Monday, November 8, 2010

My Trip to Nepal

 Upon landing in Kathmandu, the first thing I needed to do was buy the visa on arrival. I thought it was so funny that they did not accept their own money, Nepalese Rupee, for the visa. They only accepted strong currencies like USD, GBP, Euro, AUSD, NZD, Yen, etc., certainly not Thai Baht though! Anyway, I had to get USD, which I found silly.

The next thing I noticed was how diverse the tourist population was. It really puts in perspective what a small amount of tourists are American; I came across only a small handful of Americans on this trip. I think I was under the false notion that Americans are somewhat ahead at everything but tourism is certainly not dominated by Americans. I also found it interesting that although Nepal lies between China and India, the Nepali people look mostly Indian, not Chinese. I assume this is because the Himalayas divide Nepal and China…

All About Bikram Yoga

I'm improving :)         Have you ever felt like life was okay, but perhaps something is missing? And you may or may not be consciously aware of this feeling or have any clue what will satisfy it? I think passion is often that thing. To feel so passionate and to enjoy something or someone so much is crucial to human nature. This time around, I found yoga. This is not to say that one hobby will be enough to fulfill that feeling forever, but at this point in my life, yoga was what was missing.

I feel like now I know what religious people feel like, to really believe in the teachings of something so much; so much in fact that you want to share it with everyone so that they too can better their lives because you are sure it can. Though imposing your beliefs in extreme ways is not necessary, I think being a teacher of something you are passionate about is… well I cannot think of a more perfect job! To have genuine enthusiasm toward new students, truly enjoy watching them improve, and offer the best of your knowledge to them sounds very rewarding. Actually, I already have and feel all of these things for newcomers even as a fellow student! Anyway, when I finish up the school year and some traveling here in March and April, if all goes according to plan, I am going to head back to the states to become a certified Bikram Yoga teacher. Then I will venture back out into the world, national or international, to start teaching!

         My studio here in Phuket was lucky enough to have Bikram visit us.  He taught a class!  I was starstruck, it was like everything out of his mouth had to be true.  He knew exactly how to help people when they thought they couldn't do something; he knew they could do it without hurting themselves and he was right.  He even called me out and had me try something I didn't know I could do!  He helped me try an advanced position where I was on my knees and bent around backwards and he then proceeded to stand on my hips, causing everyone to gasp.  I didn't even know what was happening.  Then his wife happen to stop by not long after him and teach a class!  How lucky we are at such a small studio!

Me and Bikram
        Bikram Yoga (aka hot yoga) is pretty different than other types of yoga. The room is over 105 degrees and 40-50% percent humidity also. Class is 90 minutes, and you do a series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises that involve balance, strength, and stretching. Even though you don’t leave your mat, it gets your heart rate up so much, plus those 3 things are more necessary for your body than, say, cardio. I never did yoga before because it didn’t seem to be a worthwhile workout. I thought, yes balance is good, but it wastes an awful lot of time that could be spent just jogging and burning calories like a traditional workout. Sometimes I think Bikram yoga shouldn’t even be called yoga because it evokes the wrong image in peoples' minds. There are yoga classes out there that correspond with that image, you know, seated meditation, chanting, closing your eyes—none of which occur in a Bikram class. My feelings on Bikram yoga are not inclusive to those classes.

        This yoga is spiritual for me in a different way than people imagine yoga to be. We never just sit there and meditate but the balancing postures have so much to concentrate on that you really are in a meditation thinking about all the things you are trying to get your body to do while maintaining balance. Balance can be a very mental thing; some days you have it and some days you don’t, depending on external factors and whatnot. If you saw the way I have to stare at one thing while I maintain the balance and think about everything else, you would see that it is a kind of meditation. Also, the goal for the teacher is to talk the entire time, basically being your brain for you for 90 minutes.

        Bikram yoga is tough, especially if you aren’t flexible. The good news is that as long as you are doing the posture as best you can, accomplishing each step correctly before advancing yourself in the posture, you are gaining 100 percent of the same benefits! It is perfectly fine to sit or lay down on your mat if you feel dizzy or weak, just don’t leave the room! Bikram yoga is great for any kind of physical injury or even illness. People may think they can’t do it because of an injury but it is exactly what will cure it.

