A Tale of Two Cities

Ok, so the title of this post is a little grandiose. T-bone and I are contemplating leaving the pristine swamps and rural flavuh of Samut Prakan (a municipal district located next to Bangkok) for the bright lights of Bangkok. Sometimes, we like to delude ourselves and pretend that we currently live in Bangkok, but any one of our visitors would tell you that this is a bald-faced lie. Let’s face it: we live in the stix (for a glimpse of our apartment, check out this post). The school year and our apartment lease will be wrapping up in a few months, and it’s time for us to decide where we want to live next year. We could stay put, or we could embrace change/seize the day/follow our destiny/fill-in-the-blank-new-age-crap and move. Let’s look at the pros and cons of both options:

1. Stay in our Samut Prakan apartment

Pros:

– located only one block away from school

– rent is cheaper than in the city

– waking up to the sound of birds and monks chanting behind our house

– spacious (2 beds 2 baths) apartment

– local “flavour”

Cons:

– located only one block away from school (you can never get away)

– our building management cannot for the life of them figure out how to correctly calculate our utility bills

– having students stroll by (some of them live in the building) while you’re by the pool (ie: in your bathing suit) is overrated

– getting into the city/anywhere interesting is a s-l-o-g

DSC01095

An example of local flavour

2. Move into the city (Udom Suk area)

Pros:

– all our friends are doin’ it

– on the BTS (sky train) line = easy access to Bangkok

– decreased likelyhood of being creeped on by students while swimming

– a chance to actually experience Bangkok

– an easier base for visitors to explore from (and easier for us to ship them off on their own adventures)

Cons:

– rent is higher

– we would inevitably live in a smaller apartment (fine for day-to-day, but lame for visitors)

– the commute to school is much longer – not ridiculous, but definitely longer than 5 minutes

– less wildlife/calm surroundings

– apartment management is an unknown – our current management botches our bills, but they do respond to our concerns

We’re fairly certain what our decision will be, but I thought I’d throw it out to blog readers – what would you do if you were in our shoes? Stay put in charming-but-dull-but-cheap Samut Prakan? Or hitch your wagon to a star and move into The Big B?

Tie-Dye Birthday: Partying like we’re 8 years old

The teachers that T-bone and I live with are great. They are just a happy, happy crew of (mostly) Americans. The unrelenting niceness really expresses itself on birthdays – everyone’s birthday gets celebrated (unless the birthday person firmly and decisively opts out). Because there have been so many birthdays in our building, the celebrations get progressively more unique (see, for example, my crocodile birthday). When Kinder-Thai* Teacher Ellen’s birthday rolled around this week, we knew we were in for an interesting time: Kindergarten teachers are unique folks + the person planning the party has a penchant for turning herself into a human paintbrush. And that’s how we ended up with a Thai-dye tie-dye party.

The Kinder-Thai Teacher cannot believe her luck – being born + a tie-dye party is a powerful combo

We all brought white clothing to Kim’s school art studio. Our items for dyeing ranged from basic white t-shirts to mouldy cargo pants; sweat-stained wife-beaters; and worse-for-wear sports bras. Such was our hope in the power of paint. I hadn’t originally planned on dyeing anything (because I had to leave early), but as soon as I saw the vibrant pots of dye, my 8 year old self returned – I just had to get my hands stained. Plus, dye was pretty much the only thing that would revive my favourite North Face t-shirt after spending 8 months in Sweat Central.

We started off by soaking our clothing in water:

Southern Belle Jacqueline demonstrates both good technique and good levels of creepiness

Then, we tied rubber bands around sections of the fabric in either a uniform or completely haphazard manner (depending on the artiste).

Most uniform thing I’ve ever done in my life.

This is a look of COMPLETE concentration. It takes all my abilities to do ANYTHING in a uniform manner

Next, we put on rubber gloves. If I were on my own, I probably wouldn’t have thought of wearing these, but I’m certainly grateful that Kim did.

