Is THAT How it Feels?

March 1, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I was racially profiled today.

Looking for a job here in Chiang Mai is interesting. It’s not like I can look at the want ads for teaching positions that are open. Rather, I have to find out where the schools stand, and then go there in person and apply. And wherever I go, I have to fill out the dreaded application. It’s not that filling one out is difficult, it just seems redundant. Even back in the States, the questions are repetitive and don’t really tell much useful information. Anything that is asked in an application can quickly be covered in a brief interview or by reading the resume that most people would bring with them. Okay, so maybe if you are trying to get a job at McDonald’s, you won’t be bringing a CV or a resume, but you know what I mean. Anything else on the application that isn’t covered will be filled out in the eventuality of you getting hired. Such as emergency contact. Why on earth would someone who hasn’t hired me to do anything need an emergency contact? In case I stroke out during the interview or filling out the application?

There are some pretty striking differences between job applications in the US and the ones that I have been filling out here, though.  In the US, I have NEVER been asked my height and weight. Nobody wants to know my parents’ names and ages. US employers don’t give a shit my kids’ names and ages, not until I get put on a family health plan, anyway. In the US, employers are forbidden to ask certain questions. Like the one I had to answer today: “race.” My marital status. How old I am (in addition to my DOB.) I’m a single, 48-year-old white male. The ACLU would have a field day with an application like this in the States. But this is Thailand. And so those questions are just fine to ask. Interestingly, I wasn’t asked if I was a smoker or if I drank.

Being that I’m still looking for a job, I have not yet received a work permit or a non-immigrant work visa. So I had to go apply for a 30-day extension to my tourist visa. This meant a 30-minute ride to the other side of town where the immigration office sits at the bottom of a pretty big and very sad shopping mall. Yes, I rented that motorbike that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. And I must say, I really like riding it. Okay, to be completely upfront and straight with you, it’s not a REAL motorcycle in the sense that it has a manual transmission. It’s what we would call a scooter. But, it’s a pretty powerful one. It has two wheels, which make it a cycle. It has a 125cc motor, which, TECHNICALLY makes it a (follow me closely here…) a MOTOR-CYCLE. And it goes pretty fast, I guess. I’ve had it up to 80.  Okay, 80 kph, but that’s pretty much as fast as people drive over here anyway. And 80 kph seems pretty damned fast in traffic. Especially when drivers will pull over and park in front of a roadside stand, and you have to edge over into the other lane in front of the car behind you to get past.

Riding a motorbike over here is a trip. Many of the locals don’t wear helmets, even though they are required by law. When traffic ahead comes to a stop at a red light, the riders don’t sit idly behind in the queue. Instead, they pass the line of parked cars on the left and get up as close as they can to the light. Or, they will snake their way between the lanes of cars, dodging the mirrors on either side as they try to make it to the front of the pack. Because when the light finally turns green, the motorcycles take off like a shot, quickly outpacing the cars through the intersection. Usually, they will then merge over to the far left, many times riding in the shoulder lane so that the ultimately more powerful autos can pass on the right after they catch up to cruising speed. I personally thought this was a bit crazy at first, but now I’m getting pretty good at navigating between parked cars on my way to the front. And I DO wear my helmet. Not simply because it’s the safe thing to do (as if anything about riding a motorcycle in traffic is safe..), but because I want to avoid being pulled over for not wearing one. One of the things I neglected to do before I left Chicago was to apply for an International Drivers License. So technically, I’m riding illegally.

So, on my way to the faraway immigration office to get my visa extension, I ran right up on one of the dreaded police checkpoints. I had my helmet on, of course, so there was no reason for the officer to step out and wave me over while other traffic passed by. Except for one. I’m farang. That’s the Thai word for “foreigner.” It’s not a pejorative word, so I’m not offended by it. In the north of Thailand, where they have a big difficulty with the pronunciation of “r”, they call us “falang.” Anyway, I got nicked for not having the proper license. He pulled my white ass over, not because he knew I was breaking the law, but just because he suspected that I might be because of the color of my skin. He told me that the fine was 1000 baht, payable at the police station. I am pretty sure that he said that I could come back after paying the ticket to get my bike. There was no way in hell that I was going to walk or get a taxi to the station and then come back. I acted dumb and told him I didn’t know where the station was and that I needed to get to immigration and I didn’t know what an international driver’s license was. I looked at him and asked if I couldn’t just pay it on the spot. His eyes clicked, and he said, “I make you discount, you pay me 500 baht.” So, I paid the police his bribe, and rode on. He probably had a nice dinner with his wife and family or mistress or whatever. It cost me $14 US to get out of a traffic ticket.

So, yes, I was racially profiled. Now, I realize that it’s different than when it happens to others. There is no comparison to what others have gone through. At no time was I in fear for my life or think that I may be roughed up or put in handcuffs.  I pretty much knew that it was a shake-down for money. I simply rode away a little poorer.

I felt badly about it all the same. 500 baht is still more than I wanted to lose. I’m used to things not costing much over here, and without an income, I’m trying to watch my spending. I could eat for three days on 500 baht. I felt better later, though. I was telling May, the coffee girl with the lovely smile about my experience. And we had a nice chat. And then I accompanied her on her break to go look for something in the mall. And then she asked me out. I’m wrapping up this post so that I can go pick her up and go to dinner with her.  🙂

กาแฟ Kāfæ (Coffee)

February 23, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

My life here in Chiang Mai has begun to settle into a bit of routine. I sleep in most days until 9:30 or 10am. My friend, Nick, will message me and ask if I’m ready to go get something to eat. I grudgingly get out of bed and wash up and brush my teeth before slipping into some semi-clean clothing and sandals to walk to grab breakfast. There are so many cafes and food stalls to choose from within walking distance that we could probably eat at a different one every day for six months. But we end up patronizing the same few, as one would back home. When you find a diner and a waitress you’re comfortable with, you sort of gravitate to that place.

