Friday, September 25, 2015

Group Exercise Experimentation, Taking Candy from Babies, and Cross-dressing Jungle Runners

Forgive me for being absent on here for so long. There is a reason, I promise, but it's long, complicated, and I'm not quite ready to write about it yet, so I'm just going to leave you with the following advice: avoid all surgeries that may involve any sort of drainage tube temporarily coming out of your head. If you can't avoid it, then prepare yourself for the horror that is having it extracted. 

Before I launch into the body of my post, I'd just like to announce to all who don't already know, though I was originally planning on returning home to the PNW in October, a year has passed and I'm just not ready to come back yet. I love my students and my Songkhla community, and the eternal summer really has it's benefits. Also, it's rather satisfying to scroll through the angry political posts my facebook page and realize that Thailand's got 99 problems but Trump a'int one. I know temporarily denying my US citizenship doesn't grant me the special privilege of ignoring what's happening there or relieve me of responsibility, but it sure is a weight off one's shoulders to at least pretend for a while. So, I've renewed my contract, and I'll be finishing out the school year, leaving Songkhla in March, and traveling for a month or two before returning. All this really means for you all is that you now have an extension on when you can take holiday in Thailand with the prospect of a learned guide and resident excited to assist you. The clock is ticking, folks!

I bring to you today a collection in four segments inspired by events of the past few weeks. There is no common thread between them, so read one while you're waiting for your microwavable popcorn to be ready, another while you're on your smoke break, so on and so forth. Or, if you actually have the time and energy, go ahead! Read them all in one sitting. Here goes!

Zumba on Speed

First off, I'd like to say that while I enjoy making a fool out of myself in many ways, group exercise classes outside of yoga are not typically my cup of tea. I dance very well alone and my coordination strengths lie mainly in my fingers, thanks to playing clarinet for 14 years. There's also something about the combination of wearing spandex, moving rhythmically in mass, and following an energetic super human that makes me a little queasy. Therefore, until recently, I had never participated in a zumba, jazzercise, aerobics, or otherwise exotically-named group workout routine until this month. Enter, Thai aerobics.

While I love running along the beach road less than a mile from my apartment, sometimes you've got to spice up your exercising habits. All over Thailand, outdoor aerobics classes congregate in empty lots, basketball courts, and parks at either 5:30 in the morning or 5:30 in the evening for an hour of high energy movement. I don't know the technical name for what they do, but I've always passed the groups of 40-70 women bouncing about and been intrigued. So, after finding a friend to brave the adventure with me, I sheepishly snuck to the back of one of these classes a few Mondays ago.

You pay 5 baht to get into the class., That's 14 US cents. Could you imagine how many classes you would take if they were all that reasonable? Even on a Thai pay grade, that is stupid cheap. So you put your coin out in front of you after choosing your spot, and check out the competition. It's not terrible - it's a lot of middle aged women, moms whose kids sit off to the side on their ipads, college girls giggling together in their matching sweatpants, and a couple of women in spandex and baseball caps who look really fit. Try not to stand behind them because then you're going to be looking at their well-toned ass the whole time and feeling sorry for yourself. On the other hand, you don't want to be in front of them either, because lord knows they will judge you, seeing as you are a young foreigner. Probably best if you just avoid them altogether.

At 5:30, Thai techno and pop music starts to blast out of the giant speakers on either side of a black stage. Everyone takes their places, and the first instructor climbs the stairs onto the stage. There is typically a rotation of 5 instructors over the course of the hour. At first you may wonder, why bother? Then you realize it's not humanly possible to keep up your energy for an hour straight with one 30-second break throughout all this nonsense. Hence, the switching every ten minutes for the optimal example.

I refer to the instructors as Leg-kick Girl, White-faced Body Builder, Smiley Soccer Mom, The One I Always Forget, and Apron Woman. My favorite is Smiley Soccer Mom because she always looks so happy and encouraging, like she's rooting for you even when you can't possibly grapevine back and forth while doing that motion with your arms and upper body. Apron Woman is fun, though, too because she wears, well, a full-body apron and just looks super intense.

My friend described this class, after experiencing it for the first time, as "zumba on speed," and I think that's a fairly accurate description. Imagine moves that change every 8-12 seconds so that as soon as you get a motion down, you've changed again. Your eyes have to stay glued to the instructor because of how quickly the motions are altered. And for the less than coordinated, these motions are not a piece of cake. You are either jumping or moving side to side or forward and backwards, sometimes with leg kicks, double steps, cross-overs, and heel taps while waving your arms, punching, flexing, and doing all sorts of arm and hand motions I can't even begin to describe effectively. There are some moves I definitely have never seen anywhere else, my favorite of which I refer to as the "Tangoing Super Villain" move. This consists of alternating lunges to the left and then right while keeping the rest of your body centered. When you lunge, you bring the hand opposite the leg you're lunging towards in front of your face and dramatically sweep it down towards your chest to reveal your cool, unwavering forward gaze. Do that eight times in a row and I guarantee it'll determine whether or not you have an inner thespian.

