Monday, July 21, 2014

The Shift in Service

With only eight months left in my Peace Corps career I’m once again entering into the final stage of service. That being, the legacy stage. What do I want to be remembered for here at site? What do I want to look back at and smile about? What will be the highlights and the biggest successes I’ll point to when I’m asked that inevitable and completely overwhelming question “How was Thailand?”

Eight months! Such a long time, and yet it’ll blast by so unbelievably quickly. I have a month of school break coming up. The last two months will be nothing but standardized tests that I won’t do anything for and the seemingly never ending series of goodbye conferences and events. That leaves me only 6 months to do anything, really. Thankfully, I already have my post-PC job lined up so I’ll be able to enjoy the time I have left.

Having been through this all before has given me a valuable insight into the upcoming transition that we 125 volunteers will be faced with. It’s also taught me some pretty good lessons about how to handle the upcoming months. The most important of which is to not fetishize life in America so much that I focus solely on the ever smaller countdown. These last few months are by far the most productive and meaningful that I’ll have here. After working all first year on building up relationships and trust with people, I’m finally able to cash in on all the face (guanxi in China) that I’ve established for myself. I’m finally able to get projects up and running.

Sure, many of my projects are questionable in their sustainability. I’m conducting a ton of English camps and teacher trainings. I’m co-teaching 18 classes a week and painting a series of passively educational murals in my classroom/ English Resource Center. I’ve decided that creating a grand project that continues for years afterwards isn’t success to me. It’s not what I want to accomplish here.

No, instead I’ve set my sights lower. Lower yet no less meaningful. All I want is to help Phung improve as a teacher, to introduce teachers to new teaching techniques, to inspire a student or two to take control of their education and do something real with it. If I could help just one person, then I’ve made a positive impact here and I’ll be happy.

So back to that question of legacy. I’ve already got one. Her name is Phung. When I leave in 8 months, she’ll stay behind. She’ll continue to teach students for decades to come. She’ll continue her move up the educational ladder, effecting greater and broader change than I ever could. By improving her teaching techniques, by exchanging thoughts and ideas, by befriending her and trusting in her and her abilities I’ve already started building my legacy. What a great one it is!

These last eight months will be a whirlwind and drag at the same time. Soon enough I’ll be COSing and starting my post-PC life. It’s an exciting time that I won’t wish away by focusing on the countdown. I did that before, and it was the biggest mistake I made in China. I’ll be enjoying this time, soaking in the experiences, since my time as a PCV is finite and will soon enough be nothing but a series of happy memories.

I’m embracing the shift in service as inevitable, but I’m not letting it control my remaining time here. There’s still so much to do! Here’s to the next eight!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

When It Rains, It Pours

Rainy season is once again in full swing! Everyday Tha Mai is hit by crazy storms and flash floods. My running has been affected, laundry takes days to dry when it used to take hours, and fruit is being harvested like nobody’s business. The rain has taken control of everything. When it rains, it pours. However, this post isn’t about the rainy season. No, this post is about my calendar. About teaching classes, teacher trainings, and English camps. When it rains, it pours! Boy oh boy does it pour!

As I write this I’m sitting in a meeting (being conducted entirely in Thai) going on 14 working days straight without a break. Teaching classes and teacher training seminars has become my everything. I’ve been shuttled around from city to city. Given a day’s notice to plan a session, a lesson, a training. Guess what? I love it! I love being busy! Good news for me: I’m about to get even busier.

If you were to look at my calendar for July you would find an explosion of madness! My regular teaching schedule has been thrown to the wind. Classes are being fin in-between teacher trainings, Peace Corps conferences, and English camps. This month alone I have four different English camps in four different schools. I have a Peace Corps conference where Phung and I will be introducing teaching techniques and activities/games to the new class of volunteers and their co-teachers. Naturally I also have a couple of weekends to visit with Ryan to break up the work load (yay!). All that on top of my regularly scheduled class load and teacher classes.

So there you have it. July is scheduled to be a very busy, yet (I believe) enjoyable month full of projects and work. I’m looking forward to it. Often times Peace Corps can be a study in boredom, having some bustle injected into my schedule will be a welcome change! When it rains, it pours!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Respect Your Elders, Damn It!

Culture note about Thailand: Young people are ALWAYS expected to defer to their elders. Thailand has a very strict social order that greatly favors the older over the young, and men over women. In many ways I benefit from this social order. Being a man I am respected and deferred to more so than women my age. However, being a young teacher often results in older teachers feeling like they have the the ability, no sorry, right to speak over me and throw out my positions or ideas.

Such is the situation I currently find myself in.

