The Miracle of Ik

Children have the ability to ignore all odds and percentages -Lance Armstrong

I have a very short story to tell today.

On Friday after school I was invited to have dinner and beer with Teacher Oi and his family. Oi is the man who has been driving me to school; he lives across the street from me. It was a lovely meal with his big family (nephews, nieces, wife, and son), but he is the only one of them who speaks English. So while the rest of his family celebrated the end of the week together, Oi told us this story:

A few years ago when his son Ik was born, the doctors told Oi that the boy was sure to die. He had a collapsed lung and had to live in an incubator for the first week of his life. Oi and his wife were distraught. They went to pray every night, but the boy showed no signs of getting better. At the end of the first week the doctors said that Ik would not live through a second week.

Teacher Oi

Teacher Oi, father of Ik

That night Oi’s wife asked him for a special favor. “Get him his name,” she asked. They had not yet given Ik a name. Perhaps they were afraid of growing too attached to a son who seemed about to die. Or perhaps Thai tradition dictates the parents wait several weeks before naming their children. I am not sure. But Oi’s wife was certain that their prayers were not being heard because the child was nameless. Whatever power answers prayers could not know him because he didn’t have a name.

Oi registered a name for his son that very night. The next morning, the doctors informed them that Ik had made a complete recovery.

Ik is not his full name, it’s a nickname. I don’t know the full name, but I know what it means in English: miracle.

I am very proud to know Oi and Ik.

Bunditnoi Song

The boy knew the desert sensed his fear. They both spoke the same language. – Paolo Coelho.

I have just finished my fourth day teaching at Bunditnoi 2 (two is pronounced song). Before the end of my first day the job had already become far and away the best thing about this journey. In less than a full week I have had an immensely rewarding experience that I do not thing I could soon forget, nor will I ever want to.

The day begins very early. I arrive at the school at, or even before, 7:00 AM. This week I have been driven to school by Oi, a man who teaches the Thai equivalent of Home Economics as well as Human Duties, in which students learn about their obligations to family, friends, country, employers, and the Sangha (the Buddhist monkhood). Oi has very respectable English, and we hold friendly conversations in the car on the way to school. He asks me about my family and my girlfriend (he occasionally calls her my wife and I must remind him I am not married), and in turn I have learned a little about his family and his education. In the car with us are his wife, who works in the office at school but speaks barely any English, their son Ik, who is in second grade, and their nephew who is in kindergarten.

Oi’s nephew is one of several students who stand out to me. I never teach kindergarten but I have come to know him in our car rides. He is small and has curlier hair than any other Thai child I know. He is also the master of sassy poses. The English word he knows best is “no,” which he uses frequently, but always playfully. When we ride in the car, we do not need language to communicate. Some games are universal. I put my hand down, he puts one hand on mine, and I try to slap it before he can pull it away. He puts a ball of tape in my palm, and I pass it back and forth and make him guess which hand it’s in. He enjoys the Rubik’s cube I sometimes show him, and although its purpose is something I have yet to convey, he enjoys twisting the different pieces.

Oi's nephew

Teacher Oi’s nephew

When we arrive at school, I spend an hour outside in the sunny entrance greeting the children as they come in from the bus. Thai school busses are not like ours back home—they are vans packed to the limit with children. Watching them emerge is like watching a magician pull a scarf from his sleeve. They just keep coming. When they pass me by me I say good morning, which most of them say back to me, and give them all a high-five. High-fives are something Teacher Ben, my cousin, has been working on teaching them for a semester or so. I’d say they have it down pat. The motion is understood, and although most of them merely tap my palm with the strength of no men, a few can really get my hand stinging. I like standing out and greeting the children. Not only does it help them practice their English greetings of “good morning,” and high-fives, but it helps them get used to me. I am the newest teacher at school by the factor of one week.

At around 8:00 AM the morning assembly begins. Here, the students line up by class, sing the Thai national anthem, chant for a few minutes to the statue of Buddha in the courtyard, and then drink some milk. This is also the time when, on the first day, I introduced myself to the school. “Good morning,” I said. “I am Teacher Paul. I come from America. I just graduated Rutgers University. I write books and I look forward to teaching you English!” A couple days a week, Teacher Mann, a native Thai who teaches music, will lead the assembled children in some, for lack of a better term, exercises to get the blood pumping.

My schedule after the assembly varies day by day. I teach anywhere between two and five classes a day, always to the students of first grade through fourth grade. There are three first grade classes, and one each of second, third and fourth on my roster. Classes all last 50 minutes. I serve mostly as an assistant to Teacher Lheaw (pronounce Lee-oo), the English teacher at Bunditnoi Song. I help Teacher Lheaw with his pronunciation and spend a lot of time writing English words on the board and leading the students as they spell each word together. Another common activity is writing words on the board and having the students copy them into their notebooks. Some words we worked on today in grades 3 and 4 were “baby,” “balloon,” “January,” and “about.” Then I will go through the rows of children (each class has approximately 20 students) and check their spelling. Yesterday I began to individually quiz each child. As I check their work, I will point to a random letter and ask, “Arrai-dee?” (What’s this?). If they spell their words correctly and know the letters I point to, I give them a high-five. More so than in the morning, getting a high-five for a job well done makes the children very happy. They smile, giggle, sometimes even jump up and down.

