Once More into the Breach

Sule Pagoda is an ancient golden temple, among the holiest in Myanmar,* surrounded by one of the busiest traffic circles in Yangon.There’s a spot, just east of it, that’s among my favorite urban spots I’ve visited. Without moving, a visitor can view the pagoda and its bustle; a host of money changers, gem dealers, cell phone stores, and internet cafes; a mosque; an Anglican Church; an imposing government building; the British National Telegraph Office, now crumbling and moldy; another colonial building from which the squatters have been evicted and an whose place a shopping mall is under construction; and a park that memorializes Myanmar’s independence. The whole area is littered with stalls, people of a dozen ethnicities and origins and, well, plenty of litter.

Compare this to Wangnua, Thailand, a town with no stoplights. I once asked someone if Wangnua had any citizens who were of a minority religion or ethnicity. “I think we had one Muslim last year,” was the reply, “but he moved away.”

So, too, is my professional life night-and-day. Smaller classes, fewer students, better resources, etc. But it’s the environment that really changes things. Motivated students are now the norm rather than exception, and teachers emphasize understanding rather than tests. One teacher recently lamented that we give students exams at all, as she didn’t feel it was representative of their education. You go, girl. As of now, I’m teaching a conversation/reading class. Younger kids are honing their skills, while the older ones are beginning to dig into Edgar Allen Poe so we can learn to analyze what makes a story interesting. Next semester, which starts in a few weeks, I’ll begin teaching social studies as well. I can’t believe my good fortune on that one. I’m busy scheming on how best to convert a bunch of worshippers at the temple of mathematics.

As I noted when I visited in April, Myanmar’s culture is surprisingly different from that of it’s easterly neighbor. When it comes to food, I’ll give the edge to Thailand. However, men wear skirts in Myanmar. If you know me at all, you know I’ve searched for such a land all my life. Dreams to come true. This heaven lets in a nice breeze.

Image

My skirt and I need to sign off. We have school bright and early in the morning.

Despite moving to a more urban culturally relevant locale, my technological capabilities worsened considerably. Internet isn’t consistently strong enough to Skype, and the semi-legal phone market is a logistically challenging for a clueless outsider (such as yours truly). That said, I’d love to hear from you via email, FB, or a note here.

Finally, I must express what I can only describe as relief that another awful Mariners season is behind us. We’ll get ’em next year, or at least eventually.

Love,
Graham

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Heads Up

As you may know, I’m not in Thailand anymore. As you may also know, I intended to be in Thailand for some time more. However, I write this post to you from rainy Yangon, Burma. 

 
You see, last week I moved over here to teach English. It’s pretty great so far, but I’ll save details for a further post. For now, feel free to peruse what I wrote when I visited Burma (Myanmar) in April. 
 
Despite my educational grievances and ethical quandaries that I’ve aired the past couple of posts, I really loved Thailand. The area comes surprisingly close to paradise between the food, gorgeous landscape, relaxed quality of life, and especially the absurdly friendly people. Seriously, I can’t count the number of times someone gave me a meal, a little gift, or just helped me out for no other reason than they could. Lots of foreigners get stuck in Thailand for an extra month, then an extra year, than an extra decade or two. Can’t say I entirely blame them. 
 
The faculty and students in Wangnua went out of their way to make me feel welcome, and I do feel that a few people (notably the English teachers) might have improved their language skills. Teaching basic English in a rural area, especially to students who’ve never had an English teacher before, was incredibly rewarding.
 
Still, I’m hoping to make a more immediate difference by downgrading from 900 students in Thailand to 100 in Yangon. The first week here has been incredible, even if Burmese people seem to have missed the important memo on eating fried eggs with every meal. I’m staying at a hotel downtown for now, but I’m moving into a new apartment on Tuesday.
 
Once I’m more settled here, I’ll discuss Yangon in a bit more detail. For now…
 
Love,
Graham

The Ethics of Being A Post-Colonialist Stooge

I’m the Man. It’s true. My students would probably agree in a Stan “The Man” Musial sort of way, but that’s not what I mean. Actually, it’s pretty problematic that my students see me as the good kind of the Man. I’m the Man in the bad way, the School of Rock way. When people smash property and say “fight the Man!”, I’m the Man they’re talking about. At 23 years old, I’m the antagonist from most songs on London Calling.

