Tag Archives: teaching English in Thailand

Feeding Myself

Recently someone asked me what I would say if I were accused of having a “White-Savior” complex. I told them I would reply by saying that I have received much more from Thai people than I have ever given. I have also learned much more from Thai people than I have ever taught them.

I have no way of measuring it, but living in another culture is an education in itself. I have learned hundreds of things over the past 8 years, not even counting the Thai language.

This includes things like learning how to wash dishes Thai style, eating with your spoon and your fork in each hand, cutting things with the knife turned outward (ok, I am not very good at that) and learning the nuances of communication outside of spoken word. (And I am still learning that too).

And then if you count language, I have learned even more. One thing I was reminded of recently when talking with Amy, is how much space language can take up in your brain. We were talking about how we tend to forget some of the simplest English words when speaking Thai. I remember learning about some bilingual theories at Payap from dry Dr. Saber at whose name was horribly mangled by us in both Thai and English. The theories were about bilingual children and whether or not the brain can absorb both languages at once, or if one language is absorbed at the expense of the other, or if you go into modes, like using an English mode and a Thai one.

I can’t remember which theory won out in the end, but if I examine my own brain, I would say that I have several modes. One is English. One is Thai. One is Pennsylvania Dutch. When I am in one mode, it is hard for me to switch to other modes. For example, I might be teaching a low-level English class, so I am speaking Thai. When a student asks me in Thai how to say a certain sentence in English, sometimes my brain freezes and it takes me a bit to think of how to say it in English, if I can think of it at all.

Other times when I am speaking a lot of English, my Thai starts coming out stilted. It seems as if once I am in one mode or the other, it’s hard to immediately switch. This is tremendously exhausting when you are translating for two parties in both languages. More than once, I have caught myself speaking the wrong language to the wrong person.

While I have gained so much and learned so much, a constant battle remains. That battle is to feed myself mentally from quality sources in the English language. I am not talking about a spiritual battle of making sure I get my spiritual food, but more of a battle of reading good literature. Books are scarce here, and although I have a Kindle, I do need to pay for books. Libby doesn’t work for me to borrow books since my home library does not participate. Not only that, coming home tired from a day of school, it takes discipline and energy to read. If I want to learn to write well, I must also feed myself well.

I am hungry. I am hungry to sit in a library surrounded by shelves and shelves of books, books and books. Big fat books with collections of short stories and poems. Books you can touch. I would give almost anything to study at summer term or winter term at Faith Builders and discuss what I am learning with like-minded people. I would love to join in on a book club and attend discussions from knowledgeable people fluent in English. I want to talk about the beautiful things we have read. I love my Thai friends, but our tastes in literature are as far apart as the North and South Pole and few, if any, are fluent enough in English.

But in the meantime, I make do. I read from some high school readers I brought over with me. I find books of poetry on Kindle, some of which are free. I recently discovered Spotify (yes, yes, I am wayyyy behind the times) and discovered that you can listen to poetry on Spotify. I try to follow blogs that stimulate the mind.

This hunger is one reason I like the Curator so much. The Curator is, in their own words, “an organization dedicated to developing a literary conversation with values sourced in the Christian worldview, particularly as Christianity has historically been understood by Anabaptists (but not confined to the Anabaptist community). We want to build a community of writers and readers who inform each other, a culture that recognizes quality and strives to create things of value. Our mission is to provide good content to engage in and to train writers and readers to be able to engage in it.”

I often find myself out of my league here, but I look forward to each Thursday morning when the Curator releases their weekly poem. Not only this, but they also provide the occasional short story or essay, and an annual collection of art, poetry and stories called The Leaf. Last year they had some Zoom seminars, which I actually managed to attend several times, despite the time difference.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to keep my brain mentally stimulated in English, and my mind cultivated when it comes to the arts? Any resources, books, or websites you would suggest? Let me know in the comments!

Just Some Pictures

I realize that I haven’t been writing a lot lately.

