Friday, January 23, 2015

What Have I Achieved? (A Love Letter to Phung)

Not going to lie, going into the last two months of my service has been a bit rough. I’ve been struggling with the creeping question of what I’ve actually accomplished? I’ve pretty much finished teaching already, so many classes of mine have been cancelled. I’ve felt pretty useless, like I was just treading water until COS. Then when I found out that two weeks of classes had been cancelled so student teachers could practice with my kids, I all but threw in the towel on this service. I was totally fine with floating here until March.

That is until today. Yesterday, Phung asked me to come into school this morning to help with the student teachers. They, she had decided, needed to be given some pointers on ways to improve their classes. Since I’ve done nothing all week I jumped at the chance to be useful. Here I was, sitting at my desk, bright and early ready to help out my student teachers. That’s when it happened.

Phung took the reins. She started out by complementing the student teachers on this weeks lessons, but, perhaps there were a few things that could be improved. Maybe perhaps, she and I would be able to give a few thoughts. “Yes, please!” exclaimed the student teachers, obviously aware they were basking in Phung’s greatness. And with that she shot off.

“Here are some games you could use!” Phung rattled off a list of games that I had taught her. “What topics are you teaching next week?” “Oh! Here’s how you can change the games to work with that!” Phung then listed all the different variations we’ve used on the games these past two years. Things we had done that I had forgotten about she recalled with perfect clarity!

“Oh also! You shouldn’t translate so much!” What?! All Thai teachers do in class is translate! How else should the students learn the vocabulary? “Try to use more pictures of the vocabulary, or even actions, to help the students learn. Not every student can learn just from writing translations.” Here Phung was teaching the next generation of teachers things that I had tried to teach her. I sat back shocked at it all. Phung was on a roll. “Let me see your lesson plans. Oh those are so long! Here look at how Joel and I have done it.” She grabbed the binder we’ve filled with enough lessons to fit a year. “Look how simple and easy these are. What will you do to motivate the students?”"Joel, could you make some copies of these?" She asked, handing me an empty lesson plan template. 

Finally when we were discussing teaching occupations I mentioned how I like to switch up the traditional gender jobs. Doctor would have a woman pictured, teacher would have a man. “And have a picture of a woman soldier!” Phung added. “Last year Joel and I taught a lesson his friend Carly made about men and women soldiers!” Phung then proceeded to brag about this lesson Carly had made and we had taught in our class.

Finally after an hour and a half of wonder, Phung was finished. The two student teachers having filled up pages of notes with all her ideas. She looked at me and said “I’m getting coffee!” And scuttled off into the distance.

Basically this morning was any volunteers’ wet dream. I received instant proof that what I’ve been doing here for the past two years has meant something. I’ve managed to help in my little way. I watched as my little Phung spread her wings and soared! (Let’s be real: she’s been the one who’s lead all the work we’ve done.) I’m sitting here with a giant goofy ass grin plastered on my face, happy as a clam. I’m definitely heading into the twilight of my service on a high note. I don’t know what I did to make the universe like me so, but I’m incredibly lucky to have Phung in my life.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Thai’ve Been Ruined!

There comes a day in every Peace Corps service when the volunteer begrudgingly realizes that they're a different person than they came in as. Dirtier, weirder, cheaper, increasingly culturally irrelevant and a terrible failure at the English language. Peace Corps ruins the standards you once held yourself to. Absolutely destroys them. Here’s how Peace Corps ruined me:

I teach barefoot. I constantly sweat. I’m regularly without water for extended periods of time. Basically I’m a hot mess. Google it, you’ll find my picture. I literally, and this is no joke, have only one pair of work pants. I wear them 4 days a week. They’ve shrunk so I’m permanently prepared for a flood and they’re fading out of existence. Will I buy more? No way in hell.

I am the slapstick king! There’s only so much humor I can express with a second language when no one can understand me. Cue the crazy faces. Eyes bulging, tongue out, cheeks puffed, and tiny dinosaur arms. That’s me! Someone once asked my co-teacher what her biggest problem with me was, “His face!” She said with no delay.

