Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas

Today is Monday, December 24, 2012.  We are sitting in our new apartment in Chatterat, a tiny town north of the Issan city of Korat.  Nee will start work here in another week and I am here to help her move.  We are also going to look for a job for me as I will be moving down here in March, once my semester is over.  Since this is a Buddhist country, Christmas is more of a party day rather than a holiday thus I am going to apply for work at some of the schools here.

Last Christmas was spent packing to move to Thailand and having a dinner and video night with friends.  We had no idea what our future would hold.  My future feels that way now once again.  Christmas is becoming my time of moving rather than celebrating.  Still, we hope to celebrate in some way, though we don’t know what that will be.

Planning never seems to work as planned.  We thought we would be in Chaiyaphum by Thursday leaving me Friday to apply for work and the weekend to find an apartment.  Our car broke down on the way losing us one day.   I also needed to renew my visa as Thailand requires me to check in to immigration every 90 days when I am here for the purpose of working.  I could have done my check in at the office in Fang, two blocks from my school but we wanted to be able to use as many of my 90 days as possible.  We decided to check in at the town of Nakhon Sawan on the way down, giving me an extra few days.  That was the plan.

We spent the night there and found it to be an old city with lots of narrow alleys filled with zooming motorcycles and huge trucks.  Nee had heard of a restaurant “near” our hotel and we decided to walk.  We got lost at first, were overwhelmed by the pace and confusion of the traffic but managed to push on and finally found the place.  On the way we also found a few establishments offering hourly services to lonely men, motorcycle bars, and other uninviting establishments.  The dinner was delicious even though the waitress completely ignored us throughout our stay leaving her with no tip. 

The next day, we ate food from our ice chest and went out to find immigration.  It was easy to find though we were too early.  We had some chicken and rice at a street vendor and then found coffee at another while we waited.  The office had no line which made us happy after our all day adventure three months earlier in Chiang Mai.  Then we found out life wasn’t so easy. 

Apparently, I needed to check in where I live or at least have proof of our home via a government registration form.  My option was to catch a bus back to Chiang Mai or move on and we chose the latter.  Along the way, our car broke down and Nee spent the time calling friends to see if we could get a connection along the way.  If she couldn’t do that, we were going to have to go down to Bangkok and use Nee’s house registration.  Her best friend grew up in our destination town Korat and she arranged to have her brother meet us at the immigration office.  

On our way out of town, our car broke down.  Ironically, our Chevy managed to find trouble in front of the only Chevy dealer for miles.  We stuck there for most of the day and had to stop at Lopburi for the night, a town famous for its monkeys.  As we drove into town, we past a temple with monkeys crawling everywhere.  Our hotel had statues of monkeys throughout.  We spent the evening in our room listening to music across the street that sounded a bit like someone torturing a cat though I was told it was karaoke.  

A little monkey time for Roy
We were still a long drive from Korat causing us to drive as fast as possible to get there.  Her brother needed to be somewhere at 1 and we still had a 4 hour drive to get there.   We arrived at 11:30 and I began to worry the officers would disappear at noon for lunch.  I took a number and waited.  At 11:45 they called my number and the brother and I went to the desk.  I handed over my paperwork and we both sat quietly waiting to hear her ask if I really lived in Korat.  She never said anything.  She stamped my forms, stapled a paper into my passport and wished me a good day.  The brother and I looked at each other relieved.

For Christmas, I would have liked to have either spent it in Fang with my new friends or maybe even be with my sons and brother in America.  This year, though, we are going to spend it looking for work and enjoying my Christmas present of being allowed to stay in Thailand another 90 days.  As we have had no major mishaps this year, I am thankful for that as well as having made many new friends.  I have also discovered that I both enjoy teaching and am good at it.  Thus, my Christmas present this year was to discover something new about myself and my ability to persevere. 

I hope, as you are reading this, you will have a pleasant and uneventful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Teacher Roy

Monday, December 17, 2012

Teacher Roy Starts the Long Good-bye

I will be leaving Fang when my semester ends the first week of March.  I hadn't planned to leave so soon, but my wife took a job in a town 15 hours south from here and I will join her as soon as I can.  We will be in the province of Chaiyaphum, a part of the Issan area in Thailand.  I will talk more about that in later posts.  For now, I will reflect on my last six months.