My dad had open heart surgery on June 16 and it was excruciating to be so far away from home. During that time, I wrestled with 2 different urges. One was the urge to dump it all out, the other the urge to clam up and feel sorry for myself. And being pressed for time, I didn’t do the dumping out part.

But that time passed, and my dad is now safely recovering at home, although my sister reports that life at home is sort of like living in a nursing home, since my mom has also been to see the doctor several times recently, and my aunt has to go on a weekly basis for chemo.

But believe it or not, life goes on here in Thailand. And I realize that I take a lot of good pictures, or I like to think of them as good, but I don’t share them much.

And as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words” so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

These are students from our Gifted English program that just started this year. The room is on the same floor as the teacher’s office, so some of the students like to come over in the afternoon and practice their English and play Uno. I do believe the air conditioned room is a drawing factor as well. I recently bought a tiny model house to teach vocabulary to a class, but I didn’t have time to assemble it so these students helped me. We have listened to a lot of stories during this time, such as stories about evil spirits haunting houses and the whiskey used in spirit ceremonies. (While most Karen people are Buddhist or Christian, in the past, before Christianity was introduced or before the Karen integrated more fully into Thai culture, they were mostly animistic, with practices steeped in spirit worship. This is still a huge factor today, and many nominal Karen Christians wear amulets for luck or safety.)

Some of my former Saohin students came over to make cookies after going to church with me. I found it amusing and heartwarming how they sat in front of the oven to watch their cookies bake as if they were watching a movie.

There are times I wonder about my cat…..

Our pastor finished his doctor in theology and we had a celebration at the church. Taking pictures with each other at celebrations is an important thing in Thai culture.

Jiu, one of the girls at church, with Che Che (I think that’s his name).
Prayer time for our pastor

Yes, that spider is for real, and yes we found it in our kitchen. I think that might be an egg sac it was carrying underneath?

Rainy days are plentiful in July. Most days I make my afternoon coffee at school, but some days I splurge, especially if it is a particularly rainy day that calls for a hot latte.

No matter how the world might be behaving around me, I still find rest and relaxation in making a batch of good homemade chocolate chip cookies.

And enjoying cookie making is not exclusive to women either. One evening, before my birthday, several of my former Saohin students (this time the boys, not the two girls pictured earlier) called me. Can we come make cookies at your house?

The above picture is not mine, but one I found online. At the time that I found myself driving through these waters, I was too busy trying to stay upright and moving to take any photos. The picture was taken beside the Mae Chaem River between Hot and Mae Sariang on a day when various parts of Northern Thailand flooded.

Another picture that makes me shudder when I see the brown angry river to the left.

On the evening of Amy’s birthday we went to the church to practice the song we were singing with the youth group. The sky gave us an extra special display that evening.

These people make me happy. Most of the people in this picture are students who are staying at the church while they go to high school. On Thursday evenings, I have the privilege of teaching them English at the church. They are the most dedicated group of learners and laughers I have ever taught, I think I can say.

Every morning the national anthem is played at assembly and every morning the dogs at the school howl along with it.

This was not a fire, as it might look, but a random round of mosquito spraying in hopes of cutting down on dengue fever cases. I had just gotten to my class and started teaching when we were all told to evacuate and stay out of the building for about 25 minutes while they sprayed. Mae Hong Son is highest in the nation for dengue fever.

This shirt is special to me. One of my students who is an avid football player, asked me if I wanted a football shirt for my birthday. He then let me choose a color and gave me one of his own shirts. This young man is actually half Burmese, but lives in Thailand.

It’s not often I get to eat Mexican food, but on my last visit to Chiang Mai, some of my friends took Amy and I out for our birthdays and this is what we got. It was soooo good.

Mae Toe is a local tourist attraction about 60 kilometers from here. I have now visited there 4 times, twice just recently. In the middle of June, I went up with some students and then yesterday with some teachers. Someday, I think I should like to take a book along and simply curl up and read on top of the world.

