A Little Longing — A Lot of Learning

It is in the quiet minutes before I leave for school that I seem to find a time and place to write this blog. I am sitting on the back porch of the Lodge, my coffee steaming in front of me next to a plate of fresh cut mango. It’s hard to believe sometimes what my normal everyday life has turned to—mangos everyday for less than a dollar; kids who run to me on the playground, embracing me as if they haven’t seen me in years when really I only saw them a couple of hours ago; daily downpours that seem to make the world stand still and constantly remind me of my second home in Tacoma, WA.

Each morning I am grateful to wake up in this beautiful place, to go to a job that I surprisingly love. And although some days I am so exhausted after school I can barely move, the love and joy I experience from my kids is something I can only begin to express.

Life has grown comfortable here. We went to Chiang Mai this weekend for the four-day holiday break (it is the start of the Buddhist lent here). And while the trip was magical in so many different ways, I was happy to return to Nan—a place where I know the streets at least half as well as I did during my four years in Tacoma, a place where everyone knows if I have a flat tire on my bike, a place where I have to ask myself everyday “What has my life come to?” in the best way possible.

While many of you I’m sure are anxious to hear about my adventures to Chiang Mai, a city much much bigger than Nan, I am not so inclined to share those moments with you yet. I’m still processing some of the breathtaking and wondrous moments myself and I want to save those thoughts for when I have a little more time – but I will include a few pictures for you so you all won’t perish of my lack of photos I have shared with you over the last few weeks. So what am I going to write about if I’m not going to tell you about the fabulous trip I just took and which consumed my life for four days? Well, sometimes the intangibles are far more interesting to me than any moment or picture can say.

I confessed that life here in Nan has become comfortable. I am getting the hang of teaching, I love my kids, and I look forward to yoga each night before dinner. However, while my life may seem like a fairytale ending to many new college grads, it is not without its challenges. There are some moments when I look up and ask myself “What am I doing here? What was my real purpose of coming?” Sure, I know the answer when I stop and think. I came here to explore another culture and another part of the world. I came here to expand my thinking and gain an experience that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to have. I came here to teach and to learn. But while I can say all of these things in writing, there are still some days when I feel like any new college grad must feel—that the real world is tough. Going to work from 9 to 5 everyday is much different than a college class schedule. And while I kept myself overly busy in college, there are still times here where I miss Puget Sound like crazy. Where I miss the quiet moments with my family, watching the stars in the backyard underneath a summer moon. Where I miss being able to turn on a TV and zone out to a bad American reality TV show. Where I miss being able to turn to anyone and have a conversation.

Yes, I knew these moments would happen—these moments of intense longing and desire, these moments of doubt and hesitation. Moments where I feel in limbo, lost in the world, as if I will never find my way back to the right path again. And these are the moments, I know, that will begin to define my experience here. These are the moments where I will learn and grow the most.

I don’t want you to think that this post is to complain and nag, it is simply a reflection on some of the very complex thoughts I have had over the past week or so. Thoughts that I still have not fully processed and probably won’t until my time has finished here. With all my traveling I have come to learn that it is exactly these thoughts—the ones I cannot even begin to express here because I’m not entirely sure what they are—that will begin to shape and mold me into a new being. And ultimately that is why I came to Asia—to change, to become a new person, to learn. And so when I look up and ask myself “Why did I come here?” I must remind myself that the answer is in the question itself.


Pure Joy.

Pure Joy.

A women praying at one of the temples we visited in Chiang Mai

A women praying at one of the temples we visited in Chiang Mai

Traditional Thai drummers and dancers

Traditional Thai drummers and dancers

prayer bells

prayer bells

Roses at the king's summer palace

Roses at the king’s summer palace


 

I’m Officially Moved In!

I’m awake early for the first time in almost two weeks. Studying for the MCAT has taken its toll on my sleep habits and I’m not able to enjoy that nine to ten hours of sleep I had been in my first week here. However, teaching is getting easier. And although I am still working feverishly during the day I am able to leave school behind (both in thoughts and in work) when I leave for the day.

