Monday, November 22, 2010

Loy Krathong

So, one of the biggest Thai festivals of the year took place on Sunday evening.  And though I may have mentioned it, I have not made a big deal out of the fact that I have been sick this past week.  However, on Saturday and Sunday, though the antibiotics had taken care of my sinus infection, the initial cold virus swooped in for a comeback.  As such, much of my weekend was spent asleep or half dazed and over-medicated.
On Saturday, after finally getting out of bed around 3:30pm, I decided I must make the trek back to MBK to sort out a phone.  Previously I praised MBK's ability to hack, crack and otherwise get phones to work.  However, we were unaware that besides all that, the hand-me-down phone we had also included a broken microphone.  Theorizing that a repair of that nature would be slightly more costly, it was time to admit defeat and purchase a phone.
So I found my way to the bus stop to get to MBK and rode the bus to and from MBK successfully on my own.  With only one pushy tuk-tuk driver to tell off.  Tuk-tuks are for tourists.  They are pushy scam artists and if you are white they never leave you alone.  The going 'scam' for tuk-tuk drivers is to offer a "flat rate" fee of 150 baht.  Fare for an air-conditioned taxi is often 1/3 of that.  So this particular tuk-tuk driver outside MBK thought he would approach me, get ME to name a price (no, you name a starting price), and then thought he would ask for 200 baht.  I may be new but I'm not that naive.  I walked away and caught the bus for 8 baht.
I do however, wish that I could brag as such about my phone purchase.  Another lesson learned: don't try to haggle when you're brain fogged, sick and medicated.  It severely hampers your bartering skills and lowers your guard for how much you are willing to pay just to get out of the human chaos.  Time and place utility though I suppose, I needed a working phone.  So I ended up with a second hand nokia for 1,500 baht, which is about $50 U.S.  Not bad, all things considered.  But upon further inspection I decided I'd probably been overcharged.  Another English teacher, who is half Thai and speaks Thai - so she doesn't have to deal with the tourist treatment nearly as much - got the same phone second hand for 900 baht ($30.07).  The ladies in the office helped me look it up - NEW the phone should cost 1,180 baht ($39.43).  Well crap.  Next time, I will ask one of the Thai ladies in the office to go with me and help - they are more than happy to.  I'll still just be proud of myself for navigating the bus and avoiding the tuk tuk driver.  I was quite determined to travel downtown unassisted.  And, the phone does work.

So, Loy Krathong.  I'm taking a lot of information from wikipedia and observation here.  Basically - the majority of Bangkok converges on the river to release "krathong" out into the water.  A Krathong is made up of banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles - or more recently bread (dissolves and the fish eat it, more environmentally friendly).  It is supposed to honor the river spirits, ask for forgiveness from the river and bring good luck.  It is kind of a conglomeration of Buddhism, Hinduism and the Thai animist beliefs of various tribes - so actually pinpointing one meaning for the festival is impossible.  Loy Krathong also coincides with the Lanna (northern Thai) festival of Yi Peng, where paper lanterns are lit and sent up into the sky to make merit.  The hot air from the flame propels the paper lantern up, or at least in theory - I saw several sink that had to be put out by festival goers down below those launching Yi Peng off the bridge.  So, although Loy Krathong comes from the capital, and Yi Peng comes from the north, today they are both celebrated concurrently across the country.  Chiang Mai is supposed to be the best Loy Krathong/Yi Peng festival - so at some point I would like to see it there.  However that's not to say the Bangkok version wasn't a show.

