November 19, 2016

My Profession, My Self

For all his focus on bringing back our American jobs, President-elect Donald Trump is not considering my job.

Or the job of tens of thousands of English language teachers who are needed to meet the needs of literally millions of kids, teens, and adults in our communities.

Of course, I'm not on board with most of what Donald Trump says, does, or claims to stand for. Yet, I thought we would at least agree that jobs are important.

They are.

Nevertheless, Trump's inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, not to mention his proposed wall, immigration bans, changes to work/study visa programs, and promise to deport millions create a very real problem for my job.

I'm an English as a Second Language teacher. I serve my country (and my world) by teaching language skills and representing America as a place where freedom and equality are our guiding lights--not fear and intolerance.

If there are no immigrants, international students, or refugees, I'm out of the job, and that sucks. But I'm not looking for sympathy here. I want to keep my job not because it pays my bills, but because it represents my values and the society I want to live in. I could definitely do other types of work (it would sure pay better!), but I don't want to. I love my job, and I love the people I get to meet by being an English teacher. I value a diverse population of people, and I take pride in the America that welcomes people from other nations to work, study, and live in our country without feeling persecuted because of their passport, holy book, or skin color.

Students at the university in Thailand where I currently teach are worried that they won't be able to go on their work/study programs in the US next year, or they fear going to the US for any reason due to Trump's rhetoric about non-white, non-Christian, non-Americans. I'm embarrassed that my country is now associated with such hypocrisy. Outside of native peoples, in America, we are all descendants of immigrants, and in my family, my own step-father only recently attained American citizenship. He was born and raised in Germany, but moved to the US for an opportunity for the lifestyle he wanted. Immigrants are integral to what makes America great and competitive on the world stage in the first place.

I may not be saying anything new today, but what I'm saying is that English teachers must not stand for the growing movement of intolerance and hate in our country. We must be advocates for our students now more than ever. Politically, we must take action at the first signs of changes to visas that will limit bright scholars from joining the conversations at our universities. We must push for the US to do its part in the resettlement of refugees. The America that was once the most desirable place for foreign students to come is getting an unworthy reputation as a bullying, hateful place where foreigners are in danger.

That's not my America. My America values the contributions of people from around the world and welcomes people who believe America is still a land of opportunity.

November 10, 2016

Hold your head high and represent YOURSELF well (a pseudo-expat's reaction to the 2016 election)

To my friends and family in the US and, especially, those living abroad:

Perhaps like many of you, I spent yesterday in disbelief about the results of the presidential election. At my desk, staring in to my computer screen searching for an alternative outcome, I watched the votes pass the 270 mark, and I watched a new President-Elect take the stage. I feared for the future of my country. I felt defeated. I felt ashamed.

But today I realize that now, more than ever, is the time for me (and you!) to represent America with dignity and pride--to live as examples of educated, free people who are neither so fragile as to be broken by disappointment, nor so stubborn to put our heads in the sand until we get our way--but instead as people who make choices out of hope and not fear (shout out to Nelson Mandela).

Living abroad, in many ways, puts the spotlight on my Americanness. People know I’m an American. Everywhere I go, I represent my home country, and I choose to represent what I see as the best of America. If people don’t like the president, maybe they will at least like me and see that Americans are not defined by our president. Just because the President of my country says something, doesn’t mean it’s my view. People from around the world can relate to that sentiment.

When I studied abroad during the Bush administration, I was often asked about why I supported him. I didn’t, and I hadn’t been old enough to vote in that election. I was frustrated by that prejudice and assumption that because of my citizenship, I could be summarized in terms of George Bush’s policies. Looking back, I understand that coming from a powerful country with the privileges of democracy has a few down-sides. That I did support Obama on other experiences abroad brought me greater comfort, as he was generally well-liked by people I met in other countries. Now, facing a Trump presidency, I am preparing myself to handle those conversations gracefully; but more important, to show by example that Americans are good people who have hope for the future.

