Thursday, March 20, 2014

Peeking is Prohibited

No more pencils, no more books
No more teacher's dirty looks
"School's Out for Summer," Alice Cooper

School's out for what counts as "summer" in Thailand, mid-March through the end of May.  Most of the tourists have gone home and hot weather is upon us with the rains not far behind.  I finished teaching "Listening and Speaking English" (always embarrassed by its missing "to") for 3rd year students at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya Buddhist University with a music video of Alice Cooper's classic end of term anthem.  Earlier this week I tortured them with a final exam.

For six years I've been teaching mostly monks who are majoring in English in the Faculty of Humanities at MCU.  The main campus is now in Wangnoi, an area on the outskirts of Ayutthaya where factories are taking over the rice fields.  My school provides several pink air-conditioned commute buses for teachers and staff that takes 1-1 1/2 hours each way, while students not living in the on-campus dormitory travel in a fleet of red leased buses from Bangkok where they stay at Buddhist temples around the city. Occasionally I have a layman or woman in my class and this term one of my best students is a bhikkhuni (nun) from Vietnam, but most of my students are men in their 20s from all over Southeast Asia.   This term they've come from Vietnam, Yunnan province in southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, and Bangladesh as well as Thailand. All are from poor backgrounds and my university may be their only opportunity for an advanced education.

Since I'm relatively inexperienced at the job, the key to my teaching method is humor, hence the "rules" shown above for my final exam. Despite the fact that they are Buddhist monks bound by a monastic rule that forbids lying and stealing, among other bad deeds, I know that they've been educated in an authoritarian system of mostly rote learning, and they'll cheat and copy if they can. So I taught them the English word "peeking" and I demonstrate it graphically, peering at the exam paper of a student next to me, which always brings laughter.  I also demonstrate teacher's "dirty looks" when I pretend to see peeking taking place across the room.  In addition, I make them put away their precious electronic devices (all of the monk students have computers and mobile phones) and any books or papers they brought along. Finally, since it's difficult for young men in a group to ever stay quiet, I emphasize my no-talking rule by including shouting and whispering (I should have added "murmuring" which is what I usually hear from my desk at the front of the room.  The other "rules" attempt to convince them that I'm not "too serious" (not a positive in this culture).

Thinking my Social Security income would be sufficient, when I moved permanently to Thailand in 2007 I never considered the possibility of teaching English, the most common occupation for expats. Although I had a Ph.D in history, I'd only taught classes for a couple of years before growing bored with my students, and I'd never taught anything remotely resembling a language. But a British monk who got his BA at MCU, and who thought I should do something more worthwhile with my spare time, encouraged me to visit his satellite campus in Bangkok and I was invited to address its English Club.  The only other native-speaking English teacher had left and I was asked to take his place teaching two classes of the same basic subject for English majors, one day a week. 

The offer came with the promise of a work permit which would remove the necessity of frequent visa runs needed for a longterm residency.   That was an ideal incentive. My friend thought all I needed to do was sit down and chat in English with the students, but I required more structure.  The truth is, I was scared witless by the prospect of attempting to teach English!  I had no idea how I learned it, and I doubted that the diagramming of sentences, so important in my elementary school, was still a common practice. So I found and read Barry Sesnan's How to Teach English and bought the Headway elementary textbook published by Oxford University Press in order to plagiarize its themes and make use of its grammar lessons.  Setting up my first few classes was relatively easy, but getting the work permit was an arduous process that took almost six months.  The Thai bureaucracy loves documents and signatures and stamps and they all have to be done without error. I trekked to the Immigration Office and Ministry of Labour many times before finally winning approval.  

Inner courtyard of classroom building
Before the department was moved to the Ayutthaya campus, my first classroom was rather primitive with only fans, ancient desks and chairs, and a blackboard that had seen better days.  In my first year, I moved from Sukhumvit to a condo in Pinklao not far from the classes at Wat Srisudaram.  Many of the students were eager and passionate about learning English.  I gave them topics for oral presentations that required them to talk in English about their lives, their families and home communities, and their path to the monkhood.  All of my students without exception have come from small villages. Those from outside Thailand had to learn Thai in order to study at MCU (more recently, there are BA and MA English programs in the International School taught in English).   My classes of course were exclusively in English, but I know that some of the other English teachers did a lot of their instruction in Thai. Classrooms were supplied with a microphone and a portable speaker, and from day 1 I discovered a irrepressible desire to be a standup comedian who also happened to teach English.  My students responded enthusiastically and I was off and running.

