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Goodbye Sobprab

I am sitting on a bus leaving Sobprab for the last time with tears pouring down my face. The finality of everything is weighing on my heart, and a paper I once read on rites of passage echoes in my mind. My identity as an English teacher in Thailand and everything that has consumed my life for the last 15 months is over. I’ve entered into a period of limbo within which the past and present are one and everything of value is fleeting. A door has definitely closed in my life. Even if I return to Thailand, it will never be in the same capacity.

When I arrived here 15 months ago, I didn’t speak any Thai, and I didn’t know anything. It’s incredible how in just one short year, a land of strangeness can become home, although I can’t quite put my finger on what I’ve learned. Perhaps resilience is a really big part of it, but there is more. Someone once defined anthropology as making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Watching other foreigners react to Thailand for the first time, I realize that I have certainly managed to do this.

In Thai, the adjective for kind is ‘jai dee’ which literally translates to ‘good heart’. I love this term because it emphasizes the internal origin of generous behaviour. I think this is such an appropriate way to describe the people of northern Thailand, who, beneath their famous smiles, have shown me kindness and love beyond what I would have ever expected or felt I deserved. I will carry memories of the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made in my heart as long as I live.

As I start my life back in a western country, I never want to forget how freedom feels, what its like to not have a washing machine, the river of green rice fields as they weave through the valleys and foothills.

Since I haven’t had the time to specifically post, I’ve included photos of the things I’ve done over the last few weeks, and appropriate captions.
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First Year Syndrome

First year syndrome is my term for the sense of expertise you feel in the first year of doing something. We’ve all been there! In my first year studying psychology I was ready to toss away the assignments in which we weren’t allowed to have an opinion, in exchange for a couch and a client. Gradually, I learned more and knew less until finally in third year I was allowed an opinion but I didn’t feel qualified to say anything.

I guess I thought that by being aware of first year syndrome, I was somehow immune. It caught me by surprise when I realised I’d been afflicted since the moment I landed in Thailand. Perhaps I would have felt more satisfied had I left a few months ago, remaining the Australian authority on Thai language and culture, but I didn’t.

A few weeks ago now I went and stayed with my friend and her family a year after my last visit with them. Two things took me by surprise. Firstly although my Thai has improved significantly over the past year, I still had trouble communicating with her family beyond the basics like “I’m going to take a shower” or “I’m hungry”.

The second thing was a conversation I had with her about the death of one of her relatives and hardship in general. Her response, that she understands death is natural and she has to accept it and move on, blew me away in it’s simplicity as well as it’s correspondence with my understanding of Buddhist philosophy. I couldn’t believe that after a year this was my first exposure to Buddhism as an understanding of life rather than just a religion. It’s kind of crazy considering Buddhism is the major religion of Thailand and is practiced by just about everyone.

I feel like I’m on the cusp of a breakthrough in understanding and if I just stay a little longer (maybe another year) my knowledge of the language will grow and consequently my understanding of the religion will deepen. I feel as through leaving now is like quitting a marathon 75% of the way through, yet in reality, this marathon could last a lifetime if I let it.

The truth is that discovering my ignorance probably means that I have learned quite a bit, even if I don’t see it, and developing a yearning to know more means that I probably won’t stop learning. The most important lessons that I’ve learned through are not about Thailand at all, but the transience of life and the importance of the people in our lives. The people we love are so important in life that I believe they define it. And on that note, I know that I’m making the right decision in going home because it’s in accordance with one of my strongest ideologies.

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What Language am I Teaching?

“Can you pass me my thongs” called my friend as she walked onto the boat deck. Instantly the two Americans who happened to be on the deck with us turned their heads from whatever they were doing to see me pass her a pair of rubber shoes . This is just one example of many instances where I’ve noticed English differ. I’ve had to explain what ‘Panadol’ (paracetamol) is to a friend and I was called ‘spannah’ for at least two weeks because of my pronunciation of the word ‘spanner’ which is apparently not even a word in America. I’m sure most readers will have dozens of examples to add. Speaking English in an international context is all fun and games until you have to TEACH it.