Don’t misunderstand me. The President-Elect ran on a platform of things I do not support, and the comments he has made about virtually every group outside of white males have been abhorrent and reprehensible. He has chosen to present himself this way, I believe, in order to strike a nerve with the American people--to get attention. Now he’s got it, and I hope he won’t feel the need to lash out anymore. His administration will probably want to change a lot of things from the way they are now. I can’t necessarily stop that, but I can be involved in my own community to create the world I want to live in.

I will not support laws or measures that deny US citizens equal rights or anyone’s right to make choices about their own body and how they present it to the world, nor will I support laws or measures that degrade human rights of people from other countries. The United States stand as a symbol of hope in the world, and as a symbol of democracy, reason, and progress. While the future under a new leader seems uncertain, we, the people, remain in control of our approach to the world. We can be stubborn, bitter, and disengaged, or we can be optimistic, resourceful, and participatory. Every day, we each have the chance (and responsibility) to represent our country as a place where diversity of people and ideas can be respected.

All is not lost. We, as Americans, are not summed up in one person. We are a nation of people who must continue to live together and work for our common goals.

Some are saying this is the end of America. And, if you believe that, and you disengage from our society, it IS the end of the most valuable parts of America: our freedom to voice differing opinions. Until you've lived in places where that freedom does NOT exist, where issues like sexism, racism, and homophobia are not even part of the discussion, you may not realize what a remarkable system we are part of.

If we don't give up, this is not the end. Hold your head high and represent YOURSELF well. That's your duty to your country.

Note: To be frank, I'm a straight, white person, so while I am utterly disgusted by his remarks about race, religion, disability, etc., I admit that I have so much less to lose from this election than many of my peers who are non-white, non-Christian, non-straight, non-traditionally gendered, or any other factor that may make ignorant people in our society see you as less than. You are not less than. I support and respect you as a whole human worthy of every right I have. I want to help you gain and maintain those rights. To my fellow women (and men! and others!), we have a battle on our hands. We might not be able to change our leader for four years, but we can demand women be seen as equal counterparts.

October 10, 2016

Egg-Venture: HILLtribe Driving

Our weekend adventures in Northern Thailand are rarely dull, especially the Egg-ventures.

Egg the cat causes quite a stir when he walks on his leash with us in national parks and near Buddhist temples. As if a couple of foreigners weren’t being weird enough already, here they come with a cat on a leash.

Egg missed out on Saturday’s adventure because we couldn’t find him when it was time to leave, but he got quite an adventure on Sunday.

Our goal was fairly simple, Chiang Rai beach, which is a sandy spot at the edge of the Maekok River just outside of the city center. We had been there before. However, we saw some intriguing signs for a forest park and waterfall, so we decided to pass on the beach and explore a little deeper. The winding roads led us up into the hilly backcountry inhabited by Thais and members of various Hilltribes. These areas are rural and quite poor. The shoulderless roads are made of concrete, no more than about 12 feet wide, with about a 12 inch drop on either side into a drainage ditch to keep the rain under control. The densely forested hills require the already treacherous roads to be set at incredibly steep grades (30% maybe) with blind corners.

Ever the queasy stomach, I was hoping we would give up on the waterfall search after struggling up a steep hill, but we kept going, edging over the crest onto an even steeper downhill. To our right, thick bamboo and forest grew on the hill’s angle, while to our left, an ominous forest slope continued downward to the bottom of the valley. Egg was asleep in his cat carrier, a.k.a. “safety box” while I struggled to manage my nausea and the tight grip of my engaged seatbelt. About halfway down the hill, we stopped, realizing that the further we went, the further we’d have to claw our way back up in our 220,000 km manual transmission Isuzu truck. The emergency brake wasn’t even enough to keep us still on that gradient, so Alan found a tiny cut out of jungle that looked big enough to get turned around. He got us backed into the cut out, but the back wheels couldn’t get enough traction on the slippery forest floor to push the heavy front end. The intense whirr of spinning tires is always a stressful sound, and it reminded me instantly of long winters in Nebraska, getting stuck spinning on ice at the corner of 84th and Leighton. Or sliding through an intersection on Highway 2. Or a Sisyphean climb and slide to the bottom of the hill on Yaqui drive in Flagstaff.