So…. yesterday, I had thought the original plan was to park our bikes on the bottom and walk the rest of the way up, but it didn’t quite work out that way since the others in our group zoomed up before me. To make a long story short, I was trying to get up this hill like the people before me, but kept on stalling my bike. I got off and then managed to dump it on its side, and it being a heavy bike, couldn’t get it up again. With the help of Amy and this kind man, we got it to a place where we could park beside the road and then walked up. Driving on these concrete tracks is complicated because if you happen to stop, you are in trouble because there is simply no place to plant your feet to keep you from falling over. It doesn’t help if you are helplessly laughing either. I still have to giggle just to look at this picture…. and the expressions on our faces. Bless that man’s heart for stopping and helping (the others in our group were out of side beyond the next hill and curve)

The view was worth the hike, though.

We parked our bikes halfway up and walked the rest of the way….but these village boys who couldn’t be more than 12 had no such intentions.

Walking down from the 360 degree lookout.

Kaning and Mint, the two student interns, and Kru Jack, one of the Chinese teachers. Kru Jack’s method of hair control always makes me grin.

Amy on the top of the lookout, dreaming of Mr. Willoughby.

And me, probably dreaming about cookies.

Small

This is the road

It is a ribbon running through the mountains

Glistening black in the rain, fading gray in the sunlight

Checked with yellow, edged in white

Swooping and diving between and around the mountains

Like a swallow homing forever.

The road carries me down into the valley

Into the shade of forest, dusky and dark,

Curving in the lowlands, trapped and winding,

Now, suddenly it flings me arching up, up, up into the heights

Floating on a ridge on the top of the world,

A patchworked world of fields and villages

Some intricate masterpiece quilted by skillful hands;

Along the sunlit crest the road flies until we twist and turn,

Turn down dizzying curves to reach the river

The brown, brown river running swollen from the rain.

The river and the road take me away, and the sun splashes

Through the canopy of wild trees, spilling flickering light on the road

As it moves along the woodlands

Past a pregnant goat grazing by the way, and a field of buffalo,

Past smoke rising gray against the blue and green,

And mountains upholding a bluing sky until a

Sudden flood of rain; and inside my pink raincoat and visor,

I become a kingdom of myself, a muffled, moving, pink kingdom.

But the rain ceases

And a sudden orange of blossoms bursts against the sodden sky

The road is not a ribbon.

It is a gray and yellow asphalt snake, and I am a beetle riding on its back.

(Inspired by my bike trip to Mae Hong Son today (and other trips similar to it)).

A rural gas station. I love places like this to fill up since you usually can have fun conversations with the owner. Photo credit: Abby Martin
Abby Martin and I on a recent trip

Mae Sariang (#1 Vignettes of a Journey)

Dawn

The sun rises, one fiery eye

From behind the drought-scarred mountains

Wreathed with smoke

Noon

The heat whispers in the cornfields

Burning its secrets in the ground

Writhing around the withered stalks

Afternoon

The dry wind catches the fallen leaves

Pushes its heat into a dust devil and

Twirls the leaves to the tops of the trees

Twilight

Fire licks in V’s in the ridges, up and down

Fire rings the valley about

Fire on the mountains

Midnight

The Tukay laughs and calls on the porch

A confused rooster crows

And the cat sprawls on the cool tiles

Although all photos are mine, and were taken in the Mae Sariang disctrict, several of the ones with fire, as well as the Tukay were taken last year, some up at Saohin.

The next series of posts will be vignettes of a journey as I travel from Thailand to the States, Lord Willing and I don’t catch Covid, on Sunday evening. This includes a 6 hour layover in Switzerland, a day and a half in NYC, 3 days in Lancaster, PA at the Reach conference, and then home to Kansas for several weeks, and then flying back to Thailand in late April, with a 12 hour layover in Germany. If anyone comes to Reach, be sure to stop by the INVEST booth, which will be right beside IGo and MTM’s booth. I am holding all these travels in an open hand and trusting God (or trying to, I should say) to orchestrate this all ( and keep me from catching Covid before travel, since many of my acquaintances have had it recently).

