Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dances With Thais

Monday night we went to a really dorky cultural show. It was nice to go out to dinner with the whole group, but the place was really cheesy and really touristy. Nonetheless, the meal was fantastic. My favorite was the Burmese pork curry, yes I have given up vegetarianism for the time being, and the sticky rice. I also tried Thai whiskey, which is really not that tasty. I’ve definitely been drinking a lot of Thai water on accident, either through ice in drinks or carelessness, but my body feels like it has adjusted. No dysentery yet thank goodness.
After the meal, a handful of women came out on the stage with faux nails to do a typical Thai fingernail dance. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be beautiful, but it definitely creepy. These nails would be a great accessory for any Halloween costume.

The fingernail dance was followed by some random dances that did not seem very interesting, but the hand gestures of the women were quite peculiar. Apparently, some mother’s bend their daughters’ hands back if they are dancers to give them these differently shaped hands. There were also performances of fire dancers, children jumping around sticks, and a woman dressed as a peacock. I may have danced on stage as well. Truth be told, it was a little underwhelming. The best part was a notice in the menu: “These women are actual hill tribe people, not city people dressed up as hill tribe people.” After the dances, and some small fireworks, I was ridiculously tired and went to bed.
Tuesday morning we had class again. We started off the class with a Thai immersion lesson. They demonstrated how much more difficult it is to learn a dialogue without the use of gestures. Afterward we talked about how to set a context and topic for a lesson. It is fun to learn about pedagogy and every day I get more excited, and more nervous, to teach English. Class was followed by a ride to a nice restaurant with more expensive meals. By more expensive, I mean I spent 6 dollars on a delicious Thai meal. All of the group is getting to know each other pretty well, and the conversation ended up pretty sober, discussing the sex trade business in Southeast Asia and how Thailand plays in the picture.
The first part of class on Wednesday was fun. I learned the various colors in Thai, thanks to Kong, who is Laotian and can therefore understand Thai. My favorite phrase right now is ‘mai pen rai’ which means whatever or c’est la vie. It is useful in all sorts of awkward situations, and I definitely find myself in tons of awkward situations. The second part was less fun: teaching young students lessons. Although it sounded interesting, it was really frustrating to try to create games and activities that young learners can understand. Whitney, our main teacher, gave us some great tips, but the second half was less than exciting. Another teacher presented a sample lesson plan involving the parts of the body and taught it to us as if we were 6 years old. This would have been fine had the lesson plan reflected the pedagogy we learned earlier. Instead, it was frustrating as it contradicted some of the earlier things we had learned. For example, when teaching you should use a minimum of words when instructing how a game or activity functions. Nonetheless, the teacher’s lesson plan included a game that we, native English speakers, barely understood. In short, it was confusing.
After class we went trooping around the town trying to find a cheap bus to have a weekend in another village, Pai. It looks like we will be heading there tomorrow after class. We got some pizza afterwards, it was nice to try something new, and then headed back to the hotel for some bonding. Our hotel is decent. The entrance makes it look like a nice resort, but our rooms are just standard hotel rooms. Not very big, but the beds are comfortable and our showers have hot water. I’ve definitely been in worst! Some of the guys threw a party on the fourth floor that has a wrap-around balcony, and we met some of the other guests at the hotel. We taught some of the British and Australian students some new games and then called it a night.
I woke up ridiculously early this morning and headed to my favorite place for an omelette. They are only 12 baht, about 40 cents, and are served over rice. Things being so cheap here, however, is a double edged sword. Whereas you won’t buy everything that interests you in the state, I find it hard not to buy any food that catches my eye because it is so cheap. I’m eating a lot, and as a result spending a lot. I would definitely gain a lot of weight if I was here for a year. Then again, the food is definitely a lot healthier than what you find in the United States.
In class today we focused on classroom management. This program is really great in the amount of basic stuff we are learning in so little time. In a week from today we will be practicing teaching English in Thai classrooms. For now, we are busy teaching each other things we already know (like colors and basic phrases).
Lunch was delicious. Spicy chicken salad. And, being the nerd I am, after lunch class was delicious as well: a grammar lesson. It was nice to review basic English grammar from the point of view of a teacher. I hope my students can handle how obsessed I am with grammar....
The rest of the day was further exploration of the city. Andie, Sam, Katie, and Jen walked around the city and saw various temples, which, as always the case here, were bewildering and awesome. We also saw something that looked like a Hindu temple. I tried some sort of raspberry coconut ice cream I have never seen and all of a sudden we got caught in a rainstorm. Rather than let this unexpected weather change ruin our day, we jumped in the pool and took pictures with an underwater camera. Good times.
We actually ordered Mexican food tonight. I had a taco. It was alright. But it kind of felt weird in my stomach. Thai food doesn’t really have much dairy, and all the sour cream and cheese was a little bit surprising. Well, I better go to bed. I have to write a quick essay before class tomorrow, and I would like to wake up early. Night!
ps, I almost forgot. I have a cell phone now, so if you want you can give me a call on Skype or if you have a long distance plan. The number is 0837645351. There might be a country code... Thailand is +66. The best time to call me would be from 6 am - noon Central time. Or from 7 pm - 8:30 pm, before I have class. Hope to hear from you!

