wander process

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The New Farang!

One of the first Thai words that you’ll learn as a Westerner here is farang. It basically means “white person” and I’m usually able to tell when strangers are talking about me, because I can pick it out of conversations.

So being the new farang in a town where most farang are creepy, fat, old men who have come to Nongkhai to take advantage of some Thai women’s desire to improve their own socioeconomic status through marriage has been an interesting experience. The ratio of male to female farang here is pretty lopsided — maybe 5 to 10 men farang for every female. But I’ve been received with lots of respect and enthusiasm.

People want to get pictures with me (kids and administrators alike), and I was approached by a gaggle of 11-year-old girls wanting my autograph after class in the government school today! At first I thought that they wanted me to write my name in their notebooks, so I started print it carefully in each one, only to be met with shouts of “Big!” while they pantomimed the scribble of an autograph. I obviously felt pretty silly doing this for the ten or fifteen girls, but they seemed to enjoy it. When I finished giving my “autographs”, they all lined up to shake my hand. I guess they had to get the full experience. But after all of the hand-shaking, they then wanted to take pictures of me! Being a celebrity volunteer English-teacher is hard work.

When Kirk and I went to a nearby school to donate helmets, we came in the middle of some sort of song/dance spectacular, complete with royalty, a giant bug (I think?), and mermaids! The mermaids wanted to have their picture taken with me, but little did they know that I wanted to be photographed with them as well! So here’s a picture of me with the mermaids (and a king and queen).

thailand mermaids

Here’s another picture from the same day. It’s me with most of the college (which is analogous to high school in the US). Do I look awkward in all of these pictures? You bet I do.

awkward me in front of an entire college

But enough of my new found fame, I’m guessing it’s time for a life update, no?
So in non-Thailand, but travel-related news, I’ve been accepted to the study abroad program, International Honors Program, that I applied to! I originally applied for a program that studies global and community health in Switzerland, India, China, and South Africa, all in one semester, but that program was full. I’ve been offered a spot on a similar community-health focused program that goes to Washington, DC, Vietnam, South Africa and Mozambique, and Brazil. I’m really excited about Brazil — I’ll get to form an opinion on it that isn’t solely based upon City of God and Death Without Weeping! Now some of my free time here has been spent trying to work out the logistics getting the necessary forms for the program from here in Thailand, to home in Illinois, to Providence, to Boston. But it’ll all work out.

In other completely unrelated news — Happy Birthday on July 1 to Annie, my lovely and ridiculous sister, who’s turning 18! Thank goodness for skype — I’ve been able to talk to my fam at home and friends in Providence so far!

There’ll also be a new volunteer coming to Isara on Thursday, so I’ll have to share my room! Her name is Dagny and I’m sure she’ll be a great addition to my experience here this summer.

Down to business though — teaching! To fill up my spare time, Kirk and Ming mentioned that I could help out at Tesabon 2, a government elementary that’s a super-short bike ride away from the ILC. So after a short meeting, I’m helping there three days a week, for an hour on Monday mornings and then all day (4 classes each day) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m in a classroom with the English teacher, a serious lady with seriously gelled hair in her early 50s. I couldn’t remember her name, so I asked her, and she told me her full name and nickname (both of which I still can’t remember), and then said, “But you can just call me Mother.” So now I just avoid addressing her directly.

Side note about the teachers — They used to have a ladyboy teacher that Ming told me about. She said that s/he was a good, strict teacher, so I thought, “Great! Good teacher, strict, ladyboy, cute children in uniforms, I love all of these things! I should help out.” Well the school started laying off teachers because the attendance was down, so the ladyboy moved back to Pattaya (which could diplomatically be called the hedonistic capital of Thailand), where s/he was living previously. I was a little bummed about the ladyboy leaving, but that’s alright.

This teacher is pretty different from the teachers that I’m used to though. She talks on her cell phone in class, lets the cell phone rings all of the time, watches TV in class, and worst of all, tells me that she “has to go to the toilet” and then leaves me alone with the students for sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes the entire class period of an hour. Which quickly becomes frustrating, especially when I don’t know enough Thai to functionally run and control a classroom, and their English isn’t good enough to understand most of what I say.

