Photo a Day: Back to Thai School Edition

Photo a Day Stuck in a Thai School Daze

If you’re North American or European — dunno about the southern hemisphere peeps — you may read this and think, “Wait … what? It’s not back to school time. In fact it’s almost summer vacation/summer holidays time? What gives?”

Well in those aforementioned parts of the world, you would be correct. But here in Thailand, as in other nearby Southeast Asian countries, it’s nearly back to school time, as summer break is winding down. Yes, it may not be technically summer just yet in the northern hemisphere, but the two hottest months in this part of the world are April and May. It’s officially hot season, and as such, public school kids are on what they call their summer break in the month of April.

Schools are closed, and it many families take holiday trips this time of year; it also happens to correspond with the Thai New Year, or Songkran.

So I walked into Tesco Lotus this evening to pick up a few things, and was greeted by row upon row of the standard public school Thai uniform: off-white short-sleeve shirt and blue dress shorts for boys or skirts for girls. Thai school kids generally wear a version of this or something similar all the way through high school; even most colleges require their students to dress in a similar fashion, although I believe the boys have to don ties as well (poor dudes).

School generally starts again the first full week in May (they get another month-long break in October, and there are a number of holidays throughout the year for which schools close.

How do know all this? I taught in a Thai public school for a semester, my first teaching job after getting my CELTA certification. It was … challenging, to say the least. Fortunately this past year in Viet Nam redeemed ESL teaching for me.

Anyway, this image struck me, so I busted out the Nokia N8 and snapped a picture; it’s a natural for the official (and SEO friendly) Jeff Chappell Photo a Day posting.Β  It’s nice to have a decent image sensor/camera on my phone for once. Of course I prettyfied it in Photoshop.

For whatever reason,Β  I think this image looses something in the small size. Not all images do, but I think this one does, so I made the original image size bigger than usual; clicken to embiggen, as always.

Jeff Chappell's Photo a Day: Back to Thai School edition

P.S. I was technically a little late with this, but I was just looking up the links and got sidetracked reading old blog posts. Besides, with the magic of WordPress, I can make it look like it was posted prior to the Photo a Day deadline of midnight, local time, heh.

No, Really: I’m Still Here, Still Teaching

Wow, was I so busy teaching that really did let the entire summer slip by without a post?

Wasn’t intentional; just kind of happened. Guess my interest in my blogging hobby waxes and wanes, as does my interest in just about anything. I’ve never been very good at monomania; must be my Gemini rising sign.

So let’s hit the highlights, shall we?

Β Still Teaching the Kids Some English

Teacher's got a posse: Jeff and his teenage students -- the cool ones.

I’m coming up on a year teaching in Viet Nam. I was fortunate that the third time was a charm and did pay for all; in terms of teaching it’s been a great year and I consider myself pretty fortunate to have the experience under my belt. More about this later.

I will say that part of the break from blogging was a matter of necessity, as I taught a summer school class, on top of my usual full-time schedule. I had a choice in this, but not really — I still needed to make up time that I had lost from work because of my quadriceps tendon tear, and this put me back in the black, in terms of hours. Plus, I had a good class and enjoyed them. But it left very little free time for yours truly.

Incidentally, the photos below with the kids in yellow t-shirts looking sleepy or eating ice-cream? That was my summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo field trip. The one’s pictured above were my good teenage class (not the evil one). I loved these kids, and I was sorry to have to give up this class to a new teacher after a number of months, in order to take on a new adult class. But then my adult class takes me out for Thai food and beer. πŸ˜‰

Teacher Jeff's ILA summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo. Wake up kids! We'll start having fun soon. I promise!The Joy of Proximity

Plus, I bookended — that’s not really a verb — my summer school class with short vacations back to Thailand. I fear its food and culture has gotten under my skin, in spite of the rough experience teaching in a public school a few years ago. Again, more on this later.

Not Gimping Around Nearly So Much

My leg continues to improve; I can walk up and down steps now like a normal person (almost). Walking down stairs sometimes still proves a little challenging, especially after a long day in the classroom (i.e. Saturdays and Sundays).

But it’s not back to normal. Everyone keeps asking me if it’s back to normal, and when I say not quite then they ask when. I never know what to tell them. My ankle injury in high school, the only injury I’ve suffered close to the magnitude of my severed quadriceps tendon, literally took years before it felt “normal.” Even today, it’s not quite the same as the other ankle.

I need to get on a bike, but I’ve decided against buying one or shipping mine here to Viet Nam, as I’m going to be traveling at the end of October through the first of the year, ultimately relocating back to Thailand for a time. If you’re one of the two regular readers of this blog, you’re thinking “Wait, what? Really? Thought you’d never go back to Thailand.” I know, I know, but never say never, right? Reference above; more later.

P.S. Speaking of cycling, no less than Lucas Brunelle commented on a post I made last year about doping, cycling and Lance Armstrong. You may not know who urban cycling and alleycat proponent Lucas Brunelle is, but if you’re involved with cycling at all, you’ve probably heard the name; he’s a polarizing figure, to be sure. While I don’t agree with everything he does or has to say, he clearly isn’t afraid to march to his own drum, and that always gets respect in my book.

Plus it’s just fucking cool that somewhat like that commented on my blog, particularly when it’s been lying fallow, as of late.

Buying a Real Camera

Lego ninja in the Circle of Death I still haven’t replaced my big boy camera yet, although I’m really feeling the urge to get back into photography again, full time. More on this later, but I think after the first of the year I’m going to embark on a 365 photo-a-day project. I don’t seem to do well without deadlines, in terms of creativity, so I think I need to set myself some deadlines. I was thinking I might do that with blogging as well. I don’t know if I’ll have the bandwidth for both though; we’ll see. If only I was independently wealthy.

On the plus side, I have a decent laptop now with discrete graphics, so I can tinker with 3D modeling and rendering again, as well as use the latest version of Photoshop — which now has a subscription service, thank Dog — and it is effing sweet, let me tell you.