So, most of Sunday I spent in bed wishing my cold would go away.  I got up to do laundry, got up to hang it out to dry, got up to go get some food - and laid back down after each trip.  So around 8pm I decided that I wasn't going to let the fact that I felt awful keep me from seeing one of the best festivals of the year.  Dose of Paracetamol (Acetaminophen in the U.S.), some water and a hearty dose of hubris and I was off.  Not actually knowing how to get there, feeling kinda of blah and thinking this is an important venture, I decided to hail a taxi.  Not a tuk-tuk, but generally get in a taxi, say the name of the place you want to go, done.  However I forgot to consider a couple of things.  One: when there is traffic, as in when there is a festival, walking will almost always be faster than anything on four wheels.  Two: Bangkok is quite similar to West Lafayette in it's curse of one-way roads, something I had not noticed as a pedestrian.  And Three: simply getting in a taxi and asking to go to the river isn't very clear, since there are quite a few points on the river you can go to.
So, in my first cab, we went toward one of the larger bridges, saw some people with Krathongs and decided that was a good spot.  I did get a nice view out across the river as we crossed the bridge.  My driver spoke a little English, was impressed that I could count to ten in Thai (poorly) and attempted to teach me the phrases "I love you" and "I like you" in Thai.  The trip meter said 59 baht, so I handed him 60 baht.  He handed me back 20 baht and a slip of paper with his phone number and an Americanized name on it.  Uncertain how to respond to that, I said thank you, smiled, probably giggled and placed the number and change in my wallet.  He drove off and I began exploring the bridge and the area underneath it where people were launching krathong into the river.  I realized 1) This was not the big event, this was a smaller gathering and 2) I was pretty much the only farang around.  I attempted to walk up on the bridge to get a better view of the river, and was whistled back down by a Thai police officer.  People had been walking on the bridge only moments prior.  Alright, well now what.
I could see the Yi Peng floating up into the sky in the distance, so I started walking towards them.  However after a couple of blocks, I decided that was futile, walked back and hailed another taxi.  So the cost of a little adventure involves more than one taxi, it could be worse.
My second taxi driver spoke no English.  He did understand Loy Krathong though, and managed to get me quite close to the heart of the commotion at the Rama VIII Bridge (the one I have photos of already).  Eventually he motioned to me to get out and walk because of the horrid traffic jam.  I paid him and got out of the taxi and joined the shoulder to shoulder swarm of people.  People were walking in between cars, buses and motorbikes because traffic was not moving at all.  It reminded me of the people swarming toward the bridge in the new War of the Worlds movie, and I pushed that slightly disconcerting idea out of my mind.  Thankfully, crowd control is often managed by the Thai cultural idea that you should not show anger or lose your temper.  So despite the shoulder to shoulder crowding, there isn't really a panic or mad rush to make it dangerous, people remain patient.  Fingers crossed.  I got up to the main festival area - lined with food and drink vendors, large krathongs made for a contest, beggars, beauty pageant contestants and people of all ages.  I purchased a bottle of water - was asked "where you from?"  USA.  "Oh!  Your country very good!"  I appreciated that.
I made my way to the river bank, pretty sure I wandered straight through the 'back stage' area of the beauty pageant, and a Thai man helped hoist me up over the stone wall separating the river from the bank.  I got pictures right there of people launching their Krathong, and several people swimming in the murky depths.  A wave rolled up and splashed my feet, I decided to find some higher ground after a few photos.  So I turned back around and turned my attention to climbing the Rama VIII bridge - the main festivities were occurring beneath it.  A staircase on either side of the bridge was shoulder to shoulder with people going up and down.  I made my way up and walked along the pedestrian portion of the bridge where people were launching their Yi Ping.  There were many Thais with good cameras, probably many from the arts university - and I was envious of them.  I also wished I knew more Thai so I could have a conversation with them.  I managed to get some decent photos with my camera none-the-less.  I think there is also a couple's aspect to sending up the Yi Peng, because many couples were launching them together - some with the message "I love you" written on them.  But that could be a modern imposition on the original holiday - I'm not sure.  I enjoyed just sitting on the guard rail between the road and the pedestrian crosswalk and watching people launch their Yi Peng.  It was peaceful and reminded me why I long to travel and see these things.  It was great just to wander around and observe things at my own leisure.  Finally, I decided I had better return home.  So I tried to make my way to the other side of the Rama VIII bridge to hail a taxi going towards my apartment.  At this point, I was actually all the way over in Nonthaburi, the suburb of Bangkok across the river (and the larger Loy Krathong gathering point).  However navigating the staircase was even more crowded and slow going - it seemed a fool's errand to try and scale the stairs on the opposite side after finally reaching the bottom of the first staircase.
So, I wandered back through the vendors (by the way, if you can sell it, it was for sale on the street that night).  I did not partake of the food, already feeling under the weather and not sure I trusted the food - or at least my stomach's ability to handle it, and went about looking for a taxi.  Of course, in the stand still traffic with many others looking for a taxi, this was nearly impossible.  So I looked toward the motor bike taxi operators.  The first declined, and said as a farang, better to get a taxi.  I think he was afraid I was going to freak out riding the motor bike - or he just didn't want to travel that far.  The second motor bike driver I found agreed, though maybe slightly overcharged, at that point my headache was going full throttle from all the lights and I just wanted to get home.  I still think there was some sort of divine intervention keeping me from having an absolute claustrophobic panic attack in the middle of that festival - or maybe I was just too out of it already from being sick.  It was 100 baht for the motor bike ride straight to my apartments, not too bad considering the motor bike can duck and weave around traffic and get you where you are going much faster than the four-wheeled beasts.  And a heck of a lot better than the tuk-tuk driver trying to charge twice that for less than a third the distance I traveled on the motor bike.  We drove over yet another large bridge - I've got my north and south all mixed up so I can't say which direction I was from Rama VIII, but I got yet another view of all of the lights out across the river driving past.  It was exhilarating having the wind rip past, nearly shutting my eyelids for me.
After all that, I took some more cold medicine and called it a night.  And quite a night it was.  My goal now: to save up and purchase a digital SLR before next year's Loy Krathong festival.  I would love to see the festival in Chiang Mai.  Also preferrably to not be sick during the festival - but the timing of getting sick is hard to coordinate.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Welcome to Thailand"

