together.

Here is a picture of the set-up. the set up

We ran to the high school two kilometers away and could still hear the music! As Jeff and I tried to maintain our sanity, I started wondering how the other Thais felt about the noise. Are they just as annoyed or have they developed a special noise canceling ability from a lifetime of this? Survey says no. I went to a nearby store and the shopkeeper, unprompted, complained to me that her ears were hurting. Redemption, they are not superhuman after-all.

Still, I knew this shopkeeper would never say anything. Probably close to a thousand people were affected by the noise and yet it would be considered tasteless and rude to say anything. Thais cherish “sanuk” or fun and it would be unthinkable to “rain on someone else’s parade.” So of course we didn’t either.

By this time guests’ cars have been parked in our first floor and our bathroom has been used by many. Our plan was to go to the party in our yard for a few hours and then escape to the nearby city of Khon Kaen as we had a friend’s graduation ceremony. There was only one problem. By noon all the people who usually give us the necessary ride to the bus station were either at the party and drunk or not picking up their phones. We were trapped. Momentary panic took over. So… we played chess, learned some new local dialect, drank, and danced in a super fun parade through town with a truck full of speakers following us. I can only liken it to Mardi Gras. If you can’t beat them, join them.

Some pictures from the ceremony:water on headshaving head

with pee dadancingThe boy or man ordinating sits in a truck with an umbrella overhead and is followed by throngs of family and friends (most of whom are drinking heavily) and a very large set of speakers on wheels.

Day 3: The escape, sort of
We woke up on Sunday at 5am to go to Khon Kaen, where we spent a long day taking pictures and eating at our friend’s grad ceremony. We ended the night with another karaoke party and homemade sangria from Jeff and I. This party had some songs in English including: Billy Jean, I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing, YMCA, and Take Me To Your Heart.

Moral of the story: Thais know how to party and the Peace Corps job is truly 24/7. Though my ear plugs have become one of my most prized possessions, usually it is best to leave them behind, stand up, dance, sing a song, and let go Thai-style. It’s always more fun in a group.

Below is Pee Miek, Naan, and Pee Can taking pictures before the graduation:)miek's grad

