Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Pom bpen saparot!

That literally means "I am pineapple," and to a Thai person, it means "I'm the s**t" (I'm gonna not actually type profanity on here for the sake of my future political career or something). Anyhow, that's one of the things I learned during my time away from Peace Corps staff, so it goes to show that I can still learn Thai without my own personal teacher (though, I DID already know the words, but not the significance of the phrase).

Anyhow, before I launch into my laundry list of my fairly awesome bpai tiao (that's a trip for pleasure, and since this was also business, it might not be entirely accurate), I want to take the opportunity to air some of the thoughts of had during my many hours on busses recently.


Peace Corps Thailand is apparently often referred to as "Posh Corps." And for good reason. Thailand IS a tourist destination, it is reasonably well developed, and outside of Bangkok, civil unrest is esentially unheard of (as far as I know). Aside from the heat and diarrhea (over a squat toilet), the physical hardships are really negligible.
On the other hand, I understand that Thailand can be a very mentally challenging place to live and work. As it was described to us in a cross-cultural session, Thailand is a high-context culture, whereas the US is a low-context culture. That means that in the US, you can usually rely on people to say what they mean, tell you when they have a problem, and tell you what they really think or mean when asked for input. Here, however, there is something called "grang jai," which really doesn't have a good translation, but it generally prompts people to tell you what they think you want to hear (especially if you have any status, which as foreign teachers, we do), not tell you when you are doing something wrong (to avoid confrontation, the hope being that you will notice what other people are or are not doing and correct your behavior). It is also expected that you will always defer to your superior whether you have a better idea, or know that he/she is doing something wrong, or whatever. It's all about saving face. It's a confusing, difficult concept, and it seems like there are always exceptions and contradictions, and I don't know if I will ever understand it or get used to it. I will just have to be careful, persistant, and keep on smiling. And I have to remember that I can't feel frustrated if I don't feel like I'm having a huge impact, because it is likely that I won't necessarily be able to see the results of my efforts.
And then there's also the huge gaps in wealth. It seems like very few people are starving as Thailand produces a LOT of food, but there are still a lot of things people don't have. This was illustrated for me during my site visit where I observed a Sport Day. This was essentially a big tournament for a whole bunch of schools from all over the province. Among other things, I watched a relay race in the track and field events. I thought nothing of the fact that there was no actual track and the students were running in lanes drawn in chalk on the dirt field, but I was surprised at the differences in equipment the 4 teams I watched had. One team had light shirts and running shorts and running shoes. Two teams wore matching polo shirts and tennis shoes. The fourth team did not have matching shirts, and only one member wore shoes, the rest ran barefoot. There is incredible wealth in this country, and there is incredible poverty, and it's not necessarily just an urban/rural division, and I feel like it's not really recognized. There IS a strong sense of community, and good things do happen, but I don't know how well it works out for EVERYone. I think/hope this is something I will be learning about in the years to come.

There were probably other things I wanted to talk about, too, but I want to move on to the fun stuff.

Bangkok. Big and noisy. Lots of farangs. To tell the truth, I kinda missed standing out. I can already tell going back to the US and giving up my celebrity status is going to be tough. I got to see a couple of regions, eat some western food (I had a burrito and a slice of Mediterranean-style pizza) and ended up at a roof-top hookah bar with a bunch of volunteers listening to a Thai band cover American songs (and play some Thai ones) and dancing in an adjacent room with a very loud American DJ. It was much fun, though I really can't imagine wanting to spend a lot of time in Bangkok. I got to hang out with some current volunteers which was good and they helped us navigate a bit, and the next time I go, it will definitely be with someone who can show me the places worth going to.

Anyhow, traveling to site was far cooler than Bangkok. I got to meet some other current volunteers, my Northern neighbors (I'm up north, though to be prudent, I shan't be giving any exact locations in this blog) and see some of their sites. It was a great opportunity to see where a volunteer is at after being in their community for about a year. I got a chance to get comfortable with traveling (first with other volunteers for support, then solo) around the country, I saw my first cock-fight (the volunteer's neighbor hosts them in his back yard, I don't imagine attending them will become a hobby, as it was mostly sick and not particularly interesting, but I DO think it's way cool to be able to say I have been to one, and now I want to read Roots), and I got a Thai massage (which is awesome and I might have to make a hobby out of that).

After a day and a bit with current volunteers, I made my way to my own site where I met one of the teachers I will be working with, the English teacher at a K-6 school in the village I will be living in. The school has 172 students, and as I understand, I will be helping him teach grades 5 and 6 two days a week. I will also be going to a K-9 school and working with the teacher who does grades 7, 8 and 9 twice a week. My other weekday will be devoted to community projects and traveling to the equivalent of the school district office to work on teacher training-type projects. I also got to visit the high school (7-12) where I was originally requested (instead of the K-9 school), but Peace Corps decided they didn't need me, as they already have a volunteer from Japan helping with English, and their English teachers seem very highly qualified already.
I'm going to take a moment here to clarify that my role is NOT to simply be an English teacher, but to collaborate with the English teachers the schools already have to develop methods of teaching to improve students' learning even after I leave.

While at my site I ALSO got to check out my housing options. There were two houses for me to look at, next door to each other (and also very close to several teachers' homes), about half a kilometer from the K-6 school. They were both very nice, but for me, there was no comparison.
The house I chose may very well be one of the nicest houses I've ever lived in (in spite of the squat toilets [yeah, I have a bathroom and a half] and a couple of doorways I need to remember to duck and/or step over something and slightly wonky lights). It is very spacious, has a mix of beautiful wood and concrete/tile construction, is well furnished, has a nice kitchen and maybe best of all, 4 different kinds of fruit growing in the yard. I have a mango (ma-mwong) tree, a baby coconut (ma-prow) tree, several banana (gluai) trees, and a dragon fruit (gao-man-gon) plant. There is space in the back for me to make a compost heap (I need to do some research into how to make it not stink so as not to offend my neighbors) and have a little vegetable garden (suan pak), and there is a concrete parking area that I'm hoping to hit with a skateboard.
And of course, in spite of the fact that I had my camera with me the whole time, I didn't take a single picture. Fear not, though, they will follow.