Linguistic students at Wat Srisudaram
English grammar by itself is mind numbing, so I tried to sugar coat it by reading stories from Bangkok's English newspapers, giving them song exercises where they filled in the blanks on lyric sheets (at first just audio but later watching music videos), pronunciation practice with elocution limericks, reading articles with each student taking a sentence, and a variety of lesson tricks found on the internet.  They wrote short essays every week along with five sentences using new English words they wished to add to their vocabulary.  I got most of them to send me their homework by email attachment and I encouraged them to find email pen pals with whom to practice their English.  Some laughed at the "old" music I played for them and suggested new songs and artist to me for exercises. Teaching was exhausting work since I rarely sat down, but from the beginning I loved it more than any other job I'd had in the past, and wondered why it had taken me so long to find my vocation.

As I gradually honed my skills (and continued to wonder whether my students were learning anything from me), I accepted other offers to teach.  I've held conversation classes for students in several different weekend MA programs at various MCU campuses, and I twice started classes for students and for staff in the school's Language Institute that unfortunately never found a large enough audience to continue.  When the Faculty of Humanities started an MA program in linguistics I was asked to teach for several terms, using PowerPoint and videos to lecture on mass communications and in an English class where I used The Little Prince for a textbook to illustrate linguistic concepts.  Being old and lazy, I've rarely taught more than two days a week, and as a temporary lecturer I get paid with envelopes of cash (sometimes many months' late).  

There's something wonderful about the episodic nature of teaching, even when the material is the same.  I usually teach the same students for two terms, an intermediate course followed by an advanced one.  Getting to know the students and especially the names of each (which are often difficult for me to pronounce correctly) is a challenging yet rewarding process.  But I'm always sad when the term ends.  It should normally last 16 weeks, but because of various cancellations I only got 12 weeks before giving the final exam.  And each week's class lasts 2 to 2 1/2 hours, not nearly enough I think to cement their learning.  My students, however, are enormously grateful and constantly tell me how wonderful I am (a bit of apple polishing, perhaps?).  At the end of the final class, as the sounds of Alice Cooper faded away, my students brought another teacher to the room and we all lined up for the obligatory class photo.  There is nothing forced about my big smile.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Tourist, Traveler, Expat

"We shall not cease from exploration 
And the end of all our exploring 
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time.” 
T.S. Eliot Four Quartets

Tom Eliot started out in St. Louis, Missouri, but left for Paris in his twenties to study philosophy and write poetry, and he never looked back.  Settling in England, he converted to Anglicanism and took out citizenship, and became thoroughly British in everything but birth.

What is the difference between a tourist, a traveler and an expat?  At one time or another, I've been all three.  It doesn't seem quite accurate to call Eliot an expat, for he was a convert, trading one country for another. Although I've lived in Thailand now for almost seven years, I remain caught between two worlds, with one foot in the country of my birth, America, and another in this place I now call home.

Home, of course, is where the heart is, and that muscular organ in the chest that pumps our life's blood is always with us until the end.  Where we feel "at home" is another issue.  Some of us are never comfortable in our own skin and seek out comfort and peace ever elsewhere from our demons, through distraction, digression and even pilgrimage.  This "home" is a chimera, a carrot to drive the donkey cart of our self ever forward.  We think we can leave our troubles behind by going to a new place. Unfortunately, they're intimately connected to who we are and tag along.  There's no escape from the self, for that pesky traveler always finds a place to hide in our luggage.

Recently I was accused of pretending to be "an old Thai hand." Funny expression, that.  An "old hand" is someone skilled at something through long experience.  Back in 2008 when I was a newbie in Bangkok, a long-time resident in Southeast Asia jokingly nominated me "rookie expat of the year."  I accepted it with pride, but dreaded the day when I might lose my naiveté. Traveling around the world and living outside the U.S. for extended periods has been a joy because I find myself continually surprised by the unexpected.  I do not think surprise can be heightened through skilful means.  It must sneak up on you when you least expect it, and when you may in fact be looking for something else, like "home."

There's a definite pecking order between tourists, travellers and expats.  The traveler feels superior to the tourist and the expat looks down on both.  Tourists often travel in groups and follow an itinerary.  Their experiences are either of the "gee whiz, look at that!" variety or are followed by complaints about the food and the natives.  They collect destinations like playing cards (Grand Canyon! Angkor Wat! Disneyland!) Tourists take photos and buy souvenirs to share with friends back home.  They rarely visit the same scenic site twice.  Travellers seek out the unknown and unspoiled, take pride in spontaneity and the collection of visa stamps in their passport.  They make repeat visits and condemn change ("too crowded and noisy now that everyone's discovered it").  Some travellers become preoccupied with authenticity and hold out for surviving pockets of the "real" Africa, or Thailand, or Costa Brava, before it gets ruined by developers and bus loads of tourists.