So Ming came with me this afternoon to “take pictures for Isara’s website” and talk with the teacher about leaving me all of the time. She explained that I was here primarily to help the teacher, not run the classroom, and that she shouldn’t take advantage of me. I’m sure that this teacher said something like “Sure, of course!” but that didn’t stop her from leaving the entire next class period. Luckily that class was only girls (the ones I mentioned earlier who wanted my autograph) because the boys were practicing some boy scout thing that included drums(It’s mandatory for all students to be a girl/boy scout). They were easy to teach, but it becomes more difficult when I’m left with younger kids who don’t know as much English.

Here’s the classroom that I teach in. The school obtained 200,000 baht to build a sound lab for the English room, spent about 100,000 on the lab, and someone probably pocketed the rest of the money. So these kids are left with a sound lab that isn’t set up and that they aren’t allowed to use, and I have to try to look at all of their faces behind these silly plexiglass walls! It’s a difficult environment to teach in, and I can’t imagine that it would really facilitate learning.

esl sound lab

On the bright side, the students really are sweet. They know me now when I ride my bike through the gate of the school and they smile and yell “HELLO” as I climb the stairs (all four flights) to the classroom. They’ll stay after class to try to get me to sing Kelly Clarkson songs and they’ll pop their heads of whatever class they’re in to say “Good Aftanoon, TEE-CHA!” One little first grader even gave me a hug after class today! My frustrations with the school and education system in Thailand don’t seem to matter as much when the students are so friendly.

Luckily, going to the school on my first day was made a bit easier because I knew some of the students from the ILC English classes that we hold after school. All of the Isara kids probably felt pretty special, already knowing the new English teacher! One of the students, Miew, likes to come up and tap me and giggle from time to time, probably just to keep me in check. So now I look forward to taps at school and at Isara.

Here’s a few pictures I took of the first grade class today, while we were waiting for the teacher to show up:


first-graders 2

first-graders 3

And here’s a few of them, with the school’s other building in the background. All of the hallways and stairs are outside, kind of motel-style.

tesabon 2

Here’s a few pictures of other things.

Things like a view of Prajak Road, one of the three main roads in Nongkhai and only one over from Mee Chai, the road I’m staying on.

Prajak Road

Things like this birthday present that Kirk received last week from one of the students, Jeab (who I teach at both the ILC and Tesabon 2). Check out the beautiful, artistic rendering of a peacock from a Heineken car. That is talent if I ever saw it.

beer can peacock

Things like the cutest motorcycle helmet I have ever seen, complete with wiggly antennae and googly eyes! I want one.

ladybug helmet

Coming up in Nongkhai — the arrival of Dagny, a soccer/football game on the fourth of July (sadly unrelated events), another, hopefully longer, visit to the Sarnelli House (the home for children with HIV/AIDS), and maybe some more exploring around the province.


Pom Ruk Koon Means “I Love You”

Everywhere I go, I attract unwanted attention.
Just because I’m white.
And for reference, “suay” means “beautiful.”

It might be cute the first few times when people look at me and say “suay,” but when random strangers start rubbing my skin and saying this and when Thai teachers will look at me and then ask their students “Suay, mai?” then it becomes awkward.

On bike rides down the Mekong riverside, strangers I pass will shout at me “Hello! I love you!” I either keep my head down or smile and pretend like I had not idea what they said.

And when driving past a hoard (100? 200?) of hiking boy scouts, all ripe and festering in their puberty, who hoot, holler and catcall me while I ride past them on a motorcycle, head lowered so as not to draw extra attention, it becomes embarrassing.

And while riding in a van to a local school, a cameraman doing an interview with Isara for the news in Bangkok asks me if he can teach me some Thai, I can already tell where the conversation will end up.

“Pom ruk koon” he says.

Ming told me that it meant “I love you.” This specific phrase is limited to man saying this to women, so it’s not like it would have made sense for me to say it regardless. So I try my best to give a polite, but nervous chuckle and I continue looking out the window.

A few minutes later, Ming tells me that he wants to teach me another phrase.

I count find a way to translate this within 5 seconds on Google, but he said “Let’s be together.”

I didn’t know how to say that guys in metal band t-shirts, unruly goatees, and pointy ear piercings weren’t exactly my type in Thai, so I just chuckled as solemnly as possible and kept on looking out the window.