And fortunately we have a Canadian around to demonstrate proper glove-wearing technique

Next, we ladled dye onto our balled up clothing using creepy hand-shaped scoops.

Nothing like a helping hand when you’re dyeing moist clothing

And wrung the dye out of our lumps/posed for photos.

Katherine’s shirt reads: ‘Sorry I’m Isolated.’ Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to make you literally give me the shirt off your back, because it is amazing.

Someone is telling me that my photo-taking is getting out of hand.

And finally, putting those beauties out to dry.

The mostly-still-white shirt has dye on the armpits only. Someone had a profound artistic vision.

The finished product! Woohoo! I can wear my shirt again.

 

The North Face should take some design tips from me

Kim’s hands agree that the tie-dye party was pretty rad. Word.

Now that I’ve experienced the joy of tie-dye, I’m kicking myself for not bringing more items. Like, all the towels in my house. It would have been awesomely psychedelic.

*She teaches Thai kindergartners

Subbing up a Storm

*Apologies for the lack of visuals. I figured it was probably better not to post photos of students on the internet*

Substitute teaching is a strange and wonderful thing. If my career goal was to be a teacher, I’m not sure that I would find it very satisfying, but considering that I have no such ambitions, it is the bomb.com. I get to hang out with kids all day without the pressure of meeting curriculum standards, worrying about “best practices” and pedagogy, or dealing with major discipline issues. It’s kinda like being a grandparent – hang out with your grandchildren, then pass them back to their parents when they need their diapers changed. I thought I’d share a few anecdotes from my first two weeks on the job.

I usually take attendance somewhat informally – I either ask the kids if anyone is missing, or pass around a piece of paper and get them to sign their names. This is helpful for two reasons. The first is that many teachers don’t have an attendance list on their desk. The second is that I don’t think I could call out all the names without cracking up. Almost all the kids in the school are either Thai or Chinese (or both), and they have long and/or tonal names. Instead of using these at school, they choose English nicknames. To say that there are some real gems would be an understatement. If I were ever to do a proper roll call, it would go something like this (to protect privacy, I didn’t use the actual names, but trust me, these are the equivalent): “Earth, Wind, Fire, Soymilk, T-Rex, Consistency, Fluid, Lamborghini, Z, Ping-Ping, Pong-Pong, Dorcas, Better, Potato.” Truly, rare jewels.

Spirit Week enveloped the school last week – as the name suggests, it’s a time to pump up school spirit. I never encountered this custom in Canada, but apparently it is common in the US. However, I think the Thai version of Spirit Week was just as foreign to the American teachers as it was to me. I arrived a bit early for subbing on Monday morning, and was greeted by a spectacle I won’t soon forget. All the high school students were in the field, arranged into 5 or 6 different, bizarre montages. The theme was Disney, and every group was acting out a different movie. This involved choreographed dancing, papier mache props, exploding confetti, face paint, costumes, and singing. A group of teachers including T-bone were walking around the field judging the whole event. It took my high school Phys. Ed. class almost 30 minutes to change out of their costumes and makeup. Events like this are considered cool and/or normal. And took place EVERY SINGLE DAY. The week culminated with a swim competition on Friday afternoon. Each grade was represented by 6 students and 2 teachers, and I somehow got roped into competing. Every competitor had to swim a length of the pool wearing a full uniform, and then pass the uniform off to their teammate. My team of freshmen made the rookie mistake of using a non-regulation pair of pants with no elastic waistband, and spent the entire competition trying to stop the pants from floating away. We didn’t win.

