Friday, February 28, 2014

Leaving Lady Thailand for Myanmar

It's 6:04 AM. It's a Saturday, and I'm wide awake. Just like last Sunday when I couldn't sleep out of nervousness over the interview I had scheduled for that day and gnawing concerns over my future, I awake this morning before the sun, knowing that despite the early hour, there's no way my brain is going to slow down enough to let me get back to bed. Today, however happiness has replaced fear. Excitement has replaced nervousness. Today, the planning of dozens of things I need to do have replaced the mental burden of that one single interview.

See, I got the job.

Sometime in just a few days, probably Tuesday, I'm boarding a plane for the short flight from Bangkok to Rangoon, Burma. There I'll begin a new job in a new city and new country. It may even be in a new century, or, an old one at that.

It looks to be a great job. About a 30% increase in pay over what I was making here in Thailand. The company takes care of all the costs of visa runs, which are frequent and necessary for foreign workers in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (the new name for what we used to call Burma). They will get me set up in an apartment, paying all the deposits and the 6-months-advance-rent which is standard over there. 22 teaching hours a week, and I'll be teaching mostly adults. They also have a true professional development program, and I can learn to teach IELTS (sp?) and business English. What's there not to like about this opportunity?

The answer to that question may be the location, Yangon, Burma. Not too long ago, I was assigned to write some short articles about the various capital cities of ASEAN, so I did a little research on Yangon (the new name for what we used to call Rangoon), and found out some interesting facts. Residential internet access is almost unheard of, and where it exists chugs along at the speed of a 2800 kBaud dial up connection. Blackouts are frequent, especially during the hot season which is right around the corner. There is a general lack of infrastructure. Elevators are rare. The food is suspect. Why would I want to go there?

A friend on a Thailand expat forum, learning that I was leaving glorious Thailand

for it's backwards neighbor, observed that all I needed was a solid Thai lady to settle me down and I'd never want to leave. If Bangkok were a lady, she'd be a nice, older lady who is exotic, yet sedate. Sophisticated, but seemingly always trying to prove she's moved past the village roots of her ancestors. She frequently wears too much make up and she definitely spends too much time on her iPhone. Although beautiful, it's a beauty not born from anything cultivated on the inside; it's superficial.

If Yangon were a lady, albeit I haven't been there yet, I suspect she's be like that insane girl you dated in your 20's. The one who was wild, did crazy things that made no sense, but was utterly fascinating and exciting. Sure, she is unpredictable, frustrating and hard to make sense of, but her beauty, without makeup, or maybe really weird makeup, came from her soul, one yet to be corrupted by a modicum of prosperity and the seductive influences of western consumer culture.

In more real terms, Myanmar is a land of tremendous opportunity. Up until just a few years ago, the nation was very isolated, despite it's strategic location sharing borders with Thailand, India and China. The country was pretty much closed to outsiders. As they go through a transition to becoming one of the family of nations again, I suspect I will witness a place with a frontier feeling to it. I mentioned that I'll be moving to a new, old century. Burma is just now trying to join the 21st century. I want to see that happen.

Maybe when I came back to Southeast Asia a year ago, I was trying to recapture the experience I had twenty years ago in Indonesia, the greatest adventure of my life. You can't go back in time, but Bangkok today has very little in common with what I remembered from Yogyakarta and Jakarta 20+ years ago. Bangkok is too much like a western city to satisfy that yearning for novelty which motivated me to come here in the first place. It doesn't feel like I'm having a Southeast Asian experience here.

I think I'll find more of that in Myanmar. I can't recapture my youth, but if I'm going to pick a 'lady' to live with, I think I want that crazy, unpredictable, weird chick who, for all her flaws, makes me feel alive. 

Ah, the sun is up.  Back to cleaning and packing. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Here Comes the Sun... Job Update

As I mentioned yesterday, I was working on setting up a job interview today. 

I didn't sleep well, fretting over what I was going to say, how I should dress, what lay in store for me if I couldn't find work soon.

