Friday, September 26, 2014

It's a lizard, not a gecko: 9 appreciations of Thailand

As I express my emotions best through the catharsis of writing, I decided to post this collection of reflections on what is special about Thailand. Thank you for following my blog over the past year plus. Thailand has been quite the adventure, now it’s time to travel and then return to the US. I have two days left in Chiang Mai, then Bangkok for a week (Fulbright disorientation) and then some country-hopping in Asia with friends - November 6th I fly to Amurika. 

In honor of my departure from Sansai, and completing this Fulbright grant, here is a collection of the unique aspects of Thai culture that I will miss and have appreciated. If you don’t have time to read them all, read the last one :) 

1. Thanksgiving for all meals: Communal eating brings a community together. My often experiences with it in Thailand will be greatly missed as it is very common in Thailand.
Imagine about 7 different dishes or assortments on a table. Instead of filling your plate to the brink, you take a few bites at a time, mixing with rice or sauce or curry. Eating is a slow, social activity. Many times I enjoyed these communal meals over an evening of karaoke in Thai and English or with high-spirited conversation in the English office. Along the lines of families who eat together, stay together – eating together not just in the same room, but eating the same food in a shared style allowing us to try many dishes and flavors, brought me closer to my Thai community.

2. Social Experiments through Nationalism: Imagine thousands of people walking up and down a few streets (that are usually busy with cars but shut down every Sunday night) with vendors selling everything from pad thai to wooden elephants to clothing to lanterns and every other kind of food and souvenir possible. Imagine most of these people are tourists with (often) little to no knowledge of Thai culture. Now, picture the loud speaker beginning to play the National Anthem. Suddenly 50% of the people stop dead in their tracks and stand still. The other 50% keep walking for a moment until they whisper to each other noticing people freezing and then they also stop.  Slowly only 5% is still moving and they eventually stop too. Everyone is silent and frozen for a moment as they respect Thailand, the King and the National Anthem. The music stops and everyone continues walking as normal. It is one of my favorite parts of the famous Sunday Walking Street in Thailand. Every day at 6pm the anthem is played, but here on walking street it is the most dramatic to observe how people react to something new and foreign.

3. You mustn’t watch a movie without respecting the King: Similar to observing walking street, directly prior to a movie beginning in a movie theatre, everyone must stand up for the King’s ceremonial song. To be played before every movie in every movie theatre in Thailand and when the King is around/entering somewhere. Watching people new to Thailand observe this and eventually stand up is always amusing. J It’s these little things about Thailand that I’ll miss most. These type of unexplainable ‘quirks’ that have become so familiar.

4. Unpacking the Foreigner-Abroad Privilege Backpack: There are many complicated aspects to being a foreigner abroad, and imposing the hegemony of the English language on a school, or just my general status as a foreigner in general. However, through this, I have found ways to make it count through mutual understanding, reciprocal learning and kindness. I will miss being a ‘regular’ at certain places. Sitting down at a tiny shop in my town where I don’t even have to order because as soon as they see me, my same-as-always order is being prepared. I will miss being able to wave and smile to anyone wherever I go, something that if I did in America would be seen as strange.  These are privileges that are complicated but that I’ve come to cherish in their sweetness.

5. Be outside: Life in Thailand is outside or with open windows and doors. Yes, there are many times where I wanted to retreat behind closed air-conditioned walls when I had the ability too (which wasn’t often), but more often than not the rain and sunshine were just steps away from me. The air circulating in the room came from the windows and I could see mountains from my classroom window.  I walked everywhere. I walked into town. I walked to the 7-Eleven to get phone credit or snacks. I walked to get food or go to the market or go to school. And everyone was outside. I was able to meet people in my community in Thailand because people weren’t inside their stores or restaurants, the restaurants were tables outside and the shop fronts were huge open walls where store owners hung out on the front steps enjoying the fresh air. There was a beauty in this I will miss living in the Northeast of the US – a friendliness and openness to living.

6. Convenience: 24-hour 7-Eleven shops with snacks, phone credit, ice cream, frozen meals, beer and strong air conditioning. Concord certainly doesn’t have a 7-Eleven within walking distance, and in Thailand there is a 7-Eleven almost every kilometer in my town and in the cities. Also, the affordability of eating deliciously and freshly prepared Thai food will never be readily available. I will miss $1.00 USD plates of piping hot pad thai, stir-fries, fried rices and a million other dishes I’ve tried and loved. As well as the 15 cent bags of sticky rice, a delicious addition to any meal that is time-consuming to make and will be greatly missed by my stomach.

7. Disconnect to Reconnect:  Though Thailand has been introduced to Facebook and Instagram and I’ve never taken so many selfies in my life, there is also an aspect of presence I was forced to have here. I did not have a smart phone with 3G here and there were many times the wifi was out and I had no credit on my little Nokia phone. There were nights when I would sit in my room and be reading or writing and thinking about nice it felt to sometimes be completely disconnected from the world, from other people, and be only focused on being alone and by myself. It was a unique aspect to this year in Thailand, my excess of alone time and time without connecting to people – but it was oh so wonderful. It’s indescribable the amount of self-growth I had to go through during the long alone nights or times where I didn’t speak Thai, but was with Thai people and didn’t have my phone as a distraction. I just had to sit and be present. Observe. Engage when I could. Mindfulness was certainly practiced to it’s fullest extent here.

8. Prickly Heat Powder: Take tiger balm and baby powder, then mix it together (mentally) – this is the effect of ‘prickly heat powder’ one of my new favorite aspects of Thailand. Covering my body in this baby powder substance, but feeling the cooling burn similar to tiger balm kept me cool (or at least distracted) on those 100+ degree days. Oh how I’ll miss this strange powder.

and last but certainly not least:

9. It’s a lizard, not a gecko.  Lizards in Thailand are small, harmless little creatures whom I shared my bedroom with. Geckos are over a foot big, are territorial, frightening and they bite. Luckily none lived in my house, though there was one who occasionally knocked it’s head against my window trying to get it. I used this phrase “It’s a lizard, not a gecko” to elucidate this connection to Thai culture. When I first arrived, Kru Dang said to me when I was freaked out by the lizards, “don’t worry, lizard, not gecko!”  This was the ultimate philosophy needed for this year. Along the lines of the American common phrases “it could be worse” and “it’s not so serious” – I used the mindset of ‘it’s a lizard, not a gecko’ to get me through failed lesson plans, broken printers, rainstorms that flooded my house, wifi out for days at a time, ant farms setting up base in my house, cockroaches invading my house by the dozens, disruptive classes, lonely nights, fears of my future, no food or water in the house and dozens of other relatively small inconveniences or concerns. I hope if nothing else from this year I can take the ‘sabai sabai” (laid back/ relax / it’s okay) attitude back to my hectic lifestyle in the United States. It isn’t to be used in an invalidating way, but a way to remind you that it’s okay – and it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does.

