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8 posts categorized "Darrah O'Flaherty"

The One With the Thai Date

Normalizing life in a place that so aggressively deviates from what my last twenty-two years have established to be the ‘status quo’ is undeniably difficult. Breaking the cast and making the unknown, known requires an indefatigable intentionality. In Thailand, I have challenged myself to enter every day with an open mind to an extent that it has become reflexive, even systematic. However, every time I think the largest hurdles are in my rearview mirror, a new discomfort or confusion arises and reminding me that my comfort zone and I are all but estranged frenemies. As I work to establish more and more common ground between my students and I, the results are comical. I sit on the ground tangled between the limbs of a gaggle of young girls. Having conversations outside of the classroom is challenging because the topics aren’t scripted. It takes work to find a subject that either my Thai vocabulary or their English vocabulary can accommodate. Today’s topic: hair. They grabbed at my locks and muddled through a slew of questions before I finally identified the vernacular speed bump – they didn’t know that stringy stuff attached to my scalp was technically hair. The event calls to mind a toddler with a Barbie in tow that I encountered in the bus station a few weeks ago. She affectionately looked down at her Barbie, swimming in a pool of her own golden mane, before noticing me. When our eyes finally locked, she looked up at me with the reverence of some dad somewhere looking at the grill section of a Target superstore. She took, what I dare call, an unprecedented quadruple take as she tried to deduce whether or not the plot of “Supersize” was manifesting itself before her very eyes. Eyes darted down to the toy, back at me, down to the toy, back at me again, with increasing concern each time. I understand, that movie is confusing enough considering the acting cameo by Tyra Banks herself, but the potential of a real life expression was too much for this small thing, who gasped and buried herself in her mother’s arms.

My own students’ reaction was far less polite. After they finally concurred that I do, in fact, grow hair from my head as opposed to straw or instant noodles, they moved on to my arms. “WHAT IS THIS?” they shrieked as they performed Indian rug burns up and down my arm – all part of their formulaic diagnosis I suppose. “It’s hair!” One of the braver ones suggests. They huddle up to fervently discuss whether or not a woman could grow arm hair. Or, more specifically, if a woman could grow arm without being Chewbacca himself. When the huddle diffused it was clear that they had not reached a unanimous supposition. The unsettled troop of tiny Thais could agree on one thing however. The brave one stepped forward again and asserted, “Teacher, I no like it” before plopping herself securely back in my lap. I guess that is my cross to bear in this life. Let’s just hope they never see my legs.

Buckle in readers, the confusion of this next anecdote renders the Great Arm Hair Incident of 2018 nearly insignificant. This is a little number I like to call: Emily goes on a date with a Thai man. Let me set the scene. My biggest fears in Thailand are not the minivan-sized insects, or the motorbike accidents, the tourist scams or even the brain decaying mosquito-transmitted diseases. No, the thoughts that provoke my cold sweats in the middle of the night are always the gym, and the technology section at our town’s Wal-Mart equivalent. In Thailand we have had to become accustomed to a certain amount of public attention in our daily lives. But the tsunami of unsolicited testosterone attached to the exacerbated gazes at these male watering holes leaves me desperate to melt into an awkward puddle and drip away. The only exposure that the people here (who seldom see tourists much less female ones) have to western women is the overtly sexualized media portrayal. White women on storefront advertisements puff out their chests and smirk beguilingly. On the packaging of skin whitening treatments, blonde women seductively stroke their desirable pale cheeks. The inundation of material objectifying an entire subset of people, while uncomfortable for me, is irreversibly damaging to the beauty standards amongst the people here. But the time for soapboxes is later, back to Emily’s exhilarating love life.

