December 28, 2015

Thoughts on Christmas Past and Present

I've survived my second Christmas away from home. My family does a big Christmas, and I really really really missed it this year.

During one of the last teaching days of the semester, I received by mail an invitation to my parent's annual Christmas party. Many of you readers are probably attendees of this party, and you know why missing it is a big deal.

Every year, my parents throw a huge party sometime in the week before Christmas and it's pretty amazing. They set up a Christmas wonderland in our house. The real tree is at least 10 feet tall and covered in glittering ornaments and strand after strand of tiny lights. My mom sets up her "village pieces"--miniature, winter-themed ceramic buildings lit from within--around the house. She pulls out huge strings of garland that we store in giant Rubbermaid cans. She hangs them on window sills, on banisters, and basically in any free space that needs a dose of holiday. From the garland, she hangs ornaments, bells, glittery snowflakes, lights, and so on. Once my mom is finished decorating, the house looks like something from a magazine. Seriously. She's that good. The decor is only part of the party though.

My stepdad is from Germany, so one of the party traditions started because he wanted to share some German food with our neighbors. From it's modest beginnings nearly 20 years ago, the food has become bigger and tastier every year. The party has grown so much that about 150 people come to eat and drink throughout the night. On party morning, he (and maybe my mom, too) cuts open huge bags of sauerkraut and empty them into two large electric roasters--the kind some people use to cook turkeys. After the kraut is in, they add pink ham shanks and plug the roasters in. We learned in the first years of the party ythat the roasters have to go in the garage because otherwise the pungent sauerkraut smell is way too strong in the house.

One of my jobs, when I lived at home, was to make the Glühwein, a sweet, hot, mulled wine that is often served at German Christmas markets. It starts with a simple syrup on the stove top, then oranges, cinnamon, and cloves are added. The fragrant syrup is then mixed with cheap red wine and served from a slower cooker to keep it warm. It's one of my favorite winter drinks.

The Glühwein is one of many drink options available from the open bar that my parents splurge on every year. One of their good friends runs a wine shop in town, and his business offers bar service. When my parents built their new house, they built a huge bar in the basement that is perfect for this party.

Upstairs, all sorts of snacks are spread on the dining table: traditional German cookies (made with Oma Elfriede's recipes!), a variety of cheeses, crackers, chips and dip, licorice, and maybe a veggie tray or two. As guests arrive, many bring Christmas cookie and fudge platters to add to the table.

The sauerkraut and ham roasters come inside at party time, as well as grilled bratwurst and fresh rolls. If you go hungry at this party, it's your own fault!

Guests wander in and out throughout the evening. It's an open-house style party. At the peak of party time, it's a packed house, full of merry people with plates of German food in hand. Most guests who come to the party come every year, and some of the guests only know each other from the party. It's fun to share this tradition with so many people.

Because my parents love to drink wine, most guests bring a bottle as a gift. When there are over 100 guests, you can imagine that my parents can practically restock their wine cellar by the end of the night.

What I love the most about the party is seeing how happy the event makes my parents. They are loved by so many people, and amidst all of their friends, they seem to glow. I can't rule out that the Glühwein isn't part of the glow, but the party epitomizes my parents and the Christmas spirit to me.

After the party, the festivities only continue. My mom's birthday is December 22, so there's always something fun happening that day.

On Christmas eve, our family tradition is again from my stepdad's German recipes. It's seared pork tenderloin and white asparagus served in a creamy, Cheese-Whiz-based sauce. Cheese-Whiz, yes. Don't ask, just believe. It's so good. My grandparents and my mom's brother and sister, plus their families join us for the meal. After dinner, it's time for presents and dessert for those who still have room.

Christmas morning with my parents is among my most favorite things. Still full from the night before, we pour cups of coffee or cocoa and open our stockings. My brother is 13 years younger than me, so I got to experience the magic of Christmas morning through his eyes for most of high school and college. He would wake me up really early because he couldn't open his presents until I was up. It was darn cute. My parents are really good at giving gifts. They are very generous. Our stockings always had fun things, like make-up for me, or a new video game for my brother. There was also usually chocolate and maybe a gift card to our favorite store. Santa also brought presents to open Christmas morning. In recent years, cool sportswear for my brother and nice sweaters and jewelry for me. We eat leftovers from the party and usually a few pieces of Christmas chocolate. The cats play in the wrapping paper and the dog eats the treats from his stocking. We go for a walk in the cold Nebraska air, and later we have drinks with my parents' good friends.