I know that I’ve mentioned this before, so forgive me if it’s repetitive, but our morning meals tend to include rice or noodles, meat, vegetables, an egg, and lots of heat from the peppers. We have become accustomed to the spiciness, to the point that we will usually add extra from the condiment jars on the table. Just like real Thai people. Okay, maybe we don’t make it quite as spicy as they do yet, but we’re improving.

Normally, with a meal like that back home in Chicago, I would have ordered a Diet Pepsi to wash it down with, but I have yet to see a Diet Pepsi in Thailand. I haven’t had one since leaving Chicago two months ago. So here my drink of choice is iced coffee. And I have found one place in particular from where I prefer to order my coffee. Yes, it’s the little coffee stand in the mall basement food court. The one with the pretty woman who has the lovely smile. Now I will admit that the reason I bought coffee from her the first time was because of the smile she gave me when our eyes met as I sat at the table near her counter. Okay, maybe the second time, too. She’s really got a great marketing technique going there. But damn if her coffee isn’t good. And less expensive than the cafes where I normally would buy a coffee with my meal. (Expensive is a really relative term, because it’s the difference between $1.30 and 86 cents US. Try getting that deal at your local Peet’s)

If you order an iced Thai coffee, what you get is a mixture of a very strong, black liquid, sugar, powdered creamer, sweetened condensed milk all stirred together and poured over a large cup of crushed ice, then topped with more regular condensed milk. It looks like a Starbucks iced cappuccino, but tastes way better. It is very similar to Vietnamese ca phe sua da (sweetened iced coffee). I’d place my order, and watch as the woman would draw hot water with a ladle from a large electric urn, then pour it into a cloth bag in which she had placed a large amount of ground coffee beans. She would hold the bag over a glass that contained the other ingredients, letting the extremely dark and aromatic coffee drain into the container until it was completely full. She then stirred the concoction and poured over the ice, topping it off with more ice and condensed milk before sticking a lid on the cup. I would then happily exchange 30 baht for the icy goodness and put a straw in the top before thanking her and walking away.

I really looked forward to my coffee, smile, and eventually daily conversation with May, as it turns out her name is. I walked up one morning and she surprised me by greeting me in my language. Her English isn’t perfect, and sometimes I don’t quite understand what she is trying to say at first, but it’s way better than my Thai at this point. During our conversation, I told her that although I loved the sweetened version of the Thai coffee, I really wanted to have it black. She looked at me in disbelief, and said “no sweet?”  I nodded, but she went ahead and put a tablespoon of sugar into the cup anyway, because she says that nobody can drink it completely black. I laughed and acquiesced. The result was a tall clear cup of ice filled with the obsidian brew. It was very strong, and it was completely delicious. May shook her head, still not quite convinced that I could drink it like that. So for the past three days, I’ve had my coffee ice cold, super dark, and with only a slight hint of sweet. I still do like the “regular” version, but the calorie count has to be tremendous.

Yesterday, May told me that she is going to have to move her coffee stand somewhere else, as the food court management has decided not to renew her lease when it ends in the middle of March. She is in a very small area that she shares with at least two other vendors, and it seems that management is letting one of the food vendors expand into the tiny space she inhabits. I hope she finds a good spot, and that it’s conveniently located. Need to feed my addiction.

Lighting a Fire

February 16, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

motivation noun  mo·ti·va·tion \ˌmō-tə-ˈvā-shən\

enthusiasm for doing something      Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

I’m back in my apartment room at almost 1pm sipping on the remains of my iced coffee from earlier today. I should be out looking for a job. I should be out exploring possibilities. I should be out doing something. But I’m not. I’m holed up inside wondering what to do.

It’s been a week since I moved my stuff into this apartment. I purchased bedsheets and pillows for my sleeping comfort the same night. Unfortunately, the thread count of the sheet is about the same as for a burlap sack, so the comfort wasn’t really what I had imagined. I’ve also discovered that the Thai standard of bedsheets does not include a top sheet. To be honest, I don’t even know if it’s a Thai thing. The only fact that I know for sure is that in America, or at least everywhere I purchased bedding, there was always a top sheet included in the set. But I don’t know if this is the standard in other places. This would explain why many of my couchsurfing guests who stayed with me in Chicago didn’t seem to know how to use the top sheet, and slept between it and the blanket that I provided. I remember it causing me a bit of consternation, because I would have to wash the blanket in addition to the sheets each time I would have a new guest.

But after a few days of laying on a scratchy bedsheet, resting my face on a scratchy pillowcase, and keeping warm with a scratchy duvet cover, I saw a for sale ad from a guy who was one floor above me. He had been in Chiang Mai for a month, and was on his way to Pai, another smaller city to the northeast, towards Myanmar. He was selling his gently-used and much softer bedding set. Now, I’ve never been in the market for used bedding before, but I reminded myself that I’ve several times stayed in hotels and hostels where the bedsheets and pillowcases have been used over and over by multiple strangers, and that laundering with soap seems to work. Now my bed is much more comfortable, with a much higher (thus smoother) thread count, and the old(new) duvet being used as a mattress pad. I also purchased from him an electric kettle, which allows me to heat water quickly for the two cases of ramen noodles that I purchased six weeks ago before my class started.

Other than that major accomplishment, however, I haven’t really done much. I did read two books, which was a nice change of pace. One of them included “The Martian”, by Andy Weir. Yes, the same one that the movie was based on. It was as good as I could have hoped, and you should read it yourself, even if you’ve already seen the film. Now I don’t have another book, and thus no good “excuse” for staying inside. My stack of printed resumes sits on the desk, waiting for me to put on teacher-appropriate clothing and hit the streets applying for jobs. But I don’t feel the enthusiasm that is necessary to do so. I haven’t worked in almost two months, and having no income is a bit worrisome, but it hasn’t gotten me off my ass to change the situation.

