The Truth About Teaching ESL Overseas

Celebrating the End of the Semester with Fire and Sand.

Hi everyone! Well, I made it. I began teaching at my university outside of Bangkok, Thailand on August 18 (incidentally, that was the same day I became an aunt for the first time). Except for that one glorious week in Chiang Mai, I’ve been going straight through since August–21 hours of college teaching plus office work, planning, grading, and a few major¬†minor meltdowns. But finally, the grades are turned in, the exams are done, and I’ve spent the last two days making good use of nap times. I think I’ve even managed to learn a thing or two in the process. I say these things not to complain, but to give you a little insight into what teaching abroad actually is, and what it is not.

First, teaching is harder than it looks. It’s exhausting. Most weekdays, I’m up early, shoving books in my bag and coffee down my throat as I rush out the door and pray I didn’t forget anything. Usually I do. It took me a few months to actually understand what I was supposed to be doing, and a lot of times I felt like I was naked on a big stage: thirty pairs of eyes were staring at me, often accompanied by raised or furrowed brows. Often I got the sense that they had no idea what I was saying. This really is true, and it’s one of the most difficult parts of this job, I think. At its core, when you’re teaching EFL in a setting where students have had limited exposure to listening and speaking, and they’re being taught by someone like, oh, me who can’t speak their language, there is so much confusion. I often had to repeat my directions three or four or five times, explain it individually to some students during class and again after class, and still they didn’t always understand. Of course, part of this could just be because some students simply didn’t care to learn. That’s a whole other frustration in and of itself. But I’ve learned that–and I recall this when I was living with Hebrew and Arabic speakers in Israel–what is often said in English from someone who is studying the language is not what is meant. The underlying meaning gets misconstrued, lost in translation, and you’re left often with apathy, hurt feelings or worse. It’s a very confusing thing.

At the same time, this job has taught me so much about the nature of human communication. I use my own language for many different things. When I’m teaching, I am communicating rudimentary English for the purpose of learning a skill, yet when I talk to other English speaking friends, I find myself casually slipping into relaxed, comfortable conversation with silly metaphors and idioms and all sorts of convoluted talk. I’ve really come to value that time, because it requires less thinking and more feeling.

One thing I have definitely learned is that teaching abroad is not a vacation, not by a long shot. It’s a real job with commitments and superiors and evaluations and meetings and clocking in and out (still not sure why I have to do that for a salaried position, but when in Rome…). It means getting up early and wearing pleated skirts and holding my tongue. I’m starting to realize that this is part of life, and no matter where I might be in the world, there will always be meetings, forms to fill out and boxes to check off. I will somehow always be an employee of someone or something (God willing!). This is something I struggled with, not necessarily because I was in Thailand, but because I was coming from a world of getting-away-with-so-many-ridiculous-things-because-I-was-in-college-and-anything-goes.

Still, words cannot express how happy and equally frustrated my students and this job made me this semester, in the best possible way. I feel a bit more like a working adult; I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. But I’m looking forward to another long semester with new faces, names, personalities, games, laughs, failures, tears and hopefully some A’s and smiles along the way…

One of my awesome English II classes. The peace sign fingers are standard practice in pictures over here ūüôā

To celebrate the end of classes, I FINALLY went to the beach. I drove a few hours south with some friends to the island of Koh Samet. Now, it wasn’t as picturesque and isolated as I had hoped…at least, not at first. We arrived by speedboat to a very cramped and crowded stretch of sand, tourists and seafood restaurants. I was overwhelmed at first, but thanks to some clever navigating by the lovely Mild, one of our group, we managed to find some really picturesque pieces of sand and sun..

Ok, so maybe I enhanced the colors, but I didn’t enhance the scenery. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was standing in the middle of a postcard. We spent two glorious nights in Samet, playing in the waves during the day and eating seafood by night. The beach at nighttime is quite surreal. As soon as the sun begins to set and the tide goes out, workers come and lay straw mats, pillows and cushions and tables on the sand and open up their evening restaurants. All the tourists (and some Thai families on vacation) flock to them, order drinks and food and watch the waves crash upon the sand. At least, they do until these guys show up:
Cambodian/Thai fire dancers on the beach.

