Thursday, November 29, 2012

Samsara


Philosophical conversation bordering on masochism with colleagues is a regular part of my school day, generally speaking. Heavy-handed sarcasm and exaggeration are abundant.

More than once, the topic of karma has been brought forth.

One colleague in particular is convinced that he is not learning what he is supposed to learn at our place of employment, karmically speaking, and is doomed to repeat it yet again in the next life. I asked him whether he was certain he had correctly ascertained what it is he is meant to learn here. He seems quite certain, and quite resolute that he will indeed, succumb to repeated lessons he is not learning. I am not suggesting I have figured out my own lesson entirely.

People suggest quite frequently that I move elsewhere. But of late, my general response has been to the effect that you can pack misery with you. We each have a different lesson to gain from the experience life places us in. Perhaps one of the most important is to learn happiness regardless of circumstance; to learn happiness despite the continued barrage around us.

Surely, we keep striving forward. But are we shedding these things that weigh us down or merely muddling onward? A combination, I’m quite sure.

As we go forward, moving onward…

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Behind the Scenes


Sometimes, when we have the least to say, we have the most going on behind the scenes. Writer's block. What to say.

I successfully organized tie-dyed t-shirts with more than 100 teenagers recently; language barrier and Imperial/Metric conversions (and straight up guesses for complete lack of measuring instructions in either) and all. And in so doing fostered the confidence to do it again in the future. I pushed it knowing how much I wanted that confidence boost.

I have experienced a fairly high volume of mental shift - and generally a daily reordering of priorities; be they mundane daily tasks, or the grander, longer term plan lately. It doesn't always seem like it, but I feel I've slowly opened the flood gates for a whole series of new ideas that even six months ago did not even seem like remote possibilities. I'm still assessing the stream of them.

I'm 7 months in to a project that I feel to be of very high importance. Some other things have fallen off along the way, some new stumbling blocks have arisen, but we try to climb the sand dune again any way. And I've got more momentum this time. Despite a righteous wipeout in mid-October, still going.

I will not run even a 3K again before 2013 as my foot heals. My photography is still backlogged. My taxation frustration is not going anywhere. New big ideas are just fermenting, and I am impatient for them to mature. In many things, it appears back to the drawing board. But my drawing board, while I feel it's filled with childish imaginings and farfetched hodgepodge, has expanded. And much like my life drawing class* - maybe you have to find a bigger canvas before you start to figure out how best to fill it. Perhaps wiping things off and widening the corridors is exactly what we need first.

Notes: *My life drawing instructor suggested working on a larger paper, and my work really bloomed from that point of the semester onwards, working in the larger format.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Reflections of Grief


Alright, that’s it. That’s death number three in four months. And if you go back to April, you can count the family dog as number four.

But this most recent loss has shaken me up the most.
Grandpa died peacefully in his sleep.
The other unexpected death was unnerving, and I pushed through and put on my “I’m strong I can deal with this mask,” like I always do. Skip mascara, just in case.

This past Friday morning (Bangkok time) felt like being kick boxed in the sternum.

I have lost the friend that has been my biggest supporter since moving to Bangkok, the most frequently in contact, and someone I thought was going to be a positive force in my life for decades to come. I have lost a mentor and friend for whom I held deep respect – and for whom I still can’t quite process what’s happened to the past few months.

Since August, when my friend’s trouble began, we’d been in touch even more regularly. The past month, we were in email contact daily.

This past Thursday morning, I was a righteous grump at morning assembly. Frustrations with work, Bangkok life, the American elections, the list goes on. But more than that – my friend hadn’t emailed. I think I already sensed something was gravely wrong. I wish I were wrong. I was still making up other possible scenarios, putting it off. It’s just as well I went straight to bed on Thursday – at least I got a full night’s sleep first.

Anyone that moves to another country has a reason, or multiple reasons for it. A big reason that many leave the shores of their homeland that we often don’t admit to is grief. Everyone has a story – whether economic or emotional, for being so far from ‘home.’

When my entire family was grieving, I felt smothered. I felt blamed. I felt trapped. I could not find the space to heal on my own without carving it out for myself, far far from home. I have felt deep seeded wanderlust, I have felt a specific curiosity about Asia, and Thailand alone. I do not wish to repeat the mistakes of so many who regret not traveling more in their youth. I needed to follow the opportunity placed before me for experience in teaching, and seeing things from a view other than that of Middle America. But if I’m truly honest – I needed to grieve.

Thailand offers lots of methods for placating what ails you – sunshine, beaches, jungle huts, alcohol, illicit substances, medical tourism, sex tourism, Buddhist meditation, Thai massage, aromatherapy, retail therapy – the list goes on. Surely something on the list suits most everyone.

What’s interesting to me – is how determined I was to create the space for myself to heal, and how far I’ve come – yet how much at this moment, I really and truly am the most homesick I’ve felt since arriving here. Unlike before, when I felt the pressure of family smothering me – with the loss of my dear friend – I want nothing more than to be with the people I knew in college, the family I felt so oppressed by as we each found our own paths to grieve.

And it’s a reminder, too, of what we cannot take for granted. Of all the people that I thought might commit suicide, that I worried about – I never, ever imagined he would. I cannot imagine what he went through these past nine weeks prior to his death – the doctor’s visits, the lack of answers – or feel what the flood of medications made him feel. And it’s not my place to reveal more of his story here. But to try and remember the human compassion we so often reminded each other we denied ourselves in our hyperactive self-criticism; especially at this moment to allow for the grace of human kindness and at the least – an end of great suffering.

In a couple of days, it will be my two-year anniversary of living in Bangkok. I’ve been planning a blog post for that day for over a year and a half, whatever form it may take; or whether it may be late – or not what I thought given my current state of mind.

I will be ‘home’ at Christmas and New Years – whichever zip code or couch crashing spot I may find myself in. And I’ll be paying my respects several times, it appears.

Shortly before his death, my friend told me I’m one of the strongest and kindest people he has ever known. For once – I accept the compliment, and believe it – instead of slicing it to bits and questioning myself about how it’s not correct, how I still just don’t measure up. Life is too short. And there is no such thing as being perfect – especially if being perfect comes without being happy.

Everyone grieves differently. Each grief adds a new depth to the loss one has experienced before. I’m not sure you ever really ‘get over it,’ but you learn to move forward, and upward. Like hiking Mount Baldy – the sand dune – one step up, half a step back. You keep going.

I’m not going to say I’m thankful, for this loss, or that all things happen for a reason. I hate those sayings. But it’s certainly been a wake up call in my quest of figuring out my life purpose, and soldiering forward on the path of figuring out when I am happy and what I really, deep down am passionate about. So many days I doubt I’ve really quite felt it out yet, my real driving passion – which is exhilarating, terrifying, and normal. I guess. But I do know that hinging one’s sense of self too heavily on one passion or identity is entirely too dangerous; and the flexibility, some say the inability to make decisions and focus – is a great gift in itself. When you can change, you can survive. Hopefully, you can thrive.

It’s about 6pm and with the massive storm clouds rolling in it’s pitch black outside. I could use a little more sunlight – but maybe once the thunder and lightning hits, it’ll feel like back home in Indiana.

So many people, including the friend lost unexpectedly in July, say “do it now.” And yes – you should do something, now. But you cannot do everything ‘now,’ and if the simple mandate to ‘do it now’ causes you anxiety – learn to live, and change, and move forward – but grant yourself the grace to slow down, and to let yourself heal, and to tell yourself “you’re already a great person, and this world needs you, even if in this moment, you just need the world.” Gah now I feel like I’ve gone all mushy. Don’t worry, the world needs my sarcasm and it will be back in short order. But it’s also true, what was said to me recently: “you’re using all your energy to keep up this mask, and you don’t have any energy left to give.” Well, there. Defenses down. Ok?

I’m kind, and I’m strong – and today I’m admitting that the two are not always mutually exclusive as I’m just trying to be kind to myself.

