Monday, November 26, 2012

I was warned

I was warned at the beginning of this school year (by fellow teachers) that students would miss many classes due to various activities. I was warned that the first semester wouldn’t be too bad, but that during second semester school would become a bit of a joke because of the sheer number of missed classes. I was warned that this would be frustrating.

Guess what? It is.

It’s been five and a half weeks since the beginning of the term. I teach 17 class periods per week, so that’s a total of 92 classes. One day was a holiday, so supposedly I’ve taught 89 classes since the beginning of term.

How many do you think I’ve actually taught?

Due to Scout Camps, testing, Sports Day (more on this in a future post—it’s this upcoming Friday), cleaning, field trips, etc, I’ve missed 23 classes. Of the 89 classes I’ve had, I’ve only taught 66! That’s about three quarters! 75%! (Can you tell I’m teaching conversions between fractions and percentages in my 6th grade math class?)

During the first semester, I would show up every once in a while to an empty classroom, and just return to my office, shrugging my shoulders and feeling somewhat of a guilty pleasure in not having to teach class. Missing class set me back as far as class work went, but I mean, really—who complains when they find out they are relieved of their duties?

Well, now, I guess I do.

Today I arrived at one of my classes ready to go. It was my Matayom four (10th grade) English reading and writing class, and it’s my favorite. The students are awesome—little darlings, and always make me smile. I ushered them into the classroom, got them settled down, and found out how their weekends went. They took out their pens and pencils, notebooks and pieces of paper. I was at the board, writing out my first general correction for them on a recent descriptive writing assignment they had, when I heard a knock at the door.

In extremely rough English, an older student asked if my students (all 39 of them) could leave class to go practice cheering for Sports Day (yes, you read that right—practice cheering. There aren’t actually sports on sports day, just a lot of dancing and cheering. Again, I’ll tell more when the actually day happens, this Friday.) After entertaining the idea for about 2 seconds, I said no. During first semester, I definitely would have said yes. I would have pretended to consider the notion, pausing for enough time to make everyone think I might say no, and then relent and let the class take off to do whatever was required of them. But now, I’m tired of missing class. I’m tired of feeling like I’m not giving my students the education they deserve because frequent random events keep preventing me from teaching. So I said no.

After shooing the older student out the door, I got back to my point at the board. My pen was about to touch the whiteboard when two more students showed up. These two were more insistent, and had better English. “Now,” one of the students said. Now students practice.” A few moments later, my Thai co-teacher showed up, and confirmed that the students did, indeed, need to go practice; that they couldn’t stay in class. So I let them go. To practice. Cheering.


I teach this particular class twice per week—Tuesdays and Fridays. They missed class today (Tuesday). They will also miss class on Friday due to Sports Day. Of the twelve classes they should have had so far this semester, they will only have attended seven.

I was warned. I was warned that missed classes would increase during the second semester. I was warned it would be frustrating. I was not misled.

My students, practicing dancing and cheering for Sports Day
(although this is frustrating, aren't they adorable? The colorful shirts and red pants are their "sports outfits," worn every Friday and days they have gym class, and the white shirts and dark blue bottoms are what they wear every other day. This is a hodgepodge of many classes, not just mine.)

My resulting empty classroom :/

Friday, November 2, 2012

Indonesia: Below the Equator, Below the Water's Surface

My dad came to visit me last month, and it was a delight and a pleasure to have him around. Before his arrival, I was nervous about how we would both react to being in such close quarters for such a long time (over a month of sleeping in the same room, eating together, making decisions together, etc), but everything worked out more than alright—we adjusted quickly and easily to each other’s company, and ended up having an exceptionally good time throughout our travels. My dad spent some time in Ubon, and while he was here we took a weekend trip to Pakse, Laos, during which we got a feel of the small city and also went to Wat Phu and Tadlo waterfall. Our big adventure, though, was our two-and-a-half-week trip to Indonesia.

