Friday, December 23, 2011

Tomorrow, I'm meeting my mom, dad and Rebecca in Bangkok for like 10 days, should be sweet! Maybe Rebecca can guest entry while I'm there. In the mean time, here's a little of what I've been up to lately:

Friday, December 9, 2011

I had a birthday party! At the restaurant I eat at like thrice a week:
My kindle screen broke and momentarily: IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD! But my family is visiting in two weeks and the replacement is free; I can study Thai and read a book of travel poetry in the meantime. I love the device but sturdiness isn't its selling point, this is the second I've killed in 6 months.

A few weeks ago I had the rare situation  of teaching all 17 classes in a single week, but things have come up and I suspect it will be like Mewtwo: seen only once. Classes, especially with my older students, have been going really well. I got each class to write a rap song, and some students were pretty hesitant about it but one class got as far as "yo, yo, he is a good man/I want him in my hand/you and I in Wonderland." The following week I made up a lesson about the RZA's "Grits," which I chose in part because it's a great song and in part because it's about family, growing up poor and food, and I was hoping the kids could relate to it. They got that it was about food, but the connection between the great meal your mom cooked you as a kid and saying no to a life of crime was a bit more difficult to illustrate.

This week, I've been surprised at how difficult it is for them to describe an item of food (and then guess the item based on classmates' descriptions); they don't have English vocabulary like sweet, salty, sour, soup, noodles, etc. But I must have tapped something, because I had some seriously full attention. I read this book called "Not-For-Profit," reviewed here, by Martha Nussbaum about how the socratic method, hands on learning, the liberal arts and the arts themselves prepare us for democratic and cosmopolitan citizenship, and I've been thinking ever since about how to develop lessons that encourage creativity. One of the best things about teaching, as a job, is that it engages the creative mind, and like Dewey said:"The difference between play and what is regarded as serious employment should be not a difference between the presence and absence of imagination, but a difference in the materials with which imagination is occupied."

 We had a big Thanksgiving feast at my house for PiA Southern Thailand and friends! How lovely. Some of us went to Kuala Lumpur and had late nights for a good long weekend. Before that, I went to a wedding my co-teacher took pictures:
Because we're in Asia

bride and groom.

Tomorrow I'm going to bike out so Similan and go snorkeling. Lastly, this is how I feel about Occupy Wall Street.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

American Fried Rice: Burma

This week, I missed two days of school to judge an English competition, where adorable 10 year olds retold such stories as "The 3 little pigs" and then drew inspiring morals from them. Wednesday, we had a, well, I can call it a big celebration at school of foreign languages, where the kids baked Chinese and American food, and has the foreigners try some to test the authenticity. One of those dishes was "American Fried Rice." I was not quite sure how to judge a dish I'd never had and behold, there's a history; a teacher's sister, who runs a Thai restaurant in Canada, said it was invented in Thailand to feed American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Who would have thought?
Thursday I taught, and on Friday I took a long journey to Ranong to cross into Burma to get my visa renewed (so I taught 1/5 days this week, which is not atypical). I was told not to take pictures soon after the boat ride, but I got a few good ones in
(Also I tried to clean my camera lens and just made things worse, darn):

Books: Reading Capital slowly, started A Feast for Crows, been a long time since I picked up the series but after I refresh on the characters I just know I'll be burning through it again.

Music: So Chika and Mike D. recently made excellent recommendations, Chika The Weeknd and Mike The Microphones. The Weeknd is R+B so hedonistic it borders on evil; one reviewer said of "Loft Music" that it makes you feel unclean just to put it on. Yeah. And The Microphones: Wow. The Glow Pt. 2 is elegant gentle, and a little heartbreaking, words I don't normally associate with lo-fi, somewhere between virtuosic folk and rock; there a name for the genre? Elliot Smith music, Bon Iver on Skinny Love, Radiohead on No Surprises. Also listening to Bjork's Homogenic, which is pleasantly orchestral and a good running album, and Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury; If I'm going to like Southern cocaine rap, it's going to be this album. Joints like Ride Around Shining are so NOT trying to be a pleasant, easy-listen, which is a lot of what I don't like about gangsta rap: the abrasive lyrics against music no more difficult than George Michael. It makes the whole thing seem unreal, like a childish fantasy (I'm thinking of Rick Ross, 50 Cent, Jay-Z, the Kanye crew who fashion themselves street, which Kanye is self-aware enough not to). Clipse, by contrast, make genuinely menacing and unglorified music, even if the lyrics are aggressive and rude in their own way. I suppose I should clarify that I'm really praising the Neptunes, who do what they do every bit as well as the RZA in his 36 chambers-Supreme Clientele peak.

So two beautiful albums, and two evil. I try to keep a nice balance. Also, Madvillian, Good lord is that talent. I honestly have trouble believing the density of some of Doom's rhymes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How did people apply to jobs abroad before the internet?

I mean long distance phone calls could help but how would you even find out about positions? On a related note, I'm working on arranging my return to the States in 2012, listening to Ravel, trying to slog through Capital, and here are some pictures of Singapore: I'd have to live to be 123 to have another birthday date as good as the one that just passed. We had a little farang+friends dinner and checked out some new bar where a Thai band sang me happy birthday and then talked to me in Thai for like 5 minutes while I looked at them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Technology is cool, here are photos from my time in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Vientiane, Kuala Lumpur and Khao Lak.

Click on the little text icon in the bottom left for captions. At this point, I see no need for facebook. Also they're increasingly invasive, and I know google is too, but I trust google's benignity more. That's a delightful word whose pronunciation is anybody's guess.

