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The Teachers Tales

The (Long) Road Home

thai road

The other day, on a bus in Thailand, I met a girl from England who told me she had never traveled her country outside of her own city. And a month ago, on a boat in Laos, I met a man from Germany with the same story. I too have never seen the entirety of Oregon, let alone most of the other 49 states.

Truth is, we’re all wandering through faraway lands for one main reason – inspiration. The necessary component to any creative thought process that is so often lost in the familiar confines of home. When we become too comfortable in a place, too habitual, we forget to look around on our morning walk for coffee. We lose ambition to seek new experiences and make new friends. We no longer see the beauty in the golden wheat fields we drive past each day.

But when we place ourselves in a new environment, a new culture, we open our eyes and see things – all things – in a new light. The buildings are more beautiful, the flowers more bright. Riding a bicycle is fun again. A waterfall no more impressive than Oregon’s very own Multnomah Falls is ravishing.

In just six short months, Suwannaphum has become home. I no longer cringe when I see a family of four (sometimes even a dog and a laundry basket) on one motorbike. I don’t gasp when I see an eight-year old driving his little sister.

When a truck of elephants drives past my house, I think There must be another parade in town, instead of Oh my! Elephants are passing my house! I’ve been to so many parades I’ve started to avoid them like the disinterested foreign men I thought silly when I first arrived.

Running through a herd of water buffalo, saying hello to the poor farmer droving them as I jog slowly by, has become a normal exercise routine. I automatically steer several feet clear of any orange-robed monk in my path, and it’s now second nature to hop on my scooter and drive on the left side of the road, dodging chickens and dogs as I make my way to the school or out to the countryside. A seven-hour bus journey is short.

I’ve grown accustomed to the simplicities of my one-room hut without the means to cook or previously necessary amenities such as a kitchen table and a garbage can. I’ve mastered the squat toilet wearing both a backpack and heels (thank you very much) and now, instead of just checking for my wallet before I leave the house, I make sure my purse is stocked with a roll of toilet paper too. Eating unrecognizable foods from various street vendors, often with an extra helping of protein (bugs), no more deters me from chowing down.

This is how I know it’s time to move on. I’ve soaked up all the inspiration I can from my students, my peers, my coworkers, my friends, and though it’s uncommon to feel at home in a place so far away from it, I think it’s best to walk away while I still want to do so slowly (with a few tears), before I’m ready to run.

I’ll watch Suwannaphum disappear through the bus window as I head (eventually and temporarily) to my real home in Oregon. But I’m going to make a few stops along the way.

The first is Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and then its famed killing fields. Next we’ll venture down to southern Thailand for some much deserved beach and island hopping (Full Moon Party included), before boarding the overnight train to Chiang Mai and the surrounding bohemian villages of Mae Hong Son and Pai.

I’ll wave farewell to the Land of Smiles from a boat on the Mekong River in Laos, which will drop me into the jewel that is Luang Prabang. Working our way south to Vientiane, Pakse and Si Phan Don we go before crossing over the border to Vietnam.

If you haven’t Googled images of the coastline there, do it. And picture me on a motorbike headed north, stopping in places like Hoi An, Sapa, Halong Bay and Hanoi to eat traditional Pho and take in spectacular views.

My flight home will consist of extended layovers in Hong Kong, Seoul and San Francisco before I land in Portland and drive three hours east to embrace those (almost golden, by then) wheat fields and familiar faces I’ve missed dearly.

Not only am I beyond excited to have my best friend and first cousin join me on this upcoming escapade, I’m equally overjoyed at the prospect of meeting many more locals and travelers (the ones who make it all worthwhile) en route.

Consider this my apology for not posting much (if at all) over the next two months. I hope you’ll stayed tuned for my arrival back on U.S. soil, where I’ll undoubtedly have a lifetime of memories and an abundance of photos I’ll be eager to write about and share with you.

Until then, my friends, may you seek your own inspiration.