When the school year started a month ago I was approached by my school administration and asked to teach the teachers English after classes were finished. I eagerly agreed, “What an excellent secondary project!” I thought. I immediately prepared a months worth of lessons complete with flashcards and worksheets that I could use for my teacher classes. We agreed to start the classes week two. All was well.

Phung and I decided that two hours a week would work best with our schedules. Then the teacher who was advocating for the classes demanded that we teach four classes a week, an hour each class. I use the word demanded very deliberately. You see, the teacher advocating for the classes is 59 and about to retire. She has seniority over Phung and I because of her age, and therefore we are expected to accommodate her every whim. “Well we can’t do four classes a week, we’re too busy. How about two, and Joel will prepare homework lessons that you can do on your own?” Phung responded with.

No fly. She had set her mind on four classes a week. It was either we do that or there would be no classes at all. “Sorry, but two is really all we can do.” Wrong answer.

So how did our 59 year old almost retiree respond? She called off the teacher classes. Then she went further. She’s been going around school for two weeks now telling any teacher that would listen that Phung and I “don’t want to teach them English.” that we “refuse to teach English.” Guess how I found out about this? My assistant principle came to my class today and asked Phung and I why we were refusing to teach, why we had gone against what we had already agreed to do.

Well Phung is pissed. So am I. “That is not what is happening, she is telling lies because we only want to do two classes a week!” Phung told the assistant principle. Basically, 59 year old retiree went dirty in an attempt to force our hand to do what she wanted. Nope. Not going to happen. Phung turned to me and asked, in front of the assistant principle “How do you feel about Kruu Jinda (59 year old retiree) saying that?” “It makes me angry. I am here to help... for free. I am volunteering, alone here in Thailand, to try and help out students. For her to go around and damage my reputation at school because we can only teach twice a week is wrong.”

After I said that Phung turned to the assistant principle and told her “Kruu Jinda has never spoken to Joel. Not once since he has been here.” Shaking her head, the assistant principle then asked us “So I’ll tell the teachers you’ll teach next Tuesday and Wednesday then?”

HA! Phung and I don’t play by your outdated rules old lady. Prepare for class, Teachers Joel and Phung are going to hold court.

Phung asked me to write a letter that she will translate and distribute to all the teachers in the school so that Kruu Jinda isn't able to go about spreading rumors.  Phung is in confrontational mode right now and it is glorious!

"Starting next week, Phung and Joel will be leading teachers English classes in the PEER center from 4-5pm every Tuesday and Wednesday. The classes will be conducted entirely in English to help teachers practice their listening and speaking skills. Additionally, Joel and Phung have proposed an “English lunch” every Thursday where teachers are encouraged to come and eat lunch in the PEER center and practice their English in an informal conversational setting.

Should teachers want to practice their English more than two weekly classes and a weekly English lunch, Joel is more than happy to prepare worksheets and English “homework” for teachers to practice on their own time at their own pace.

We look forward to seeing you next Tuesday at 4pm"

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Study in Frustration

Today was rough. It was a long, hot, tiring day of teaching alone. Phung had to take her mother to the hospital so I was left to teach alone. This isn’t that big of a problem for me. I’m not supposed to teach alone but Phung and I work so well together that I don’t mind helping her out when she needs it. Normally it’s fine. But today, not so much.

After spending the first few weeks working on phonics with my classes, today was to be the day that we started moving onwards to creating simple words. Sounding them out and spelling them as a class. Easy enough. First class passed without incident. Second class went well. Lunch was good and I bonded with some teachers in my classroom. Everything was going well until my third class of the day.

This class is going to be extremely trying for me. Why so? Well it’s by far my largest class at 35 students. But beyond that, this particular class also has 12 inclusive students. What does that mean? It means 12 special needs students. Herein lies the issue; no one can tell me what “special needs” means. I have no idea what I need to do for my 12 inclusive students to help them understand what we’re trying to learn. I suspect some are autistic and some are ADHD. One might be dyslexic, I don’t know.

Here in (rural) Thailand, mental disorders tend not to be diagnosed. Doctors and school administrators will recognize that some disorder exists, but beyond that nothing much happens. It’s incredibly frustrating for me because I want all of my students to succeed in class. But when I don’t know how I can help, how I can alter my lessons, I’m working without the proper tools.

Today was especially rough because I was teaching alone and couldn’t turn to Phung for quick translations. I was working even more at a disadvantage than I normally do. I was surrounded by students, inclusive and not, and I couldn’t understand what they were asking me. Overwhelmed, I had them all sit down. Then I realized they hadn’t finished their homework so the lesson for the day was shot to bits. This combined with the school making me excuse them early (and canceling my forth class) so they could practice for a ceremony led me to be frustrated with my students.

