Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Just in case my readers are hanging on a thread...

The play went as planned and the kids were awesome and funny. Only one child didn't show, but luckily it was a child who was a Thai narrator, so the part was easily filled in.

The children were all awarded little prizes, but their performance alone was enough for the majority of them, as they were so excited and so happy to have the chance to appear in the school's major performance.

Some children forgot their lines, and some children stuffed up their parts a bit, but in general, theses little mistakes went off as a humorous segment meant more to entertain, than to hinder.

My two impoverished kids showed up and did fine, both of them grinning ear-to-ear about having the opportunity to be in the play.

Today closes the chapter on English Camp and the final days of the 2005 / 2006 term. We now will enjoy a full two months of vacation before the next term starts on the 15th of May.

Mam and I don't plan to vacation anywhere since money is tight, but we will be venturing to Songkhla to see the beach at the South China Sea, and sample the reputed excellent seafood near the shore in Songkhla City.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

After months of painstaking practice, students quitting, arrangements being made, props being ordered, costumes being made, new students filling in, and all the hassles that go along with trying to put a large play together with thirty children aged six to eight...our play, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is finally ready to go on.

But not without a few snags.

The performance will be tomorrow morning, Monday the 13th of March, so today we had a final practice before the big day tomorrow. At least four children didn't show up today, so naturally we're worried that they may not show up tomorrow.

Two of these kids are from my neighborhood, on Soi four, in what I refer to as the "poor" part of town. But, in Asia, you never have to go far to find a "poor" section, as unlike the West, where certain poor areas seem to have been pushed to the wayside, or the "other side of the tracks," here in Thailand they are everywhere.

Corrugated shacks are mixed in with modern buildings and people all seem to get along fairly well together here.

But with poverty, comes problems.

Today after our practice, Mam was asked to find Bebe and Nontawut, the two kids in our neighborhood who missed today's practice, and remind them that they have to show up for the final performance tomorrow.

Easier said than done.

Bebe lives in a small, squalid, one-room house that has no windows. It is approximately nine feet by nine feet in square area (2.7 x 2.7 meters), in which there is a stove for cooking, several mats on the floor for sleeping, and a T.V.

God only knows where they relieve themselves, because there is no visible toilet in the immediate proximity. The house smells musty and rank, from years of being inundated by floods.

Bebe typically wasn't home when Mam called on him. A young woman answered the door, and was busy jostling four young babies, stating she didn't know where Bebe was, so Mam began to ask around the neighborhood.

She went to Nui's house on the corner and was informed that Bebe had been severely beaten by his father this morning and was nowhere to be found.

At this juncture, Mam signaled to me to go on ahead and return home, as she would continue the search. I knew that what she really meant was that she could do a lot better on her own, so I let her go and went home.

A little history may help here.

Bebe is one of my prize Prathom two students.

Although he's from an extremely impoverished family, he is a star student. He is in one of the worst Prathom two classes this year, yet he has excelled and has learnt English despite the odds.

The school where I teach decided to award Bebe a large cash stipend last month, during our mid-semester activities, not only because he is very poor, but because despite his families financial situation, Bebe has excelled in school subjects.

Last Saturday, during one of our Goldilocks practices, Bebe's father showed up to watch. When he arrived, you could see the visible stress on Bebe's face as the child noticed his father walk into the auditorium. Bebe's father is an obvious scumbag, who doesn't care much about his appearance, let alone his conduct.

As I was coaching the kids on their performance, Bebe's father sauntered up to Mam and asked her in Thai, "Will my son get paid for this?"

Mam didn't know what to say, so she waved him off.

She said to me later, "I don't like that man."

Bebe's father is like many Thai children's fathers...

Lazy, unemployed, alcoholic, abusive, and living off what their poor overworked wives can bring into the household. They play all day, or lie around and drink Thai whiskey, expecting all to be well.

