There and back again

I’m not very good at summarizing anything, much less a massive experience like living abroad. Solidifying all the important and amazing and wonderful things that happened into words can sometimes feel like you’re cheapening the experience. Bits of it are lost, chipped away to make it read better, and then—10, 20, 50 years from now—I will likely find myself relying on a quick journal entry or blog post to piece it all together.

Three weeks ago, Jonathan and I left Thailand to return to our “real lives” in the west. And if I’m going to be completely and utterly honest, we weren’t heartbroken to leave. Thailand served as a perfect place for us to live and work together, grow as a couple, navigate challenging situations, and make major life decisions in a non-stressful environment. We didn’t travel as much as we had planned, but instead decided to save our little salary for our next big adventure— marriage and immigration.

As an international couple, we are constantly faced with difficult decisions that most normal couples would never have to consider, like visas and paperwork and lawyer’s fees and interviews with immigration officers. We can’t simply live together without one of us jumping through hoops.

Thailand will always be a place I hold dear to my heart. I don’t know if the Thai kids I taught will remember me, especially after I’m replaced by another foreign teacher, but I know that I will always remember their adorable smiling faces.

Thailand

So here’s to another chapter in the book. Another step forward. Another few words on the page.

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A small price for luxury

Throughout the 5 months I’ve lived in Thailand, I’ve been constantly amazed by how cheap it is to survive is this beautiful country. My rent and utilities are dirt cheap. I ride public transportation to and from work for $0.16 a day. Even though my salary is adjusted to these cheaper Thai prices, I’ve still been able to save money for when I got back to the west.

Aside from our daily expenses, Jonathan and I have also been pleased to find how cheap luxurious experiences can be as well. Here are three of my favorite little luxuries that I’ve been able to afford in Thailand:

1) The coolest movie theater I’ve ever seen.

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When Jonathan and I went to Bangkok to see Zero Dark Thirty before the Oscars rolled around, we found out that the only movie time that worked with our schedule was a screening in some fancy-schmancy VIP theater. We paused at the price, but we are VERY happy we decided to splurge. For about 700 baht (or $23 a person), we were seated in a plush room with about a dozen leather couches and given a blanket, pillow, and offered a choice of food and beverage. It was the comfiest film-viewing experience I’ve ever had.

2. Thai Massage.

Massages are perhaps one of the most famous luxuries of Thailand. Most hour-long massages average around $10 or less, which I’m sure you would never find in America. If you’ve never experienced a traditional Thai massage, you’d be surprised how much stretching, prodding, and bending it involves. And yes, it can be a bit painful. But it’s wonderfully relaxing and worth so much more than the price.

3. Amazing, delicious, CHEAP food.

 
Images courtesy of wikipedia

For about two meals a day, I’ve been learning about and enjoying dozens of Thai dishes– and all for less than $1-$4 a meal. Whether it’s at the restaurant in our building or in the school cafeteria (which has surprisingly great food!), I’ve been exposed to the sweet, the spicy, the rice-based, and the noodle-based. The biggest staples of my diet are predominantly rice, pork, chicken, eggs, noodles, and some vegetables mixed in. I’ve also become addicted to Thai Green coconut curry and will make it my mission to find a restaurant that serves it well in the west. Until then, I’m enjoying the tastes of Thailand while my pocket can afford it.

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Cuties

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I’ve been trying to take as many class photos as possible since my time in Thailand nears an end. I think this photo illustrates all my favorite things about my past six months teaching. The enthusiasm. The energy. The little joys that come from working with kids.

And yes… I’m going to miss them like crazy.

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7 things my classroom says about me…

So I’ll admit it. I’ve been pretty bad at keeping a blog since I’ve been in Thailand. Particularly blog posts about my teaching life. In fact, I’ve been pretty much silent (and not for bad reasons!).

