Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tables of Contents

The tables in our middle school cafeteria are long, thick-wood constructions, so firmly rooted to the floor that they appear as bulwarks, or levies against the tide, which in a sense they are.

Despite the thoroughness of cleanings, these tabletops stubbornly cling to a layer of sticky residue left by years of middle schoolers. A conglomerate substance, which could baffle the best of chemists. In immeasurable concoction of countless spilled milks, apples juices, grape juices, orange juices, pretzel salt crystals, and the crumbs from what were once animal crackers.
But it is the tops themselves, not the sticky veneers, that I find particularly intriguing. For carved into, and written over the tabletops of the cafeteria are years’ worth of middle school thoughts.

Wow! Carved small, perhaps with a pen tip. Bit, BE, TEAM in jagged strokes. Every, blitz, killah, Shakira, beba, Rock, Ash, king, talk, Ha, Hoo Ha.

Students seem to prefer inscribing their thoughts and feelings in words. But occasionally there are pictures. Square-eyed smiley faces, X’s, stars, crude arrows pointing in opposing directions, muffins, packmen.

On investigation I have found that swears are commonplace too. A cursing dictionary inked and scored and penned on wood. Fuck, fud, suck, I love me bitches, hoes, bitches, bitches and hoe, fuck, fuck, fuck mission, fuck love.

Love is everywhere on the tables of the 6th, 7th and 8th grade. M+K = 4EVER, M+M encased in a heart. Pink hearts, black sharpie hearts, hearts with arrows, scratched and faded hearts below newer hearts. Middle school romances are brief. D+A love, J+L =Love, Love in big bold bubble letters. I love, love, lov, luv.

Scrawled on every table are declarations. Michael was here, Chris was here, kim waz hea, Fred waz hea, Emily waz hea, she waz hea. It’s a canonical tag, one found across the world carved into trees and benches, spray-painted on walls and columns. They are tags full of presence and they are tags in conversation.

But in middle school, identities are in constant flux and such statements take on added dimensions. The Emily that carved her name, perhaps with a mechanical pencil or a house key, is not the same Emily who might sit at the same table two weeks later. In two weeks she might have dyed her hair, got her nose pierced. She might have gotten a girlfriend or dumped a boyfriend. She might have reconsidered her dream job from an FBI agent to a Hollywood actress. She might have taken up rapping or stepping or neither. She might hate her teachers, or, she might love them.

Within the transient trends of middle school, such tabletop graffiti becomes a salient marker chronicling an evolving identity. Emily waz hea. Right now, at this middle school table, a girl named Emily wanted to be remembered.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lead Zeppelin

My math class is full of musicians.

Class starts silently enough, or as silently as any 6th grade class can after pretzels and juice on a rainy New England Thursday afternoon when my students would all rather be whispering about the boy at the other table, or that video game their friend has, or the girl that so-and-so is now dating. Or about anything other than strategies for converting decimals into fractions and fractions back into decimals.

Class begins with the tuning of instruments - the sharpening of pencil nubs, the rummaging in backpacks, dragging of chairs across the creaky wood floor, the unnecessary shifting and lifting and setting down again of desks, because of course we are in the 6th grade.

Class begins with a quiz, and for a brief moment, stillness overtakes the room – sixteen pencil tips, honed to a point, hovering over sixteen desks, like bows above the string.

Class quickly progresses to decimals. “How many zeros do we need?” It is at approximately this measure in the lesson where talent emerges. Often it begins with just a subtle, discordant tap…tap…tap of a pencil on the beige plastic desktop. The sound is patternless, as if without intention, and, in many cases, there is indeed no intent, nor even realization. A minute or more will often pass before the boy or girl becomes aware of their music making. On more than one occasion I have surprised students with their own tapping. A raised eyebrow is all it takes to startle students into self-awareness and the looks of shock at finding one’s own hands beating lead drumsticks are some of the very best expressions of the day.

But, if I fail to catch the opening chords, the students in my class finally take notice of the pencil tapping. And if this happens, true music follows. Patterns develop. Short, short, long…short, short, long. The tapping becomes bolder. Short, long long, short, short...rap. And again. Louder, more complex. If I’m not careful, more instruments are imagined and join in. The acoustic #2, the techno click tops, the brassy metal-lined mechanicals. Sixteen beige, plastic drum kits. A crescendo of tapping that threatens to drown out all decimals and all fractions.

Teachers employ a variety of strategies to curb the pencil tappers of their classrooms, and each classroom has a quartet at least. I have five. Some teachers institute fines, five cents per tap. Ironically, the accumulated fees finance, among other school supplies, more pencils. I rely on looks and raised eyebrows. But no method is foolproof. As a teacher I can only negotiate. Tap on your leg, or your arm, or your hand, or your head, anything but the hard resounding plastic of the desk. Please. For my beatniks, I supply stress balls as substitutes, with limited success.

