Visiting an Orphanage in Mae Sot

Last weekend, I traveled to Mae Sot, the largest town in Tak Province, Thailand. Situated on the border with Myanmar, Mae Sot is home to an estimated 100,000 Burmese refugees and immigrants – a number equal to the official local population. The purpose of the trip was to visit an orphanage and secondary school supported by some of my Singaporean friends.

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The trip had a powerful impact on me and in the week since, I have spent a lot of time pondering how I can best contribute to improve the lives of these children. Perhaps the best way to share this experience with you is to post some pictures and write some explanatory thoughts.

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Mae Sot is not a particularly large town. Nestled next to the border, it is common to see Burmese script on many signs and plenty of people are dressed in traditional Burmese outfits. The mountains of Myanmar are on the horizon and the gathering storm clouds seem to speak to the challenges that people on that side of the border face.

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The orphanage is located in a residential neighborhood on one side of town. It is a typical Thai-style wooden house, built on stilts and with open windows for lots of ventilation. It cannot be much larger than 100 square meters (about 1000 square feet). The upstairs includes the kitchen, a small dining area, and two large rooms that are used as a multipurpose area and the girls’ dormitory. Downstairs, part of the area below the house has been bricked in and serves as the boys’ dormitory.

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Approximately 60 children live in the orphanage, ranging from just under one year old to about thirteen. Technically, children could stay until age eighteen but they currently have no children that old. The orphanage is run in a very organized manner. Here, the children neatly line up their flip-flops on the concrete pad at the base of the stairs. As with all houses in Thailand, you do not enter with your shoes on.

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The orphanage is run by a Chinese-Burmese couple who spent many years living in Singapore, which is the connection with my Singaporean friends. Perhaps their sense of organization comes from having lived in Singapore! With no children of their own, the couple and four hired helpers take care of the orphans. While there are chores to be done, there is also time for fun. “Papa” plays the guitar and leads the children in songs and dancing.

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Extra effort is required for some of the children including the four youngest (all at just around one year old), two children who have polio, and a few children who have some developmental disabilities. While the amount of work may seem daunting, the systems in place allow the orphanage to operate efficiently and all of the children seem satisfied, cared for, and know they are loved.

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The details of the systems and processes intrigued me. Here, a row of toothbrushes are laid out in preparation for the after-lunch tooth brushing. While they are a bit worn out, each child has his or her own brush (names are written on them) and good hygiene is stressed.

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An important part of the process is that the older children help with chores and take care of the younger children. Two of the boys – brothers who are nine and ten years old – are responsible for ensuring that each child brushes his or her teeth and they help the younger children who have not yet learned how to brush. Time and time again, I saw children who were only six or seven stepping up to care for a crying younger child without anyone having to ask them. It made me realize that children in higher socio-economic situations are generally spoiled and not asked to contribute very much to the family in comparison.

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The children do have a play area, protected from the sun and with a good breeze. Many toys have been donated so there are plenty to choose from. Interestingly, I did not see many arguments or disagreements about toys. The children seemed to share pretty well.

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One macabre sight was the rows of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling, like the victims of political violence by the Cartoon Network. The couple explained that while there are more stuffed animals than there are children, the stuffed animals resulted in possessiveness with children fighting over them. Instead, they are now suspended from the ceiling so everyone can see and enjoy them but nobody can claim them as their own.

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While the older children (starting around age five) attend the local Thai public school, the younger children remain home all day. After their afternoon nap, they received a snack of crisps. They were generally quiet and reserved without the loud volume you might expect from a group of toddlers.

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The second afternoon there, we rode in the back of the orphanage’s covered pickup truck to collect the children at school. This is done in two batches since there isn’t enough room for everyone in a single batch. This two-batch method works okay because the younger children finish school about thirty minutes before the older children. This young boy with the two lunch boxes was especially cheerful, a constant giggler. While almost all the children were friendly, they were also a bit shy and some would sit in the corner and hesitate to play. My impression is that their life experiences may have led to some emotional damage and they may hesitate to connect with others for fear of abandonment. Perhaps I am over-psychoanalyzing, though.

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We also attended what could best be described as a day care. The couple responsible for the orphanage also set up a small outpost (a house and covered porch) on the other side of town, designed as a place to teach Burmese migrants to be community teachers. Most of the lessons they teach are Biblically-based but also include general life skills such as budgeting, parenting, etc. What they noticed was that children from the nearby families (all of whom are migrant laborers) would hang out at the covered porch and use it as a play space. So they engaged some volunteers to work as teachers and try to educate and feed the children every day.

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Since one of my Singaporean friends is a comic artist, he conducted a class for about forty children, teaching them to draw cartoon rabbits. The children enjoyed drawing and despite a lack of a common language, the instruction went well.

