Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Three Cheers for Linguistics!

Since I arrived, I have been searching for a way to learn Thai. Though many Thais in Chiang Mai speak English, I believe that I'm not really here, not really a part of the community until I can at least stumble along in Thai. 

I have checked out multiple courses (none of which fit my teaching schedule) and many websites and podcasts (most of which are confusing and not very informative). It's been a month, and I was getting quite discouraged. 

At CMU, the English department includes the Linguistics department and all English majors (the students who are best at English) study Linguistics (the best way to explain Thai to me). I had asked one of the upper-level English teachers to ask her students if anyone wanted to be my conversation partner, exchanging Thai for English. 

Today I met with my first partner and it was amazing, because not only do we both speak English, we both speak Linguistics, which makes it easier for me to speak Thai. She was able to explain so many things that had been mysteries of structure and pronunciation. For example, in Thai, voicing of consonants is not phonemic (wait did you just say a "k" or a "g" - now I realize it doesn't matter!) but aspiration is (me: "kai" street vendor: "no, kai" me: "kai" etc.)

Having someone who speaks "linguist" explain it takes the guess-work out of being corrected (usually people are unable to articulate what you have said wrong and will continue to repeat it, the error glaringly obvious to them and completely invisible to you). 

Also, understanding the sound system of Thai helps me anticipate what my students will have trouble with (final consonants are not released in Thai - it's not that my students don't know how to conjugate verbs, they are just not pronouncing them in a way that I can perceive!) 

It's been a revelation and reinforces my belief that everyone learning or teaching a second language should know linguistics! 

I also got a Thai nickname which is Aree (the r is a trill, like in Spanish) and it means "kind person" (little does she know...haha)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Snail Mail

I am a big fan of snail mail. This means: 
a) I would like to send some to you 
b) I would like you to send some to me
a) please leave your address in the comments, e-mail it to me or facebook it to me (even if you think I already have it - I don't. I left most of that helpful information in the US)
b) my address is 
Baan Thai B
36 Nimanhaeminda Road #2304
Suthep Subdistrict, Muang Chiang Mai District
Chiang Mai, Thailand 50200

Okay go! 

Floating Cabins and Thai Kindness

Last weekend I went with some other PiAers (Princeton in Asia is the program I am in Thailand through) to Eakachai; floating cabins in the Srilanna National Park.

There is a large reservoir there and you take a boat out and stay on these small clusters of floating huts, usually some cabins and a restaurant. 

It was very peaceful and relaxing; felt like a weekend at the cottage or camping. All we did was play cards, read books, and swim - it was excellent.  

On the way back I felt my back tire start to swerve a little. At first I thought it was just Nicole (my passenger) shifting her weight, but then it got a little more violent and so I pulled over. Flat tire :( 

We still had about 40 kilometers left to go and the rest of the group had gone on ahead (my bike is not the fastest or most powerful - in fact, she was christened "Bessie May" on this trip after stalling at the top of a hill with the two of us on her). Also, we had decided to take the scenic route past farms (it was scenic, just also in the middle of nowhere...) and I hadn't seen a gas station since we'd been on the road. I started pushing my bike up the road and came across a junk yard. I pointed to the tire, shrugged my shoulders and smiled. Without a word, the two young guys working there stopped what they were doing, located a tube and set to work dismantling my back tire. Half an hour later when I asked them how much I owed them, they just said "Mai pen rai" (the Thai motto which means no problem/whatever/don't worry about it). I ended up forcing 100 baht (~$3) on them for their trouble but I was humbled by their kindness. 

Also, today I went to a "Day of Mindfulness" (a monthly day of meditation, talks, singing and togetherness held on campus) and though I was the only person of about 20 that didn't speak Thai, the organizers said everything in Thai and English so that I wouldn't feel left out. 

Even as I am writing this, I'm given another example. I am in a coffee shop where you get a password for 30 free minutes of internet with the receipt for your purchase, after that you have to pay for it. The guy behind the counter just came over with passwords that he had snipped off two receipts other people had left because he knew I must be out of time by now. 

Thai people are wonderful.

