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.

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!

April 15, 2016

Visiting Southern Thailand for the Songkran Holiday

In Thailand, they celebrate the new year in April. It's the hottest time of the year, and people splash each other with water to celebrate.

Alan and I decided to take a new AirAsia route from Chiang Rai to Hat Yai, Thailand. It is the only direct flight out of Chiang Rai, other than Bangkok.

Hat Yai is a huge city in the deep South of Thailand, not far from the Malaysian border. Where we live is just a short drive from the Northern border with Myanmar, so basically, it's as far as we could go and not have to deal with getting visas.

Alan chose the flight, and I was in charge of the accommodation, so I chose a small, German-managed beach resort in Songkhla, about an hour from Hat Yai. The beach always helps me relax.

The scene here is serene and tropical. The flower blooms are absolutely technicolor bold, and many buildings and fences are painted to match. My favorite are these big bushes with super-bright magenta flowers. The sea air is warm and clear, which is even more enjoyable because we've been living in crop-burning smoke for the past month. The water is turquoise blue and clear as can be. There are millions of beautiful seashells and lots of tumbled sea glass. The water is the temperature of a warm bath. There is a reason that Thai beaches are famous.

Interestingly, we are way off of the beaten path (still) for foreign tourists. The beaches are empty save for the occasional fishing boat. Most foreign tourists don't come this far south. Most Thai adults don't do the beach the same way that Western people do. Westerners put on their bikinis and sunscreen and lay out in the sun or go swimming, maybe stopping for a drink now and then. In my observation, the Thai way to have a beach holiday involves lots of beach-side picnicking. If you swim, you wear gym clothes for modesty.

The past two days, Alan and I have borrowed bicycles from the resort to ride down the beach road. It was a highlight of my trip for sure. Our purpose was to get to the grocery store in town to buy a few big bottles of drinking water, but the journey was wonderful. We cruised the road with blue-green sea to one side, and lush tropical plants to the other. It was downright hot and the sun was relentless, but occasionally we would get festively splashed by Songkran celebrators.

We picked up green mango salad for lunch both days, a light and cheap option for hot days.

A few people wanted to take selfies with us. We usually oblige, despite how weird it is. It makes me feel like a celebrity, sort of.

We're headed into Hat Yai City today for our last vacation day. I'll miss the tranquility of this resort, and the easy vibe that beach towns usually have. It has helped me unwind and slow down. I guess I can't stay forever.

February 23, 2016

Going Back to Phnom Penh after Six Years.

Six years ago, I flew to Phnom Penh on a one-way ticket with plans to teach as a volunteer until I figured life out. I had just finished my undergraduate degree, and the US economy had just experienced the great recession.

On the flight from Seoul to Phnom Penh in 2010, I sat between a middle-aged Cambodian woman and a 50-something government agent from America. The man's job was to conduct stings on child sex operations in Cambodia. He was supposed to solicit sex with a child from the brothel owner, and once inside the brothel, signal a raid to get all the kids out safely. Or something totally scary like that. I had known that child exploitation is a problem in Cambodia, but to be confronted with it on the flight in was unsettling to say the least. The woman on my other side was somehow connected to the Cambodian Institute of Technology, a university in Phnom Penh. She was flying in to help hand out diplomas to graduates. Possibly due to my charm and intellect, though more likely for my blond hair, she insisted that I come to help her with the ceremony. She was somewhat transparent about the fact that having an American present would add a sense of ethos to the university. She gave me her phone number.

A few days later, on one of my very first excursions in Phnom Penh, I somehow found my way across town to the Institute de Technologie du Cambodge (remnants of a former French occupation linger in Phnom Penh). I dutifully sat through a multi-hour ceremony conducted in Khmer, and then did my best to graciously hand out the diplomas and pose for photos.

This weekend, I returned to Phnom Penh for the first time since 2010. Oddly enough, I found myself sitting in the very same room at the ITC, listening to a presentation about English teaching. Alan and I were attending a language teacher conference. The conference was held in the aging buildings of the ITC, and the experience of being back in that particular room was profound for me. I had returned to the source of something that has been so important in my adult life. 

My stint in Cambodia six years ago has lingered in my mind as one of my biggest perceived failures. A failure because I didn’t thrive in the exotic environment. I was too hot, dirty and miserable for most of my time there. I was counting the days until I could leave. I left with a sense of giving up, of defeat.

Coming back to Cambodia with a lot more life experience, including a year in the middle of Turkey, and an ongoing experience in rural-ish Thailand, I was able to see just how difficult the context was in Cambodia.