Furthermore, Sunday is usually the day I work on a new ukulele video as part of the ongoing Seasons of the Ukulele contest over at  Saturday night, we find out the theme.

George Harrison songs.  I don't know any George Harrison songs.  There's 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', but after this video here, no one is ever allowed to cover that tune again unless they're a virtuoso.

At 5:30 AM, I woke up, wide awake.  Thinking about the interview.  The sun wasn't even up yet. Soon, here comes the sun.  Hey, wait a minute.  That Beatles tune.  That sounds like something George would have written.  I wonder if he did?  A quick Google search confirmed what my ear was telling me.  Other that While My Guitar, it's probably the late Sir Harrison's most well known song.

I finally have a camera that can handle recording something as challenging as a sunrise. With my last camera, as I found out in its final dying days, a sunrise is just sort of an orange blur.

I dicked around a bit and was still on the road to my recording site a 6:40 AM, the hour of sunrise here in Bangkok.  Fortunately for me, we also have a lot of morning haze this time of year, and so the sun remained hidden behind clouds while I treked to my recording site at a nearby park.

You'll see the video below, uploaded in 720p HD for those with better internet connections (click the little gear thingy in the lower right of the screen)

I bought new razors this morning in preparation for shaving my 3-day beard before the interview. Wanted to look my best. I even wore a tie.  In my efforts to get as close a shave as possible, I did something I've done half a dozen times in my life, but not in the last 3 or 4 years: I nicked the mole on my upper lip right on the edge of my moustache.

If any of you guys have a facial mole, and you've accidentally shaved it, you know what happens.  Profuse, uncontrollable bleeding.  Moles aren't like regular skin, they don't stop bleeding for hours and hours after you cut them.  I shaved mine off 10 minutes before I planned on leaving.

Oh no!  I didn't even have any toilet paper! Stuck a bit of paper towel to it, and off I went. 

When I got to the site of the interview (20 minutes early, thank god), I stepped into the bathroom, wet the paper towel in hopes that by softening it, I would avoid the ripping off of any scab and thereby begin the bleeding anew.  No such luck, when I pulled off the paper towel, the bleeding started again.  Shit!  Talk about Murphy's Law of interviews! 

What could I do?  I just stood there in the bathroom for 20 minutes, applying pressure to the cut, trying to keep calm and my blood pressure down.  The bleeding was slowing, but I didn't want to have to sit there in the interview, dabbing my face to sop up blood.  That just doesn't look good.

At the appointed hour, I left the bathroom, off to the coffee shop where the interview was to take place.  I stood in line to buy a latte, and hesitantly applied my napkin to my face.

No blood.  The bleeding had stopped.  Just in time. 

As for the interview itself, it went great!  Me and my prospective future boss connected well, I effectively explained my strengths as a teacher and he expressed how I am just the kind of candidate they're looking for.  Couldn't have been better. Now, I Skype with the owner of the company as a final test, and I hope to have an offer from them soon.

And here's that George Harrison tune...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Last Days of School

Remember what the last days of school before summer break felt like when you were a kid?  Oh, it was glorious, wasn't it?  Soon to be free of responsibility, worry and homework. Warm days of freedom, fun and frolicking were around the corner. 

Ending my first year teaching here in Thailand is sort of a long, drawn out affair.  Friday before last was my last day actually teaching material.  This week has been about review and doing final exams.  Next week, the students take their finals for the rest of their classes, and we foreign English teachers sit in our office all week doing nothing.  That said, the year is pretty much done.  

It's a different feeling than the euphoria one feels as a student for the end of the term.  Being on the other side of the desk, the end of the school year is the loss of your job, the end of your role. Away from school, even on the weekends, in this last year, my mind never traveled that far from the classroom.  I'd think of this or that and how to apply it to my upcoming teaching.  I'd have ideas, and I was always working on my craft.  There was always an upcoming opportunity to apply my ideas in a teaching situation. Now, I can't say for sure when I'll be standing in front of students again.  

