Monday, December 15, 2014

Celebrating the End of the Semester with Fire and Sand

Hi everyone! Well, I made it. I began teaching at my university outside of Bangkok, Thailand on August 18 (incidentally, that was the same day I became an aunt for the first time). Except for that one glorious week in Chiang Mai, I've been going straight through since August--21 hours of college teaching plus office work, planning, grading, and a few major minor meltdowns. But finally, the grades are turned in, the exams are done, and I've spent the last two days making good use of nap times. I think I've even managed to learn a thing or two in the process. I say these things not to complain, but to give you a little insight into what teaching abroad actually is, and what it is not.

First, teaching is harder than it looks. It's exhausting. Most weekdays, I'm up early, shoving books in my bag and coffee down my throat as I rush out the door and pray I didn't forget anything. Usually I do. It took me a few months to actually understand what I was supposed to be doing, and a lot of times I felt like I was naked on a big stage: thirty pairs of eyes were staring at me, often accompanied by raised or furrowed brows. Often I got the sense that they had no idea what I was saying. This really is true, and it's one of the most difficult parts of this job, I think. At its core, when you're teaching EFL in a setting where students have had limited exposure to listening and speaking, and they're being taught by someone like, oh, me who can't speak their language, there is so much confusion. I often had to repeat my directions three or four or five times, explain it individually to some students during class and again after class, and still they didn't always understand. Of course, part of this could just be because some students simply didn't care to learn. That's a whole other frustration in and of itself. But I've learned that--and I recall this when I was living with Hebrew and Arabic speakers in Israel--what is often said in English from someone who is studying the language is not what is meant. The underlying meaning gets misconstrued, lost in translation, and you're left often with apathy, hurt feelings or worse. It's a very confusing thing.

At the same time, this job has taught me so much about the nature of human communication. I use my own language for many different things. When I'm teaching, I am communicating rudimentary English for the purpose of learning a skill, yet when I talk to other English speaking friends, I find myself casually slipping into relaxed, comfortable conversation with silly metaphors and idioms and all sorts of convoluted talk. I've really come to value that time, because it requires less thinking and more feeling.

One thing I have definitely learned is that teaching abroad is not a vacation, not by a long shot. It's a real job with commitments and superiors and evaluations and meetings and clocking in and out (still not sure why I have to do that for a salaried position, but when in Rome...). It means getting up early and wearing pleated skirts and holding my tongue. I'm starting to realize that this is part of life, and no matter where I might be in the world, there will always be meetings, forms to fill out and boxes to check off. I will somehow always be an employee of someone or something (God willing!). This is something I struggled with, not necessarily because I was in Thailand, but because I was coming from a world of getting-away-with-so-many-ridiculous-things-because-I-was-in-college-and-anything-goes.

Still, words cannot express how happy and equally frustrated my students and this job made me this semester, in the best possible way. I feel a bit more like a working adult; I'm not sure if that's good or bad. But I'm looking forward to another long semester with new faces, names, personalities, games, laughs, failures, tears and hopefully some A's and smiles along the way...

One of my awesome English II classes. The peace sign fingers are standard practice in pictures over here :)

To celebrate the end of classes, I FINALLY went to the beach. I drove a few hours south with some friends to the island of Koh Samet. Now, it wasn't as picturesque and isolated as I had hoped...at least, not at first. We arrived by speedboat to a very cramped and crowded stretch of sand, tourists and seafood restaurants. I was overwhelmed at first, but thanks to some clever navigating by the lovely Mild, one of our group, we managed to find some really picturesque pieces of sand and sun..


Ok, so maybe I enhanced the colors, but I didn't enhance the scenery. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was standing in the middle of a postcard. We spent two glorious nights in Samet, playing in the waves during the day and eating seafood by night. The beach at nighttime is quite surreal. As soon as the sun begins to set and the tide goes out, workers come and lay straw mats, pillows and cushions and tables on the sand and open up their evening restaurants. All the tourists (and some Thai families on vacation) flock to them, order drinks and food and watch the waves crash upon the sand. At least, they do until these guys show up:

Cambodian/Thai fire dancers on the beach.