Mam finally found Bebe today, entering what I call the "Catacombs," of Soi four, which are a maze work of pathways leading to progressively poorer hovels nearer the river. Places I wouldn't have the intestinal fortitude to venture into. Once she found him, he refused to come out to greet her, instead opting to speak to her from a back room, through another child.

"He says he'll show up tomorrow," Mam says, but only time will tell.

I've never been to Nontawut's house, but when Mam returned to our place, she said, "His family is very, very poor,"

I knew immediately, from that statement, that what Bebe is used to, is a mansion compared to where Nontawut lives.

Nontawut is a sweet boy who is a bit shy, but is a good student. He eagerly jumped at the opportunity to be in the play, and to date has done very well. He has a huge, horseshoe shaped scar on the right side of his head, from an accident he suffered when he was only four, playing with other kids at the local dump.

Back many years ago, some kid hurled a sharp object at Nontawut, striking him in the head. Nontawut would have died had it not been for locals who grabbed him, threw him in a truck and drove him to a local hospital. He underwent several hours of intricate brain surgery and emerged unscathed, with only minor memory deficits.

Mam told me that Nontawut told her he "forgot" about today's practice, but both of us knew that he was probably fudging it, as all the members of the play had been given permission slips to give to their parents, notifying them of today's practice.

Nobody really knows the mechanics that go on behind the scenes of these impoverished kids lives, but all I know is that the kids who do show up and do end up performing in the play, always have a good time and end up feeling a sense of importance and accomplishment.

As a kid, I was a "quitter," meaning I would easily sign up for things, but soon lose confidence in my abilities and "quit," because I felt I couldn't perform adequately. I was punished severely for this "quality" of mine, when I was a kid, but I never really learned my lesson until now.

Many of my past experiences as a student in school have helped me to be an effective teacher in grade school. Kids are all about fun, affection, love, happiness and playing. If you can design your classes and activities in a similar fashion, you've nailed it. If not, kids are gonna be kids and you will have to deal with the results as a teacher.

Whatever the situation, I'm sure that tomorrow's performance of Goldilocks and the Three Bears will go off well. I'm not worried, and I'm looking forward to another big, two-month break in semesters.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

I've dealt with many issues in Southern Thailand, most of them positive, but in two years of residency here, a major issue has been pressing hard on my psyche.

Approximately five months ago, I was approached by one of the Thai teachers at my school, telling me one of my grade three students had been struck by a car on the main road in my village. I was shocked by this news, but surely not surprised, as Thailand's roads are known to be some of most dangerous in the world.

I continued to inquire about the little girl and tried to picture her, but I just couldn't put a face to the name. On the average, I teach over one thousand eighty students in any given week. All these students have names such as Pajaree Narinthaporn, Wontawut Kaewphibool, or Sirima Prakopkaew. Try remembering those three names alone, not to mention over one thousand of them. I do remember a phenomenal amount of my students, but most of them are the ones you'd never forget even if you tried.

This little girl was described to me as one of the more out-spoken, and vivacious, who had a deep voice, but still, I just couldn't picture her.

Two weeks later I was informed that she died on the Thursday after she had been hit. Her class was on a Wednesday afternoon, and for months, her empty place at her desk haunted me. The accident was a hit-and-run, which is highly common in Thailand, and the driver was never found. Not surprising, considering the current state of Thailand's police force.

I've dealt with death thousands of times in my past, both professionally and personally. I worked as an autopsy assistant for several years during my medical career, as well as a procurement technician for the New England Eye Bank in Boston, Massachusetts, harvesting corneal tissue and whole eyes from cadavers. I "bagged and tagged" numerous patients during my long medical career that spanned over twenty-two years. I also buried both my parents and numerous relatives and friends.

But, a kid is different.

I don't care what anyone says or thinks. The death of a child is always the worst. Children are innocent and full of fun, nonsense, jauntiness, games, wonderment, and joy. They are at a stage where independence and responsibility is just out of their grasp. They look to us, the adults, for safety, consolation and dependence.

