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

1 comment:

  1. Eli, just want to say hi and wish you a great time here in Thailand. I was in group 19 and stayed a third year in Thonburi, living just across the river from the King's palace.

    We didn't do our training in country. We had a week in Bangkok, then those of us in the north took the train to Chiang Mai. Then after a few days, we went to our sites. I went halfway back to Bangkok to Kamphaengphet (just south of Sukhothai).

    You seem to be off to a great start, already using lots of Thai. I don't even know what dragon fruit is - in Thai or English. I'll have to check on that. [I just looked it up. That's a fruit Thailand didn't have 40 years ago. I know it, but not its name. It's from Vietnam.]

    Right now I'm in Chiang Mai finishing up three months volunteering with an NGO that works with Thai farmers on land rights and things like sustainability. I've got a week left before I head back home to Alaska. I meant to try to connect with some current PCV's while I was here, but I'm only just getting around to checking these blogs to see who is nearby.

    One of the things we're doing here is setting up a website and I've convinced them to have a teachers' page. Now we need to find some teachers to help prepare lesson plans for other teachers on things like land rights and sustainable farming and organic farming. So if you know anyone who'd be interested in helping with that, let me know.

    Best of luck while you are here. I can tell you that with forty years since I was a PCV, I'm still in contact with some of my old students and fellow teachers. They've shown me that the things I did back then made a difference in their lives. (Mostly good) One was teacher of the year in Thailand last year even. So, when you are feeling low, remember that you do make a difference in people's lives. Even a couple of situations where I thought I'd really screwed things up, the people have said to me in recent years, that no, I'd helped them. So enjoy yourself.