Visiting Saohin

I drove up to Saohin for Children’s Day. Along with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Thailand also celebrates Children’s Day.

All last year, I had hoped to find a time and way to go visit Saohin again, but during the rainy season, it is very unwise to travel up alone on a motorbike and it was difficult to find a truck going up on Friday and coming down on Sunday, over the time I wouldn’t be working. Most people come down on Friday and go back up on Sunday.

So, when the invitation came to join in the Children’s Day activities on January 8, I jumped at the chance. Since it hadn’t rained for about 2 months, there was no flood danger and the creeks had returned to safe levels.

I learned and relearned many things about myself on this trip. I learned that when you are used to something it automatically looks much more doable. Like taking cold showers. And crossing creeks on a 110cc Honda Wave motorbike. And going up and down steep, stony hills. When I first came off the blacktop and got to that first frightfully steep hill, and the first stony part, and then the first creek, inside I thought, “This is worse than before.” But when I drove back 2 days later after over 30 kilometers of driving, I thought, “This is not so bad.”

I rediscovered the beauty of driving in first gear. There is something deeply satisfying about coming to an obstacle that gives you that jolt of fear— a deep creek, a steep hill- and then knowing deep inside yourself that you can do it. You can climb this hill, you can cross this creek. Especially when you put your bike into first gear. When you put your bike in first gear, you can do anything. Well,… ok, not quite. But going down some hills it is unwise to brake much because of the loose gravel and stones. Instead, you drop into first gear and ride your bucking bronco to the bottom. And the next day, as you rub your aching muscles, you wonder if you really had to get to the bottom quite that fast.

Different people find different things therapeutic. For my mom, it’s the garden. For some of my friends, it’s coloring and watercolors. For others, it’s creating. Horseback riding used to be my choice of therapy at home. I think that’s why I find that driving my motorbike in the mountains is therapy for me. That and writing.

I rediscovered how much fear can have an impact on my abilities. If I focused on not falling, or not getting wet, or not getting my bike stuck in the creek, I lost my sense of balance, and my sharpness of mind. But when I told myself that falling was not the worse thing in the world, or getting wet wasn’t really that bad, and if I got stuck then I would surely find a way out, things really went much better. I also realized how important it is to know your limits.

Arriving at Saohin brought a surge of grief for me. You would think I would only feel a surge of joy, but I felt more grief than joy. After poking the feeling a bit, I realized it was because I was coming as a visitor. I could no longer claim this place as my home. I was not going to stay there the next week and the next week and be a part of the flow of life and the daily routine. I was a visitor.

I woke up Saturday morning, aching and sore from the drive. Children’s Day was limited to only students and teachers, (and me) because of Covid restrictions. The children were glad to see me, but shy. I missed the 6th graders, who I had gotten to know the best. Towards the end of the day, they were warming up and not quite so shy.

The festivities were over by early afternoon so I took a nap and tried to get rid of a headache and then visited a former 6th grader.

The evening consisted of a campfire at the teacher’s house and making bamboo rice over the fire, doing some target practice with a 22, and some other activities that I did not participate in. Anyone who has had any experience with Thai mountain culture will be familiar with the drinking that happens nearly every evening. I went to bed around 10, but the sounds continued until midnight.

Sunday, I traveled down again. As I traveled down again, I felt an unsettled, unfinished feeling. I wished I could have stayed a little longer. I think I would have found more closure. I wanted to be a part of life there again, not just some visitor. Fragments of faces and places clung to the edges of my mind, even as I focused on the road ahead of me.

There was PaunSawan and her hair cropped close because of lice.

Pongsatorn, a tall, thickset boy, who struggles with learning. He gets heckled for it as well, even from the teachers.

Cholita, the girl from Myanmar, who is studying in first grade as well.

