Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hot Sauce Promise Kept!

Success! Promise kept. Video recorded. The first day of the long weekend is in the books, and I did what I set out to do, See, I had promised my friend Aaron when he said he would send me a bottle of Sriracha hot sauce from America I would take that bottle down to the Thai city of Sriracha (more commonly known as Siracha), find random Sirachans, give them samples of the sauce and get their reactions. I did that and accomplished my main goal for the day.
It's nice to set a goal and actually do it. There were lots of reasons not to do it. Aaron never asked me to do it, it was just something I spontaneously promised to do one late night on Facebook. He wouldn't have really cared if I'd blown it off. Second, I had no help. It is really hard to hold a sign that says 'Free Samples! American Sriracha sauce!” and then balance a plate full of spicy treats. There will be video soon, but as you'll see, I look in distress, socially awkward, as much as my subjects, for the most part, look the same. I scrapped the whole idea of the stationary camera and decided to hold THAT too. The local Srirachans were lucky they didn't get Sriracha sauce dumped in their laps when I approached them.

I think my idea is golden. Taking a product from the New World that has achieved a fanatical, cult-like following and bringing it back to its origins to see what the locals thing of it: Huy Fong Foods (the makers of Sriracha) should be paying me for this idea. Done right, the video could go as viral as the sauce is popular.

To do it 'right', I'd need a crew, some planning and an actual location. Today's video was off the seat of my pants, and although fulfilling my promise to Aaron, is nothing more that that. One day, I will return, video production crew, script and set up subjects on hand and will make this video right.

I say that, not yet having viewed the footage as I am still on the road. I'm typing this in a 400 Baht/night flophouse in Pattaya,

I am also happy to say that I accomplished another goal. I've now 'been to Thailand'. Pattaya is a wonderful town.
Tomorrow, off to Rayong!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve in Bangkok

I pretty much expected Christmas Eve to be no different that any of my other eves these last few months. Was very happy to get a query on Line from a co-worker, which I've just signed up for, asking, 'where's the party tonight?'

I was already planning to head to Pickadaily Square (not misspelled) on OnNut to check out the lights... record them on my erstwhile video camera... It was all that much better sharing it with friends:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sunday Morning Following My Nose

Accidental beauty. I continue to be surprised by how easy it is to find amazing sites here in Thailand just by walking out my door and following my nose. Maybe I'm lucky; maybe I have a knack for seeing the novelty and wonder in what others would find mundane. Not to toot my own horn or anything.

Look! A field! Isn't that cool?! Dogs! Bananas growing on the side of the road! Chickens! Trash! Wow!

Get Your Kicks, On Nut 66
I woke up this morning about 6 AM out of cigarettes. The Mom & Pop store on the ground floor of my condo building doesn't open until 7 AM, so I was on the bike to the end of the block to the 24 hr Family Mart.

You can't really see it in the picture, but this corner was the initial inspiration for the music video I made a couple months back: 'Get your Kicks (on Route Sukhumvit)'. This is where On Nut (sidestreet) 66 hits On Nut Road (On NOOT, rhymes with on route) itself.

It was a pleasantly cool morning. I had my camera phone with me. I decided to go on a Sunday Morning drive to see what I could see.

Bananas growing on the side of the road.
On Nut 66 is the main entrance into a part of Bangkok called, appropriately, On Nut 66 Village. Being on the outskirts of town a bit, there are still a lot of open areas in the Village, places where bananas grow on the side of the road.

We're in the city here, but On Nut 66 Village definitely has a bit of a rural feel to it. It's the only part of Bangkok I've been in where being a farang is really noticed. People stare at me as I drive by on the bike. I don't mind. I've motored through this area on a few other occasions, and it's a fascinating little chunk of what the rest of Thailand must be like, isolated in a little chunk of otherwise cosmopolitan Bangkok. It's a place where you can still see traditional Thai-style homes, as you do in the left part of the photo below. 

Traditional style Thai homes are raised up to deal with floods, which also gives you a nice place to park your Toyota.

الله أكبر

Like a lot of East Bangkok, it's somewhat of a Muslim neighborhood. There are more mosques than Buddhist temples.

The sun was just
starting to rise, and I heard roosters crowing from everywhere.

