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.