Monday, October 17, 2011

"Let's start out at the very beginning"

It’s almost one in the morning, but Glenda and I are still awake. Gone are the semi-jet lagged days of being conveniently tired by 9:30 pm and ready to get the day started at 6:00 am. They were filled with beautiful morning runs, the not needing of an alarm clock, and that fantastic feeling of falling asleep only seconds after your head hits the pillow. All good things must come to end, I suppose. I’ve never wanted to be a morning person anyway (sour grapes).

You should probably blame our late night on the fact that the dorm’s fickle wireless internet decided to cooperate for the time being, but if you were to confront us about it, we’d most definitely deny it. We’re awake TOTALLY studying Thai. Riiiight…

This does, however, bring me to what I really want to write about: the joys and frustrations of learning—and living—with a new language.

I’ve always identified myself as a language person, not to say that they are a focus of study that comes easily to me or that I have a natural knack for them, but I do find them interesting. Complicated and seemingly unpredictable, yet at the same time natural and systematic, language can be many things. It’s a science; it’s an art; it’s culture; it’s something we, every human being, has. There are a million ways to define language, to study and understand it, but at the end of the day, I think language is most accurately described as the ability to communicate. To learn even just one more language, or even to go somewhere where they speak a different version of your own, you open yourself up to an even larger pool of individuals to which you can talk and listen.

Beginning to learn Thai has been a great experience, because it has helped us to begin to understand the country’s culture. For example, in Thailand, the concept of the heart is regarded as very important, and you can see this sentiment expressed in the language. In Thai, to say “I understand,” you say “kao jai.” The literal translation of this phrase is “something enters the heart”. Pretty cool, right?

Learning the language has also been a fantastic way to interact with Thai people. One of my favorite post-class activities has been to buy my afternoon fruit fix from one of the local vendors who sets up her cart on our street. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve gone from simply pointing and smiling when ordering my snack (mostly mangos and pineapples—SO GOOD.), to then adding “hello” and “thank you.” After becoming a little bit more adventurous, I started to ask for the names of the different fruits (pon la mai!) in Thai. This all lead to yesterday, when I had what felt like the biggest accomplishment ever: I was able to tell the nice fruit lady that I that I’m American after she asked where all of us farangs were from. That’s my favorite part about language learning. It’s the stupidest little things that feel like the biggest victories.

These language exchanges can also make for moments of pure comedic genius, too. The other weekend, Jane, Kelly, Emily and I somehow ended up on a boat tour around one of the waterways, another adventure that was happenstance and a result of being lost in translation. As we were waiting for the locks to change, we started talking to four middle school aged boys that were spending their Saturday afternoon hanging out by the water. We shouted to them in the very very very basic Thai that we knew, and they would laugh at us and shout more things back in a combination of both Thai and English. After a couple of minutes they got really excited over something on the other side of the lock. They started to scream the same word over and over again. “MA! MA! MA!” What? What is that? We eventually gathered that it was some sort of animal. A fish maybe? Oooooh, maybe a crocodile! Look at us! Learning Thai in a boat in a beautiful country surrounded by friendly people experiencing cultural exchanges in the most organic way possible! What a life!

Eventually, the boat starts to move forward and we can see the other side of the lock.

Ma does not mean fish. It means dog. How did we find this out? There’s a dead dog floating in the water beside us. I do not make this stuff up, mostly because I couldn’t even if I tried. (Okay, you have to admit, that’s gross, but at the same time HILARIOUS! Nothing says, “stop being so idealistic and Anna Leonowens-like” as a decaying, floating animal carcass. Helllooo, reality check!)

I absolutely refuse to completely romanticize this whole language-learning thing, though. Yes, I love it and am so grateful that I have an entire year in such a cool country, but I’d be lying and completely crazy if I didn’t admit that sometimes I want to throw my hands up and scream, “CAN’T I GET SOME ENGLISH UP IN HERE!!!” When you can’t read, or write, or express what you want fully or even somewhat accurately, you’re back to being a vulnerable baby with little to no independence. Definitely a hard concept to grasp after fours years of being an ultra cool college kid, with no limitations and so free to do whatever I want (Right, parents? Hey, mom, can you send me more money, please? Or maybe keep me on your health insurance, still? Or does Obama have my back on that one? Well, whatever, I’m young and healthy. Dad, can you change my oil, you know, if you get around to it? Thanks! See suuuuuuuuper independent and grown up these past four years…HAHA! Anyways, I’ve digressed.)

At the end of the day, though, the 35 hours of Thai class we’re receiving over this month is only going to get us so far. Sure, it’s great to have native speakers teaching us how to introduce ourselves and to teach us food vocabulary so we have a general idea of what we’re buying at markets. And at the very least, I’m confident I know enough direction words so we can tell the cabbies how to get us back to our dorm and not to the opposite side of Bangkok. Being able to navigate the basics also gives us the benefits of learning bits of the cultural mentality as I mentioned before, which is incredibly helpful as we watch the water levels of the floods rise and people continue to say “mai pen rai,” or “don’t worry about it, no worries” even though we now know they actually do a lot a bit.

