Tuesday, January 21, 2014

That One Time A Political Rally Showed Up At My School

Perhaps some, or many (or none?) of you are familiar with the intense political tensions presently gripping all of Thailand. The current political crisis has been ongoing since about August 2013, when the Thai government introduced an amnesty bill that absolved political offenders since the 2006 coup. 

(a bit of required knowledge incoming)

The bill initially did not cover leaders, but was then amended to add Thaksin Shinawatra. This outraged the Yellow Shirts of Thailand, subjects loyal to the monarchy and His Majesty The King. Thaksin, founder of Advanced Information Systems (AIS; Thailand's largest communications firm) is a former business tycoon turned politician turned Thailand Prime Minister turned self-imposed exile (Dubai)). He essentially used his power and country as legitimization and a piggy-bank, respectively, in myriad ways. Thaksin was charged with corruption and sentenced to two years in prison, which he has not served, but he and his cabinet have faced multiple allegations of treason, authoritarianism, conflicts of interest, lese-majeste (insulting HM The King), tax evasion, and human rights violations (through non-intervention and permitting the extreme violence in the Far South to escalate dramatically, with it being the most deadly it's ever been most recently)

However, Thaksin is hugely popular in Northeast Thailand (Isaan; many regions are considered Red Shirts- Thaksin supporters), due to many schemes aimed at economic development (poverty alleviation) and improving access to health care. The populous and rural poor were a largely untapped voter base. While some of his schemes were successful, many, either successful or failed, often times benefited his vested interests directly. In addition to this, Thaksin is accused of buying the rural poor vote through "hand outs," including his 30 baht universal health care scheme and micro-credit development loans. One could argue that he was both incredibly helpful and detrimental to Thailand and its development.

In 2006, Shinawatra and his government were ousted in a bloodless coup, which has created, more or less, a revolving door of prime ministers, most of whom have been legitimately selected due to the massive following he grew in Isaan. However, three of the four prime ministers after Thaskin have also directly related to him. 

The State has a very useful timeline of events here, but here are some important dates:

December 2007: Thaksin's dissolved Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai) reforms as The People's Power Party and installs Samak Sundaravet as prime minister after winning elections.

May-September 2008: Yellow Shirts accuse Samak as a Thaksin puppet and he is removed, but "only" due to a conflict of interest (accepting money for a cooking show appearance). Parliament selects Somchai Wongsawat as the new prime minister. Somchai is Thaksin's brother-in-law.

December 2008: The courts find Somchai's party guilty of electoral fraud and dissolves it. Opposition Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vetjajiva is chosen as new prime minister.

March 2010: Red Shirt demonstrators protested in Bangkok to drive Abhisit from office. In May, Abhisit and Member of Parliament Suthep Thaugsuban authorized the crackdown on Red Shirt demonstrations, leading to the death of 91 protesters, injuring 1800, and ending the protest. Abhisit and Suthep would eventually be charged with murder in December 2012.

July 2011: The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party wins a landslide election, again powered by the rural vote of Isaan. Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, becomes the new prime minister. 

(returning to the recent past)

Since I arrived in Thailand in January 2013, I've been watching all of this unfold in a way. Granted, I don't speak/read Thai well enough to watch news/read newspapers, but I hear about all of the happenings from my friends and co-workers. My community in Chumphon is a staunch Yellow Shirt area, firmly loyal to HM The King, and those same people have been active in the protests in Bangkok. Since it's big news to them, it invariably becomes big news to me. 

Aforementioned, last August, the amnesty bill began gathering steam in the Thai political houses. This created quite a stir throughout the country, obviously, and prompted severe backlash directed at Yingluck from Yellow Shirts. Parliament quickly backtracked and sort of killed the bill (it could have been able to be revived come April or so, but with the direction of the protests, this seems unlikely), but the anti-Thaksin movement continued to gain considerable strength, intent on purging all links Thaksin may have to Thai government. Note this amnesty bill would also have cleared the murder charges of Abhisit and Suthep from the May 2010 Red Shirt crackdown.

In November, Suthep accepted (took?) the lead of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and began leading the protests in Bangkok. Anti-government protest rallies have topped 100,000 people, and nightly rallies in Bangkok, and throughout Yellow Shirt areas, are held. 