In my class, one boy in particular is a true artist. He practices at home, he practices in the lunchroom, and, yes, he practices in the classroom too. His rhythms are complex and nuanced. He is the type of artist who cannot be restrained, who on a weekly basis will bargain with me for moments of sanctioned tap-time. “I’ve been working on this pattern. Can I show you just once?” Or, “Ok, can I just get my tapping out? Thirty seconds. How about thirty seconds?” And on the few occasions when I give in, his gratitude is expressed in a morse code of taps, raps, and strikes of wood on plastic.

Recently one of my worst tapping offenders chose to write a school newspaper article on the subject. In it, he detailed, with precision, instructions for proper tapping etiquette, steps one through four. Bang your wrist on the desk, tip and tap the pencil. To whip the pencil sideways across the table only two fingers are required. For a “swizzbeat” slide the pencil tip back.

My students learned quickly that I was not a supporter of their pencil tapping. And, while they are unable to curb their musical outbursts, their apologetic looks are some comfort against the tangential accompaniments to math in room 309.

But I am not wholly opposed to tapping. My students do not know this yet.

For if I can forgo, for even a few minutes, the importance of tens places, hundredth places and lowest common denominators, I find that my class can be transformed into an orchestra of impromptu wood instruments.

What ingenuity of rhythms, what creativity of instruments, and what collaborations – as my students so naturally, and without cajoling, listen, respond, and elaborate on each other’s ideas in a conversation so simple and so complex as a tap.

And best of all, what excitement I find on their faces. What more can any teacher wish for?

Perhaps it is time to re-examine my dry-erase markers and my warped whiteboard – see them for what the truly are. I might have to practice at home occasionally, or in the office at lunch. If I can do this, if I can transform math into music, I believe I will have succeeded in capturing the excitement of my class.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A foreign land

A year and a half ago I flew halfway around the world to fashion a life in the Kingdom of Thailand. What followed was a year of motorbike trips to hillside temples, tear-inducing plates of somtum (Papaya salad), city-wide water fights, rock climbing competitions, fish spas, Thai karaoke parties, and countless other adventures – both absurd and meaningful.

A few months ago I returned to America. And, while May has somehow slipped into November, I have yet to fully re-assimilate into that place I once and again call home. I still sometimes respond in Thai, I still bow to people in salutation (much to their confusion) and my accent, especially when expressing shock or excitement, dips and rises in Thai tones. I find American staples lacking in flavor. Since returning, not once have I cried due to an overly generous seasoning of birds-eye chilies. And while my mouth has not caught fire in months, my extremities are slowly growing numb with the New England progressive cold, a persistent reminder that winter is coming.

Here are just a few observations from this strange land:

1) There are heaping bowls of fresh grated parmesan cheese and hearty baguettes on the table of the Italian restaurants.

2) People are generally taller and things are always bigger.

3) There are vast quantities of empty space everywhere. The sidewalks are wide and empty; the streets are wider and also emptier. The aisles of the local CVS are so roomy as to encourage dancing.

4) Restaurant portions are enormous. Back from Thailand less than a week I met my friends for Sunday brunch. I scanned the extensive menu (for the first time in a year, I could read an entire menu) and selected an omelet with goat cheese, caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes, figuring it would be the most filling and leave me only mildly hungry. Fifteen minutes later there appeared before me a four-egg omelet overflowing with cheese, onions, tomatoes, all placed beside a heaping pile of hash browns, all of this hiding under the largest slice of oatmeal bread I have ever seen. I can’t remember a single time in Thailand when I was so full. I was forced to leave food on my plate.

5) The roads in Boston are banal. There are no sinewy men on bikes, no Labradors balanced on Vespas, no orange robbed monks hanging out of sawng tows. Cars, here are contained: no limbs, or bodies, or over-bulging bags of twisting eggplants are visible. Traffic regulations are a disappointment. Traffic lights and lane markings are, for the most part, respected. Little serendipity remains on the roads.

While back in my native city, I have resumed writing for I find myself again in a foreign land: For the past three months I have found myself amongst sixth graders.

I am a teacher in the Boston Public School system employed through the nation-wide non-profit Citizen Schools. With my fellow Citizen School teachers, I come into an existing public school as a second shift to expand the school day by roughly 3 ½ hours per day. In the classroom my focus is a mix of academic support, primarily through daily math class (yes, you heard right, I’m now a math teacher), and college readiness classes that strive to excite our students about the possibilities of college and provide them with the tools and motivation to get there.

Over the next few months it is my hope to share some of joys, quirks and challenges of life in a sixth-grade classroom. For the confidentiality of my students, all names and identifying details will be altered in my posts. But the names don’t matter. Rather the real story is in my students’ creativity and in their energy (whether channeled into solving a math problem or into devising ways to take the longest time possible for a water break). And it is this that makes me so excited and so intrigued to go to school each day.

