Thursday, March 31, 2011

One Semester Down

I feel like I’m supposed to deliver some sort of epiphany about my experience teaching in a Thai school for a semester. The semester has been over for several weeks now, and such revelations are not particularly forthcoming. So here is what you get instead.

Many, many people have been here much, much longer than I have. My observations only carry as much weight as my time here, and are really only relevant to Bangkok and not Thailand as a whole. Even then, every school here is very different.

Take 97.5% of what you know about education through methods courses and experience in America, box it up and put it on a mental shelf.

Some schools have 6th year students (seniors) that will stare at you and say “arrai na?” (what?) when you ask where their book is, three times slowly. However, the students in my program know A LOT more than that. Especially if they spend their summers in Malaysia.

Be thankful for the cards you have been dealt, even when the racial, gender and aesthetic privilege makes you feel sick. These things also equate to job security in Thailand, especially the gender card.

Be thankful the circumstances at your school regarding pay, legal residency and student ability/behavior are not worse; many places are much worse.

The most pointless question you will ever ask in Thailand is “why?”

If ever there was a place for the saying “rules are made to be broken,” it is Thailand. Trying to follow all the rules is worse than breaking all of them. You will not always be given a choice as to what rules you break. Choose wisely when you do have a choice. Try not to freak out when you don’t.

Laugh when you realize you spent three weeks telling people you are allergic to water.

Get on motorbikes from the left.

It is completely appropriate to wear the “I’m on a mission death stare” and ignore all persons who try to approach you when walking around the Khao Sarn Rd area; though this will not serve nearly any other place in Thailand. Portions of Siam are also acceptable for this scowl. Don’t wear it to work.

Spatial awareness is not part of Thai culture. More on that another time.

Try not to get mad when your boss constantly focuses on your weight, your barely noticeable scars (OMG your arm isn’t completely white! What’s wrong!?) and other such maddening physicalities.

You might be surprised to experience more culture shock with fellow ‘westerners’ than with Thais.

Age is very important to the Thai social hierarchy. You will constantly be asked, and disbelieved, in my case. And then the dating setups will begin…

Heavy shampoo bottles are great for killing roaches.

Your battles with Immigration are not necessarily over; do not be lulled into a false sense of security.

Do not give Thai guys your phone number until at least a second date. You dropped your phone in the toilet or it was stolen or something. Trust me.

Get out of teaching computers. No really, get out of it. Find a way.

Remember that despite these maddening times of sitting at a desk, with no students, no idea of what curriculum to plan, seemingly no direction and little more to go on than sit here and act professional – the students will return, and that is why you are still doing this.

Today some of the students were at school to pickup transcripts, first time I’d seen them in two weeks; and some of them asked me if I would be returning. They seemed genuinely distraught that I might not return, as at least two teachers from this year are leaving or already gone. And that folks, is the reason I’m still hacking it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Som Nam Na, or Operation License Renewal

This phrase has come to mind a lot lately. “Som Nam Na,” is a Thai phrase that loosely translates to “Serves you right,” though the pronoun is flexible, so you can say “Som Nam Na,’ to another person, about yourself, a group or whatever. While there are many reasons this phrase has come to mind a lot lately, I will only highlight a couple of them, especially as point two turned into a tangent all its own.

1) Some of you may know that I have no aspirations of ever joining the Peace Corps. I did, at one time, but I will never make the cut. Why? Medical Clearance, which is one of the top reasons people do not go through with Peace Corps.
Try as I might to pretend I have a cast iron stomach, I really do not. Allow us to add to the list of things Jenny’s stomach doesn’t like: palm oil. Oh well that’s not a big problem, palm oil is terrible for you any way, so just avoid things cooked with palm oil. Except that palm oil is added to so many Thai dishes I couldn’t even begin to list them. While possible to avoid, it’s not easy, and it takes way more Thai language than I currently grasp. Conundrum indeed. So som nam na on me for not doing my homework on Thai cooking more thoroughly. To be fair, I hadn’t made this health connection previously, and I’m just thankful I don’t have a full attack reaction such as ‘getting glutened,’ for someone with celiac – because full avoidance of palm oil in Thailand would mean I would lose a lot more weight.

2) I’ve recently been frustrated with the state of affairs that is coming to work to do nothing (though I’m getting much better at filling the hours), especially because I know there are things I need to do to prepare for my week of summer school teaching and next semester, but I do not have the information I need to begin those preparations. This is Thailand; you can do that at the drop of a hat right? You’re a foreigner, you know the ins and outs of computer science right?
It’s even better when I actually arrive at work semi-on time and the offices are still locked; yet another reason I’m not inspired to be punctual.

