Sunday, January 11, 2015

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

The next day I was awakened early in the morning by someone calling to me from below my bedroom window.  Romeo?  No indeed!  My fellow biology teacher had come to take me to breakfast and to go shopping for ‘polite’ clothes!  How nice!  After having some tasty food we embarked on a  hunt for pleasant blouses and pencil skirts (Neither of these things are usually in my style wheelhouse, hehe).  On the drive back home my fellow bio teacher said “Tomorrow… you meet parents.  At school.  Your hair… not polite.  Wear new polite shirt.”  Oh man!  When I decided to keep one side of my head shaved I knew it would be far from the norm in Thailand but I didn’t know it would offend.  I’ve since figured out how to part my hair on the other side of my head to cover it up for special events like meeting parents and such.  However, I keep it short partly because quite simply I want to and secondly because I think it’s a part of my culture I’m bringing to the table here.  In America we greatly value individuality and self-expression.  Here in Thailand it's a bit different.  Qualities like loyalty, self-discipline and knowing your place are more valued.  It's partly because of these values that the Thai people as a whole are so kind, friendly, and gracious.  However this also means that, for example, at my school the girls with short hair get in trouble and are given a talking-to by some of the senior teachers, which is a shame.  As an American I want to show the students, by example, that it’s ok to express your uniqueness and be a little different.  

A poster in one of the classrooms
Fast forward to the next day.  Dressed in my pleated orange blouse and my new skirt I joined a few other foreign teachers on this Sunday morning in the main assembly hall.  It was packed with parents, other teachers, and school officials.  

A full house
School official says a prayer before the proceedings
Some of our students receive awards for their work!

Sitting behind the visiting monk
We sat in a reserved seating area behind the director, other dignitaries, and a visiting Buddhist monk.  During a lull in the proceeding one of the Thai English teachers came over and said “You should make a speech to all of the parents to introduce yourself.  Use as much Thai as possible.  You speak in 10 minutes.”  WAH?!  As much Thai as possible?  10 minutes? Parents?!  I wasn’t sure what scared me the most of these things.  I scribbled down an introduction and a few phrases I still wasn’t sure I could pronounce properly (having been in the country for one week and at the school for only one day).  My heart was beating out of my chest as I waited for others before me to give their remarks.  Then it was my turn… I first wai’d to the monk, then to the director, then to the audience, bowing my head deeply.  My Thai must have been passable because after stumbling through a few sentences and ending my speech there was a quiet murmur of applause.  Giving a speech to 900 (I counted) parents, colleagues, and a monk?  Check.  

The view when I gave my speech!

Journey to the New Home

After one week of orientation it was time to go our separate ways.  The last day of orientation I was picked up by my coordinator from my school.  She spoke some English so we chatted about our backgrounds on the two hour drive from Kanchanaburi to Don Chedi in Suphanburi Province.  I gave her a tote bag from Pike Place Market in Seattle (I visited my wonderful uncles Jim and Richard while en route from Minnesota to Thailand) as a gift.  My coordinator turned to me and said, “You teach… tomorrow!” in a half-question, half-answer kind of way.  “Sure!”  I said.  

We drove past expansive rice fields bordered by great tall palm trees.  Many species of wading birds love to hunt here!  

We drove onto the school grounds and the first thing I saw was a huge poster featuring the local football (soccer) team— Suphanburi FC!  I like this already.  After only one short week in the country my Thai was still very, very limited.  I was introduced to so many people in one big whirlwind of smiles and wai’s.  I also met the director of the school— what ceremony!  I was instructed to be ‘very polite’.  A tug of the forelock should do.  

Gie Gie and I preparing for our Thai dance!
Next I was led to a different building and into the foreign teachers lounge.  Here I met two of my roommates— Gie Gie and Stephen.  They are from the Philippines!  They have become dear friends since I’ve been here.  I also get to learn about yet another culture through them.  This of course includes food  as a very important component of that culture— YUM!  Gie Gie is an excellent cook and makes a mean Adobo!  We also live with two teachers from China.

The first day of school was a huge jumbled mix of excitement, anxiety, confusion, and joy.  I got to school early so that I could get my schedule— or so I thought.  Instead I was instructed to go to the front gate with the other foreign teachers and greet all of the students I had never met before.  Many of them just stared and completely forgot to wai.  Some would giggle, turn to their friend and point at their head, indicating their fascination with the shaved part of my head (I often responded by looking right at them and saying hi as if you say “Yep, I know you’re talking about me!  Hello!!!”).  

