My first week in Rangsit- culture shock with a side of teaching

I’m about to preface this post with a quote I once used in my Spain blog, but wow it is more relevant now than it has ever been:

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.” -Anne Frank

On Wednesday, I moved to my placement city in Rangsit, Thailand, which is a suburb of Bangkok. What has followed my arrival at Don Mueang International Airport until now has been a painful nose-first dive into the absolute thick of it. To put that sentence into words a normal person would use: I am not immune to culture shock. Let me repeat that for those in the back: I am not immune to culture shock. I consider myself a ~decently~ traveled person, I had no problems with my transition into living in Spain for 5 months, and my first month in Thailand was basically bliss, so I was completely ready and totally excited to move on to my own city to teach my own classes. These past few days have taught me that I need to wake up and smell the elephant poop (that’s actually relevant, I’ll get to the literal elephant doo doo later). My time in Thailand will be an exhilarating experience to say the least, but it will certainly be a rollercoaster ride of emotions (so sorry to use such a cliché analogy, but this past week has absolutely drained me and figurative language is hard on a tired mind). My adventure here will have its ups and it will have its downs, but this post serves as a way to remind myself that I’m ready to conquer the challenges so I can embrace the amazing moments that make all the hardships I may face completely worth it. So, let’s take a look at my past week to bear witness to all the amazing ups and all the not-as-amazing downs I’ve experienced in such a short timespan.

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Teaching the youths a thing or two about the English language

Last Thursday, I reached the point in my TESOL course wherein we actually got to teach Thai students at an English camp, go figure!! Let me tell you, I was so hype to finally be teaching basic English to a group of people who were not my colleagues and who were also at least a few years younger than me. This hype came to fruition when I finally stood in front of a class of 13 and 14 year-olds as Teacher Rachel and delivered my own little lesson plan about daily routines. It was a hit. All of the students were so into the activities I created, and they all understood the vocabulary and sentence structure so well. Throughout the next two days, my students literally lined up to take pictures with me, gave me constant hugs, began following me on social media, and even became victim to violent sobs as my fellow teachers and I said our goodbyes. “WOW,” I thought, this whole teaching thing will be amazing. If I can make a hoard of 35 students cry after two short days, I can only imagine the impact I’m capable of making over the next few months. Were the tears a result of teenage angst or am I just really that awesome? Let’s be real, it was probably more so the angst thing, but hey I’d like to think I did actually form a connection with some of these students — and what an awesome feeling that was. I must remind myself of this sentiment as I grapple through these first couple weeks with a total of 135 2nd grade students in my actual placement.

The most exciting part of this post is telling you about my day last Saturday. I had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, and I cannot even describe what an amazing experience it was, but I’ll try anyway. At the sanctuary, a passionate man named Paul informed us about the harsh reality of elephant cruelty and how the sanctuary tries to combat it. He gave us bananas to feed the majestic beauties (which resulted in a pretty prompt elephant poo for about half of them — see, I told you that phrase was relevant). Next the mahouts (elephant trainers) let us get muddy with the gentle giants. The trainers also opted to join in the fun with a mission to get their guests as muddy as possible. It was a blast. Seeing the warmth and the love in the eyes of the elephants ranging from babies to adults was absolutely heartwarming. If you come to Thailand, do yourself a favor and visit a sanctuary. You won’t regret getting to play with the amazing creatures.

On Monday, I took my TESOL exam, graduated that afternoon, and packed that evening. I was all set to embark the next day on my own separate journey to begin my teaching experience in Rangsit. And so now we begin to approach the “not-as-amazing downs” section of the post. So most of you who know me personally know that I’m a pleasant (or I guess not-so-pleasant depending on whether you actually like me or not) mix of extrovert and introvert. I love meeting new people, I love spending time with friends, and I love to do things like sing Britney Spears at karaoke bars. But, I also like curling up with a book on my own, going for long runs on my own, and laying in my bed watching Netflix on my own. So due to my nature of occasionally enjoying my alone time (which I like to refer to as being independent), I thought I would be totally ready to have some time to myself after spending three weeks surrounded by 30 (awesome) people 24/7. I was wrong. I’ve never actually lived by myself and I’ve never been in a foreign city completely alone, so these first few days have been a little lonely. But, silver lining to the whole ~alone~ thing: it will force me to do some introspection and it will push me toward heightened self-acceptance and self-love, which will actually be really good for me. However, I know I will soon let my social butterfly tendencies shine, and I will find new friends and further develop the little seeds I planted with people this past week.