These past few weeks I've been reading reading reading and biking. A few weeks back I read Crime and Punishment and On Beauty. I liked C&P, but I liked it more in 10th grade, when I told my own story in more tragic, romantic terms, so Sonya and Raskalnikov made more sense to me. On Beauty was amazing. Highly recommended: her dialogue is A+. I then read a bunch of the Dresden Files which are about a detective who is a magician and it just goes right to the dopamine for me, has for like 10 years. Also, a great piece called "Beyond Gay Marriage" questioning whether gay marriage is really good for queer people/society. It's a great read if you're into pol/queer theory.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recent History

As a map, my past month looks like this. As an Itinerary:
September 17th: fly from Phuket to Chiang Mai.
September 21st: bus to Chiang Rai.
September 24th: fly to Bangkok.
September 25th: train to the Cambodia border, taxi to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat.
September 29th: bus to Phnom Penh.
October 4th: Bus to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
October 7th: fly to Hanoi.
October 10th: fly to Vientiane.
October 15th: bus to Udon Thani/fly to Phuket/bus home next day.

Now HERE is where I want to post the beautiful pictures I took. Que mala suerte then that my memory card failed in Cambodia and I only have photos from HCM onwards. If any are good I'll post them later. So words will have to work. All I know is what the words know, yeah?

Part 1: Thailand

I had come back from Singapore - the whole city so carefully colored in the lines- on 9/14, and I spent the next few days getting my life together so I could depart in peace. Stayed up all night and took a 6:00 bus to Phuket on the 17th, that afternoon I was in Chiang Mai. I walked with a PiA fellow there who is working with a rock climbing group and the rest I covered previously.

Chiang Rai. I found Mike -my first ITBF, In-Transit-Best Friend- who showed me around town, and we ate with the PiA crew/their friends. Chiang Rai struck me with how much it resembled the rest of Thailand. I worry for this country. Sometimes it seems like the whole thing will fall to endless sprawl, which apparently exacerbated recent floods. Nonetheless it was nice to get a flavor of different PiA life. The boys up there have a good dynamic and Mike in particular is making great progress with Thai. Turns out, Thai universities aren't so different from Thai high schools, at least, the kids are similar, carefree until they fail and then worried about their futures.

While there I visited the White Temple, which, in a country that is remarkably architecturally conservative, stands out. It really is as bizare as these pictures from the internet imply. The artist, Kositpipat, has a vision and he certainly carries it out, so the outside is covered in dragons and mermaids and intimidating white statues and the dude from Predator, while the inside is a mural of pop culture images, keanu reeves and superman and Doreamon flying around the burning twin towers. I found it somewhat upsetting. The whole thing seemed very profane to me. That day I finished Blood Meridian , which also left me feeling a bit sick and confused. It was an astounding book though. I have been thinking about the War is God passage a lot in the past few weeks. "As well ask men what they think of stone." I next went to the Golden Triangle, from which you can see Burma and Laos simultaneously over the Mekong, drank with the fellows and headed to Cambodia.

I had one night in Bangkok before a 6:00 a.m. train. I wrote:
"2:45 a.m. 9/25: Now this is definitely the most interesting thing I've seen so far. Hualamphong Plaza, hard floors and lights on, 75-100 people sleeping, some dirty, some on mats, smoking, monks, some sitting awake in silence, travelers, saying hello to me, asking if I am ok. I am wearing a pink Chang V-neck, Nike Shorts and the adventure shoes, leaning on my backpack propped against a column. A group of men plays and observes a checkers game with bottlecap pieces, a toddler in braids an ornate dress crawling among. The man nearest me, 30s, tattooed skeletal, twitches over cigarettes. Little one cries, why is she awake? It is 3 hours until my train, an alarm set for when sleep comes, but I'm traveling alone, so I can plan 12 hours in a city, 4 in dumb movies, and none in a hotel room, brush my teeth in a mall bathroom. Lives in bags, towels as blankets, bare feet on an older woman with a bandana in her hair, tired and careword are indistinguishable. Trash and dust along the edges, Singapore this is not. Thai guy in a skullcap with an older European, a vivid story, two inscrutable women track their steps. I can smell the ink and hear the checkers man drink."

I took a train to Cambodia, beautiful rice paddies endless on the way, and thus ends the Thailand chapter.

Part 2: Cambodia

At the border, everyone was trying to extract money from the foreigners, but an American expat nurse who had done the crossing before gave some guidance, and soon thereafter, she, I a Dutch fellow and a Spaniard were sharing a taxi. The Europeans could speak in French, I could speak Spanish with one and English with the other, and by the time we got to Siem Reap, we were moving together, sharing a hotel room in a hostel recommended to Carlos, de Espana.Rafael, of Holland, was sick, Carlos was on his own ,so I went to Angkor wat that first day on a tuk-tuk , that thing I'm so glad Phang Nga does not have, and took pictures. It was fine. People describe seeing the giant temples as life-changing but they were just nice. I thought a lot about impermanence and grandiosity that day.
Tuesday rained, I sat in the hostel and ate and read War and Peace. Wednesday, biked Angkor Wat with Carlos, drank with Norwegians there to study ecotourism but really just abroad for the same reasons we all went, I miss the Onion being free, but they believe what they wrote.

Onwards to Phnom Penh. I met Micah, who became my second ITBF, and Kristen, and walked in on their lives, sleeping in their living room, pursuing what they pursued. Phnom Penh is a tough city, dirty and loud and a clear-overabundance of Tuk-Tuks and mototaxis, meaningful work not forthcoming. Kristen and I went to the torture museum , appropriately emotionally exploitative and disturbing. Cambodia is 50% 22 or younger, and people older than my parents were essentially impossible to find in the capital, but other than that, the genocide is a somewhat silent presence. The PiA+friends crew is about ten in number and tight, just the kind of friend group I've cherished(coveted) since, what, 2006? that's not so long. I got to choose the initial movie for their Film Club, so we watched Bad Education. I bought a set of 18 of Almodovar's movies for $3, I'm going to watch them all this year.

Life of reading and running, group dinners and frisbee, you were mine once, summer 2009, you are Micah's now, and I went on to Ho Chi Minh.

