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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Traveler and the Wanderer

"All that glitters is not gold. Not all those who wander are lost."

As a child I recounted these words to myself laying in bed at night, dreaming about climbing mountains and going on big adventures. Most of the time I went on adventure in my head, through the pages of my favorite books. I climbed Mount Doom with Frodo, went to Hogwarts with Harry Potter and rode through Balinor with Ari and her faithful steed. I dreamed of big adventure, but never had the courage to step beyond my own backyard.

Some things may have changed since then, but my propensity towards romanticizing other lands has not. Before coming to Thailand, I had visions dancing through my mind of endless rice fields and pristine white beaches and elephants bathing in the jungle. I know these things to exist in Thailand; I haven't seen them yet.

I'm beginning to realize there are very big differences between traveling and living abroad. For the next calendar year, my life falls into the latter category. I bought a one way ticket, and I checked suitcases. I spent nearly four hundred dollars on home goods and groceries. I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

But the linchpin about working abroad is that you are in fact working. You have a schedule, bosses, meetings, homework. I'm not alone and I'm not on my own. And I'm definitely not living in the jungle. In fact, Thailand--specifically Bangkok and environs--seem to be the most built up, sprawling city I've ever seen. I have never seen so many malls in so few square miles. And they are massive.

How then can I reconcile my innate longing to find peace outside my own country with my current status? I feel suddenly thrown into a whirlwind of noise and smog and very strong air conditioning. Relaxed though it may be in spirit, Bangkok is definitely not peaceful.


The colorful, chaotic, never ending traffic of Bangkok
I came with the express purpose of learning everything I could about teaching English as a foreign language. But now that I'm here, my wanderlust is growing strong again. I want to explore.


Sleeping kitty in Wat Pho 
I must tell myself I have plenty of time, but there seems to be never enough when one is travelling. But am I still travelling? Regardless of labels, I must prepare myself for the coming weeks. I have so much to learn. This seems to me the perfect opportunity to practice vigilance in planning, both for lessons and travel. I tend to be rather type B when it comes to making plans, unfortunately, which often leaves me stressed out and upset at my own procrastination.

I have a lot to do. Teaching begins on Monday, and I have over 90 names to learn and memorize. It's going to be a long week, but God willing, it will be wonderful.

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."


With love,
Mel

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Off-Topic: I'm Going to Be Published!!

A while ago I submitted a short piece to the Philadelphia Inquirer about spending Christmas in Bethlehem. I realize it's a bit preemptive to announce this, because I haven't submitted the release forms yet but I'm so excited, I can't wait.  I am going to be a published author! Jo March would be so proud :)

Click here to read my original, much longer post from two years ago. It's funny how one's story-telling changes over time. I remember writing this for the first time, the event still felt so new and precious. It still is precious, but it's imprinted itself on psyche a little bit more now.

Note: I won't publish the new piece on here until three days after it comes out in the Inquirer. I have a lot to learn about free lancing and contracts. If you live in the Philly area, be on the lookout for my article in December!

 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Goodbye Dubai, Hello Thai

The next adventure has begun! I'm blogging from BangNa, Thailand. I took an English teaching position at the Catholic Assumption University; I arrived Saturday and begin orientation on Thursday. Teaching begins in two weeks.

En route to Thailand, I planned a long stopover in Dubai. Though reluctant at first to plan anything concrete (honestly, I think I was still exhausted from the month in Massachusetts), I quickly realized the insanity of spending twenty hours in an airport, even one as big as Dubai International. So at the last minute, I went to a tourism desk just outside of customs and booked a one night stay in the Howard Johnson in Bur Dubai. Trust me though, this was not the Howard Johnson you're thinking of. The hotel was pretty deluxe, complete with several restaurants, a minibar, a queen size bed and a full length tub. I didn't actually sleep, though. I had to be back at the airport at 1am to catch my connecting flight.

On the way to the shuttle stop, I met Jess--a vibrant soul from England who been working in Australia  (and traveling in southeast Asia, incidentally!).  I'm sad I don't have any pictures of us, but we hit it off right away and decided to explore the city together. According to the airport map, our hotel was right near the old souks (markets). We set out, but never found them. We did find some decidedly touristy textiles, though...

 Seeking out the local goods...
 
So maybe we didn't find the "authentic markets," but we did a lot of people watching--the streets of Dubai are crowded, mostly with men. We eventually came upon the port, found a great museum and watched the sun set before returning to our hotel for a little R and R.