It's hard to tell from the picture, but these are young men swinging flaming batons around their bodies. They come out in brigades of ten or twelve once the sun sets and the darkness can offset their flames. They light up their batons and twirl them, throwing them hundreds of feet in the air and catching them--sometimes on the flaming end. I recall running my own fingers through flames in church as a child and marveling at how they didn't burn. Sometimes, they stand on each other's shoulders as they twirl. One of the nights, I saw a flame-lit jump rope. It's astounding and scary.

Samet, like many things about Thailand, possesses so much natural beauty and so much commercial tourism in one nice, neat little package. And yet somehow, you can't help but get sucked into the relaxation it poses to your tired body, especially when the moon is out.

Koh Samet's restaurants and waves under the full moon.


Maybe I'm a sucker for beautiful things. But if so, I think I'm in the right place. Merry Christmas everyone.

Love,
Mel

Monday, December 8, 2014

Addicted to the Yea-Sayers

Maybe I thought moving to Thailand would be "hard," but that is nothing compared with the internal metamorphosis of the post-college existence.

**Warning: Existential Crisis Below**

As my dear friend Calen reminded me the other day, "don't trick yourself into thinking that if you were in the United States, you wouldn't be feeling these things, because you would. They would just be different."

Ok, she was right. And life after college is hard.

Is it hard in the material sense? Ok, no. No, in that sense, I am very blessed. But for me--and this might be different for you--material things are really pretty meaningless. I mean, I like having a house and a roof and shelter and clothing and food--and I recognize that many people do not have these things. But I don't derive much meaning or sense of purpose in my life from owning things. I've always been someone who likes doing things. I get my sense of purpose from trying other things and from making other people happy. Ok, maybe this is not wise.

In my life, I was always surrounded by people who loved me and who often knew me better than I knew myself. I felt safe with these people; I could let my guard down, just be myself, and not have to think about how my behavior was affecting them. I never felt like I was standing on ceremony in my own home.

In college, I worked, but I always stuck to things I was good at, making it easier for me to feel successful at what I wanted to do. I have always shied away from difficult things, because I hate feeling like a failure. I hate messing up.

Ok..but what now? What am I supposed to do with these feelings? Suddenly, I'm no longer surrounded by people who know me better than I know myself. When I came here, literally no one knew me and I knew no one. That means starting completely from scratch. Maybe that's exciting if you have a lot of baggage, but for me, I left everything I knew behind. And I left everything that was easy behind.

Perhaps I seriously took for granted just how wonderful my previous employers, coworkers, classmates, teachers and friends have been. But more and more I run into blank walls with no instructions, no past experience to draw from, and no one explaining to me how to tackle this. It's just me. 

Ok, and maybe one day when all is said and done and I have a lot of cats and sweaters I will look back at this point in my life and laugh, thinking, "How naive I was. Everything was so easy then!" But at this moment in my life, things are difficult in a way that surrounds and sometimes consumes me, because I can't walk away from it. I can't choose not to live, because I don't like feeling like a failure. I can't choose not to do this job because I don't like doing things that are hard and not easy. I suppose I could. But I'm not going to.

I'd really like to know--how have some of you transitioned from a cozy, predictable environment, to a life that's habitually difficult? How do you deal with the walls?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Trip Up North

This trip happened over a month ago, and yet I was in denial about its brevity, so I neglected to write about it until now. But I think I'm finally processing it all!

Over student midterms, for a much needed break from teaching and from city living, I took a trip up north with two friends and fellow teachers. We hopped on an overnight bus to the northern city of Chiang Mai, also known as Thailand's "second city." Think Chicago to USA's New York City, except zero skyscrapers and with an ancient, Asian city wall.

One of the entrances to the Old City.

I love these trees. They're all over Thailand. They remind me of the jungle.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful mix of ancient history, artistic tradition and modern innovation. If you're familiar with the term "hipster," it can almost be used to describe Chiang Mai, except instead of fourteen year olds skateboarding in flannel shirts you see sixty year old Greek and Italian ex-pats smoking rolled cigarettes and playing music in bars. But the feel is basically the same--laid back, adorably ironic and boldly unique.