Of course, I’ve not spent all of my time in the room. Nick and I usually go find some breakfast mid-morning. It may not be the breakfast that we are used to back in America. Usually, my first meal of the day now includes rice or noodles, and is many times pretty spicy.  If we eat in the street food court inside the mall down on the corner, I usually will spend 40 baht for my meal, and cool down my mouth with a 30 baht iced Thai coffee from the counter with the pretty girl with the beautiful smile. Spending $2 US for a meal with coffee is still pretty awesome, and I find myself balking at meals that cost 100 baht or more. I guess I’ve become cheap. I will splurge a bit on occasion. On Valentine’s Day, we joined a couple of our former classmates, Nicole and Nerissa (who were back in town just for the one day), at an absolutely beautiful restaurant for pizzas and beer. Named, “The Faces”, this place has adobe walls on the outside with narrow doorways that look like shutters for an entrance. Once inside, you realize that you are really still outside, as the restaurant has no real roof, just a lush canopy of trees and tropical plants. With the stone and terra cotta carvings of gods and heads, it has the feel of walking into a place where you would expect to find Indiana Jones appropriating some lost treasure or icon. That meal set me back 380 baht, which amounts to roughly $11. But it was worth it, as we spent a couple of hours with good people, laughing and reminiscing about the good old days that happened in January.

Last night after a cheap dinner, I had Nick come with me to the Bus Bar that sits right on the Ping River to the east of the old city. Every Wednesday night beginning at 8pm, there is a meetup of local and visiting couchsurfers there, and I had been wanting to connect with the group. Nick originally had reservations about the whole “weird and creepy” couchsurfing concept, but after about 30 seconds, he was deep in conversation with the people there, and even met another guy from Arizona who had stopped in Chiang Mai for a time. For me, it was just good to be around like-minded people again. I was able to chat over beers and exchange stories with some travelers from Switzerland, Poland, Germany, and Hong Kong. It turns out that there is also a language exchange meetup on Tuesdays that I’ll probably begin attending next week.

So, back to the motivation issue I’m having, I’m not really sure how to explain it. It feels like fear, which makes no good sense. I just finished up a tremendously difficult course in how to teach English, and it can’t get any more demanding than that. I think I’m afraid to go out there and be told ‘no’, there are no openings right now, or that I’m not what they are looking for because of my lack of a college degree. I know that these hurdles I’m placing in front of myself are bullshit, because some of the schools are just looking for (preferably white) warm bodies who are native speakers of English. Or maybe I’m a bit intimidated of having to report for work in a new place again, where they expect me to know what the hell I’m doing. Fear of committing to something. Perhaps that’s it.

Earlier today, I reached out to Steve, the British expat I mentioned before. Steve and his Thai wife, Dang, have a small cafe near the school I attended in Hang Dong, which is actually a bit south of Chiang Mai. He had offered to help out with introducing me (and others) to contacts who could recommend jobs and places to live in the area. He asked if I had gotten myself a motorcycle or scooter yet, and I told him that I was trying to get a job first. He laughed at me and told me that I was doing it all backwards, and said I was like an upside down crab. So, on his recommendation, I’m going to go rent myself a small motorcycle and make my way down to his place tomorrow morning so he can show me around and introduce me to people who can help. A little bit of wind in my motivation sails. It’s going to be just fine.

Meanwhile, what the FUCK is Donald Trump doing to my country???

Learning the Ropes

February 10, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m sitting at the desk in my new studio apartment (hotel room, in actuality) looking out at Doi Suthep, the mountain that sits on the northwest corner of Chiang Mai. In the foreground are a few semi-tall buildings, some smaller structures with corrugated roofs, and a lovely green copse of trees that hides most everything else. It would be very peaceful, were it not for the bit of noise from traffic on Huay Kaew Road, and the constant roar of commercial flights taking off from the airport just to the south. The butterflies that are flitting around the trees below seem not to take notice. There is a bit of haze from the city that hangs over the landscape, but otherwise the sky is blue with a few wispy, white clouds in suspended animation.

Nick, my friend and former classmate, and I have just returned from a late brunch at one of the myriad little cafes in the area. For 80 Thai baht ($2.31), I enjoyed a plate of pad see ew and an iced coffee. The portion size was a little small by American standards, but I’m learning to adjust my intake. I’ve got quite a few adjustments to make in order to savor life here in northern Thailand. Some of the things that I must get used to are the sidewalks, the dearth of paper napkins, and the constant temptation to eat the endless supply of street food in front of me. The sidewalks tend to be narrower than what I’m used to, and there seems to be no uniformity in height from one block to the next. A pedestrian is perpetually dodging and weaving between concrete power poles, street signs, and food vendors. It’s many times easier to walk on the street facing the oncoming traffic. It would be maddening to a civil engineer from the west.  As far as the paper shortage goes, if you get napkins at all, they tend to be what we in America would consider toilet tissue. You learn to do the best you can and not make a big mess with your food. This would definitely not work with BBQ ribs. Last night, I went to dinner with another classmate from Shanghai before she left for home this morning. Catherine and I walked to a real-life Italian restaurant that served one of the best Caesar salads that I’ve ever eaten. What I marveled at the most, however, were the proper linen napkins that we had at the table. It’s funny how the otherwise insignificant things make such an impression when you’ve done without for a while.

I’ll have to start a new paragraph for the street food. I’ll keep it short for now, but it will definitely be a topic for at least a few individual posts in the future. It’s almost impossible to walk a city block here without passing a temporary food cart or tiny stall hawking some meat or fish grilling on sticks. Others serve various types of fruit or fresh-squeezed juice. In the evening, the streets change as the vendors come and set up temporary stands complete with gas burners and grills, home-made fans to keep the flies at bay, and folding tables surrounded by colorful plastic stools for customers to sit and eat the dishes that are cooked to order. The smells are a combination of strange and mouth-watering, and it’s difficult to not try something. These ad hoc food courts would NEVER be allowed in America, at least not anywhere I’ve ever been. Many westerners have expressed disdain or concern about unsanitary conditions and unrefrigerated product, but I am starting to believe that we have become too coddled. I’ve lost count of how many times that I have paid 10 or 20 baht for something that looked too good to pass up, and I have yet to get sick.  This is a definitely a place where you can channel your inner Anthony Bourdain.

