The Closing of a Chapter with the Opening of a Book

I’ve thought of all kinds of ways to get philosophical and theoretical about what I’m about to share. Instead, I’ll let the images below speak for themselves, and speak for how proud I am to be a teacher, how blessed I’ve been to have the students I’ve had so far, and how affirmed I feel in my methodology. Because honestly, this has more emotional meaning than anything else.

Let me briefly explain the context. I’ve recently concluded one chapter of my new teaching life abroad. I’m leaving Pattaya, the city of misfit sexpats, and moving to Chiang Mai, the Oakland of Thailand, at least in terms of creativity, individuality, and cultural pride. I’m also leaving a school which serves the primary purpose of being a tax shelter for an alcohol distributor who couldn’t care less about education, and going to a school that is so focused on education it’s constantly trying to implement the latest ideas, including project-based learning. However, I also regret that I must leave some wonderful students midway through their school year.

They’re sweet, warmhearted students, as their work below will testify to, and we had quite a year together with me as their homeroom teacher. I’ve learned that compassion and empathy are a teacher’s biggest assets. I’ve learned that most students are totally perceptive of the amount of passion and care you put into their education. I’ve learned that honesty, consistency, and fairness are essential. And I’ve learned that a partnership with my students was the key strategy to get the results I desired in them. What’s wonderful about these lessons is that I learned them not by failing, but by succeeding. Sometimes we do have to learn from our failures, but I’m glad I didn’t have too many in my first year as a teacher (though I certainly had my share).

I may get into more detail about my overall approach to teaching and some of the specifics behind what I think made me successful—as well as the lessons learned from a few trips and falls along the way—in a separate article. For now, I’ll let my students do the talking, through a handmade book they tearfully gave me  on my last day.

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Lost in (Bing) Translation

You know what sucks worse than Google Translate? Bing translator. At least when it comes to Thai. To be fair, translating Thai to English is a difficult task for any translator, digital or human, for reasons I suspect have to do with a dumbing down of the Thai language parallel to trends we can observe in English. People often make up words in Thai, because they no longer have a grounding in Sanskrit – the basis of their language. It’s sort of like the way a lot of native English speakers misuse words or create imprecise word forms because they no longer learn Latin or Greek. 

Anyway, I’ll end the boring conjecture and analysis there to bring you to my point. Whenever my Thai friends post something on Facebook and discussions follow, I’m forced to rely on Bing’s utterly unreliable translations. The result is gibberish that makes me laugh. So I’m going to try to start a series on this blog site featuring some of these gems. Below is the first installment.

  
 See you, come when, teary this short, look, don’t see it. Friends Pao get jumped like not humble sankhara music festival serviced!

Wan Pao: Why take a picture to jerk down chewing on you sweet looks alone.

Rishina Neung: Friends, this is your husband you’re tall. Have angle you look at the ugly it totally 555

Pao Wan: I’m ugly more than the other.


Although giving a rough, sensible translation probably spoils the fun of Bing’s nonsense, I think for this first installment it will be necessary to properly illustrate how wrong Bing gets it.

Pao Wan: Only “Mr. Sweet” [my boyfriend] looks good. I look ugly.

Rishina Neung: Because your “husband” [your boyfriend], is tall and took the picture, it was a bad angle for both of us. Hahaha*

Pao Wan: I look uglier than you.

*Since the Thai word for “five” is ha (with a falling tone), the Thais use “555” in text and social media as a shorthand for laughter (“hahaha”).

Expathy

If you’ve been one of my faithful readers, then you’ll know I’ve spent many words dissing the senior expats here in Pattaya. If you were my age, and you had lived in this scummy city for even a few months, you’d quickly understand why. However, I’ve always tried to be empathetic. Behind every face is a brain, and under every chest is a heart, and I value the task of trying to understand the invisible mechanisms that influence the way people behave. Although my capacity for empathy is notably limited, I think I can now stretch it towards the previous targets of my ridicule. However, to do so I’ll need a special kind of empathy; the expat empathy is a different brand, so I’ll brand it “expathy.” (It’s ok, I know it’s not as clever I want it to be.)

I decided to practice expathy recently entering one of their usual haunts—the beer bar. I started watching this one senior expat drinking with a young, lovely, little “hostess,” and I caught myself thinking, “You go, grandpa!” As condescending as that sounds, I meant it earnestly. Even though I was trying to keep my stomach contents while I watch him flirt, dance, or make out with his skinny, half-life junior, I started to imagine the road that may have led him here.

