Friday, June 20, 2008

The picture may be a little blury, but I promise that's me on an elephant

So after a super long trek through wilderness we were met with 10 large elephants ready to take us to our final destination. I stood face to face with an elephant and looked into her dark eyes. "What are you thinking? What are your stories? What are your secrets?" I wondered. But she never said. Then, without warning the great gray beast knelt before me and allowed me to climb up her large limbs and Brighton and I sat on the metal seat fastened to the elephants back. As she stood I was afraid I was going to die and as she started walking I was sure of it. But after I got over the initial jitters I was amazed at how graceful our elephant stepped. The methodical movement of those log-legs were very ballerina-esque and I felt like I was in a rocking cradle. The gorgeous view was an added bonus.

Quest to the Waterfall

Our group took a detour during our hill tribe trip to hike through a jungle and find a waterfall. The hike led us to super tall rounded trees cover with thick leaves and moss. They looked like giant green statues. The large vines that were draped through thick branches reminded me of streamers at a birthday party. We saw a large pool filled with clear turquoise water. Sun beams that broke through the jungle canopy mixed with humid mist cast a magical aura throughout woods. Exotic flowers caught light in their waxy petals giving off the illusion that they were glowing. Large colorful spiders sat contently on their sparkling webs. Dejavu. I've been here before...but when? And then I remembered. This is the place my backyard turned into when I was a little girl.

Hike to the Hill Tribes

I hiked to some hill tribes with the group a few weeks ago. It was beautiful. First we hiked through a thick jungle and then we climbed up a steep muddy and hill and when we reached the top...Ahhhhh (angles singing)...a gorgeous valley spread across the landscape. A checkerboard of deep yellow, dark green, and purplish blue fields blanketed large rolling hills leading to majestic cliffs contrasted against a dark grayish-blue sky. Little rays of sun poked through thick cloud cover. The rest of the 20 km hike was like this. Stunning views, beautiful smells, and a peaceful breeze were our constant companions through the entire trek. I'm pretty sure it was the portal to heaven.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Read posts and sorry about the comment button

I just posted a bunch of posts. They don't all show up on this page, but you should read them. Go to the Blog archive on the left hand side of the blog and click June to see all my posts! And I'm sorry about the comment box not working. I don't really know why it doesn't work. If you have any ideas please email me:

So…I went to Burma

For those of you who saw Rambo, don’t worry, I’m okay. You may be wondering why our group decided to go to Burma despite the dangers resulting from its tyrannical dictatorship. The answer: We were getting our visas renewed. When you enter Thailand you are allowed to stay for 30 days. If you want to renew your visa you can do it for $60 in the city, or leave the country and come back in for $10. We chose the later and took a road trip. So all 11 of us rented a van and Brother Dang drove us to the Golden Triangle (a central port in the opium trade). We’ve been told it is completely safe to enter Burma in the north. It was an amazing trip.

On the Thai side of the border outdoor markets flourished, shops and restaurants were well maintained and busy with customers, the paved roads were in good condition. I was surprised at the immediate difference I saw on the Burma side of the border. It felt like I had gone back 50 years. Outdoor markets were not nearly as numerous as in Thailand. Road were cracked and decayed. Buildings were falling apart and homes and shops were built with the thin metal, cardboard, and grass. I’ve seen conditions like this in Thailand, however, it was surprising because this city was on the border. Border cities are usually centers of commerce and wealth, yet this city exhibited the traits of a poor country village. It would be interesting to go deeper into the country and see what the living conditions are like there.

We only spent a few hours in Burma, but something happened to me in that country. We rode around on little motorbike taxies and tour several temples and Wats, but it was the people who were the most fascinating. Most of the women and children wore chalk on their cheeks to protect their skin from acne causing oils, and from the sun. Some images that day will forever be burned into my heart. As we rode down a dusty street we passed a 30-ish year-old man squatting in a pile of trash he dumped from a nearby garbage and feasting on its contents like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. We passed a 10-ish year-old boy smoking a cigar.

As we were getting ready to leave the country a small skinny boy, 5 or 6, dressed in rags put his hands together and gave me the most piercing gaze as he begged for a few cents. All I could do was stare at him. I knew he was putting on a show for the tourists, but his overly dramatic demonstration held the undeniable truth of his circumstances. I could feel the stress of his life reach up and grab my heart. My friend dropped a few baht into his little hands and I broke my gaze. A few minutes later I was informed that the little boy had reached his hand into the pocket of someone in our party before he was caught. I congratulated myself at first for seeing through the boy’s act, until I suddenly realized that I was also an actor in a much more sickening game. Denying monetary support was not nearly as despicable as my delusion of superiority.

Road Trip

The group of students and teachers that I am traveling with took a road trip last Wednesday. First of all, the drive up was absolutely gorgeous! I can’t explain to you how beautiful Thailand is. Everywhere you look is a breathtaking vista. North Thailand has huge mountains covered in thick jungles overlooking vast rice fields dotted with grass huts, old villages, wats, and animals. I tried to take pictures of what I saw, but pictures don’t capture the smell of the grasses, pictures don’t capture the movement of mountain mist, and pictures don’t capture the reality of the moment.

