A Wild Wednesday!

After living at school for over a week I have realised (perhaps to my detriment) that I don’t have to be in my classroom at 7.45am. In fact, I don’t have to be there until 8.25am. The assembly and flag raising ceremony took place as usual in fast Thai with lots of calls and responses from the teachers and the students. It is a bit difficult to join in. 

For the first hour of the day I had a free period. Teacher Tim found me reading in the staff room and asked if I would mind if she recorded me reading two texts. There is an English speaking competition coming up next week and she wanted her students to have the advantage of listening to a native speaker’s pronunciation. When I saw what one of them was going to read I recoiled slightly (ever so slightly). It was a book that I had supervised a girl as she read the other day and the grammatical mistakes, word choice and spellings were on the whole way off. In this case, as it is a reasonably big competition, I told Teacher Tim and she allowed me to re-write the whole book. I felt like an interpreter translating it from ‘Thai English’ into correct British English. I did the same with a story about a wolf falling in a hole and a farmer helping him only not to be thanked… and recorded them both in my clearest voice. The poor students, if they listen intently to the tape, will find themselves entering the completion with a Scottish accent; I hope that this won’t cause them any problems.

Before lunch I had two classes back to back. Grade 4 and grade 5. There are two sets in each year, so in effect I only have four sets of students and I have them all four times a week. This means that I have had to build up a relationship with them fairly quickly, which has involved coming to recognise their faces and getting to know some of their names. The first class I had was one I’d had before and it went fairly well. The new class, for some reason or other, has not had English in a week. There have been various festivals, holidays and activities on which have meant that some of the classes have been cancelled and they have been badly affected by it. The hour felt long with them, at one point all of the students were laughing at me and I didn’t know why. They were pointing at my back. I checked and all my zips were done up properly, I couldn’t see anything wrong. It turned out that one of the boys had managed to attach quite a number of bits of a small plant to the back of my dress (kind of like sticky willow) without me noticing. At another point a boy decided that decorating his scouts hat was much more interesting than the work that had been set so I confiscated it and wore it for the rest of the lesson. This seemed to go down well. I was pleased to see that some pupils who looked like they were misbehaving were actually diligently completing their work between snippets of conversation in fast Thai and laughter at their new farang teacher. 

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 Lunch couldn’t have been more welcome. I had two portions today (that’s how hungry I was). I had rice and a mixed vegetable soup thing- vegetable stock could be handy but it tends to be quite hard to come across, at least I can never find it. Excuse my infuriatingly long sentences, it feels great not to have to simplify anything or employ staccato phrases. I am finding that things are becoming ordinary; lunches are rarely new and exciting and I like knowing what to expect in terms of food. Also I can recognise almost all of the students and all of the teachers so I don’t feel so lost or outside as I did on arrival.

Luckily though, most of the students are still excited by me and friendly. When I go through to the living room in my wooden house the students shout from their classroom ‘Good morning Teacher Charlie, I love you’ and wave adoringly. I will not tire of this. I like having the title ‘Teacher’ in my name; it feels good. I like it when the students run up to me between classes and ask questions and tell me I’m beautiful. Who wouldn’t enjoy that though?  

As I was walking to my first afternoon class two girls bounded over to me and introduced themselves to me. As some of you will know in Thailand many people have English names as well as their Thai names. I have students called: love, guitar, oil, and apparently Sumo. Sumo is rather overweight… it seems appropriate if somewhat an unkind nickname. She did seem proud though and this was an extremely cheering little interlude.

The sun was shining brightly after school as the students dressed in their scout and guide uniforms took part in activities on the grass out front. My classes were over by 2.30pm and I decided that I had to get away from school for a bit. It can be a bit intense being here ALL the time. My trusty steed, my bike, provided a means to travel. I cycled for 30 minutes down the road to the right of the school, into unknown territory. As with anywhere people are protective and tell you to beware of ‘dangerous people’. What they didn’t tell me was to beware of dangerous animals. As I was riding down the ‘cycle lane’ I drove over a massive, dark green snake. I was so scared that I kept going full pelt and didn’t look back to see if it was coming after me. Just to the left of the road through the tall grasses I spotted somewhere to perch safely. See the picture (so I don’t have to describe it). Here I found a haven for an hour or so in the sun as I sat and finished my book. I am very aware that I live in a beautiful place, and was pleased not to be disturbed by any red ants this time.