Monday, April 18, 2011


I often forget that I am living in Thailand. No I am not going senile at the age of twenty-three. But I find that I simultaneously forget I live in an elongated country in South East Asia, and that I have ever lived anywhere else. I walk out on to my balcony and expect to see the undulating mountains of Doi Suthep – now masked in summer haze. I drive my motorbike and expect stands frying roti, whole salted fish and spiraled spicy northern sausage to dot the sidewalks of every block. I sit in the corner foodstall – dirt floor, low-slung naked bulbs and large blackened woks, and expect to not understand the conversation of my fellow diners.

But then there are also those moment – perhaps strolling into one of the hundred glittering Wats around Chiang Mai, when I am almost bulled over by that realization that I am living in the same country where a musically inclined teacher sang frustrations at a king. That favorite childhood musical seems both very close and very far away from my life in the north.

At times it feels dream like, other-wordly. I half believe I will wake up and be back in my bunked bed in a gothic dorm with sleet pounding the windows. But at the same time snow and gargoyles seem so distant both mentally and physically from the present that I might as well believe that I am a cat and have had multiple separate lives, and to which this life has known neither. Even cheese, that amazing invention that I once inhaled three times a day and more, and thought I could never live without, has slipped into intangible memories only.

Somewhere in between driving miles on dusty late night highways out into the countryside, where the roads swoon unexpectedly to the right and to the left, and parading in front of a multitude of chalkboards, I have forgotten what it is like to be anywhere else. I have grown trepidatious about returning to America, as it no longer feels like I will be returning, but instead arriving for the first time.

Some might look on this year as a blip, almost as a semester abroad, a break from normal life. Its not. Chiang Mai is life like anywhere else. Sure we might have palm trees, golden temples, orange clad monks in long procession. But we also have work, we have our rainy days, our broken bikes. And when I say it is life I mean that it is also the place I call home.

But here we are in April, at the start of another Thai year. Outside children, women, old men have been dousing cars with water drawn from the moat around the old city. It is hot, a tad muggy, sometimes you can hear the chants of monks, the cackles of roosters. There are waves of smoke laced with chili oil that make any passer by bend over hacking. Today I will go to the morning market. I will buy bags of bamboo shoots – spicy, and leaf bundles of sticky rice and egg custard. This afternoon I will get on a plane and start the day plus journey back to a country I have called home for twenty-two years of my life. But I will also be leaving home. Coming and going. Going and coming.

I have been internally fortunate to find such great friends, such a supportive community, and blessed with so many hilarious, moving, striking moments. It is near impossible to pack up, to sell my bike, to lock my apartment door, to give last rounds of hugs. It is only possible because I know I will be back. It is that simple I will need to come home, and I will need to come home soon.

Sawadee bee mai!

Running sopping into the new year!

The Thai New Year falls amid the hottest months of the year. In Chiang Mai the air is thick with exhaust and smoke from field burnings, the pollution so bad that I can make out the outline of Doi Suthep only. During these hottest weeks, when temperatures routinely rise to 100 plus, all anyone can talk about is Songkran – the Thai New Year. The holiday lasts three days from April 13-15, but spills over into the days preceding.

Songkran originated in the temple, as most Thai holidays did, this particular one involving a ritual cleansing for the new year by pouring scented water atop Buddhas and each other. Today this has evolved into a countrywide water fight, with Chiang Mai at its epicenter.

Similar to Loi Kratong it is near impossible to fully understand or appreciate Songkran without experiencing it, with this in mind I will attempt to paint a sketch only. There is no possible way to stay dry during Songkran (unless of course you hibernate indoors for three days and refuse to leave the confines of your house – a practice that some Thais do follow.) Indeed I have never felt wetter in my life then I have during the holiday and that includes any time I have ever gone swimming. The feeling comes from having bucket after bucket after bucket thrown over your head in rapid succession while simultaneously being shot at by about five water guns from odd angles. Sawadee Bee Mai! (Happy New Year) people intone as they pour icy water over your head.

Songkran is the closest I have ever got and hope to ever get to warfare. I started off the holiday by driving into the old city on the back of a friend’s motorbike, watergun cocked and ready taking out targets as we dodged buckets, hoses, and streaming jets.

We spent our days wandering the moat road of the old city – the center of action due to the easy, albeit unhygienic water source - the muddy moat. The roads become packed with crawling trucks by 1 pm and stay so till 7 pm. The truck beds are filled with people dumping water on others from large plastic buckets and ceramic urns. Between the cars and trucks are motorbikes, also crawling, drivers half blinded by the water that is getting thrown on their heads and into their faces. People crowd the streets filling up the places between motor vehicles – men, women, young people, old people, monks. To walk one side of the moat took an hour on average, a distance that normally requires fifteen minutes max. Along the sides are stands selling food – most sopping wet, water fight casualties. Other stands sell water-guns: backpacks with squirters (hello kitty, Doremon, elephants), small hand guns, long range shooters, classic models of varying lengths. There are bands playing at intervals on raised platforms, some complete with foam machines. While there is supposedly a “no-alcohol” policy, beer is everywhere and crushed cans are used to prop up the hoods of all the cars to prevent over heating. The roads are flooded along the edge so that you end up walking in ankle deep moat water.