My professor arrived in Thailand last Sunday so he came up to Burma with us. He is definitely one of my favorite teachers of all time. It was so awesome because on our drive we asked questions on history, philosophy, religion, and current events and Ralph (our professor) would go into these awesome impromptu philosophical lectures that deepened our thoughts and rattled our beliefs. He’s the kind of teacher who carefully prods you to reach inside yourself and examine the beliefs and cultural ideas you never thought to consider, but that were always there. Lectures like that shake up my intellectual and spiritual insides and force me to evaluate myself. It’s sometimes painful…like cleaning your room.

A room that is messy can look relatively clean on the outside, but under your bed and in your closet things are stuffed in a big unorganized mess—gathering dust. When you clean your room you have to pull everything out before you can start putting it back in. Doing so is scary and frustrating because your room starts to look even more messy than before you started to clean. Each item has to be pulled out, dusted off, and thoroughly examined. You have to decide what the item is and where it should go. A lot of stuff ends up in the garbage and, in the end, there is always a box of miscellaneous stuff left over that you never could decide what to do with. It’s painful, but you end up understanding yourself and your surroundings on a more profound level.

Teaching stories

Story 1:
I was teaching 6th grade. We were playing a game and it was my job to pick people to come to the front of the classroom. They don’t understand “come up here.,” so I have to motion them to them to get them to get up. How would you do this? Following the American body language, I motioned a boy to the front by turning my palm up and moving my fingers toward and away from my body…bad mistake. Apparently that motion is reserved for prostitutes propositioning new clients…No recovery from that one. I thought I would die after I realized why everyone was hooting and hollering. Sad part is I did it a few more times after that!

Story 2:
On Tuesday we were tired because we had taught 5 classes in a row. A nice teacher had us sit in her room during our break. As we sat there a group of about ten 9-year-olds walked into the classroom and saw that we were tired. Immeditatly I felt little hands begin to massage my shoulders. Other students picked up pick posters and used them as fans. Other students began massaging my arms. Other students began feeding us fruit. I leaned back in my chair and let them do their thing. I had heard about the great massages offered in Thailand, but I’m pretty sure my massage that day topped them all.

Teaching at Soppoengwithaya School

Every morning at 7:30 am Pa, Ong (an 8th grader at my school), and I drive to Soppoengwithaya school. As we drive into the school students from 5- to 17-years-old wai us. The first day I came the kids wai-ed casually until they saw me and then they stared intently at me before running of to tell their friends about the farong (foreigner).

Before school everyday, all four hundred students line up in the courtyard according to grade and gender and sing the national anthem, salute (wai) the flag, and have announcements. The first day I came Pa spoke to the students and introduced Jessica and I as the new English teachers. Jessica and I were celebrities after that. Students would watch us wherever we went.

We teach all the students in 17 classes throughout the week which means we only see each student once a week. Its nice because we only need to organize one lesson plan per week, but it stinks because our teaching is more ornamental and fun; we won’t be responsible for any huge strides in their English speaking skills.

The kids can read and write English, but they can’t speak it worth beans. We are trying to focus our lessons on teaching the students to speak English. I love teaching the primary classes because the kids love us. The secondary classes aren’t too bad, but they definitely don’t adore us. I’m pretty sure they think we’re dorks and they would be well justified in that conclusion. Actually no, Jessica’s not a dork because I found out that she wore spikes on her hands when she was in high school…cool.

Teaching at the Primary School Near MaeJo University

So I have been teaching English for two weeks and I really like it. When I was living a MaeJo University, I started teaching at a local primary school down the road. The first day was awful. We had no preparation at all. We just showed up at the school, walked into a 2nd grade class and were asked to teach for an hour. Yikes! It may not have been so bad except that there were five of us in one classroom and we all had different ideas about what to; not to mention the teacher who had ideas of her own. We taught two classes and then went to lunch. The lunch wasn’t very good, but we had to eat it all because the teachers were watching us intently and we didn’t want to offend them. After lunch we were sent to the computer room to email friends and then we were sent home instead of teaching another class.

The next time I taught was with just Jessica. It was nice not to have to teach the class alone, but we also had the flexibility to our own thing. I’m so glad that we got to practice at this primary school for a week because when we transferred to the school we are teaching now we were more prepared.


Last Sunday, I was told that would be given a Thai name. Pa picked one that stood for “Our kid.” I tried to say it, but the word was impossible for me to pronounce. It sounded like Ngn. Basically, in order to say it you had to have the back of your tongue go through your nostrils…or something. It was weird because I swear I was saying it correctly, but they just laughed and laughed anytime I tried to pronounce it. It’s interesting how my brain can’t pick up on the subtle sound differences in the Thai language.