Vroom Vroom

After my first week here, I decided to buy a motorbike. I was sick of taking songtauws everywhere I wanted to go. Songtauws are essentially pickup trucks with a covered truck bed with benches in it. They function like a cross between a taxi and a bus. You hail one and tell them where you are going and if a) you are going to the same general area as other people on the songtauw, b) you agree to their price and c) they feel like it, they pick you up. The songtauws are run by the evil songtauw mafia (I'm serious - they essentially prevented a bus system from being put in Chiang Mai), riding in them slowly drains your soul and being dependent on them is somehow deeply demoralizing. They also spew disgusting black smoke, the drivers have no regard for human life on the road and they try to rip you off endlessly. 

So a bike seemed like a prudent purchase. I went with Nick (the other PiA fellow who is at CMU who also lives in my building), Michi (a 2nd year PiA fellow who knows about bikes) and Michi's girlfriend (who is Thai and has mastered the coy "how could you possibly charge me that much" bargaining smile). 

Success! I bought a bike for about $400 and felt the sweet thrill of freedom.

I promptly (though mildly) crashed it and got this sweet bruise

They drive on the left side of the road here - it takes a little getting used to. 

The traffic is generally pretty intense. There don't seem to be many rules. Just generally: know where you are, know where everyone else is, and don't get in someone else's way (or you die). At rush hour, you cannot focus on the road in front of you. You must have all your peripheral vision and quick decision making skills operating at max performance. Don't worry though mom and dad, I have a super-intense helmet! (like this one)

Land of the flee and home of the blave:

I've had a few posts marinating in my brain and finally have some time to get them online - pretend these were posted throughout the last two weeks!

 After getting their grades back on the first assignment, some of my students looked so dejected that I felt guilty and decided to offer some extra credit. Maybe I grade harder than the other teachers? The next class was July 4th, so I offered +0.5 if they wore red, white and blue, and +0.5 if they made a short presentation about Independence Day (or Canada Day!). I thought maybe a few would take advantage of it, but was surprised when almost everyone participated! 

I also sat through about 8 of the same presentation. Apparently this was the first result when you googled "Fourth of July". The students dutifully recited it down to the line "... we claimed our independence from britain..." It was cute.

There was a party at the American Consulate (on the 3rd for some reason) and it was actually fun. A few friends of mine had "founding fathers" outfits tailored and wore them for the occasion. 

There was Budweiser, McDonalds, Subway and Starbucks - the extent of America in Thailand apparently. 

A live orchestra played The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful before a decent fireworks display, and a group was registering people for absentee ballots; I actually felt pretty patriotic. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Alchemist

Yesterday I finished reading "The Alchemist" by Paul Coelho which is 'a magical fable about following your dream.' The book was very uplifting and inspiring, saying beautiful things like "when you are following your destiny, all the universe conspires to help you" and the message is generally to follow your heart and omens and you will be able to see the Soul of the World and fulfill your destiny; wonderful things like that. 

I try to do that in general, but today I was especially attuned to it, having just finished the book, and ended up having a wonderful day filled with beautiful serendipities and other happy things. 

I had the feeling when I woke up that I should go to work a little early. I had nothing extra to do, but felt that I should go to the teacher's office. I walked in, signed my class record form and was almost immediately approached by a Thai teacher who asked if I would like to work privately with a student on her speaking skills for 2 hours/week and how did 300 baht/hour sound? This is to a T, exactly the kind of extra work I have been looking for! It was amazing. 

Later, I went to the English department mini-library that I had heard about from other teachers and came across several books that I have been meaning to read (I'm taking it upon myself to read all the books I "should have" read but never did, so if you have any suggestions please leave them in the comments!) like Pride & Prejudice, Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, Ana Karenina and others. 

After than I found a gorgeous, shady running spot, and had a luxurious swim in the pool at my apartment. 

In class I had a sudden feeling that I should scrap the prescribed lesson, and asked my students what they would like to do. "Play Games!" 

yeah, me too... so we played Hangman which segued easily into an impromptu lesson about pronunciation, compound words, minimal pairs and the IPA, with their fingers on their throats figuring out whether a sound was voiced or voiceless. My students were the most responsive I've ever seen them; I would even say they were having fun! My favorite moment was when a student who had never said a word in class before blurted out the answer to the hangman problem (it seemed almost without realizing it because he looked shocked at himself) and the whole class cheered for him. 