There’s such a massive difference between “studying abroad” and “working abroad”. In England, I experienced life in a big city with a little schoolwork and class on the side. In Thailand, I’m spending 40 hours a week in a classroom with small children that melt your heart but wear you out. On top of my time and energy constraints, I also didn’t want to compromise my new job by over-sharing until I felt comfortable.

Important facts:
1) I love my job.
2) I love Thailand.
3) I’m in love/obsessed with my students.
4) I’m returning to the US in April, which means I want to document more of my experiences here since I only have a couple months left in Thailand.

To start off a few teacher-y posts, I thought I’d try something a little fun instead of a long ramble. Here are 7 things a picture of my classroom says about my life.

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1) No chairs. The program I work for is devoted to the idea that English learning should be “fun” for small children. So that means no chairs, no written work (until worksheet time), and lots and lots of games. For this, we need lots of free space for relays, beanbag games, dodgeball… anything you can think of. (My camp counselor self is shining).

2) Name tags are key. I teach 22 individual lessons a week with about 25-30 kids in each class. That means I am responsible for about 500 kids a week. It’s… daunting. And awesome. Despite the language barrier, I’ve really found that a lot of their funny and unique personalities make my day (or make me want to pull my hair out). But name tags are my saving grace.

3) The alphabet is my friend. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is teaching children to read. About half of my lessons are devoted to phonics and reading skills (the rest are focused on conversation and fluency). Since the Thai alphabet is majorly different than the roman alphabet we use in English, I’m constantly drilling letter sounds and helping kids sound out words.

4) A basket of game supplies. Because my host school owns both a kindergarten and elementary school, I split my week teaching at the K-school (ages 3, 4 and 5) on Tuesdays and Thursday at the “Prathom” school (ages 6-12). My babies, as I like to call them, learn colors, animals, numbers, etc. while older students learn more complex language structures in question and answer formats. The game basket is full of balls and dice to help make all of my lessons fun and interesting.

5) The Thai president and Buddha. These pictures can be found in any classroom in Thailand. My host school provides a Buddhist-infused school day with prayers in the morning, before lunch, and at the end of the day. All my kids are very respectful to this schedule and I always enjoy watching them chant their prayers together. The picture of the president is just as important, since he is a very revered person in Thailand.

6) Air conditioning is my best friend. Thank god for AC. Seriously though. Thailand is hot, hot, hot. I can’t imagine my work day if I didn’t have the AC to keep my comfortable.

7) Board work. Like most teachers, I’ve found that the white board is my friend. I write language on the board, use it for board games (like tic-tac-toe and memory) and keeping track of my lesson plans. It keeps my grounded.

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A barefoot teacher

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Before moving to Thailand, I never gave much thought to my feet. The most attention I gave them was when I painted my toe nails or bought new shoes. But in general, my feet were one of those things I barely ever considered.

Like many things in my life, Thailand has changed that.

When I first arrived at my new school, I was given a quick warning by another teacher to always pay attention to my feet. In Thailand, feet are considered to be the lowest and, therefore, dirtiest part of the body. They should never be pointed in another person’s direction and they should never be used to move objects.

When I first started, I might accidentally extend my legs while sitting on the floor in a circle at the start of class (we don’t have chairs in my classroom). I was reminded to tuck my feet under because it’s considered rude to the person in line with the soles of my feet. In another class, I slid a beanbag across the floor with my foot– I received vocal protests from my 9-year-old students for this. It took time, but I now see and think about my feet in a similar way to the Thais.

And then there’s shoes. Before every class I teach, all of my students must remove their shoes before entering the classroom. I thought this was odd at first, seeing as how that meant I, too, must wear only socks while teahcing. It seemed unprofessional by Western standards.

But now, I no longer give a second thought when I am gently asked to remove my shoes on a daily basis. Many coffee shops and cafes have rows of shoes and flip-flips lined neatly outside the front door. Some restaurants host tables of barefooted people sharing drinks and meals. Even Jonathan and I now make a point to remove our shoes before we enter our little apartment, since the tile floor shows the dirt from outside.

