The heat is oppressive today and I have sought refuge from my stifling apartment in an air conditioned coffee shop where I am enjoying some people watching, a couch, Jack Johnson, and some genuine V8 straight from New Jersey. It even has the CA bottle deposit info on the side. These are luxuries, all for only 50 Baht ($1.50).
It’s nearing the end of February which means the end of the public school year here in Chiang Mai. The temperature is rising so it’s no loss to me to get out of the sweltering classroom with fans that work about half of the time I’d like them to. It also means that I’ve spent the past 2 weeks giving oral exams to my 712 students (this is close to an exact number, my 880 guesstimate was based on 40 students in each of my 22 classes. Some have more, some have less). For those of you who have never given oral exams to Thai students you’ve been teaching less than 2 months, let me tell you it’s more than a little discouraging. When you see them once a week and they haven’t had too much time to get used to your very American accent (most English teachers here have accents derived from British English) it can be a wake up call to realize that even after reviewing everything you’ve taught them they really haven’t picked much up.
I should probably back up a bit. Teaching university students was a dream. They were motivated, could engage in conversation, and retained words that we only touched on once. It was perfect. Students in almost-rural Thai government schools, on the other hand, are almost never challenged to learn on their own. Cheating (or working together, as it is seen) is wildly encouraged and a good part of the school day is spent copying from one surface to another (board to notebook, workbook to board, etc) rather than stimulating the minds of the students. This is just the way the school system works. Discussing with a friend last night we came to the conclusion that Thai students are either not taxed at all or overworked, as is the case with many children in affluent families who are carted around to various lessons all day.
Given this short background into the Thai school system I will now go into the exam process. I started each of my exams with the same two questions: “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” to ease them into the English thinking mode. Thai students have this pretty much drilled into them as soon as they begin school so I thought it would be easy enough. Oh how wrong I was. Perhaps half of the students couldn’t tell me how old they were, or it took them a great deal of thought to remember their age in English. Some even understood the question but snapped back in Thai, to which I usually laughed and told them that this is an English exam, as if they needed reminding.
In preparation for the exams I told my students I would be asking their name and age. After this I asked the students only 3 questions about the material we had covered, and in some classes I pretty much spelled out what questions I would ask. I graded them all on Comprehension, Speaking, and Effort from 1-10 and will average out the grades at the end of all of it. I’m sad to say I’ve failed more students than I would like, but many of them obviously just didn’t care or are students I know haven’t paid attention to anything I’ve said. I admit it would be difficult for me to pay attention to someone rattling on in a language I don’t understand, especially as a 12 year old, but some of them are just brats about it. On the other hand there are a few students in every class that make it all worthwhile. They demonstrate an obvious ability or at least interest in the subject and impress me with their ability to recall bits of English in order to communicate with me.
So testing has been fun. Getting to say “What is your name” 712 times (and that’s if they hear it the first run through) is quite a treat, let me tell you. Another part of the end of term that is a bit more fun is the big show the whole school prepared for over the course of two or three weeks. The show itself was last Friday- during the day there was a market set up at the school and lots of presentations on a specially set up stage as well as competitions in Math, Science, English, and Thai. I got to preside over the English competition for grades 4-6 and chose the best three students who were presented with certificates. The day was good fun, if spoiled a little by my colleagues griping about how they had to be there when they weren't really teaching. In the evening the production was an even bigger one with the band dressed up in full regalia, lots of cute little kids running around dressed like horses, and girls in traditional Thai dance costume. The parents came in the evening and there were food vendors set up as well as plenty of people selling an array of things that lit up or made noise. I got suckered into playing some carnival games by my students who made fun of me for not knowing how to do it. All in all it was an interesting experience that reminded me a bit of the fairs we used to have at FIS. It's great to get the community together around something like that and I remember really enjoying the fairs when I was younger. It's a pity I didn't understand what they were saying on stage, and also that my camera didn't manage to capture any of it. I will be sad to say goodbye to Watweruwan school, but if they offer me the same job next term I think I will have to turn it down, mostly because it is too far of a drive from my new home.
Which brings me to my next news. As of Thursday I will be living in an actual house, complete with my own bathroom (and bathtub!!), lounging space, an office, and a library/guest room. It’s in a different area of town, away from the backpackers (which I’m really looking forward to) and closer to the university. I plan on taking a Thai course next month there, so it’ll be a quick hop over to class for the 4 weeks I’m there. The house is pretty luxurious by Thai standards. It’s a townhouse with 3 levels and 3 bathrooms. I’ll be living with my friend Garrett, whom many of you may remember as someone I took the TEFL course with. While we don’t always get along I think we’ll make good roommates. The house has a small front yard (all cement, no greenery) and a kitchen in the backyard. This is standard for Thai houses, but what isn’t standard is the oven, which is one of the selling points for me. I’ve never heard of a Thai house with an oven and I’m looking forward to making all kinds of farang food (lasagna and banana bread top the list) in it. I’m really looking forward to having space to stretch out and to cooking again. Also I’ve never had my own bathtub before, and that is something I can’t wait to make use of. I’ll post pictures when I move in so all of you can see where you can stay for freeeee if you come visit (hint, hint). In all seriousness, now that I have a spare room the most expensive part of coming to Chiang Mai for anyone who is interested would be the airfare. It’s not cheap, I know, but once you get here living, eating, and transportation around town are ridiculously inexpensive and it’s a great town to hang out in, especially if you enjoy markets, fresh fruit, massages and adventure tours.