Pictured here, among other things, is a test shot — among many — I made playing around with my Canon G12. The G12 is at the end of the day, a point-and-shoot toy. But, it is a sophisticated, rather grand toy, one that I’m quite happy with as far as having a snapshot type of camera goes. Definitely more on this subject later.

Unfriended the Entire World. Bitches.

Joy of Tech: finding ultimate bliss by deleting your Facebook profileI quit Assbook several months ago and haven’t looked back. Haven’t missed it. In fact the only time I think about it is when I see someone at work on Facebook, or someone asks me to friend them/message them on Facebook. It’s funny, no one asks if you are on Facebook anymore, it’s just assumed.

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later, but then again, maybe not. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world at large and in my own little corner of it. Why waste time blathering about Assbook? Long story short, there was no one thing that caused me to leave it; it wasn’t concerns over privacy — which are quite legitimate, however — or anything like that. Just got tired of everything and everyone reduced to the lowest common denominator in a festival of the mundane.

I just don’t give a tinker’s damn what you had for breakfast or that you are leaving to pick up your kids at school. Unless you are having breakfast on top of Kilimanjaro or are picking up your kids from their first day at Juliard, it’s not significant and I don’t care. Beyond mundane updates Facebook has become the email forwarding for the 21st Century; at one point I had all my friends trained not to forward me cat videos and whatnot. Now, of course, they post all that shit to Assbook. Friends I haven’t spoken with in years — strangers, at this point — don’t reply when I send them emails, but they ask me to watch some idiot on YouTube.

Meh.

Maybe I’m officially old, but that’s okay. I’m happy to say you kids and your social network can get off my lawn. *shakes fist*

As for the few friends that have contacted me wondering where I went, you’ve got my email address and this URL. And now you know that I’m still alive and doing well.

And I’ll sign off with “awwwwwwwwwww” image:

Phuc stuffs his face with ice cream after a hot day at the Sai Gon zoo.

ESL: Teenage Boys & Freudian Obsesesions

Little Kids Rule; Teenagers Act Like Fools

Lego Teacher Jeff: A portrait in ink done by a student and aspiring artist of the Lego school of yours truly, Jeff ChappellAs for the teaching ESL thing, it continues to go reasonably well.

I seem to have gotten a handle on my two teenage classes, although they still continue to be challenging, in terms of maintaining discipline and keeping the majority of the students engaged. The academic director of my school actually filled me in on one of his techniques for managing teenagers that works quite well; I’ll have to write about it at some point in the near future.

I still enjoy teaching the younger kids the most, however. My two favorite classes consist of a class of 18 kids with an average age of seven or eight years old and another class of 14 who average about nine or 10 years old. The larger class are on their second course of study – not beginners, but not quite intermediates – and the other class are on their third, making them more or less solid intermediate students, for their age group.

Eighteen students is a bit much in terms of class size – not ideal, but still manageable – certainly a lot easier than 34 Thai six years olds, lemme tell ya – or 40 Thai six graders who’ve never had a foreign teacher before. The class of 14 is just about ideal – well, as ideal as one class can get. All of the students are intelligent and outgoing, to one degree or another, and are almost always fun to teach.

It’s a good age; essentially they are young enough that discipline is easy to achieve – they will actually listen to what you say. Their level of English is such that I don’t really have to grade my language too much, and can communicate with them easily, which makes teaching easier and certainly more fun. Furthermore, a lot of games that would make my teenagers sigh and groan and whine, my 9-year-olds find endlessly engaging and fun.

If I’d Only Known About Teaching Teenagers

Fiona, one of my Vietnamese teenagers that is actually a delight to teach. Back in 2009 when I began to seriously consider moving abroad to teach English, I had figured that if I had to teach children – and knew that I would be asked to teach children, being a noob – that it would be teenagers that would be the least problematic. After all, I’m reasonably hip for a middle-aged dude, or so I thought – maybe by Western standards, perhaps. Furthermore, what the hell did I know about dealing with kids? Diddly squat, or so I thought.

Ah, I was clueless to the point of naΓ―vetΓ© back then; now I can say with authority that I’ve found the opposite to be true. So for anyone out there considering an ESL career who has stumbled upon this via Teh Google or Bing, take that under advisement. Avoid the teenagers if you can – although there are teachers that love their teenage classes – if you have to teach kids, go for the younger ones, if you want my advice. Even my beginner class, with an average age of six or seven, I find are more enjoyable to teach than my teens – challenging, sure, but fun.

Although when a five-year-old kid says he has to go to the bathroom right away — he tends not to be kidding. You can take it at face value and let him go. Doesn’t matter if class is over in five minutes anyway. Trust me on this one.

Of course, I can’t help but think at times that my teenage classes are a bit of karma. At times I’m sure I was every bit of a pain in the ass to my high school teachers as my worst teenage student is too me. I was probably as sullen at times as the most sullen of my teenage students. On the other hand, I don’t think I was as obsessed with bodily functions as some of my teenage students are – boys, naturally.

We played a game of Truth or Dare in class recently – or rather tried too. Between the lack of creative thinking, which often gets bred out of students by the rote education system prevalent here and throughout much of Asia – and the fact that my teenage boys seem to have a near-Freudian-level of obsession with urination, defecation and passing gas, and delight in the use of the related English vernacular – peeing, pooping and farting, etcetera – well, it didn’t go so well.

Live and learn. Next time I try that game, I’ll be composing the questions myself.

It Sucks! It Sucks! It Sucks!

Beavis (of Beavis and Butthead) says a quadriceps tendon tear sucks. I do concur. So I was thinking that since the previous post didn’t mention the Q word, that maybe it was time to see if I could turn that one-time non-occurrence plural; a streak of non-occurrences, as it were. But it is not to be, I’m afraid I’m going to have to mention and consequently expound upon my SEO-friendly quadriceps tendon tear.

