My name is Tyler and this is my blog. I had nothing better to do after graduating college, so I decided to fly to Thailand to teach first-grade social studies for a year or so. These are my adventures.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vesak, Ko Samet, and my first day of class

So this past friday was the Vesak, which is a Buddhist holiday celebrating the life and death of the Buddha. Apparently, this is the most important day of the year for Buddhists, and on this day all the Wats (temples) are open to the public and free to visit. Most all of us decided to use this time to visit Wat Benchamabophit (or Ben Wat) which is simply the closest nearby temple. It's still quite a walk, however, and while asking for directions halfway there, a couple of tuk-tuks (basically a rickshaw connected to a motorbike) pulled up and offered to drive us to 3 different wats for 20 baht a person. Despite this sounding very much like a scam, everyone except for me and one other fellow teacher decided to take them up for it. Unfortunately for them, it was a scam, and the tuk-tuk drivers drove them around to commissioned gem shops and kicked some of them out when they didn't buy anything. We all ended up at the same place, though, and they only lost 20 baht each, so it wasn't too bad. The wat was pretty cool, though - there wasn't a ceremony or anything going on but we all went inside and sat down for a few minutes, contemplating the Buddha. Or something like that. There were a couple monks chilling outside, talking on microphones and laughing to each other. Sounded like they were doing some sort of Buddhist stand-up routine. I can't be certain. There were tons of foreigners visiting this wat though, so street vendors and peddlers surrounded this place, and it seemed more like a tourist trap than a serious celebration of the Buddha's birth, lifetime, and death.
When we got back, we decided to spend the rest of the weekend visiting Ko Samet, which is an island in the south of Thailand (ko means island). A couple people left friday night, but five of us decided to do something around Bangkok for the night and then head down Saturday morning. Unfortunately, it didn't really work out like that. Instead, we all fell asleep for like 5 hours. This has happened several times already - I think it is a mixture of our sleep schedule still adjusting and the intense heat, but we have all taken way more naps than usual, often when we are trying to make plans. Anyway, we wake up Saturday morning and take a taxi to the bus station for a 3-hour bus ride to a 45-minute ferry to get to the island. Then on the island, we all pile into the backs of these green pickup tricks that look they are straight out of Jurassic Park as they whiz down the muddy dirt roads to get to the beaches.
This may be a good time to talk a little about how absolutely ridiculous drivers are in Thailand. I'm pretty sure there are no traffic cops, because traffic rules feel a little more like guidelines here. The lanes mean absolutely nothing - they seem to be markers for about how many cars should be able to fit across the street, but thats about it. We passed another car in the same lane in our taxi. The same lane. And there are thousands of Thais on motorbikes just weaving in and out traffic without any helmets or protection. While in NZ I picked up driving on the left pretty quickly and it wasn't really a problem whatsoever, I don't think I would ever attempt anything of the sort here. Somehow it all works out without an overabundance of traffic collisions, but I honestly don't know how. I wouldn't last 5 minutes trying to drive around this city.
Back to Ko Samet. It started raining literally as soon as we got on the beach, but it only lasted about five minutes. I think that's mostly how the rain is going to be here, with flash storms of heavy rain occurring occasionally but never lasting long. As soon as it ended, we got to experience the pristine white sand beaches and the beautiful, warm, yet incredibly dead-sea-salty ocean. Bars and restaurants line the coast so a drink or snack is never far away, and we immediately also found lodging in an area filled with tiny two-person bungalows for rent. The bungalows were pretty neat - they were on stilts and the beds were covered in mosquito nets, so it felt tropical and exotic. Unfortunately, we discovered that the "mattress" was in fact just an elevated deck of wood, but it was nothing a couple beers wouldn't solve.
Speaking of beers, that's how we spent the evening. This led directly to my poor decision of the night, which was to take a midnight swim with all my clothes on, effectively ruining my newly bought cell phone and my camera (alas, there shall be no pictures from my first days in Thailand, but such is life). Good thing I have the address for a good Electronics shop in the area. Also managed to lose a pair of sandals and sunglasses. Oh well. Welcome to Thailand, I guess. At least I didn't go home with a kathoey (although I definitely saw one at the beach - he/she had long hair, implants, and a voice deeper than mine).
But the weekend ended and my first real day of teaching came around. I ended up switching back to my original schedule after the teacher I first switched with (Greg, a non-Loyolan) had some sort of crisis and realized he couldn't work with kids this young. So I'm now officially teaching social studies to 1st and 2nd graders once again. Which I realized after today might be quite an endeavor. These kids are absolutely out of control. The language barrier doesn't really seem to be the problem - some teachers teach mostly in Thai and others mostly in English but I'm there mostly for having a proper knowledge of the English language and as a disciplinarian. The real problem is that these teachers have classes of about 30 kids and they have no control over any of them. The kids talk and talk throughout the class, run around, fight each other, sleep, play with my tie when I'm not looking, and basically do anything but pay attention. If one of my elementary school teachers had to deal with these groups of kids, I think they would have a heart attack. Something that was mentioned about this was that Thais are very concerned with protecting their own image (or "saving face") so if they have a special needs child they will enroll him in regular school instead of giving him the help he needs because they don't want to publicly admit that their child has a problem. Not that I think my kids are special needs, but if any of them are, there's no way I'd be able to tell. They are all off the walls at all times. This idea of "saving face" though also just applies to any situation of likely embarrassment a Thai might be in - for example, if you ask a Thai for directions and they don't know, they will often just make the directions up. It's not trying to be cruel by any means, they just don't want to look stupid or uninformed.
