So far, I've been adapting to both Thai culture, and my new job at the Prem Magic Eyes Barge Program. The Barge Program takes 4th and 5th grade classes out on the Chao Phraya River on a renovated rice paddy barge that boasts a large wooden deck, dormitory, showers, kitchen, toilets, and sinks, as well as a small library and a whole host of teaching materials. Our trips usually last 2-3 days, and include a wide range of activites that introduce the children to watershed management, conservation ideologies and practices, and basic ecology. Working with this age group of children really has taught me a lot about myself. The kids are so impressionable, and are constantly checking for approval. I remember those feelings, and remember how some teachers or instructors made me feel when they used sarcasm or were apathetic toward things that were important to me. I work hard not to impart those same feelings on the kids I work with, but, it's hard sometimes. It's a great lesson in patience and humility, as well as a reflection of how I react in situations where there the filter of experience doesn't exist.
I've learned to do just about all of the activities that the barge program offers to the primary age group, and my last couple of weeks spent in the office have been an exercise in some of the logistical work that supports the programs on the barge. Thus far I've been putting together some journals for upcoming trips (the kids work through a journal during their trip to help them capture ideas and synthesize information) and writing menus. On days where immediate assignments aren't pressing, I've been slowly researching and designing my own activities that will be showcased on a one-day trip in late May or early June that focuses around climate change. I'll be leading the trip for the most part, and I'm excited to see how well some of our activities will work and if the kids will understand the material. Thankfully, I got to choose my own age group, and so we will be inviting an 8th or 9th grade class to take the trip. I'm hoping the older age group will have a wide enough view that they can conceptualize the atmosphere, invisible gasses, and molecules that are too small for them to see.
As for my living arrangements, I am quite happy. I have a small apartment about a 10-15 minute walk from my office. I live in a very Thai neighborhood, and so am constantly a novelty to many of the residents of my street. As most of my readers know, I also don't really speak any Thai, so it's been hard to be friendly and outgoing without being able to communicate verbally. Thankfully, my smile seems to do the trick. As the residents on my street have gotten used to me and I've adjusted to their daily routines, I've made friends (of sorts) with some of the vendors I frequent and they now wave and say hello whenever I walk by. I'm especially grateful to have Thai co-workers who are willing to call my building manager and request things like air-con(ditioning), why my water isn't working, etc. The night watchman for my building always tries to strike up conversation, and even the children around my neighborhood have stopped being afraid of the giant "farang" (Thai word for white westerner), and will wave or smile as I pass by.
All in all, I'm feeling pretty comfortable in my placement here, even if there have been rough moments. Last Sunday I had my first major breakdown complete with uncontrollable sobbing, self-pity, desperate skyping to my very patient boyfriend, and devouring of remaining Valentine's Day chocolate. It was entirely expected as I've been warned that the "culture shock" experience of most ex-pats is shaped like a W. Getting here is great, but things very slowly slide downhill until you hit rock bottom (which is fairly close to my experience thus far). Then, things improve for a while, then you retreat back into those original feelings of unhappiness, and then things improve steadily until you leave. It's nice to be aware that I'm not the only ex-pat that has ever felt lonely, homesick, etc., but it really doesn't help to rationalize it all when you're really bummed out and teary-eyed. Anyway, I'm very thankful for my strong friends and wonderful family who have continued to support me both mentally and emotionally (and my chocolate habit) while I've been away. Thank you!