It's definitely Christmas time here in Bangkok. Every business has decorations up. Christmas music (the same tunes you hear in the USA) are playing over the muzak in the department stores. Entire sections of the grocery store are dedicated to decorations and gift baskets. They offer giftwrapping services. I don't know if Thailand has gotten the whole family-coming-together, love-thy-neighbor, be-nice-to-everyone spirit of Christmas, but they certainly have embraced the commercial side of the season.

Styro Claus
It was actually kind of cool then to find this styrofoam Santa deep in the village on a dead-end street. He's seen better days.

“Look, we've got this five-foot-tall Santa out back, I don't care what it looks like! It's going out front!”

I had no idea where I was going. I was just having fun being lost down a bunch of random streets, many of which were dead ends. I adopted a strategy of following other motorcyclists when picking which roads to go down, figuring they had to be going somewhere.

That strategy lead me here. 

Oh my. This is not a safe bridge. It looked sturdy enough, but to cross it, I had to drive over metal rails that were just a bit wider than my tires. One bad wobble and I'd risk crashing into the canal below.

Boy, am I glad I didn't decide to turn around at that point. I stumbled onto Nong Bon. 

I don't know what this sign says. It might read: no motorcyclists allowed. I drove on ahead anyways.

I'd seen this place on maps. It's big. Never really thought to go visit it because with the name “Nong Bon Water Defense Project”, it sounded like some boring percolation pond or something. No, it's a beautiful lake.

Made more beautiful by the sun rising behind it. 

People were out jogging and cycling, enjoying the cool morning air.

Truly breathtaking.

I noticed three or four canals leading into the lake. Bangkok is crisscrossed by canals (khlongs, as they're called here). Each tributary had sophisticated looking locks at its mouth. Yes, this is part of Bankok's flood defense system, so there were waterworks materials throughout, but it's also a spectacular place to see.

What a fortunate Sunday morning drive. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sports Day! The Odd Importance of Ceremony

“I don't understand the point of all this ceremony,” my fellow rookie teacher asked me as we stood at the gates of our school, watching the marching band leave campus with a lot of pre-fanfare (see, they have to leave the school before they can come marching back into it). Indeed, to the American eyes, there was an awful lot of plumage, costumes, banners and flags being furled about for what was not a national holiday, just something for our school alone. This seemed strange to him. Me, I got it. Ceremony is part of what brings us together as members of a community. It may not have a 'point' beyond that. It can be mildly entertaining, but so can a lot of things. Ceremony with all its trappings ensconces in individuals a feeling they are part of something bigger. This sense of community is good for the individual and good for the health of the group as a whole.

“C'mon, man! It's SPORTS!” I tried to convey my enthusiasm, hoping some might rub off. I went on to explain why I think ceremony is important as I stated above. To the more rational western mind, appealing to the sociological functionality of ceremony and sports might make it more understandable. A Thai person doesn't need this kind of rationalization. They embrace the ceremony simply because it's what they do. It doesn't need to have a 'point'.

Today was “Sports Day” at the high school where I teach. All classes were cancelled. This Friday was going to be all about playing sports and having fun. I had no idea what to expect from the actual events. I wasn't sure if I'd be asked to do anything or not. I got a stage-eye view of the opening ceremonies, to start. They were impressive. Like a mini-olympics or something.

There was supposed to be a futsal (a mini-soccer with only 5 on each side) between the foreign teachers (There's six of us: 3 Americans, an Ulsterman, one Filipino and a Chinese guy) and a select team from the Thai teachers (mind you, like most schools, the staff is mostly older women). Unfortunately, that match-up, what our longest-termed native English speaking teacher called our 'annual ritual humiliation', did not happen. Seems that this year, the thought was that Sports Day should be for the students. I did at least get in a few games of basketball, some ping pong and we put on a demonstration of hackey sack for the students. 

Definitely the highlight of the day was dance/cheerleading competition. I do work at an all-boys school, but even the straightest of students enjoyed watching or participating in the choreographed dance routines which make up the bulk of the video below. A couple teams had former students come back to help with choreography, and some of those were Thailand's infamous ladyboys. 

Anyhoots, the day accomplished what it was intended: it brought Patumkongka High School closer together. It gave the students and staff a feeling of being part of something bigger (although some of the foreign staff felt a bit miffed over the futsal match being cancelled). Ceremony is important, and we got a wonderful amount of it today.