Ultimately, I believe this loss will shape the artwork I create, the continued education I pursue, and add some good hard scar tissue to both qualities my friend felt I possess, strength and kindness.

To all my dear friends and family – near and far, in and out of touch – I love you, I miss you. And when I’m far away, I think of you fondly.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reflections: Teaching Abroad, the Chicago Teacher’s Strike and The Need to Fly


I've been following the Chicago Teacher's Strike to some degree. I see merits on both sides of the argument. From let the young, qualified and unemployed teachers have a chance if you don't want the job (an argument that is hard for me to downplay as a young teacher with so many friends who cannot obtain teaching jobs); to the clear erosion of teacher's rights and what is in fact, best for the students within America's schools – the points the strike is trying to make the general public more aware of.

Anyone that says the Chicago teachers are being selfish and not thinking of the kids; just be glad you have a job! - have clearly not read the entire list of arguments or bothered to look past teacher's asking for a raise (which, as some of the lowest paid professionals out there is backlash from the economic downturn, but also ridiculous).

The litany of ways education, and thus teachers and students, are being pulled in every direction in the US is ridiculous. The teacher burnout rate for new teachers is at an all time high. Mentor teachers confide they would not want to enter the profession for the first time now - again and again. They will us younger teachers strength and perseverance. But that alone will not keep teachers. Even the most stubborn, the most determined among us have our limits.

I’ve learned that my post-graduation path, while not my original plan, has been a great blessing and a learning curve I never expected to undertake. I cannot even imagine the person I would be if I had followed my ‘path’ to teaching art in the US before ever teaching abroad – perhaps I would have become stuck, or comfortable there and never left. Which is an incredibly frightening thought as I sit here with my culture shock, cognitive dissonance and inability to ever fully portray life in Thailand to those back home – and really love all of that, bumps and all. I’m honestly more terrified of what my life would look like without these perspectives than any challenges I currently face abroad.

And I have to confess what many people already knew: I’m not sure I would want to come back and teach in the states, the way things are going. And I am quite passionate about teaching, I’m fascinated by the culture here and Asia is full of job opportunities for teaching so…

I struggle with many of the same things the Chicago Public Teachers face. Lack of supplies, things not being ready before the first day of school. 40C classrooms (that’s 104F, folks…) The air conditioner was fixed, but they still sputter out in the April and May hot season (and I’m spoiled, rural schools don’t have AC). I have less labour protections as an expat in Thailand than a teacher in the states; at least that is if you can get hired as a full-time teacher there. I have to deal with Immigration. Every single one of my students is English as a Second Language. Special Ed is generally not done here (as in, often just not spoken about) – the systems that are in place are so completely different from the Individualized Education Plans in the states (though we sometimes use that terminology) it makes my head spin. I’m lucky that I personally have small class sizes – whereas 35, 40 or 50 (even 60) students are par for the course in most Thai schools. No, it’s no way to teach.

Despite it all – I get to go to work and have a student hand me their drawing of zombie Neil Armstrong flying a rocket. I’m slowly culling Doraemon, Mickey Mouse and other cartoon copycats from my student’s sketchbooks and fostering the use of their imagination and drawing from the world around them. I’m clearing 5 years of art room detritus little by little, asking my students to think beyond copying, pasting and regurgitating. And I’m slowly winning my students over. At the end of last term, just a couple of months from when I began, students were actually being told to put their art sketchbooks away during other lessons. Since I’ve instituted the choice based sketchbook assignment, some students run up to me to show me their homework before it is due. And while I’m experiencing a bit of a paperwork bog; I remind myself of the Zombie Neil Armstrongs, the student that runs up to explain the elaborate details behind their drawing – the reason I’m doing any of this in the first place.

I’m reminded of my former English students – that tell me on Ajarn Jenny’s facebook they want me back. I’m reminded that even when I’m most frustrated, most out of sorts – more than anything I want the best for my students. Sometimes I push too hard, but not from any corporate agenda; for my students to think and question for themselves. The dangerous kind of teaching – the real kind, not just the cookie cutter variety.

Teacher’s aren’t walking out on students because they are greedy. Teachers are walking out because the ‘reform’ occurring in America is stamping out those joyous moments in favor of a greater paperwork burden that is of no benefit to students (and the list goes on, if you care to do your ehem, homework on why teachers are pushing back against the ‘reforms’)– and it’s simply demoralizing. Nevermind any of the economics, the accountability – surely everyone can understand that when morale is down, everything suffers – including the results. The enemy’s morale is down. (Not just an insinuation that teacher’s are the new ‘enemy,’ name that book reference). I will not explain the list of teacher grievances here. That could be it’s own blog; and those blogs exist, by people that keep a closer eye on things than I.

My long term plans are uncertain. I have many different possibilities, and as a general rule I like to keep my cards close to my chest. I don’t even know how to play poker but you get the idea. But having been abroad for nearly two years – I see so many more possibilities than I ever saw in 24 years living in Indiana. And as the pinch continues, I’m not sure why, besides my incredible craving for a proper sandwich, I’d come back to such bleak economic conditions, and more importantly – respect black holes. Yes, my family and friends are in the United States. Sure, supposedly the healthcare situation is better (but we ain’t outta the woods yet).

I’m sorry guys; you knew I had to fly. Even those that preferred I not go – deep down, you knew. It was on the back burner for some time, not even a possibility at other junctions – but I was always meant to go.

It took some time for me to come to terms with my talent for teaching, not the least of which because the way teachers are treated has been degrading for years (and you know, I was supposed to be an auto mechanic! Er…doctor). But if you’re truly a gifted educator, or painter, or runner, or whatever – you can’t NOT follow that passion without running your soul dry. Yeah yeah, double negative. Creative license yo!

All I can say is that I care about my students. I care about getting them to think outside the box – in ways that are never represented on a multiple choice, or any kind of state exam (art is rarely represented – perhaps in 2 US states the last time I checked?) And even then – the ways I teach my students to think cannot be bubbled in. They are not simply essays. They are visual incarnations, new connections and the fodder of misfits. You can’t make Steve Jobs with a Gao Kao style of education. So for all the hype about China, China, China is beating us! (Don’t get me wrong I’m fascinated by China, but not in the alarmist way so many in American education seem to be). I roll my eyes. Beating us at what? Stripping the creative thought from education, the very thing that once made American education great?

Sometimes my students ask me, “Teacher is it ok? Teacher, is it nice?” I try to turn the question around and get them to consider whether they like it; what their opinion of their own work is – to consider that my view as the teacher is not the ultimate authority, but their own perspective and happiness is far more important than whether I tell them it is ‘nice.’ (Though trying to explain this to Year 5 students nearly resulted in tears when I asked them to question what is ‘nice’ and I did not simply say yes that is nice.)

My Thai students (and Indian students, etc.) are so creative. The model of education in Thailand certainly has it’s own issues. But when people ask me why I’m in Thailand – it’s not just the beaches, the art, culture, food or climate. It’s certainly not the dating prospects.

It is the respect I receive as a teacher, and the ability to perform the job I studied for 5 years to pursue. And frankly, following my passion is more important than helping propel the nation of my birth forward – especially when it’s going the wrong way. Politics aside – US teachers have just had it. And the Chicago Teacher’s strike is just a tiny sliver of how teachers; even the best and least political – really feel these days. My own public education did a great job – I see no reason I should not help educate the students of a nation other than my own – even exclusively. Call me a cynic, a pessimist, a traitor, selfish or an idealist – I am all of them. I would never be where I am today without the great leadership of my own schoolteachers. I can only hope that someday my students say the same of me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cat Spy Headquarters


There is a family of cats that lives in the roof above my classroom. I guess no one has read them the section of the student handbook that expressly forbids stray animals at school (unless they are science laboratory experiments and kept in the classroom…)
But really, I think the mama cat and her litter of two have the right idea.