I feel like I am officially moved in to Nan. This week me and one of the other girls who is working at the elementary school with me moved into the Lodge, nice hotel-like accommodations only two blocks away from school. Before, we were staying in a house that my co-teacher–Teacher Ann–rented out specifically for PiA fellows. While the house was cute and was certainly sufficient for our needs, it was too small to fit all of us there. Our third PiA fellow at our school–Sam–was unable to move in with us and took up housing at the Lodge. After a couple weeks of debating what we wanted to do, me and the other girl living with me–Haley–decided that it would be best if we moved to the Lodge as well so that we could all be together.

Haley and I moved in on Tuesday and we couldn’t be more excited about the accommodations.  (See the pictures of my room at the end of the post.)  I would relate the Lodge to that super nice dormitory you had on your college campus that everyone wanted to live in. I have my own shower and bathroom, a queen size bed, and, wait for it — air conditioning.

The one down side to the Lodge is that there are no wardrobes or shelves to put your clothes. Thus, the Farang Biker Gang (to keep you all in the loop, this is the name we have given the group of us four PiA fellows here in Nan. Farang means foreigner in Thai) went on a mission to find proper shelving units. The house we were living in before had A LOT of things from the fellows who have lived there in the past and we were told that we were welcome to take any and all of it with us. So what do we do? We hop on our bikes, ride the two blocks over to the house, and raid the place as if we are thieves coming in the middle of the night. We took a total of 8 shelves, 2 fans, 3 mirrors, 4 big sombrero/sun-hats, more mosquito repellent than humanly necessary, 28 hangers, an American flag carefully crafted by a past PiA fellow, and two many other things to count. We carried most back on a motorbike and then stuffed our bicycle baskets with fans, Christmas decorations, and cleaning supplies.

It was a successful ransack and I was pleased to have some shelves to put my clothes on. Last night I went to the market (all by myself — yes, I was very proud of myself for making this small venture solo) and bought a ton of bins with which to organize all my things. This place was like a mini Container Store but WAY cheaper. They had bins just lining the street and a long shop filled with little knick knacks. I found everything I could want and more and it only came to about $10 and spent the whole night organizing all my things.

I am happy to say that I am starting to feel very settled here. I love teaching and I am starting to know all of my kids’ names without name tags. I look forward to my nightly yoga and a big, ripe, delicious mango in the morning. And I cherish these quiet mornings where I have a few extra minutes to write.

All my love from Thailand on this beautiful 4th of July,

Brenna

P.S. For all of you keeping updated on my blog through Facebook, I have come to the conclusion that while social media is a wonderful tool to stay connected with friends new and old, I would prefer to keep my blog a little more private. You are all still welcome to read and share this blog with your friends. However, I will not keep the blog updated via Facebook. Please subscribe if you want to receive email updates of when I post. If not, check back frequently because I plan on writing each week to reflect on my time and adventures here in Thailand. And as always, thank you for reading.

That Moment When

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The view of Nan from the mountain top temple we climbed to last weekend.

Ok so maybe I lied.  I can’t keep myself from writing for a month and a half simply because I have a time-consuming job and I’m studying for the MCAT.  The posts will be short and simple but in some ways, I think that can be more powerful.

Yesterday I had one of those powerful moments.  A simple realization that I think will carry me through my entire year.  I was in my first grade classroom.  We had just finished a simple spelling test and we were finishing class by doing a reading.  I read the short poem out loud to them and then they repeated each sentence after me.  My co-teacher, Teacher Ann, then proceeded to talk in front of the class, translating each word so the students could understand what the poem was actually talking about.  About 10 seconds into her talk with the students she turned to me and said: “Teacher Brenna, you can sit down.  We don’t need you right now.”  At first my ego felt a little bruised.  After all, I had been hired to teach, not sit in a chair while someone else taught my class.  But this thought quickly dissipated as I realized my purpose of coming to Thailand and teaching English was not to learn how to teach or even to challenge and learn about myself.  Sure, those things will most certainly happen during my year abroad, but I realized for the first time since being here that this was not why I am here, at Bandon Sriersm Elementary School.