I haven’t paid for toilet paper in almost a year. I am oddly proud of this fact. It’s become a challenge for me to finish my service without buying another roll. Deal with it. Get on my level.

Cultural Relevance:
The last time I was fully caught up on American culture was June 2010.  I briefly almost got back into the swing of things between China and now, but not really.  I couldn't turn on the space phones.  Now I've lost all hopes of understanding what anyone is talking about.  Instead I've retreated back into my cultural irrelevant ways.  Speaking of irrelevant, I just downloaded a Christina remix that I've been rocking out to all day.  No shame in my game.  

I “teach” English. Really I just tumble my way through it and hope no one notices my astounding number of mistakes and misspells. I frequently forget the simplest of words. “You know, where busses sleep!” Station. “Face hole.” Mouth. I frequently, and many can attest to this point, refer to things as “diggly woops” or “squiggly squigs.” I’m an English teacher.

It’s a good thing I’m not going right back to America. My year teaching at a private school will help ease me back into being a normal human being. I’ll be cleaner. I might have more than one pair of work pants. I’ll most likely still take left over toilet paper from the hotel, but I’ll consider paying for it sometimes. And I’ll be able to practice my English with others, hopefully I can drag them down with me.

Cheers to you Peace Corps!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Bangkok Marathon

It was 4 in the morning.  I was chugging along in the dark on a raised freeway, making my way back towards the Bangkok city lights.  The moon was high in the sky, throwing it’s yellowish light over the scene.  My biggest worry, the mantra that had been running through my head for the last 40 minutes was simple. 

“Don’t poo yourself Joel, don’t pee yourself.”   “You’re almost there. You can see it!”  “It’s so close! Please make it in time!” 

I did.  That bus of toilets was the the only thing that had been on my mind for 40 minutes.  I had been running for about two hours already at that point, slamming water at every station I passed.  Something was off, though.  Maybe it was the rich thanksgiving foods I had nibbled on hours before, or maybe the water or ice was bad.  Who knows.  Many a runner was struck with tongsia (guess what that means?) that day, I was a lucky one who survived.  Barely. 

A little less than a month ago I did something I never thought I would be able to.  I finished my first marathon.  I did pretty good for my first time.  4:23:42!  My only two goals were 1) to finish and 2) to break four and a half hours.  Hizzah!  I did both!  I ended up placing 50th out of 280 in my age group.  A pretty solid first showing, if you ask me. 

What lessons did I learn from my first marathon? First, it hurts!  Like really.  My ankles and hips aged 50 years within 3 hours.  Second, porta-potties are an amazing and wonderful resource, it would have been nice to have more of them along the route.  Third, I start to go a bit crazy when I’ve run for 4 hours without any sleep the night before.  And forth, there is no greater feeling (and consequently, no greater display of unnecessary emotion) when you round the corner are confronted with a large crowd of people who are there to cheer you on to the finish just up the road. 

It was an awesome experience, one that I will be repeating soon enough.  In the mean time, I’m enjoying a little break from the training.  Going for runs when I want to, not when I have to.  I suspect that I’ll be challenging the Bangkok Marathon again next year.  We have unfinished business.

[Update] Here's a link to a review of the race written by my friend and fellow finisher Ashley.                    5 Things You Should Know When Running A Race Abroad

Photo credits to Meredith, Ryan, and Carly.  Love y'all!

Peace Corps representing!
Preparing to cheer us on!

Face of pain or ugly cry?

So tired! 


No nipple chafing!  A major victory in itself.

We did it! 

All the runners!  Jes, Mamie, Ashely, me, Bridgette, and Tricia.


Thursday, November 27, 2014


Let me tell you about Boa. Boa is one of my sweetest students. She's 11 years old, stands about 4 feet high, has dark hair cut to her chin, and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. Boa also happens to be one of my “inclusive” students, meaning she is one of the special education students at my school. Boa is awesome. I can’t say it enough.

When I first came here to Tha Mai all the students were scared of me. “Who is this ghostly pale rando?” They must have thought. They were shy around me and spoke very quietly whenever I was around. Boa included. I live along a 6 lane freeway. There are two villages (the twin villages, I call them) that split my community up. My school and nearly every student’s house are in one village and my house and everywhere that I frequent are in the other. Despite being so close to each other there isn’t a great deal of overlap between the villages, people stick to their own. Why? That 6 lane freeway.

