Sundries and Sundaes

  • I went to a Christian wedding in a tiny village this past Saturday. It was held in the smallest and pinkest church I’ve ever been to, and displayed prominently on the stage was not a cross, or a picture of Jesus, or a stained glass window, but rather two giant menorahs.  Midway through the ceremony, a 60-year-old lady’s cell phone rang in the next row over. What was her ring tone? Apple Bottom Jeans.
  • I’ve had a lot of strange foods this year (fried bugs, durian paste, sticky rice marinated in blood), and today at lunch I tasted one of the weirdest: young eggs. These are eggs harvested from slaughtered chickens before they are laid – no shell, no egg white, just a tough yellowy substance with bits of chicken flesh stuck to it. If I were still a vegetarian, I’m not sure I would have been able to eat it…
  • My underwear got stolen from the drying rack in front of my house. Someone (student? Neighbor? Creep?) hopped our fence in the middle of the night, twice. It wasn’t funny when it happened, but now it’s kind of humorous in a dark and twisted way… who would want my old panties and sports bra? The next day, every single teacher asked me about it; all the local policemen, my neighbors and even the school janitors knew that my undies were on the loose – it’s a small community and “farang panty theft” has got to be the juiciest scandal in a long time. The school felt bad and took me underwear shopping, and I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised to find out that in Thailand, I have a size Large booty. All that coconut milk had to go somewhere.
  • I always knew that Thai people thought bread was a sweet food, but I didn’t know they felt that way about cheese, too. Three of my classes are learning about taste descriptors, and out of a long list of foods, they consistently ranked cheese above fruit salad and apple pie as “sweetest.” But why???
  • My favorite Thai idioms:
  1. Disciplining unruly students is like “catching crabs and trying to keep them in a bowl.”
  2. When something is messy, disorganized, or doesn’t work, “It’s not a pineapple.”
  3. Nature peeing is “gathering flowers” for girls and “shooting rabbits” for boys.
  • I got a spontaneous hug from one of my 9th graders today after class. She’s this adorable soft-spoken girl, and she came up to me simply saying, “teacher I hug,” nuzzling her face into my shoulder and wrapping her tiny arms around my sweaty back.  I was a little surprised, because Thai people don’t usually give hugs like that at all – it’s a very American custom. I had just finished teaching her class the San Francisco (be sure to wear flowers in your hair) song and Party in the USA, and I think she thought I was homesick. The truth is, I am homesick, but I’m going to miss Thailand and moments like those so much. Why can’t I just have it all?

The crabs got out of the bowl. Studnents getting hyphy at our "Thai Language Day" rock concert... 555.

My host dad/teacher sitting down to our communal lunch, where I try my daily epicurean curiosities.

The antidote to overly exotic food - my favorite design-your-own-salad restaurant in Chiang Mai, with a generous dollop of pumpkin salad dressing. Love.

A Chiang Mai salad would hardly be complete without the nuttiest chocolatiest sundae at San Francisco's very own Swenson's Ice Cream.

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Flood update (my house and school are still safe):

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It’s easy to get sucked under the tide of my daily worries : what do I do when the lights go out and I have to teach in the dark, how do I get the mosquitos to stop biting me while I’m peeing, and why do I have to wait SO long to see HP7part2???? It’s easy to take for granted the things I do have: a stress-free job where everyone treats me like a celebrity, an unlimited supply of crazy fruit, the sweetest students and teachers, and you reading this blog, yes, you.

Then something comes along that puts it all in perspective. Last week, my region and many parts of Thailand were hit by Tropical Storm Nock-ten, bringing on the biggest floods in years. It rained, and rained, and rained. The rain was not so much like taking a shower in a western bathroom with a western shower head, but more like taking a shower in a Thai bathroom with a buckets of cold water dumped mercilessly on your face. The river rose several meters and swelled over the far bank. Mud raced down the hillsides and flooded communities at their bases. My teachers rushed home early to stack sand bags in front of their houses. Over half of our students didn’t come to school for three days – the school buses couldn’t reach their roads to pick them up.

Our Yom River, about three weeks ago, before the flooding

The same view, a week ago, during the flooding

I am so lucky; my house was untouched.

A house / restaurant near the river. Many Thai houses are built on stilts for a reason.

After a mere day of sunshine, the houses dried and the river calmed, and the Sunday night market was so bustling you would never have known there was any flood at all. Except that all the rice fields are covered in brown, dead muck and the streets absolutely reek of river decay. The school (by government issue) is handing out relief checks to affected families, but it won’t possibly be enough to make up for all the ruined crops, drowned livestock and damaged houses.

Funny looking structure in the pre-flood river

You can see how high the river rose. The road was full of people snapping pictures on their camera phones.