These beautiful unique aspects to Thailand are what I will cherish most in my departure, although obviously it is the relationships and little moments of love that are held high above everything else. I know I’ll be back to visit someday, for now I have five homes. Concord, Brandeis, Ghana, Kenya and now Thailand.

I love you Thailand. Thank you for everything. :) 
To my students, community, and dear friends: ja kitung tuk kon mak mak & ja mai luum khun tuk kon!! I will miss you and will never forget you.

PS See all you East Coasters in early November!


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remembering the little things: Why it wasn't about the teaching.

Wind blowing around me, whizzing down the road, re-writing the lyrics to songs and singing them to my friend and co-worker, Bouquet who was driving the motorbike we were whizzing by on - it was a moment. One of many. A fleeting, yet warm and fuzzy moment of pure happiness. No cares in the world and presence. I was there, present and connected in that moment. On the bike with Bouquet, singing, laughing and ignoring our hungry bellies as we soared down the road in search of a Monday market - I remembered why I was here.

I did not come to Thailand to change the educational systems and change English in Thailand. I did not come to Thailand to revitalize English in my school and impart English knowledge on my students (although I may have at first thought that was my goal). I did not come to Thailand to become fluent in Thai, to run away from something at home or to be a representation of Americans. 

I came to Thailand to experience and be involved in a new community. To invest myself in a new culture by making new friends and participating in reciprocal learning. To observe a new culture. I came to Thailand to engage in cross-cultural exchanges and enhance mutual understanding. To use teaching English as a way to connect to students and learn myself. As always, I have learned and gained more than I could ever hope to serve my host community and I am forever grateful for being hosted here.  

I realized riding the motorbike with Bouquet that I have accomplished these goals. Fulbright goals and personal goals. In teaching English it became quickly apparent I would not be able to in the same way I hoped. I adapted and realized my goals had to be different. Accepting differences did not mean defeat, but it did mean changing my outlook. For every moment of frustration or loneliness or fear (of which there were many) there have been equally amazing moments of inspiration, beauty and simplicity. 

There have been a thousand moments like this one. Sitting on the pavement playing duck, duck, goose with students, cooking an elaborate Annie's Mac n Cheese meal with my Thai friends and watching a movie together, playing ping pong with my host teacher, eating lunch with my students, laughing hysterically, blasting music in my home and dancing around my empty house, visiting beautiful temples and candle sculptures, riding my own motorbike along windy roads, learning Thai with friends, exploring new areas and growing - always growing.

It is easy to forget in the times of Syria, Israel & Palestine, Ferguson & systematic racism, (and the multitude of other issues not cluttering our social media today but just as critical) that these little moments exist - that people are doing beautiful things and that little moments of happiness are okay to accept and appreciate. With my Facebook newsfeed being overrun with the drama that is our chaotic, broken world today, I remind myself of these small things that make my life, my time in Thailand, so incredibly special and one of a kind. I am lucky to have such privilege that allows me to be here and I can not take it for granted.

Today marks day 326. I've now lived in Thailand for nearly a year. Nearly a year of memories. Though for some fleeting moments I wish I had taken more pictures, learned more Thai, spent more time with xyz or done xyz - I have no regrets. I lived fully, I grew, I learned, I laughed and I was here. 

Though I am eager to return home to the US and begin my next adventure, here are some of experiences I've had that I will miss. 

I will miss:
  • my incredible student teachers/co-workers, Bouquet and Paranee who have given me friendship, love, knowledge and so much laughter  - these moments I can not begin to explain, but will stay with me always. From cooking together, to riding bikes, to movie nights, to endless meals together, to deep conversations and beyond, they have undoubtedly been my rock this semester and have made my experience so wonderful
  • delicious $1 plates of Pad Thai and $7 massages 
  • a variety of flavorful foods easily and affordably accessible 
  • duck, duck goose and indian chief with groups of students
  • Pa'Tong, a woman of incredible strength who works as a janitor at our school, who speaks no English - our communication is limited to Thai and body language
  • copious amounts of alone time to reflect, read, write and relax
  • hearing another language / learning & speaking another language 
  • riding a motorbike along windy, mountainous roads in Pai  - free of traffic 
  • having an office with open doors and fresh air
  • being a 'regular' and being served before I order because they know what I want
  • connections made with students and teachers 
  • an excessive amount weekend trips with Fulbright friends in which we could debrief about our placements and grow closer as friends
  • Thailand. 

This semester, though still teaching, my main job was learning and laughing. My students are wonderful and teaching is challenging and exhausting. Some days were harder than others. Currently, my students are creating their own countries and will present them at the end of the semester. What a whirlwind of a year it has been. 

Time is going by quickly but I still have 5 weeks left of teaching and 1 week of saying goodbye. 

On September 26th 2013, I left the USA and I will return in early November. Sep 29th 2014 I will depart Sansai for Bangkok, say goodbye to my Fulbright family and meet the incoming Fulbrighters, travel with friends in Thailand and Cambodia, visit a Brandeis friend in Indonesia and return home. Only to be greeted with yet a new challenge and exciting adventure: getting a job.

Thank you to everyone for your never-ending support and love. 

With love and hugs,

For the visually inclined * None of these pictures are my own  & all are from Facebook * 

Fulbright Love with Anja Leene, my neighbor and friend!

Riding that motorbike!

Visiting Bouquet's Grandmother and Cousin

Visiting another school! :) 

Anja and her neighbor, Kru Patchy! 