Enjoy the video.

A couple production notes on the video:

Normally, I take a video like this and add background music, narration and fancy transitions to make it more interesting. This time, I decided not to because I think the best way to let you know what it was like to be there today was to present it in its raw form.

My regular video camera is in the shop.  The LCD screen broke.  The camera records, but I can't see what I'm recording.  They said when I brought it in (a week ago) that it will be 2 to 3 weekd for repair. All the somewhat crappy footage in this vid (and in the pics) were recorded on my new smartphone. 

Lastly, I am definitely getting my own ping pong paddle and will be back to battle the teenagers in the ping pong palace (which I didn't even know existed until today).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Bangkok Temperatures Dropping into the Low 20's!

The sun is rising, and I'm on my motorbike enjoying an early morning ride. I notice something unusual: something I haven't felt in a long time, at least not without the assistance of climate control. I'm cold. I can feel it in my bones.

Many times here, I've felt 'not warm', but feeling cold is different. Cold is when you think, “should I have worn a jacket?”. Cold is uncomfortable.

Temperatures here in Bangkok during the early morning hours have been dipping into the low 20's! That would be Celsius. That's the low 70's for us Farenheiters. I don't even have to turn on the AC in the mornings. I just turn on the fan and open the balcony door. One of my co-workers, a young man from Northern Ireland whose been in Thailand for three years now, admitted whilst we talked in the staffroom that he woke up in the middle of the night and had to find his rarely-used blankets to cover himself. He was too cold. Now, if an Ulsterman feels cold, it's cold, even if he's been acclimated to tropical norms.

That morning I felt cold on the bike was the beginning of a wonderful day this last Thursday. I was heading off to my regular visit to the national Thai Institute of Dermatology to get my UV treatment for my psoriasis. I got there and the place was closed! Why? It was the King's Birthday, a major holiday here in Thailand. Yeah, sure, school was closed, but hospitals?

Anyways, I made the best of it. As long as I was in the heart of Bangkok on a cool morning, it was time to go motoring. I drove all over the town and enjoyed the rare feeling of being cool here. As it was a holiday, there was little to no traffic either, another rare occurrence here in my new hometown.

I got lots of questions for longtime Bangkokians. Has this last week been normal for BKK in December or are we experiencing a 'cold snap'? If the former, is this how it's going to be in January and February too? We're in the northern hemisphere, I can see that much by noticing how lately the sun isn't directly overhead, so I shouldn't be surprised that it's a bit cooler in December. 

Unusually cold or not, I'm loving it. Back on the bike for a long ride tomorrow. I'd promise you a video, but there's an issue. My camera is in the shop. The flip-out screen has stopped working. So, I'm planning a weekend adventure without thought as to what would make a good video. New for me.

I do have what I hope is an entertaining video to share from the most recent Seasons of the Ukulele Contest...

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On the Protests in Bangkok

It's Sunday morning, the First of December, on what may go down as an important day in Thai history. Or, it may not.

Today is the day the most noteworthy leader of the anti-government protests here in Thailand has promised will be the day a new “People's Assembly” will ascend and
end the rule of the current regime. The demonstrations here have been going on for a month now, and have been increasing in intensity all the while. Over the last week, they've begun to occupy government buildings, sharpen the tone of their rhetoric and even cut power to the national telecommunications company (as this disabled some important servers, and killed internet access for 750,000 households, it wasn't a popular move). Now, this leader has set other deadlines in the past, and although they've moved the ball forward at times, new deadlines were created as the anti-government
forces saw that they were moving closer to their ultimate goal: the ousting of the Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawattra.

I won't go over all the intricacies of the policies and history, suffice to say that Thai politics over the last decade or so has been dominated by two sides who either support or oppose one man: Taksin Shinawattra. Note the same last name as the current
PM. She's his sister. Some call him a great leader. Some hate him and anything he's connected with. He's not here in Thailand right now, living in self-imposed exile in Dubai after he was convicted on corruption charges in absentia, and given a 2-year prison term.

The current round of protests started about a month ago when Taksin's party pushed through a bill in parliament that granted blanket amnesty to thousands going back a decade or more and would have allowed Taksin to come home (On a side note, the man's name is pronounced like a mix of toxin and taxin', both very unfortunate monikers for a politician). The bill was rejected by the Senate, the bill was withdrawn but the protests continued. What started as a protest against a particular piece of legislation has ballooned into a full blown call for Yingluck's resignation and new elections.  