        Besides just being happier and having a hobby to work at, I feel healthier and have better posture. Plus I may have toned up a bit and lost some weight. I think about yoga during the day and look forward to going!

So there it is, I have been converted and now I am preaching the good word. Try it at least once!

Exciting Visit from Mom

It was difficult to predict if, after visiting, my mom would like the idea of me living here more or less.  I felt like I needed to protect her from seeing the crazy driving and the prostitutes and all the Thai craziness but just because those things are prevalent here, doesn’t mean a mom has to freak out.

Thai Kindergarten (a little rant)

         Now I myself am going to go on an expat rant!  (I know it’s hypocritical since I just talked about how obnoxious foreigners who complain are, but I generally keep a positive attitude, I just gotta let this rant out!)

         My biggest challenge in teaching here, which I may have mentioned before, is adhering to the methods used here for teaching such young children.  At home, kids go to kindergarten when they are 5 or 6, then to first grade.  Here, there is Pre-K, K1, K2, and K3, and then first grade.  So K3 is basically equivalent to “kindergarten” at home.  Kindergarten is when children are first faced with some studying of letters and sounds and handwriting.  By this time, children have already picked up on a lot of this knowledge and ability through other means, such as singing and playing.  Here, they don’t seem to think “playing” can be educational at all. SO, starting in Pre-K (which at home would be pre-pre-pre-k), they have kids tracing lines and are yelling at them for not tracing and coloring inside the lines.  This is what is difficult for me: not only forcing 2-4 year olds to sit in a desk for a lesson and a boring assignment, but also telling then its not good enough and making them do it again.  I neglected to be strict with my K1 students’ tracing and coloring for one semester and was informed that they were behind and I needed to take it up a notch.  It breaks my heart to be tough on them for something I personally don’t believe matters.

        All this bookwork makes for a lot of marking (yes, we have to take a red pen and correct every little wrong slant in every letter) which leaves the teacher no time to engage in play with the students.  Without close monitoring and planning of playtime, it isn’t educational.  A bucket of broken mixed up toys is dumped on the ground and the kids go nuts.  I have put a lot of effort into keeping the toys sorted and only offering one bunch at a time, so that the students see how the toys are to be used correctly, something that is not clear when they are mixed up.  I worked at a Montessori school at home where preschoolers play with one set of toys at a time and are asked to clean it up before moving on.  Broken toys are not acceptable as there is nothing to learn from a toy that can’t fulfill its own purpose.  “Kindergarten” here is a Montessori preschool teacher’s nightmare. 

Teaching Healthy Foods
        Anyway, the kids here, even in a private school setting, are either doing work, which they may or may not understand, or going wild, practically unmonitored, while playing with pointless toys.  They have no scheduled daily recess, only 1 PE class per week.  If the whole class finishes their work in a lesson, the teacher can take the kids to the playground (also containing an excess of broken toys) for a few minutes.  On top of that exhausting day, some kindergartners stay for the extra English lesson from 3:30-4:30 and some even stay for an extra Thai lesson from 4:30-5:15. We try to make class as fun as we have time for.  We try to use crafts and clay etc, and the students also attend two Song and Drama classes per week, one Art class, and one Computer class.  The kindergarten teachers stay busy during that time doing the marking, planning, and escorting.

        I hate that I find myself so upset when 20 three year olds aren’t sitting still in their desks or doing their endless pages of tracing. These kids don’t know what they’re missing and still manage to come to school with huge smiles on their faces.  They are so precious and so smart. I could rant about these methods all day (as I mentioned that some expats do) but the truth is, I love my students and at the end of the day, that’s why I have stayed.  I didn’t come here to teach Montessori school.  I came for the learning experience of teaching not in America and for the opportunity to interact with children of a different culture.  I have found all of these things here and wouldn’t trade my time here for any job at home.  That said, I could not do this job forever, but it is nice to explore. 

