Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Week 1 in Songkhla

God I love unpacking when you actually know you're going to be staying somewhere for more than a month. I spent hours today just therapeutically ironing all my clothes and hanging each item up lovingly in a wooden wardrobe that doesn't shut properly because the hinges aren't correctly aligned. It also sports an 8-inch crest-shaped sticker with a cannon and the word "arsenal" on it. This is strategically placed to cover a gaping crack in one of the doors. But I digress.

I arrived in Songkhla after a 12-hour bus ride (9pm to 9am) that was definitely long, but was made more bearable by the Thai television programs playing on a TV at the front of the bus. There's so much screen time devoted to close-ups in Thai dramas it makes everything inherently comical. Sentimental violins swell for a whole fifteen-second shot of a man's anguished face, and because you weren't paying attention, you can't remember if his grief is for his son who keeps getting whipped by this evil monk (who does a lot of intense eye-shifting during his close-ups) or for his wife who was in a hospital bed with an IV, but was then out in a field wielding a sword, and you're pretty sure is now back in the hospital bed. I still have no idea what happened, but I created some pretty excellent memes in my head from those faces.  

My agent--a lovely, soft-spoken lady named Pee Nuch--picked me up at the bus station and then proved to be the least aggressive driver I have ever met. She kept muttering, "Ohhh I am not so good at driving" as we inched along, pulling out into busy intersections at the pace of a diabetic slug, horns of motorbikes and songtaos blaring at us. I think it took us half an hour to parallel park in front of the office.

Inside the office, Pee Nuch went over my contract with me, and we discussed the details of what exactly I'll be teaching. It's a bit confusing to explain, but I'll be teaching three kinds of classes. 50% of my teaching time will be with two classes--one 1st grade, one 2nd grade--which consist of students whose parents are paying extra for them to be in a special English program (known as MEP in schools throughout the country). I will be teaching these students not only English, but health, physical education, and music. Another 25% of the time will be spent teaching just English to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders who aren't in the special, expensive English program. Their proficiency is very low, and they don't have quite as much incentive to learn, so I'm told these classes will be harder. The remaining classes are "activity classes," where students between grades 1 and 6 opt to take an extra hour of English lessons per week; these classes may have just five or six students, or there may be twenty. The alternative option they have is math, so usually they'll end up with me, ha. With activity classes, though, I don't assign grades; it is an unmarked class filled only with activities and lessons of my choosing, so not a lot of pressure.

One of the other teachers at my school, a very nice British lady, lives two floors below me, and she has been a tremendous resource for me, because she already knows all the kids in the MEP classes and has been here for four years. We went to TESCO (basically the Thai version of Walmart) together, and she showed me where all the important places in town are, you know, like the Irish Pub (!!!!!). But other than that, I've been pretty much sailing solo here. It's nice to reconnect with my introverted self and just have some time to decompress from the TESOL course and relax before teaching beings. I've also had some time to explore Songkhla, but to be honest, I haven't gone all that far because 1) I'm terrified of getting lost (my apartment doesn't exactly have an address) and 2) IT IS SO FREAKING HOT HERE. I'll get used to it, I'm sure, but wow, Hua Hin weather sounds like a dream now. I didn't realize exactly how close southern Thailand gets to the equator...ah well. Cold showers are my new best friend.

My apartment is on the major road that runs straight from Hat Yai (closest major city) right through Songkhla, basically to the tip of the peninsula. If I walk south, I reach my school in ten minutes. If I walk north, I run into a jungle that turns into the beach. Now for my teacher friends placed in northern Thailand, I know, I know--YOU are in the jungle. But there are freaky monkeys that watch me and screech as I walk past and mysterious bird calls and things that definitely go bump in the night when I scurry through at dusk, so I wouldn't exactly call it urban. Thick trees and tropical foliage line the surrounding hills of Songkhla, and at the top of one of those hills is Khao Tang Kuan Pagoda, of which I posted several pictures a few hours back. Gorgeous views. Absolutely stunning. I'm not going to say anything more in the hopes that you'll all just come and visit and experience it for yourselves.