The break only comes at 6:00 when everyone is required to stop and stand while the Thai flag is lowered to the King's Song, played on the loud speakers. Never do I appreciate this tradition more. But as soon as it's over (it's only about 30 seconds long), the pop music is pumped back up, and everyone gets back to it. I always make it to the end - it's not like one of those 30 minute Insanity videos that practically kills you to get you in shape - but I definitely am tired physically when we finish. More than anything, though, I'm mentally fried from focusing so hard on trying to do the right moves. That's really what keeps me going back - not only are Thai aerobics an effective cardio workout, these classes keep you extremely engaged by constantly switching up the routine. The older women in the class actually end up being the best at it because you know they've been doing these workouts for years and years, so they know all the moves. But for someone who is completely unfamiliar with how this art form works, it's always a mental challenge, and it's always entertaining.

Moral of the story: You! Get off your butt and go try something new and potentially embarrassing! It may be fun, and if nothing else, it should at least leave you with a good story. 

When I say, "now it's mine," I mean it

If I ever find myself teaching in an elementary school in the United States, I'm anticipating that the first few months will consist of me second-guessing every disciplinary move I make. Sometimes I look at myself and think, have I completely lost my moral compass? Would I be getting sued tomorrow if I was doing this in the states? And the answer is usually, "Eh, probably not," but the adjustment certainly has taken some getting used to.

Thailand is a country where corporal punishment is acceptable and expected in schools. All the teachers at my school keep a ruler on hand at all times and make students open their palms to receive a hearty wack when they're misbehaving. It's not particularly painful, and even my youngest students pretend hit their friends with rulers in imitation of their teachers, smiles on their faces, because it is the act of reprimanding rather than the pain that makes the punishment effective. However, the ruler is for misdemeanors only. Once you really piss off a teacher, you get slapped with their hand, and let me tell you, most of them are not gentle. My homeroom teacher, who is one of the most terrifying and intimidating people I have ever met, will hit students HARD on the back of the head and neck, and if you're foolish enough to be goofing off while standing during morning assembly, she'll kick your legs hard enough to make you almost fall over. Though it makes me wince, I cannot deny that it is extremely effective. My Thai co-teachers and best students will always try and hand me a metal ruler when the class is particularly rowdy, but I never take it. I've slapped a couple kids lightly, and more out of annoyance and to get their attention than out of anger (I'm heavily applauded by the rest of the class each time I do this). My wrath has always been more effective in my speech, and it still is here, even though my power is so severely diminished by the language barrier. But here, physical punishment is almost always coupled with verbal shaming. I'm scared witless of my homeroom teacher because between slaps, she stands over a student, berating them with the most shrill, cutting voice I have ever heard until they are crying, and I don't even understand 90% of what she's saying. That is power. It's uncomfortable for me to watch my students undergo this treatment, but I have to remember 1) I am typically blissfully unaware of the severity of the student's crime 2) I don't know what my homeroom teacher is saying and 3) I view this with an entirely different set of cultural values. I guess it's no wonder my students love me but also have so little respect for me.

I should add the fact that there is no "higher power" a student can be sent to when he/she misbehaves. There is no principal, there are no suspensions, there is no phone call made to a student's parents. Everything is dealt with in the classroom, by the teachers themselves. This is one of the most maddening aspects of discipline for me, because there is no way I can communicate expectations to a student the way a teacher of their native language can, and I have no way of contacting parents to insure serious disciplinary problems receive attention at home. So, I've had to get creative.