A bit of background information: Today Kirk, Ming and I went to a local college to donate some motorcycle helmets. I didn’t do much besides stand and smile, but there were peals of laughter when male administrators of the school came up to me while the entire school was seated in front of us, just to get a picture of us together. The pictures would have to turn out kind of comically because of the height difference. At 5’8″, I’m not really tall back in the U.S. (and I even have the misfortune of being the shortest person in my family), but here in Thailand, I usually have a good 3 inches or so over a lot of the guys.

But why do they love me so much? I chalk it up to the fact that I’m (very) different to some Thai people. And because three weeks in Thailand hasn’t done as much damage to my skin as it does to other people’s. Being a traditional burn, burn, burn then tan (ever so slightly), it would take a lot for me to become noticeably tanner.

But as much as I’d love a little color, the Thai people loooove the pale skin. This is demonstrated by:
1. The countless whitening creams that are sold at drugstores that promise porcelain complexions.
2. Advertisements of featuring random women and photos of Thai celebrities, who, in comparison with Nicole Kidman, would make Nicole Kidman look like Donatella Versace.
3. Women and men alike using umbrellas to shade them from the sun.
4. People wearing sweatshirts on days when I am about to overheat while wearing a tank top and shorts. The sweatshirts apparently serve a dual purpose — their skin isn’t exposed to the sun, so they won’t tan, but they also won’t feel the heat of the sun. I’m not sure how much I would agree with the latter part.
5. Face powder that men and women use to make themselves look paler, while really only making themselves look a bit ashy.

I try to tell people that for the most part, people in America like to be tan. They think that’s crazy. But I still can’t helping feeling a bit awkward, being noticed and commented on wherever I go, only because I’m a pale white girl.

Because using the whiteness of my skin as a measure of beauty only detracts from their own beauty, their own ethnicity. I silly to think that I could be tan, because I spend most of the year in New England. Likewise, it’s probably unrealistic to be very pale in Thailand, where the sun seems to go when it’s not in Rhode Island (read: Thailand is sunny, RI is not). Aside from the generalizations that pale people have office jobs and tan people do harder labor and spend more time outside, why not just celebrate the way that your skin reacts to your natural environment, rather than thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side?

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One Week In Pictures

I'm watching you

Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge
Friendship Bridge

Giant Bamboo
Giant Bamboo

temple at night

in front of temple


Some sort of bean popsicle/ice cream bar. Pretty tasty!

New friends of the ILC. They remind me of home. 🙂
crazy kittens

mothra lives

Food at the riverside. Fried rice, seafood salad, tom yam, and some sort of slushie.
Thai food

Gel snacks that Thai people seem to enjoy a lot, set against the backdrop of our new pier and our old swamp.
gel snacks

temple at night

And to leave you with, I found this shoe brand in the mall.
manwood shoes

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My Address

So to those of you who expressed interest in my address, here it is (and here it will be until roughly the beginning of August, when I leave for parts unknown):

Jordan Worthington
Isara Learning Center
897/1 Mee Chai Rd.
A. Muang, Nong Khai 43000

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More Adventures in Teaching English

Contrary to what I had thought before coming to Thailand, teaching English is actually pretty difficult. Students in the same classes will all have very different levels of speaking ability, it’s hard to gauge how much students understand, and it’s hard to plan out how much material I can teach in one hour-long session. But it’s still pretty fun, and I get a kick out of the cheerful chattering of the kids, even though I have no idea what they’re saying.

So in addition to the three days a week that I teach, Ming’s friend Chompoo (which actually is the Thai word for ‘pink’, not ‘shampoo’ like I thought) asked us to help out at an English camp that her school was putting on this past Sunday. The school was called something like “The Nongkhai Center for Nonformal and Informal Education” and was basically a school for people who had previously dropped out of school but were coming back to continue their education. The age range of the students was anywhere from 15 to maybe 60 or more.

Ming and I didn’t have any nice green polo shirts like all of the other volunteers were going to be wearing, so Ming went to the market Sunday morning (while I was still sleeping) to buy us some polos. She came back with some green polos with a couple of pandas embroidered on each shirt. What was silly about the whole shirt situation was that the shirts also read “WE LOVE PANDA” and we were at an English camp.

Here’s a picture of me in front of the students. Ming must’ve taken this with her phone, because there were few times that I did a lot of speaking in front of the students, since most didn’t speak English and my Thai is limited to a few phrases.

teaching English

When I did use one of the phrases that I knew, however, there was an audible surprise from the class of about 60 students. Most foreigners don’t even take the time to learn phrases like “How are you?”. I’m still going to have to work more on learning some more Thai.

