September 28, 2015

The Golden Triangle and The ESL Teacher Paradox

Although it seems like something I would do, I never really pictured myself standing in Thailand and looking across the Mekong to see both Laos and Myanmar at the same time.

This area, affectionately called "The Golden Triange"--was once a major supplier of the world's opium. The material to make opiate drugs is extracted from a special type of poppy plant which grows particularly well in certainly climates. Here and Afghanistan. The latter has the current market on lock down, which unfortunately means that neighboring Pakistan has one of the highest rates of opiate addiction in the world.

So there I was, fresh with knowledge from the "Hall of Opium" museum, standing in the shadow of a 30 foot golden Buddha, pondering the confluence of two rivers and three countries. The street behind me was lined with small shops selling handicrafts from hilltribes, and I'm sure a bunch of cheap plastic from China. Across the river, the Laotion side looked like a showy casino area. There was a building with a giant crown on top of it. A big sign welcomed visitors to Laos. In sharp contrast, the Myanmar side was a field. That's all. Granted, the visible part of Myanmar was only an isthmus jutting into the confluence of the rivers, but I think the stark differences between these three countries was clear.

Myanmar remains a huge question mark in my head. The social and political issues that have plagues the country for the past century have meant that it has been relatively untouched by the outside world, and that it's culture is uniquely preserved. I am sure however that with each passing day, more of the world is coming in. I nearly took a job there a few years ago. It's for the best that I didn't, but my intense curiously about the state remains. It's on my list of places to go while we are staying so close. On the note of culture coming in, my one regret about my profession is that I feel I contribute to the homogenization of the world. That is, through teaching English, I promote Western values and expose students to a culture that some of them idolize. I travel to see things that are different; yet, in being a traveler, I encourage (force) the world to adapt to me. People speak English to deal with me. They offer burgers and fries to feed me. There is some irony in the fact that in my quest to see things that are very different, I contribute to making them more the same.

As a teacher, I know that helping my students learn to use English is probably one of the best skills I could give. As an academic, I'm well aware of the World Englishes paradigm which suggests that communities can speak English and maintain their native languages, cultures, and identities just fine. I guess I can hold two ideas at once. I'm contributing to something positive for my students and something questionable for the preservation of difference.

Wow. Did not see that mini-ponder coming.

The Golden Triangle was pretty awesome and the museum was informative. We also stumbled upon a quaint riverside market with a great selection of food. That's always a plus. We already have plans to go back for a fun Saturday evening with friends on the Mekong.

Thai-Style Waffle Roulette

I've been wanting to sit down and write for at least a week now. Somehow it hasn't happened.

I think I'm finding my own rhythm here in the mystical hills of Chiang Rai.

I wake up, drink a huge glass of water, get dressed and walk to work. I've usually sweat through my entire shirt by the time I make it to the little bakery on campus.

I play waffle-roulette, choosing a few flavors of waffle each day, not really knowing what I'll get. I save the stickers from the wrappers to ask my students during office hours. The burgundy sticker says red bean, and the dark blue says coconut. It's a waffle filled with chunks of coconut--pretty awesome.  One of them is too intense, it's filled with a strange custard. Not sure which color that is, hence the roulette aspect. The pink sticker is plain. I prefer those. Mostly because I smear peanut butter all over it when I get to my office. Protein. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

There weren't any pink ones this morning, so I got two small coconut waffles to go with my peanut butter and coffee.

Alan got me a mini French-press for my birthday, and it's gets good use every morning.

So that's breakfast. At my desk. Air conditioning on full-blast until the humidity has come down to a level where I'm not sweating. Actually, I guess it's sort of the other way around--until the humidity becomes low enough where I can sweat and have it evaporate.

Anyway, I teach 18 hours a week, and my office hours have recently been absolutely packed with students from my writing class who want to refine their projects before the due date. It's been a lot of extra brain work for me, but I like working with students one-on-one. It's a more human connection than teaching in a big class.