Worse, I’ve gone across the world to do it. Remember that time that Europeans showed up in North America and killed/repressed all the natives? Or those other Europeans went to South America, deemed everyone’s religion inferior, and made everyone convert? Or, more recently, that time America went to Vietnam and basically said, “since you hold values that our different than ours we’re going to kill you now?” The past several  hundred years feature a laundry list of white people showing up in new places and demanding that locals start being more European.

And many of us can agree that that wasn’t very nice of the white guys. I certainly think so. But now I find myself in Asia, trying to get some Buddhist rice farmers to be more like me. I quite literally spent a class period teaching some of them American pop music lyrics. There aren’t any tanks here, but I am a bona fide imperialist at this point. If you were to ask a random Thai person who her idols are, she would almost definitely say the King and the Buddha. In class, though, I spend a lot of my time talking about Batman, sports, and Lady Gaga.

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we have met the enemy and he is us LOL

Here’s the catch: They love it. My students have a disturbingly intense desire to absorb western culture. It’s not hard to understand why. Their media is saturated with it, and if their values stayed purely “traditional” they would be left behind. Despite the strong regionalist preference I discussed last time, Thais know who’s in charge. Two of the strongest powers in the world, US and UK, speak English and export their cultures worldwide. Not just culture, money. Tourism makes up around 7-8% of the Thai economy.* English is the lingua franca of Bangkok business and ASEAN, the nascent international body that plays a big role throughout the area.

It’s easy to laud the advantages of learning English. They’re plentiful, and frankly the people who can’t speak English, like most folks in my town, won’t see much benefit. The few kids who have enough language to wait tables or work in a hotel for farangs will have a lot more job opportunities than those who can’t. Maybe a few will even be able to leave the country for greener pastures in Singapore, Taiwan, or the Middle East. There are cultural advantages, too. Most Thais can’t speak English and therefore make friends with the legions of backpackers who pass through Thailand. Hell, many Thais get so overwhelmed when they see a westerner that they can’t even speak Thai.** Surely broadening horizons is a worthwhile goal.

Even so, there’s a part of me that feels guilty for teaching English here at all. My popularity is evidence of the informal social hierarchy in which many locals clearly view their own culture as inferior to or less desirable than an outside one. It’s actually impossible to buy soap in my town that doesn’t contain skin-bleaching agents. The outsiders are richer, physically larger; they’ve taken over several neighboring countries in the past few centuries. Now, the outsiders have sent a delegate, namely me, into their town and started demanding that the citizens speak a new language. The delegate has not bothered to learn the local language or customs beforehand. Also, the delegate makes twice the salary that the five-year veteran makes, even though she has an MA and the delegate finished college last year. The delegate doesn’t know much about local music or sports, so he instead discusses his own culture. I’m actually surprised that I haven’t encountered more (any at all) open hostility. 

Because the people do genuinely seem to love that I’m here, and want to learn English, I suppose that tips the balance. When it comes down to it, teaching English in Thailand is, mostly, win-win. I get to learn a new culture and language, and Thai people get to practice English with a native speaker. There are obviously no golden tickets to success, but English is a close to one as public education can realistically provide. However, there are clear ethical drawbacks which are at least worth exploring. While English teaching has a much friendlier (and arguably better-intentioned) face, it does come as the successor to a large history of western colonialism and imperialism. The pragmatic benefits are important, and varied, but in my opinion they should not come only at the expense of Thai values and self-worth.

 

*As an interesting side note, it’s worth noting that English is the common language for travelers in SE Asia as well. Last fall Lilly and I travelled with an awesome German girl who was on her way to Australia for work, but stopped in Laos and Cambodia in part to practice her English. My neighbors in a guesthouse last weekend were native Italian, German, French and Thai speakers, but all communicated in English.

**This actually isn’t hyperbole. Just this afternoon, some students literally tried to army crawl out of my class this afternoon because they didn’t know how to ask, “may I go to the bathroom” in English. I even asked them, in Thai, if they wanted to go to the bathroom, but they were too flustered to understand the question. 

Scale

Last couple of weeks, I’ve been a bit down. Not homesick exactly, just slightly claustrophobic in a town with no stoplights. Frustrated with an inefficient Thai education system, electricity-free classrooms, and a severe lack of other foreigners to talk to. One afternoon, I took a drive out to a waterfall about an hour from town. The route was mostly through rice fields, with occasional clusters of a couple dozen houses loosely organized into villages. Gorgeous, but not much to do or even stop for. Still, as I drove through I saw my students playing soccer, helping out at stores, just hanging out. They were stoked to see me, to point me out to their relatives who aren’t lucky enough to go to school with a real life White Guy.