They make the school a better place in several ways.
They keep the mouse/rat population down.
They provide entertainment during assembly by wrestling with each other and attacking mama cat’s tail on the rooftop.
They provide creative inspiration – one of my students has informed me that the cabinet under the stairs is cat spy headquarters.
They don’t ask questions.
They don’t tell lies.
When there are unexplained bumping noises coming from my ceiling I can think to myself, oh that’s just the cats.

The cat family doesn’t bother to take the school handbook too seriously, get bent out of shape over deadlines or perpetually rescheduled meetings.
When mama cat is annoyed, she just hisses at you – end of discussion.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Price of Silence


I am sitting at my computer screen doing something I am very good at – not what I’m supposed to be doing.
I’ve washed all the dirty dishes in the sink, checked nearly every social network I frequent several times, combated the email inbox, spent far too much time reading the Atlantic and I’ve lost track of how many ants I’ve swept off of my computer. The little ones must like the heat of the battery or something…

I haven’t written on the blog in a couple of months. While I will use the month of Great Fire Wall as a convenient excuse, and I’ve certainly been busy – I’ve also missed it. And I’ve been at a loss for what to say.

You see what I’ve realized is that somewhere over the past several months, there was a greater tectonic shift in my mindset from “oh my gosh I’m a three-days old newbie” to “do I really have to explain this again? Should I even explain this?” And while that summary may sound negative, I do not intend to convey that it is a completely negative thing. Quite the opposite in some ways.

But I realize with greater clarity the difficulty of blogging about what I’ve been up to. And the thing is – I’m not just blogging about travel. I’m not just blogging about another culture. This is my career path, this is my job, and this is laced with a heftier responsibility than I’ve sometimes given it credit.

I was presented with this scenario before, regarding etiquette when visiting orphanages: the hoards and hoards of tourists that photograph the kids, hugging them and playing with them and posting them to facebook, blogs, etc. Something I have done, by the way. And then being posed the question, would you ever do that in your home country? No. Then why do it here? Having the lens turned like that, and not just in this one example, but over and over and over again has left more questions than answers, and more doubt than clear charge ahead courage.

It’s actually written in my current contract that I not discuss my employment, students, parents, anything on any social media in any shape or form. That’s a pretty hefty clause there. And while I understand it’s purpose, that it’s much more ‘international’ to hold that standard, it’s also an interesting line to draw having set myself up as blogging through my education experiences in Thailand. It’s kind of a cold hard slap in the face, really. And where does one draw the line? Can I say oh hey, I’m excited about such and such painting project? And really truly it comes down to common sense and discretion. Or what I like to refer to as proactive paranoia.

But just as I’m feeling cut-off from myself having felt uninspired to create my own artwork, or find a venue to play my trumpet in a concert setting, or the vast majority of the things that for many years – seemed to define me, as I saw fit to define myself – I cannot deny myself writing.

I haven’t learned how to balance what I want to write, paint, draw and say with the above the bar, role model expectations of a primary/secondary teacher. I know I am not alone in that. I’ve learned to embrace a quieter self, a more reserved presence – but that’s ultimately not who I am. While there is power in silence, restraint and stopping to think – sometimes that’s exactly the problem.

The more you stop to think, to self-censor, to adjust – the more you just end up with silence.

It’s funny, that as a woman so opposed to censorship, I’m most intrigued by the places that most limit these freedoms.

What I do know is that as I grow as an educator – I’ve got to lead by example, and I’ve got to develop my own voice again if I can ever expect to cultivate the same in my students. How many times have I read that, bookmarked a blog post, scoured an education blog – but simply increasing how many pages of the internet I read per day does not equate taking action.

I’ve grown a lot, in this time of silence. And I’m not sure how to accurately convey that in words. Which perhaps says enough in itself.

In the past two months I’ve done a lot. I’ve taught kindergarten. I’ve lost my paternal grandfather. I’ve ridden the China Harmony high-speed rail. I’ve encountered my first drunk chicken. I’ve partied in Pudong. I saved the night, I might add, but you’ll have to ask for that story in person.
I’ve set ridiculous new travel goals.
I’ve faced Thai Immigration again. No red ink this time! *huge sigh of relief*
I’ve been superwoman on an epic trip back to Bangkok from the east coast of Thailand; including grabbing two packs and bucking off the Khao Sarn Road taxi vultures in a stressful situation.
I started the school year as a One Woman Show. My fellow art teacher quit the night before the kids came back. Thanks dude, thanks. We have a new art teacher starting in his place from tomorrow, thank goodness.
I’ve taken up a couple of part time tutoring gigs to supplement my income, as well as expand my teaching skills.

I still haven’t caught up on my photo backlog. If you know me well enough, you probably know how much of a hard time I’m giving myself about this fact.
I’m feeling paperwork paralysis. I’m making great strides and still giving myself the same ridiculous hard time I always do. But – I’ve realized that last part.

I suppose the pent up need to write, to paint, to belt something out on a trumpet, to run, to do all the things that make me who I am have been screaming that there’s more than being a travel superwoman and educator, and while I’ve rocked those two pretty well lately; the other aspects need some attention.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Days Like Tuesday


Alright; ain’t gonna find time to write a ‘proper’ blog post, so here goes spitting one out before my brain is totally fried. Well, my brain is totally fried, but whatever. Tuesday and Wednesday are my busiest teaching days of the week. But set that aside for now and let’s get down to the point.

Days like Tuesday are why I’m here.

On Tuesday, I was shown the kindness of a free ride not once, but FOUR times. That NEVER happens! Yes, occasionally it happens. There is a group of nice motorbike guys that will sometimes take me to the end of the soi, and have driven me to the hospital when it was clear farang girl in pajamas needed some assistance. Diagnosis, tonsillitis, yes, I’m pretty sure that’s the problem too, so much so that if you said let’s go upstairs and cut you open I would have obliged. The chapter in the novel ‘Mai Pen Rai Means Nevermind’ entitled ‘Farang with the Cut Throat’ was sounding very familiar in that waiting room. Thankfully we agreed on a course of antibiotics, let’s go ahead and throw in the etc. etc. etc. and be done with THAT story. Long version is not necessary. That was last month and we’re good now, me and my tonsils. I always start new jobs with tonsillitis (shaking head and mouthing not really). But I digress.

Tuesday, one of the Thais that works in the school kitchen was riding by in a tuk-tuk, stopped and picked me up and took me with on the way to work. On the way home, I was walking in the rain and a kindergarteners father picked me up in his taxi and took me the rest of the way. I don’t teach the kindergarteners so at first I was confused, and then glad, and as soon as I got upstairs it really hit monsoon proportions.

And then I was doodling around on twitter and whatnot and all those other internet activities you don’t need full brain power for and found out exactly when Aung San Suu Kyi would be exiting the Suvarnabhumi International airport, and from exactly which exit. Wasn’t originally planning to do this; but armed with that information and not at work I thought why the hell not.

Now I must say, this is absolutely the most creative excuse for not working on lesson planning I have come up with to date. I decided what the heck, I can take the trains and go see history unfold. I’m in Bangkok, and I have to work during the day when she’ll be out and about and giving talks and visiting Mae Sot, why on Earth not tonight?

I set out and a taxi just outside my building waved at me; I explain I’ve got no change (taxis start at 35 baht and I’ve got 17 in my pocket in coins), only a 1000 baht note (which is waaaaay too much to break in a taxi, fyi, if you ever needed to know). So, he drove me to the mouth of the soi (bok soi) for free. Alright, so that’s third times the charm today for kind people giving me rides in one day, I must be on to something here.

I walk on and grab a motosai to the BTS station for 10 baht. And then I ride the Silom BTS to the Sukhumvit BTS to the Airport Link, all of which takes a fair bit of time (though I’ve just listed all of the elevated train transport in Bangkok). I’m running later than I would like; I was already delayed because I remembered I needed to charge my DSLR battery. Armed with both cameras with decent battery life I set off around 7:30pm, her arrival at the airport was 9:40pm. Let’s move!