The gym is an exhausting experience where Thai meatheads with sordid intentions jeer loudly and stare assiduously. Keep in mind, this is a gym. Full of sweaty people. In Thailand. With no air-conditioning. Yet somehow the staring is more suffocating than the sweltering 92 degree heat. One day, a particularly emboldened pile of muscles with a haphazardly attached human neck and head approached our friend to inquire about us. This began to happen every time our male friend accompanied us to the gym, who would then express interest on the muscle monster’s behalves. Several nights later, in a conversation about how romantically, Thailand is directly comparable to middle school, Emily made THE mistake of her young life. She conceded that she was attracted to one of our unrelenting courters. I smelled her weakness and immediately engaged my most disarming carpe diem motivational speech (patent pending). I knew I had her, how could we culminate our time in rural Thailand without garnering the most authentic experience living in a new place has to offer – feeling ragingly uncomfortable on a date of course. The wheels were in motion the next day and our friend/wingman gave Emily’s number to her meathead of choice. Imagine the hilarity when he texts her later only to find that Emily’s Thai vocabulary is limited to about 20 words. His English vocabulary was even smaller. By smaller, I mean he knows how to say “hello”, but wouldn’t stand a chance of passing a quiz on it’s meaning. This is what nightmares are made of folks. Emily was the unsung hero of their rocky communications. She labored over the messages he sent in Thai characters and used two different translators cooperatively to compose messages back to him in his language.

After some aggressively laborious conversational mix-ups, it was decided that they would go to dinner with a translating third wheel, a man named ‘Cake’ that we recognized from the herd of gentleman callers at the gym. It was all fun and games as the puppet master, but Emily’s hot seat expanded from a single to a double when Cake entered the equation, and my fun was over. A double date. Hooray. Under the pressure of the impending outing, my cunning mind worked overtime surveying for escape routes. I sat down with Emily to deliver the news gently – the double date was a nonstarter. If all of us went, the English conversation between her, Cake and I would be inaccessible for her date, named, I shit you not, ‘Bae’. I would simply be a wrench in the connection potential, so I, being an exhaustingly heroic and selfless friend, would stay home to conveniently eat snacks and watch movies while Emily squirmed under the magnifying glass that my peer pressure had created in the first place. When the date finally arrived, Emily brazenly approached his idled truck and hopped in. “Wait, just you? Where’s your friend?” they asked as Emily texted me live updates. Sorry I can’t hear you over the reverberating shame of my Gilmore Girls binging. The date was rife with conversational breakthroughs and set-backs alike but from Emily’s re-telling of the event, Cake was a fairly reliable translator. He even reassured Emily, giggling, that he wouldn’t tell Bae what his name meant in English slang because of his crippling anxiety. Ultimately, even Bae’s nerves couldn’t extinguish his willpower to show off his white date to everyone he’s ever known. DURING the dinner he posted a selfie of him and Emily to Facebook. The post was undoubtedly the talk of the town and amassed hundreds of likes and comments. When Emily and I shamelessly trolled through the comments later, Facebook text translations yielded the mention of knives, roosters, and many, MANY ‘lols’. I can only assume it went well. Outcome disregarded, Emily’s discomfort was totally worth it for the resulting joke material. On an unrelated side note: can someone accept my friend of the year award on my behalf in case I’m not home in time for the ceremony? Thanks!

Until next time!

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Mai Pen Rai

I am writing to you from a state of week-induced hangover. My recent weekends have been so full of tiring travel and activities that coming down from the emotional high of the excitement, genuinely leaves me feeling like lukewarm death. Nothing indicates a spry and full-of-life 22 year old crossing the decorated threshold into maturity, like being literally hung-over from fun (look away energetic college friends, I don’t want you to see me like this). Here’s what you missed while I’ve been technologically cleansing - procrastinator speak for shirking on my blogging responsibilities. The most aged news is that Emily and I got to meet up with a pack of our orientation friends to attend the E-San music festival in Khon Kaen. Considering the relative geographic isolation of our province, it was to be the first time we were reunited with pals of any sort and we were determined to make the most of it, immediately hopping in a cab upon arrival to take us to the promised land (an actual bar with actual people). Despite being in a province that was relatively more familiar with foreigners, we were greeted by the same local fascination we were used to in Amnatcharoen. At this point I will take a moment to reflect on how lucky I am to have Emily considering my literal paralysis vis-à-vis the art of haggling. Somehow the drivers can always smell my fear, rendering me as useful as a screen door on a submarine.