That would be my torn quadriceps tendon. My ruptured quadriceps tendon, in other words, or quadriceps tendon rupture, if you prefer. There, I think that about covers it. For the rest of the post, I’m just going to say “my leg,” assuming that you understand that I’m referring to my screwed up leg, and not the healthy one (the one that’s tired of picking up the other’s slack).

But I’d be kidding myself if I said my life doesn’t revolve – sometimes literally – around my leg. Previously I’ve mentioned how it seems like for every bit of progress I make – the two-steps forward clichΓ© – I subsequently take one step backward. The past few days have been no different.

Tuesday I was at my physical therapy appointment, and for the first time since I tore shit up in my thigh, I was able to bend my leg beyond 90 degrees – still not enough to complete a revolution on the stationary bike, even with the seat as high as possible, but getting close. I had been stuck at 90 degrees for a few weeks, so I was pretty excited about this. I can’t help but think that the speed of my recovery will increase significantly if I can just start spinning on the bike.

Then I was teaching a class on Wednesday evening – my one class, that meets three times a week. Things were going fine, orthopedic-wise; there was no more discomfort than usual. Then, near the end of class, the students were in small groups playing a board game – we were practicing with gerunds and infinitives, don’t you know – and I was wandering around monitoring, answering questions here and there. At one point I tripped over someone – just a small stumble, as someone decided that was an opportune time to stretch out her legs. I instinctively switched most of my weight to my good leg and my Tiny Tim crutch and jerked my leg up, bending it just a wee bit farther than it was ready to bend.

Looking back, the phrase “hurts like a motherfucker” comes to mind; I think that adequately conveys how it felt. Of course in the brief moments that I stood there stone still, sucking down the pain, I was thinking the blackest of thoughts terrible thoughts: I’ve torn out the sutures and subsequently re-torn my quadriceps tendon. Moments later I stood there bending my leg, flexing the quad muscle, etc., as the pain ebbed thereby proving this was not in fact the case and putting my addled, panicky brain at ease. At worse, some micro-tears and the attendant swelling and soreness the next day.

In retrospect, I was being silly, although I suppose given the circumstances I can forgive myself the momentary freak out. But I’ve been through this before, and probably will again, more than once, before I regain a full range of motion. And Dr. Phat himself noted that the rupture itself is healed, and short of some extreme accident – like stepping off a bus, sigh – that reinjury is extremely unlikely.

But these comforting thoughts were not enough to keep me from having a long night; the leg was achy and sore enough that an epic-length sleep became a series of short napping vignettes. This in turn made me crabby and somewhat depressed today; when my therapist looked at my leg and said “Whyyyyyy?” – well, that didn’t help.

On the plus side, I bent my leg to 105 degrees today. Fifteen more degrees and I’ll be spinning on the stationary bike. Another week? Two? As the immortal Butthead was wont to say. “It sucks. It Sucks. It SUCKS! IT SUCKS!”

(What’s So Funny About) Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and ESL Anyway?

Elvis Costello and the Attractions, around the time Armed Forces came out in the U.S. I experienced one of those strange moments yesterday that I imagine is not uncommon to many American expats living in Viet Nam – well, the more thoughtful among us, anyway. It was one of those moments when you are suddenly reminded that just a few generations ago the United States and Viet Nam were embroiled in a bloody conflict as ideologically opposed foes.

So who would have thought when the last helicopter left Sai Gon in 1975, with communist tanks rumbling through the streets not far away, that 37 years later – just a few generations – I would not only be teaching English to Vietnamese students in Sai Gon, but would be using Elvis Costello’s cover of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding?” as part of a listening exercise? Granted, it’s not Country Joe Mcdonald’s “Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” and not even a protest song, per se, but rather an existential paean to the lost ideals of the 1960s in the wake of the more cynical 1970s.

While certainly not impossible, I nevertheless didn’t try to explain to my students the context in which Lowe wrote his song without mentioning the America War (that’s how the Vietnamese refer to what we call in America the Vietnam War, naturally). The thing is – the thing that many of my country folk don’t realize – that for Vietnamese students, just like their American counterparts now, that war is a matter of history (and judging from my teenage students reactions, of only mild interest at best).

It is the stuff of dusty museums and history books and documentaries. Three quarters of Viet Nam’s population was born after the war, and here in Sai Gon – officially named Ho Chi Minh City in the wake of the Communist victory – foreigners are not uncommon and there are many of us Americans among them. The infamous tunnels the North Vietnamese used to such advantage are now popular tourist attractions, and one has to make it a point and look far and wide to find reminders of the war. Heck we’re even military allies now, our navies having gone on joint maneuvers in the South China Sea (given its history, one can hardly blame Viet Nam if even a hint of a Chinese expansionist policy make it nervous).

Having been born at the end of 1968, I only know the Vietnamese-American war as something from the television news reports of my childhood. But then I grew up with the aftermath and what it did to the American cultural zeitgeist. So while I could appreciate the irony of helping Vietnamese teenagers in Sai Gon practice their English listening skills by using “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” I’m pretty sure it was lost on everyone else in the room.

Incidentally, just in case you were wondering: this song is actually part of the intermediate/advanced curriculum for this particular class that I’m teaching. Like many English as a second language (ESL) texts, the book we use has reading, writing, listening and grammar lessons that are centered around a particular topic in each chapter, relating each lesson and exercise back to the ones before it. This particular chapter happened to be about war and peace; the reading text that opened the chapter was about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and the eponymous Peace Prize – Alfred having been appalled at how his invention had been put to use on the battlefields of World War I.

Musician, singer, songwriter and producer Nick Lowe (copyright, I assume, by the photogapher, Dan Burn-Forti)But then my school does permit us to use outside resources at our own discretion, so I could spring Country Joe on them if I wanted to. But somehow I don’t think it would interest them anymore than Elvis Costello’s Nick Lowe cover did. Keep in mind, these are teenagers who are reasonably well off (by Vietnamese standards and increasingly by American standards as well) who have never known war. When I asked what the students thought of the song after listening to it initially, one of the brighter girls in the class shook her head and said “It’s not K-pop!

