The last couple weeks Ben and I helped train students to prepare for an academic competition in the nearby town of Pua. The competition spanned all of the high school subjects, so while we were helping train students for English events, other students were practicing for math, science, and even ASEAN events. There were several different English events for students of every grade. There were spelling bees, dramatic skits, impromptu speeches, multi-skill competitions and storytelling events.
I mainly helped train students for the dramatic skits, and speeches. Two groups from our school were doing skits. One group was composed of Mattayohm 1-3 students (7th to 9th graders) and the other was Mattayohm 4-6 students (10th to 12th graders). The younger group did a skit that was a riff on Hansel and Gretel while the older group did a skit about vampires. It was fun helping the students with their pronunciation and fluency for the skits. The students clearly enjoyed acting and theater, so it was nice to help improve their English in ways that they actually enjoyed. Both of the skit groups ended up winning the competition in Pua, so they advanced to the second round of the competition which is in Phetchabun (a nearby province) in December (the competition started in the province, then goes to regionals in Phetchabun, and finally to nationals in Bangkok).
I also helped a student practice speeches for the competition. Ben and I actually wrote speeches for the student (as requested by a Thai teacher), which seems unethical (and is) but is not frowned upon here (the amount of plagiarizing and copying/pasting the teachers do here is ungodly). Anyway, although the category was called impromptu speeches, all of the students doing the speeches were meticulously memorizing them beforehand (which is obviously crazy given that they really can’t speak English at all, and don’t learn anything from memorizing a speech). There were two speeches that the student was working on, one about the Thai education system and one about ASEAN (Association of Southeastern Asian Nations). The student really only worked on the speech about education, but I was very impressed by how much her pronunciation and intonation improved over the short period of time I worked with her (two weeks). Her speech ability was better than most of the Thai English teachers (although that isn’t necessarily saying a whole lot), and if she had had more time for preparation I’m sure she would have won (she came in second).
Other than those categories, I helped one student prepare for the spelling bee. He had a list of about two hundred possible words and he managed to learn how to spell all of them by heart before the competition, and won.
During the competition, I was assigned to be a judge for the multi-skills competition. I had no idea what it was comprised of, and it turned out it to have five parts: writing, reading, listening, interviews, and picture dictation. Being a native speaker, the other judges (Thai teachers) asked me to do the speaking for the listening section, interviews and picture dictation section (where I basically read a description of a picture that they were supposed to draw). I was pretty appalled at how badly written the segments that I was reading were. Like most of the TEFL material that the Thai teachers use in school, the English was horrible; there were tons of grammatical mistakes and poorly written/formatted questions and answers. For the listening section, some of the numbers just had multiple choice answers listed, so I basically made up questions on the fly that I thought matched the group of answers (if that sounds ridiculous it’s because it was). I felt bad for the students because the material was so blatantly horrible, how could they be expected to understand material that I was having trouble understanding as a native speaker? During the interview section, some of the students were unable to answer any of the questions I asked them (and I was speaking as slowly and clearly as I possibly could), but I realized that many of the students were from smaller schools in the area that didn’t have any farang teachers, thus they had no exposure to real English (compared to the Pua School at the other end of the spectrum that had four farang teachers; Tha Wang Pha has myself and Ben). Needless to say, I was not a fan of the multi-skills competition at all, and glad that I did not help train any students for it as it was a waste of time anyway.
Most of the students in the English competitions did really well and even if they didn’t win, they came in second or third. It was clear that our school and Pua School had the best students in English by far (although as I said before, it’s not really a level playing field as the other schools didn’t have farang English teachers).
The competition was actually on the Saturday of a four-day weekend for Mother’s Day (celebrated on the Queen’s birthday here), so that night Ben and I decided to take the bus to Chiang Mai for the weekend. Since we saw most of the major tourist attractions in the city on our first visit, I primarily wanted to find a piano store where I could play piano and somewhere where I could purchase other western comforts (good beer) that I could not find in Nan.
Although Chiang Mai is a fairly big city, it was still hard to clearly find piano stores when I was researching online. Because of this, I wasn’t sure where would be the best places to look first, and I was also expecting most of the places I had researched to not work out. Sure enough, after my first whole day of looking around the city, I found two of the places that I had seen online but was not able to play a piano at either of them. Both of them were primarily guitar shops but they both had a couple keyboards that were wrapped up and not available for customers to play. Even the guitars at both shops were behind glass cases and were not available for customers to play (even though they were cheap, crappy guitars for the most part). I have never understood music stores that don’t let prospective customers play the instruments, it strikes me as some weird pretentious store policy and I hope those stores go out of business because of their ridiculous policies.