In December, Yingluck dissolved the lower house of Parliament and called for new elections on February 2nd 2014. However, the PDRC was not content with this decision, as they want political reform before elections (once again, they are the minority party and likely to get legitimately crushed in the polls by pro-government voters) and vow to not let them take place.

While all protests have been peaceful, and military leaders insisting they will both remain neutral and involved, December 26th marked the first day of violence, as a policeman and anti-government protester are shot and killed. About a week later, an additional man is shot and killed in Bangkok. 

On January 13th began "Shutdown Bangkok,", with the PDRC  protesters occupying critical intersections in Bangkok in an effort to cripple Thai productivity and force caretaker prime minister Yingluck and her cabinet to step down. On January 17th and 19th, Grenades are thrown into PDRC crowds, injuring sixty-eight people and killing one man. 

Meanwhile, in the mid-South of Thailand...

Due to the escalating violence Suthep has called on the united Yellow Shirts to begin laying siege to government offices. My school, being public and funded by the government, has closed for (a minimum of) two days, with many other local schools, the city municipality, and public health offices also being shut down. Other Southern PCVs have reported the same. 

Around town, many people wear Thai colors, political shirts, and/or adorn themselves with accessories draped in their country's colors. Individuals blow whistles, clack noisemakers, and participate in nightly rallies. The vibe is different- People are more electric, a buzz in the air. No longer is my little community the sleepy fishing hub, but rather deep in the throes of revolution. Even children are politicized, with many wearing political outfits/sayings, likely without even knowing what they mean (this should constitute its own blog post. Read my friend and fellow PCV Colin's entry about this somewhat).

Finally, to address the title of this blog entry, yesterday, as school ended and I was waiting for Nadia to show for our Teacher English club (and desperately wanting to buy a
chaa yen- Thai iced tea), I walked out to the street to find the physical manifestation of Suthep's plea for Southerners to shut down the government beyond Bangkok:
I'm not sure at all when this will all end, or how. I can only hope that it is a peaceful transition. Please understand I write this entry merely to inform and share with others what is happening in Thailand. While at one point in my life, this all would have seemed very trivial. Now, it's very real and critical. 

While fascinating in its own right, it's also been frustrating and a tad unnerving. I have many opinions on the matter, but will withhold them until we can talk face-to-face. However, it has given me perspective on American politics. Before Peace Corps, I thought the bi-partisan politics there were separated by a huge chasm. But, after seeing first hand what is happening in Thailand, that chasm looks much more manageable than previously thought. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Friday Five: For The Love Of Infographics

I'm quite a sucker for pretty data, especially data that tells a story. Infographics are wonderful tools, as they synthesize information quickly, doll it all up, and "PRESTO!" You have an enticing, visual story. Meanwhile, since I've been living in Thailand, I've developed a far less busy social life and, in some ways, less responsibilities. This is pretty common among PCVs (or at least them having more time on their hands during service), and I've definitely explored a variety of ways to fill this time.

Today, I present to you one of those ways. I was reading about a Portland non-profit, the Center for Earth Leadership, and some of their "Eco-Tips" to live a greener life. I looked at their "Why Buy Local Food?" tipsheet and liked it, but felt it was a little... bland. This kind of information is so useful! But when it's just black text on a white document, people might be more inclined to skim through, or ignore, it all together. Considering kids these days and their lack of attention spans, unless a medium's main point can be absorbed in less than 140 characters or pretty pictures, they're liable to be ignored completely. Naturally, I thought to myself:
Though I have no design skills, no experience creating infographics, and am woefully pitiful creating illustrations, I figured absolutely nothing could go wrong and that I should give it a shot. I want to thank my lovely partner, Nadia, for aiding in the design and overall placement of info and graphics.

Here's that shot, presented for your infotainment.

I figure there's five of something on here to qualify for a Friday Five. I've just been too lazy to think/blog/do because Thailand.