At noon, I usually get lunch in a cafeteria on campus where I'm likely to see colleagues. There are a lot of food choices--if you speak Thai--so I usually get whatever I can point to. I'm not very proud of that, so I am trying to add a few words to my vocabulary every week.

After work, which sometimes doesn't happen until 6:00 pm, I usually exercise. I've been walking and jogging on the university track lately. It's a nice place to exercise, and certainly less nerve-racking than walking on the edge of the street where you're competing with motorbikes and shuttles.

I found out when and where the volleyball club practices, so I'm going to try it out tomorrow. I'm excited and a little nervous. I hope I'm good enough to play with them. I've enjoyed being a big fish in a small pond for several years...

Alan and I go to the market almost every night for dinner. There's a lot to choose from, again, way more if you speak Thai.  On Mondays, there is a special market that most of the university students go to. It's fun. Tonight I found a gyoza (Japanese dumpling) station. Too delicious. I am trying to get myself to be healthier, so with my fried gyoza, I had a big fruit salad, Thai-style. Thai-style usually means adding soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and the hottest darn peppers in the world. This is salad roulette. Every bite has the potential to draw tears from the sensitive farangs (foreigner) novice eyes, and most bites at least make my nose run. Rumor, and perhaps biology, has it that spicy food makes it harder for bacteria to grow, which ultimately makes food safer to eat--I guess. That is one reason that Thais eat their food so spicy. I don't know the others. Glutens for punishment?

The food is going down fine, but I still can't stomach (not literally) some of the fauna near and inside our house. We had a pair of small lizards darting around our bedroom the other day. I successfully wrangled one outside, and gave up trying to find the other. There are spiders galore, and of all sizes. The tiny jumping ones are pretty annoying, but I'm not nearly as afrid of them as the I am of the bigger ones. Yuck. I'm even down with the daddy long-leg guys hanging out on our balcony, as long as they don't come inside.

Every time I take our laundry off of the line (it hangs on the balcony), I have a very strong fear that  spider will be tucked away in a cranny of my undies and come crawling out when I'm folding. I'm actually super surprised that it hasn't happened yet.

Alan and I bought a little dust-buster vacuum, which makes bug clean up a little bit less awful, but I still get pretty jumpy.

Every night I see roaches. Luckily, they are outside. Roaches are the worst. Or spiders. They are both terrible.

Ok, bug rant is over.

September 17, 2015

Wai Khru (Teacher Appreciation Ceremony)

One of the best parts of my *lifestyle* (an English teacher who lives abroad) is that I get to see so many different viewpoints. Seeing traditional ceremonies often offers insight on the culture and its values.

Today our university celebrated Wai Khru, which translates to Teacher Appreciation Day. In fact the day is about forming the teacher-student relationship between faculty and freshman (called "freshers" here as a non-gendered term). I observed the ceremony briefly, as my teaching schedule didn't line up for me to participate fully. In the auditorium, faculty members decked out in red and black robes sat in chairs near the stage. Students formed a lined in front of the faculty, kneeled and received a blessing from the faculty member. Three dots of white powder were given on each students' forehead, symbolizing ancient Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. I'm having trouble finding exactly what the dots mean, my best guess is: morality, concentration, and wisdom. These are considered pillars of Buddhism.

There are many aspects of the ceremony that I didn't see. For instance, student representatives offer symbolic foods and plants to their teachers as signs of perseverance, intelligence, discipline and humility. In some ceremonies, there are traditional music and dance performances.

While I still only know a little about the ceremony, it makes me happy that students and teachers honor each other in this way. I enjoy working in universities because they are centers of knowledge, as well as places of personal and societal development.

September 16, 2015

The Adventurer's Life

So, I'm working on a can of Chang beer, decidedly a cheap and less tasty beverage than perhaps a BeerLao or Leo Beer.  In any case, it's cold and refreshing.

