January 8, 2017

Old Passport Memories

The defining feature of my 20s has certainly been travel. My passport's weathered pages are filled with stamps and stickers and visas from around the world. The passport I was issued in 2007 now has four holes punched in the cover to nullify it. I've picked up a crispy new passport from Chiang Mai on Tuesday, and I felt a sense of sadness to see my trusty be-stickered old passport be taken out of commission. As a farewell, I'm going to write a page-by-page post about the memories this passport has helped me make. The stamps are written about in the order they appear in my passport, which is a little confusing, but authentic to how a passport is stamped.

Front cover: 

Sticker: IM [Khmer script?]57. I'm pretty sure that was affixed in Cambodia. Somehow it has survived the six years of shuffle since then.

ID page:

My more precise signature of 10 years ago, where the letters of my last name are actually legible. My favorite ID pic of all time in which I look like a Russian spy, or perhaps a 19-year-old American college student. Issued On September 11. Not a great day for Americans.

Page 1

Stamp: Heathrow Airport 1 Jul 2014. LEAVE TO ENTER FOR SIX MONTHS. EMPLOYMENT AND RECOURSE TO PUBLIC FUNDS PROHIBITED. Though, feel free to have the worst night's sleep of your life in our arrival area outside of the international terminal.

Stamp: ADMITTED / CHI / DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY-US CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION JUL 08 2008. Returning from study abroad in Austria, one less boyfriend, one more tattoo.

Stamp: FRANKFURT 26.01.08 17. Entering Germany for study abroad in Austria. When you have German grandparetns, you've gotta stop in on your way through Europe!

Visa: VISUM. ÖSTERREICH. 15-01-08. MULT. REPUBLIK ÖSTERREICH GENERAL KONSULAT CHICAGO. Visa to study abroad in Graz, my first experience living abroad. I could sum it up as, being an exchange student is mostly about parties, the Euro was really expensive in 2008, and Schnitzel fat goes directly to your butt. Wouldn't change a thing!

Page 2

Visa: KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA [USED]. Phnom Penh, I. A. 25USD. Single. 8 JAN 2010. Capt. Ly Bunna Deputy Chief of visa service. "What have I gotten myself into?" That was a distinct thought while this visa was being glued in. Blog entries from 2010 are all about this plunge into Southeast Asia.

Stamp: IMMIGRATION CAMBODIA. 08 JAN 2010. 08 FEB 2010. P121. Holy shit. I'm actually doing this? Why is it so dark outside?

Stamp: IMMIGRATION CAMBODIA. SIEM REAP AIRPORT DEPARTED 28 MAY 2010. 08 FEB 2010. S068. I cannot believe I survived that. Hey. there's a Dairy Queen at this airport.

Stamp: ADMITTED / CHI / DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY-US CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION AUG 01 2015. Agent says, "So, what were you doing in Turkey for 13 months?" Sub-text: so, uh, joined ISIS lately? Please wait in the room where we've made any obviously Muslim people sit.

Sticker: JAPAN IMMIGRATION INSPECTOR. [CHARACTERS] LANDING PERMISSION. 29 MAY 2010. 27 AUG 2010. Temporary Visitor. 90 days. Narita. Officer: "What were you doing in Cambodia? So, are you planning to marry the boyfriend that you are visiting? Ok, welcome to Japan." Answers: volunteering as a teacher; uhhhhh why are you asking me that??

Stamp: IMMIGRATION. DEPARTED. NARITA. 25 JUL 2010. Well, I never saw that boyfriend again.

Page 3

Visa: KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA [USED].  Extension of Stay [Khmer script] Single. 04 MAY 2010. 08 JUN 2010. Neth Savoum.  One more month. You can do it. That prison-style calendar you've been using to count down is not so great psychologically, but you're doing it!