Anyways, they finally decided to give me a new name. Pa said, “Your name—Aeh-rie.” It sounds like “Eh-ree” where the accent is on the “Eh” and you roll the “r.” I thought it sounded beautiful. My host mom said, “Wow! A very good name. The meaning is tofu.” Tofu? They gave me a name that meant tofu? I wasn’t as excited about it anymore, but then I realized that she was saying “thoughtful,” not tofu. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who can’t hear subtle sound difference in a foreign language. I liked Pa’s explanation of my name the best, “A person who is kind…Love everyone.”


Ong is 13-years-old and is his mother and father’s pride and joy. When I first met him he would hardly look at or acknowledge me, but I later learned that he manages his shyness by acting nonchalant.

I’ve never seen anyone eat his or her food with such pleasure and satisfaction as Ong eats his. He relishes every bite as he systematically devours every meal. It’s not that he eats a lot, or that he puts on a dramatic scene similar to Bob’s hand shucked corn in “What about Bob?” It’s just that he thoroughly enjoys what he is eating and you can see it on his face. Watching him makes your mouth water and find yourself almost asking to have a bite of what he’s eating until you remember that it’s pickled chicken’s feet and then you’re brought back to you senses.


Pa is very reserved and gives me (a female) a large amount of space, however, he is extremely kind and loving despite the physical distance. Pa knows little English, however he still know a lot more English than I know Thai. We have little conversations such as “You like Thai food,” and “Chan chob Durian.”

Pa is the principal at the school I am teaching at. He is very well respect and has received several awards for his teaching and leading accomplishments. However, despite all his hard work, he is very relaxed and easygoing at home. He takes off his shirt and roams the house in a wife beater. Every morning before school he wanders over to the next house over and has breakfast with his parents. When he drives he does so gracefully and smoothly—ebbing and flowing with the traffic. In short, he has figured out how to be efficient minus the stress. I think the society he lives in helps.


My host mom is very kind and relaxing yet she exhibits an admirable air of dignity. I think she is absolutely gorgeous with a clear light brown complexion, dark eyes, and big lips. She wears dark square glasses that make her look hip. She is 45 years old. It’s funny because when I first met her I called her “Mae” (mom) and she laughed and corrected me. “I am not Mae. I am young. I am “Pii” (sister). Whoops. It’s funny because if my mom were still alive she would only be 42 years old, so technically Pii could be Mae.

Pii is very smart. She knows several languages and reads a lot. Currently she is teaching at a primary school while also working on a Master’s degree. She is gone this week end to present her thesis about reforming teaching methods in Thai public schools.

I’ve been told that Pii is the epitome of a good Thai housewife: she is on top of everything. However, she doesn’t seem very concerned about clothing, interior decorating, cooking, or cleaning. That’s not to say that she doesn’t dress well, or that her house isn’t well kept, but you can tell that education, work, and family take a higher priority in her life.

She loves Ong and they have cute relationship. It is different than American relationships in that she is physically affectionate towards Ong as if he were a 5-year-old…But it’s not weird as some might assume. It seems perfectly natural, but it does point to some differences between our cultures.

Pii wants me to learn Thai and teaches me everyday. It is nice that she speaks a little English so that she can help me understand what word she is teaching. I have learned a lot from her, but I still have a long way to go before I am capable of carrying out a full conversation in Thai.

Jai Ngam Family (Beautiful Heart)

I moved in with my Host family! Last Saturday (May 24) my host mom (Pii), dad (Pa), and brother (Ong) came and picked me up at Mae Jo University. I was so excited to see them! I went to give my host mom a hug and she went to wai me, so then I went to wai her and she went to shake my hand, so then I tried to shake her hand, but then she opened her arms for a hug. We ended up giving each other an awkward hug-hand shake-wai thingy…and that pretty much explains how it’s been this whole week.

This whole week has been a careful dance between knowing when to uphold my own culture and when to bow to the Thai culture. The interesting things is that I am dealing with two cultures: the Thai culture and the Jai Ngam family culture.

The family is super laid back and accepting. They want me to be a part of their family and culture, but are also forgiving of my mistakes.

The mom speaks very good English, but it is still difficult sometimes to communicate. They ended up buying me an air-conditioning system, which I definitely did not need all, because I was practicing Thai and had learned to say, “Today it is hot.” I thought it was a joke when Pa said, “Then I will buy you air-conditioning.” But lo and behold, the next day there was a brand new air-conditioning unit in my room! I called my facilitator to ask him what to do, but at that point it would have been very rude to tell them that I liked the old beat up fan better than the new fancy air-conditioning.

There is a lot of awkward silences between us as a result of one us wanting to say something, but not knowing how to communicate it. I’m trying to learn more Thai, but I don’t know enough vocabulary yet to get across what I mean and that is a little frustrating.

Luckily, without the words, we can still communicate how we feel about one another. If it’s nothing more than a polite smile between pa and I, or a fist pound between with Ong, or Pii’s constant watch over me, it’s enough to disclose that we like one another.