The night markets were my favorite thing about the city. Sure they were crowded, but here you really see the heart of Thailand's artisanal craft making scene. Everything from hand woven scarves to purses to jewelry to wooden carvings, paintings, sketchings and etchings were for sale along the streets. And the best part was that you got to witness these crafts in progress. One market, referred to simply as "the night bazaar" features a lower level indoors where brilliant visual artists draw and paint on massive canvases for the entertainment and prowess of curious tourists, all while displaying the capacity of their artistic genius . Of course, in true artistic fashion, you can't take pictures of the work, so I leave it up to you to imagine wall to wall paintings of children, old men, Buddhist monks walking to temples in the rain, elephants, rice fields, wolves, Cherokee people and the like, all in the most beautiful colors and black-and-white charcoal depictions I've ever seen.

For me, the biggest treats of the trip were actually outside of the city. The first was a Thai cooking class at a special, homegrown farm in the mountains:

Our group enjoying our delicious creations.

But the second was far more edifying and less simplified. My two friends and I elected to go on a three day, two night "trekking tour" in one of Chiang Mai's beautiful mountain terrains.  The morning of the first day, we were driven to an elephant camp that, unfortunately, did not treat the elephants humanely. I will refrain from posting pictures here. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the benefits and complications of the Thai tourism industry on that day.

Yet our journey grew increasingly authentic and unpredictable after that. We drove to our beginning pathway and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. After a quick dip, we continued on, our quick footed guide (nicknamed "Louis" but pronounced like the French) always stopping to point out tasty snacks like fire ants (I'm not kidding) and various kinds of mushrooms.

That evening we arrive at a small village belonging to the local Keren people. The Keren originally migrated from Tibet, settling first in Burma and now in northern Thailand. They speak their own language, though their alphabet is similar to Thai script. Our guide, Louis, belonged to a neighboring village but was treated as one of their own, and they extended the same warm hospitality to us.

Our guide Louis...jokingly feeding me a bottle of water.

Inside the cooking room. 
After a luxurious sleep on straw mats, listening to the rain patter on the bamboo rooftops, I slid my way up the dirt path to rejoin my group for breakfast and our second day of hiking. Day two proved to be very, err, wet, as we encountered a serious downpour about an hour into our hike with no shelter in sight. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and thank God for Louis, who was able to guide us through steep paths that had quickly turned into raging rivers. We made it to our second camp for lunch.

Before we left the Keren village, we passed through the local school, where we peeked in on children learning Thai language songs. I had forgotten what it felt like to be around children (having spent the majority of my time with college students), and I wanted to cry seeing the sheer joy on their faces. I'm including a facebook link to the video that my friend, Emi, took, because seeing them was such a beautiful reminder of what all people share in common. We may all have different words for "head, shoulders, knees, in toes" but those precious body parts are what we all have and need to protect.

I'm eternally grateful for the trip to Chiang Mai, and most especially to the Keren people for letting me into their homes for a little while. Being there was a great reminder of why I came to Thailand in the first place. Yes, I love English, and I really like teaching, and I have my beliefs. But what I have to give pales in comparison to what I have to learn just by meeting people. Sure, it can be uncomfortable--like walking through the pouring rain--but on the other side, always, always the sun comes out and dries up all my insecurities.

It's been four months since I arrived. My first semester of classes are coming to a swift and jarring end. There are days when I feel completely, inexplicably ordinary, when I forget that I'm in Thailand all together, and it feels like just another day. I think these days are important to keep my sanity at a healthy level. But far more important to me are those days--precious few they may be at the moment--that take me outside of the ordinary and into some of the ancient and secret worlds of God's creation. I pray that He will give me the courage to pursue these extraordinary moments with as much vigor as I try to pursue the ordinary.


With love,
Mel

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Time Has Come (The Walrus Said) to talk about Home Sickness

It's finally happened.

I'm homesick.