It’s a minute detail in comparison to the many other ways that Thailand has changed the way I see the world, but, as they say, it’s keeping me on my toes.

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A Christmas to remember

I think saying that Jonathan and I had a funny Christmas this year is a bit of an understatement. With 10 days open for travel, Jonathan and I decided to venture back to Koh Chang to enjoy a lovely Christmas on a sandy beach in the sun. However, due to some last minute changes of plan, we ended up with some hilarious stories. I can safely say that our first Christmas as an engaged couple will be one we always remember.

ferrykohchangmorningDue to some last minute changes in plans, we ended up having to travel on Christmas Eve. After grimacing through Peter Jackson’s ultra-long Hobbit in 3D, we set off on the night bus from Bangkok to the pier where ferries leave for Koh Chang. Our bus made great time, but, unfortunately, this put us at our harbor at 4:30am with two hours to kill before our ferry left. Thus, we ended up having Christmas morning breakfast with a sweet Thai family that was cooking fried chicken and rice for workers who sell bananas and other food from the mainland. I was even offered a 5am beer with a random man (which I didn’t take, mind you). Merry Christmas to us!

skypehomeWe eventually made it to our hotel and crashed in our bed for a few hours. We were able to make a few skype calls to our family to wish them Merry Christmas and thank each other for Christmas presents. I can’t imagine my life without Skype now that we live so far away.

sunrise    kohchangdrink   kohchangwater

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We spent an awesome day treating our selves to Thai massages, eating delicious Western food (always a treat here), and relaxing in the sun.

In Koh Chang, each beach carries a certain stereotype. Some beaches are for British/Americans, some attract Thai visitors, and so forth. Our particular beach is a popular place for Swedes, Germans, and Russians. A TripAdvisor post had remarked that a hotel in our area was great “if you didn’t mind breakfast with Vladamir and friends”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Europeans. But the tight speedos on older men and bleach blonde Swedish women don’t leave much to the imagination on the beach.

Nonetheless, we attended a very eventful Christmas dinner at our hotel with the rest of Europe. Our dinner was a creative mixture of the classic turkey, ham, etc. with some Thai flair. Our hotel manager played a few sets on the electric guitar and we were entertained by a fire show. We also very happily ran into some friends who joined us for the meal. It was a lot of fun and very different from any Christmas I’ve ever had in the States.

presentsxmasMom’s giant Christmas package (address obscured)

We’re back in Lopburi now and looking forward to our last few months in Thailand before heading home. We’ve been pleased and surprised by all the Christmas cards and packages we’ve received from family and friends oceans away. We feel very loved!

“And, however often the sun may rise,
A new thing dawns upon our eyes.”
– Louis Macneice

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December in Lopburi

LopburiDecember has been long and hot in Thailand. While many of my American friends and family are bundled up drinking eggnog, attending gift exchanges, and heading home to Christmas trees and feasts, I’m finding myself quite far removed. I see small hints of Christmas cheer in certain westernized stores and restaurants, but I suppose it’s no surprise that a Buddhist country doesn’t celebrate a Christian holiday. It’s hard to feel Christmas-y when you’re sweating your clothes off every day.

Being pulled back from the usual American holiday madness has provided a strong dose of perspective. My life isn’t surrounded by advertisements for Black Friday sales or holiday movie marathons. I haven’t seen wreaths and garland hanging in stores since October. If I want to hear Christmas music, I need to choose to find a song on Youtube. I’m realizing that it’s not Christmas time unless you make it Christmas time on your own accord.

Travel is meant to draw us away from the familiar, which indeed it has. Being so far away has helped me recognize just how big the world is that something as colossal as Christmas passes without much of a mention somewhere else. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, just a sobering observation that America isn’t the center of the world, although many Americans would love to believe so. While Christmas isn’t affecting my life right now, neither is a war in the Middle East or a school shooting in Connecticut or strife in Africa. There are so many different realities existing at once on this planet, and I’m happy my travels remind me this again and again.

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