Thursday, February 26, 2015

Here and There -Thoughts on Reverse Cultural Shock


A little over a week ago I came back to the US from Thailand. Moving from country to country, continent to continent is something I'm used to. That said, I still get reverse culture shock every time I come back to the country of my birth. Though the world is always getting smaller, there are some big differences in the way cultures across the world think and operate. If you're an ex-pat, one of your biggest challenges is often having to readjust some aspects of your self to fit the particular culture you find yourself living in at that time.


I thought I'd share some of the recent experiences that made me a bit discombobulated as I try to put myself into America mode after being abroad for another two years.



-Instinctively Wanting to Say Thank You in Another Language Besides English


When I came back to the US last Thursday, I touched down in San Francisco so I could meet up with some friends. Staying in the Bay Area meant that I was in close proximity to a number of immigrant communities and a diverse range of cultures. 

In some ways this made the process of going back easier. At the same time, encountering so many nationalities behind the counter of a restaurant or store instinctively made me want to say thank you in one of the languages I've used over the years besides English. This was, I'll add, regardless of whether the person in front of me knew said language or not. I was able to catch myself most of the time though I still ended up saying 'Kup Khun Krap' in Thai to an Afghan man.


-Remembering that Trains Do Arrive On Time Here

It's not just trains though. Everything here arrives on time...or they're supposed to. Planes, trains, automobiles. They're expected to be fueled up, checked out and ready to go when you are. People are flustered or outraged if there's a long delay. 


A timetable in a train or bus station in Thailand or Egypt is often outdated or only followed half-heartedly. It's a surprise in those corners of the world if anything takes off on time without some sort of delay. 

As such, I tend to be skeptical or schedules and timetables everywhere, though they're far more revered in the States than in the other places I've lived.



-Being Awkwardly Cautious when Crossing the Street 


The fact that laws and regulations are regularly enforced in the US makes me extra cautious. That's especially true when I cross the street. Unlike other parts of the world you can't always bolt across in the middle of traffic. For the most part, pedestrians in the States use the cross-walks and drivers stop for them as they move. I'm used to this system now, just as I'm used to bolting in other countries. However, for the first few days that I'm back on US soil, I find myself standing awkwardly on certain sidewalks resisting the urge to suddenly sprint through the gaps between two cars to get to the other side.



 -Seeing Impoverished White People

My longest experiences abroad have been in countries where there the majority of the population is not Caucasian. While I'm living there, the only other White Westerners I see are people working abroad like myself, retirees tourists. All of them are okay financially, in contrast to some (not all) but some of the local population. Put more simply, you don't see white people begging or sleeping on the street in Bangkok or Cairo.

In Oakland or DC or Chicago, that's not at all the case. It can be jarring to remember that not everyone is as well off in the West as you might think.

-Understanding Everything that Everyone is Saying 

I have smatterings from a variety of languages stuck in my head, from Thai to Arabic. However, I'm only fluent in English. As such, when I'm outside the US I can only understand bits and pieces of conversations that are going on around me in another language. 

This all changes when I'm back in the States. Suddenly, everyone around me speaks the same language I do and it can overwhelm my ears.

-The Bluntness of American Speech

Americans are direct and very blunt. This isn't in and of itself a bad thing. However, when you come from Southeast Asia, where hospitality and politeness are extremely important and vital matters are handled in a roundabout way, it can be a little shocking. 

-You Can't Really Tell Who is a Foreigner and Who Isn't at First Glance 


Americans are an extremely diverse people. A person being of Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, or African descent isn't an accurate gauge for whether someone is or isn't American. This a beautiful aspect f American life and it can also be a challenging one for those re-assimilating after being gone for a while. Even though you're American and even though the internet still makes you feel connected to the States, you do miss certain developments in the culture. And at a first glance, you're expected to know how to act and how to speak all the time

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Departure, Farewell and Liberation- Saying Goodbye Again

