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...