Whenever I'm absolutely and completely baffled by something, one of the other foreign teachers just looks at me and says "Welcome to Thailand."
You mean you can't fail students?  (At least not until M. 4, which is 10th grade, and even then...)
So, students don't need a pass to leave class or school early?  They can just go?  Ok, so no way to control students skipping class.  I see.
You shut the computer lab down by just flipping the breakers off?  *head desk*
The grammar text book uses the phrase: "as high as a kite" to describe extreme happiness.  Right.  Who proof read that?
You mean junk food is actually expensive, and healthy food is actually cheap?
The same companies that sell self-tanning lotion in the states, sell "skin whitening" lotions here.
Instead of catching and euthanizing stray dogs and cats, people set out their scraps for them.  They have about as much free reign of the streets and sidewalks as people do.
Along with priority seating for the elderly, small children and pregnant women, the buses also have a priority seating area for monks.
Nearly microscopic ants are everywhere.  No really, everywhere.  And they will eat anything remotely resembling food.  Candles made of vegetable wax?  Yum!  Lipstick on the rim of a water glass?  Tasty!
The Thai language doesn't really have tenses.  So, when there is talk of something happening 'tomorrow,' that is a very sweeping generalization that could be tomorrow or two years from now.

Alright, so moving on.  The floor is down in the future computer room.  One of the main office computers has internet.  The water has been working most of the time in the women's bathrooms.  The men's  rooms are still out of order, so one of the women's rooms has been designated the men's room until further notice.  My student that enjoys makeup?  Well, he also wears heels higher than I would, and when all done up for the dance competition, had boys in another class turning heads and demanding to know who 'she' was.  They were embarrassed and disappointed to find out it was a boy.  Though truth be told I'm not certain the head master is aware of any of this, she might faint.

So while we're on the topic of gender, let's discuss dating.  Whenever students begin dating, the head master makes a point to try and get them to break up.  This is not a secret, in fact even today a student in M. 1 (7th grade) got up and gave a sarcastic commentary on the matter, in English no less.  The headmaster even asked me to tell the students that in America, students don't date at this age.  That it's just "puppy love."  I met this request with a blank stare of confusion, which was clarified for me with the phrase, "tell lie, tell lie."  I proceeded to nod and smile while thinking to myself, no way.  In fact, this attitude of intervening in matters of dating extends to the teachers as well, and not just in affairs of match making.  My boss flat out told me when I moved, "only women in your apartment."  And kept reiterating, albeit with slightly incorrect English, that I should only have women visit my apartment.  She even made some remark about the whole building being only women.  Yes, I moved into a convent.  I should never allow a repairman to fix the leaky faucet in my bathroom or change the light bulb I can't reach.  And heaven forbid a male relative ever set foot here.  Alright, so, on the one hand you try and play matchmaker and set me up, and on the other you tell me not to bring anyone home, under any circumstance ever?  And on what planet does this make sense?
It did apparently assuage the 9th graders that she is currently trying to pry apart that she also tries to meddle in the teacher's love lives.  "Really?  But she's a teacher!"  Exactly.  It's not appropriate at either level, but at least it is consistent.  Personally, I find the greatest hilarity in the situation today.  Male student that enjoys wearing heels and makeup was sitting "too close" to a female student as they worked on an assignment together.  Head master comes over and scolds them, telling her "don't sit so close to him!"  As this scene was recreated for me, he did a little curtsy and hand flourish - and none of us could help but laugh at the sheer level of ridiculousness of the whole mess.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The past two days