Also, apologies for how tiny this became after resizing it. I had to squash the graphic to fit into the boarders of the entry's text field. This image certainly is not optimal, but I can email you a full sized version should you ask for one!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A Saturday Dinner

Every Saturday, my family eats dinner at the beach and I have an open invitation to join them whenever, which I try to make good on at least once a month. However, I've been a bad son and haven't talked to them for a number of weeks now until last night. My school director had a New Year's party at his (beautiful traditional Thai) home and invited his staff and friends. My father and director have been friends for twenty odd years, so of course my family was in attendance as well.

I was certainly a little sheepish to see them without having talked to them for longer than I'd like to admit. They were nothing but kind and happy to see me once again, so my fears went unacknowledged, at least in the moment (as I'm sure they had to have discussed this at some point). As we spoke, and it being Friday, I asked them if they would be going to Pak Nam for dinner [tomorrow], assuming it would be a forgone conclusion. To my surprise, it wasn't, and Meh asked Paw, and it was quickly decided that they would.

I felt a little bad, hoping they didn't greng jai me (feel obliged to put themselves out to accommodate me/my expectations or wants- this concept deserves its own entry, actually). A couple weeks ago, Nadia and I had discussed that the next time we go to the beach for dinner with them, we should have a cultural exchange and make some food for them as well. Unfortunately, Nadia was unable to attend the New Year's party, being mai sabaai (not well; ill), yet I still volunteered (voluntold Nadia) making spaghetti for our dinner. Again, having not seen them for a while, yet wanting to, it was a perfect opportunity to ask. Even if Nadia wasn't able to go, I knew that I should do this. However, I believe something got lost in translation (or most certainly cultural translation), as my/our offer to cook spaghetti for them turned into them inviting whoever was still present at the party to come to the beach for dinner tomorrow because Jay and Nadia were making spaghetti for everyone.

Needless to say, I wasn't the happiest I've ever been during that moment, and my initial feelings of happiness to spend time with my family were replaced with feelings of obligation and work, but the plans were set in stone, and, as with all things Thai, they would work themselves out shomehow.

The next day, Nadia and I performed the necessary duties (shopping, cooking) and joined my family (Paw, Meh, Nong Gaeo) and picked up Pii Nongyao from her home nearby. We drove to the beach, found our parking spot (after Pii Nongyao moved some other person's motorbike because it was taking up too much space in our would-be parking spot), prepped all the eats (as Meh cooked kaao kook kapi- rice mixed with fried egg, pork, sour mango, baby onions, chilies, carrot, and uncooked green beans- my favorite Thai dish), and dug in! We received many "sa-paget-tii aroi." ("It's delicious!")

We were excited  they enjoyed it. Meh pointed out she had thirds of it, which is awesome because she's not much of an eater. Nong Gaeo had thirds, too, and this made me happy. Every time I'm even in my family's presence, I feel really at peace. They're such kind-hearted, easy going people, it's impossible to not ease into a contented state when being around them.

Here are some candid, and thus not too flattering, photos of our meal! Also, the market pictures are blurry because I was trying to be sneaky (read: not look like a tourist), and wasn't patient enough to hold the camera still for long enough to accommodate the night photos/longer shutter speed. But still, you get the idea about the market. Sadly, you don't get to see the splayed fish, whole birds with beaks, or random animal parts for sale in detail. Another time.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Friday Five: New Year's Goals

I'm refraining from the usage of "resolutions" here, as the root of the word is "resolute," and being resolute about a hopeful success in development work will typically only serve to frustrate, alienate, and cause burnout. Since international development work is about building capacity and inspiring change in others, I feel 99% of this work lies outside of the change agent's control. They can offer ideas, support program and/or village infrastructure, statistics, and benefits to change, but ultimately, a community opts to adopt the behaviors necessary to change or it doesn't. The community and its people require both investment in the potential change and intrinsic motivation to make the effort match the reward to ensure the sustainability of these socio-behavioral changes. 

As such, being the potential change agent, there are numerous things I can control, including my own effort, mindset, and drive to see things through to completion. The following are five goals that I will work towards, in an exhaustive and collaborative fashion to improve my community and myself.

1. will continue to find new ways of transferring English instruction skills to Pii Aoy. Fortunately, she already has the will to change for the better and strives to improve her instructional abilities. I aim to equip her with as many tools as possible to make English enjoyable and effective for her students.