Although two and a half weeks is not really much time, my dad and I were able to see a wide variety of things and places. Before arriving, we had an idea of what we wanted to do, but throughout our trip we flew by the seat of our pants, deciding each day what to do the next. This worked splendidly! Here’s a quick rundown of our itinerary:

-       Arrived in Jakarta via plane, but only spent the night (in a super creepy hotel)
-       Hopped on a train the next day, going about halfway across Java to Yogyakarta—awesome train ride, and awesome city! Saw Prambanan Hindu Temple, Borobudur Buddhist Temple, some lively street performers, and cool sights around the city
-       Took a three-day trip across the rest of Java, stopping at the volcanoes Bromo and Ijen, and getting QUITE jostled about during some very bumpy van rides along the way
-       Took a mixture of ferry, bus, and taxi to Ubud on Bali. Saw the Sacred Monkey Forest, traditional Balinese dancing, and some gorgeous rice fields.
-       Took taxi to Padangbai, on the eastern tip of Bali, and prepared for a relaxing end to our trip—the beach!
-       Took the fastboat to Gili Air—an island off of Lombok. PARADISE. Spent 5 days in paradise. (NB: Planning on moving to paradise someday.)
-       Spent our last night back in Bali in Kuta. Compared to paradise, awful. A shocking stir back to reality, but interesting nonetheless.

I could write at length about any of the many experiences I had, but instead I will focus on one aspect of the trip that I enjoyed more than any other: my interactions with people. The places and things I saw were incredible, but it was the people with whom I interacted who really made the trip for me. From stall owners to taxi drivers to hotel workers, the people of Indonesia were, in my experience, extremely helpful, friendly, and outgoing.

Three of the men who worked at our bungalows
By far my favorite group of people was the group of young men who worked at the bungalows that my dad and I stayed at on Gili Air. We stayed on the island for 5 nights, so we came to know this group a little bit beyond the 2-minute paying-the-bill conversation. I wont try to reproduce what little I learned of their lives here, but rather to convey the joy I took from getting to know a group of people as themselves and what their lives were like, and not just as a few more faces in the sea that one wades through while traveling.

We grew to be on such friendly terms with the owner of the bungalows that he actually took us to his niece’s wedding. It was an unexpected treat to see a Muslim wedding, and then to enjoy some roasted chicken back at the bungalow owner’s house later that night. Of course, the wine was eventually brought out, along with mango for dessert (the bungalow staff quickly learned that this is my all-time favorite thing haha), and then some easy guitar strumming and singing among friends and family on his airy second-floor deck until late into the night.

The local fare--fish and tempe in sambal, rice,
veggies, and of course, freshly-picked mango! 
Along with the owner of the bungalows, the staff was equally as friendly and open. They gave us unsolicited drinks on-the-house at dinner; invited me behind the bar to teach them how to mix a new drink or two (tequila sunrise, anyone?); readily offered a taste and even a whole plate of what they were eating for breakfast or lunch, as opposed to the tourist fare (I loved getting a taste of what the locals ate—fresh fish and friend tempe coated in a delicious, spicy sambal sauce, with rice and veggies on the side); invited us out back to try snacks they were munching on from the market in town; took us to the mango orchard a few times to try our hand at climbing trees and picking fruit (mango, coconut, rose apple); and readily sat down in their free time to play a few hands of cards, both American- and Indonesian-style. Their 
hospitality, friendliness, and familiness were striking, 
and more than I could have hoped for.

Dad getting a quick haircut (after a bit of an ordeal of trying to find a pair of scissors)

This experience made me contemplate my goals over here on the other side of the world. One of my ultimate goals is to experience other cultures. My initial assertion was that in order to truly experience another culture, one must live in it and not simply travel through it; this is why I came to Southeast Asia as a teacher and not as a tourist—so I could take a peek at the iceberg from below the water’s surface. So far, I’ve found my assertion to be true. Case-in-point: our 5-day stay at Gili Air. This was roughly a third of our trip that we spent in once place, saying good morning and goodnight to the same people every day. Even in this short span, I came to know these people better than anyone else on our trip, and in a very positive way.

Getting to know the people surrounding oneself as individuals, and not simply faces or services, truly heightens and broadens an experience. There is no higher or broader an experience can get than life lived for an extended period of time in one place. Only in this way does one come to know their surroundings and the characters of the people around them. If you’ve spoken to me in the past six months, this goes without saying, but I’m so happy that I came to live in Thailand, and I’m not planning on returning to the US anytime soon. Of course there are good times as well as bad, but all-in-all I love what my life has become—a non-stop “experience” of the highest and broadest kind. And, I suppose and hope, it will only continue to grow.

Sunrise in front of our bungalows. Did I mention this place is paradise?