Ken May

The end (sort of)

Reflections on a last decade


I was waiting in the lobby of the American embassy. The ugly American had returned, but this time I shaved. My passport had filled up already. There were no more empty pages left. Plus, I needed to get a new one before I could sign another contract. I prepared for the event the night before by eating Mexican food and drinking Guinness beer – two things that strongly remind me of the United States. I needed practice; I have been away far too long. Case in point: I messed up while filling out my application twice. I kept writing in the dates with the British style – day before month. I was more cautious my third try, because I worried that I’d be driven away as an imposter if I made another mistake. Three strikes and your out. Anyway, I was waiting in the lobby, you follow, and I starting thinking about my life since I first got my passport ten years ago.

It has been a long and interesting decade. When I applied for my first passport I was still living in a car. I imagined that an overseas teaching job might get me off the streets. I ended up teaching homeless and illiterate Americans instead as an VISTA volunteer. This is how I acquired the taste for classrooms. Since then I have taught formally and informally across Europe and Asia. I ricocheted like a bullet with a trajectory rather than a plan. I bounced around the globe teaching for 2-3 years until Thailand’s low salaries sounded nice. And it was nice until my house flooded in 2002. I spent my last two months having to paddle boats to class from my riverside bungalow. My comfortable living space got pulled out from under me by nature like a rug, so I fled back to America full of lukewarm nostalgia and fantasies of success. It was shortly after 9-11, President Bush was still training for war speeches, and I had my first published book in hand. I imagined that I could nail my work to an employer’s doorway as part of a resume. No dice. The United States was in the middle of a major recession. I got stuck in an endless cycle of temp jobs. Then the U.S. started the Iraq war by more or less lying about weapons of mass destruction. I bailed when I realized that no job program was immediately forthcoming. I tried Europe at first, but Asia rolled out a better welcome mat. I went to Korea for a second year then boomeranged back – to Thailand – the country where I last felt like I had a stable home.
The past decade rolled my brain up like a tortilla as I kissed the Blarney Stone hoping that it would all work out in the end. As I waited in the lobby to apply for a new passport, a lot of fresh chaos was shaking up my life. My contract was nearly over and I needed to decide if I should renew. Meanwhile, I landscaped my home while trying to grow a sense of place. I was becoming domesticated; it was weird. I planted a garden, laid down a bricked and terraced foundation, and cleared away concrete debris. After one-month of intense labor, I had created a wonderful living space. It was too wonderful in fact. The landlady liked it so much that she sold our house. Faced with being uprooted for a second time, with a nearly exhausted teaching contract in hand, I did the most logical thing. I posted an ad on the Internet. I am now familiar with the routine: fire off a resume, initiate email exchange, and narrow the search down. Within days nearly 100 job offers poured in. This round pulled in invitations from Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Mongolia, and both sides of Yemen. I culled through 90% of these selections with instant deletion and began the process of serious vocational courtship.

It was at this time that an industrious Pom named Marmite started to confront me. He explained, “You don’t have to change countries just because you have to shift gaffs”. He also admonished me for not buying a desktop computer. “You’re holding out for a notebook computer that you can’t afford just because you’re too reluctant to settle down with something less mobile like a desktop”, he said. He was right, but I didn’t care. He had never known the feeling of being forcibly uprooted. I was busy prowling for new opportunities. Talks about stability were the furthest thing from my mind. Most countries pay English teachers shite salaries anyway. I just needed to decide where I would go next. Where should I sail off to? Then Marmite bought me my next Guinness. He maneuvered ahead strategically, “Mate, what you need is a really big project; something massive that will require a lot of time-consuming research”. The bloke was throwing me an anchor and I knew it. He tempted my sweet memories of lonely archival research done in dark basements at a public university. I recalled the scent of dusty microfilm on my fingertips and images of long hours with no pay. I got to admit that my interest was piqued. Another Guinness and I was ready to listen.