Part 3: Vietnam
Traveling, everyone wants to be friends- Carlos Rafael and I moved together- so on that bus to Vietnam, I spoke to an American girl from Seattle and two guys from England, all 2011 graduates, and soon the four of us were a traveling pack, sharing two rooms in a hostel, drinking and touristing. HCM wasn't my cup of tea. We went to the War Remnants Musuem and learned why war/America is bad, the presidential palace, a cathedral, some markets, and the tunnels the VC used to stay underneath American bombs, and nothing grabbed me. I was tired. It was the nights that counted, meeting up with an Israeli girl and Portugese dude with whom we had seen the tunnels , introducing myself to some guy who I recognized from the War Remnants Museum (6' goth dudes stand out in Vietnam), hopping with him and his Minnesotan traveling friend who had nannied in Germany, it blurred, and I flew to Hanoi, said goodbye to the three, exchanged emails.

Didn't like Hanoi so much. Another wild, somewhat irrational city, But the Museum of Fine Arts was beautiful and a refuge after weeks of moving too fast. Did I? I thought I wanted to see everything and I did want that! but it took a toll; I needed to schedule in a day of rest. Like Valelly said, you only understand the opportunity costs in retrospect, how could I have known? I lived the local PiA drama for an evening and talked to Europeans who work in banks. I walked around the crowded alleys of the old quarter and over West to the museums and open streets, breathed and realized it was time to move on again, so booked a flight to Vientiane.

Part 4: Vientiane . The first place that was calm, where people just want to be nice since Thailand. Mike, my third ITBF- Mike Mike and Micah, thank you thank you, you made my trip- picked me up and we spoke: he went to his evening classes and I went to read along the Mekong, for which Mike's picture is perfect. Dinner with the fellows, and I spent my days reading in cafes, finished War and Peace, over-descriptive and wonderful thing that it was, and wrote all day. The dust got in my throat and I was ill, like Mike has been, and it didn't matter, all we had to do was sit and look out at the water. Charlotte incorporated me into a lesson about maps- how Bangkok and Phang Nga look the same but are different, maps show some things but hide others. How wonderful it would be to teach in such a supportive teaching environment as theirs! Former professors at Swarthmore seem to like it as well. Perhaps someday.

Vientiane was my favorite place to visit, the one I could most picture relocating to. I could lead a full exterior life there. Reading is my focus here. I realized that while traveling. I'm not precisely sure when. It was perhaps when Charlotte said "maybe learning Thai just isn't that important to you." It is, and it isn't, I want to be functional, but my heart is in books right now.

It was quite a trip. I need to digest more of it to have any analysis. Now I want to talk about Art.

After W+P I opted for something light, twenty thousand leagues under the sea; I got back and Michelle gave me the Chronology of Water, which was pretty great, maybe the best memoir I've ever read. I'm thinking of Oates's A Widow's Story and perhaps Nothing to Be Frightened of. I've been listening to beautiful music again -i'm still predominantly listening to aggressive rap but hey, I needed music to put to the experience of traveling- enjoying Shostakovich's tenth, My Brightest Diamond, Jens Lekman, this song in particular by the Tallest Man on Earth (the second MBD and 1st Lekman song I"ve linked to are seamless on a playlist). I have an idea for how "ASEAN blur" on piano would but I need to wait to realize it, and the kernel might die by the time I can sit down and hash it out. I can't just dream and write the whole thing, I need to be playing.

I'm going to Malaysia tomorrow because I need to finally get my Non-Immigrant B Visa which has been a hassle of uninspiring details. I have a few days there and will take them leisurely. When I was moving, a month ago, it was always, next stop, utopia, and now, I am watching myself move, I will have calm time someday. It will Follow the Rain.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Traveling alone

I had plans for this year, and for this trip, and in a crucial respect, they're not panning out: I spend a majority of my time alone. I thought this would be a big group trip and we'd all move around Asia together, like DC Swatties and CYDC used to hit Wonderland as a pack. But no one's vacation schedules quite line up so I'm reading at most dinners again.

I'm starting to love it. I'm in Chiang Mai now, and I've been able to spend my 3 full days here precisely as I want to, which basically means zero time in museums. A) On Sunday I rented a bike and hoofed it to Doi Suthep about 10 miles outside the city and a mile up in elevation. It was a tough ride, but the temple and the view were beautiful and cruising down for 10 miles at a 10% gradient passing songthaews and motorcycles was among the most enjoyable and reckless half hours of my life. B) Yesterday I pretended to be a Gibbon by ziplining through the jungle and learning a grand total of zero about natural life, along with some British German and Australian tourists who were super nice. Everybody's nice in settings like that. C) Today I climbed the limestone surrounding the city, some 5as and a 6a before a different 6a was my downfall and we had to plan another route. It was just two climbing dudes and me in the whole site (it was raining on and off, which made things a bit tougher). What a great sport. It's so good to feel at ease in nature, like coming down from the middle path in the crum, running with the wolves. I would have been born well in a different century's hunting party.

Sure company would be nice sometimes, especially around 8:30 p.m. each night, when I feel the urge to inquire something like "excuse me good sir, which way to the bacchanal?" And would I rather have Dan here? Well yes, but that's always true. But there are big upsides to traveling alone. I've recently finished Twain's The Mysterious Stranger and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which were fun, Madame Bovary, which I really enjoyed up to the last 10 pages at which point it got all melodramatic in that way 19th century literature sometimes does, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which was often astoundingly beautiful but went on a few lengthy tangents that didn't do it for me. I just started Blood Meridian, which is hard to read in long sessions.

Perhaps I'll follow this up with a long post about how I'm going to try to make the most of my year here, facing the predicament of being productive in solitude, when no one knows or cares whether you waste the days away watching the Wire (which is mad good) or studying Thai or R. To me, it's high-stakes.

