Sunday, September 7, 2014

Food

“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


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

It’s Thai’m We Talk

Hello Thailand, come in. Sit down. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Could I get you anything to drink? A syrup drink, red flavor? Coming right up! Listen, I asked you here for a reason. I have some things I like to say. Nothing mean, or serious; just some concerns I have going into my 17th month here. So sit back, enjoy your liquid sugar and listen carefully please.

During training I was taught so many different things to say in Thai. Entire conversations worth of sentences, really. I was told by the PC staff that I had a great grasp of the Thai language for such a short amount of time spent studying. You know what? Most of what I learned has been completely useless. You know why? Because you, Thailand, only ever want to talk about food. Have I eaten yet? What did I eat? Can I eat spicy? Why don’t I eat seafood? Seriously, thats all we ever talk about. It’s a little mind boggling that after 17 months you still ask me if I can eat spicy. That you still comment on the “small girl” portions I serve myself. There are other topics you know.

But since we’re on the topic of food. I have another grievance I’d like to air. Your complete and utter lack of butchery skills. Seriously you suck at it. Like really. I don’t mind bones, what I do mind are bone fragments in my soups and curries. I know you mind them also, I see you picking them out of your mouth. You know what? There’s a way to avoid those tiny bone fragments that constantly ruin my favorite dishes. It’s called “not hacking at the meat”. It’s simple really, instead of quickly slamming the knife down upon the meat before you, simply take some time and slick it off the bones. Off the bones. Not through the bones.

Another thing. Remember earlier when I mentioned that I learned a lot of Thai? Well that question I just asked you was in Thai. I don’t understand why you’re grabbing someone else who speaks English. I wont address them. I was talking to you in your own language. Instead of assuming that I just spoke in English, how about you listen first, realize that was in fact Thai, and we save that poor man you just pulled over the extra work? Kop khun krap!

Finally, now this one is most pressing to me. That syrup drink you’re drinking. You know, the red flavored one? Why? Why must you consume so much sugar? It’s in everything! And not a little bit either, you heap it in. You’re selling the students ice cream and syrup drinks in the morning before classes, another ice cream at lunch, and some soda and candy after school gets out. I wonder if there might be a correlation between the sugar and the exploding childhood obesity? That 5th grader weighs more than me, and it’s not his fault. He’s simply a child.

Well that's all I have for now.  Thank you for listening. It’s quite the weight lifted off my chest, really. I hope you take our little chat to heart. And maybe, just maybe, try to do something about these little issues. I still love you. You’re wonderful and amazing. But I want you to be the best you can be. These steps will help you get there. Smooches! Ta ta babe!

Oh, whats that? Another syrup drink for the road? Here you go!


Monday, August 18, 2014

The Lonely Road Home

Peace Corps and Thailand itself can be quite disjointed and jarring. We volunteers live in the desolate and starving districts to Bangkok's Hunger Games capital. Bangkok is a shining beacon of choice. Food, entertainment, culture, you name it. Bangkok is the place. My site... not so much. While it might be delightful in its own way it remains and always will be "my" sites. Emphasis on the "my". Singular. Alone.

Bangkok and traveling across Thailand often means constant interaction with other volunteers. A fraternity of like minded people intensely bonded through joint experiences. I love traveling and hanging out with other volunteers. Doing so provides a much needed mental reboot away from the stresses and isolation of site. The simple act of speaking English can be surprisingly restorative.

The worst part of traveling with other volunteers, be it to Bangkok, or elsewhere, is that eventually you have to return to the isolation of site. Increasingly this has become more and more difficult for me. It always was a little difficult before, but of late its been especially so. Many volunteers experience this same sense of pre-return depression. Its not a unique experience.

It starts the morning that I’m leaving. I wake up and realize my time is limited. Precious few hours remain of the freedom away from site. This realization brings on the blues. I’m always bummed because it’s almost over. It’s quite an immature feeling, really, the desire for it never to end. For the fun to last forever. But it can’t. It wont. Life at site is why I’m here and I must return to my job, my students, Phung, and all the isolation of being the only foreigner around. The fishbowl awaits.