Visa: KINGDOM OF CAMBODIA [USED].  Extension of Stay [Khmer script] Single. 02 FEB 2010. 08 MAY 2010. Neth Savoum. Well, I guess I'm committed to at least three months. Better figure out how to make this work (brownie sundaes).

Page 4

Taped in paper: T.C. LOS ANGELES BAKONSOLOSLUGU. ATTENTION !!! WITHIN ONE MONTH OF YOUR ARRIVAL IN TURKEY, YOU MUST APPLY LOCALLY TO THE POLICE DEPARTMENT FOR ALIENS (Emniyet Müdürlüğü Yabancılar Şube Müdürlüğü) FOR GETTING A RESIDENCE PERMIT IN THE CITY WHERE YOUR WILL BE STUDYING, WORKING, RESIDING. WWW.EGM.GOV.TR. Moving to Turkey as newlyweds.

Visa: TÜRKİYE CUMHURİYETİ. GİRİŞ VİZESİ / ENTRY VISA. TRANSİT VİZESİ /TRANSIT VISA. 08.04.2014-08.04.2015. Tek Giriş. 365 Gün / Days. Single Entry. çalışma / work. Y.Ö.K Başkanlığı. 3 MART 2014 tarih. 60,00 USD. 82444403-29. sayılı olur yanıları. A. Semra GEYIK. Konsolos. Consul. KAYSERİ MELİKŞAH ÜNİVERSİTESİ.

StampT.C. İSTANBUL HAVA HUDUT KAPISIGİRİŞ. 07 02 14. We actually arrived in Turkey. I thought I would want to kiss the ground, having been in transit for more than 48 hours, but that is pretty much the last thing you want to do in the domestic terminal of the Istanbul airport. I took a fitful nap instead.

Page 5

StampT.C. İSTANBUL HAVA HUDUT KAPISI. ÇIKIŞ 17 01 15. Excited to leave Turkey for a week in the land of pork and beer: Germany!

Stamp: 17. 01. 15. 53. FRANKFURT AM MAIN. Visiting Oma and Opa in Germany for a break from Turkey. It was surprisingly hard to switch back to German after working so hard on Turkish!

Stamp: 24. 01. 15. 53. FRANKFURT AM MAIN. Back to Turkey.

StampT.C. İSTANBUL HAVA HUDUT KAPISI. ÇIKIŞ 01 08 15. Leaving Turkey for good.

Stamp: CAMBODIA IMMIGRATION. PHNOM PENH AIRPORT PERMITTED 19 FEB 2016. 19 MAR 2016. P107. e-VISA. Going back to Cambodia six years later to present at a conference. Familiar in the weirdest way.  One of my favorite blog entries ever.

Stamp: CAMBODIA IMMIGRATION. PHNOM PENH AIRPORT DEPARTED. 21 FEB 2016. 19 MAR 2016. P136. e-VISA.

Page 6

Visa: KINGDOM OF THAILAND. [USED] Non-Immigrant B. S. 80 USD. CHICAGO. 5 Aug 2015. 4 Nov 2015. ROYAL THAI CONSULATE GENERAL. Welcome to Thailand. Same Jena, different country.

Stamp: IMMIGRATION MAE SAI THAILAND. DEPARTED. 13 DEC 2015. Walking over the bridge to Myanmar--what???

Stamp: IMMIGRATION SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT THAILAND. VISA CLASS NON-B. 16 AUG 2015. ADMITTED 13 NOV 2015.

Stamp: CHIANGRAI IMMIGRATION. APPLICATION OF STAY IS PERMITTED UP TO 23 AUG 2016 APPLICANT MUST LEAVE THE KINGDOM WITHIN THE DATE SPECIFIED HEREIN OFFENDERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. SIGNED [Thai Script]. IMMIGRATION OFFICER. 12 OCT 2015. [Thai script].

Stamp: MYANMAR IMMIGRATION. ADMITTED TACHILEK. 13 DEC 2015. One of my proudest stamps, though it's super hard to read. Myanmar represents one of the final frontiers to me, a place still largely unexplored by tourists.