I tell you this because it’s important to my standing here at school. My students, the vast majority of them at least, only ever see me at school. They don’t see me at the market, they don’t see me out for a run, they don’t see me getting a haircut. To them I am solely “school Joel”, there exists no other version of me. Such is not the case of Boa. Boa lives out in the Durian plantations beyond my house. Her parents drive her to and from school every day and during that drive she passes through my village.

At first when she saw me outside of school, Boa would stay shy. Her parents would engage me in polite conversation and she would hide behind them. Not anymore. After a few months here Boa opened up and has completely changed. She lights up whenever she sees me. I light up whenever I see her. Her smile is that infectious.

Almost every run I see her, standing in the back of her parents’ pickup. Hair blowing in the wind, having a blast, she’ll spot me and call out. Frantically waving. I always make a silly face and wave back as she laughs, passing by me. Boa is awesome. She has so much personality and joy for life.

This week, Phung and I have been showing Frozen to our students. Boa ate it up. She was laying out soaking it all up. Laughing at all the silly antics of Olaf, “singing” along with all the songs, “wow-ing” every magical vista or scene. Phung and I went the entire hour simply watching Boa watch the movie. It made me so happy to see her so happy. Something as simple as a movie brought her such joy.

Boa is awesome. She’s my favorite student here in Tha Mai and will most definitely be the one that I miss the most when I’m gone. I’m writing about Boa now to remind myself to enjoy having her around for these last few months. I won’t have her infectious smile or laugh much longer, so I better soak it up now while I still can. Boa is awesome.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What Running Has Taught Me

For most of my life I’ve suffered from incredible self doubt when it came to my body. For as long as I can remember I’ve had body issues. Issues with how it looks, how much I weigh, the squishy bits, and the size of my clothes. My weight has fluctuated quite a bit, from average to overweight. Overweight to average. Average to verging on underweight. My body issues are something that I haven’t always been open about. If you’ve known me for quite some time, chances are you’ve heard me make a disparaging remark about something.

Body issues aren’t something that many men are comfortable discussing. They’re not really something I’m comfortable discussing. I’m aware I suffer from them, and that in all likelihood I always will. This is the most publicly I’ve ever addressed them. For quite a long time I was very unhealthy. I would eat when I was bored, when I was sad, when I was happy, when I was angry or stressed. I would eat until there was nothing left on my plate, regardless of me being hungry or not. When I liked something I would overindulge. Eat it all. Nomnomnom! :) Not surprisingly I got bigger. Which made me more self conscious. Food was my comfort blanket.

Had I been active, it wouldn’t have been such a problem. At least weight-wise. When I swam I was always a bit chunkier than everyone else, but not overly so. I was of average height and weight. I would eat a lot, but I would also swim a lot. My weight was pretty much in check. Did I have issues with my chunkiness? Of course. But when I would eat to comfort myself I would be balancing it out with exercise. When I quit swimming, that balance was thrown completely off. Thankfully I had my family to help keep my eating habits in check.

When I moved away to college, I lost that check. I ate more, got larger, ate more, got larger, ate more, and got even larger. Very large. Peace Corps, when I was applying, was concerned with my weight. Was I healthy? No. Not at all. It was an eye opener.

During my first service in China I lost a lot of weight. I went from overweight back down to average. How? Well after the shock I got during the application phase I resolved to get healthier. I cut my portion sizes, ate healthier/less processed foods, and I started to exercise when I was bored.

I came into Thailand a bit up from my China weight. Understandable. I was enjoying all the foods and booze I knew I would miss. I was bigger, but not overly so. It was here in Thailand when things really changed for me. I started running, an activity I had grudgingly pursued off and on. It was hard. It wasn’t fun. And I wasn’t very good.

“Too bad!” I told myself, “you have to start building up what you can do.” Slowly but surely I started going further and faster. I was achieving distances I never had before. I was going faster than I had in years, since my swimming days. But more importantly, I was enjoying myself. Running was actually becoming fun, which made me want to do it even more. The only issue? I was still focused on numbers.