The events of the past couple of days are a slight blur.  Here is a brief summary:
  • Attended my first Thai wedding.
  • Ate amazing food.
  • Looked awkward in photos and video at said wedding.
  • Driven home from the wedding by the University President.
  • Saw Khao Sarn Road for the first time.  Declined pushy tuk tuk drivers.
  • Went to MBK/Siam Square etc. mall complex.
  • Have a functioning phone after our trip to the fourth floor of MBK and their tech gurus.
  • Rode one of the river buses home.
  • Attended a Chao Phraya River boat tour and dinner with my boss, a student and her parents.
So, all of the English teachers dressed up a bit more for school on Friday, and we left straight from school to go to the wedding.  One of the Thai English teachers got married on Friday.  The actual Buddhist ceremony was in the morning, this was basically the reception.  The bride looked gorgeous.  After signing the guest book, we took a photo with the bride and groom and went inside the huge banquet hall.  We stood around together gawking at the ice sculptures and more than a dozen tables of food.  After waiting for more guests to arrive, it appeared alright to partake of the food.  There were two sushi chefs and an assistant, I had two helpings of sushi.  Took a little more wasabi than I probably should have - good for the sinuses.  There were multiple tables offering hot foods: chicken wings, fried pork and crab balls, chicken satay, mini pizzas (skipped those), etc.  Fresh fruit kabobs, tuna pitas, fruit custard tarts, dessert rice balls with peanut filling, fruit cakes, ice cream (also skipped), two different offerings of soup, chicken or pork with rice, ham and rolls, and I'm certainly not mentioning everything.  It was quite opulent.  After awhile of this, my boss came up to me and said, in effect, "you've eaten enough, come sit down."  She directed me to a frontward table and motioned to the chair next to the University President.  This is actually my second meeting with the University President.  He is fairly laid back and speaks English well.  Though I was a bit caught off guard when he asked me why I needed a Chinese Visa.  So he has reviewed the pages of my passport.  I kept my cool and explained the trip, he seemed pleased with the sister school story and he mentioned his next trip to China.  I think he was just making conversation.  As such in this position, I ended up being front and center during several key wedding videos and photos.  The bride and groom "cut the cake" (it was a fake cake for show) with a large sword.  Afterward they brought pieces of real cake to their honored guests: family and so forth.  However, they started with presenting cake to the University President.  So here I am, random new farang in the middle of their wedding photos - trying to look happy and cute and so forth instead of just totally bewildered.  After all this excitement, the President offered to drive me and the other female English teacher home.  This was a nice gesture because a) she and I live in the same building and b) going back with the rest of the group was going to take quite a bit longer.  However, it is still rather daunting.  The male teachers were certainly enjoying teasing us about the whole situation, as somehow female farang teachers are of greater fascination than male teachers - or at least in our current circumstance.  As such us ladies are often a tourist attraction simply by our presence, and requested (or told) of various engagements we have been invited to.  Besides just the cultural aspects of this, I think this is also related to our boss' adopted daughter mindset towards us.  So the President drove us home, talked about politics quite frankly and openly and bid us goodnight once we were at our soi.
At this point Gen and I were able to unwind a bit from that part of the evening.  We swapped our dresses for jeans and shorts and headed over to Khao Sarn Road to introduce me to all its chaos.  Explaining the sheer bombardment of neon lights, roasting street food, pushy tuk tuk drivers, creepy old farang men, cover songs of Western origin in Thai accents (Took my Chevy to the revy but the revy was dry), carts selling Hello Kitty everything, purses, sunglasses, fake documents to the nth degree (fake diploma, student card, pilot's license, press pass, TEFL of creepy guy on Khao Sarn getting fake TEFL certificate and a classroom....), tie-dye, travel shops, backpack and luggage shops, Irish pub, disabled men begging, mothers with children draped across their laps begging.  The juxtaposition of obnoxious westerner and poor Thai beggar was hard to take.  Soi cats and soi dogs just hanging around as per normal here in Bangkok.  I think it will take another few trips before I can really truly describe this place.  Even this description is just a caricature, though maybe that is all Khao Sarn is any way.  We stopped by a place that was supposed to be holding a rave - I do enjoy my laser light shows and obnoxious techno.  But it was relatively deserted and I was getting quite tired, as was Gen - so we headed home.

Attempted to sleep in but was aroused to the sounds of some sort of parade right here in our little soi.  Still not sure what that was about, but there were really loud fireworks, a sort of marching band, and Gen tells me a monk giving blessings at the front of it.  I got a picture of the very tail end of it marching away - not a very clear photo.  Poor Ming was half way up my staircase, terrified and hiding from the fireworks blasts.  I came back and dozed again, I hope I'm not coming down with a cold but I think I've been fighting it off for several days now.  Got back up to trek to MBK and sort out the phone with Gen.  Just as I was fully ready and locking my apartment up, I turned around with a start.  The light was off farther down the staircase.  And who do I nearly run into but my boss, coming up the stairs to see me.  "Do you have plans this evening?"  Um...actually yes, I've mentioned that before... "Parents have made reservation for dinner on boat for you tonight!  They made reservation already, told me yesterday, I forgot to tell you."  Um, ok, I guess these are my plans now.  "Ok!  I pick you up at seven."  Alright then.

After this slightly surprising encounter, we went ahead with our plans to get my phone sorted out.  MBK is an 8 story shopping complex.  It is connected by sky walking bridge to the sky train, Siam Square (also a shopping complex) and Siam Paragon (also a shopping complex, the most high end of the trio).  It is right next to a Cultural Arts Center (have to check that out another day), and a place called Discovery.  I forget what goes on in that building - sports?  Language teaching?  I will find out later.  The fourth floor of MBK is cell phone mecca.  Unlike the United States where you almost have to go with one cell phone provider, and choose your options within that carrier's rules, in Thailand you pick all your own hardware and then just buy a carrier's sim card.  If you want to change carriers?  Buy a different sim card and stick it into your phone for about three dollars.  All carriers use a pay as you go format where you buy minutes on a scratch off card in any 7/11 convenience store.  I like this so much better than the U.S. monopolies!  Not only that, but there is not the "oh one thing is wrong with your phone.  You have to get a new one now," attitude that you will find in U.S. cell phone provider outlets.  One thing is wrong with your phone?  Go to MBK.  The numbers are worn off your faceplate?  Get a new one for 150 baht, choose the color you want!  Your battery is fried?  We will sell you a new one for 300 baht.  You have a Canadian phone that is Sim locked for Thai sim cards?  Find a good tech guy, he'll have it cracked in 40 minutes for 10 dollars.  You want to buy a nice phone but don't want to pay too much?  We have second hand phones all around, including blackberries and iPhones.  Want to jail break your iPhone?  We can do that.  You inherited this phone from someone that locked it?  We can crack that too, 20 minutes.  Lost your charger?  We've got it.  Need an obscene amount of rhinestones on your phone?  Take a look.  We have some cell phone adornments two inches thick with rhinestones.  We even have Hello Kitty Phones!  The actual phone, not just decoration.  Forget the U.S. throw away (recycle, if you look hard enough) mentality - this place is a cell phone junk yard/parts shop over 100 stands strong.  Let someone else use it when you want to upgrade.  Fix that one thing that is broken.  You can make the digital/intellectual property argument on "hacking" phones, but to some extent - there is no reason one phone should work in one country or on one network but not another.  It's just another way to make profit, and it's unnecessary to have that much waste as to have to get a new phone each time you hop a border or change carriers.  If you ever come visit and are close to needing a cell phone upgrade - pick your new phone up at MBK.