Most importantly, at least from my perspective, our journey in the crazy voyage of learning Thai is necessary because it reminds us to be empathetic and patient as teachers. Even though we’ll be in front of the classroom, we’ll still have fresh in our memories what it’s like to have no idea what’s going on while learning a new language. You don’t understand the assignment I gave you? Yeah, I didn’t understand how to conjugate verbs for the longest time either. You can’t remember the days of the week vocabulary? Kid, you should see me trying to figure out how to figure out what that sign on the street says. We’re all so confused and just trying to make sense of something.

So here we are. Sitting the International Dorm on Chula Soi 6, our “Thai for Beginners” books open up in front of us and our iTunes repeating long lists of Thai words and phrases. We must look and sound ridiculous bouncing back and forth between our studies and our Facebooks and, yes, season 1 of Ugly Betty.

Remember how beautiful and frustrating and daunting and wonderful it is to start out at the very beginning? Yeah. Me too.


Also, for your entertainment, you too can learn the Thai alphabet!!!

Good night and good luck...

Geumseong High School

   Hi everyone,

Geumseong High School
    The past few weeks have been very busy but a lot of fun (not going to fit everything into one post so, I will probably do another one later this week).   In this post, I want to focus on my school.  After roughly 2 months of teaching, I now feel right at home.  My school is on top of a hill and is next door to Geumseong Middle School where my good friend, Eric, is working as an ETA.  Here is a website about Geumseong High School:
      Here are some of my students...

These guys are relaxing between classes
   The students at Geumseong, and most high schools in Korea, start school at around 7am in the morning and finish around 10pm.  They do not have as much homework as American students, but they often are up very late studying (average is around 5 hours of sleep a night for Korean high school students).  They LOVE Soccer.  As far as music goes, they love k-pop.  Their favorite groups are T-ara (, Girls' Generation (, Shinee (, and 2PM (  As far as American music goes, they are fascinated with Beyonce (more specifically, the "Single Ladies" Video) and Lady Gaga (just for being Lady Gaga).  Most of them will say their favorite movie is Ajeossi (a fantastic action film starring Won Bin;  They also like Twilight, Transformers, and Harry Potter.  A few have girlfriends, and lots of them like computer games (especially Maple Story;

He saw me taking photos in the hallway and struck this pose- his new nickname is GQ
   I teach 14 classes a week to second years, or Juniors.  Each class is at a different level in their English ability.  At first I struggled with planning lessons for different levels, but I have found many ways to face this challenge.  I try to have a lot of variety in all of my lessons and frequently use videos and games in order to keep my kids focused.  One of the most successful lessons so far has been a Introduction to American Hip-Hop/ Rap Battle with Eminem's "The Real Slim Shady."  I used the chorus in this song in order to help my students with pronouncing the letter "l" (very difficult for Koreans- not in Korean alphabet).  I also recorded some female friends over Skype and played the dating game with my students in order to help them with self-introductions.  Other successful lessons were with commands and directions, describing people, listening comprehension with Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," and listening comprehension with an episode of Glee.  Last week, my good friend Sonia visited and we co-taught the Dating Game lesson together.  I am not sure if they actually enjoyed the lessons or were just excited about seeing a new female around campus.  This week I am going to introduce my students to prom (they have know idea what this is) and do another listening comprehension activity with prom music.

They love soccer and the tv
    Thankfully, there have not been too many discipline problems.  I have to wake guys up from sleeping and keep them from speaking Korean.  A few weeks ago, students were trying to cut my class and other classes as well.  I became stricter with having students come to class on time and, since then, there have not been as many issues.  For whatever reason, my guys feel very comfortable around one another and frequently remove clothing in the middle of class or in the hallway.  At first, I would tell them to go to the bathroom and do whatever they were doing, but I realized that I was going to lose this battle.  Now, I just avert my eyes and accept the oddity.
  Recently, I have begun to become friends with many of the people in the gyomusil (Korean for teachers' room).  My co-teachers are my main support at the school.  They are all fantastic and always willing to help me with pretty much anything.  Many of the younger teachers have also befriended me, and we frequently go to lunch together.  We have to speak Konglish with one another but, the difficulty only helps me improve my Korean.  More updates to come very soon!
My students and I

This guy loves to tell me that we look alike and are twins

Saturday, October 8, 2011


So ends week one, and I almost forgot how exhausting it can be to be a student.

One of the great things about Fulbright Thailand’s ETA program is the extensive orientation program that the directors have designed to help us get ready to teach, live, and stay safe over the next year. Covering everything from Thai language classes to lectures on Thai politics and education to discussions on Thai cultural norms and expectations, the days are long and mentally exhausting (so much new information at once!). However, it's super clear that this month in Bangkok is going to be incredibly useful and fun!