Whoever hit my little student and ran, trying to escape punishment, should suffer. I personally hope that they suffer endless guilt and despair for the rest of their lives for selfishly taking the life of this little girl.

All this brings me to my main point. Although I haven't lived in Thailand a full two years yet, I have witnessed over twelve major accidents on the outlying roads, at least twenty minor accidents, and an uncountable number of near misses. Two of the major accidents I witnessed had obvious fatalities. At least five of the minor accidents had the potential to have been fatal, and I won't even get into the near misses.

As a pedestrian, either a motorcycle or a car has almost struck me on at least five occasions, possibly more. On one occasion, I was struck by a large truck backing up, which (luckily) knocked me into a ditch. Here in Thailand, the pedestrian DOES NOT have the right-of-way, no matter what the written law may or may not say. It is unbelievable what drivers of motorcycles, cars, SUV's, buses, trucks and the like, will do once they are on the road here in Thailand.

Many, if not most, of the drivers in Thailand are inexperienced, untrained or poorly trained, yet they hit the road every day, zipping in and out of lanes, passing other vehicles at high speeds, traveling the wrong way on a one-way lane or street, merging in any direction, driving drunk or severely incapacitated, driving vehicles that should have been junked eons ago, babbling incoherently on mobile phones instead of paying attention to the road, or just changing lanes without even looking. Just to mention a few of their many infractions.

People die. People continue to die. Numbers of road casualties continue to escalate, but is anything done? Not to my knowledge.

Of late, although I try hard NOT to be a politically motivated individual, it seems that the governmental system in Thailand needs a serious overhaul. Corruption is rife, which is something about Thailand that the whole world is aware of, not just a select few. Government leaders appear to be faithful about empty promises, while very good at pocketing illicit cash and delving deep into graft practices that serve the governing parties.

I remain hopeful that Thailand will "wake up" soon, to the many issues about their country that need "fixing" by a capable leader who carries the people's interest in the forefront of his or her mind, rather than personal and private interests that only serve to undermine the greater good.

As "English Bob" once put it in the Bangkok Post news bag, "Let's not forget," an article heralding the current PM's insulting and prejudicial comments about Western aid sent to relieve the victims of the recent tsunami...

"We don't want farangs to walk around Phuket and say they built this building or that building."

I seriously doubt that the current PM would have made similar comments on his "ass kissing" missions into other Western countries on his Thai financed jet airplane, lest he lose other forms of much sought after aid, in both monetary and material forms.

The current political attitude is the type of attitude that destroys a country, not one that builds a country. Prejudicial thinking, smug remarks, slanderous comments, are not makings of a good leader. This country needs a good leader who doesn't just make empty promises, but rather fulfills them.

Deaths on the highway can be seriously dealt with, if Thailand inaugurates a leader who can move the country beyond the disarray it is currently in, and begin methodically unraveling the dense weavings of corruption and evil that exists in the country today. A good leader will focus on his or her underlings, who command the various departments responsible for the major problems in Thailand, rather than try and combat troubling issues by his own.

Dumping a bunch of folded paper birds upon an area rife with Muslim insurgent violence is not a solution to the problem, but rather a silly, poorly planned action that buys time for an embattled leader who doesn't have answers because he just doesn't care.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

About once every two months or so, I have to break down and get a haircut.

I hate getting a haircut and I put it off until the very last minute, because the only lady who I'll allow to cut my hair is housed in an open-air salon off the main highway in Thunglung, and it is hotter than Hades in her shop. This woman, although she is very familiar with me and calls me by name, "Krue Jeeem," which in Thai basically means "Teacher Jim," she cannot speak hardly a word of English.

My mother was a hairdresser for forty years, and I learned early on that hairdressers depend on their tips to make a profit. Well, perhaps this is not so in Asia, but I've continued my tipping practice through the years, and believe-you-me; I've never been refused.