Phnom Penh is damn hot during the dry season. It is super dusty. The air quality is quite bad—enough to give me a headache almost immediately. There are people and cars and motorbikes and goods everywhere, all jammed together in tiny spaces. It's too hot to sleep. Floors are wet. There is a hair in every dish you order. Windows have bars on them. The traffic is incessant and disturbing. There are barely any sidewalks in the city. Getting around means bargaining with hired drivers who want to squeeze every last dollar out of you. Back then, it was so far from what I was used to. It was so uncomfortable.

Desk graffiti at the ITC
Now, in comparison to living in Turkey and Thailand, I understand Cambodia a lot better. I can accept the sidewalk situation and the air quality. I have a much stronger support system now because Alan is with me. More important, I realize that I was incredibly brave (though also possibly reckless and stupid) to jump into life in Cambodia. Over the weekend, I felt a strong sense of self-confidence re-seeing places I had been so long ago. I took my husband and one of our friends from graduate school who was also attending the conference to a concert that I knew about because of a local paper that I sometimes check. I recommended foods to try. I enjoyed telling people about my previous experiences as a teacher in Phnom Penh.

Revisiting the ITC reminded me of the Cambodia that I knew six years ago. Aging buildings showing their wear-and-tear. Ancient-looking desks. Concrete walls with angled slats to let in the "breeze." The whir of ceiling fans overhead. Palm trees and lush vegetation growing in the courtyard. Bathrooms that make “holding it” seem like the better idea.

Dust and air pollution still plague the city that I remember, and in my opinion, the air quality is actually far worse than six years ago. The tuk tuk ride from the airport to our guesthouse was a gritty introduction to the city due to the swirling dirt clouds and heavy traffic. The din of karaoke bars, engines, and streetside construction also hangs heavily in the hot air.

What’s bothering me a little is that I liked the new and improved Phnom Penh. The influx of western comforts and additional attention to the desires of tourists (cafes, fresh coffee, and better lighting at night), have made the city more accessible. I can’t help but wonder if I would have liked the place more if it had been this way six years ago--if I wouldn't have failed.

I know that on some level, I chose Cambodia in 2010 because it is a developing country, in every sense of the word, and a place where I literally knew no one. That last part was a big criteria, because I wanted to be unique. Cambodia, in all its mystique, was dirty, corrupt, and probably dangerous (and still is). From the perspective of a privileged American 20-something, living in a developing country is perhaps a rite of passage, an entrance to an elite group, something that your peers will admire you for. Ultimately though, the characteristics that gave Phnom Penh its exotic appeal are the same that made it such a difficult place for me to live six years ago.

After five months of struggling through life in Phnom Penh, I packed up and returned to my hometown where I spent the next year living with my parents and struggling with part-time work at a licorice store (yes, really) and at a Home Depot (yes, unfortunately). Decidedly NOT the outcome I had hoped for with that one-way ticket.

Coming back to Cambodia was important to me. Phnom Penh challenged six years ago with its oppressive heat, chaos, and pollution. But this city also gave me my first taste of teaching English—the very thing that would become my career and my passion in life.

Phnom Penh has matured since 2010. There are now many high-rise buildings in the skyline, and so many under construction. So many things look new and cleaner. There are better street signs. However, some things never change. The traffic is still incomprehensible and seemingly lawless. Cars and motorbikes jostle for position in intersections, and it seems like an accident is possible at every second. We even got into a tuk-tuk fender bender on the way to the conference before our presentation.

The Riverside view
The Riverside area of Phnom Penh still feels like a breath of fresh-ish air, overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and a smaller river. Monks in their bright orange robes walk the broad sidewalks in sharp contrast to the grey-blue skies. Boats of all sizes cruise by, disappearing in the smoggy distance.

When I was here six years ago, I lived in an area of town quite far from the Riverside. Most nights, we stayed near our house, treating ourselves to brownie sundaes at the few Western cafes in the neighborhood. Every few weeks, we would go downtown, to the swanky Riverside area to get drinks and go dancing. 

On this trip, I booked a guesthouse very near to the Riverside area so that Alan and I could explore and enjoy the foreigner-friendliest area of town in the evenings.

Tuk tuk ride to the conference venue
After our presentationat the conference, I felt a great sense of relief. The stressful project was over. The husband-wife research team could disband and just be husband and wife again. Phnom Penh could now be a place where I found inspiration for a career in teaching, and another place on the globe that Alan and I have experienced together.

I went back to Cambodia a better version of myself, and I feel that Cambodia greeted me with its own new and improved self.

I hope that my sense of failure about Cambodia will continue to fade. Seeing the Phnom Penh again, I realize that six years ago I was up against the most formidable of opponents--myself. In Nebraska or In Cambodia, it's the same Jena. The search for meaning in life isn't found at the end of a one-way ticket.

On my second trip to Phnom Penh, with my husband by my side and hundreds of like-minded teachers talking about how to serve our students better, I think I've found what I was looking for.