Oranit, a bright, spunky girl, whose father is one of the village leaders, and a devout Catholic.

Tawin and his shy, sheepish grin.

Di Di, and the way he used to jump around shouting out English words during vocabulary games.

Sawinee, with her large wistful eyes and sad face.

Kai Muk with her sparkle and laughter.

Paunyinee, who asked to take pictures together.

But maybe it’s ok to still grieve, to not have fully moved on from that little spot tucked into the edge of no-man’s-land.

Gold

I thought Mae Hong Son province was at its finest in June when the clouds and mist hung low over the greening mountains.

But these days, I think differently. The rainy season is mostly past, and the days are beginning to be cooler now. The vibrant green has faded slightly, only slightly, and other colors are starting to emerge: browns, oranges and yellows. And still the mists come in the morning.

credit: Amy Smucker

Amy and I drove to the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho, in Khun Yuam district yesterday. There are over 500 rai (1 rai is about .4 of an acre) of small sunflowers (similar to what we would call Texas sunflowers at home) that bloom every November and are one of the largest tourist attractions in the mountains of Mae Hong Son. I have heard several rumors of how the sunflowers were planted there, one being that it was a royal project by the queen, and another that they were introduced by missionaries.

We left after right after school yesterday, after a very odd week of teaching online, in which we only taught two full days since the students were getting vaccinated and tested for Covid before the planned onsite date of Nov 22. I was feeling very restless by the suffocating feeling that occurs from this kind of schedule and was very ready to see some different scenery instead of the inside of the office at school.

It took us about 2 hours by bike and by the time we got to Khun Yuam, it was dark and getting cold. Or cold to be on a bike. We were trying to reach our destination before it got pitch dark, so we didn’t stop to watch the full moon rising slowly over the eastern mountains. But it was there on the edge of our sights constantly as we maneuvered the curves and hills in the semi-twilight.

We slept at the empty house of a friend in Khun Yuam and left for the sunflower fields in Mae U-Kho early this morning.  There is something intoxicating about being out in the mountains on a motorbike in the early morning. It has to be intoxicating to induce me to set my alarm clock for before 6:00 on a Saturday morning.

I want to write about how the colors glowed, and how the gold of the sunflowers looked from the distance over patchworked fields, and how the sun popped through the clouds and how the sea of fog in the distance looked and it felt to weave along the curving roads in the middle of a November sunrise.

But I don’t know how to write it. I feel lost. I only know to say that there is something excruciatingly beautiful about the way rolling fields of sunflowers look on a backdrop of blue and black mountains that layer their way to the horizon and then touch a deep blue morning sky edged with clouds.

So I will say it with pictures. I believe they will tell the story better than I can.

“There’s gold in them thar hills.”

Walking up to the first lookout
Amy
Me
Our trusty steed that carried us all the way up and balked only once on a steep hill. Amy had to get off and walk while I labored on up the hill in 1st gear.
Our breakfast “Yom Gai Saep” or Spicy Chicken Salad.

In Which She Addresses Some Frequently Asked Questions

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?

Nope

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.  

Probably.

Can you speak Northern Thai?

Some. Not much.

Can you speak Karen?

Very little

How much do you pay for rent?

3000 baht a month (100 dollars)

Do you send money home to your parents?

No.

Do you miss your family?

Yup.

Do you have a boyfriend?

Nope

Why don’t you have a boyfriend?

Cause, ummmmm…..

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.

Tua Lek Goes to the Doctor

A bit over 6 weeks ago my cat, Tua Lek (meaning Little One), who had defied her name and blossomed to extraordinary proportions, gave birth to 4 little kittens who looked almost exactly like her. One of the four died on the first day, but the others lived on to be happy, healthy and adorable kittens. (Ok, I know the word adorable is overused with kittens, but it is necessary in this case.)

