Friday Five

Five Things I Learned in Peace Corps– And it’s more and more evident the more time I spend in the US in my post-PC life.

Being a Minority
Being a tall, white women doesn’t quite put me in the majority in the US, but it’s not like you’re putting a round peg in a square hole. In Asia, this round peg would never fit in. I never truly considered how difficult life can be to not be a part of the accepted image or norm of a society’s makeup. And it’s not like Thais were ever really that mean to me about it! When I think about the civil rights movement of the 1950s, the open hostility some still display for those not of the pre-accepted standard of what we should look like and how we live our lives, I feel like I’ve taken a bite from the knowledge and empathy tree and relate a whole hell of a lot better with them. And realize we are them just as they are us. Even if someone is a different skin color, sexual orientation, or intelligence level, we are all people and deserve the love and respect of one another.

Seriously though. I know people joke about ‘first world problems’ and every person  deserves to feel what they want about their issues, but the times I would think about how incredibly lucky I was for being an American and having all these rights and hopes and possibilities for my life… I can’t even count. We have life in our bodies. A plethora of obscenely delicious foods to consume. And even, hot showers. I think we, as a country and a generation, need to put things in perspective a little bit and realize, we have it pretty fucking awesome. And that’s enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Life Is Really Unfair
This is one of those ‘real world’ lessons that our Moms always tell us, but you don’t fully realize until your most hardworking student still doesn’t do as well as her peers despite all her effort and desire to learn. Not to mention the five brothers and sisters she’s helping raise, get to school, and manage allowances for all of them. The most she expects from her life is to be the wife of a rice farmer. And then I think of all the people who don’t take advantage of all the advantages we have or abuse the system we have in place to give a hand up to those in need… the inequality of the situation is like a slap in the face. And never has that stung so much as it does after seeing it with my own two eyes.

Get Over It
We, as Americans, get really worked up about things. Road rage, cursing out Mother Nature (true story, someone went on a rampage the other day at work), bugs in your life, someone leaving the coffee filter full instead of dumping it out… these are not things that should not produce a very large reaction in someone. At least it didn’t in Thailand. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, all problems, big and small, will eventually work themselves out. I don’t know if it was the ridiculously relaxed atmosphere in Thailand or if it comes from seeing all kinds of Peace Corps projects/ideas being a complete and utter failure, but I’m finding it’s really unnecessary to get stressed out over things that will eventually be fine. So the next time you feel a wave of worry or stress or anything in that family, take a breath, realize you’re doing pretty great considering the circumstances, and take a leaf out of the Thai book and have a beer. Even if it is nine o’clock in the morning.

America Isn’t Perfect
In the dark, lonely ‘I’ve been cooped up by myself in the village for too long’ days, memories of America and the possibility of spending time there again in the future were like a shimmering mirage of paradise. I mean, do I need to write another paragraph of how great life is for us? But if living in another culture teaches you one thing above all others (outside of a renewed appreciation for your home) is that there is a different way to do things. Some things are better, some things are worse. And while this RPCV feels an immense joy every single day spent in the US of A, there is a lot of ugliness in this magnificent place. Maybe it’s changed or maybe it’s my eyes that have been forced opened after an experience like Peace Corps. I tend to lean towards the latter. Still, I love you America, for better or worse.

‘If I Could Tell You One Thing About Thailand’

As a fun little end of the year project, I asked my students to pretend they just met someone who was curious to know more about their home. At first, they looked at me blankly saying they had no idea what to tell a visitor about Thailand. It opened up discussions about culture and we got to talk about what they think makes up their daily life. I took my definition of culture, they added to it, and here is what they wanted to tell you about Thailand. Please forgive the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary mistakes. They wrote these sentences mostly on their own after hearing my example and I think they’ve done a fantastic job this year. We recently learned ‘will’ and how to apply it in different situations, so that’s why most of them included it in their sentence(s).

Five Things I Didn’t Realize About Peace Corps

Until I got there

A different ‘travel’ experience then any other
As a moderately experienced traveler, I thought that I would be mentally prepared for the challenges of Peace Corps service. While definitely helping deal with homesickness and loneliness, there are many differences between solo travel ( in that I mean not on a tour or cruise) and the very non-independent life in PC/the village. I don’t have the sense of incredible freedom I get high off of when I travel. It’s more along the lines ‘Is this my real life? Well, alright.’

Chlorophyll more like Borophyll 
A high school friend was on her way to London for graduate school and showed her books and magazines she acquired for the ‘long’ six hour flight. It occurred to me that six hours sitting in a stationary position without much to do didn’t feel like much of a challenge to me anymore. In fact, now that I’m in school break for weeks on end in the village, it seems kind of laughable. And I’m really glad to have developed this ability to be bored, but for it not to be such a bad thing. It’s allowed me time to try all sorts of projects and broaden my mind in ways that I previously didn’t have time or motivation to try (crafting, cooking, a class on genetics/evolution).

How much I would change
Any one time in a young adult’s life, they think they understand a good portion of this thing called life. I was one such person. I didn’t think there would be many monumental changes and growth that were still necessary. But there were. And PC helped me go through them. Core beliefs of mine were shaken and discarded for new ones. My mind has been blown over and over again in the good and bad things in Thailand and my life in it as a Volunteer. I still have a long way to go too.

The struggle between strength and helpless
During PC, I’ve never felt stronger. I’ve also never felt quite as crAzy either. Straight up, thought I should be in a loony bin kind of crazy. I never considered that before I came to Thailand as a Volunteer. Worrying about a new language, pissing someone off for what seems like nothing, or dealing with cultural differences, quite a few times I wanted to tear some hair out. And then I remind myself how much better I am than yesterday. And the week before that. And last year. And I realized I can be a little mental, but still be mentally strong.