After the failure of the piano stores, I decided to check out a nearby supermarket that I had found online, Rimping’s. Rimping’s was supposed to be set up like a western grocery store, and carry many western goods. When I got there I was not disappointed. It was the equivalent of a fancy grocery store back in the US. It was well set-up and had high quality products everywhere, even some tasting stations for various foods. Besides having great western products that I had been missing (i.e. Nutella, spaghetti, good beer), it also had an extensive selection of fruits that I had not seen anywhere else in Thailand (peaches, navel & blood oranges, dates, etc.) although they were expensive for the most part.
In the end, I spent the most on various beers to bring back to Nan. While the store had a decent selection of foreign beers, they did not have many American beers and instead had a large selection of Belgian beers (I don’t like Belgian beers that much). I bought seven beers (one for each remaining week of the semester), some Nutella, spaghetti and pasta sauce. While I could have spent a lot more money on various things, I was happy with what I purchased.
After the grocery store, I met back up with Ben and we went to a mall near the airport to see the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy”. I have never felt so excited to go to a mall, as bizarre as that felt. The mall was near the airport and was very large and nice (it was 5 floors). The movie showing was at 10 pm, so we had some time to kill beforehand. We explored the mall where I got kimchi curry for dinner (strange but good), and a large Dairy Queen blizzard for dessert (which was amazing). The mall even had a video game station where we paid to play a couple games of Pro Evolution Soccer (similar to FIFA) on a PS3, before the movie. By the time we were heading into the theater, most of the other stores in the mall had closed.
As the movie was starting, there was a somewhat uncomfortable moment. Amid the previews, a segment about the King came on in Thai. All of the rest of the people in the theater stood up during the whole preview in some act of reverence for the King. Ben and I did not know what to do so we simply remained seated, although we hoped that didn’t cause offense in any way. It is interesting that the Thai people can all universally respect one figure (the King), but it is kind of uncomfortable and hard for me to understand as an American, since we have no similar figures in the US.
Other than that awkward moment, it was a lot of fun to see the movie and I really enjoyed it. Although it was a Marvel movie based off a comic book, it was very humorous and didn’t really take itself too seriously which was refreshing. The music was also very good; the main character had several mixtapes of seventies music and I enjoyed all of the songs that they played.
The next day I picked up my search for a playable piano in the city. After figuring out that the first piano ‘store’ I had found on the internet didn’t exist, I proceeded to walk across the city to my next destination. Along the way, I found some cool graffiti spots and interesting stores, like a store selling items made by members of one of the local hill tribes.
I finally arrived at the piano store, which was full of beautiful upright pianos to my delight. Thinking that I had finally found pianos I could play, I asked the owner if I could play the pianos, showing him my piano music with me (my Elton John book) to let him know that I was serious and not just a random person who wanted to bang on the pianos. To my frustration, he immediately said that I couldn’t play any of the pianos as they were for ‘rent’ or something similar. I was pretty pissed off, as I had been searching for so long, but he gave me directions to somewhere nearby where he claimed I could play pianos in a showroom. As he drew a rough map, I attempted to get him to write the name of the store or street in Thai, so that I could at least show someone if I got lost, but he refused. I was sort of wary, but started walking towards the area he had drawn.
The area he directed me to flanked the university, and was full of cool coffee shops, hip restaurants and swanky bars. I would’ve enjoyed walking through the area more if I wasn’t becoming more and more discouraged that I wouldn’t find my destination. I finally decided to give up, as my rough map started looking more and more inaccurate. As I was walking back towards the main drag, I saw a Thai man with a guitar case. With a last dash of hope, I decided to ask him if he knew of a piano store nearby. He was incredibly helpful, and immediately dedicated himself to trying to decipher my map and figure out where the store was. I told him I had the phone number of the piano store I had just visited, and so after a few calls and conversations in Thai, he figured out where the piano ‘store’ was. It turned out I never would have found it on my own as it wasn’t actually a piano store, it was a large department store with pianos, and it was located in a mall that was hardly nearby (although I did walk there).
As I walked into the store and found the pianos ready to play, I was happy but more relieved that my search was over. The store had a good selection of digital pianos, including some Yamahas that I have been looking into. I pulled out my piano music and played for a while, making sure to try out all of the different models and excited that I was finally in a store without any bs red-tape around their pianos.
After the piano store, I headed back to the hotel to meet up with Ben before getting dinner. We decided to get Mexican food, as we would never be able to find it in Nan. The place we went was surprisingly good, although probably more of the Tex-Mex style than authentic Mexican.
