Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ajaan means Teacher

I never quite pictured my first day of teaching to be like it was. Sarah and I returned to Payap from our three day trip to Chiang Rai on Sunday night and worked on finishing our lecture far into the night. (We are teaching Introduction to Poetry and Drama at the International School of Payap University, a 300 level college course, for those of you that don’t know.) We got up at a ridiculous hour, trying to figure out how to look professional. Mostly we just wanted to look old enough. We arrived at the international campus at least an hour early and a kind janitor let us into our room, but the computer would not turn on. A nervous student wandered in after about twenty minutes, and while we frantically tried to locate our supervisor, got it to work somehow. He apologized profusely even as we tried to thank him, which quickly became confusing to all of us. Our PowerPoint would not load and Sarah sat down to figure it out. There was no one around to ask questions of…we were foreigners, or “farang,” in the middle of the Thai education system.

I then tried to locate a copy booth. As far as I can tell Thai culture does not observe copyright laws, meaning if you want a copy of a book, you take the entire thing to a little copy booth and they copy the whole thing for you in about a day. I only needed to copy a poem we were going over. I went to our department and they sent a student with me to help. The copy booth in the building is supposed to open at 8, but at 8:15 it was still closed. The student took me to one nearby; it was about ¼ a mile away. So I walked as quickly as possible, picturing Sarah standing before an expanse of students without a PowerPoint or anything to say. After making the copies, the student insisted on paying for them. I tried to explain that they were for our class and it was not at all necessary, but he shook his head firmly and insisted we were friends now. I hesitantly agreed. When we got back, around 8 students had arrived and the PowerPoint still was not working. We clicked on it a few more times, just to try, thinking we would probably just have to remember as much as we could and wing it, and it somehow worked. We started our class, complete with PowerPoint and copies only about 5 minutes late. It was only later that I learned back in the United States my parents and around 30 friends gathered at our house for a dinner were praying for us. Written out like this, the whole situation seems frustrating, but it was ridiculously funny to us at the time. Considering we were told we could teach whatever we wanted the week before and did not know where or what time our class would be until the last minute, it all came together very nicely.

Our students are from countries all over the world: China, England, Burma, Turkey, here in Thailand, and America to name a few. Naturally their English speaking abilities vary greatly, ranging from those who have trouble piecing together a sentence to native English speakers. One student in particular, a grad student from the US, seems to have quite a literary background. In our first class he referenced several literary figures I had not heard of, explained that he writes “poet” for his occupation on job applications, and announced that he is now trying to learn Chinese because he has Thai down. Lovely. Perhaps our biggest challenge in teaching will be figuring out how to make the literature accessible to everyone, but still interesting.

For as long as I can remember, I have had a fear of speaking in front of large groups of people. Whitworth and Tall Timber both did their best to cure me of these qualms and, while I know I have come a long way, being in front is not my natural stance. Standing in front of our class the first day, however, I felt a strange excitement that I wasn’t prepared for. Being able to discuss poems with a class, to ask them questions and to listen to their responses, felt wonderful, like a strange sharing. The few nods or flashes of understanding in students’ eyes as they listened to our presentation were so encouraging to me. There were, of course, students sitting in the back, that did not comment on anything; I am not sure they understood at all. Thinking about the entire course is very intimidating, but having a plan for tomorrow can be done. Next time we will ask all the students to sit towards the front as they come in and assign discussion groups to mix up their abilities. We are writing our own curriculum, which is very time consuming, and are not sure exactly how it will work, but we are trying to take it one day at a time. For now, that is enough.

I do not expect to be good at this. I have watched enough friends struggle through student teaching, an honest gleam of humility knotted in the way they explain it, to know that experience is perhaps the most important part of learning to teach. Education majors take four years preparing to teach and I have not done any of that. I am trying to take on the attitude of a student myself. If explaining something entirely fails or a poem just does not make sense, we will try again the next day. I am trying to give myself space to grow, not expecting it to all work, but expecting to try my best and hopefully learn.

