Thailand: The Beginning

Traveling, much like lack of sleep, can do wild things to the mind. Even the most balanced and kempt person can find themselves altered by this crazy thing we call "travel." Between culture, jet lag, uncertainty, and the nomadic, hermit-crab lifestyle one finds themselves falling into while traveling; the mind goes through a vigorous test of character. When it all comes to a close and you find yourself understanding what the word "structure" means again, that is when all of the highs and lows come together as the glue to bind together an experience that stays with you wherever the rest of your life takes you.

Now that my somewhat sappy, philosophical ramble is out of the way, let's talk about why this blog is here. Emily and I wanted to keep an online account of our travels through Thailand, Southeast Asia, and wherever else we end up. This whole trip stemmed from the curiosity of teaching abroad and the urge to see a part of the world that is in a way, on the other end of the spectrum from Western Culture.

After taking a 13-week, online course, coupled with a 20+ hour teaching practicum, we received our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificates. Our college degrees in conjunction with these certificates give us the appropriate credentials to teach English in a foreign country in virtually any teaching category: Public, Private, Corporate, Language Schools, International Schools, Private Tutor, etc.

Having heard many great things about the country, we booked two one-way-tickets to Bangkok, Thailand for February 25, 2012. With the flight booked, the only thing we had planned was a two-night stay at a hotel close to the airport to figure out a slight plan for our holiday before we began to work. After a 17-hour flight to Shanghai, a 3-hour layover, and a 4 hour flight to Bangkok, we found ourselves through customs and on the Bangkok pavement at 3:45am on February 27th (2 days later for you non-Mathletes). This is when the adventure begins...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hey, we're teachers now!

We’ve now spent one month in the Tha Bo school system at the secondary level, and let me tell you, it is invigorating. First, I’d like to paint you a picture of the school, and then I’ll tell you why it’s great. Okay, ready…Break!

We have about 2,500 students, ranging from age 12 to 18 years old. The grades are referred to as Matyoms (“Mah-tee-yums”): 12-13 year-olds are in Matyom One; 13-14 year-olds are Matyom Two; 14-15 year-olds are in Matyom Three; 15-16 year-olds are in Matyom Four; 16-17 year-olds are in Matyom Five; and 17-18 year-olds are in Matyom Six. There are two different types of English classes: English Breakthrough (EB), which is an English class that meets for roughly one hour per week - and English Focus (EF), which is an intensive English program that meets roughly 4 times per week for one hour each class. Most of the EF students also take some of their other classes in English, like their Math and Science classes. However, all students technically have at least two English classes; one taught by a Thai teacher, and the other taught by a foreigner teacher.

Matyom 1 :)
M1 so freaking cute
Each Matyom is broken down into about 10 different classes - there are usually between 40 and 50 students per class. These classes are generally "tracked" by ability with a number designation, and they each have their own classroom and attend all of the same classes together. When referring to a specific class, you list the Matyom (or grade-level) first, then “slash” the specific class, or track. For example, I teach English Focus classes that meet 4 days per week to Matyom 1/9, 1/10, and 4/10. I also teach English Breakthrough to 7 different Matyom 4 classes: 4/1 through 4/7.

Matyom 4 goofballs
Here’s the twist: some years they track the students so that Track 1 is the uppermost level of ability and the higher-numbered tracks indicate classes that are at a less advanced level; other years, it is reversed and the higher-numbered tracks are the most advanced, while Track 1 indicates the least advanced level. In other words, it takes some time to accurately gage your students’ abilities, strengths, and weaknesses as a new classroom teacher.

Since the students have their own classrooms, this means that the teachers come to the students. We don’t have English classrooms; we travel to our students’ classrooms to teach – so, remember, don’t leave anything behind! White-board markers are a prized commodity and should be treated as such, since whiteboards are the highest form of technology present in any of our English classrooms.

Umbrellas....for the rain....chaaah right. 