This year I spent time reflecting on some of the materialistic ways that I value Christmas. Yes, I like presents. I like giving and receiving them. But this year, I realized that what I like about presents is feeling remembered. That is, someone thought about me and wanted to represent that thought somehow. Small gifts or nice gestures mean a lot to me. I made Alan a memory map--a list of some of my favorite memories with him from our travels. Alan made me breakfast and coffee on Christmas morning. He also made a tiny Christmas tree and presents out of paper. He wrote me a note on a paper snowflake. I definitely cried. Not out of sadness, but out of something like joy. A small reminder that I'm valued and loved.

On Christmas day, we finally bought a couch and a Japanese screen to make our apartment feel less like a dorm room. That was our Christmas present to each other. Having a comfortable place to sit and relax together made me feel a lot better.

I'll be honest. I was a mess this Christmas. I was missing home. Most of my few friends here had taken off for the holidays, and I was feeling lonely and forgotten (though not for lack of Christmas messages on email and Facebook--thank you to those who sent them! I REALLY appreciated them). Welcome to my pity party. The box my mom sent to Thailand nearly two months ago is MIA in the Thai postal system right now, and that feels like a huge blow me. I'm just craving a little piece of home. Alan and Egg are a great comfort to me though. They sit and listen without judgment when I am upset. Alan makes jokes to make me smile, and Egg suckles on my ear to let me know that he needs me.

I'm grateful for Alan and Egg, and for my family, and for my memories of Christmas traditions. It was hard to miss Christmas with my family again this year, but I had Christmas with my new family. We did different things, and it was good, too.

As for next year, I'm already planning to go home for Christmas. I hope I can be home in time for the party!

December 19, 2015

Post on Proctoring

So I'm probably setting myself up for a pretty lame entry. My topic is test proctoring at a large university. Big rooms, lots of students, no talking, lots of sitting and waiting.

But the nuances of proctoring at MFU and the scrupulousness with which test supplies are distributed are somehow fascinating to me. Let me explain the procedure.

1) University faculty and staff receive a schedule of which exams they'll be proctoring about 2 weeks prior to the exams.

2) On the day of the test, proctors are expected to sign in at the Academic Services building 45 minutes prior to the exam. There is a long counter with big signs labeling the classroom and subject of the test, and under the signs, there are individual sign-in sheets. All exams have at least 2 proctors, and some of the larger exams have 3.

3) Teachers sign in and sign to receive a large envelope (or 5, depending on the test) containing tests and answer sheets.

4) Teachers then proceed to the far end of this same room to check out the "Stationaries" box. Let me just say that I'm not too satisfied with the use of stationaries in plural, nor to mean anything other than fancy paper. However, here at MFU, the stationaries box looks like something I would have had at home as a sixth grader. It's a clear plastic tote, about 10x5X5, with a laminated plastic card attached to the front listing its contents in English and Thai. The scrupulousness is amazing.

Inside the box, there is: a small pencil bag of freshly sharpened No. 2B pencils, 2 blue pens, 3 erasers, a pencil sharpener, white-out, a small ruler, a stapler, extra staples, a white board marker, a white board eraser, a red stamp pad, a stamp of the word "MISSING", and probably a few other things that aren't coming to me now. I was too self-conscious to take a photo during the exams in front of my co-proctors.

5) After all materials have been officially checked out, proctors can go to their rooms to set up. The rooms aren't that close to the check-out center, so if you are unlucky (or stubborn) enough to being carrying all 5 huge envelopes (rather than show your weakness and wait for help), your arms may be legit sore the next day. Personal experience.

6) Once in the room, proctors carry out the end of a very anal chain of organization. The desks have been lined up  and labeled with seat numbers. These numbers correspond with numbers that have been stamped on each test and answer sheet.  Proctors carefully place the test materials on each desk according to number. If some of the biggest rooms, two test run concurrently, and students from the different sections sit in alternating rows, labeled A and B. The test preparation committee has printed the "A" section on pink paper so that it's clear which rows get those papers. The desk labels for the A group are also pink. I'm pretty impressed by this attention to detail.

7) After the tests have been distributed, the proctors usually have about 30 minutes to wait before students are allowed in. It's a good time to do some of your own grading, or maybe introduce yourself to the other proctors, assuming that you've got enough proficiency in a common language.