Actually, being in Thailand at all takes that attitude. We have had lots of “unproductive” days, days in which we finally figure out how to tell a driver where we want to go only to find it is randomly closed, or days in which we wander around looking for a building for hours and never find it because all of it is in Thai. Thais have different expectations of what getting things done means. They do not set goals and finish them as much as live life and see what happens…men pen rai…it’ll be fine. Thus far, Sarah and I have been able to laugh at ourselves pretty well. But it is definitely a process to learn. I have done lots of heart-felt praying since being here. God is faithful. Not always, or even usually, in the way I want Him to be, but He is faithful. And it is better that way.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chiang Rai, Oh My!

Before I write about our wonderful time in Chiang Rai, I thought I would share a bit of my mind/heart at this moment. (This is Sarah by the way.)

Yesterday I was suddenly struck by a realization of all the things I will be doing here and how unqualified I am for all of them! I'm teaching a university level Poetry and Drama class?! Why did I think this was a good idea? I've been in a few plays and written a few poems, but that's about all. Preaching? Uhh... enough said. Teaching English? I have a hard enough time speaking English. Teaching voice lessons to Thai students? How will we communicate
if they can barely speak English? Also, I have none of my music books with me so I am just hoping that I've retained all four years of voice lessons, voice labs, voice classes, etc. And... they are university students (two women, two men) who have studied voice for as long as I have! Most of them want to sing pop. It's a good thing I know so much about pop music... not! I have to admit this is a pretty humorous situation I'm in. I would have never thought that I would be doing all these things just a few months out of college. This is one of those times where I am sure that without Jesus, there is no way I could do all this. He has been pretty faithful though and I believe (though sometimes I doubt) that it will all work out. He has already answered so many little prayers. Really... so many! It's crazy how things that seemed impossible have worked out just fine.

So my plan is to take every thing one day at a time, work hard, rest when appropriate, not eat anything living or uncooked, and pray.

Chiang Rai, oh my!

The trip started at 4:15am out in front of the nursing building. Amy and I staggered out of our room at about 4:14am and were face to face with matching, smiling, energetic Thai students and professors. Of course I was wearing a slightly wrinkled, bright, tie-dye shirt because I hadn't done laundry yet, and Amy was wearing a bright blue shirt. Here we were, ready to rough it with our tennis shoes and our single pair of pants, while the Thai people had perfectly pressed blouses and cute flats. We were doomed to stick
out like strange americans for the rest of the trip.
We got into the "teacher" van and off we went with thai music blaring in our ears at 4:30 in the morning.

This trip was one of many throughout the year. The Payap nursing staff and students team up with an organization called Medical Missions and travel to rural villages in Northern Thailand. They provide health care which includes, check-ups, supplying medications, hair
cuts, and general health information. They also put on a vacation-bible-school for the children. (That's where Amy and I come in).

Our first stop was at a school somewhere near Chiang Rai. The area was beautiful! It's just as I envisioned Thailand looking like before coming.

Amy and I knew that we would be helping out with the children, but we were not quite sure what our jobs were. We followed our supervisor like lost and confused children until we found
the classroom. Then we met up with our team and discussed our plan of action. Amy and I would lead a few games and sing a few songs. It seemed easy enough... except we don't know thai and the children don't speak any english. So we attempted a few games but it didn't go so well. They were confused and we were confused. However, it got better as the trip progressed and we learned from our mistakes. We found a song (I've Got Peace Like a River) that had motions and the kids seemed to really enjoy it. After the games and such the nursing students did a hand washing and teeth brushing demonstration. They were really good with kids.

On our free time we made friends with a couple of junior high girls who spoke very good english and delighted in teaching us Thai. One of them even played guitar which I'm learning is not very common for thai women.

The next place we went to was a little white church. The kids were not shy here! After the games and singing, Amy and I walked around trying to figure out how we could be useful, until we noticed a posse of children following us. We turned around and asked them their names in Thai. After we'd exhausted our Thai vocabulary, we didn't know what to do. They just stood there looking at us expectantly. We walked, they followed. Well, if we can't speak, I might as well mime. So I started miming for them. I don't know if they laughed because they thought I was ridiculous or because they thought it was funny. I thought it was great fun!