Of course, by the time I got there I was starving since I hadn’t really made a dinner plan. And I ended up doing something I advise all Americans visiting Asia to avoid doing at most costs. I ate at Subway. Glorious, glorious mediocre sandwich. Had I not been craving a sandwich so badly, it might have been a problem. Though actually, the airport perhaps has a slightly better sub than elsewhere in Thailand. Generally speaking, especially if you’re not in Asia long, it’s not worth it. But oh, a sandwich.

I regrouped and headed up to the second floor and figured out a way to get outside to where she would be exiting. Once I spotted the cluster of tripods and video equipment it was easy.

I saw people from Myanmar holding up signs to welcome her. I saw the canine unit brought out to sniff around well before her arrival. I met a Thai that lives in my neighborhood, and he ended up driving me home along with his maid from Southern Myanmar. She had made a welcome sign. She was crying after we saw her.

In typical fashion, my DSLR shot at the crucial moment was terrible and though I charged my batteries, I let my compact camera’s card fill up. D’oh. But I was there. I saw the Lady set foot on foreign soil for the first time in 24 years. I experienced the kindness of so many Thai people in one day, after living in the backpacker ghetto and getting run through the mill repeatedly at Immigration I didn’t think it possible. I saw women with signs to welcome her crying, and smiling, and crying. It was a small moment. Each of these things that occurred on Tuesday were small moments. But these are the small moments that I’m over here for in the first place.

I’m glad for days like Tuesday.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What’s Important, Discussing Goals and Finances


I’ve been trying to organize my finances a lot more recently. Yes I’ve been trying for years, but I’ve really ramped things up a bit lately. But I’m guessing very few of you actually know that is a piece of what I’m up to.

And it seems to be a downhill battle. My outgoing spending exceeds my income. I don’t have a month-by-month break down; nor would I publish it if I did. I will discuss some of the key players in my financial minefield below.

But the fact of the matter is I’ve been dipping into my savings fairly regularly for the past five years without fully making it back to ‘pay myself back.’ When including airfare, education and health expenses, I’m just not bringing in enough (Yes, like a lot of people in America and around the world, I know). In effect this means I’m not really financially independent, which if you’ve known me long enough and well enough is something I’ve been striving to accomplish for a long time and is very, very important to me.

Or maybe you didn’t. A lot of people don’t understand that I hold this goal in such high regard and that I’m highly offended when people ask me to compromise this goal. In fact I am more committed to this goal than getting married. (Gasp, Horror!) So when the suggestion comes up that I should throw this goal out the window so that I might attend someone’s wedding, but it’s really not financially aligned with my plans, I’m rather childishly pissy about it. And I’m really not sorry for that. Yes, I care, you have no idea how torn up inside I feel, but that doesn’t mean I’m putting my financial wellbeing or my goals in the trash. A marriage is about more than the day the wedding ceremony takes places, and I’d rather be able to support that throughout than go broke to be there one day. Not to mention, I think this is good planning and thought processing should I ever decide to take a life partner – going into debt is not the point of a wedding! I would like to add that it is not the individuals getting married pushing this issue; but this is why I’m motivated to write a post on finances.

A lot of people don’t understand my framing of life planning in terms of career goals, financial independence goals and freedom from ‘owing someone.’ But if you look closely enough, you need go no further than looking to my father and grandmother, the financial gurus of the family. I can no longer call on them directly for guidance, but I’m trying my hardest (which is ever more complicated as an American expat) to learn from them and the resources around me to actually live within my means and save for a future of my design (notice I said MY design, not anyone else’s design, though inspired by family role models, ah the irony). Granted, this means I come across as thinking and acting like my father, which is it’s own barrel of monkeys.

I need to be careful too; not to fall into the trap of framing everything in dollars, cents, baht and satang (and other currencies). So that said; it’s up to me to decide what’s important to ME and what expenses I’m willing to incur and why.

To give a better picture of my reasoning, let’s discuss what’s important to me in financial and life planning, especially over last year, 2011:

Jenny’s Goal: Find employment at an International School, teaching art, so that:
1) I’m on an International School calendar and I’m better able to coordinate with dates in the US for my vacation time.
2) I’m teaching what I studied to teach, what I want to teach
3) I can be home for Christmas in 2012; and should be able to save to pay myself back for this ticket by the time I step on the plane.
Plan has been in the making: 1.5 years.
Shared: With very few people because I was afraid I couldn’t do it, etc.
Level of Importance to me: 10 out of 10
Paid self back: No, plan to do so by December
Achieved: Obtained Employment in this category, proper working visa, and plane ticket to be home for Christmas purchased on credit.

Jenny’s Goal: Maintain Indiana teaching credential (or find another state/country who’s teacher’s license is actually stable, unlike my home state or my country of residence)
1) Enroll in, succeed in and pay for 6 graduate credit hours to upgrade to a five year teaching license (while teaching in Thailand and dealing with an epic flood – full disclosure, this chapter was not accomplished without anti-anxiety pills, I’m not Wonder Woman).
2) I can renew my license without moving home; which would kind of defeat the point of moving abroad to get experience and adventure.
3) Next Steps: Ministry of Education, Ministry of Labour and Teacher’s Council of Thailand – possibility of getting Thai teacher’s license to retain legal teaching status. Work Permit.
4) Dealing with 5-year license complications and the new Education Reforms in Indiana that are currently on the table, right now in June 2012. Begin 90 hours of Professional Growth Plan Work. Figure out what I need to keep in a teacher’s growth journal to accomplish this. Hope legislature does NOT get amended to exclude teachers working out of state from being able to renew; plan to write to state representatives on the matter before the bill’s vote.
Plan (Part 1 and 2) took: 9 months of planning, coursework and paperwork
Part 3: will be ongoing over the next three months at least
Part 4: To Be Determined, but gathering PGP hours already. Choosing another place to obtain credentials from is a much, much farther out goal.
Level of importance to me: 9 out of 10
Paid self back (monetarily): No

Fast Forward 2012:
Jenny’s Goal: Enjoy my summer vacation while living a little closer to within my means. If Goal: International School was not obtained, I would need to be teaching during these months which are ‘break’ in the US school calendar, and would not have had the time off any way. Since Goal: International School was obtained, I’m in the hole from visa run, moving, and only getting one week’s worth of salary for the month of April. So I now have ‘break’ however I’m close to ‘broke.’ Haha puns! But I’ve known this aspect of the plan for months. I knew it as I got a pit in my stomach a year ago when I was told the wedding date. I knew. And I knew the unspoken expectations that have now reared their ugly heads.
Plan has been in the making: Also 1.5 years
Shared with: The Individual who’s wedding I’m missing soon after the date was set, very few others, why start the fight early?
Level of Importance to me: 10 out of 10
Level of conflict I feel regarding where I am this summer: 10 out of 10

Jenny’s Goal: Support causes and lifestyle changes that are important to me.
1) Donate small amounts of money to causes important to me, including charity work in Thailand, Kiva lending, Kickstarter projects that resonate with me, The American Brain Tumor Association, etc.
2) Spend some money on healthy foods, relaxing at the beach and other things that are beneficial to my health, mind, body and sanity so that not all of my energy and money is poured into plane tickets at the expense of my happiness.
3) Continue to work on my financial planning so that I am living within my means, and actually getting back to a place where I’m saving instead of financially bleeding out. This takes a lot of work, patience and calculated plotting of money matters.

There has been a lot of confusion as to what on Earth Jenny is doing over there in Thailand, any way. Living in huts (or so people think) and peeing without toilet paper, teaching hooligans and Party Rocking like it’s 1959 (except we have iPads, or at least many of my students do) aside, I’m not just taking a Gap Year and forgoing thoughts of the future. Far from it.

