Tuesday, July 28, 2009

6 Months in the Peace Corps

As of today, I have been in Thailand for 6 months.

I can definitely say that my experiences are not at all what I expected. Then again, I also tried really hard to come without expectations, so I can't say if that is good or bad.

I don't have anything specific to write about right now, so maybe this is the perfect time to just ramble a bit. It just seems kinda like a momentous occasion, and I really ought to say something.

More than anything, I am impressed by the Thai people. There is a near universal sense of genuinely caring about the well-being of others. Sometimes it can come across as nosy ("Why these fools all up in my business?!"), but it's important to remember that the concern/interest behind the question is legit.
There is also a feeling that everything has value. There is no sense of futility, and nothing is wasted. This means that work is done efficiently and with care. Priorities might get in the way of some projects, like road work but put on hold indefinitely, but others, like planting rice fields and building houses rally the community to roll up their sleeves and help one another.
No cut of meat cannot be turned into dinner (I can't emphasize that enough), and no one is to poor to smile, dance or sing a song.
I'm sure this country has it's share of lazy, ne'er-do-wells, but they just don't stand out here.

On a less positive note, I am becoming more and more disenchanted with the role of English teachers on a continuous basis, especially in the countryside. If one of my students works very hard and learns English well, they can... go to one of the cities and sell crap to tourists? Yes, they could do other, better things, but the likelihood is exceedingly slim. And really, what's wrong with being a farmer? I feel like I'm supposed to think there's something wrong with the way the people in my community live and that I'm here to make everyones' lives better, but I just can't do that. They have been fine for a long, long time without me, and they will continue to be fine after I am gone.
So I have more or less decided to not care if my students learn English or not. Instead, I will spend my required time in the classroom, and try to build my relationships with my co-teachers to develop teacher trainings for non-English teachers. I have posed the idea to my teachers and they sound interested, so now I need to do some brain-storming and planning and keep pushing this. I also have some other ideas, but I think I've talked about these before. And even if I haven't, I want to keep my mind rolling right now.

I am very aware of there being a LOT of things that I WANT to do, and a lot of things that I am NOT doing. But, I need to remember that it's important to take things one step at a time. For example, I have just decided to take a walk around the neighborhood when I'm done writing this. It's something I did a fair amount when I first came here, but I've stopped doing lately. Yes, I've been busy(ish), and after a first meeting, I don't have much to say with my Thai, but, SNAP. It's the effort that counts.

So now I'm antsy to go out for a walk. I will finish with some general thoughts on the Peace Corps.

Does Thailand NEED the Peace Corps? Of course not! Peace Corps is here because Thailand has requested our presence. That is WHY the Peace Corps sends volunteers to countries. Am I going to revolutionize teaching practices and cause a dramatic improvement in student performance in my area? Probably not. It IS possible that I will find one project that will have a positive, lasting effect, and that is my current goal, probably something with a youth group (or maybe agriculturally related). But what I DO know is that when I leave, a few hundred or thousand people will remember a farang who lived with them for a few years. And he didn't come here to find a Thai woman to take care of him, and he made efforts to learn the language, and... I don't know what. That's the part that I think matters. That's the part that I can count on happening. The rest is valid and worthwhile, but whether or not anything actually comes of it is highly questionable.

While I was out of site for the second round of training and everything, we watched the movie "Volunteers" from the 80s, starring John Candy and Tom Hanks who play Peace Corps volunteers in Thailand (though I like to say the ended up in Peace Corps Generic Asia). I don't know that I'd recommend it to anyone who wasn't in the Peace Corps (in Thailand, gah-dai), but it did kind of strike a chord. The project they were sent to their village for was to build a bridge over the river. In the end, they have to blow up the bridge to save the day, and when Tom Hanks apologizes to the villagers, he is informed that nobody cares, because they never really wanted the bridge in the first place! This really emphasizes the need to align your goals. I may come up with the most brilliant project idea ever that will revolutionize and improve everything around me, but if nobody wants what I'm selling, it doesn't matter. And again, who am I to say that my "improvement" will actually make anything better?

We also got the line, "Lying, malignant stink-infested yankee Peace Corps! Ptui!" from the communist contingency in the movie, so that was good, too.

OK. Time for that walk.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Big cities.

So I've been out for a while, no joke. About 3 weeks. And now I'm back.

I began by heading over to the neighboring province (up in the mountains) to help out with a fellow volunteer's English camp. On the bus ride over, as the bus wound through the mountains, with the grinding of gears and the brief backwards slides when the driver changed gears, I gained some new insight on the practice of slash 'n' burn farming.

When I first visited my site back in March (jeez, I've almost been here for 6 months!), the air was super hazy, and it was explained to me that this was a result of the hill people burning the mountainsides for some free farmland. My initial reaction was, "Man, that sucks. Look at all this smoke. This is bad for the environment, makes the area less beautiful, and it hurts my lungs. Slash 'n' burn is bad."

When I returned to my site a month later to stay, it appeared that the season's burning was finished, as the air was much clearer. At that point, I stopped thinking about the slashing and the burning, as there really wasn't anything to make me think about it. Out of sight, out of mind, no?

And then I took a bus ride through the mountains and witnessed the results first hand.

As I watched a woman holding onto the slope with one hand, surrounded by neat rows of young green shoots, hacking at a stubborn root with a machete, I decided that I could no longer simply say, "Slash and burn is bad." It's just not that simple. Certainly it is not ideal environmentally, but how can you NOT respect and admire the effort, love and tenacity that it takes to clear, plant and harvest a slope that would be difficult to simply walk on, let alone make a living from?