The beach wins points for not being strewn with a jellyfish minefield--that was definitely a problem in Hua Hin. There is quite a bit of garbage, as is common here, but there is also an awe-inspiring amount of seashells littering the beach. Having spent my childhood at Oregon beaches (where everything beautiful gets pulverized before it touches land, and where if it against all odds finds its way to shore, someone else got out there before you at 5am and stole it away), this is mind blowing. It happened to me in Australia, and again, I have to stop myself from picking everything up. I still pick up all the shells that look like unicorn horns, though, because I think I have a disorder.

Songkhla is famous for a mermaid statue that sits atop some rocks on the beach. I'm not quite sure of it's significance, except that it has become a symbol for the city. I gazed upon her tonight as she was enveloped by a sea of Malaysian tourists, and she is beautiful. But I was more impressed by a giant cat statue situated closer to shore. I know--a cat statue! There's a mouse too, but I was mostly just pleased on principle that my city has a giant cat statue--this is clearly meant to be my home. Anyways, this statue commemorates some election (?) by conveying the origin story of the two islands in Songkhla bay, which are actually quite close to the beach. Basically, there was this merchant who sailed from China to Songkhla regularly, and he picked up a dog, a cat, and a mouse at some point, and kept them caged on his ship. Well, the animals weren't too fond of that, and decided to create an escape plan. The mouse manages to steal a magic crystal which will help them swim safely to shore. (I feel the need to interject here and say that the plaque was in Thai with a translation in broken English, so I could very well be confusing essential parts of this story). They all become greedy once they were in the water, each realizing the wealth that could be had from the crystal, and it is dropped into the ocean. The cat and mouse each sink, hence creating the bigger and smaller islands out in the bay. The dog makes it to shore, but dies upon arrival, creating Khao Tang Kuan Hill, which overlooks the bay (and has the temple atop it). Pretty cool, right? Minus all the death?

Alright, well here are a few more pictures I took tonight--I'll get the mermaid some day when she's not being assaulted by tourists. Cheers, everyone!

 The "cat" is the big island, and the "mouse" is the little one cut off on the left side of the picture.

Not sure exactly what this monument is, but it looked cool, so I took photos.  

 The "dog" in his final resting place.
 My new room! The colors pop way more in person...I love the minty green walls!
 What will suffice as a kitchen. As long as you have a rice cooker in this place, anything goes.
By far the biggest bed I have ever had to myself. Mwahahahaha.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Welcome to Songkhla!

This is my home for the next year! I will be writing shortly, but for now, gaze upon the white sand and lush jungle in jealousy until I get a chance to be creative with words...to make you feel even better about the soggy weather you're most likely experiencing currently, it is in the mid-80s here, and every photo was taken within a 15-minute walk from my apartment. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Phryonakhon Cave = awesome day trip

We went to this restaurant called XXL Burger where everything is giant, including the menu, obviously...

You know you want a perfume with the scent "music cool." My friends Kirsten, Alec, and I made the mistake of testing out another one called "sexy charisma." We smelled pretty sexy and charismatic all day.
Some of my Thai kindies at English Camp

Me with a baby elephant!

Elephants, Accents, and Hearding Kindergarteners

Sometimes, I feel like I’m experiencing my freshman year of college all over again. There’s an abundance of easily accessible alcohol and I’m spending whole days with people I just met days ago. I’m working hard on homework and talking about ordering pizza I can’t afford and therefore turning to ramen instead. It’s weird. This is better than college, though, because I have a pool in my backyard, my allergies are non-existent, and there’s a lady who sells fried chicken and rice for breakfast right down the street for the equivalent of one dollar.

I kind of screwed myself over by not writing anything over the past two weeks, because an overwhelming amount of things have happened since I was last on here (surprise). Therefore, I’m just going to continue doing what I feel like is going to quickly develop into a norm for me; spin the wheel and pick a few random stories to tell.