The feeling has been creeping on slowly like a cold for the past few weeks.

I've been trying my best to combat it. I'm taking regular doses of social events, drinking lots of classroom prep, and getting at least 8 hours of Thai commuting a night, but still, even through preventative medicine, I'm homesick.

I know I shouldn't be. I have regular access to the internet, Skype, Whatsapp, and I'm sending postcards. But frankly, I'm beginning to wonder if my internet addiction is actually fueling my homesickness. I've noticed in the past few weeks that I'm spending more time in my apartment with my face glued to facebook or gmail or even the Huffington Post than outside making new friends. Today I saw an issue of TIME magazine for the first time since being here, and I gobbled it down like a sickly sweet dessert. To be honest, making friends takes work, even in one's home country, and sometimes I just don't feel like expending the energy to talk with more people. Some days, I'm really talked out.

Additionally, being here has made me much more aware of my Western-ness. I'm an English speaker, I thought to myself today, and that categorizes me in the eyes of so many people, most of whom are not (native) English speakers. Today, for example, I received this well intentioned but unsolicited advice from a fellow (Thai) teacher while grabbing a juice in between classes:

Be careful. Don't go outside alone, because you know, Thai people, they kill foreigners.

I smiled politely and paid for my drink. Then I left, feeling confused as to whether that was a warning or a threat.

Things like this happen all the time--not quite to that extreme (and by the way, my experience with Thai people so far couldn't be further from this apparent "truth"), but I'm often singled out for my foreignness. Most of the time I just laugh it off, but deep down, sometimes it gets to me that I'm judged for my appearance without people bothering to talk to me first.

Then of course, there is the whole language barrier thing. Suddenly, everything I studied in my history classes makes sense. On the one hand, I'm very grateful for the opportunity to feel like I don't belong. In this day and age, with migration and immigration and asylum seeking abounding, I can't imagine how confused and scared and misplaced refugees, migrants and immigrants must feel in any country other than their own. And on the other hand, sometimes it's just plain irritating.

But I'm learning a lot. For instance, I know that I can successfully direct a taxi driver to my given address with the help of a GPS and a rudimentary knowledge of Thai direction words. I know that Thai people smile in all sorts of situations that I would normally find confrontational or irrational. And I know that when the power goes out, there's nothing you can do but pray by the light of your cellphone.

But I'm still not really getting it yet. There's still a million things about Thailand's bureaucracy that don't make sense to me, and I wonder if they make sense to anyone else either. And I still marvel at how the sky can just open up and pour rain sideways until the roads start to smell of sewage.

All this, and I'm only on month two.

I'm trying to find a way to wrap this up, but I'm not finished yet. I'm struggling to give myself encouraging words. How do you deal with homesickness? Does it help to talk to your family more or less? Does it help to get out in the real world, close the laptop, and go make a new friend?

Or does it help just to get a good night's sleep?

I'd really love to know. For now, I'm looking forward to the upcoming break; hopefully I'll finally get to go exploring.

Mel


Sunday, September 28, 2014

"They Have Pizza in Thailand?"

In trying to convince my parents that I am living comfortably as a teacher in Thailand, I've been telling them all the familiar things. "Yesterday, I went shopping. I bought linens, and I had pizza for dinner with friends."

"Really? They have pizza in Thailand?"

They do indeed.

But make no mistake about it; I am in a foreign country, and with that come many highs and lows. I feel so comfortable at church, speaking English with my friends, and yet as soon as I enter a van I am dropped down to the level of humility it takes to remind me that my language is like that of a baby. The little girl who collects the money tells me to sit in the back, where there is room. I know this by the nod of her little head, not by the words she speaks; those I cannot yet understand. "Abac Bangna?" I ask her. "Yee-sip hah," she responds. Twenty five baht. I pay my fee and scoot to the back of the crowded van with my many bags of groceries, linens, and leftover street food; my spoils from the weekend. And yet I was too focused on making it to the right bus stop to remember that I had extra food in hand, and perhaps the homeless man curled up on the street corner might like it. I gave him my peanuts, but I forgot that I had more to give.