I just took my first turn as driver of our rented motorbike. Although I was nervous, it wasn't so bad. Fairly intuitive little machine, that Honda Click. I don't like how exposed I am on a motorbike, but the breeze is nice. Alan and I have decided that the bike is more practical for going places where parking is limited--like the market where we usually pick up dinner. The truck is hard to park in small spaces--an understatement for sure.

We ventured a little further today to the Ban Du market, just up the highway toward the airport. It had the usual fare, so we picked out some fried items--plus 10 Baht worth of garlic and a few dragonfruit to take home.

I also picked up some Tiger balm from the pharmacy. It's basically Vicks rub and IcyHot combined. It has seemed to be ubiquitous in most parts of Asia I've visited (granted that is a fairly narrow swath). Good for aches, pains, congestion, and mostly--bug bites.

That's all for tonight. Riding motorbikes, eating fried chicken, and applying balm. The life of an adventurer.

September 14, 2015

Driving in Chiang Rai

Alan and I now have two official modes of transport: our diesel pick-up truck and a rented motorbike. I feel like I spent the whole weekend in/on one of those two things. It's good to be mobile.
The Witch (named after our Thai friend Witchaya who helped us get it)

Chiang Rai Clocktower
On Saturday, we drove a few hours to a waterfall near the Laos border (um, how cool am I?), and on Sunday we drove the motorbike into town for breakfast and an errand. Being the passenger on a motorbike isn't much fun, but Alan is a good driver and the roads are in good condition. We found an awesome coffee place near the clocktower (a major landmark of Chiang Rai city), and we continued our street food experiments with a new variety of soup.
Panorama at Phu Sang Waterfall

I even drove the truck myself for some appliance shopping. I bought an additional fan and an indulgent, but utilitarian fabric steamer. I also picked up a second set of bed sheets, as it takes so long for laundry to dry this time of year.

I'm glad that I learned the basics of driving a manual in Turkey, because driving our beastly diesel in Thai traffic (even in a small city--can't imagine Chiang Mai or BKK) is no easy feat. Lots of clutch work. Lots of manoeuvring in tight spaces. I'm getting better.  I love our truck. I feel really safe inside a bigger vehicle (compared to the back of a motorbike).

We bought our truck at a dealership for a great price. It's certainly a no-frills vehicle: no power locks or windows--sort of annoying, but better than our Turkish car in which the passenger window couldn't be put down by the passenger, only the driver. The only thing about the hand-cranked windows is when I have to slow down at the security both to get my university entrance and exit ticket. I need at least one more hand to do the window, the shifting, and taking of the card. I haven't stalled out during that yet, but I think it's only a matter of time. Too many things going on at once--especially because there is a hill involved.

Driving on the other side of the street is pretty confusing at times. Enough said, right?

So that's the transport update. I'm really happy that we've got that settled. Getting around is a lot easier (not to mention faster) when you can jump in a car or on a motorbike.

September 7, 2015

In Motorbike We Trust

I came to Thailand thinking that I probably wouldn't ride a motorbike--if I could help it.

I stuck to that for, let's see, 20 days.

Last night, clinging to Alan as we sped down the highway during a light rain storm, I hoped that my Bebe guardian angel was watching. I am not a fan of being a passenger on a motorbike. I've never driven one myself, but I've heard it's far less scary. I surely got my fill of motorbike passengering in Cambodia, and now that I'm back in SE Asia, I wasn't thrilled to be on the back of a bike with someone who had never driven a motorbike before. We did have helmets.

Just like the wet hot heat, riding motorbikes is part of Thai existence. At least half of the vehicles on the road are motorbikes (the other half are giant pick-ups). Alan and I gave in a rented one yesterday after a week of missing out on the on-campus dinner options because of our work/exercise schedule.

It's a long walk to the nearest food option that isn't instant noodles in a styrofoam cup. MSG overload is no fun. In fact, it's very itchy.