I really don’t believe I need to justify my actions and decisions, but as it’s bothering me this much and people can’t seem to quit asking, there is a brief glimpse into the inner workings of Jenny’s brain. I hope that gives a clearer picture of the life goals I was working on in 2011 and am continuing on in 2012; and woah man, that’s a heck of a lot to have achieved, ya know? Certainly nothing to scoff at. So I’m not going to pull a Carrie Bradshaw and proclaim you should buy me $300 shoes to celebrate my singledom (I mean, demanding things like this is kind of the antithesis of my financial independence argument too, but any way) and successes therein; but dude, she had a point. There is more in life to be celebrated than matrimony and child-bearing, we’re not trying to bring it down, us disgruntled single ladies, but we’re just tired of being lost in the shuffle of unspoken expectation as if that’s the be-all end-all and we must sacrifice to make it happen on other people’s terms at the expense of our own goals. And I think pretty much every single lady the world over would agree with that.

My goal? My goal is to be in charge of my money. A lot of people can’t say that, and a lot of people are unhappy for it whether married, single or otherwise. Why don’t we work on lifting each other up; including through healthy financial choices all around; instead of continuing to buy into the myth of excess because it’s expected. I’m not deserting people, I’m trying to set up the scaffolding for a future where I can make the decisions to be places and see people and do so without incurring consumer debt; because otherwise there’s no way I can sustain what I want to do. Just because I’m not at the wedding ceremony doesn’t mean I’m not out here cheering on the marriage. And I only gave you a look at last year and the next few months, I have big dreams. Much bigger dreams than what I’ve shared.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hey, can we talk?


I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. Being an expat it’s generally a topic that’s thrust to the forefront of my daily life – well pretty much all the time. It’s something people struggle with inside a singular culture, family unit, friendship – it’s not easy apparently. Throw in multiple languages, cultures, etc., woah baby.

I recently read an article by Debito Arudou about the daily grind of cross cultural conversation and how it boils down to about the same five things, no matter how long you’ve been in a country or how well you can speak the native language. If you look foreign, you’re foreign, end of story. I’m not fluent in Thai and I haven’t been here that long, but what I realized recently was that I don’t just feel this from Thais – I feel this same kind of pressure from ‘home.’ What really stood out to me was not so much the experience of being foreign in Asia, but how I’m dealing with the same thing from both continents.

What do I mean, exactly?

Well, here, I have daily passing conversations covering the usual topics posed to foreigners. What do you do here? When will you go back home? Can you speak Thai? Can you eat spicy food? Litany of questions about my reproductive life, doubts that I even like men, what’s my salary, how long is my contract, yada yada. It’s the same nod, smile and move on conversation most of the time. It’s a sea of seemingly harmless, but nosy questions – and a very poignant lack of dept in many interactions.

I truly cherish the moments when any kind of depth or understanding really crosses the language barrier – you can see it in each other’s eyes when a real meaningful connection and human understanding is made, and it can be had in under 3 words, sometimes without them.

That’s not there when someone goes through the motions of “what you should ask foreigners,” making a sale, etc. It’s about a depth of human communication, and it takes some mutual understanding and willingness to change worldviews (from both parties).

Now though, since I no longer inhabit the sphere of American existence in a physical, day-to-day sense – I get the same thing from back home. So, when are you coming home? Aren’t you going to do x, y and then z? Well you WILL move home eventually. When are you going to grad school/getting married/moving to another country blah blah blah. Again, these are not malicious questions or presumptions. These are not particularly harmful or uncaring questions.

But I rarely have a normal conversation anymore, like – this is what I did today or these are the things I talk about with my friends when I get to see them in person; on either side of the pond, in person or on the internet – because SO much of the communication I do manage to engage in boils down to “things to ask a foreigner” or “things to ask the American that no longer lives in America.”

It’s no particularly malicious, but it’s no different from the frequency with which my students use the word ‘teacher.’ When 200 people rush you in the course of one week and chant teacher teacher teacher and try to get your attention RIGHT NOW, anything else is drowned out in the background. (I’m working on breaking my students of this – at least the ridiculous frequency).

It’s the same thing. As an expat, local people, well-meaning people from back home, if they keep in touch with you, they all ask the same questions. Have the same assumptions. Where’s the common ground? People think the only common ground is now those questions they’re asking. But I still just want to talk about what I had for lunch, or the book I’m reading, or any of those things that people get to discuss in their native tongue on a daily basis when they’re living in their home culture. When’s your next flight home? Is not a meaningful conversation, especially when repeated ad naseum.

Where do I really belong if I so rarely engage in a conversation that doesn’t leave me feeling like I’m a nomad that belongs nowhere? I’m a Non-Immigrant in Thailand, an expat from my home country; a wayward traveler in legal documentation and social standing – right down to daily conversation. And you all know how much I like to talk.

Just like students, the people engaging in these behaviors cannot see the bigger picture of how that behavior, taken as a collective, affects the teacher. They mean no harm. The student has no life experience to compare to the teacher’s position. The citizen that has not lived abroad doesn’t see the position unique to the expatriate. And truly – there is a prevailing view that it is up to the expatriate to do all the adjusting. THEY chose to leave. THEY chose to go somewhere else. All responsibility lies with them. No one else need adjust their worldview based on another person’s experience.

I’ve heard lots of things when I’ve brought this subject up.
“Just ignore it.”
“Just cut those strings.”
“Go home then.”
“Find a different place.”
“Oh, you’ll get that everywhere.”*
“Relax.”
“Chill out.”
“Oh they just don’t know.”
“Try to be understanding.”
“That’s why you should keep things within your circle of trust.”
“You’re being racist.”
“You need to be more open minded.”
“Try to accept the culture.”
“They’re just trying to show they care.”

On and on the suggestions go. Humans are designed to be social creatures. And right down to the people I care about most deeply and trust most – I get this sense of communication that scratches the surface and leaves me in a box between two cultures – I fit in neither. I lack depth in either. I don’t need advice. I don’t need suggestions. I just want a real, truthful conversation. It doesn’t have to have deep meaning – just a true connection. But I don’t know many people I can have those with any more.

When frankly, I’d really just like to hear about how you had to work 1.5 hours of overtime, got a flat tire and then played Angry Birds when you got home. You think that’s boring, talking to the expat off on that crazy world adventure of theirs that you’re not having. It’d be better to just let her be, her stories are so much more interesting. As I’m shouting them into a vacuum here on the podium of internet cyberspace. That’s not a conversation. Maybe lots of people read what I write – and that’s wonderful. When’s the last time we spoke? Emailed? Anything?

Perhaps it’s odd to argue that a conversation of the day-to-day banality of general living is more fulfilling than asking ‘bigger’ questions about life abroad. But if you’ve never experienced the vacuum that occurs without it – you wouldn’t have the frame of reference to realize that asking the ‘big’ questions while ignoring the small ones leaves a huge gap. And really, have we yet learned how to communicate in this hyper connected world? *Oh, you’ll get that everywhere. Perhaps we’re simply losing the art of deep, connected conversations in this age of status updates, blog posts and the like. Maybe it’s just starting with the populations that are already experiencing more isolation than others, but are simultaneously globally connected because of our social media explosion; because it doesn’t matter what culture I’m in – almost all our conversations are lacking depth. I could move ‘home’ today – and I’d still be in this pickle. And that’s not something I know how to get back regardless of which culture I’m immersed in, including my own.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The American, The Thai & The British Curriculum


I’m sure at least a few of you have been looking for a post that elaborates on what on Earth I’ve actually been doing these past couple months, and since I’ve started my job. A quick sentence summarizing a few key points does not really cut it, nor is it my usual style. But you do what you can.

Rather than do a full back pedal, though, or try and layer every new occurrence to give the full picture (you would all stop reading, trust me), let’s focus on what’s up next as my big focus.

And that would be: The American, The Thai and The British Curriculum. It almost sounds like it could be a storybook.

So, if you know me you know I just started a new job teaching art!!! A goal 8 years in the making (objectively speaking, subjectively longer) – but much like a University commencement ceremony, I’ve really just finally reached the starting line on this particular goal. The goal, after college, – was simply to be able to start the race. I’ve been running other races, no less important, but others nonetheless. So now here we go.

Here’s a break down: I am one of two art instructors at my school. My school has around 400 pupils and spans Kindergarten to 11th grade, and we have one 12th grader that sits in a teacher’s room to do all his work. What a senior year.

