Thursday, August 14, 2008

School Day

Today I teach English to the monks at Wat Srisudaram in Bangkoknoi, a suburb across the Chao Phraya River from the city center. The first of my two classes begins at 1, and I usually finish by 6:30. Today, however, Asst. Prof. Kovid, who shares my fourth year students, all undergrads majoring in English, is attending a seminar and has asked me to take both our classes. So I'll have to squeeze 56 orange-robed students into one small classroom. Since it means I run through the lesson plan only once and then get off early, I don't mind.

As is usually the case, my students are sending me their homework by email at the last minute. This week they are writing about their best friend. Some of their stories are delightful, but not a few have simply copied the example I gave them from the New Headways text, substituting only a few details. Originality is rare in the Thai educational system where students are trained to memorize and recite by rote. But despite the faulty punctuation and grammatical mistakes, I grade them for effort. A few steps out of the box always gets an A.

Last week we spoke about beginnings, in relationships as well as technology (inventions was a theme). Since they're monks and denied relationships with the opposite sex, I asked them to speak about their parents, how they met and when they were married ("years ago" was another lesson). One monk from Cambodia told the class that under the Khmer Rouge, couples were simply ordered to marry and reproduce, and this was how his parents came together. This same monk had written about how his classmates lost limbs in land mine explosions. Other monks proudly talked about the "love story" between their fathers and mothers. Many parents, too many for students this young, are deceased.

I'm incredibly lucky to have found this job. My monks tell me again and again how they want to return to their villages to help their people learn English. All have made sacrifices to leave family and friends to study in Bangkok, some crossing the border where they have to learn Thai as well as English. They tell me how happy they are to learn from a native speaker. And though they are serious about their education, they love to laugh. We have a lot of fun. What a contrast with my core students at UC Santa Cruz. Most of them were in school to party rather than study, and their goals were almost exclusively to graduate and make money; being of service to others was not on the agenda. Today the theme is food and I expect to learn how to make a variety of Southeast Asian dishes. Their writing assignment will be draft a message to reserve a hotel room by email. I doubt that any of them have ever stayed in a hotel.

Monday I moved one step closer towards long-term residency here, when my application for a work permit was accepted by the Office of Foreign Workers Administration in the Ministry of Labor. Dr. Subodh, the psychology teacher from India, had gone ahead of me and his advice on accumulating documents was invaluable. Pandit Bhikku accompanied me as translator and I'm sure his orange robe had an influence. There was little waiting, my papers were checked and approved and I paid a 100 baht fee. Next Monday I return and if all is well I will receive a three-month work permit and pay an additional fee of 750 baht. This will allow me to extend both my visa (before the current one expires September 11th) and my work permit for a year, renewable annually (more fees involved for this; residency ain't cheap).

The big news in Thailand is that Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire communications mogul, who has polarized politics here for ten years, has gone into exile in England. Both he and his wife faced a laundry list of corruption charges and she had been sentenced to three years in prison the week before. So they left Thailand for Beijing to watch the opening of the Olympics and then flew to London on Sunday night rather than back to Bangkok. The press has been full of screaming headlines ever since. Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 but was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. He returned to Thailand when politicians loyal to him were elected last December. But his suspected behind-the-scenes influence has divided Thailand into increasingly vocal and potentially violent pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. Pundits are furiously debating the effect of Thaksin's disappearance from the political scene here. No one really knows what comes next.

The Olympics has also been big news in Thailand, particular the gold medal win in weight lifting by Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak. Her mother fainted at the news and friends could be seen on TV trying to fan her awake. Other Thai athletes have not faired so well, though a boxer is still in contention. The different government-owned TV stations trade off coverage of events. Since commentary is in Thai, I have to scan the official Olympics web site to find out what I am looking at. The other afternoon I watched an exciting badminton match between Korean and Japan. Who knew such a sport could be spectator friendly? And the synchronized diving is quite beautiful. I also saw the U.S. gymnastics team lose to China. The Chinese are really psyched for these games, and I will probably root for them. After all, I'm an Asian now.

Monday was Mother's Day in Thailand. This is because it was Queen Sirikit's birthday. She gave a long speech on Sunday evening that was covered by all the TV stations (bumping Olympics coverage). According to the translation published the next day, she urged Thais to take care of their environment, water in particular (the klongs in my neighborhood are horribly polluted, resembling the dirty canals I've seen in India). I tried to find a photograph of the Queen from that evening but none were published, perhaps because she looks every bit her 76 years. There are large shrines everywhere to celebrate her birthday, including one in the lobby of my building. Most have paintings or photographs of her when she was much younger. I've seen numerous videos of the Queen's visits around the country over the years. In many she holds the arm of a general while a lady-in-waiting follows with a fan to keep her cool. She has a remarkable collection of turbans. Her Majesty is exceedingly respected in his country.

Last weekend Pandit hosted a gathering at Wat Mahathat. It was the monthly Saturday meeting for the English community, a long-running event, but only a couple of English speakers showed up. The topic was ostensibly Buddhist cosmology, but the co-speaker was Rory Mackenzie from Scotland, and his specialty is new Buddhist movements in Thailand. That's the title of his Ph.d. dissertation which was published last year by Routledge. After the meeting, Dr. Holly and I went to dinner with Rory. We learned that he came to Thailand twenty years ago as a missionary, and, after helping to start several churches, he now teaches Buddhism and theology at International Christian College in Glasgow and comes to Thailand once a year to give an 8-week course on Mahayana Buddhism at Mahachula. His book examines the Dhammakaya and Santi Asoke movements, both highly successful fringe groups here. The later is primarily composed of lay people and was excommunicated by the official Thai Sangha for its critical views of establishment religion. Naturally, that's the one I'm interested in. More on them later, after I finish Rory's book.

For those of you following my drama with Pim, we came close to breaking up again earlier this week. She works six days a week, and after she had spent last Saturday night and all day Sunday away with friends, I realized that all of her days off for the last month had been in the company of others, mostly those relatives and friends who have no idea that I exist. I was feeling neglected and rejected and let her know it. We spent a tense hour together, with her refusing to speak and me attempting ad infinitum to clarify my feelings. I'm not sure how much she understood, particularly my theory than when she is with people who know nothing about me she has no boyfriend and I have no girlfriend. I have used this to justify my conversations online with other women. At the end of our standoff, she sat next to me with her head on my shoulder and said "I'm sorry." It didn't take much of that to break through my shell.

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