One of the many banks in Dubai


Soaking in the Arabian sunset :)
 
Dubai's an interesting place. It certainly gives off an air of luxury and surplus. Advertisements abound. But walking through the streets, it felt very much like Ramallah (in Palestine), or Be'er Sheva, my old home town in Israel.  I actually felt a curious sense of ease being there; the street signs, the sidewalks, the traffic circles looked exactly the same. I felt like I was back in the Negev


Posts along the pier proudly display the United Arab Emirates' flag.

I'd love to go back someday when I have more time to spend. But for now I'm so grateful for this little taste of Middle Eastern culture as I prepare myself for life in the tropics of southeast Asia. Stay tuned...




I know it's just my camera being blurry, but this so reminds me of an impressionist painting...


With Love,
Mel

Friday, July 25, 2014

Almost Goodbye--A Mixture of Fear and Optimism

I'm laying on the  box-spring mattress that has been mine for the past month, eating chocolate as I contemplate what my life has been these past four weeks. First, I can say confidently (between bites of Reese's peanut butter cups--a staple of Artsbridge life) that no other job I've had has been as fulfilling as this one. My spirits are high, and despite a little lack of sleep, I've never felt better. Tomorrow is the final showcase, the time when the students finally get to exhibit their completed art projects and films to friends, family, and locals (and hopefully a few reporters). Since this is my first year here, I'm not quite sure what to expect, but I imagine it will be an incredibly fulfilling moment for all of them. This presentation is the culmination of their three weeks and their hard work, frustration, tears, and triumphs. They've struggled not only with the physical execution of professional creativity, but they've had to learn to work in teams with people from very different backgrounds and of largely different opinions. Many of them struggled to have their voices heard and to listen to others, and I'm sure at times they felt like nothing would or could change.

Fast forward three weeks, and they're now preparing to exhibit professionally crafted pieces to the larger public. But they're just not displaying their art. They are demonstrating to this community that change is absolutely possible and collaboration can triumph over division. Add to that the fact that some are Israeli Jews and others are Arab, Palestinian, and American, and you have a whole lot of awesome in one place.

This has not been an easy time for the students. There's a war going on in Gaza. It's hit us all in
different ways, and they are all struggling to keep their heads in the program. But they've done beautifully and come out the stronger for it. I had a small experience with rocket warfare when I was in Israel two years ago, yet I know it's nothing compared to life growing up in the region. I struggled to place my feelings into the pool when I came here, but I know that this time has helped me grow up and see war in a very different light.  Now more than ever,  the implications of the work here are  immediate and so crucial.

There have been several interviews and articles written about this summer at Artsbridge. Last week we took the students to the Catuit Arts Center in Cape Cod to talk about the program to potential donors. One question that came up and has come up in many of the interviews is, "but does it work?" And, like the brilliant thinkers they are, our students answer with poise and eloquence something that really boils down to "OF COURSE."

To me the answer is so simple, but I understand why the question is asked so much. "Does it work? Does Artsbridge actually make a difference?" Uh, if you're expecting us to send the students to the debate tables to arrange a cease fire, the answer is no. Will Artsbridge stop the rockets from firing on both sides? No. Not right now it won't. But one of the most important ideas we've discussed in these past few weeks is the crucial notion that every human being deserves the same respect and opportunities and that individuals have an enormous responsibility to retain their own humanity by recognizing the humanity of others. This means putting love, compassion and empathy before violence, anger and hate. Hate is always an easy way out because it takes humanity out of the equation. To hate something, you have to to trivialize it, make it seem small and insignificant. But in learning to recognize the humanity in each other, our students have chosen to love others rather than hate them. If you love someone, you instinctively want to protect them, to care for them, to support them. I've seen an incredible support system develop between these students, who never knew the others existed up until a few months ago. And in the cultural narratives of Israel and Palestine (and in most countries if we're being honest), it is so easy to forget that human beings exist on both sides of the wall.

So, yeah, duh, Artsbridge makes a huge difference. It gives young people the tools to go back into their communities having understood what the view looks like from the other side, having spoken and laughed and cried and danced and swam and played and created with human beings from the "other" side, humans whom they didn't know existed. Abstract concepts about "groups" and "identities" have hopefully been replaced with concrete faces, voices, and unique personalities that have bonded and  will never be forgotten. And I think they've all found that they're not so different after all.

Monday, July 7, 2014

An Update: Change is Work and Work Takes Time

Change is work, and work takes time. I've been in Williamstown, Massachusetts for a week and a few days now. I came to be a counselor at a program called Artsbridge, Inc., which was set up about eight years ago. Every summer, a group of talented and compassionate artists and educators take a group of approximately thirty students from Israel, Palestine, and the United States to an area of Massachusetts, away from the fires of home for three weeks of intensive dialogue sessions and art projects. The kids arrived here at the Buxton School in Williamstown four days ago, yet it already feels like three years since they've arrived. Energetic doesn't begin to describe this group. They came like hurricanes, bearing the force of their personalities and experiences with exuberance and spirit. I'm honored to be a part of this project.