I haven’t had to mete out much discipline so far, but it is funny to see the different issues that each grade confronts me with. The biggest problem so far in the high school is their obsession with electronics. No, small children, you cannot use youtube instead of your textbook to answer your assignment questions. The middle school students are a funny mix of energy and hormones. It’s mainly the boys that struggle with both. I had to take a grade 7 class to get their school photos taken, and the reaction from each gender was classic. The girls were horrified when they found out it was photo day, and frantically tried to fix their hair. They then lined up quietly, and posed for overly-precious group shots with their best friends and teddy bears. The boys had a hard time sitting still, and alternated between running to the washroom, popping in and out of the photographers room, teasing their “girlfriends” and generally making a nuisance of themselves. I’m glad I was never a 12-year-old boy. The lower school, though, has some of the funniest discipline opportunities.  My grade 2 class yesterday was deeply distressed: “Ms. Ruth! Ms. Ruth! Giovanni spoke in THAI!” “What did he say?” “He said PEE-PEE!!! He has to move his clip DOWN on the behaviour chart!!” A crisis of epic proportions. Cue attempt to look stern.

It’s a living.

Class is in Session

You guessed it. I am officially a substitute teacher. It happened one hazy, sultry, Bangkokian morning late last week: Kevdeep, CTP Beth, and I were hauled down to the local education bureau and issued work permits. It took less than 30 minutes, and after months of frustration, $$$, lack of communication, and despair, it felt almost anti-climactic. “I’m a substitute teacher,” I muttered to myself, in a daze. When you have to convince yourself that you have actually reached the lofty heights of substitute teacher-dom, you know something’s askew in your career-planning process, but that’s a post for another day. In the meantime, Ms. Ruth is ready to influence young minds.*

“Sawasdee-khaaaaaa. Welcome to class, children.”

I had my first subbing experience on Wednesday when I “taught” a high school science class. After all these months of waiting, I realized that I actually had no clue how to substitute teach, so I went straight to the source: T-bone. This man knows all the tricks, and he helped me out. Our conversation went something like this:

“Gahhh!! Todd!! How do I sub??!”

“Say hi to the students.”

“Then what?!?”

“Take attendance.”

“Then what?!?”

“Give them the test that the teacher left for them.”

“How do I turn on the projector?”

At this point, it was starting to dawn on Todd that his wife lacks even the most basic life skills. He took pity on me, though, and gave me further brilliant tips, such as “write your name on the board.” All his coaching paid off, because the class was a breeze.

“This is my name, children.”

The students asked me numerous difficult questions, such as “can I listen to my iPod while I take notes? Can I use youtube videos instead of my textbook?”, but I sailed through with aplomb using the following tactic: when in doubt about whether certain dubious privileges are allowed in a class, always try to make eye contact with the teacher’s pets in the front row when you ask “does your teacher normally allow that?” Speaking as a reformed teacher’s pet, I know that the overpowering desire for adult approval far outweighs the consequences of sucking up in front of your peers.

“Look at me, adult! I can even read in Thai! Let me show you!”

Lucky for me, my first week of subbing coincided with a school holiday/teacher’s Thanksgiving dinner. As a staff member, I felt that it was my duty to support my American colleagues by eating grotesque quantities of curry-flavoured mashed potatoes.

Lining up at the trough…

Curry/chickpea flavoured mashed potatoes, raspberry jam instead of cranberry sauce, coke, neon-coloured pumpkin pie (I shared that plate with Todd, FYI). It’s the Thai-American way.

T-bone and I sat with our friends from Taiwan and Korea. They had never tasted turkey before, and had lots of questions about Thanksgiving foods, namely “is this food actually the same as what you eat in North America.” It’s a good thing I’m a teacher, because I had to walk the tightrope between tact and fact in explaining that the Thai take on Thanksgiving was…. “same same but different.”

Todd explains to Katherine – “this ain’t the way mamma makes it.”

And there you have it. Enriching young minds and eating free/”unique” foods. My horizons are just opening right up over here. I’m a substitute teacher, y’all.

Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of your class.

*in Thailand, people use Mr. or Ms. plus their first name, not their last name.

Trailing Spouses Do Cambodia Part 1.