After finally whittling the reluctant cab driver down to a reasonable price, we victoriously crowded into the back seat. The cab driver, assuming we couldn’t understand his local jargon, watched us like a popular tween watching her instagram likes compiling. He muttered incessantly owning his interest even after we politely requested he stop. Emily, in the front seat, jumped into action, insisting (in broken, nonsensical Thai) that he keep his eyes forward. This unlikely hero, standing at a menacing 5 foot 2 and wearing a fun n’ flirty romper as opposed to the conventional armor, repeatedly threatened to pay the driver less than the pre-established price, he contemptuously agreed. Like my first graders goldfish-like attention span, this resolution lasted all but seconds before the harassment commenced again. In this moment, Emily’s skin took on a green-ish hue. Her balled up fists ballooned to the size of basketballs. She howled and beat on her chest while unmistakable fireballs of threats poured from her eyes as she prepared to hulk smash the peevish grin directly off that man’s face. Or at least, the fear emanating from every inch of the man’s body indicated that this was how he perceived Emily’s Mama Bear mode. The delicious silence for the rest of the car ride, ashamed on his part, smug on ours, was a firm reminder that Emily is the fighter you want in your corner in roughly every unsavory situation ever. We proceeded to have an awesome evening catching up with our estranged pals and thrashing our limbs about to the cacophony of confusing Thai rap.

The next morning as we were getting ready for the festival, we realized that no one actually knew the genre of the event. One girl had heard reggae, another had heard country, a third yet had jumped to the conclusion that the festival would showcase electronic music. This misinformed state is highly representative of my entire existence in Thailand. I have used the “Mai pen rai” lifestyle (a Thai axiom literally translating to ‘whatever will be will be’ and manifested as go with the flow) as an excuse to be an ignorant American and deceivingly dressing it up as adaptability. In our eagerness, we showed up to the festival many hours premature. Determined to make the hours productive, we took the time to explore the campgrounds, the vendor stalls, and the venue itself to deduce what type of music the festival would display. After hours of exploring, the jury was still out. The decorations gave off decidedly Woodstock-y vibes which was overall conflicting with the Native American headdresses and confederate flags adorning the sea of tents; oh Thailand – you’re so cute when you don’t get it at all.  The butchered lyrics of expired American one hit-wonders crooned in jagged Thai drawl floated on the warm wind from the sperm stage. This is not hyperbolic. In a misguided attempt to be edgy, or youthful, or mysterious (all conjecture, I actually have know idea what motivations drive one to make sperm thematic) the stage was adorned with goliath paper mache swimmers looking down on us like ethereal higher powers of fecundity. I caught myself thinking that the incongruity of the decorations seemed to fit perfectly with the other arbitrariness of the festival – a thought that was interrupted by a family of neon painted elephants meandering by. The astonished public stopped for an onslaught of pictures, of the wild and unnatural white people of course, not the humdrum two-ton mammals. The rest of the event was spent enjoying the relaxed vibes, and socializing with some of the local bands playing the event.

The following weekend we relegated our exploration to more local areas as our lady gang of Thai co-teachers invited Emily and I to venture to Surin with them for the day. According to our ‘deny no authentic experiences’ mantra, we hopped into the truck bed at 6am where we were to be assaulted by gale-force winds for the next three hours. The initial purpose of the day-trip was for the co-teachers to sign up for the teacher test. It is incredibly difficult for co-teachers to become subject teachers in Thailand. That day we journeyed 250 kilometers simply for them to register for a test that 300 hopefuls, our friends included, would later take only to yield a dissatisfying result for a confounding 298 of them. What a staggering statistic: from the initial scoring, only two co-teachers will evade disappointment and be awarded teacher status. The two selected will have less than a week to pack up their belongings, move to a new government-selected location, and enter a binding contract performing duties they’ve never executed. The only commitment I have ever made that approaches that level of solemn obligation was purchasing a Proactive subscription in my oily youth. I can only hope that the commitment results in less dry skin and scarring for our impressive friend who placed among the top two selects!