I also just got a letter from the foreign service for an in-person interview next February in D.C. and I am trying to decide on whether to say yes. The idea of a position is frightening. I honestly took the initial exam thinking I would fail but here I am, some rounds in. I'll meditate on it. Good thing then that I'm going to Angkor Wat in a week. First, Chiang Rai. I'm off to Burritos, the second time in 3 days. Forgive me but I've had a lot of Thai food these past few months.

Friday, September 16, 2011

in a rush

somehow the night slipped away from me and a lengthy post about my 4 days in Singapore -which were tight- will have to wait until mid October, which is the next time I can update with pictures. For now, I will say that you should go to Singapore if you get the chance, and this is something like what it looks like, and this.
Now, I'm going to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Cambodia Vietnam and Laos, and I've planned no step beyond my flight at 10:00 a.m. today! Here we go.

Friday, September 9, 2011

2 most excellent developments

1) My visa expires tomorrow so I am taking an unplanned trip to Singapore for the next three days-- SWEET. 2) One of my classes asked to learn about rap so I finally, FINALLY got to incorporate the Wu Tang into a lesson, using the first lines of Protect Ya Neck to demonstrate that rap is rhythmic, often aggressive, full of slang, and that the sounds clip and blend to make it easier to say.

I am writing a 3 month report on my time here now and I will post portions of it when I'm finished.

Monday, August 29, 2011

I'm happy right now. This past week was not so good. I got a serious attack of the self-pities! thinking about all the cool things I was foregoing by living in American cities with my friends, then it rained for 6 consecutive days, and then I got sick. But I'm feeling better and the sun is finally out. Three things about getting sick: 1) It's somewhat relaxing because I drastically lower my expectations for being productive, 2) it's hard to tell if you have a fever when you're sweating all the time and 3) pharmacies are pretty much the pinnacle of civilization. FYI when you leave the U.S. you can get some high-quality stuff that would be prescription only in the States for like $4.

Right now I'm really appreciating all those times my co-teachers have skipped class because when I say "I'm sick, I think I will go home today" they're pretty much guaranteed to cover me. Mutual back-scratching makes this system work.

About the weather: did you know that belts, pillows, shoes, cabinets and staircases can mold? Because now I do. Between the sun and some bleach hopefully I can conquer most of it. Too bad about Bolt and Bekele at the world champs. They might change the false start rule now, but each alternative to automatic DQ has serious downsides.

The other day I saw this in my bathroom (about 4" leg to leg) and I was about as viscerally scared as I've been in my adult life. But I calmed down enough to take a photo. My bug tolerance has gradually increased to the point that I don't freak over cockroaches- nor take them as a sign of my uncleanliness, because my house is simply so open that I'd have to rub poison on every piece of wood to prevent entry - but this was too much.

I'm sorry I don't have more to say about Thailand. Not much has happened recently that feels distinctly Thai or really distinct at all. My Thai lessons are on momentary hiatus due to unforeseen circumstances. I hung out with some other foreigners -farang, we're called, but only white people are called that, and get this, France is "Farangsed," something like "place of foreigners" - which was cool, and classes have been going much better, but otherwise it's been pretty dull here. In like 3 weeks the semester ends and I'm spending a month traveling, so yeah! something to look forward to.

Monday, August 15, 2011

leeches, bangkok, dysfunctonal schools, Nietzsche

1. This leech came from my foot:
the picture is Michelle's. I'm in the background in the purple bandana and that's blood on my feet. I am kicking myself now for panicking when I discovered this dude on me and failing to snap the picture, but it was inevitable. Two weekends ago, Michelle, Lan and Keenan (two other PiA fellows in Southern Thailand) and I went hiking in Khao Sak national park. I don't regret jumping in the waterfall to go after a floating water bottle, but leeches are probably the grossest thing I've ever encountered in person, so definitely be careful about freshwater. We all had them from the muddy path.

2. This past weekend, the same foursome + friends Tine and Rafael took an overnight to Bangkok, did touristy stuff and drank. Walking down Khao San road at night, I was reminded how much there's a whole world expressly aimed at satisfying young first world people. It was all foreigners everywhere drinking cheap drinks all night in this one particular street just packed with bars, but it was actually joyous and free and cosmopolitan, not the sleazy mess I continue to expect. Well it was sort of both.

3. I have had not too much to do recently. Due to some allegations of financial shenanigans or something on the part of my school's administration, we got inspected by Dept. of education officials today. The school decided to prepare by basically canceling all class for the past week and having every student scrub the entire school down, from the floors to the seats of a giant stadium. Educationally sub-ideal you say? Man, who cares?

4. I'm rereading The Genealogy of Morals, and I had forgotten just how disturbing and strange the first essay is, and that the second is really on point. I've been thinking about how I would teach Nietzsche (someday I hope to); I think I would organize around a few big questions: how should we read Nietzsche? Was Nietzsche insane? Are his ideas evil? What sort of world does he point the way to? The first is, I think, the most interesting question. Nietzsche is deliberately anti-systematic, so it's not really that useful to go in for deeper consistent meanings. Also I think that perhaps of all the philosophers I've ever read it's really the most ok to cherrypick him. Some of his aphorisms are just ridiculous and others are wonderful, but because it's not a system, it doesn't need to stand or fall as a whole. As to whether it's evil, well, the first essay reminds me a bit of Ollivander's unwitting admiration of Voldermort's power in "Deathly Hallows-" I think Nietzsche doesn't necessarily WANT to admire the blond beast, and he certainly wasn't the aristocratic class in his life time, but there's something in the natural man he can't help but admire. That reminds me, I also reread Harry Potters 1, 2 and 6 this past fortnight, bringing my 2011 rereading of the series to a finish, and Jim Butcher's Ghost Story, which was quite entertaining.

I'm trying to re-explore some of the 20th century classical repertoire I don't know that well, like Janacek, Lutoslawksi, Ligeti and Dutilleux, and if I find anything I absolutely love, I'll post it. Khachaturian's piano concerto is pretty freaking sweet though.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

debris in the river

hi. It's been a while, and my diary is also sparse these past few weeks. Not much to say. But now I have stories to tell.