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but these are young men swinging flaming batons around their bodies. They come out in brigades of ten or twelve once the sun sets and the darkness can offset their flames. They light up their batons and twirl them, throwing them hundreds of feet in the air and catching them–sometimes on the flaming end. I recall running my own fingers through flames in church as a child and marveling at how they didn’t burn. Sometimes, they stand on each other’s shoulders as they twirl. One of the nights, I saw a flame-lit jump rope. It’s astounding and scary.

Samet, like many things about Thailand, possesses so much natural beauty and so much commercial tourism in one nice, neat little package. And yet somehow, you can’t help but get sucked into the relaxation it poses to your tired body, especially when the moon is out.

Koh Samet’s restaurants and waves under the full moon.

Maybe I’m a sucker for beautiful things. But if so, I think I’m in the right place. Merry Christmas everyone.

Love,
Mel

A Trip To Chiang Mai

This trip happened over a month ago, and yet I was in denial about its brevity, so I neglected to write about it until now. But I think I’m finally processing it all!

Over student midterms, for a much needed break from teaching and from city living, I took a trip up north with two friends and fellow teachers. We hopped on an overnight bus to the northern city of Chiang Mai, also known as Thailand’s “second city.”¬†Think Chicago to USA’s New York City, except zero skyscrapers and with an ancient, Asian¬†city wall.

One of the entrances to the Old City.

 

I love these trees. They’re all over Thailand. They remind me of the jungle.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful mix of ancient history, artistic tradition and modern innovation. If you’re familiar with the term “hipster,” it can almost be used to describe Chiang Mai, except instead of fourteen year olds¬†skateboarding in flannel shirts¬†you see sixty year old Greek and Italian ex-pats smoking rolled cigarettes and playing music in bars. But the feel is basically the same–laid back, adorably ironic and boldly unique.

The night markets were my favorite thing about the city. Sure they were crowded, but here you really see the heart of Thailand’s artisanal craft making scene. Everything from hand woven scarves to purses to jewelry to wooden carvings, paintings, sketchings and etchings were for sale along the streets. And the best part was that you got to witness these crafts in progress. One market, referred to simply as “the night bazaar” features a lower level indoors where brilliant visual artists draw and paint on massive canvases for the entertainment and prowess of curious tourists, all while displaying the capacity of their artistic genius . Of course, in true artistic fashion, you can’t take pictures of the work, so I leave it up to you to imagine wall to wall paintings of children, old men, Buddhist monks walking to temples in the rain, elephants, rice fields, wolves, Cherokee people and the like, all in the most beautiful colors and black-and-white charcoal depictions I’ve ever seen.

For me, the biggest treats of the trip were actually outside of the city. The first was a Thai cooking class at a special, homegrown farm in the mountains:

Our group enjoying our delicious creations.

But the second was far more edifying and less simplified. My two friends and I elected to go on a three day, two night “trekking tour” in one of Chiang Mai’s beautiful mountain terrains. ¬†The morning of the first day, we were driven to an elephant camp that, unfortunately, did not treat the elephants humanely. I will refrain from posting pictures here. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the benefits and complications of the Thai tourism industry on that day.

Yet our journey grew increasingly authentic and unpredictable after that. We drove to our beginning pathway and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. After a quick dip, we continued on, our quick footed guide (nicknamed “Louis” but pronounced like the French) always stopping to point out tasty snacks like fire ants (I’m not kidding) and various kinds of mushrooms.

That evening we arrive at a small village belonging to the local Keren people. The Keren originally migrated from Tibet, settling first in Burma and now in northern Thailand. They speak their own language, though their alphabet is similar to Thai script. Our guide, Louis, belonged to a neighboring village but was treated as one of their own, and they extended the same warm hospitality to us.