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In the evening I found company with my housemates. We sat and ate cake (very sweet!) and drank cold ice tea (that was made from powder sachets) as the tropical rain fell outside. As usual today I picked up Joy from the main road on my bike. What I did not realise about it, that was of course pointed out by a proud English person, was that it has ‘England’ stickers all over it. How unobservant of me, but sometimes ignorance is bliss… 

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Thai Language Day

The gang.

The gang.

A timetable does not mean that people will come at the time they are scheduled to. Since arriving at the school there have been lots of last minute and unexpected changes to mine. That is why I wasn’t surprised to find out that 3 of 4 of my classes today were cancelled because of activities in the name of Thai language day. They involved the whole school gathering together under one roof to recite poetry, sing traditional thai songs, perform entertaining dramas in Thai language and of course… to put the foreign teachers on the spot.

The poetry was interesting to listen to as it was so tonal. There were about 15 pairs or threes who got up and performed for everybody, but I got the impression that after the first few most of the students (and the teachers) didn’t pay too much attention. The voting system to decide the winners consisted of a few handfuls of students who were given a little stick with a star on the end, which they had to pass onto one of the competitors. The team who was given the most stars was the winner.

What followed was quite surprising. An awards ceremony led by one of the teachers broke all of my misconceptions about Thai schools. The teacher encouraged the students to shout out, to joke, to make wild guesses, to dance even, to laugh amongst themselves. This teacher was like a minor celebrity and the room was raucous but in a very positive way as it just meant that the children were able to express themselves in a way that sometimes they can’t because of the rigidity of their lessons and their relationships with their teachers within the classroom.

One is warned when one goes to work overseas to be prepared to embarrass oneself. There is a reason for this. People tend to put the farang in a position that they don’t put most locals in. For example, during the ceremony earlier (of which I could understand only the odd word) I heard my Thai name. Then I looked up. I was sitting at the back of the hall and virtually all of the heads in the room had turned to look at me, smiling quizzically as if to say will she do it, but what? I was beckoned up to the front and commanded, somewhat kindly, to do a speech in English to the whole school. Only a few sentences, but broken down very simply and slowly with translation going on between each phrase. Clearly this was not particularly fascinating so I decided to make a (little bit of a) stir and introduced the national dance of Scotland, at least one of them and started leaping side to side with my arms raised above me. This snippet of the Highland fling seemed to go down really well. It was quite an amazing and novel feeling having so many dark eyes from the whole hall looking at me, smiling, doing thumbs up and laughing. The teachers all clapped and then wanted Frenelly, the Philipino girl to come up and do her national dance. This did not happen and I cannot blame her.

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Thai lady boys are world-renowned. Teenage boys dressed in drag with fake breasts made out of water balloons are not. This does not mean that they weren’t entertaining; they were hilarious. A gaggle of girls sitting near me didn’t stop shrieking from the start to the finish of this performance by the seniors. The boys looked quite striking with their high cheekbones, wigs and heavy make up. A highlight was when one of them, the tallest in the group who was clad in an orange dress, broke into a Beyoncé style booty shake, and he wasn’t bad. There was also a mock Muay Thai fight. One of the fighters was dressed in a bit of blue material tied into something that resembled shorts. He powerfully thrusted at the air in front of his opponent knocking him to the ground (excuse me if I haven’t described this properly.)

After life the excitement and activities continued. I was informed that Karaoke was taking place, but was somewhat disappointed to discover that the only two people who were allowed to sing were very talented, taking away from the humour of the occasion. Very suddenly it was over and I went straight to the classroom to teach my first lesson of the day (it started at 2.30pm). Only 8 of my students turned up, leaving big black marks on the register. Many of the students seemed tired from the heat and the jollity of the day. This resulted them in being quite studious and weary looking- their faces serious and downward. When I tried to lead a game I was met with looks that suggested they were thinking ‘we are too old for that’. They were a bit confused and merged sentences so they didn’t make sense. For example, instead of writing ‘she read a comic book or she drank some juice’ a lot of them simply wrote ‘she read comic drank.’ I will need to try and combat this in the future, but I do think it is important that the students can make mistakes and learn from them rather than just being spoon-fed everything so their jotters look neat.