That’s where I come in sitting at my computer trying to decide how to spell ‘colour’, ‘behaviour’ and ‘favourite’ on my worksheets or standing in front of a classroom deciding how important it is to teach the kids how to say ‘th’ as in ‘with’ properly, or if it’s satisfactory for them to say ‘wit’ instead. After all, they want to speak like a ‘native’ but I have a friend who can’t quite get his tongue around ‘th’ either, and he is a native English speaker. Can the word ‘native’ even be used to describe English speakers since we come from such diverse backgrounds and the way we use English differs so much? Don’t even get me started on semantics. When someone asks me the difference between ‘supper’ and ‘dinner’ I don’t even know what to say.

But it gets more confusing than that. Language and culture are deeply intertwined, and unfortunately, the majority of the students I teach will never get the chance to go to an English speaking country. Thai’s speaking English will mostly be speaking in Thailand, about Thailand or other topics relevant to ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). This means that a lot of the phrases that exist in English are not relevant to Thai students, and there are many gaps

I believe that perfection in language is defined by the speaker rather than being determined by the definition. In other words (sorry grammar fanatics) someone speaking with poor grammar and a lot of slang is just as ‘perfect’ as someone speaking with Queens English if its suitable for the context they are in. Language is fluid and changing depending on where we are and how we want to use it. It is therefore reasonable that instead of teaching British English, or American English, or Australian English, that we adopt elements of all and adapt them to best suit Thai students in a Thai context. The goal should be confidence and adaptability rather than perfection.  The challenge left to teachers is striking a balance between correcting for accuracy, and accepting unimportant mistakes to encourage risk taking. Perhaps this challenge is universal to all teachers of all subjects.

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The Top 5 Experiences from my Recent Visa Run

Last week, after a year in Thailand, my visa run required an embassy so I ended up in Vientiane. I was lucky because it coincided with a public holiday which meant I could enjoy a few sights in Loas without missing anymore school than I would have to anyway. I went to Vientiane, Loas; Vang Viang, Loas; and Udon Thani, Thailand. Listed below are the top 5 experiences from the trip, minus all the cool people I met on the way.

 

  1. Phu Phrababt Historical Park, near Udon Thani, Isan, Thailand

One day in Udon Thani was enough to regret ever listening to advice against travelling to Isan. Between an archaeology museum, a lake and a few temples I decided to spend the one day I had in Phu Phrabat historical park! WOW! I love nature and I love pre-history and this park was the two slammed together with a pinch of AWESOME! It was cool and shady because of all the trees that spanned either side of the well maintained paths which stretched between ancient rock formations. Apparently two or three thousand years ago the area was a series of massive caves. The people who lived in the area carved the caves into rooms and monuments to suit their needs and decorated the walls. Over the millennia the majority of the rocks have been weathered away leaving the scant remains of their prehistoric architecture and a couple of cave paintings with a lush green backdrop. With the sights so numerous and so varied, I spent the precious two hours I had running around the park trying to see as much as possible. I barely scratched the surface.

  1. A Random Cave in Vang Vieng, Loas (Sorry! I don’t know the name).

Vang Vieng is a weird place. The locals are mostly subsistence farmers but the beautiful nature and famed tubing (floating down a river from bar to bar) have attracted hordes of tourists. The result is a contrast between village simplicity and a metropolis of party tourists and greasy food. As a nature loving greenie inspired by culture, you can imagine I spent most of my time avoiding the beaten track and searching for the road less taken. One such trip took me down a slippery road into a local farm. I was initially greeted by ducks and cows, then by the farmer himself. Upon discovering that I could scrape together a couple of sentences in Loa, and communicate basically in Thai, he agreed to take me to a cave for a good price. The walk to the cave was almost as beautiful as the cave itself. Mountains formed the background and the colours were all the more vibrant because of the rain. We slipped and slid over on the ridges between rice paddies, weaving through the cucumber vines and corn fields on his farm. The cave itself was deep, dark and in some places dangerous but the rock formations and water droplets glistening in the torchlight were beautiful. Outside the entrance to the cave was a small lagoon with beautiful blue and clean water. Compared with an anxious hour at the famous blue lagoon, shy in my tattered bikini and ever cautious of the security of my belongings amongst all the people, it was wonderful to jump in, fully clothed, with the equally beautiful smaller version all to myself. On the way back my guide picked me a cucumber from his vine. Seeing me eat it with enjoyment, once we got back to the farm house, he got a bag, and went back out to fill it with more cucumbers, making the trip even more special.

