Thursday, December 25, 2014

December the 25th- Thoughts on an Ordinary Day and the Meaning We Give It

It's December 25th and I'm in a cafe in Chiang Mai. I've just had a chocolate brownie and a warm mocha. I'm seized by a desire to write something about my Christmas in this year 2014. However, I'm not sure what to write about. The truth is my Christmas hasn't been that exciting nor is it likely to be. My parents are flying in tonight but won't arrive until late at night. In essence, this means my day of Yuletide celebration won't be until tomorrow and that's fine. I'm excited to see my folks again.

 Nevertheless, it makes writing about December the 25th more challenging. My day will most likely consist of me listening to a few favorite Christmas songs, watching a couple holiday specials via the net and scrounging up a bite to eat from my favorite restaurants. However, I won't be going to any church services, attending any parties, doing any white-elephant gift exchanges or drinking an excessive amount of spiked Christmas punch, grog or egg-nog.

 So what, I wonder, can I write about? Can I go on some long rant about the spirit of the holiday? Giving, good-will and all that jazz. That would be fine I suppose. Except I feel as if I'd only be preaching to the choir. You know and I know that Christmas should be about being a kinder better person even for a short time.

 Could I write about past 25ths that have filled me with joy and cheer? Again, not a bad idea. I've enjoyed many different kinds of Christmases throughout my life. I could reminisce about the Cairo Christmas party that ended with a silly string war or I could wax nostalgically about going to hilltribe Christmas services in Thailand as a kid. I could talk about walking down the streets of downtown Kansas City decked out with all the lights. Or maybe I could talk about the quiet Christmas I had in Cambodia last year when I opted to stay in my hotel and watch horror movies.

 Well, not very original either I tell myself. What about all the holiday activities at your school? Very cute and sentimental. There was the second grade girl who gave me a package of cookies. That's pretty cute. There was the pure joy my students showed when they watched the Mr Bean Christmas Episode.

 Yet once again I don't feel like I can really dive into this topic either. I realize this has a lot to do with the atmosphere in the cafe I'm in. All around me, I see tourists, westerners and others, surfing the net grabbing coffee before they begin the next stage of their Southeast Asian tours. And then there's the view outside. The road packed with cars, buses and songtaos full of people going about their daily routines. I'm suddenly struck by the fact that here in Thailand, I only see snippets of Christmas and mostly in restaurants catering to Western tourists. New Years is the much bigger holiday and St Nick takes a backseat to it.

 It then occurs to me that for many people all over the world, the 25th of December passes as most of their days too. Maybe you're a practicing Muslim or adamant Atheist. Maybe you're a refugee in Central African Republic or a villager in a Buddhist village in Laos.

 Though it may seem strange, I feel comforted by this; the fact that like me many people will have a largely ordinary day, doing largely ordinary things.

 In the end, December the 25th is a date on a calendar, a date which ancient Christians assigned as the birth-date of Jesus even though they had no way to know if he was actually born then. On this day, like any other the sun rises and it sets, people will inhale and exhale, eat and expunge what they've eaten. The day itself is rather arbitrary. It's the meaning we as people assign to it that really counts. It's the community we as people choose to recognize appreciate and love that matters. Like happiness, Christmas is a choice. We make December the 25th Christmas with thought and action. We choose to recognize and immerse ourselves in it if we want.

 So no matter when you choose to be joyful: December 25th, (26th in my case) January 7th if your Orthodox, or on any day at all, I wish you well and hope you feel nothing but love and joy for as long as you're here on our little planet.

 Much Love! More Life! Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

10 Things You Might Not Know About Christmas

1- No One Really Knows When Jesus Was Born

Well, not entirely true. Many scholars estimate that he was likely born some time between 7 and 2 BCE. However, the exact day and month are pretty much impossible to determine for certain. December 25th was chosen by ancient Western Christians because it coincided with pre-existing pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. In many Eastern Churches, the date of January 7th is chosen as the day for celebrating Jesus' birth.

2- St Nicholas' and His Anonymous Giving

St Nicholas, one of the historic influences for Santa Claus, was a bishop who lived in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). He was a Greek bishop who attended Roman Emperor Constantine's famous Council of Nicaea which helped establish Christian tradition and doctrine. Various legends and tales surround him. Some of the most well known fables recount how he would give anonymously to people in need, dropping purses of gold or money through open windows. Some tales describe him dropping money into stockings hung up to dry or placing coins into shoes left outside people's homes. He did this out of fear of being seen in public and accused of being prideful.

4- In the Middle Ages Christmas Was a Big Kegger

In Medieval Europe, Christmas was not really the family friendly holiday many of us know today. It bore more of a resemblance to today's Madi Gra or St Patrick's Day in the US. According to Medieval accounts, much of the holiday was spent indulging in activities usually maligned for most of the year by the Church. This included drinking obscene amounts of  ale, gambling, dancing and having promiscuous relations. It was during this age that the tradition of Christmas caroling popped up though the caroling troops included female dancers who would add to the frivolity and 'misrule'.