Meanwhile, thousands of 'red shirts', supporters of the gov't in power, have taken up camp at another protest site as a counter-demonstration to what the anti-Taksinists are up to. 

Last night, the first real clash between these two groups occurred on a road I had driven down earlier that day. One dead, multiple injured. The police are out in force to keep the peace. Special security measures have been instituted city-wide. Tensions are high. Anything could happen.

Or, nothing could happen, and next week the protests will continue.

Interesting times.

It's against the backdrop that I ventured out yesterday with my camera to both of the two camps. Spent the morning with red-shirts. Spent the afternoon with the yellow-shirts. Got a feel for what's going on. The sites themselves were full of energy, loud speeches, passionate people and lots and lots of vendors selling stuff. Enjoy the video.

Now, do I dare go out today and do it again? Neither side is in any way anti-foreigner, and I am as neutral as one can get on the issues. I'd be just as safe as any other I day I leave the clutches of my condo. I think. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

The NFL, weather, D&D and the Pickadaily Shopping Center

I just finished watching the Seahawks-Vikings game on NFL Game Pass.  Back when the season started in September, after much frustration trying to get the pirated NFL feeds to work on my computer (there is no such thing as a free lunch), I said heck with it and paid the 2500 Baht for a subscription to the NFL's online TV package.  

2500 Baht is the equivalent of about 80 meals.  

Anyhoots, worth every penny.  I love football, and I really love football when my favorite team is tied for the best record in the league and looking like they're Super Bowl contenders.  

During the second half of the 'Hawks game, the temperature dropped precipitously into the 40's F, the incessant rain began falling, and I thought back to my five years living in the Emerald City, the five years I spent before moving here to Thailans.  I loved Seattle for lots of reasons. It's a great town!  The people are wonderful and the most friendly people I've ever met in America. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful.  The culture is exciting and avant guard.  The weather, now, that's another story. The weather is shitty. 

I saw that drizzle rain and realized that this being November, this was the vanguard of a rainy season that would last until May.  It will rain every single day in Seattle from now until mid-spring. It'll be 35 to 45 degrees all the time during that rain.  There might be a few days when the rain turns to snow, but not that many.  

I wrote last time on this blog about how here in Thailand, there's this constant harsh environment right outside your window that one has to protect oneself from.  Same thing this time of year in Seattle.  Which is worse?  To be a be a bit warm and sweaty in 85 degree temps with high humidity or to be cold and wet in the 40F Northwest winter rains?

It can't be 68 degrees all the time (well, it can if you never leave a climate controlled home), but if I had to choose between cold and wet versus warm and sweaty, I'll pick the latter. 


Last night, I went and did something that I've not done in twenty years, but had been a very integral part of my life back in those days.  I went and played Dungeons and Dragons. Nowadays, D&D has a new name, 'Pathfinders', and the 'official' rules have migrated over to a new organization.  Last time I played back in 1993, D&D was on its Second Edition.  They're now on their 4th.  

All that aside, role playing games are still role playing games, no matter what the underlying rules or how long its been since one has played.  For me, it felt like putting on an old, comfortable shoe, although my foot has changed quite a bit in those 20 years. 

I found myself shushing my fellow players. Shushing people?!?  WTF was that?  Lets just say that the 43 year old Joko doesn't run the same kind of character that the 23 year old Joko did.

We play RPG's in order to have fun pretending to be someone else, but in my first trip back to that game in a long time, I found myself profoundly impacted by who I am now.

D&D self-analyzation.  



I've seen the signs for months now as the place has been slowly constructed near the OnNut-Srinakarin junction. They put up a clock tower. They've got faux-Tudor style architecture. About a week ago, a big, red, double-decker bus facade went on the side facing OnNut. Finally, this weekend, Pickadaily Square opened up here in Bangkok.