No child, that is pub rock via punk, that. But then I suppose Nick Lowe has always been a pop-music bridesmaid and never a bride. That’s Mr. Lowe over there on the left, by the way. Below, thanks to the magic of VCRs, nostalgia and AV nerds, is the original video for Elvis Costello and the Attractions cover of the aforementioned tune.

Enduring the Mood Swings of a Quadriceps Tendon Tear Recovery

6 weeks after surgery to repair my quadriceps tendon rupture -- look at me, I can bend my leg!So if you’ve read all the previous posts under this quadriceps tendon tear tag, then you know that it has been an emotional roller-coaster ride; it seems that from both a physical and psychological perspective my recovery involves a series of steps forward in conjunction with half as many steps back.

This past week has been no different.

A week ago, on January 31, I took the first unaided steps I’d taken since the early afternoon of December 23, more than five weeks previous. Granted they were small steps, and they were only a few, and they were taken while walking between parallel bars in the physical therapy room of my local hospital – my hands hovering warily just an inch or two above the bars — but they were steps taken with nothing but my own two feet and legs. No crutches, no assistance from the therapist – or from said parallel bars, for that matter – just me, myself and I.

I was euphoric, to say the least. I wanted to scream; I wanted to shout. I wanted – alas – to jump up and down.

On top of this wonderful landmark accomplishment — in addition to this astounding physical feat, these four small steps for a man, this giant leap for ruptured-quadriceps-tendon kind – my therapist decided that it was time for me to kiss the straight-leg brace goodbye, as well as one of my Tiny Tim crutches. This was an entire week ahead of schedule, mind you; my orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Phat, originally had told me that I would inhabit the brace for six weeks.

I was a little scared, venturing forth on just one crutch with no brace to protect my misshapen leg, but nevertheless ecstatic. It felt so good to walk – not limp, but walk, bending my leg – even with the aid of a crutch. And it wasn’t – and still isn’t – a normal gait; while I do bend my knee when I take a step forward with my right leg, as I put weight on it and begin to step with my left leg I have to lock my right leg, consciously flexing my quadricep muscle. Furthermore, my quadriceps muscle is so weak, I can’t actually lock my leg – not completely, anyway.

But Mistress Lien, as I like to refer to my tiny little therapist, drills it into my head – lock your leg, lock your leg, lock your leg – ad nauseum, ad infinitum.Β It’s difficult to do, aside from my weak-ass quad. Being an erstwhile gym rat, it’s instinctive to not lock my knee; locking the knee = bad, in my mind – hyperextension, effed-up ligaments, etc.
But as my therapist has explained, locking the knee of my bad leg makes it more stable when I walk, keeping it from buckling, and consequently giving the quadriceps muscle much-needed use. Meanwhile, Dr. Phat has assured me that at this stage, the tendon has healed and the odds of re-injury are nil (provided I don’t run out and do something dumb – not that I can actually run). What’s important now is strengthening my leg muscles, namely the quad, and gradually getting that tendon back to a full-range of motion.

Lets Do Something Dumb to Celebrate

6 weeks after surgery to repair my quadriceps tendon rupture.So yeah, last week I was metaphorically jumping for joy, if not literally. I decided to celebrate by increasing my working hours. I went from teaching three classes a week to eight, and by the end of the week, I was paying for it several times over with pain and swelling. As the pain and swelling increased, my happy-happy-joy-joy decreased, to the point that by Sunday night after class I was depressed and angry.

Again.

When I showed up for my therapy appointment on Monday my therapist took one look at me knee and said something in Vietnamese that I’m sure would translate into English as “What the fuck!?” After talking things over with her and Dr. Phat, we all came to the obvious conclusion that eight classes was too much, and that I need to step back.

But then Dr. Phat noted that he was still amazed that I was able to teach three classes a week, just three weeks after surgery, without ill effects. I should probably clarify “without ill effects.” By the end of a class my knee would be swollen (above and beyond the usual) and sore, but I always recovered by the morning of the next day; things would be back to normal – the new gimpy, misshapen normal, that is. Not so after teaching two classes, however.

So now I’m back to teaching three classes this week, and next week I’ll bump it up to four. If that goes well, the week after that, I’ll try five, and so on.

6 weeks after surgery to repair my quadriceps tendon rupture -- nope, still no bilateral symmetry.According to the research I’ve done online, I shouldn’t be complaining; it seems many who suffer a quadriceps tendon tear take months before they return to work, even those with desk jobs. Still, I find it difficult to take solace in such facts. As I’ve noted here several times before, I constantly tell myself that I should be happy at this point that my disability isn’t permanent; almost everyday I see people on the streets of Sai Gon who can’t say the same.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m sick of this, sick of all of it. Sick of not being able bodied, sick of everything taking three times as long and being three times as difficult, sick of being treated by able-bodied people as … well, we’ll save that for another entry. I’ve already touched upon this topic, but recent events require their own entry, methinks.

Back in ‘Nam … and the Classroom

A portrait in ink done by a student and aspiring artist of the Lego school of yours truly, Jeff ChappellSo yeah, I took some time off. I took some time off from pretty much everything.

I know that sounds dark, ominous and sinister and whatnot, which ordinarily might not be entirely surprising for me and mental effluvium receptacle that is this blog. But this is not the case. Rather, after I left Viet Nam and returned to the States in March of this year, I basically just goofed off for the next seven months. I got lazy while I recharged my mental and spiritual batteries. I kicked back and thought about what it was I want to do – that is, when I wasn’t playing video games, building/tinkering with computers, experimenting with barefoot running, and generally loafing about reading in cafes and bars.