For some unknown reason many people feel the need to buy large blocks of ice to chill their ammunition. Traveling in a pack we devised a scoring system for those who shot us with bone-chilling water, covering each other by aiming at sensitive areas – 50 points for the mouth, 60 for the teeth, 75 for the ear and 100 for the eyes. Others stick to the moat as their source, which is pleasantly warm in comparison though has the minor downsides of probably being filled with diseases. At one point along the north-east side of the moat there is a stretch where you are never not being doused with a bucket. To prepare myself for the days I stuffed essentials in a waterproof pouch, filled my water guns, threw on a bathing suit, jean shorts and donned a yellow shirt that said in Thai “Chawp Len Nam” (I like to play in the water).

Perhaps what was most startling about the three-day holiday was that it was not startling. True there is nothing else like it that I have ever experienced and probably will ever experience, true I was wetter then I will ever be again, true I danced to Lady Gaga in the streets of Chiang Mai with strangers, doused monks with water and got thrown into a water cooler by friends from the climbing wall, but despite all this the entire experience did not feel not normal. Rather it felt decidedly normal. I had this thought specifically on the third day hemmed in by thousands of soaking Thai people completely clogging Huak Kaew road, dancing and screaming to Thai bands while being sprayed with nozzles of water from above. Oh Chiang Mai how I love you. What a way to welcome in the new year! Sawadee Bee Mai!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Offerings in the forest

When you fly up to my home city of Chiang Mai – on Thai Airways, Bangkok Air or Air Asia (I have flown them all) you can look out over the forests, plains, rice fields and see the land literally sparkle. Wats (or temples) are everywhere and everywhere they are covered in gold and mosaiced mirrors that catch the light and juggle it back and forth. When surrounded by the walls of some of the more elaborate wats in the midday heat, the effect is so powerful you must squint. From the air it is as if glitter was strewn across the landscape.

Out of the hundreds of Wats that dot Chiang Mai, my favorite is Wat Umong – the reclusive forest temple tucked behind Suthep road and the back gate of CMU. Along the walkways the trees are wrapped with orange – a sign that they are blessed and protected. And strung on many are green plaques bearing Buddhist wisdoms and proverbs. “Physical charms attract the eye. Goodness attracts the mind.” “The lures of love often lead to the grave.” “There is no preventing a fire from emitting smoke.” “The mad dog hates water, the sex crazy man hates dharma.”

The temple there is not the most grand, though there is a large stone, cloth-wrapped, Chedi. There is a small museum with murals on the walls and there are tunneled caves with nooks holding cross-legged Buddhas. There is a pond and an island reachable by a small metal bridge. Pigeons are particularly fond of the island, long nosed turtles too. There is a monastery and a nunnery.

But my favorite place at Wat Umong is none of these. Rather it is a stretch of landscape running along the wall where there is a collection of Buddha heads and Buddha bodies. They sit crooked on a low rise wall with missing arms, heads, hands. One three-foot head sits cocked at an angle behind the others, pebbled hair covered with a veil of moss. One or two of the Buddhas are draped in yellow. Nearby is a raised circle that holds a collection of offerings – small plastic and metal Buddhas, horses, imposing men in high backed chairs, wooden elephants. They are in varying states – water and sun having worn away at paint and enamel. They are heaped, crooked and jumbled.

I come here to read, to study Thai, to eat bags of fresh cut fruit, to draw and to think. I have photographed this one spot in every season - hot, raining and cold. Out of all places it is the most peaceful in Chiang Mai.There is something about the place that is so full of life, despite the lack of distinction it holds compared the other sites in the temple complex. There is an acute presence and absence of people – all those who brought offerings for a milliard of reasons. The place is untidy, un-manicured, real - and for all this, enchantingly beautiful.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wai-ing Michelin Men

My diet is almost entirely sustained by food sold on the streets. While we have grocery stores and convenience stores I rarely step inside their air-con interiors, but sometimes when bored I peruse the neon lit aisles for fun. In many ways the commercial landscape mirrors any you might find in a US city. True we have Tesco and Carrefour instead of Walmart, but you can find practically anything there all the same – hair products, tea brands, Skippy Peanut butter – as long as you know where to look and don’t mind paying extra. (I do, so I forgo these comforts of my former life on a regular basis). However most of those familiar brands and stores come with a Thai twist if you look closely. Starbucks sells Thai Ice Tea and McDonalds Thai Tea McFlurries along with Mango McFlurries.