After the registration process we found a local restaurant where, as is customary, we took off our shoes and settled into a seated position on the floor. Emily and I love spending time with our Thai friends because we are undoubtedly on the benefiting end of this parasitic relationship. While they squirm under the smothering and unfamiliar starring we tend to elicit, we get to coast on autopilot through basic interactions that are normally very taxing for us as non-Thai speakers. We eat like kings when we are with them! By eat like kings, I mean we get to actually decide what we want to order before shooting in the dark and pointing at random words on an indecipherable menu. Thailand has decidedly made me a simple girl with simple needs. I happily munch on the flying ants and silkworms they order as appetizers (while our friends thoughtlessly crush their buggy victims between their chopsticks and wave them around in our faces saying “Ooooooh, monsters”) to earn my meal of delicious local favorites. I live for the tableside conversations we muddle through while sideswiping language barriers and hurdling over narrowly-missed cultural divergences. For your reference, please enjoy this example of a genuine interaction we fought through:

Emily: (posing a theoretically easily-understood question to the table) Do you like vegetables?

Co-teacher: I like Cuba.

Emily: (rolling with the punches) Why do you like Cuba?

Co-teacher: Delicious!

Emily: (emitting brain smoke as she tries to connect non-existent dots) Oh you mean cucumbers?

Co-teacher: Yes, teacher!

Emily: (pushing on, encouraged by this conversational break-through) Do you like Spinach?

Co-teacher: No, I like Germany.

To this day, none of us are sure if we were discussing vegetables or geography. Luckily, we know that we always have a banter contingency plan in the form of John Cena. John Cena, if you’re reading this, you should move to Thailand, like, yesterday and reap the rewards of local obsession. Age and gender does not discriminate on this point. Our girly co-teachers, elderly Thai classroom attendants and students alike all converge on their pious devotion to John Cena. Students who could not mutter a single word of English despite intense teacher assistance can be heard gallivanting around at recess yelling, “YOU CAN’T SEE ME”. I don’t get it, I honestly don’t, but beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to a dialogue that both involved parties can understand. Keep doing what you’re doing out there beefcake!

The day took a sobering turn at the elephant enclosure we understood to be an ethical sanctuary but in actuality was a cruel, monetarily driven training facility. We decided against lingering and supporting the operation and settled for night market exploration instead. Riding around in that truck bed exchanging American and Thai music, discussing language, and sharing experiences with our indigenous friends is a memory I will treasure forever. Cherished friendships formed under impossible circumstance and the supplementary commentary on human kindness and acceptance that accompanies them are the most beautiful gifts Thailand has given me.

Until next time!

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Not Knowing Anything about Anything

When writing these blog entries, my process begins with mentally grouping my anecdotes into overarching themes (student stories, teaching tips, weekend activities, etc.) for the synchronicity of the post. This week, when amassing my stockpile of stories, only one factor seemed to link them together. So, without further ado, this week’s theme is ‘I don’t know anything about anything. Ever. At all.’ Occasionally, my tourist cluelessness is endearing. Shepherding 250 primary students on a multiple-destination field trip three hours away from school, surprisingly, is not one of those occasions. I was seated on the top level of a double decker bus stuffed to the brim with second and third grade Thai tornados. A microphone was thrust into my hand with the solemnity of a king’s scepter, we all knew that this was the only instrument with the unlocked potential to quell the excited thigh-high masses surging around us. Most of these children have never ridden on a bus much less left our town before and the exhilaration was evident. The vomit resulting from too many gas-station-purchased sweets, overwhelming anticipation, and carsickness was more than evident, it was tangible, and no scepter could have saved me. Finally I was driven to bringing out my secret weapon, Thai karaoke. I will still undoubtedly feel that headache in the year 2019.