And then I got on an overnight bus back to Bangkok, then headed back to my current host family for the last few weeks of training. It definitely feels a little strange to come back here now that I'm all keyed up for the real stuff. But, mai bpen rai.

Otay. Enough for now, no?
It sounds like I will actually have internet at my house, so perhaps my posts will be more regular and slightly less massive? I don't know. I must say I'm a little nervous about having the internet in my home, as I really don't want it to become a distraction for me. If I find that is the case, I think I will cancel it. There IS an internet shop located pretty conveniently, though having it in the house would certainly be MORE convenient, and it would vastly improve my abilities to stay informed on the actions of Obama (speaking of which, anything good lately? All I've heard is that people are being stupid and saying the stimulus is already a failure [because the last stimulus {stimulii?} was so much better?]). <-- Nested parentheses make me cool.

E-Rock McGillicuddy

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Elephants and English Camps!

So, on March 1st, to celebrate my first full month in The Kingdom, I finally got to see my first elephant.
I was biking out to the highway to head into town when I saw a cluster of other volunteers gathered on the side of the road. Thinking I might be able to help fix a flat, I pulled up behind them and looked around. And that's when I saw the elephant, rider perched on a platform high atop his back. The elephant was clearing brush with its trunk and eating the debris. Alongside it, two Thai people were hacking at the growth, though they worked much slower, and far less awesomely. After a few minutes (and a bunch of pictures, which I will post soon), I moved on. Thinking about it, I came to the conclusion that this man rode around the countryside on his elephant and for a small fee allowed folks to take advantage of its AWESOME POWERS.

By the way, the word for elephant is "chong," and the chong is the national animal of Thailand.

So, that afternoon, after training and I was riding back home (via a different route, I like to change things up), I saw the same elephant/rider combo walking down the road towards me. This time I got to play it cool, didn't need to stop my bike or even slow down, hollered a "saa-wat-dii!" to the rider, and passed by the two of them just a couple feet away. Aren't I cool?

So then later in the week we learned about English Camps, which are pretty popular projects for us farangs. It seems like the best way to describe an English Camp is like field day (you remember field day, right? with 3-legged races and 10-minute soccer games and all that stuff?) but with English language activities. Apparently in Thailand, the success of big events is based more on appearances than on actual value (so if you have a good powerpoint, or a cool banner, or T-shirts, you're golden), and they made a banner for us, so it was all good.

The English Camp that we put together had the benefit of approximately 6 hours of planning on our part (according to a current volunteer they usually spend more like a month planning and prepping) and had a very loose theme of "Environment." Our original plan was to have a "Captain Planet" theme, with stations titled: Earth, Wind, Water, Heart, Fire (and Health because we needed 6). We decided, however, that nobody would get the Captain Planet concept, so we switched to "Environment," but kept the station titles. My station was Wind, and so we taught the kids the vocabulary: blow, wind, balloon, airplane and fly. Then we pantomimed blow and wind, played a game to see who could blow up a balloon the biggest with one breath. After that we had the kids make paper airplanes and gave the kids a chance to throw them on the basketball court (the last few rounds we stood on the court and played "Hit the Farang!"). Then we tossed a frisbee around in a circle and quizzed whoever caught the disc on the vocabulary. And then it was time for the kids to move on to the next station and we did it all over again. My partner and I were able to keep our energy up all day, and it was a lot of fun, and I really hope that the kids actually retain at least one or two of the words we tried to teach.
I'll be curious to see what an English Camp that has been properly (and more cohesively) planned out looks like.

Today I'm gonna go hang out with some other volunteers and play some music (did you know I've been practicing the mandolin, and have learned some chords?!), which I'm really looking forward to, and then tonight I'll be attending a wedding (which I imagine will be a lot like the monk celebrations and other parties I've been to).

I'm positive lots of other crazy and awesome things have happened, but of course I can't think of them right now. Oh! I have been allowed to help out a LITTLE bit in the kitchen (I do some chopping for my mee, but I spend most of the time peeking over her shoulder trying to pick up some tricks), and I'm curious to see if I could copy some of her creations.

Oh, and apparently I'm relatively good at Thai (we had a practice test to see how we're progressing and I got a good score). Then again, I really feel like people think I'm better than I really am, so I'll take the compliments, but I still feel horribly inadequate. The hardest part is practicing. Even in the US, where I feel I have a pretty decent grasp of the language, I really never initiate small-talk. I keep hearing that I need to do this to practice Thai and get used to hearing Thai people talk (and work on my guessing skills for getting meaning out of all the words I DON'T know), but, it's tough. I dunno. I know it's something I need to do, and I DO try every now and then, but it's something to keep working on.

OH! And this coming week I will finally learn where my permanent site will be! So, that's exciting. Later in the week I'll be headed into Bangkok for a day, then out to actually see my site (and pick out my housing) which will be very awesome. I love living with my family, but I'm also looking forward to being a bit more independent and in charge of myself.
I know that my Peace Corps experience will be considerably different at site (it will probably be much more remote, and there WON'T be 50 other white folks relatively nearby to see and talk to on a fairly regular basis, and I won't be getting the super-structured language training from someone who also speaks English, and I'll actually be doing my job...), but I'm pretty confident that I will handle it like a champ and continue to enjoy my experiences.

OK. This has prolly gone on long enough.

Saa-wat-dii krap!