However much I enjoy kittens, having 3 litters a year populating my house is not something I really want to deal with, and neither did my housemate, Amy. Especially when my cat’s temperament drastically changes every time a new litter appears and she becomes whiny and “awhang-gish.”  Now, perhaps if I lived on a farm, and did not work away from home every day, and did not take month long furloughs once a year to visit family and did not need to find someone to take care of my 30 cats while I was gone, I might consider it.

So, since Tua Lek’s behavior was again becoming suspicious even after giving birth only 6 weeks ago, and the neighboring male tomcat was starting to hang around again, we decided the time had come. I made an appointment at the Mae Sariang animal clinic at 8:30 this morning.

Living in Thailand and having a motorbike as your main mode of transportation is a Wonderful, Free, Joyous Experience. Most of the time. Except when it’s raining heavily (I will refrain from the pun), or you have to take your cat to the veterinarian. Then, if you don’t have a pet carrier, your only recourse is a cardboard box strapped on the back of your bike with bungee cords.

When the time came to take Tua Lek, I grabbed the closest box that looked like it would work. It ended up being the box that my youth group had used to send goodies for my birthday. It was a little bit battered, but with a little tape, I thought it might work.

It did at first. I wrestled the confused cat into box, while her little gray kittens sat on a pile on the porch chair and looked at me with big, round, innocent eyes. Sweating profusely, I grabbed the Gorilla tape from Joel and Malinda that had come in the same box and proceeded to tape the box shut. I punched some holes into the box, got the box to my bike, and had just strapped it down with cords, when Tua Lek found a small hole in the side of the box. Before I knew it, the hole was much bigger and the cat was out of the — er, box. I grabbed her before she could flee, though, and ran for another box. Amy came out and helped me with this one, giving me some advice on how to tape it shut better. Once we had Tua Lek in again, I strapped it on once more. This box was wider, giving me less room on the seat, with my knees hitting the front part of the bike. This is a drivable position for short distances, although decidedly more awkward and less modest than the normal position.

The first box
I happened to be taking a picture of my handiwork right at the moment the cat escaped.

When Tua Lek is hungry, she meows. When she is wanting attention, she meows. When she is scared, she meows. At times when she is not any of those, she still meows. So, it was not a surprise that as I drove along, mournful, betrayed cat wails came from the box at regular intervals. Each time, I cringed, thinking of the attention we were drawing, and embarrassed at my lack of pet transportation equipment. At the same time, I also drew comfort from the fact that we live in Mae Sariang, which is quite “baan-nawk”. This word, literally translated means “outside village” but is usually used when talking about country people or hill people and has the connotation of being not quite as modern, educated and up to par as people in the cities.

Mae Sariang has three stoplights. Going to the clinic, I had to drive through 2 of them. As we approached the first one, I willed the car ahead of me to go faster, but it didn’t and couldn’t. The light became red. As I waited at both stoplights, I forced myself to look straight ahead each time an agonized wail came from behind me, thankful for my mask. I do not know where that sound is coming from, I told myself silently, and the others on motorbikes beside and behind me. What could it possibly be?

Finally, I reached the clinic. As I waited and held a terrified Tua Lek, I talked with a couple who had brought in their neighbor’s cat to be spayed. I found this very humorous. I had to sign a release for them to do surgery. Finally, they took her away and I went home.

Going to the vet in this fashion is traumatic, both for the cat and her human. I felt like a betrayer, like someone who was senselessly inflicting confusion and pain on an innocent life. I think both of us will be happier because of this, and Tua Lek’s life will be much easier. But, how do you tell that to a cat? I mean, I did tell her several times, and I also triumphantly announced it to the visiting tomcat, but I know neither of them understood. I almost cried several times in the whole ordeal. Doing something like this would be so much easier if I could explain to Tua Lek what was going on.

Amy had some good words to say, something I hadn’t thought of before. “Well, maybe that is the way God feels. When God lets you go through something difficult and there is no way that we can understand why we have to go through it, God probably feels the same way.”

