We both know that this post is long overdue, so I’ll just jump right in.
About 3 weeks ago, I started teaching secondary school out here in Wang Nua, Lampang District, Thailand. YAHOO! Eleven months after graduating, including six-plus months of traveling, I’m finally settled in, showering regularly, and getting paid. Believe me, I’m just as excited by this new lifestyle as my parents are relieved. I wear a tie!
Wang Nua is downright pastoral. It’s pretty rural feeling, and you can walk through town in about 15 minutes. It feels bigger than that, though, because it serves as the market/school/government headquarters for the half-dozen villages scattered around the area. Rumors travel fast here.* I went to the market for lunch, and by the time I made it back to school 15 minutes later the entire staff knew that I had overpaid for my fruit. The area around town is pretty darn agricultural, with the biggest crops being rice, teak, corn,** and mangoes.
I’ve been surprised by how different this feels to my tourist time with Bevan and Lilly, and my TEFL time in Hua Hin. This is a whole new country. Nearly literally, as they speak a dialect here that is closer to Lao than Thai. I’m the first farang (SE Asian equivalent of gringo) teacher in town, and people are excited. I’m not quite, however, the first farang at all. According to the (real) list that they (actually, no joke) keep, I’m the 10th Westerner to spend more than a couple weeks here since 2006. There are currently three of us honkies, including me. There’s Rudy, the first farang to live here. He’s a retired conspiracy theorist who’s served in the Peace Corps, been an oil executive, and filmed Nascar. He’s been here for 5 years, and has a garden with three dozen varieties of edible things. There’s also Rodney, a serious Australian*** who’s so bent on learning Thai language that he shuts himself in most nights to read the dictionary rather than interact with Thais.
So far, I’ve gotten closest to Teacher Top§, a 25 year old English teacher who lives in the same apartment complex as me. He’s the only teacher (out of over 100, it’s a big school) who’s visited the US or Europe, and he seems to understand Western culture a little bit. He’s close with our landlord and loves to cook, which is great because I live in a single apartment but through Top have access to a real Thai home.
Like the proverbial fat guy, Thais eat their feelings. Out here, though, that’s a positive; nothing says “you’re in” more than food. My first week, I was getting at least one free meal a day.¶ It’s just part of Thai culture to bring too much food to school and share. Meals are always served and eaten communally, and can stretch well over an hour. Best of all, it’s Thai food! Curries, exotic fruits, and local specialties I hadn’t come across before.
I’m learning a bit of Thai as well. Since everything revolves around food, my vocab has a gustatorial focus. I’m loving learning Lanna (Northern Thai language/culture), because it makes me feel more connected. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Thais think a farang struggling to speak Lanna is grade-A funny. I really want to pick up more and learn to read the (bewildering) script, but it’s a slow process thus far.
Oh, and school? That thing I do with most of my time? It’s pretty awesome. If you’ve ever considered becoming a rockstar but been concerned about lack of paycheck or talent, I heartily recommend teaching English in the boonies. The kids have pretty limited English due to huge classes (I, personally, have 800ish kids in 25 classes of 35, whom I see once a week), lack of resources, lack of teacher knowledge, and general lack of available native English speakers. They couldn’t speak any English at all the first week, though, because they were too star struck to remember what English they do have. I said hello and caused dozens of children to lose it with laughter. I entered a classroom, and high school boys started screaming. They’re starting to get their confidence back, and I’ve made a rule that anyone who wants their picture taken with Teacher Graham must ask in English. The teachers like me, too, because they want to practice their English. The English teachers speak solid English, as long as I speak slowly and avoid idioms, contractions, irregular past or future tense, or anything subjunctive.
Most importantly, I LOVE the teaching itself. No matter how tired I am when I get to school, I get revved up when I stand in front of a classroom. I feel fairly prepared for teaching, not so much through training as through my theater/improv background. I’m pretty good at cracking jokes, improvising when lessons don’t go according to plan, and paying attention to self-presentation. Not that it’s been all peaches and diesel. I’m having plenty of issues communicating across a vast chasm of language, not to mention the issues that, I’m sure, many new teachers face. My first class was a rude awakening. They didn’t speak any English or care at all about me. One student just got up and left in the middle of class and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was pretty rattled, but I later learned that that class has a reputation as the most difficult in the school. Today, though, was a major breakthrough. Just as the bell rang, I witnessed about half of my 4th period sophomores understand the distinction between singular and plural verb conjugations. Teaching moments like that really make it worth it.
I’ve got plenty more to say about all of this, but will sign off here for today. I’m loving it out here, and this seems like a good place to park myself after months of itinerancy. Be well, keep in touch. TTFN, ta ta for now.
*Rumors are efficient, but not particularly accurate (or even interesting). Here’s one from yesterday: the whole town is spreading a rumor that I play basketball most evening when I, in fact, have never played basketball here. There’s another, more persistent, one that I’ve been teaching for three years.
** !? I thought I left that in Minnesota.
*** Again, !?
§ I’ll devote a whole post soon to Thai names. They’re hilarious.
¶ Speaking of meals, I’ve been left with no choice but get up close and personal with Thai food. Since I’ve been in Wang Nua I’ve ingested chicken meat, liver, kidney, intestine, gizzard, feet, and, most distressingly, congealed blood. Thai’s love congealed chicken (or pig) blood. They cube it and put it in soups and curries. They leave it as watery broth.