Today, a funny thing happened.

Mam and I went to the hairdressers this afternoon so I could get my hair cut. The woman I choose to go to is quick, and she does a job comparable to any of the best Western salons I've ever gone to, at a fraction of the price. She charges fifty baht, ($1.20 U.S.) and I always tip her another twenty baht (about 50 cents).

Well, today she must have forgotten this, because Mam gave her a hundred baht note (roughly $2.50 U.S.) and the hairdresser returned a fifty baht note ($1.20 U.S.) to us in change. Had she remembered that I usually tip twenty baht (50 cents), she obviously would have given us two twenty baht notes and a ten baht coin ($1.20 U.S.).

Anyway, I told Mam, "Tell her we need change for the fifty baht note," and as Mam did so, the woman replied in Thai...

"I don't have any change."

When Mam reiterated this to me, I said, "Tell her that I want to tip her and I need change."

So, Mam communicated this to her and the woman quickly replied, "Oh!" opened her cash drawer and promptly extracted two twenty baht notes and a ten baht coin. I then handed her twenty baht as her tip, and tried hard to suppress my little chortle at her obvious indiscretion.

Cutting of hair is a good subject when comparing major differences between services and prices-for-services between the West and Asia.

Many foreigners would argue that prices are not different between the distant continents, but these foreigners are most probably part of the elite, who arrive in Asia off the business class and first class flights, and end up staying in Asia during their limited time, in five-star hotels and traveling from site to site in Western luxury.

I have to laugh at these individuals from the West who claim they have "visited" Thailand or "lived" in Asia, because they've only experienced the coveted Western environment present in any Southeast Asian country that caters to rich, fat Westerners.

Get out of that coveted environment, and you'll find out what Asia is all about. China, in my personal opinion, is miles ahead of other Asian countries in the economy hair-cutting business.

I remember well, my haircutting excursions in Xintang and Guangzhou, China.

You can go to these little back alley "dives" that are mere holes-in the-wall shops, where they don't even have a shampoo bowl, but will shampoo your hair as you sit in the barber chair, and then methodically "comb" off all the foam and dispose of it in a trashcan, as they systematically "wash" your hair using spray bottles and combing your hair with their bare hands.

In China, at the very least, you will get a minimum of at least two full shampoos, and a maximum of four, unless you ask for more.

Most shops will provide you with a minimum of two shampoos, plus one of the most incredible facial, neck, shoulder, arm, finger and hand massages you've ever felt.

The shampoo alone is one of the most incredible scalp massages imaginable, not to mention what else is in store for you after the shampoo is finished.

The full "haircut" experience, in China, encompasses at a bare minimum, at least an hour. Whether you just need a trim, or you are really a "shaggy dog" and need a major cut, you will get the full treatment and you'll walk out of that hairdressing shop in sheer ecstasy.

In China, a haircut can range from 5 Yuan in a "dive" and up to 35 Yuan at an expensive salon.

Thailand doesn't offer the massage unless asked, in most shops I've been to, and they usually will charge extra for it. Shampoo, in Thailand is also an option, not inclusive, and although you'll pay extra for this service, it's cheap beyond the Western imagination.

In the small community of Bristol, New Hampshire, where I lived in the Northeastern U.S. for over twenty years, I got my hair cut for a bare minimum of about twelve U.S. dollars, not including the tip.

That's ninety-six Chinese Yuan, or four hundred and sixty-six Thai baht. Compare that to what you'd pay in China (about 5 to 10 Yuan) or in Thailand (about 50 to 70 baht), which comes to either (60 to $1.20 U.S.) or ($1.28 to $1.80 U.S.)

For the price of one haircut in the Northeastern U.S., you can get about 19 good quality haircuts in China, or 9 good quality haircuts in Thailand, without the massage.

So, despite the heat and the faux pas today, I'm a happy camper.

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