In my second class of the day, there were these two ladyboys sitting at the very front of the class. One had pretty crazy looking extensions on each side of his face, but not in the back. These two would just sit and giggle throughout the entire class. It was hard for me to not laugh when Ming called on one of the boys toward the back of the class and I couldn’t hear the answer of the boy, since the ladyboys were squealing so loudly. Apparently the thought that a group of guys were pretty good looking. Their squealing was nothing short of otherworldly. I want to say that it sounded something like the screech of a very large whale, but that’s an unfounded assumption. I don’t really know what whales sound like, but I like to imagine that this is what the ladyboys sounded like. They also started squealing from excitement when they found out that I was the same age as them. Because being in the liminal stages between teenager and adult is really something to get excited about. There was no shortage of things for the two ladyboys to shriek about though, because the would shriek while proudly carrying the banner of their group throughout the campus of the school. Long story short: ladyboys are amusing and I enjoy spending time with them.

Other things that I’ve done — there’s been a student who comes to my adult classes every once in awhile and is pretty desperate to be my friend. I’m guessing this has less to do with my awesome personality and never-ending wit and more to do with the fact that I’m a white American. In all seriousness though, people hold me in high regard, simply because I’m white. It makes me sad every time that it happens, if only because that means that they think less of themselves. I can post about Thais and this culture of “whiteness” soon, because I find it pretty fascinating.

So anyway, this girl is really excited to take me places all around Nongkhai, even though I’ve told her that I’ve been to some of these places. Ming and I had made plans to go to her house to eat and meet her family. I was a little hesitant, but I thought that it would be a good experience. So the day to eat dinner with her rolls around, and around noon that day, I’m puttering around the ILC, like I am wont to do, and I hear her voice. Despite all of her good intentions, I’m a little fear-struck every time that I hear her voice. So I find her and she has a sheet of English phrases that she must’ve spent a long time on putting together, and she asks me to have lunch with her that day too. I couldn’t really say no, so we went to the restaurant next door and ate with two friends of hers from Khon Kaen that had happened to be in Nongkhai for the day. Ming came later, but this girl told Ming that Ming didn’t need to come to her house that night because she was more than capable of taking care of me.

I didn’t find this out until Ming told me later. This meant that I was by myself. But I did meet her family, who were very nice. Animal side note — They even had a few cats and a few kittens. The kittens were named Garfield and Kao (which means ‘white’ in Thai). They had a friendly black lab that happened to have a couple of extra toes hanging off of each foot. Her father actually spoke pretty decent English, he was just unwilling to teach the rest of his family. He had cooked a great meal for us — rice, cooked cabbage and carrots with glass noodles, Thai-style omelets (plus ketchup! Thai people like ketchup with omelets, just like I do!), and some type of beef or pork soup that was pretty tasty. We sat cross-legged on the floor around a mat in the middle of their living room. He kind of told me that he’d like for me to live with the family and teach them all English — I could even share a room with his daughter! I had to tell him as politely as I could that I had an obligation and a responsibility to continue helping Isara and their projects, so I wouldn’t be able to live with his family and be their personal English teachers.

So nothing else super exciting to report. The pier over the swampy area in the back of the ILC is done, and it looks very nice! I’ll try to take a picture soon to show you how it looks. I suggested that we string some Christmas lights around the railings and the posts to make it look snazzy at night. My idea was well-received and hopefully the lights will be added soon.

I’m going to a nearby government school tomorrow to see about helping their English teacher with some classes during the week. This teacher, as Ming has informed me, is also a ladyboy. This should be fun. I’ll tell you guys how that goes.

But for now, that’s all of the excitement that I bring to you!


Adjusting to Thai Culture

One of my friends asked me while chatting on the internet (she was in Providence, I was in Nongkhai) — “So have you experienced any huge culture shocks yet?”

And I had to stop and think about it. Thai culture is significantly different from American culture, but these differences in culture don’t get noticed all at once. I don’t mean to sound denigrating to the Thai culture at all , I just want to use this as an opportunity to point out how different it is from the culture that I’m used to.