The difference this time was that it was about 95 degrees and we were several miles from civilization in a country where neither of really speak the language (especially not the Hilltribe languages) on the steepest slope I’ve ever been on in a vehicle, with our cat now awake and worried.

I’ve seen Alan do some of the most amazing driving, especially in bad weather, tough roads, in traffic, and with a manual, but this was no easy task. But after a few unsuccessful tries to get the truck going, I could see he was worried.

Maybe I could help us get more traction. Some rocks perhaps. I got out of the truck. With no rocks in sight, I carefully unearthed a fallen bamboo branch and lodged it in front of the left rear tire. Trucks are rear-wheel drive apparently. Things you should know about your car before driving it...

With a surprisingly loud crack, the truck smashed the bamboo and rolled forward, but with so little road to work with in front of the truck due to the steep drop on the other side, the truck rolled back to its perpendicular predicament before it could make any useful progress. Stuck. Half on the concrete, half in the jungle mud.

While we were stopped there, a man on an old and rickety motorbike chugged by, with a load of freshly-cut green onion strapped to the back of his bike. He seemed unmoved by the farang in the truck. Putt putt putt up the hill with his onions.

Although I often have nightmares about having to drive backwards, I suggested to Alan that rather than fight with gravity in a manual trying to get turned around at this ridiculous point in the road, why not just do the hill in reverse?

Had I been alone in the car or if I were the one who had to get out of the situation, I might have just either (a) kept going on the hill and try to turn around at some point when the ground flattened out and hope that my first gear would be enough to get up the hill, or (b) thrown in the towel and taken up residence with the local hilltribe.

Alan though, a tough native Utah guy with lots of experience driving in the mountains, took the challenge. Egg and I clutched each other, eyes closed as Alan used incredible coordination to get us moving backward on a narrow road with little margin for error on either side. Despite the precarious road, we had to get speed to keep the engine from stalling. Each time we slowed too much, the kunk kunk kunk of the engine jerked the entire vehicle and Alan pressed hard on the brake to keep us from losing ground. Letting up the brake and flooring the gas as the he carefully let out the clutch, the diesel engine roared. Due to the incline, the view out the back of the truck was pretty much only sky, so Alan had to rely on side mirrors and expert coordination of which way to turn the wheel, lest we careen off the road into the jungly cliffs. Knowing that my anxiety would not be helpful, I held Egg tightly and thought about making it safely, trying to ignore Alan’s flip-flop wearing feet, just hoping they’d do the right thing at the right time. The idyllic lush green forest and late afternoon sunshine betrayed the very stressful situation we faced just to get us back to the crest of the hill, where a mercifully reasonable place to turn around awaited us. It took five laborious minutes of stalling and restarting to get about 300 meters.

Amazingly, we made it. Driving forward again seemed like a hard-won privilege, and we were all shaken up. Egg buried his face in my hands and clung to my lap. I think he wished he had taken Saturday’s adventure trip instead.

In the backcountry of Northern Thailand, adventure awaits on every concrete road, around every corner, and (midway) down every hill. I feel really lucky that, at least for now, I get to experience an adventurer’s life in such a beautiful place with my two favorite boys.

August 12, 2016

Once again living the (evolving) dream

When I set out to be a language teacher living abroad, I had some pretty grand ideas about what it would be like--exotic locations, strange fruits, some fame (though not much fortune). Throughout my master’s program, I developed what I thought were some impressive academic credentials in methodology, assessment, curriculum design, and even sociolinguistics. The professors told us that one day we’d probably be asked to give some workshops to train other teachers, local teachers.