Expat Culture

          I left home one year ago and can really say that my feelings on living in Thailand have come full circle. I have loved and hated many of the same things here at one point or another.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Wake Up Call

Jumong, the smallest of them all!
            About a month ago, I had a big realization about my job and Thai culture.  It’s interesting because I wrote my senior thesis about how people who spend a long time abroad go through all these phases of challenges, resentment, attachment and revelations but at that point, I had not spent more than 10 weeks in a foreign country and had yet to experience what that meant. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Paid Holiday and a New Class

My school year ended in March, followed by a 4 week summer course in which I got new, very young students, most who would later be in my class for the year. My holiday started with saying goodbye to my awesome roommate because she was headed home to Canada- crazy how everyone is always coming and going around here. Then I headed out with some teachers to Chiang Mai up north for the Thai New Year celebration, Songkran.

Songkran is a celebration of new beginnings and a fresh start and falls at the end of the hot dry season. The Thais pour flower water on Buddha statues in honor of this which turned into throwing water on each other, which turned into the world’s biggest water fight. Up until about 70 years ago, their calendar year changed over during this time in April but they have since correlated their Buddhist calendar year to change over on January 1 instead, though the festivities remain at the traditional time in April. Since the celebration originated in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is the where the biggest festivities take place. It was such an amazing event to be a part of and the Thais are very willing to let everyone share in there celebration.

Since the holiday is nationwide, most of the teachers I know from Phuket and Bangkok were there, yet remarkably when I looked around, the majority of the crowds were Thai. Chiang Mai is a perfect city for this particular event because the main area is the old city, about 2 square kilometers surrounded by a moat. The streets around the moat become a sort of parade of trucks and tuk-tuks full of people with water guns and buckets of water to throw at everyone on the sidewalks. The people on the sidewalks have water guns and buckets attached to a string, which they throw into the moat to fetch water to throw, a skill that is quickly acquired after joining the festivities. There are radio station booths with hoses and people selling giant blocks of ice on the sidewalks for the people in the trucks to buy. In the trucks there are garbage cans full of water as a refill for their other tools, so they put the ice in there. Since the novelty of getting anyone wet is lost, since everyone is soaked, you gotta get em with ice water to really shock them.
This fight takes mercy on no one, old and young people alike, and even the cops are getting soaked. The water from the moat isn’t exactly clean, nor do recreational activities normally take place in it but during this week, loads of people are swimming. Thais are known to swim fully clothed at the beach, not so much as a conservative thing, its just the norm, so during this traditional festival it is best to cover up a bit and not wear see through clothes. The official celebration is 3 days but in Chiang Mai it starts a couple days early. We spent a week there, mostly just joining in the festivities since there was no hope of arriving anywhere dry. Transportation is tuk-tuks and people loved to walk right up to the passengers and drench them.
We were able to see some temples including the beautiful Doi Suthep on top of a big hill, though the view was a bit obstructed by haze from the annual fires meant to cleanse the hillsides. We also visited a tiger zoo where we were able to pet some trained, not drugged, tigers, including some newborns.
When Songkran was over, a few of us took a 3 day trek in the mountains. Always hearing that the North was mountainous, it was a bit of shock to actually see the mountains as they weren’t anything like the Sierras and they were scorching hot! The first day we drove up into the mountains (in a tuk-tuk!) and stopped along the way to ride elephants. We got to see a clumsy newborn elephant! We hiked for a couple hours that afternoon with our trekking guide, a guy from one of the nearby hill tribes who spoke good English and had answers to all our questions. As we neared the hill-tribe village where we would be spending the night, we stopped to bathe in the river so as to arrive clean and fresh.