The kids were impossibly enamored with the science museum and the aquarium, consumed with, to date, one of the sweetest and purest joys I had ever seen. So endearing, in fact, that I was able to overlook the transgressions of the gaggle of primary students that bought actual live birds from a street vendor when I turned my back for a literal second. After viewing the notable giant frog in Yasothon, which is in summary, just a giant frog (???), I was under the impression that we were headed back to our home province. The bus wheels sluggishly and unpredictably churned to a stop and I thought, the bus driver has finally maxed out on karaoke tolerance and will certainly be setting this bus on fire. Instead, a Thai announcement came on over the loud speaker and the students, under my clearly powerful jurisdiction, stood up and began filing neatly off the bus. I grabbed every student that shuffled past me by the collar and desperately asked “Where are you going?” only to be met with an unceasing line of confused stares. Dear God, what a convenient time this would have been to know things about stuff. After burying my pride and following my students off the bus, I was less than thrilled to find out we had stopped at a Buddhist hell temple. The entire walkabout was dedicated to ‘Nakara’ and gave descriptive accounts and even more vivid sculptural depictions of the tortures conducted there. You know that scene in The Incredibles where Mr. Incredible attempts to break into the evil lair but is instead shot with multiplying black orbs that adhere to him until he is fully incapacitated? I was Mr. Incredible but instead of orbs, I was inundated by sobbing Thai first graders. Their weepy snot mixed with my sweat as I struggled under the weight of them through the endless morbid circuit. It was, at the very least, a climatic culmination to the day.

The mundane predictability of an average school week was warmly welcomed after the field trip insanity. That is until I remembered that this is Thailand and I have 250 students and absolutely nothing is mundane about it. Emily was slightly hurt to hear from a co-teacher that the Thai nickname the students had given her, which they had sworn to mean flower, actually meant slimy slug. As an empathetic best friend, I cackled until I ran out of oxygen. The plot thickened later when an uninvolved third party countered that the nickname did actually mean flower. Considering we don’t know anything about anything, it is impossible to discern whether this is student foul play or a co-teacher hazing ritual. Regardless, these slimy little slugs were eager to relax and enjoy the usual spread of Thai food in the teacher’s lounge when lunch rolled around. I slopped a super-size portion of mushrooms onto my plate and sat down to eat when another teacher noticed and commended my bravery. What could possibly be brave about mushrooms I wondered? The situation quickly devolved into the first in which not knowing anything about anything manifested itself as positive ignorant bliss. The mushrooms I have been slurping away on at several meals per week, are in fact porous, congealed chicken blood. Bummer. Emily and I are in the throes of Pavlov’s dog-ing ourselves into forgetting we ever learned the mushroom’s dark secret.

In the subsequent days, the cluelessness persisted. This week, as our students prepare for the showmanship of the Christmas Day celebration and Sports Day parade, many classes have been punctuated by breaks for practice. During lunch one day Emily and I were dragged outside into a procession of older girls holding staffs. As we blinked at them and they blinked at us, staffs were plopped into our hands and a nearby teacher asserted, “you teach, you teach!” Before we had time to exhale, much less insist that we had no idea how to march or twirl staffs, the teacher had conveniently disappeared and the students looked at us impatiently, awaiting further instruction. Quickly cataloging my memory for that marching band scene in animal house, Emily and I fumbled awkwardly with these batons on steroids and even hit our confused, copy-cat pupils with some can-can action. We will, unfortunately, have to watch the resulting train wreck publically next week.

So far, the narratives resulting from my confused incompetence have been, though hilarious, completely manageable. That is, until the day that shall not be named. I was sitting innocuously in the office when a breathless teacher barged in and demanded, “Who is third grade’s homeroom teacher?” I immediately stood up and began probing for the problem; I was relieved to find that it was a joke. “A student has pooped in his seat” the trickster teacher declared, but I, in my infinite wisdom, knew better. It was the last period on a Friday afternoon following a day of frivolity with my third graders, as usual, leading the charge of mischievousness. So, I confidently strode through the mob of squealing, nose-pinching bodies into my classroom in search of a chair full of chocolate, or plastic poop, or whatever flavor-of-the-day prank awaited me. The joke certainly was on me. I found, and I apologize readers there really is no way to censor or sugarcoat this, a chair full of diarrhea and a stressed little boy covered in his own defecation. The rest of the afternoon was spent, cleaning the boy, his clothes, the chair, and the classroom all while the remaining 37 children shrieked and gagged. The next school day, the little boy wandered into the office and deposited a gargantuan fruit basket on the table - a gift from his mother. After all, nothing says, “sorry my child literally soiled your classroom and your dignity” like a basket of fruit. To make matters more amusing, the diarrhea attack was supposedly caused by an overconsumption of mangoes at lunch, the irony is not lost on me.

Until next time!

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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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