Those who can read French had my first impressions of my school experience in a remote school in Thailand.  This time, I will try to recapture in English some of the highlights of my first week in a village. Les francophones désirant un texte français l’auront…dans le prochain papier, sauf s’ils  exigent une traduction!

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Working with Thai colleagues, some of whom although English teachers, have only an approximately B2 level of English, is a challenge.

However, contrary to most of my adult students in Geneva, these are  so willing that it certainly gives my very short stay a meaning and purpose to help them in the best of my abilities!

As stated elsewhere and in the title, I am temporarily assessing the ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching in a secondary school in a remote village called Nadee, 10 km away from a slightly bigger village called Faorai. I found scarce information about the region, outside of Wikipaedia that is! Click on this link for more. But this Province actually speaks a language which is close if not identical to neighbouring Lao language, making my stay all the more fascinating.

School days start early, at 8:00 with a raising of the flag, listening to the national anthem, a prayer to Buddha, a speech from the director or some school teacher regarding special activities of the day (the fixed time-table here is everything but fixed;-)

However, as a Farrang  (comes from Farrangsai…français, but means foreigner) temporary teacher, I don’t have to come ealier than my classes which start at 8:40

Since I usually go to bed at 8:30  pm, this isn’t a problem! See, here people have dinner at 6 pm and there’s almost no TV and no internet at home, so entertainment is kind of scarce! Since I haven’t brought any book, not even my very useful Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, I’m just adapting to the situation;-)

As you see in the pictures, I have lunch (PAK GLANG WAN or Pak Tieng ) with my colleagues at the teachers table. Lunch is provided by the students’ families (who are told by the Director what to bring, he even checked my own tastes to make sure they were accommodated!) and is very decent for 40 bahts max if you have a main course including rice (20 bahts), fruit (5 bahts), coffee (10 bahts and yes, thanks to the fact this school is used to volunteers, coffee is provided and pretty decent at that…) so add a dessert and you can reach a max of 40 bahts (1euro) for a full meal and a large choice!

The reason of my stay here is  to give a hand as a volunteer to English teachers and have my own desk in  the Foreign languages department (i.e. English and Japanese) . On my first day last week,  a small teachers’ meeting was held, again to let teachers know more about me and my ’mission’ . Immediately upon knowing that I would give a class to teachers, two more teachers registered…the first lesson was cancelled but I maintened the second despite my being told it would be cancelled. 8 to 10 teachers came (one by one…by word of text message I suppose) and I now have almost the whole staff (20 people to date)

My teaching load includes some classes with students, such as  a class of 14 year old pupils, most of which had no idea what English was about obviously….so the Q&A very basic pair work took such dimensions that we hardly finished half the exercise before the break…Makes my own Geneva students sound like pure geniuses in comparision. However, as mentioned in my previous paper, things aren’t that easy when on top of being Issan speakers schooled in Thai, they have to cope with concept totally foreign to their own culture. Let me take again the example of the question

where is John going this week-end “ students very nicely answered

John is going skiing“…but none of them knew what skiing let alone snow meant. I tested the final year students with similar results except that they had heard about snow although they had never seen any!

Some manuals also include strange names Greek (Papadopoulos) or Russian (Michalsky) sounding that of course make absolute sense for cosmopolitan European students but are clearly centuries away from any notion our students could have!

Since last week was an exam period, I was asked to test older students (girls only because the boys were doing sport (!) ) around 18 years old. Apart from a future lawyer (“to help the poor people“), a future nurse and an accountant, the other 8 girls all intended to be teachers! Most of them already had a boyfriend (only 3 didn’t) but all of them didn’t plan to marry till much later and they were almost shocked I asked if they’d get married any soon!

This group of students had never heard of McDonald’s except for one girl who had never eaten there but had seen not been to a KFC! The conversation took immediately a friendlier turn when I asked them to teach me some Issan after class. Here’s what I learned and am happy to share>

Some obvious reasons can explain my presence here. The fact, for example, that I cannot just be a tourist and always want to meet the real people, not just enjoy the façade of the Country of Smiles.