As I mentioned earlier, I now have a semi-permanent address. Nick, who is from Arizona, and I both wanted to remain in Chiang Mai to teach and live. We decided that it would be good to team up and tackle the challenge of learning a new culture together. After spending the better part of the week partying and hanging out with classmates, we took Tuesday to look for accommodations. We ended up renting two separate studio apartments on the fourth floor of the current place for a month, to give us time to find jobs and look around for a more permanent housing situation. Our goal is to find a furnished two bedroom at an affordable cost, so that we can split the rent and save money for the other things we want to do. Nick is a pretty-well educated naturalist with a masters degree in something-or-other. He’s chill and very easy to get along with, and we hit it off pretty much immediately during the training program.  It’s interesting for me to watch him deal with the fact that all of our former classmates have moved on and back to their home countries. He’s a sensitive soul, and I can tell that it’s a bit distressing for him to lose people that he’s become very close to. I feel it too, having developed deep friendships with those whom I went through so much challenge and stress, but I have moved so many times in my life that I have become a bit inured to leaving friends behind, or vice versa. That being said, I’m really glad that he’s here, because without his company, I’m pretty sure I’d feel more lost than I already do. We’ve been helping each other with our resumes and discovering how to maneuver around our new city. Which leads to a funny story:

Yesterday, Nick got a haircut and a beard trim at a local barbershop recommended by the lady who runs the apartment building. I was very impressed by the job the barber had done, so I decided that I would get my beard trimmed professionally as well. Over the weekend, I had already treated myself to a haircut and a mani-pedi (hey… I do what I like) at another salon close to our hostel. The problem is, I don’t speak Thai, and the lady spoke very little English. So it was difficult to tell her exactly what I wanted. It turned out okay, but she did cut the hair on the sides of my head pretty short. So, you think that I would have learned a lesson from that. Not exactly. I happened upon another barbershop in the alley behind our apartments, and they offered beard trims for 60 baht (less than $2). I sat down and told the lady that I wanted just a nice trim and shaping. She smiled and nodded, and I sat back in the comfort that I was in the hands of a professional. Then she proceeded to take the clippers and shaved the left side of my face down to the bare skin. Another lost in translation moment. I’ve not been clean-shaven since 2013. The lady did ask me if I wanted to keep the moustache, and I VERY carefully showed her that I wanted to keep the chin part, too. So, now I have myself a nice goatee. And the knowledge that my beard will grow back. It was also my very first time being shaved with a straight-razor. I’m not sure why that made me so nervous. I couldn’t help but think that all the lady had to do was to slide the blade across my throat at a certain angle, and I’d be done for. I tried to comfort myself with the realization that the woman who cut my hair in Chicago could have easily driven the shears into my temple had she had the inclination, but that most people aren’t homicidal like Sweeney Todd.

Another plane just roared overhead, and I realize that I still have much to accomplish today. Nick just texted me to suggest that we leave early tomorrow morning (while it’s still cool) to hike to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which is the golden temple on the top of the mountain. We’ll see how that goes. I’m already sore and winded just thinking about it. Please remember that my wishes are to be cremated if I don’t make it back.

It’s Over?

February 3, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I woke up early this morning even though there was no reason to. This is officially the last day of my CELTA program, and there is nothing scheduled until 3pm, when I get feedback on my final teaching practice from last night. It feels a bit weird now, having nothing to do. I got up and showered before 7, hoping that my classmate, Nerissa, would join me for a morning walk again. But I didn’t hear back from her, so I brought my computer out onto the covered veranda attached to the main building. Normally, I would be working on a lesson plan, a written assignment, or some other deadline-induced activity at this time, but not today. It all seems so anti-climactic.

Normally, there would be a party scheduled for this evening. After four weeks of mostly sleepless nights, having information force-fed to us as if from a fire hose, and stressing out over improving our teaching methods to satisfy our mentors, it would be a great chance to unwind and really enjoy being with our classmates, trainers, and the support staff from the school. However, because the school is under the purview of the Thai Department of Education, there will no party, due to the recent death of the King. All government offices are observing a year-long mourning period.

While this is understandable, and we all respect the reasons for the decision, it is a bit disappointing. We have all worked so hard to get through this course. No one, not even those who already have classroom teaching experience, has had an easy time of it. Many tears have been shed, both in public and private, as I mentioned previously. We’ve all had to lean on each other to get through it. And because of that, we have become pretty close as a group. We want to hang out and party with our new family. Because after today, many of us will most likely never see each other again. Sure, we have Facebook, WeChat, and various other ways to keep in touch and share our lives, but as we get back to our regular lives, the message frequency will wane, and we will drift apart slowly.

So for this weekend, several of us have booked a hostel near the city center, and we intend to hang out with one another as much as possible. We have tentatively planned hiking excursions, temple visits, and finding cool bars, good food, and massage places. Whatever we end up doing, we are intent on enjoying the hell out of it.

Breakdown

January 20, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It was 7:18am when it finally happened to me. I had been warned by other friends who have taken or taught the CELTA program that there comes a point in the program for every student where they break. Some begin screaming, throwing things, or sobbing uncontrollably as the pressure of the tasks become too much. Many have the feeling of helplessness, that they just cannot continue, that they may as well just leave, because there’s no way that they will make it through.

I’ve been dealing with the pressure of classes, teaching practices, and writing assignments for almost two weeks. On Tuesday evening, I taught the class using the materials provided for me. I felt during the lesson that I caught my stride, and that it was going fairly well, despite my nervousness which I kept hidden. But after the lesson was over, I realized that I hadn’t asked them any follow-up questions to see if they had absorbed the material. I beat myself up about it overnight, then went to the feedback session on Wednesday morning, fully expecting my instructor and the classmates in my group to point that out. But that didn’t happen. In fact, later in the day, one of the other instructors mentioned in front of the larger group that he heard I had done an excellent job of teaching my lesson the night before. This made me feel good, and gave me a boost.