What does Teacher Mel do to discipline her classes, you ask? I do raise my voice, and yell much more than I would in an American classroom, but when your options are limited, it is a very effective way to express anger and command attention. The class I teach right before lunch has a tendency to misbehave, so I just keep track of how many minutes they keep me waiting when they talk, and then they have to be completely silent for that many minutes past when they would typically leave for lunch. They have lost 15 minutes of lunch on a couple of occasions because I was so annoyed with them. When it comes to punishing individuals, it gets a little more exciting. If a kid is playing with money, I take it. Oh, and I don't give it back. That 10 baht coin that could have bought them some cookies or a soft drink is now mine. For my first grade class, which loves playing with coins, I've found that swiping one from them while teaching and sticking it to the top of the whiteboard with sticky tack is very effective. The short little buggers can see it but they can't reach it, and they have to stare at it for the rest of class, knowing very well they may not be getting it back. I've also taken to rifling through naughty students' bags, finding their candy, and eating it in front of them. I take their books, their drawings, their eraser collections, whatever is distracting them, and if they're very good or I'm feeling generous, they get their possessions back. If not...something new for my collection. My more orthodox methods include locking students out of the classroom, assigning extra homework, giving pop quizzes, and bringing my fist down on desks right next to sleeping heads. It can be enormously fun, and next week I'm planning on bringing in my hash socks that are covered in grass seeds for bad students to pick out. But it will be nice when I once again am able to put my fine-tuned verbal skills to use. Until that day comes, I will be enjoying eating a lot of chocolate wafers and fruit chews. 

"I'm going to hit you with my f**king handbag!" 

The Songkhla Hash has to be the most unique group of individuals I have ever fraternized with regularly. You simply never know what to expect with those people, except mischief, and the sort of company you enjoy but wouldn't want to enjoy with civilized folks, in-laws, or evangelical Christians. I think it's safe to say that Saturday evenings are typically the most entertaining part of my week.

For those of you who need a refresher or haven't been following my blog since the beginning, the Hash House Harriers is a sort of beer-drinking runner's club which has chapters all over the world. I highly suggest you find and join your local hash, but am going to warn you now that it won't be as cool as the Songkhla Hash. First off, we run through the jungle. Through rivers, over mountains, avoiding snakes, slogging through monsoons, tripping over coconuts and pineapple plants, and squeezing between devil-worshipping plants. Secondly, no where else in the world will you find a more welcoming, eccentric collection of people and dogs to spend your weekend with. Thirdly, we have John Cleese's face photoshopped onto a runner in one of the pictures on our poster advertisement. Finally, we do things like have cross-dressing runs that people take very seriously, and this is what I am going to discuss today.

One of our lovely hash families moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which was very sad for all of us. However, it did provide an excuse for throwing a big party, which is really what Hashers live for. I know I make this sound like a cult, and I guess it is a little bit like one, minus the charismatic leader. In fact, Songkhla Hashers are so devoid of responsibility that there was one year in which the general manager of the hash was something called The Cube which was essentially a die with 6 different members' names written on it, and it was rolled each week to determine who would have to take charge of the following run. So don't worry; we're not going to be taking over the world very effectively any time soon.

Anyways. Eric and Duan decided that the final run they would set and the party that followed was going to be themed "His and Hers," which meant each man had to wear at least one item typically adorning a female body and vice versa. In the states, I would show up to a party like this and expect a lot of girls in men's dress shirts posing as dresses and cute skinny ties and men either completely ignoring the dress code or, if they were type-cast as "the funny guy," perhaps wearing a wig or a skirt over their jeans. Maybe I never found my people in the states, because I take costume parties very seriously and go all out, but high school and college never really provided me with enough comrades who were willing to go as far as I was. Not a problem in Songkhla. There's such a culture of fear in the US surrounding dressing outside of confined gendered expectations, especially for heterosexual men. This is one reason I love Thailand. Thai's don't think it's weird, don't think it's shameful, don't think it questions anyone's manhood to wear a dress to a theme party, and women don't have to feminize men's clothing if that's what they want to wear. As to Hashers who aren't Thai, they don't give a damn what anyone thinks of them, most of them are too old for that, and the rest of us just want to have a good time. Needless to say, it was a truly excellent turnout.

Some runners came in full costume for the hash itself - including a couple that dressed as Wonder Woman and Super Man, capes and all - but most of us just stuck to drawn-on facial hair or lipstick and rouge before we started off. Once everyone went home, showered, and turned up at the restaurant an hour later, though, we were definitely transformed. My friend Tim lent me some shorts, a dress shirt, and by far the best accessory, flip flops that have a bottle opener on the bottom of each shoe. So I got to be the bro who opened beers with my feet and I felt cool. I also acquired a black baseball cap early in the evening which really added to my look. There were wigs, fake boobs, heels, skin-tight dresses you wished weren't so skin-tight, slacks, sleazy goatees, ties, and all sorts of attitude. It was thoroughly impressive, and I wish I had more photos, but I think some have been banned from the internet for good reason. Everyone who came without a costume had to get up on the stage in the restaurant and dance to the "gai" (chicken) song, which involves tucking your hands behind your head and flapping your elbows about while singing, "gai, gai, gai," over and over again. After this, karaoke took over, because despite our best efforts, you can't stop Thailand from being Thailand, and that means terrible karaoke.

