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5 posts categorized "Darrah O'Flaherty"

Adapt or Die

Many of my posts so far have focused on school content, and while whirling Thai dervishes fully consume my weekdays, my weekends have been equally as exciting. Locally, there is not much to do on the weekends. In fact, there is about one bar in town. I say about, because calling it a whole bar is probably optimistically rounding up. Our band of merry co-teachers took us one night for a few beers and it may as well have been front-page news. As the only white faces in town, we could reach down to tie our shoes and it would be PSA worthy. This illustriousness has its obvious drawbacks. The combination of negative Thai societal connotations surrounding women drinking and the local notoriety is not a recipe for a wild, face-melting night on the town. At best, you are doomed to run into some judgmental parents, be the subject of the band’s public jeering in unfamiliar vernacular, and the victim of unwanted set-ups from every acquaintance you’ve ever made. Understandably, when Emily and I were invited to a coworker's wedding the next weekend, we expected a similar ambiance. To make matters worse, I hadn’t met the bride or the groom until the day of the wedding - we were merely invited because of the status symbol elicited by having foreigners at your wedding. I haven’t been above pity invites for my last 22 years of existence, why start now?

When we first walked in and found our table, we found that another guest had already been seated with us. The guest, who is generally tolerable, is significantly less welcome in the morning hours. If you can’t see where this is going, you had a more honorable collegiate experience than I did – I salute you. Our tablemate was none other than Johnny Walker, served with a mixer of intense host peer pressure…at 8:30 am. To make matters worse, ours was the only table with this festive adornment. All eyes were on us as we tried to discern whether neighboring tables were eagerly waiting for us to drink, or misconstruing us as alcoholic farangs. There wasn’t much time to debate. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. The word greatness must be switched with ‘whiskey’ at this juncture. But either way, Shakespeare’s words ring true. We had whiskey/greatness thrust upon us, and as people raised to be polite guests, we answered the call.

An indiscernible amount of drinks after our unsolicited whiskey wake-up call, we began wondering if we had missed the ceremony. Food and beers had begun arriving surreptitiously and the inebriated proceedings showed no sign of taking a turn for the ceremonial. Just when we had resigned to our fates of an eternal purgatory coupled with Johnny, we were ushered from our seats and pushed out into the street. We stumbled along the road with a mass migration of other wedding attendees, unsure of our destination and melting in the punishing Thai heat. Soon the staggered masses coalesced into a procession headed by the bride and groom, an authentic Thai band, and a gaggle of bridesmaid equivalents in traditional garb. As far as I could tell, the bridesmaids have one very serious obligation: get the entire wedding comfortably trashed. They weave throughout the procession with buckets full of alcohol and a single cup, sporadically thrusting libations upon unsuspecting parade participants and waiting for them to finish it before moving on to their next hazing victim. When bridesmaids handed me a cup, bummer - I had no idea how to communicate or refuse it, so this soldier fell deeper into the trenches.

When the parade finally reached the wedding, we were shepherded in to take a picture with the bride and groom, both absolute strangers. We awkwardly fumbled around trying to get out of the way when we realized a line, impatient to capture pictures, had formed. We were promptly moshed back into the frame as the realization hit – these people were waiting to take pictures with us. Now this made us incredibly uncomfortable, as we were hyperaware of taking attention away from the happy couple. Luckily, one quick glance clarified that they were not only ecstatic that people were capturing us in their pictures, but were in fact the ones provoking the mosh pit to do so. In true backwards Thai fashion, we proceeded to the ceremony after the prolific drinking. Perhaps that made me appreciate the ornate, authentic ceremony even more. The day culminated with dancing and Thai karaoke where we twirled many old Thai women. As it turns out local music is not well suited for the white and rhythmically challenged among us. Adapt or die.

On other weekends we have set out to explore Ubon, the closest large city to our small province, with varied success. On our first expedition, the intent was to explore a local temple. We didn’t. But in a similarly cultural experience, we did get rather familiar with a mall. Yes, a real mall. I could have wept. As everything I currently own in Thailand could fit in a backpack, we decided to set out in search of more teaching appropriate clothing. This task proved difficult because compared to the Thai people, who are naturally short and svelte, I am a literal giant cracken from the deep-eth. Most stores do not have fitting rooms and don’t let you try on potential purchases but instead insist on watching as you hold skirts up to your body and wonder if they will fit around your wrist, much less your waist. The day seemed like a bust, that is, until the next day when a coworker said he saw Emily and I making the motor-bike journey home from Ubon (about an hour and a half). Thai people, who don’t travel much, have a very skewed perception of what delineates a “long drive”. The man, in awed stupor, acted as if he had watched us trek to Mars. He proceeded, in incredibly broken English and creative charades, to invite us to join his literal Thai biker gang. I fully expect my street cred to double from this development. All it took to adapt to the swerving with locals was to finally accept that the only rule of the road is that I have to be okay with other drivers doing whatever the hell they want. Conversely, other drivers have to be okay with this inexperienced farang doing whatever the hell she wants. I still think I got the better end of the deal.