Naturally, I am the American cited in the title. My colleague the Elementary Grades Art Teacher is Thai. And we are employed at a school that follows the British curriculum.

Now here’s where it gets a little tricky. Both of us have to learn the ins and outs of the British Curriculum together. Not only that, but we must do so to at least a semi-passable, paperwork laden extent in less than three weeks. O_o Why on Earth, you ask? Accreditation Inspectors from the UK will be coming later in May to see if we make the cut. Wow, way to hit the ground running.

The Thai art teacher has been at the school for awhile but when I showed him the British ‘Schemes of Work’ (Curriculum and what kinds of media we’re supposed to be introducing at which key stage and which term of the year), he said it was the first time he’d seen it.

Why exactly am I also making sure he figures it out? Shouldn’t that be his responsibility, especially if he’s been there longer? Oh, you and your logic.

You see, as it turns out, I’m not actually just the Upper Grades Art Teacher. Actually, congratulations Teacher Jenny, you are the Head of the Art Department, and you’ll be ceremoniously informed through an email on Thursday afternoon, or, three days ago. Woah. Ok. So now, I’m a rookie art teacher in a foreign country, learning a curriculum system I’m not familiar with, and I’m the direct supervisor of another art teacher. Who is not fluent in English but should be. Ok. Deep Breaths. It’s a good thing I am who I am. And really truly, as much as I was still rather maladapted in many ways at the Thai Gov’t School, since my time there it’s a little easier to take things like this and let it (mostly) roll off and carry on. Though my highly emotive facial expressions are not something I’ve ever learned to fully mask, and frankly I hate doing that so much any way.

So, The Deputy Principal has been very supportive in pointing me towards helpful resources, explaining things, helping me get the administration to move it on a few things and generally being there as a teaching mentor, which I am incredibly grateful for.

As the Head of the Art Department, I’m in charge of going over my colleague’s lessons, making sure he’s up to standards (like, fluency in English in 3 weeks? Uh…), helping him grow as an educator and doing all that supervisory paperworky stuff. The Deputy Principal suggested the two of us plan to be each other’s mentors, as we’ll both be teaching art and therefore best be able to help each other develop as ART teachers. We’re supposed to outline a Professional Growth Plan and hold regular Department meetings to go over this. Even though I’m coming in towards the end of the year, my colleague hasn’t done one. We’ll be doing this soon.

You see, my predecessor was assigned these same duties, but she pretty much gave my colleague the cold shoulder because she couldn’t be bothered with the language barrier, among other things. There were certainly other factors, as I’ve learned at the weekly Friday after school staff meeting. Otherwise known as drinks at the street bar down the road. Man can I hold my Lemon Tea like a pro. Also note, for these important faculty meetings: only American, only female. Oh Thailand.

So as such, we’re at square one, using his iPod Thai/English dictionary, and both swearing up and down as the air conditioner continues to float in and out of functionality. Some things transcend linguistic difficulty. 40C (104F) heat outside, then in a cement and metal box, is one of those things. So while it’s up to us to maintain the professionalism of our department, there are two of us, and this is Thailand. Enough said. And for any of you about to suggest it – he’s married so don’t even think about going there.

So here’s our breakdown so far:

1) I will focus on art history, since I have more expertise and linguistic ability in this category.

*Though I’m the upper grades teacher, he’s actually my co-teacher for grades 8 and 9. And while predecessor just gave him the cold shoulder, if I’ve got a work load nearly twice what I expected and he’s supposed to be my co-teacher, we’re gonna get out that Thai English dictionary, and we’re going to co-teach.*

2) He will focus on drawing and Illustration.

*We’re both fairly versed in this area, but his strength is graphic design as well as illustration. Since realistic illustration actually takes me quite a bit of work and I’ve got other things to bring to the table, here’s the split.*

3) I will help him with English; he will read Thai labels and make sure that when we get any sort of chemical supplies with Thai labels we don’t blow each other up.

*Ok, we’re not really going to blow up. But I HAVE discovered batik dye fixative, and while that stuff won’t blow anything up, it could potentially be highly corrosive to skin. For his growth plan I’ve decided we’ll call this strength of his ‘supply acquisition,’ instead of 'fluent in Thai,'mmm the semantics of standards.*

4) We’re both going to try and figure out how we’re supposed to do a sculpture unit.

*Unlike predecessor just saying here do this to my colleague, I’ve decided we’re both gonna bring something to the table. And since neither of us specialized in sculpture and our supplies for this are well… uh… you’re art teachers get creative! This is going to be an interesting one.*

So that’s where we’re at so far. He’s actually enrolled in an English language school of his own volition, beginning next week. I’ve loaned him Street DVDs of the first season of Mad Men, then he loaned me Kick Ass (for entertainment more than linguistic reasons). And as he told me about people just being unwilling to deal with him because of language, and tried to lean on the Gym teacher for translation, I said,

“No, no, try. My sister and I? My sister and I made my brother learn to speak. He has autism, and we weren’t sure he’d be able to learn to speak. But you know what my sister and I said? We’re not taking no for an answer. And my brother learned to speak.”

And while I hope he didn’t take the autism bit the wrong way, the point stands. We’re going to do this, and I’m not giving the cold shoulder or taking no for an answer. As to whether we’ll really be able to rock it well enough for the UK inspectors, well, that’s kind of a fool’s errand, but, Super Teacher, x2, mode engage.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

All The Single Ladies

Justifying Life as a Single Female Expat

I really just have to write this post. It’s something all expats deal with to some extent, and it’s an issue that doesn’t stop bothering me. If you dislike sarcasm or reading posts with any cynicism or negativity, skip this one. I can only be who I am. But I feel my message is important.

1: If I were an American deployed in the military, I would have full support for being away. Regardless of your position on American foreign policy, it’s just too taboo to say otherwise about our men and women in uniform. Well, unless they are women that have been raped by their peers, then they were asking for it and we shouldn’t have to pay for them to receive counseling. *shakes head at the state of things* But really, my point stands: If I were deployed I bet not ONE person would have the guts to call me selfish or guilt trip me about not coming home more often. Because I’m making sacrifices for my country, so I must not be selfish.

2: If I were abroad following my husband. If I were married and my husband was transferred abroad, or if I moved abroad in order to marry someone, people might try and talk HIM out of it or talk him into moving to the US, but I would have full support. Oh, the poor expat wife, it must be sooo hard for you to be off in a foreign land where not all of the toilets are Western and the taxis don’t have seatbelts! The horror! And if you have kids: have you found a suitable International school? Will the kid’s education suffer? Newsflash: the idea that women can’t pee standing up is a lie. And guess what else? Urine does not carry diseases (95% of the time or so). As for education – don’t get me started on the state education being systematically dismantled.

3: If you’re just taking a ‘gap year’ to ‘find yourself.’ Oh kids today, they’ve just gotta get the travel bug out of their systems before they come home and ‘get their real job.’ It’s just a phase, they’ll grow out of it.

Tell me again, what’s a real job? How about a fake job? My personal take on the semantics of this is that no job is ‘real,’ because we all aspire to attain a perfect job that doesn’t really exist. Other views include the idea that all jobs are real – because, truly, when is valid employment NOT real? I added the qualifier of ‘valid,’ there are certainly scams out there.

4. And then there’s the rest of us. The Misfits. The true traitors of our country who dare to stay abroad for more than one year. There must be something pathologically wrong with us to stay away from the great First World Pillars of the planet, the land of milk and honey. The Patriot Act says so. Oh it doesn’t say that? Well do you know what it does say? That’s what I thought. Also, I’m lactose intolerant and it’s more like the land of subsidized high fructose corn syrup and cheap laundered Chinese honey. I know I know, there she goes again with her cynicism… Really though, the expat crowd, we’re all off our rockers. Every last one. Maybe we have neurosyphilis. Yes, yes we must test expats for that annually! Sluts, the lot of them! With dollar signs on their foreheads!