Then we milked cows! There was a farm close by the church and a few Payap students asked if we could milk their cows. It was a strange experience. Afterward they offered us milk to drink. It was warm and sweet and I kept picturing the milking process...blllgh.
Every night and morning there was a worship service in the church, and one night our friend and supervisor Pee Meow was giving the message. She nervously scribbled on a note pad before the service and Amy and I played and sang songs to pass the time. She quickly looked up at us and asked if we would help her. Next thing we knew we were in front of the church singing "It Is Well With My Soul," before all the staff and students on the trip. This is usually the way things happen.

The worship services were interesting because very few of the students (and staff, we later found out) were Christians. But everyone clapped along, listened, and was respectful. I was curious to know what the sermons were about, but they were all in thai, so my curiosity converted into energy trying to hold my eyes open at 7am.

It's difficult picking out the highlights to discuss in this blog when there were so many little occurrences and subtleties that made this trip a unique experience. One important subtlety (not really so subtle though) were the showers. Amy and I were confused to say the least. We were told we could go take a shower and were pointed in the direction of the bath houses. We followed the directions only to find three stalls with a "squatty-potty," a bucket of water, a hose and nozzle, and many friendly (and sometimes frighteningly furry) arachnids. After a few awkward attempts to figure it out on our own, we resigned to asking Pee Meow. She smiled, taught us the ways of the Thais, and told us of her perplexing experiences with American showers and toilets. Hooray for friends!

Well, I'm sure I've left out some good stuff, so if you want to know more there is always email, facebook, or skype. Amy and I would love to hear from you!

Sawasdee Ka!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sawasdee Ka (Hello in Thai)

We met an array of characters on the plane, including enthusiastic Americans, who thrilled at traveling without any plans whatsoever, a kindly old gentleman who calmly gave us directions, and an older man who heard we were going to be in Thailand a year and grimly shook his head, “You’ll never make it.” Each flight served us at least one full meal, most of which we could not identify. After over twenty-four hours of traveling, we were very ready to be there.

Upon finally arriving in Chiang Mai, Ozzie (our friend from Whitworth who has been here since May) and a team from Payap met us with cheery smiles. Everyone was extremely welcoming and neither of us could stop smiling. Back at Payap, we met our supervisor in the dorms, Ajaan Rujira, as well as the Dean of Nursing. The room we were given is actually more of an apartment: it has a bedroom, bathroom, and living room complete with a television and a few couches. Most importantly, perhaps, it has air conditioning. In leaving the airport even, the heat seemed to hang on top of us, but we have gotten a little more used to it even in a few days. Our room also has a little balcony overlooking part of campus that we will use to hang clothes for drying. We might even sit out there after mosquito season.

Ozzie and Shanna (the other Ra who is from Canada) have been so kind in taking us around Chiang Mai on their motorbikes. Motorbikes are the main mode of transportation here, weaving in and out of cars quickly, so closely in fact that I kept almost screaming at first. Sarah and I clung to the back handles, grinning furiously to ourselves beneath our helmets.

We planned on walking or biking here, neither of which is very safe, but are thinking about getting motorbikes after we get used to it a little. Nothing stops even for crosswalks.

Our responsibilities at Payap will include English tutoring for students and faculty in the Writing Center a few times a week, co-teaching Intro to Poetry and Drama for the English Communications department at the international school, and building community as RA’s in the nursing dorms, among many other things. Sarah will probably teach voice lessons for the music school as well.

Having just completed their first semester, most of the nursing students went home for the two week holiday, but now they are starting to trickle back. They are very gracious and reassuring in helping us with Thai pronunciation (Thai has five different tones, so the same sound said in each tone means something completely different) and with orienting us to Chiang Mai. Most are very shy, however, especially about their English, so relationships may take quite a while to develop. Their nicknames are quite interesting. So far we have met a “Newt”, a “Bla”, and a “Boom” among many others.

We have been able to laugh at our feeble attempts at Thai culture. Upon arriving , Ozzie taught us to “wai” our supervisors. When you “wai” someone you bow your head and lift your hands together right and say “sawadee ka” softly, which means hello. Sarah and I practiced carefully and successfully managed to “wai” everyone we saw, mostly street vendors, students, or janitors at Payap. The Thai people responded with smiles or giggles, “wai-ing” us back shyly. We later learned that you only “wai” direct supervisors or anyone who is your superior. Their smiles were not for our kind attempt to be Thai, but because they saw the humor in our efforts.