I look quite different from the other teachers, even the foreign ones.  The majority of the foreign language department consists of Philippino and Chinese teachers, with one gentleman from England (who is also half-Zambian).  So, as you can imagine, my ‘European mutt’ ancestry makes me stand out.  In my first few days I was quite taken aback by all the staring, but I quickly got used to it and learned to use it as a tool to interact with students and help them practice their English (and perhaps a chance for me to learn/practice my Thai).  This experience has given me an even deeper appreciation for folks such as immigrants who move permanently to a new place where they are not surrounded by the roots of their own culture, where they have to navigate a new place in a new language.  Now I can almost imagine how much harder that would be than what I am doing.  They are incredible. 

Anyway, back to the first day.  After finishing my greeting duties I was informed that the person who has my schedule is absent.  So, I am led from class to class the whole day by another biology teacher who speaks some English but not a lot.  When I enter the room I have no idea what grade level the students are, what they’ve already learned, nor how much English they can understand or speak.  The first class I taught was also a two-hour class, which I didn’t know until I was packing up my things to leave after the first hour an the other biology teacher stopped me, saying, “You teach!  You teach!”  So after a second hour filled with randomly improvised activities we moved on.  I soon found out that most of the students speak less English than I was expecting.  In this first week I wanted the students to ask question about me, but even giving this instruction proved to be very difficult to understand.  If I say “What do you want to know about me?” I get blank stares.  If I say, “Take out your notebook” I get blank stares.  If I say, “What do you want to learn in biology?” I get blank stares.  Visuals and acting things out has made communication much more fun and a bit easier.  

After they learned a bit about me and I learned about them,  I wanted to see how much they knew about human anatomy.  Plus, this exercise was a game, and games make anything more fun!  I drew the outline of a human body (I still do it the way I learned in Costume Design I class at UMD and thankfully it looks vaguely humanoid still) and explained through acting that I wanted people from each team to come up and label parts of the body.  One point per body part.  The team with the most points wins.  And the results were hilarious…

(Roger Skeeter is that you?)

And so ended the first day of class.  Phew.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


In the last few days of orientation we headed out into the country to the province of Kanchanaburi.  The hotel we stayed at was incredibly beautiful… balconies looking out onto groves of palm trees, a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) fishing in the pond, and a wide lawn meandering down to the River Kwai Yai.  The naturalist in me suddenly sprang to full attention, awakened from the relative slumber of being in Bangkok, one of the largest cities in the world. 

A Great Mormon butterfly floated past me, its large wings beating intermittently.  I think it’s the largest member of the Order Lepidoptera I’ve ever seen!  

Papilio memnon - a relative of the swallowtail

Besides my pocket-sized Thai phrasebook, the book I’ve used the most is my Birds of Thailand field guide, given to me as a going-away gift by my boss at the Norman Bird Sanctuary.  On the plane I was flipping through it and stopped on a page that caught my eye.  There was an illustration of a great black bird with long tendrils extending from the tail, ending in little tufts of feather.  It reminded me of that bird in Planet Earth that does the funky mating dance.  A Greater Racket-tailed Drongo.  I thought to myself “I would love to see that bird!”.  Sure enough, my lovely roommate Casey and I were strolling along a raised walkway in Kanchanaburi and I saw it.  The black bird with the long, expressive tail.  I lost my shit.  I ran back to the room, nearly face-planting, to get my camera.  Thankfully it chilled in the tree long enough for me to get a few shots.  

Dicrurus paradiseus

Our excursion also included a lesson in history when we visited the Bridge Over the River Kwai.  World War II history buffs will know the tragic significance of this place.  Long expanses of the railroad that runs through Thailand (Siam at the time) to Myanmar (Burma at the time) was built by the forced labor of Allied POW’s.  In 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army forced British, Australian, Dutch, and American POW’s along with Asian civilians to work on the railroad in extremely harsh conditions.  As a result, about 12,399 POW’s (including 356 Americans) died.  It was a somber experience to see not only part of that railroad, but to also see the cemetery in the nearby town where many POW’s were buried.  When I saw the cemetery out the bus window, it seemed a strange sight—and I realized I hadn’t seen a single one since I arrived in Thailand.  I learned later all Buddhists are cremated, hence no cemeteries.  This is in stark contrast to spending the last year of my life in Rhode Island, where there are historical cemeteries everywhere, even behind the parking lot of a strip mall (head behind the Christmas Tree Shop in Middletown and you’ll find it).   