One I definitely can’t leave out is the trip my group made to a local elephant sanctuary here in Hua Hin. We stopped at a local pineapple farm along the way and picked up donated fruit for the elephants (along with some for ourselves), and then were able to feed them to the elephants! I’ve seen plenty of zoo elephants, but that’s nothing compared to interacting with them on this level. Sometimes an elephant would take the pineapple out of your hand with her trunk and shove the whole thing straight into her mouth, but other times she’d bring the fruit slowly to her feet, and then crush it. The adult elephants would then pick it up piece by piece, but the baby elephant we saw would crush her pineapples and then promptly snorkel all the juice up with her trunk instead of eating it. It was adorable. I’ve always liked elephants, but it’s a truly humbling experience to be making physical contact with a 92-year-old creature who was marched through the jungle during World War II, clearing the trees for a railroad to connect Thai forces with the Nazis. They are intelligent, majestic animals, and I hope I have many other opportunities to interact with them while I’m in Thailand.

It’s been very fun and sometimes confusing to be surrounded by such a diverse group of English speakers in this program. Yesterday, us Americans had to explain to the South Africans what a burrito was. It was a very sad, sad moment. They kept justifying it with “We’ve never seen a Mexican before!” so we tried to explain tacos and enchiladas and it was overwhelmingly depressing. They tried to teach us dances and songs in Afrikaans and convince us that making human chains and touching electric fences was a fun childhood activity, but that didn’t go too well. They also start all conversations with the phrase, “How’s it?” which I never quite know how to answer. Then there was the time an American classmate and an English classmate were paired together to create a lesson plan about sports. They spent 45 minutes arguing about whether they should teach the kids the word “soccer” or “football.” But worse than that was the zebra argument. There has been much debate over the pronunciation of words such as basil, garage, and puma over the last couple weeks, but for some reason, we all found zebra particularly important to fight over. Apparently, the British and South Africans say “zebra” as if it rhymes with the name “Deborah.” Zehbrah. It sounds idiotic. That turned into a very heated class discussion. Let’s just say it ended with a South African saying, “We saw it first!” and a New York Jew responding with “We defeated the Nazis because you couldn’t!” Relevance aside, that’s when everyone decided to shut up.

More relevant to why I’m even in this country, I also learned recently that getting Thai kindergarteners to line up is about as easy as getting a English person to say the word “soccer.” We had to teach an “English Camp” at the school we’re doing our training at, which basically meant giving an hour-long lesson to six classes of students for two days in a row, students who were two days from the end of their school year. So it was nuts to begin with. The first day, I taught early high-schoolers, so it was a generally great experience. Day two though, was Kindie. Oh lord. Kindergarteners in the US are hard enough to corral, but when they don’t know you or the language you speak, imagine how hard it is to get them to do ANYTHING. They are adorable and lovable and absolutely insane. But they’re sticker addicts—literally will do anything for them, or high-fives—so you just have to seduce them and you’re good. Lines, though—lines don’t happen. You pick them up and physically place them in the line, say, “Stay!” very forcefully like you would to a dog, and then they run off again. If you’re on Facebook, check out the video of me and my teaching partner Jimmy trying to get a class in line. It’s pretty funny. If not, just imagine two people trying to get a bunch of fish swimming around in a tank to make some sort of formation. Then take away the walls of the tank, because Kindies love wandering out the door because they have no concept of boundaries. But so cute. You can’t hate them because they are so frickin’ adorable. Watching them dance to “What Does the Fox Say” for one of our activities was the highlight of my week.

Okay, well, I’m afraid that’s all for now because I would love to get 8 hours of sleep before I start my last week of training. I’m leaving for my placement on Friday, and hopefully I’ll have time before then, after my travel plans are confirmed, to keep you updated on where that is and what exactly I’ll be doing J Goodnight or good morning to you all, whichever side of the globe you’re on, and thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Portrait of a Thursday

As I sit here typing and eating Mama Noodles (the 30 cent, more flavorful Thai equivalent of Cup of Noodles), it is tempting to write about the last couple of days through detailed inventory of all the incredible things I've eaten. But I suppose I shouldn't deemphasize the importance of all the non-food related activities I've partaken in, and frankly, I don't want to make you insanely jealous. Because you would be. That being said, fresh Thai pineapple is absolutely incredible and you should be really, really sad you don't get to eat it every day like I do.

Today was the first day I woke up to the sound of my alarm, and not before, which is exciting because it means I'm finally adjusted to the 14-hour time difference! I sleep surprisingly well here, considering I have no air con and my mattress has maybe a quarter-inch give. A fan was definitely my best investment because I have it blowing on high straight at my face all night, but there's not a lot I can do about the rock bed. Oh well. 