****
Then I went back to teaching classes. I thought about the things that I had learned about teaching since I was first issued my passport. And one of those things is this: in the end, learning is the students’ own responsibility. I realize that I am not supposed to admit that as a teacher, however, if a student doesn’t learn it is his/her own bloody fault. Teachers can get certificates and study new methodologies until their eyes bulge like a bouncing bladder on a public bus. Parents can spend top dollar for private schools and buy their children bags of electronic gadgets for studying. Governments can redesign education policies until the buffalo jumps over the moon. None of this matters one iota if students aren’t willing to do their part. Students need to take good notes and review them periodically, they need to do homework without copying, and pupils need to sacrifice extra time to read books. Knowledge can be painful and time-consuming to acquire. Education is hard work. Let’s face it: many students are just too lazy and passive to put in the effort. There isn’t much a teacher can do when students skip class too often, gossip all day in class, cheat on tests, and cut-and-paste reports off the Internet. Sure, we can punish them with a variety of methods. We can call their parents or threaten them with bad grades. We can take away their mobile phones for sending text messages in class. We can place gold stars in the corner of there assignments or give bonus points as reward. However, all this positive and negative reinforcement adds up to nothing when a student simply doesn’t care. Ultimately, in the end, learning is our students’ responsibility. They need to put their butts to work.

The best that teachers can do is to inspire curiosity. The gateway to knowledge starts with questions. Students have to be curious about how words link together and reshuffle. They have to be inquisitive about the functions of English and have the desire to communicate in different contexts. They have to be willing to peek around the corner and explore the area down the block. They have to go out there and get confused. Then sort questions out later like a puzzle. As my contract comes to its end, I have been focusing more and more on community-based learning with a variety of local projects. I am getting students out of their seats for physical research. I supply them with a number of questions then require them to interview people in their neighborhood. They come back the next week with original research. My motive is to make them curious about their own lives. I want them to explore their own communities and learn how to discuss them. For the most part, students have honored this responsibility. They care about the topic because it applies to their own lives. In result, as a teacher, I am learning to trust in my students and their capacity to create something useful and fresh about Ayutthaya.

To illustrate, my struggle to find a sense of place had made me curious about my students’ own perception about their village. What did they know about home? I decided to ask them about it during my Humans and the Environment class. I was teaching them about old Ayutthaya; showing them outdated pix and explaining the former uses of remote canals. I was telling them about past wildlife. Many didn’t realize that a variety of deer and a number of wild boar had once lived around the city. Crocodiles once roamed in Sena and elephants were captured in nearby Saraburi. The flying fox bats and giant monitor lizards existed back then, and their local habitat included what is now Rajabhat property. Ayutthaya Island was once an oxbow instead of an island, and some canals had been expanded east in increments Basically, I attempted to spread curiosity. Once I had their interest I could persuade them to work on a project. I sent them to their parents and grandparents to talk about the history of their village. They returned with reports and discussed them in class. Some students went all out. They produced old photographs and pages of useful material. Later, we built on this exercise to create cultural maps. More layers of research can be added as we go.

In the end it was my students who motivated me to renew my contract. These student projects were coming to fruit. The students’ village histories listed above illustrated their ability to produce something valuable. Another class created a fantastic picture dictionary of architectural words. I didn’t even ask them to put it together. Other students have been tracking down maps and old photographs. They have located a refrigerator-sized wall map, which we have been labeling and color-coding together as a group. We have produced a list of nearly 150 temples and mapped out their locations. We have added the names of local canals and rivers. Next we might list the names and locations of villages. What they are doing is learning English by studying local geography, history, and sociology. With the maps, students have been creating valid visual aids for the education of future classes. They are also conducting valid ethnographic research about their own community. Soon we may make copies of this map and share it with others. Moreover, my students are beginning to ask a lot of questions and take initiative on their own. If students are willing to produce new outlets for communication like these then I shall be happy to return.