And then I was through the mountains and my thoughts returned to myself. I became more disillusioned with English camps, but I had some good ice cream, so I figure it all balanced out. I've probably said this before, but it seems to me that there are two values to English camps: as a mini-teacher training (where teachers can see some fun activities to maybe use in their class, or course this is completely undermined when they teachers just use the time to hang out and don't observe, which seems to happen as often as not), and to give kids a chance to have FUN speaking English (because they certainly aren't going to learn and retain much from these). It's just frustrating that so much of the focus seems to be on show and ceremony, and knowing the tens of thousands of baht that are spent on these instead of a new computer or something that could have a more practical and long-term benefit. But I'm not going to be able to change that, so I will have to do my best to find ways to add some value to these camps I find myself involved in.

Oh yeah, apparently Michael Jackson died around here, too. It was a weird feeling. He was definitely an important part of my childhood, and I still admire what he did, it's just really too bad things got as weird as they did those last-- 15 years or so? But yes, America, Thailand noticed.

After the camp, my associates and I headed to Khorat for PST2 (the second round of training, still called pre-service training, though we were sworn in a few months ago...). On the way, myself and a number of other volunteers (about a dozen of us) went to check out a national park, intending to camp there for the evening and hike around before 2 weeks of meetings and whatnot.
We made it to the park, but did not end up camping when we found out that campsites were some 20-ish kilometers inside the park, and it was starting to get dark and rainy. So we hitch-hiked a few kilometers back up the road (hitch-hiking is WAY easier here, and feels way less sketchy) and ended up staying the evening at a resort.
The next day we hitch-hiked into the park, checked out a waterfall, became very glad when we saw the campsites (since there was no place to get food or beer which I guess had been expected) then spent the rest of day traveling back to the site of our training. Oh, and everyone got a tiger t-shirt (a sua sua, if you will, the words for tiger and t-shirt being identical except for a difference in tone), except for me, I had a lion shirt (because I'm a rebel) and we entered our first session of training chanting "sua sua sua!" to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger." Because we are awesome.

And then we had training.

Things started out with a second counterpart conference where we went through essentially the same activities as we did at the end of the first round of training, though with a different counterpart. Of course, my counterpart didn't show up (she'd had some recent drama and decided not to come, and I supported and defended her decision), so I got to do a lot of brain-storming and whatnots by myself, but I came out of it with some good ideas for projects (recycling, AIDS, and trying to find a way to get enough water to produce two crops of rice every year, if you have any ideas [besides damming the river], HOLLAH!), and questions about the actual value of teaching English instead of working on community projects. But I'll work it out. I think as far as my work with the schools go, I want to get involved with more teacher trainings and get a youth group going. Anyhow, yeah.

Then the counterparts went home and we got some more language instruction, which was awesome. We also got to go into Khorat (it's a big city, I heard the second biggest in Thailand [no, Chiang Mai is NOT the second biggest, it's just famous and stuff] though I can't say for sure), which was a pain to get to from the hotel we were staying at (we were kinda in the middle of nowhere), a LOT of people got sick (I had a pretty nasty bout of food poisoning), and we took over a local bar called Hank Over (the 'g' and 'k' final consonants are pretty much the same in Thai, and I'm assuming that's where the name came from, or maybe it's actually something more meaningful). Which was awesome. We went over there on the 4th of July after our No-Talent Show at the hotel and danced to American music for a bunch of hours. The place filled up with Thai people watching us, and I went around putting American flag stickers on them (the Thai people, they got a kick out of it). Then an awesome Thai band came out (there are some really good musicians here, but the consensus is that the music itself isn't very good). They played "Happy Birthday America" for us, took requests for the few Thai songs we knew, then went into their set. We stuck around for a bit longer, but we'd been there for a while already and were pretty tired and headed home.
And there really isn't much more to say about training.

When training was all over, about twenty of us headed back to the site of the FIRST round of training to visit the ol' host families. It felt really good see them again and speak slightly better Thai and show them pictures of my new home. I also felt really guilty as they pointed out that I don't call and I tried to explain that I don't like talking on the phone in general, and it's REALLY hard to try talking on the phone just in Thai, but I think I'll be making an effort to drop a line every now and then, tell them what I've eaten and tell them I miss them. It'd be worth the effort.

Then I spent a few days in Bangkok, as the Peace Corps medical staff decided I should see a doctor about my food poisoning. I still don't really like Bangkok, but this was definitely the most enjoyable visit I've had yet. We stayed at a guest house located right next to a BTS (the sky train) station, so it was really easy to get around, and I just feel like I'm getting a slightly better handle on the city. It was just nice to feel a little more in control. There were also some folks from 120 (the PC group who've been here for a year already), and they're fun to hang out with, and they know fun places to go.
And then the doctor told me I'm fine and I headed home.

Did I mention that right before I left site (at the beginning of all this), my computer crashed and I had to format my hard drive? I got a bunch of music from other volunteers, and I still have most of my favorites loaded on my ipod, but it's a little sad that there is a lot of good music I like that I won't be able to hear again until I get back to the states. Ok, you can stop pitying me now. It really isn't a big deal. But this DID prompt me to get a external hard drive in Khorat to back up stuff. When my computer initially crashed my biggest concern was that I would lose all of my pictures, but I managed to get into safe mode and copy those before it stopped letting me load at all. So that was good.

So now I'm back at site. I just did a load of laundry and now I'm just going to chill out for a while. I definitely am taking today to recover from being gone for so long. Do some reading, maybe nap a bit. This evening I'm going to go help my counterpart coach our two champion speech kiddos (the regional competition is sunday!), and then I guess tomorrow is back to normal.

It's kinda reassuring how life just keeps on going, isn't it?

Eli OUT!

Oh wait, my Prathom 1 (first graders) can't say Eli, so they call me Kruu Arai (basically that means Mr. What?)

Kruu Arai OUT!