After this, Gen took me to an express boat bus stop and we rode the boat back from Siam.  9 baht. Much less traffic that way.  Then I got ready for my second boat ride of the day.  My boss/host picked me up and we drove to the dock for the dinner and boat ride.  It was very nice, and I think my student was in the same mindset I was about the matter.  She was nervous that she was having to practice her English in front of her parents and the head of the English program, I was nervous to be doing so in front of my boss and a student's parents.  My student served me rice, fish, and fish soup.  I also served her some, because I couldn't justify just sitting there.  She also presented me with a metal embossed bookmark and a pair of earrings from Chiang Mai.  After dinner (or rather, finish that bite and you're done you need to go up top), she and I went up to the boat's deck to take in the sights.  It was a lot more peaceful just she and I.  I told her not to be nervous to practice her English with me.  And I practiced counting in Thai with her.  We took photos of various Bangkok landmarks - beautifully lit up at night.  She enjoys taking photos and would like to be a fashion designer someday.  She also filled me in on what the boat guide was saying, since he was speaking in Thai, so I got some mini history lessons.  After the boat turned around we returned inside to partake of desserts (I have a photo!) and listen to the band playing.  She and I were both somewhat annoyed when we were instructed to go dance.  I taught her the English words "pushy" and "scheming" in relation to this portion of the evening.  We got half way to the dance floor and agreed to sit back down.  I was enjoying just sitting and taking the whole of the situation in, I think she was as well.  Of course my boss came to literally push us closer to the dance floor.  We got nearly there and sat down again.  Peace lasted only about one minute before she returned and pretty much dragged us onto the floor.  She explained later she is happy when she is dancing.  I wonder if she realizes people have different tastes.  I think my student is perceptive enough to realize what was going on.  We were finally granted some more peace and were able to go back up top to just take in the sights silently.  Overall it was a very pleasant evening with a very sweet student.  I finally got home and collapsed after two mostly pre-planned weekend nights.  I experienced so many things about Thailand these last two days, it's been somewhat overwhelming.  Between the sights and the hospitality accompanied by sitting, looking pretty, speaking English and being politically correct- I'm mentally exhausted.

Other tidbits: being asked by a University student here if I could pull strings to get them into grad school at Indiana University.  Learning that it is impolite to put your fork in your mouth in Thailand, you use the fork to scoot food onto your spoon and eat with your spoon.  Even since learning this piece of etiquette I've unconsciously broken this rule, probably more times than I'm even aware.  According to my host, waving to someone you don't know is flirting, she freaked out when I waved to someone on the street that was smiling at me.
Apparently I can't escape it, Friday one of my students asked me if I was pregnant.  Then apologized profusely, "sorry for asking."  The guys consoled me by reminding me half the school, including some teachers, believe they are a gay couple; and the kids frequently ask the married teacher why he doesn't have kids.  During the wedding, I talked with the very cute school secretary - she and I talked about wanting to lose weight but liking food too much, and made jokes patting our bellies and our "food babies," in a kind of who cares manner.  I preferred this to my boss patting my belly and explaining I should do crunches everyday to be slender.  Whatever.  I'll put on makeup and be a cute little farang girl, I'm not going out of my way to do crunches any more than I want to myself.
Also found things at MBK to get once I get my first paycheck here - night stand, electric induction stove plate, microwave, electric metal tea kettle, a nicer chair, and probably another table - either for my desk or to set up 'kitchen.'  In the meantime, I don't really have cooking apparatus, and I'm hungry.  I'm off to scavenge for a late lunch.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