Writing – including blogging – as you can see, was not on that list. I thought about writing a lot though, if that counts.

As always, I’m grateful beyond words for my parents having made it possible for me to have this as an option at this point in my life. But on the other hand, while they left me some money, they didn’t make me independently wealthy, at least not to the point where I could continue a Larry Darrell-esque lifestyle indefinitely. This was coupled with the fact that I was only home about three or four months when I began to get itchy feet (which I anticipated would happen).

Hmm … that link should generate some interesting web traffic. But I digress.

So after much thought about the present and the future, today finds me sitting in a cafe in Sai Gon, where it’s pissing down at the moment of this writing. I’ve been back in Viet Nam a little more than a month now, having arrived via Thailand, where I spent three weeks avoiding floods and goofing off while eating Thai food and indulging in light debauchery.

Fiona, a Vietnamese student expounds upon the word "cold."I’m teaching ESL once again, and so far three times has proven once again to be a charm, on the employment front. Several months ago, when I first began entertaining the notion of giving it one more go, I recalled that my journalism career was marked by two unpleasant episodes before a satisfactory situation was found. Thus I reasoned it might be so with teaching English.

So I took what lessons there were to be learned from my previous experiences, and employed them in my search for a job. Thus I find myself once again back where I started: I’m working for the school where I took the CELTA course here in Sai Gon. Is it a metaphorical bed of roses? No. But neither is it a manure-laded bed of thorn bushes either. In fact I’ve managed to avoid the biggest pitfalls of the previous ESL episodes of my short ESL career.

More on all this later. But for now, let it suffice to say that I’m back in Sai Gon – pho and ca phe sua da for breakfast and geckos barking in the middle of the night – and back in the online saddle with the urge to write and blog once again.

Of course the real reason I came back to Southeast Asia, so I wouldn’t have to rename this site.

Postscript: Wondering about the images? Well, the first one is a portrait of me done by one of my students who is an aspiring artist of the Lego school. Then there is teenage Fiona – that being her chosen English moniker for class – who felt my stick figure drawing used to elicit the word β€œcold” needed to be embellished. And last but by no means least are the three elementary artistes, three of my Vietnamese youngsters who are clearly excited by the arrival of Christmas.

As always click ’em to big ’em.

 

A Vietnamese Christmas, as depicted by Jeff Chappell's elementary ESL students.

 

Vietnamese kids are excited by Christmas too -- at least those in Jeff Chappell's ESL classes.

Teaching Barefoot: Shoes are Bunkum

These foot bones were not meant to be covered in a half inch of foam rubber bullshit. One of the things I learned while living abroad is that shoes are bullshit; gods/goddess(es), God, Mother Nature, etc. didn’t intend for us to walk around with a half inch of rubber and foam on our feet, but rather, barefoot – or some reasonable facsimile thereof.

I had suspected that this might be the case some time ago; I began flirting with barefoot walking, running and Vibram Fivefingers back in 2009 (before every other hipster began sporting them, dammit). But my experience in Thailand convinced me once and for all of the baldfaced – er, rather, barefoot truth of this. But then, this didn’t really have so much to do with living in Southeast Asia as it did with the fact that I had decided to pursue teaching as a career – a career that involves being on one’s feet for hours at a time. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not cut out for a career in teaching English as a second language, but it did lead me to this inexorable conclusion: shoes = bullshit.

This barefoot eureka moment might not have occurred, however, if I had not traveled to Southeast Asia to pursue said teaching. In Thailand it is perfectly acceptable for a teacher in a public school to remove one’s shoes. It’s not typical, but acceptable. Students are expected to remove their shoes before they enter the classroom, and of course one removes one’s shoes before entering someone’s home anywhere in Southeast Asia; it’s considered extremely rude otherwise. This is often the case with temples too, so bear that in mind if you’re Wat-hopping around Southeast Asia. It’s one of the customs that we would do well to adopt here in the West; regardless of spiritual beliefs, it does keep one’s floor cleaner.

But teachers in a Thai public school are not expected/asked to remove their shoes in the classroom. In fact none of the other Thai teachers that I observed at Anuban Suphanburi removed their shoes when teaching. When I began teaching in May of last year, I wore dress shoes that I had brought with me from the States.

Harry S. Truman's haberdashery. Before he was a politician, he was a haberdasher. And no, I didn't buy my shoes here.These were shoes that I had originally bought back when I was a full-time journalist and had to occasionally don a corporate monkey suit. A haberdasher assured me that he sold these shoes to many who were often on their feet frequently in the course of their occupations and needed comfortable shoes. In fact he had sold a pair to a police detective who came back in a week later to buy another pair because they were so comfortable, reportedly for β€œchasing down perps.” Right …

By the end of a week of teaching, my feet were a mess, full of aches and pains, metatarsals groaning under duress. It would take a good twenty-four hours for them to recover. After a month or so of this, there came a day when, during lunch, I took of my shoes to massage my barking howling dogs.

Barefoot Epiphany in Suphanburi: Ditching the Dress Shoes

When it came time to put them back on for an afternoon class, I just didn’t have the heart to put my shoes back on. I asked my Thai teacher if it were acceptable for me not to wear shoes in the classroom, since the students didn’t – it took a few minutes to explain that I understood that as a teacher I wasn’t expected to remove my shoes, but that I, in point of fact, wanted to remove my shoes. Once this point was conveyed, she assured me that it was perfectly acceptable for me to remove my shoes before entering the classroom – once again emphasizing that I didn’t have to.

So I taught my sixth grade English class in my stocking feet, as my mother would have called it (to this day if I venture outside wearing socks and no shoes, I hear her voice in my head: “What are you doing walking around outside in your stocking feet!?” Miss you still, Mom). It was a physical and mental epiphany. My feet were still tired and sore – I had been on my feet for three straight hours that morning with my first grade class, clad in those leather pied-a-iron maidens sold to me by Men’s Wearhouse. But they felt so much better being clad only microfiber dress socks (one of the good things sold to me by the Men’s Wearhouse haberdasher).