Bob's Brief "Butt In"

Bob here. I wanted to jump in and give my schedule here at Tha Bo School. Here is a list of my classes: English Focus (These classes meet 4 times per week for one hour per class) – 2/1, 2/2, 5/1, 5/2; and English Breakthrough (These classes meet once per week for a one hour class) – 1/6, 1/7, 1/8. All of the kids are awesome in their own way. The younger kids (M1) are my largest classes. All three classes have 50 kids and they are crammed into these basement rooms that frequently lose electricity. On top of that, Thai kids are loud. By loud, I mean they really enjoying yelling Thai jibberish sporadically throughout the lesson. I could be teaching them about introducing themselves, and three random kids will run up to me in the middle of class and say, “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH TEACHER I AM FINE THANK YOU, KOH TOD BLA HR UDL K JLD.” Usually, I just stare at them and say a polite, “Thank you, Benz,” and continue on with the lesson. As the weeks have progressed, the M1 classes have become really great with listening and enjoying the lessons. Turning everything into a game helps and it seems like the harder I try to entertain, as well as teach, the more we enjoy each other’s company.

My M2 classes spend 4 days a week with me. Now remember everyone, M2 kids are between 13 and 14 years old. This is the time in a person’s life where moods are manic and other things are developing and dropping. With that in mind, these classes take on split personalities. They are slightly smaller than my M1 classes (38 kids in one class and 41 in the other), but with their slightly more rebellious demeanors, their presence is quite powerful. At times, my activities and games will woo the students and I will have the entire class following my lead like I am the conductor and they are my orchestra; other times, my activities make it seem like I told them I was taking them to an amusement park, but after getting out of the car, they stepped out into a Crate and Barrel.

In a way, this is a good thing; it tests my ability to switch gears at any given point in time. When that first paper airplane flies across the room, I know that the clock is ticking and I need to do something fast. If my current banter were to continue, I could quickly find myself in a gauntlet of Yu-Gi-Oh Card flinging; drooling, sleepy kids scattered throughout the room, and teenage Thai shrieks reverberating down the halls that one would assume may be alarming to a passerby (in all reality, episodes like the one described above are frequent at Tha Bo).

It gets tiring creating lesson plans with no general direction or experience four times per week, but I would much rather do that than teach out of the book. For some people, it may be a feasible way to teach - for me and my Thai students, it is not the code that will crack the safe. Thai students have great energy and are amazing people, but they need teachers who are going to be like a fly buzzing English into their ears even when they try to swat them away. Initially, they will push away, but hopefully with persistence and determination (that kind of sounds a bit like a description used in a Gatorade ad - my apologies), they the will understand the importance of what we are trying to teach them.

According to a very interesting article I recommend reading:


"On the 2010 Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), Thailand ranked 116th out of 163 countries."

The article goes on to talk about how Thai students are not unintelligent, they are just afraid of speaking English. Our biggest challenge will be to to rid these students of their silly English phobias. Back to you Em.

M2/1 Crew
Watch out for these guys!
I am a bit jealous of the bow ties.
The school campus consists of 5 main education buildings with a smattering of different food options, including 2 open-air cafeterias, and a canteen for snacks and supplies. One of the features of our school campus that I am very grateful for is the English office, which is (usually) air-conditioned, unless the power goes out, which does happen relatively frequently. We share the office with the other foreign English teachers and some absolutely wonderful, extraordinarily helpful and kind Thai teachers. It is a great place to cool off and relax in between classes with great company.

I like it here. It is crazily different from any other learning environment I’ve ever been a part of before, and there are a number of different facets of this system that may take a little time to adjust to, and I end up being really exhausted by the end of the day - but it is pushing us to work on a plethora of life and job skills I need to expand on, and it is doing so in a pretty intense way.

Some key things I am learning: Flexibility, some big-time Classroom Management Skills, Spontaneity, Creativity, and how to be more entertaining than I’ve ever felt compelled to be in my entire life – even more than in my 4th grade acting classes at the Harwich Junior Theater... where I was never actually in a play, but I did stand on a stage and pretend to be The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland in front of close to five other individuals.

