Tuesday, August 26, 2008

School Lunch

Thais love to eat. They eat at all hours of the day and into the night. When not eating a main meal, they snack, and they love a bit of sweet treat now and then. The traditional food is flavorful and well known universally for its spiciness. Everywhere one goes in Thailand, there is food available, from small mobile carts on street corners to open air cafes, to large markets, to fine dining in elegant hotels. We are still sampling menus of restaurants within a ten minute walk of our home and are not near to having tried them all: Of course, we return often to those whose fare we have found to be particularly delicious, or whose environment is inviting, or best of all, both.

The school’s three canteens (Elementary, Middle School and High School) reflect the country’s penchant for food. The cafeterias are open air, and next to one another, stretching for nearly the length of a city block. Not really three separate cafeterias, but at slightly different levels to designate where each age group is to eat—but it isn’t required that they do. I counted no less than twenty food stalls, not counting the large beverage stall that sits strategically in the middle directly across the room from the food offerings. No carbonated drinks are sold, but students have whispered that if you ask the right people, they will discretely pour some into a cup for you.

In order for the students to be able to follow their stomachs in the Thai tradition, there is a 20-minute mid-morning “milk break.” Originally for elementary children, it is now a full-fledged gastronomic smorgasbord opportunity for all students K-12.

I spend too much of my 40 minute lunch break trying to decide what to eat. Sometimes I have a craving for one dish or another and head directly there, but usually I simply wander along, unable to make up my mind, as the cholces are simply overwhelming. I was stunned to find that the school menu is several pages long. Not only are there many stalls, but within each are several options. There is a Japanese food stall offering sushi, salmon, pork or beef steak, and sashimi; A vendor selling Korean food; Several stalls of Thai dishes: Noodle soups, fried noodle and shrimp or chicken (pad thai), vegetarian dishes, fried rice dishes, grilled chicken, sweet curried chicken or pork; or one might wish to have western fare such as hot dogs or burgers and fries, or move on to the stall with quick snacks or the one with a variety of sandwiches. Not only is the food delicious, it is also inexpensive: I generally eat for less than $1.50, which will easily buy a good-sized dish and a bottle of water (cold bottled water goes for the equivalent of 21 cents). Occasionally I will treat myself to fresh fruit or a chocolate dessert, or as I did yesterday, to an iced cappuccino. I have not heard anyone complain about the cafeteria food; in fact it is just the opposite. This is by far the finest school cafeteria menu I have had the pleasure to sample. The secret? Rent out the stall spaces to independent vendors. Happily, there is not one fast food icon to be seen amongst them.

School Environment

Every school has its own personality, a type of energy that helps define it and its environment. Last week was the first complete week of the school year. Despite my anxiety about the ability to sustain enough momentum to last a full week, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I felt great when 2:35 rolled around on Friday afternoon.

Friday was an unusual day in many ways, but I think it was the dichotomy that inspired in me a deepening respect for the school. The day began on a somber note: The entire community of more than 2,000 students, teachers and administrators gathered in the gymnasium for a memorial service that honored the memory of an elementary teacher who died the previous Sunday. She was the third teacher who has died of cancer in the past year and a half. Despite not knowing the teacher personally, I was moved by the simple beauty of the service and love that was expressed by the school community. I left, anticipating a rather slow-moving day.

When lunchtime arrived, the high school was energized in a way that was--at least to me--unexpected. As students streamed from their classes and funneled their way to the canteen, they were presented with an array of booths from 15 organizations whose information was creatively displayed around individual tables. These student-led clubs had officers on hand to answer questions about their organization and sign up students who were interested in becoming active members. In the background, a live rock band, composed of students, blared forth its rather unique brand of music, and students milled around the tables, clogging the passageway. Initially skeptical, I watched in amazement as hordes of students jammed the tables in order to sign up for such clubs as Amnesty International, Rotary International, Model United Nations, Global Issues Network, Environmental Service Club, Health Club, Robotics, Kendo Martial Arts Club, Digital Photography, DJ Club, and Forensics. I had become a bit hardened by the often less than enthusiastic response of American high school students in becoming involved in service-type organizations (although there are a remarkable core of dedicated students at every school), so I was a bit taken aback by this enthusiasm, and on a Friday no less. I have volunteered to be an assistant sponsor for two of the clubs, and am looking forward to working with these kids as they take on leadership and service roles.

This experience lifted my spirits and the rest of the day sailed by.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thai Spirit Houses

One of the most common sights one sees in Thailand is the “spirit house.” Although most Thais are Buddhist, they are also “animists.” On nearly every house and company site sits a small temple-like structure on a pedestal. The tradition began centuries ago in the Tai tribes of northern Vietnam and spread to all parts of Southeast Asia.