However, upon arriving here, I also discovered that this region is going to undergo rapid changes with the ASEAN Common Market which will drastically change the region. Indeed, unskilled but English speaking neighbouring Burmese and both skilled and unskilled Laos workers are going to flock in as of 2015, adding an already rather cosmopolitan population which is not as unilingual and ethnically unified as it may sound at first. To make it very short and sweet, let me suggest to you to read the brilliant Thai Scholar, Suwilai Premsirat (click on link) on this issue. I took some notes of her speech at our recent linguistic conference (click on the link) which will be posted when I get the chance.

To get back to village daily life, let me mention also that people here in the village mostly sleep on very thin mats, they also eat that way.

In case you are wonderning…I was given a beautiful and extremely comfortable bed and mattress…so as my friend Anita would put it…I am an amateur!

Breakfast on a mat on the floor consists for me of fruit and yoghurt (Thai people would have rice and pork but Thai teachers are very careful on their diet…so eat nothing till lunch time when they eat greasy stuff….).

On the first day I was invited to attend the morning ceremony (raising of the flag, national anthem and little speech in my honor today after the school news). I got to speak as well to the 433 students who then had to say hello to each other in English.

I have quite a bit of time for myself.  which I dedicated to my blog, my e-mails and preparing my next classes.

Students here are wearing uniforms, their teachers too actually and these uniforms look very martial to me honestly! But this is only part of the story as Thailand has also a weekly colour scheme, so for teachers, Monday it’s the civil servants’ martial uniform, Tuesday is Pink, Wednesday is Green (Scouts), Thursday orange and Friday is the Thai ethnic attire (Lanna in Chiang Mai, Issan or Thai here). Add to this that some colours are associated to some allegiances, such as Yellow for the King, Blue for the Queen, Red for Opposition….quite a colourful and semiotically rich country to analyse, as I discovered with my colleague John Draper indeed!

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Although they are a bit shy, everyone makes an effort to speak to me, even just to greet me or ask where I come from. And by the way, shiness usually wears off after a few jokes as it seems that Thai and Jewish-French humour have a lot in common!

Last week was also an exam week from Tuesday to Friday, explaining my relatively light schedule. As you can see on the pictures, these can take place in the open air spaces to allow for larger capacities than the classrooms. I suppose (but only suppose) that the poor students sitting on the floor came late and thus had no time to get a table and chair from another room…but that could well be their own choice as country people are used to sit on the floor.

Students are not allowed to enter the classroom with their shoes , explaining the attached picture, yet teachers are allowed with their shoes and keep them…except when they visit their director’s office! I actually have discovered here several ways of behaving I find much more decent than ours. The WAI, thai salutation with joint hands higher according to the status of your partner, the taking off our shoes before entering our house (come to think about it, I always throw mine away on my doorstep, so not a huge change), the use of water in the toilets which is probably much cleaner than our use of toilet paper only…,

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Here’s my (limited) issan  lexicon so far, gathered with my students of all levels help)

Wat dee kaa (hello)

Sawadee ton saw: good morning

Sawadee ton bye: good afternoon

Sawadee ton laeng:  good evening `

Bo pen yan ka: you-re welcome

How is it going : sambaidi bo

Pai kon den (bye)

Por can mai me euhn: see you tomorrow

Puyin girl

Pushai boy

Numbers are quite similar to thai:

  1. Neung, Song , Sam, See, Ha, Hoh/hok, Tet, Pat, K/Gao, Sip

This nicely complements my very basic thai which includes the absolutely necessary “mai pet “ if you want to keep breathing till the end of your meal as it means not spicy. I was taught to ask for black coffee without sugar…:

café dam maisal nam tam….

an amazingly long sentence, which proved totally useless as the guy I asked simply said oh, black coffee no sugar…you never know! And now, every time he sees me, he nods and says “black coffee kap” and that’s that!

On Monday, I invited the teachers on campus to share a grilled fish. We’ll see if I’m more successful than with my volunteers as all guests showed up.