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The Road to Lopburi

Three months ago I secured funding from my principal to take seven elementary students and two teachers to a theater and drama workshop in a city six hours away. In addition, we were to prepare a short play and perform on the last day of the workshop.  I was proud of getting the approval, but little did I know of the obstacles:
  1. Teachers not wanting to go because it was “so far”
  2. Very little practice time because of school activities
  3. Three of the seven parents not giving permission two days before we left
  4. One of my teachers wanting to bring her three year old son.
Fortunately, we overcome obstacles and the students did a heartwarming rendition of The Three Little Pigs (in English!). To see the performance, click here.
Here is our group of little actors:
Students
The Trip
We left school on Friday promptly at ten after a benediction from the principal. Ten minutes into the trip, one of the girls throws up in a bag. Note, car sickness was one of the reasons why the parents had been previously denying permission. So, what do we do? My counterpart simply ties the plastic bag of puke up and throws it out the window! The karaoke was blaring and I started realizing the teachers were right. This is going to be “a long trip.” Then a bootleg copy of the American movie “The Day After Tomorrow” dubbed in Thai gets put in. Hilarious.image
We stop twice at 7-11s (they are everywhere) before lunch. By 3pm, four of the seven students have puked in the car. Typically, I say “mai dong sii tung” rejecting plastic bags at 7-11, but not THIS trip! By 3pm, only the wolf, mother pig, and the third little pig hadn’t  “leveraged” the 7-11 bags. The only additional danger on the roads was the overwhelming number of overloaded sugar cane trucks on the road. I can’t tell you how many overturned sugar cane trucks I have seen on the road or involved in accidents.
We arrive at the site of the workshop a little after six after being “greng jai’ed” twice about directions. I.e. we were given directions by two people, who in reality had no idea where the school was. In Thai culture, when you don’t know something it is considered preferable to pretend you know rather than saying, ‘I don’t know, you may want to ask someone else.’ Hope you packed for a weekend in Burma…
Thai honesty
One of the first people I see at the school is the caretaker. I had met him at a previous event, a gender empowerment and sex education camp. He is a generous and funny man and a helpful chauffeur, willing to bring volunteers to the local hiking trail and to get snacks. However, he is still Thai and thus can be a bit blunt about appearances. He saw me and enthusiastically said hello and asked where “Philippines” was. Now, most of you must be thinking a geography question is a strange greeting, but I knew instantly that he was talking about a fellow volunteer, who is half Filipino. I’m still not convinced he understands that she can be American too!
This nice man also prodded me to ask another larger volunteer how much she weighed. I tried to deflect the question by pretending I didn’t understand. When this didn’t work, I tried explaining that American women are self conscious about this question (“I’m sure you understand” in my best Audrey Hepburn voice), however he was persistent. Turns out his ex-wife was a large woman and used to have to buy her pants in Bangkok. He just wanted to compare stories and give this volunteer tips about where to buy plus size pants! I felt so sorry for the volunteer, but she handled herself with grace and patience. She is a volunteer from group 123, which means she has had 2 years of hearing these types of questions and has learned how to keep her cool. Well done.
The next day had five rotations: stage fighting, costumes, singing, dance, and puppetry. The kids loved it and had so much fun. 13 schools attended and on Sunday each school showcased their play. Plays ranged from classics like Snow White and Cinderella to modern dramas, such as The Robbery, and of course great stories highlighting Thai culture. My personal favorite was the heart wrenching story of the son who kills his doting mother in a rage over how little sticky rice she made. Indeed, the phrase “gong, kao noi, kaa ma” (small sticky rice container, kill mother) is an expression that is used. Jeff may have said this phrase to me on my first sticky rice attempt. However, rest assured the portion size has since increased. Note, cooked sticky rice does not double in size like regular rice.
Here are some pictures of my session on costumes and masks.IMG_4613
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My seven elementary students performed The Three Little Pigs and I was so proud. We made all the costumes ourselves and the students came to every rehearsal.
Why TYT matters
This wonderful weekend was largely subsidized by the Friends of Thailand foundation and friends and families of PC volunteers. In total, the workshop cost 270 baht person for lodging, t-shirt, certificate, and food for three days and two nights. This is 9 USD. And it was definitely one of the more valuable PC experiences I’ve had in Thailand. The volunteers did an incredible job organizing and both their organization and the content helped facilitate amazing discussions with my counterparts and lots of questions like:
“Do your speakers always speak so succinctly and about relevant things? That was great! There was so wasted time and it wasn’t boring. I wish we could do stuff like this.”
“How do you lesson plan? Can I get a copy of your plan (from the math teacher)?”
“Maybe we can start practicing our play for next year the
first term so we have plenty of time and maybe we can make it about our community?”
And importantly, the kids had a space to think independently, creatively, and improve their english and confidence. The wolf is a great example. He started out so timid and begged me to take out the line “so I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house done” and ended by creating a scary mask and carrying the show with his acting. it may sound small, but these types of changes are big here and are what keep me going.
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11 miles down, 5/9ths to go

I am not sure if every marathon runner feels this way, but the miles from 11-13 can be pretty disheartening. You are exhausted and it dawns on you that you are not even halfway done. You encourage yourself by counting the 11 miles under your belt. And yet you didn’t sign up for an 11 mile race, you came for all 26.2! It is then you wonder “What the heck was I thinking! Why did I think I could do this?”

And yet, you always do.

As a math lover, I always loved fractions. Somewhere along the way I developed a strange habit of doing fractions in my head when I hit a low in a race or needed to take my mind off of the present. I will not lie and tell you that I did not do this often during the first 6 months of my Peace Corps service. I was having a tough time, and I was trying to “hang on.” Luckily, if running has taught me anything, it is to not give up.