Find out who your friends (and family) are
I realize that it’s not easy to be friends with me. To go without face to face interaction, run in similar social circles, or have similar day-to-day issues. So it’s without blame or anger that I have fewer people to share news with. It makes me appreciate the people in my life even more than before. They’ve been on this rollercoaster ride with me and reminded me that I’m not alone in this. The even better thing about PC is you meet a large group of similarly minded people who see you at your worst, but still manage to like you. These are the people I want to surround myself with for the rest of my life.

Funniest and Most Realistic PC Tumblr

This is getting passed around PC Thailand and cause some serious laugh out louds. You want to know what it’s like as a Volunteer click it. You know you want to.

If you get there, I’m at Stage 3 and trying to laugh myself silly out of it. This helped.

50th Anniversary Celebrations

So I realize I’ve dropped the ball a bit with my own video creations, but I’ve got one more Saturday to finish my Koh Chang video before July becomes a wash. I think I can, I think I can. Anyway, with my recent return from vacation and the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps Thailand, I thought I would share the video a fellow 123 Volunteer, Kyle Livingston, made to recognize the event.

And to complete the whole shebang, here are some more PC Thailand videos in the news.

A Volunteer from group 1!

The first part is in Thai, but there’s some English later.

I’ve heard some Thai people unable to sing this song as well as group 122’s Jeff Kindschuh did.

I might be adding my own video to this little list, but for now here’s the photo you’ve all been waiting for…

Hanging out with royalty, thanks Peace Corps!

To check out the press release for the day, click here.

‘Let Them Eat Tablets’

I read this article recently from the Economist and couldn’t help cheering the author’s critique on the band-aids that are applied to the gaping wounds in the Thai education system. Let’s back up a bit.

We heard about this campaign pledge, one child one tablet (similar to an Ipad, but the generic version gifted from Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development, a Chinese company) with rolled eyes never thinking it would actually come to fruition. To my surprise, my younger sister lamented to me that she missed the cutoff as one year younger than her, seventh grade, received the tablets to use in their classroom. I couldn’t believe they were going through with it.

Let’s ignore the fact that most students are computer illiterate. As are most teachers. Most cannot type with any proficiency or use a computer for anything more than opening up Facebook and Youtube (that is if you can get the internet working). You could argue that by bringing in these tablets, that could change things. I tend to agree with the Economist when they say, ‘Some argue that the focus on the tablets has distracted attention from a deeper malaise affecting Thai education. Although the proportion of children attending school has grown over the past decade, the quality of their education has deteriorated.’

Technology in Thailand is generally viewed as a plaything. Phones, computers, and the internet are rarely used tools for education or work. In a class, like English, the teacher can hardly keep an older student’s attention as it is, so let’s add a ‘smart tablet’ that society has told them is a plaything. And this isn’t even considering what fun the teachers will likely use the tablets for (I watched a teacher play Angry Birds for an hour on her phone rather than teach her students one morning). In talking with a few teachers, they stated they didn’t want the tablets as it would only contribute to the struggle students currently have learning to write Thai (much less English letters, but let’s not even go there).

The main issue is that test scores are falling, even as more money than ever is given to schools.

Thailand now spends about 20% of the national budget on education, more than it devotes to any other sector. The budget has doubled over a decade. Yet results are getting worse, both in absolute terms and relative to other countries in South-East Asia.

Thailand’s own ombudsman reported earlier this year that, despite the extra cash, the national standardised examination results show that students’ scores in the core subjects of English, maths and science have been largely falling. The most recent Global Competitiveness Report from the World Economic Forum ranked Thailand a dismal 83rd in terms of its “health and primary education”, one of four basic indicators. This is below others in the region such as Vietnam and Indonesia; only impoverished Cambodia performs worse.

Thailand’s scores on the respected international PISA test have remained almost static since 2003 whereas Indonesia, for instance, has been moving up from a lower base. In another recent competitiveness report Thailand ranked 54th out of 56 countries globally for English-language proficiency, the second-lowest in Asia.

This is a very scary reality that cannot be hidden behind smiles and smart tablets for a country trying to enter into the ASEAN community as a productive member and even as a potential leader.

The majority of the education budget going into higher pay for teachers. Now that I’ve been left in charge of 40 rambunctious fourth graders, I think there is a definitely a need to pay teachers well, something the American system still hasn’t quick figured out. The problem in Thailand though is most teachers are still given raises despite their performance (or their students’) in the classroom.

One teacher told me at a training that she is given a raise if she works hard or if she doesn’t. Between the duties of the school she was responsible for (registrar, library, and any other goodies the principal could think up) and planning out thoughtful and participatory lessons she learned in university, she was exhausted. As the principal (and most of the traditional educators who are in charge) give no weight to these kind of lessons and care more about the paperwork being completed on time, guess which one she gave up doing? This doesn’t encourage an environment of productivity or development in school and plays a role in more than just academics. ‘At the moment, only a tiny weight is given to results in assessing a teacher for a pay rise; far more consideration is given to how the teacher keeps order in the classroom. “It’s a very subjective evaluation,” argues Mr Somkiat, based largely on “how well you butter up the headmaster.”’

As any Peace Corps Volunteer will tell you (because they have to tell themselves over and over and over again), change doesn’t happen quickly or within a generation. I fear though, this current agenda isn’t helping the development of future groups as we need radical modification if we want Thailand to grow, intellectually and otherwise.

‘Giving every child a tablet computer is a nice gimmick, but it is unlikely to be the key to educational excellence.’

If you want to read the entire Economist article from which these quotes come from, click here. There’s also been some update-age on the book page, feel free to check it out.