30 March, 2015

Thai Acabemy (555)

A native of Arizona, Emily Foree, is an avid outdoors adventurer, slack-line enthusiast, and mediocre picture-taker. Currently teaching English in Phitsanulok, Thailand through the Fulbright Program, Emily hopes to continue fostering her passion for traveling while focusing on her interests in community development, ecology, and environmental issues. Emily's narrative explores an unexpected and surprising language classroom in Thailand.

Thai Acabemy 

The Thai language is intimidating. After just one week of language lessons, my Thai was minimal at best. Simple statements like “yes” and “no” were just beyond my grasp, and I was trying as hard as I could to end each sentence with a polite and expected “ka.”

One afternoon during our orientation month in Bangkok a few fellow ETAs (English Teaching Assistants) and I decided to visit the Grand Palace, the former official residence of the Thai monarch. The complex houses a number of noteworthy buildings, including Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), which is breathtakingly beautiful—lots of gold leaf. If you are unfamiliar with Bangkok, this is arguably one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. We hailed a taxi not knowing it was about to become our most valuable classroom.

Having just learned important taxi-taking vocabulary, we were eager to practice with our driver. He laughed with us as we butchered tones and pronunciation, but somehow managed to decipher our request. Slowed by never ending Bangkok traffic jams, and wanting to continue the playful atmosphere of communication we had created, we began yelling out any and every word in Thai we could remember. “What…name?” we inquired in broken Thai, effectively achieving our desired introductions. 

Bangkok traffic.

Our conversation quickly turned to shouting as the four of us competed to use our new vocabulary. We laughed, asked our driver where he was from, shouted "ma muang!" (mango!), "tuah fak yow!" (green bean!), "nam blah!" (fish sauce!), pointed out things that were “suaay mak mak!” (very very beautiful!), pointed at things that were “see chompoo” (pink), attempted to say we liked spicy food, told him we were teachers, and talked a lot in general, considering we really did not share a common language, and it was an all-around positive cultural exchange. "Sanuk! Sanuk!," we shouted, noting the fun!

Our conversation was fueled by laughter and maintained by a mutual desire to connect despite a significant language barrier. Even though we spoke little to no Thai, and our taxi driver spoke an equivalent amount of English, we learned each other’s names, discovered that Pi Jo was originally from the Northeastern part of Thailand (Khon Kaen, to be specific), and that he had two children, a son and a daughter. It was evident that our playful approach to using Thai and communicating was well received and created an open road for practicing a wildly difficult language—not just for us, but for Pi Jo as well. 

ETAs Krista, Emily, Griffin, and Ned at Wat Arun.

At some point along our ride to the Grand Palace, while waiting at a traffic light, Pi Jo opened his door and called to a woman selling bags of food on the street that were unidentifiable to our foreign eyes. When Pi Jo pulled out 20 Baht and bought a bag, we figured he was just a little hungry and wanted a snack for himself.


Instead, he was buying a bag of fried bananas to share with us—some khanom, the Thai word for “snack.” He told us, in far fewer words than I now write, that this particular type of banana-snack is his favorite, and he wanted us to try them. The bananas were absolutely delicious, but that is not why they are (and will remain) my favorite Thai dessert. More important was the implicit communication that was expressed and received through our first silent moment with Pi Jo. This small action was the nicest, most genuine moment I had shared with anyone thus far, and it really gave me an insight into Thai culture. Although I have experienced countless moments of unbelievable courtesy and compassion since arriving in Thailand, this memory will always stand out to me as the moment I felt entirely capable of making meaningful connections with people despite an inability to fluently express myself.

Adding some transportation words to my vocabulary greatly altered my experience in Bangkok and in Thailand. Taxis had previously caused me a certain level of anxiety, considering the worldwide sentiment that Taxi drivers generally take advantage of tourists by refusing to use their meters and exorbitantly inflating prices. Some Bangkok drivers would try to take me to various scams, and others would drive in frustratingly roundabout ways to my desired destinations. However, as soon as I began using even a little bit of Thai this all changed. By greeting others with a respectful “sa wat dee ka” (hello) and appropriate “wai,” I am able to express my desire to engage with Thai culture, and this effort continues to be appreciated by every person I meet. Taxi drivers are no longer anonymous beings, but temporary friends who I can exchange a few meaningful words with, or maybe even share some fried banana.