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All of these children speak only Burmese. Since their parents are mostly undocumented and are itinerant laborers, the children have no opportunity to attend school and, as such, will likely face a life of labor themselves. Not realizing at first that they didn’t have any formal schooling, I tried speaking to them in Thai but that wasn’t any more helpful than speaking to them in English. Here, I struggle to help one student sharpen his pencil with a cheap plastic pencil sharpener.

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The third place we visited is a secondary school or, more accurately, an official “learning center”. The school serves about 100 students, all of them the children of refugees or migrants. While licensed by the Thailand Ministry of Education, it isn’t an official school because they teach outside the proscribed curricula. Classes are conducted by five teachers in English and Burmese. A series of volunteer teachers also visit for month-long stints from universities in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

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The school boards all of its students. It is located on the outskirts of the city, past an immigration and police inspection checkpoint. Most of the students are undocumented so it is not practical for them to come to school each day so, instead, they just live there. The teachers prepare food for three meals a day. Here is a large batch of fried rice, a very simple lunch. Most weeks, there is the budget to only have meat – chicken bones, for example – about once a week.

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The school, along with the orphanage and day care, runs on a very tight budget. This picture is of an enameled metal bowl that is used in the school kitchen. It has been used so long that it has literally worn through in spots. Speaking with the schools’ volunteer director, a young European woman who has been there three years, the list of “nice to haves” include things like new bowls, plastic hangars, and sponges, but that they generally only have the money for necessities.

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On the afternoon of our departure, several of the older children from the orphanage rode with us to the airport, a chance for them to see an airplane and wave goodbye. As for me, I think it is not “goodbye” but “until next time” because I plan on returning soon.

More importantly, I am going to look for ways to help, whether that is by gathering funds and supplies or by raising awareness. Yes, the world is full of people who need help. These three places seem to be very well-run, doing good work with minimal (maybe even non-existent) overhead, and strike me as a good place to try to make a difference.

 

Chulalongkorn University’s Virtual TV Studio

An American journalist friend of mine is teaching a television documentary production class at the Faculty of Communication Arts at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s premier secondary school. Since I graduated as a Communication major with a TV production emphasis, I tagged along on a visit to the university, curious to see how a modern production facility compares to what I learned in nearly twenty years ago.

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Other than the monitors being large flat-screens instead of smaller tube monitors, the control room looked familiar. I have fond memories of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my classmates as we would produce mock newscasts and other projects. “Cue camera one… standby to fade in…”

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One cool thing that didn’t exist back in my day is the virtual studio. Using the principle of the chroma key (often called the “green screen effect”), the background of the image is created digitally. There is nothing on the studio walls other than a grid that can be used to ensure the effects’ perspective is lined up correctly. 

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Within the control room, you can see how I’ve been placed “on set” for a Thai TV show. The most interesting thing is how there is ostensibly a raised platform behind me with a mirrored front surface. Of course, that platform doesn’t really exist. What happens if I walk back there and try to step onto it?

Of course, my own career hasn’t followed my TV emphasis that closely (except for my youtube channel!), but other aspects of my Communication degree have proved helpful. Still, it is hard not to visit Chula’s studio and not feel the desire to reengage with TV production, an art I really enjoyed.

 

Swastikas Popping Up in the Oddest Places

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After our lunch of southern style dishes, Tawn and I did some shopping at Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market.  With thousands of stalls and vendors, you can find most anything for sale and the people-watching is entertaining, too.  Along the way, I stumbled across some disturbing signs: swastikas.

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First off, some of the interesting sights.  We encountered this cute Jack Russell terrier who was dressed in full kit including shoes.  He was nearly as stylish as his owner!

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We also encountered a fortune teller (in the bandana) who was giving a reading to the young man in the (potentially offensive – sorry) black shirt.  Based on the shirt’s message, I can only imagine what questions he is trying to have answered about his future.

Actually, as an aside, his shirt is an example of something I see often here in Thailand: Thais wearing shirts with English language messages that would broadly be seen as offensive or not particularly appropriate for wearing in public in an English-speaking country.  I always wonder to what extent the wearers understand the message and its meaning.  Would they wear the equivalent message if it was in Thai?

Which brings me to the swastikas.

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In a number of shops, I encountered buttons, t-shirts, and other items that featured swastikas.  Now, the swastika has a history that extends back a few thousand years before the Nazis came along and appropriated it.  Even in contemporary Buddhism, you see the swastika as a sacred symbol.  I feel comfortable, though, concluding that the use of the swastikas in this commercial context was not religious, but was meant to evoke the perceived “revolutionary” feel of the Nazis.  Witness the Mao Zhe Dong buttons as a similar “statement”.