Adjusting to working in an international office hasn't been too difficult, though it has given me a whole new appreciation for my own country. The freedoms that I have as a woman and simply as a citizen are really quite astounding, and I find myself more and more thankful for having grown up in such a privileged environment. Please note that when I say this, it isn't because I grew up with hot, clean water or more money or anything like that. Personally, I find living simply and without emphasis on financial status (as most Thai people in my neighborhood do) is very agreeable and pleasant. More, I like that in my country, I can say whatever I want. As a woman (and I generalize), I can really work whatever job I'd like, and feel confident that my family will never sell me into prostitution to make their own ends meet. Especially as an Alaskan, my wages are high and give me the freedom to travel. My horizons are broad, my native language is coveted, and my educational background gives me endless opportunities. For all these things I have my family to thank (way to go, Mom and Dad!), but I also have those Americans who, way back when, decided that they wanted some freedom to go with those taxes. Maybe it's the Alaskan spirit in me that really makes me identify with the freedoms we have as Americans, but let me just say that even when America has got its laces in a knot, I believe that fundamentally we really had our stuff together when we wrote our founding documents.
That last bit may seem a little out of the blue, so let me give some examples. Today, I had a conversation with Te, my Thai co-worker. He met my friend Jill (visiting for the week; read below) and when I described her travels to him, he asked how she was affording to do such a long and broad trip at such a young age (she’s 19). I explained that the dollar is much stronger than most Asian currencies, and so it is much more affordable for us to travel here than in other parts of the world. We then talked for a while about fisheries management in Alaska, and it was sad to hear him relate it to his home fishing village where he described the fishermen of having an attitude of “more fish = more money”. Unfortunately, I think this is probably the case in most developing countries. It is my hope that the work that I’m doing will help raise a new generation of Thais that will look past the immediate present and think about the future as we try to do with our fisheries in Alaska.
Te also mentioned how he found it unusual for a woman to be doing such hard work as fishing. I told him that while it wasn’t entirely common in Alaska or other parts of the United States, it wasn’t terribly rare either. The way he spoke about it, I was given the impression that perhaps women in Thailand aren’t as encouraged as they are in America to break out of the mold and do whatever job they want/can. Either way, when the conversation ended, I was glad that my dad let me fish with him, and that ADF&G values my work just as much as they would that of a male counterpart.
Anyway, moving on. The last couple weeks have been, as I mentioned, a little emotionally trying, but I've done some new things and have a visitor this week! Last Sunday I finally mustered up the courage to go bumble my way around the local wat. I was nervous about accidentally walking into somewhere I wasn't supposed to be (either because I'm a woman or a westerner), but was pleasantly surprised to get invited in to pay my respects to a giant shrine by a very nice monk. He didn't really say much to me, but invited me to kneel, wai (the Thai gesture of respect and greeting), and light some incense and candles. I was really thrilled to be allowed to take part in the process, and even remembered to take off my shoes before entering the building.
This week, the red shirt movement has been hosting protests in Bangkok which for me has just caused extra delays in Bangkok's already horendous traffic. I won't go too deeply into this issue because it is so contentious, but I would encourage you to read up on the red and yellow shirt movements in Thailand, and its long history of political corruption. Long story short, a very politically charged trial is coming out with its verdict today (Friday, the 25th), and it is expected that there will be large and possibly violent protests all across Thailand's large cities starting tonight. Needless to say, I'm carefully making my weekend plans to purposefully avoid all of this business. Hopefully everything will be resolved without any violence.
Finally, I have a very special apartment guest this weekend! Jill, my sister's best friend from Homer, AK, has been spending her first year after graduating from high school traveling around Asia. She spent a month in Thailand last fall, and then moved on to spend a month in Nepal, two weeks in Cambodia, and two weeks in Laos. Now, she's in Bangkok for the week before flying off to spend time in Indonesia (starting with Bali). I think afterwards, she planning a long stint in Australia before flying home to work next summer. She's an awesome gal, and it's been great having someone to do things with and stay with me. Sometimes you don't know you're lonely until you have a new friend! We're planning some fun excursions for the weekend before she flys out monday, and I can already tell that I'm going to miss her when she leaves.
Anyway, that's the news from Thailand. Stay tuned for more posts after this weekend, and as you leave, enjoy your daily dose of cuteness!
It's a sugar glider! My co-workers new pet.