As a teacher, I consider myself to be a couple things (I am running the risk of sounding like I’m turning this segment of the post into a cover letter, but I’m just going to go ahead and sort of do that. Maggie Nugent, please stop cringing): In the classroom I do my best to be as warm and welcoming and friendly as possibly to create an environment where students feel comfortable, encouraged and unthreatened to share their thoughts and ideas. But, I have never, in any way, shape, or form, considered myself to be an entertainer. In fact, any of my students from the past would most likely describe me as “Really nice! But kind of weird.” Or maybe they’d say something like, “She’s too happy, and a little awkward.”

As an English teacher in Thailand, however, you usually feel as though you are put on stage to amuse your students. Bob often describes this new employment role as being half stand-up comic, half teacher. As a general rule, Thais love to have fun. If something is not fun, it is often seen as not worth doing – yes, including school. If your class is not fun or entertaining, you should probably expect to have students, parents, and teachers alike complaining that the students can’t possibly learn in such an environment. How do you expect a child to learn if your lessons are boring?! A wonderful question, right? Think back to any class in your past, foreign language classes in particular, and you might see their point. (Even though this expectation can cause for some excruciating hours of frustrating lesson planning.)

Of course the key here is balance. You cannot just shamelessly entertain your students with basic games and shiny prizes and props; you must be teaching them something - Something important and useful, something easy to acquire and remember. And yes, you must do so as the only teacher in a tiny, cramped classroom which often reaches well-over 100 degrees, filled with fifty crazy 12-18 year-olds, while they all laugh and comment on how sweaty us “falang” teachers always are. These are some of our biggest challenges.

This job is difficult and wonderful. Here is an outline of a day in our lives: We wake up (sometimes to an alarm, but more often to the barking dogs in our driveway and the morning “music” coming from our neighbors’ rooster plantation), go to school from about 7:30am until 4:00pm, and then spend most of the rest of the day planning lessons and brainstorming ways to really get those lessons to work - racking our brains for ways to engage the whole class, ways to challenge them adequately, and ways to teach them what we think will be most important for them to know, all while factoring in our technological and special limitations. (There are also two showers per day and a couple amazing and/or interesting meals mixed in there somewhere.)

I mentioned just before that our classrooms are small. We’ve been trying out a number of techniques to conquer this obstacle. There is not enough room in our classes to have everyone stand up to perform a group activity, not even if we push all of the desks to the side. Standing close together sometimes makes the students more uncomfortable because of the heat. I’ve tried having half of the students up and about working on an active lesson, while the other half works on a sit-down task, but generally the sit-down group gets really restless and bored, as they are distracted by and envious of the active group activity (which is basically happening right on top of them), and therefore they don’t focus on their task. I’ve tried a couple of different lessons that involve bringing the whole group of students outside, but the heat and the sun is usually too intense for them to enjoy the freedom from their confining classroom. Activities that I’d assume any class would really enjoy, sometimes don’t go as well as you’d think because the heat makes the students lethargic and somewhat grumpy. They spend a majority of the time complaining that they actually want to go back inside. That means the activity you stayed up half of the night inventing, critiquing and perfecting just flopped.

As my admirable and wise cooperating teachers from Oyster River High School would often remind me in my dark and dreary times of lesson-floppage: Teaching is a rollercoaster – especially in the early years: when you and your lessons and your students succeed, your highs are euphoric; when they don’t, it’s a very low low. That’s exactly how I envision this rollercoaster of a year to go, and I’m am comforted in remembering that it is this way for many, if not all, new teachers. Even the really amazing ones. So thank you, Kate and Trevor, for all you have taught me about teaching – and, of course, about lots of other things too :)

Another BIG challenge we face is that most of the resources online where we search for help and inspiration are nearly all designed for young learners. It almost seems as though the Internet has decided that ESL/ELL/EFL students are only comprised of toddlers and/or primary school-attendees. What about the ‘tweens and teens, Internet? I can only reference Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Harry Potter, and Tony Stark so many times before they realize I have close to zero knowledge of anything cool or trendy. I will be honest; I have designed a decent portion of lessons around American and Thai celebrities, whom I know nothing about - just for sheer cool-teacher points. Isn’t that the awful? I’m embarrassed. But it works. A number of my 12-year-old students can now accurately convey to you in English something like this: “I really don’t like homework. I don’t like Joey Boy. I like Bodyslam, and I really like One Direction.” I know next-to-nothing about any of those things, except for the thing they like least…

With zero experience in teaching English as a Foreign Language, I find myself desperately in need of cooler resources. I’m trying to just use my brain, but as aforementioned, what goes on in there is not always (or usually, or often) considered to be “cool.” If you have any advice, ideas, resources, websites, contacts, etc… that might help us out, please let us know. We’re always looking for ways to make our classes even more fun. Any suggestions are welcomed and appreciated!