Two weeks ago Michelle's friend, who teaches English in Korea and also shares his name with a celebrity, visited and we did some touristy stuff around Phang Nga like go to the waterfall and get lost (that was my fault). It was midterms time so I had like no class, and last Wednesday I took a bus to Phuket and met my mom for 4 days of beach and explore time.

Phuket: not my cup of tea. The center of town was kind of a sprawling congested mess and the beach, certainly beautiful, was somewhat monotonous, as were the restaurants and stalls surrounding. But back in Phang Nga (here I'll quote from my diary) my mom's "wide-eyed reaction to the heaven and hell temple drove home just how cool and strange this town is, and how at ease I feel here. Don't miss my pack quite so vividly." She did some tourist stuff while I went to work, and I incorporated her into a lesson about family. She is off with a tour group to the North of Thailand, bon voyage.

Teaching has not been very good this week. One challenge of having 400 students and not being their primary teacher, assigning grades or taking attendance is that less motivated kids can be disrespectful, recognizing my weak position. Turns out the other high school in town has an entrance exam; students who fail come to ours. But another portion of the problem was revealed when I conducted a little experiment, assigning a class of sophomores (here, "matayum 4") something comparatively unstructured: write about yourself for 10 minutes and then we'll share. It was a disaster. Absolutely no one wanted to share with the class, so I divided into small groups and went around to listen. One girl showed me her essay, and it was fine: "I am __ I am from ___ I have two sisters __..." so on. I asked her to read it aloud to me, and she could not. She couldn't read the word "I."

Eventually I stopped torturing her and thought, maybe she is just shy. Another boy, who generally whispers to his friends through my lessons until I get all up in his business and say "YUT" (stop) , came up to me smiling with a passage. I asked him to read it. he did, slowly and struggling, but reading. Around 4 lines in, I realized I had heard it all before. The only thing that he changed was the name and address, but otherwise he had entirely plagiarized, and he could only read about 1/4 of what he had written down.

I was furious. If their vocabularies had been more complex they would have recognized just how unprofessional my feedback was, but I think he properly understood my body language and raised voice (the class went silent). Should I have been so pissed? It's possible that he's embarrassed about his lack of English and simply wanted my approval, and copying someone else's work was the best way, he thought, to get it. Last year, a kindergartner erased someone else's name on a drawing and wrote his own, and showed it around for approval. Too bad for him he didn't erase thoroughly enough and we could still read the other name, and it was sad. But with this 14 year old, putting it all together, I think he was trying to play me for the fool. I will never know. But I reacted as if that were the case.

I don't regret the activity, because I learned a lot, but what I learned was somewhat disappointing. I've been running fairly high level comprehension and speaking lessons, things I thought were fun, and I assumed that when only a few students actively called out, that the rest understood most of it but were just shy. I think I was wrong. I think sizable portions of my class can neither read nor understand English. But they all can write, down to a T. They have been taught to copy English letters. I do not know how I am going to create lesson plans that entertain the gamut. My instinct is to push the best and let the knowledge trickle down, but this is, I think it's fairly safe to say, not cool, and really not my mission here. I would not be the first person to go into an unfamiliar setting with unrealistic expectations and, some months in, find myself drastically reevaluating. But I didn't think it would happen to me. I want to be a good teacher, and unfortunately, it looks like I can't just wing it. I'm going to start reading and reaching out. On my list for tonight is this.

My own learning is going much better. I think for the first time in my life perfect pitch is actually useful. I write notes on the sides of long phrases and just memorize the music. However, pronunciation is still a major challenge. At dinner tonight, I thought "hey. I'm going to try out my new phrases. I am going to say I am a teacher at Stree Phang Nga, and I'm going to say I'm from America!" However everyone just looked at me blankly. I gesticulated my ideas and then it went better. Complete sentences are not quite at my disposal. But if someone really slowly says "today. is. X day. X day of X Month. x year." I can figure it out.

Dinner tonight illustrates something major about my time here. I often find myself floating in the river, not directing myself, with almost no idea of what's happening. It happens at school all the time, when 4 students will show up and the teacher will say: "the rest of the students are getting haircuts. We are having an inspection next week. Ok you are ok I will leave now." This evening, I was running around in my full anomalous glory - no shirt bearded and hairy-chested in my weird vibram toe-hugging shoes - and these older folks, setting up what looked like a party said something to me, from which I caught the words: "layow! geen!" which are, respectively, finish and eat. So I thought: maybe they are inviting me to dinner. That was an interpretation I felt really good about so of course after running I showed up on my little Chinese bicycle and tried out my Thai (it didn't work) and they said "geen? dinner? ok" and pointed to a table. I sat down with a bunch of people wearing polos with the words "fly hawk" in English on the front (I googled it, no luck) who spoke zero English, and ate the meal. It was delicious, Thai style which means a bunch of dishes in common you share and then waiters just fill anything that runs out, so it's like infinite food. I recognized one dish from a funeral I had previously attended, thought it was delicious but didn't dwell on it. But then, dinner's over, and everyone is walking somewhere and sitting down in new chairs, and turns out, sure enough, I was at another funeral. As I was sitting down someone spoke in Thai, I shrugged, he said "home. home" and pointed away from the funeral, and I thought he meant, you can go home now, so I did. I am debris in the river, just waiting for direction and signs. All I have to do is put myself out there and things happen.

The rest of this post is not about Thailand. It's about books.

In the past two weeks I read "Finding George Orwell in Burma" which was ok and made me really want to go to Burma (I am, actually, for maybe 5 days in September), and a book called "Women Who Run with Wolves" by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian, feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, casting each character and setting as an element of the female psyche. Estes repeatedly urges women to reconnect to the "Wild Woman" in them, the free and uncivilized thing in our souls that loves and protects and creates fiercely. Parts of it put me into a trance, because I remember running with a pack, and words like feral weave in and out of my personal writing, and because I take seriously the semi-reality of dreams, solitude and music. I once dreamt that I was sheltering friends from something elemental and dangerous, and my friend Madeleine pointed out that we didn't have enough beds. So I raised my arms and sang the first Soprano part of Steve Reich's Proverb, and others joined me, and beds came into being. In my subconscious, music is magic!