A Losing Game

It’s final exam time at Suwannaphum Wittayalai, which means the end of the year is nearly here and students who haven’t come to class all term have decided to show their faces. It also means the Thai teachers have begun work on their lesson plans for the current term (yep, a large book that tells the government what they will teach the students, or in this tardy case, what they supposedly already taught them), as well as writing student grades in the back of their beloved pink books.

As I finished computing my grades this week, three sophomore students came rushing in, followed by a teacher who handed them a pile of tests. I assumed there must be good reason for the girls to take their makeup exams in my (shared) office, but what I witnessed was a sorry excuse for anything aimed at determining a student’s knowledge.

I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.”

The girls appeared to be contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But in their version, lifelines are unlimited.

They used Phone a Friend more than once – the voice on the other end promptly gave the requested answers, and they giddily jotted them down.

When the English exam reached the top of their pile, they chose to Ask the Audience. Rather, they handed me the paper and told me to do it. When I said no, they looked shocked. But the audience always produces results!

Their teacher returned from a break outside, and I thought for sure the students would stop begging. I was wrong. The girls told her what they wanted, and she handed the test to me and said, “you can, you can!” They thought she was the coolest instructor in the world.

“I will not do their test for them,” I said. “How will they learn?”

Which brings me to a blog article I recently found, titled, “I Want My Kids to Fail.” The author, a presumed member of the Rochester School District in Michigan, writes, “I want my kids to fail in the classroom. This is true education! I don’t want them to believe that success is easy, but when a child is bright enough to learn with minimal effort and is rewarded with A’s for that, they come to believe that hard work isn’t needed for success. I want them to struggle, to not always succeed on the first try – or the twentieth, to learn that asking for help is not a sign of weakness or lack of intelligence, and to see that success is often a long process…I want my kids to fail – and you should want yours to also.” Read the rest here.

Her words ring true. In Thailand, children learn early that they cannot fail, but they would be better off if they could.

Remember how I told you (in Paper Politics) if I didn’t give students a passing grade at the end of the year, I’d most likely be asked to change them? Well, curiosity struck, and I decided to test that theory.

I was too lenient with my midterm markings (because I did as I was told), so I decided for the second half to give my students a more honest representation. If they didn’t show up to class or chose not to do the day’s work, they received a zero and an absent mark. I let them know, to be fair, that this is what would happen. My threats worked on some, but others knew the truth.

When I totaled my grades (the over-generous first half numbers with the more accurate second half ones), I admit I adjusted the ones who were beyond failing and brought them up to the 50% mark (my own spin on the 50/50 lifeline). Therefore, everybody was passing, even if just barely.

But I still got those books handed back to me. Apparently, students can’t have a zero where there should be a score.

“If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?”

I took the books to Mrs. Pussadee and played dumb. I knew they wanted me to change the grades, but Mrs. Supaporn, the teacher who asked me to redo them, wouldn’t tell me that. Instead, she told me she would have all the necessary students come talk to me.

Yeah, right.

Mrs. Pussadee is the only one honest brave enough to tell me the truth: “You can just change the numbers,” she said. “Give them five or ten points, whatever you want.”

Now I understand why nobody appears to care if a student gets help on a test, and why teachers wait for the end of the year to mark their grade books. As vital as they are, they don’t accurately portray anything.

The government mandates every child must pass in school. Therefore, it seems, cheating is encouraged for both students and teachers. They’re all just playing the game, and everyone is following her own rules.

I wish I could send that blog article to the Ministry of Education in Thailand, but it wouldn’t do any good. Directors and teachers cannot lose their jobs. Ever. Once a government employee, always a government employee.

If teachers cannot fail, why would their students be able to?

Finding Buddha: The Temples of Thailand

Finding Buddha: The Temples of Thailand

by in Thailand, Traveling in Thailand

I’m constantly amazed by how much the Thais give. They’re always helping each other out, be it time, money, food, etc., but their giving nature is most visible when it comes to their beloved temples.