I am here, I realized, to serve this community.  They did not hire me because I have outstanding credentials as a teacher or am such a spectacular person that they wanted all of their students to know.  No, I was hired because I can speak English and I can give these kids the opportunity to improve their pronunciation, improve their speaking skills, and ultimately, give them a love and desire to learn English.  It was in that moment, that realization, that I embraced sitting in the chair and watching Teacher Ann help the students translate the passage.  I could not explain to the kids exactly what each word meant.  Teacher Ann could.  And this translation is what the students needed to learn.  Not some American girl standing at the front of the class asking them to repeat each and every word until they pronounced each one correctly.  They could memorize and say the poem perfectly and it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t understand what they were saying.

It was an incredibly humbling, yet powerful, moment to fully realize that my purpose here is to serve.  I need to know when to step aside and let another teacher take over in order to enhance the students’ learning.  I remember in my interview for PiA they talked about service extensively and how each fellow has a year of service to their community.  It is what ultimately made me fall in love with the ideals of PiA and what made me want to accept this post.  However, it wasn’t until just yesterday that I fully understood what service to a community can look and feel like.

The kids put on a play to celebrate the famous Thai epic poem.  I unfortunately, could not watch the production as I had class with my younger students, who did not participate in the festivities. (It was another one of those service moments.)  But I was pulled into this photo before heading to class.

The kids put on a play to celebrate the famous Thai epic poem. I unfortunately, could not watch the production as I had class with my younger students, who did not participate in the festivities. (It was another one of those service moments.) But I was pulled into this photo before heading to class.

Not the best picture. But I promised more pictures of the kids. This is the school yard right after lunch recess. All the kids brush their teeth to this Thai pop song that constantly gets stuck in my head. I took this while stepping between small rivers of spit out water mixed with toothpaste.

Not the best picture. But I promised more pictures of the kids. This is the school yard right after lunch recess. All the kids brush their teeth to this Thai pop song that constantly gets stuck in my head. I took this while stepping between small rivers of spit out water mixed with toothpaste.

 

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Unit One Review

If I have learned nothing more than one thing in my time in Thailand so far, it is this — teaching is hard.  I have just officially finished my first week of classes, having started on Tuesday last week and just having finished my Tuesday classes this week.  I am exhausted.  And as such, this post will be a little out of my usual style of writing.  It will take place in the form of a list.  A list of what I have learned already in my very short, yet very long week, of teaching.  And what I am excited for in the upcoming year.  

1. First graders do not know how to read.  In Thai or English.  I have given my first graders plenty of worksheets in the past week and have learned that it takes careful explanation and sometimes many examples for them to understand what I want them to do on any single assignment.  After the first day where they all quickly rambled off every single part of their body from arm to back to shoulders, I felt like I had to challenge them.  I think I have challenged them too much.  I am beginning to learn what their limitations are and how they can learn English within these parameters.  

2. The differences between first, second, and third grade is truly astounding.  With my first graders I play mostly games with a little learning and the occasional worksheet thrown in.  They jump and scream and cheer when they get a point in a game and the boys do a little dance when they win.  In second grade I barely get a “Yay!” when I say we’re going to play a game.  And during the competition there is no shouting and yelling but rather their head in their hands looking about as bored as they can possibly get while their classmate guesses the right answer.  I run third grade more like a university class than an elementary classroom (at least that’s how it feels to me in comparison to my other classes).  I feel like they are actually learning English and can compose sentences, spell words, and more or less understand what I’m saying without further instructions.  They get grades back on their papers whereas I only give checkmarks to second and first grade.  And they will have their first test this Thursday. 

3. The first graders think I know Thai.  The second graders think I’m beautiful.  The third graders — well, I’m not quite sure what they think of me.  In my first grade classroom the kids frequently speak to me in Thai.  I simply nod my head, point to their worksheet, say “Good job!” and move on to the next child.  The second graders constantly come up to me during class and between activities to tell me I’m beautiful.  Gee, thanks.  My hair is almost wet because I am sweating so much.  I have bug bites all up and down my legs and I bet you can see my pit stains because I am so hot.  But hey, I’ll take it.  

4. I’m excited to learn my student’s names without looking at their name tags.  I have been desperately trying the last week to get all their names down but inevitably when I see the kids outside of class without their name tag and not sitting in the exact spot I see them every day, I simply cannot put a name to their face.  My goal is to have all their names down in the next week.  I am already seeing some of my students outside of class on the weekend and I want to say “Hello Waydao,” or “Hello Mintra.”  And not just wave desperately, trying to think of their name, until they pass and then just mumble “Bye, so and so.”  