Life has returned back to normal (as far as I can tell.) If anything, it has been a powerful reminder that the securities we take for granted – roofs, schools, food – can go at any moment. It makes me even more grateful for this incredible year. Only 56 more days! As Horace would say, I’ve gotta pluck those 56 days like the ripe rambutans that they are.

The river looks so small and cute here.

The river grew up.


No one could quite believe how high it was.


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Facebook message from my student … does this mean I actually taught something to someone??

Austria, who came home with me.
He came to eat.
I try to talk.
I told myself I started talking.
Because teacher training. Lana before some.
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Reasons to Celebrate

I teach 7th through 11th grade here, which I’m happy about for three reasons. The first is that it reminds me of 7-11, and 7-11 is my new favorite store. I LOVE 7-11.

The second reason is that I really enjoy working with teenagers – sure they can be hormonal pains in the ass, but the same hormones that give them pimples and attitudes also give them curiosity, maturity, and raw senses of humor. There’s the class clown who beat-boxes at morning assembly, the incredibly shy girl who chats up a storm with me on Facebook, and the earnest 17-year-old who comes to my office for extra English practice twice a week after school. They are constantly challenging me, humbling me, and making me laugh. I think the only emotion I haven’t felt from teaching is bored.

Some of my wildest 9th graders.

I took pictures of all my 750 students in an effort to learn some of their names... Here's the beat-boxer.

One of my star students who actually make me feel like a competent teacher!!

Reason number three that I love 7-11 is that I think I’d die of exhaustion if I taught elementary school. I have a deep respect for some of the other Fulbright ETAs who are teaching English to kids who are still struggling with lacing up their shoes and chewing with their mouths closed.

One of the teacher's daughters. Too adorable.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have to teach them that I think Thai children are the cutest kids in the world. They should have their own YouTube channel. In the land of smiles, the best smiles are the youngest – those huge, curious, unguarded ones that make every sort of worry or annoyance seem trivial. Their faces are smeared white with baby powder and their mouths are stained red with candy and dragonfruit, and of course they’re totally unaware of how ridiculous they look. I love the carefree way that Thai kids play, although I think it would give any American parent a stroke to see. They’re always running barefoot in the streets, riding helmetless in the front of motorcycles, swimming unwatched in rivers, and using everything from spare car parts to stray cats as toys.

Such a teenager.

As they get older, Thai people don’t seem lose their sense of playfulness as much as Americans do; I don’t know any adults here who take things too seriously. Every other sentence is a joke, and Thai humor is full of ROFL slapstick. Even the language is more playful. In Thai, you don’t use the internet, you ‘play internet,’ and you don’t celebrate holidays, you ‘play’ or len them. To joke is to ‘play talk,’ to snack is to ‘play eat,’ and to take a stroll is to ‘play walk.’ One effect of this is that I end up using a lot of games in English class – if the students aren’t having fun, they get bored and disengaged really fast. Another effect is that I never feel pressured at work. My host teachers are always telling me don’t worry, don’t be serious, just enjoy (and I’ve found this to be excellent advice). I don’t mean to insinuate that my co-teachers slack off; in fact, they work around the clock, and even now on a rainy Saturday many of them are leading student seminars at school. But the manner in which they work feels less rushed, less competitive, less like work.

These fun-loving 11th graders are anything but shy.

Wow, this has been quite a rambling post. Sorry…. my excuse is that, today, I am no longer 22 years old. Twenty-two was a balanced age. When I was 22, I was a fresh college graduate, I moved to Thailand, and I learned how to ride a bike. Now I’m 23, the last prime number until 27 (and that’s so far in the future it doesn’t count). There is no symmetry in 23, only craziness. Twenty-three will be the year of unemployment, of the end of the world, of learning how to play the xylophone and who knows what else. Here’s to the unknown!

Birthday nachos in Chiang Mai!

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Wan Wai Kru

"Wai Kru, 2554" (the Thai year) - the students made these gorgeous flower arrangements themselves... and skipped my class to do it!

This past Thursday was Wan Wai Kru, meaning Teacher Appreciation Day. Across the country, no classes were held – students and teachers assembled in their most neatly pressed outfits, first to offer alms and receive blessings from monks, and then to pay respect to their teachers past and present. As a kru, albeit foreign and confused, I got to participate in the festivities and see for myself how deeply teaching is valued here.

Teachers offering food to the monks, most of which is rice, soymilk, and instant noodles. The lucky ones get oreos and chocolate milk.

All the offered food was tossed into this truck. Quite a haul!

Students poured all the bags of rice onto the floor, sorting and bagging the goodies to sell right back to teachers who originally bought them, for a discount. The raised revenue will go to the temple and the school.