****
I picked up my passport two weeks later. A few incidents had happened during that time. A group of terrorists were caught planning to destroy ten airplanes in mid flight with liquid explosives. There was also the arrest of a pedophile who had claimed to murder the child beauty-pageant star, Jon Benet Ramsey, ten years ago. I braced myself for the worse. I removed any form of liquid from my backpack and stashed it on the side of the road. I wore clean socks. The security guards at the entrance forced me to turn off my cell phone and took it away. They removed my camera and other electronic items. The staff even rummaged through my newspaper to see if anything was hidden inside. It contained an article about video x-rays that could reveal a person’s naked body to security officials. I imagined which celebrity would get her x-ray pix leaked on the Internet first. Then I canceled that thought because it is always a good idea to avoid getting turned on while going through security checks. The American fortress in Thailand is protected by enormous reinforced walls and spiked railings. I had to wonder if it might not be easier to just reevaluate our foreign policy. Maybe it is time to dominate the world less and to build stronger alliances abroad with education.

My passport was not waiting when I arrived. The friendly staff suggested that I come back three hours later and try again. I decided to kill time with a proper breakfast – rice noodle soup. As I skillfully dug through the noodles with a spoon and chopsticks I worried about my passport. I hint of paranoia crept in. Had I done something wrong? Could they take my passport away for being a broke American abroad? Would they harass me for protesting the Iraq war? I had a job that I loved and a roof over my head. I feared getting further uprooted by last-minute plot shifts and sudden surprises. Then I turned to the broth of my soup. I lamented on how education develops lasting bonds overseas. Why can’t the United States have a teaching program for recent university graduates (Canada does, and it’s called Korea)? Many citizens would be happy to volunteer in trade for a reduction of student loans. The demand for English skills is high globally, and the Peace Corp supplies only the smallest trickle of teachers. Certainly, a government program that supplies English teachers would be much more appreciated internationally than an expensive war that makes no friends. As an added bonus, it could help screen out pedophiles and teachers with phony degrees. It is time for western governments (the Yanks, the Limies, the Canucks, Kiwis, and Aussies) as the benefactors of English, to take a more pro-active role in the EFL industry.

It turns out that my brief episode of paranoia was unfounded. My delayed passport was ready to go when I returned. Picking it up felt like trick-or-treating. I stared at my photograph in disbelief. I had been baptized American once again. I had flashbacks to those things that remind me of American culture: basketball, hockey, toasted avocado and sprout sandwiches, taco trucks, tater tots, eating sushi to Jazz, the smell of cedar forests after rainfall, microbrew, mossy roofs, and markets that sell Polish pilsner. This was more than a mere passport. This document marked a life transition. I was moving into a entirely new chapter. The last decade had been very rough. The next decade may present new opportunities. With this sense of new hope, I raced toward the Thai Immigration Department to seal the deal with a new visa.

I presented myself to Thai immigration gleaming as a new and improved teacher – full of verifiable university degrees, international job experience, and locally-earned teaching certificates. I had become the type of teacher that Thailand claims it wants most. I did my part to get qualified, and I had a brand spanking new U.S. passport. While waiting in line the next three hours, I fantasized about a higher tiered teaching salary awaiting me, or an expedited process for visas and work permits, perhaps even a residency pass. After all, I have taught at the same school for a total of three years, and I was only continuing my contract from where the last one tapered off. Yeah, dream on! It never happens that easy in Thailand. Instead, I was promptly fined 2,000 THB for not reporting for the standard 90 day parole check (it came during mid-term exams and I had no time to leave the provinces for Bangkok, plus packages of official documents tend to disappear in the mail). The Immigration Department decided to bounce me to Ayutthaya and back demanding other work permit documents. Three trips, two canceled classes, and 5,000 THB later; and I was almost ready to teach on-the-books once again. Thai immigration was so excited to have me back that they took up the first thirteen pages of my passport with blue-inked stamps. My passport wasn’t even 24 hours old and nearly 60% of it had already been used up. Some readers may claim this is a bit of overkill, but I just call it the country’s spirit of education.