5- Protestant Radicals Banned Christmas in England

In the mid 1600s civil war broke out in England between the King Charles I and the English parliament. Eventually, Parliament won the war and brought radical Protestants, called Puritans, to power. Along with having the King executed and persecuting Catholics, England's Puritan leadership decided to ban Christmas believing it to be a corrupt Catholic tradition that promoted debauchery. This caused several riots to break out in English cities and Christmas was eventually restored after the return of the British monarchy. 

6- Christmas Was a Maligned Holiday in post-Revolutionary War America

Across the Atlantic in New England, Puritan migrants (aka Pilgrims) maintained a ban on Christmas between 1659 and 1681. Other colonies celebrated the holiday more openly but following the American Revolution in 1776 Christmas fell out of favor as it was considered a backward English custom. For many years after independence the holiday was not an official day off in many states, with the US Congress meeting as usual on December 25th.

7- Where the Christmas Tree Came From

Much like Jesus' date of birth, we don't have a precise answer for the origin of the Christmas tree. Throughout central Europe many pre-Christian winter solstice festivals used trees and evergreens prior to the arrival of Christianity. One story, recounts that during the conversion of German peoples to Christianity St Boniface cut down the sacred Oak tree of the god Odin. He replaced it with a triangular fir tree. According to this tale, the shape of the fir tree with it's three corners represented the trinity. Whatever the ultimate origins, the Christmas tree was first popularized in German countries in the 1600s. It was then spread to other parts of the Western world thanks to German immigrants and marriages between members of German nobility and other high-class people in Europe in the 1800s.

8- No Red Christmas in the Soviet Union

When the Communists rose to power in Russia in 1918, one of their greatest desires was to distance themselves from the old Imperial Russia. This included stamping out the celebration of Christmas and other Christian holidays as part of the state's Atheist creed. One group, The League of Militant Godlessness, created an anti-religious holiday on the 31st of December as a replacement and a new custom of having children spitting of crucifixes on Christmas Day took shape in Moscow.  However, certain Christmas traditions were, after 1935, incorporated into New Year Celebrations. Spruces, topped with a red  Communist star and decorated with Soviet themed ornaments (airplanes, rockets and cosmonauts) became part of the secular holiday.

9- 'White Christmas' 'Let it Snow' 'Silver Bells' and Other Christmas Songs Written by Jews

Along with the three previously mentioned classics we can add 'Santa Baby' 'Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire' and 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' to the list of Holiday jingles composed by Jewish American songwriters in the early 20th century. So why did they write so many songs for a traditionally Christian holiday? There are a few reasons. First, anti-Semitism was not as common in the American music industry as it was in the rest of American society. That meant Jews had an easier time getting a foot in the door. Second, by the 1920s and 30s Christmas in the US was already becoming a more secular national holiday. Jewish songwriters such as Irving Berlin felt that they could write non-religious themed songs. This helped make the holiday more inclusive for all Americans, especially non-Christians.

10- The Economics of Christmas

Christmas is the peak spending season in most Western countries. Alternatively, Christmas Day itself is often the least economically productive day of the year as most people stay home. In America, the US Census Bureau estimates that in 2011, sales in December accounted for 14.3% of  all sales for department stores throughout the year. Additionally, between January and September of 2012, the US imported $1.03 billion worth of Christmas ornaments from China. China is also the world's leading producer of all Christmas related products. According to Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua, over 60% of the world's Christmas trinkets that were produced last year originated from a Chinese city called Yiwu. Located in Zhejiang province, it has been given the nickname 'Christmas Village'. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sean's Fabulous Faves- Favorite Unlikely Leader (Claudius)

The fourth man to rule as Emperor of the Roman Empire, Claudius was perhaps one of the most unlikely leaders at first glance. Born into the Julio-Claudio dynasty (who were direct blood relatives of Julius Caesar) Claudius showed various physical ailments throughout his life. He would uncontrollably drool, stammer, and slur his speech, especially when excited. Various historians have attributed his symptoms to diseases like cerebral palsy or tourrette syndrome.

Since his condition was noticed during his childhood, Claudius was shunned by his mother Antonia who openly called him a monster. Out of shame, Antonia passed her afflicted son on to his grandmother Livia, who treated him more gently. Nevertheless, Claudius was regarded by many as mentally challenged.

As he grew into adulthood, Claudius learned to use his condition to his advantage. Since his symptoms led to many doubting his intelligence, he was not considered a serious contender in the politics of the Imperial court. Playing the part of a fool allowed Claudius to survive two very bloody purges of Rome's political leaders during the reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula.

Unable to hold public office for many years, Claudius devoted himself to his studies and wrote several history books that survive to this day. He also studied philosophy.

In 41 AD, after being made co-counsel by his tyrannical and depraved nephew Caligula, Claudius would suddenly be catapulted from the shadows into the spotlight.

That year, the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor's elite force of bodyguards) assassinated the deeply unpopular Caligula along with his wife and young daughter. Claudius, fearful that his time had finally come, hid in the palace as the Guard searched the grounds. Eventually, he was discovered behind a curtain but to his shock the guards hailed him as the new Emperor before spiriting him away to their headquarters. Aligning himself with the Praetorians, who wanted to handpick Caligula's successor, Claudius was able to use their muscle to convince the Senate to confirm him as Emperor.