That name... Is it just a horrible misspelling, or was it chosen for marketing purposes? I've been wondering this for months. Today, I visited Pickadaily Bangkok for the first time, and I'd have to say it is the latter. See, they've got this sign in the square that touts this place as an "English Style Daily Arcade"... Okay, I'm not sure what a daily arcade is supposed to be, but it's gotta figure in the name.
Not too schmaltzy. They put a lot of thought and work into this little mini-mall.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Living in Thailand is like Living on Mars

Living in Thailand is kinda like living on Mars. When one reads that, one thing that might run through the minds of my sophisticated readers might be: “Which Mars?”. Yeah, no one has ever lived on Mars, so I must be referring to the fictionalized accounts of life on the Red Planet.

Kim Stanley Robertson's Red-Green-Blue Mars series? As a reader, this has been my favorite Mars series of SF books. The Mars of KSR is a planet of intrigue, complex relationships between the colonists and a dynamic environment.  When it comes to Thailand, the first two are somewhat true, and although there is dynamism here, I haven't been able to perceive it like I might. It's out there. I just don't know the place well enough to see it. Thailand is changing; I just don't know where it started from.

Maybe the Mars of Percival Lowell. He was a really rich American guy.
Educated, successful, but known more as a man who lived a fantasy life speculating about Mars. He saw 'canals' based upon a mis-interpretation of the Italian word for 'channels'. There sure are plenty of canals here in Bangkok, and there's lots of old, white, rich guys who are living a fantasy life.

For me and my Martian Thai experience, I'm living in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. Environmentally, I can live outside my climate-controlled personal habitat, but the tropics are a constantly hostile force beating down the sliding glass door of my condo.

The battle with the heat makes the nice moments all that much better. At 7 AM, when I'm riding my motorcycle to my teaching job, before I hit the carbon monoxide laden rush hour of the main road, zipping down my back street, it feels great. There's nothing better than feeling naturally cool when the sun is rising.

Also in Bradbury's Mars were Martians. One of that things that made his stories so great were how he took an alien species, made them mysteriously alien enough to be believable, but also endowed them with universal, human emotions.

Thais are Martians to me. I'm on an upsurge right now in my desire to learn the language, but still, I am surrounded by aliens. I've got maybe 2 or 4 Thai acquaintances who I might call friends. I might be able to double that number if I could befriend my students, but that's not really allowed.

Rock Hudson with a Martian
One theme of Ray's books was how the Earthers eventually wiped out and replaced the Martians. Whether or not he intended to imply the impact on western culture on the cultures of developing nations, I dunno. Point being, I don't know how long I'll be here (meaning I am not committed to being here long-term), so I doubt I'll ever reach that final scene from the TV version of the Martian Chronicles where the Earthling announces he is Martian... 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Thailand versus California

Many times over the last 7 months, I've thought to myself how useful it would be to show my readers the scale of the place I am at versus something they know, say, a map of the state of California.

Unfortunately, I was too lazy to compose the overlapping maps using photoshop or what have you.  I have often thought, 'wouldn't it be cool if there were some app on the 'net that would do this for you?' and then was too lazy to look for it.

It exists!  It's called!

Turns out, Thailand is just a bit bigger than California.  However crowded California may seem, it also has about half the population of Thailand.

Click here for an interactive map from the website.

How about Thailand versus the UK? 

Here we are...

I hope this blog gives you a bit a sense of scale...

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Teaching New Subjects

Haven't been anyplace exciting nor had anything all that interesting happen these last few weeks, hence the gap in my blogging. I'm just plugging away at this new semester, really getting into being a teacher.

My course on using English for the new ASEAN future class is going well. They took their first test and everyone passed! I'm going to be pivoting this week away from economics and demographics and begin looking at culture and customs with the business world in mind. Monday's lecture will be all about different greetings rituals used throughout the region. The second half of the class will be 'shaking hands practice'. Yes, I am teaching them how to shake hands. There are many wrong ways of doing it.

One thing Asians are known for is the soft handshake, and I'm not going to try to cure them of that as it is the custom here. In America (I don't know how they do it in Europe), men shaking hands is almost a contest of strength. A 'firm handshake' is considered a virtue, a positive character trait. In Asia, the hand is lightly gripped and it can go on a while. In America, you look the other man in the eye when shaking his hand. Here, that would be challenging and disrespectful. I will, in handshaking practice, teach them a little of these western ways too, as if they ever find themselves having to shake hands with a burly, culturally-unaware American, I don't want them risking having their metacarpals broken.