Before a fun night of dinner and shopping

Part of our Fulbright group in our classic awkward ways

Sunday, June 1, 2014

White Tourist Privilege and Other Thoughts on my Vacation to India & Bali

Here are some thoughts on backpacking! I am back teaching in Sansai and will write more on that later! Much love and apologies for the long hiatus in blog writing!

Privilege and Reciprocity:
It seemed ideal: travel through India for 2.3 weeks and Bali for 1 week - it was a dream life. Yet, I found myself thinking "do I even enjoy traveling?" more than once during my trip. Now, I do not mean to discredit the privilege of being able to travel for an extended period of time, as I know that puts me in an extremely privileged category - nor will I discount the amazing experiences. However, I found that I much prefer living abroad than just passing through. For me, connections made and relationships built make traveling (or living) abroad meaningful, exciting and interesting. As a backpacker, those interactions are limited and instead I am just the tourist, seen for what I am: a white privileged female who can afford to traverse around a foreign country on a vacation. 

Although aware of my privilege back in the states as well, it does not hold as stark a role as my skin color, citizenship and privilege do in my experiences abroad. No matter how 'ethical' or conscientious I attempt to be, these aspects will always play a significant role while I'm abroad (as they should). 
Wherever I was in India or Bali (just as I am in Thailand), I stuck out like a sore thumb, radiating privilege. With fleeting time in each place, connections made were minimal and my abroad skills of building relationships were nearly useless. Keenly aware at every corner of all the other tourists and how we (and I) were being perceived and observed, I wondered what it meant to be a sustainable tourist. Seeing another culture and world was thrilling and wonderful, but comes with a great deal of baggage - all too often ignored I think. What is the value in a few weeks in India or Bali? How could I be an ethical consumer while in these tourist locations? Is the only value in tourism an economic gain for the host country? Is there any way for reciprocal tourism?  What is the value of travel? Questions I do not have full answers for, but am certainly wondering about - among others. Any thoughts appreciated. 

And I did, of course, have a wonderful time and am truly blessed to have been able to see both Southern India and Bali! 

Upon first arrival, into the small south eastern city of Chennai, I was a bit overwhelmed. Though the city reminded me of Accra, Ghana - the attitude of hospitality, speed, smells, and exhaustion caused me to be tense and nervous, as they were unfamiliar. After a nights sleep we were on our way to the next city, with not much to do in Chennai. Unsure where we were staying night to night or what our exact itinerary was, my friend and I were able to change original outlines of plans and do what we wanted to. 

We were in Southern India - Kerala (Munnar, Kollam, Kochin) and Goa (Anjuna, Baga). The south is much slower than the north, which was a good introduction as it was not quite as overwhelming to the senses (I believe, based on hearsay). Honestly most of my thoughts on India, the things that stuck in my mind, are the people I met. That is what matters to me. Food was tasty, places visited were beautiful, site seeing was site seeing...and then there were the brief encounters in which I shared moments with people and stories and that is what made these trips more powerful.

Highlights from the trip (pictures at the bottom for the lazy or time-crunch readers)
  • Kollam: Riding in a houseboat in Kollam for 24 hours, with a 2 hour canoe ride in a river village. This came with a delicious meal and a hilarious cultural encounters.
  • Trying out all kinds of transportations was a fun, exhausting aspect - we saw much of the countryside this way. From taxi rides, to trains, to buses and planes - we covered a lot of miles across southern India. Though buses with open windows up windy roads were not my preferred choice of transport. 
  • Munnar: Probably the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. Munnar was rolling hills of incredible mountains and tea plantations. Pictures do not even do it close to justice. We happened to be stuck in Munnar an extra day because there was a strike and no buses were running back to the city that night. 
  • Kochin: My favorite part of Kochin was Tia! Tia was the 9 year old girl who lived in the house we stayed in. When we booked our sleeping place, we didn't realize it was a homestay, but I was so glad for that experience. Immanuel's Homestay, was Immanuel's house, and downstairs lived him, his wife, his mother and father, three children and an aunt. Tia, the middle child, was bright and full of energy. Her English was fantastic and she would always follow me and my friend after we left calling out to us "Goodbye!" or "Ohh have a good day!". One morning we had breakfast with her and she told us her favorite subject was "English, of course!" Her energy was infectious and getting to know someone was great.
  • Goa: Twice in Goa in found myself paying for a service (nails and henna) that ultimately was not great quality - yet, each was performed by a young woman who shared her story with me and that made it much more worth the cost. These are two of my favorite experiences from Goa because they allowed me to understand more about the culture and connect with someone.
    • Lolita, a 19 year old young woman on the beach, approached me and asked if she could paint my nails. After deciding to go ahead and do it, she sauntered off to get her 'supplies'. A plastic shopping bag with a few nail polish shades. Filling my water bottle with ocean water, she washed sand off my feet and painted some haphazard polish on my toes and then convinced me to do my fingernails as well. During this encounter, I asked Lolita about her life. She revealed to me that she was married and six months pregnant. We spoke about what her husband did for work, if she was happy and if she was excited to have a baby. It was minimal, but made me so grateful for sharing stories, giving voice and connecting to people. I wished her luck when she left and enjoyed a great red colored manicure and pedicure for a day or so.
    • Sar, a 24 year old young woman who worked at the market, was trying to get me to look at her clothes. Most market hagglers were pushing me to look and she was no different. I said, "I'm just looking for henna". "I do henna!" she exclaimed excitedly. After agreeing on a price, she did a beautiful henna job on my hand and foot. Her younger sister threaded my eyebrows after they convinced me it absolutely had to be done. As I sat with Sar and her sister for over an hour during the henna and threading process I came to know more about her life. She shared with me that she married at 14 years old, had 3 kids, a 10 year old, 7 year old and 4 year old back, with a husband whom she was ambivalent about. "He drinks too much and then is not nice," she told me and then asked about my husband. I told her I didn't have one and she said I better get on it because I was getting old. These are the experiences that make me desire to travel and connect to people. Sar explained to me that she lived 26 hours north of Goa but traveled for market season and stayed 45 minutes away.  She and 7 others rent a small cement room in a large compound of many market sellers. Her smile was warm and the henna art was absolutely beautiful. I felt blessed to meet her, if only for an hour. 
Both Sar and Lolita re-affirmed my desires to helping give voice to those not often heard. Where ultimately I wanted to instill a love of learning in as many people as possible, giving voice is part of that process. The reciprocity in telling each others stories back and forth was so important to me. 
    When I am back in Sansai, Thailand and enjoy a meal with P'Oh, the woman at the ice cream store, even though her English and my Thai are very limited, we find common ground in discussing heartbreak, love, relationships, body stigma - a lot of times its through a few words in each language and the rest is done by body language and gestures. All of these make me so glad for connections and so passionate about continuing to connect to so many different people around the world. 