The first difference any foreigner might notice is the reverence Thai people have for their king (his majesty, King Rama IX). It seems kind of silly when riding around in Bangkok and every major boulevard is lined in larger than life pictures of the king and his wife. It seems even sillier when every home, office, and public establish manages to keep at least one or two pictures of the king in a prominent place in the home. But it seemed downright ridiculous when I stood up before a showing of Terminator 4 (dubbed in Thai. Despite it not being in English, I could still tell that the movie was a scrambled mess) and watched a montage of the king’s life in picture, displayed in little bubbles that floated against a backdrop of Thai countryside, WHILE the national anthem is playing.

Here’s the bro himself:
king rama IX

It’s also a little funny that he’s a king with outdated (unless you’re a hipster or a child predator) glasses. But the Thai people really love their king, and I guess that it’s good that they have at least one leader (if only a ceremonial leader) that they respect.


Shoe etiquette is a little different here too. Feet are seen as filthy and disgusting, shoes even more so. Shoes are to be removed before entering a lot of places — homes, schools, temples, etc. This would be easier for me if I didn’t choose to wear sandals with complicated straps that are hard to get my swollen feet into quickly after leaving temples, schools, and the Isara Learning Center. (side note — because of the heat here, my once slightly narrow, high-arched feet have morphed into fat, wide ogre-like things with sausage toes. Ming thought that they looked cute and that Thai people liked foreigners’ fat toes, but I explained to her that I was completely disgusted by my own feet and I would like for them to return to normal, asap.) These sandals, even after two weeks, have resulted into quite embarrassing tan lines that are sure to worsen over the course of my next two months here.

I’m starting to agree with the Thai people, however, about feet being disgusting. I spend most of my day plodding around barefoot and I often step into the bathroom and wet my feet down to clean the dirt off of them. Then I’ll leave dirty footprints on the bathroom floor.

I had to draw a line somewhere though, with entering places barefoot, and today was the day to draw that line. I went to help out an English English teacher (as in, he was from England and taught English) at a school about hour or so away from Nongkhai. I was gone all day, and even though I try to avoid the public restrooms in Thailand, I couldn’t avoid it after being gone for 9 or so hours. Almost all public restrooms in Thailand are squat toilets.

I’m already explaining the story, but I will not put up a picture. You can google that.

I was not about to stand on the squat toilet barefoot. Sometimes shoes are necessary (even though I was technically in a no-shoe zone).

Food is another thing. I’m finding myself grow incredibly lax about bugs and food. I flinched gagged two weeks ago if I saw flies crawling all over my food right before I was about to eat it, but now, it’s normal. After going to the nicest buffet in town (99 baht, or about 3 dollars, for all you can eat! My American-ness just can’t resist that) I simply picked around a fly that had been sitting in one of the dessert trays to scoop myself some ruby tapioca. I didn’t think twice about the countless flies that had sampled all that the buffet had to offer, long before I had.

ruby tapioca

I can’t pick on the buffet though, because every restaurant I’ve been to has the same problem. Ladies making food will stop mid-preparation, reach their bare hand in the food, sample it, lick their fingers, finish making your food and then serve it up. And the food has been delicious, so I’ve got nothing to complain about!

One of my favorites so far has been this Vietnamese breakfast food — pork noodle rolls with some mystery sauce (although all sauce here is mystery sauce to me). Mmmm.

pork spring rolls

Food etiquette to note if traveling to Thailand — you use your fork, not to pick up your food to put in your mouth, but to push food onto the spoon, which is then transferred to your mouth. Different, but highly effective.

Moving topics – Students!

The students are the Thai people that I interact with the most, and they’ve been great. Many are very shy, but they will come out of their shells pretty quickly. I get asked the same questions over and over again (Where are you from? What do you do? What food do you like? That do you like to play?), but I think that it’s great that they’ll ask me questions. Apparently they are taught in schools not to ask questions, so the fact that they’re even asking me questions is a witness of the English education of the kids I’ve seen. (Although the students I’ve seen typically have had better English instruction than an average Isaan student). They’ll always duck when they walk past me, as a sign of respect. I want to tell these kids that I’m only a few years older than them, there’s no real reason that they should respect me, but I don’t think that I can change that.

There’s a lot of copying that goes down, a lot of destruction of property (more at their actual schools, we don’t let that happen at the ILC), and talking when other people have the turn to talk in class. But they’re so darn cute. Some of them are really bright.