I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably had a pretty unlucky love live. It occurred to me that he might still be married, and I could judge him and feel pretty good about myself, while ignoring the fact that I’ve admittedly fantasized at least once about infidelity. Then I remembered (from my own failed experience) that marriage can be pretty rotten, a prison in which a certain vague but vital part of us gets chained to the wall and whispers for water and a sympathetic ear. I’ve also never had children, never had decades to add weight to the marriage, and never had a life that would easily confine me to the expectations of others. (In fact, I’ve tried to live outside anyone else’s prescribed narrative for me, and it’s led to successes and failures alike.)

My point is, as despicable as international infidelity is, unfaithfulness is a common problem, with a host of causes ranging from pure unchecked libidos to immense, soul-crushing dissatisfaction. And since I’ve experienced my fair share of both, I can relate on some level to the possibility that this guy is cheating on his wife. It was an alarming realization.

But then I thought that perhaps a more sympathetic backstory might be that this guy’s had his share of bad luck. Even if he was more successful—even if he probably had a lot of action in his prime—he’s only now in his autumn years begun to take life seriously.

Maybe he was once an eligible bachelor, and perhaps he wholeheartedly embraced the ideal of a mutual, heartfelt love, and pursued it in his past relationships. And perhaps he was let down enough times to reject it.

Now he lives by a pragmatic love—a love that would rather feel needed than feel adored. He dispenses with the glitter and glamor of Hollywood’s scripted romance, and turns to the economic realities of cross-cultural relationships. He accepts that there is a mutuality, even if it isn’t the ideal of mutual respect and love. He relishes taking financial care of his little brown beauty, and he’s ok with the fact that the care he receives in return isn’t one motivated by affection, but by a myriad of necessity, obligation, and gratitude.

Or maybe this expat spent so much of his younger years not taking life seriously—having a lot of fun and planning very little for the future—that now he’s realized he’s run out of luck. So he came here, where he can find an endearing Thai girl ten to twenty years younger. She’ll dote on him, care for him, give him the sex life he’s never been able to wean himself off of, and make him feel like he’s finally found someone who cares about him. Who cares if it’s a lie? Who cares if it’s a game? He’s paid the lip service and played the game plenty himself.

Or could it be that he was just a loser back in Farangland? He wasn’t very sociable—maybe he was a bit abrasive, a little off, a bit awkward, or a little bit timid. He couldn’t land a date, let alone get laid. He was never remarkably good-looking or wealthy. He’s lived his 60 some-odd years lonely, rarely sexed, scarcely loved, and hardly accepted. Here, he’s still lonely, but he can go out and pay a pittance to get attention, feigned affection, and some action. For once, women will talk to him, and it doesn’t really matter to him that he had to show his bill roll first.

Or maybe he had little success with women back home simply because he couldn’t progress ideologically. The young, submissive, subservient Thai girl represents his ideal woman. He could never delicately dance his man dance in a feminist world. When your life begins with a load of privileges that slowly get stripped away in an equalizing world, suddenly it’s more difficult to find a woman who can respect you, let alone love you.

Unable to cope with the fairness that feminism seeks to usher in to society, he relocated. He found a place where women are far from equal to men in the eyes of society, a place where a woman’s only hope for an easy life is to acquiesce to the chauvinism of a rich older man, a place where a good woman is defined as one who takes on all domestic tasks and serves her man at every turn. Such a place is Thailand, and its epitome is Pattaya.

When I arrived at this final scenario, and thought about how well that describes so many of the men (young and old) I’ve met here, my expathy came to a grinding hault. I couldn’t bring myself to pity a man who exploits the limited economic options of women in a developing country that epitomizes gender inequality.

I’ve seen too often that men come here viewing women as a commodity, as a trophy that they’re duty-bound to keep “polishing.” For example, I know one young girl who was weary of the life working in a short-time bar (basically a brothel that fronts as a small bar, where women have some autonomy about who their clients are). So she took up the offer of one of her older, richer customers when he offered to “rescue” her from the bar and give her a good life. But along with the security, house, and Mercedes came mandatory breast implants, a nose job, and a membership at the gym. He tells her she’s too fat, or getting too pale, and she must improve her appearance to his liking. And that isn’t the half of their so-called “relationship.”

I keep trying to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. I keep trying to show expathy whenever I can. But then I remember examples like the one above, and I’m deflated. But at least I keep trying.