After almost two years of living in Chiang Mai, I'm saying goodbye once again. It's been a great and liberating experience for me to come back to the city I grew up in. I've loved reconnecting with Thailand while also experiencing a very different side of it through my time in it's education system. While the job wasn't always easy, I grew from it and for perhaps the first time in my life I feel a strong sense of confidence and assurance. It wasn't until my last few days on the job in late January that I realized how far I had come since those chaotic first few days of trying to reign in the first graders. It wasn't as I wound up my time at PRC that I saw how well I could deal and manage thirty eight little kids. As I hugged half a dozen 1/10 kids for the last time, trying my best to soothe a few red and teary eyes, I saw how much I meant to some of these children.

 While it's been hard to say goodbye once again, to the school, to the kids, to my hometown and the people I've gotten to know here I don't feel bad about it. I don't feel sadness or reluctance to depart. I'm certain that it's time for me to go. I'm looking forward to my future studies and the new frontiers I'll be opening up in the US. I'm also looking towards what comes after. To teaching jobs in schools across the globe and the realization that my time back in Thailand has helped lay the foundation for what comes next.

 Not only do I feel hopeful but, more importantly, I feel liberated. From what, you might ask? From myself.

 When I came back to Thailand in 2013 I was returning for two reasons. First, I wanted to reconnect with my hometown after seven years of being away. Second, and just as important as the first, I wanted to jump into a new field 'teaching' and in the process hopefully discover a new sense of purpose and center my life once again.

 It was very important to me to find a new life for myself, especially after I reluctantly left Egypt due to visa issues and a ton of personal hardship and heartache.

 In sum, I came back to look for something new amongst the familiar. After such a long passage of time the city was very different. It had ballooned in size. New malls were everywhere. Areas far out from the center of the town which had been empty when I left in 06 were now covered with trendy cafes and upscale shops. Most of the people I had known had departed as well. I made new friends though, and I made a new life.

 Living here as an adult, I dealt with the first time with adult problems. I paid rent and dealt with traffic and commutes. As an adult, my life in Chiang Mai was completely different.

 Yet the easy going spirit of he city remained the same. The hospitality and flexibility of Thai culture remained unchanged and there were just as many if not more open minded ex-pats to help open windows to new frontiers.

 Discovering that the home of yesteryear was gone did not make me despair. Instead, I reforged myslef with new steel with an old hammer and anvil.

 That in and of itself makes me feel deeply accomplished.

 I am now liberated. Now that I know for sure the world I knew is gone. Now that I know I've been able to build a new house on it's foundations. I know I can make a home anywhere. Wherever my soul feels like flying to.

 I've lived the ex-pat life and I will continue to live it. I've called many different places home from New York to Kansas, from Cairo to Chiang Mai. There is no other way I would choose to live. 

  In every place I've gone parts of me are deposited locked away in a metaphorical bank box waiting to be opened if I ever choose to set foot there again. And yet I'vee taken as much as I've given. The part you leave creates a vacant space and that hole is filled in by the place you've been. As such, you also take a part of each world you visit with you.

 I am taking Chiang Mai with me, as I've always done. And I am so grateful to have been able to come back and love it one more time.

 Much Love, Now and Always


Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Six Letters, Six Students- A Farewell

Last week, I decided to leave my school early. The decision was not an easy one but I am certain it was the right one. In the coming weeks, I'll try and write more about the thoughts and developments which prompted me to leave four weeks before the year ended. For now, I'll say that personal reasons and dissatisfaction with work, combined with  being accepted into a US based teacher certification program (which starts in March), convinced me that the best thing for my life at present was to go back Stateside. I'll be in Kansas City for the next seven or eight months to work through the program and do my student teaching. Afterwards, I hope to teach the history or the social sciences at an international school somewhere in the world.

 Although I'm certain that my decision to leave a little early was the right one, it was still hard to say goodbye to my students. Despite the hassle and difficulties that often arise in the classroom, I feel a strong love and attachment to the little six and seven year olds who also have filled the past two years with joy.

 It was a privilege to share their lives for a time. And there are six I want to write to here and now. 