However, on last night’s teaching assignment, I found myself completely unprepared for the lesson. I had been struggling all day to concentrate on writing my lesson plan and collecting the materials that I would need to use in the classroom. I was distracted and not making much progress, with the deadline looming. I was supposed to have filled out a grammar analysis sheet for the lesson, which was on the use of comparatives and superlatives (e.g. good, better, best; fast, faster, fastest) but I ran out of time. So, I went into the class armed with only part of the knowledge that would be needed to do a concise explanation of the rules of grammar.  After a moderately long period where I used the whiteboard to show the concepts, I gave the students a quiz. And while I was crouching down to their level at the desks to monitor their progress and provide assistance as necessary, I discovered that they did not have any idea what they were doing. It dawned on me that I had completely forgotten to explain to them that when using comparatives between two objects, that we use the words “as” and “than”.  As in, “Bob is not as good a teacher as the last one.” “This lesson was worse than any other we’ve ever had.”

Fortunately, I didn’t allow the rising panic to freeze me in my tracks. I made the quick decision to tell the students to put down their pens, and I admitted to them that I had forgotten to give them a key piece of information. I spent the next few minutes at the board free-styling an explanation with examples of how to use the language. I then let them work in pairs to finish the exercise, and did a shortened version of the review that I had planned. I had to jettison the last activity that I had prepared for them, because I was now out of time to do anything else but to thank the students for coming and telling them that it had been our honor to teach them for the past two weeks.

I don’t remember tasting my dinner after that. I joined a group of my classmates who walked down the road to a place we refer to as the “hay bale bar”, which is pretty much a group of hay bales lined up against a long table facing out on a rice paddy. Local beers were purchased from a small, tin-roofed store across the street from the “bar”, and I sat with my friends, trying to forget the dismal lesson that I had just finished teaching. I went to bed in a funk, and woke up in the same state. I knew that I had a self-evaluation to write, and all I could think to do was to be completely raw and honest in it. In the section asking what were my key achievements in the first half of the course, I wrote that I had accomplished “fooling people into thinking that I actually belonged here.” And I started to think that this was a waste of my time, that I never would accomplish this, that I wasn’t cut out for it. I felt that all of my friends who had told me in the past that I would make a great teacher, that I would do well, really didn’t know me like they thought. They didn’t know the scared quitter that lived inside of me. And I started to cry. Not loud sobs, just quiet tears running down my face and tickling my cheeks on their way to the floor. One of my friends messaged me to ask how I was doing, and she told me that I would be fine, that I just had to endure, that this was my dream job. Which set off my tears again, because this is my one shot at having the ability to support myself as I travel the world. I cannot go back to Chicago, back to the existence that I am trying to escape. I turned on Spotify and chose Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” to inspire me.* It seemed to help me through my paperwork.

I walked into my feedback session like I was heading to the gallows. I was supposed to give constructive criticism to the two classmates who taught before me the last night, and I managed to say a few things that I remembered, because I hadn’t really written much down. When it came time to have my lesson dissected, I was stunned to hear that my classmates thought my lesson went well. My instructor, who had the copy of my self-evaluation in his lap, said that he thought I was being too hard on myself. He said that the decisive action I took in cutting short the quiz in order to teach what I had missed was actually a positive. He made a point of mentioning that I showed a real interest in the welfare of the students. And he gave me a passing score. Later, during my private review of my achievements during the first half of the course, he said that I was to standard, meaning that I was where I should be at this point. He didn’t return my first required written assignment for resubmission, meaning I somehow passed on the initial attempt. I walked out of that meeting in disbelief. The cloud that had been following me around in the morning dissipated, and the sun came out.

This evening, after we sat through the class watching the instructor teach grammar points to the new group of students whom we will be with for the next two weeks, our “old” pupils from the first half of the course took us out to an outside bar/cafe not far from the school. We sat under the stars at a long table with our student/friends, laughing as we spoke to each other in a mixture of Thai, English, and Chinese. We toasted each other with continuously-refilled glasses of Singha beer with ice cubes. We shared communal plates of chicken, seafood with vegetables, French fries with ketchup and mayonnaise, and even tried some bugs, which led to some hilarity. Our Thai friend, Max had taken over the bar’s sound system, playing music from his phone, and we eventually got up and danced a bit, not feeling the least bit foolish as we butchered the moves to “Gangnam Style”.  It was a perfect few hours spent with good people, some of whom I may never forget. And I somewhere during all of that, I realized that this is exactly where I belong.

*

                    Look, if you had, one shot, or one opportunity                                         
               To seize everything you ever wanted. In one moment                                   
                        Would you capture it, or just let it slip?                                               
                                                  Yo                                                                          

 Eminem, (2002)

A Break

January 15, 2017

Chiang Mai, Thailand

It is Sunday, and I’m laying on a king-sized bed alone in my lovely room here at the school in Chaing Mai. The sunlight is pouring through the large, double sliding glass doors, attenuated only by the sheer curtains that I have drawn to keep the heat at bay. I do have air-conditioning, and it is keeping me quite comfortable. My room is painted a soft yellow, with a brilliant white ceiling. The floor is marble tile, and gleams perfectly, as the housekeepers mop it each and every day. I have a desk, chair, cabinets for my clothing and supplies, a small refrigerator, and an electric kettle. The private bathroom is huge, with a shower as big as a walk-in closet. Outside, I have a small veranda surrounded by greenery and backed up to the crystal-clear swimming pool. It’s all very luxurious.

My plane from Bangkok landed about 10km away almost exactly one week ago. And already it seems like an eternity since I picked up my luggage and arrived at the school. My classes are fast-paced and even though we have breaks between each, it seems difficult to keep up with all of the information that is being thrown at us. We each have two teaching assignments every week. That means writing a lesson plan, collecting materials, submitting them to the instructor beforehand, then standing in front of a group of Thai students who are there to learn English from teachers who are nervous, under prepared, and sometimes trying not to break down and cry while running away. Our teaching practice is scheduled from 5:45 – 8:15pm each day – three classes with a break in between. That gives us all day to dread what is to come while trying to focus on the instructors who are heaping another pile of knowledge upon us.