Shrewd and clever, despite having never held any public office of note before hand, Claudius secured his position quickly. He managed to avoid becoming a puppet for the Praetorians and used bribery to secure the loyalty of Rome's generals and their armies. Typical of politics in his day, he also executed and murdered many conspirators throughout his reign.

The facade of simple mindedness was quickly torn away for most people, as Claudius launched several aggressive military campaigns to expand Rome's borders. He added Britain, all of contemporary Palestine and several areas of modern Europe to the Empire. He also made a strong effort to improve the Empire's infrastructure and repealed many of Caligula's more unpopular laws, including lifting special food taxes on the poor.

Eventually, Claudius' reign would come to an end. After thirteen years in power he died from old age or possibly, poisoned by his own wife Agrippina. The truth about his passing may never be known. What is certain though, is that Claudius exceeded the expectations of his doubters as Emperor. He proved a competent administrator and military leader and successfully survived many political intrigues to run an effective government.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What a Foreign Teacher Can Give

I hadn't had a truly shitty day of teaching in a while. As a foreigner at a school in Thailand, that's something. Last week though, my roughest class was just too much. The rowdy boys would not stop pestering me as I tried to test their friends individually. I had to spend the bulk of my time trying to keep them in the classroom so that they didn't run around the hallway. Yet this effort was, like so many others, in vain. I had to give up. There were simply too many kids running a muck at the same time. I had to continue my testing and let the rowdy boys out, so that the other students, the majority working in their books, could finish in some semblance of order.

Needless to say, the experience ruined my day. After a year and a half teaching in Thailand, I've mostly learned to accept how limited my options can be here. I thought I was well beyond the point of letting the antics of the students bother me personally. Usually I can shake it off. But on that day, for whatever reason or reasons, it was simply too much. I felt rotten from the moment I left that room until the moment I fell asleep listening to a Louis CK stand-up in my apartment.

And there was a thought that kept running through my head: “They're really not worth it.” these disrespectful boys who inhabit every classroom in Thailand. “They're just not worth it.”

The next day proved much better. All my periods went well and the rowdy boys in my worst class were more submissive and for the most part did what was asked of them. The following weeks have also been better as I've tried some new organizational techniques I saw in another teacher's classroom.

But I know there will be other days much like the cluster-fuck that was Thursday fifth period on the twentieth of November. I feel better and I believe that I will finish this year on a good note. Nevertheless, the problems I described continue to make my workdays far from pleasant at times.

From an outside perspective someone might think that perhaps I wasn't hard enough with these boys or that somehow my techniques just don't work. It's a logical point of view and there's some truth to it. I will be the first to admit that I am far from the best or most experienced teacher. However, even veteran English teachers in Thailand I've met here have told me stories that are just as bad if not worse as the one above. And teachers who are far more experienced here than I will readily admit that there are just some class days where your students will be unable or unwilling to do anything asked of them.

The truth is, if you are a foreign teacher in Thailand your day is plagued consistently by a number of issues which can make your relationship with your students difficult.

I've put two of the most important factors below.

First, (and particularly acute at my level) are the long hours students spend at school. My first graders spend between eight and nine hours a day at school. While they aren't spending every single minute in a classroom, they do spend a lot of time there and eventually their energy and attention span runs out.

Second, if this were China or Korea, where students were deeply pressured by their teachers and families to memorize facts and perform well on examinations, this type of system might work in at least forcing students to know lots of fact. But here, and especially at the school I am at, students are not held accountable for their actions of lack of action. The culture of Sabai (letting things go) is a very strong philosophy in many walks of life here. Many students regularly do not turn assignments in on time and if they do they are often incomplete. Many go through the entire school system without knowing more than a few words of English or a few math equations. Even if a student fails all of his final examinations (And there are many final exams even for first graders) he or she will still get passed on to the next grade. The students pick up on this at an early age, which I believe is one of the reasons why classroom management is so difficult in this country. Even if we yell, threaten them with failure or to call their parents, the students know that no matter what they will still move on to the next level. Once more, if a teacher applies stricter measures for students it can lead to that teacher having complaints hurled against them by parents and administrators.

This sort of environment is a grueling one to work in for both Thai and Farang (Foreign) teachers. It's why so many of us coast or take a slack approach. I've done the same with certain classes throughout the two years I've been here, including the one I mentioned earlier.

With that said though, “They're really not worth it.” is not the right conclusion to draw. We Foreign English teachers will probably never be able to achieve the unrealistic aims of our administrators to make our kids English fluent geniuses. That's impossible with thirty eight to forty students, some with severe learning disabilities some with prodigious brains all thrown together in the same room. But what we can do is give them at least a few good experiences with the English language and a positive encounter with someone from another culture and country. As someone who has spent a great deal of his life living outside the country of his birth, I can tell you that one of the best learning experiences a person can ever have is by knowing someone who has a different culture. Knowing someone from another place expands the heart and opens the mind. It allows individuals, including children, to touch a world beyond their own and can help them realize that the world their strange Farang teacher, neighbor or travelling companion comes from is one that is not all that different from their own.