Reading a novel, incredibly, took up my whole afternoon. What a luxury to sit on the field in front of the school, in goals actually, with my bike at the side as the sky changed from day to night and I retired home past sleepy dogs and frogs on the path.

Naughty students, new cleaning techniques and timetable problems.

My students have a habit of coming to my classes at the wrong time; they turn up an hour late, an hour early, a day or even a week late… It can be a little hard to keep track of not just who is supposed to be where, but who is actually there or not.

Today I had one of my best classes so far. I split the group of thirty students into two; one group did writing and comprehension activities from their workbooks individually, and the other group gathered round in one corner of the room and we did a bit of reading out loud together and singing as well as answering a couple of simple questions about the texts we had in front of us. This seemed like a much better way of doing things as because the group was that bit smaller it was easier to hold their attention and get them to be responsive as individuals and not just part of a large mass of children. After half an hour we swapped activities, so everybody got to do everything. I felt that it went quite well, and for the first time in a while rather than feeling frustrated felt pleased and excited.

However, the class that followed did not go so well. By the end I was so frustrated, especially by the boys in the back row who were doing no work whatsoever and were disrupting the rest of the class that I wanted to rip up their jotters. A dictionary I lent one of them was handed back to me with no front cover; the culprit had already been moved seats twice so he was well away from his friends, but his big personality managed to find itself all the way to the back with the others. I gently ‘whacked’ him on the head with it in a way I have seen many Thai teachers do; it made the others laugh and didn’t hurt him whatsoever, it was just a way of showing my frustration. Definitely less offensive than ripping up somebody’s jotter.

By the end of the day I was tired, frustrated and hungry and aware of the long unplanned evening that lay ahead. As a remedy I have learnt that rotis with condensed milk from the stand on the main road work a treat. I cycled along and after getting a few vegetables at the market I stopped by the roti stand. Each of them cost 6 Baht (very little) and I skulked off with them to sit on the bench by the post office as not to be spied by any (or not too many) pupils or staff from the school. I live in a comically parochial place and am often gawked at passers by, I usually don’t mind, but sometimes it is hard to maintain a constant and genuine smile at EVERYONE. The rotis did the job and gave me the energy to cycle home and cook up some dinner. I had planned to have aubergine, okra, and onions stirred in with rice and soy sauce- but the rice cooker was occupied with a meat dish so I opted for a sandwich with this mixed vegetable filling which sated me.

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As usual the mosquitoes found me quite attractive and tempting. The feeling was mutual. Sometimes when I get home in the afternoon I retire to my bed for a little nap, but I found that there were more than 8 mosquitoes that had found their way into my ‘safe zone’ inside the net… as had various large bugs and moths. Due to this I decided that it would be best to vacate the building and found peace at a bench by the front of the school where I was able to sit and read in relative peace. A lizard defecated from above and it landed on my phone, as did some kind of bird- but hey, nothing that couldn’t be wiped off. The book will be finished by tomorrow, and then I won’t have to worry about damaging it before returning it to its true owner. Maybe sitting inside is a solution to keeping it in tact. It is working well, so far.

I have discovered a new method of ‘showering’ or more specifically, washing my hair. Rather than chucking a small bowl of water over my head repeatedly to relatively little effect I fill a large red bucket with water and plunge my whole head and neck into it whilst pinching my nose. It’s not the most pleasant way to do it, I’m sure, but it does the trick and leaves no dry patches. Doing this in the evening is advised because in Thailand, rumour has it that if you go out in the morning with wet hair it means you have had sex the night before. Even though this is clearly not true it is quite nice to avoid the sneers or laughter from students and teachers alike by coming into work with dry and clean hair.

Well done if you made it this far, as you can probably tell, today was not so eventful as normal. Maybe tomorrow will have something new in store! Here is hoping.