Driving along the moat road of the Old City I often pass a garage selling Michelin tires. Outside they have propped up one of those life-size cardboard cutouts. He’s got the normal rippled dimensions of a man constructed out of tires, but his arms are not raised in a wave or stretched out in a muscular stride. Rather they come together at his chin in a Thai Wai (traditional bow).

A Thai 7-11 has all the usual trappings, but then you look closer and start realizing that you are not in Kansas anymore. Let's take as example Lays potato chips, which we have in abundance. We do have some of the common flavors: Cheese and Onion, Sour Cream and Onion, Salt and Sour, Barbeque, Extra Barbeque. Even Hot Chicken and Lemon is not too out of the ordinary. But Lays varieties do not stop there, indeed most of the shelf space is taken up by the following flavors: Sweet Basil, Spicy Seafood, Spicy Lobster, Nori Seaweed, Shrimp Tempura, Hot Chili Squid, and of course Pla Sam Rod (Fermented Fish). I have sampled almost all of these and can attest to the shocking realization of biting down on a crunchy, oily, familiar looking potato sliver expecting Extra Cheese and tasting Spicy Seafood instead. In such instances I’d rather forgo the semblance of the familiar altogether and head over to the nearest late night food stand for some grilled intestine– at least that way, I’ll be prepared for the taste.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Raining Strawberries and Flowers

It seems that in the past weeks I have been attending increasing numbers of festivals. After sampling a wide range I can say with some authority that there are more similarities than differences between the differing celebrations. The venue and the occasion remain unique. The food stands however, do not. It is perhaps comforting to know that you will always find piles of noodles in varying widths that can be heaped with bean sprouts, peanuts and sugar. There are without question always stands frying tiny pink splayed sausages and others with vats bobbing with silky meatballs. There are also, the same variety of souvenir stands – Lana woven bags, frilled and bowed shirts, odd wooden plaques, and overlarge key-chains. It is as if the same vendors are on constant rotation between towns.

What changes is the theme, at least a few more stands of a particular item, or in some cases a profusion of one particular item. In Bo Sang it was Umbrellas, In Sappong it was Strawberries, in Chiang Mai it was flowers.

But my intention is not to dismiss festivals with a “seen one seen them all” attitude – though I might feel this at times. Instead I continue to seek out and happen upon festivals, specifically in search of the quirky idiosyncrasies.

To offer an example – when TaReva and I drove out to Chiang Dao (72 km away from Chiang Mai) we found ourselves in the midst of a local Winter Festival with all the usual trappings and in addition: beauty pageants, fried toast on a stick and the most bizarre pet stand I have, and probably will ever see. It consisted of a wall of pastel colored cages each containing a miniature bunny that could fit into my palm. Not weird enough? Now put small baby doll clothes on all the bunnies.

In Sappong we perused a whole roadway of stands selling exactly the same strawberry products made by exactly the same company: dried strawberries, strawberry jam and locally produced, vinegar tasting strawberry wine.

The Chiang Mai flower festival is not complete without a flower parade with massive floats composed of flower creatures, flower maps, flower temples, flower elephants, flower kings. There was even a bevy of Indian Princesses pulled in a fleet of rickshaws… I am still confused about their presence.

Then of course there was Chinese New Year that turned Wararot Market red and gold. There were more beauty pageants – this time with three year olds and there were lion dancers balancing on poles.

And then there was one of those moments that I have had on a number of occasions where I am strikingly reminded that I am not in Cambridge anymore. Walking up the line of food stalls and souvenir stands, Lauren and I spied a dragon dance – an impressive many legged, electronically lit body that bobbed and swayed above the heads of the crowd. But terrestrial dancing and swerving were not enough so up it went, wrapping itself around a pole. All of this could have been viewed in a chinatown in the states, but this feat was still too tame for Chiang Mai. And so lets add fireworks into the dragon’s open mouth and set them alight so that they shower the gathered crowd below with sparks!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Day by day

It is unfathomable to me that our second semester is coming to a rapid close and our final classes are this week. CMU feels natural. That striding and dancing in front of classes of forty students basically my age, has come to be exactly what I feel I should be doing. Why then is the semester wrapping up?

Over the last nine months I have come to love much about my new home – swerving between cars on my motorbike, slurping gummy rice noodles, struggling to reshape my mouth so as to make some of the more challenging Thai sounds. But I’ll say with utter confidence that more than anything else I have experienced here, I love the teaching and I love my classes.

Yes there are the frustrations – students not understanding, complications with the institution, the finer points of English grammar. Yes there are the worries - how do I explain a vocabulary word on the spot? Will a certain game or assignment work? Yes there is the loss of sleep – the hours spent grading piles of exams at coffee shops, or trolling through websites and youtube clips simply to compile a single hour and a half lesson.