Bali was a bit too touristy for me, but I filled my belly with delicious food and my time with dear friends, laughter and conversation. My favorite day was a trip we took to a beautiful rock temple and coffee plantation. The coffee place has civic cats that eat the coffee beans and poops them out - that coffee is some of the most expensive in the world! 

And now for some pictures!

Oh ya, and my parents visited and that was AWESOME! :) Matching shirts

A Southern Indian Meal! :) Much different than Butter chicken!

Munnar, India 

Munnar - with friend, Cody Gohl

Still Munnar, India

Tea Plantations are what make these bushes so cool!

more tea plantations!

Rock Temple in Bali!

Viewpoint in Bali

beautiful day in bali!

Bali with Molly!

Seeing my parents was absolutely amazing. As you can see these places were absolutely stunningly gorgeous. My happiness is very clear in all the photos!

Much love to everyone. Will write more on getting back into teaching and last semester goals. Started back at work two weeks ago. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The 6-month mark: a reflection of 1st semester teaching & my internship

Today, Thursday the 27th, marks the 6-month halfway mark through the 12-month Fulbright program. I write to you from a coffee shop in Chiang Mai city, the smog from burning ash hangs low in the sky and the traffic is heavy; I am enjoying a fruit smoothie in all its ‘Western’ food glory. In these past 6 months, I have finished orientation in Bangkok, successfully completed my first semester of teaching, and lived and worked for a month inside Chiang Mai city with a plethora of Fulbright friends, while interning for Urban Light. Wow. What a whirlwind of adventures. Throughout incredible moments of immersing myself in Thailand, there have been equally wonderful moments with my fellow Fulbrighters as I have deepened relationships with them and opened myself to new experiences. As always, thinking (okay, worrying) about the future is a constant for me; but I am eager and excited to be living this year in Thailand with less responsibilities and more free time than I will ever be able to indulge in again. Self-growth and learning about myself has been a daily aspect of my time in Thailand, as for once I am not the busy-bee I was in high school and college. I have given myself time to breathe (or at least I try to).

(I did get bitten by a dog and had to get a lot of rabies shots, but that holds little importance to my experience here J )

Now for some thoughts on my semester of teaching and my internship with Urban Light:

Reflections on a semester of teaching at Sansai Wittayakom School

Teaching here has confirmed my desire to work in education, in many different facets (direct service, policy/politics, internationally, philosophically). My students are a source of joy, frustration and laughter. Though teaching ESL is not a discipline I see myself pursuing long-term, the relationships I was able to build with the students, the (albeit minimal) progress I saw, the shared laughter, and the lesson planning all provided me with insight into why I love teaching and education, and for what more I need to do next semester and in future teaching jobs.

In November and December, my teaching was still timid. Though enjoying it, I did not have a ton of faith in my ability to connect to the students. By January, I felt very differently. At least with the three classes of students that I saw twice a week (where as other classes were once every 3 weeks) I had established a rapport; enough that kept them quiet when I needed them quiet and had them participate in activities when the lesson called for it. Though the English level is low, I was able to cover a fair amount of topics, but most importantly there was laughter every class as I encouraged students to not worry too much about their ability and to just give it a try. Often just being able to convince my Thai students to attempt speaking English aloud is hard enough, let alone in full sentences or in response to a topic. January and February flew by, with teaching and weekend adventures combined.

Though some days were harder than others, and there were definitely days where I wished I could explain a game without flapping my arms around and translating into Thai or getting help from a teacher, my experience was overwhelming positive. The bad days gave me time to reflect on what could have gone better or in what was getting in the way of it being a good day.

Cheater, Cheater, Pumpkin Eater? Or Communal Learning?
Toward the end of February it was time to give exams. I decided upon giving oral exams, since my job description is technically listening and speaking, and because most of my teaching is auditory and spoken. To keep the students busy who were waiting for their orals, I provided them with a written final exam, that ultimately only counted as a worksheet. Though I had been warned about cheating, the written exam was the first piece of work I gave that there could have been any cheating on. Despite explanations of what I would do if I saw cheating, there was still, a great deal in all my classes. Balancing calling up students one by one to do the oral and supervising the exam at the same time was a challenge. I was frustrated and wished they were listening to my instructions (though there were many who did not cheat, and who did great on the exams).

I wondered if it was my US education perspective that was frustrating me in their cheating (or maybe the rise in temperatures and the heat settling in much heavier?). US students are (stereotypically) very individual and self-focused. You do your best, for you. Thai schools appear to have a different approach, one that revolves much more around helping one another. After the first exam my frustration turned more into a teaching moment. Perhaps students were not going to show me what they knew in the way I expected, but instead were going to share their knowledge. Students with much higher ability passed notes and whispered to their lesser ability friends nearby, or even several desks over. Not giving them full answers, but hints, or key verbs – or translating the questions. It was communal. They all wanted to do well and wanted their friends to do well too. Of course this was not universal, nor is it necessarily in every Thai classroom, but it opened my eyes to yet again more cultural relativism.

Though yes, important to assess a student’s ability, the communal ‘cheating’ culture in my classroom that I experienced may not be so bad after all. They still needed to do the oral exam, in which I assessed their individual ability in speaking. Though the written work was hard to grade – not knowing what was copied and what was remembered – in the end – of my 89 students that I see twice a week for their full elective class, only one student failed and he had come to only one class the whole semester. Cheating seems to be more of a US concept in these schools and in some ways it can be detrimental to a students learning, for sure – but I think the community ideology behind it is sort of beautiful.