Totally and completely sorry to bum you out, but in the interest of telling you about my first week at my new placement, I’m about to report on some more rough patches. As I said, I arrived at the airport on Tuesday, where I caught a taxi with all of my luggage directly to the school. I met the people I had interviewed with proudly donning my airplane clothes and sheen of sweat. From there, somebody from the HR department carted me around on her motor bike to look at apartments for me to live in for the next few months. I don’t know how to put this delicately, but the first place she showed me was a glorified prison cell. I politely asked if we could maybe look at other places to compare before I said yes. It was clear that she hadn’t really prepared for me, because the next two places we went to were already full. Finally, she reluctantly took me to a place that she said another teacher lives at, but she was concerned because it wasn’t very close to the school and she didn’t know how I would get there….when we got to the place, Google Maps told me it is literally a mere 15 minute walk. It was significantly nicer than the first place I was shown, so I was sold. Though it came with furniture, it did not come with a pillow or linens or a towel or soap or any of that jazz, so I asked the woman who had been carting me around where I could get those necessities. She drove me back to the main road and told me to “catch the songtaew to Big C”. I didn’t know where Big C was and there were no songtaews in sight, so I walked 20 minutes to the nearest Tesco. All they had was a pillow, but at least it was something, right? As I started walking back toward the general direction where I was dropped off, I realized I forgot to save the location of the apartment. My common sense has just been on top of its game lately, clearly. After a lot of walking and turning down a wrong alley that led to nearly being attacked by a pack of rabid dogs that thought my pillow was a play toy, I finally [somehow] made my way back to my apartment.

Let’s press on with the week, shall we? On Friday, I saw a student in my class crying because he had broken his ruler. I was sad for him, but honestly, I was also a bit jealous. The day before, there was one point during one of my classes that I had to muster all my strength to hold back tears because I guess I’m an adult and I guess it would be frowned upon to start crying as the teacher mid-lesson. Why did I need to hold back tears? Obviously, there are different cultural norms here considering I’m in a different country (hence the culture shock). And during this particular class I witnessed the not-so-pretty underbelly of those norms. Early on in the class, I saw my Thai assistant slap a student on the wrist with a ruler because he wrote a sentence incorrectly. Obviously, this made me pretty uncomfortable, but this discomfort grew when the teacher I had been shadowing made a girl stand up and asked the class if they thought the girl was beautiful to which they responded with a resounding “no”. I think my jaw dropped a little as the teacher responded to this really sad moment by laughing. I am not about that. The good news is that once I’m no longer shadowing and I have the class to myself, I obviously will not be demeaning anyone in front of the entire class.

To continue on with this semi-positive outlook, I will also say that there have certainly been diamonds in the rough during this transition period. Those diamonds’ names are Sabai, Jinky, and Brett. They have all played their own role as my little guardian angels at some point this past week. Let me explain:

  • Sabai: In Thailand, most people are given nicknames because their full names are extremely long. Sabai is the nickname of one of my most adorable and intelligent students. I believe I mentioned this in a previous post, but Sabai means happy, comfortable, or relaxed. How wonderfully poetic that the student reminding me why this is all worth it and that I must push myself to be happy and relaxed is literally named “Happy”.
  • Jinky: Jinky is a teacher from the Philippines at my school who also lives in my apartment building. Side note: apparently both Jinky and my landlord are super concerned that I’ve been walking the 15 minutes to and from school. At first I thought they were joking considering my walk to school in Spain was 40 minutes. I assured them that I do not need to pay for a motorbike taxi to pick me up and drop me off every day, and they seem to have dropped it – for now. Anyway, this past Friday after school, Jinky and I hopped on her motorbike and she showed me around Rangsit, which helped me realize there is a lot more to this town than just the little bubble to which I had confined myself. She took me to an awesome market to get a blanket and a coffee pot and anything else I needed, and then she kept buying me all this food. Needless to say, Jinky has been a god send.
  • Brett: Next up is Brett, a South African teacher at my school who I had briefly met during the week, but hadn’t really had a conversation with until this Saturday. I was assigned to the same station as him at 7:30 am when I had to report for work for some extra-curricular activity (that I only found out I needed to be at 20 minutes before I left work on Friday). It came up that we were both going into Bangkok after we got off and he offered to take me under his wing so he could show me the best way of going about transport from Rangsit to BKK. He was so beyond helpful. Because of him, we made it to Bangkok without a hitch, and then come Sunday night, I managed (with slightly more of a hitch) to make it back to my apartment on my own despite having to tackle five separate modes of transportation (subway, bus, van, motorbike taxi, walking). Tangent: I really loved Bangkok, but I barely scratched the surface in the day and a half that I was there, so I’ll definitely have to go back to do some more exploring!