It was unfair of me to get frustrated with them. I was unfair. They didn’t do anything wrong. Realizing that I was unjustly frustrated with my students only served to make today rougher. Phung and I are continually trying different methods to teach our students, testing out different styles that serve different needs. Slowly but surely we’re finding ways for all of our students to successfully learn. Frustrating days like today are a fact of life for anyone, Peace Corps volunteer or not. Learning to chillax and roll with them has been a long road that I’m still walking.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Awash with Little Monkeys

So I’m a teacher here in Thailand, and thats pretty ironic. Why? Well I don’t exactly enjoy children all that much. I guess they’re ok if they’re being quiet and tending to my every whim. The problem? That never happens here. Phung and I often exchange looks of desperation when our classes are going bonkers (i.e. everyday). So much to my chagrin my school approached me to teach the anuban classes. For those of you who don’t know Thai, anuban is kindergarten.

Yep, the guy who only tolerates children (really I love them, but its fun acting the curmudgeon) is going to be spending three days a week surrounded by nose picking, powder faced, little monkeys. The best part? Phung, who also isn’t the sweetest on little children, is right there with me.

So here’s my second year in Thailand. Surrounded by pint sized terrors. They were cuties though, I think I’ll enjoy our morning lessons together.  It's the perfect opportunity for me to act as silly as I want and to teach some fun songs.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

About That Time I Killed a Guy

I run. I run a lot. It’s a big part of my service here in Thailand. I run because I like it, it keeps me in shape, and it helps me to project a good image indirectly. When I first got here to site and I started running people thought I was crazy. I must have looked insane to them.
 “What are you doing!? It’s too hot to be exercising!” “What are you running from?” and “Where are you going?” Were all common questions thrown at me by the villagers.

Well after many months of being the only person out there hitting the pavement something strange happened. I saw another jogger. Then after a couple more weeks, another. Then another. Then another.  People started running or going for afternoon jogs. There was a solid group out almost every day.  We would smile and wave at each other as we passed. Shouts of “Suu suu! (Go go!)” were thrown about. I indirectly had encouraged others to start running. It felt good. I was making a positive impact on my community. Then it happened.

Rainy season turned into cool. Cool season dragged on. Then cool season started turning to hot. It was getting quite warm. Runs became more difficult. I showed up to school one day and was confronted with the news. “Joel! You can’t run anymore! A man died. His heart stopped because he was running. You must stop.”

Yep. A man had a heart attack while out running. My positive impact had turned deadly. I came to Thailand to spread joy and peace. Well this is awkward... 

I reassured everyone that I was adequately hydrating and that I was safe. The man in question turned out to be mid 50s, overweight, and wasn’t hydrating. I felt safe to continue my runs. The others, however, did not. No longer are there others running with me. No more casual jogs. People are back to staring in bewilderment as I run past. “Surely he must be crazy! Running is too dangerous.” 

So thats the story of how I helped start a fitness craze. A craze that ended tragically. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Oh The Horror!!

It was a dark and stormy night. The rains had been going for quite some time, thunder sounding off in the distance. He sat in his living room, watching TV relaxing after a day of housework and an exhausting afternoon run. Overcome by thirst he got up to grab a glass of water. Slowly sliding open the kitchen door he saw shadowy figures scatter. Flicking on the lights, he was faced with his nightmare. Something he thought had been dealt with forever. Something he had prayed wouldn’t happen again. Something truly disgusting. Another cockroach infestation. Only this time they could fly.

Springing into action he grabbed the nearest dishrag only to have one crawl onto his hand. “Ohhhaaaaaa!” He cried, flicking it away. Looking around he counted 1, no 4, no 8, no 12 sizable cockroaches. The nest was back. The nest he had practically napalmed a couple months before, this was their revenge. Their vengeance! “Not again.” He whispered to himself reaching for the nearest shoe and broom. Winning weapons from his previous encounters.

Swat! Smack! Pound! Boom! He systematically worked his way down the kitchen. Ruthless in his anger. Each smoosed roach receiving a healthy pour of professional grade floor cleaner to finish it, and any eggs it might be carrying, off. Eventually the kitchen reeked of lavender scented chemicals. A sickeningly sweet smell, masking the horrors that had befallen.

Surveying the carnage the he decided to leave things be for the night. It was late, clean up would have to wait until the fumes had cleared. Then, in the third act, as he was online messaging in the dark he was attacked one last time. Never before had the roaches encroached into the main house, the fumes must have driven it from the kitchen right towards him. Unsuspectingly typing away, he felt the roach crawl up his side, sending shivers of disgust coursing through his body. He jumped up as the roach ran into his pillow case. “Get out of my pillow!” He bellowed, throwing the case across the room.