Pico Iyer has written that "perhaps the real distinction lies between those who leave their assumptions at home, and those who don't: Among those who don't, a tourist is just someone who complains, 'Nothing here is the way it is at home,' while a traveler is one who grumbles, 'Everything here is the same as it is in Cairo -- or Cuzco or Kathmandu.' It's all very much the same." Tourists are looking for the familiar in the strange (and finding it lacking), while travellers are finding the strange to be all too familiar (and overly developed).

And what of the expats?  I suspect that most of them live outside of the country of their birth for economic reasons.  The majority have jobs that take them to far flung outposts of capitalism. They work for international corporations, NGOs, agencies of their governments.  Others, like myself to some extent, seek out places they can survive with a diminished (or non-existent) income where the cost of living is lower than back "home."  Attracted by prices more than people, these expats usually retain their habits of origin and often complain about everything in their adopted land (here in Thailand, they bitch and moan on  Some are fleeing past misdeeds for a blank slate future.  Perhaps a few expats are what used to be called "remittance men," exiled by their wealthy families for their dissolute ways.  Southeast Asia attracts expats who came here initially to kill small yellow people in wars of conquest but who fell in love with the place instead and found their home countries had paled by comparison.

Thailand was never on my radar growing up, India even less. But after my marriage ended and my family splintered apart, I took to the open road to fulfil a childhood dream for a life of adventure. I'd also been diagnosed with prostate cancer and was determined to live fully until I died. With enough money after my mother's death and the marriage settlement to pick and choose, I set off to see the world. Of course the model I was following was a mish-mash of movie plots, travelogues, and history books.  Reality always plays hell with the imagination.

I already had some experience as an expat.  Dropping out of college, I stayed with my uncle at his house in Cuernavaca, Mexico, for a couple of months which included a journey around the south of the country. In the 1960s, my first wife and I lived in London for two years where I wrote for a TV program journal and my first son was born.  We were too poor to travel much but did visit the continent a couple of times. During a long second marriage, my wife and I confined our trips within the border, traveling from California to New England, Florida and Hawaii.  When we separated I lived in a succession of small rooms and dreamed of wider horizons.

Sometimes I would embark on a series of journeys as a tourist, sometimes as a traveler.  I went with Habitat for Humanity to build houses in Guatemala, and studied Spanish with students from the local community college at schools in Oaxaca, Mexico, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.  With a group of Catholics I toured cathedrals in Britain, and continue on my own to visit places and see friends in Italy, Spain and Germany.  With another group I traveled to India for the first time to stay at a Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu.  I returned there three more times, twice on my own and once as the leader of a tour group from Santa Cruz.  On that first trip to India I added a visit in Bangkok to see an old friend, traveled with him to his upcountry farm and continued to a monastery in the northeast where I wore white, and shaved my head and eyebrows for a 10-day stay.  That visit hooked me, and I returned two more times to Thailand, traveling north up to Chiang Mai and south to Koh Samui for some sun and surf, before I made up my mind to live here permanently.

If Pico Iyer's definition rings true, I have always been a traveler because I've been able for the most part to leave my assumptions behind.  All of my trips have include plenty of surprises, most of them welcome.  Even when I returned to places, like Mexico and India, I was able to see it with fresh eyes.  At the same time I have always been also a tourist, taking photos and collecting experiences which I could relay to friends in letters, emails, and now this blog.  I've checked cities off my bucket list, like Barcelona where I went to experience the marvelous organic architecture of Antonio Gaudi.   I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Neruda's grave in Chile and Halong Bay in Vietnam because I wanted to have lived a life in which those places were in my memory.

Eliot's poetic plea to "know the place for the first time" has guided my wanderings as a tourist, traveler and expat.  Nothing is sadder than the jaded complaints of a traveler that "everything has changed, nothing is the same, it's all spoiled."  They will never be at home outside the borders of their native land (much less their mind) if they cannot take joy in variety and change, even if it may look at first glance as if paradise has been turned into a parking lot.  No expectations is the mantra. Bangkok feels like home to me even though I cannot understand the language and will always be seen by Thais as an outsider, a farang. Walking in the familiar byways of the city, even in the upscale super shopping malls, is never a disappointment so long as I have fresh eyes to see. This has been and will be the goal of my explorations.