On top of the regular class schedule, which runs from 11:30 until the end of the last teaching practice, we are also required to complete four written assignments during the course. The first consisted of four worksheets that needed to be filled out in detail. They took me over 12 hours to finish, which took up most of my Saturday and a good portion of this morning. We are expected to know (or at least be able to look up in textbooks) the finer points of grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary. We have to describe in detail how we will approach teaching these to students, the methods we will use, the problems that we anticipate and how we plan to deal with them. We are using terms like “lexis”, “concept check questions”, “elicitation”, and “clines”. We’ve been given a chart of phonemes (yeah, I never heard of them, either), which are symbols denoting each of the basic sounds contained in human speech. To me and many of the other students, they look like hieroglyphics. I guess they will be useful, assuming that our students understand them.

My classmates are from all over the world. Several British and Australians, as well as Chinese. Two women from Bangladesh, at least one guy each from India and France. Girls from Argentina, Eastern Europe. And a few Americans, though some have already been teaching abroad for years already. In my group, only two of us have actually flown here from the States. Nick, from Arizona and I both are now unemployed and homeless, waiting to see what opens up for us after the course. Overall, my fellow teaching students have been very pleasant company. We seem to be building a camaraderie to survive the rigors of the course. We all bitch and moan about how much we have to do in so little time, cajole each other to keep at it, check in with one another to see if help or support are needed.

I’m waiting to meet a few others at 4pm at the front gate. We have requested a songthaew (basically a pickup truck with a covered bed with bench seats on either side) to take us into Chiang Mai so we can go to the Sunday night market. There, we hope to sample some good street food, check out some sights, and perhaps see a few unique items. Basically, we just want to be outside the walls. I did get out a little yesterday, when some of us walked about a kilometer down the road to a little cafe run by Steve – a British expat -, his Thai wife, and their ten-year-old daughter, Jasmine, for whom the restaurant is named. We had a proper English breakfast – eggs, sausage, bacon (well, the English version), beans, toast, and coffee. Steve also teaches English, and sees a lot of new students from my school every month. He and I chatted for a bit, and he told me if I would like his help in finding a teaching position, he’d be happy to assist. So, we’ll see where that leads.

My schedule is such that I’m a bit pressed for time, and my writing has suffered for it. But I’ll attempt to get a few stories out. Because there are so many things to tell. Until next time…

Schoolboy Again

January 6, 2017

Bangkok, Thailand

This post will be rather brief in comparison to my usual writing as I’m a bit short on time. I’m sitting in an open-air lobby at a hostel in central Bangkok, listening to the strange birds calling and enjoying the cool morning air. The daylight has just begun to break, and I also hear traffic on the street behind the building. From yesterday’s experience, I know that the sidewalks are lined with food vendors just waiting to tempt me with their offerings. I can’t wait to get out there and try something new.

I promise to write a post in the future about the street food that I’ve been enjoying, and the wacky traffic and incomprehensible bus schedules, but as I have been in a grammar refresher course yesterday and today, I simply cannot afford the precious minutes. My class was interesting yesterday. I was surrounded in a small room with 11 other students like me, who are planning to teach English. We are a multinational group. A few Americans, two Canadians, two from Singapore, one from Thailand, a New Zealander, and an Aussie. My first partner of the day was a woman named Munara, from Kyrgyzstan. (I had to look up how to spell that) Our instructors were Ukrainian and British. The accents alone in that room were enough to spin my head. I can only imagine what a potluck dinner would be like.

We discussed parts of speech, how to properly identify verb tenses, what modals are. The instructors, Diana and Tim, were very good at controlling the class, allaying our fears of ignorance (as many of us haven’t done this in quite a while), and helping us to learn by using games to elicit responses. The sessions seemed to go by very quickly. I’m looking forward to today’s class as well.

It’s time for me to pack my belongings, check out of the hostel, then head to the bus stop with my backpack. I’m sure I’ll grab something tasty along the way.

Bangkok At Last

January 3, 2017

Bangkok, Thailand

Let me just get this out of the way: I need a damned camera. The one on the phone is just useless unless the subject is less than five feet away.  And then I need to learn how to use it. Otherwise, it’s just as useless.

Okay, that little item of business dispensed with, let’s get on with it. The airport in Bangkok was a breeze compared with my Shanghai experience. After the plane landed, I was able to quickly navigate my way to immigration, and the Thai officials were very efficient in getting us through the booths. I was at the baggage carousel before it began dispensing our luggage. I enjoyed a nice conversation with an American girl from New York, who was planning to stay in northern Thailand for about six months. Aven, (“it’s like ‘Raven’, but without the ‘R'”, she explained to me) had been here before, and had some helpful tips about the country. I’m still a rookie at traveling, so I’m happy whenever someone is willing to share their experience with me.

For the first time in memory, I actually had to show my claim tickets to collect my bags. Two hard-working Thais offloaded the items as they came around on the belt, saving us the trouble of having to wade through a crowd to snatch them off ourselves. I checked the time and saw that I still had several minutes before my friend was to pick me up outside exit number 4, our pre-arranged meeting spot. I quickly rolled the luggage cart over to the currency exchange, and received 3,382 Thai baht for the $100 US that I handed the woman along with my passport. The challenge is to try to remember how much you are spending in American money when everything is in a different currency.

Titima, my friend who hosted me for one night during my last trip here in May, met me with her car outside the entrance. Sitting in the left-hand seat without a steering wheel or pedals always throws me a bit. Thais drive on the left side of the road, which is a bit unnerving when you see oncoming traffic in the lane where you think you are supposed to be. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, as long as I remember to look to the right before crossing the street. It took about 30 minutes to reach her home, driving through an incomprehensible maze of highways and side streets and alleys. I truly have no idea where in town I am, or how to navigate. I didn’t have time to grab a new SIM card for my phone, so Google maps is just a pretty little icon on my homescreen for now.

After hauling my bags up the stairs to the third-story bedroom in Titima’s lovely home, I washed up and then we left to go pick up her younger son, Ben, and his girlfriend who was introduced to me as “B”.  They had a family gathering at the university hospital to visit an ailing relative, so I was introduced to several of her family members. I was to wait inside a small coffee shop on campus while they gathered together visiting grandmother, and I availed myself of the opportunity to eat something and try not to fall asleep at the table. Jet-lag is always a problem for me, and I was determined to stay up as long as possible, even though I had only slept for two hours the previous night. When they returned, they ordered dinner for themselves, and we had a nice chat. I’ve met both of Titima’s sons now. Paul, the older one who stays with her, I met on my previous visit. He is a broadcast news editor and works early hours. Ben works as an on-air personality at the same government-owned radio station. Both of them are very fluent in American-style English, having spent much of their earlier lives in Texas. They are extremely polite and pleasant company to be around. So conversation around the table was not difficult, and it helped to keep me awake. I did fall asleep in the car on the ride back home. I just hope that I didn’t snore loudly.