After dinner, we walked to a jazz bar nearby that I had found online. Within the old city, the bar was a cool little place where a band was just setting up and getting ready to play. We were lucky to find seats, as the bar soon became very crowded as people packed in before the music started. The band was very good, and it was very refreshing and relaxing to hear good live music. We stayed until the band finished playing, and then headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, we took the bus back to Tha Wang Pha. The seven hour bus ride was not particularly enjoyable, but it was well worth it to escape to the city for the weekend and indulge in some familiar comforts.
Other than the competition and weekend in Chiang Mai, I also helped with an English camp for school administrators in the neighboring province of Phrae. I was happy to help, as I got to miss two days of school and I was getting paid extra on top of that. The first day we met the other teachers who were participating in the camp, and discussed how the camp would be organized. That afternoon, we drove to our hotel in Phrae. I was expecting our hotel to be pretty shabby, but it was actually very nice. We all were given our own rooms, and prepared to meet again for dinner.
Our dinner was also surprisingly very good. We went to a local restaurant where we ordered a bunch of delicious Thai dishes including gang som cha horm tot (sour curry with a stir-fried omelet), which quickly became one of my favorite Thai dishes.
The next morning, I had a delicious complementary American-style breakfast at the hotel before heading to the English camp. For the English camp, we actually only ended up helping out for about an hour. To start out, we introduced ourselves, and one of the Thai teachers quizzed the administrators on the information we had provided. After that, we were split into two groups. I had some packets as example material that the teachers had provided me, but realized I didn’t need it as my group engaged in a lively, interesting discussion in English. The administrators’ English was much better than I was expecting (although they were not close to fluent), and it was refreshing that they actually wanted to talk in English, so I really did not have to do much other than engage them a little bit about their lives and where they had travelled.
After the conversation in groups, we ate lunch and saw some of the historic sites in the city with the administrators, who explained to us their significance in English. It was a very relaxing day, and I was very glad that I was able to participate in the English camp.
On our way back to Tha Wang Pha with one of the Thai teachers, we stopped for pad thai in Nan. Although I am not a huge fan of pad thai, it was some of the best pad thai that I have had in Thailand, and reinforced my view that the food in the cities around Tha Wang Pha is much better than the food in Tha Wang Pha.
Still, it was nice to finally get back to my apartment and peruse the Wi-Fi while procrastinating lesson planning.
This past weekend, Ben and I helped with a couple more English camps in Pua. The first English camp was to help primary school directors (principals) and administrators in the area improve their English. There were three other English speaking foreigners at the camp: two Peace Corps volunteers, and a primary school teacher from India who spoke English fluently. It was interesting to meet the other farangs as there are so few in the area, and it was also interesting to talk to the Peace Corps volunteers about their work in Thailand.
The Peace Corps volunteers mostly train teachers in the area, and help with English camps like the one we were participating in. Their experience definitely helped, as they had lots of ideas for activities and camps for the camp. The other English teacher was also very interesting; he was born in India, but lived in Thailand for a while and went to college in California. He also spoke English like a native speaker.
The camp was decently organized but I did not like it as much as the camp in Phrae. At the camp in Phrae, we basically just had conversations with the attendees; it was very natural and fun. At this camp, the Thai organizers kept jumping in or wanting to do things their way so it sort of just felt like we were there for show, or just to say that there were foreign teachers participating. The directors and administrators were not as good at English as the ones in Phrae, but this English camp also didn’t really force them to talk much, so I don’t think their English improved at all.
On Saturday, we were also volun-told that we were helping with an English camp at a primary school near Tha Wang Pha. We got picked up by the school’s director who drove us to the school. As we approached the main building, we saw about eighty kids ages five to eleven sitting and waiting for us. Since we had been told about the camp only the night before, we had no time to prepare anything and of course nothing had been prepared for us either. As we walked up to the kids, the director handed us mics and basically said; “You have three hours, go”.
Without having any time to prepare, I think we did a decent job. We made the kids sing a couple songs, and then played games with them on the grass so that they could run and kill some energy. A bunch of the games we were trying to explain to them didn’t go as we had intended (i.e. red light, green light became anarchic sprinting everywhere), but they killed time which was the point anyway. As we were playing a game where the students would ask a question and then toss the ball to another student so that they could answer, I concluded that many of these young kids were far better at English than my students, as almost none of my students seem to be able to form complete questions or answers.
After we finished, it was a huge relief and I am now determined to tell the organizers at my school that I won’t help with English camps unless we are notified in advance (and hopefully not unless there is material prepared for us also).
The semester is finally wrapping up and I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I am planning to go to Japan in October, so I have been researching places and things to do, and focusing on my upcoming vacation. This semester has certainly had its ups-and-downs, but I am hopeful that next semester will be better and more enjoyable.