I think I’ll be helping at an English camp on Sunday, so I’ll have to share how that goes. I’ll try to post a picture-tour of the ILC soon too, so I can show you the renovations.


Not-So-Typical Day

I’ve been in Nong Khai for about a week now. Teaching has been pretty good so far, but I can now really appreciate the work that my teachers have put into their jobs now. It’s a lot to think about, preparing appropriate material for just an hour or so of class!

Yesterday (Thursday), since it wasn’t an Monday Wednesday, or Friday, was an odd day at Isara. After getting up, Ming reminded me that one of the high ranking police officers here in Nong Khai had wanted to take us out to lunch as a token of appreciation for Isara agreeing to teach some of the Nong Khai police force English (which means that in addition to teaching adorable little children and whip-smart teenagers, I will now be helping teach middle-aged men).

So I decide to look a little more presentable by changing out of my tank top and into a shirt with some longer sleeves, but not really bothering to change my shorts. Most of the places here in Nong Khai are pretty informal and relaxed so I wasn’t worried about it. Little did we know, we were being taken to the birthday party of the commander of Nong Khai’s police force. We went to the nicest restaurant in town, situated right on the Mekong River, so I spent a good deal of the time staring off into Laos when everyone else was speaking Thai.

We were seated at a very long table and I think that there were about thirty of us at this main table. We were surrounded by other tables full of police officers. I sat across from the police officer who spoke English the best and after being asked the usual questions that I’m asked (How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? How long are you in Thailand for? What is your favorite Thai food? Why did you come to Nong Khai? you can tell the Thai people getting to the heavy hitting issues quickly…) he proceeded to tell me about his trip to America and Canada.

While talking about Isaan food, one of the younger traffic cops told me that he’d be happy to take me out for ant eggs some day. Ant eggs are a pretty popular snack here, but as eager as I am to snack on them, I feigned stupidity.

We were especially honored when the commander himself came down to talk to us for awhile. He didn’t speak English though, so the only parts of the conversation that I understood were “Arizona,” “Germany,” and “World War II.” I wouldn’t have been to attentive anyway because a puppy had made its way under our table and had started licking my toes. I was so intent on keeping my toes away from the dog that I couldn’t do much else.

Here’s a picture of the dinner. The commander is the guy in the blue shirt right next to me and the ant egg guy is the tall one on the far right in the back row.

After lunch, I puttered around the ILC (Isara Learning Center) for a bit, and then Ming and I set off for the park. We rode our bikes a few kilometers (maybe? I’m having a hard time switching my brain to kilometers, centigrade, and so on) outside the center of the town. We made a lap around the park before going to an aerobic dance class outside led by a “ladyboy” onstage in front of us.

Here I am.

You can note:
1. Ladyboy onstage (with new implants! Very noticeable when s/he bent down to stretch)
2. My entirely inappropriate footwear choice. I didn’t bring any covered shoes with me.
3. The extent to which my lower legs have been devoured by mosquitoes.

All of this leading to a very attractive picture. And a very sweaty, fun, time, thanks to my local aerobic-dance-instructing ladyboy.

A ladyboy is basically what Thai people call men who are either transvestites or transgendered.

So anyway, we got some food and watched teenagers breakdance for awhile, fed some fish at the park, enjoyed the sunset, and rode back to the ILC. That night, we had quite a thunderstorm, which ended up pouring into the second floor (and a little into the first floor, from the second). I ended up getting pretty soaked. The rain here comes hard and fast. (I will ignore any “that’s what she said” jokes here). I’m talking 2 inches in 30 minutes type stuff. Rainy season in Thailand doesn’t mess around.

So today, I taught the older class a lovely song that I used to enjoy quite a bit — “Island in the Sun” by Weezer. The kids seemed to get a kick out of the “hip, hip” part of it. Tomorrow, I’m going to Ming’s house for a bit and I’ll get to spend some time at the Sarnelli House, an AIDS orphanage outside of Nong Khai.

And just for fun, here’s a picture of me with one of my super cute students, Tubtim. I’m teaching them about the sounds that the letters make.

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Out and About in Nong Khai

Most of my days so far have been spent helping out with the new addition on the back of the Isara Learning Center. I’ve been painting, mopping, and helping to clean out the swamp that is the backyard. Cleaning out the swamp has mostly involved fishing out the beer cans of the carpenters with a net and tossing rotten coconuts around and splashing myself and everyone else around me while doing so.