For those of you that know Anna (our college roommate who grew up in Chiang Mai), it is easy to see pieces of her everywhere. She is in the easy attitude that everything will work out…even if we are teachinga class in a week and don’t have a syllabus (having books is way ahead, apparently). She is in the way Thai people fully appreciate humor and find it in even the smallest of situations. She is in the way plants grow out of the sidewalk. She is in the dinner plate of Thai food that mingles spicy with sweet, salty, and sour all at once. You should probably come to her wedding in August here if you really want to know what I mean.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Chasing the sun (we think)

Well, here we are in San Francisco airport awaiting our departure. These last few weeks have been a very strange period of waiting. One minute we feel courageous and excited, the next minute we feel like little babes who are way too young to be going on such an adventure. For example, just now a kindly old gentleman told us that were at the wrong gate. Thanks friend.

Saying goodbye was more difficult than we had thought. Instead of simply looking forward to the year, we thought of all the daily things we will be missing here, especially time with family and friends. But we are confident that this is a good decision. Being able to experience another culture and live there for an entire year is such a unique opportunity.

(Picture to the left is Mo using the crazy hand dryers at the airport)

At the airport, Amy's bag was too heavy, so a few books had to be sacrificed. One of them was her beloved copy of Adrienne Rich's The Fact of a Doorframe, a collection poetry from the 1950s until now. As she flipped through the pages, she found the poem she was looking for, a poem describing leaving and trying new things. It speaks of possibilities, of regret, of the moment before embarking on a journey.

Prospective Immigrants, Please Note (1962)

Either you will

go through this door

or you will not go through.

If you go through

there is always the risk

of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly

and you must look back

and let them happen.

If you do not go through

it is possible

to live worthily

to maintain your attitudes

to hold your position

to die bravely

but much will blind you,

much will evade you,

at what cost who knows?

The door itself

makes no promises.

It is only a door.

For those of you who don't know what this journey is about, we will be working at Payap University in Chiang Mai. As resident assistants in the Thai nursing dorm, we will help develop the student life program, as well as develop relationships with students. We will also be co-teaching Introduction to Poetry and Drama, a class for English Communication majors, and tutoring english. Although Payap a private Christian college, the population is predominantly Buddhist and we will be leading aspects of Christian ministry.

(Picture to the left is a statue in the Taiwon airport)

We're glad to report that other than being at the wrong gate, there have been very few mishaps. The only scare we had was an hour before heading off to San Fran.

Here is the frightening tale:

Early this afternoon Amy and Sarah went to Staples to buy a transformer and make copies of passports. It was a lovely outing filled with indecisiveness and watt and volt confusion. We also found some lovely neck pillows for the flight that I'm sure will come in handy (thanks Sarah's mom!). We drove back down the hill to Sarah's house and spent the rest of the afternoon playing with ipods and computers and such. As Amy was about to take the last shower she will take for a while, she came to a sudden unpleasant realization: her passport was not there! We frantically searched and Amy remembered that she probably left it at Staples. We called them up and sure enough it was there. Hooray! So we drove back up to town, retrieved the missing passport, and the crisis was averted. The end.

We've had so much support in preparing for this trip: Whitworth faculty wrote letters of recomme

ndation, our parents struggled through helping us finally attain visas, Ozzie (a fellow Whitworth grad who has been at Payap for 4 months) answered countless questions via email, Omi made us skirts, family and friends purchased webcams and struggled to figure out how to use them, and so many people have been praying for safe travels and a wonderful experience. Talking to Anna on the phone before we came was particularly meaningful to us. Being able to see the home and country of this beloved best friend and hearing the excitement in her voice as she prayed for us meant so much. We look forward to talking with all of you and we appreciate your prayers as we begin this new endeavor.

(Pictured below is Chiang Mai from the airplane window)

sawadee kaa (goodbye in Thai)