No Child Left Behind

So in Thailand, middle school students are not allowed to fail.  That's right, they simply aren't allowed to fail their classes.  So, what if they turn in all the work, but they did a terrible job and failed?  Why you round their grades up to just over 50% and call it passing of course!
Now, they CAN fail their standardized exams.  We have nothing to do with those exams.
But failing classes, and teacher administered quizzes and tests - that's simply not done in Thailand.  So as a teacher, I have very little to hold over their heads to get them to work.  Do your homework or you'll fail - nope, mommy or daddy will call and complain, the head of the program could be fired - many people would lose face.  And we can't have that, now can we?  Although the use of a very skinny bamboo stick is ok for discipline.  I don't personally have the bamboo stick, nor would I want it, but the head teacher does and sometimes comes in as a supportive "co-teacher" when the kids are out of line.  At this point, I've threatened my students that I will not assign them a semester grade until all work is completed.  That's the worst I can do, give them an incomplete.  And then I still have to continue allowing them second chances.  At some point, you just have to make up their score and pass them.  Not that I'm going towards that without a fight.  My most recent threat to get students to do work is students with missing assignments will get even longer assignments than their peers.  Though it is a fine line to walk between pushing them to succeed, and having them or their parents complain and getting reprimanded.
They do have spunk, I'm thankful for that.  Such writing assignment answers as "I'm about to skip Ms. Jenny's class to have a late lunch," certainly show that.  I'm all about laid back "Thai style" but the inability to fail a student that deserves it is unbelievably aggravating.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Oh yes, I'm very worldly.  I'm completely prepared to remain calm upon seeing a HUGE cockroach skittering around my bathroom floor.  It's the one crawling up from my sink drain while I'm washing my hands I'm not prepared for.  And of course, with the Thai custom of removing your shoes before entering living spaces, I'm barefoot to boot.
So, I think I'll just avoid my bathroom for awhile.  They'll skitter elsewhere eventually, right?  Or maybe I'll just go get Thomas or Ming to take care of them.  Thomas and Ming are two of the street cats that have pretty much been adopted by this apartment complex.  They're pretty chill.  Actually, possibly too chill to care about a cockroach.
I had a second non-Thai dinner this evening.  The Dutch teacher, one of the "officers" (school secretaries) and I had falafel for dinner at a place that caters to Israeli backpackers in Banglamphu.  It is within walking distance of my apartment, and on a cool day like today we can also walk from school.  There is quite a lot within walking distance from my place.  Now that I can at least manage to get on the correct bus to go to school and come home I can explore further.
I've come to the conclusion that I will be teaching in two buildings for the entire semester.  Today I caught a glimpse of what I think is going to be the new computer room.  The floor and walls are not finished, and possibly none of the wiring.  In fact, I think it would be lucky if it is done by next school year.  The other teachers believe it will take two months just to get the teacher's office put back together.  I'll just be thankful if I have a desk eventually.  Opening a cupboard for my legs and using the kitchen counter for grading only goes so far.
The water was functioning in the bathrooms today.  Yay western toilets!  The new ones do look very nice at least, although 3 toilets and 2 sinks for each gender's bathroom really doesn't cover a student body of 180.  It sure beats the raw sewage smell that emanates throughout the other building.  In both cases the sewer system isn't set to handle paper, so you throw it out instead of flushing it.
Yesterday I had my first instance of having to ask a male student to quit putting his makeup on during class.  Foundation and blush, for starters.  Thankfully that behavior is a lot more common in Thailand, and as such does not relegate him to the kind of middle school ridicule it would in the states.  Parents are also more accepting of it as well, I'm told.
I wonder if the cockroaches have scuttled off yet...

Monday, November 8, 2010

Moving, moving, moving...

Over the weekend our offices and classrooms were moved to the “new” building.  Bearing in mind, it is actually an old building, and not all of our classes have moved yet.  The move has been in the works for two years.  So upon hearing “we’re moving this weekend” the other teachers told me that might or might not happen.  Except this time it did happen.  So Friday after school some of us packed and taped and labeled things for the ten soldiers to move on Saturday.  The student tables and desks were moved, and we even have western style toilets now!  Never mind the running water still only functions half the time.  Being on a University campus, the University wanted our “old” building for college classes.  So it relegated us to this older building.  But don’t worry; we’ll do it up!  We’ll fix it!  During one class today I was interrupted by the sound of a power drill in the wall directly adjacent to the chalkboard.  Guess we’re still not done fixing it up after two years in the works.
Also, the computer lab, where I teach computer class, is still in the old building.  So the students and I have to commute back across the road and the schoolyard to the old building.  As if 50 minute class, no passing period, and computer boot up and log out time weren’t enough in the way of obstacles for accomplishing anything.  I’m also leery about when they do get around to moving the computer lab – how long will I have to teach computer class with no computers, and a workbook with no accompanying text book?  I can run some copies or print stuff out…oh yeah; they haven’t set those back up yet.  In fact, the students’ desks and classrooms are all set up, but the English program office is currently an empty room.  They just finished the floors, you know.  And Monday morning, we arrived at the new building to the piles of boxes everywhere and no teacher desks.  I’m currently positioned on a kitchen counter, sans Internet and typing in word.  I’m going to get a lot of grading done, having set up my grade book in Google documents.  Having to hop from my laptop in the office to the computer lab, that made sense.  How silly of me, trying to make sense in Thailand.  Thankfully Gen and I already have plans to go for a massage after school.  There are several good places right by our apartment building.

Speaking of which, as for my living arrangement, Saturday morning my host helped me load my suitcases into a taxi, and I moved into my new apartment.  So Friday evening, packing the office.  Then packing my suitcases.  Then Saturday and Sunday beginning to unpack my suitcases.  Monday morning: beginning to unpack things in an incomplete office followed by teaching in two buildings.  Blah.