Last night, pausing to savor the cool evening air, I stood barefoot on a bamboo bridge in the middle of Lake Phayao. The lake water lapped between the bamboo, gently wetting my feet with lukewarm water. The sun had set behind green hills far in the distance, casting a periwinkle glow in the sky and on the water. The bridge from the shore to the mid-lake island temple was lit by small white lights, a beautifully festive scene all around. Lilypads dotted the water nearer to the shore and light Thai music floated on the air from a nearby exercise court. I had to stop and try to absorb the incredible atmosphere that seemed to be straight out of my grand ideas of what teaching abroad would be like. I was, once again, living the dream.

I managed to ignore my preoccupation that I’d either contract a horrible parasite through some imperceptible opening in my foot, or that I’d flat out step on a nail on the delightfully ramshackle bridge. I had taken off my nearly brand new athletic shoes to prevent them from getting soaked by the murky lake water. The trade off of nail stepping for preserving new shoes seems pretty silly, but feeling the bamboo creak under my bare feet added to my experience, so the risk was tolerable.
The view from the bridge
Teachers from Phayao and Phrae

On the tiny island, subtle lights illuminated a tree covered in strips of orange cloth, each symbolizing the wish of someone who had tied it on. Some people knelt to pray nearby, while others reached for their selfie sticks to snap some photos overlooking the lake. The sound of a delicate gong divided moments between people’s prayers and others’ selfies. Children dropped coins into an old canoe filled with water and floating flower candles. High school students wandered onto the island clad in their uniforms with the unattractive shoes. Women in sparkling sandals had made the trip across the bridge unscathed. Men, ever protective of new sneakers, appeared from the bridge like me, barefoot and carrying their footwear.

Lacing my shoes back up after returning to dry land, I contemplated the choices I had made to get myself to this very interesting place in time. I also wondered where I could get some ice cream, or maybe some more of that sour mango with sugar and chili (strange fruit is everywhere here).

Although the bridge event in itself was worth the trip to Phayao, in the past three days, I can say that I got to live another one of my dreams. A doctoral candidate where I teach asked me to be a teacher trainer as part of her dissertation research. My task was to deliver a 12.5-hour workshop on pragmatics over the course of three days. I traveled with her to Phayao, Thailand to give the workshop at the university there. I instructed the teachers about some nuances of English use regarding speech acts such as compliments, refusals, and criticisms. We watched movie clips and did activities to practice what they were learning. It was intensely academic and a bit of a stretch for me, as I have been out of school for a few years. However, it was also very intellectually stimulating and invigorating for me. Teaching other teachers means that I can potentially impact hundreds of students' education. I hope that something I mentioned at the workshop helps a student somewhere down the line.

The teacher-trainer lifestyle has seemed very appealing for a long time because it includes the pleasant parts of teaching (e.g., motivated students and reward of students’ progress) without the drain (e.g., grading). Maybe it's worth investigating how I can do more cool stuff like this!

Teacher by day, bridge-goer by night. Seems like a good lifestyle to me.

July 17, 2016

Getting Healthy

I guess I haven't written in a while.

After indulging in too much curry and too much alcohol six weeks ago on Koh Lanta, I decided that it was time to make a few changes.

Alan and I gave up alcohol for Ramadan, which was surprisingly easy, and we saved a lot of money. A lot of calories, too.

I gave up coffee, which was actually quite hard. I substitute green tea, but it's not the same as a ritual. I loved making a french press of coffee first thing in the morning. And getting a pick-me-up iced Americano mid-morning. However, I think the caffeine was contributing to my general levels of stress, and I often felt a crash in the afternoon. It's harder to wake up without coffee, but the day, in general, goes more smoothly. I think it's worth it.

Alan challenged me to start running. His exact challenge was to start by running for three consecutive minutes and add one minute each day until you reach 20 minutes. Challenge accepted, met, and exceeded. In fact, today I ran for 34 minutes, which IF YOU'VE EVER KNOWN ME AT ALL you know is something I would never have done in the past. I have always hated running, and I literally had panic attacks about running-related gym classes or volleyball training from elementary school until high school (and beyond, kind of).