Until next time!

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The Cha-Cha Slide Makes a Thai Debut

The passing of Thanksgiving back in the states has gotten me thinking about my recent momentous life change and all the new beginnings it has presented that are worthy of my gratitude. When I think about all the blessings I’ve already accrued in my short time here, my students top the list by a landslide. I spend my school days on a tumultuous roller coaster of emotion that ranges from anxiety to adoration to frustration to impressed awe, but regardless of my mood’s flavor of the day, when I hop on my bike and head home my students have left me in stitches, and feeling very, very loved. During our teaching certification course at orientation our aggressively British facilitator asserted again and again: “Thai students are not nasty, they’re naughty”, a prophecy that has been decidedly self-fulfilling. The Thai education system is known for it’s dry plug-and-chug format in the classroom setting, in which students are inundated with lecture-style information. I strive to keep my classrooms interactive because it not only sustains my students’ motivation, but also makes them genuinely excited about the material and class in general. I know what you’re thinking. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it’s Super Teacher! Fully equipped with engaging, activity-based heroism!

 Well you, dear reader, would be absolutely incorrect. As with most things in my life, I have an affinity for conceptualization but leave something to be desired on the execution front. Enthusiasm is a double-edged sword as it’s sometimes manifested in the form of craziness. It’s not always cute Thai child craziness as my social media presence may suggest; sometimes the scales tip and it’s rabid hyena craziness. Albeit, Hyenas in cute matching boy and girl scout uniforms, but ravenous dogs nonetheless. The high road no longer exists in my reality, I’ve tried every classroom discipline technique in the book with varied success, the most effective being mercilessly peeling a star sticker off of the troublemaker’s name with the eye-contact of a wild west gun fight and the slow motion drama of Neo evading bullets in The Matrix. The kids sulk as if I have just taken one of their limbs. Calling out students in front of the class for unruliness used to be my chosen class-quieting move, but was ultimately unsustainable because I couldn’t maintain an angry teacher façade while yelling at Tigger to sit down (an actual name of a friend’s student). Scolding desk mates Boom and Boom-Boom for wreaking havoc with Cannon and Ball, or getting the attention of Arm, the tiny, Thai, toothless, parka-wearing Gandhi, simply cannot be done without a smile. However, I realize that sometimes these kids just need an outlet to release their quelled energy. Thus, Super Teacher’s™engaging activity based heroism occasionally devolves to watching Scooby Doo youtube videos in class, and that’s okay! Much of my job is just showing these children the encouragement, affection and support that they don’t always receive in other parts of their lives.

Now re-read that last sentence, and replace the words “encouragement, affection, and support” with “abject ridiculousness and hilarity”. I’d like to reintroduce you all to my aforementioned intimate friend: the chasm between intent and execution. I absolutely love playing and joking around with my students. When I’m having a tough day, nothing lifts me up quite like hearing them brutally butcher the pronunciation of ‘parallelogram’ on a repetitive loop. In return, I also have my students teach me a word in Thai every day, to continue breaching the gap and better relate to them in the struggle of learning a new language. The students get incredibly excited to watch me word vomit all over their nuanced tonal tongue. Last week I requested that they teach me how to say the date in Thai. There’s a good chance I celebrated 40th birthday while the “teacher” I called up to the front breezed through the infinitely syllabic sentence. The class blinked at me emptily, waiting for me to repeat it, so I hissed and gargled and rolled r’s in a nonsensical order until the elusive bell finally rang. I think next week for payback, I will give them English tongue twisters.