5.  I’m excited to learn Thai.  My co-teachers are constantly chattering to the kids in Thai and at moments the entire classroom will go silent.  I will stop and listen as to what I’m sure is a scolding.  The children look like they could just die in their seats.  I have no idea what they are saying but at times I want to know the secret to making the kids be quiet.  Plus, knowing some Thai could come in handy for explaining directions.  And maybe I could understand what those adorable first graders are telling me.  The Thai studying will have to wait though until I finish my MCAT.  That brings me to number six.

6. I am excited to finish my MCAT.  I decided not to take my MCAT in the final semester of my senior year because it was becoming too much with classes and looking for a job.  My plan was to take the MCAT in the summer after I graduated and before I started a new job.  But then, I found out I received a PiA (Princeton in Asia) fellowship that would start in early June and my plan to take the MCAT this summer needed to change.  So I packed my MCAT books (which took up WAY too much space and weight) and I am taking the MCAT abroad.  In a month and a half.  Not ideal.  I must admit, it has been tough to study so far with being so busy from teaching and also just wanting to enjoy my time in Thailand.  But I am thankful I have a housemate who is also studying for the test.  This week we have started an after school routine:

5 – 6 PM — snack and rest

6 – 7 PM — yoga

7 – 8 PM — dinner

8 – midnight — MCAT 

We will both be so happy in August when it is over. 

That brings me to my last point.  And the real reason for writing this post.  While I wish I could write on this blog every week and keep you all up to date, I have come to realize that teaching is a difficult and time-consuming career.  Add the MCAT into that mix, and I barely have enough time to sleep.  What I’m trying to say is I may be MIA until August.  Until then, I will be posting copious amounts of pictures to Facebook.  

Much love to you all.  

Image

PS — So sorry this post has only this picture.  I wish I had photos of the kids.  They are seriously so CUTE!  Over the next month I will definitely try to accumulate a few pictures to show you all.  

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Pensive Rainy Morning

I am up early and the rain is pounding on the roof above. I can hear the birds chirping outside and when I open my curtains they are sitting right on the windowsill next to my bed.  It is somewhat enchanting to be woken by the call of a small bird so close to your ear at 6 am.

I have now been in Thailand just under a week and I have taught two days of class. After the first day I was so exhausted that I came home after school, watched one hour of TV on my laptop (something I rarely do) and fell asleep by 6 pm, not to wake up until 12 hours later at 6 am.

 

The market right across from my school.  There is where I buy all my fruit.

The market right across from my school. There is where I buy all my fruit.

I am teaching first, second, and third graders in a program called Mini English Program. The students in this program start taking English classes in kindergarten and have at least one hour (sometimes two hours) of English class every day. The first day I walked into my first grade classroom and had a lesson planned on teaching them “My name is . . . “ for the entire hour. My co-teacher, Teacher Ann, however, quickly showed me that the students knew this very simple phrase.  The students greeted me with “Good morning, Teacher.  How are you today?”

When Teacher Ann asked if anyone had a question for me.  All of their hands shot up into the air and it took every fiber in their being to stay in their seats.  We then took the next five minutes going around the room with 35 first graders asking me what my name was and how I was that day (because it was the only two questions they knew).

Now, let me take a minute out of talking about these adorable first graders for to praise my co-teacher, Teacher Ann. Teacher Ann is one of the sweetest people I have ever met and when she walks into the classroom the kids simply light up. A rowdy bunch of second graders suddenly listen and pay attention when Teacher Ann is in the room. And magically, whenever she speaks English, the children almost always understand. Teacher Ann is in my first and second grade classrooms with me to help calm the children down if needed and use a few words of Thai if the children don’t understand what I’m saying.  She has already bestowed me with treats after school and is so very supportive in helping me make lesson plans.

The temple right down the road from my school. There are temples are every other block here. It's kind of like what Starbucks is in the States (but without coffee).

The temple right down the road from my school. There are temples are every other block here. It’s kind of like what Starbucks is in the States (but without coffee).