When I was growing up, one of the first television shows I ever watched was The Andy Griffith Show.  One of the stars was my age so I felt an affinity to him and his situation.  The show took place in the mythical town of Mayberry, a small town in North Carolina with one street down the middle, a few stop lights, a barber, a school, and Sheriff Andy.  Mayberry was the sort of town where most everyone knew each other and strangers were easy to point out.  You felt safe and confident that tomorrow would be as good as today.  Fang is my Mayberry.

I arrived here an inexperienced teacher, thinking this place was too isolated for me and that I needed something bigger; perhaps Chiang Mai to the south instead.  My first weeks I was here alone, as Nee hadn't arrived yet, so I had to fend for myself.  No one knew me, as I would expect. I knew enough Thai to order a meal, and that was about it.  Yet, I persisted.  I attended classes each day, came in with a smile to each class and was greeted with the same.  I struggled to understand what I could do to help my students and how I could fit in to such an alien world.  The few American teachers that were here retreated into their own world.   Then I was put into the office with the ninth grade teachers and I had the opportunity to sit next to Malee.  She is a Thai English teacher with a sincere smile and a warm heart and she did all she could to help me survive.  She brought me snacks in the morning, let me complain about my problems with classes, and gave me ideas about what to do.  We became friends.

Over time, students have come to trust me and even come to me for help.  When I go shopping, they  come up to me to say hello, and even give me assistance, if I needed it.  My desire to run to Chiang Mai began to diminish.  My bike arrived and I have been able to get out into the country, to see the real Thailand.

If you are considering dropping everything and moving to Thailand to "experience" a foreign culture, here is my recommendation.  Stay out of the cities, the Starbucks and anything with an English menu.  Learn to help yourself and help others.  Smile at everyone as they will always smile back.  Be sincere.  Be prepared to see things you never imagined in your home country.  Drop your western ideals and accept that things here are never going to be like home.  I have been able to drop most of the material things I always considered critical for existence and managed to still be comfortable.  When I wanted something to eat that wasn't Thai, I figured out how to make it myself.  Find out what you truly need versus what you want.

I have come to enjoy the mundane views of cows in the field, workers hand-planting corn and the sight of flying lanterns.  I have found patience I never knew I had and I have found success I never thought possible. Living here isn't for everyone, of course.  Perhaps I will someday move back to the US, should my finances allow it.  On the other hand, few things are more beautiful than a room full of students singing off-key and mispronouncing lyrics.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Auditor Goes North

When I started teaching here, I was given a list of classrooms, a tour of the campus, shown the canteen and told to start the next day.  I wasn't told that I had so many classes and that the upper grades were organized by their grades, their interests and their social skills.  I was told to teach them conversation and sent on my way.

Since that time, I have struggled to figure out how to teach someone conversation.  I went from class to class trying different things to teach including speeches, interviews, songs and quizzes.  What I had not done, though, was what my auditing had taught me years before.  Know your subject first.  I realized that after six months, I really didn't know who my best speakers were and who couldn't understand me at all.  I had been meeting with students face-to-face occasionally to have them repeat some words to me, but I had never actually interviewed them.  I found the task too overwhelming so I avoided it.  At least until November rolled around.

Through trial and error, I came up with my way to evaluate a student's ability to speak English.  I knew most of them could read and their writing was beautiful, though it was mostly rote and didn't involve any new ideas.  My job is to teach conversation and I decided to focus on just that.

I got a list of students for each class and had them come up to my desk in the front of the room and then asked them one question.  What do you want to do when you finish high school?  I never stopped there, of course.  Based on their first answer, I would ask another and then another question.  From there I came up with a scoring method.