  1. The Amazing Greenness of Loas Countryside

While I was in Loas someone asked me what I thought the biggest difference between Loas and Thailand is, and honestly, it’s so hard to tell. I’m at home in Thailand. I know the currency, a bit of the language, and I have some personal relationships with Thai people. In contrast, Loas is not home, so people treat me differently, and I constantly have to be aware. One thing I did notice however was the beautiful scenery when we were in the bus. Compared with Thailand, Loas has a relatively small population. In fact, in the capital, Vientiane, there are only 200, 000 people, which is actually not that much bigger than Lampang, the closest city to where I live. The result of this is that the environment in Loas has been very well preserved. You can see this, as you travel between destinations, with how few villages there are, how underdeveloped those villages are, and by how much natural bush there still is! Since Loas is so mountainous and it rains so much, everything was very green! I would LOVE to go again, but tour on a motorbike instead of busses, stopping at various national parks! I think it would be amazing.

  1. Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women, Vientiane, Loas

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Vientiane. In fact, as far as cities go (and remember I’m not a city person), Vientiane falls pretty low. I found a swimming pool and one or two good restaurants, but that was about it. One thing I did do was spend a day at the Houey Hong Vocational Training Centre for Women. In other words, I went with a girl I met in Vientiane and we spent the day tie dying and looking at weaving. In a typical Asian fashion there was a LOT of downtime in our tour, but it was really interesting none the less. We got to watch women weave cloth on a loom. It was incredible the amount of work it takes to do a simple pattern. We also tried our hand at some tie dying, with the natural pigments they used. My scarf was red, so they used durian bark, tamarind and the resin left behind by an insect to create the colour. Actually, it was fascinating to see the variety of natural materials they used to create such beautiful colours.

  1. Pure Massage Bliss, Udon Thani, Thailand

The morning I left Loas was very stressful. I had less than 5 minutes to pack and I had to run to catch the bus, then I spent 5 hours in a cramped bus, having not eaten anything and with an aching leg. By the time I arrived in Udon, I was not only ravenous, but my leg was quite sore and my tolerance was wearing VERY thin. The mummer of ‘Farrang khon deiow’ (a foreigner travelling alone) should have been warning for the deluge of tuk-tuk drivers that swooped on me like vultures on a carcass as I walked out the bus. The words ‘PISS OFF’ may not have come out of my mouth, but they were certainly written on my face in the sourest manifestation I could muster. My biggest bugbear about South East Asia is the frequency at which my white skin and blue eyes makes me a commodity. The irony of life is that we strive for individuality and success because we associate it with autonomy, but society claims unique people.  I digress! The reason I mention all this is because I found a hotel 500 metres from the bus stop (no tuk-tuk necessary), and another 500 metres doing the road I found a massage pallor where I had the best massage I’ve ever had in my entire life. My days stress literally melted away and were replaced by the perfect pressure of the masseuses supple hands.

 

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Waterfall Abseiling

The current reality of living in a small village is that I’m completely stir crazy and I’m not seeing a lot of progress with my students; I’m very ready to go back home to Australia and hit the next chapter of my life. BUT it seems a terrible waste for me to spend four months in a foreign country wishing I was home. Plus, I intend to go back to university, so it’s quite possible I won’t have this level of freedom again for quite a while. The mission then is to make the next four months as memorable as possible starting with waterfall abseiling. So far, right on track.  After abseiling down a couple of waterfalls, we went on a small hike learning jungle secrets. The day finished with a walk UP a waterfall.