January 11th, 2013 was Jeff and I”s “11th mile” in Thailand. It marked exactly one year for Jeff and I in Thailand, with still 15 months to go. We are group 124 peace Corps volunteers and will be here until March 2013. This post is dedicated to looking back at the last year and all that has changed.

Loss of friends and family. This year has been a hard year for losing loved ones. Since we have arrived, we have had one family member and three close friends die (3 tragically). Not being able to go home for the funerals was difficult and made us realize the true cost of living abroad. There were also numerous weddings we missed. These things cause you to ask yourself, “Am I still considering an embassy or foreign service job?” As Jeff’s dad will tell you it is all about “support networks” and he is right. In addition, group 124 has had 7 out of 52 fellow volunteers go home already. This is a big hit to morale and also speaks to the tough time commitment of 27 months, as two went home for family reasons. Still, I believe in the 27 month commitment. You need at least two months to train and learn enough culture and language to go out on your own, and one year is not enough time to make any big changes. Two years also sets our program apart in the Thais eyes. It says Peace Corps is different. Peace Corps volunteers are willing to stay longer, they want to become family. This is not a gap year activity.

Loss of weight and hair. Both of these are not uncommon for Peace Corps volunteers. Hair loss within the first six months is very common according to our PC doctor, as the body is shocked by all the changes it’s undergoing (food, time, temperature), etc. Fortunately for us, the hair has mostly come back, but not the weight. I never would have said this 10 months ago, when I almost cried at being presented another bowl of rice, but I love rice! I actually get hungry for it. It sounds obvious, but the Thai diet of rice, spicy dishes of meat and vegetables and the most delicious fruit you have ever tasted, hardly have you missing the bread, cheese, and chocolate. Healthy food is cheap and readily available and unhealthy “western” food is not. In the US, where these items are abundant this healthy eating will surely be challenged. However, I am committed to growing vegetables myself when we get back, trying new foods, and cutting down on anything processed. I even want chickens!

Increased patience. One phrase that newly arrived volunteers will hear a lot is “jai yen yen” which literally means “cool cool heart.” The person usually telling the volunteer this is their ajaan, or professor, and he or she is saying it because the volunteer is being too impatient or type A. Needless to say, I got told this once or twice, especially about wanting to learn Thai. This indeed has been a necessary skill for surviving professionally and personally in Thailand. One year ago I would have texted if I was going to be arriving somewhere so I didn’t have to wait. Now I give an approximate time and bring a book, knowing the person will come when they can. At the moment I’m writing this, I’m on part 2 of a 20 hour, 3-part trip to the south of Thailand. And I’m not too fazed. Thailand has taught me you can adjust to anything.

Revised expectations. Most volunteers arrive to their peace corps experience exploding with pent up energy to DO! Both the 2 month pre-service training and the subsequent peace corps country often deflate this energy bubble almost completely. Note, I think this “deflation” is both necessary to some extent and problematic. Most of us arrive to our sites so exhausted from 2 months of realizing we “don’t know jack,” just to be faced with resistance to the program’s goals. My energy bubble was pretty resilient, but it too finally admitted defeat after being constantly worked on by Thai culture.

There is a reason why the Peace Corps slogan is “the toughest job you will ever love.” Our jobs are about capacity building, i.e. about changing people, and this is a slow, grueling, patience-demanding task. I quickly learned that if I didn’t change, dare I say “lower”, my expectations for my co-teachers, I wouldn’t be able to handle going to the job every day for 2 years. It became clear to me that getting the teachers to change in small ways, actually wasn’t so little after all. These were big changes for them, even if it didn’t feel like that to me, with my notoriously high standards. Note, to future volunteers if you are a perfectionist and hold people to high standards, this will be especially tough for you. Remember those extremely laid-back boys in your freshman class who didn’t stress about grades and liked to chill? They will fit right in.

Teaching my teacher friends how to bake American goodies because class was canceled again.