Weight and calories. I was running because it was fun, sure. But I was also running because it burned a ton of calories. Calories that I needed to burn if I wanted to lose the weight. Which I did. The pounds were falling off quickly. Two a week sometimes. That’s when I got equally as unhealthy in the opposite way I previously had. For a while I was consuming a net of only 800-1000 calories. I watched the numbers like a hawk. If I got too high I had to work them off. Go for a run. Water weight became an issue. I had to much. So I started drinking far less water than I needed. And, as a obvious result, I was getting dizzy and lightheaded. My family has always declared “Hydrate or die.” I wasn’t hydrating enough, not nearly enough. It wasn't a smart or healthy situation to put myself in.

Again, it was a shock. I shocked myself with what I was willing to do simply for the numbers. Numbers that frankly aren’t important. What really opened my eyes, and the whole point of this post, was how my unhealthy habits effected my runs. They were virtually killed. I was slower and couldn’t go as far. I was discouraged and on the verge of giving up on running.

But I didn’t want to. I wanted to continue to run. I like the way it makes me feel, I like the challenge, I like seeing myself accomplish things I never thought I could. Running helped me realize I needed a balance again in my life. If I wanted to continue running I had to shape up. Be healthier.

Running taught me that I had issues with my body, that I needed to address those issues head on in a responsible and healthy way. Running taught me that I would likely have to work on those issues for the rest of my life. But running taught me that it was worth it.

Running taught me to stop caring about the numbers, they fluctuate. Who cares? It taught me to eat healthier. Reasonable portions, balanced meals, less meat and alcohol and more plants. Running reminded me of the importance of hydrating, something that had been drilled into me since birth. Running taught me that I could do things I never thought I could. That it was hard work to achieve goals but that the hard work was worth it. So worth it. Running taught me how to be healthy. Something I always knew, something that was common sense. But something that I wasn’t prepared to do. Running taught me that I’m prepared now.

I’m excited to continue to run. I’m excited at the prospect of learning more. I’m excited because I still love running, even if I have days where I’m less than enthused to head out. Running has been such a major player in my push to be healthier in my acceptance of myself and how I look.

That’s what running has taught me.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In the Mind of a Coked Up Bob Ross

Ryan and I flew to Nepal to celebrate my birthday and spend 12 days outside of Thailand during this past bpit term (school break). It was AMAZING! We went trekking in the Annapurna Conversation Zone, doing the Ghorapani/ Poon Hill Trek. A 4 day trek that we stretched into 6, because we’re lazy assholes. Yet despite being lazy assholes, we decided to do the trek without a guide or porters, something that is apparently mind boggling to nearly every other trekker we met. So yeah, we lugged our heavy ass backpacks with us.

The entire trek felt like it took place inside the coked out head of Bob Ross. Happy little trees everywhere! Happy little clouds! Massively exaggerated happy little mountains! The trek was described to me as “walking through green screens”. It couldn’t possibly be real! It was exactly that. I used to think the mountains here at my site were majestic. Now they just look like bitchy little molehills. Thanks for that, Nepal!

We woke up early, often before 5, to watch the sunrise and get a head start on the trail. My competitive side reared its kickasstastic head, I had to be the first one to the next village. We pushed hard. Coming in an hour or two before the fastest estimates we got each day. We stopped at many tea-houses so I could indulge my budding milk tea addiction. We ate literal tons of rice and dhal baht. We (meaning mostly I) crashed out exhausted at 7. And we played an epic weeks long gin rummy battle royale.

Oh also it was cold. Like balls cold. Like my balls were cold and possibly had frostbite. After being all overheated from hours of trekking while carrying a heavy backpack we would arrive in our next village and I would proceed to succumb to a raging fit of shivers. 4 layers of pants, 6 shirts, a yak wool hat, and socks on my hands were the prescribed solution.

So I celebrated becoming an old man (isn’t it annoying when someone in their 20’s claims that?!) by going on an awesome trekking adventure with my equally awesome boyfriend. We didn’t even kill each other! We did it!