I also love dancing with them. In fact, Emily and I may have unintentionally created a cult following for “the cha-cha slide” amongst our primary students. We fully anticipate a turf battle breaking out against rival gang, “the Macarena” fanatics, any day now. Queued up I have the Electric Slide and The Cupid Shuffle. When things get really dire, I will teach them Gangnam Style because desperate times do in fact call for desperate measures. I take solace in the knowledge that the students already inexplicably worship Ed Sheeran at a golden alter, so any music I bestow on them couldn’t confuse their taste any further. Channeling the students’ energy into dancing at the beginning or end of class has been a useful tool, but has not completely eradicated the inherent classroom insanity that comes with teaching little ones. My overweight second grader with a penchant for shaking it everywhere, on everything and everyone, all the time, comes to mind. He couldn’t say a sentence in English if held at gunpoint, but suddenly turns into a gyrating Miley Cyrus on all available windows, desks, doors, and even backs when I’ve turned to face the whiteboard. It goes without saying - I love him. Independently of the stellar joke material my students’ anecdotes facilitate, I am so lucky to love and learn from these clever, vivacious kids each day!

Until next time!

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Spicy? Only a little!

I imagine much of the followership of this blog is comprised of other potential program members, so I’m going to start this post off with some accommodation-based tips. First, let’s talk about roommates. Learning to live with a new roommate from a different region, with different mannerisms can be tricky to navigate but I’ve found that tolerance and patience are the keys to coexisting peacefully. Take my roommate for example. He has eight eyes, about 17,000 limbs, a thorax about the size of my fist, and isn’t much of a talker. Initially, our differences greatly concerned me; how could we possibly make this work? Luckily, over time we’ve found balance and adapted to each other’s lifestyles. During the day while I’m at school, my roommate has the place to himself, a time that he valuably uses to eat some of the ants around. When I come home and slam the door, he is quick on the social cue uptake, returning to his portion of the apartment behind my bathroom mirror. But tread cautiously, this brings me to my second tip: not all roommates will be so accommodating. In these situations, stand up for your own self interest! My other, smaller, multiple-limbed roommates are far less conscious of my boundaries. They take up the entire bathroom, refusing to leave when it’s my turn, and inviting friends over at all hours of the day and night. They have moved in in such hordes that I have begun operating by a trust no freckle philosophy. So, driven by necessity, I forcefully evacuate them daily by spraying them with the bum gun attached to my toilet, and get some target practice with the drain at the far end of my bathroom.

Despite my pesky, uninvited roommates, my apartment has pleasantly surprised me. It has most of the modern amenities I’m used to including air conditioning, a real toilet, and WiFi that functions whenever the mood befalls it. I’m willing to overlook the fact that my “shower” is a haphazardly hung faucet without walls (that inevitably soaks everything I’ve ever owned when I rinse off) because I actually have warm water - an absolute blessing for this anemic weenie. Even my stone-solid mattress has become tolerable, I’m not sure I’ll ever wake up not feeling as though I was hit by a small bus in the middle of the night. We decidedly will not part as friends, but for a prodigious night-thrasher I have adapted better than expected. My apartment feels very safe with two keys required for entry and a security guard posted out front at all night hours. The guard is lovely and a great resource for practicing my Thai. I ask his name, he asks mine. He asks where I’m from, I tell him. He says other words, I smile blankly. We have this interaction anywhere from three to five times a week; I can’t help but be impressed that we are already reaching such existential topics this early in our blossoming friendship.

Predictably, my apartment complex is not the only place I have run into this barrier to communication. Ordering food is either a terrifying brush with the unknown or an exciting opportunity for discovery depending on what kind of person you are. Though there are some restaurants, street food stalls are more common and economical. The stalls don’t have menus, or more alarmingly, pictures, so we have had to get creative with the ways in which we ask for food. At first, our chosen method was to walk up, look into the stall owner’s eyes, and confidently say “one” in Thai. This was usually met with a confused look or an indiscernible follow-up question. This would prompt me to re-plant my feet, puff up my chest, and firmly insist once more, “one”. At this point the stall owner would usually take it upon himself or herself to give me the whitest thing they offered. Then, I would usually turn to Emily and say, “This is going well don’t you think! Should I ask what their name is?” The answer is no, it is not going well, and yes, I will try to ask their name anyway. The effectiveness rate of this probing question, and I’m rounding up here, is about zero percent. According to simple adapt or die philosophies, we have since improved our food ordering mechanisms. We now know how to ask, “Do you have chicken?” (or pork, or beef, etc.) and though this has improved our confidence interval, we still don’t know how to specify further. Thus, I can order chicken but it’s still an unnerving game of poultry roulette. The stakes are high: if I win, I could get delicious chicken breast or leg, but if I lose I could get feet, liver, neck, or a multitude of other mystery parts. The next phase in our evolution was to learn how to ask for food that is only a little spicy. This was an overt waste of my time. Even food that is only “a little” spicy is hot enough to make me salivate fire for several hours. I try and pull back my lips when I eat, effectively looking like the Grinch, to avoid a searing lip burn. If I’m over-zealous with my use of lip, the aftermath looks like I’m wearing red lipstick, or was stung on the lips by a bee. Or a swarm of bees. Actually, make them bloodthirsty wasps, attacking repeatedly. Yeah my palette is only a little Irish, why do you ask?