That was a big shift in perspective for me, and made me see both my students and the school in a whole new light. While my town, Wangnua, feels tiny to me, it’s a hub for most people around. It’s the county seat, and it’s home to the only 7/11 for an hour. While there are kindergartens and elementary schools scattered around, this is the only high school for 20 miles in any direction. To a lot of them, Wangnua feels big. Holy crap.  True, the school has about 2,000 students spread through six grades, but I can still walk from one end of town to the other in about fifteen minutes.

If you’ll allow me to blatantly stereotype, I’ll make a bold claim: the world is a lot smaller out here in rural northern Thailand than I’m used to.* People think closer to home, and many of their decisions reflect that. Some of this seems to be a product of economics and lack of development. If you’ve been farming rice for generations, living miles from nowhere, your kids are only going to have so many options. I’ve been surprised, though by how regionally oriented even the better-educated people seem to be.

This manifests politically: it’s difficult for many to imagine a world they can’t directly experience.  Even Americans who don’t travel have plenty of international media to consume. I met a teacher who genuinely believed that Americans, Europeans and Australians were Muslims, because he’d never met anyone who wasn’t either Buddhist or Muslim.** When I explained to another teacher that Seattle is 3,000 miles from New York he paused thoughtfully, and then said, “that’s even farther than here to Bangkok.” (It’s about 6.5 times as far.)

But it seems to me that that this disinterest in globalism stems from a more general concern with a small geographical and personal world. Most adults I’ve met in Wangnua grew up within a couple hours of here, and those who are farther away can’t wait to move back. Several teacher friends drive 50-100 miles “home” every weekend because they can’t stand to be away from family for so long. They’re really worried about me being homesick, which is genuinely kind of them, but none of them can even fathom leaving family for that long. Some farang friends and I took a roadtrip on a long weekend, and invited a Thai teacher to come with us. He declined, because his family would be too worried about him for the three days – he’s 28 and single.

There are obvious upsides to such close-knit and stable communities. No one ever needs to hire a babysitter, or even lock their houses, because an aunt or grandfather is always around to take care of things. No need to save for retirement, because you’ll live with your grown children and they’ll provide for you. There aren’t many signs in town, and no restaurant has a menu or prices, because people just know how things work. Perhaps most importantly, people are automatically in a secure social system. I’ve never seen a Thai person eat a meal alone, or even seen my students do homework alone.*** Still, I’ve been here solo for ten weeks and I already feel a bit smothered. That lifestyle isn’t for me long term.

I don’t mean to paint the residents of Wangnua completely as out-of-touch bumpkins. I’ve heard that the Peace Corps sent people here in the 80s, but Wangnua has certainly grown past that now. They, and everyone else on Buddha’s green earth, absorb plenty of Western culture. They do so differently than we might, though. All my male students are obsessed with English soccer, but don’t know any of the players or watch any of the games. Ditto for Run DMC, but they don’t know any songs. About 10% of students have a bag with either the US or UK flag on it, but very few students know which country their gear represents. And, for reasons entirely unexplained, high school senior girls are obsessed with Winnie the Pooh, Lilo & Stitch, and Teletubbies.

 

It’s monsoon season now, Buddha says so. There was a holiday a few days ago marking its beginning, which means that monks can’t leave their monasteries for the next three months. Meteorologists and rice farmers agree. The paddies are nice and flooded, and the river next to my apartment has risen several feet in the past couple of weeks. I love it because it’s noticeably cooler and greener here, and feels more tropical.

I’ve quite gotten into the habit of heading to a bigger city every weekend. It’s pretty necessary to retain sanity, even though I love it out here M-F. Things are going well, and I’m glad that I’ve found a group of farang that I tend to see most weekends. I kind of feel like I live here, rather than just passing through, which is a neat feeling. I’ve also gotten religious about following the Mariners online, which seems to be working if their recent streak is any indicator.

Take care, enjoy summer. Northwesterners, is it blackberry season yet?

Love,

Graham

 

* This is a generalization, and an anecdotal one at that. I can’t back this up with data, nor apply it broadly. It’s simply a reflection of what I’ve seen, and what some of my farang friends teaching in similar situations report. It’s also worth noting that the closer one gets to big cities, especially Bangkok, the less true it seems to get.

**Actually, he teaches social studies. That’s … depressing.

*** This may help explain why they were so bewildered when I reacted poorly to them trying to help each other on their midterms. 