This section is entitled “Random thoughts of the week“:

  1. Another benefit of living in Thailand: by the end of this experience, my immune system will be superhuman. Unfortunately, I’m still in the annoying stage during which I’ve been sick for weeks. My inability to shake this nasty cough and stuffy nose may be due in part to the fact that my students love grabbing my hands in the hallway and hugging me and just touching me in general. And though I’ve spotted a sign in a Thai school claiming “Cleanliness is next to godliness”, I think we all know that 8 year-old kids barely know the meaning of the word “germs”. One student in particular always grabs my arm and squeezes it from my wrist to my shoulder, so I’ve got the germs all over me, score! This may be his way of showing his affection, and I guess aside from the fact that I don’t know the last time he washed his hands and that it’s a little strange, it’s also pretty endearing.
  2. This week, I’ve been teaching time, among other things. My school adheres to textbooks published by Oxford, so as you can guess, they use very British English, even though American teachers get paid more because the school thinks we speak the most “clear English”. As a result of this British thing, I’ve been forced to use the terms “quarter past”, “half past”, and “quarter to”. I’ve never been a fan of this method of telling time, but I’ll bow my head and oblige anyway.
  3. These Thai nicknames I mentioned earlier are unreal. We’re talking names like “Pancake”, “Friend”, “Vegas”, and “Guns”. Mom, dad, why’d you slack so hard when you named me?

So, that brings this post to a close. I hope that ending on an observation about unusual Thai nicknames helped to make this post slightly more light-hearted. But, I do hope you appreciated my candor, and I hope that it has helped anyone in a similar situation or who may soon be in a similar situation. The truth is, this is not a vacation — this is a 7:30-4 teaching job in a new country. It will be rewarding, but it will not always be a breeze. I have done some amazing things, and I will continue to do more amazing things during my time here, but that’s not to say there won’t be challenges along the way. Thanks for bearing with me; as a reward, I have a piece of exciting news! Melissa will be arriving in Thailand tomorrow to visit me, so the dynamic duo will be back in action in THAILAND-yeeee!

 

Yours truly,

Teacher Rachel

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Meals, motorbikes, and mecca

Another week, another whirlwind of events. I only just started my second week of TESOL training on Monday, and guess what? Ya girl’s already got a teaching placement in Rangsit,  which is just outside of Bangkok. And I’m set to start next Monday..eek! So, let’s elaborate on that whole “whirlwind of events” thing. I’ll start with the fact that learning how to teach an entire class (using lesson plans, and competency, and panache) is a whole new ballpark for me. We all know I’m a nerd at heart, so I was ready to tackle the challenge. But, let me tell you, my first attempt at creating and executing a lesson plan did not go exactly as the nerd in me would have liked. Let’s cut to the chase: I flopped like a fish out of water when I got up in front of my peers and attempted to teach them about hospitals. So I didn’t actually flop, and it probably wasn’t as bad as it felt, but needless to say, there was room for improvement. Luckily, I got to take a stab at another lesson plan and presentation later in the week. This time I felt more like a fierce lion, queen of her jungle (classroom). So maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I definitely felt more confident, which is good considering I have to stand in front of a class of students — who are relying on my ability to teach English — in one short week.

 

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Casually watching America’s future unfold on a projector screen in Thailand.