I always have more to give, and yet I always feel like I am not enough. I grew up thinking this way about God, too. No matter what I do, I can never be a good enough Christian. I can never make God love me enough, because I constantly fall short of His will. But in thinking this way, this dangerous mind game that the devil likes to play, I forgot that I have already been redeemed. He already loves me, no matter what.

That love comes and goes in Thailand, like it does in any place. We tie our love in with our expectations of good grades, praise and recognition for our worldly achievements. I tie my self-worth to my ability to be a good teacher, a good person, a good daughter and sister and friend. I am never enough.

But I am enough. I am enough, sitting here on my patio. My little bedroom is enough, situated here in Abac's campus. And living in Thailand is enough.

They have pizza in Thailand. They have soda and hamburgers and Iphone 6's (on pre-order). They have Bible studies--Thailand is remarkably accepting of other religions, unlike some other places I have lived. Thailand is enough.

Yet Thailand is still growing in many ways, and I am growing along side it. Maybe our relationship will only be temporary, but I will love it and love my time here in whatever capacity God gives me. I will not be perfect. But if I could be, I wouldn't need God.

And then I never would have come here in the first place.

I am not enough without God. But with him, I am everything because He is everything. When He is in me, I am enough, through the mispronunciations and the mistakes and the stress. I am enough because God made me. And He will always be enough.


Tonight I'm feeling grateful for religious freedom; it's a rarity in many, many places. I am vexed by more things than I understand, but perhaps I should also be grateful for the simple pleasures, like sun shining on freshly fallen snow. They certainly don't have that in Thailand :) But if God made the whole world the same, no one would feel compelled to travel, would they?

Monday, September 8, 2014

One Month In: A Short Picture Book and Musings on Language Learning

This is my life right now...

Every morning I wake up at seven thirty to go to work. But it's okay, because I wake up to this...


I teach outside of the city, but it's okay because I like the quiet. When I'm anxious for culture, I can go here

 
 
Or see this.
 
 
 
I get lost amid statues,
 

 
 
pay respects on the way,
 
 
have lunch on a boat dock
 
 
or buy jars made from clay.
 
 
If I need a reminder of why I came so far away from home, I find it in God's simple pleasures, like a mooncake, a coconut, or a trip to Silom.
 
 
 
Of course life isn't like this every day. This pictures were taken almost a month ago. I'm going on week four of teaching, and that is an adventure in itself! But I needed a reminder this morning of just how magnificent Thai culture really is. You can never boil it down to little quips and phrases, and I refuse to do so. To try to understand Thai culture from the perspective of a foreigner, a "farang," is like trying to guess the color of a fruit flesh's without peeling the skin. It's impossible to know.  Thailand has a huge tourism industry; everywhere I go I see tourists, mostly Westerners. Bangkok has a massive ex-pat retiree community and many more sex tourists. (For more information on the sex trade in Thailand, go here.) One of the biggest complaints I hear is that Thai people don't understand Westerners. For English teachers like me, it can be frustrating trying to communicate in a language that many people don't understand or seem motivated to learn. Indeed, Thailand is ranked near the bottom of Southeast Asian countries for English speaking ability. Many are concerned about the effects this will have on Thailand and its economy with the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) incentive in 2015. After all, the official language of Asean will be English--not so much to communicate with the Western world, but to communicate with each other. Isn't it curious that English is becoming the common language of the Asian world?
 
I could go on and on about the sociocultural implications of a world gone mad with English fever. For a wonderful Ted talk on the subject, click here. But the fact still remains that millions of Thais speak little to no English in an economy increasingly reliant on foreign (mostly English-speaking) tourism.
 
So should they learn?
 
Many of my students are here because they want to take over a family business, work in tourism or work with foreigners, and they know English will allow them to get there. But my students--university students in general--area small percentage of the population, most of which exists in the rural provinces of the country.  I know nothing about the schooling system in Thailand, except that it is compulsory. I do not know the level of English language teaching in the school system. But classes are obviously conducted in Thai--the native language to so many.
 