Since New Year’s Eve and Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, yesterday and today (Monday and Tuesday) are observed holidays. We decided to head to one of the temples near Nakhon Pathom, a town to the east of Bangkok. When we arrived, there were several hundred people sitting in the courtyard at tables while the orange-robed monks delivered a prayer service. I’m not certain how long the service had been going on, but about two minutes after we walked up to the spot, the monks went silent and everyone got up and queued up at long buffet tables where sat huge pots of rice and countless platters of various home-cooked food. Titima, and her sister who joined us, led me into the line and told me to fill a plate for myself. I really didn’t know what it was all about, but when offered home-cooked dishes that I’m not familiar with, I almost always say yes. I took a little of this, a little of that, until my plate was filled with small tastes of meats, seafood, rice, noodles, and curry sauces. I asked what the occasion was, and they informed me that this is a regular practice, weekly at least, if not more often. The monks are forbidden to dine after noon-time, and the faithful worshippers bring food for them to eat. Anything left over (which is a tremendous amount) is distributed to the tables for everyone to eat pot-luck style. I felt a little guilty, because number one, I’m not Buddhist. Number two, I didn’t bring anything. I also noticed that out of the hundreds of people in attendance, I was the only non-Thai person there. Yet nobody looked at me funny, or pointed and whispered. They handed me a plate and treated me like anyone else. I was made to feel at home.  Definitely a privilege that I appreciate being able to be part of.

After the meal, everyone took their plates to a communal wash station. Plates and silverware (Thais prefer the western utensils over chopsticks in most cases) were washed in soapy water, then rinsed off in a series of three sinks to make sure that they were free of soap residue. It was really something to see and be a part of. Nobody expected someone else to take care of it for them.

We then adjourned to another building, an open-sided library, that sat along a body of brown water. We respectfully left our shoes at the entrance, a custom whenever entering any temple structure. While my friends looked over some books for purchase, I wandered over to the railing overlooking the water. As I allowed my eyes to gaze out over the pond at the beautiful building on the other side, I caught some movement in my peripheral vision.  Gliding through the water was a monitor lizard. He eventually climbed out of the murky basin, through the lush green flora, and onto the grass. I estimate his length from nose to tail was about 7 feet. It was interesting watching him walk, using his left-front and right-rear legs simultaneously to propel himself forward, then repeating the opposite sides. He didn’t stay out long. Monitor lizards are shy, and he left as a small group of people came his way from around the building. I also saw some very big carp swimming below the surface, colors ranging from whitish pink to orange to brown. A large snapping turtle lazily floated in the shallows. I tried to take good pictures, but as I said before…

The variety of trees surrounding me was stunning. I found myself staring up towards the sky to view them, then realized that I probably looked just like the Nebraskan folks that I poke fun at when they visit the concrete forests of Chicago. The Thai people possibly thought of me as a naive tourist, but are way too polite a society to say anything rude.

We briefly visited the next building, which held an altar. I followed Titima up the steps and into the main hall. She explained to me the proper manner in which to sit and supplicate the Buddha- different styles for men and for women. I did not perform the ritual myself, since I’m no longer religious, and somewhat a non-jihadi atheist.  But I did kneel, showing respect for those worshippers around me as they went through their prayers.

Despite the fact that this was only half of what I did on this amazing day, I’m going to end my post here. I don’t want to run on and on, because I fear that my small audience will shrink instead of grow if the stories take longer to read than the amount of time allotted to a reasonable trip to the restroom. (Because that’s where you are reading this, aren’t you?)

Onward…

January 1, 2017

Somewhere over Thai Airspace

As I looked at the neighborhoods of Chicago for the last time from the window of the Lyft that I ordered to take me to the airport, I almost became overwhelmed at the thought of leaving this beautiful city that I have called home for 3 1/2 years. True, I’ve lived longer in other places, but Chicago truly has become my hometown. I love it more than any other place I’ve lived in my 48 years of existence. I talk about it proudly to anyone I happen to meet from other places, explaining the rich history, the charm of the green space and parks, the lovely, unmatched shoreline devoid of commercial or residential high-rises that would spoil the view. I tell them about the food they must try, about the free music, the neighborhood festivals. When I do this, I am reminded of the times that I personally have taken advantage of these, and how much I enjoyed them. Sure, Chicago has her problems, the poverty, corruption, violence, winter… but overall, I am in love with her. Frank Sinatra sang about Chicago being his girlfriend. Maybe she was, but Old Blue Eyes is dead, so…

But as much as I love Chicago, I realized a while back that I needed to change. Change my life, change my habits, my scenery, my occupation. Otherwise, I’d miss out on so much of what else this world has to offer. And that would be a shame. So, I’m taking a leap of faith. The totality of my material possessions now fit inside a suitcase, a large backpack, and a day pack. And I’m on my way to Thailand.

I kept thinking that the day was off in the distance. But it crept up on me when I was busy preparing for it. So I found myself in the Lyft, ready to go, but not ready. Not completely ready emotionally, anyway. And not packed correctly for the trip, either. At the airport, I discovered that my suitcase was overweight. Cards Against Humanity has done me in again at the airport. I wanted to bring my whole set because it’s the only game I have left. And it weighs in at over 6 kilos. So, I had to pull my bags over to the side, sit on the floor, and repack everything. Fortunately, I kept my empty messenger bag instead of giving it away, and was able to fit almost all of the cards into that, thus bringing my suitcase in just under the 25 kilos allowed, and giving me a personal item to bring on the plane in addition to the day pack that served as my carry-on. The cards would subsequently fuck me one more time, as the TSA screening machine cannot tell what the dense boxes of material are. For the second time, I had my bags pulled aside and inspected while the TSA agent assured himself that the contents were simply an irreverent game and not blocks of C-4.