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Getting back to the basics. Besides the air pollution and lack of salt in the food, Jeff and I couldn’t be healthier right now. We are forced to have an extremely healthy diet, rarely drink alcohol, get daily exercise, ride bikes everywhere, have work that doesn’t necessitate us sitting in front of a computer all day, and we get sufficient sleep. To be fair, all of these things are made a lot easier by our situation. I can’t eat cheese easily as it takes effort and money to get. We can’t ride motorcycles as it is against PC policy. The beer in Thailand isn’t great, etc. It is yet to be seen how we will or will not revert when we are back. It is easy to eat organic veggies everyday when you happen to know all the farmers at the co-op 800m away and can buy kale for 30 cents a head. When forced to pay 4 USD back in the states the decision might not always be so easy, especially if we choose not to go for the high paying job.

A typical purchase at the market. This all probably cost around 6USD!

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There are often volunteers who go home after one year. But it will not be the Bastings. We are going to see this through to 26.2 and then maybe treat ourselves to a post-race Asian tour. We hope you will stop by sometime along the way. We are already excited to welcome Robyn King, former PCV, to mile 12, Jeff’s parents and brother at mile 13, and my parents at mile 19.

Thanks everyone for your love and support. Seeing your faces along the “route” in the form of comments to the blog, calls, letters, Christmas cards, and care packages help keep us motivated.

To a good 2013!

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Schools’ Many Interruptions

Sometimes headlines tell you something you already know: “Thai Students Drop In World Study.” The Thai newspaper, “The Nation,” reports “While Thai teachers had ‘more’ degrees, most were not ready in terms of doing lesson plans and were not confident teachers. (only 50 percent of math teachers planned lessons, while only 47 percent were confident in their teaching).” and “The amount of time students spend studying was the main cause of poor performances.”

Welcome to my world. Raising the confidence of Thai English teachers and encouraging them to lesson plan is central to my role here as a Peace Corps volunteer. However, as you will see it is an uphill battle and a fight against a system which does not encourage consistency or regularity in classroom learning. stats

For those of you who like stats, here is a prime example. In November I was scheduled to teach a total of 17 days. I ended up only teaching about 5 days! A disclaimer, I did spend four of the 17 days helping out two other volunteers with their English camps, but the remaining 8 days went missing due to scouts’ activities, sports day, cleaning the school, preparing for holidays, and co-teacher absences due to mandatory conferences. Though this month was extreme in its absences, unfortunately the little time in the classroom is a real barrier to student learning and a big frustration for northeast go-getters. However, after almost 9 months in Thai schools, I’ve learned a little more about why this happens. Of course the answer is the hard and yet obvious one, a very different culture and value system around education.

To give some context, I’ve put together a list of the most common reasons why the students are not in the classroom. Note, this does not count holidays, of which there are 16 a year.

  • The school is dirty. This can be declared at any time by the principal and involves using class time to have the students pick up trash around the school. I can’t count how many times this has happened at my school, sometimes in the middle of my lesson. As it is important not to break face or cause conflict, I can’t vocally or emotionally express my displeasure at this. The Thai value at play here is a strong value of cleanliness and pride in one’s school.
  • The students need to meditate and drink milk. After lunch every day, my fourth grade students line up to drink milk and to meditate. As you can see religion is integrated into education and this doesn’t pose much of a problem as 95% of Thais are Buddhist. Like in the US, the Thai government tries to give the students a nutritious diet (note: at my school students get lunch for free). This is all well and nice, but as the time isn’t budgeted for, this 4th grade class gets 20 less minutes of English every time.
  • Teachers are at conferences or a teacher training. The driver for this is obviously teacher development, but most times these ‘trainings’ seem to be a bust or a boondoggle. I have gone to some. Some teachers sign-in and leave or else they are in a large room listening all day to info they will probably not use and techniques they will never implement. My biggest issue with these is that they occur very frequently. As Thai schools have no paid substitute teachers, the absent teachers classes fall to another teacher, who may or may not choose to teach.
  • Scout day (usually half day or all day)
  • Teaching traditional culture and customs, like muay thai and Thai dance.
  • Preparing for a “riap roy” contest. Students once spent half a day practicing wai’ing (paying respect by folding your hands together and bowing slightly) teachers and walking nicely and showing that they could dress cleanly. This was in preparation for the following day, where students were going to be judged on how riap roy (culturally appropriate) they were. Personal appearance is extremely important in Thai culture.
  • Preparing for a festival or competition
  • The competitions for English always involve memorizing long, complex prose or a skit in a very short time.