Pattaya Cribs (Video)

For almost a year now, people have requested that I start posting videos instead of just writing about my time here. To be honest, I don’t like making videos. Wordsmithing is much more enjoyable an art than video editing. But because I love my faithful readers, I’ll give you want. And the topic of this post couldn’t be any more appropriate for video format. Enjoy the brief tour of my humble lodgings in Pattaya. (By the way, iMovie sucks ass.)

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part X)

Gymnasiums

Sweet Jesus, can Thailand just build a nice, normal gym where the equipment is maintained and the Thai swoll patrol don’t freak me out? In this country, you have three options for fitness. You can go to an open-air gym, where the sauna and the weight room are conveniently one in the same and traffic pollution bolsters your heavy breathing. Or you could go to an indoor gym, where half the fans and/or air conditioning are broken, the ceiling barely clears the plate weight rigs, and there lingers this musty body odor smell with a hint of mildew in the air.

In either option, you get the bonus of 50% of the equipment being permanently and stubbornly nonfunctional, free weights scattered all over in a convenient system of leave-it-where-you-dropped-it, Thai jocks screaming in testosterone-induced pain with every dead lift, and locker rooms specially smeared from floor to ceiling with hepatitis, and possibly typhoid.

And in both types of gym, the other patrons are among the most pleasant and considerate of clientele:

The bench too dry? Not a problem—the bloke before you left his back sweat all over it.

Your toes in too good of shape and need a bit of shattering? Just stand near one of the jacked Thai jocks as he rapidly thrusts the dumbbells up and down with the ever helpful grunts that sound something like, “Guh guh guh guh guh guh guh.” When he’s finished his machine gun reps he’ll kindly drop the weight like a microphone as if he’s just owned a rap battle.

And trust me, that one dude really does plan on using all three machines he’s “reserved” with his mobile, towel, and water bottle.

 

If you’re not too shy, your third option is to go to one of the many free outdoor fitness parks. They’re in the most random locations, so they can be tricky to find. I’ve seen them under highways, sandwiched between hotels, shimmering conspicuously in coastal parks, and even spread across a 1.5-km circular track beneath a hilltop temple. These fitness parks always offer the same trade-off: free workout, but a free show for all passersby, which is probably why the swoll patrol never hangs out there. I have not once seen someone utilizing the various bolted down, weather-resistant machines. The only exception is the 1.5-km track, where everyone is hustling at dusk’s coolest hour to finish their last lap before the dark brings gangs of rapists to the park.

So Thailand doesn’t exactly have a culture of fitness, but at least it isn’t an industry of fitness, either. I can’t say the same for my own country: a growing industry of fitness while still boasting the highest obesity rate in the world. ‘Merica!

 

Wanna Get Away?

As you’ve probably noticed over the last 10 posts in this series, I often find myself absolutely disgusted with living in Pattaya. It’s hard to imagine that I would actually get bored with going out to bars on the weekends, hanging out at a sub-par beach, wandering a six-story shopping center, or visiting one of the few inauthentic cultural attractions or daytime activities, it’s only a matter of time before I want to proverbially blow my brains out from boredom. Thankfully, there are plenty of cost-effective options for getting away.

Even though I just smack-talked the beach in Pattaya—because, to be honest, it’s quite far from the best that Thailand has to offer—on a quiet Saturday or Sunday, it’s a convenient escape. I enjoy lounging in the shade of the thousands of umbrellas watching tourists splash in the water. The travelling vendors can get obnoxious after a time, but it’s also nice to know that if I get hungry I can wait 10 minutes before another array of fruit or ice cream or whatever else is presented to me. Plus, I know I’m the envy of teachers every where when I say that it’s the best place to lay back and grade papers.

Besides, if I want to seek out picturesque beaches, they’re an easy day trip away. I’ve already written about Ko Samed, but it’s worth another mention here. Turquois waters, white sands, tranquility, and a mild night life (if that interests you) all make it a nice weekend getaway. Approximately $500 can pay for travel fees, cozy resort accommodation, and food and beverage for a 3-night stay.

Moreover, if I’m tired of the beach, the Thai countryside is stunning. There’s an unparalleled calm and simplicity, where elevated huts lay claim to acres of rice, rubber, and banana farmland. The stifling pollution of a typical Southeast-Asian city has dissipated by the time I reach these remote areas. The poverty is overt in such a rustic environment, but the people are the most hospitable. And while the temples of Bangkok boast the glamour of royal patronage with astonishing architecture and detailed aesthetic, the rural temples must be the inspiration for the many images we Westerners see of the solitary repose of a meditative mysticism.