Which leads me back to the question: should Thai people learn English to communicate with foreigners or for international business? For the latter, perhaps, but I'll skip that debate for now. How about the former: foreigners? Tourists? Visiting English professors?
 
Or should we learn Thai? Wouldn't that be more helpful?
 
Or maybe a little of both?
 
So much upset in one's daily life--regardless of location--comes from miscommunications that get blown out of proportion. It seems to me that this can be easily remedied through language learning, not just Thai speakers learning English, but English speakers learning Thai (like myself). I feel frustrated when I can't connect more deeply with someone because of a language barrier. This is something I want to change. But I think there needs to be more emphasis on language learning, as opposed to just English language learning. If language learning is one-sided, there can be no cultural exchange, only cultural domination. This is not what the world needs.
 
My goal for this year, before I arrived, was to learn how to be a teacher. I am learning, but I'm realizing that building relationships with my students--and anyone else from Thailand, for that matter--requires more work on my part, because I have to find ways to put myself in their shoes...and their sandals :)
 
I think learning language is a beautiful way to do that.

 
 
 
 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chapter One: A Very Slow Start to a Very Long Year

The first week of teaching is over. The second week of teaching has just begun.  I write happily from the comfort of my apartment in my pajamas--this is my day off.

The first week was everything: exhilarating, terrifying, irritating, rewarding, and (literally) nauseating. I teach nineteen and a half hours a week.  While I thought that was completely normal, even a bit easy (given that most full time American jobs in the professional world run anywhere form forty to eighty hours in a week), I quickly realized that nineteen and a half hours of teaching really means nineteen and half hours of performing stand-up comedy routines. And that's exhausting.

In many ways I think I came to immortalize teaching much as I used to immortalize acting (which I find rather hilarious, since I'm starting to see so many similarities between the two jobs). I convinced myself over the last year that teaching was one of the most noble professions a person could pursue and that therefore, I should do it. I convinced myself of this so that I would feel better about moving to a corner of this globe I barely knew existed. Of course, I still do (and always will) believe that teaching is a very noble profession. I probably wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for my teachers. I mean that. But being noble doesn't necessarily mean that you aren't plagued with doubt, fear, irritation, and those pesky little calls of nature that you just can't answer because you're already late to your next class and it's twenty minutes away on the second floor of a building that doesn't have stairs.

(Deep breath).

This past week, as I bulldozed my way through seas of giggly students, I began to feel a change in my own skin. First of all, I knew that I was being watched. It's impossible to avoid being seen, because students wear uniforms and teachers do not. If you're not in uniform, you're a teacher, and everybody knows it.

I never thought I would be cursing self expression!

I've always, always tried to blend in with the crowd, to avoid feeling put on the spot and to be able to watch life unfold from the safety of the wallpaper. But now I feel like I'm suddenly in the hot, bright spotlight--and I've only been teaching for a week of my life.

My dream is to use this awkward position of authority to my advantage--not to self-aggrandize myself, but to catalyze the respect teachers are supposedly garnered into challenging my students further in the classroom. Ok...but how?

I'm torn halfway between wanting to throw myself full-heartedly into this profession and wanting to lace up my boots, grab a backpack and hit the road.

I'll go ahead and say it: it is not easy working in a foreign country. Nothing makes sense to me. The bureaucracy of Thailand isn't my bureaucracy, so instead of brushing it off as "typical," I get more and more frustrated. Every day I get more blank stares from students who would rather be on their cell phones or shopping at the mall than sitting in my classroom listening to me explain non-countable nouns.

What the hell are non-countable nouns, anyway???

Maybe I would be less frustrated if I had indeed finished an English as a Second Language training course. That's probably what any logical, foreword-thinking person would do. But part of me thinks that no matter how "prepared" you are for a job, nothing can prepare you for getting smacked in the face by the unpredictability of human beings. Whether they are above or below you in "rank" (which is very big here in Thailand), human beings are just as messy, confused, and wanting to be loved as you.

If only I could hug everyone instead of having to smile politely and say "kap kun ma ka" for God only knows what.