Here Are Some Facts About My Students

There are two thousandish students at my school, and I teach 800 or so. The following is an entirely unsystematic attempt to get to know their stats.

1. 98% of them have brown skin and black hair, and are skinny and Buddhist. The other two percent are the same, but a bit chubby.
2. Physically, they seem around four years or so behind their American counterparts. Nearly every 10th grade girl is under 5 feet tall, and probably somewhere in the 80-100 lb. range. Guys, especially the older guys, are much more varied. Some of the male seniors are comparable, if shorter, to their American counterparts.
3. Maybe one in ten male students seems far too small. I’m talking about high school seniors who are maybe 4’6” and don’t really show any signs of puberty. I have no good theory for this phenomenon, especially because I haven’t noticed the trend in adults.
4. Students and teachers (myself excluded) wear uniforms every day. Monday is Government Day, Tuesday is a normal school uniform, Wednesday is Boy/Girl Scout Day, Thursday is Military Day, and Friday is Traditional Day.
5. Until last year, there was a federal law against students having long hair. This is loosely defined as touching the ears for guys, and below the chin for girls. Although the law was repealed, long hair still isn’t really tolerated. A violator of this rule, especially a guy, will get a stripe shaved into his head by a teacher.

thai kids 2
Some seniors wearing the Tuesday uniform

6. All students are ranked by ability level.* After freshman year, they enter specific educational tracks. In order, the top 30% become math and science students, then 10% math and English, 10% English and Chinese/Japanese, 10% social studies, and then 40% vocational students who study to become either musicians, artists, mechanics, or electricians.
7. These rankings strongly favor girls. My top sophomore class is 32f/7m, and my bottom sophomore class is 0f/43m. I’ll talk about this a lot more in a future post.
8. This doesn’t include gay male students/ladyboys/effeminate boys.** These students are consistently the best English students, because they don’t have many of the impediments that most students do. Whereas most students are shy afraid to try to new things, the ladyboys-in-trainings are sassy and much more confident, so they pick up English much more quickly and have better accents. They’re generally good students all around, but really shine in English class.
9. People have told me that around half of the seniors will attend college, but this number seems high to me. Regardless, nearly every graduate will stay within 100 miles of here for the foreseeable future.
10. Thais have really long confusing names that no one uses. Everyone also has a nickname, and these are often hilarious. For no real reason except that it’s funny, please enjoy the following list of student nicknames.

Siliporn
Non
James
Te
Benz
Bang
Korn
Nop
Som
Beer
Hying
Thay
Pin
Eye
Phung
Pim
Bim
Bpim
Pope
Most
Jobjab
Wut
Art
Arm
Feen
Pungpon
Milk
Jar
Dragon
Born
Sine
Noon
Mile
View
Earn
Eye Eye
Mild Mild
Milk Milk
Praew
Wee
Gig
Som-O
Gom
Job
Sixgo
Poppy
A-Team
Boss
Fren
Aum
Arm
Aum
Eem Eem
Aum
Aom
Aoum
Nice
Guitar
Apple
Watermelon
Ball
Poon
Tang
First
Tao
Oil
F
Popeye
Whan
Yui
Mook
Yu
Papa
Now
Kwang
Rung
Mint
Pee
Dream
Mix
Boom
Ice
Po
Man U
Fluk
Chop
Sunday
Donut
Pet
Joy
Shray
Ear
Milk
Joy
Mobile
Ham
Champagne
Birth

* Yeah, I’m just as skeptical of this term as you are. It’s much more reflective, in my opinion, of the ability to sit still in class and inclination to homework on time.
** Some students are gay but male-presenting, some will eventually join the ranks of real ladyboys, some are just going through a phase. Ladyboys aren’t nearly as big a deal in Thailand as we seem to think in the US, but high school can still be rough.

Principia

Rodney, the other farang teacher at my school, gave me some good advice on getting by in Thailand. He said, “Don’t get upset in principle.” What he meant is that many things that are wrong/inefficient/infuriating in principle work just fine in practice. It’s easy to lament all the shortcuts that Thai daily life takes, but pragmatism often wins the day.

There are examples all over the place. In principle, it’s upsetting that lunch is left out for hours and has a few flies around it. In practice, though, no one gets sick, so what’s the problem? Or, I could get upset in principle that my students are usually ten minutes late to class, but that would miss the fact that the schedule doesn’t allow for breaks, and teachers don’t expect their students for the first few minutes anyways.