Lunch is served at noon every day, and I feel lucky that teachers eat for free. The cuisine is never elaborate but to me it is extraordinary. Rice, noodles, rice, Tom Yam soup, and rice appear to be the cooks’ favorite dishes to serve.

Bunditnoi courtyard

Courtyard for morning assemblies and recess…and for the teachers after school

Whenever I have a free period, I spend it reading in the blessedly air-conditioned office (they also have cold water from jugs, not from tap), or else spending time in the school’s small library with Teachers Ben and Hannah, the two Americans. Collectively we are farangs (pronounced fuh-longs), which is essentially a term for white people.

School ends at around 3:00, but us farang teachers have to stick around until 4:30. I have yet to get a handle on why that’s the rule. The Thai teachers tend to stay until 5:00 (and because Teacher Oi is my ride, so do I). So after school is basically like another free period. I’ll read, or sing songs while Teacher Ben plays guitar, or shoot hoops in the courtyard basketball hoop, or pass a soccer ball with Teacher Kenny, who is from Nigeria and speaks perfect English. Today, as I waited for Teacher Oi, I got to play with his nephew in the courtyard. We did our usual hand-slapping game, and then I signed for him to put his arms around my forearm. When he did, I lifted him up high, and spun around while he kicked his legs about and laughed louder than I’d yet heard him laugh.

If there is a universal language that all people understand, laughter is an important part of its vocabulary.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.

The Joys of Discovery

To those who visit here, we wish a safe journey and the joy of discovery. –William Sanford Nye

When you go into an experience expecting very little, you’ll find that just about everything is a discovery.

I am sitting in my own apartment in Pak Thong Chai. It is my second full day in Thailand, 8:30 in the morning. I was awoken this morning to the sound of my new alarm clock: the rooster that lives in an unknown somewhere behind my apartment building. The sounds of the town are phenomenal. In the morning (and throughout most of the day), it’s roosters. At night, around 9:30-10:00, the packs of stray dogs that roam the streets will band together and howl for a grand total of five minutes. When you walk down the street, people smile and stare and shout, “Hello!” or sometimes the Thai version, “Sawatdee!”

Another great thing about Pak Thong Chai is the view from the apartment. From the third floor, you can see Wat Po, the nearby temple, and the International Buddhist College, where my cousin Ben is studying for his Master’s.

Wat Po

Wat Po, one of four or five temples in Pak Thong Chai

I got to Pak Thong Chai on Friday afternoon, on the twelve o’clock bus from Bangkok. I had told Ben I’d be on the ten o’clock, and missed that one by two minutes. There was no internet connection in the bus station so I couldn’t tell him I’d be late…so when my bus arrived in the station he said, “Thank God you were on that second bus!” If I hadn’t been on it, he would have believed I’d accidentally gone half way across the country!

Sleeping Dog

In the Bangkok bus station, stray dogs sleep under the busses and chairs for shade.

But I did arrive safely and since my arrival there has been an onslaught of  experiences (including the world’s best bowl of fried rice). There has been much to adjust to including the roosters and the heat. The air is thick with humidity, making it occasionally difficult to breathe. Everybody stares when I walk through town, because I am one of three white people in the entire town, and the only one with a beard. In Thailand, whiteness is a quality to be desired. On billboards and advertisements everywhere, models are made up to look white. Another adjustment is the bathroom situation: I am lucky that there are actual toilets rather than squatting holes…but toilet paper is virtually unheard of here! There is some for sale by the roll in the local 7-11, though.

My favorite thing about Pak Thong Chai is, so far, a little girl whose name is either Bom or Bop (it seems to me that the pronunciation changes every time she says it). She speaks very little English other than, “Hello!” “How are you?” “I am good thank you and you?” and “What is your name?” But she is drawn to me, Ben, and especially Hannah, the other English teacher. When we walked through the park in town last night, she rode her bike close behind us and we taught her the English words for “tree,” “road,” “football,” and “basketball,” which she shyly repeated to us. She is sweet and always smiles when we teach her a new word.

More on everything to come!

Be dareful.

Introduction

darefully

Hello!

In less than a week I am leaving the country to spend a year teaching English in Thailand. It’s the biggest adventure of my life…so far. If you want to follow along the journey, or just check in every now and then to make sure I’m still alive and kicking, this is the place to do it!

The plan is to write a blog once a week on various topics like my job, my living situation, Thai culture, and whatever side adventures I embark on. I hope you decide to stop in and read. To get an email reminder every time I post a new blog, click the follow button on the right-hand side of the site.

Thanks! See you back in America,

Paul.