2. want to grow deeper connections with the teachers to whom Nadia and I teach English. I've pleasantly noticed there has already been an improvement in my relationships with each teacher who participates. I'm looking forward to sharing a better mutual understanding of each other and our respective cultures, improving their English, and indirectly improving their instructional methods by introducing them to and instructing them through student-centered learning techniques.

3. want to see the Youth Tour Guide project at my school succeed. This project has been started, but has moved at a snail's pace because Thailand. It has seen some movement lately with the end of the year projects having ended, and I'm excited by its potential. Already, I've connected my school and municipality to work together, as the latter also had intentions of creating the same kind of program. This month the training and creation of the program should become a reality.

4. want to help Peace Corps Thailand improve programatically- from how they train incoming volunteers to day to day operations to the committees of which I am a part (Peer Support Network and Project Review Committee). I want to leave PCThailand better than when I found it, a microcosm and training ground, if you will, for how I want to leave the Earth.

5. will learn as much as possible about as many things as possible. The desires to learn and travel are insatiable in me, as the more I do them, the more I need to do them. Peace Corps is such a prime opportunity to learn about humanity's complexities, resilience, love, and all we're capable of doing. I want to take full advantage of this time granted to me. It is never too early to reflect and ask myself, "What do you wish you could have done better during your time?" because I'm still here for another fifteen months and being cognizant of this now permits me to change current behaviors to ensure I eventually answer this question with trivial answers (e.g. "I wish I ate more cockroaches"), knowing all the most important bases were covered.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Five: Thai Superstitions

I'd like to think that superstitions are universal. Obviously not the exact superstition itself, but the fact that they exist. I bet even Spock had his, which could have been living under the superstition that acting in the most logical manner would always yield the best results in any given situation (which, to any person who's seen the Star Trek movies, is false as long as you have a Kirk around). I digress, though. I think all persons act a little "funny" or "irrationally" with regard to something in their life. I know I definitely do, and I know Thai people definitely do, too.

1. Drinking water in the morning: A big no no. You're going to get sick. I guess. How else do I hydrate?

2. Walking in the rain: Poor choice. You're going to get sick. I guess. This one is particularly hilarious being an individual from the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It rains 75% of the year, and if you see someone with an umbrella, you know they're from California.

3. Ghosts: This is a big one here. People truly believe they exist and can curse people, are bad luck, etc. They also serve as convenient excuses/rationales.

4. Eating chicken when injured: Apparently if you eat chicken while you're on the mend, you won't heal. So lay off the kaao man gai, kaao pat gai, and gai yaang. (chicken with ginger rice, chicken fried rice, grilled chicken, respectively; courtesy Colin)

5. Having a blazing fire underneath the bed of a newborn and its mother: Don't say, "It's hot," because it's bad luck if you do! (Courtesy Jes)

Note one: I can't offer much more explanation than this, because these are only observations/anecdotes/convos I've experienced, all sans details.

Note two: This is the first Friday Five I've posted on an actual Friday in months. Hooray!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Friday Five: Wonderful Thai Things

It is undoubtedly unfair of me to post last week's Friday Five about the things that slowly kill me from the inside-out and not counterbalance it with the things that are utterly delightful about my temporary home.

1. My co-workers: My school and it's teachers are definitely a family, and I've been welcomed rather warmly into it. They are eager to collaborate to improve themselves personally and professionally. My opinion matters to them and they ask for my insight frequently. As with any job, the people you work with can easily make or break it entirely.

2. Year-round fruit and vegetables: I love that I can eat year 'round pineapple. Additionally, I pay twenty baht (~ .67 cents) for one medium pineapple, and thirty baht (just shy of a dollar) for a large one! A lot of other fruits do have seasons here, but there is a wide enough variety to keep me happy until mango, mangosteen, and pomelo seasons return. Besides, I always have pineapple.

3. New perspectives and the opportunity to improve myself: The wonderful thing about traveling is that you meet new people who have (sometimes vastly) different thoughts about the world, its people, and how it all "works." While I'm generally not one for cliches, I do love the saying, "The more I see, the less I know," because it's totally true. Being in a foreign land is fascinating, because, on average, you get to see, learn, and do more in any one given day than back home. It truly is a fortunate opportunity to be challenged daily and to learn more about the world and one's self.