0 – Mai kaew jai (I don't understand)
1 – Can understand English but cannot answer
2 – Can give short answers with help from friends
3 – Can give short answers with little or no help from friends
4 – Can give short answers without help from friends
5 – Can answer in full sentences and participate in a conversation, poor pronunciation, small vocabulary
6 – Can participate in a conversation, larger vocabulary, better pronunciation, cannot always follow native speaker
7 – Can follow native speaker with occasional difficulty, larger vocabulary, better pronunciation
8 – No difficulty, needs to work on pronunciation and larger vocabulary
9 – Speaks with an accent
10 – Native speaker

I wrote this on the board and then started my work.  My answers ranged from, "I plan to go to Chiang Mai University to become a doctor," to "I go by bus."  I was surprised when students scoring 1 and 2 want to be guides, airline hostesses and even English teachers.  I wished them luck and suggested they work harder on their English.

This week, I have started telling classes their overall scores.  Some did well while others did not.  No matter what class I spoke to, though, they gave me far more attention than I had received before.  I said that if they were serious about their career choices, they would need to raise their scores to 5 or better.  Eyes got very big when I said that.

Not to leave them without hope, I told them how they can improve their English, starting with actually showing up for class.  "If you aren't here, you can't learn," I said.  I suggested they watch movies in English with the English subtitles turned on, to practice with other English students and to start reading more.  

I wish I had done my testing at the beginning of the first semester so I plan to do so next time around.  In the meantime, some classes are working their way through "Charlotte's Web" while others I will give opportunities to speak to each other in English.  

Each day I learn something new about my newly chosen profession.  I wonder who is the teacher and who is the student.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Loy Krathong for Teacher Roy

Thailand has a number of big holidays including Loy Krathong in November.  Loy means "to float" and krathong is a small boat made of banana leaves and flowers.  Paper lanterns are also lit and sent floating off into the sky.  In the evening, people set their boats afloat on a river as a symbol of letting go of any negative feelings they may have including anger and guilt.  Thus it is a happy day.  My school made it a very happy day.

My first time I came to Thailand was to become engaged to Nee.  We celebrated by going to a beautiful garden called Nongnooch Garden in Pattaya.  We were there New Year's Eve so we got to join the celebration.  Toward midnight, I saw lanterns flying into the sky one after the other and I was mesmerized.  I wanted to know more.  But it would be 8 years until that happened.

The lanterns are called Kongming or komloy lanterns and are quite simple.  They are paper bags hung upside down with a small piece of wax-soaked fiber, probably banana.  You stretch out the lantern, hold it over your head to light it and then set it back on the ground to let the air inside heat up.  There is a metal ring at the base that holds the flame and gives you something to hold for the next step.

I was walking home from the grocery store the night of Loy Kratong and had been enjoying the random fireworks and lanterns going up all around me.  I kept wondering what it was like to set one off.  Next to my apartment is a small noodle shop owned by a nice young couple whose daughter is in one of my classes.  I saw the daughter and a few of her friends out front playing with lanterns and they called, "Teacher Roy!  Do you want to light some?"  They couldn't speak much English and I couldn't speak much Thai but with the help of her dad, little and big brother and the three girls, we were able to set several lanterns off into the sky.

We had to take the lantern up by the ring from the ground and raise and lower it several times.  One managed to catch fire and went up in a small blaze of flame.  Others we were able to give them a little push up.  They would rise maybe just a few feet over our heads, hesitate, and then rise far up into the heavens.  A few got caught in the telephone wires overhead but they rolled along in the breeze until they could free themselves and off the went as well.

I felt like a small boy playing with fire.  The girls laughed each time we sent another up and kept trying to talk to me.  Oh, that I could understand.  And then it was over.  One of the girls said they had to go and so I headed back home.  This time, though, I was happy to have done something so unique to this American in the wilderness.

I see I have been writing this blog for a year now.  I read my first entry and reminded myself of where I came from and thought about where I am now.  Each day has been filled with both challenge and joy.  Since arriving in Thailand I have gotten sick several times, taken antibiotics at least three times now, tried to ride a motorcycle, figured out how to ride a songtaew, eaten food that sets my body on fire, learned how to teach English, discover I enjoy teaching and, most of all, I have made more friends then I have had since I was a child.  Each day my doubts about Thailand become smaller like watching the lantern shrink into the sky.