Stamp: MYANMAR IMMIGRATION. Left for MAE SAI. 13 DEC 2015. TACHILEK.

Page 7

Visa stamp: NON-IMM. IMMIGRATION THAILAND RE-ENTRY PERMIT. Valid until 23 AUG 2016. ONE. Multiple. 23 AUG 2016. 12. OCT 2015. CHIANGRAI IMMIGRATION. [Thai script]

Stamp: IMMIGRATION. MAE SAI THAILAND VISA CLASS N-I B. ADMITTED 13 DEC 2015. UNTIL 23 AUG 2016.

Stamp: IMMIGRATION. DEPARTED. 19 FEB 2016. MAE SAI THAILAND. I think this was a mistake. I was not in Mae Sai on 19 Feb. I did leave Thailand to go to Phnom Penh this day.

Stamp: IMMIGRATION BANGKOK THAILAND. VISA CLASS NON-B. ADMITTED 21 FEB 2016. UNTIL 23 AUG 2016. Back from the conference in Cambodia.

Stamp: IMMIGRATION SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT THAILAND. 16 DEC 2016. Oh! Going to America for the first time in 18 months! Very exciting!

Page 8

e-Visa: Kingdom of Cambodia. NATION-RELIGION-KING. [USED]. Tourist. 30 days. 0 Children. 25 January 2016. 25 April 2016.

Stamp: CHIANGRAI IMMIGRATION. APPLICATION OF STAY IS PERMITTED UP TO 23 AUG 2017 APPLICANT MUST LEAVE THE KINGDOM WITHIN THE DATE SPECIFIED HEREIN OFFENDERS WILL BE PROSECUTED. SIGNED Pol. Capt. S [Thai script]. IMMIGRATION OFFICER. 12 OCT 2015. [Thai script].

Visa stamp: NON-IMM. IMMIGRATION THAILAND RE-ENTRY PERMIT. Valid until 23 AUG 2017. ONE. Multiple. 23 AUG 2017.  CHIANGRAI IMMIGRATION. [Thai script]

Page 9

Stamp: IMMIGRATION SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT THAILAND. VISA CLASS NON-B. 16 AUG 2015. ADMITTED 1 JAN 2017. UNTIL 23/8/17.

Page 10

Blank

Back cover

Sticker: GÖZEN. IST. SECURITY.  Turkey was really big on security at this time. They still are, and with good reason. My passport and luggage were covered in these stickers.

Sticker: APIS GÖZEN SECURITY. ISTANBUL.

Sticker: Security. 08/07/08. 16. FIS.

December 15, 2016

Compassion Going Forward

Another year. I will have spent all but 13 days of this year in Thailand. It's not a bad place to spend a year or two. I've been here for a year and a half and I still can't say much more than what is absolutely necessary for my daily life. I still can't read, not even close. Somehow, though, I get by. Happily?

My question mark is there because while I'm blissfully taking my cat on walks through hills of Northern Thailand, other parts of the globe see so much suffering. I'm worried about the state of the world.

A few days ago, I posted a news story about bombings in Istanbul carried out by a separatist group. They killed 40 random people who were near a football stadium. That in itself is bad, but it is too often that I'm posting "a heavy heart for my dear friends in Turkey" or something similar. I think they've had more than five highly-publicized bombings just this year. That doesn't count the smaller ones in less well-known regions.

Discontent for the current regime in Turkey by some groups has fostered an extreme distrust within the government for any opposition, real or perceived. Following the July coup attempt, academics and teachers in Turkey have been under scrutiny if they have any semblance of association with an exiled Islamist preacher. Many of them have found themselves permanently kicked out of academia, or even under arrest, detained, or deported.