WHAT?!?! You’re not coming home?!?!? WHY?!?!
Uh, can I even get a job at Starbucks at ‘home?’ NO!
Do you realize it takes me exactly one month’s salary for that round trip ticket?
Do you have any concept of how a Thai Government school calendar operates? Yes I no longer work at a Thai government school. See point one, add relocation, visa reapplication and haven’t gotten my next paycheck yet costs. Consider this along with plane ticket.

But, is it safe for you to be abroad as a single female?
Seriously? Really seriously? Would you like me to pull up the crime statistics for YOUR city? That’s what I thought.

But you’re living in a third world country!
I have better access to health care here than I do anywhere in the United States. And if push really comes to shove, they can see me for cash. This has served me many times, where in the states I would have had to rush back to my mother to beg for grocery money when the medical bills came due (on her health insurance at the time, to boot).
I have greater access to public transport than I’ve had in any other place I’ve lived. I get on just fine with no car.

But, you could make more money in the US!
Again, working where, exactly, that would hire me in my field and that I would be happy doing, and that would provide health care and an actual living wage? There are millions of Americans that would like to know. McDonald’s is not a valid response to someone with a Bachelor’s degree. Your mom will give you money or you can save money by living at home is also not a valid concept for a 20 something when there are clear alternatives available. Not sorry they are abroad. If you’re a 20 something at your parents, I’m sorry – and I understand your pain, fellow graduate of the Great Recession. We’ll make it through.

But, how are you going to find a boyfriend? Why can’t you find a boyfriend there?
Again, this is your concern why? And that worked out so well in every case in the states, didn’t it? You know, it’s kind of nice to just book a flight to Chiang Mai and just go. I require permission from no man. If I were to get married, I would simply forfeit my rights to sign for many things on my own without my husband’s permission in many countries. I want to do that why? Last time I checked possession of a vagina is not considered a mental disorder (well, unless you were born with a penis in Thailand, then the Thai military DOES classify this as a mental disorder). Though I wouldn’t put it past the Republicans.

But, you keep getting sick!
And this is different from my life in America how? Right, in that I can afford to go to the doctor here, they speak English and the quality of care is just fine.

But, America has the best sandwiches!
Life is about sacrifices.

I realize that most American citizens will probably never understand my expat life. I will still be asked when I plan to come home, when I’m finding a boyfriend/getting married/getting pregnant (a global curse), when I’m going to grad school and I will still constantly be asked why I left the US in the first place.

I will be told to be more positive about my travel adventures; to tone it down, calm down, there will always be unsolicited advice. But you know what? I’m living a life that I am proud of. Can you say that? Or are you living vicariously through people that are following dreams you turned down or gave up? Well-behaved women rarely make history. And living your dreams does not play out in the utopian way that non-lived dreams are authored.

I’d like you to consider the fact that you would not question someone in the military, a married woman or a single male going abroad (at least not as much as us ladies), so effectively, you’re sabotaging the support network of us single ladies abroad when you ask these things and nothing else – and frankly, we would like the same support everyone else gets. We know things like the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, and unequal rights aren’t going away. But do we have to get the unintended, brain washed comments from those who care for us, whom we care for? I bet you’ve never thought of those questions that way. But think about how you’d feel if these queries comprised 90% of your communication from back ‘home.’ Does that compose 90% of your daily conversations? No, it doesn’t.

I’m sorry you made other choices in life, I’m sorry you wished you could travel, wished you were young, wished you hadn’t had kids, whatever. But that is your choice. And this is mine. I am not selfish. I am not unsafe. And I’ve done alright even as I’ve learned that people in my home country may never understand, and as my support network has retreated inwards and I’ve had to move on. I admit it bothers me now, to think that so many people I care about simply do not have the frame of reference or common experience to connect on the new levels I have found. I don’t mean to attack anyone’s lack of experience. And I realize to some, this will just be seen as more whining.

But I hope that perhaps you will start to understand the fact that, perhaps there is great misunderstanding even when you mean well. And the fact that I’ve chosen to lead a life quite different is simply that – different.

And I will never have to say, I wish I had traveled instead. Will you?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dear Americans considering teaching abroad in Thailand:

1) Immigration will need to see your original University Diploma. Yes, original. Yes, I'm serious. Really really. If you're told you don't need this, either they aren't getting you the right visa and you're not working fully legally or they've got strings to pull. This, is also not unusual but to get a one year teaching visa, you NEED your real diploma with you. Whether or not the policy is new, the enforcement has scaled up exponentially.

2) Female teachers must wear skirts in Thai schools. Internationals vary.

3) Do not be surprised when Immigration questions the legitimacy of your actual, legitimate passport. Also yes really. No advice on this one, just be prepared. If you ever deal with a police officer that claims a document of yours is fake, demand to go to the police station. It's possible the cop is fake, or just scamming. Asserting your rights to go to the station gets them off your back.

4) When applying for a Work Visa, never wear jeans to Immigration. When applying for a tourist extension, always wear jeans to Immigration. Or other touristy but not too obnoxious outfit. Don't wear sandals. Your approval or denial can hinge on how you are dressed.

5) What bank you use will be determined by the school where you work. There are no fuzzy lines blurring banking and education whatsoever, at all. *cough* Many banks will not give you an account without a work permit. This also varies by branch, bank, and mood of who you talk to.

6) Murphy's law requires that you will be seen by the same woman every trip to Immigration, and she hates your guts and thinks you're a teenage dirtbag even when you're in your mid 20s. That or she really just loves enforcing her rule book of logical procedures.

7) Visa runs are like changing the oil in your car. Completely normal procedure. If you start to get worried that going on a visa run is shady, you're in the wrong country. Oil change for your passport.

8) Don't even try to use PayPal abroad as an American, make sure your banking institution is not going to dump you because of the Patriot Act when you move abroad, and yes, you do have to file your US taxes both federal and state and maintain a US address (not P.O. Box) even if you don't have to pay any, you can't file electronically if you earn foreign wages, and you will find new reasons to hate the IRS you never dreamed of. Thank you, Patriot Act renewal and additions. They do give expats an automatic month extension to file taxes. Also realize any non-Thai cards incur a 150 baht ATM withdrawal fee for every transaction. Get a card that refunds fees if you cannot get a Thai card; or withdraw in maximum chunks to go awhile at a time. Also, many Thai banks will only withdraw from your savings account and not checking, because personal checking does not exist here. Be aware of this when choosing ATMs, it might take from your savings or simply say it cannot handle your foreign card.

9) Realize there is a very good chance you may be the only American at your work place. Some places are full of Americans, but I'm on my second job as the lone Yankee on staff. Be prepared for as much or more culture shock from this as from Thai culture.

10) Don't believe the myth that American automatically means better. My thieving, fake plane ticket issuing travel agent was US based. There is a travel agent here in Bangkok that never steers me wrong traveling in Asia, and I have found a more reliable US agent for flights back home. Do your homework.

And PLEASE, don't tie your shoes to the outside of your pack in a country where feet and shoes are reviled, and when all else fails, there is a large Leo beer and a Mai Pen Rai with your name on it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

It’s Been an Eventful Couple of Weeks

I’m sitting in an Irish pub near Sala Daeng station, drinking 7-up and enjoying a live band. I’m embarrassed to say that at first I thought the guy’s voice was coming from the female vocalist. But surely I can’t be blamed considering where I am. I did think she was very, very pretty to be a lady boy.

Tomorrow I start my first day at my new job, so I’m celebrating with Irish stew. There’s a football match on two screens, TRON legacy on another. This vocalist is really good. Really, really good. I hope she finds her way out of this pub. But who knows.

I haven’t blogged about the royal cremation, my visa run to Laos or my trip to the island of Koh Kood (on the Gulf of Thailand side – the quakes and tsunami watches are on the Andaman Sea side). But that’s a heck of a lot for two weeks and moving apartments and all. Just saying.