Urban Light: Interning with Boys in Chiang Mai

I am unsure how to summarize, explain or explore my month long internship with Urban Light.  A reoccurring topic of conversation amongst my close friends here, this internship has been rewarding, troubling, frustrating and inspiring. As perhaps, maybe it should be. It begged me to ask ethical questions, reconsider the non-profit world as a career, redefine my own personal ideology and worldview, and allowed me some wonderful experiences as well. I have yet again (as I always should) struggled with my ‘role’ as a white woman not fluent in the local language, trying to ‘make a difference’ in the lives of marginalized people.  I suppose the problem is maybe in ‘wanting’ to ‘make a difference’ because at the end of the day what does that even mean? Additionally, as always with these short-term projects, consistency is an issue I worry about greatly. Though eager for the opportunity, one month making connections with these boys is simply not enough. More is needed, especially long-term volunteers.

Do not get me wrong, the work I have done has been heartwarming. The relationships I’ve built with the boys at the center, albeit short-lived, has been inspiring.  Some days are filled with interactions with the boys and other days revolve more around various tasks, attempting to push Urban Light forward toward their mission. Some days are filled with activities, like baking or museum trips or pool days; others are filled with laughter on the 2nd floor as we make up new rules to the classic UNO game. I have never played so much UNO in my life.  The boys, staff and volunteers come together for a hot meal at 1pm every day. Holding hands and giving thanks before every meal, I am always reminded that I am thankful to have this experience, despite the challenges. Hearing the boys laugh is my favorite part of the day. Whether it is from a slip up in an UNO game, or finding out a volunteer is ticklish, or just generally teasing each other, when the boys laugh – the frustration I feel of being useless and out of place falls away and I’m just purely happy to be connecting with these young boys.

Despite my own internal questioning, the work Urban Light is doing provides a safe space for boys who are being trafficked, subjected to exploitation, living on the streets, and others in need. Beyond a safe space, Urban Light aims to empower and rebuild the lives of these boys – and they take many steps toward these goals with education, health services, housing and beyond.

An additional, really wonderful part of my experience thus far has been sharing it with a group of students at Concord Carlisle High School. Through connecting with my long term mentor and high school teacher, Johanna Glazer, I have been assisting a group of CC junior and seniors in an ‘internship’ type experience labeled ‘Outreach to Thailand.’ On the ground at CCHS, the students have raised awareness about Urban Light through posters, and are working to create fundraisers and raise even more awareness. Interacting with them has again reminded me of my desire to raise global awareness amongst the youth of the USA through the education system. Their surprise, eagerness, passion and excitement about this project has been so rewarding – and reminds me how important it is for young minds to open themselves up to issues worldwide at a young age.

I am very thankful for the internship experience and as always opens my mind and heart to many more questions. As it well should.

This whole month has been a social overload as I’ve been living in close quarters with Fulbright friends, as well as sharing meals with friends almost every single night. Though enjoying the stock up on social time, it was a strange transition from so much alone time to massive amounts of social time.

In just one week from today my mother and father will be visiting. We will travel together for 8 days. Then, I will celebrate Songkran, the Thai new year with a massive 3-day water fight. I’m a little scared. On April 16th, my friend and I will depart for India. Backpacking for 2 weeks there, followed by a week in Bali – then Bangkok for 5 days. On May 19th I will return to Sansai Wittayakom to teach for my final semester.

Talk to you all in mid-May! J Sorry for no pictures...


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Still bloggin': little things and adventures

I've avoided writing. Partially for personal reasons, and partially because sometimes I am at a loss for words at how to describe the little things in Thailand that make life here so extraordinary. Let's go with mostly the latter. :) I've managed to barely take any photographs in the last 40+ days since I last wrote. But I have filled an entire journal of thoughts for my future & current state of mind, and I've read 10 books in the past month. Losing myself in the intricate pages of the stories crafted by an artist has become my favorite past time. Though I always loved reading, here it has become a 2-4 hour routine of my daily life. When will I have that freedom again? Retirement? So, I am living it up. :-) As well as enjoying Thailand! 

The semester is nearly over. Just a month more and then I will be living the city with friends on an internship! I am over the moon excited for my internship. I will be working with Urban Light an organization that is dedicated to prevention, education about and direct service regarding sex trafficking and sex workers in Chiang Mai. However, unlike most organizations, Urban Light focuses on only boys who are affected. The plans of what I will be doing are still in the works, but I am thrilled to be assisting which such a phenomenal NGO that is doing such important work. 

In the beginning of April my mom and dad will visit, which I am equally thrilled about! Then I will travel with some friends for a few weeks (INDIA AND BALI!) until a mid-term meeting and back to teaching for mid-May through the end of September. Technically I am finished with my Fulbright on Oct 3rd...but as of now I think I am going to stay. Who knows. At first I was scared to leave for a year, and now I want to stay!

The Beauty of Little Things
The little moments and beautiful friendships that have developed have been my favorite. From P'Oh, the woman who owns the ice cream store, has dinner with me, lets me watch her sing in shows, and drives me home late at night to P'Uh, the sweet single woman with a 6 month old baby who runs a beauty shop and teaches me Thai through trying to tell me her story to the P'An who is homeless, and from Burma, and lives in the marketplace, and always smiles at me and says hello to P'Ja who knows my order of 'Shrimp Pad Thai, very spicy' at the stall downtown -  all of these people are so kind, generous and warm. These are just a few of the budding relationships I've started to build here that mean so much to me. Then there are the teachers at my school who go out of their way to help me, teach me, engage me, and understand me. Then my students, who greet me on campus and off campus, who call my name out in the courtyard and ask to be Facebook friends. There is so much beauty in the relationships here that I am developing. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with the kindness of these relative strangers. 

Outside of human contact, there is also the beauty of the commons. The common spaces used by community members. I like sitting outside on a bench or ledge and just watching people. Or watching people on a bus. Thinking of their stories. Their lives. For all the pain, horror and hate in this world, there is so much beauty, love and kindness too. I am so blessed to be living in this community and I am eager to continue to spread my wings to many more places in the future. 

Me & Nong Poo, P'Uh's son!