Also next week, we get further into a unit in another class where our topic is titled 'dying for your beliefs'. We're reading a long article about some parents who were charged with a homicide when they let their 11 year old die of diabetes. They were Christian Scientists who don't go to doctors for these kinds of things and believe that prayer and The Scriptures can cure diseases.

Normally, the readings for our English studies are banal subjects like music, movies, sports and food. Talking about religion, well, it's kinda weird. A lot of my students are also of the mindset that prayer, meditation, using the power of the mind itself can be more effective than 'western' medicine. That's fine. In no way, shape or form am I here to change that opinion. Still, when summarizing the content of these rather difficult paragraphs in the reading, it is hard for me to keep my personal opinions out of the tone of my voice when I say things like: “They believed that only God could help their child with diabetes.”

Then again, who am I to talk? I specifically requested my mom send me a bottle of some South American herb called 'maca', based on the advice from a random friend on the internet. When I was writing about the bulging disk in my back, I got an e-mail from a friend who told me that this herbal remedy had done wonders for her when she had a similar problem. She swears by it. I was in so much pain, I was willing to try anything, and Mom was dutiful in shipping me this box of pills.

It's supposed to take a few weeks for this stuff to build up in your system and become effective, but my back still hurts. I haven't lost all faith in the maca, but it just goes to show that however derisive I am of the Christian Scientists, I'm sure a western-trained orthopedist would scoff at us going through all this trouble for some obscure Peruvian root. The label doesn't even indicate it is for skeletal issues. In fact, the maca says it is for Healthy Sexual Libido, Function and Fertility. It's herbal Viagra!

Come to think of it, I have been feeling a little more frisky lately....

Sunday, November 3, 2013

My First Time Ever on the Teevee!

YAY! Despite only working the last week of October, I got paid yesterday. The no-back-support chair crisis is over. Freshly assmenbled from Tesco for 790 Baht ($25)...

Tomorrow, it's back to school for week two of the new term. I teach a total of about 300 students. ALL of them got 'homework' assignments to watch English Breakfast on Thai PBS this morning. Having a cameo role on a relatively little-known show on public broadcasting won't exactly make me a celebrity, but it will be interesting to see if whether or not this appearance on the teevee will effect my credibility in the classroom. Students won't learn from teachers they don't respect, and as well as being a nice thing to add to my CV as a teacher, appearing on national television might do wonders for my 'classroom cred'.

As an 'ajarn farang', in the minds of most of these kids, I get bulked in with the dozen or two other foreign teachers they've had. I'm a person they can barely understand, can't talk to them in their own language and not really a teacher worthy of the kind of respect they give their real (Thai) teachers. Thank God I usually have a Thai co-teacher in every one of my classes else complete chaos would be the norm instead of happening on occasion.

Being a bit older than their usual ajarn farang, I do get a bit more respect than I otherwise would. Coming into this gig, someone I love and respect told me that teaching class in not like open-mic night. If I approached teaching as being an entertainer, I wouldn't garner the authority I need to maintain control in a room full of 40 13-year-old boys. I've seen that and understand it first-hand now. That said, over the course of this last half year, I think 90% of my students look forward to my time teaching them. The get excited and interested when I enter the room because I'm going to be engaging, unpredictable and yes... entertaining.

What makes a good ajarn farng? Seems to be a theme recently here on my blog, so it's kind of fitting that it was the question that Bro and Home Boy asked of their victims... errr.. interviewees.

I can't seem to find a URL that will allow me to embed the video here in my blog, so I ask you to please click the link below to visit to view the wonderful teleplay written by my friend Bobby. I think he had me in mind when he came up with the character of an ukulele-playing NES teacher. (I appear at about 10:00 into the vid, so be patient).


As I mentioned here a few weeks back, it's been a lifelong goal of mine to be on TV. I don't mean in a crowd shot at a sporting event or because of some unique circumstances or characteristics, I mean as an actor. Now, I've done it. Do I feel any different?

Yeah, a little. I feel a little bit more experienced, mature. I feel more accomplished, recognized.