Regardless, I am genuinely happy to be working in a place that makes me want to always work so hard to make things great. On a daily basis we impersonate animals, run around the room, jump over things, yell, make paper airplanes, sing, clap, crawl on the floor, hide under chairs, dress up as superheroes, stand on top of desks, pretend to fall asleep on top of anything, and make jokes that only a class full of exuberant, care-free, amazing Thai students would laugh at. That’s one of my favorite parts of this country; their eagerness to laugh and play and have fun keeps you lively and energetic. It makes us more daring, too. You can’t stop to worry about your limitations or about being embarrassed. Something will always go “wrong,” but there is no time to dwell on it. And be aware: You will be laughed at. No doubt about it. But it’s not in a hurtful way – it’s always in good fun. Typically, you will have no idea why what you just did was so funny either. But they are so ready to enjoy life that they will turn any small incidence into a hilarious occurrence. With such eagerness and positivity to work with, I hope you can see why we are so determined to make good use of it. I want to bring my A-game to class because they provide us with such great personalities to work with. Yes, they get bored easily, and if you can’t think of a fun way to get their attention, then they will be left to do so on their own.

It’s funny to think of how quickly everything seems to have changed. The transition from Traveler to Teacher has been a pretty drastic one, with elaborate differentiations in priorities and quantity of sleep. I’m so happy that we got the chance to see so much of the country before settling down for a few months. This is a completely new and different kind of endeavor though, and we get to thoroughly explore this region of Thailand in a way we weren’t able to do anywhere else in our travels because we were always moving on to the next place. So, Cheers, Tha Bo. We’re happy to be here.

Nat and Bowling :)
A little glimpse of our town
Send us a letter, why don't ya

English Office
ThaBo's Chinese teacher from China, Jamily!
Teacher Steve
Teacher Phil
The award I gave my students for Farthest Airplane Throw

Where Morning Ceremony takes place

Check out this motorbike gang
Jackfruit that grows in our yard

Teacher Day woooo!
This is our bike!
 This photo is deceiving - I don't actually drive it. But I'll learn. Check back tomorrow. 
Jamily, New, and Nat :) 
Me, Phil, Steve, Brooke, and Alice
One of our new best friends in Tha Bo. We call him Jar-Jar.
In Thai, this is called a "Woo-ahhh," which in English, translates to "Cow"

Monday, June 10, 2013

Another Beginning...

We (temporarily) finished up our travels back in Chiang Mai - the second largest city in Thailand, located in the Northwest (where we did our trekking at the beginning of the trip, remember? Snake soup, waterfalls, Freedom Bar etc.) We spent a couple of days riding bikes around the city (having them break down a couple miles from our guesthouse, and having fantastic, goodhearted people stop to help us). I always have a hard time explaining what I like about Chiang Mai. I can tell you that I love the Old City, that it’s great, and that you’ll have a blast there, but I can’t necessarily pinpoint a specific “thing” you should do. So you should all just go, and hang out, and go see and do some stuff there. Oh! But do go to the Funky Monkey cafĂ©. It’s on the corner of the soi that Julie’s Guesthouse is on in the southeast corner of the Old City square; they have really good shakes and smoothies. The absolute best thing there, is in fact, the funky monkey shake, which is espresso and bananas and shake. We got at least one every day and became quite close with the family there, as is evidenced by the presence of this ADORABLE child at our breakfast table.

We communicated largely by making funny faces into my Photo Booth webcam. I hope that everybody at some point in his/her life will experience an acquaintance with a laugh like his. I think that hearing this little guy’s laugh will go down in history as one of my favorite things about Thailand.

