Saturday, January 28, 2012

100 days in Thailand

In the “business school/ CEO  leadership training” perspective, the first 100 days are deemed to be critical in establishing a path to a legacy.  Franklin Roosevelt, according to Arthur Schlesinger’s biography, “sent 15 messages to Congress, guided 15 major laws to enactment, delivered ten speeches, sponsored a major international conference and conducted all affairs of state and never displayed fright or panic.”  Me, not so much… but  here are some of my accomplishments:
  1. I’ve taught about 120 classes to children between the ages of 4-9.  The student’s expectations are set. They know there will be a welcome song.  They know to hide the playing cards or stop showing off the new Barbie pencil set in my classroom.   They know “the look” that transcends language barriers.

2. Through the English word of the week announced every Monday morning, I’ve introduced the entire student body of 850 young people to ten new words to describe themselves in a positive way.  Regardless of the fact that this was a purely selfish idea to combat the repetitive articulation of “I’m fine”, the students love it.

3. I’ve created a habit to walk around campus when the adjournment bell rings and “press the flesh” with random members of the student body.  The practice of shaking hands is relatively new in Thai culture, so quite a novelty for the younger students.  All of them appreciate a high five when they make an effort to use the English word of the week in response to “how are you?”

4. Traveled to Northern (a week) and Southern Thailand (5 days), with a short weekend on the border with Burma.  Two of those trips were done as a solo traveler- a new way of moving through the world.   My travel budget seems nowhere near that of my younger colleagues, who seem to be flitting around Thailand by jet, train and epic bus rides engaging in all sorts of intoxicating adventures.

5. I got an International Driver’s Permit from AAA in Florida. I have a plan for a trip to explore some parks nearby.

6. As a result of extensive internet research, I purchased some hard to find medical supplies in Bangkok with minimal fuss.   This was a big relief and set the stage for the upcoming visit to the dental hygienist in the next couple months.

7.  Recovered from injuries from six different accidents, including a severely subbed pinkie toe from a flip-flop footed encounter with the wheel of an errant rolling metal white board and small laceration from a miscalculation with the shears as I cut the flashcards.  Concurrent on this item, I’ve also lived with a wheezy, sinus clogging form of URI for the past 75 days, despite medications, plenty of water, sleep and oranges.  (See #3)

8. Figured out how to use a squat toilet at school without getting my rhinestone-studded purple plastic work shoes splattered with urine. (Knees together!)

9. Learned at least 150 vocabulary words in Thai.  Have put some words together to form sentences and communicate with a range of people.

10. Dropped at least 15 pounds so far.  Using a combination of “Western food is expensive and generally unattractive” and “It’s so hot I have no appetite” with a liberal dose of “It’s so spicy I can’t eat much” tactics and the plentiful fruits and vegetables, I finally drew the attention of a bus driver who was the first Thai man to ask for my phone number.

Ten goals for the next eight months:
  1. Go to Tanzania to see my lifelong friend Carrie Evans and experience Africa. This is scheduled for the semester break in April, when I happen to turn 50.
  2. Stay focused on gaining confidence in speaking Thai by doing at least 20 minutes a day of listening, practicing and using the online course I enrolled in on January.
  3. Exercise in some form at least 4 days a week.  Fortunately there are lots of options- biking around the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, power-walking along the Ping River, Thai aerobic dance classes in Sirijit Park.  The morning assembly disco dance “exercise routines” with the kindergartners don’t count but are great for the spirit.
  4. Focus on meeting people and developing friendships- especially with folks outside of school.   While I’ve discovered that the Saturday morning shopping trip at the Big C supercenter is the time to see the old and generally unhappy looking white men shopping with their female Thai partners, it would be great to find some other expats or Thai people with some English fluency in the community.  This is only accomplished by hanging out in public places.
  5. Flesh out the outline/chapters/important stories of my memoir.  Keep reading lots of good books to expand on the 28  I’ve read so far.   
  6. Do my best to expand on the teaching practice with my students.  They are  low-level English learners, characterized by a lack of context for the language and compounded by a cultural reticence for speaking English. However, they are happy to chatter endlessly in Thai in my classroom.
  7. Uncover the next step for life past September 30, 2012 when my contract ends.  (Implementation scheduled once #1 is completed.)
  8. Keep up the networks back home and work on not taking it personally when the emails are not responded to.  It’s the internet and I’m sending from a Thai server after all.  Who knows what happens to these messages?   If you have gotten this far on the list, please send a note to say hi.  I’d appreciate it.
  9. Meditate with a bit more concentration and focus, knowing that every effort to clear the mind and reach that divine place of acceptance, clarity and peace will have an impact.
  10. Keep smiling.  Responding with a genuine expression of welcome acknowledgement is my secret weapon for dealing with the frequent stares I receive anytime I am out in the community. Almost always, people smile back.  Some take a minute to ask me (in Thai) about where I come from, what I do, how long I have been here.  I have to think this has some impact on the world as a whole.

For me, the next eight months will be a test of how to balance between the “be here now” and the “think about the future.”   The past week has created the worst in my series of sinus infections, resulting In a Doctor’s visit and another course of meds that are causing nausea, dizziness and more fatigue and a self-imposed 4 days of bedrest.  In the dark moments of illness, loneliness and longing for a lean turkey/swiss sandwich with artisan whole grain bread, I fear that this boot camp of self-reliance has grave implications for my capacity to form relationships in the future.  I worry about my previous career as a management consultant for mission driven organizations and what this new step will represent to future employers.  I wonder what will happen in September when my VISA and work permit expire here in Thailand.

The universe of the unknown feels so much different at (nearly) 50 than it did on one night in the wide open desert of West Texas in 1990.  As that evening turned into night, I pulled into an arroyo off the highway and watched lightning 100 miles away on the night before my first entry into Big Bend National Park.  A woman that I’d met in Key West while I was driving cabs, pedaling a rickshaw and sharing an apartment with Marrying Sam told me, on the night she rowed me out to her floating shack in the harbor, that I would like it there.   The tourist season was beginning in the spring and there was work to be done.     In the  small town of Lajitas about 50 miles west of the park entrance,  I found a community where I fell in love with a river, the desert, the culture, a man and a seasonal guiding lifestyle.  That place brought me to Alaska.

Now, I’ve been lead to this town where I am able to ride in the Ancient Forest Temple Across the Street, have a daily opportunity to pray to the Buddha, gesture along with the students to a song about spreading love over the world and receive the unending adoration of a legion of kindergartners.  This is a gift of experience and I know the challenges will create benefits I have yet to realize.   In  last week's evening Facebook chat with an old friend from SUNY Fredonia and the ensuring years in Boston, she encouraged me to have patience.

Over the next eight months, I need to relish the moments of health, vigor and wonder that fuel my spirit.  Understand that the cycles of doubt are a natural part of a challenging cross cultural acclimation.  Take every measure to help my body adjust to the new climate so I can take the deep breaths needed to gain ground and reach out.   One has to trust that the world will unfold the next step when the time is right.  Onward!

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