So, until we get the money wired for our elusive Isuzu pick-up (in a few days, hopefully!!), we'll be motoring around on a little Suzuki. Side story, we've been trying to buy this darn truck for more than a week, but no one wants to take our credit or debit cards as payment. I've learned a lot about the Thai banking system in the meantime.

Honestly, Alan did a great job driving our motorbike in the chaotic traffic and rain. The real test was of my trust. Apparently, I REALLY trust Alan. This is a very good thing for our marriage, and for our rented motorbike rides.

September 5, 2015

Being Sweaty and Other Thoughts

Southeast Asia is a hot and wet place.

There's no getting around that fact.

For example, Alan left his slightly damp backpack on the floor of our for a few days and today it was covered in mold. A little Clorox seemed to take care of the mold, but now the backpack is actually wet, which may keep it out of commission for a week or so.

Things don't really dry here. After you wash a load of clothes, you hang them out on your balcony. Three days later, they are still a little damp, but at some point you just have to bring them in. It rains pretty much every day.

In my mind, as long as no giant spiders (or even small ones) have made homes in my socks or undies while they were hanging on the line, I'm pretty okay with the dampness.

The humidity situation kind of effects other areas of the apartment, too.

The closet is a little musty.

The bathroom is a little moldy--despite my efforts with bleach.

We have to mop the shower floor literally after every shower because of the way the shower floor slopes away from the drain, leaving a pool of standing water. Mosquito-breeding ground, anyone?

We've got one cupboard that I refuse to open because of the smell that comes out. I don't know what's causing the smell, but I haven't seen anything (no dead animals or horrible obvious mold), but it is a choking stench. I can live with one fewer cupboard.

That's our apartment in the rainy season (a.k.a. now).

House chores during the rainy season are a bit of drag, but nothing compared to trying to keep one's body unsweaty. When I stand in front of the fan applying baby powder post-shower, I feel like a pre-game LeBron James. But even the cloud of powder isn't enough to keep my skin from sticking to everything. Mostly, I just get powder all over my black shirts. 

I spray a tea tree oil and water mixture on my scalp during every shower to ward off itchy head and the heat-induced rashes I used to get in Cambodia.

I don't wear face make-up. I'd sweat it all off by the time I finished my walk to school anyway.

I carry a sweat towel at all times, especially for eating at the campus canteen.

I don't wear jeans. Too hot. WAY too hot.

I change underwear pretty often. Sweaty butt is no good.

I drink a lot of iced coffee, iced tea, and ice-based smoothies. 

I don't teach without the a/c on. 

I don't sleep without the fan on.

So, I hope that satiates my need to whine about being hot and sweaty. It's part of the deal when you live in Thailand. The beautiful and lush tropical forests come at a cost. It's worth it. 

September 1, 2015

Dragon Fruits and Lacking Belt Loops

I'm stealing a couple of minutes to write before my lessons today. I've got a mess of books and papers on my desk, and I'm snacking on dragonfruit--a delicious tropical fruit that comes in a magenta rind that looks a little like an artichoke. Anyway, exotic fruits are only part of the experience at Mae Fah Luang University.

I wanted to note something interesting that I see female students do with their uniforms. The uniform is a white shirt with a black pencil skirt. A tan belt is worn at the top of the skirt. To keep the belt in place, most girls use those big, butterfly document clips. They clip the belt to the top of the skirt. Functional and practical--you never know when you'll need to bind 50 sheets of paper at a moment's notice.

On the note of the uniform, I actually really like them. Students here look put together and prepared to learn. In the US, sometimes my students looked like they were fresh from gym, or fresh from their beds. I think clothing shouldn't be uncomfortable, but our outside appearance does influence how others (yes, your teachers) perceive you.

It's nearly time to teach, as I've had a few random tasks in the middle of writing this, including an apartment inspection form (all in Thai). I'll stop for a Thai iced tea before class, and wish me luck teaching everything my students never wanted to know about nouns, verbs, and adjectives.