Just kidding...that's not really what the Funky Monkey looks like.

We met some really cool people in Chiang Mai: Fran and Tom were from France and England, traveling Southeast Asia after a few months of teaching in Cambodia. Jason, who just finished up a year-long teaching stint in China, was from America, believe it or not!  He was one of the few and far between American travelers we've met so far - we started to realize that anyone we thought might be American, was really Canadian - and they were usually offended if we asked if they were from America. So in fact, when we met Jason, Bob asked, "So, where are you from? Canada?" and he laughed at the shared experience of meeting certain fellow travelers, and growing to assume: Canadian over American. We have now realized that this is most likely due to a number of factors, including a drastic difference in vacation-time allotments between the US and other countries, and also the extraordinarily high cost of education in comparison to other countries (and, of course, let's all say it together now, "The Economy"). 

When students finish their years at university in the US, they usually have student loans - big, fat, ugly, hefty, soul-sucking loans - and are pressured, internally and/or externally, to get a job immediately. And worse, they often seem to feel pressured to keep that job, even if it makes them miserable because job opportunities are quite scarce; so if you've been fortunate enough to lock one down, you may be considered a fool to even contemplate leaving it. 

It's not very likely that your employer in the States would accommodate your cultural travel time. A one week vacation? Maybe, depending on how long you've been working there. A couple months off to travel, gain experience, go see the world and how different parts of it operate? Your chances are slim to none. Good luck. You will most likely have been replaced at your place of previous employment by the time your plane lands. Every story that any American traveler we've met has told us always starts with: "I decided to quit my job..." It's the only way that Americans seem to be able to travel. But I've met a number of travelers - my age, might I add - who have practically just started out at a job, left it to go travel for a couple months, and yet they are totally carefree because they're actually wanted back. They're guaranteed a job, sometimes an even better one, when they return home. CAN YOU IMAGINE?! This baffles me, perhaps even more than hearing about the cost of education elsewhere. (We literally pay more for books in one semester than most people seem to pay for their entire year's worth of education). 

Okay - end of rant. We also met a nice Chilean chick named Dani. We all went out to the night market, and to see a Muay Thai fight (where we also got to play around in the ring beforehand).

Bob doing some wrestling reference that I don't understand.

We also all went out to a jazz bar together which was very cool
Chiang Mai was really a lot of fun, despite how extremely not-fun this next thing may sound: We went to the Insect Museum.

It was really cool and we saw tons of amazing dead bugs in cases that you can’t possibly imagine actually exist on our planet (the bugs, not the cases). We also met an extremely intelligent woman, Rampa Rattanarithikul PhD, the owner of the museum; she has spent over 50 years studying mosquitoes and malaria. She started working for the U.S. government in hopes of creating a vaccine for malaria as U.S. soldiers were being sent over to Vietnam. Her studies are outstandingly intricate, and she personally guided us through her exhibit in the museum. Here we learned about mosquitoes, took a gander at hundreds of different specimens on tiny pins behind more glass cases, and saw gruesome images of the effects of mosquito-contracted Elephantitis (I will spare you any further details, as they will make you barf). At this point in time, I was in the developing stages of a painfully itchy rash on my wrists, fingers, and knee-pits, comparable to poison ivy, if you’ve ever had it (if you “don’t get poison ivy” then here I will reiterate my belief in the fact that you have a superpower. Congratulations.) So in retrospect, the trip to the bug museum was poorly timed, due to the fact that Bob had to spend the majority of our time on the bottom floor of the museum (which consists of all of the terrifying and fascinating information about insects and the diseases they transmit) telling me, “Stop reading that. You don’t have that. Stop. You don’t have that either.” But this will transition us nicely into the next phase of our trip.

Chiang Mai motorbike

We left Chiang Mai for Bangkok, where the orientation for our teaching agency was to be held. Let me remind you that up until this point, Bob and I really had no true responsibilities throughout the previous two months or so. If anything went wrong in our plans, it was really nothing but an inconvenience or a character-building obstacle. There were no true or dire consequences other than our temporary discomfort or confusion. If we were sick of tired, we could usually spare some time to just relax and recuperate. But now, we were starting to actually have to do things. We had to be at orientation, and we had to leave to go get our new worker's visas in Laos, and we had to start teaching - all within one week. So, naturally, we both developed different and strange skin rashes in the two days before all of our "have-to's" began.