See, thing is, if I don't teach, I don't get paid.  I don't get paid, I can't eat.

School starts again in the middle of May, but my (expiring) contract doesn't pay me for this time off.  I'm a bit worried, but not in panic mode.  I've already sent out my resume to a few places, stopped in and cold called a few language centers I'd want to work at, and tomorrow, I have an actual interview lined up.  

Thing is, all the kids' schools in Thailand are off in March and April, so any employment I get during that time will either be with a language center teaching adults or in another country.  None of them want to hire someone just for two months.  Consequently, if I do find work, it pretty much precludes me from returning to the gig I've enjoyed this last school year.  

I knew this in the back of my head these last two days, that this might be the last time I'm going to see these students for whom I've felt a duty towards as their teacher these last 10 months.  I got a bit choked up.  Got a knot in my throat.  

The video below is a revised version of something I posted a couple days again and have since deleted.  You really can't do hidden-camera stuff with children and then post it on YouTube, particularly if that potentially makes them 'lose face'.  So, in this revision, everyone knows they're being recorded, hence the dancing around in front of the camera stuff. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

No Need To Visit the Rest of Thailand; I've Been to Muang Buran

I'd first seen the signs on Old Sukhumvit Road months ago when I took the long way home after visiting the southeast. “The Ancient City XX kilometers”. Whoah, An Ancient City?! That sounds pretty cool! I gotta see that. On that trip, I totally drove by it without noticing because I didn't know what I was looking for, and as I found out today, the roadsigns nearest the attraction are written in Latinized Thai. There's a huge sign that says 'Muang Buran: Turn Here' (Muang Buran being the phonetic spelling of  เมืองโบราณ which translates into English as 'ancient city'). No wonder I missed it.

Muang Buran is on the coast, in Samut Prakan, a good 25 miles from Bangkok city center, but only about 12 miles from my home on the east side of town. I visited it today and was very much impressed. I'm hesitant to make comparisons to Disneyland because first of all, Ancient Siam (how they now want to be known in English) is about culture, not entertainment. Second, except for the boats and the great fun I had zipping around the place in my rented golf cart, there are no rides. That said, in scope, size, attention to detail and sheer cost of what it must have taken to build this place, the comparison is appropriate.

I zipped through the place in two hours for a couple reasons. First, I was renting a golf cart at 150 Baht an hour, and I'd already blown through my first pre-paid hour. Second, I do hope to go exploring the rest of Thailand during my time here, and these replicas of all the best of Thailand's historical buildings were so finely crafted that by exploring them, it's like you're seeing the actual places themselves, and so, much of my future travel would have been ruined. Nothing ruins ruins liked ruined re-creations of ruins.

Enjoy the video.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Reflections on One Year of Teaching

My story is probably not all that different from a lot of others who've come here to teach in the Land of Smiles a little later in life. Early 40's. Divorced. Kinda stuck in a career that was okay, but not all that fulfilling. No kids, few ties and looking at the second half of my life and wondering: “what else is out there?”

So, I sold all my worldly belongings, jumped on a plane, got a TEFL cert and have been teaching at a Bangkok government high school for the last nine and a half months. I've lived in Southeast Asia before as a much younger man, so perhaps my culture shock was not as intense as some other new, farang teachers might experience, but I was totally new to teaching.

Now that this academic year is winding down, I reflect on my first year with a lot of mixed feelings. There have been a lot of awesome moments where I really felt like a teacher. I really felt like I was getting through to the students and I was the getting the job done. Both from an experiential and a sense of fulfilling my commitment to my employer, these moments of Wow! The kids are actually getting it have been priceless. It's a real high when those connections occur.

Then, of course, there have been the days where I've wanted to tear my hair from my scalp and storm out of the classroom in a huff. Would you please just shut up and listen to the teacher?! There have been moments where I've felt like I was totally unprepared and didn't know where to take the lesson next. I've occasionally gotten frustrated with the system, the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of the institution of education here. I've made a lot of rookie mistakes, and I think I've learned from them.