Now, I actually *look forward* to lacing up my shoes and sweating it out on the hills behind campus. I never thought I'd say that. I'm not fast, but I don't give up. My mantra is "you can go slowly, just don't stop," and it works. The best part about the running is that I get to feel a huge sense of accomplishment when I reach my goal every day. I feel a lot stronger mentally, knowing that I can persevere through times when I would have normally given up. Life metaphor much?

So, a lighter, less-caffeinated, jogger-ish person has emerged from my once-jittery shell. I've lost about 10 pounds and my resting heart rate has gone from 90 beats per minute to 50. Actually 46, which kind of freaked out the doctor. He said I have an "athlete's heart." Nice.

My stress level is more manageable with these lifestyle changes, and I feel like they are sustainable. Drink less alcohol and caffeine, do more cardio. Now, if I could just find time and energy to learn Thai...

June 7, 2016

Bread, Finally.

I’m sitting in a French-style café called Faim de Loup (hunger of the wolf, I guess) on Koh Lanta (Lanta Island). It’s a large island off the coast of Southern Thailand. It’s considered the laid-back island by comparison to other islands that prioritize partying. I’m not much of a partier, so this seemed like the right choice for an anniversary trip with my husband. The café serves freshly baked bread, croissants, cinnamon rolls, and baguettes. I feel like I’m getting a really special treat after my rice-based diet of the past year. Living in a somewhat un-touristy area of Thailand like Chiang Rai means that you don’t get much (good) bread. Vacationing in a tourist area offers a lot more variation in food, and wow did that ham and cheese sandwich go down easily!

From where I sit, I can see a line of motorbikes and motor-scooters. If you’ve never seen a motor-scooter like the ones that are absolutely everywhere in Thailand, it’s a fairly small machine that has a motor, two wheels, and a seat big enough for two (sometimes three) adults. The Thai motorbikes and scooters are often very gendered. The guys bikes, which I guess are motorcycles, are big, usually black or a very loud color, and have very angular shapes which seem to imitate muscles. The girl bikes, on the other hand are a little childish looking for my taste. They are often pink or pastel and decorated with cartoon characters and have weird slogans like “jeans lover” on them. The speedometer is often huge and in the center of the handlebars. The gauge goes up to 180 kilometer per hour, but I’ve never gone more than 80, and I don’t like going much over 40 on these rickety machines. Alan and I own one in Chiang Rai, a 135 cc Yamaha boy bike, so we are very used to riding motorbikes. The scooter we rented here is girly and only 115 cc, so it feels tiny and toy-ish by comparison. Especially on the steep island roads, it feels like we’ll never get to the top. We do of course.

Back at the café, I’m nearly finished with my “Americano” coffee. In less touristy places, I have to be very specific about my order. Americano, no sugar, no brown sugar, and please add a little milk. Thais love to make coffee super sweet using sugars, syrups, and even sweetened condensed milk. The result is a desert-like drink. Of course it’s delicious, but my teeth and waistline can’t handle it. However, in places frequented by westerners, like this café, my Americano automatically came out unsweetened and with a little carafe of milk to add as I please. It’s a luxury to be catered to in this way.

I’m nursing a shoulder sunburn, which has be sitting in the shade of the café, wearing a sports bra (and regular shirt, of course!) that doesn’t interfere with the burn. I’ve got bare feet under the table, because many businesses in Thailand ask you to leave your shoes at the door. It helps keep them cleaner, I suppose.
The bathroom at this café is good, though today the sink isn’t working--par for the course in Thailand. If the basic requirements for a restaurant bathroom in the US were: toilet paper, toilet seat, working sink, soap, and a hand dryer; in Thailand, you can pretty much count on having maybe two of those. If more of those requirements are met, you’ve found yourself a good bathroom. If I could change one thing about Thailand that I thought would make it a safer place, I would add soap to every bathroom. In a land where diarrhea is super common among locals and tourists, at least a thorough hand wash (especially by food prep workers) might prevent some transmission.