In fact, by the end of that hour, much of the soreness in my feet was gone, even though I had been standing or walking on them on a hardwood floor that entire time. I quickly resolved to get some β€œdress slippers” that I had seen a few government functionaries wearing at various offices where they house the various hoops that one must jump through as a foreigner to get a work permit. These are basically patent-leather sandals: flat soles, open heel, with a bit of leather over the toe.

Leather Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks: too hot for Southeast Asia; just right for early spring in the American MidWest.I began wearing these to work, and removing them outside the classroom whenever I set foot inside one. I had thought about wearing my Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks (pictured here on my actual right and left foot Sunday afternoon); their suede leather makes the dressy enough, and as for their goofy appearance, well, us farang look and act extremely goofy as it is, the locals probably wouldn’t take much notice of Fivefingers aside from the fact that I was a farang. Besides, even these leather Fivefingers are hot boxes – much too hot for Southeast Asia.

Anyway, within a week, all of the aches and pains disappeared from my feet; my dogs no longer howled or even barked. Over the course of the ensuring weeks, this continued to be the case. Sure, they might be a bit fatigued, especially by Friday, but there were no aches or pains – nary a growl from my now happy dogs.

Make of this what you will. Your mileage may vary; this is what has worked for me. As I say, I’ve been working toward this conclusion for some time now. This experience sealed the deal: shoes are bad for your feet; end of story.

Expat Life Passes One Year Mark

A puppy resident of the Sao Mai Hotel, Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
At least there are puppies ...

So, as I write this I imagine a few of my friends back home are still awake, winding down their revels as the first rays of the New Year sun bathe the Midwest of America (in places where it isn’t snowing). Here in Viet Nam it’s New Year’s Day afternoon, which also marks the anniversary of an entire year living abroad, here and in Thailand. In that time I’ve learned less about these two lands and cultures than I would have thought – but then not even life as an expat can keep me long from my appointed navel gazing. In that respect, however, I’ve learned much, much more about myself than I anticipated.

It’s been a crazy, intense year; very exciting, enriching and rewarding, full of adventure and new experiences – all of which I’ve relished. At the same time it’s been a difficult, challenging and even frustrating year at times. There have been days when I just wanted to say to hell with it all and go home to America.

I suppose the most momentous thing in the last 12 months has been my foray into a teaching career; aside from the goal of living abroad, it was my whole raison d’etre for coming here in the first place – a change of careers. But – and it wasn’t completely unexpected – the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Teaching ESL: Not for Me

Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I’ve come to the conclusion that teaching, at least in an ESL context with young learners or otherwise low-level English students, is not for me. I suck at it, to put it bluntly. Furthermore, I didn’t feel any motivation to improve, but rather to just get out of it – it wasn’t fair to the students or myself, otherwise. There are cultural issues involved here, of course, but I think this is at the core of it.

I enjoyed working with adult, advanced students — a situation where I didn’t have to grade my language, and we could actually engage in meaningful discourse. I received largely positive feedback over the brief time I got to do this. But outside of that narrow context, no one was happy with me as a teacher, myself included.

Well, that’s not completely true. The folks in Thailand said they were happy with my performance, and I did establish a rapport with my first grade students that I did enjoy to a degree. Yet on the whole I was abjectly miserable in Thailand – but the how and why are beyond the scope of this particular missive.

I would also add that of all the negative things you hear and read about the ESL industry here in Southeast Asia, they are largely true, to one degree or another, depending on the context. This doesn’t help matters any.

But there is a larger issue at work here. After a decade of telecommuting, setting my own hours and to varying degrees being my own boss, I don’t want a structured work environment anymore. I just can’t — nor do I want — to handle it: one where I have to be at a certain place at a certain time for a specific amount of time, dressed a certain way, blah blah blah. No thanks.

It’s kind of ironic, but the part of the whole ESL adventure I enjoyed the most was getting the CELTA certificate. It was an enjoyable — if intense – course; I couldn’t help but enjoy learning about teaching methodologies, linguistics, and so forth. Like college, for me getting out and applying the knowledge gained wasn’t nearly so much fun or interesting as being exposed to and absorbing that knowledge in the first place. If only I could be a permanent student.

But then, aren’t we all permanent students, really? Well, at least some of us. But I digress.

Of course in my original grand scheme for my expat adventure, I was going to fall in love with teaching, be good at it, and live happily abroad doing it for several years. Alas, that was not to be, but I learned a lot, including some valuable lessons, so I have no regrets.

Living Abroad: Not the Same as Traveling Abroad

I’ve always enjoyed travel – although sometimes business travel could be a pain in the ass – and having a restless soul, I tend to only feel at peace when on the road. Home is always where I lay my head down at night, or so I’ve said. Give me the stimulation and adventure that new places provide, and the accompanying new sites, sounds, smells, and experiences.

But traveling abroad and living abroad are two different things. Being a traveler is not the same as being an expat.

I’ve found that after a time, I tend to want the comforts of home, for awhile – my own place (as opposed to a hotel room), for starters. A coffee shop where they know me and I can hang out for hours on end, writing, reading, or just navel gazing. A place to absorb, ponder, and process what I’ve seen and learned in my travels. A neighborhood where I know where the good restaurants are, and where the grocery store is, and what times it is open. A place where there is a quiet bar with Guinness on tap.

Simple matters, you say. However when you live abroad in a country where you don’t read or speak the language except perhaps a little, and the finer points of the culture escape you, then these simple things become complex matters. Just getting around can be a challenge.

At some point, the stimulation of travel evolves into trials and tribulations of everyday life.

And it is at this point that one misses home. Well, I should clarify and quantify that statement. This applies only to me, of course; your mileage may vary.