When I play a learning game with my students that they love, when I give them a high five, when I intervene to stand up for a boy or girl being bullied, when I dry their tears, when I help a bully understand a difficult worksheet, when I let them give me a hug or when I answer some questions they have about sloths, the Giza Pyramids, the Loch Ness Monster or about the distant country I come from I'm creaking open new doors for them, doors that might lead them to new possibilities somewhere down the line. More importantly though, I'm allowing them to see someone different from them in a positive light.

As foreign English teachers in Thailand, as foreign teachers anywhere, I believe this is the greatest we can give our students. If they learn some English along the way that's fantastic too. But if nothing else, we can take some comfort that some might say a year or two or many down the road, that they knew a Farang, a Farang named Teacher Sean and he was good to us.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Thoughts on Image Obsession

We're all image obsessed. It's true. We all know it is. The truth of this was thrust into the spotlight last year when I was told by one of the administrators at my school that the beard I had been growing had concerned some of my colleagues and the parents of some of my students. For those who don't know, Thai schools often require their teachers to be completely clean-shaven and to have short hair. It's partially a legacy of having an education system designed by the military in the 1960s. The system they designed emphasized uniformity and conformity which is also partially why Thai students still wear uniforms and take part in long morning assemblies.

Needless to say my beard went against this longstanding culture of clean cutness. Even though I put little thought into growing my facial hair, shaving my beard bothered me immensely. It wasn't the act itself which was the most disconcerting. It was that, somehow, having hair on my face made me less capable as a teacher in the eyes of others.

I know other foreigners teaching in Thai schools have bumped up against these standards that to many outsiders seem ridiculous and somewhat archaic.

At our school for instance, female teachers have to wear skirts. At other schools I've heard of female teachers with an ethnic background that makes their hair curly being told to straighten their locks in order to make it look more like the hair people of East Asian descent possess. I've known of male coworkers with long hair who were told to cut it shorter and I myself have occasionally had Thai coworkers joking (though not really joking) that my hair is too long and I should cut it.

For an outsider, receiving this sort of attention and scrutiny on such superficial aspects of yourself can be both amusing, irritating and paradoxical. For a country that has a reputation for being a carefree vacation spot, Thailand can also be a bit constraining if you stay here long enough and work in a local institution. Like many Eastern cultures, there is an emphasis here on uniformity and outwardly conforming to a certain standard of action. Because of this, it's not unusual to find many Thais who, from a Western viewpoint, seem image obsessed. Like in other developing countries, there's a plethora of skin whitening products in markets and stores. I'm often amazed at how frequently I see female Thai teachers at my school straightening their hair and putting on make up.


But in the end, image obsession is not a uniquely Thai issue. True, this particular issue can seem more pronounced here, just like religious zealotry and ultra-nationalism are more pronounced in the Middle East but across the globe people are concerned with image and appearance.

It seems as if no matter where I've gone I've seen the same idealized, photoshopped images of lean, sinewy men and petite women on advertisements. Sure, the ethnicity and skin-tones of the models are different but the message is universal: This is what a successful, happy person looks like and you should look like this.

And sadly, many people believe it or at the very least feel demeaned by it. They see the image and think less of themselves because of a fantasy crafted by Adobe. A successful, happy person with meaning in their life looks thin and sinewy is as common an idea across the world as a successful teacher dresses a certain way and cuts their hair a certain way is in Thailand.

What's even sadder is that many of us already know that this message is wrong, that appearances are often deceiving and that beauty and success are often subjective. So many of the children's movies and programs we grew up with talked about it. Yet in our day to day lives we still make snap-judgments about someone based on how they look and follow standards handed down to us by society.

A friend of mine, a yoga instructor, told me recently about how a new student of hers surprised her. From outside appearances he seemed just an average person to her. Then he took off his shirt and revealed several tattoos depicting Hindu deities. It turned out he had lived in India for a while and was extremely knowledgeable about yoga.

Hearing this story made me realize, I've written off many people over the years based only on how they looked to me. It also made me realize how even introspective and intuitive people like my friend can make those assumptions.

Perhaps, it shows that we humans can never be rid of our compulsion to hold appearance in high regard. We can do our best to remember that a human being is never just a two dimensional image on a poster or movie screen. A human being is not just flesh but the blood, spirit and mind beneath it. Every time we see a person we don't know, a person we barley know or a person we've exchanged words with on multiple occasions, we can think what if, after the first thought we associate with them comes into our mind. I think, this is the very least we can do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

5 Things History Has Taught Me

I'm a lover and student of history. It's a subject I've always found fascinating. To me the greatest aspect of history can be found in dissecting the word itself. History originates from 'his story' and that's what it is; the story of humanity. This story is often bloody, complicated and, of course, revealing. Besides the old addage, 'History, repeats itself', I've learned much about humanity by studying our story. In this post I'd like to share five revelations I've experienced and hopefully help others gain a new perspective. 

1) No One is Innocent: Everyone Has Blood on Their Hands

Cherokee forcibly evicted from their homes by US soldiers during the 'Trail of Tears'.