I taught my first real class today — a class for the higher level English speakers. It went alright, but apparently in Thai culture and in their schools, they don’t stop talking when other people are talking in front of the class, which gets a little frustrating. I’m going to have to spend some time coming up with more lesson plans, so I’d love your input if you had any ideas. I’m still pretty clueless when it comes to doing this planning lessons and teaching English stuff! I’m hoping to take some simple English pop songs (like the Beatles, etc.) and use them to teach English somehow.

I’ve spent a little time around Nong Khai since arriving here on Friday morning, and I really love what I’ve seen. It’s not a big city at all — maybe 60,000 to 70,000 people, but it’s super-relaxed. Ming is the Thai coordinator for Isara and I’ve basically just followed her around whenever it’s time to eat. We’ve gotten food from street vendors and eaten at little restaurants I never would have given a second glance had she not taken me there. Tonight was especially pleasant. Ming, her sister and I rode motorcycles (wearing helmets! I was not driving Mom!) down to Rimkhong Road, which is the road in Nong Khai that directly faces the Mekong River. We ate at one of these little Japanese-style restaurant that takes over the sidewalks in the evening. We sat cross-legged on little mats and at from a low table. All of our food (beef, shrimp, squid, cabbage, morning glory and glass noodles) was brought out raw and we threw it into this clay pot with wood burning underneath, which was also brought out to our table. While the food cooked, Ming and I got some milkshakes from a nearby vendor and when I turned around, I saw a couple of elephants (maybe a mother and her baby?) walk past! Apparently it’s really terrible for the elephants to be walking on the road because it hurts their feet. We later sat down and watched these guys shoot off rockets over the Mekong while some Thai radio station played in the background.

Thai radio is crazy. I can’t explain it any other way. While painting, they’ll play little “Happy Holidays!” clips, even though there aren’t any real holidays now. Most of the English songs they play are obscure or covers (like Reba McIntyre singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” and Westlife singing “More Than Words”), and tonight was no different. It was Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” followed by cheesy Thai pop ballad, followed by the Trumpet Voluntary, followed by a Muzak jazz cover of “Don’t Know Why”). I’m still getting over the schizophrenic nature of it all.

After a long day of painting and teaching, tomorrow is Nap Day at Isara! I’ll probably paint a little more tomorrow, but I’m hoping to see the Hmong refugees soon (I still haven’t gotten to yet) and I’m also hoping to visit the Sarnelli House, an orphanage in Nong Khai for HIV positive children. I’ll try and keep you updated!

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Getting My Feet Wet

I am pretty sure that I have done more in the past three days than I have done this entire year! I almost don’t know where to begin.

So I’ll start from when my plane landed in Bangkok. Someone from home was nice enough to mention that they had a relative living in Bangkok, and after talking to her, she offered to pick me up from the airport (at around 11 at night, no less!) and let me stay at her house. We got back to house, which was a very nice and comfy place tucked into a quieter corner of Bangkok (if there even exists such a place) and she even had some pizza waiting for me. 🙂

The next day, she took me out to buy my train ticket for the next day, and we stopped by Wat Pho (pronounced without the ‘h’). With the help of my Thai host, I managed to sneak in without paying. To my credit, I didn’t really realize that I had to pay though. This is the time to mention that I don’t exactly know how to upload my pictures to this computer, so the images provided will be found via google image search, just to help illustrate my little tourist adventures. The temples (wats) in Thailand are unlike anything I’ve seen before, so beautiful and painstakingly crafted. I got to watch painters renovate tiny intricate little details that cover the entire temple. What looked painful though, was when one painter was doing his job, as he was sitting, his feet were tucked underneath him the whole time! It’s considered incredibly rude if you have your feet pointing toward Buddha. I don’t think that I’d be able to put up with sitting like that for a long time, but you do what you gotta do, I guess.

Wat Pho is home to a very large Reclining Buddha. Very, very large.
Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Hopefully I’ll have pictures with me next to the Buddha just to illustrate how huge this guy was.
Anyway, the buildings around it, as per usual, were intricate and beautiful and gold leafed and encrusted in mirrors.
outside of temple

After meandering through Wat Pho, we headed to Th Khao San, which is a famous tourist street in Bangkok. Khao San is probably also the only place I’ve been in Thailand where white people were the majority. The whole road was kind of cheesy, but I’m sure it’s one of those things that I had to done, just to say that I’ve been there.