What I've experienced so far has been a whirlwind. Things are beginning to "slow down" in the sense that now, finally, after the staff and students are all adjusted and (marginally) well-rested, we can begin the work: the intensive dialogue and group art projects that will challenge the students to their very core--and the staff as well--to think about the "other's" point of view. Opinions change, and things are fluid when it comes to self and relationships. It is here in this setting where art can thrive and truly work its wonder.

One of the reasons I was drawn to the program was that it embodied everything I knew art to be but never experienced for myself. In this program, art is not only a means of expression, but a vehicle for discussion, for opening up channels of one's self and self awareness that can lead to new discoveries, relationships, and revelations. Arts tell stories, and we all have our own story to tell. I can't wait to see what the students produce.

I broke down after the first twenty-four hours of being here (thankfully before the students arrived). I felt like a part of myself--a very big part--had been shut down for years as I bulldozed my way through school, eking out papers and bullshit thoughts about taverns in Potosi and communism in Eastern Europe. Okay, maybe it wasn't all bullshit. I love history, and I love thought, so in a way I suppose I found college stimulating and enriching. But on the flip side, I became so disconnected from myself that I forgot what joy was. I shut that part of me down--the part of me that loves to sing and dance and smile and laugh and soak up sunshine. I put that part of myself on a shelf and told myself that I was here to work. So I did.

I cried a lot in college, which isn't really saying much, because I cry all the time. But I became very sad in a way that I hadn't been in years. Why? I couldn't understand. I couldn't rationalize it. I had been given everything that I thought was important to me--a top notch education, a means to a career and a life of "success" in any profession I chose, a loving family who supported me, an on-campus apartment...even my meals were prepared for me. I had nothing to do. I had no reason to engage with the world.

So I didn't. I spent days--days--in the library, in the horribly dark and depressing basement, watching movies (for school, really), reading (sometimes very dry) articles about any sort of "ism" you can think of. I chewed on words and spat them back out in paragraphs and pages. And at the end of almost every day, I walked back to my apartment, exhausted, depressed, and alone.

Maybe I'm being a bit extreme. It wasn't all horrible. But even fun felt forced, because I had this constant weight on my chest that I was missing a deadline or missing a connection and wouldn't be approved of. This is why I can't do grad school right now. I need to remove the cinderblock from my chest and breathe.
Still, Artsbridge is definitely not a walk in the park. It is challenging me in so many ways that school never did. I can't ever escape if things get tough, and escape has always been my go-to mechanism. But I wonder if, during my escapes, I was ever processing anything. No, I don't think so. I think I just shut down.

This is what teenagers (and some adults) do; if something is difficult, you go to sleep, go on facebook, go to the library...shut down. Overload. Done. And sometimes we need to shut ourselves off so that we don't implode. But we never deal with what is in front of us if we don't, well, stay and deal.

My impulse has always been to run away. Now I feel like I want to run to something. I ran to Artsbridge, and once I arrived, I couldn't believe I was here. I felt confused, consumed, and alien. I suppose this is natural. I think it is. But I've always wondered about people who stay--why is it that they can bear the brunt of things that make me cringe and cry? For many people, it's not a choice. For the students of Artsbridge, they don't have the opportunity to run away. Home is a battlefield. In my own experience, I can't begin to understand this.

I'm struggling to conclude this posting, probably because Artsbridge is only beginning, and I know my experiences will change how I feel. I'm so excited for what is to come, and I feel more prepared than I've ever been. This is not to say that any of this will be easy, but life isn't easy. It's messy and horribly broken. There's a Jewish concept called "tikkun olam," which means "repairing the world." There's a similar concept in Christianity: "go and make disciples of all nations"--not by force, and not by might, but by building relationships with others, as did Christ, for whom "their is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free." I'm learning that discipleship doesn't mean force or change. It means meeting people where they are, and staying with them to talk about their lives. It doesn't mean "correct" or "incorrect." It means understanding. This is the discipleship I want to live, and in a scary way, I feel that I've come to the right place--not to talk about religion, but to break down barriers and realize we are all exactly the same in this world.

I realize this is a self-centered blog today. I'm hoping that eventually I can stop posting about myself and write about my observations from an unbiased perspective. But that's why I'm not a journalist...not yet, anyway. I love you all, dear family and my friends who I hope are reading this and thinking about me, because I'm thinking about you, and I love you all very, very much.


With love,
Mel

PS--If you want to learn more about this amazing program, please visit www.artsbridgeinstitute.org. You will be amazed.