 So, at approximately 1:50pm CST on December 30, 2016, I wistfully enjoyed my final glimpse of the Windy City skyline from over the wing of the big Boeing 777-300, and I was on my way to Shanghai. That’s a long flight. Fifteen hours in the air is a tad uncomfortable. I watched several movies instead of trying to sleep, holding my bladder for the first several hours while the cute couple sitting next to me took turns napping with their heads in each other’s laps. They were very nice, though. Eric, a young guy who grew up in the northern suburbs had taken his Chinese girlfriend, Amy back to Chicagoland for Christmas with the family. Eric has been teaching English in Wuhan for the last two years. (How do I keep meeting these people?) So we chatted a bit about China and Chicago. It was encouraging to hear his story about how he was doing well in his chosen profession and life abroad. 

My plans for Shanghai had consisted of clearing customs and catching a train into the city to enjoy some street food with a friend of mine who lives there. However, those plans didn’t work out as I had hoped. First of all, it was explained to me that I would have to collect my baggage in Pudong airport and find a place to store them before check-in on New Year’s Day. I guess that comes with the 14-hour layover. Getting through customs itself took quite a while. Then trying to locate and grab my suitcase and backpack off the carousel was a chore, because everyone crowded around the  moving belt like they were watching a cockfight. I helplessly witnessed my suitcase going around twice before I was able to muscle my way into the crowd and grab it before it took the long, circuitous journey one more time. Finding the place to check bags didn’t take terribly long, but along the way, I was propositioned by a local man who told me that the bag storage was prohibitively expensive, and that it would be cheaper to book a local hotel and take the free shuttle there instead. But I’ve been conned before, so I told him I’d let him know if the bag storage idea didn’t work. I was correct. He was playing me. Then came the issue with paying for the storage. It was cash only, and the only cash I had was Benjamin Franklins, which don’t work as well for paying for things over there. They like pictures of different guys on their currency. So began the ordeal of trying to get RMB, or Chinese Yuan, to pay the fee. The currency exchange booth shut down early, the ATM next to it only worked for Shanghai bank cards, my new Chase Sapphire Visa card didn’t work in the upstairs international ATM (and the toll-free international number on the back of the card wasn’t in service), so I finally just swiped my debit card and took out 300 Yuan, foreign transaction fees be damned. By the time I got my bag storage paid for, I had been in the airport terminal for over two hours, and I was exhausted. I had already told my friend that I probably wouldn’t make it in time to meet her before the train system shut down for the night, stranding her far from home. So I chalked it up to having an experience, not getting upset about it, and plopped myself and my carry-on down in a leather lounge seat inside a deserted priority ticketing area to try to sleep.

Just when I had given up hope of having a decent time in Shanghai, I got a text message from Ming Lee, a Taiwanese girl from couchsurfing, whom I had contacted to see if she’d like to join my now-abandoned excursion into the city to eat, as her layover was around the same time as my own. She hadn’t been able to contact me using the spotty, free airport Wi-Fi. When she found out that I hadn’t left the airport, she was surprised. She was on her way to a hotel that she had booked for $35US, because she didn’t want to sleep in the airport and needed a shower. She offered to let me split the room with her, and I gratefully accepted, grabbed a taxi (after fending off the predatory, non-metered crooks), and joined her shortly after she arrived. We both showered (separately, of course), rang in 2017 by splitting a bottle of water supplied in the room, then went out to grab some food and beer. Honestly, as dull as that may sound to you, that was the one of the best New Years celebrations I’ve ever done. We returned to the room and talked for a bit before going to sleep at 2am. I got about two hours of sleep and woke up before the alarm went off. 

Surprisingly, I felt great, having stayed up over 30 hours since beginning my last morning in Chicago. I grabbed a hot wake-me-up shower, dressed quickly, said goodbye to Ming Lee, and caught a taxi back to the terminal. Getting through the ticketing counter was a breeze. Then I completely failed at being an experienced traveler going through security. I did a great job of unpacking my laptop and tablet to be scanned separately, off with the belt and jacket (shoes aren’t a requirement over here), and proceeded not once, not twice, but three times to set off the metal detector. I had forgotten that I had been wearing a money belt, forgot my cell-phone and wallet, and forgot the change jingling around in my front pocket. I thought the Chinese TSA-equivalent lady was going to brain me with her wand. 

I still had about 40 Yuan left to spend, and so I grabbed a nice breakfast in one of the airport cafes, joined at the table by a delightful young woman from Hong Kong, who has been living in NY going to university. Yu, as her name turned out to be, hadn’t said anything to me, but then let on that she spoke English when she had to translate to me the question from the waiter, “tea or coffee?” So we got to talking about what we liked about Hong Kong, where she was headed to visit her friends, and about New York, where she doesn’t like the pizza. Oh, well. I guess nobody’s perfect. 

My seatmates in the exit row of the plane promptly passed out as soon as we began taxiing to the runway. The two idiots on across the aisle pulled out a large container of Baileys Vanilla/cinnamon-flavored Irish Cream and began swigging directly from the bottle. They went completely unconscious in flight, not even noticing the fat Chinese man with the short legs and big fanny-pack climbing over them to get to the aisle. It was almost comical to watch, but God help us if we had had to ditch the plane, because I believe this was the most inept group of adults in the emergency exit row that I have ever seen.  Nobody seems to understand or care about the safety rules of flight, because more than one person actually unbuckled their safety belts and walked down the center of the plane towards the bathrooms while we were still climbing to altitude. I thought that the flight attendant was going to blow a gasket, but she just calmly grabbed the microphone and said something in Chinese, then sat in her jumpseat smiling until the wayward passengers finally made it back to the safety of their seats. 

I’m currently still on the flight, and we are beginning our descent into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where my friend Titima will be waiting to pick me up. Scheduled landing is at 12:30pm on New Year’s Day, fitting for me to begin my new life. I’m beginning to get a little excited.