But I would say that all of these are inherent to teaching. Indeed, in a perhaps ironic way, they are essential to teaching, because it makes those moments – a student’s dawning understanding, a game that gets students jumping up and down, even simple laughter – mean the world to me.

Last week I spent hours preparing a review scavenger hunt for my 202 classes. I had students racing all over campus – much to their incredulity – “we have to actually go all the way there?!” Seeing my three successive classes excitedly huddled in circles, flipping through textbooks and huffing back up four flights of stairs after finding a clue on the teacher room’s door made it all worthwhile and more.

In the last two weeks many of my classes have been devoted to presentations, and again and again I find myself close to tears with laughter. There have been the commercials advertising: “ghost wax” and “cupcake perfume.” The skits describing new products – a hat that makes you dance, exercise, or play guitar depending on the music played, and where the students slyly chose a “random” subject to test out the dance function…namely me. There have been the presentations where two of my art student ladyboys dressed and danced in the style of a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama V” and the other as a “Traditional Thai woman from Rama the IX” in order to discuss the changing roles of women in Thai society. Students have sung songs about condoms, lathered their faces with mustard yellow “magic cream” who’s secret ingredient was cow piss; they have impersonated terrible teachers to illustrate the country's educational failings, and they have serenaded us with guitars.

In my own struggles with learning how to teach I often seem to forget how hard English is to learn. I can get easily frustrated with the education system and with the language barrier that still stands partially erect between my students and I. But I think back to my own struggles with language first in high school and then in college. I remember hating to be called to answer questions, let alone to perform - so worried was I that I would make a fool of myself. In this last week I have watched all hundred and forty students of mine get up in front of the black board and put their all into not only practicing English, but doing so with confidence and creativity. I cannot be more inspired.

In the end though, it will be the small things I will miss most – the certain exuberant way one of my social science students greets me every morning, or how one of my art students will admonish the others to “speak English” in a copy of my tone and voice. It is that grin of a specific political science student who sticks out his tongue when he understands a grammar point or when something is particularly funny, or it is the exaggerated way that a collection of my art students greet me with when they stroll in ten minutes late. It is all the many personalities and characters, the class cohesions and the class quirks that I have been honored to take for granted for an entire semester.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Odd, the Absurd, and the Embarrassing

Being a tall white farang living in Northern Thailand odd things are normal (I might go as far as to say normal things have become odd). Here are just a few examples of the bizarre quirks of everyday living, and more than one instance of me making a fool of myself (something I assure you happens to me regularly).

1. I will never cease to be amazed and amused by the fashion of Chiang Mai (and indeed Chiang Mai is very fashionable). Most recently I have spotted: pink ruffled shoulder pads that resemble new-age armor and a black and white polka dotted one piece.

2. This is a story that I alluded to months ago, but figured it also belonged here. While driving back late from a dinner party my bike happened to be caught up in the fiercest windstorm I have experience in Thailand. Dust, leaves, and twigs were flying everywhere, but the real measure of the storms strength was that it was able to untie the back of my dress. Normally I would discretely pull off to the shoulder and put myself back together, but that night I happened to be intently following a friend so as to find my way back to my side of town. Thus I was forced to drive one-handed through the outskirts of Chiang Mai with my other hand on my back attempting to remain fully clothed.

3. About halfway through the school year the following sign was taped up over the toilet in the female teachers' bathroom at CMU. “Due to poor ventilation we request no heavy duty use here.”

4. My apartment building has a very kind small Thai woman called Broom Loom (loom means wind in Thai), who sits in the front office every day. And every day I wai her, but sometimes our conversations attempt to go farther. This is greatly hindered by my mediocre Thai and her non-existent English. Suffice to say our conversations never last long, they are however great incentives to keep studying. My favorite encounter was when once I couldn’t understand her (as per normal) and so she proceeded to write out in Thai what she was trying to tell me…

5. 7-Elevens are rampant in Thailand. Indeed they are so numerous that it is not uncommon to stand on the steps of one and look through the front door of another across the street. Struck by the excess experienced in Bangkok I decided to do a little research. There are approximately 5,700 7-Elevens in the country (apparently half of which reside in the capital alone). The population of Thailand is currently at roughly 68,000,000. Lets assume that there are approximately ten people employed in some capacity at each 7-Eleven. That could suggest that roughly 1 in 1000 Thais works for the 7-Eleven corporation.

6. There is no official transliteration from Thai to English. This leads to numerous complications, one of which is the pronunciation of Thai-English nicknames. Take for instance one of my students who spells her name M – I – L – D. How would you pronounce that? If you are a native English speaker, then chances are you pronounce it like the adjective that describe things that are not too strong. Unfortunately you are wrong – its actually pronounced like the English word “My”. Ok that’s not that bad you might say and it really isn’t…for the most part. But you have to be careful, as students will not always correct your butchering of their names, despite their corruption of conventional English pronunciation. I have a student in one of my classes that spells her name: Koi. Take a moment to sound that name out. Now imagine me doing that for most of a semester. Well its unfortunately not pronounced Koi, but rather “Goi”. Close you might say, forgivable… yes for many names it might be…it just happens that my pronunciation translates into Thai as “dick”…oy vey!