Here’s a time-lapse taken while walking over the bridge:

A few more photos from Kanchanaburi:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Grand Palace indeed!

Fast forward a bit.  Orientation for my program took place in Bangkok for the first week.  During that time I learned more about Thai culture, language, and what to expect once I reached my school (which was basically 'expect the unexpected'-- and later I will get to just how crucial that motto has become).  I was with many other Westerners (about 95% Americans) who were in the same boat as me.  While I did meet some genuinely great people, I must admit I was anxious to strike out on my own and get away from the 'ugly American' stereotype some of my fellow 'teachers' seemed to exhibit.  The staff from my program, however, were very helpful (both Thai and otherwise).  

One of my favorite excursions of the week was to the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It's some of the most magnificent architecture I've ever seen.  The facade of the buildings is composed of tiny mosaic mirrors--thousands upon thousands of them.  

Fun with the fish-eye lens!
Close-up of the mirror mosaic...
... And the overall effect.
The virual effect this imparts to the building is nothing short of magical.  I can't imagine the countless hours that went into creating this masterpiece,  and now how many hours go into maintenance to keep it looking as sharp as it did when it was built in 1782.  To enter the main temple I removed my shoes and quietly filed in.  When praying to an image of the Buddha, it's proper form to 'wai' (bow your head with your palms together) with your thumbs at your forehead (the third and highest form of the wai), then bring your hands down to the floor where you are kneeling.  Repeat three times.

I learned that there's more than just Thai culture represented here.  Some buildings are made of porcelain from China, not the mirrors that cover other buildings.  I learned from Peter, our guide, that when ships from China came to trade in Bangkok, they needed to bring goods from China to properly weigh down their boats.  Some of these ceramic goods inevitably broke in transit, but yet were put to good use decorating these buildings.

One of the Chinese-style buildings
Peter, our wonderful guide
English influence can also been seen in the design of some buildings
Within the grounds of the Grand Palace there is also the Queen Sirikit Textile Museum.  Of course, I absolutely loved this.  I wish I would have been able to take pictures inside to show you, but sadly it wasn't allowed.  The inside featured display after display of the Queen's outfits worn at various state events and international visits.  The patterns and colors of the textiles can only be described as rich.  Rich in every sense of the word.  There was a really cool animation of how a simple rectangle of silk is folded and turned into a chong kraben, a sabai, or a sampot.  I think I watched it three times through!  There were also exhibits about the social projects the Queen has taken on, as well as a cool video of how silk is made from the cocoons of the silkworm.  

Interior of the entry hall

A guard stands at attention

Cheers from Bangkok!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Greeted by a Familiar Face

After nearly 24 hours of traveling and multiple layovers, it made all the difference in the world to see a familiar face at the Suvarnabhumi Airport.  That face belongs to my dear friend Nam.  I met her when I was a junior in high school, and she was an exchange student.  I remember one November day we were sitting in math class and it began snowing.  Gazing out the window, Nam's eyes got about as big as saucers.  She excitedly asked if we could go outside for a minute because she had never seen snow before.  Our teacher obliged, and she went twirling around the school courtyard.  It's one of my favorite memories of our time in the states together.  And now I'm looking forward to having more adventures with her!

My fancy-looking visa

     That first day, Nam and her mom drove me to their house in the humid Bangkok air.  Her mum is so kind!  She was especially kind to brave the Bangkok traffic to come get me; they might as well not paint on lane lines-- people don't follow them anyway!  Once we arrived safely at the family house, we went to the morning market just down the street.  New sights and sounds greeted me at every turn.  We picked up some fresh papaya (malago), pork (mu), and sticky rice with mango (khao niaw ma-muang).  It was so fun to, in some ways, complete the circle of cultural exchange between Nam and myself that we began eight years ago.  Of course there is lots more to learn and explore!

Nam perusing the market

Dinner out and a trip to the night market with Nam and her boyfriend, Ben