Other recent events of note: fun times taking the wrong bus around town.  Being approached by a creepy guy asking me (very insistently) if I want more English teaching jobs.  I'm not so sure that was actually his motive.  Leaving said guy standing in the street.  Debating with another interesting South African Ex-Pat English teacher.  Discussing the parliament of Antarctica (you had to be there).  “Promise me Sarah Palin won’t be President!  I changed three Acts of Parliament in South Africa!”  “They kicked me out of the country, you know!”  Personally, I think it may have been for reasons besides political differences that they kicked you out of the country, creepy.

And we mustn’t leave out: calling students up to the front to give examples of “I’m about to do something."  I set two ground rules: no leaving the school, and no jumping out the window.  So naturally: male student: “I’m about to kiss you!”  Begins approaching me.  Not knowing what else to do, I turn the other way and put my hand out, rejecting said advance.  Class falls into laughter.  Well, I hope they remember “about to.”  The second grammar class of the day, the standout example was "I'm about to peeping Tom."  And yes, he knew full well what he was saying, aside from the grammatical error.

After all the excitement of the past little bit, Monday wrapped up quite nicely with Spaghetti for dinner and an hour long massage for 200 baht, which is currently equivalent to $6.74 U.S. dollars.  :-) The spaghetti was some of the first western food I've had since my airline breakfast, and it really hit the spot.  They actually have a fair bit more dairy around than I expected, so I've been able to get yogurt (some of the only dairy I can eat).  And 7/11 has loaves of bread, well closer to half loaves but in any case.  Today's school lunch was a cabbage soup, rice, curry fish balls and a dessert resembling frog spawn.  Pretty much all Thai desserts are something with very unique texture, little flavor that is then doused in sugary syrup to compensate.  Sometimes crushed ice is added if you wish.  I must say it was quite fun to play with as it rolled across my spoon, and it didn't really taste like much of anything besides the added sugar syrup.  I think it was actually fruit or plant based, the frog spawn comment is courtesy of the Dutch teacher.  It does give a good visual description.

A quick note on pictures: I'm being careful for now because I'm still getting my bearings and from my reading you have to be careful of people who don't want to be photographed.  Or even better, the people that allow it then come after you demanding payment for it.  Plus, I need to become known as a resident - hanging around with a camera screams tourist.  Then when you run into creepy guy on the street claiming he's got another English teaching job or what have you for you, having your camera out is one less thing to be concerned with.  As a farang I already attract plenty of stares, I want to keep my eyes and awareness on the streets.  I've got plenty of time for pictures.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Alright, so living in Bangkok, a post needs to be devoted to traffic.  It is quite normal to have an hour, hour and a half, even two hours or more commute simply to get to the suburbs.  I read in one of my guidebooks that the average city has 25% surface area of roads, sidewalks, etc.  Bangkok's layout including 10% roads, sidewalks, etc.  And new cars are rolling out onto the streets every day.
Students rarely go to visit their friend's homes, instead they hang out in the school yard before and after school because traffic makes it nearly impossible to hang out anywhere else.
The commute from my host's home to school also goes directly by the royal palace, the current palace where the royals actually live.  Cool, right?
Well, actually, since it is surrounded by a huge white washed wall, and every member of the royal family gets the royal treatment (as in, traffic stops to let them pass), in practice it simply means the traffic jam is worse and time spent on the bus is extended.
The presence of motorcycles and motorbikes is high here, and for good reason.  It can seriously cut down on the commute time if you can weave in and out of the larger vehicles.  Personally, I'm planning on being a pedestrian for the foreseeable future once I have an apartment close to school.  Speaking of, I'm off to get that sorted out.  Hopefully successfully this time.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Farang Follies

The Thai word for westerner (or basically, any white person) is "farang."  This is also what Thais call guava fruit.  So they think it is very funny to see "farang eat farang," cannibalism!  It's a joke they never get tired of.
Fresh mango and fresh guava (farang), are SO different than what we have in the cans in the U.S.  They are a lot drier, and not as sweet.  They have a slightly grainy texture, almost like a pear, but not juicy, just crisp.
Street food or fast food is actually cheaper than cooking at home yourself.  In fact, finding an apartment with a kitchen in Bangkok is downright impossible.  As the British teacher said when I inquired about a place with a kitchen, "you're in the wrong country."  However there is quite an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Other than that, pretty much everything is fried.  Avoiding allergens like peanuts, eggs, and gluten would prove very difficult in Thailand I think.  Thankfully avoiding lactose isn't too hard.  Also good I don't keep kosher.  I would imagine avoiding these things is doable, but requires a better grasp on the language than I've currently got.  Also at places that cook everything in one pan probably still impossible.  Though rice is such a staple, I'm sure there are some places that cook that separately - it's the cross contamination that would get you there.
I am looking forward to getting my own place, soon.  My host lives in a suburb that is far from school.  My host's hospitality is wonderful, but with the Bangkok commute I spend 3 hours on a bus or in a taxi every day.  Between school time and commute time, my day is totally shot.  The South African teacher is helping me out a lot, she's the other female farang English teacher.  I'm getting an apartment in the same building she lives in, much closer to school and right by the farang backpacker haven.  Walking down some of the streets of Banglamphu (the name of the backpacker haven neighborhood) I feel like I'm actually in the majority.  And since it's the area for broke backpackers, things aren't sold at too much of a markup.  I can go a few soi (lanes) over and go some place less touristy any way.
I'm getting the hang of the Thai buses, at least I can handle paying my own fare (12 baht).  I'm still learning the bus routes, but that will be different when I move as well.  I do know yellow buses are air conditioned, other buses are "warm buses," as my host says.  You can hail a taxi if the red light in the windshield is on - it indicates the taxi is empty.
More updates later.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Day One Observations