Bathrooms not withstanding, vacationing on a tropical Thai island is a pretty cool experience. Having a breakfast in Thailand that consists of unsweetened coffee and fresh bread—what a treat!

April 30, 2016

The Dream, Chiang Rai, and Store Credit

Today, headed North on the so-called superhighway that runs from Bangkok to Burma, I remembered that I'm living the dream. My dream. Living abroad (and doing it like a boss). When I'm buried in paperwork and grading, I sometimes forget to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

I might have only been going to the big grocery store for weekly errands, but I was casually commanding a rumbling diesel-fueled manual pick-up truck through weekend traffic, dodging errant motorbikes and speed-hungry lorries (semi-trucks for my fellow Americans), all while singing along to tunes on my iPad. Pretty badass.

The drug and human-trafficking checkpoint no longer seems so foreign, though I'm still a little relieved every time I don't get pulled over. Not that they should or have any reason to, just that I've seen enough episodes of Locked Up Abroad to know that not all justice systems are created equally. All that to say, I have to pass a checkpoint on my way to the grocery store. Then, I turn down a narrow country road lined with palm trees and rice paddies, before parking in an otherwise unnotable lot.

Alan and I spent the morning, hangovers and all, in the fancy customer room at the Isuzu dealership while our truck was serviced. Alan took a nap in a recliner (seriously) and I graded papers at a nearby table while a giant TV blared Thai soaps and talk shows. We took a mid-morning break to get some food.

Our lunch was about as Thai as it gets. A roadside noodle shop selling mysterious pork bits in a salty broth with glass noodles and green onions. Cars roared past, kicking up dust as we sucked down our noodles. For about 2 bucks, we both filled our bellies.

We spent a few more hours waiting for our truck, settled the bill, and rolled off the lot a little safer and a lot cleaner than we had come in. I learned it is possible to get through a car tune-up with knowledge of about 10 Thai words and a lot of patience.

The past few weeks have been like living inside my parents' Traeger smoker. If the traeger had roaches and lizards. And maybe if it were a few degrees hotter. Kidding.

The smoke problem in Chaing Rai seems indicative of the general attitude toward rules here. It is illegal to burn your fields, and there are signs all over the place, but yet, one can look out and see fields on fire. No one is being held accountable. Thus, the air is a nasty gray soup, most days completely obscuring the normally beautiful views of the foothills of Chiang Rai. April's outstanding heatwave hasn't done much to improve the situation. Apparently we are breaking heat records that were set 65 years ago.

You don't have to tell me that it's hot. I wear these beautiful, if absolutely suffocating, wool pencil skirts to work every day. Luckily, our offices and classrooms are air-conditioned, but by the time I trek across campus to my classroom, my face and hair look like I've just been at the gym.

We don't have any air-conditioning at our apartment. It's not that bad with a couple of fans going, but yeah, it's not that great either. Egg likes to lay belly-up under the fan. I don't blame him.

I actually bought what I thought was an air-conditioner the other week, but neither Alan nor I felt that the evaporation cooler did anything to help our hot house, so I tried to take it back to the store.

One person spoke English. I speak just enough Thai to really get myself into trouble. Imagine dealing with a customer service person and having about 20-30 words in common between the two of you. Imagine that the customer service person doesn't want to accept the return, but it cost you more than you wanted to spend anyway. I patiently negotiated for about 30 minutes before finally getting store credit. They wanted nothing to do with the cooler that I had used for an hour before deciding I didn't like it. On one hand, I get it. On the other hand, I think that making sure the customer is satisfied is really important, and that a few returns won't have that big of an impact on profit, but that losing customers and customer networks might. Anyway, in the end, I was somewhat ok with the outcome and left the store feeling pretty defeated and hot.

So, living the dream also includes dealing with strange things and frighteningly familiar things, like customer service counters.

There are only a few weeks left in the semester, so I'm very much looking forward to our short but sweet vacation time in early June. We are thinking islands. Talk about living the dream!