Thank Goodness it’s Friday

I have heard that in Thailand there are only two seasons; hot and hotter…

This morning, as with every morning, we had school assembly outside on the concrete beneath the flagpole. As it’s the rainy season the sky is usually quite overcast, but today the sun was beating strongly down on us and I felt like running off to hide in the shade of the school building. One of the teachers talks for about 20 minutes straight and I got the feeling that the students (and other teachers alike) were not particularly interested or listening. Myself included, but I currently have the excuse of not understanding the language.

I had no classes timetabled until 10.30am, but the students didn’t turn up. I’m not sure why, they didn’t turn up yesterday either. It was quite frustrating as I was so ready to teach, but alas, I happily accepted the alternative and engrossed myself in a book.

Lunch today was the best I have had in weeks. There were mixed vegetables (beans, carrots, cauliflower and other greens) in a thin, tasty soup. I also had some melon and pineapple left over from previous days that I shared out with the other staff. It was nice to feel full and satisfied again.

Classes after lunch were amazingly tiring. I have textbooks to work through with the students but often find that they sit down to do work and don’t understand either what they are being asked to do or how to go about answering. It can be quite frustrating. I try to explain things as best as I can through drawings, actions, using examples and translating with a Thai-English dictionary, but it can be difficult as I’m on my own so there is nobody who can translate between the two languages. The classroom, naturally, divides itself into two; the hard working girls who sit at the front and tend to be super keen and willing to try anything, and the naughty/ lazy/ less motivated boys who sit at the back and tend… if not regularly prompted and reminded to go off task and write nothing at all. If I go over to them they pretend to be writing and cover their jotters so I can’t see. I know in school that some of the teachers said ‘it’s for your good and not mine’ and it’s so true. By not doing the work they are losing out, but they are also hindering the productivity of the class as a whole and it seems really unfair.

Sometimes when the students are being a bit silly I just think mai bpen rai (never mind), it’s your loss. But other times, especially at the end of the day on a Friday, I get really annoyed and have to prevent myself from ripping up their jotters, shouting or sending them home. None of these things will solve the problem, and I know that by losing my temper I would be resigning from my position of authority. I’ll just say that I was very glad when the school day was over.

My bicycle has given me a new kind of freedom. It allows me to go where I want and when I want (with a degree of confinement, but still). So, when I was invited to dinner again at the house of two of the other members of staff from the school I thought it best to cycle. This way I would be able to go, enjoy the atmosphere and the company for a bit and then head back in my own time, rather than relying on another teacher with a motorcycle who might not necessarily want to leave.

It was a pleasant ride there, the last bit of it involved cycling down a red dirt track with wooden houses on the left and luscious rice paddies on the right as the sun slowly sank in the cloudy sky. Most of the faces were familiar and I knew the drill. There were snacks and drinks all round while the head of the house prepared meat on a small barbecue that was transferred to the table and cut at regular intervals. I sustained myself on pumpkin seeds, crisps, monkey nuts and Spy (an alcoholic drink that it seems acceptable for ladies to drink in polite company). The atmosphere was greatly enhanced by the presence of a guitar. To my surprise I was able to tune it by ear before the real guitarist took over; two of the male teachers played upbeat melodies together singing, too. I felt, in a very small way, like I was back in Mauritius as music is such a big part of the culture there. It is here too, but it tends to be recordings rather than live. It was much appreciated.

As it was just about to get dark I jumped on my bike and cycled as fast as I could down the dirt track, the side roads and onto the dual carriageway that cuts through the middle of Wang Sai Phun. As I was speeding along side the main road out from nowhere appeared a large, noisy dog. He ran straight for me, barking loudly and wildly causing me to swerve onto the middle section of the road and keep peddling until I couldn’t see him anymore. My heart was racing, and my legs were pumping… the whole way home I dreaded the street dogs incase they wanted to play the same mean trick on me. Fortunately they didn’t and I was able to make it home with no trouble. Phew, the weekend is here!

Monsoon and catching up…

The sky has opened and it is at times like these when I believe that the rainy season has begun. Although I am sitting in the staff room the rain is hitting the concrete outside so furiously that it is bouncing up high enough to reach my desk. The smell of wet dirt fills the air in a pleasant way, and I can really appreciate the cool breeze that comes in the windows on one side and leaves through the door on the other.