I figured I'd start with a dark one. Now by everyone I don't mean every individual human who has lived, breathed, cried, eaten and died since time began. By everyone I mean every country, nation, ethnic group, race, tribe, religion, political movement etc. Pretty much any larger identity that a person can belong to has committed some sort of atrocity against another group of people at some point. Whether your black or white, Arab or Han-Chinese, Christian or Buddhist, American or Chadian, Marxist or Conservative someone or a group of someones who looked like you, spoke your language, or believed what you believe killed, displaced or otherwise ruined the lives of a significant number of people at some point. As dark and as depressing a realization as that might be, I can't help but feel that there would be a lot less hatred and finger-pointing between different types of people if everyone knew of at least one atrocity their 'people' committed.

2) Each Generation Lives in the Present and Believes its Struggles Are the Hardest

This may be especially true of the time I'm living in now. Our technology allows instant access to information about every disaster around the world. However, reading history reveals that whenever a group of people encounter disaster they view it purely in the present without reflecting on past events of a similar nature. This is either due to a lack of knowledge  about the past or just the Presentism we humans seem to easily embrace. In my time I've seen revolutions break out, wars erupt and natural disasters sweep away whole towns. Watching cable news you might think that this was the first time any of these things have occurred. The panic, speculation and fear conveys that. 

3) Many of Today's Problems Have Been With Us Since the Beginning

We may live in the present and believe our problems to be unique. But more or less the problems we face today have confronted people again and again since we stopped hunting mammoths and started plowing fields. War and conflict, hunger and poverty, disease and natural disaster. Humans have been there and done that many times. Before Ebola, there was Spanish Influenza before that the Black Death. Technology may have advanced, societies may have changed significantly but we still wrestle with the same issues that the Romans and Egyptians did.

4) People and Cultures Have Always Mixed and Influenced Each Other

This may be especially true of the time I'm living in now. Globalization is a hot term in the 21st century. The world truly is smaller, thanks to technology, and people of different cultural and national backgrounds are sharing ideas and interacting on a unprecedented level. However, even though the scale of this salad bowl is new, people of different backgrounds have always mingled and borrowed from one another. The Western world got its numerals from the Arabs, who got it from the Indians. Tonkatsu, a Japanese dish, was influenced by the fried food of Portugese merchant sailors who made contact with Japan in the 16th century. The design of many mosques with their domes and minarets was inspired by Orthodox churches encountered by Muslims in the early days of their great conquests. America's Democracy was influenced in the ideas of British and, to a lesser extent, French philosophers. It wasn't just technology, art and culture that was exchanged though. People shared themselves as well. The study of human genetics has revealed, not too suprisingly, that cross-cultural relationships are nothing new either. This makes notions of nationalism and racism particularly hollow. Go far enough back we're all connected to each other.

 5Humans Want to Be Distinct and Our Nature Has Never Really Changed

Despite our mingling and shared genetics, people have always drawn up boundaries around themselves so that they could be unique. The human animal is unique in that we desire a higher esoteric meaning for our lives. We have the same instincts as other creatures: Gain food, find or make shelter and reproduce to make sure our species continues. Yet we also want our lives to have extra meaning outside of those basic needs. We crave a unique identity that gives us this meaning. Often we find this special identity in our cultures, our race, our nationalities, our sexuality, our religion anything. And we also desire love and a sense of belonging. No matter where and when in the world you look people are people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Brief Jaunt to Laos

I started the journey by bus. I left Chiang Mai later than expected because of a delay in picking another fellow traveler up. We spent the bulk of the day in a minibus driving through rural Thailand. It's a part of Thailand I don't see very often when I'm teaching, even if the majority of people in this country live away from big cities like Chiang Mai.

 However, when you cross the border into Laos, rural becomes RURAL. Laos is a much smaller country in terms of population, and it's been far more isolated economically than it's more populated southern neighbor. It's a bit surreal but for two countries so similar to each other in language and culture, Thailand and Laos are almost twenty years apart in their level of development and globalization. Laos is still in many ways a wild and wooly place much as large parts of Thailand were in the 80s. Taking the boat from the border at Chang Khong to Luang Prabang makes you very aware of this. As our boat propelled itself along through the Mekong, trees were plentiful but people and towns were not. The few communities we saw had houses made entirely of wood, something which I almost never see in Thailand where even rural communities are making houses out of concrete.

 Traveling along the river was like seeing a different world. I say that for two main reasons. First, In an age where human consumption has destroyed so many pristine forests and where Mother Nature domain has receded in the face of human expansion it was comforting to see so much untapped greenery. Granted, much of Laos is being tapped now with China investing in development and more and more deforestation occurring. We saw many large lumber barges, filled with felled logs, heading up and down the river.

 It was also a different world because of the people we did see along the river. The sinewy men working on the lumber barges, the almost nude children who waved and cheered at us as we moved along. The women who sat in the engine room at the back of the boat behind all of the foreign tourists. We saw their world, and perhaps you could say they got a glimpse of ours. But we were truly separated from them. Not just by the water, not just by the meter or so wood between our sitting area and theirs. We were separated by our place in the lottery, the one which decides which universe you will be born into. The world with suburban houses, education and health-care, and access to the latest apple products or the world of grated tin roofs, isolated towns where the nearest school and hospital can be a day or two's walk, and where you spend your days working with your hands and sweat. How strange we seemed to each other I thought as I boy waved incessantly at me.