Heck, I'm driving through this life with not that much sense of direction or purpose; if I can find a smooth patch of road here or there, might not be as exciting, but certainly a lot nicer to drive down.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Avoid Burnout as an English Teacher

The first week of instruction of the new term is nearly at an end, and I feel like a new kind of teacher. Right now, I'm very enthusiastic not only in my demeanor and energy in front of the class, but also in my preparation, understanding the material and whole attitude towards teaching. It's a good place to be! The students also have come off a three-week break and are more attentive than usual. Now, I understand that as the term progresses, the latter will drop off. The students will get bored of school and might get bored of me. It happens. One might think my enthusiasm might diminish as well, but I'm not concerned about that for two reasons. First, gotta live in the moment. Second, last term, I think my skills, energy and power to hold teenagers' attention actually increased as the term progressed.

This improvement towards the end of the term likely had something to do with learning the job. I've never taught before this year, and I had to figure out what I was doing. I learned what works and what doesn't. I learned class control. The stick and the carrot. Techniques like not standing in one spot while lecturing, and how to use my voice to both command attention and be understood by beginning to intermediate English speakers. Yes, by the end of the term, I had become a teacher (admittedly, I've still got lots to learn).

Now, I'm very excited to apply my new found proficiency for an entire semester.

Mind you, I am aware of the phenomenon of burn out. Many teachers, both ESL teachers in a foreign land and teachers in their home countries, start out enthusiastic and gradually get worn down by the challenges of the profession to the point where it becomes a grind, a job, a paycheck (and not a very good one at that). They become jaded and uncaring. They resent the students and administrators. They complain all the time. I've only been doing this six months, and I've already seen it in others. 

That sort of happened to me in my last profession, but on the upside, it took fifteen years for it to happen. Heck, I've only got 20 years of working left in my life; I'll do what it takes to keep burn out from becoming a factor.

So far, in my limited experience, I see two attitudes that need to occur to keep this level of enthusiasm up. Mind you, I say 'occur', as neither can really be forced; they're hard mindsets to just adopt on cue. First, is you have to love your subject matter. A genuine interest in what you're teaching makes a big difference. Since I was a kid, I've loved words. You can tell by these lengthy blogs I write I'm a fan of the English language. How things fit together. The subtle differences in definitions that can make all the difference in what you're expressing and your ability to make your English more interesting through using synonyms. When it's okay to use a sentence fragment for affect.

One of my pat lines I tell my students, and maybe through repetition I've come to believe it myself, is that my FAVORITE PART of English is the use of prefixes and suffixes! In a couple of my classes, a third of my lessons are about prefixes and suffixes. When the teacher is excited about something, the students tend to be as well, and I hope I've instilled in some of them at least, a sense of how cool and amazing prefixes and suffixes are.

Why are they cool and amazing? Well, think about it! It takes something as weird, complex and irregular as the English language and gives you a tool to take it apart and understand it better. Take one word, stick this or that onto it, and you have an entirely different word, and as long as you understand the root word, you know the new one! It's formulaic! How cool is that!?

When it comes to English, perhaps the only thing that excites me more than prefixes and suffixes is etymology, and maybe one day I can teach a class on that.

The second thing you need to have to avoid teacher burnout is a love of your students. As I've already mentioned, subtle distinctions in meaning mean a lot in the English, and I'd be hard pressed to find a word more complicated in degrees, distinctions and dimensions that the word 'love'. Perhaps I should say you need to care about your students. Generally. What have you. Point being, you have to want your students to succeed, not because it's your job, not because the school looks good when they do, but because... well there's lots of explanations as to why:

  1. (Epigentic) He or she is a young human being and you, as a more experienced human being, feel a biological need to maintain the health of the species by ensuring they learn when they are young.
  2. (Spiritual) Love thy neighbor; teach thy neighbor's kids. It is my dharma to be a guru, and for the love of God, I fulfill my dharma.
  3. (Parental) These are my boys! I don't have kids, but in some ways, I now got 300 of them.
  4. (Personal) They remind me of me at that age, and if (or when) some teacher had said or done this for me...
  5. (Academic) My expression of love for my students is an extension of my love of knowledge and learning

A quick note on number 4 up there. I don't remember much from my interactions with my high school teachers some 25 years ago, but one exchange that stands out was with my senior year English teacher. I shoulda been in the AP English class, but because I had gone overseas junior year, I got clumped into the general classes. I had a bad attitude about English in my final year of compulsory education. Half my classmates couldn't string a coherent paragraph together if their life depended on it, whereas I thought I was going to be a professional writer. Maybe. I wasn't sure. In any case, I didn't do my homework. I didn't care. I was above it all, or at least I pretended I was. My teacher that year, whose name escapes me, was a 50-something man, a lifelong teacher. One day, he came to me after I'd failed once again to turn in a homework assignment and said something I'll never forget.