I went to my swing dancing class and out for dinner with one of the women after. At a table next to us was a man dining alone, I got a feeling that I should talk him so I asked if he would like to join us. He turned out to be a wonderful person who was working on similar issues as my friend and we all talked for hours. On the way back to my motorbike (which I had inexplicable parked far away because I got the sudden urge to walk the rest of the way to the restaurant), I ran into a friend from school who invited me up for coffee and we had a lovely chat as well. 

All in all, a beautiful day which fully reinforced my faith in omens, "coincidences," seredipities and listening to my heart. 

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Motorbikes & Mangosteens: I live in Thailand

I have been living in Chiang Mai, Thailand for about 3 weeks now and I'm loving it. I am teaching English to 1st and 2nd year students at Chiang Mai Univeristy (locally know as Mawshaw - note: there is not really any standard romanization for Thai, so mine may seem funny, but this is my blog to I'll spell Thai however I want to!) My students are quiet but sweet; more about them later.

I live in a 1-bedroom apartment (it's sadly really dormy, but I'm making it nicer slowly but surely) in the west part of town. There is an "old city" inside a moat in Chiang Mai and I am in a newer part of the city with a mall and lots of stores, restaurants and bars. 

Chiang Mai is much more "city" that I expected it to be (2nd largest city in Thailand) but is still really pretty in parts despite having loads of concrete in other parts. The campus is beautiful and green,

 there are lots of peaceful wats (temples) around town, 

and about a million serene little coffee shops that make you feel like you're isolated in a jungle (with delicious fresh brewed coffee). 

Chiang Mai has lots of expats, which can be good and bad. It does mean that there are lots of different interesting opportunities (some of which may or may not have existed without the expat crowd). I have been to a Jazz History class, a swing dancing class, yoga classes, French cinema night, an Independence Day Party at the American Consulate and have been trying to find a good way to learn Thai besides asking random students at the end of class. 

I only teach 15 hours/week so I have lots of free time. I have been to several markets (where I took full advantage of my current latitude, purchasing copious amounts of tropical fruits),

including the motorbike market, climbed at the bouldering wall, seen the Chiang Mai Youth Orchestra perform, read, written, watched movies, and gone out to lots of dinners and bars with new friends (mostly other foreign teachers, but some Thai teachers & climbers, too).

I will be writing and posting pictures about my life here and travels to surrounding areas. Some of you may have noticed that I was actually good about keeping in touch for a few weeks there while I was lonely, but now that I have some more friends I will probably go back to being terrible :( 

However, now I will have a blog so you will at least know what I'm up to if you care to check.

I am always open to visitors and I promise you will have a good time, so come visit me!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Spin the Globe to the Other Side

After 48 hours of traveling (11 of which disappeared, stolen by the international dateline) and 5 airports (Anchorage>Seattle>Seoul>Bangkok>Chiang Mai - the best part of which by far was lunch in Seattle with Max!), I arrived in Chiang Mai at 8am on a Thursday. (Side note: Korean Air rocks my socks - a pair of which they give you onboard to make your flight more comfortable. They have unlimited juice and movies, and great food which made the 11 hour flight seem shorter than most domestic flights I've taken recently. The Korean food I had made me think I could live in Korea forever - if the airplane food is this good...)

I was taken directly to campus and was not expected to teach only because it was National Teacher Worship Day. Students created flower arrangements and gave them to the teachers and I didn't have to start class on my first day in Asia. The next day however, I was standing at the blackboard in front of 28 Thai students who appeared to be in High School but I was assured were in my English 103 class (not sure why they call it 103 because I believe it is the first course they take). I taught 3 classes and was extremely glad it was already Friday. 
The nice thing and the worst thing about CMU is that the curriculum is completely planned out for the teachers. There are hundreds of sections of each class so it must be kept consistent across the classes (especially with those pesky foreign teachers coming in with crazy ideas...) and my classes range from mildly engaging to mind-numbingly boring through no fault of my own.
I spent my first weekend getting a cell phone, figuring out how to get around, and trying to find a place to stay (my PiA buddy Nick was nice enough to let me crash in his room the first few days). I ended up staying in the same apartment building as Nick (Baan Thai) and was mainly sold because it has a pool big enough for doing laps, and the fact that this is the view from my apartment.