Here are some event highlights from the past 5 weeks:

  • Visiting Pai, a Northern town that is encased in the most splendidly stunning mountains, waterfalls and canyons. I rode on the back of a friend's motorbike around this beautiful scenery. We explored stunning landscapes on foot and on bike, and indulged in delicious foods. It was a spiritually wonderful weekend of good friendship and beauty. (Dec 20-22)
  • Som Tum Making While Dancing Contest...ANew Years Party at my school with all the teachers! At one point there was a spicy papaya salad making contest in which I had to make the papaya salad (som tum) while dancing. I was holding a large wooden mortar and pestle and trying to understand the instructions being yelled at me. Ultimately mine was mashed instead of stirred, and I did not win the contest. But how many people can say they've been on stage in front of 70 teachers making papaya salad (when they don't know how) and DANCING during it? I considered it a win! (Dec 27)
  • Church with a student and friend. Somehow every country (except Denmark) that I have been to, I have found my way to a church. Which I suppose is odd for the cultural Jew and spiritually unsure nature of my faith. Anyways, one of my students had been asking me since November to go to church with her, but I was always busy and did not have the time. Finally on the Sunday after New Years Day I had time! We planned to meet in front of the University in our town at 8:30am. I waited there and then a short man came over to me and said "Come with me!" At first I just looked confused, but they he said, "Bookky (my students name) Dad! I Bookky Dad!" I suppose that was enough information for me and I got into his car. Luckily, I was right to trust him and we ended up at his house where I found myself having breakfast with him and my student's step mother while she put on make up in her bedroom. My Thai is not so great, but we managed to have a classically Thanglish conversation. Then we headed to church. First, I attended bible study (in Thai). I read my English copy of the bible and took notes in my notebook as I listened to these students talk about God. Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but there are some people who are Christian (and I'm sure other followings as well). The missionaries have mostly seen to this. Though I am not a Christian (but was baptized in Ghana if you remember!) I really enjoyed the FULL DAY event, I just watched and listened to the Thai prayers and songs. Bookky was very appreciative that I was there and I loved being a part of something important for her. (Jan 5th)
  • White Water Rafting! What a splendid adventure and it was not on a huge tourist organization! We went through my host teacher's husband's small organization that supports and helps sustain a hill tribe in Nan, a hilly, beautiful province to the Northeast of where I live. There were 10 of us total, and it was a group that can't really get together on the weekends usually so it was really wonderful. Not only was the white water rafting an exciting adventure (albeit terrifying) but we stayed in a beautiful wooden home up in the mountains and spent electronic free time just bonding with one another. There was even a campfire!  (Jan 10th) 
  • Horse Carriage on a Highway? No problem! This past weekend, Anja and I, the volunteer who lives close to me in Chiang Mai, decided to head down to Lampang, a 1.5 hour journey, to visit two other Fulbrighters who live there. We had a relaxing friendship filled weekend, but we also tried out the typical Lampang adventure of a two hour horse carriage ride around the city seeing different temples! It was a quite a blast, and hilarious to watch cars on a busy street avoid the slow walking horse carriages. Reminded me of snowy Boston carriage rides, except really hot and in Thailand and to see temples and much really not the same. (Jan 17th)
  • Don't miss your bus stop. Engrossed in a novel, (and so excited to be able to ride on a bus and not get too sick) I missed my bus stop. I looked up and realized I had no idea where we were. It turned out I was about 5-6 miles from my house. No problem, just cross the street and get the bus in the opposite direction. BUT WAIT! It was 6:00pm and the buses had stopped running in the opposite direction, and it was starting to get dark. I figured I would walk the direction I thought I was supposed to go. Cows, mountains and fields surrounding me. But then I got nervous. What if it took a few hours to get back? And it got really dark? There were no street lights. So, in desperation I called a student teacher at my school and she rescued me on a motorbike (after talking on the phone to someone in Thai to figure out where I actually was...). (Jan 28th) 
  • I can't do aerobics or dance. Friday night, the 31st of January, I made my way to my friend Anja's house. After a tour of her house, a photoshoot with her next door neighbor who loves photos, and some delicious cucumber spicy salad, we headed to group aerobics at the police station. If you know me well, you know I am possibly the least coordinated person ever in existence. Imagine me, with twenty 40-60 year old Thai women, trying to do a speedy aerobics Zumba-esque class outside. It was quite the experience, but very amusing and worth the sore body and laughs (at me). (Jan 31st)

Me & Anja - Her host teacher made me a welcome sign!

Posing for the photoshoot

Pai - Damn it was beautiful!
Probs my fav picture of the year - Aerobics!

White Water Rafting! SO FUN! <3

You can tell I don't know what I'm doing right?

With all the free time I've had, I've spent a lot of time thinking about my future and next steps for where I want to go. It's been quite a process. I've spoken to a few people about my dreams, goals and fears, which has been helpful and grounding for me. This is quite an adventure - this thing we call life. :) 

I miss you all - be in touch!

Rak khun! (Love you!)

Monday, December 16, 2013

But I don't dance!

As I wrote this, the long table in the Foreign Language office, with it’s plastic flowery table cloth, was splattered with a feast of spicy papaya salad (Som Tum), sticky rice (Kao Nee-ow), fried chicken, curries, coconut milk treats and other delicious Thai foods. Usually once or twice a week there is some large shared feast between the 8-10 English teachers that populate this office. My belly was full and my mouth was on fire from the spicy chilies as I began to write this post.

Today is Day 81. Eighty-one days ago, on an early Thursday morning I finished packing my bags and headed out on this journey, mom & dad in tow, giving me big hugs in the Logan airport. Anxious, but excited I arrived with an open heart ready to take this adventure by the horns and learn as much as I could throughout this amazing opportunity.

Happiness is a choice, but it also comes from accepting love and acceptance for oneself and the rest of the world. This is something I have finally come to accept and realize as I grow more into myself and discover new aspects of my identity; and additionally recognize that I am always growing and learning. I am eager to live. Really live. Live each day to the absolute fullest.