 Among the fellow sojourners on my boat, there were great discussions and great encounters. I enjoy the company of other travelers more than I used to. The way travelers interact with one another is pretty representative of most relationships we have in life. People come together for a time and share a period of their lives together. Sometimes, bonds are formed. Other times they aren't. But we share ourselves with one another for time.

 After two days, our river-faring days came to a close. We docked, I grabbed a tuk-tuk near the shore and we spent twenty minutes or so weaving through pot-hole peppered roads to reach the edge of the Old City of Luang Prabang. The Old City is one of my favorite places. There's an elegance here that I've never felt anywhere else in the region. Old villas, a fusion of French and Southeast Asian design, dominate the wide clean boulevards. What's even more beautiful is the way these old homes reside harmoniously with the historic Buddhist temples and the small shops and homes where you can see ordinary people cleaning and drying meat and peppers or boiling rice for their daily meals. There's harmony here, a balance between East and West, urban an rural that I doubt you can find anywhere else. I know I'm idealizing it, I'm sure there are flaws with this little corner of the world but honestly I have a hard time seeing them.

 After checking into my riverside guesthouse, I had every intention of taking it easy. I had been to the city before and seen all the sights I wanted to. This time, I had come to relax, read and edit and Luang Prabang was the perfect place to do it all. I got plenty of quiet time, but I had no idea that my visit coincided with Boun Ok Phansa. This festival, celebrated throughout Laos, marks the end of Buddhist Lent and also pays respect to the rains. It's reminiscent of Thailand's Loi Krathong but has unique traditions. There were boat races for several days held on the Mekong river, a lot of Karaoke and much drinking of the national brew Beer Lao.

 The highlight of the festival though was the procession of floats through the Old City. Teams of people, representing local businesses villages and schools lined up along Luang Prabang's main street. Together they carried beautifully made floats to the river where they were released into the water. I was part of dozens of foreign and local onlookers who watched as the floats, many shaped like mythical water dragons and decorated with burning candles, were carried to a temple to be blessed. The fanfare around each float varied. Some teams walked ahead of their boat quietly, carrying paper lanterns. Others danced banging cymbals and drums as they sang and chanted. Kom Lois, paper air-balloons, littered the skies. Small floats made of banana tree and leaf filled the Mekong river. And the temples and villas were brightly decorated with candles and lanterns laid out in elegant patterns.

 I've seen a number of festivals in this part of the world. Yet I can say with some certainty this procession was by far my favorite holiday in Southeast Asia.

 After the festival my last couple of days in the city were quiet and uneventful. I finished my editing, read Khaled Hosseini's latest book  and tried my best to trudge through the last few chapters of The Brother's Karamazov. I also ate more than an advisable quantity of French pastries. Soon it was time to leave the small elegant corner of the world and try my best to get back into my Chiang Mai working mentality.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Grading and the Not So Magical Book of Numbers

It's the end of term. Its the time of the year where our students' work is summed up in a book of grades and scores. This book, this grading book; it's a nice looking book. It has a slick green cover and it's encased in pure, immaculate, machine refined plastic. The inside is quite nice as well.  It's pristine and white on the inside. And the students names are printed in neat black rows with a double digit number beside it. What does this number represent you ask? Well, according to someone they show how much the student has progressed throughout the year. I say someone because this person who tells me and my fellow teachers the magical value of these numbers is someone I don't know. I imagine they are sitting in an office somewhere, one which I would imagine is larger than mine. I also know that they say my value and the value of my students are determined by them.

 It's easy to see how one might think that, yet I must disagree with this deification of the grade book numbers. They have value. I don't dispute that. But they don't show everything. They don't show the grit, and they don't show the toil. The numbers give no indication of what gathering those scores meant. The numbers don't show the commotion or the chaos that goes on inside the classroom with a class of thirty eight. They don't show you the anarchy that comes when bright students, average students and students with severe learning disabilities are all thrown together in the same room for fifty minutes at a time. The numbers don't tell you how many hours we might have spent planning an activity only to have it completely fall apart because the kids didn't listen, didn't care or were too hyped up on sugar to be able to notice.

 The numbers don't let you hear the yelling of the teachers trying desperately to keep order and the even louder cries of the students talking and playing in the midst of class. They don't show how we spent hours listening to kids try and whisper out a few words in English so we could translate them into two digits on paper and present them to you. It doesn't show you how many class periods we gave up teaching our students so we could test them...which is always more than we teachers would like. Nor does it show you how many times are classes were canceled or interrupted without warning because of a sports day rehearsal or a visit by the dentist. The numbers don't show the children's home lives. Those with fathers who ignore them. Those with mothers who go out to clubs rather then spend time with them. The cousins, brothers and sisters who all live with them together under a grandparent's roof. These numbers in our grade books, those that range from fifty to one hundred.. Yes, they speak for themselves but they don't speak for us. Student or teacher, no person can be so succinctly summed up. 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Education is a Privilege -The Day I Understood How Lucky My Students Were

Some of my former students.