But while I do miss friends and family sometimes, what I miss about home is something much more fundamental. I miss being able to get around the neighborhood, buy groceries, or go to a restaurant and order takeout food – without any of it being a grand, epic adventure. Fundamental things, as I say – being able to speak the language, or having an implicit understanding of the cultural norms – a place where I don’t have to pause to consider why the cashier is doing what she’s doing in the manner in which she is doing it.

That’s what I miss most while living abroad: the simple ease of life at home, ease that’s born out of the simple fact that I was raised in that culture, and lived in it for 40 years, and have a native’s intuitive understanding of it, and know how to navigate in it.

At the end of the day, there really is no place like home. Who knew?

And in that sense, I’ve further learned that people really are products of their environment to very large degrees. I’m not discounting the influence of genetics, of course, but environment plays a big part of who we are.

Even if I were to spend the rest of my life abroad, to a certain degree I would always be American. Again, I don’t mean on a political or even a cultural level, but on a fundamental, anthropological level, if you will – my thought processes, the way I see the world at a very basic level – I’m a product of my upbringing in ways I never really considered before.

I used to think I didn’t have much in common with my fellow average American, but compared to the peoples of Southeast Asia, well, I’m a Yankees, beyond doubt.

Confucious Say Take a Picture: It Will Last Longer

Queen Ann of Bien Hoa, Viet Nam
... and pretty girls.

Which brings me to my next point. If you tend to be a bit of a misanthropic loner, then in a Confucian land you will stick out like a neon motel sign on a dark stretch of two-lane highway, ironically enough. If you prefer to keep to yourself more often than not, living in Southeast Asia can be difficult at times, particularly if you live in an area where foreigners are scarce and the people tend to be a bit insular. Community and family are paramount here; here there’s not much cultural room for the individual.

I relish meeting new people and experiencing new cultures; that’s one of the great joys of travel abroad. But there comes a time when I just want to walk to the coffee shop, sit down by myself, relax, read my book, drink my coffee, and not be bothered. When I’m not traveling I want the comforts of home, and that includes being left alone to my own devices. Furthermore, I’ve always been a bit of a wall flower, and happily so – I generally abhor being the center of attention, except on those rare occasions – usually fueled by alcohol – where I might seek the metaphorical spotlight.

Of course, living this way is not much a problem at home in America. But here in Southeast Asia, particularly outside the cosmopolitan centers of the larger cities, it becomes problematic, to say the least. I draw stares wherever I go in Bien Hoa. Complete strangers stop me and want to engage in conversation – some out of simple curiosity, some wanting to practice their English, some with singular motivations of their own that I can’t always divine.

And personal space? Forget about that; that’s a Western concept, and something else I really miss, I must confess.

Again, when one is traveling, this is great. When one is simply living, and dealing with the everyday concerns of day-to-day life, all this gets old – at least it does for the misanthropic loner who is content, more often than not, to keep to himself. The first time teenagers run up to you in the mall to take your picture, it’s amusing. By the third and fourth time, however, it gets fucking annoying.

Okay, there is much more to write about along these lines, but 1,500-some words are enough for now.

Back to Being a Freelance Writer (Slacker). It's Deja-Vu All Over Again … in Viet Nam

Water Cooler Fenders Adorn the Giant BowerySo, after much lifestyle and career experimentation, I seem to be reverting to form. To wit: I’m freelance writing again, and I have found a regular part-time gig putting my writing and editing skills to work, as well as my WordPress and search engine optimization (SEO) skills. The pay isn’t great, but it’s more than adequate to live on and save a wee bit here in Viet Nam, and will let me concentrate on other endeavors that are more alluring but not as conducive to income, at least in the short term.

I kind of feel like I just picked back up many of the threads of my former life that I left behind 11 months ago – only those threads stretch across a hemisphere. This is more or less where I left off when I got rid of all my stuff and hauled ass at the beginning of the year. I even stay up late and sleep late, just like the good old slacker days, although I actually need to because of one caveat for my current gig: I need to work North American hours, so as to be available in real time, which I don’t mind at all. Typically I go to bed around 4:30 a.m. and get up anytime between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. — right where I left off.

During the day I do what I do best – run around on my Giant Bowery, run errands, goof off and/or write while hanging around in a coffee shop. Slacker is as slacker does.

Today I actually spent the daylight hours (the few that I have) making some bike-punk alterations to my new bike and adding some fenders because the dry season is apparently never, ever going to arrive. This involved trips to a hardware store for zip ties and two local bike shops in search of old, used tubes. What kind of bike shop sells bikes but doesn’t sell tires or tubes? The kind down the street from me in BiΓͺn HΓ²a; I’m still trying to figure this one out from a cultural standpoint. In the end I bought new tubes from another bike shop farther down the street (trying to convey that I wanted old, worn-out tubes was too much for my nascent Vietnamese and well-thumbed dictionary).

Of course it didn’t actually rain today, for the first time in seemingly a million years. SouthEast Asia, you have me personally, Jeff Chappell – that’s two “p’s” and two “l’s” – to thank for single-handedly ushering in the dry season. You’re welcome.

Warning: Bike Nerdery Ahead. Proceed with Caution or Skip to the Next Subhead

I actually bought add-on fenders at a bike shop in Sai Gon (of course, the Australian-owned bike shop I go to down there was closed for renovations), as well as a cheap floor pump (this after asking at every bike shop in BiΓͺn HΓ²a). The pump barely gets an adequate amount of air into the tires, and I knew the fenders were likely going to need some Irish engineering in order to be mounted, but beggars can’t be choosers.

In the end, the front fender was a no go; the bolt used to attach it to the fork was too big, and the fender’s shape didn’t lend itself to a down-tube mounting with zip ties. The rear one I manged to mount after using the big-ass bolt from the front fender (it seems my 27.3mm seat post was too wide for the mounting bracket otherwise). I added an extension made out of a plastic drinking bottle (a water-cooler-sized one), however, to adequately cover the 700cc wheel.