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Why we shouldn’t stop talking ‘feminism’ just yet

Feminism has, in some circles, become a dirty word. Some people think feminism implies women think they’re somehow superior to men; that men’s issues don’t matter, or that woman can’t be feminine. I agree with none of these ideas, but I think people can get so caught up with them that they forget why feminism is so important. Being a feminist means seeking equitable opportunities for women, and, if you live in a society that has been touched by it, regardless of your gender, you have benefited from feminism.

The goals of feminism, as I see it, should extend beyond just having equal opportunities for employment and pay. Modern feminists should also seek equal status for women, so women’s voices are taken just as seriously as those of men, and our ideas are judged on their value as ideas, not on our appearance or whether or not we behave in a gender appropriate way. We also need to look at division of labour, so that in a two income family, domestic duties are equally shared, and so that domestic duties and breadwinning duties are valued equally.

I remember thinking, as a teenager, that feminism had done what it needed to do, and we were already there. I now know that couldn’t be further from the truth. Perhaps as a university student, despite thinking about these issues a lot, I was largely sheltered from them. Seeing gender inequality in action took me quite by surprise.

Something that I noticed when I first arrived at the school is that there is no girls’ football (soccer) team! I considered the possibility that it was because the girls were simply less interested in football than the boys. It’s still a possibility, but in Australia, I know a LOT of girls interested in football. The school I work at has 1000 students, so even if just 3% of the girls were interested, that would be enough to make a team. This forced me to consider the possibility that girls’ aren’t playing football because nobody told them that they can. But a football team isn’t really evidence alone.

The most common thing people talk about when discussing feminism is power and salary in employment and yesterday the reality hit me in the face. It was teacher’s day in Thailand, and we had a Wai Kru ceremony, in which students literally pay respect to teachers.  As all the teachers sat together on the stage, I did a quick headcount. Not surprisingly, the majority of teachers at our school are female and only a handful of them are male. Half of those male teachers are in senior positions, like directors, assistant directors and leaders of specific departments. None of those senior positions are occupied by women. NONE! In other words, despite being over-represented in the teaching profession, women were significantly under represented (in this case not at all), in leadership positions.

So is this reflected in leadership over one’s own life? I think it is. During long journeys you have a lot of time to think, and one day in a song taew I noticed that of the 10 people travelling, only one was a man. I started observing every time I travelled, and invariably, the situation was the same. Significantly more women use public transport in northern Thailand than men. I actually asked a couple of people about this but no one seemed to think it was relevant. The most obvious reason I can think of is that women are using public transport more than men, because they drive less than men. Perhaps this is because women are not taught how to drive, but most Thais I know are very comfortable on a motorcycle. Perhaps it is that women are scared to drive alone. I certainly know this is true at night or when it’s raining. Ultimately though, the situation leaves women playing the role of a less independent damsel needing assistance.

Certainly I feel this role imposed upon me in certain situations. I’ve been asked if I can sleep alone and actively discouraged from driving home in the dark. In fact, once I mentioned I was travelling with a male friend, and an older lady said to me, ‘it’s good that you’re going with him. He can protect you’.  Coming from a feminist background, comments like this just annoy me. I can imagine if you hear such comments your entire life you begin to believe them.

I think this is a big problem for women, because they’re being prevented from reaching their potential. It’s also a problem for society at large, because by undervaluing 50% of the workforce and ideas, purely based on gender, we’re missing out on a lot of potential innovation.

Of course these examples are very specific, and from the only context I know of first hand. I personally believe gender equality is battle that isn’t close to being won; and feminists, women and men alike, have a responsibility as global citizens to keep talking until gender equality is universal to every culture, society and system within the human race.

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Jungle Trek: Indonesia

Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve pretty much forgotten how to speak Thai, and I’m sure I’ve gained a kilo or two, but I have learned to live with just three t-shirts, I’ve fallen in love with the jungle, and discovered that there is no such thing as good palm oil. After the month travelling with Clancy, I spent two weeks in Indonesia. I would like to say that I just got back, or I haven’t posted about it because I’ve been too busy, but the truth is I’ve just been sleeping. I guess that’s normal after pushing your body for so long.