Shayna and Emily with host teachers in Mae Hong Son Province.
After spending a month teaching in Phitsanulok, I stepped into a taxi for the first time. The ride was over an hour long, and to my surprise I found that I was able to converse and communicate with my driver for nearly the entire time. An activity that had once given me anxiety had become the most accurate measure of my linguistic progress.

12 March, 2015

Orbiting Vowels

Kayden Hoang Bui is a recent cum laude graduate with a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Mandarin Chinese from the University of St. Thomas, a small private Catholic university, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a 2014-15 Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Sukhothai, Thailand. At his placement, he teaches M1-M6 (6th thru 12th grade) students, and during his free time he likes to eat French fries, journal, and drink iced coffee. In five years, he hopes to graduate from a Masters in Public Policy program to continue his journey towards being a Foreign Service Officer.

I greatly enjoy learning Thai. I’m not too sure why. Maybe it’s because I like to be constantly frustrated. When I understand Thai and when I get to learn new useful/funny words, I love it. I get to use it in class with my students to make them laugh, and I get to connect more with the people seeing food at the market by using more vocabulary to learn about their days and life.

I found my predilection for learning languages early in life during my Sunday school years. As an immigrant living in Minnesota, you can imagine how my mother was afraid I would lose the language that lay most closely to her heart. I went to Vietnamese/Catholic study classes for two hours every Sunday, learning the Vietnamese alphabet and the Bible.

Vietnamese seemed first nature to me because it just seemed so simple. After all, after the French and communists got a hold of the language, there was a big reformation and simplification. But after three years, my teachers were still teaching our 29 lettered alphabet and the differences between our three “a”s to my peers. It was pointless for me to be there, so I made my first big decision in life: I decided to dropout*.

The next time I found a love for languages was in 2010 when I became the first student from the University of St. Thomas to study in Bangkok. I chose Bangkok because there were only so many choices for me to fulfill my pre-medical/biology requirements while also abroad.

It was the first time I realized how beautiful learning a language can actually be. Learning biology or learning physics was incredibly difficult at times, but at the end all I received only mostly knowledge I could use with cells and pulleys in a lab.

But learning Thai was different. It was a language that quickly became my second language for communication with the shop keeps and people I meet on the street. Though at Mahidol, my hosting university in Bangkok, only offered Thai 2.5 hours a week, so I found extra lessons through speaking with new local friends.

After I came back to the United States, it was another four years before I would speak more than a sentence of Thai.

In 2014, I was blessed to receive the Fulbright to Thailand. From there, I hit the ground running. I opened up the Thai books to get in as much vocabulary as possible, I tried to speak it as much as possible throughout the day when I’m not with other Fulbrighters. It became much easier for me to communicate if English wasn’t available as a supplementary language. I am constantly learning new words, learning to read and write the alphabet, and teaching English to people using their native language.

I have come to conclude that language is a special beast. Intimidating and almost evil if you are not familiar with it, but is a friend and your most powerful ally if you take time and care for it.

Learning Thai is crazy for many reasons. But the three main reasons are: 1. It may be uncommon for a Thai person in your respective town to speak English well enough to explain why Thai words are used that way or the shades of meaning among them, 2. The writing system is dizzily complex where the vowels go behind, before, above, below, or surrounding a consonant like planets in orbit, and 3. Thai tones and vowel length are sometimes perceptively so minutely different.

I’ve had tons of moments where I would speak simple phrases in Thai, and the merchant would look at me as if I was asking to buy a zebra. Then after moments of pointing, they would go, “Ohh!” Then would proceed to say the sounds I thought I produced initially. It’s frustrating.

But it’s fun!

Learning the language and connecting people with it has definitely been my favorite part of being in Thailand so far, and teaching English is a close second.

I’m not sure of the reason why I like to learn languages so much—especially Thai. Maybe it’s because I’m motivated by something internal, like my need to connect back to Southeast Asia after my family immigrated to the United States in 1991. Maybe it’s an external factor where I am able to get to more places, do more things, and meet more people by learning it. Or maybe I like to be challenged by the 6 different “th” sounds and the nasal and glottal stops.