The only other noteworthy thing that happened during our 40 hours of class last week would be the rather significant event that occurred in the good old U S of A. I would be remiss if I did not address (ever so briefly) the election and what it was like to experience said election in another country. First, a major shout out to our teacher for trying to power through his lecture despite the fact that he was facing a class of 30 students whose heads were buried in their phones. We could not be bothered by TESOL theory as we continuously refreshed news sources that were feeding us the election results state by state. Finally he gave up and projected the polls on the big screen as we sat on the edges of our seats until it happened. In the wake of the unfathomable, I have had a handful of Thais bring up the election result in a sympathetic tone after they learn my country of origin. It’s fascinating to be on another continent during such a monumental mark on America and to see firsthand that the impact of this American event has a global ripple effect.

That’s more political talk than I would care to dedicate to my blog, so let’s move right on along. This next section of the blog is a shortlist of things that are much more common in Thailand than in America (if not nonexistent).

  1. Meals: You know how in America, it’s kind of considered bad service (or at the very least annoying) if a table’s meals don’t all come out at the same time? And how if someone’s dish doesn’t come for another two minutes, you’re supposed to leave your plate sitting there untouched for that eternity of two minutes to be considerate even though in your head you’re daydreaming of what that pasta will taste like once it graces your tastebuds? Yeah..none of that is expected here. If two dishes come at the same time, it is an absolute marvel. Here we’ve gotten used to the first person getting their dish and the last person getting theirs 30 minutes later. That first person gingerly and guiltily eats their food knowing it will get cold if they wait. Meanwhile, that last person tries to maintain an even composure as they pray to the food gods that during the next outing they will not be the unlucky duck to eat last.

    Roomie and me, looking fab as per usual, outshining the waterfall

  2. Motorbikes: If you don’t have a motorbike in Thailand, who even are you? Seriously, I can’t help but remember when I was overwhelmed by the amount of motorbikes in Europe. Well, we have entered an entirely new ballpark my friends (I’m realizing that’s the second time in this post I’ve used that ballpark analogy, but whatevs..call it fitting figurative language or muscle memory, but either way, just keep reading plz). There are swarms of scooters here with no regard for road rules. They weave in and out of cars and songtaews and on and off sidewalks with containers of soup or smoothies in hand. But arguably the most novel thing about the motorbikes is WHO you see on them. I’m talking families of three, with kids as young as 4 gripping the body of the bike bringing a whole new meaning to “starting them young”. Glad to know that 4-year-olds have more experience on a Vespa than I do — I’m just reaching new levels of coolness daily, aren’t I?
  3. 7-11s: 7-11 is mecca. It is sacred. It is the light at the end of the tunnel. 7-11 may just be any ordinary, sub-par convenience store back in America, but here it is the lifeblood of Thais. In the mood for a late night grilled cheese, warmed up in store? Look no further than the toastie aisle in your local 7-11 (by local, I literally mean any direction you care to turn..they’re everywhere). Need to add more data to your phone plan? Go ask your friendly 7-11 worker for a top up. Literally need to book a flight to another country? Head on over to the nearest 7-11 to pay for your ticket. I’m telling you, you name it, Thai 7-11 has got it.

Sry, pictures couldn’t do it justice

I digress. I’ve also done a lot of exciting stuff on my free time outside of class like attend a ladyboy cabaret, explore the beautiful National Park that is Doi Inthanon, take a Thai cooking class, and release a lantern into the sky during the widely-celebrated Loy Krathong. All amazing, as you would expect, but I thought it was important to clue you into some cultural differences before I grace you with the good stuff.

More so than anything though, as much as I love and will miss Chiang Mai, I am hype to get to my placement city next week and get settled into my new, semi-permanent life. I can either take a 10-hour bus ride or a 1-hour flight to Bangkok for a negligible difference in price, so obvi I’m opting for the flight. Unfortunately, booking the flight has not been smooth sailing (or should I say flying LOL). I have tried at least 30 times to book my ticket through Air Asia (I promise you, this is not an exaggeration and may in fact actually be an understatement). It has been quite the headache-forming, anxiety-inducing experience, and even more unfortunately, when I went to get a massage to release my tension, my favorite place was closed. Apparently, Air Asia has some promotion going on that’s making their website highly susceptible to crashing right when I make it all the way to the “purchase” stage. But HEY, let’s look at the silver lining — I’ve officially memorized my credit card information!! A shopaholic’s dream come true! So, here’s to hoping that the 50th time’s the charm and I will eventually secure a ticket (preferably without a spike in price) to my new home.

Yours truly,

A fish out of water