My hope is I can relay some of my experiences as a first-year teacher so that others might avoid some of the pitfalls I've encountered, and perhaps by expressing some of the joys of teaching, encourage a first year teacher whose got clumps of hair in his or her clenched fists (hopefully, their own).

What went wrong:

  1. Insufficient Preparation: Things go so much more smoothly when you have your lesson plan, activities plan and materials ready well in advance of the bell. I was fortunate in that I landed in a school where my agency had all the lesson plans laid out for us already. I could have just used them verbatim, but the thing is, they were written by another teacher. That teacher had a different teaching style than I do. There were different classroom dynamics involved. A canned lesson plan doesn't work. You can and should certainly use the preplanned objectives and materials, but I think a teacher needs to at the very least, plan their own activities. When I'd done that well ahead of time, things were great. When I succumbed to my occasional weakness for procrastination and found myself trying to figure out what to do for the next period 30 minutes before it started, my lessons ended up far too ad hoc and stilted to be effective. Students can sense when you're unprepared, and they don't like it.

  1. How the Teacher Talks: I'm up there speaking in a foreign language. Despite the fact that they're paying me 2x to 3x what a Thai teacher makes so that I can talk to them like an NES, I can't address the class the same way I would speak to a class of native speakers. I'm not advocating speaking in pigeon or like a lot of Thais speak English (Thinglish), but when it comes to pace, annunciation and inflection, I had to learn how to speak to my Thai students so that they could understand me. Took me a few months to learn that.

  1. Not Laying Down the Law: Half my classes were teaching M-1's (7th graders). I would say after a year of doing this, that there could be no more unruly lot of human beings in any situation than 35 twelve-year-old boys (I teach at an all boys school) who've learned they can walk all over the adult whose been put in charge of keeping them in line. I experienced watching assault and robbery right in front of me. Boys sustained injury while I was their teacher. That was early on. Took me a while, but I learned how to use expulsion from the classroom (GO SIT OUTSIDE!), my tone of voice and facial expressions to instill respect and a bit of fear. I'm still not a master at classroom control, but when I was very new, I was perhaps a bit afraid to be the mean teacher. I wanted to be the nice, fun teacher that kids learned from because they liked me. I still enjoy being that kind of teacher too, and it is great when I can, but it's impossible to be so without first getting their respect, and yes, a little bit of fear.
What Went Right:

      1. Enthusiasm for the English Language. I mentioned briefly my previous, unfulfilling career. I used to be an appliance salesman at a big department store. Was quite good at it for near on two decades. One thing that lead to my success in that job was a real passion for what it was I selling. It may sound unlikely that anyone could be fascinated and excited about the latest developments in laundry or refrigeration products, but as a peddler of those devices, I knew that if I were truly in love with this $2000 refrigerator, then my enthusiasm would rub off and my clients would come to feel that way too.

      1. I've found it to be much the same 'selling' English. When I started, sure, as an occasional blogger and someone who enjoys writing, I thought English was pretty cool. Since I've started teaching it, however, I've gained a new fascination for that quirky, versatile, beautiful and occasionally frustrating language that I was fortunate enough to absorb as an infant.

      1. Here's an example. At least once a week, in one of my classes, I will start my lesson with this little spiel: “Do you know what my favorite thing about the English language is?” By now, of course, they've learned that Teacher Joko's favorite thing about English is the prefix and suffix. They're amazing things! Tack on a couple letters to a root word and you have a whole new word, and if you know what the prefix or suffix means, you know the meaning of the new word! It's formulaic! It's amazing! Now, I will admit, when I began using this motivational tool, I couldn't rightly say that prefixes and suffixes were my favorite thing about English, but having told that to students (who believed me when I said it), I've kinda come to feel that way.