7. At English camp two weekends ago I happened to be on the losing side of a game and was obliged to cover my teeth with strips of deep green seaweed and smile broadly for a picture.

8. Kitiporn - a very popular Thai name with a very unfortunate English meaning.

9. After nine months I appear to have taken to heart the Thai attitude of sabai. While driving on the highway a couple of weeks back my left-hand mirror flew off. In past times, or in past places this loss of my motorbike's mirror would have caused me some alarm, or perhaps at least a touch of concern. Past selves would have pulled over to the side of the road in an attempt to retrieve it while dodging speeding cars. Even if I didn’t stop I would have, in another mindset, considered such possibilities. None of this happened. I did not dart between traffic, I did not pull over, I did not even turn back and ponder its loss wistfully. Instead my stream of consciousness when something like this: “I love driving. Oh wait was that my mirror that flew off? That was indeed my mirror that flew off. Hmm that’s interesting. Actually that’s sort of funny. Ok more importantly where is the turn I need to take to meet my friend?”

10. After careful observation I have determined that back bumpers and license plate decorations come in two, seemingly opposing, flavors - either Hello Kitty or the Playboy Bunny. Occasionally I have seen both adorning a single car. But none of these can top the exhaust pipe we discovered the other night while pulling out of the parking lot...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Rolling Cuisine

I would like to make the perhaps audacious claim that Thailand possesses the most scrumptious street food in South East Asia. Festivals see the greatest variety of stands – glistening mounds of noodles, omelets, quail eggs, soups, satays, ice cream, waffles, sticky rice, somtum, candies, chocolates, sodas, bubble teas – I could continue close to indefinitely. But the excellence of our food stands is not limited to fair grounds. For the sake of building the strongest argument I will limit myself to the stands of the everyday.

Soup stands are most prolific - they are the staples of street food dinning. Hungry at any hour you are guaranteed to find one within a five minute drive in any direction. To fully appreciate the complexities of a seemingly unassuming soup stand you must eat with a local. There is never just one kind of soup sold, but rather infinite deviations. Do you want thick toothy wide rice noodles (sen yai), thin rice noodles (sen lek), floss thin rice noodles (sen mee), or perhaps skip the rice altogether and go for egg noodles (ba mi). Then there are the choices of meatballs – pork, beef, fish, chicken – or strips of meat, or boiled meat. There are bean sprouts, mint, fresh morning glory for garnish. Sometimes there are wontons. These are all relatively self evident, displayed behind glass. But then there are the seasonings and spices that can be added to the soups, the ones that are hidden away in the belly of the cart that you don’t realize are there until you are soup initiated. It took me a month and a half to be initiated and to discover the wonders of tumyum sweet and sour spice. And finally if the number of possible choices were not overwhelming enough there are the self service spices that are basically a requirement along with chairs, forks, spoons, and chopsticks, of every Thai street food table – small glasses filled with ground chili, fish sauce, chili with vinegar, fish sauce with vinegar, and of course…sugar.

Next on my “most frequented” list are the fruit stands. These consist of long plexiglass boxes filled with rainbow layers of sliced and bagged fruits. Cubes of pineapple, ovals of Rose apple, half moons of dragon fruit, serrated papaya, Asian pear and cantaloupe. Often there will also be bags of coconut water, small whole roasted coconuts that can be cracked open with a machete, eight inch bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.

Coffee stands are also common. I frequent a particularly delicious one at the end of my soi. The man there mixes up bright creamy orange chai yen – Thai Iced Tea, brimming with sugar and condensed milk. His dark wood stand is stacked with empty condensed milk cans and plastic containers of Nestle coffee. Tucked into a shelf between cans is a plastic Chinese cup filled with chai offered up to a miniature plastic Buddha. He also serves, though I have not sampled, a variety of coffee drinks as well as powdered drinks mixed with milk that are available in every color of the pastel rainbow.

For late night desserts one should keep an eye out for milk stands, distinguishable by the case of freshly fried chromosome shaped dough. These stands serve dough with a jelly like green icing, or for those less enticed, green slime. To accompany them, the large vat set into the stand holds steaming soy milk, rice milk, and the strongest ginger tea I’ve tasted (it is the kind of tea perfect for burning away throat layers). There are also the standard roti stands of which I have already written about, where you can get your fried dough with any combination of bananas, eggs, chocolate, strawberry jam and blueberry jam. Sugar and condensed milk are a given.