No matter how aware of it I am, though, its always jarring. Leaving the hustle of Bangkok behind. As we fly past on the freeway the transition between urban sprawl and empty plains dotted with trees is sudden and always a surprise. The empty fields give way to the occasional factory or warehouse, but for the most part there's nothing. Slowly the landscape gets more and more lush until we're driving through dense rubber tree plantations. Then finally after a couple hours we make the final turn and follow the freeway to my dust coated site.

Its the same route each time, the same conflicted emotions. I'm happy and sad to be returning home to site. I like it, I'm comfortable there, I've built a life there. But its lonely. Very lonely. As soon as I get home the countdown begins again. When will I next leave? When will I next see my friends? Yet despite the loneliness, my time at site flies by. Before I know it I'm packing for another weekend, Ryan is waiting.

But as I leave, I already know. Pre-return depression will once again hit. It always does.

P.S. I apologize if this post is a downer or makes it seem like I’m super sad about my life here in Tha Mai. I’m not. I love it here. I wrote this post in the van as I was returning home from a 10 day vacation with Ryan and friends. This post is inspired by the sudden change from Bangkok madness to provincial emptiness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Confessions of a Dapraved English Camp Volunteer

Not all camps are the same, nor are all campers. I'm quite unashamed to admit these facts. This month has been a whirlwind of camps and trainings that have taken me all over Chanthaburi. There have been up swings and deep child punting lows. What follows is my thoughts on these camps. I write this as I'm being driven home in a sweaty exhausted heap.

I've been deep into the rubber tree plantations. In that borderland between civilization and nature where mother nature's opening shots come in the form of giant spiders in the squatty potty. I've been to schools overlooking the sea. Where if you listened hard enough you could hear the fish fart in contempt of your land loving candy ass.

I've been to schools with the mountain people, where any sounds of banjo would send you running and schools over looking the rice paddies full of annoyed farmers wishing they could be anywhere else. Schools on the freeway and schools in temples. Schools near and schools far.

So yeah, basically I've been all over. Its because of this that I feel perfectly qualified to declare the superiority of some camps/students over others.

Something has to be said for temple schools. While I'm against religion in the classroom those camps I had at Wat schools had the best students. They were well behaved, they worked harder, and yes I'll say it: they were smarter. I covered the same amount of subject material in half the time at the Wat schools. Also their lunches were infinitely better!

Deeply rural mountain schools frighten me. They seem to be educating the next generation of the same for Thailand. No upward momentum, no desire for something different.  No need for English really. Those camps were a massive waste of time. Surely the money could have been used in a way more beneficial to the students. A roof for that classroom perhaps? A door on the bathroom?  Anything really, I don't know? The kids were great, their teachers not so much.

Speaking of teachers, I've met quite a few. One man decided that we were to be the best of friends, but that friendship depended on my knowledge of the 1998 boxing world heavyweight championship. Also hand guns. He loved them. He loved me because I'm from America and even a rural Thai teacher know Americans are gun crazy. Cringe.

Another school decided that I should marry one of the teachers at the camp. She's 50ish and recently widowed and seemed into the idea. Phung and I exchanged knowing looks when our engagement was proposed. Sorry, not exactly my type.

Then there was the little drummer man. FUCK YOU DRUMMER MAN! I hope you trip and impale yourself on a drumstick. The students can't hear me talking (i.e. the whole reason I'm even here) with you drumming for dramatic effect. Also you claim to be the music teacher and yet you can't hold a beat to a simple camp song. Yet, despite your complete and utter lack of talent you insist on banging out the EXACT same beat to each and every song we attempt.  I hid the sticks and you got more.  I asked you to stop and you continued.  I shot you looks that should have killed you, I can only assume your terrible drumming skills deflected them.  You confound and amaze me.  But most of all you awaken a deep hatred within the darkest corner of my soul.  A hatred reserved for slow walkers and dried coconut. You are the human equivalent of dried coconut.  Which is to say you're crusty, old, and terrible on desserts.

Finally... Camp songs.  Major confession time: we use camp songs to use up time and control the students. Lesson boring the kids? Banana song! Crap, that activity only took them 20 minutes? Coconut! We're so over this? Baby Shark time! Camp songs are my nuclear option, especially Baby Shark. You can draw that out forever if you need to!

So there you have it. Camps are weird, wonderful, useless, a ton of fun, and above all crazy. Thank you Thailand for making my July an exhausting and crazy month.

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.

[UPDATE]
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"