-To Bio, the hardest working and most well behaved first grader.

I can't tell you how much your presence in my most difficult class made my darkest days so much brighter. You were in a class filled with so many apathetic students and yet you remained so attentive and so eager to participate in everything. I don't know how many adults in a similar situation would continue to be so steadfast. I hope you never lose that drive, that determination, that desire to be good despite what everyone around you is doing. On the other hand, I hope your greatest strength doesn't also become a weakness. I hope that your desire to respect authority doesn't stunt your creativity but allows it to grow. No matter what though, know you'll always be my superhero. 

-To Suveer, the most helpful boy ever.

Thank you for your endless eagerness. Thank you for your unfailing smile. Thank you for always waiting at the door to my office with your book in hand to show me where your class was at that day. Thank you for always being eager to lend a hand and help out whether it was by turning on the projector, testing out my markers, translating instructions or choosing a book.

-To Tua-O, the environmentally conscious genius.

 Tua-O, I know I haven't always been on good terms with you. I'm sorry that you found my after-school classes boring. Please know I never meant to make you upset. The truth is you were right on many occasions when you argued with me about leaving early. You, already fluent, able to tell me about wind turbines and explain the concept of evaporation in your second language, never belonged there in those after-school programs. You should be in an international school, not taking lessons with kids who are still learning how to put short sentences together about animals. However, you do have much to learn especially when it comes to being with others. If you can be as wise as you are brilliant, I truly believe you will do anything.  

 -To AA, the worst troublemaker.

 You were, like so many of the boys I met these past two years, difficult. But most distressing to me was how you could be so mean spirited and cruel. It was your pension for inflicting pain that convinced that children were not truly innocent. Each time I saw you in class you tested my resolve. You challenged me at every turn and you showed no respect to anyone including me. Some would call you a problem child. I called you, though never to your face, an asshole. Yes, it may seem harsh or cruel to talk about a seven year old boy in that way. But that is what you were. Please know though, that calling you out for this does not mean I am apathetic or cold towards you. Quite the opposite. I would still die for you as I would for any of the obedient students who sat still in their chairs. I've seen your energy in the classroom. I've seen your determination with certain activities. You have a charisma even at your young age. If you could harness that energy and determination you could be so much. Perhaps, no one in your life has told you this yet. Perhaps, I failed as a teacher to open your eyes to this. I hope you meet someone down the line who will.

-To Len, the jolly little dough-ball.

 You were always so warm and cheerful in the classroom. You started out wayward and distracted. Now, you focus so much more and do almost every assignment. I know you don't know this but this is a triumph for me. Whenever a student finds the will to participate it makes us teachers at the front all the more relieved. It alleviates some of the doubts, the weariness, the apathy that always hangs around our office desks in those moments of silence where we say 'What the hell am I accomplishing here?' For that little morsel of relief and ratification, I thank you.  

-And finally to Nana, the girl from another world.

 The first student I ever bonded with. I know I haven't seen you too much since last year. Know though that I've never forgotten your name when I've spied you on the playground between class periods. I've seen how you've shot up since first grade and how you stroke the leaves and massage the petals of the flowers outside your new building. Know that I will never forget you. You taught me much in that year we spent in the classroom together. I could tell straight away that you were different, lost in your own world and oblivious to the chaos of your thirty seven peers. Some would say you were learning disabled. I myself did. In hindsight I don't believe that was accurate. You were actually enabled in ways most of us aren't. The fact that I could somehow infiltrate your universe and become a part of it, is something that makes me feel proud. I will treasure the times you  wandered in the office and stay by my desk, standing still long enough for me to pull out flashcards and be astonished at how you seemed to absorb just about everything I had said in class despite having never looked me in the eye. I know it's not easy being so removed from everyone. I hope you can find others among your peers to share your majesty with. I hope someone can give a name to your wonderful state and provide you and those who love you with the right information. I hope they cultivate you as the rose you are, not the orchid they want you to be.