I should note that I also used the two smaller bolts from the front-fender mounting bracket to attach said extension – so my purchase of the front fender was not in vain. I also used a piece of this water-cooler plastic to fashion a down-tube fender in the old-school way: zip-ties, holes and a couple pieces of cut-up tube to protect the frame’s paint.

No more getting caught in the rain and riding home with road-grit and grime up and down my backside – swamp ass, as I recall, is the term used in cycling circles — not to mention plastered all over my face. Of course, it won’t rain again until next June, now, but that’s fine. Either way, I win.

When I get around to wandering home, though, I’m going to see if I can lay hands on a pair of these Crud fenders made for road bikes. Sweet sickness, that.

Also, since I had the materials and tools lying around, I modified my Converse sneakers and converted them to slip-ons, replacing the shoelaces with long pieces of inner tube. How cool is that? Pretty comfy, too, not to mention convenient. Slacker is as slacker does.

Go to Instructables and you too can do this; it is pretty straightforward and my props to the dude who posted it over there. And it’s a good way to recycle an old tube.

You Can Take the Slacker Out of the Coffee Shop, but He’ll Just Find Another One (with Wi-Fi)

I’ve actually had a lot of topics I’ve wanted to discourse on here lately, but I’ve been preoccupied with creating yet another Website; I figure since I’m going to pursue freelance writing for the foreseeable future, I should separate out the personal blog from the professional stuff – resume and clips and whatnot. Plus, I’ve decided I need a more professional-looking place to repost some clips that are no longer found on Teh Intertubes.

Thus, the Gecko’s bark will soon get it’s own lil’ domain name, while JeffChappell.com will transform into something else yet again. I figure this is a good way to show off my mad WordPress skills, too; it’s amazing how many freelance writing gigs want experience with WordPress these days. JeffChappell.com Mark III will look very different from the Gecko’s Bark – which is kind of the idea.

Actually, while it’s a lot of work doing this (mostly getting all my old clips into the database and formatted correctly is what’s taking up the bulk of it – the “content” in today’s vernacular), it’s been fun – but then I’m both Web geek and writing nerd.

So what happened to teaching? It looks like that’s a no-go, at this point. I did have a private tutoring gig lined up, but when I factored in the commute time and lesson planning time, it just didn’t seem worth it. Better to put that time towards doing what I want to be doing.

While there were times that I really enjoyed teaching, at least certain aspects of it, I think at this point it’s safe to say that I tried it on for size, but it just didn’t fit. I like children, but I don’t want to teach a classroom full of them. I don’t have the skill set, and don’t want to put the time and the effort to acquire that skill set. I didn’t enjoy it that much. Even teaching adults – with the exception of the more advanced students – I simply don’t have it.

So, like I said at the beginning of this post before I got off on my bike nerdery, I’ve come full circle. It’s kind of ironic, because many people have remarked over the years – bear in mind I’ve been telecommuting in one capacity or another since 2001 – that I could do what I do anywhere in the world, as long as I had an Internet connection. Well, it’s not quite that simple but yeah, I can. I am.

I think that’s part of the teaching failure as well. It required just a little too much structure – and rightfully so – than I am capable of dealing with and providing, at this point in my game. I’m used to being fairly autonomous, working odd hours as it suits, etc. I made things work in Thailand, but I wasn’t happy – and back here in Viet Nam, as I’ve remarked before, the private language school was a much better situation, but at the end of the day, I still felt “meh” toward teaching there, once I had started.

Queue the Doogie Howser Closing Theme

Doogie Howser: Doctor, Proto BloggerSo what have I learned? Here’s some neat bullet points for your edification:

  • You don’t have to stick with what you know when you pursue a life/career change – but it helps to have a fallback/failsafe to something you know and you’re good at – and enjoy, at least to some degree.
  • If you’re a cycling nerd of some description, and you’re picking up stakes to a developing country, unless you’ve got money to burn, ship your bike over or bring it with you on the plane. Yeah, it will cost you, but the cost of finding the kind of bike to fit your rather specialized needs and tastes – in both dollars and frustration – as well as the gear that goes along with the cycling life, will add up to much more. Trust me on this one.
  • Same as above, but instead of “cycling nerd,” insert “gaming nerd,” and instead of “bike,” insert “gaming rig.” Everything here is cheap, yes – except for Western-style road bikes and leading-edge computer parts. Whatever you do, check out prices and import fees. I paid double of what my current ride would have cost me in the United States, because of Viet Nam’s import laws (and no, I don’t blame Viet Nam, it is a developing country after all). It looks like I will pay more if I buy/build a computer here, too, compared to what the same computer/parts would cost back home in the United States.
  • Once you’ve tasted freedom, it’s difficult to go back to the pen.

Eh, live and learn. I’m still new to this expat thing. While traveling abroad changes you for the better, I guess I didn’t realize that in many fundamental ways, I wouldn’t stop being me and should have taken that into account while planning out this open-ended escapade.

While foreign lands and cultures provide endless distractions, at the end of the day, I’m still several varieties of nerd and geek. Faced with the option of learning to ride a motorbike, always taking public transportation and taxis, or bombing around on a bicycle – I’ll opt for the bicycle. After 11 months away, I should have known that I’d be jonesing for video games – both console and PC/online.

But I can’t complain. In retrospect, 11 months ago the only thing I was really eager to change about my life was the fact that I wasn’t traveling/living abroad. So, problem solved, in that regard. I’m still a telecommuting, freelancing, coffee-shop lounging slacker – I’m just doing it now in an exotic locale that is also dirt cheap. Excelsior!

I’ve got the bike replaced, got the freelance gigs lined up, now I need to start thinking about a nerd-gasmic computer. As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon would say, thank my various Gods that I didn’t sell my camera equipment – I’d have to be replacing that, too. Speaking of which – camera equipment would segue beautifully into another anecdote about expat life – the $200 flash bracket — but I’ll save that for later.