Momo fiesta feast for my birthday!
He's deliriously (frighteningly?) excited to start the trek...
Just realized how far we have to go
Oodles of noodles! (zero shame in that caption)
Too much fresh air in my ears!
I'm sad because my balls are cold.
A couple of asshats trying not to look freezing
Calm down Norman Rockwell
These two! ::shake my fist::

Gin rummy and dhal baht with a view. 
Proper napping attire (not shown: sock mittens)

Sunday, September 7, 2014


“What are you doing today?” Phung texted me.  “I’m baking bread.”  “I want. Bring me some tomorrow.”  “Haha, ok.”  So a baguette has been wrapped in newspaper and will be waiting on her desk tomorrow morning. 
My precious baguettes!
Food has always held a special place in my heart.  Looking at any of my old fatty pictures will tell you that.  I love food.  So so much.  I love eating it.  I love cooking it.  I love researching it.  And I love sharing it.  Serving and living abroad with the Peace Corps has introduced me to amazing cuisines and food cultures.  Chinese and Thai people are always excited to share their cuisines.  I expected them to want to share their foods with me, to teach me.  I wanted to learn.  What I didn’t expect is that they would be equally curious about the foods that I grew up making and eating.  That they would want me to share with them. 

Food has been a big part of my volunteer service.  Goal two of Peace Corps is to teach the peoples of the country in which we serve about America and it’s culture.  Nobody wants a history lesson or a geopolitical conversation.  Everyone wants to eat.  So I’ve shared my passion for cooking with my friends in China and Thailand. 

One of my favorite projects in China was my weekly cooking club with my students.  I would invite a class of 30 over to cook and eat at my apartment.  I would make a dish ahead of time, and they would (working in groups) all either make a dish or buy takeout to share.  It was always a ton of fun!  Students loved sharing their family recipes with me, and they loved helping me finish my dish.  I tried to make them as interactive as possible so many students could help.  Pumpkin raviolis, make your own pizzas, taco bar.  It was a blast!

Cooking Club: China Spring 2012
Here in Thailand I’m unable to invite my students over to cook, and the teachers are far too busy, so instead I tend to share with my host family and Phung.  Bringing them food is a little way I’m able to thank them for all the things they’ve done for me here in Thailand.  I have standing instructions that whenever I make tortillas I am to bring a plate over for my Yai (host grandma).  When she see’s me coming down the road with a covered plate she knows it’s time.  Her stooped shoulders bobbing up and down in excitement.  I love seeing how excited she gets.

Teaching Yai to make tortillas...
Whenever I make cookies or brownies, Phung gets half of them.  I make something new, Phung gets some.  Something in my care package? Phung gets a taste. Sharing American food culture with my Thai counterparts here is a wonderful way to integrate and show I care.  My program manager, Chadchaya still talks about the pizzas I made when she came to visit!  My host family loves to make fusion food with me.  I'll prepare some western dish and they'll make a Thai dish to go with it.  Our greatest achievement?  Green curry cilantro rice burritos served with pineapple-apple pie. Many a nom was had that day.
Host mom nomming out on her pie!
Seeing their smiles when I hand them a piece of pie, garlic bread, or a bowl of pasta makes my day.  I don’t have the proper vocabulary to thank the Thai people who’ve helped make my time here in Tha Mai so rewarding, nor do I have to money to buy them proper gifts.  What I do have is food.  Good thing Thais love their food (almost as much as I do!).

BBQ feast with Jie, my China counterpart, and her husband.

Burrito fiesta!
Food, food, food!  I love food!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Pumpkin Spice Lattes!

Autumn is a special time of the year. Crisp winds and chilled evenings start up. Leaves turning into an orgy of reds, oranges, and yellows. All manner of gourds are coming into harvest. Heavier foods to beat the chill. And Starbucks releases that perennial favorite the Pumpkin Spice Latte!

Oh wait. Fuck, I got that wrong. Thailand, Joel! Thailand!

Autumn is a nonexistent time of the year. Storm clouds and lightening start up. Leaves remain an orgy of green, light green, and dark green. All manner of fruit is finishing up harvest. The same foods persist. And Starbucks doesn’t exist anywhere near to me.