But Som Nam Na on me for being ungrateful for unstructured office time, I will need a lot more of it for several undertakings in the coming months; and it will be sorely lacking when I truly have to get to them.

It has recently come to my attention that my school has decided (maybe) to comply with recent Thai Ministry of Education, or Thai Teacher’s Council, (who knows who says what), legislative changes for foreign teachers. Do I know this information definitely? Of course not, I’ll say it again. This is Thailand.

The gist being: within a two year grace period, a foreign teacher will prove their qualification either by obtaining a Thai teacher’s license, or showing equivalent certification in their home country. Which is completely different from ‘native speaker with a degree,’ which is the criteria that has mostly been the law of the land for years. And while I’m sure that will continue, I’m not sure it will continue and also provide a work permit or conditions I’m willing to teach in.

Oh, but you have your teaching license and degree, so no problem!
Not so fast.
My Indiana license expires June 3, 2011. For my non-education major friends to understand: As an Initial Practitioner, you receive a two-year probationary teaching license, you’re supposed to go out and get your teaching job, wherein you will be assigned a mentor teacher and will undergo a portfolio, observation/evaluation process that I don’t know all the details of. After successful completion of this, abbreviated IMAP in Indiana, you can apply for a more permanent license. Oh wait…what was step one? Obtain teaching job in your subject area in Indiana.

I did not work on renewing my teaching license because I’d been holding out hope for an art classroom in the Great Hoosier State, which would then have put me in IMAP, and then when I made the leap to move to another country, where my having a teaching license was kind of a bonus for my school in the usual terms, this seemed like something that did not require attention. Until now.

So, realizing that I need to renew the license to continue teaching in Thailand OR to come back and teach in the United States, or come up with a completely different career path and plan entirely, enter Operation Renew Indiana Teacher’s License. We can call it Operation License Renewal, or OLR for short.

The path to do this as an Indiana Initial Practitioner (the nice way of saying your license comes with training wheels) that has not found employment in the two years since obtaining the license, and thus not undergone IMAP, is to take 6 credit hours of Graduate coursework (INDOE says undergrad can count, good luck finding that option in distance learning) in education or your subject area, compose a paragraph explaining why you have not completed IMAP, and then fill out a bunch of paperwork and pay the $35 for the license.
Yeah, because every education graduate that can’t find a job has change to spare to take MORE college classes, as do employed teachers with their exorbitant salaries. I realize this legislation was enacted with the best intentions, to keep teachers studying their field and aware of changes that affect their students. In practice, we will reap what we sow and the mass exodus of bright education graduates flocking away from teaching will only get worse.
I’m trying very, very hard not to be among the jaded leaving in droves. But that doesn’t get any easier each year that goes by, or any time I follow the education politics situations back home across many states. I’m still passionate about education, but honestly, how much do I want to do this?

For now, I’ve commenced the process to enroll for online distance learning at IUPUI to obtain 6 credit hours before the end of 2011. I will renew my license well within the Thai two-year grace period, and it will leave more options open for me to consider beyond teaching English for the next school year. So really, I should just be thankful for a good kick in the pants. Mostly I’m annoyed that I’m being pushed into graduate coursework before I feel I’m ready for it, non-degree or not.

A few other things:
A Thai teacher’s license is rather expensive to obtain, and valid in no other country. So, as I can renew certification in Indiana and have that count in Thailand, the Thai license alone seems rather foolish to undertake.

It is not entirely clear that an Art Certification will suffice to teach English. I’m weighing my TEFL certification options, but that’s a little farther back on the burner right now.

And here’s the rub:
Even though I can renew my Indiana license for another two year, Initial Practitioner period – I’m still stuck in Educator limbo. I have yet to gain experience in a stateside classroom that would allow me to complete IMAP, or whatever equivalent other states have enacted in the wake of NCLB. I cannot indefinitely take a graduate course online annually to renew an Indiana license to teach in Thailand (not the least of which financially speaking, which I have yet to figure out for the current OLR); at some point I still need stateside teaching experience, or some other plan entirely. The sheer number of plans I’ve come up with since graduating from Purdue have run out of alphabet to describe them by. I thought I was going to take a break from that, but I guess not. I have to re-examine the idea of goal setting and figure something out.

Which, more than anything is the most infuriating part – back to square one and the insane planning ahead for years and life mapping instead of just having some time to fly by the seat of my pants and be happy with that. But, som nam na.