“Joko, you could be the next Hemingway if you just applied yourself,” he said before explaining that applying myself meant I should turn in my homework on time.

Again, more than half my classmates wouldn't have even known who Hemingway was, so this small recognition on his part made a huge impact on me at the time and for the rest of my life.

Teachers... High school teachers... if they love their students enough to react to not turning in homework with the care and attention that my high school teacher did, can make a big difference in a kid's life.

My senior year English teacher could have come at me angrily and punished me for not turning in my homework. That's sorta how things are done here. Punishment first. If I say he didn't because he loved me, it's only because he loved all his students.

I endeavor to be like that teacher of mine, all those years ago.

Here's a video from this week's Seasons of Ukulele community.  Since it's Halloween, the theme was 'body parts'.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vacation is Over

Tomorrow begins the next term of school. I don't know exactly what classes I'll be teaching, but have been told they're going to try to keep us with the same students we were with last term. I do know I have been assigned to teach a new course that has never been taught at my school. It's got me excited because it's more than just an English class. The subject will be 'The English of ASEAN' (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). See, in 2014, the ten member nations of the organization will be forming a new economic community, similar to the EU or NAFTA. Tariffs, immigrations restriction and other boundaries between these countries will be removed and the region is going to be a lot more integrated. 

With nations like Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines as part of this group, English will be even more of the lingua franca than it is today.

This class I am going to be teaching will be about customs, culture and employment opportunities of the ASEAN nations. It will be a social studies course as much as it is an English class. Cool! I've thought in the past that I would excel at being a social studies teacher, and know I get a chance!

As vacation winds down, I looked for an inexpensive activity to have one last adventure before work starts again. My Handy Atlas of Thailand was kind to me as I used it to pick a random place to visit...

Enjoy the video. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Introducing Chester, the Chicken Head!

I'm challenging myself to expand my food choices here in Thailand by trying a new dish every day that I have never eaten before. This has not been hard to do (so far) here in the Land of Smiles.

As this is developing into a theme, it might help to bounce my reactions to these foods off someone other than the 4th wall. In the past, my videos often had recurring characters other than myself. People, pets, but best were characters like Wanguruwe, my talking ukulele, who did not accompany me here to SE Asia. Perhaps it's time to introduce a new voice into the Joko in Thailand videos... A talking fried chicken head perhaps. Easy enough, fried chicken heads are also sold at my favorite neighborhood gai yang vendor, so 'Chester' joins me for tonight's video. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Parade of the Broken Chair

Yesterday, I had the perplexing task of how to return the broken chair to the store where I'd bought it, some 4 miles away or so, down On Nut Rd (the busy thoroughfare which connects where I live to the main part of Bangkok). I have a bungy cord 'net', but I didn't think it would be big enough to secure the chair as I rode with it on my motorbike. 

I figured out a way, as you will see in the video at the bottom of the blog.  Heck, my doctor said I should lean back as much as possible when sitting to reduce strain; I may attach a chair permanently to the bike! 

Day Two of me eating a new dish every single day also proceeded without a hitch.  

Although I've been here six months and I have bemoaned the fact that things don't have the exciting novelty they once did, I still run into surprising things in Bangkok all the time.  Yesterday, there on On Nut on my way home, there was a lot more outbound mid-day traffic than normal.  I soon found out why as we came upon a parade marching it's way up the street! 

I had no idea what the parade was about. It wasn't a holiday of which I was aware. Still, the participants were very enthusiastic as they hiked their way up this medium-sized road towards whoknowswhere. Something Buddhist. 

As I said, they were enthusiastic!

But respectful.

At least, most of them were enthused by this.  Awake, at least. 

Although not a huge parade, there were bands, costumes, people marching, VIPs and a Buddha statue.  There was even a float!  I suppose out in the country, they might have used a real elephant. 

Gotta be the best job in the whole event: elephant operator. 

And here is the video of driving a broken chair, a bit of food and the parade:


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...