Monday, July 27, 2009

First Day of Class

I thought I was the only one who was slightly unprepared for this program, but luckily everyone seems to be pulling together strings at the last minute. My interview for my job was this morning, and hopefully went well because it will secure a job in South Korea. However, I still do not have a visa, and we are unsure whether or not we can obtain Korean work visas from Chiang Mai, or if we will have to travel to Bangkok over a weekend (which could take a while). However, I feel much better now that my interview has been completed, and hopefully I am on my way to a job in 4 weeks time.
After my walk around the city yesterday, I met my roommate, whose name is Andy and who, remarkably, is also from Minnesota. We went for another long walk. My goal was to find the Chiang Mai Opera House, but instead we stumbled upon a festival and entered the most beautiful wat I have seen yet. Inside was a towering Buddha, and their was an ancient stone hill/building behind the main building. The temples are incredibly peaceful, and we are thinking of going in and meditating, no matter how hippyish that may sound. The festival was followed by a visit to a local restaurant. Even though I prefer the street stands, the meal was still amazingly cheap, and I was able to try a new bizarre food: fried fish bladder. For the most part, it was good. Not too much flavor, rubbery texture, pretty chewy. However, one of the bladders was full of warm butter, and I couldn’t help but imagining another warm liquid more at home with this important organ...
Unfortunately, I went to bed somewhat early, around nine o’clock, still trying to get used to the jet-lag. On the other hand, this was beneficial in terms of getting enough sleep for my interview in the morning, as well as class. I know I am going to sound like a nerd, but class was fascinating. Ya & Pat, two of our teachers, both Thai, started a dialogue- introducing themselves in Thai and asking where each of them were from. Afterward, they would approach us students and ask for us to respond in similar ways. At first, this was somewhat uncomfortable, as we had not prepared for being challenged. However, as we paid more and more attention, we were able to get a hang of the methodology and adopt some useful phrases. Of course, these were immediately lost, but in a classroom setting they could be repeated and absorbed by our students. The point of the simulation was to present how our students, who may have little or possibly no English experience, will feel in the classroom setting. We need to include in our English presentations body language and act out verbs almost as if it is charades. To me, this sounds great. Classes include two breaks, with free coffee and pastries, as well as an hour lunch. Lunch was, of course, delicious (aroi), spicy, and cheap. I am going to be so spoiled with food by the time I am done with this program. After lunch, we had some lessons in cultural awareness, such as how to sit in a temple in front of the Buddha and how to correctly perform the Thai Wai (or greeting) depending on levels of respect and deference. We finished our class by exploring the flag (red on top for the nation, white for faith, blue for the king, and then white and red again), and discussing the royal family. Apparently, Thais have a lot of respect for the royal family- when a picture of the Thai king was circulated around the internet with a photo shopped mustache, Pat said that she thought the one responsible should die. And this was from a very reasonable, educated woman. It is kind of cool that he has such respect, and it seems it is for good reason. John would like the guy- he studies hydrology and agriculture, and apparently was able to fix the drought in the north. I am not sure how, Pat said he made it rain, but perhaps he set up canals or actually shot chemicals into the clouds to force rain out of this always humid area. I’ll have to try to discover the specifics... We also talked about the democracy, and the Reds, who have chosen this color to oppose the king. As the king was born on a Monday, and yellow is the color of Monday, the color of the king is yellow. Interesting stuff.
Finally, we spoke on Thai culture, both the positive and negative. Thais are, as I have seen, very nice, kind, helpful, and enjoy good food. The way Pat described their relationship with food reminded me of the French and the bon vivant lifestyle. However, Thais can also be untimely, and are unable to say anything directly (which can be a good or bad thing). My favorite part was the boun khun, which is mainly between a child and his parents. Since your parents have done so much good for you, by giving birth and clothing and feeding you, you can never repay them enough. Saying thank you will add a metaphorical coin to the boun khun box, for example, but you still owe so many coins. There is a feeling of being indebted to your parents, which does not really align with our ideas in the states. Pat said she continues to send money to her parents because of this feeling, and she is not upset about it, it feels to be the right thing to do. I am excited for the rest of the week, as it promises some more Thai language lessons as well as working on methodology for the classroom. God I am a geek.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Greetings from Chiang Mai!

