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.