8) When the students come in, years of practice in such a scrupulous system are evident. They drop their bags near the door, and bring only bring their pencil cases to their assigned desk. For the most part, they are silent, and dive into the tests immediately. One area of the test administration process that is not very scrupulous is the late policy. As far as I can tell, THERE ISN'T ONE. Students are allowed to just roll in whenever, I guess. I'm not a fan.

9) Once the students are settled, proctors bring around the attendance sheet, and check each student's ID as they sign next to their names. Thai names are extraordinarily long when written out with English letters, so many of the names on official IDs are abbreviated. That seems weird, but when your first name has 13 letters, and your last name has 15, what are you gonna do?

Interestingly, after I offered the sign-in sheet to the students, many of them "wai" me, which is how Thais show respect for older or more prestigious people. It's a small bow with hands in a prayer position. When they do it, it strikes me as oddly religious, and I imagine the western equivalent as crossing oneself as a Catholic. Please let me pass this test! In reality, though, it's more like a very formal "thank you."

Students who do not come to the test (yikes) get the red "MISSING" stamp on the attendance sheet, and on all of their test materials. That's the funnest part of proctoring. Stamp, stamp, stamp!

10) After attendance has been taken, the arduous 3-hour wait sets in. Every test is allotted 3 hours, and in general, at least one student will take the ENTIRE time.

So, proctoring.  The idea is to prevent cheating, I guess. Ideally, proctors should stand in various locations around the classroom to monitor students. At MFU, sitting is acceptable. The proctoring directions indicate that we should not eat, drink, *smoke*, or work during proctoring. By the way, smoking on campus is punished with a 2000 Baht fine, so I'm not sure why that even made it into the directions. Although, after staring at students for 2 and half hours, even I could go for a cigarette! (Kidding, mostly).

What actually happens during proctoring depends greatly on who your proctor buddies are. I know that many people grade or work while proctoring. There is a lot to do during finals week, so I get it.

Other faculty take proctoring uber-seriously and pace the aisles.

I was a sociology major, but I don't remember if I know a word for the phenomenon where we police ourselves based on what we see others doing. When I proctored with more lax people, I was more lax. However, when my co-proctors were serious, I was serious, which I think reinforced their seriousness, and made it uncomfortable fo any of us to check our phones, or pull out reading material. If you know the name of this phenomenon, please comment.

Time passes incredibly slowly when you sit and stare at people taking tests. Especially when you're thinking about all the work that you could be doing. I took to counting the number of students with dyed hair, the number with bangs, the number with glasses, etc. just to stay conscious. I sipped water and ate mints periodically to stimulate my brain.

11) Eventually, some students begin to finish the test, and a glimmer of hope shines that at some point, each of them will finish, and maybe before the 3-hour limit. When students finish the test, they leave their testing materials on the desk, pick up their bags, and often "wai" (bow with hands folded) the teacher. Once several students in a row have finished, some proctors begin to collect the papers in small stacks, leave spaces for students who are still working. It's torturous to watch students sit and stare at their papers for literally minutes without making any progress. Minutes turn into hours very slowly when you're watching the clock, waiting for the last few to finish, or at least give up on their test.

12) After all students are finished, proctors reorganize the test materials, file them back into the big envelopes in order and then walk back to the Academic Services building together, relieved, but disoriented from the experience.

13) The materials are turned in at the check-out center, proctors sign out, and the stationaries box is checked back in.

So, those are the 13 steps of proctoring I guess. Step 14 is obviously getting a glass of wine as soon as possible.

December 13, 2015

I went to Myanmar!

It's not every day that you get to cross off a major life goal.

Today, I went to Myanmar. I walked across a bridge from Mae Sai, Thailand to Tachilek, Myanmar. I paid 500 Baht to the Myanmar government, and then, there I was--in Myanmar.

Life dream, check.
My post requires a short backstory of the job in Mandalay (that's in Myanmar) that I almost took in 2013. I didn't exactly chicken out, as there were legit reasons not to take the job, but I think I made a good choice to stay in Flagstaff that year to develop my relationship with Alan--the guys who would later become my husband. However, the allure of Myanmar had only grown in my mind since then, and today I got to experience it firsthand!

Tachilek, all things considered, is pretty similar to Chiang Rai, and really similar to Phnom Penh; however, there are plenty of distinctly Myanmar things. The Burmese script is full of circles and boxes. I loved seeing it on signs to remind me of the foreign place I was visiting. Many of the women were sporting a traditional, canary yellow paste on their cheeks to keep the sun off. They wore their hair in long ponytails dangling down their backs. The men had darker skin than Thais, more like Bengali or Indians. They wore flip flops and t-shirts at the tea shops and in market stalls.