Never in all my life have I felt happier and more of a purpose than I do now. Each day is an adventure that I am open to, each evening as I lay my back against my brick mattress I am reeling with new Thai vocab, new ideas, for classes, my future, life, philosophies, beliefs – new findings of my day or week run through my head as I try to relax and sleep. My days and evenings have left me with ample time for self-reflection, philosophical musings and goal setting. Though, despite the amount of ‘free time’ I still manage to have a lengthy to-do list that is ever-growing and is never complete. My days are different; yet follow a semi-distinct routine.

I'm on a staff board!

An Average (Week) Day of Jessye in Thailand

6:03am: The loud rooster fights outside my window awaken me as they squawk their morning
               tunes. This also occurs at 1:00am & 4:00am approximately. I doze back to sleep.
7:15am: My favorite Ghanaian hiplife songs rudely awakens me from my sleep in the post- 
               rooster rouse mood. Wake-up routine begins.
7:50am: Walk the 2 minutes from my house in the back of campus to the English office, drop off   
               school bag and go downstairs to the morning assembly, until 8:30am.
8:30am: Teach first class.
9:30am: Teach second class.
10:30am: Read book/write in journal/lesson plan/talk with Thai teachers/practice Thai
11:30am: Lunch time! Sometimes complete with coconut ice cream with black beans. A time of  
                 great fun and laughter. My favorite time of day to get to know the other teachers.
12:30pm: Teach third class.
1:30pm: Shadow other classes/edit worksheets/lesson plan/talk with Thai teachers/edit friends
               essays back home/read books/online class work/philosophize with another Westerner
3:30pm: Teach 4th class! TEACHER CLASS (Tutoring 5-6 Thai teachers)
4:30pm: Drop off bag at home, change out of work clothes and into exercise clothes
4:45pm: Play badminton/volleyball with my host teacher or students
5:30pm: Either catch bus (sorngtaew) or a ride 3 miles into Maejo area (a university near me).
               Walk around, interact with my local friends & make new local friends
6:15pm: Decide on something to eat, pay about $1.50 for a full meal, sometimes only $1.00.
6:35pm: Catch a bus back to my house
6:43pm: Confront the guard dogs that guard me from entering my own house.
6:49pm: Safely in the house, lock the door, turn off the lights downstairs, grab a bottle of water
                and head upstairs.
7:00pm:  Shower
7:30pm: Get in bed, read/surf internet/talk to friends/online school work/research Phd
               programs.../watch a movie (rarely)/meditate
9:30-10pm: Asleep.

Life is pretty wonderful. Though through this ‘average’ day schedule, it is important to recognize that Thailand is anything but average. There have been days that finished with impromptu trips to the city to see a friend, or markets or parades or festivals or dinner parties at friends houses or being ‘thai-napped’ to rooftop restaurants and other such crazy adventures. Each day something new happens. Each day I challenge myself to further analyze the world in its’ complexity and discover my purpose, goals and desires. Each day I learn something new.

But, I don’t dance...I don’t even KNOW the dance!

Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the day before I flew to Bangkok, I had the afternoon free and was fully planning on relaxing, packing and getting myself ready for the Thanksgiving adventure with Fulbright friends. Around 2pm, my friend P’Jan told me “Jessye, dance rehearsal at 3pm.” Thinking we would rehearse the dance we had minimally learned the week before at an hour long rehearsal, I happily brought my school bag to the dance room to rehearse for an hour and calculated I would be in my room by 4pm, happily eating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. P’Jan was a bit late, having to attend a teacher meeting, so I practiced once with the dance teacher and then read my book.
            “Jessye!! We put on your make-up and costume!! Okay???” The dance teacher, Kru Jum announced to me around 3:45pm, when I was ready to go home and shower & pack.
            “Huh?” was my tactful response.
            “We perform the dance tonight!! It is the Assistant Director’s going away party! So we dress up and put make up and then perform the dance, okay?”

My heart rate quickened instantly and my palms became sweaty. I like dancing in front of the mirror and occasionally at a party/bar, but dancing in front of a crowd, on a stage? Not my thing. Not to mention, I DID NOT KNOW THE DANCE. I had practiced all of three times and am possibly the most uncoordinated person alive. I panicked.

I scolded myself internally: Jessye, you are here to experience new things and go outside your comfort zone! With a deep breath, drying my palms on my skirt, I smiled at Kru Jum and said “Great, what time do we perform and what am I wearing?”

In the following three hours I had: two fake eyelashes, three inches of make-up, flowers in my hair, a traditional Thai costume, borrowed jewelry, and done three dance run throughs. I was anything but ready, but that did not matter as I was escorted to the large assembly hall where all the teachers were seated around large white circle tables feasting.

“Oh Jesssyeeeee!!! So beautiful today!” the teachers oohed and ahhed, several taking selfies with me or pictures of me. I nervously picked at some som-tum (spicy papaya salad) and drank a bottle of water before P’Jan tapped me and said, “it’s time!”

Waiting behind the stage, I could hear the beginning of our song playing. Mind over matter, I told myself and willed myself to remember the moves. Six teachers in matching costumes, myself included, stepped carefully onto the stage in line with our formation. Quietly moving our hands and fingers to the allotted dance routine. When I began to forget a move, I would quickly glance to my left at what the others were doing and copy with a semi-seamless transition. In the back of the large hall I could see my host teacher, Kru Toi, smiling and dancing along to the dance. I willed my nervous heartbeat to slow as I looked around the familiar and unfamiliar faces around the room and silently prayed that the dozens of clicks of the camera in front of me would not end up on Facebook (they did, of course).

Within a few minutes, our dance was done and I sashayed off the stage (on the wrong side I might add) and breathed a sigh of relief. Yet, at the same time I was happy and grinning. I cheered with my group of dancers and we all took a group picture once outside. I did it.

Sometimes, you just have to do it and the result will be better than you hoped. This dance story is how much of my life here in Thailand is, taking chances and becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. I am not always in charge of the plans, I might get to bed to late or miss a Skype date or have a class canceled that I’ve been laboring over a lesson plan for, but in return there is excitement, culture and experiences that are unforgettable. Let your guard down and live a little. 

With a student dancer

With P'Jan, my girl!