 

After my first day with my first graders I realized that I would be moving much more quickly through the material than I first anticipated. The second day I had a lesson planned for body parts. I was going to go through the entire body with my third graders, but only teach the first graders head, shoulders, knees and toes. When I walked into the first grade class and said we would be learning about the body they all automatically stood up and starting singing the song “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes.” Well, there goes my entire lesson plan, I thought. I ended up teaching them my second grade lesson plan, which they easily flew through. My third grade class one hour later informed me as I drew a body up on the board which body parts I was forgetting as I did not put up elbow or forgot to label the hip.

“Teacher, teacher, what about the bottom,” one girl chanted from the back.

“Yes, the bottom. We can’t forget about that.”

The first day I walked into class I was also unaware that all of the kids have nicknames. I believe the nickname system is in place for the English teachers to better understand and remember the children’s names as their Thai names are so long and complex that there would be no way I could remember close to a hundred, five syllable names. So much to my surprise on the first day I had children introduce themselves to me as Cake, or Paint, or even Foremost. I have a Heartbeat in my second grade classroom, and a Plankton too (she’s a little girl). But I also have some very Thai sounding names as well. Liew, and Baifern, and Khaofang are a few. The children snicker whenever I say these names aloud and I know I must be saying them incorrectly. When I ask, it takes me about three times to get the right tone and then I pronounce it incorrectly again when I call on the child two minutes later.

My desk at school.  Now I understand why it is so easy to lose students' papers.

My desk at school. Now I understand why it is so easy to lose students’ papers.

I have only taught two days but already it seems like I have been here for a long time.  Whenever me and the fellow two American teachers walk onto the school campus in the morning or are on the playground between classes, just about every student turns and points.  Everywhere I turn I have a child telling me Hello.  And they are so very proud of themselves when they can ask me how I am.  I had a student in my second grade class walk into school with her mother today and she kept pointing at me behind her mother’s legs.  They smiled at me as they passed.  One my first day of class another one of my second graders came up to me during a game and whispers to me: “Teacher beautiful.”  Needless to say, I am somewhat of a worshipped goddess here.  I do not feel worthy of the praise in any way, shape or manner.  But for now I will take it.

There are so many other beautiful, and at times bewildering, things about this country. But I must save those stories for another day as the rain continues to pound on the pavement outside and I can see the lush, green trees outside my window. It is time to start my day, get ready, and head over to the school for what is sure to be another wonderful, yet interesting, day.

Thailand, Here I Come

I’m sitting on the plane to Tokyo while I write this. It’s a little hard to believe that in about 12 hours I will be in Nan, Thailand, the place I will call home for the next year. The last few weeks have been such a whirlwind and I couldn’t be more grateful for the adventures I had before starting this new journey.

For those of you unaware, I started this endeavor a very long time ago–March of last year to be exact. I’ve always wanted to go to medical school but I knew that before starting I wanted to take a couple years off to travel and experience something I would never get the chance to once I started the rigors of med school. I applied for a Fulbright, a Watson, a Luce, a Princeton in Asia, a Princeton in Latin America, and a few other smaller grants—anything that would give me the money and opportunity to live abroad for a year. After many countless hours in the library and way too many late nights, rejection letters started pouring in. I was getting frustrated with my own failure and it seemed that no matter what I did, my dream of living abroad was not going to happen.

When I got the call for an interview with Princeton in Asia, I thought: Well, I’ll go, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to get this one. Sitting in a room with 30 other way more qualified students than myself, I remember thinking that even if I did get the fellowship (which was unlikely) I wouldn’t take it. Teaching didn’t sound appealing and plus, I was never planning on teaching in the future so why waste a year building a skill set I would never use again.

And then at the end of March I got a another call, this time asking me if I was interested in teaching in an elementary school in Nan, Thailand. Suddenly those thoughts of not wanting to teach dissapated. I can’t explain what it was but when I was told I could go to Thailand for the year, I couldn’t get that image out of my head. It felt so right, as if Thailand was exactly where I needed to be. I took the position and the next week bought my ticket to Bangkok.