  • Sports days

Below are two brief anecdotes highlighting scouts and sports day at my school.

Scouts Despite how adorable the students look in their scout uniforms this is not one of my favorite interruptions. This year we have had at least two scout days. They go something like is…

7:45 — I show up ready for morning announcements and to teach.
8:00 — I get told there will be no teaching in the morning (and maybe not in the afternoon, no one seems to know) because of scout training.
8:30 — The morning announcements start (thirty minutes late). Teachers and students are dressed in their scout uniforms. A lead teacher yells out commands and students have to obey by saluting and standing correctly. [Think of the military lining up for drills] It is 90 degrees already and the students range from pre-school to sixth grade. When students don’t obey or get caught talking to their friends they get pinched, scolded, hit with a bamboo stick, or bopped on the head. One student faints. A young teacher who looks like a giant girl scout runs to pick him up and bring him inside. They give him smelling salts. No one gives him water. Another faints. And then another and another. Total we have four fainters. I suspect the last two or three were copycats (who can blame them for trying) and one of the head teachers seems to catch on as well. Hence, he yells out to the students that it will now be a 20 baht fine (80 cents) for any boy who faints and ten baht for girls. Girls are lighter?IMG_3930

10:00 — The drill part is over. The students are given trash bags and told to walk around the surrounding neighborhoods to pick up trash.

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Kids picking up trash.

Here are the kids taking a break eating ice cream. I had to scold many of them for immediately trashing the wrappers on the ground, not in the nearby recycled rubber trash bin (lots of rubber production in thailand). The goal of the walk clearly hadn’t had its intended effect.

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Here is a teacher playing ping ping with the kids. A new table had just arrived in preparation for the week long sports day in December and no one seemed to be in a hurry to teach after the morning trash pick-up.

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Sports Day
This was one of the only interruptions to teaching that I like. However, it usually requires a whole week. I like this event because it brings together teamwork, school pride, and exercise. For a Thursday/Friday sports event, the students will practice sports all day for the preceding Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. As Thai schools typically don’t have after-school sports, most kids don’t practice on a regular basis, at least not in the village schools.IMG_3608

The events: chair ball (see picture below), jump roping, soccer (boys only) degraw (boys only), track, and volleyball (girls only).

chairball

Some brief observations:

  • Thai kids don’t run enough or drink enough water. We had many kids pass out after doing only 100 and 200 meter dashes.
  • Sports are are gender based here. Girls play volleyball, boys play soccer, etc.
  • In track, Thais use the index and middle finger to hold themselves up
  • Thai kids have no problem eating meat on a stick or soda before competing.
  • Thai teachers reward sports winners by handing them cash.
  • Many parents and relatives showed up in the middle of the day to watch.
  • It is not uncommon for some teachers to drink a beer or wine cooler while watching.

Summary
Many things that are kept out of the realm of public schools in the states, such as religion, boy/girl scouts, and corporal punishment, are integrated in Thai society. One way to understand this is to understand that the Thai word for teacher, kruu, has an additional meaning of “parent.” Though, corporal punishment is technically illegal now in Thailand, it previously had a blessing of sorts from most Thai parents as they considered Thai teachers as the parents in school. Historically, Thai teachers have been greatly respected, but this, along with the punishment techniques, is rapidly changing. Thai society is in flux and the schools are a great place to see it.