Thais don’t go to a temple without buying a flower and/or incense to aid them in praying to Buddha. Many will also pay to hear their horoscope, and several will add money to the donation boxes located throughout the elaborately decorated buildings. The money goes to help construct and refinish temples, but the Thais are also buying good fortune.

I know donating is present in every religion, but it’s hard to understand why people continue to give when they have nothing to begin with. Then again, I guess we all have our priorities.

I’ve donated to, photographed, prayed, and driven past more temples than I care to count, and one thing’s for certain, they’re all beautiful – a sign that the money does actually go to the right hands? Maybe.

I thought I’d share their beauty with you.

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Unavoidable Koraoke:a field trip with Thai students

Thai bus

After my first field trip with the school to Palio, I made a mental note to never participate in another one so far away. Then I heard the seniors were going to the beach and I forgot all about my little vow. It wasn’t because of the disappointing destination that I didn’t want to go again; it was because Thai field trips have a way of reversing the little notion that the journey is half the fun. Instead, you must struggle to get there, and hope that what you’re going to see is worth it.

Before I explain further, I ask you to imagine yourself in two different scenarios.

Firstly, you’re on a bi-level bus in a country where the penalty for not having a driving license is $6. You’re sitting up front on the highest level, swaying left to right as the top-heavy vehicle speeds along a two-lane highway. You have a VIP view of what feels like a 3D movie as you zoom past everything in your path, never mind the oncoming traffic, or the dogs crossing the road, or the motorbikes in the way.

It’s slightly reassuring that the bus is probably going to win should it collide with any of the aforementioned, but when the semi-truck is coming straight for you, in his own lane – the same lane your bus is currently occupying at full bore – you start praying to this country’s beloved Buddha that that truck has enough common sense to move over as your bus overlooks the double yellow lines and creates a nonexistent middle lane.

Now place yourself in a karaoke bar. You’re standing in the corner, next to a speaker that’s literally thumping from the loud noise it’s projecting. Your eardrums actually hurt from the impossible volume. Looking on stage you see a teenager screeching the latest hit song into the microphone, not even close to carrying a tune, but sending an obnoxious racket through the black box next to your head. The sound is so piercing it makes your eyes water. Your head begins to pound, and soon enough you feel as though it might explode. You want nothing more than to cut the cord and runaway, but you can’t leave. Not for another nine hours anyway.

If you put these two scenarios together, you might begin to grasp how I spent 18 hours of a two-day “vacation.”

Karaoke buses are very popular in Thailand, and by all means they are a brilliant idea. I wish we had such a thing for high school field trips when I was that age. However, our teachers would have turned the volume dial to the left a few dozen times, told us that it can hurt our ears and eventually make us deaf if we listen too loudly. A fact I would have scoffed at but knew was true – a fact the Thais don’t seem to understand.

After the first nine hours, I was so happy to see the ocean I could have turned my tears of pain right into tears of joy. I immediately changed into my bikini, then covered up with shorts and a t-shirt and jumped into the warm ocean, just like the Thais. At a private resort with over 200 students, there was no way I was going swimming with any fewer clothes, especially after a brave 17-year-old boy asked, “teacher, swim?”

“Yes, of course!” I replied.

He exchanged hopeful grins with his friends before: “Teacher, bikini?”beach

If I had brought a turtle neck, I probably would have worn it.

After a long dip in the sea, I felt like me again. I showered and positioned myself at the teacher’s table where I downed a few (overdue) beers. Next we enjoyed dinner, and more karaoke. The resort constructed a stage for the occasion and several more hours of singing commenced, but I wasn’t confined in a bus so the music was bearable. The teachers and a few lady-boy students taught me how to Thai dance (kind of) and it turned into a very enjoyable night. I went to bed thinking that the ride was worth seeing a glimpse of the beautiful beach in Chanthaburi, but then I woke up.

I actually cringed at the thought of getting back on the bus at 8AM. I understood something I couldn’t the day before – why the teachers started drinking whiskey at 3AM, and never stopped. Admittedly, I judged them that first morning, even though I knew it’s acceptable and expected for Thai men to drink (a lot), but it was hard to wrap my brain around the fact that they are teachers, and this was a field trip, and some of them appeared to have come straight from the bar.on Thai bus

I get it now. Unfortunately, though, they were all too hungover on Day 2 to offer me a drink.