Autumn is my favorite time of the year. Halloween! My birthday! Thanksgiving! All wonderful things that autumn means to me. Unfortunately the traditional autumn doesn’t exist in Thailand. There are no falling leaves. The weather cools slightly, but thats because it’s rainy season. Instead of artfully arranged piles of leaves I have muddy puddles (considerably less fun to jump into).

This marks my second year without an autumn. My second year without all those wonderful things I love best. I’ll once again make due with what I have. Gerry-rig up halloween and thanksgiving celebrations. I’ll hunt down pumpkins and find a way to make them into lighter food. Something appropriate to eat in the heat of Thailand. I’ll mark my birthday with a trekking trip in Nepal. Where I’ll get my first taste of actual cold weather since I left America in January 2013.

This autumn marks the end of my third semester here in Thailand and the beginning of my final stretch as a volunteer. So while Buzzfeed continues to taunt me with articles like “48 Ways to Enjoy Pumpkin Everyday!”, “PSA: Starbucks Releases the Pumpkin Spice Latte Early!”, and “21 Slow Cooker Dinners to Enjoy this Fall” I’ll continue pining after the unobtainable idealized autumns of my dreams!

Go forth America! Enjoy your Pumpkin Spice! Remember to pour one out for your missing homie.

Ina, you sexy minx!  Enjoy that gourd! 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The China Legacy

Remember back a few posts ago when I wrote about the looming shift in service away from future projects to my legacy here in Tha Mai. (See post here: The Shift in Service) Well, I felt confident enough to write about what I call the “legacy stage” because I’ve already done it. You may or may not remember that whole Chiner incident?

Well I’ve been in regular contact with old students and my amazing counterpart, Jie. Keeping up on marriages (my “kids” are growing up so fast!), babies, and major career developments (they’re spread across Shanghai, Chengdu, Beijing, Tanzania, and Denmark)! I also had sporadic contact with my replacements, a nice China 18 couple.

Well this evening, as I was balls deep in a Netflix marathon (No shame in my game!) I received a friend request from someone I didn't know. With minimal snooping I realized he was one of the China 20s (!!!) at my site. Geez, we’re up to 20 now? Way to make me feel old. He wanted to ask me a few questions about teaching in Deyang and semester plans/syllabi. But it was really cool to talk with him.

I knew from the China 18 couple that people at my school still occasionally talked about me. “Remember that time Joel wore a tie over his t-shirt!” (again, no shame. China was a weird time for me). It was nice to know that I was still thought of. But then Jie, my amazing counterpart, emailed me a few days ago and told me about the new volunteers. How one of them was also from California and had an accent and mannerisms similar to me (does it run in the Californian family?). She mentioned old friends and colleagues I had. And she mentioned the English Resource Center she and I built, and how it had struck the new 20s. Well that made me smile.

So yeah, as I was messaging with the China 20 volunteer who’s now at my old site I stumbled across some pictures he had posted of his apartment. My old apartment! The paintings I made were still hanging! The skateboard Tamarae and I bought was still there! My old stuff, it was all still there! It was such a trip to see, and kind of cool to think that in a small way I was still present and having an effect in Deyang.

Finally, as we were finishing up the messaging the China 20 thanked me for my help in answering his questions. He thanked me for the work I did in creating the English Resource Center. And he thanked me for “paving the way” for him in Deyang. It was that whole “paving the way” thing that really struck me. Even though I’ve been gone from China for more than two years I’m still having an effect at my old site (however small it may be). Traditions I started are holding strong, things I created still exist, people are still talking about me. Apparently I was fairly successful in my China “legacy stage.”

Needless to say, I’ve got a goofy grin on and feeling good. This was just the thing I needed to push me into these last few months with Peace Corps Thailand. Hopefully I can translate some of my China legacy here to Tha Mai. Fingers crossed!

The dream team!  Jie is the feisty one in jeans.

My old apartment
My kids!
Halloween 2011
The darlings
English Resource Center
World Map Project
Vintage T-Rizz and Joel