Our guide Louis…jokingly feeding me a bottle of water.
Inside the cooking room.

After a luxurious sleep on straw mats, listening to the rain patter on the bamboo rooftops, I slid my way up the dirt path to rejoin my group for breakfast and our second day of hiking. Day two proved to be very, err, wet, as we encountered a serious downpour about an hour into our hike with no shelter in sight. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and thank God for Louis, who was able to guide us through steep paths that had quickly turned into raging rivers. We made it to our second camp for lunch.

Before we left the Keren village, we passed through the local school, where we peeked in on children learning Thai language songs. I had forgotten what it felt like to be around children (having spent the majority of my time with college students), and I wanted to cry seeing the sheer joy on their faces. I’m including a facebook link to the video that my friend, Emi, took, because seeing them was such a beautiful reminder of what all people share in common. We may all have different words for “head, shoulders, knees, in toes” but those precious body parts are what we all have and need to protect.

I’m eternally grateful for the trip to Chiang Mai, and most especially to the Keren people for letting me into their homes for a little while. Being there was a great reminder of why I came to Thailand in the first place. Yes, I love English, and I really like teaching, and I have my beliefs. But what I have to give pales in comparison to what I have to learn just by meeting people. Sure, it can be uncomfortable–like walking through the pouring rain–but on the other side, always, always the sun comes out and dries up all my insecurities.

It’s been four months since I arrived. My first semester of classes are coming to a swift and jarring end. There are days when I feel completely, inexplicably ordinary, when I forget that I’m in Thailand all together, and it feels like just another day. I think these days are important to keep my sanity at a healthy level. But far more important to me are those days–precious few they may be at the moment–that take me outside of the ordinary and into some of the ancient and secret worlds of God’s creation. I pray that He will give me the courage to pursue these extraordinary moments with as much vigor as I try to pursue the ordinary.

With love,
Mel

Counting the Constellations

“This is it,” I said to my dad over the hum of the pool filter as we dipped our feet in blue-green water. We’ve both been dreading this moment. Tomorrow my father, my favorite person on the planet, leaves for Chicago. This Sunday, I leave for Pennsylvania, where in a few days I will depart for Massachusetts for a month-long internship. Then, three days later, I leave for Thailand. So this is the¬†last time I’ll see my dad for a while.
 
Not that we haven’t gotten used to this. For the past three years, I’ve been living up north, going to school and visiting Memphis on¬†Christmas and summer holidays. But this time it feels much more permanent.¬†I know it isn’t so; I know I’ll only be in Thailand for a year (at least). But I’m going so far away.
 
Now is the moment when I need to tell myself to take the plunge.¬†You can do this, Melanie. You want to do this. It seems like every time I come back¬†home, I grow more comfortable here. Yet at the same time, I’ve been getting very antsy. I feel misplaced, though I’m very happy to see my family. I can’t get over the unease and unrest of staying at home, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I was meant to wander.
 
I thought about this as I looked up at the black sky above our chlorinated pool. I thought of my stay in Sde Boker with some of my class from Ben-Gurion University in Israel. We had become temporary refugees in the small kibbutz town after fleeing the city two Novembers ago. Then, like now, I felt trapped and claustrophobic.     
 
Yet I remember how infinite and limitless I felt when we walked to the edge of town after supper in the neighborhood cantine. We sat upon sand dunes and looked down into the massive caverns below and beyond: the craters of the Negev, blue and black under the bright moonlight. Shoshana played guitar. I looked up at the stars in the heavens. “Where is the big dipper?” I asked. “Here. And look! There’s Orion’s Belt.” Together we named constellations and made up names for the ones we couldn’t guess. We sang songs, passed cigarettes, laughed and joked and commiserated about the bizarre turns of fate that brought us together, trapped tourists in the desert. There we were,¬†in the middle of a war that wasn’t ours, yet suddenly caring so much about the outcome. With all that chaos going on beyond our reach, I felt strangely comforted knowing that, for everyone in the world, the constellations were the same.
 