Today, I've been down a wormhole on #Aleppo on Twitter. There are lots of videos of kids with holes in their heads, missing body parts, and what remains of them is bloodied and covered in rubble. It's not a movie. It is real life for Syrians. Aside from bombs, people are starving to death and unable to get medical supplies to treat the sick and wounded. People in East Aleppo are now filming videos with the real belief that this video will probably be the last one, that is, they will be dead before they can film something else. They don't want to be forgotten, to have died for nothing. Fathers beg for safety for their children, not themselves. They despair at the world's inattention to their calls for help.

A seven-year-old tweeted what she thought would be her last tweet. Seven. She and her mother share an account and they document life in a besieged city. They believe they will die at any moment.

I think it's hard for people outside of Syria to understand the daily devastation because it seems so unreal that a government could do that to its own people. I know it's hard for me to comprehend. Imagine if people had been tweeting from concentration camps in Nazi Germany? Perhaps people say we didn't know that was happening at the time. Modern journalism takes that excuse away from us. We KNOW that Syria is being destroyed, but we either blissfully ignore it or we watch with morbid fascination as a country destroys its heritage and its own people.

I saw another video with footage from a security camera in a Germany subway. It shows a couple of white German guys kicking a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the back as she is going down the stairs away from them. The kick sends her flying forward, face first into the concrete floor. The men walk away as if nothing has happened. The woman lays at the bottom of the stairs for several agonizing seconds until passers-by rush to her side. Her arm was broken, and I bet she will never feel safe walking alone again. That kind of blatantly racist violence is beyond me. A woman, walking alone, minding her own business--they kick her in the back so that she falls down the stairs? Really? In what universe is that even remotely an okay thing to do to anyone?

What am I missing?

Why are people so intolerant of each other? Why isn't there more discussion and compromise? Why is violence so often the reaction?

I feel like people need to sit down and listen to each other. Slow down and pay attention to what's happening, and not be so caught up in their own lives. People need to be together and talk, not bury their heads in the sand.

Despite the current craziness in Turkey, one aspect of life there that I'll never forget is tea time. Any time you want to have a real conversation, you slow down long enough to drink tea in tiny glass cups without handles. You sit together and sip slowly. You talk about your families first. Then you talk about what's on your mind. More tea, more talking. Maybe a few bites of baklava. More tea, more talking.

I don't believe we solve the world's problems by kicking people in the back, and we certainly don't solve problems by destroying each other's homes and families. My Grandma used to have a book called "Everything I Really Needed to Know, I learned in Kindergarten." Of course, the Syrian conflict and endemic racism are infinitely complex issues, but even a kindergartener would understand that what they see in these videos is wrong, hurtful, and scary. What's more, any teacher will tell you that crushing the voice of descent does nothing to solve a problem. In a conflict, you need to understand why people are not satisfied with the current situation and create a plan to move forward together.

I believe everyone needs to take time to have tea with those they are in conflict with. Taking time to understand one another with compassion and an open mind is the most important step to compromise.

If we can have compassion going forward, I believe we can create a world we all want to live in.

Being compassionate can look many ways. One way to show your commitment to a better world right now is to make a $10 donation to a charity (or $100 or $1000 if you can afford it). It's harmless to you, but your kindness helps these organizations do their work. This year, I've donated to Save the Children and the ASPCA (for all the fur-babies). Longer-term, think about supporting teachers in any way you can. Teachers are crucial to building a compassionate and open-minded society; but they often face low salaries, limited resources, or government policies that put artificial constraints on our classroom. If you've got the time, volunteer for an organization that supports people who are different from yourself. You'll help the community and I know you'll learn something about yourself and you world.

December 13, 2016

Bangkok: Two Days was Enough

There are plenty of reasons that I had not been to Bangkok since moving to Chiang Rai in 2015. For one, I'm not generally a fan of big cities. Bangkok is a mega city of 8-10 million people. Second, it costs a fair amount of money to do a weekend in Bangkok when you count airfare, ground transport, lodging, and food. Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, I don't really like being a tourist. It often means a lot of walking while dealing with weather and varying stages of stomach ailment in a strange place. I'm down for walking, but not with a giant backpack on busy streets in the heat of the day.