Thanks for your patience with my rapid succession posting as I try to make up for lost time. Happy hump-day from my home to yours!

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Farang Nation

First of all, I apologize for the delayed first blog post. As usual, I have watched my fellow writers be on top of the ball while watching the ball roll away in my rearview mirror. Turns out, adapting to an entirely new language, place, culture, and job is fairly time consuming – who knew! I’ve got a lot to tell, but if you don’t want to go through the rigmarole, the gist of this post is holy shit I moved to Thailand. It has been, predictably, a blood bath and simultaneously some of the best adventures and most fun I've ever had. The enormity of that realization evaded me until the end of our week-long orientation. The program exhaustively trained 200 teachers-to-be in a conference style format in Bangkok. The week was a whirlwind as we battled jetlag, general adjustments, and the figurative stampede to make as many friends as possible, especially those placed in close proximity to our own provinces. At orientation I was lucky to get some uplifting insight on all the things that could possibly kill me during my time in Thailand, including but not limited to: malaria, dehydration, rabid monkeys, crime, motorbikes, and Japanese encephalitis induced brain decay. Awesome.

Jokes aside, the program worked diligently to prepare us for all eventualities in our new homes, which I think the jittery participants appreciated. During the week I formed valuable friendships with fellow adventurers looking to travel on weekends, assimilate to the culture, and have an authentic experience. Alcohol consumption was only a lot involved in this bond forming. My parents remain very proud of my social prowess. At the week's end, it was very difficult to say goodbye to these support systems as we were carted off to remote regions throughout the country. Being filed into the buzzing banquet hall of Thai school coordinators to meet the person who would be responsible for dictating what every detail of my life would look like for the next 6 months remains one of most anxiety inducing situations I’ve ever endured. Upon meeting our coordinator, Dao, Emily and I were herded into a van where we spent the consequent 9 hours trying to discern information about our school from broken English.

At 2am, Emily and I finally reached our province. For reference, Emily is my collegiate best friend turned fellow Thai teacher – I’m so lucky to have her even though the Thai populace is never sure what to do with her boisterous mannerisms or distinct eyebrows. Sensing our exhaustion from the taxing week, Dao insisted that we would have minimal obligations that day. Lesson 1: Thai people are notorious for changing their minds at rapid intervals. After sleeping for a couple of hours on my incognito marble slab disguised as a mattress, Dao was back to fetch the dilapidated Americans and take them to work. Upon arriving at our school, Anuban Amnatcharoen, the car was immediately flooded by a sea of tiny Thai humans yelling, “TEACHAAA” and grabbing at us for any limb they could get ahold of. This, I imagine, is what Justin Beiber must feel like. After introducing ourselves to an assembly of 2000 1st through 6th graders, the cat was out of the bag – fresh meat in town. We had to teach despite a lack of preparation and lesson plans because the students were simply so excited. At the end of the day, we were sent to a meeting with all of the school’s parents (who we absolutely could not communicate with) for introductions and to allow the administration to flex their muscles for having acquired foreign teachers, a rarity in many parts of Thailand.

Our province, Amnatcharoen (pronounced Amnat juh-learn) is a fairly rural area to the far East of Thailand with a population of 375,380. Most locals have never seen a tourist much less a blonde haired (grease-level dependent) and green-eyed American. Suffice it to say Emily and I are the newest local celebs. The novelty is kind of fun but also incredibly exhausting. People stare everywhere we go and are eternally pointing at us and calling us 'farang' (the Thai word for foreigner, not at all derogatory). The Thai people are amazing and kind, there's a reason they call it the land of smiles; however, living here is still fairly isolating. Outside of the school no one speaks English and the people that know a few words or phrases are wary to say them to us because of the Thai shyness complex and the mantra of "saving face".