This has forced me to realize that much of my emotional well-being involves a significant amount of choice. Do I choose to see last Saturday’s dinner as a culturally authentic sampling of local fare? Or do I interpret it more objectively, as washing down moonshine with pig’s blood and leaves from nearby bushes? Many Thais I know display an admirable commitment to pragmatism, not necessarily what they “should” do. Most people believe strongly in ghosts and other spirits, and take strong measures to protect themselves from harm. The prevailing attitude towards what we might call black magic seems to be they’re after my family, I’d be stupid not to do everything in my power to stop these ghosts. To me, this at least partially resembles the privacy vs. security debate in the US, except out here there’s no debate. Taking protection has nearly universally won, even among the very educated.

For the most part, this pragmatism is pretty refreshing. A testament to not fixing it cuz it ain’t broken. Sometimes, though, the rules are in place for a reason. A teacher is tired? Go take a nap at school. A teacher is in a rush today? We’d never contemplate skipping lunch, so just leave class early to eat. A few days ago, I caught students cheating and looked to a senior teacher for guidance on punishment. The teacher felt the students hadn’t committed an infraction. He doesn’t know the answer, goes the argument, so if he doesn’t cheat he won’t get any credit and his grades will suffer.

The flipside is an intense devotion to seeming like rules are being followed. Like many Asian cultures,* Thailand relies heavily upon saving face. That’s why we’re missing a day and a half of school this week for Teacher Appreciation Day, which is really a lot more boring and less useful (or enjoyable) than actually teaching. I missed two more school days last week to judge an English completion, which essentially required me to hang around in a tie and be white for several hours. In the competition itself students “spontaneously” presented brief lectures ghostwritten by teachers, who in turn got their essays from the Internet. But look what we can say: our school won third place in the region at the English competition! Of the six weeks thus far, there’s been only one where I’ve seen all 25 of my classes.

But I don’t mean to be overly negative, because I love it out here. The teaching itself just keeps getting better and better. I’m starting to get to know my students a little bit, and tailor lessons to particular classes. Occasionally they actually learn something! And retain it for more than an hour! That’s pretty rewarding. The kids somehow still seem to love me. In my futsol** game last week, literally hundreds of teenage girls started screaming when I walked onto the court. I know I didn’t earn except by showing up, but it’s still a pretty cool once-in-a-lifetime ego boost.

 Outside of school, things are going swimmingly. I’ve met up with friends in nearby touristy areas about half the weekends, and I’m catching up on a bunch of good reading in the meantime.

I gotta say, all the end-of-school festivities I see on FB have made me a bit homesick (I’m looking at you, Rottblatt), but oh, well. I’m proud of heck of the grads in my life, especially Emily, Charlotte, Daniele and Bryn. Until next time, be well and keep in touch.

Love,

Graham

* Rodney also makes the case the Thailand deserves the award for Most Asian Asian Nation. If we’re awarding imaginary arbitrary trophies to reinforce stereotypes, I think his argument is pretty compelling. Thailand has face saving, the world’s largest Buddhist community by percentage of population and near the top by sheer numbers (take these numbers with a big dose of salt. Eastern religions’ fluidity makes them much more difficult to measure than western religions, and it’s impossible to accurately count anything in China). Thailand had been for decades the largest rice exporter in the world until last year. Plus intense martial arts, elephants and jungle aplenty, and a willingness to eat really stinky things.

 

** Futsol is essentially soccer on a smaller concrete field, with a few modifications. It’s 5-on-5 including goalies, with small goals a weighted ball. The goalie can throw instead of goal kick, and throw-ins are replaced by kick-ins, which gives the whole thing a very basketball-ish fastbreak feel. Great sport. I’ve been roped onto the teacher team as a goalie, and thoroughly enjoy beating up on children 10 years my junior.

Well, Teaching

Hello!

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.

Love,
Graham

*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.

Impressionism

Impressionism

Yangon (Rangoon) doesn’t exactly scream modernity, despite its position as Myanmar’s cultural and economic hub.* Still, it belies just how rural and low-tech the rest of the country feels elsewhere. This is paralleled throughout Myanmar, to an extent, by a refreshing lack of tourist infrastructure, at least compared to Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. It’s certainly possible to take in the tourist activities and the ubiquitous fried rice, but it’s comparatively easy to sample to the local fare. The relative novelty of tourists, at least in some places like Hsipaw, in combination with Myanmar’s general ravenous appetite for foreign culture after decades of near starvation, makes many locals genuinely interested in getting to know the Westerners who pass through. This is doubly true for Americans, who hail from what literally dozens of Burmese people have declared to me to be “the best country.”