But whatever the reason, I can solidly conclude that learning Thai and being here with my students have been one of the most rewarding experiences so far in my life. I feel accomplished after learning a new word, like small peaks in the middle of my day.

This a fellow foreign teacher (from the Philippines) and I with some of my students. They are proudly displaying the game they created for the international languages exhibition for my class. 

I’d like to think that my students and I share a common struggle to speak a new language, and that the bond makes our relationship just that much more special. And it definitely helps my motivation when the local shopkeepers give me extra food here and there because they think my Thai is “cute.”

Contrary to many foreign language instructors, I don’t believe in fully using the foreign language to teach unless you live in an area that speaks that language. Creating an English only environment in a Thai classroom in the middle of a rice field is not realistic and is not the most effective. Superficially, it makes sense because what’s faster than 100% of listening only to English?

If I had tried to speak only in English, it’s not only frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for the student, and then both parties are now frazzled and looking forward to the end of the “conversation” which would mostly be made up of both people perpetually explaining the previous sentences.

As a foreign English teacher, I have two main jobs, and teaching English is only my second job, and it cannot be done without the first. The first job of any foreign English teacher—is to build up the students’ self-confidence.

Without self-confidence, the students cannot and will not speak more than a couple sentences at best.

This was fully demonstrated while I tutored one of my M6/1 (12th grade) students—Praew. She is a young woman who rarely spoke up in class, but got very good grades on homework assignments and exams. One day, I encouraged her to apply for a scholarship for an opportunity to go to America, and she was ecstatic that I asked her. At first she was struggling with speaking English, but her vocabulary was there. When I would say a new word, she would translate it into Thai and asked me if it was correct. Often times I would understand her, and I would either confirm or help correct her. Knowing and speaking a small portion of the Thai language helped me build a very strong relationship with her.

Skating with my students as a treat after the interview in Bangkok. 
We spent hours every week talking, writing, and with me asking her questions about her goals and her aspirations. Her self-confidence was boosted every time we met.

And even though she did not get the scholarship, she spoke up more and more every day in my English class. Joking around, explaining things to other students, asking me questions, and just everything else that I hope all my students could be. She was energetic, curious, and was not afraid to make mistakes.

This could not have been possible if I spoke only in English in class because she would be scared initially, and my English would intimidate her. Because of my initial Thai with her, I’d like to think that it broke the ice and allowed her to become a better and more confident student.

I am still working at both my goals one student at a time, but I know that learning Thai and continuing to be passionate about the language is the best way that I can achieve both of them.

Some of my students made it to the U.S. Embassy for the Southeast Asian Youth Leadership. 
*During undergrad, I went back to my church school and became a Vietnamese kindergarten teacher.

04 March, 2015

Words as Keys

M. Sioned Curoe hails from Bernard, Iowa. She graduated from Coe College with a double degree in Asian Studies and Creative Writing. Currently, she works as an English Teaching Assistant at Ban Phai Pittayakom in Ban Phai, Thailand. She hopes to enter graduate school for Creative Writing, or to work in the publishing industry after her Fulbright grant ends. Read her poetry and occasional travelogues here. (thailandwithlove.tumblr.com)

“Whether the vessel is a legal document or a rap song, language is often chosen to exclude. To use a scholarly phrase, "discourse communities" are often gated, so it's the good writer's job to offer readers a set of keys.” ― Roy Peter Clark

The Keyring

If there is a sentiment agreed on by writers, world leaders, and public figures across time, it is that words have power. They can be used to help and heal, hurt or inspire. But for words to have impact the listener needs to understand them at a basic level, and one can’t do that if the language spoken is not shared. This problem is one I have run up against many times in my four months in Thailand, from both ends of the English-Thai spectrum.

You can never know isolation until you’re in a room full of people who can’t speak your language, or people who only speak it on a basic level but not enough to translate what is being said. Conversation flows fast – suddenly the whole room is laughing, with you as the odd one out, totally clueless. I’ve been in this situation many times, and often I become aware of doing this to others in Thailand, speaking with the few fluent English speakers at my school in front of other Thais who have simple English vocabulary. But what is to be done? I want to include people as often as possible to establish connections, to educate others about U.S. culture, and to learn about Thailand.