Friday, March 18, 2011

School’s Out for the Summer…ish

I have at least three rough drafts currently sitting in blog post purgatory, and much more I’ve written in various notebooks. And none of them seem right to post right now. So I’m going back to off the cuff today.

Summer ‘break’ is an interesting concept in Thai government schools. And let me preface by saying every school is slightly different, so the details of this account do not necessarily reflect other Thai schools. Standardization is not a large part of Thai culture, even though they sometimes try. Also of note – schools in Bangkok and schools outside of Bangkok are different species entirely.

Teachers are still required to come and sign in Monday-Friday during all school holidays (we are at least exempt on National holidays), and hang around for appearances, whether or not there is any work to do. The level of flexibility in this matter varies from school to school. At my school so far, actual hours at school can be adjusted since there is no class, no students, and paltry work to do if any for the time being. Foreign teachers are allowed 30 days ‘exemption’ from the daily sign in during school holidays without penalty in salary for each calendar school year, which restarts October 1st for some odd reason. Paperwork must be submitted well in advance for these pre-arranged absences from ‘work.’

I’m told other schools are not so flexible, and missing the sign in will incur loss of pay. Other schools are also stricter about actually staying the full 8 hours every day even in these weeks of sheer nothingness. I’ve been fortunate to fudge the sign in by 8AM rule quite a bit; though I’ll need to get back in gear when the students return in June. My German colleague and I also fudge the afternoon hours and leave early. We are often the only ones here besides the secretaries in the front room, as the foreigners have our own separate office. The others are currently using their 30 days, sick or signing in and bugging out entirely as they will not work here next year. Seems even continuing on you can get away with a day of sign in, bug out sometimes. I did on Wednesday.

As it seems the level of rigidity with the sign-in varies on a daily, weekly and annual (with the change of school directors) basis, I will not claim any of this is definitive. But then again, nothing in Thailand is definitive.
Over the course of this semester, I’ve found that if I’m sick, but I come in to teach my classes and sign my name, there isn’t a fuss about missing the other time I’m supposed to be in the office, whether morning or afternoon. But in such cases it was fairly obvious I was quite sick. This also hasn’t counted as a sick day, which thankfully my school allows many of, with the proper paperwork of course. Three days in a row requires a doctor’s note stating what was wrong. You will be told this in the most diplomatic way possible.

As great as it is to basically get paid to sit on facebook, it is kind of maddening when you are in a city that begs exploring and have to forgo opportunities to volunteer up north because you’re stuck playing school. I think I’ll finally make a dent in my reading list at least. Eventually I will be lesson planning for next school year, but of course deciding who is teaching which courses is not a priority right now, and I’m not lesson planning for a class I will not end up teaching, with 6 grade levels and at least four possible subjects, that’s a bit of a jump. Something tells me I will receive this information the day before classes resume.

Most every day I have some sort of reminder of how new I still am in Thailand. I’m still surprised by the racial whitewashing, the blatant anti-black sentiments and the pressure to be skinny that is 100 times worse than in the states, living in a fish bowl and being a walking photo-op.

For the record, a better answer to “you come Thailand alone?” is No. Come up with something. Some people that ask this will be impressed that you’ve moved abroad on your own. Most of them are asking if you are single. As I’ve stopped counting the number of taxi driver’s I’ve gotten this from, I’m quite fond of trying to decipher as many bus routes as possible.

Monday, March 14, 2011

First World, Third World

I’ve been sitting on more than one idea for a blog post, and more than one rough draft. Especially in light of my last post, which is chalk full of ‘first world problems,’ with maybe three exceptions that are universal, this ramble keeps resurfacing as one that needs to be published sooner than later. I’m certainly not the first to make these observations, and it feels unfinished, but I never claimed to be a polished writer. I only strive to be observant. Rough will work fine.

It’s hard to have a simple discussion about geography without these terms surfacing. First World. Third World. But like any other term or stereotype, these terms oversimplify reality into something more easily broadcast. And what, pray tell, is the Second World?

Living in Bangkok, Thailand, the extremes of first world versus third world are magnified far beyond what I expected, and far beyond the extremes you will see in the United States (at least, within such close proximity). Yes, there are places in the United States that can be considered ‘third world,’ just as there are places in Thailand that can be considered ‘first world.’