From what I can see Thai schools produce great Thai citizens and Buddhists, but not well-educated adults able to compete in the global world, especially in the new ASEAN world. ASEAN stands for Association of Southeast Asian Nations and will go into effect in 2015. Think of it as an Asian EU. The common language will be English. My tenth grade students have a hard time answering the question “how are you?” despite the fact that their English teachers have religiously asked them this at the start of every English lesson since first grade! How much does this matter? If most of the students will never leave the village and we are the only English speaker “farangs” here, is it really necessary to be proficient at English and have the knowledge to be an engineer or scientist (two professions we don’t have here)? Personally, I believe yes. However, it’s understandable then why it is hard to encourage the difficult study of a foreign language when there seems to be little incentive.

The use of class time for trash pickup also still bothers me. A friend tried to rationalize it noting its positive discouragement of “entitlement,” unlike in the US where American schoolchildren sometimes think of janitors as the designated people to “pick up our messes.” However, seeing the dirty schoolyard and seeing the below mess from a recent camping trip of environmental studies majors, it is clear that the lesson has not sunk in. It seems to me that a school system that trains its students to NOT think for themselves, either needs to have teachers around 24/7 to give orders, or else not be surprised when all that is left is a mess.

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Boon Gateen: aka free, fun, food festival

Last weekend Jeff and I went to an amazing festival called Boon Gateen. It was literally a food fest and completely free! (especially amazing for PC volunteers on a budget) Imagine grown-up trick-or-treating, except instead of Snickers and Mars you get pad thai, ice cream, dumplings, grilled sticky rice dipped in egg, and more. With over 50 tables, you were sure to find something you could like.

Here’s how it works: local temple goers sign up for a table and buy enough ingredients to feed a massive group of people for one day. Those with tables arrive at 6am to prepare, while the first guests arrive around 7. To give you an idea of the scale, there were tour buses from other countries and even city folks in from Bangkok (7 hours away). Anyone could come and just go from table to table taking food. It started out nice, but towards the end it almost reached a mob-like atmosphere. If you don’t like large crowds, this is not your festival. All in all it was a blast!

Here is what we were “selling”:

  • Hot milk with baidurie. “Baidurie” is a fragrant herb that grows in Thailand. It is used to package Thai desserts, to make bathrooms smell nice, as a float for roy katong (see later part of article), and is a popular girl’s name too!
  • Grilled bread with toppings (options were: butter and sugar (hot seller), pandan cream (the green one), cream (like what’s in a boston crème donut), orange jelly, strawberry jelly).

IMG_3893IMG_3891Toppings~

Our work station!

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Jeff’s little helper. Don’t be fooled by her small stature.  IMG_3927IMG_3919Little Anoon (grape in Thai) is all business. If you’ll remember from the last post, she was also Jeff’s helper during rice season. Jeff has never ceased to interest her after the first time she saw him take his contacts out. She follows him everywhere.

Giving alms. It’s about tambooning at the wat (temple) too. Each family makes a money tree and gives it to the wat.

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Temple goers also make beautiful displays out of flowers and baidurie

(the herb mentioned earlier).

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Rolf Gunther. One of our ‘customers’ turned out to be a 93 year old German, who promptly sat down with me after learning I could ‘sprechen Deutsch.’ I introduced him to the Russian backpacker who was visiting us and this prompted the German, Rolf Gunther, to point to his leg. It contained two bullet wounds from Russians who tried to shoot him during the war! He could even speak good Russian!  I also learned that Rolf met his beautiful Thai wife nine years earlier (aka age 84). She had a husband already, a Thai guy, but he is apparently an alcoholic and not a “good guy” according to the Thais. Most, then, do not disapprove of her marrying again and at least obtaining financial security.

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Other food offered:IMG_3921IMG_3897IMG_3917

(left) Ice cream toppings. Yes, beans too!

(right)  biggest pot of rice I’ve ever seen!

Thai tranquility. Another car parked behind us. Instead of getting angry, our friends just pushed the other car out of the way!IMG_3928

Napping at the market. I want to nap like this little guy at the market. We got up at 5am. Children napping in strange places is a common sight in Thailand.  IMG_3929

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