      1. My point is that as a teacher of English, I've been a lot more effective in that role by fostering my own love of the language. Relative pronouns have replaced refrigerators. Transition words have taken over for dishwashers. Washers and dryers are now prefixes and suffixes. Love what you're teaching (or selling) and you'll do it a lot better.

      1. Maintaining Engagement: Let me start by saying that I've encountered no experience more deflating and frustrating than realizing as you look out over 25 to 35 students to whom you're talking that not a single student is paying attention to a word you are saying. This has happened to me on many occasion. Up there, at the front of class, you can see them all. It's not a good moment when you observe that no one is listening to the teacher. Fortunately, those moments have not been that common this last year, but they do continue. Happened just today, as a matter of fact. These excrutiating teaching moments are great motivation to learn how to avoid them What's gone right is that I've learned to use movement (you can't just stand in one place and teach), volume (vary it) and content (I'm a teacher, not a comedian, but there is a bit of entertaining in this job) as a means to maintain engagement. Ideally, education wouldn't be a constant battle between the teacher demanding things (I've run into teachers who treat students as 'the enemy' whom they have to beat) and kids who feel that the less they pay attention the more they 'win' in this power struggle, but we are dealt the hand we're dealt, and if I have to 'perform' 25 teaching hours a week, so be it. I've learned a few tricks on how to do that.

      1. Learning to Teach All the Students: I think most teachers would agree that in any given classroom, 20% of the students are really smart, they care about learning and make teaching easy. 20% of the students are there because they have to be, maybe aren't all that bright, don't care and aren't at all interested in learning. The middle 60% could go either way. That dynamic can play a huge tole on how the teacher coordinates the classroom.

      1. The lazy teacher just teaches to that top 20%. I've done that, on occasion. The angry teacher fixates on the inattentiveness of the bottom 20% and lets that disrupt the learning experience of the whole group. I've done that too. Maybe it is best to concentrate on that middle 60% on whom the 'success' of the lesson plan hinges. No, I've learned that if certain students (whether they be smart or dumb) start to realize that its unlikely that they'll be called on to participate in class, then they'll drift away. To their smartphones, to classwork from another course, what have you. One thing that I think I've gotten right this year is learning to use the Socratic method to the full class. Everyone wants to pay attention because I pay attention to everyone.

One year teaching is almost in the books. When it comes to any job, it takes three months doing it before you should be comfortable. It takes three years doing it before you're really good at it. I'm going to continue this until I'm really good at it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

In the Ghetto...

Yesterday afternoon, I had a couple hours to kill between classes, and since I had some 'back up' in the form of a friend visiting from another part of BKK, I suggested we go on a walk/video safari through the nearby Khlong Toei neighborhood.

Khlong Toei is home to some of the poorest slums in Bangkok. One of the first things I learned was the Thai word for slum: sa-lum, as we inquired with the locals as to where it might be interesting to go and walk.  

Now, I'll say from the start that I wasn't too bold in my camerawork.  See, even though I wasn't THAT afraid to be walking around there in the daytime, I still didn't want to be overly demonstrative as a foreigner with a portable device in my hands that's worth about half what these folks make in a year.  Besides, these were people just living their lives. Being all touristy by asking them to smile for the camera just didn't sit all that well.  Most of what I recorded was shot covertly, holding the camera down at my waist and just hoping I caught something interesting.  

We started out walking along the railroad tracks with ramshackle corrugated metal lean-to's crowding the railway.  It was hot.  The kind of weather where you just want to lie in a hammock and do nothing.  

Weren't sure if these tracks had traffic or not, as there were all kinds of instances of people with their various tasks spread all over the line.  Then, a train came by.  There was a man on the train.  Literally, a man on the train.  

Kentucky Fried Chicken is everywhere here in Bangkok, but it is relatively expensive compared to the local fare.  In Khlong Toei, forget the KFC.  They've got KFD
I've heard their fried chicken feet are 'OK'. 

They don't have broken down cars or trucks in the yards of Bangkok's slums.  In fact, it kinda looks like this truck is being used as one wall of a building.  It's certainly not going anywhere.  