The tribe spoke their own language so any Thai that we knew unfortunately didn’t help us to communicate with them. We mostly just smiled and thanked them profusely. They cooked us a delicious dinner with delicious vegetarian dishes. After the meal our guide took us to visit with some locals in their house. The houses consisted of two huts, one for sleeping and one for cooking, though some family members slept in the kitchen huts. They gave us tea and we asked all the questions we could think of, communicating through our guide. There was an older couple we directed most of our questions to and they were absolutely brilliant. We asked how old they were and they told us to guess and then they also tried to guess our ages. The wife said she wished she could talk to us and if she could, she would have us all laughing. She actually ended up saying some things that when translated to us made everyone laugh, which just goes to show that humor can be shared among people with such different backgrounds. When they asked where we were all from, one person asked, “Which country do you like the best?!” and she said something along the lines of “we are all part of the same country.” This exchange was so interesting to me because I feel like it is very characteristic for a Westerner to ask who is the best and for the villager to respond that way.
The next day we hiked six hours in the heat, arriving at our next “camp” in time to bathe in the river before it got dark. Our guide and some villagers made us dinner. The villagers have houses scattered throughout the hillsides so there always seemed to be some people nearby. When we woke up they were tying together bamboo rafts for us. The river was very low since it was the end of dry season but we still attempted to raft on it. The guides had to keep dragging us over rocks that we got stopped on and sometimes we just got off the raft and helped carry it along. On the drive back to Chiang Mai, we stopped at a gorgeous waterfall for a nice swim which finished off the awesome trip. Oh and apparently awesome is a very American thing to say, haha.
slow boat on Mekong River

We headed to Laos the following day on the famous slow boat journey on the Mekong River. The long wooden boat isn’t by any means comfortable but the scenery is beautiful and makes for a nice alternative to a 20 hour van ride on bumpy windy roads. The boat travels one day, stops in a small Lao town where everyone gets hostels for the night, then travels a second day, arriving in Luang Prabang by dinner.

The feeling of Laos was very different than Thailand. It is a very poor communist country. One thing that we all noticed was that the locals were always littering! A Lao woman on the boat kept tossing all her garbage into the river, even splashing us sometimes! Lao towns are small, mostly on the Mekong or Namsong river, and have a French influence leftover from the French rule which ended over 50 years ago. This really just meant that there were lots of bakeries, a few Lao people who can speak French, and every restaurant and food stand has baguettes. In Luang Prabang, we enjoyed eating traditional Lao food (similar to Thai food), cruising around town on bicycles, a very good night market where we all bought some artwork, and a hike and swim around an amazing waterfall that was so blue it looked fake.
Our next stop was Vang Vieng, which so recently became a cool place for young backpackers, there isn’t even much about it in Lonely Planet! The scenery is gorgeous because not only is there a river, the town is also surrounded by giant limestone Karst mountains. Tourism has sprouted recently in Vang Vieng because they designated a stretch of the river for floating in tubes and lined the river with bars. The bars have lots of rope swings and entertainment; people really don’t spend that much time tubing. In fact, you can just go hang out at the bar all day swimming and playing and not even rent a tube. We were in Vang Vieng a week so we went to the river 3 times. 

 We also rented bicycles and rode to some caves, went to a lagoon, and stayed up late at outdoor bonfire bars meeting people from around the world, and even someone whose father grew up on the same street as me. We also kept seeing our friends from Phuket in all these towns and after the slow boat ride, we realized we were on the same track as several backpackers because we kept seeing all the same groups several times a day in every town. Laos was beautiful and extremely fun but there certainly was a seperation of Lao people and backpackers, as opposed to Thailand where the locals make friends with foreigners.
I am back into my normal schedule now of full-time work and yoga which feels great. My new class seems so young! They learn very quickly though. These multi-lingual kids never cease to amaze me. My students are mostly half Thai but their backgrounds also include Italian, German, Japanese, Indian, Swedish, and British. Two and a half is a crazy age but I already love them. I’m still very attached to my students from last term though and cannot believe how big and grown up they seem now. Luckily almost all of them still go to the school so I can still hug them and wave to them and tell them how big they’re getting! The first week, a few of them were even begging to come back to Pre-K with Teacher Andy!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I left California 5 months ago and have been at my job here a little over 3 months. That is longer than I have been away from home before and the longest I have had a full time job since I have been a student my whole life and therefore could only work full time in the summers. Before I left home, I wasn’t sure how much I would like it here but I knew I wanted to at least give this living abroad thing a try; so, I told people I would probably be gone 7 months (1 month TEFL training and one semester teaching). Now, I would be so sad to leave in just a couple months because time is going by so quickly and happily. I’m not sure how long I want to stay but since I love it more everyday… well, we’ll see!

King's bday celebration