About two weeks ago I finally understood that my students are privileged. I had known that most of the first graders I see every weekday came from wealthy and middle class families. I know that my school is considered, by Thai standards, to be distinguished. I know the rowdy and indignant temperament I often encounter in the classroom is the result of my students having everything handed to them. Yet I didn't comprehend just how fortunate, and coddled they truly are until all of first grade watched the movie Rio 2.

 If you come from a first world background (the US, Europe etc.) you might wonder why showing six and seven year olds a movie in school would be a indication of privilege. It's not an abnormal thing, you might say, for elementary students to be shown a movie at school as a treat.

 Spend any time in the developing world though and you realize how, for so many children, it would be a fantasy beyond their reach.

 During the movie I sat in the back with the other English teachers in my department, watching as three hundred children gaped at CGI parrots through 3D glasses in an air conditioned auditorium. At different points throughout the film, my thoughts turned to other children I had seen throughout my travels.

 I thought of the boys and girls selling tissues outside Cairo metro stations. I remembered how I would often see them sitting cross legged on the sidewalk, filling out their tattered homework books on the filth caked concrete as their packages of tissues sat next to them.

 I remembered the boys in India I saw along railroad lines who spent their days picking up plastic bottles and cans and stuffing them into bags.

 And I thought of other children as well. Children I had only read about or seen in short videos: The Yazidi children in Iraq who had seen their fathers decapitated and their mothers raped by Islamic State militants. The girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forced to be sex slaves for rebel groups. The thousands of Syrian children languishing in dusty refugee camps after seeing their homes destroyed in war.

 These children live in a world far removed from the classrooms and homes my students know. They are children of grit, offspring of bloodshed and desperation- who will never set foot in any kind of school let alone one which has the capacity to show its students a movie just for fun and give them the chance to eat sweets afterwords. 

 Education of any sort in this world, is a privilege. I hope one day these first graders might realize that. I hope anyone reading this will never forget it.  

A Hmong hill-tribe girl in a tourist market in Laos.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Profound Insecurity -Reflections on Simple Narratives in a Era of Discontent

Reading and watching the news about Iraq lately has gotten me thinking again. The rise of ISIS the decimation they have caused, and the change they are bringing to an already volatile region of the world prompts me to contemplate the future.

I don't just wonder about the Middle East. I wonder about the world. It seems no matter where you go people are insecure. People in the United States, the country of my birth and nationality, are insecure about jobs, the economy a growing income gap and the growth of the security state. The shooting of yet another unharmed black teenager, this time in a small town in Missouri, has once again shown how much the so called 'Land of the Free' still has to do to address longstanding racism. People in Egypt, a country I lived in for two and a half years, worry about more street protests and violence as the army backed government their grapples with Islamists dismissed from power. Thailand, the country I was raised in and live in now, has undergone a military coup and the curbing of many rights. 

This time, whatever we might want to call it, seems to be one of deep unease. Perhaps, we people of the world feel it more thanks to the explosion of media an social media allowing us to instantly learn about tragedies in places on the opposite corner of the globe. I certainly think their have been more violent and tragic periods of history.

Nevertheless, we are grappling with so many issues in an interconnected world where deep divides between and within nations, states, cultures and religions.

With insecurity so rife, with so many across the world struggling to fill themselves and avoid repression it becomes easy to turn to extremes.

Insecurity seems to go hand in hand with polarization and bigotry. Being in Egypt before and after the less extreme but still delusional Muslim Brotherhood came to power, I saw how easily the message “Islam is the Solution” won over a poor, uneducated and desperate population who longed for change but had no clue how to truly achieve it. ISIS, though perhaps relatively small, leaves a large impact because it is united, because it has a clear digestible and nostalgic vision which resonates with a significant portion of the population. Going back to a supposed Golden Age, the Caliphate, which no one remembers never existed, offers escape into fantasy. And for many, that fantasy that simple story is all they live in.

Groups like ISIS resonate because their philosophy as a correspondent Nick Berg put it: “It promises everything” and yet at the same time ultimately, “it delivers nothing”.

Yet it would be utterly unfair of me to point at the shortcomings of Islamist and Jihadist ideology alone. For I also saw the same, narrow mentality of absolute certainty in conservative relatives of mine in the United States. Insecurity over a changing America prompts the same urge among some to idealize the stained history of the United States. Founding Fathers are deified, their humanity as forgotten as easily by Tea Partiers and Neo-Cons as the true nature of the Caliphate is by ISIS and Al Qaeda. We blot out or gloss over the injustices of Manifest Destiny, Slavery and Jim Crow only to be shocked back to the reality they have created when young black men are gunned down in the street by police officers...if then.

Simple stories, simple narratives exist within all the countries of the world. In Ukraine, Spain, Thailand, Brazil we see them embraced only to see their returning grasp strangle their hopeful embrace to death. Easy to recall and easy to remember, they offer escape. Yet ultimately they cannot provide answers to the complicated and intertwined issues we grapple with. Open eyes, open ears open eyes a willingness to see our failings and shortcomings as well as those of people of TV screens thousands of miles away from us. These are what we need if we're to start seeing the world for what it is. Hopefully, if enough of us to do this it will be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Mythology vs History- The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire

One of my favorite pieces of GOT fan art. 