There was, though, a very good reason for Alan and I to spend the weekend in Bangkok. Our good friend from Russia, who we met while teaching in Turkey, was visiting her sister in Thailand. We agreed to meet in Bangkok for a day to catch up and do the tourist thing together.

So, just a little backstory about our friend. The past couple of months in her life seem straight out of a thriller movie. She had been working at the same university in Turkey where Alan and I worked in 2014-2015. She was still working there when Turkey experienced a failed coup attempted in July, which was blamed on Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher and education advocate who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania, USA. Our former university, it so happens, was a Gulen-funded school, which didn't really cause us any problems while we were there, but in July, immediately following the coup attempt, the university was shut down and those who weren't able to resign fast enough faced serious consequences like prison. Our friend was lucky to be the last person to resign. Meanwhile, school officials were taken away in handcuffs and detained in front of news media cameras. It seemed like the worst was over for our friend until October when foreign teachers began getting detained and deported. This is the spy thriller part. My friend is an excellent writer, and you can read her harrowing experience here. I made her retell it like 50 times during our stay in Bangkok because it just seemed so unbelievable, even though I knew it was all true. My former students have all had to find new universities and try to put the pieces back together in a country that remains totally unstable.

Back to Thailand...

Bangkok kinda grosses me out, to be honest. Let's face it, even the name of the place isn't even something you really want to say in polite company. The Thai name is much less embarrassing: "Krung Thep Maha Nakhon." Past the name, though, I mean this city is super-densely populated with nearly 10 million people. My hometown has 225,000, and my home state has only a million all together. The Bangkok crowds leave me breathless and claustrophobic, tired of jockeying for position and squeezing past people at every step. In the touristy parts of Bangkok, weary travelers, grungy backpackers, and wealthy ex-pats mingle in droves of thousands. Dreadlocks, ugly tank-tops, fresh tattoos, cigarette and weed smoke, fried food, and way too much alcohol create a sensory scene common to many a tourist destination. Bangkok though, seems to cater particularly well to the some of the most hideous desires of visitors. Massage parlors, both legit and perhaps otherwise (happy ending is extra), fill the gaps between tacky dive bars blasting hits from 2007. Middle-eastern immigrants sell tailoring services every 25 feet, fleshing signs for custom suiting and occasionally making physical contact with passers by. Tuk tuk drivers verbally accost passing tourists "Where you going? Floating Market? Palace? I take you, sir! Good price." After midnight, the tuk tuk drivers pull out small signs advertising ping pong shows. Having been to Thailand on a study abroad for women's studies back when I was an undergraduate, I know exactly what happens at a ping pong show, and it has very little to do with ping pong.

While the sex tourism industry happens mostly underground, the scantily-clad drunken tourist scene happens all over. Young women tanned from the beaches of Koh Phi Phi and Phuket stumble through the streets in crocheted bikini tops and short short, leaving little to the imagination. I fear for their safety in that condition, as there are plenty of predatory people who wouldn't think twice about taking advantage of women in this situation. I want to tell them that they are beautiful and they don't need to get this kind of attention from men, but everyone has to find their own path to self-acceptance. To be clear, being drunk or dressing in a sexy way are in no way invitations or justifications for rape or any other crime, but not being vigilant and drawing a lot of attention to oneself in a strange place at night is risky anywhere. Promoting your physical assets ahead of your intellect and respect for the place you are visiting (Thais normally dress very conservatively) is something that a lot of young tourists do, and it's hard to see pieces of myself at a younger age in them.

My after midnight activities, though, pretty much never include anything except for sleeping, but if I'm still awake, there's a good bet I'm eating. This trip, my post beer snack was a kebab, the Turkish specialty that has infiltrated everywhere in Thailand. It was awesome. My dinner had been awesome as well, a mild curry accompanied by an entertaining magic show. A few beers with friends later, I was ready for a snack and a lot of sleep.