My room mate, Pu (the other one is called Puy) went to fetch dinner on my behalf but suggested I should stay home. It might be linked to my mentioning my dislike of riding a bike helmetless but it could also be related to the fact our other two guests, a Japanese volunteer teacher Maki and an English teacher, Om a doll looking lovely tacher as well….

I might be missing on some of the sights by declining to go on a motorbike without a helmet as much as I can but although I’m being given every assurance that it’s part of the way of life here, it goes against mine which is to protect the most stubborn portion of my body.

Night settling on the village is a wonderful feeling. I’m watching with amazement a lady sweep the dirtroad next to us and savour the sunset and peaceful atmosphere.

I haven’t yet encountered any scorpio or snake, not even the very big gekkoswhich are permanent residents of our house here, but I’ve seen…and HEARD the lizards (to such an extent I know their names : Tinkto)

Among the funny things which happened to me last week, I could mention the fact that the Buddist teacher, Maha, saw me last Wednesday walking on the road and, not speaking a word of English, firmly decided to ignore my gestures indicating I wanted to walk and take photos of the rice field and dropped me at the next village temple. I’m lucky, this was only about a mile away…so I had to make all the way back by walk on my rather high heels, the only way for me to walk at the moment given my very well named Achilles heel problem! So don’t be surprised by my photo that’s the explanation;-).

Landscape is decidedly breath taking here and to say that I try to memorize and capture the beauty of the sunset on the Mekong, the papaya trees, the red dirt road, the light green rice stems, the smiling moon (and apart from my whisky cap on the Mekong with my friend Gilles Bernard, I don’t get to drink anything else than water so no vision but a sight!).

Thai people are extremely attaching. Upon being told that you had to be immensely patient in a country when people never contradict you yet only do what they want, I made a remark which Gilles found very useful to explain the local culture. Here, in Thailand, there’s no word for No, the only way to say this is not say “not yes”, may chai…As is telling the fact that I love you in Swiss german is Ich Hab dich gern, I believe it says a lot on a totally different mentality.

I spent the week-end in Khon Kaen, a rather big city 250 km from here, where I had the pleasure of meeting a very interesting scholar, John Draper, and to indulge in western facilities.

I like this immense priviledge I have of being able to enjoy the best of all world, and I really had a great time in the Pullman KK…but quite honestly, I’m delighted to be back to my moskito net and the lovely teachers of the outback! As you can see on some photos, teaching atmosphere is very convivial and I have really been welcomed with an amazing sense of sharing and inclusion.

This week’s highlight will include a teachers’ day on Wednesday, with a ceremony and a party as well as some sport activities.

I was delighted to discover that here, as in the neighbouring Laos, Pétanque is a very popular sport. There’s even a Pétanque field near the school cafeteria I am about to enjoy a game with the Buddist studies teacher this afternoon….

I also get to give private lessons to the School Director, a delightful and extremely clever man called Niphon (like all Ph words in Issan, pronounce P). During our discussion on Thailand today, he confessed that although comfort was clearly an improvement in life here, the spiritual level of the Thai people had regressed according to him, something he deplored. Food for thought as this is clearly not a Thai problem…

I become here a fanatic of cross-fertilization, and don’t take me wrong, you dirty french minds, I only mean that I learn Thai and Issan languages and cultures as much as my students of all level learn English (I hope!).

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A teachers’ discussion during which some teachers admitted some drawbacks in kids’ attention, self-discipline, motivation or addictions was particularly enlightening!

Believe me, I’m trying to capture the atmosphere for you…I found out that being extremely honest and straightforward (within limits of politeness, it goes without saying) helps me tremendously.

Some things, I cannot change. For example, I went by bus to Khon Kien on Thursday but 5 hours and two changes were a bit too much for me if I wanted to catch my scotch on the Mekong with Gilles, so I took a cab for 50 euros all the way back to his ‘city’, Phon Phisai.

There’s so much more to say…but let me simply conclude for the time being with this picture of a truck full of bamboos with a mere T-Shirt to indicate the end of the charge…Amazing Thailand!

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