And now I really cry when I think of God holding me like I held Tua Lek when I am asking Him what He means when He lets Covid disrupt my life, or doesn’t iron out the tangles of my visa situation, or why he doesn’t just take certain struggles away from my life.

Tua Lek will never know that the undignified, terrifying ride to the vet, the pain and the anesthesia were all reasons that she will never have kittens again, and instead will grow fat and happy all the days of her life.

And maybe in the same way, I will never know exactly why God lets some of these things happen my life either. But I can know, better than my cat can ever understand, that He means the best for me, no matter how terrifying or undignified the ride.

God’s World

Sometimes life is like an unnamed, strange, delicious fruit that you are trying to eat but there are funny little corners to the fruit and try as you may, you find yourself unable to squeeze each precious drop of juice from it.

Other times, I feel like life is something on the other side of that glass, the glass that’s always there in front of the vibrancy of unfolding scenes, and I am always on this side of the glass, with my hand always smudging the glass, but always unable to reach the other side.

Then there are other times when the pulse of the earth’s heartbeat is loud enough that I can hear it and faintly feel like I understand a little of the rhythm that God sent in motion when He called the stars out by their names and set the sun and the moon on high in the heavens.

I think I felt all three of these today. Words find it hard to explain.

I have seldom experienced a month like the past month. It has rained nearly every day, and not just every day, but almost all day long. Some days the sun comes out for about 15 minutes in the morning and the evening, but for the most part the skies maintain their sodden gray. I love rain, but the body and mind need sunshine as well. In addition to this, mold has started to creep into our house. I find myself wiping it off of my dresser and wardrobe almost every other day. (We finally have a dehumidifier, which will hopefully help some. ) The more the mold came into my room, the more it crept into my heart.

Covid19 restrictions continue to limit our abilities to live life normally and naturally and do things that would otherwise bring relief to the humdrum of the rain. The restrictions lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which I find difficult. It also makes our job very unpredictable and leaves us with a need to stay flexible, even more flexible than what Thai culture usually requires of us.

But today the sun came out. Both literally and figuratively.

This morning we went to a nearby church for the first time since a student had invited us to join the service there. We usually attend another church. Both Amy, (Amy Smucker, my friend who moved to Mae Sariang from the states in June and teaches at Boripat as well) and I were charmed by the atmosphere that we experienced. It is a very small, simple church in a village about a kilometer from here, and mostly (from what we could see) consists of students from Boripat school where we teach, and some older people from the village. The pastor preached in Thai, while a translator translated into Karen language. The service was simple and unpretentious and felt refreshing and life-giving.

A Karen song sung in the service today.

In the afternoon, we went on a motorbike drive down through Sob Moei, which is south of Mae Sariang. The road runs along the edge of the mountains above the Mae Yuam River Valley.

We drove through areas where the trees hung over the road and shadows cooled the air as we passed, and then suddenly we would hit shafts of sunlight flashing out through the trees and see the silver of the river winding like a ribbon far down in the valley below. We found several places to stop and rest and get something to eat. By the time we were heading home, the sun was falling in the west.

It felt like we drove and drove and drove and time stood still, like we were in some faded dream of glory, first moving through wide open fields of rice, then climbing up a knoll, now twisting and turning, now plunging down into a shadowed tunnel of trees, now bursting out again to catch glimpses of the mountains toward the north robed in the fading light of the setting sun. And all the while the wind brushed against our faces as we drove.

We were home about 15 minutes when the rain began to strum the roof with its fingers again. But the sunlight from the day still remained.

And in each part of today, I found myself straining to drink the juice from the fruit, and failing.

When I fail to fully taste the juice, and in those times when words fail me to describe what I feel, it makes me achingly sad.

It makes me think of Edna St. Vincent Milay’s poem, “God’s World.” She says what I would want to say.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!

Long have I known a glory in it all,
         But never knew I this;
         Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,—let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51862/gods-world

The Funny Thing About Dreams

The funny thing about dreams is that some of them actually come true.