Siam Paragon – First World
This grandiose mall, one of the main four in Siam Square, ‘Battle of the Malls,’ or to locals just plain Siam, is one of the mega malls that epitomizes opulence in Bangkok. While a couple other malls nearby could take the cake for the most luxurious and expensive, the fact that there are several in this tier is enough. Paragon has a mix of things that are affordable (on a western income) and things that are far, far out of reach for the vast majority – even on a regular western income. There are things in this mall that I try not to even cast a shadow on lest I cause damage and have to pay for something I could never afford. And you don’t have to travel far from the mall to find poverty if you stop to look.

Yommarat – Third World
This is an intersection in downtown Bangkok, a 30-minute walk from the ultra modern sky train, including regular train tracks. It is one of the two locations where Sanuk My Saturday English lessons occur.
If you walk down the gravel along the tracks, you will come upon a small shantytown on either side. People have built shacks mere feet from the tracks – a place no one cares to kick them out of. Nothing profitable could be built here. There is no warning when the train is coming, which is frequently. One of the girls that comes to learn English on Saturdays lost her leg to the train.
The people are so excited and welcoming when the foreigners show up for English lessons. There are often more foreigners than there are tasks to help with. And it doesn’t matter if you merely held up flashcards for fifteen minutes, or that the families are in dire straights. Last Saturday they still fed us lunch. I accepted graciously but it still weighed heavily on my heart.
These people are so, so much less fortunate than I am, and they cooked and shared lunch with me just for showing up. I have done so little and they have so little. I worry about being broke or close to it. These families really have next to nothing.

After we leave, I step back into ‘the First World,’ and worry about my first world problems again. The internet won’t load. The apartment clothes washing machines are in use, or jammed. The alley cats pissed on my air conditioner again (involves air conditioner – still first world).

Even my Visa and Work Permit woes – There are families throughout Bangkok who are stateless, no citizenship, no paperwork. There are more families like them throughout the more remote regions of Thailand. They aren’t just illegal in Thailand – they aren’t legal anywhere, no one will take them. For more info on that:
Visa woes – First World Problem.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Office in Existential Crisis

At any given time, it is almost guaranteed that someone in the office will be having a crisis, whether major or minor. Lately, it seems that everyone is having a crisis of some sorts, giving the office a surreal comedic quality that escapes definition, especially with a different nationality and personality to color each crisis.
It would also help to note, that with exams completed and the marking, reporting and student evaluations now in full force – all of us are working harder than we do most of the rest of the semester, or sitting around at a total loss for what to do with our work hours; the officers (secretaries) are in overdrive and what’s going on is as clear as mud as ever.
Without airing everyone’s dirty laundry and trying to avoid as many gendered pronouns as possible, and keeping in mind I am only discussing the foreigners, here is a sample:

•One of us has left, and been replaced twice. The parting of this teacher was a school wide crisis, though the teacher is actually on to better things.
•The first replacement teacher was sacked, and we gained a third replacement teacher mere weeks before the end of the semester.
•One of us is facetiously dating a bass guitar. They had a lovely Valentine’s dinner date. There are photos.
•One of us considered entering the monkhood to figure out what to do in life (for about 48 hours).
•One of us is suffering from insomnia.
•One of us has a trip to Europe beginning Friday. The necessary visa has not materialized yet, and has been months in the planning.
•More than one of us is at the top of the parent complaint list.
•One of us cannot decide whether to stay or go home. More than one of us is at a loss for what will happen next year even with a plan to stay.
•One of us is having a heck of a time registering a used motorbike recently purchased. I believe it’s up to fifth trip to a government office of some sort.
•One of us had a rather difficult medical issue recently, without a specialist available. It turned out alright at least.
•One of us decided to leave, and then the ‘plan’ for what to do next fell through just this week.
•Three fifths of us have dissatisfying love lives.
•One of us has a significant other who has three years to find a new nationality/citizenship or risk statelessness. This is not through criminal activity, I will just say the regulations of a certain former Soviet Bloc country in regards to long stays abroad is rather screwy.
•One of us is in debt for the first time.
•Two of us have had a very sickly semester.
•One of us just realized our contracts end in April not May if we are not staying on for the next academic year – and thus realized a month of expected income will not be there.
•One of us has decided maybe just a meditation class and not the monkhood. With a steak and a beer before and after that vegetarianism of course.
•One of us is unsure the school can renew a work permit due to national regulation change despite several years experience.
•One of us is still waiting on an airline ticket confirmation that has been two months in the making.
•At least three of us have significant problems from back home wandering over into the Land of Smiles.

While that is not an all-inclusive list, I believe I’ve reached the limit of what is acceptable to publish. So, here’s hoping for some health, some meditative guidance, some citizenship and valid visas and so forth to this motley bunch of farangs we are.