 

As is a common feature of (almost any blog) a time lapse is experienced. It is now Wednesday afternoon and I haven’t written formally since Friday night. The weekend is already a bit of a blur, at least when thinking about it I don’t have the same sort of clarity I do when I reflect on a single day. I’ll post in sections so it’s easier to digest. 

Bollywood, Bicycles and Back to school (again)

I will begin by setting the scene. At present the staffroom is not supporting a sleeping dog, just myself and a Thai teacher, who looks like he is doing some serious work… that is only until I spied Facebook and pop music on his computer screen.

The music began today at 5.30am, later than usual. I guess that it must have been my punishment for missing half a day of school yesterday.

Today is my first full day of timetabled classes. I was in my classroom 30 minutes early in order to sweep the dusty, littered floor and write a few things on the board. At 8.30am grade 4/2 were supposed to come- I had prepared their work and activities knowing that I would have a free hour before my next class. They did not come. Instead, grade 5/1 came in and sat down expectantly, their ‘Gogo loves English’ workbooks signaling to me that this was the wrong class… or the right class at the wrong time. We overcame this and I sneakily made a register to keep track of who comes to class, and more importantly who actually does the work. The prospect of learning so many (over 100) Thai names and faces is daunting, but it is possible and there is still time.

Classes start at 8.30am.

This is what my classroom looked like:

They didn’t come. I later realised that this was because they had been timetabled to be in two places at once, and chose not to come to English. Initially I was frustrated as I had prepared my lesson and was raring to go, but reading a bit more of ‘The English Patient’ in my classroom, in the hope that someone might turn up at some suited me just fine too. I also had to collect and hang up my washing (some of which was stained by the soy sauce experience of last night), and by not turning up my students gave me some time to do this.

It is always nice when the students are unexpectedly excited and enthusiastic about things. When trying to glean their names earlier I got them to write A5 name cards that they will use every lesson so that I can put their names and faces together. They actually cheered- they just adore drawing.

For lunch there were two vegetarian dishes: one with mushroom, and another with egg and squash. Thankfully I had a sneaky pineapple in the fridge at home so I brought that in to supplement the plain rice. A little girl just ran over to me with her hand in the shape of devils’ horns and shouted something indiscriminate before scampering off. She turned back and said ‘I love youuu teacher Charlie’. That was five minutes ago and somehow (perhaps by watching me) her and her gang just found me in the staffroom and peaked their little heads in- they are still there. I can see a foot… a leg… a head… a face… a whole child, NO three! There I never a dull moment.

School has finished now and almost all of the other teachers have trickled home with the rain. I’m still here though. Two of my students (one of them is fat and cheeky, the other one is amazingly keen and clever) came to join me. We started off trying to make conversation, but it was surprisingly difficult so I showed them some pictures from home and then whacked on some Bollywood music, pulling a few of my old moves out of the bag. The boy watched on entertained, and the girl tried to imitate my every move- she was actually an amazing dancer. It was so hot that we had to put the fans on full pelt. I miss dancing with people, with friends, with strangers, for crowds etc. There is something very satisfying about learning a new dance and breaking a sweat from joyful physical activity as opposed to just sitting still or walking down the road.

As I was walking to my front door one of the other teachers shouted my name and shoved a well-used bicycle in my direction. I didn’t understand the full implications of this. He was not just lending it to me for one quick ride, as I realised the next day (excuse the confusing tenses- I’m actually writing this between ‘today’ (24 July) and ‘today’ (29 July) when it was still by the foot of our stairs. I immediately mounted my bike and set on an adventure feeling glad to be away from the school for a little while. It is rare to see a farang around these parts, but seeing a European is virtually unheard of. As I went on my way down the road beyond the school gates I was greeted by many of my students, local families, business owners and a number of ‘friendly’ neighbourhood dogs. The speed of the bike meant that I could whizz by and casually say hello without having the awkwardness of walking past, being met by prolonged stares.

I had only ever been as far as the temple, which is about 1km down the road to the right of the school. On this trip I went a lot further than that and fell upon beautiful expanses of rice paddies, cool breezes, a bustling (yet very local) market and mountains in the distance with impatient clouds waiting above them.