After the huge bustle of the past couple of days, I’ve had some moments of respite to sit and reflect and write about what has happened so far. I’m safe in Chiang Mai, Thailand now, and ready to fill you in on life in the land of smiles.
I almost missed my first flight out to LA. Mom sent me to a security check that was a good half mile away from my gate, and I sprinted to my flight. Luckily, I did get on the first plane, and faced twenty something hours of flight and a ten hour layover in Tapei. On the flights I was restless, and, unusual for me, could not sleep very well. The food was passable, mostly rice and poorly put together stir-fries. At the airport, I was greeted with a sign that said “Mr. Mark”. Bemused, I joined a bus with a fellow soon-to-be English teacher, Andy, and headed off to the hotel.
It was still quite early in the morning and I was completely exhausted. But the best thing to do, of course, is work through it and stay up as late as possible. After visiting an ATM, I met up with some of the other prospective teachers to tour the town. We were immediately shocked by the prices; not only were things cheap, but they were cheaper than we had expected. You can get a great pad thai from street vendors for 30 baht; as there are 34 baht to the dollar, this is less than one buck for fantastic food. Already, we are forming a group of friends whose lives will revolve around cheap food, fun (hopefully) lessons, and a fantastic city to explore. One of our first sites was a beautiful Buddhist temple, called a wat, that filled us with piece and awe. Within one of the buildings of the complex was an immense, thirty-foot gold Buddha statue. Filing in and out of the various edifices were monks in orange robes, and this change in pace has ensured me that I am truly experiencing a new culture.
Following this short jaunt in the temple, we headed to the hotel’s pool. The hotel itself is nice, with high ceilings and arches in the archway, but we have strange rules we must abide by. Apparently, there are certain sizes of towels for various body parts. We must use the large towel for our body, the medium towel for our head and shoulders, the small towel for our hands, and the square towel for our feet. I am not sure if they will enforce this rule, but am striving to follow the regulation because they have already taken a thousand baht ($30) deposit. We also have to wear certain clothing to classes, may not leave our air-conditioning on when we are not in the room, and are allotted a bottle of water in our mini-fridges daily. Luckily, we can buy huge bottles of water at the nearby 7-11 for ten baht, so this is no problem.
I have been reading the Catfish and Mandala recently, and it has confused me greatly. I don’t know why I was reading a travelogue about Vietnam, but it has caused me to misread a couple of situations, thinking that I am further east than I actually am. The cultural differences between the Vietnamese and Thai seem gigantic, which is unsurprising as the Vietnamese have been colonized by the French and brutalized through the war, while the Thai have always been an independent people.
We followed swimming by heading out to the night market, finding some great food for cheap and looking at some glorious products that must have been a tenth of the cost of what I am used to. Tempted to buy everything, I refrained and decided to wait for a later date when I know approximate prices for items and can haggle better. I feel bad about haggling, as if arguing about fifty cents really matters, but at the same time I would feel cheated if I paid a ridiculous price for an item. It is all kind of silly, but fun at the same time. After the night market, we hit the local bars and celebrated the prospect of new found friendships. Unfortunately, we must have strayed into a district known for prostitution, as I was felt up by scantily clad Thai women a couple of times. After a bad game of pool (we blamed it on the size of the pool sticks) we headed back to the pool for another swim and then what I had been desiring for the past 50 hours - a good nights rest.
The next morning I woke early, probably the cause of jet-lag, and headed for a walk. I wanted to walk around the old city, which is surrounded by a moat and in the shape of a square. What I thought would be a quick stroll turned out to be a three-hour affair, and by the end my sandals had cut into the back of my ankles. However, I saw some amazing things, and am positive that on every street there is some sort of Thai monument or building that fills me with awe, but which the native Thais barely notice.

Huge statues of golden tigers, horses, and especially dragons abound, as well as grand temples, and the most fascinating street food I have ever seen. I passed various ‘districts’, from pet places to pawn shops. There are so many day trips advertised from here that it is going to be hard to choose the one or two that I can afford to take, but am hoping I can see some elephants or perhaps visit neighboring Laos.
I passed many beautiful things throughout the day, but my favorite was just a public park, where I could sit out, read, and watch various types of fish attempting to catch insects at the surface of the pool. The flora and fauna are gorgeous here, and I am hoping I can learn about them soon. There are also some interesting fruits that I have never seen before, but readily enjoying.
I am already exhausted from my walk, but it is now only 3 pm, and I must head out and do something else. I am only here for three weeks, and want to get to know this city. I miss you all, and wish you the best.