And other parts were like a self-help manual for people in bad relationships and whose rivers have, in Juana Molina's phrasing, dried up, and I don't need it. I have nothing I need to escape. Nonetheless it's very different than anything else I've read and really interesting, so I recommend it. Love Medicine, however, managed to get many of the same ideas across in narrative that made my hair stand on end. Now there's a book I would recommend unequivocally. The two Weinstein classes I took at Swarthmore, one freshman fall the other senior spring, probably impacted my inner life more than any others, mostly just by introducing texts that mean a lot to me.

Last year, I realized I was Rosencrantz in the students' lives. Now I am like a stick in the river here, and it's strange. I am trying to meditate more, but, turns out, it's very difficult to clear my mind.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

It's July, and I'm sitting on my porch once again, and it feels like my corner of the world. This past weekend I went to Bangkok and did some touristy stuff, and although I expected to not like it --because I found Cairo oppressive and I had read that traffic is "apocalyptic" and extrapolated that the whole city was unpleasantly loud and congested -- I actually found it civilized and tourist-friendly. A 5:00 bus from Phang Nga got me to Bangkok at 5:00 a.m., a taxi took me to town, and a room (a double) cost 200 baht, a bit under $7. After a rest, I met up with a PiA fellow in town, and we got lost wandering in Chinatown, then walking around a major park and to her officearea; after dinner I went to Harry Potter, which I found profoundly disappointing because my expectations were too high, but I enjoyed the King's song montage that played before the film, for which everyone stood. The accompanying images extolled renewable energy. The next day, we toured the Jim Thompson house, I got a massage, and then made my way to the hostel and back to Phang Nga.

Bangkok was fun. Only one place I went was notably seedy. Lots of people saw me looking at a map, lost on Saturday, and offered to help me. Maybe that's something that would happen anywhere. But my city norms are oriented around New York. Even in D.C. it'd be more acceptable to offer unsolicited help.

I got in around 5 in the morning this Monday (a 4 day weekend for a Bhuddist holiday), and biked back to my house in the darkness- serene! - and I was relieved to be back in phang nga. It was unexpected to feel at home. But I do.

This week I've begun Thai lessons which I find very entertaining. I'm still learning the numbers and colors, unable to put together complete sentences; the main challenges are remembering the tones (there are five, and the wrong tone completely changes the meaning) and this weird u-like vowel that has no english equivalent. I simply cannot get it right. but it's only been about 3 days. It's possible I'll never get it; some things need to be learned in childhood.

I've been debating whether or not to ride the motorbike that comes with my house, and I'd been rationally weighing the pros and cons. However when I rode it to dinner tonight, I realized that I'd been neglecting the most important thing- that riding a motorcycle is TOTALLY SWEET . So that's settled.

This week, due to midterms, I've only taught 3 classes, and I have time off next week, and then I'm taking vacation time to travel with my mom, but I like teaching and the structure it provides. I'll be happy to get back to regularly scheduled programming.

I'm jamming out to Twin Sister's Bad Street- the most a dance track has grabbed me since I heard Hercules and Love Affair in fall 2009, and Within and Without's Echoes. Last week I read Peter Hessler's excellent River Town, about his two years teaching English with the Peace Corps in Fuling, China which has brought my attention to how fundamentally first world my experience has been. It's because of the internet, I think. I'm in touch with people like all the time, and periodically skyping my parents or Dan, it's not like a whole other world than life in the past 5 years. But mostly, reaching out in superficial ways to talk about movies on facebook or something, feels good at first but leaves me desiring something I can't have. It's good and bad. I probably experienced less culture shock than pre-internet volunteers, and my kids all know Taylor Swift. But my heart is all over the place, and I sometimes wake up longing.

Also, Hessler reminded me of a conversation I had with Liz over crawfish and beer before I left- how great it would be if we were fantastically gifted writers. I'm good, I think, but I wonder if I could be great, and I wonder how I would get there. Listening to Tyler, the Creator all the time recently has me interested in writing some rhymes again. That dude was born in 1991.

I put some photos up on facebook.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

2 ridiculous stories

1. In a speech exercise, I had asked the students to ask each other: "Who is the best band?" And to answer "I think___ is the best band" and then to write down _____ thinks _____ is the best band. Well anyway I was writing some bands on the board, English and Thai, and a couple students said "Big S." So I wrote that, but they said "No no no. Big S! Big S! B. I. G. A. S. S." and I said hold up? big ass? "Yes! Yes!" "What do you think that means?" no idea. So I explained big with my hands, and then said "ass-" and pointed to mine. They were very surprised. Turns out, they're a real band, not named for the related medical condition.

2. I wasn't sure about sharing this one,but here goes. In the same exercise with a different class, I was writing a girl's name on the board, and our conversation went like this:
Me: "What is your name?"
Student: "T. I. T. I."
at which point I'm suppressing a smile: "Yes?"
Student: "P.O."
Me (thinking "no way. no way. she's not going to say it")
Student: R. N.
Me: "Titiporn?"
Student: "Yes, Titipawn."

I honestly couldn't keep a straight face at that one. it's probably the best name ever.

Right now, I'm reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young man, and it's pretty good, although it's going a bit slowly. I read Portnoy's Complaint last week over two afternoons, finding it an extremely fun read, but I'm honestly surprised it's considered such a classic. It was a very straightforward book. I can't imagine doing much interpretation or analysis, or finding new meanings a second read through. It was interesting to see how far obscenity standards had changed, though between 1969, when Complaint was published, and Rabbit, Run in 1960. I thought Rabbit, Run was better. It stayed with me longer emotionally. Rabbit was, I think, a more "unforgettable character" than Portnoy.