I have been called many things in my life, including Wench, Granola Girl, Redneck, and Condom Hander-Outer, but Todd’s school still managed to surprise me with their name for people in my position: Trailing Spouse. I come from a land of oil production, and so this automatically makes me think of Tailing Ponds. In the school’s eyes, however, the term simply means that I followed my spouse to Thailand. It also means that I get to jump through some fun hoops before I can work at the school. The biggest of these hoops was a visa run that I embarked on this past week with the other members of the Trailing Spouses club.

CTP Beth and Kevdeep, plus the random Tailing Pond in the middle

The whole operation got off to a bad start – we were originally planning to simply catch a bus to the Cambodian border. After an extensive series of miscommunication that I will not describe here because it makes me weep even to recall it, it became clear that we needed to actually go to Phnom Penh, the capital. We were told by someone* at the school that getting a visa in Phnom Penh would be a painless, 2 day process. Submit your documents on the morning of the first day, pick up your visa on the afternoon of the second day. We booked our flights accordingly. The fun times started off at Bangkok’s newly reopened secondary airport.

Because nothing says “reopening” like Power Ranger cheerleading teams

The flight itself was straightforward, as was the process of obtaining our Cambodian tourist visas. When we were met at the Phnom Penh airport by the happiest Tuk-Tuk driver in Asia, we started to wonder if the whole trip was too smooth to be true.

Yim was BEYOND happy to hang out with our sad crew of Trailing Spouses

He proceeded, between grins and guffaws, to drive us to the cutest, most feel-good guest house in Phnom Penh. You Khin House is beautifully decorated and is filled with the paintings of the owner’s deceased husband. All the proceeds from the guest house are used to support the NGO Montessori school for children located next door.

I almost died from cuteness

The whole thing seemed like a beautiful dream. It wasn’t until the next morning at the Thai embassy that we woke up. Rather than the 2-day processing time we had been promised, the clerk informed me that it would take a minimum of 4 days. This meant that we would miss our flights home, and that Kevdeep would potentially miss his flight to Vietnam on the following weekend. So we made a decision that I can’t say I’m proud of, but that I would probably make again. We gave our money and our passports to the Corrupt Clown sitting outside the embassy who promised us a quicker turnaround.

So happy to help us!

And then we waited. While you could do worse than getting stuck in Phnom Penh for a few days, it wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. We had no idea when our visas would actually be ready, so we didn’t want to plan anything big, in case we had to rush to the airport to catch our flight. Fortunately, Yim, our uber-happy Tuk-Tuk driver became our new favourite friend, and showed us the city.

We dig Yim.

He also took us out to eat at legitimate Cambodian places. I can’t say that my gut was 100% happy about this, but it warmed the cockles of my heart.

Ahh. Just looking at this picture rewarms the cockles.

Something on this table hated me, but I’m not sure what it was.

In the midst of this, we had many, many conversations with our Corrupt Clown at the embassy. “You can have it to us when? That’s too late! Can you make it any earlier? What!? You’re going to charge us MORE?!” We were all in a state of perma-meltdown.

In the meantime, we decided to visit the Killing Fields. It was a deeply moving, deeply depressing trip. I’ll go into it in more detail in a Ruminations post, but to sum it up, it simultaneously put our petty visa problems into perspective, and gave us a heavy dose of depression to go along with our stress.

The memorial tower at the Killing Fields site (Cheong Eok). The tower is full of skulls and bones.

As we sat at our guesthouse, trying to process our trip to the Killings Fields, our Corrupt Clown phoned: our visas were ready, and he would personally deliver them to us. He arrived exactly 30 minutes too late for us to catch our flight, and seemed surprised when our thanks was less than effusive as we handed him his outrageous payment.

The next day, we weren’t in the mood for taking chances, so we arrived at the airport 4 hours early for our new flight.

Stress and a DQ sugar bomb somehow led me to cradle my bag like a small child.

We finally arrived in Bangkok, much poorer, and hopefully wiser when it comes to dealing with Asian bureaucracy. One more step completed in our journey from Tailing Pond to Teacher.

* In the timeless words of Beyonce, “I’m not gonna diss you on the internet. Cuz my mama taught me bettah than that.”