The roach made its escape, but was too slow. A heavy shoe brought the evenings horror to an end. But not without consequences. He resolved the following morning to deep clean every crevice of the kitchen, seal off all sewers and drains, and keep a careful watch. He’s safe. For now...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Day the Innocence Died

It was a hot summer day like many before. Only it wasn’t like any day before. I was minding my own business when the unthinkable happened. Something so horrifically unexpected. It was on that day that I learned never to trust again. It was the day the innocence of my Peace Corps service died, and with that innocence a little piece of my soul.

I had foolishly believed that I was going to be an exception to the Peace Corps rule. That I would escape that dreadful fate that had stricken so many before me. “It’s not if, it’s when” they say. Naively I believed myself to be above such horror. I was wrong. So very wrong.

The day had started out like any before. Perfectly nice and normal. I had woken up, gone for my run and bucket bathed. Besides the lack of running water there was nothing that could get me down. While enjoying my morning coffee I decided to have some fried rice for lunch and made plans to visit my local market stall for some deliciousness.

“Extra peppers, please.” I asked. Such a good call, the rice was amazing. Flavorful and filling. I cleaned my bowl and spoon in a happy shroud of satisfaction. It was time for music to play, laundry to wash, and dancing while waiting. “Ahh, nothing like freshly washed bed sheets I thought as I hung them out to dry in the warm breeze.”

I winced.

“What was that?” I wondered. “Probably nothing.” I decided, not realizing it was a warning sign foreshadowing the impending plot twist in my life. Checking the faucets to see if running water had returned I was left a tad disappointed. But just then my jam came on. It was time for a dance party, just me and the bathroom mirror.

I was making eye contact when it happened. I placed my trust where it shouldn’t have been. I miscalculated like so many Peace Corps volunteers before me. Holding eye contact with my reflection the horror slowly spread across my face. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. And finally acceptance. It had happened. After 3+ years as a PCV it had caught up to me.

I broke eye contact. I started to laugh, slowly my laughter built until I couldn’t breath. Of course it would happen to me. Of course I wouldn’t escape! I laughed at myself. I laughed at my reflection. I laughed at the hilarity of it all. I was a mere three feet from salvation and I couldn’t make it. I laughed because...

Too real for you?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Peace Corps Cribs: Thailand Edition

Well it only took me 10 months to get around to but yesterday (in a fit of boredom) I finally sat down and got to the business of filming and "editing"  Here you have it, my cribs video of my house here in Tha Mai, Chanthaburi.

If you're interested, here's the two cribs videos I made while in China.  Obviously I've been very lucky when it comes to housing situations!  

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Welcome to Sleep Away Camp!

Truth bomb: Thailand is weird. Like really, incredibly, unbelievably, massively weird. Normally I can take Thailand’s eccentricities in stride. I’m a strange dude and they’re all just part of the experience right? Well you know what else is weird?  Sleep away camp.

Sleep away camp: fun as a child, a bit of work as an adult, incredibly trying for someone who doesn’t speak the language and somehow has to manage 80 kids.

I can be very caring and fun with children. I’m quite the entertainer given the inclination and opportunity. It’s just that I need decompression time to build up that inclination. Time that a sleep away camp doesn’t provide.

The only problem with that was, I wanted the kids to have fun. So I had to be on point. I had to put on that face and act until I felt it. No matter how annoyed I felt, I had to plaster on a smile and deal with a crowd of munchkins all vying for my attention. They had fun, they loved it. Me on the other hand? Ehhh? I was pretty annoyed much of the time.

So what got me annoyed? Perhaps it was the inappropriate things that the teachers kept doing? For example:
  1. Encouraging 12 year olds to dance “sexy.” 
  2. Literally being mounted for a “motorcycle demonstration” by a fellow teacher in front of the students (please don't do that). 
  3. Asking me if I wanted a Thai woman to be sent to my room for the night. 
  4. Encouraging the students to pretend shoot one another/me (really?). 
  5. Excessive proselytizing by a fervently religious teacher. 
  6. Being asked if I was wearing underwear, via microphone. 
  7. Attempting to hide a scavenger hunt item in my pants (ask before just diving in!). 
Surprisingly enough the students were my favorite part of the whole camp. They actually tried hard to learn. They were outgoing and confident and had some serious attitude. They didn’t shy away from volunteering or asking/answering questions. They lined up when I was running to give me high fives and some of them joined in on my runs. Basically, they were awesome. I can honestly say that I actually enjoyed being with the kids more than with my fellow teachers, which is saying something given my general ambivalence towards children.

Camp in a nut shell: inappropriate, confusing, heartwarming, fun, frustrating, overwhelming, and rewarding all at once. Basically it was a tiny microcosm of Thailand.

Building a town

How do I get to the bus station?

Ping pong ball races

Model volcano 

Well she does!

Volcano demonstration