Even though my profession (for at least this year) is teaching, first and foremost I consider myself a writer. It is a lifestyle that necessitates reaching out to others with words, and doing so requires attention to detail, especially word choice. The hours I have spent agonizing over this or that word in a short story lends itself well to real life situations when I am trying to explain to a fellow teacher why it is acceptable to say that someone is “tasteful” but not that they’re “tasty”. I have to remember to keep words and sentence structure simple – so no whipping out the handy-dandy mental thesaurus unless they ask the meaning of a word I used.

To be honest, I screw up a lot.

The most memorable occasion happened quite recently, when a fellow teacher showed me a charm she kept attached to her keys. 

Like this, but attached to a key chain.
Her English isn’t great, but from the Chinese I could read on the back and a combination of Thai and English on her side, I understood it was supposed to attract good luck. She called it a kerungrang, which of course I could not understand, so she typed it into Google translate. The only result was “fetish”. I immediately felt my cheeks grow hot.

“Um, are you sure that’s right? Chai mai?” I asked, trying not to let on how embarrassed I felt.

“Yeah, yeah,” she nodded. “Fet-ish.”

I got up, walking around the desk to look more closely at the webpage. There, under the main translation, was: เครื่องราง – fetish, mascot, talisman, charm.

“Oh. Oh!” Distant memory flooded back to me. “Fetish” is a particularly old word for something kept as an idol or used as a focus of power in pagan cultures. “Okay, I understand now.”

“What you think?” she asked. Of course she noticed the blush.

“Well, in American – uh – slang, fetish means something sexy that people like.” It wasn’t the first time I talked about particularly adult slang with my coworkers, the word “screw” leaping to mind immediately. But this was still weird. Nonetheless, she wanted an answer. “Like foot fetish. Someone who has a foot fetish thinks that feet are very sexy.” I illustrated my point by tapping my temple and then pointing at her feet. The room went silent for a moment, then she burst out laughing.

The whole incident was more funny than frustrating, but misunderstandings like this pervade life in a foreign culture. Trying and failing to find words to explain something to my coworkers often ends in us looking at each other in awkward silence. Sometimes it feels like failure on my part. Was there another way I could have phrased it? If I had studied just a few more words of Thai this week, would I be able to make myself clear?

Me, definitely not studying.
Gifting the Keys

But for all the awkward moments, I find great comfort in the settings where I can give insight into my world – both as a person and as an American.

My students are a mixed bunch. Some are focused, intent on every lesson, while other students are loud, bursting with too much energy to sit for the thirty to forty minutes it takes for me to impart a lesson before a game. The challenge comes down to structuring each lesson so that it’s interesting enough to keep student’s attention, and informative enough that they actually learn something. As much as my students would love it, I can’t just play games with them all the time.

Instead, I’ve had to reassess my priorities, focusing on two things: what are the most useful things to know, and what words or grammar are Thai teachers least likely to address? I want to give them the words to express themselves – the keys into a larger world, if you will. Lessons are made more difficult by my refusal to speak Thai, at least in the classroom, because I want to give students an immersive experience. This can lead to some funny scenarios – when spoken language can’t bridge a gap, body language is the best option.

Practice teaching with Tram Q.
I’m afraid of… I wrote on the board, and directed my students to speak it. “What is ‘afraid’?” No answers were forthcoming, as expected. “I feel afraid,” I said, and proceeded to do my best visual impression of Munch’s The Scream painting. Understanding lit their faces, and some of the more talkative kids shouted the word’s meaning in Thai.

I pulled a sheet of paper out of a folder, showing students the picture I drew an hour before. “I’m afraid of…” I prompted.

!” several students shouted.

“In English, please.”

“Ghost,” one student answered, quietly. Many of my students are shy about speaking in English, an issue I’ve tried to rectify.

“Good! Ghosts. I’m afraid of ghosts.” I had the class spell it for me, writing the correct letters on the board. Then I pulled out another sheet of paper. “I’m afraid of?”



“Spiders, not Spider-man. Good job guys. I,” I pointed to myself, “am afraid of big spiders. I see one and-” I pointed at the floor, pretended to scream, and stomped on the invisible spider. The whole class doubled over laughing so hard it took me several minutes to get them to calm down so we could continue. However, the next week I noticed greater retention of vocabulary including “afraid” and especially “spider”.

Maybe next class I will teach them knock-knock jokes.