Jon and I left Yangon for Hsipaw, a sleepy town in northern Shan state. Hsipaw is a former provincial capital that really doesn’t seem to do much these days besides serve as the focal point for local tribeswomen to sell veggies at the market. We took a hike out into the hills around town, and were struck by how quiet the area got about 30 seconds off the road. The landscape was beautiful, but deeply bizarre. Rich clay soil resembled oversaturated and tinted normal dirt, the product of a novice graphic designer messing around in Photoshop. Jackfruit, wild mango, and pine trees dotted the hills without the accompanying underbrush that one would expect from a normal ecosystem. ** Here in the height of the dry season, the whole thing takes on the hazy, unfocused feel of an unfinished impressionistic painting.
Still, the tribal culture was fascinating. Plenty of water buffalo drove plows through rice and other fields. I could almost sense the Buddhist holy men wandering into town two thousand or fifty years ago, trading teachings and songs for food and adoration. We stayed in a Palaung tribal village, one of the largest in the area at a few hundred people. We got to help turn leaves into green tea via steaming, drying, smoking, and rolling via what I can only describe as a Ouija board that took four grown men to operate. We stepped into an anthropologist’s wet dream, wherein the nightly council of elder men sat around in dirty t-shirts, smoking cheroots (local cigars) and discussed, well, something (I don’t speak Palaung). A dozen-plus men sat in a circle as, one feels, they have most nights for generations; the chief appeared bored until the discussion concluded, when he raspedout terse reprimands, never putting down his lepetto (fermented tea salad).
Back in Hsipaw, our days took on a distinctly local flavor. We were the blonde guys in town wearing longyis (traditional skirts that, encouragingly, most people still wear) playing chinlon (a hackeysack-like game played with a ball made from bamboo fibers). One day, we drank a cup of tea or ate tea salad at eight different places.
Jon and I unfortunately had to part ways, but I was making a mini-pilgrimage: Bagan. It’s been near the top of my visit-list in Southeast Asia since I first heard of it a couple years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get there. Bagan is a vast collection of temples. No, it’s bigger than vast: it’s a few thousand goddamn temples roommates from the over 10,000 that were built in one city a thousand years ago. It’s goddamn massive. Most people call it Angkor Wat without the crowds, which is more or less right on. I never saw more never saw more than two other Westerners at any temple, and I had the place to myself at nearly every stop. This may have something to do with the absolutely disgusting heat. It takes a certain kind of person to travel during the hottest part of the dry season to what the government has designated,no joke, the Dry Zone. I gave up around midday there and found a secluded temple for a nap until things cooled off. About ten minutes after I arrived, a bunch of local shepherds piled into the what was, I guess, the local Siesta Temple. We practiced some great cross-cultural bonding, but I was asleep for most of it. That night, I got a front-row seat for the full moon rising over the temples. It was life-affirming and poetic: I celebrated by biking around ancient Buddhist temples under the stars and listening to Ke$ha on my ipod. OMMMMMMM

Obviously, one of the real treats of visiting Myanmar has been seeing firsthand the political climate in one of the most repressed, though rapidly changing, countries on Earth. I’m a complete beginner on Burmese issues, so what follows is largely a regurgitation of impressions gained through talking with Burmese people, particularly in Yangon and Hsipaw. Everyone seems to agree that things have been rough, though they’re often fairly reluctant to air their grievances in much detail. This is understandable, given the personal risk involved. It’s clear, too, that the old regime is still in power, and any reform thus far is mostly superficial. Still, people have markedly different opinions on where things are going from here. One man, hyperliterate and outspoken, told me that the country’s chances begin and end with Aung Sung Suu Kyii. The Buddha is only more popular figure here, and she seems almost holy. Indeed, I’ve come across temples have put photos of her right on the altar. Some people seem quite hopeful that recent moves are indicative of larger reform, though others see superficial reforms as (so far successful) ploy to lift trade restrictions, without any real progress behind them.
Regardless, Myanmar faces a litany of issues in the future including governmental reform, racial and religious violence, various tribal struggles for cultural identity, autonomy, and even independence, crushing poverty, and so forth. But things are changing, and quickly. Aung Sung Suu Kyii is (for now) out of house arrest and into parliament. The SIM card war was finally won last week when prices dropped to around $1.50 from an original price in the thousands of dollars several years ago. Coca Cola, that harbinger of globalism for better or worse, made it’s first shipment last month to the country.*** I shared a cab from the airport into Yangon with someone who hadn’t been there since December, and she couldn’t stop exclaiming at all the new construction projects that hade gone up in that time.
I’ve been loving Myanmar. The food is awesome and dirt cheap, the people are friendly, and the whole place has an idyllic, laid-back feel to it. I did a 3-day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake and got in yesterday, so today’s been nice and lazy. The landscape keeps changing, too. Yangon had it’s own feel, we passed through some very north-Indian feeling rice fields on the way north, and much of the hike oscilliated between Montana and northern Arizona. The Lake is it’s own tropical beast.
For still more variety, I’m heading back to Thailand on Sunday for a few days in Bangkok, a brief visa run to Laos, and then finally getting started teaching English in Northern Thailand.
It’s been a wild ride since Lilly and I left the US in September. 7 countries and 7 months later, though, I think I’m ready to put on a tie. I’ve actually had a lot of fun tie shopping, if we’re being honest.