4. Various aspects of Thai culture: There are many, so I'll just list them:

  • Looking out for others by way of comfort, stomach fullness
  • Respect for teachers and elders
  • The concept of sabaai sabaai (relaxed, chillin' out) when applicable (i.e. not at work).
  • Close knit community feelings (locality in general- food, relationships, conducting business)
  • Food, food, food
  • Politeness through appearance
  • The high rate of smile reciprocation

5. Friendship and running: I've come to learn that runners everywhere are the same. The soft, repetitive sound of a gait and rhythmic breathing is a common language between cultures and ethnicities. Through Pii Nongyao (first row, center), Nadia and I have been adopted into her group of (running) friends. On Sunday mornings, we run to the beach town six miles away and then have breakfast and socialize. This is no different from when I'd run with Craig or anyone else in America! We'd go running far away, eat shameful amounts of delicious food, and shoot the shit and enjoy each other's company. When I realized that runners were the same everywhere, all I could do was smile and feel more at home.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Day In The Life

After reading my friend Jes' blog entry about not yet having shared a typical day with her readers, I realized I also haven't written such an entry. I want to share with you all the magic that occurs during a typical Peace Corps Thailand day.

0615ish: I awaken, much to my chagrin. I'm likely hot and sweaty already if I chose not to use my air conditioning. On a Peace Corps volunteer budget, there are some things you just can't afford all the time.

0622: I end my approximately seven minute (read: give or take twenty minutes) long tantrum/love-affair-with-bed/rollfest and arise to conquer a new day. I find my fluffy pink slippies (thanks, Bonnie!) and stumble downstairs, quite literally because the stairs are a strange height/depth, and combined with slippies, they become a tricky obstacle course.
0623: I make, the most critical juncture in my day, and proceed to shower. 

0635: Three days out of four, I cook a delicious greasy Thai omelet and place it over rice for breakfast. I return to my hole upstairs for consumption and interwebbing. 

0741: I wait until the last possible moment to put on the rest of my clothes. If there is one thing that absolutely does not make sense in Thailand (this is a downright hilarious concept, as there is nothing short of a million of these), it's the concept of riap roi (proper) presentation and face-melting temperatures. If I have to be in slacks and a polo for even one additional moment of each day, I'd likely deem all life spiteful and full of contempt. 

0749: I walk to school, passing by my kind neighbors who dependably ask if I've eaten yet, to which I always answer with a smile "gin laeo krap." (I've eaten, thanks) Sorry the photo is turrrrible. It doesn't do either woman's kindness any justice. The bpaa (maternal aunt literally, but is reserved for women older than your mom) on the left is super sweet, always giving us fruit. The woman on the right makes sure I've eaten.
0751: I arrive at school, to many wonderful smiles and "Hello!"s. Sometimes, my more courageous students engage in conversation with me to practice our week's lesson. I basically want to cry a million tears of happy knowing all my hours of (sometimes agonizing) work shows in my students.
0755: I sign in for the day's work and drop off my stuff. I am often greeted by the assistant director, Pii Nongyao (pictured below in the pink top and red hat. She's simply amazing- definitely the glue of the school, and a huge runner/advocate of sports and fitness in general), and a Thai kanom (snack/dessert) from her- gluai tot (fried banana) being the most common culprit of excess calories. I then make my way to the schoolyard for our daily assembly. Below is my typical work station inside our school's meeting room.

During this time, kids clean the school grounds.
0800: The King's anthem plays, and everyone within earshot, stops what they're doing (including walking) to pay their respects. Afterwards, the kids gather for the morning assembly, where they honor HM The King and their country, say a daily prayer to the Buddha, sing the school anthem, and are informed of the day's happenings.