Couldn’t this have happened while we were kind of bored that one day in the Northwest and didn’t really have anything to do? So that maybe we could have spent the day seeking out pharmacists and advice while resting and relaxing until it went away? No. So that was a bit anxiety inducing. Our priorities were jumbled and we found ourselves saying weird things like, “I really better not have to go to the hospital for this; I don’t even have work shoes yet.” Anyways, I’ll stop this somewhat gross and slightly uncomfortable tangent about skin rashes that has clearly gone on for far too long, and I’ll tell you we were fine. One thing you must know about, if you don’t already, is Snake Brand Prickly Heat powder. I am borderline irrationally disgruntled about the fact that I didn’t know about this product in the beginning phases of our trip. If you write a blog or a travel article about Thailand, you should be obligated to endorse a menthol cooling powder of your choice. Ever since we sought it out in Bangkok, I don’t think I’ve gone a full day without it, and that was about a month ago now. I feel a bit as though I’m coming across like that scene in Wayne’s World where they shamelessly endorse name brand products…

This is how excited I get to go adventuring when I don't have rashes
Okaaaay, so we got to our hotel in Bangkok, which the company was putting us up in for two nights, and we met the dynamic group of quite funny and different and great individuals that were also going to be working for our teaching agency. We decided to all go out and grab a drink together. On the walk, a couple of Thais on the street were surprised to see such a big falang-y group of us; they shouted out “Hello! Hello! Where you from? Where you from?” (Thais often say things twice in a row, a habit nearly impossible to resist picking up...picking up.) So Bob and I stopped to chat while the rest of the group moved obliviously on, somewhat unaware of this often fun tradition of Thais spontaneously pulling you aside and sharing their food and drinks with you. We hung around playing an unintentional game of communication charades, and soon enough, Alexander, a friend from our orientation group, came back looking for us – relieved to join us for a genuine street-side taste of Thailand, as opposed to the karaoke bar the rest of the group wound up at (which I’ve heard was actually really quite fun…but I have a fear and aversion to karaoke. I have a feeling it’s probably something genetic that I inherited from my Dad). So we hung out in front of the family-owned barbershop, laughing and joking, eating and drinking, which once again, ended up with Bob getting an unannounced, impromptu Thai massage from a strange man on the street. This is now the third time that this has happened, if anybody’s interested.

The next morning we all got up and hopped into five different taxis to a fancy high-rise Bangkok conference center in order to begin our orientation. We were there for close to 12 hours, giving teaching demonstrations of lesson plans we’d have 5 minutes to come up with, giving presentations, and learning more about Thai culture and the extent to which we’d have to be on our toes. You could say it was a very mild sort of teaching boot camp, particularly designed for those of the teachers who had literally just stepped foot off of the plane the night before.

At the tail-end of our orientation, Bob and I asked to clarify when the best timeframe over the next couple days to head to Laos was, in order to get our worker’s visas. The answer was: “Oh, yes. About that, actually, you’re leaving tonight.” It was nearly 8:30pm, our bus was scheduled to leave at 9:30pm, and all of our stuff was back at the hotel that we had anticipated staying in for another night. So Bob and I, along with our new co-worker, Greg and our visa professional helper, Pattana rushed back to the hotel (by this I mean we got into Pattana’s car and sat boringly in Bangkok traffic, then ran upstairs to pack, then sat idly back in traffic in Pattana’s car.) And yes, we missed the bus. But “mai pen rai” as they say here in Thailand – no worries. We hung around at the bus station for a couple hours and boarded a bus around midnight. As much as Pattana tried to feign positivity and faith in the idea that we’d make it to the Vientiane embassy before they stopped accepting visa applications, we could tell by the look on his face as he waved goodbye to us from the bus station parking lot, that it was so not going to happen.