So after a full day of trying my hardest to make kids focus, we met to go over our period eight assignments. Basically, period 8 is an extra class at the end of the day for kids who want (or whose parents want them to have) some extra help in English. I'm splitting a group of kids with my friend Lisa, so we'll teach every other day, but today we both met together to introduce ourselves and have a first lesson. Of course, we had no idea this was happening today and had nothing planned. Which might not have mattered, because this group of kids was so wild and out of control that we couldn't get their attention anyways. Somehow we managed to have them all tell us their name, favorite food and color, and something interesting about themselves, and also make nametags. God knows what we'll do with the rest of the week. Or the year. There's no lesson plan or anything for 8th period. We're doomed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Arrival in Bangkok

Sawatdee! Welcome everyone to my groan-inducingly titled blog about my Thailand adventures. I have no idea how often I'll update this, probably less and less as time goes by, but at least I can give everyone a good idea what I'm up to here. Left from JFK mid-afternoon on Monday on a fun-tastic 14-hour flight to Hong Kong. This was not nearly as painstaking as my NZ flight was - partially because I've gotten used to it, and partially because it was a few hours shorter. Watched Fantastic Mr Fox, A Serious Man, and The Lovely Bones on the plane ride, which were all films I'd been meaning to see, so it helped the time go by.
Had a couple hours layover in Hong Kong, and then another 3 hours to Bangkok. Since we got in after midnight, the government-imposed curfew thats been going on since the protests ended was in effect, so it was a very quiet and strange trip to St Gabe's. The streets were vacant except for a few taxis and emergency vehicles, and it felt a bit like we were driving into a ghost town. Of course, during the day, Bangkok is absolutely insane, bustling with activity and traffic, but that wasn't our first impression.
Got back to the room, which is actually a quite spacious one-person with its own bathroom. We pay for our own utilities, so I'm trying to use the AC as little as possible, but this can get difficult as it has been 80's/90's/100's outside and super-humid. The last person left a nice standing fan though, so I may not have to use AC at all, which would save me some money.
Of course, everything is ridiculously cheap here. There are about 32 baht in a US dollar, and it is not unusual to get a meal for less than that. Everything I've bought so far has been super cheap in US dollars, but its the food that really makes the difference, because I love food and its normally one of my biggest expenses. We also get free lunch at the school, but if we want something else, we can literally just walk outside to the street and there are just lines and lines of street vendors selling a ton of different foods. There's also a 7/11 right down the street (although its stock of supplies and food is completely different) and a McDonalds across the street. The McDonalds is expensive though, so I'm going to hold off as long as I can. One word of advice from previous students was that you have to start thinking in baht and not in US dollars, because if you think in US currency you'll spend too much and waste all your money, so I have to keep that in mind.
Our first day at St Gabe's was spent mostly doing paperwork. We did take a tour of the school, though, and got to meet our co-teachers and other faculty/administration. They are very gracious to their American teachers and treat us well. One teacher saw our group as we were walking around and pulled us all into her classroom to introduce us to her class, even though none of us were teaching her students. The facilities are pretty insane, with several buildings chock-full with classrooms and gymnasiums. There seems to be a high importance placed on physical fitness here, with mini-gyms, soccer fields, basketballs courts, swimming pools, etc. all over the place. It's also pretty massive for a primary school, but there are about 5500 kids from grades 1-12 (or Primary 1-6 and Montiem 1-6) so its a little different than my primary education. I got my schedule and it had me teaching 22 classes a week, 1st and 2nd grade social studies. When I asked Miss Pat (the foreign teacher coordinator) what exactly 1st grade social studies was, she strongly encouraged me to switch with another American teacher who had arrived two weeks earlier (not through Loyola) who got placed in math unwillingly. So we switched and now I'm a 6th grade math teacher! Time to hone up on my algebra. I'm only teaching 14 classes a week now, which is much less intense, but Miss Pat told me she would have extra work for me in my free time. I still have only briefly met my co-teacher, who is the head of mathematics and supposedly real awesome. We were supposed to sit in classes today, but we spent the morning setting up our Thai bank accounts, so we didn't start until after lunch, and I only teach morning classes.
As far as street life goes, perhaps the biggest difference I have noticed so far may be sanitation and public health. There is trash absolutely everywhere outside, people throw it out wherever, even the pretty canals through the city are grossly littered. There are cockroaches and rats on the streets, as well as tons and tons of stray dogs and cats, which just seem to bum around the town like Baltimore's homeless and crackheads, only they don't bother anyone, they just chill out and do their own thing. Everyone is extremely friendly though, and if you happen to know any Thai at all they will be super impressed and excited that youve already taken more effort to know their culture than the average tourist. They also highly respect teachers, under royalty and clergy, so if we are dressed up or show our School ID they will treat us with much respect.
Tomorrow (Friday) is a super important Buddhist holiday, so we have a three day weekend. Don't know how we're going to spend that time, but someone suggested traveling down to Ko Samet, which is one of Thailand's southern islands with beautiful beaches and sweet tourist activities. Then next week, I should start sitting in on classes and eventually begin to co-teach. Stay tuned!