What was going to be a fairly mundane night in became unexpectedly long and interesting. Three of the other teachers and I nipped off for dinner at a noodle stand by the main road, and afterwards shared a couple of snacks on Teacher Tim’s ‘angry birds’ tables and chairs. Then, when I thought we were going to pop off to the corner shop to get something, we ended up going to the director’s house for a drink. We stayed for a couple of hours and there were lots of other, more senior teachers, who I didn’t know, some of them even coming from others schools in the surrounding provinces. The director gave us each a bag of dried sour cherries that he had brought back from his trip to China and we sat around, somewhat awkwardly, as they made jokes about Frenelly and I being farang (foreign) in quite limited English. If we ever replied in Thai ripples of surprised laughter filled the room. I was glad to go, but found this a little tiring having to sit politely and laugh at everybody’s jokes who I didn’t really understand so we managed to slip off (not without having to sneak back in and out to get my wallet which I had left on the table). When my Thai is better I must go back!

Back home: the return to Wang Sai Phun and an ETA dinner.

Locator map of Phichit Province, Thailand

Locator map of Phichit Province, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was no escaping loud Thai music and announcements early in the morning in Sukothai. However, they did begin that bit later than they do in Wang Sai Phun.

On the walk to the bus station down the busy, dusty dual carriageway I got two large blisters and by walking fast made the bus to Phitsanulok. I had been told that they left on the hour. It left at 10 to, so it was basically perfect time. It left as soon as I sat down. The whole journey was actually relatively smooth. The connecting bus was waiting at the station, I hoped on and it too left within 5 minutes of boarding. I was pleased, but not appreciative enough. I have since seen that this is not commonplace, and is indeed something that happens once in a full moon (note the purposeful adaption of the expression).

I managed to make it back to school in time for the first class after lunch and taught three in a row until school finished. So far I’m enjoying the teaching and have liked the challenge of surprising the students into doing lots of work. I’ve found that unexpectedly getting them to stand up, sit down, spin around, run (carefully) around the room or having an impromptu game of Simon Says or rendition of ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ never goes a miss.

Today was the first day in Wang Sai Phun that I have experienced real tropical rain. I thought that it would never end and despite living a 2 minute walk away from the exit of the staffroom I waited it out in order not to get totally drenched before going out in the evening.

Mam, the pastoral care officer appointed by the British Council in the ‘North’ of Thailand organised a meal for the English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) from in and around Phichit province, including someone who is working in Petchabun and Phitsanulok as well. Our mentors were also invited along to share some food, company and stories of our first week.

The journey to Phichit was dramatic. The picture shows the sky before we entered the storm, the perpetual black cloud that we are living in.storm

The meal was delicious and bountiful. There was more food than I had seen in a long time, and rather than feeling still hungry at the end I was full and satisfied after having eaten nice vegetarian curry (if somewhat spicy), rice and lots of fruit. It felt fantastic to be able to speak English with native speakers without having to simplify or gesticulate wildly in order to be understood. I sat next to another ETA who has been, by the sounds of it, having an incredibly difficult week; apparently the hardest week of his life. Being bitten by his mentor’s ‘friendly’ dog and having to go to hospital was one of many stories that had made up his week. Another ETA who was sitting opposite me had lived in four different places, with four different sets of Thai people within the space of one week and was feeling incredibly unsettled, unsurprisingly really. Emotions were running high and the atmosphere was a little frantic and disjointed as the ETAs sat in the middle talking English very quickly and, in some cases, madly whilst many of the Thai mentors were more sidelined (in terms of their seating position at the table) and being a little quieter. That said, I was really glad that we had the meal together; it was lovely to see the other ETAs again as they were going through similar things, could speak amazing English and we had all been in the same group for our orientation in Bangkok so already knew each other a little. Those guys seemed like a network of friends.

Teacher Frenelly sent me a text, which I received on the way home saying that my room was probably flooded from the storm. As we don’t have windows it can sometimes be quite impossible to stop rain from getting into our wooden house. As I had locked my room and she didn’t have a key there was nothing she could do to help. I came home expecting there to be water all over my floor from the monsoon… I found soy sauce everywhere because the bottle opened itself in my cupboard.Image