During this first week in Hua Hin, we are placed in groups and have a sort of orientation before we start the three-week TESOL course. This includes fun as well as educational excursions--such as yesterday, when we visited a Buddhist temple. Quick digression: THAT WAS SO COOL!!! The temple is built into a cave right along the coast, and used to function as a lodging place for monks traveling from the north to the southern part of Thailand, though now it has permanent residents. We climbed about a million and seventeen stairs until we reached a vantage point above the temple where a giant gold Buddha was situated. We're talking maybe 60 feet upwards of Buddha. I'll post a picture, because it is mighty impressive. The view was also gorgeous, so I think I'll post a photo of that too.

After we clambered back down, we meditated and were blessed by the head monk. He presented us each with special woven bracelets, but us females had to be very careful when it was our turn, because monks are not supposed to touch women. Ever, at all. Our instructor said it is common for the whole seating area on a bus to be rearranged so as to accommodate a monk. So the boys got the bracelets put on their wrists while us girls cautiously cupped our hands for him to drop the bracelets into. He was very nice, only spoke enough English to say, "For life happy happy!" while splashing water on us, and took photos of us with his iPad. It certainly was unique. The best part was probably that I bought a wine bottle-sized container of honey made by the monks and I cannot stop eating it--it's much less viscous than American honey, and tastes less like pure sugar and more like...nectar? Vaguely fermented? Anyways, it's terribly tasty. See, here I am at food again. 

Today, on the other hand, we just did workshops at the elementary school where we're taking the TESOL course. This week is the last week for the kids attending school there, so we always have to make our way through the masses of navy blue uniforms and lines of high fives that form around us wherever we go. Thai kids LOVE high fives. They will stop whatever game they're playing at recess so they can run up and get high-fives from us as we come and go. Fist bumps are cool too, and sometimes hugs, but high-fiving is definitely their favorite. We are legitimately treated like celebrities by the kids. Anywhere you go--we'll be on the back of a song tao (open air bus, spelled phonetically) and a kid on the front of their mom's motorbike will wave shyly at us--and all over the school, there's pointing and smiling, waving and sly selfie and photo taking. It is so endearing and ego-boosting while at the same time kind of unsettling for me. I don't want them to think I have any higher value than them, that I'm any better or more important than their locally-born teachers. I want to be just another facilitator in their learning process, but I'll never be seen that way, because I represent exotic and exciting and sophisticated and accomplished and beautiful to these children. 

I think that was one of the concerns I originally had when considering teaching English abroad; it often sounds imperialistic, like you're going off to confirm the importance of western culture over all and negate the significance of the local language and therefore culture (if you want me to talk about why culture is language, and vise versa, that will have to be a whole other log post). But I had to take a double take in our workshop today. Our instructor was telling us how foreign English teachers were funded in Thailand (remember that 90% of Thailand is rural). Most of the positions are partially funded by the government, and then directly subsidized by the community's parents. The average per capita yearly earnings for a person in Thailand is around $1,081. I will be paid about $1,000 a month. These people do not earn enough to truly afford English teachers, but they know that if their kids are ever going to get out of poverty in Thailand, learning English is their best option. Our instructor said you can get a middle class job in Thailand if you know English, no matter how low you are, because it is the language of business and tourism. Thinking about those parents who pay money they don't have to give their children a skill they can use to make a life for themselves made me realize I really had no idea what I was being entrusted with. It's a lot of pressure, I'm not going to lie, but it's really inspiring, and exciting.

Okay, one more food story then I'm out. During our lunch break, some friends and I wandered the streets searching for vendors--inside restaurants are much more expensive and not usually as fresh--and down this little alleyway, low and behold, were a couple women cooking chicken over a spit. The chicken was probably killed in their backyard that morning, cuz that's how it goes in Thailand. I don't know what kind of seasoning and sauces they used, but holy buckets did it make American teriyaki look terrible. It came with cucumbers instead of a starch because cucumbers come with like everything in Thailand--what an awesome notion--and we all swooned. 40 baht for a bowl. That's like $1.30. We are totally going back there tomorrow. Also, we got fresh pineapple dipped in chili sugar, which was similarly to die for. Kick me if I ever eat in the states again.