When we stopped for dinner on the route home, Teacher Pussadee informed me that one of the classes was in trouble for drinking alcohol on the bus.

“How did you punish them?” I asked, unsurprised.

“The teachers turned the music off,” she said.

“Really? I wish our students would get in trouble,” I said with a laugh. But I wasn’t kidding.

“Our bus is good students,” she said. “They like to study hard. Good class.”

“You’re very trusting,” I said. “I was in high school not all that long ago, and I was a good student too…”

I could see her thoughts spinning. “Maybe I should check,” she said.

Back on the bus, I was sitting with my headphones in and my hands over my ears, (unsuccessfully) trying to sleep. Not long after we boarded, Pussadee noticed a student, Tao, walk to the front to speak (yell at) the bus attendant – something he’d done numerous times before, but Pussadee had been sleeping too sound to notice. She leaned over the railing to see what he was doing, just in time to catch him bribing the steward with alcohol to turn up the volume.

Tao is the same little punk who asked if I would be swimming in a bikini.

“Busted,” I said with a large grin as he sulked back to his seat. We both knew what was ahead.

Silence.

Back in Tuscany: Little Italy in Thailand

It seems every country has an ode to Italy. The United States boasts the Venetian in Las Vegas, Manhattan’s Little Italy district, and Taylor Street in Chicago. There’s La Boca in Buenos Aires and Eritrea, Africa. To my surprise, even Thailand has its very own taste of Tuscany.

Located in the province of Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), Palio is a large outdoor shopping mall, complete with stucco buildings, cobblestone walkways and Italian tunes coming from the speakers above.

I went on a school field trip with my sophomore class (M4), and was excited when the teachers explained we would be visiting a “little Italian city on top of a mountain.” How cool does that sound? I can finally get a glass of wine, I thought, despite the fact I’d be traveling with a few hundred teenagers. Hey, this is Thailand, and silly laws like that are not enforced.

Plus, I haven’t had a glass of wine since I landed in Thailand. The only store that even sells it in Suwannaphum is the English supermarket, Tesco Lotus, and they have only four options (none is from Thailand). The cheapest is a regular size bottle of Carlos Rossi for the bargain price of…$15 (for that, I can buy three two-hour massages). Whoa! We could purchase an entire jug of Carlos Rossi for about $7 when I was in high school…

But that’s not real wine, and it won’t satisfy my craving. So, as we entered the city of Khao Yai and drove down a dirt road lined with vineyards on either side, I was screaming inside. Stop! Please! Can we go have a taste?

But we kept driving, past the modern style homes, past the “vino” signs. And we didn’t stop until we were at Palio. Imagine my disappointment when the mountain was just a higher elevation, and the city was a manmade shopping experience, not much different from the one I lived near in Los Angeles.

The Thais thought it was pretty cool though, despite the expensive price tags in all of the boutiques. Nobody bought anything, but the scenery provided several good photo opportunities.

They felt like they traveled to Italy, and that made them happy. So when they asked me if it was like the real Italy, I couldn’t bring myself to see their smiles fade.

“Yes,” I said. “I feel like I’m back in Tuscany.”

Lamphang

lamphun-wat phra that hariphunchai-01     
       ited in mid-town, Wat Phra That Hariphunchai was built during the reign of King Arthitayarat, a descendant of Queen Chamthewi some 800 years ago.A principal landmark is the 46-metre tall golden Chedi which contains a hair of the Lord Buddha, having nine-tiered umbrella, made of gold weighing approximately 6,498.75 grams...

Chiang Rai

      on the bank of the Kok River within town area, contains what is believed to be the oldest Holy Relic even before King Mengrai built Chiang Rai. Doi Chom Thong has been a sacred site for aextremely long time. The site was surely reverenced as the home of local spirits before Buddhism arrived in the area.

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