So we sprawled out on the bus for about 4 hours of rough bus sleep before boarding another bus for about 3 hours, followed by another bus for about 2 hours. We got off the bus and grabbed a tuk-tuk (then had to urgently have the driver turn around and chase down the bus that I had just left a bag on…clearly I’m not learning) then got to the Friendship Bridge (WoooHooo! Shout out to the Haveners in Friendship, Maine!); then we went through immigration, got on a bus, crossed the bridge, paid a bunch of money and filled out some forms to get into Laos, got into a minivan, and got to downtown Vientiane in nowhere near enough time to apply for our visas. The visas take 24 hours to process and it was past submission time on Thursday, so that meant we could drop them off the next morning, but they wouldn’t be ready until Tuesday because Monday was a holiday. Tuesday was the day we were supposed to have our meet and greet at our respective schools. We figured that, best-case scenario: we would get our visas on Tuesday, probably miss the meet and greet, but be back in time for our first day of school on Wednesday. So we got some Laotian noodles (which a lady named Kek and her two children joined us for, and ended up paying for the whole meal, taking us out to the market and then out to see some traditional Laotion folk singing and dancing at a trendy, fancy-shmancy night club) and called it a night.

Laotian Donut Clock
First thing the next morning, we went to the Thai embassy and, of course, had our visa applications denied due to missing paperwork. We had a letter of invitation written in Thai, signed and sealed from our school, but unbeknown to us, we also needed a letter of invitation from our district. We were encouraged by the agency to enjoy Laos for a couple days (seeing as we had already paid nearly $50 USD for the entry visa) and just to make it back to Tha Bo by Tuesday. We would figure out the visa that following week. So we stayed two more nights in Laos, because, why not? We spent another night out to dinner with Kek, her sassy 19-year old daughter, Anna, and her 23-year-old music aficionado son with autism, Dodo. It was nice to be shown the city by this fun and very giving family (even if most of the time it took us a really long time to get places because Kek wasn’t really comfortable driving her husband’s truck yet, and when she couldn’t park somewhere easily, we ended up just driving around and kind of getting lost until she could).

She even brought us to her friend’s baby party the following night. I say “baby party” because no, it wasn’t a baby shower…the baby was already born, and was already probably 3 months old, but apparently in Laos they have the celebratory parties anytime something big happens in your life: you get married, you have a baby, you buy a car, etc. The parties consist of food and really, really loud music - music that a baby could not ever possibly enjoy. And with really loud music, comes awkward dancing that Bob and I are not very good at, which made everybody want to ask us to dance, so that everyone could laugh and gawk at us. This is one of the tricky parts of being a foreigner, at least here and now (or "there and then" rather). Sometimes you want to sit back and watch and take in the culture as an observer, but you feel as though you’re not allowed to. Every time I would try to sit down and chat or eat, a host or friend of the host would run over, bow, and take my hands and pull me back out onto the dance floor, just as the older ladies would do to Bob. We didn’t know anybody at the party, and yet most of the attention was uncomfortably shifted in our direction. It’s hard to describe how I’ve felt in these situations. I’m happy to be welcomed into such an intimate environment, but embarrassed to be put on display as a spectacle. Sometimes I just want to feel like a friend, like one of them, instead of being so obviously the “other.” I know this is probably sounding a lot like “Boo hoo, I’m white and people want to do nice things for me” - White Whine, as many of us have come to call it; but I hope it makes a bit of little bit of sense on some level.

Check out those soccer medals

The part of the night that gave us a sour taste in our mouths was when the grandmother of the baby, and the apparent hostess of the party, grabbed Bob and I to dance with her and her husband. Bob had lent Dodo his camera, and he was having a blast capturing the moments of the evening: everything from the decorative banana snacks, to the guests, to the apparent hilarity of Bob’s and my dancing. As we were up and strangely attempting to do the Laotian hand-swaying and foot-stepping with the hosting couple, the grandmother waved over to Dodo, motioning in a way that made it seem like she wanted him to come dance with us. He was shyly beaming at the apparent invitation, and excitedly came forward to join us – only to be reprimanded and sent back to his seat so that she could make it clear that: No, no; she didn’t want him to join us – she wanted him to take a picture of her dancing with The Falang. He looked embarrassed and crushed, and it became clear that our being so welcomed there seemed to be more about appearances than about a genuine kindness.