I was once again a highly conspicuous foreigner worthy of a stare. In Chiang Rai, there are plenty of foreigners, so people are used to seeing tall blonds roaming the streets. Much less so in Tachilek. The cigarette dealers tried to get my attention, as did the counterfeit handbag sellers, and the watch peddlers.

The strangely familiar scent of roasted chestnuts and charcoal filled the market from the vendors churning the nuts in piles of blacked coal bits. Wares and goods of all sorts line the walkways of most Southeast Asian markets, so that wasn't new, but it was overwhelming as usual. I didn't buy much, except a couple of bottles of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc from a vendor who is friends with one of my colleagues. Wine is expensive in Thailand, and I got two bottles for less than the price I'd expect to pay in America. I passed on the counterfeit goods because I don't care about brands, I like high-quality things (and I'm willing to pay for them), and I'm scared of being caught at the wrong border with the wrong pirated DVD.

After round one of navigating the market, our group (consisting of me, Alan, a few Thai colleagues and the colleague's friends who run the liquor store) went for tea and a snack. Based on the number of different dishes that came to our table, it seemed like our host (liquor store owner) had said, "bring us one of everything." I can't tell you the name of anything I ate, but it was really distinctive cuisine. Among many things, we had a bread with bean spread that I'd expect in a Middle-Eastern country, a tea-leaf based salad, thick noodles famous in the region, and some fried tofu chips. I sipped a Myanmar milk tea and Alan tried the local Myanmar beer.

We took a second round of the market and then ventured out into the city to see a few temples and a golden Pagoda. I loved it.

The sidewalks were what I would describe as "developing country" in that they were uneven and full of gaps that dropped 3 feet into knee-deep water/sewage. I remember these somewhat fondly from Cambodia, though I am still paranoid of falling into a hole. The temples weren't different from Thailand, at least to my untrained eye, but the Pagoda was pretty cool. We had to take our shoes off to enter the complex. It contained a huge golden pagoda, probably 30 feet tall, overlooking the city from a hill. I found the statues corresponding with my birth day, Thursday, and my friends helped me perform the expected ritual of pouring water over the Buddha. The view of the city was excellent from that vantage point. Interestingly, the cross of a nearby Catholic church could be seen from the pagoda.

After the pagoda, I was pretty tired. A full day of market shopping, foreign-food eating, and group dynamics is enough to do me in. We went for one more snack. I'd like to front this story with my friend's words, "It's like wet pizza."

I don't really "go for" wet pizza, so I wasn't looking forward to the dish much.

Wet pizza...
I do enjoy trying new foods, but this one looked like someone had stacked a bunch of paper towels and gotten them wet. The rice-flour sheets were stuck together in a way that we had to kind of use chopsticks and fingers (dirty from a day out) to pull them apart for the group. There was a peanut-based sauce for dipping. My bite was too big, and I swear it was like eating lukewarm wet kleenex with peanuts. It was all I could do o get it down without seriously gagging in front of my friends. After that bite, I was ruined. I began to notice how dirty the shop was, how tiny my seat was; basically, I was ready to bolt. When asked, I confessed to my hosts that the dish just wasn't for me. I kind od wanted to disappear. I never want to disappoint a host.

More food came.

A hot version of the previous dish. Slightly more tolerable.

Eggs that had been punctured with a syringe (not a word you ever want to hear in SE Asia), the contents sucked out mixed with spices and then replaced back in the shells and boiled. Our host peeled one for me. It was ok. I ate it, wishing it had a yolk, because that's the best part!

Luckily, that was the end of the food, as my appetite was totally gone and we started back for the market. We had left our car on the Thai side of the border to avoid paying the car fees. The market was just steps from the bridge anyway.

I'd like to end this post by saying that our visit to Myanmar was wonderful, exotic, and refreshing. Our weird little dormy-apartment in Chiang Rai felt like home for maybe the first time today.

December 6, 2015

My Top Three Must-Have Items for Female Travelers

 I've been a very lucky person to have the time and opportunity to travel and live abroad. If any out there is looking for advice of what to pack, here are my top three must-have items.