I landed on the 24th of April in crazy Medan. The population was explosive, the traffic was the worst I’ve seen in my entire life, and poverty was apparent. This was the most poorly planned international trip I’ve ever done. When I landed I had no idea what the currency was worth, how to get to my accommodation, or a single word in Indonesian. After pooling all the cash I was carrying at the exchange counter, I received 170,000 rupiah which was what the taxi driver was asking for. This meant I was bartering in a foreign country, unknown customs, and a currency I didn’t know within the first 5 minutes of walking through customs. Next on the agenda, food! After gesturing eating and then dancing like a chicken and STILL not being understood, my first meal in Indonesia, quelle horreur, was at McDonalds.

Things improved 1000% when I was picked up by my tour (Expedition Jungle) the following day. I met the three other girls who I’d be trekking with (all top people), our guide, and I ate some proper food. We spent 6 days walking in the Jungle and 1 day tubing back down the river. This was by far the most luxury hiking trip I’ve ever been on. While the terrain was still challenging, our packs were light and the pace was relaxed. The food was incredible; it was fresh every day, and when they ran out of fresh food, the guides started including ingredients from the jungle like banana stems and certain flowers. We didn’t have to cook, wash dishes or set up camp. One evening the guides decorated our eating area beautifully with leaves and mats, and on another day, they made jungle clothing and necklaces for us out of the forest materials.

BUT, it wouldn’t be a hiking trip if I didn’t discover myself in some way. I could talk about awkward toileting in the jungle, feeling rocks through a thin foam mattress, leaches or damp but on this trip it was something else. I had been fighting a cold before I came on the trip and was hoping to avoid it until after the trip. Alas! One morning, after a particularly challenging hike the day before, I woke up and EVERYTHING hurt. My muscles were stiff, my joints aching, my nose was blocked and my head was throbbing.  I did not want to wake up, and my body didn’t want to move, but I made myself open my eyes and sit up. The view I saw took my breath away. The river was tumbling over rocks, breaking through the thick jungle tangle of tall trees and sweeping vines. The air was fresh and bird calls were competing with the rush of the river. I realized simply being in the jungle made all its challenges seem insignificant, at least to me.

The account of my Indonesian trip would not be complete without mentioning the wildlife we saw. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to go to Sumatra was because I had been researching about palm oil and deforestation. I believed that if I didn’t go now, many of the jungle species would become extinct within my lifetime and I wouldn’t have a chance to see them. After going there, I feel that the situation is graver than I was expecting, but there are also more people fighting to protect the jungle than I was expecting. I felt very privileged to see Orangutans, gibbons, long tailed macaques, and of course an array of frogs, lizards, snakes, insects and spiders in their natural habitat.

I spent the last two days of the trip with Ale, a friend I had met on the hike, on an Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Lake Toba is the largest lake in Indonesia and the largest volcanic lake in the world. To give you an idea of just how MASSIVE lake Toba is, go onto Google maps and look up Sumatra. You see that massive donut lake near the top? That’s Lake Toba! We rented a motorbike and rode the circumference of the island. It took us all day and I estimate we rode about 150km. There were hot springs, which, unfortunately was just a naturally heated swimming pool, but it was still fun. The views were spectacular and knowing about the earthquake further north, I really had a sense that the land I was walking on was alive.

I was expecting to fall in love with the jungle, but what I hadn’t really thought about before I left was if I would like Indonesia or not. It seemed to me that Indonesia exists to prove the statement ‘money can’t buy you happiness’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much poverty or so much joy before. Although, I’m not for a second saying poverty is a good thing. In fact, one thing I can’t help but feeling when travelling in the developing world is just how unfair the world is and how lucky I am to be born white, into education, and with opportunity. I think rather it’s one of the beauties of the people there that they can be so happy, welcoming and friendly despite having so little. One thing I will NEVER forget is how beautiful an Indonesian smile is.

Whether you think it’s random or created by God, there is no denying that we are living on a planet filled with incomprehensible natural beauty and cultural diversity. We have a duty to ourselves, each other, and future generations to try and keep our planet beautiful and healthy.