In Thailand, spirit worship exists alongside Buddhism, even with spirit houses on the grounds of temples. Thais erect these structures in order to appe
ase the spirits of beings who have left this world, but who often live amongst us. Offerings of flower garlands, water, food, and incense are placed on the structure.

Spirit houses are often erected to honor the spirits of ancestors. They may be quite simple, or very elaborate. They are so common that one eventually no longer stops to linger in appreciation of these often beautiful houses.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

First Day at School!

After a week of orientation and learning the ways of my new school in Bangkok, it is time to meet the students. The faculty members here are a diverse and talented group from around the world. The conversations overheard as we approached the start of school were rich in English dialects: Welsh, English, Canadian, Scottish, American Midwest, Texan, Bostonian, Australian, New Zealander, East Indian, and the lovely brogue of Newfoundland mingle in a lively expression of this widespread tongue. Throw in those with Swedish, Thai, Philippine, Japanese, and Latin American accents, and it is truly an international atmosphere in the faculty room.

Our orientation timeline was what one might expect at any school, except that also thrown in were details for visas, Thai culture introduction, as well as information about the recent accreditation process. It certainly helped that we were feted each day with massive amounts of food for breakfast and lunch: a smorgasbord of Thai and western buffet food. That always helps! The result of all the information loading was lack of classroom preparation time, so most of us “newbies” have been scrambling for the past few days. Only yesterday was I able to collect my wits enough to put together a syllabus for my advanced biology class. No matter: in all my years of teaching, it never fails to amaze me how it all falls together on Day 1. This year was no exception.

Even before the taxi unloaded my two colleagues and me at “Gate 6” near the faculty parking lot, it was obvious that today would be different. Traffic flow was markedly slowed, as buses and parents’ cars streamed into the campus. Uniformed, dark-haired students swarmed over the grounds like ants on a doughnut. I heard few conversations that I could understand as students greeted each other in any number of languages. I rushed to find the principal to sign my printing order so I could get the syllabus taken to the print shop. Amazingly, it was ready for pickup only an hour later.

Of the three classes I had today (double blocks), there were exactly two students from the States, and one of those was Thai. Despite the fact that I was unprepared, the first day went well. What a wonderful bunch of students! Students with unpronounceable names (Bhanupriya, Ponthakorn, Veerawin, Prairwa, Jetnipat, Maythita, Hsue-un) fortunately all have nick names (Bank, Earth, Pear, Willy, May, Nicky, Peace, Ice) that are used in school. We spent our time getting to know one another, laughing, reducing the anxiety of the start of a new year.

It’s great being back in the classroom, but what a high energy level! Another new teacher commented on the incredibly fast pace of the school before he nodded off during his break. It’s tiring, but energizing as well.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Living in a Thai Neighborhood

A walk through the "moobahn" gives one an idea of what it is like to live in a middle (and a few in the upper middle) class Thai neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants are Thai, with a sprinkling of westerners, Indians, and other Asians. Each house is unique, not only architecturally, but in the landscaping, which is a major part of the overall appearance. All have gates behind which are a genetic potpourri of dogs, some blustery in their warnings, others dead serious. It is fairly easy to discern which is which. Some owners leave the gates ajar so the canines can wander the street and play with other dogs. Those few that show aggression are easily dispelled with a strong "shooing" motion of the arms, despite one's initial doubts.

Two blocks from our street, there is one major traffic artery that cuts through the middle of the villlage, along which are a variety of shops and restaurants. I find it difficult to understand how each can stay viable with so many competitors. There are massage parlors, noodle stands, pet stores, Thai restaurants (several in a row along the lakeside offering basically the same menu), a kebab stand, dentist, TV and microwave repair, espresso
 cafe, bakery, dermatological clinic, cuckoo clock shop (I guess there are homesick Germans living nearby), bicycle repair shop, potted plant shop, more permanent open air noodle cafes, a sidewalk water dispenser (15 cents for a gallon of filtered drinking water). Along the way it is not unusual to see mobile vendors selling such things as homemade brooms. Behind this valley of commercialism are the quiet neighborhoods.

For the last half-mile or so, the development's original commercial strip is packed with convenience stores, markets, internet cafe, small restaurants, a few western eating establishments, travel agents, hardware shops, and yet more noodle stands. Most of one's day-to-day needs can be met along this mile long stretch of road. At the entrance is a battery of motorcycle taxis, ready to whisk the adventurous (and those too cheap to pay a dollar for a taxi ride) to any destination within the village for the equivalent of about 45 cents or less.