What else has been going on? Well Valentine’s Day passed uneventfully with only underage boys declaring their love for me and giving me little chocolate hearts. It seems like a bigger deal than I would have thought with many restaurants throwing parties and lots of V-day sales. I’m not a big fan of the day myself, mostly because it’s a silly time designated to express love. I did miss going to the Vagina Monologues though, my recent V-day tradition.
Valentine’s day also signals the season for two of the brothers’ birthdays, which I obviously missed out on this year. It made me a little homesick but I can’t expect to be around for every birthday for the rest of their lives, so I guess that’s part of what made me sad. Another thing that made me miss home recently was pictures from some friends’ trip to Mackinac Island in the winter. This time of year usually brings Mackinac withdrawal but there’s always been comfort in knowing I would return in a few months time. Not so this year. This is sure to get worse as summer approaches and they start returning to work there. I had a great time working there for two summers, but to call upon the cliché, all good things must come to an end.
I went on a touristy river boat cruise recently that was a disaster. A friend of mine sells tickets for it so she got them at the discount rate of B270. We got on and sat at the front of the boat. The staff brought on the food and we set off, only to be swarmed by hundreds of mayflies/fishflies (which look frighteningly like moths) that landed in our food, water, and all over us. This was at the very beginning of the trip when we’d all had a few bites of our food but nothing substantial. The trip was about 2 hours up and down the river and we were all in a pretty sour mood not only at having lost our meal but also at the fact that we had to stare at it, bug covered, for the rest of the trip. We all live in Chiang Mai so the sights of the river were nothing new to us. The restaurants, police station, wats (temples), and people living along the river banks were nothing we couldn’t have seen during a much shorter and cheaper drive along the river road. Nevertheless we laughed it off by joking about how even Cambodians wouldn’t have eaten the food, despite their affinity for eating bugs. We also painfully shrugged off the $8 that was lost in the process (not really pocket change when you consider we could have eaten the same food for about 50 cents on the street, minus bugs). I would have pictures but my camera is on its way out and wasn’t working that evening. I’m not sure what’s wrong with it, but when I put in new batteries it thinks they’re drained. Serves me right, I don’t take enough pictures anyway. It’s probably time for a new one after more than 3 years.
In regards to my last post, many people have felt the need to send words of encouragement, support, or even pity. This wasn’t really what I was looking for but it was nice to see so many people surprised and reproachful that I should even think of myself as less than beautiful. Thanks for the notes, and don’t worry I’m not going to turn to an eating disorder anytime soon. I’m comfortable with myself most days, but it’s the other days I wanted to express so that you might understand a bit of culture shock that I didn’t expect.
This week I plan on finishing up exams, moving into my new place, and hunting for work at a summer language camp or some other temporary income to supplement my new pad. I’ll be offline for a while starting Thursday. The house is wired for internet but it’s not hooked up yet and I’m not sure when we’ll get around to doing it. It’ll be good for me not to have it at my fingertips as I have since my first week in Chiang Mai. Everyone needs a break from the wired world once in a while.
I’m sort of half-heartedly considering becoming a vegetarian again. Now that I actually like vegetables it would be a much more successful life change than the last time I tried it. The meat in Thailand is only ok and much less a part of my meals than it was at home. I’d probably be less strict about it considering it’s hard to be picky about food when you don’t speak the language, but at least as far as I can control what I eat I’d like to try it again. I still love the meat, but I think now that I have kitchen access my dreams of delicious fruit salads covered in muesli and yoghurt can finally come to fruition. Get it? Fruition? Man, where do I get this stuff? Admit it. You’re jealous of my amazing puns.
It’s 6pm now and from my corner in the coffee shop I got to watch the busy Sunday night market stop for a few minutes as the national anthem was played over the loudspeakers. This is the best place to be on a Sunday night because you see all of the Thais stop whatever they’re doing to stand reverently while the anthem is played. It takes the farang a few seconds to catch on, kind of like watching the beginning of “Hello, Dolly!” in reverse. They slowly stop walking and wonder what they’re listening to. It’s hilarious, especially from safe inside a coffee shop where I get to listen to Bob Dylan rather than the terrible audio quality of the street’s loudspeakers. Does anyone else find it odd that there are speakers along the streets? Kind of Big Brothery if you ask me. Then again we are also living under martial law, so I suppose I’m splitting hairs at this point.
Speaking of Bob Dylan, I’ve finally come to appreciate him for the musical genius he is. For a long time I bashed him as only a songwriter who couldn’t sing. Now I can’t get enough. I know I’m late on this train, but I got here eventually. He sounds so different on Modern Times from the earlier stuff when he was young and raw. Not better or worse, just different. People should just leave him alone instead of saying he’s not aged well or that he’s sold out. The amount of music the man has contributed to the public arena guarantees him a position of respect if nothing else.
Ok, I’ve reduced my blogging to spiels about Bob Dylan, I think it’s time to sign off. Whenever I get going I’m unable to stop, but at this point I’m smelly from walking around in the 96 degree weather and I need to go home and shower before meeting my buddy for dinner. Peace, y’all.
As an aside, Hi Nana! I saw your comment on the last blog entry but I can’t really respond to it because you don’t have an email address. Just wanted you to know that I got it and I’m happy you worked out some technology to say hello.