So just like in San Francisco, where urbanites and gentrifiers can escape to the many redwood forests and lush vineyards, Thailand has its share of easy escapes, which is a big reason why I’m able to tolerate its many annoyances.

 

Summary

So now that I’ve reached the end of my 10-post rant and rave, what’s the take-away or the verdict? Honestly, all the annoying stuff that irritates the crap out of me is also at times good for a laugh. My colleagues and I are always bitching in the staff room about these and other grievances, but it’s often with levity and laughter. On top of that, the positives are just too good to pass up. I won’t be here forever, but while I’m here I plan to soak up as much as I can and relish the experience. And you’ll be at my side, vicariously speaking…

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 9)

Alcohol

My move to Thailand involved many changes, to say the least. One of those changes, though trivial, has been mildly difficult to cope with. I went from living in the land of IPA and microbrews, a state renown for its wines, and a city that quaffs itself with a certain elitist gusto, to a place where the best brews give Budweiser its imagined crown, wine selections award Yellow Tail an envied notoriety, and whiskeys elevate Jack Daniels to the top shelf.

Thailand has some tight restrictions on alcohol imports. The domestic beers are all terrible and terribly similar. To me, Leo, Tiger, Chang, and Singha could have come from the same vat, with Singha being only marginally better than the rest. San Miguel and Heineken stand out as the higher-end, imported prizes. With an alcohol content of around 5%, my IPA palette took some time to be convinced I wasn’t drinking sparkling water. And yet, despite the low alcohol levels, I manage to get a sober headache within two 40-ouncers, indicating to me that there are some additives that are quite undesirable.

The wine selection is no better. Given that Thailand has a very low production of domestic wines (hello, tropical climate), all wines are imported and taxed heavily, yielding some staggering prices for sub-par wines. I’m usually excited to pay the equivalent of $10 for a bottle of Australian Shiraz that would go for $5 in the United States, and could hardly compete with a Napa production.

Then there’s whiskey. Thai whiskey is hardly whiskey. I think it’s actually technically rum, as it’s made not with barley but sugar cane. The best American whiskey I can find is Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey. The best Scotch I can find is 100 Pipers. My whiskey consumption has reached devastatingly low levels.

It’s not that the finer alcoholic products are unavailable. I’ve purchased English ales, Irish stouts, and even IPA. I’ve also seen Glenfiddich and Glenlevit behind cages in the farang supermarkets. French, Italian, Californian, and Chilean wines decorate the shelves of many grocery stores. But the price for these large production gems is often too high for my humble teacher’s salary to accommodate. I guess I know what I’ll be lining my suitcase with during my next visit stateside.

 

Tropical Rains

Living in a tropical part of the world comes with a double-edged sword: warm weather year-round and a lengthy monsoon season. Many people, Thais and foreigners alike, find the rainy season to be a drawn-out nuisance. The constant flooding is enough to keep one from carrying out daily routines. And if your only mode of transportation is a motorbike, it can be tricky—and even dangerous—getting anywhere in the heavy rains. However, these inconveniences have yet to diminish my complete awe at nature’s power.

During the rainy season, nearly every day brings the most tumultuous tempest. Rain comes down in sheets, sometimes nearly horizontal from the blasting winds. Lightning rips through the black clouds overhead—clouds so dark that afternoons resemble dusk. Thunder cracks so loudly you can feel it shake the building and rattle your ribs. But despite the routineness of the rain, I always feel the urge to stand at the window or in the doorway and gaze with wonder at the spectacle.

I love watching the gargantuan drops of rain bomb the earth so rapidly that water seems to seep up from beneath the pavement. I love the symphony of cackling pitter-patter on the tin roofs all around. And as much as I loathe the inconvenience of ankle-deep floodwaters gathering around clogged drains, I am amazed by how efficiently nature’s meteorological messages hiss at us, saying, “You think you’ve conquered this planet? You think your combustion engines, perfectly perpendicular construction, and lightyears of electrical lines have me subdued? Think again! I’ll devolve your existence to the primitive stupor of your forebears. Leave you in the dark, soaking wet and treading water.”

This awesome display all at the price of a poncho, browned out electricity, and a delay of plans. It’s amazing to me that we’ve harnessed the powers of lightening, wind, and water, and yet these same elements render our innovations obsolete, even for an hour. It’s poetry in the making, if only I were a poet.

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.