I’ve arranged for a motosai ride to school in the morning and established myself with a motosai win (motorcycle gang, but think of it more as a co-op than a gang) in my neighborhood. This involved the translation assistance of a Family Mart cashier. I am going to be learning more Thai outside the backpacker ghetto. Sure, the backpacker ghetto has its charms in some ways, but I’m thankful to be out of it. In some ways it is tamer than where I currently sit, the Irish Pub is adjacent to the Japanese version of Soi Pat Pong. And that’s exactly what you think it is, and probably some things you haven’t thought of. Heh, you ever accidentally wandered into the red light district of a new city when you’ve only been there for less than three weeks? That was eye opening.

I’ve learned to dodge, ignore or deal with most, though not all of the less savory types that approach me on the street for whatever reason; and the ones catering to males only in these areas usually ignore me. Still interesting what they think a white girl wants in Bangkok. A few Thai phrases go a long way to mitigate this, as does being dressed in work clothes versus “you look like a teenage student tourist” clothes.

I think my neighborhood, or at least some of it, is highly amused with the new female farang on the block. And by amused I mean I was invited to join a street side drinking party of about a dozen Thai guys as I walked by to get dinner. Most of them introduced themselves and one of them drove me to the end of the soi on his bike. Thankfully my smiles and ‘ajarn, kha’ pleas got me out of sharing a drink without much hassle. I anticipate more amusing anecdotes.

Any way, that’s it for now folks. Wish me luck tomorrow!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Step Back

It’s often really difficult to see the forest for the trees, especially in regards to life as an expat. You’re isolated, but you’re surrounded. Everyone thinks you are brave, or having the adventure of a lifetime. People that haven’t been abroad don’t realize you have the same everyday frustrations, the same need for simple conversation you had when you were home. There is a dreamlike quality to the life of an expat that does not allow citizens at home to see the full reality of expat living. It’s not malicious it’s the sheer fact that people at home have no basis for comparison. And frankly it would probably be more nerve wracking if everything were easily understood.

It’s easy to get sucked into a negative loop here. You’re far from home, you don’t speak the language (a few words and phrases help a little), there ARE a lot of people that don’t want you here, are angry that you are taking jobs away from them, just the same as some American citizens are in favor of border fences and expelling certain ethnic groups from the country. There is wage discrimination against the local people, as a white person you’re going to make more than them automatically. Of course there is friction. The situation is not my fault, and I truly hope, like the Red Shirt movement, the Thai people will continue to learn to find their voice and fight for their own rights. But in a culture of saving face, mai pen rai, and social status based on skin tone that is systemically rampant, I don’t know what I can do besides egg on my Thai friends to stick up for themselves.

And then, you have Immigration.
Rather than discuss my Immigration mess, the mutual racism I encounter on a day-to-day basis, politics or anything like that, let’s take a step back.

The Thai colleague that assisted me with the Immigration ordeal was on my side. She bought my lunch in my state of Ugly American shaking with anger.

The taxi driver that took us back to Immigration for round two passionately defended me, cursed Immigration and agreed their supposed rules were unfair in the way they were being executed against me. My colleague acted as translator, but I could tell from his mannerism and glances at me in the mirror he sided with me and not his countrymen’s officials. He was not among those that didn’t want me in Thailand. He held respect for me as a farang teacher.

A Thai citizen working for a placement agency that instructed us on how to get me out of the situation; who then heard my boss would not allow the simple paperwork adjustment remarked that her decision ‘was cruel.’

The visa run agency that took me to Laos cared for all of us the whole way, including my “I’ve lost my wallet, I’m a hysterical American at 3 am” meltdown. They offered to loan me money to get through the situation.

The local people in my neighborhood know me, know I’m a teacher, and are genuinely kind to me. They help me read notices in Thai I receive in the mail, rub my shoulders when I’m feeling bad (in a restaurant), and generally look out for me. My regular motosai driver has been telling me ‘I will miss you every day’ for a couple of weeks now.

It took a long time to realize how many Thai people would help me, namely because my first experiences were not so pleasant and I live in the backpacker ghetto – you have to establish yourself as a local when you look like a tourist in the most dense concentration of tourists in the capital.

I’m not going so far as to say what occurred at my place of employment was fair, or indicative of Thai culture. What I will say is that many aspects of my employment were very typical for a westerner working in Thailand, many were better, and some were the unique positions of my employer alone. And I refuse to let the most negative parts of that be how I feel about this country and its citizens. Which is a big reason I needed to find a new job, and an even bigger reason I needed to stay in this country longer. I am not so gullible as to believe Thailand is nothing but the land of smiles. But I am not so bitter and coldhearted to want to believe all Thai people want to kick farangs out the day they finish their contract, come tour and spend money then get out! Just like not all Americans are so ridiculously anti-Immigrant.

In a couple of years, if I still harbor such negativity about the farang experience in Thailand that I am disgusted with myself, I will move on to another culture. But I cannot say I have adequately explored this culture based on my experiences thus far. The backpacker ghetto and one job are not enough to summarize a culture. And as I must keep reminding myself, Immigration is the worst part of this country.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Arriving

I suppose it’s about time for an update over here. Especially because I’ve been all cryptic and acting like I’ve got secret agents from various Asian countries after me. No, I tend to be melodramatic; it’s really nothing more than what you’d have to worry about putting online and having a US employer get upset about. It’s just that there are different definitions of what causes people to become upset, and I’m constantly guessing here. And since my employment is directly tied to my visa, well, I was rather anxious.

It’s hard to believe that in less than one month I will be starting my first job as a lead art teacher in a school. Yes, I went through student teaching, yes, I did art outreach work in the summer of 2010. But this will be my first, full time job in my own classroom. And that’s a really, really big deal to me.

Looking back, I thought to myself, this is something I’ve been striving for since graduation in May 2009. But thinking further, really, I was striving for it those full five years at Purdue. And really, though I hadn’t made up my mind to pursue art education yet, even when I was planning my future in middle and high school, it was always ‘well, I’ll get a science job like my parents want so I can build a really cool art studio.’ That lasted to about October of freshman year of college. I still remember the trembling phone call home to my mother about changing majors, if she would still support me, if she would not tell Dad yet. And the people who supported me in that decision then, though many are no longer in my life. They served a very important role at a pivotal time.

It seems surreal, that I will be walking into my own art class. That I will have a proper health care plan. That I will have a real school calendar, with set vacation days that I can actually take instead of sit, play, work…
And I’m not completely na├»ve. I know that I’m not entering Nirvana. Though my new school did not flood in the Great 2011 flood, during a rainstorm the nearby Khlong overflowed and THAT caused a slight flood in the school. You can see the water marks on the wall. Note to self: Most important art supplies do not go on the bottom shelf. Perhaps nothing goes on the bottom shelf if possible, I doubt that’s possible.

I am going to miss my current English students. I was so touched by the hugs, photos and notes they gave me. And now I’m glad I caved in and created a teacher’s facebook account, separate from my personal space, because I will be able to see what they do after this. Probably 10 students jumped up and shouted you should be our art teacher, we’ll go ask the head mistress when I told them I was leaving to teach art. I told them it cannot be, the school charter dictates that a Thai will teach art. And I really have no desire to take a job from a Thai art teacher in their home country. Though in some ways, that is exactly what I’ve done at my new school, though they were looking for someone with a better command of English, and that’s exactly the skill I can bring. I’m very conflicted about the stratification I see here. But this post is not about that.

This post is about what I’ve overcome, my excitement for the future, a dream 8+ years in the making coming to pass. I know I put too much expectation, too much pressure, too much grief onto this dream. But that’s exactly why I refused to give it up. I’ll move half way around the world before I’ll give up.

I don’t always rub everyone the right way. I’m outspoken, I’m opinionated, I’m ‘easy to anger’ as my current boss notes with chagrin. I have views that other people don’t agree with, don’t know when to keep my mouth shut and hate being politically correct. But that’s why I get along with my closest friends, even from literally the other side of the planet, and that’s what has allowed me to keep up this relentless pursuit. Next month, I will arrive.