There was of course incredible Thai food, as well, which I could try to describe to you, but it's a little difficult seeing as I know the dishes only by their Thai names. It really does no justice, but basically there was a lot of amazing fish, seafood soup, spicy mango salad, fried rice, and fruit. The best part, though, was the dessert made by Duan: grasshopper pie and Turkish Delight cheesecake. That immediately gives the night an extra 10 point advantage over anything else I could have been doing.

I've included a couple pictures below - hopefully my friends won't kill me, but I tried choosing ones that are already out in cyberspace on the hash website or Facebook. I hope you all get to experience what it's like to interact with such a wild, diverse group of individuals at least for a short time in your life. And if you get the chance to switch clothes with them, well, even better.

The man on the left is a particularly sassy New Zealander named Bart who is responsible for the quote I made the title of this segment. Do not cross him.

Words from the wise and weird

Though my students are fairly limited in their ability to tell me things, it certainly doesn't keep them from trying. Their desire to interact with me usually results in them hanging around my desk, digging through my things, asking me to do google images searches of random things on my phone, hugging me, and asking me what things are or what I am doing. There are a few students, however, who know enough to be extremely chatty, and like to remind me. Phufa, who I wrote about a few posts ago, is one, and Nattha, or Nut, is another. Nut and Phufa are an interesting duo: both are extremely talented in English, enough so that they often talk to each other in English instead of Thai outside of my classes, but Phufa gets easily annoyed by Nut. I think this is mainly due to the fact that Nut adores Phufa and is a little clingy, and Phufa is a bit of a lone wolf who doesn't like his status as Best English Speaker to be threatened. Nut is pretty oblivious, though, so everything usually works out between the two of them. The biggest difference between the two is that Phufa is perceptive, while Nut is anything but. Phufa knows when to shut up, and he knows what will get him in trouble. Nut has no clue what shutting up means and is constantly getting in trouble for talking out of turn, distracting others, goofing off, and being generally destructive with school supplies. He's the kind of kid that can drive you insane in class, but when you're grading his science workbook and you see that he's drawn a whole army of little people climbing into and inside the beaker images in the book, you have to just laugh and shake your head.

Hearing and watching him talk is half of what is so entertaining about Nut, so the quotes I've included really don't do him justice, but I still think they're pretty funny. Also featured below is a very short but effective video which displays Nut's unique ability which he has claimed is his "best move." Anyways, enjoy these tidbits.

The greatest thing about Nut's move is that usually when Thai pop music is playing and everyone else is dancing, Nut is just jumping up and down and doing this over and over again (see the picture below).

[Nut gave drew me out the Thai numeral system so that I could memorize them and be able to read numbers in Thai. He told me he'd be writing a test for me the next day]
Nut: Have you studied the paper I gave you?
Me: Well, a bit.
N: How many hours?
M: Like maybe 2 (definitely a lie, maybe 15 minutes tops)
N: Oh.
M: I should probably study more, shouldn't I.
N: Yeah, you should.
M: How many hours do you think?
N: 24. 24 is always the number it takes to really learn something.

[Random advice completely out of the blue]: When you're sick, you need to put onions in your socks when you go to bed [Has anyone else heard of this or is this kid just crazy?]

[Nut was telling me about a computer game called Animal Jam run by National Geographic Kids. I've discovered that kids don't always realize adults also understand how technology works]: You type in "" - are you writing this down? Good. But you have to have a password to get in, and you can't forget it, so make sure it's going to be something you remember.

Phufa: Mel, I got glue on my pants and I don't know how to get it off
Nut: I have a great idea! *opens his water bottle, fills his mouth with water, and prepares to spit it in Phufa's lap*
Phufa: NO! *shakes his head in exasperation* There has GOT to be a better way!

Nut: Do you know how to control the mind?Me: No, can't say I do.Nut: I know!Me: How?N: With candy!M: Really?N: Yeah! If I wave a piece of candy in front of someone and say I love them, and they see the candy, they'll love me too because I'll give them candy.M: Ah, I see. That works with money too, doesn't it.N: No, not really. Money isn't very interesting.

[Phufa looking at one of Nut's drawings]: What the hell?? That looks like something on acid!

[MEP 2 had to draw pictures of a sandwich, label each ingredients, and explain how each is healthy. Nut showed me his picture.] Look! I drew a shoe in the middle! [He starts snickering and points to a little speech bubble coming from the shoe] See? I wrote "ha ha" because it's funny.

Phufa, me, and Nut. I'm afraid I have no normal pictures of Nut. But who ever liked normal, anyways?

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