Teaching Teachers and Big Changes

Most recently I started a teacher’s class where I teach Thai teachers who have signed up for my course for an hour a week, (I teach three sections). I quite enjoy the different pace of adult learners and small circle style learning. The class period goes by quickly and I enjoy it immensely.

My partner, Ryan has just arrived to Thailand and this will definitely change the alone time I’ve happily breezed through in the past 80 days, but I look forward to the new change and challenges that will arise as a result.

Thanksgiving in Bangkok was a blast and two weekends ago I went to Chiang Rai to see my friend Francesca and we visited this strange Narnia-esque Temple with underworld undertones... very strange.

Narnia aka White Temple

Strange hell images?

Real sweet turkey 

Me & the Exec Director of Fulbright @ Thanksgiving in BKK

Hope everyone has a very happy holiday season and is booking their tickets to Thailand as soon as possible! :)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learning how to walk again: Sansai, Chiang Mai

Existing in Sansai, Chiang Mai 
840+ nametags made. 21 introduction lessons.  12 additional lessons. 200 Hand turkeys made with “I’m thankful for” written neatly. 40 hours of teaching. 4 lessons with the Director of the school. What is it? The first 2.5 weeks of teaching at Sansai Wittaykom school. This, coupled with numerous dinner parties, mistakes, laughter, bugs, games of badminton, volleyball and ping pong, trips to Chiang Mai city, festivals, parades, several Skype dates, informal Thai lessons, new friends, fabulous students, minor frustrations and way too much food, has been my life these past two weeks. This has been my life. Sometimes as I start to fall asleep, while the little beetles are crawling on me, I have these strange moments of confusion and then clarity. The first of confusion: am I really here? In Thailand? For a year? The second, that follows is a moment of clarity: yes, I am and not only that, I am meant to be here. It feels right. 

Humans are complex. We contemplate our existence. As a fellow foreign teacher reminded me the other day, this fact sets us apart from other species. We contemplate our existence. What is my purpose for living? Is it to learn? To get rich? To have babies? To get to heaven? To achieve enlightenment? For me, my purpose is to serve & help others primarily. Secondly, to grow and learn continuously until the day I depart from what I know as earth, and third to make meaningful, lastingly relationships and share my existence with people. Our lives are often a series of decisions, some that take longer than others, some that are a split second. One decision can change the course of someone’s life for a lifetime. One application. One plane ticket. One summer. Singular actions, days, even minutes – can change the course of someone’s life forever.

My first trip to Africa was life changing, the others that followed life-changing in different ways. Thailand too, although perhaps not in the same way, definitely has its life changing ways. I’ve already noticed my ability to laugh more at my mistakes, take my time doing things, not rush, try foods I do not want to try, and generally become comfortable with being constantly uncomfortable – both physically (heat, bugs etc) and culturally. My teaching schedule changes? No problem. Bugs in my bed? No problem. Dogs chasing me? No problem. Printer broken? No problem. This is Thailand, as we were told, and as ethnocentric as I first thought that was, the phrase helps me remember to remove my American perspective and to be as open, adaptable and loving as possible. Sometimes I don’t have to remind myself to do this, and other times I notice frustration bubbling and I need to remind myself to be calm. Be calm. Jai yen yen. Keep a cool heart.

I am slowly learning how to walk again. It is a slow dance of mistakes and learning experiences and keeping a smile on.

To Teach, My new favorite sport
The classroom has always been a place of comfort for me. The classroom has varied from a place to expand my own mind and feed my love for learning, to my minimal experiences in teaching non-formally and semi-formally in Ghana and the US, to now my first formal teaching job (although still quite different than what a US teaching job would entail). I have a set schedule, a roster of students, grades to assign and a curriculum to design. Exciting, overwhelming and exceedingly rewarding (though exhausting & challenging at times) teaching these two-plus weeks has been the highlight of life in Sansai for me. My class size varies from 30-42 students. I teach grades 7-12, some once every two weeks for an hour and others twice a week (3 classes). I question my curriculum, my teaching style and am constantly trying to perfect, a non-perfectable technique.  

The hand turkeys I had my students create really put a smile on my face and teaching about Thanksgiving was wonderful; it remains my favorite holiday. Not because of the history, but because of family, love and thankfulness.

Those moments of pure joy with students

The English Office
The English office is a place of comfort, where I sit at a desk of my own, write in my notebook, read, lesson plan, make posters/teaching aids and most importantly practice Thai with the teachers / they practice their English. The relationships I've been creating here are, as always, the most important to me. There are those I connected with immediately and others whom I'm getting to know. All in all, a wonderful experience day to day - very festive. I've yet to buy lunch for myself, because someone always wants me to try something they've gotten!

Kru Toi, my host teacher/mom

P'Jan! Also an English Teacher, we get along great! :)

Let’s light 1,000s of flaming lanterns and set them into the sky! It will be the most beautiful thing in the world, really!
Loy Loy Krathong was this past weekend. Words and pictures cannot truly capture the essence of this stunningly spiritual and beautiful celebration. Camping out on mats for several hours, thousands of people crowded onto a large field. We sat on our mats and waited for darkness to fall. We listened to Buddhist prayers and eventually, after much waiting, we set ablaze a tissue paper and wire lantern (in the right place, on the fuse) and watched as they filled with hot air and rose hundreds of feet in the air. The night was magical, ablaze with lanterns, the sight truly unreal.

Escaping the madness of crowds post the lantern take off was nearly impossible. We climbed through fences, jumped over barbed wire and were stuck not moving in the midst of sweaty people pushing and shoving. Eventually, with the help of my host teacher we made it through and got home safely. It was a truly fantastic evening. (By we, I mean a few other Fulbrighters who came together for the event).

The Lighter Ablaze

Words cannot describe how incredible this was to see.

Setting it off!

Post Take off in the field.

And with that,
Here are some more pictures of my various experiences thus far. This is my life here. Life is beautiful. As I posted recently on Facebook, life is too short to not find happiness in your life. Enjoy things. Positivity will bring about more change than negativity.

Student Smoke Lanterns for Loy Krathong


Wat Phra Singh - Stunning!

Loy Krathong Parade!

Adorable Child Photographer

Jessye Kass in Thai! Written at the Temple !

Love you all.
Jessye Kass