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.”*
“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.