Saturday, June 28, 2014

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

Every few days the world turns, the poles shift, and I realize with a jolt that the certainties that formed the basis for my opinions were as worthless as straw.  Unfortunately, unlike the good doctor at the end of his life, nothing new has been revealed to me. The quest for wisdom has been a bust!

"The Wizard of Oz" was released a month after I was born and I've seen it many times; "Over the Rainbow" is in the soundtrack of my life.  I bought a copy of the film here with Thai subtitles for my wife's cousin Edward but he showed little interest in watching it during his last visit to Bangkok. It was the series of Spiderman movies that captured his attention.  The original Wizard book was written by a relative of a junior high school friend who has managed to turn Oz into an industry.  The ultimate message of the film -- "There's no place like home" -- is of not much use to someone whose home is a moveable feast.

This is the rainy season in Bangkok.  I can see the black clouds move across the sky from my 9th floor apartment.  Most days the sky darkens, thunder cracks, and a brief monsoon downpour sends pedestrians and sidewalk vendors scurrying for shelter. Most tourists avoid the rains by visiting Thailand in the dry season from November through March, unless there is political unrest which tends to scare them away.  I've learned to love this time of year.  Storms for some strange reason soothe my soul.  I am mad for thunder, lightning and the frenzy of rain drops.

Kansas is far away.  I crossed through it once on miles of interstate threading between corn fields probably filled with genetically modified crops.  Now the state is probably dotted by wells for hydraulic fracking.  Only a native like Dorothy could love that place.  Most of America seems just as strange to me now.  The sorry stories about surveillance, gun nuts and serial shooters, Tea Party craziness and another war in Iraq parade across my laptop screen and my eyesight grows dim.  I did not vote for Obama and I no longer care if he's beholden to the banks or a beacon of hope for the downtrodden masses still yearning to be free.  The news from the land of my birth is not good.  I blame the chemicals.

Now I'm living under a military dictatorship.  The civil war many feared after yet another coup d'etat in this once almost democratic country did not materialize.  After a month in power, General Prayut and his subordinates are now firmly in control.  There is little outward evidence that the new government is unelected, other than an occasional armed soldier or two, like the pair I saw yesterday on Phra Arthit near Khao San Road protecting the media offices of Sondhi Limthongkul, the yellow shirt editor. The malls are full of shoppers, the BTS and MRT trains are packed with commuters and the roads jammed as usual.  Stories in the news tell of those "invited" to "reconciliation" centers with the authorities to discuss their "attitude."  They invariably leave smiling, declaring their happiness and promising to refrain from political activity in the future.  Arrest warrants are issued for those refusing the invitation and not a few dissidents have gone into exile where they're trying to organize.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I'd expected something entirely different.  I've seen the movies and read the books about resistance and revolution.  In the first heated days after the coup, protesters, many of them students, employed symbolic signs of non-cooperation: banners in English, the three-fingered salute from "Hunger Games," passively reading Orwell's "1984" in public, and the final disruptive act, eating sandwiches while thinking about protest.  All of these acts were subject to arrest. After a week or so, even these protests disappeared.  Of course I have no idea what people out in the provinces are thinking and planning, but consulting the green tea leaves in Bangkok leads me to the conclusion that the overthrow of the last government has been largely accepted by the citizens as a good thing.  It will probably last a long time.

Since it's against the law to criticize the coup, my words are necessarily temperate.  But I must say that the widespread acceptance of military rule is depressing.  Criticism from outside the borders of Thailand has universal condemned the end of democracy (until the next election, now promised in October next year).  The response by some Thais has been to threaten a boycott of American and EU products and turn to China for support.  It's assumed that only a Thai can understand Thai history and politics.  This calls into whole question the social construction of "Thainess" and even the name of the country which was changed from Siam in the 1930s to appeal to western interests.

But I digress.  Thailand is not Kansas and I'm not Judy Garland.  Most of my students are from elsewhere: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos.  I put together a handout on the coup for our first class this term and many of them found it mystifying.  Not that the governments where they come from are more democratic and less militaristic.  There are no Switzerlands in Asia!

This term I'm teaching two days a week.  In addition to my advanced listening and speaking class for senior English majors, I'm now giving a course in how to teach English to first-year students in a weekend English MA course.  As a self-taught teacher who invented his lessons from scratch, I approach this challenge with some humility.  How much do I know about the subject after only seven years of experience here?  I'm still uncertain how much I help my students to improve their facility with the language I absorbed easily from birth.  Only a few of them have progressed to thinking in English which allows them to appear fluent; most are struck dumb when asked to speak a meaningful sentence or two.

When I began teaching English, I borrowed themes and material from the Headway series of textbooks published by Oxford, including the one I'm currently using, American Headway.  For the MA course, I visited the wonderful DK Books and its many shelves stocked with English instruction books, and chose Penny Ur's A Course in English Language Teaching.  Published two years ago by Cambridge, it provides a guide which I hope to adapt for my class of 45 students from mostly other Southeast Asian countries.  In the first three weeks of the term, however, our classes have been cancelled twice for ceremonial events (Thai schools seem to favor ritual over education).  At our only meeting I learned that the students had been split into two groups and my three-hour lecture had been cut into two hour-and-a-half sections.  Less work for me, but also less teaching for the students.

In the teaching textbook, Ur, a British OBE who taught ESL class in Israel, makes some points I first heard when I prepared a lecture several years ago on the 10-country ASEAN group which is using English as it's working language.  English today is no longer a foreign language.  It's an international language and for the majority of those using it, English is a second language, "globish" according to one article I reprinted for my students. The primary method of instruction these days is based on the "communicative approach," in which understanding is more important than grammatical correctness.  Grammar now takes a back seat to vocabulary.  What this means is that the native speaker is no longer king of the hill. A non-native teacher of English is a better model for students because they've gone through the process of learning English.  If nothing else, however, native speakers like me are seen as models for pronunciation.  But our days may be numbered.

Despite the military dictatorship, despite the uncertainty I feel over ever being able to teach my students anything worthwhile, I continue to see Thailand as "over the rainbow."  Strange that I never dreamed it.  And it's not bluebirds but the dove that comes to sit on my windowsill that makes me feel at home. California was my Kansas but I doubt that I would have been as happy rounding out my days there sipping cappuccino near the sound of the Pacific surf.  Familiarity was never my thing. Thailand is exotic and strange and not a day goes by without a puzzle I cannot solve.  Some expats deal with these mysteries by complaining about them.  But from my first day here I found the uncertainty exhilarating.  The novelty of living here has pretty much gone but the delight I take in the sounds and smell and blooming buzzing confusion of Bangkok street life has not faded.  Thank the goddess I'm not in Kansas anymore!

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