Possibly the most frequent, but also possibly the least appetizing to some, are the squid stands. Small-wheeled carts with tables displaying vibrantly yellow squids and dried cuttlefish, the texture of faded newspaper. Such stands swarm around bars and clubs starting at midnight. For impatient customers they offer bags of shredded fish, for those who can wait they grill squid in front of you. Night air in Chiang Mai is awash in the pungent smell of squid.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When shall we all meet again?

When shall we three meet again? In Wats? Markets? Or at CMU? What if the three witches of Macbeth were transformed into street children selling Jasmine flowers and all the Thanes became Thai politicians? How would this change our understanding of the famous Scottish play and how would it influence our understanding of current events in South East Asia? This is what we have been pondering for many months now. How to transplant the misty moors into tropical jungles. How to set Macbeth within the Kingdom of Thailand.

Macbeth is easily my favorite Shakespeare play. Of course I'm biased after acting the role of the First Witch, the Final Messenger and the doomed son of Macduff back in 7th grade. (Yes I still know almost all of my Witch’s lines.) For a number of years I have fantasized about being able to produce the play and this fall with an odd mix of luck and persistence I managed to convince the Faculty of Humanities to allow me to Co-direct Macbeth for the English Club’s annual play (and indeed the only play to be performed in English each year on CMU’s campus).

We gathered in the monsoon season, otherwise known as the end of August, and presented the students with an edited script (60 pages down from 90). We played the human machine, freeze games, and held auditions. Our performance, fours shows over three days, took place on a mid-December weekend in the Faculty's main building: HB7 on the top floor auditorium – the same auditorium where I sat on stage months before for teacher appreciation day. Those are the bookends (minus the truly hilarious cast party with over fifty people that followed a week after the show). But what happened in between?

There is unfortunately no way that I can do those interim months justice. Instead I will attempt for snap shots only. There were the early meetings held in the garden where we rambled off into musings on corruption both local and national, and there were the hours spent pacing barefoot in empty classrooms running lines, re-running lines, holding impromptu Muay Thai boxing lessons and dance offs.

From our discussions the witches took on the appearance of street children selling jasmine flowers as we decided they were the ignored part of society who actually had a strong understanding of what was going on. On stage they would sew garlands, play with rubber band jump ropes, and off stage – before the show - they would sell flowers to the audience. The porter became a cleaning woman with bright orange gloves who polished the floors and the heads of audience members a like. The Thane of course became politicians. No specific names or titles were chosen for cautionary reasons.

For our backdrop a simple array of curtains was agreed upon. Color of course was a weighty decision as Red and Yellow are so clearly politically charged. Ultimately we cut and sewed strips of orange and black (Princeton style) that allowed us to be politically neutral and also related to our specific surroundings – tying into the stone walls of Chiang Mai’s old city and the robes of the multitude of monks that reside here. On the curtain we projected Thai inspired images and, during two scenes: the Witches final scene and Lady Macbeth’s death, we projected light from back stage so as to incorporate Thai shadow puppetry.

And not only did we apply Macbeth to Thailand, but we did the opposite and I found myself considering aspects of the play I had previously failed consider. For example why is it that the former Thane of Cawdor is declared a rebel? What did he actually do? Or, possibly the most striking realization – the Buddhist undertones of Macbeth’s most famous speech.

As the weeks progressed the dynamics subtly shifted. The actors’ confidence grew, the theater games became increasingly louder, more boisterous. Posters went up around campus and Macbeth T-shirts suddenly appeared for all involved.

Two weeks to show time our extended cast started to multiply. For weeks it had been just our small crew – cast and stage managers. Twenty people at most. But suddenly other students started appearing, just a few at first. As to their purpose I did not know. A week to go, we finally moved into the auditorium and even more students started appearing. They would fill up back rows and watch, talking quietly. Some would come bearing water coolers and large rectangular snack tins for the actors. The girl in charge of makeup came one afternoon and returned the following day with a team of six. Tuesday before the show I walked back stage in search of some particular actor and found the back hall filled with twenty underclassman sewing the orange and black curtains that would hang as our back drop – Where had they come from?! Two days left and there was suddenly a lights crew, a sound crew, a puppet crew, and still there were yet more students sitting in the back of the auditorium whose role I had yet to deduce. They turned out to be the ticket team, the film team, the passing-out program team. By opening night our band of twenty had swelled to one hundred strong.

And what of the performances? I spent the four shows standing in the back of the darkened theater alternately biting my nails and silently dancing in circles – to the amusement of the ticket team. Each show was better than the one previous. After the shows, at 11-pm, midnight we would head en mass to get fried pork, toast, milk drinks. We would discuss flash mobs, college life in Thailand and America, theater. It was like returning to college in the best way possible. There were no teachers or students in the end, just actors. We quoted Shakespeare at each other non-stop – in the theater, in the halls, on facebook walls. No one could say “see you tomorrow” without at least two or three others chiming in with “and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

I only wish that it was true and tomorrow we would all be still working on the play!