I'm really enjoying Jamie of the XX's remixing of Gil-Scott Heron's "I'm New Here." Two tracks I especially like right now are My Cloud and "NY is killing me." There's a lot of music about New York, isn't there.

Phang Nga bay

so we've been traveling a fair bit now. The first weekend Michelle and I walked around town, the next I went with the teachers to a faraway funeral, and the third we went to visit other PiAers in Bangsak, near Khao Lak. The beaches were stunning, and it was a fair degree more rural than Phang Nga. The 2004 Tsunami really hangs over the place; Khao Lak was devestated, but now big developments and hotels are going up. One fellow's house, a spacious bungalow about half a mile from an empty beach, was actually really close to my original fantasy of what my year in Thailand would be like. At night we swam and watched the phosphorescent plankton stick to our skin.

When we first got to the beach, I was in love. but now, back in town, I'm not sure I would trade. Each has its charms. Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera to Khao lak so pictures will have to wait.

I did, however, bring it to this last weekend's trip to Phang Nga bay. We biked about 4 miles to get on a longboat, and soon enough:

From there, we got in a little blowup boat with an entertaining thai man and he took us to caves in the limestone islands:

This village is on stilts.

My house!

this is my porch, bedroom and kitchen, and that's pretty much it. The porch is definitely the sweetest thing about the whole shebang. I spend a lot of time on that hammock. Like on the order of more than a few hours a day. Blogger's tools for editing and resizing photos are surprisingly underpowered. and why is photo resolution so low?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thai funerals

this post has no pictures. In one week, I went to two funerals, one for a teacher's father, like 6 hours away, and one in town for a student's father. It was initially puzzling why I was invited to these, but at the second, someone explained- funerals here are social status markers. You try to invite as many people as possible.

To the teacher's father's funeral, about 30 teachers chartered a bus, and spent the majority of each 6 hour ride listening to extremely loud Thai music and singing karaoke. When we arrived at the temple, we each put a stick of incense in a shrine in front of the deceased's picture and ate. We went to a market for an hour and then boarded the bus for another long ride.

The second had no incense, but the meal was significantly larger- there were well more than 100 people in attendance. At the end, two monks chanted for about 10 minutes. About 30 of us sat quietly, displaying the Wai, while the rest of the party chatted on unconcerned. Immediate family prayed but the din was really something- children playing and dogs barking and people laughing over dinner.

Both of these made me a little uncomfortable.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


16 classes- the smallest is 15 students, the largest is 37, for a rough average of 25. So I teach 400 students. The town is about 10,000, but students come in from the surrounding islands - so I estimate I teach about 2-3% of the area.
Mornings begin with a schoolwide assembly where they sing the king's song, listen to announcements, and raise the flag.

Here they are listening to a schpeal about why drugs are bad:

4 of my classes are Matayum 1, which is the equivalent of 7th grade- they're 12-13. I was doing something complicated the first day, but I completely lost their attention. Now I'm doing the short vowel chants I learned in Crosby's class (A says ah as in apple (CRUNCH) etc.) and trying to combine it with blend consonant sounds like bl or cr. We just started basic questions and answers like "what sport do you like?" It's still a challenge. Good days are delightful but if there is no other adult in the room the kids really act out. Not knowing any of their names or any Thai really limits my options. I need to learn Thai. I'm getting there, slowly.

Matayums 4, 5 and 6, my remaining 12 classes, are much more steadily enjoyable. They are 15 to 17 years old and generally like to learn, which makes all the difference. I started with informal and formal greetings but that was too simple, so we're working on two things - explaining "why" you hold a preference (i.e. "I like football/badminton because I like being on a team/I like to win/I like to exercise") and hearing words in songs. Today I played the first verse of Radiohead's High and Dry, and the first three lines of Black Star's Astronomy, writing the lyrics like this:

Two jumps in a _____ I bet you think that's pretty _____don't you boy"

On the board. We listened like 5 times consecutively and they tried to fill in the blanks.. In my first class, it went all right, and in my second, it was fantastic. I figure they're into it when they spontaneously applaud themselves or me. When they got "mirror" in "You broke another mirror," everyone was delighted, and so was I. Astronomy was a much greater challenge. But when I rapped it at the end, no joke, jaws dropped.

Teaching, teaching- I sometimes wonder why I'm attracted to other options. If I found the right environment, this would be it for life. We shall see. It remains a viable backup.

My lessons look like this: Here I am trying to explain how to refer to men and women who are married and unmarried.

I was going to post a picture of my student but thought better of it.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Sleep cycle shot, unsure of how to order food, all communication accompanied by pantomiming- traveling can be hard. For a few days last week, I doubted myself, and I retreated to my room. On Friday, however, I resolved to move, ran around my neighborhood, and began to feel awe and joy again. In new places, I run by by taking every little side street, and came across a 1 km, pitch black passage in a cave, about 800 m from my house, and noted to come back with a flashlight. Some 15 minutes later I came across a Buddhist monastery with a lengthy, enclosed bridge designed like a dragon, which transports the visitor from "heaven to hell." Heaven is a cave and a spot overlooking Phang Nga, and hell is grotesque statues spearing each other, and I said: boy I gotta tell Michelle about this. So the next day we went on a tour of Southwestern Phang Nga.

She brought a camera. This is a giant Buddha.
It is actually awe-inspiring.

Now we're in Hell.

This dude is being sawed by demons. That's no good.

That day we took long walks and ate cheap food and met a dude from Wales who also teaches English.

Sunday morning, a teacher at my school invited us to a ceremony at a Buddhist temple. Another teacher's son is becoming a monk, so we went early to see his head be ritually shaved by family members. Michelle and I were invited to take a picture with him and his parents. We of course obliged:

We ate a big meal and walked around the temple with family and friends until the newly anointed monk through ceremonial coins at us for good luck. I went home, killed the day, and ran to Phang Nga bay.