Until next time be well, take care, and remember that it’s never too early to start hoping that the Mariners will be better next year.

Love,
Graham

*Until recently, it was the political capital as well. See here for some infuriating logic and money-wasting.
**Locals throughout Myanmar practice regular underbrush burning whose exact reason eludes me. One farmer told me it’s at least in part to keep snakes away and facilitate hunting.
*** Anecdotal evidence suggests that Coke has been available on the black market for some time. Actually this is a great place to consider the bewildering slogans that Burmese beverages use. I’m sure they’re meant to be positive and fun, but they just come off as transcripts of an abusive relationship. For example: Just Drink It, You Deserve It, For Life, Let’s Move It, Good For You, and so forth.

Thingyan

Myanmar (nee Burma, allegedly nee-nee Myanmar) has been at the top of my travel list for a long time. Almost a few months now. I was sort of expecting a back-water Thailand, but getting off the 45-minute flight quickly proved me wrong. It’s a drier heat here, less green as a percentage of the landscape, but the extant green is much more vibrant. The culture, too, is less Thai feeling than I expected. There’s a marked Indian flair to the whole experience, which starts with food and paan (betel nut and tobacco chew), and extends all the way to the longyis (skirts for men and women that one local told me are “as free as AIRRRR!”)* and faded colonialism.

Yangon is an idiosyncratic city. In some ways it feels more civilized than other Asian metropoli because there are no motorbikes, making traffic feel almost sane. That said, this place is feels kind of stuck in the early 90s. Nirvana T shirts and mohawks are really popular, and people still use phones with cords. Come to think of it, you sort of get the feeling that the country half-quit when the British left in the 1940s, or at least when the junta took over in ’62, and is playing catch-up. There are beautiful colonial buildings half-crumbled and completely abandoned. Used booksellers hawk Burmese Import Laws 1963 and How To guides for Windows 98 alongside lurid Burmese novels from the mid-century and more recent Buddhist comic books.

Buddhism is everything here. Monks, novices, and precept mothers** crowd town every morning, and it’s hard to go more than a few minutes without coming upon a giant gold pagoda. People clearly spend a lot of money on temples, monks, teachers, and so forth at every available opportunity, much to the chagrin of those outsiders who consider the infrastructure/economy/health of the country. The result is that the city has taken a distinct color palate of maroon (monks), gold (anything Buddha-related), white and an oddly specific shade of aqua-teal for most of its design needs. However, the Buddhist emphasis unfairly discounts the diversity of Yangon. In fact, the city is home to large groups of Muslims, Hindus, Christians, occasional Sikhs, and at least one surprisingly impressive synagogue.

As for daily life in Yangon, my observations were cut well short by the mother of all disruptions: Thingyan. This is the Buddhist New Year, aka simply Water Festival. It is all-consuming. I’ve never been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, or Rio for Carnival, but this surely must compete for inclusion to the pantheon of World’s Best Parties. It allegedly lasts for four days, but five-to-seven is a much more accurate measurement. Here’s how it works.