February 11, 2016

An Egg, two Greeks, a slackline and a tree

An Egg, two Greeks, a slackline and a tree. It's not the set up for a joke or MacGuyver episode, but the components of a strange Wednesday evening.

Alan and I came home after work, expecting Egg to come greet us as he usually does. When we didn’t see him, we thought maybe he was relaxing indoors, thanks to the new wooden plank system we’ve rigged up to let him get in and out of our apartment.

Then we heard a distinct meow. My cat mom instincts cause me to run down to the backyard of our apartment complex still in my work clothes.

It turned out that Egg was perched about 35 feet off the ground in a big tree. He was stuck and in distress because he couldn’t get down.

Alan and I called to him a few times, but it was clear that he wouldn’t be able to get himself out easily, so Alan went back upstairs to change into clothes appropriate for climbing a tree.

Before he went up the tree, I reminded him that cats handle falls pretty well, but humans don’t.

Mercifully, Alan wasn’t able to climb more than 10 or 15 feet up, so I didn’t have to worry.

The next plan involved a rope. Alan’s nylon slackline, to be exact. I’m not sure what our plan was, exactly.

Around the time when we started hurtling the slackline into the tree with a few metal carabiners on the end for weights, our Greek neighbor showed up. He’s a mechanic by trade, and also a cat lover. During the day, I gather that he and Egg spend a lot of time working on his motorbike together.

He immediately jumped into our plan, and brought down a cushion from his couch as a crash pad for a falling Egg.

Based on YouTube videos I’ve seen, I figured that jumping out of the tree was Egg’s best shot at a safe return to Earth. But how to make him jump.

The three of us decided to hook the slackline around a tree branch and try to shake Egg out. Although I didn’t get in on the rope-pulling action until the very end, I can attest to how exhausting it is to exert that much force on a rope, pulling and pulling.

The shaking tree made Egg howl out of fear. He clung so tightly to the branch so far above the ground.

One of our Thai neighbors and his daughters came to see what all the fuss was about.

Egg was still in the tree tops.

Our Greek neighbor’s wife, a science professor at the university, came home to the confusion. She’s also Greek. They are the people who we recruit to care for Egg when we’re gone because they love cats.

The three of us continues our shake strategy until yet another Thai neighbor showed up, offering to call the campus security. She called, but it took a long time for them to show up. They didn’t have any equipment, so they tried to call their friend, who is apparently a great tree climber.

Around this time, I got in on the rope action, and gave the cushion to our mechanic neighbor. Alan and I pulled with all of our weight to shake poor Egg off that branch.

Eventually, he did slip off and plummet down, right onto the cushion in the neighbor’s arms. Egg immediately darted off. The science professor went to find him as we helped disperse the crowd that had gathered.

She came back with a shaking cat, still fluffed from fear.

I gave some Nebraska souvenirs to the woman who helped us as a small thank-you for going out of her way to help.

I snuggled Egg in my fleece Huskers jacket, and I invited our neighbors in for a beer. It had been such a stressful situation, but we enjoyed our drinks, and later, dinner together.

Egg survived the incident with only a few painful claws, and hopefully a new fear of heights. I think he might be down to eight lives.

January 29, 2016

Getting out of the way

Sometimes, the best thing we can do as teachers (and maybe as human beings) is get out of the way.

This afternoon, one of my colleagues mentioned "getting out of the way" as the final step of his strategy for teaching. Something like teach, test, and get out of the way.

I had just spent the morning groping for the reigns of one of my classes as I tried to plan out everything for the next two weeks. Control everything. Make sure everything was exactly right. Make sure that I was teaching everything that students need to know. Make sure. Make sure. Make sure.

I was feeling pretty desperate. My plans weren't lining up and I couldn't keep anything straight in my mind.

Get out of the way.

Get out of the way.

Part of my course load this semester is a group of very motivated and advanced English majors. The course is about the foundations of rhetoric, critical thinking, and academic writing. This type of class has come to be my specialty in a way. I've taught it on three different continents. Teaching a fun subject to motivated students is exhilarating. A well-planned lesson will bring out the best in these students and they will surprise you will insight, depth, and curiosity.

The first week's lesson for this class was all about me getting out of the way, actually. I didn't think about it that way when I was planning it, but I basically nixed lecture in favor of guiding questions for small group discussion interspersed with me articulating main points that were naturally coming out of their discussions. At the end of the lesson, I asked them to write something that they found interesting during the class, and many of them commented specifically that they liked how I had used small group discussions, and in essence, gotten out of the way. They said they had enjoyed hearing what their group-mates had to say, and that they were able to pay attention to the content more easily.