I love fantasy, I love epic fantasy. Therefore, I'm a fan of two of the best fantasy book series in the genre. The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Once I was asked if I thought one of these series was stronger than the other.


Today, I'll try and answer that by saying that really, both are great works of fantasy in their own ways. I've found that one is not really better than the other. Ultimately, they're very different series telling two very different types of stories.


Before talking about their differences though we should talk about how the two influential fantasy stories are similar. They do share some common elements.


First, both series take place in their own complete universes with unique, locations, cultures and history. Part of the reason why both book series have captivated their readers is because both Middle Earth and Westeros are such well constructed worlds. The environments the authors create are exciting fantastical places that are also bound by a set of rules and standards. As such, the reader can immerse themselves fully in the streets of Kings Landing and halls of Rivendell. There are cities, towns, people groups and societies that are as rich and as vibrant as any on earth. In fiction it's vital that your reader can lose themselves in the world your creating with your words. In fantasy, it's doubly important and both Tolkein and Martin do an excellent job of universe building.


Second, both series have fleshed out relatable characters. Whether your talking about Frodo or Tyrion, both books have approachable characters we want to follow. They all have interesting, captivating obstacles and hardships that they have to overcome.


With that said, there's also no denying these two series are very different. If I had to sum up the differences it would be with this sentence:


'Lord of the Rings is more like mythology while A Song of Ice and Fire is more like history'


The background of the authors makes this pretty clear. Let's begin with the author of The Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkein. Tolkein was a professor of mythology at Oxford, who in academic circles was well known for his writings on the epic Nordic myth Beowulf. Because of this, Tolkein drew a lot of inspiration from European myth and legend when creating his own epic fantasy. He even stated that one of his main motivations for writing The Lord of the Rings was to create an epic mythology for the UK which he felt had been lost to time.


A strong mythological influence can be seen in the focus of Tolkein's three books.


In Lord of the Rings, there is a very clear conflict between two opposing sides. Sauron and the forces of evil (orcs, trolls etc.) are attempting to enslave the free peoples of Middle Earth (men elves dwarves hobbits) and can only be stopped if the one ring of power is destroyed by a small band of heroes. The protagonists we follow and other characters they encounter, for the most part, fit this dichotomy. The heroes, though tempted to become evil at times, remain on the side of good. The villains, though they do have their own back-stories are not nuanced, caring only about dominating and destroying for the sake of dominating and destroying.  There are enormous epic battles, and ultimately evil is defeated through the tireless efforts of the heroes.


 other writings such as Children of Hurin, are also written in a similar, pre-history epic struggle vein. Often, as a reader, you get the sense that his work could be a true mythology for a real culture.


This makes Lord of the Rings far more like a great myth in the vein of Beowulf or the Trials of Hercules. There are magical elements, epic battles between heroes and villains, and lastly, some important instructional lessons on the dangers of power, the temptation all people face when confronted with such power.


A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand is not nearly as clear cut.


While Tolkein's epic work was largely influenced by Indo-European mythology, much of Martin's inspiration was derived from actual historical conflicts and power struggles among medieval European aristocrats. He's cited historical fiction authors, rivalries in Medieval Scotland as being strong influences along with a famous rivalry over control of the English monarchy, the War of the Roses. The names of the two families involved in this actual 15th century conflict, the House of York and the House of Lancaster, even bear a striking resemblance to two of the most important families in a Song of Ice and Fire, the Starks and the Lannisters.


The inspiration of history shows in Martin's work. Though there are supernatural and mythological elements to A Song of Ice and Fire, they often take a back seat to the personal relationships, rivalries and dilemmas of his many point of view characters. There are many despicable and reprehensible characters in the books, such as the sadistic Joffrey or nihilistic Sandor Clegane yet no one is clearly evil. There is no Great Eye no Sauron or Saruman who is clearly evil. Nor are there are any characters who are clearly morally good, including protagonists such a Tyrion, Jaime and Daenerys. Everyone has dark spots in their past and there are sometimes very negative repercussions for the actions the 'heroes' take. And yet even with their most questionable decisions these characters have understandable reasons for taking them. Instead of focusing on a struggle between two forces, Martin's emphasis is on the complicated, interconnected nature of the lives of people at the center and on the outskirts of political power. 


Because of this A Song of Ice and Fire, more accurately reflects the nature of the world we live in where decisions about power are often based on personal or factional interest, where relatively decent leaders can fall and rise as easily as brutal ones can, and where ordinary people are often the ones who suffer the most during times of conflict and political upheaval.


So is one story better than the other? No not at all. I have enjoyed reading both works for exactly what they are just as I've enjoyed reading mythology and history. Mythology and history both teach life lessons and allow us to connect more deeply with ourselves and with other human beings. They allow us to understand the world better and to understand human nature better. Because of this I don't feel like there's a lot to be gained by trying to assert that one series is better than the other. Their both valuable in their own right and should be enjoyed for what they are by readers everywhere.

Some amazing art by a fan of LOTR.