Our hostel room was exactly what one might expect to get for $15 per night. The room itself was barely bigger than the twin bed, and the bathroom, well, I've certainly seen worse, but my extensive experience with foreign bathrooms has set an unbelievably low bar. Let describe this one as teeny, moldy, and only semi-functional. The toilet didn't really flush right, so you had to open the tank and plunge your hand in to press on the seal so it would stop running. Although that seems terrible, it wasn't a big problem because, due to the seemingly ever-present jackhammers digging up a pipe outside outside of our window, they had to shut the water off in the hostel for many of the hours that we were there.

So, $15, right? The desk staff also reflected the price, as they were terribly bothered to interrupt their phone chatting to assist my friend with check in. Customer service goes a really long way. They also insisted on having conversations at top volume in the hallways before 7 AM. I don't understand Thai well, but at that volume, it *must have* been something important for all of us. Oh, and I had booked a room with air con, because nothing is worse than a very hot day followed by a sticky night. That was a good intention, but due to the unadjustable nature of the arctic air conditioner apparatus rigging and the seriously micro-sized blanket, it was very hard to sleep comfortably. The hard as a rock pillows didn't help, and the jackhammers were just icing on a rotten "cake."


Thailand is famous for food, and with good reason. Even the street food is usually cooked fresh to order and delicious. It doesn't even make me sick anymore (knock on wood). Pad Thai is always a good order, and everyone puts their own twist on it. Alan and I grabbed a few plates of the stuff from a street vendor, as well as some super yummy deep fried spring rolls. Oily? Yes. Good? You bet. We also ordered pad Thai the next day with our friend. Our Breakfast on the last morning we particularly good though. Chicken green curry served with fried pancakes similar to nan bread for dipping. Delicious. There as even a cat at the breakfast place, which automatically improves a place if you ask me. I thought the cat was being really sweet and rubbing on me, but just as I went to snap a photo, it shook its leg and sprayed pee all over the back of my calf and shoe. Damn. Egg (our cat) was curious about that smell on my shoe when we got home.

On the up side, Bangkok, in its effort to please tourists has soap in almost every bathroom. This is decidedly NOT the case in Chiang Rai. Soap is a good thing in a country where diarrhea is one of the most common ailments. I used a little soap on my cat pee leg.


I bravely asked a Thai friend for directions on which busses to take from the airport to our hotel, in an effort to save money. True to a Jena adventure, the bus trip was absolutely epic, a three-hour journey through the city at night amidst so much humanity.


On our last day, after bidding our friend goodbye, Alan and I took a boat taxi from our where we were staying to another area of the city. The boat ride was a highlight of the trip. Shaded and with a nice breeze, the boats move quickly through the river, avoiding all of Bangkok's hideous traffic. We were absolutely crammed onto the boat at the beginning, but after a few stops, we were able to sit. The kid next to me was adorable in a hat with floppy wings coming out the top. I offered his mother my seat, and she was pleasantly surprised at my gesture. People do not give up seats in Bangkok.


After the boat, Alan and I dove into the side streets of the district where we landed, and somehow stumbled upon Siloam Road, a busy area of the city where I had stayed on my first visit to Thailand. The shops sell Hindu and Halal foods, and the call to prayer wafts from the minarets over the traffic noise every few hours. We found a Turkish restaurant selling our favorite Turkish cuisine, and enjoyed a hearty meal. We even spoke a little Turkish with the waiter. Boy, was that confusing!


A few hours of walking later, we took the Sky Train to Jatujak park, one of only a few green spaces in Bangkok. We did a lap around the park and then stopped for some fried noodles at a food stall before boarding a bus to the airport. We were exhausted from carrying our heavy backpacks all day in the heat and noise of Bangkok.


All in all, I'm glad to have visited Bangkok again to make some new memories with an old friend, and to experience this strange and huge city with my husband as part of our adventure in Thailand.

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.