Eventually, we made our way into the alleys.  Years ago, the poor who came to Bangkok to work at the new seaport put up their shacks as
squatters and they've been there ever since. It was actually kind of quiet as there are no cars and buses on the roads.  The roads are only about five feet wide.  

Apart from one guy who looked a little hopped up on goofballs, we didn't get any dirty looks or even all that much attention as we wandered through.  The people were okay with us being there.  In fact, one little girl pointed at us and said: "Mommy, look!" as the two foreigners passed. Mommy looks up and says in Thai "we're lucky today." 

Some of the people of Khlong Toei:

And here's the short video...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Circle of Life

I have a new video camera. This thing is amazing. Just starting to scratch the surface of what it can do, and along comes a Seasons of the Ukulele challenge that inspires me and provides an underlying theme from which I can go out and shoot some scenes at work and at the park near my home here in Bangkok.

I'm hoping you can guess the theme because normally, I wouldn't take footage of flower pots and fireplugs.

The song I'm covering is a bit out of my vocal range, but I hope I haven't butchered it too badly.

The sunset, the macro images, the couple play fighting on the park bench: my old camera wouldn't have captured these little bits of Thailand nearly as well as my new camera did. So looking forward to exploring its capabilities more fully.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Out With the Old (not that being old is a bad thing!)

I look away for a second. I look back up again. Everything has changed. The spectacular mix of blues, purples, reds and oranges have shifted yet again. It's sunrise looking over the Gulf of Thailand. In the tropics, the sun sets and rises quickly; dusk and dawn are fleeting events. I sit on my rock at Hua Hin Beach at some ungodly early hour, witnessing something I never have before: the sun coming up over the ocean. I am overcome by its beauty. Nothing diffuses light quite like the shimmering surface of a sea shore. The subtle, steady rhythm of the crashing waves, tame as it is, adds its hypnotic auditory effect to the dazzling visual feast of the eyes. Birds begin to dart overhead. An occasional tourist wanders behind me. I don't notice them much. It's just me and my thoughts.

And the camera on the next rock recording stuff that literally TENS of people will see.

I had a wonderful weekend. Just a two-day trip down the road to Hua Hin, a beach town on the east coast of the Isthmus of Kra which also happens to be the home of his beloved majesty, King Rama IX.

After visiting, I can see why he likes living there and why its one of the most popular weekend getaways amongst Bangkokians.

I heard via the AF some grousing about the place before I left, so I wasn't expecting paradise. The water is dirty. I was told. No, it wasn't. It was pleasant (ans surprisingly cold) and I could have spent all day floating around in it. See, one upside to being about 40 pounds overweight is that I float. I have natural bouyancy. Without any effort, I can just lie there in the sea, completely weightless and be free of gravity.

Another knock that I heard on Hua Hin was that it was full of farang (foreigners), this coming from farang people themselves. Indeed it was, but they weren't like the tourists of Phuket, the sex-pats of Pattaya or the backpackers of Kanchanaburi or Ayutthaya. It was like a retirement community. From what I saw (albeit I only saw a 6-block radius on the north part of town), the farang were mild mannered, silver-haired and rotund, all without being overly Russian.

I'll tell ya, although I'm overall a fairly confident man not prone to fits of self-consciousness, normally speaking, walking along the beach without a shirt on is one occasion where I can feel a bit embarrassed about my body shape. Not so at Hua Hin! I fit right in! I looked just like everyone else with my big old belly hanging over my overly tight swiin trunks. My people!!! I have found you!

I met some new friends this weekend, strengthened friendships already existing and said goodbye to the last of a family of inanimate objects I have cherished for 7+ years. Back in 2006, I bought a JVC digital camcorder. Changed my life in that I found a new hobby from which I have gotten so much enjoyment. Six cameras later, my latest camera is truly hanging by a thread. It's 90% broken.

Fortunately, a new camera arrived to start a new era... 

Enjoy this ultimate vid from Hua Hin:


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 ...