For my other classes (the other 66% of my teaching), the curriculum is more basic and more rigid. The students are different too. They aren't English majors, and many of them still face a lot of challenges understanding and using spoken (and written, in some cases) English. Moreover, the class size is bigger. The classrooms are too small. Students arrive late. Students have so much work for their other classes. Students aren't invested in learning English. There seem to be a million things to cover in 15 weeks. There are a lot of obstacles to recreating the magical atmosphere of the other class.

What my frustration boils down to is that I want to control (and eliminate) all of these obstacles.

I can't.

In fact, maybe I shouldn't.

I'm working on integrating the "get out of the way" mantra into my planning for the course that is so challenging to teach. Don't try to control everything. Get out of the way. Step back. Listen. Don't answer for them. Let them have time to think. Let them ask the questions. I don't know how well it will work, but that's another thing I can't control.

So, here's to a new semester and getting out of the way.

January 23, 2016

Happy Fatty's

Last night Alan and I went shopping for a guitar in downtown Chiang Rai. Among the rows of ukeles and guitars, I sat and listened while Alan tried out a few guitars. I got a little bored of listening and tired of monitoring where the cockroaches on the floor were running, so I stepped outside for a breather.

Across the street from the music shop, I saw the brightly lit purple sign for "Happy Fatty's: Big Size for Women."

HAPPY FATTY'S? Are you kidding??

Kind of offensive, but possibly just what I need! How could I resist? Big sizes in Chiang Rai are normal sizes for Americans. Farang size, as I happily told the shop keeper.

The clothing was mostly from one brand, "Be Proud" and a little matronly in style. However, it was the first time in months that I've seen clothes that would actually fit me. I almost bought the dip-dyed watermelon-themed shorts, but the hems didn't look like they'd stand up to my lifestyle, so I passed.

There was a roach on the floor there too (I really can't handle roaches), so I didn't hang out too long. I did, however, note that if I need a new shirt or pants, this might well be the best place. Maybe not a place to build self-esteem--Fatty--but I'd rather be reminded of my size by a silly sign than by a pinching waistband.

We did end up with a guitar, and we also bought the Thai equivalent of Navajo fry-bread from a street vendor, followed later by burgers and beer. Speaking of happy fatty...

January 1, 2016

Memories from 2015 and looking ahead

I love how January 1 gives so many people pause for reflection on the year that was, and for what they want in the next year. It's easy to catch the wave of self-assessment and goal-setting--two things I really enjoy.

2015 will be a hard year to top. I only spent 10 days in the US; essentially, I spent the entire year abroad, which has always been a goal for me.

I swam in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea.

I completed my contract in Turkey.

I watched my best friend get married.

I spent time with my German Grandparents in Germany.

I cooked a Turkish meal for my American grandparents.

I moved to Thailand and survived a semester (so far) at a new university.

I got a kitten.

2015 was a successful year for me. I made a lot of progress in terms of making decisions with my happiness in mind. That's important to me.

There were plenty of hard times in 2015 too. Very few things about living abroad (especially within the first year) are easy. Basic errands can feel like heavy burdens because of language barriers and unfamiliar systems. I cried a lot in 2015. I often questioned my life choices and sometimes cursed myself for choosing a lifestyle that puts me so far away from family and the comforts of home. 2015 was also part of the first year of my marriage to Alan. Adjusting to life together in a strange country wasn't always a picnic. It was downright hard sometimes.

But here I am. Still standing. Still abroad. Still married. Happily on all accounts.

2016 is off to an adventurous start already, as we partied Chiang Rai style last night downtown with the rest of the city. We counted down the last seconds of the year near the famous Clocktower with thousands of Chiang Rai people and tourists from around the world.

My New Year's resolution is to learn as much Thai as I knew in Turkish. I didn't invest in learning Thai at all last semester. It was so easy to get by with a few phrases and do the rest in English. However, I believe that I will not only enjoy learning Thai, but I will also be able to be more independent if I can handle the basics. I started taking this goal seriously last week, so I've already got some momentum.

I'm a good exerciser already, so I want to continue that, and make sure I don't forget to stretch after my workouts. Also, choose veggies when possible.

Finally, I want to continue reading for pleasure. Much of my job as a writing teacher is reading student work, which sometimes leaves me super drained. I found in 2015 though, that reading for pleasure counteracts some of the burnout from reading hundreds of essays written by language learners. I just finished "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini and I really liked it, especially his use of Afghani words that were similar to Turkish words I knew. A while back, I read "Burmese Days" by George Orwell.  I also read "Cat Sense" by John Bradshaw recently, to understand Egg better. I think the book helped me see Egg as a cat with cat-needs (as opposed to a cute little creature whose primary interest must be being my pseudo-child). Interestingly, the more I do to treat Egg as a cat, the more he seems to appreciate human interaction. All that to say, let's keep reading in 2016.

2015 was a great year, and basically, I want to continue what I've been doing and have another interesting, adventurous, and educational year in 2016.