I think that the deepest concern of mine here has to be the blatant realization of my whiteness and what that really entails. I’m embarrassed and uncomfortable to be so clearly and obviously privileged by it. I’ve always been aware of this reality in socio-culture matters on a grand scale, but I just haven’t personally been made to be so aware of it in my actual daily life until recently. I feel shameful to even write about it - and in fact, I’m not even really sure how to yet, so I’m going to go ahead "put an ellipsis" at the end of this…(for any of you Garden State fans out there) and continue it at another point in time.

We headed back to Thailand the next day, but didn’t make it back in time for the local bus to Tha Bo – so we stayed in Nong Khai for a night at a wonderful place called Sawasdee Guesthouse. The owners are really, really nice people and the rooms are great and comfortable and affordable. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

The next morning we were off to see our new town for the first time, find a place to live, try to find a motorbike, and prepare for our first day of school – all in one day! We did what we could do in terms of apartment hunting, but it wasn’t very easy…because there aren’t really any apartments around here. People kept bringing us to different forms of low budget hotels who just looked at us like we were crazy when we tried to explain what kinds of things we were looking for. It turns out that the agency had found a nice, big, newly renovated home with 8 rooms for the foreign teachers that would be teaching at Tha Bo School. There are six of us, so we all have plenty of space in a beautiful home that none of us can afford to decorate yet. We live with a crazy cast of characters from the US and the UK; our landlord neighbors have 4 dogs, and an undisclosed number of cats and kittens; our neighbors across the street have roosters and dogs as well. We have a big back yard with mango trees, jackfruit trees, and pineapple trees, and probably a lot of snakes because our grass is really high and our property abuts a large lotus flower pond/swamp (and when I say “snakes” I mean oftentimes cobras).

Tha Bo

We visited our school the next day, met some teachers, and were thrown into a few random classes off the cuff. Two members from our agency were there to help us with the paperwork, Napporn and Pattana. Our agency had invited Bob and I to partake in a teaching demonstration the next day in Sakon Nakhon. The agency was trying to win over a contract with this school, as it is one of the top 5 public schools in Thailand. We went on a road trip with Pattana and Napporn to the school to give the demonstration (which we assumed to be an 24-hour long endeavor), and halfway through the car ride there, we were informed that we would also be turning this excursion into our second trip Laos - Surprise!

The school we visited was really impressive. The students spoke really wonderful English, and they had lots of great, positive energy. We hung around and chatted with some kids and played some English games for the better part of the morning; then, around noon we geared up for our teaching demonstration, which was the chance that different teaching agencies had to market their goods and show the panel of school committee members and administrators what they could offer if they were to be chosen as the foreign teacher supplier for the school. It felt like we were competing in a Teaching Talent Show. All of the agencies sat in singular desks which outlined a big conference room with a group of about 50 students sitting on the floor in the center, while all of the committee members sat along one side of the room to watch. We had a blast with the students in this slightly unorthodox teaching environment, and it was a really cool event to partake in. (We just found out that Bangkok Success did in fact win the contract with them - Hooray!)

Then we were on our way back to Laos for a bit of deja vu! This time the applications were a success - and we are now officially and legally working in Thailand :) For a more thorough description of our teaching endeavors, check back in a couple days!

(In the meantime here are a bunch of pictures of Chiang Mai ruins and graffiti and cool stuff like that)

Check out the incognito ruins trying to blend in

Chiang Mai flea market shoes

If only they fit

These are a couple of photos from the Elephant Museum in Chiang Mai - artists from all over the world decorate ceramic elephants, donate them, and then they're reproduced, displayed, and sold in order to raise money to protect elephants throughout Asia.

Durian Elephant!

Torched Bonsai! 

Bob hiding behind what looks like a giant sticky rice container
Ronald wais in Thailand (no we haven't actually gone to a Thai McD's - but this was photo worthy)