Some more general observations:

Teaching English is a joy. Right now I feel like I could do this forever. I have kids who are ages 12-18, although most are 15-17. I much prefer the older ones. Their English reading and writing is good but they are conversationally shy, so I start classes with things like "ask me a question- until you do you must stand." They are very well-behaved and polite. The 12-13 year olds were not so good. I don't think they understood more than 1 out of 5 words I said so naturally their attention wavered, but many were clearly deliberately testing me, singing in class, or playing with a ping pong paddle and ball. So I confiscated a bunch of their things and told one kid to leave, ushering him out with a loud "goodbye!" It wasn't a high moment, but each other class has been great. Teaching is ridiculous- great classes are elevating, and poor ones fill me with self-doubt and fear. It all feels so personal, even if on some level I realize I am not the protagonist; I am like Rosencrantz or smaller.

Living in a warm, humid climate can be rough. Clothes take a long time to get dry and the whole house smells like mildew. Most indoor spaces and books I encounter are mildewed, mostly in a mild way. I spend about 20-35 minutes each day cleaning.

I was living ultra frugally, amazed that I could survive on $3 a day, but why bother? My salary comes out to about $17/day, and my only expenses are food and cleaning supplies. So I bought the Frosted Flakes, name brand, at Big C. Totally worth it.

All my dreams recently have been about the last week or so of City Year. When City Year began, all my dreams were about senior week of college. In one , I was at a big party with CY people, carousing, when I suddenly noticed that one of my students, the littlest one in the class, the one I used to carry in my arms when she was having a tough time, was sitting right next to me. I said to the group "I can't drink anymore- D is here." And D said "it's ok; I'm used to it." I guess I feel guilt about abandoning the students, literally flying away to an easier life. It will pass. I'm surprised how few of my dreams are about school itself. I guess my subconscious exhausted the subject this winter.

Thai people are super friendly. I was running around shirtless on Sunday and almost everyone who zoomed past me on their motorbike honked the horn and said "hello!" or "welcome to Thailand!" Or just waved and smiled. I feel welcomed.

Man, I know it's a stereotype, but I am seriously lucky to be here:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

some things I've learned

I'm using Wi-Fi on the hammock on the porch of my house, watching someone prepare dinner in her outdoor kitchen, curry smells drifting over. A chicken is walking down the street. She moves for motorcycles.

1) I am going to have a lot of free time. I am teaching 16 different classes of 50 minutes each, so roughly 13 hours a week; all told I'll probably work for about twice that. Hopefully I can put 10 hours a week towards Thai language, and then I'll still have ample time to read and write and hang out. I'm so glad my workweek isn't 50 hours anymore. I am not a workaholic. It would have to be like reading-Harry-Potter-level flow to seem worth it right now. Being relaxed is sweet.

2) I am very glad I'm with an established program. My luggage recently arrived, because a co-teacher had a friend at the airport and was able to get them to deliver it to the school. Being with PiA means adults, both here and in the States, can come to bat if anything goes wrong, which something did. I honestly don't even know my address right now- getting the luggage to Phang Nga and then transporting it to my house would have been a nightmare without intermediaries. I'm very grateful to have support.

3) Possibly because it's a Bhuddist country (Michelle's [the other PiA fellow in town!] educated guess), the stray cats and dogs all look very happy and fat.

4) Rural and in the jungle does not mean paradise. Phang Nga basically straddles one long highway, with all stores and stands directly on the road and all houses on side streets. It gets really pretty when you leave the main road; there are densely forested mountains every way you turn. But the "center" of town is kind of like urban sprawl everywhere. There's one big box store (a "Big C"- it's basically Target) 3 7-11s, and a lot of small, usually dark and empty restaurants and stands. I think rent must cost like nothing. It kind of reminds me of Cairo, except without the overstaffing. Beach resort this town is not. Nonetheless, it takes about two minutes to be in something that feels quaint and authentic, and about 5 to get to something that feels untouched.

5) heavy rain in the morning is very soothing. There are no light showers here. It pours.

6) I very much enjoyed this article on the history of modern Beijing's urban landscape. I was going to start reading Ulysses but ended up reading The Wind and the Willows instead. Both are free on kindle!

Monday, June 13, 2011

I'm in Phang Nga

After two days traveling, I am in my house in Phang Nga. It's 9:22 a.m., I've eaten and been cleaning, and soon I will meet a co-teacher for lunch, check out the school, and learn about my schedule and the curriculum. I'll be teaching students ages 12-18, and I wonder how it will compare to Kinder. Unfortunately my luggage is lost. I have the basics, and previous PiA fellows have left some things like dress shirts, so really all I'm missing is slacks. Two co-teachers met me at the airport, took me to dinner, and then to the "Big C" so that I will not starve.

Phang Nga is verdant; my house sits in the shadow of a limestone mountain, of which I will soon take many pictures. I live in what looks at first like a really nice slum- the houses are packed pretty close, and most are patchwork, but everything is well maintained, and the central road, which is outside my front door, is paved. It's quiet. I hear insects, birds, roosters, the occasional motorcyle, children crying, and not much else.

My two story, slatted house is wonderful, more space than I need, and I am not its only occupant. Cockroaches and spiders seem to keep popping out of corners, and I scared a a gecko this morning. He jumped like 5 feet, it was sweet. During breakfast, a cat leapt onto a windowsill and appraised me. Now I had heard that I might have a cat, but so far, he's approaching cautiously. But the electricity works, there's wi-fi, and it's relatively clean. I have a shower and a western toilet. I sleep under a mosquito net.

I was expecting the town to be denser, and I'm a little disappointed that things aren't more pedestrian friendly. The main thoroughfare is hard to walk down and everyone seems to get around on motorbikes. I, fortunately, also have a motorbike. Now I need to learn how to ride it.

I will post more when I know more, hopefully with pictures. Until then,