Alright, so Day one done.  Here at the beginning of day two.  Day two should be a little more relaxed, I actually only teach one class on Tuesdays.  Mondays I assist in a block class and teach three classes.  Nothing like jumping right in.  Wednesday I teach a block and two regular periods, and I haven't quite figured out what club time is about yet.  I'm assigned to Public Speaking Club, however Gen, the South African English teacher, may have recruited me to help her with Spanish Club.  I would love to help in Spanish club!  We'll see what transpires.  Gen and I believe we're going to confuse our students into thinking all female western teachers are called some variation of Gen or Jenny.  Oh well, not much to be done about that.  We are addressed by our first names here.  Thursday is going to be my long day, I assist in one block, teach two regular classes and then another block.  Phew.  Friday is just three regular class periods.  There is a lot of prep/planning time here.  Tuesday and Friday morning I don't teach any classes.  There are some prep times in the afternoon as well, but most of my classes meet in the afternoons.  Teachers move from room to room, not students, except for specials like art, computers and PE.  But there is no passing period, so starting and stopping class on time depends on how long the previous class takes to dismiss - especially when you have to lock up the computer lab.

This morning on the way in to school I saw students walking to their college graduation.  They were wearing light white (with the faintest hint of purple) suits and had red, gold and black robes to put over them.  It was really neat watching them walk, bus, taxi and congregate.  Reminded me of everyone congregating around Elliot and walking through the crowds of graduates myself to play in the ceremony.

Yesterday, as it was the first day for the new semester, male students here at the middle school whose hair was deemed too long were lined up and had their hair buzzed shorter.  After they were done they walked to class brushing the stray hairs off their head and shoulders.  It seemed kind of like something from a fraternity rush week, except administered by school personnel.

So I have met the previous computer teacher, the German.  He's given a lot of helpful insights and showed me around a bit.  He's more than happy to pass along the computer classes to me, in fact I think elated might be the proper term.  According to him they covered power point and presentation skills last semester, and it was like pulling teeth.  So I'm thinking we won't do a lot with power point.  However I've discovered that the student's computers have adobe dreamweaver and flash.  I'm going to look into what version, and see what I can come up with for those programs.  I'm sure the students would be a lot more receptive to something new.
The school has a set of computer curriculum guidelines, but it's kind of cryptic, basic and below their level - or plain unrealistic for middle school.  Then there are the textbooks/workbooks - I think they are written for someone who has never seen anything that runs on electricity, but speaks fluent English.
I mean honestly, looking at these computer books - learn the difference between hardware and software.  Save files.  Print documents.  Students this age can do that in their sleep!  My host admitted computers are not her forte.  She cannot tell the difference between PC and Mac, for example, which is why she did not tell me.  So mostly I'm nodding and smiling about following the "curriculum" (there really isn't one for computer class, just the objectives labeled as curriculum).  Quite honestly, all of the worthwhile components of the "curriculum" the students already know.  A few other tidbits - like the difference between a LAN and a WAN?  Um, sorry - I don't really think that's middle school level, or particularly relevant.  And the books are a workbook only-you need the accompanying text book.  We don't have it.  At least computers is an 'elective,' so I can tweak it.  Hopefully I can get things rolling in the adobe programs.
As for the English grammar classes I teach, there is a curriculum and a worthwhile book - in a lot of ways I think I will be doing more teaching straight from the text book than innovation.  I'll work some things in there though.

Other tidbits before we rush off somewhere else: glad I packed skirts.  Teachers dress code is pretty relaxed, except women must wear skirts.  The toilets at school are Eastern style, manual flushing.  By manual flushing I mean there is a basin of water and a bucket, and you fill the toilet with clean water after you finish until it clears.  It is a kind of water pressure/displacement system.  There are waste baskets to throw out toilet paper, but you have to bring in your own to use.  Luckily packets of tissue are in great abundance around here.

As I said about rushing off elsewhere...this post is probably very haphazard because I have been whisked off to several places during its completion.  I do have a Thai bank account now.  Many thanks to my host for helping with that.  Apparently I require a local account in order to be paid - through direct deposit.  We are paid monthly, and we are paid quite a bit more than my initial estimates - somewhere the numbers or my calculations were off.  I certainly don't mind making more than twice what I thought I was going to make.

I feel as though I have missed recording some other details from the past 24 hours, but I have been rushed around everywhere.  It is difficult to get it down.  Though I suppose I don't need to record all of my observations at once.  I will get some posts covering the food soon.  Also to follow will be posts on my students' knick names, a few gems from their get to know you writing and perhaps some politics.