It felt like I was starting a long journey on half a gas tank. I gathered together my tattered backpack, my scratched digital camera, and my battered computer. I was ready to begin yet another year in Thailand. I had new projects lined up and fresh ideas. My students did, too. I was only one in over a million of English teachers working abroad – fumbling through lesson plans, avoiding “dong chims”, testing new teaching methods, sometimes winging it, and occasional nailing it all together alright. Yeah, I am one of those EFL people. Whatcha gonna do about it? I am one of many. And we are coming on strong. Some teachers go to other places, but I have caught that contagious case of whiteboard wanderlust for unforgettable Thailand.

****
In the end, my notebook computer finally went tits up. Two hinges have been smashed clean off. The first hinge was cracked at the airport when I returned to the United States with my first published book in hand. Welcome home. The custom officers were feeling a bit angry and careless that day shortly after 9-11. They cracked it while forcing it open. The second hinge gave out as I traipsed across France and Germany looking for work (the first draft of my second book preserved on hard drive). My computer bounced around my backpack in the hot sun once too often. By the time I made it to Korea, my laptop was stringed together using salvaged wire. Scotch tape plugged the cracks in its body so dust couldn’t get in. My computer no longer shut, so it was left permanently open. It sat there on an empty table staring at me like the suffering eye of a hungry child. I felt sort of guilty, so I started to pen a third book. This was why I began to write monthly articles for www.ajarn.com.

It has been exactly two years since I wrote my first contribution to this website. Now, my computer’s life literally hangs by a thread. Only a small ribbon attaches it to its monitor. My CD drive is busted, the outdated battery no longer holds a charge, and lose bones rattles inside when I move it. This gentle beast has become outright primitive in old age, and it is not worth the surgery to repair. I originally bought it seven years ago from a Welsh phonics specialist. Since then I have put it to productive use. I have written three books, dozens of on-line articles, and a plethora of academic material. I have traveled with this computer for nearly as long as I held my passport. The expiration dates on both items, unfortunately, have expired. I burn incense and make offerings daily in hopes that this computer survives one more month. I need it to last until the end of the semester. I will buy a new one if I get my bonus. When your computer dies it is a rite of passage of sorts. You must reevaluate life and make important decisions. By next month I will have stocked up on a new passport, a new contract, and a new computer. I even bought a bag of brown rice. Therefore, I might as well kill this Blog while it’s still ahead. It is time to move onto new enterprises. Before I go, I dedicate these website articles to my old traveling companion: Acer TravelMate 512T (1999-2006). Rest in Peace. You served me well, mate!

****
Fear not, kind readers, for I am leaving you with a parting gift. You see, I have been busy lately with a few big, time-consuming, projects. If you want to read more of my material, than check out the information below:

1) I will start writing weekly columns about teaching for the “Learning Post” section of the Bangkok Post newspaper. They will explore the EFL industry much like my monthly articles on ajarn.com, except each piece will be 1,000 words or less. New material will be released every Tuesday.

2) I am now co-owner of a new website for Ayutthaya tourism. This website will be the most fully comprehensive guide to Ayutthaya ever produced. I will most likely be posting new articles about local travel and tours every month. It will be under construction during September, but you can have a sneak preview at: www.ayutthaya-info.com.

3) I have three books available for purchase (300 THB each):

Road Rash: Western Tourists and Expatriates at Play in Asia’s Global Village is a study of the rapid increase of tourism in Asia and the impact of western visitors. It explores the transition from naïve tourist to seasoned traveler, and from traveler to hardened expatriate. The book also documents travel experiences immediately following the 9/11 incident up to the Bali bombings. It was released in Thailand by Postbooks, the publishing branch of the Bangkok Post newspaper. It has nearly sold out, but copies can still be made available by request.

Lifting Fire is a study of extreme poverty in the land of a superpower. It explores the mind frames that entrap individuals within poverty, and discusses the social anchors that prevent impoverished men from exploding with violence and rage.

Whiteboard Wanderlust is a study of EFL teaching in Asia. Many articles originally appeared on ajarn.com, but I have added a twist. This book contains a different beginning, middle, and end. The new chapters contain all the self-incriminating material that I did not want to include on-line. Together, they will provide an entirely new and surprising context to the articles. (Coming Soon).

Thanks for you feedback and support over the years!




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