The next day my host’s daughter was back from spending the year as a foreign exchange student in Springfield, and we three headed to see Wat Phra Kaew, home of the famous Emerald Buddha), and the Grand Palace.

Two things about the Emerald Buddha: 1) He’s not very big. According to wikipedia, he’s 45 cm tall. 2) He’s not even emerald. He’s jadeite.
It’s still pretty impressive though.
emerald buddha

And the things in the surrounding temples are no less impressive! There was a miniature Angkor Wat (which I hope to visit the real one at some point this summer), weapons museums by the Grand Palace, the ashes of Kings Rama I-IV (the king might deserve a whole separate post at one point), and different Chinese- and Thai-style statues. I even sat and watched the changing of the guards outside the palace.
Wat Phra Kaew

Even though it was really only one place, that was about all of the touristing I could do for the day. The heat in Thailand can wear you down like nobody’s business. We went back to the house and I showered and got packed and ready for my train, leaving that night from Hua Lamphong station. My train was an overnight train, leaving at 8 and arriving in Nong Khai at around 8:30 the next morning. My hose thought it was best if we left at six, just to give us time if any delays should happen.

And, believe it or not, delays did happen. Our taxi driver was kind enough to tell us that there were protests in front of the railway station, causing a traffic jam. We went as far as we could, and then we had to take the Skytrain, an elevate train that looks and functions like a subway but rises high above the streets of Bangkok (like the name would suggest — note sarcasm). So we run up all of these stairs and go through gates, all with my stuffed-to-the-brim backpack and suitcase in tow. Little bit cumbersome. After getting off of our stop on the Skytrain, we then have to take the subway to Hua Lamphong, also a cumbersome process. I made it though, with time to spare.

I had a comfy, second class sleeper with air conditioning, and because of my busy day, I went to sleep earlier than I had in probably 4 or 5 years, by at least 10. I woke up around 6, ate an overpriced breakfast, and made it into Nong Khai by around 8:30 or 9.

Kirk, the guy who runs Isara, was nice enough to pick me up from the train station. He managed to fit my suitcase and myself on his motorcycle, and we went back to Isara’s house and learning center, in the middle of Nong Khai. I’ll have to take pictures, but to vouch for this place, it’s by far the nicest place I’ve volunteered at. I’m totally used to the spartan accommodations of mission trips, but here, I have my own room, a real mattress, a desk, a couch, an armoir, and a fan (very important).

I got to go to a local college today and sit in on a talk (in Thai) that Kirk gave about helmet safety. Apparently four girls from the school had recently died after fitting four people on a bike in the rainstorm. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but one of the teachers of the school kept coming up to me and telling me about her recent trip to Canada. Because I am white, people have also been telling me that I am very beautiful. It’s a little awkward, but apparently it’s part of the culture.

We drove past the Immigrant Detention Center, but I couldn’t see much. Just that the space the Hmong refugees have is incredible small for 158 people, and windowless. Hopefully I’ll get to go by tomorrow.

After that, I spent the afternoon and early evening helping with and observing the English classes. There are three classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, split into 5 and 6 year olds, 7-12 year olds, and then everyone else. The ‘everyone else’ spent their class time practicing speaking by asking me questions. Helping with teaching was pretty fun, but exhausting. I’m going to help get the new classroom ready this weekend so we’ll be able to teach classes there on Monday. After that, I spent the evening taking a mini-bike ride around Nong Khai to get some food with Ming, who’s from Nong Khai, lives at Isara, and teaches some of the English classes. I got phat thai, again, from a little restaurant that I might’ve passed by otherwise. There were some large, crunchy bits in the pad thai, and Ming told me that it was fried pig skin! I ate it happily though. Food here is goood and cheap. My pad thai cost me under a dollar.

All of this, and only my first day in Nong Khai! I’m pretty tired, but I’ll try to keep you updated on the decorating the classroom, teaching, refugee work, and so on.

Until later- Sawatdee Kha!

Petition for Hmong Refugees

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In Bangkok!

Hey guys! This is just a quick post to let everyone know (if you cared) that I am tucked away in an adorable little corner of Bangkok right now, and I’m feeling pretty decent all things considered. I’ll update more later when I get to Nong Khai, which I plan to leave for there later on this evening.