Before I arrived last October, I had an idea that Thai students respected their teachers more than their American counterparts did, but let’s face it, I had a lot of ideas back then and almost none of them have stood their ground unbent. I thought that my students would be obedient cherubs, shy to speak up in class and loathe to break a rule. While some fit this image, a good chunk of them have proven louder, more hyperactive, and more mischievous than any son of a Yankee. My notion that I could ignore classroom management was nothing but naïve.  The toughest moments for me are not when I’m quieting students down in an overly exciting game of bingo, or when I’m trying to get them not to shout out the Jeopardy answers before their turn. It’s  dealing with the students who come in 20 minutes late or not at all, the students who don’t take their pens out of their bags unless to copy answers from a friend, and the students who roll their eyes with that you-don’t-understand-me-and-you-never-will sneer. I’ve had to realize that they’re teenagers after all, many coping with stressful circumstances I can’t possibly understand. The Thai teachers are better than me at instilling discipline, but they also grapple with chronic absenteeism and disengagement.

Students having a dance party in the courtyard before the formal ceremonies start. Reminds me of Berkeley High.

This wild mob reminds me a lot of BHS, plus uniforms and petrified 7th graders.

The skeptic in me has wondered if students’ outward shows of respect to teachers – wai-ing (Thai-style bowing) teachers as they pass by, frantically tucking in school uniforms, bringing teachers ice water and photocopies on request – only go deep enough to save face. Do Thai students really respect their teachers? Or are they just following the cultural norms and trying to not get whacked by a bamboo pole?

Sitting through Teacher Appreciation Day, even though I was dripping sweat from my chin and knees, was actually quite touching. It affirmed for me that students do value their education and that Thailand places an enormous importance on the role of teachers in society (even though teacher salaries, like in America, are abysmal). At one point, every student came up to the stage and knelt before a teacher, bowing down and offering a bundle of flowers – “needle” flowers to represent the sharpening of the mind, eggplant flowers to represent a teacher’s kindness and gentleness, wild grasses to represent the learning that takes place everywhere and anytime, and a candle and incense stick to pay homage to Buddha. Each teacher took the flowers, patted the student’s head, and whispered solemn words of advice. I have never touched so many student heads in all my days here – head touching is one of those cultural taboos on par with pointing your feet and badmouthing the king. Quite a thrill!

Everything in Thailand comes wrapped in a banana leaf, and these teacher flowers are no exception.

After the ceremony, I was sitting with one of my host teachers P’Nai when a handful of 11th grade girls approached her, got on their knees, and bowed their heads in respect. She knelt by them and held their prayer-clasped hands, telling them what wonderful students they were and giving them blessings for their futures. They were in her advisory class last year and came, totally of their own will, to tell their old teacher how much she meant to them. They had tears in their eyes. I almost started tearing up myself. It hammered home to me that this was not just an empty ceremony; Thai people have an almost sacred respect for teachers. Whenever I tell people that I’m a “kru” here, there are ohs and ahs of acknowledgement – I get a better discount on the skirt I’m haggling over, or a complementary bag of mangos, or maybe even a job offer.

P'Nai and her adoring student.

And no, this respect is not a panacea for truancy, nor a guarantor of critical thinking, and it’s not going to make the boys’ bathrooms stop smelling like piss and cigarettes. But my impression is that here in Thailand, teachers are not just trainers of the intellect, but also role models in a moral and spiritual sense. Of course I consider many of my own former teachers role models, but there has always been a tricky line there – American teachers are warned not to overstep the role of the parent, not to preach politics or ethics, and to never EVER bring religion into the classroom. Here that line is fuzzy at best – the original teachers were monks after all, and the original schools were temples. Thailand triumphs interdependence and loyalty where America fights for independence and personal freedoms. Am I saying that the Bill of Rights has condemned the status of American teachers? Who knows – these are half-baked thoughts that the internet should probably censor and you should definitely not take to heart. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about as I head into Thailand month 9 (!) and get closer and closer to becoming a teacher in America. There are many things I’m looking forward to about that: teaching fewer than 700 students with class sizes under 40, being able to actually communicate with them, oh and the joys of the ablative and dative… But will I miss having students wai me at the market and tell me “thank you, teacher!” after every class? If only I could cut and paste aspects of our two cultures together, I would bring durian to America and goat cheese to Thailand, so to speak. Ah, the stink of cultural exchange!

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Spontaneous post #1!

Today one of my boisterous tenth graders interrupted me mid-sentence, which isn’t the most helpful thing when I’m trying to give directions to 40 confused students. She stood up from the back row and shouted out (in Thai), “Teacher, you have beautiful teeth!” So thank you parents and Dr.s Nelson and Meyer, for all those years of braces, retainers, and (yes) headgear. I knew it would pay off.

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