Ups and Downs

This week made me think about things that I feel like are generally just under the surface in my head but that I, for good and bad, don’t often confront.  It was filled with teaching, a miserable but ultimately minor illness, and a wedding that has changed how I look at partnered life.

I guess the first place to start is the teaching.  What seemed like a pretty forgiving schedule at the beginning of the term (only 18 contact hours!  plan and teach 6 lessons a week!) is turning out to be pretty brutal.  For everything I love about Thailand, the bureaucracy and layers of higher-up-ness can be a bit crazy.  I’m still not really sure who my boss is (the department head?  the grade level chair?  the fep coordinator? another administrator?).  I’ve been told to use 3 different lesson plan formats in the last 6 weeks, and I don’t think I’ve gotten any of them quite right.  Fortunately, my classes seem to be going really well, I got a pretty rave review from my supervisor’s observation, and I’ve got a handful of really bright, creative kids scattered through my classes that make me look forward to teaching them.  I’ve also got a few requiring constant focusing that sap all of my energy by the end of the day (some days I feel like a broken record, for some reason repeating, “why are you on the floor again?!”), but they’re entertaining in their own way and, most days, that makes up for having to constantly repeat myself.

Where I really reach both my best point and my breaking point is at TFH.  I absolutely love and adore every single one of my students.  They are funny, eager, resilient, and a complete blast to teach.  I feel like I learn from them just as much as they do from me.  I get to feel motivated by knowing that my adult students are leading much, much harder lives than I am and make it to class, on time and ready to learn, every single day.  I feel motivated knowing that, if I do my job right, the younger students in my classes will have one more skill to take them wherever it is they want to go.  If I can give them a little more love, attention, and patience, maybe that will make a difference to them.  Every time I get to dance with them, get a surprise hug from them, get to play flashcard races on the floor with them, it’s like my day gets a whole lot brighter.  It’s actually amazing how the kids have warmed up and opened up this semester; last term we came in as kind of mid-term replacements, and I think when they saw us come back they let themselves get invested in us as people and friends.  Sometimes (most of the time) it’s hard at the end of a 14 hour day to give it my 100%, but seriously, how can you resist this kid?

My little Tater Tat

Unfortunately, Wednesday night I ended up in the ER at 4 in the morning with an acute stomach infection.  A shot of muscle relaxants and pain killers, five prescriptions and a day of bed rest later, I’m pretty much on the mend.  All I could think about, even though I was in pretty severe pain at the time, was how different the medical experience here in Thailand is to that in the US.  I was in and out of the hospital in under an hour.  Everyone spoke good English and seemed concerned about my symptoms.  We went to, arguably, the best hospital in Chiang Mai since we knew it would be open in the middle of the night; it’s internationally accredited, bright and clean.  My bill?  $52.  Including the consultation, injection, and all of my meds (which, I kid you not, came in a gift bag).  I’ll get about $15 of that back when my insurance kicks in, so the total cost to me is more like $35.  I don’t even want to think about what it would have been in the states, but I’m imagining somewhere in the hundreds of dollars range, if not higher.  I don’t know if I can properly explain what a relief it is to be able to get the right medical attention, when you need it, and not have to worry about how it’s going to destroy your finances – whether you have private insurance or not.  Not to carry on about the joys of socialized medicine (although, from my experience, I’ve had a lot more joy come out of this system when I’ve lived in countries that have offered it than when I’ve ever had to deal with my nightmare of an insurance company back home).  But I’m super happy not to be miserably sick anymore.

While I was busy recovering (i.e. taking long naps and watching Iron Chef America) Kyle went to the wedding reception of the brother of one of our students at TFH.  I was SO curious about what the wedding would be like, and SO bummed to miss it!  The wedding was held at the construction camp where the groom and his bride live.  For most immigrants from Shan, a state in Burma with a significant IDP population and refugees living legally and illegally in Thailand, construction is one of the only industries they can find work in.  I’m not going to sugar coat it – these places are DEPRESSING.  They are essentially shanty towns, with houses built out of whatever scrap materials their occupants can find.  The men and women who live there work long hours in rough conditions, for very little pay.  Minimum wage is about $10/day in Thailand, and I would bet my paycheck that they don’t even make that much, as many are undocumented and don’t have a choice of another livelihood or recourse to challenge their employers.

The bride and groom (photo by Haleigh Chwirka)
Wedding guests tie white string, often with money attached, to signify prayers and prosperity for the couple in their new life together.
Wedding guests tie white string, often with money attached, to signify prayers and prosperity for the couple in their new life together. (photo by Haleigh Chwirka)
Our TFH group (photo by Haleigh Chwirka)
The family of the bride and groom, praying for them.  Wedding guests tie white string (often with money) to the couple's wrists as a sign of well wishes and prosperity in their new life together.
The family of the bride and groom, praying for them. Wedding guests tie white string (often with money) to the couple’s wrists as a sign of well wishes and prosperity in their new life together.

Seeing pictures of a wedding in such a bleak place made me want to cry.  All I could see were my own wedding photos – nothing terribly fancy, small scale by US standards, and yet lavish by comparison.  This wedding, with bright party balloons decorating an otherwise bleak courtyard, in the midst of complete poverty,  bride and groom dressed in their very best, was a reminder of what my students face every day, what the young ones could face in a few short years when they are old enough to marry, what the reality of marriage is for so many around the world.  For many, it’s not about love.  It’s certainly not about the party (although let’s be clear – the Shan people we know certainly know how to party.)  It’s an arrangement for social continuance.  And knowing that wrenches my heart.

This weekend, we have to go to a phonics workshop.  YAY.  ugh.  and I think I’m going to ride my bike around town and take some pictures of things I haven’t seen yet.  There’s a few temples on my list, and believe it or not I haven’t a single picture of the moat or walls around the old city.  Every time I ride past, they just call to be photographed.  So I figure now’s a good a time as any.

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