1. MoonCup. It's an alternative to pads and tampons. It's a reusable "cup" made from silicone. Buy it once, use it for years. It's major selling points are that it is healthier, cleaner, and more eco-friendly because you aren't throwing away tons of paper and plastic. You keep it in a small cotton pouch in your bag, and it's always ready when you need it. You put it in at the start of your period and check it (dump, rinse, and put it back) in the morning and at night--that's it! It's by far the most convenient way I've ever dealt with a period. A friend introduced it to me in Turkey, and it has solved several problems for me, including (a) trying to buy tampons and pads abroad, (b) always needing a place to dispose of used pads and tampons (not always available abroad or on adventures in the wilderness), and (c) the discomfort of pads and tampons. It also saves me money, probably at least $10 a month. It's important to me that I not be too embarrassed or grossed out by writing this. In general, our society assigns a lot of shame to menstruation, and I disagree with that. Most women experience this totally natural phenomenon every month, and it's ok to talk about it. Even better, organizations like Femme International provide menstrual cups to girls in rural Africa so that they don't have to miss school during their periods. I strongly recommend that all women try this product, even if you aren't abroad.

2. Undersummers. If you have thighs and you wear skirts, you've probably experienced thigh rub or sweaty and uncomfortable thighs. With the slogan "Thigh Love," the Undersummers' creator developed what are called "slip-shorts;" essentially,  the material of a traditional slip, but made into shorts. These aren't your granny's bloomers, and they are definitely NOT Spanx, a product I do not like because they are uncomfortable and in my opinion, body-shaming. On the other hand, Undersummers don't squeeze or pinch your legs, but instead skim over them lightly. They stay where they are supposed to be all day, and they keep your thighs from rubbing together. They are easy to wash, and they are surprisingly durable considering the feminine lace detailing. I won't wear a skirt without them.

3. iPad. I have raved about my iPad Mini before, and I'm still raving about it. It's the right size and light enough to be easy tucked into your bag. It's super functional as an internet accessing device and e-reader. However, the function I get the most use from is definitely the camera. I carry my iPad everywhere, and when I need to take a photo, I just whip out the iPad, snap, and carry on with my life. It's been a handy teaching tool, for taking pictures of my whiteboard notes and posting them online when necessary. Admittedly, the quality of the photos isn't as good as a "real" camera, but then again, I'm not a "real" photographer, so that's ok. Quick editing apps and internet access make it really easy for me to post photos to Facebook or Instagram on the spot. I love that. None of these features are new or extraordinary, but they are super useful as a traveler. Speaking of traveling, my iPad also functions as a GPS, language dictionary, calculator, and--on occasion--flashlight. Note: make sure you've got a sturdy case with a cover. If you use your iPad as often as I do, you'll have lots of chances to drop, spill on, or otherwise damage your iPad. My case from Targus is resistant to the mold that grows on absolutely everything in Thailand, which is a huge plus.

Well travelers, I hope that these three items make it into your suitcase, and bon voyage to you!

December 5, 2015

A great day and the challenge of loneliness

Today, Alan and I drove our truck to the river that runs through Chiang Rai province. We also brought Egg, the kitten who has at least doubled in size since we got her.

We put Egg in her little harness and walked along the sandy edge of the river.

We stopped to get out of the sun and order a round of beer and chicken wings from a riverside restaurant. Egg sat comfortably on Alan's lap as we lounged in a little cabana overlooking the river.

The experience was surreal for me. It was exactly what I've always wanted, but rarely achieved, from life abroad. It was easy, exotic, and it involved people and a cat that I really care about.

One of the greatest challenges of living abroad is loneliness. At times, it's a self-created challenge--in that I seek out alone time to recharge, but in the process miss out on opportunities to spend time with others. As a teacher, I'm surrounded by people all day; yet, loneliness and a longing for deeper interactions is something that I definitely struggle with.

Not being able to speak the local language plays into loneliness too. I often feel alienated by menus I can't read or interactions I can't have because of the language barrier. Sometimes it's hard to play it cool when you just want to communicate something simple, but can't.

Moving to new places year after year also creates a lonely dynamic. Most friendships don't continue after a change of location. When it comes to friendships, I feel like I've had to pretty much start over three times in the past four years. It's hard to maintain the deep friendships I crave when I don't share a location or cast of characters with my friends from past locations.

Anyway, I just wanted to commiserate with anyone who has felt lonely this week, or this year. Loneliness is a formidable challenge, but I believe it is only temporary.