We're trying to learn Thai to communicate better but the sounds in their alphabet are nearly impossible for non-native speakers to distinguish. There are 32 vowels and 44 consonants and every word can be said in one of five tones (low, high, low then high crescendo, etc.), each of which drastically alters the meaning. The locals have so little practice trying to communicate with non-native speakers, that they often fail to use context clues to meet us halfway with our cringe-worthy pronunciations. I could walk up a food stall and ask if they sell fish or “paa”, only to be met with a look of utter horror and confusion from Thais who have wrongly understood me to be asking if they have any sugar daddies, which is also “paa” but with nuanced tonal differences. So yeah, hard to meet people would be an understatement. Luckily, the co-teachers in our school, who stand in the back of class and clarify for students when communication barriers arise, are lovely, welcoming and very receptive to showing us around outside of school. I'm also in the process of trying to unofficially adopt a dog. By that I mean, I bought some Asian dog treats and try to lure homeless dogs back to my apartment with me in a I-have-some-candy-in-my-windowless-van type of way. No takers yet which is maybe better for me since I cut some corners on the rabies vaccines.

I'm teaching English to 1st-3rd graders and math to 4th-6th graders at school. In case you've never had to teach prime factorization to kids who don't speak English, let me save you the time: 0/10 would not recommend. Don't get me wrong, the kids are amazing, sweet (they call me TEACHAAA DEE and I melt every time) and so excited to have Westerners to learn English from, but I am adorably under-qualified to teach them. Additionally, the school has an appalling lack of resources, which makes it difficult to discern what they've already learned and to get even the most rudimentary resources, like textbooks. I am, as the kids say, free-balling. The flush-less squatty potties at school terrify me so sometimes at lunch I sprint home to poop, but otherwise the other kun kruu (teachers) and I eat buffet style authentic Thai food and sit together in the teachers lounge. Everything is really difficult but also incredible and fun and rewarding. Overall it is a complicated emotional amalgam but definitely net positive. I am happy to be here and doing this. I'm looking forward to slowly making Thailand more comfortable for myself pending I don't die on my motorbike first (my bike is neither a gentleman nor a scholar and the roads are anarchy here, I don't know why they even bother having lanes).

Until next time!

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Pre-departure: Existential Constipation

    Now that I’ve got your attention – My name is Darrah, and I’m severely backed up. Emotionally, that is. In less than 48 hours I am preparing to up-end my life, move to rural Eastern Thailand, and try my hand at teaching (math and English) for the first time. Almost every factor of my sojourn is a looming question mark. What my day-to-day schedule, attempted cultural assimilation, and social interactions will look like is all but conjecture. Yet still, when I wake up in the morning, and my thoughts inevitably flit towards my impending departure, I’m not pondering these gaping informational holes and existential musings. Instead, I find myself wondering: what if I miss season two of stranger things? What if I buy too many tchotchkes and my suitcase overflows? Will I find a brand of shampoo I like? Though it’s apparent I’m already getting at the hard-hitting stuff with this internal interrogation, it’s not characteristic of me to be intimidated by the unfamiliar. I’m trying to be kind with myself, patient, so I’ve been attempting to cure this expressive constipation with some emotional cataloging. I’ve been hesitant to express the extent of my nerves because I’ve tried so hard to make “fearless adventurer” part of my brand. By avoiding the larger questions and anxieties at play, however, I’m not showing courage, I’m losing touch with the opportunities ahead. I’m beginning to realize that though loved ones have always commended me for my comfort in the unknown, perhaps it was never comfort at all. Perhaps they were seeing an obsession with making the unknown, known. And with that – the proverbial blockage had been cleared and the impending emotional shit storm had been warded off! (Am I allowed to say shit in an official CIEE blog post?) I’ve since been able to harness my nerves as a motivator to do my research, thoroughly pack and prepare, and revel in the feeling of standing at the edge a brand new void - an opportunity that few of the untethered among us ever have a chance to experience.

    Since I’ve lost my entire readership with a y chromosome thanks to that emotional cataloging stunt, I’m going to go ahead finish this first post with a quote that’s really been resonating with me. “In the struggle between yourself and the world, choose the world”, now I won’t try and interpret what Kafka meant here because it is undoubtedly far beyond the reaches of my pea brain. For me, the comfort in this quote lies in the reminder that pushing one’s comfort zone doesn’t have to put you at odds with the world, and in many ways, it might just bring you a whole lot closer to it. So to those at similar life junctures: don’t be afraid to look out into the void. Don’t shy away from the unknown; rather, seek to know it. It is terrifying, exhilarating, and in all likelihood, about to lead to some insane adventures and irreplaceable memories. Whether you’re a traveler, starting a new job, trying to meet new people, or are just a 22 year old that still has to make poop jokes to feel comfortable discussing feelings – don’t fear, fear!

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