During this time, I'm often entertained by kindergartners' shenanigans.
0830-1130: I teach the first three periods Tuesday through Friday (only the first two on Monday). Some days I facilitate much of the lesson so my spectacular co-teacher, Kruu Aoy, can take notes on how to implement the (participatory, student-centered) lesson plan we create together. Other days, she requests to take the lead, and I support her in whichever ways I can. I'm very lucky to have a teacher who is dedicated to her craft and aims to be as good an English teacher as she possibly can for her students. She's my big sister here, and we've crafted a fantastic personal and professional relationship. I've already seen such growth in her!
Here's one class, on Scout Day Wednesday, working hard on their past tense worksheet.
1130: Lunchtime! Teachers serve food to the children as they filter into the cafeteria. After the vast majority of children have received food, teachers then sit down themselves to a hard earned meal. 
This is our cafeteria.
1200-1230: I usually finish with lunch quickly, by noon, and take some time to myself. I will websurf, often catching up on the day's sports scores, update some Peace Corps paperwork, review lessons, tend to Peer Support Network and/or Project Review Committee matters, or have meetings with other teachers. 

1230-330: There are three more periods that are to be taught during this time. I have one or two classes each day. 

330-?: Depending on the day, I have some extra responsibilities to tend to after school. On Mondays, Nadia and I teach an English class to teachers of my school. We average around eleven participants each week, and it's always an incredibly good time (picture coming Monday). 

Tuesdays and Wednesdays I leave at 330 and, without fail, buy som dtam (papaya salad) from my local som dtam lady who parks on the school's road and sells it to kids and adults alike. Som dtam is a wonderful concoction of shredded unripened papaya and carrot, mixed with crushed garlic and peppers, which sit in a fish sauce brine. You can order it all sorts of ways (sweet, spicy, sour, salty, with entire crabs ripped into parts, dried shrimp, peanuts). It is made to order, and I prefer mine sour with five chilies, without the crab parts or shrimp. Additionally, there are many food and trinket vendors that line up on the road between 230 and 500. Kids are a good source of income since they're always hungry and need to feed by this time. Additionally, students hang out and play football or socialize. Here's what it looks like after school.

Thursdays our school has a staff meeting until 515/530. These are definitely difficult to endure since they're in Thai exclusively. Sometimes the director asks me something in Thai, and one hundred percent of the time I don't hear it at first because I'm too busy daydreaming about monkeys, travel plans, or running/biking. I'll give some answer, to which people laugh with/at me, and I return to my daydream.

400/500: On not-Saturdays/Mondays, Nadia and I have a specific run allocated, depending on the day, for our ultra-marathon training. Sundays are our plodding endurance run. Tuesdays are hills, Wednesdays are mid-week six to ten mile tempo runs, Thursdays are intervals, and Fridays cross-training days (in which I bike ride and/or do some P90X leg workout). This is one of the little backroads that we have run, which is filled with scary dogs, excitable children, and curious locals. 
600: Dinner time! Nadia and I collaborate on making dinner, splitting up the slicing, dicing, stirring, cooking, serving, and cleaning. We generally make everything from scratch since we eat what we can find at our local market and store. We're still trying to learn the all the various of ways to prepare virtually the same ten vegetables with rice or noodles and a protein. I'd say we have a solid eight different meals we cook regularly, which is good and bad, I suppose. We make soups, various stir frys, innumerable egg dishes, pasta dishes, and strange combinations (like left over spaghetti and an over-easy egg on top, mm mmm!) because Thailand. Nadia and I both have loved rice since before living in Thailand, so we've bought into the Thai sentiment about meals, "If it doesn't have rice, it's only just a snack." Therefore, we both eat rice three times a day and have zero qualms about it. 

630-930: Since I have an exceptional talent at being a hermit, the rest of the evening is generally us unwinding from the day. Teaching/entertaining kids, existing in a foreign language, and the heat all combine to sap me of all social desires, so I lay in bed reading, watching some funny American show, or conversating with Nadia. Being introverted, all of this stimulation and interaction are incredibly exhausting, and I need the evening to prepare for another ten hours the next day. Real life Jay and Kruu Jay are two different people, and being Kruu Jay draining. If I absolutely need to, I'll do some project related work, but I generally procrastinate until I'm "on the clock" again. 

930~1030: I try to make sure I get a solid hour of reading in daily. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is this week's flavor. I'll read until my eyes shut and I recharge for another day.