I felt this now, talking with my father in the pool, looking up at the constellations. I see the Big Dipper. And Orion’s Belt. And I know I will be okay.

The Art of Calm (A trip to Kentucky)

Kentucky is a beautiful state. I never appreciated this growing up, because (and I honestly have no idea where this came from) I had a deeply-seeded resentment of anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. Still, late fall, stress from school and eventual early adulthood brings with it dreams of hibernation, home and pie. Being able to ¬†spend all day in pajamas is also high on my list these days. So after coming back to Memphis to visit my family for fall break, we took a road trip to Kentucky. The entire drive, I stared out the window, slightly out of breath over the forgotten beauty of so many rolling green hills. It seems I’ve developed some kind of armor to protect me from life in the northeast and, in the process, I have neglected to look up at the sky. Like Icarus, I flew too close to the sun. It takes coming home to realize you never needed wings in the first place.

I won’t pretend I’m a sophisticated northerner. I speak more slowly than many people I know; I don’t own any Ray-Bands or black high heels or know all the subway lines in Manhattan.¬†Still, I’m noticing some stark differences between the vast, expansive south and the busy, densely populous northeast. For one, in the drive from Memphis to Kentucky, I saw more trees than people. More trees, more leaves on the trees, more blades of grass, more fish in the lakes, even more clouds in the sky. There is somehow¬†more sky.

When the only thing you have to contest your existence against is something that’s existed for hundred of years, like a tree, you suddenly feel very, very small. It’s almost impossible¬†¬†be existential in a city! There are too many people telling you you’re wonderful, and not enough reminding you that the trees were here first.

Also down south, people…are just so friendly. I always thought this was a myth, that people in the south are friendlier than in the north. “Just because people down south smile and wave and say ‘hello’ as if they mean it doesn’t make them more friendly.” Perhaps I will test this some time and see how long I can talk to a stranger in Memphis or Bowling-Green before he or she gets bored or scared of me. But at least when people greet me with a boisterous “hello,” I know they really mean it. You know that awkward semi-acknowledgement of a stranger’s presence, where you’re too shy and too busy to be genuinely interested in someone else’s day, but you don’t want that person to think a bad thought about you so you smile and eek out a timid “hi,” and the other person blurts out, “Hihow’sitgoin’?” and then just keeps walking? Yeah. In the south, strangers greet strangers with genuineness. And they separate their words.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is a bit of rose colored glasses syndrome, that feeling you get when you’re in a new place, when you’re exhausted from what you’ve left behind, and you look at your present surroundings with admiration and bliss. To tell the truth, I never thought so rosily about the south when I lived there.

In fact, all I remember dreaming of (aside from other planets) was my fantasized, grown up life in New York City. So perhaps now as a young adult, I’ve begun to reverse the fantasy and trade skyscrapers for landscapes and subway lines for tractors. Or haystacks…

Our time in Kentucky was full of farms, animals, fresh air and Mennonites markets. I overheard the boy pictured at left (click to see the detail) speaking Dutch with his father, owner of the first Mennonite farm we visited, where my own father proceeded to buy over a hundred dollars worth of squash! Seriously.

I watched this boy, about ten, grab a basket and pluck a few leaves of kale from the stalk and then mosey on back up to his house, to sell it or to eat it.

I admit I was jealous. When I want to cook kale, I need a car, a shopper of the month card, cash, car keys, a wallet, and the patience to walk under halogen lights and stand in line at a conveyor belt while trying to ignore all the celebrity gossip and “HOW TO LOSE TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO DAYS!” advertisements.
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Perhaps this trip was exactly what I needed. Blue skies and sunshine. Apple pie, baseball games, harmonicas and dogs on my lap. I had no idea I was so…American.

“Country rooooad, take me hoooome, to the place I beloooong!”