On my recent visit home, I realized through various conversations how little many people know of what I am doing here. I realize this is a breach in my communication, since I have not done as well in communicating as I did several years ago. Below are some of the questions I am often asked as well as questions I am often asked from Thai people.
Are you in the mountains?
Many people know my dream of living in the mountains. The answer is, right now, no, I am not exactly living in the mountains, but I am surrounded by them. We live in a narrow river valley about 2 miles wide. Just behind our house, the mountains start again. Mae Sariang, the town we live in, is approximately 35 kilometers from the Thai/Burma border, but because of bad roads would probably take close to 2 hours to reach. Mae Sariang is about 4 hours from Chiang Mai and about half of that is through mountains. Many, many surrounding villages come to Mae Sariang for supplies and medical care. Mae Sariang is located in the Mae Hong Son province.
How big is Mae Sariang?
It’s a little hard to say since it is a district that is stretched out pretty widely, with about 7 subdistricts. The total population of the district is about 50,000, as of 2010, according to Wikipedia. The actual town, or municipality, of Mae Sariang, I would venture to make an educated guess of 15-20 thousand people. However, it is very difficult to see where the town starts and stops and where one village starts and stops, at times. Dotted all around the surrounding mountains are also many small villages.
Do you live by yourself?
No. My good friend Amy Smucker arrived in June. We teach together at the same school. Amy had lived in Thailand before this, so she was not a stranger to the language or the culture.
Are you paid or are you a volunteer?
We are both paid teachers, but we teach on half the salary normally paid a foreign teacher. This was due to a prior agreement, in which the school agreed to hire both of us for the price of one, since I did not want to live by myself, and the other schools I had contacted did not have the financial means to hire a teacher.
What subjects do you teach?
English. This is not English as we learned it in school, but English as a foreign language. This would be similar to students in America studying Spanish. English teaching in Asia is in HIGH demand and foreign native English speakers are seen as having magical capabilities to instill language abilities in students without even having to try. (This is a myth).
What age students do you teach?
I teach grades 10, 11, and 12. Amy teaches students from all levels between 7-12.
How many students do you have?
Approximately 600 students. This term I have 17 teaching slots. I meet each class once a week. Do I like this set up? Not necessarily, but they want each student to study with a foreign teacher once a week, because of the above-mentioned myth.
How big is the school?
It is the district high school, and students from other districts also attend. There are about 1700 students in the high school. This is the main school in the area that boasts grades from 10-12 so many students come from other areas. (Most area high schools only go to grade 9).
How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?
Indefinitely. In other words, until God says, Move.
What kind of qualifications do you need to work in Thailand?
To get a work visa, you need a bachelor’s degree in any field. To get a temporary teaching license, you need that degree. To get a permanent teaching license, you need a bachelor’s degree in education, or a Master’s in education, or another certification in education that is approved by the Teacher’s Council of Thailand.
Do you see James or Amanda often? (friends who are both from my home church and are both currently living in Chiang Mai.)
No, not very often. Under normal circumstances, Amy and I would be travelling to Chiang Mai once a month to attend INVEST meetings and church at IGo Christian Fellowship. Because of Covid restrictions that discourage travel, and due to the fact that we both work at a large high school that could be shut down were we to bring Covid to Mae Sariang, we have not been traveling to Chiang Mai for these meetings.
What are Covid 19 restrictions like there?
We are required to wear masks whenever in public. In Mae Hong Son, there is a 20,000 baht fine for not wearing a mask, which is over 600 USD. (Most Thai people do not complain about wearing masks since wearing a mask is something very cultural. If you are sick, or around someone else who is sick, or if you are driving in smog or dust, many Thai people will immediately don a mask.) In many restaurants or shops, there are thermometers to check temperatures, as well as alcohol gel that you are required to use before entering. Travel to high risk areas is discouraged, and quarantine upon return from those areas is not unusual. In some tourist places that are re-opening, negative antigen tests are required for entering for unvaccinated tourists. Students and teachers are required to wear masks when in the classroom. In public schools, all teachers are required to be vaccinated, as well as all high school students and vocational school students before Nov 15. Currently we are teaching online but plan to move back onsite after Nov 19.
What organization do you work under?
We are working under the English for Life team (EFL) which is a part of the larger INVEST team (IGo Network of Volunteer Educators Serving Thailand). INVEST consists of EFL and Wisdom Tree, as well as teachers working at the skills center. INVEST, in turn, is a ministry under IGO, Institute of Global Opportunities.
Are you allowed to share about God openly?
In our school, which is a government school, if someone asks me about what I believe I answer directly, but I do not openly evangelize or present the gospel, unless someone asks. Outside of school, I am more free to do so. Our desire is, however, to be a bridge for the local church to evangelize. Through relationships we build in school with people who are interested in learning about God, our desire is to be the bridge to bring them in contact with the local church and support them in discipling and teaching.
What kind of church do you go to?
We go to a small Karen and Thai church not too far from our house. It is a small house church, and the preaching is done in Thai and translated into Karen for older members of the congregation. A few of our students also attend. We are very blessed by the servant attitude of the pastor and his wife, something that is not always found in Thai churches where position and power are coveted.
Is this your final landing place?
I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think so. I love Mae Sariang and its melting pot of people from the surrounding villages but my desire is to move deeper out of town into the mountains and work in a place similar to Saohin, where I had done my internship. However, I feel like Mae Sariang is the place where I can build connections and research other opportunities, as well as work until I have won my permanent teaching license.
What is the weather like?
There are 3 seasons: hot, rainy, and cool. In the hot season, temperatures go over 100 F, with usually no rain for 4 months. This is often when burning is done in Northern Thailand and Myanmar, which culminates in smog that hangs chokingly over the mountains. The rainy season in Mae Sariang is heavier than in Chiang Mai, with lots of flooding on the mountain roads that lead up to villages. The cool season I would imagine is similar to Chiang Mai (where the coldest is in the lower 50s upper 40s) but that depends a lot on the elevation of where you are in the district.
How fluent are you in Thai?
This is an awkward question for me to answer, but I answer it honestly. I am fluent. Not on a native speaker level for sure, but I can trick people on the phone. I also do some translation, although not nearly as much as I did as a student and living in Chiang Mai where there was an abundance of foreigners.
Are there many foreigners where you live?
Before Covid19 hit, there were tourists who would pass through town on the Mae Hong loop route. Few would stay for more than a day, but they were in existence. These days, though, if Amy or I see one in town, it is news that we share over the supper table, “Oh, I saw a foreigner today at the 7-11.” Or, “I saw a farang driving past Tesco.” Fluent English speakers are rare to find. Of course, Amy and I talk English to each other, but sometimes we throw in Thai, as well as the occasional Dutch word. When we find Thai friends who speak English fluently, it’s refreshing to be able to converse in English, not that we don’t enjoy speaking Thai, but to be able to converse in one’s own language is a treat.
Frequently asked questions from Thai people:
How long have you been in Thailand?
About 7 years.
Are you half Thai?
How long do you plan to stay in Thailand?
Until God leads me somewhere else.
Why on earth do you live here when you could live in America?
Well…..I… where do I start?
Can you eat ________________? Fill in the blank with any kind of very spicy food.
Can you speak Northern Thai?
Some. Not much.
Can you speak Karen?
How much do you pay for rent?
3000 baht a month (100 dollars)
Do you send money home to your parents?
Do you miss your family?
Do you have a boyfriend?
Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
Do you want a boyfriend?
Well, I mean, I ……
Do you want me to introduce you to my uncle?
Ummmm, don’t worry about it.
Any more questions? I would be glad to hear them, whether awkward or non-awkward.