1. For extra room and to prevent mold, take all the seats and carpet out of your car/pickup. Cram as many people in as possible. Then stick a couple more people in there. And a few on the roof for good measure.
2. Turn the music up as loud as you can. If your car doesn’t have speakers, which it probably doesn’t, there are giant soundsystems everywhere.
3. Start driving. Doesn’t matter where.
4. Within 50 yards, you will be assaulted by buckets of water, hoses of water, tubs of water, bottles of water.
5. You are soaked. Repeat steps 3 and 4.
6. Eventually, head towards one of the two main lakes in town. These are lined with mandas (temporary grandstands lining the road). They can each deafen you with music, and fit several dozen people. They also have about 50 hoses which are directly hooked up to the lake.
7. Grab the nearest person, likely a stranger, and start dancing as hard as possible.
8. Get hit by a firehose. Consider that this was considered police brutality for much of the US Civil Rights movement. You kind of like it. Continue dancing.
9. Someone hands you whiskey. Continue dancing.
10. Consider that 100 million people across Myanmar and Thailand are doing the exact same thing right now, including a few million in Yangon alone.
11. Should you be worried about that unattended baby? It looks like it’s having fun…
12. Look back upon the hundreds of thousands of people that you can see dancing in the shadow of Shwedagon Pagoda, the religious heart of the country. Consider that you’re in one of the most politically repressed and religious nations on earth.
13. Continue dancing. You’ve gone a little deaf, but you’re not sure if it’s from water or music.
14. Someone says to you that this is like a modestly-dressed Spring Break, and it’s true.
15. You’ve lost your friends and the truck. You have no money, you’re lost, and it’s getting dark. Wonder how it is that you’re cold during the hottest month in SE Asia.
16. It’s surprisingly easy to hitchhike, but you don’t know where you’re going.
17. The moon looks beautiful as it rises over that temple.
18. Your friends miraculously find you in the wrong part of town. Get Indian food.
19. Surprise attack! Get soaked and start dancing again, even though you’re exhausted.
20. Do this every day for four days.

I can’t really do this justice verbally. Here’s a picture that captures one microcosm of what’s transpiring throughout the country’s largest city.

 

***

Thingyan, and my experience in general, have been greatly augmented by a meetup with two friends from Carleton, Jon and Joe. I had a wonderful four years at Carleton, but I’m starting to realize that one of the school’s strengths is that even those who weren’t particularly close in Northfield can meet up anywhere, even Myanmar, and have a great time. They’ve shown me a bunch of local spots I wouldn’t have found on my own, and introduced me to some awesome Burmese people and expats. I am absolutely in love with Yangon, and it’s at least in part thanks to these guys.

Jon and I left Yangon for Hsipaw, up in the rural north, a few days ago. It’s been wonderful, but I’ll save that for another post. I’m still recovering from Thingyan, which ended over a week ago now.

I hope that spring is blossoming, wherever this finds you. Be well, and stay in touch. I’ve got about ten more days of vacation in Myanmar before work starts up in Thailand. I’m quite excited for both. Life is a pleasant place, sometimes.

Love,

Graham

*Needless to say, I’m wearing my new skirt every day thank you very much.

**For now, read “precept mothers” as “nuns” but that alone is worth its own post.

Good News and a Respite

A month goes by rather quickly when it’s spent in one place. It’s hard to believe that I’m on the road yet again.

Hua Hin was solid, and things quite picked up in the second half of my time there. For a while I was feeling, well, not down exactly, but a bit off-kilter. Things weren’t falling into place like I wanted them to. In the past couple weeks, though, I’ve managed to build a rhythm, both temporally and emotionally. Building a sense of place is key to well-being.

Of course, just I’m settling into things, it’s all over. But I got what I wanted — I’m TEFL certified to teach English! The class was cool. There were some existentially- and professionally-worrying disputes on whether a an apostrophe is needed to pluralize, but that’s all over now. Moreover, I’ve got a school placement. Google maps tells me that it’s quite northern and a stoplight short of a one-stoplight town. Anecdote tells me that it should be pretty, but distinctly lacking in other Westerners. We shall see, I’m not reporting there for another month.

Thailand takes its long school break in March and April, which means that it’s yet again time to don the backpack and go a-wanderin’. I’m heading out in the morning for Myanmar (née Burma) and I’ve got about four weeks there for which I’m well-stoked. Back to the glory days! Temples! Long Buses! Poor hygiene! Well, for a month. I’ve heard so many contradictory things about Myanmar in recent years, I figure I should see what the heck is actually going on over there. Plus it’s changing so quickly, now’s the time to do it.

I’m back in Bangkok right now for about 36 hours. So far I’ve taken a bus going the wrong direction, successfully navigated the subway system, and paid for a tuk-tuk ride that took me less than 50 meters. I’m an idiot. Today I saw a crew filming a Thai soap opera at the train station, so that was cool.

Take care, be well, pray that Justin Smoak finally gets it together this season.

Love,

Graham