Now, I’m in transit. My bags are much too full and I do not know nearly enough Thai (I found a language program on the in-flight TV games they offer and learned Thai numbers and phrases—that is the extent of my Thai language). But I come with an open mind and a desire to not only teach but to learn.

 

The real purpose of this post was to inform all of you of the things I have been up to prior to my departure from the States for the year. After finishing finals and celebrating graduation in a chaotic weekend filled with ceremonies, backyard parties, and way too much alcohol and cake, I packed up my room, said good-bye to Tacoma and headed for a one week volunteer trip in Panama.

I was the president of Global Medical Brigades at Puget Sound this year and as such I planned all the logistics and fundraising efforts in preparation for our trip to Panama at the end of May. As many of you know, I have been involved with Global Medical Brigades since my freshman year, going to Honduras twice. I sadly missed last year’s trip to Nicaragua as I was still studying abroad in Santiago, Chile.

This trip, for me, was much different than my previous two trips to Honduras.  My perspective on the healthcare we were providing, the community we were serving, and the communication between the doctors and the patients had completely changed since my last trip to Honduras. I saw how my education abroad greatly helped in my work in Panama. Not only was I one of only two students who could help translate for the doctors, but I was more aware of healthcare both in the States and other countries abroad.

A bunch of hanging out with our driver Pedro during one of the clinic days.

A bunch of hanging out with our driver Pedro during one of the clinic days.

All of these differences I perceived though was nothing compared to the way I viewed the people. I could have never noticed it my first or even second trip to Honduras, but with six months abroad in Chile, I saw how my perception of the people had totally shifted. During my first two trips to Honduras I didn’t view the patients as people necessarily. Unable to fathom their daily lives and struggles and without a firm grasp on their language, their way of life was so distant from my own that I couldn’t connect with them on a basic human level. However, after living six months in Chile and learning the language intimately I noticed how Panama now felt like a home instantly and the people of the community trusted me as they came to quickly realize I was one of only a few on our trip who could fluently communicate with them.

One of the best moments of the trip was when a mother with four kids came into the clinic. I was helping translate for one of our American doctors and he greeted the family animatedly, making the mother and all of the children laugh. However, when the mother started to explain to him her symptoms and saw that he didn’t understand, she turned to me. The trust in her eyes was astonishing. Although, I was not the doctor she talked to me as if I was, opening up to me about her concerns for her children. When the doctor spoke to her she immediately turned to me for a translation. She recognized me as a pivotal part of the doctor-patient relationship. It was a very powerful moment.

 

Me and Sarah, our advisor for the trip.  We couldn't have gone and done so much good in Panama without her.

Me and Sarah, our advisor for the trip. We couldn’t have gone and done so much good in Panama without her.

 

After coming home from Panama (that plane ride home is a story in and of itself and I think I will have to save it for a later post as this is already way too long for all you readers), I had only three days to spend time with family and friends, get a visa, and unpack from four years of college, before heading up to Estes Park for Camp Wapiyapi, a one-week retreat for kids with cancer and their siblings. I have been going to Camp Wapiyapi for ten years now (very hard to believe it’s been that long). I started going when I was thirteen after my sister was diagnosed and treated for brain cancer. I have been a counselor for the last four years. This camp, unlike other camps, pairs the camper with an individual counselor, called a companion. Being a companion is always a very challenging, yet rewarding, role. This year was particularly difficult one for me with some friends who didn’t return to camp due to rediagnosis.  While challenging at times, it was still incredible to be surrounded by such good friends and be inspired by some amazing kids.

My team for Wapiyapi--THE GREEN TEAM!

My team for Wapiyapi–THE GREEN TEAM!

 

I only had two days at home with my family after camp before I headed for the airport early this morning. It was filled with packing, running last minute errands, and lengthy dinner conversations. I am so grateful for the time I spent at home and the adventures I had before I start this new journey.

We celebrated our birthday early this year -- 6 months early to be precise -- since I won't be home when it is our real birthday.

We celebrated our birthday early this year — 6 months early to be precise — since I won’t be home when it is our real birthday.

Thank you all for reading through this very lengthy first post. I hope that you will follow me in my travels and tribulations in the coming year. Please comment or message me. I would love to hear from friends old and new during my year very far away from home.

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