I was about 10 when I told my mom randomly one evening that I wanted to be a missionary, a photographer, and a mountain climber. That was a pretty tall order for a little Amish girl, but my mom just smiled and nodded.

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, our school entered into a Campbell Label’s drawing contest. We were supposed to draw a picture of what we dreamed of doing in the future. Our dream job, I guess.

I didn’t win a prize, but I do remember my drawing which is now stuck away somewhere in the dusty cardboard box archives of Meadowlark School. It was a picture of a woman sitting at a desk, writing, with a cat on her shoulder, a cat on the desk and cat under the desk… basically cats everywhere.

It was labeled “Old Maid Writer.” (At that point in my life, I was quite “anti-marriage.”)

After I moved to Thailand, I had the privilege of living with my friends, Brit and Barbara. Five years ago, in 2016,  we took a small getaway into the mountains at a “homestay” that was owned by parents of a student. While there, we started talking about what we wanted to do “when we grew up.”

Here’s what we said,

Like I mentioned earlier, the funny thing about dreams is that sometimes they actually come true. Some of them you wonder at times if they had to be Quite So True, like the one about the “old maid writer.” (Forgive the terminology of a 12 year-old. I can just imagine some people reading this and telling me I shouldn’t think of myself as an old maid. I don’t. But I do have cats, and I do write some. And I am single, and doing things I couldn’t do as a married woman, which was the reason for my “anti-marriage” perspective at 12.)

The missionary, photographer, and mountain climber dream sort of came true as well, but in different shades of the original dream. I don’t really call myself a missionary. I am a Christian who loves God and lives in a different culture. I like taking pictures, but I don’t consider myself a photographer. And I don’t really climb mountains on a regular basis, but I live in them and I love exploring them and hiking in them as possible.

The last one makes me smile the most. While Barbara is not going to live in Pittsburgh with a friend, she is going to live in a city with her husband (which is what she wanted to do. Live in a city, I mean. Maybe not necessarily with a husband.) It also makes me wonder if her husband will play hide and go seek with her in the house too, as she once said she would like to do.

Brit is currently in the states studying at a university for a degree that will let her teach in a public school, or perhaps a private school.

I have finished my degree at Payap University and done a stint of real mountain village teaching.

The odd thing is that at the time when we wrote down our dreams, the idea of studying for my bachelor’s at Payap was barely on my radar. I had scarcely thought of it, given my conservative background. But it seemed like the next practical step and somehow when I voiced those words and they were recorded, it gave possibility to my dream, and then possibility became reality. I know that not all dreams come true (I still have dreams that haven’t) and often dreams come true in slightly different ways than we imagined. But I also think that perhaps by speaking our dreams, we give them shape and life.

What made me think of the topic of dreams again and our conversation under a thatched roof, was when I headed into the mountains last Saturday to teach 3 hours in a remote Karen village. A university had adopted the sub-district and was implementing different programs in the area to help the villagers make a living. They asked Boripat High School (the new school I work at) for a teacher to go in one afternoon alongside their team to help teach basic English vocabulary. I was selected for the job. It turned out that my students averaged about 50 years and over. It was one of the best teaching experiences I had ever had. Even though their ability didn’t rate very high (some of them could not read or write in Thai either), they were very sweet and fun to work with.

Another high school located fairly deep in the mountains of Kong Koi is short on teachers and asked Boripat for help. In the end it was decided to send 2 of the foreign teachers once a month. Still another school also asked for teachers to help at an English camp.

These requests made me think of what Barbara, Brit and I had written down that day long ago under a thatched roof. Going from village to village, teaching.

While I do wish I were located deeper in the mountains, I also realize that I am positioned in a very strategic place. From where I am right now, there are hundreds of villages in the 100 mile radius around me. Even though I miss my little school in Saohin nestled among the rolling mountains on the edge of Burma, I feel like right now I am where I should be with opportunities to meet many new villages ahead. Maybe I will be able to go teach from village to village someday.

Now, for a horse.