Probably the most helpful part of this past week was spending two full days with the ETAs from this year. Fresh off their grant period, it was absolutely fantastic to be able to talk to people who have already gone through a similar experience. The 12 former ETAs were so fun to talk to and had so many eclectic, funny, unbelievable, and fantastic experiences. They told us that we’d always be stared out for being farangs (the Thai word for white, western foreigner), constantly confused, unable to get straight answers, overwhelmed by teaching at first, but we would love our schools, students, and the country. Their best advice? Just go with the flow. Done and done.

Orientation has also been great, because, as cheesey as this sounds, it’s also been a great way to begin to be integrated into the Thailand Fulbright family. A smaller but mighty program, our the directors and staff seem to view us ETAs as their kids and we are told to look to them as our P’Mommies and P’Daddies. They’ve been nothing but supportive and have taken the time to get to know all of us, which feels so nice.

When we’re not busy being oriented, we’re still being tourists to the max! Yesterday was especially great, because we finally were able to make our way over to the historic district. While we originally had planned on spending the day at the Grand Palace, we instead spent a couple of hours checking out the National Museum, somehow ending up in a tuk tuk that took us to a river and canal tour, and then we explored Khoa San road a little bit. Soooo touristy, but so much fun!

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Greetings from Bangkok! It’s the end of day two here although in some ways it feels like it’s already been a week. The kind people at Thailand Fulbright gave us the weekend to settle into our new city, and, oh, have we ever been settling in.

After arriving late Friday night after an unbelievably long, no-human-being-should-have-to-eat-that-much-airline-food kind of flight, the 19 other ETAs and I were bussed to the international housing provided by Chulalongkorn University. The university in located in the central part of the city and is the country’s premiere school. Word on the street is that only one out of every 1000 student is accepted. Some might even call it highly selective.

The room that I’m sharing with Glenda, another ETA and fellow Centennial Conference grad (Dickinson. Don’t hate.), is on the seventh floor of the building, only a short jaunt up several flights of stairs or a quick ride on an elevator that closes so quickly you need a running start to make it in alive. The accommodations are very comfortable, each of us having our own bed, desk, lockable closets, a shared bathroom and refrigerator. Miracle beyond miracles, we also have wireless!

Not wanting to waste anytime, our exploring began Saturday morning. So ready to have a proper meal, it should come as no surprise the top priority on our list of things to do was finding food.After wandering a couple blocks away from our dorms, we found a street vendor selling phad thai and fried rice. After a bit of, shall we say, creative communicating in broken Thai and English, seven of us ate for just over 300 bhats. That’s about $10, folks. Not a bad price. And let me tell you—it was delicious!

Saturday night was especially exciting for me, because my host teacher, P’Moo happened to be in Bangkok with some others teachers from my school and the ETA that spent this past year in Yang Talad. Earlier in the week P’Moo had mentioned that he would be in the city and invited me to join them for a dinner. Over Italian food and conversation in a mix of English and Thai, I had the chance to learn a little more about my school, the province of Kalasin, and the teachers and students with whom I’ll be I will be working. It was really great to meet everyone early and have a better idea of what to expect (if that even means anything at this point!)

Sunday morning a group of us took the Sky Train over to the Chatuchak weekend market, the largest outdoor market IN THE WORLD. Seriously, this place was insane. Thousands of vendors set up carts and shops selling anything you can imagine. Clothing, suitcases, souvenirs, silk, food, sunglasses, bags, even pets! Given my incredibly oversized suitcases, the only purchases I made at the markets today were a spicy, spicy curry and homemade coconut ice cream topped with peanuts, pineapples and, get this, sweet red beans.

After the spending a couple of hours wandering the markets, Glenda, Jane, Kelly and I treated ourselves to the experience that I have been waiting days, weeks, months, maybe even my entire life for: THAI MASSAGE.

I use the word massage lightly. According to Wikipedia (totes legit), Thai message is a “type of massage in Thai style that involves stretching and deep massage.” According to me, Thai message is the process of a small Thai lady bending you into positions you never thought you’d be in and then slapping you around a bit. More of a yoga session, some of the massaging is less than enjoyable, but when you leave, after cracking joints you didn’t know you had and having muscle knots pounded out of your legs, back and arms, you feel absolutely fantastic. By all accounts, it’s totally seems paradoxical, but I’m not going to question it.

The message parlor we went to was very clean and relaxing and was set up so that the four of us could all have our massages at the same time in the same room. Even though the atmosphere was dark and relaxing, complete with the ubiquitous classical music playing in the background, as much as we tried, there were some parts where we couldn’t keep our cool. At one point Kelly’s massage practitioner was slapping her so much that we just started laughing. Trust me, you would have too!

As we’re wrapping up the weekend here, I’m getting very excited for this week. Orientation begins early tomorrow morning and over the next month we’ll study the language (a MUST I found out this weekend!), learning about Thai culture and customs, as well as learn how to be effective teachers. It should be an incredibly helpful and necessary experience.

Even though I’ve only had the smallest of small tastes of the city so far, I think it’s safe to quote the Hangover II (again, totes legit) to describe the past couple of days here: Bangkok has me now.