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This sighting of swastikas brought to mind an incident from September, when a private Roman Catholic school in Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand), had a sports day in which a group of students dressed in a Nazi theme and marched carrying swastika banners and wearing swastika arm bands.

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There was widespread outrage and several foreign consulates as well as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles denounced the event, citing it as insensitive and inappropriate.  The school authorities, no surprise, claimed they had not been aware of the students’ plans, even though their protestations seemed a bit thin.

What followed (before the floods) was a lot of discourse about how poor the Thai education system is and how the teachers and administrators had failed to educate their students.  There were others who pointed out that students in western countries are often just as unaware of similarly significant events in Asia’s history and are sometimes even equally unaware of the details of the Holocaust.

I’m not going to jump on the bandwagon and denounce the students or the teachers.  There has been enough said to that effect already.  Suffice it to say that I was disturbed that in a short period of time, I saw several signs that the history of the Nazis and the Holocaust is not very well appreciated by some people in Thailand and the symbols of that history are seen as benign fashion statements.

There are probably countless examples in other countries where locals appropriate words and symbols from other languages, cultures, and countries, without fully understanding what the meanings are, sometimes causing offense.  I guess that more than anything, this is a reminder that we need to be aware when we adopt things, whether they are words or symbols, that are not originally our own.  Meanings are not universal and it is easy to be insensitive to others’ feelings.

 

When Did Glee Become Gay?

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Not that long ago we were having lunch with a couple we know from California.  They’re a straight couple, the husband is a pilot (which is a relatively macho profession, I guess), and they really enjoy the TV show Glee.  The husband was mentioning how much guff he gets from fellow pilots – the vast majority of whom are male – about this.  Of course, the running conceit of the show is that the glee club students keep getting bullied because being in show choir is “so gay”.  That got me to wondering, when did the idea of being in glee club become gay?

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Consider examples of men singing through the ages: Think of the cowboys who had a guitar or harmonica, singing by the campfire.  Think of the family gatherings a century or more ago where different members of the family would play instruments or sing in the family parlour after dinner to entertain each other.  Think of the famous opera singers with their rich voices.  Think of the bad boys of rock and roll, hip hop, and punk.  Think of Bruce Springsteen, for goodness’ sakes. 

None of these strike me as particularly effeminate.  Sure, I can make the jokes about Brokeback Mountain (“wasn’t just the harmonica he was blowing…”) and there are the occasional Freddie Mercuries and Frankie Goes to Hollywoods as counterexamples.  But for the most part, being a singer was a sure way to get the girls.  So when did glee club in school get this negative association?

The good news is that, in an age when the arts budgets are the first on the chopping block in local school districts, it seems that the TV show Glee has sparked some new interest in show choirs at high schools across the US.  Both my mother and her father were music educators and I’m sure they’re happy for anything that renews interest in music at the school level.

 

Saturday Cooking Part 1

Saturday a week ago, the one before Valentine’s Day, was a full day spent cooking.  There were two separate events, both of which will get their own blog entry.  The morning event was the soft opening of the Seagull Cooking Cafe, a cooking school that the makers of Thailand’s premier line of stainless steel cookware products have opened on Sukhumvit Soi 63.

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The menu was Linguine Carbonara, Chocolate Truffles, and a mocktail called the Cinderella.  One of Tawn’s cousins, Wan, is friends with the daughter of the family that owns the Seagull company.  In additional to inviting her two sisters, Wan also invited Tawn and me to participate.

Tawn comes from a big family – he is number 35 out of 38 grandchildren on his father’s side of the family.  Keeping track of all these cousins is a bit of a challenge, especially those cousins here in Bangkok.  While I’ve met several of Tawn’s Bangkok cousins once or twice before in passing and am connected with some of them on facebook, this was my first opportunity to spend any significant time with them.

This opportunity fit perfectly with my plan to build connections with the rest of the family, in anticipation of the day that Tawn’s father, who regards me with something akin to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, either changes his mind or is no longer a factor – to put it delicately.

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The school is on the top floor of Seagull’s headquarters in a large and brightly lit space.  There are fifteen working stations, each with stainless steel tops (no surprise there!) and all the other equipment you would need.  Tawn and his cousins were at the front of the class.

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We started by making the chocolate truffles as these would need to be refrigerated.  Here, Tawn poses with Som and Wan as they squirt chocolate ganache from a pastry bag onto parchment paper.

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My partner for the cooking was Pueng.  Despite her good humor and many talents, her ganache came out looking like little chocolate poos.

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See?

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After refrigerating the chocolates for a bit, we were able to shape them by hand, ostensibly rolling them into balls.  In practice, this didn’t work out so well.

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The end result of our efforts?  Some damn ugly and unevenly-sized truffles.

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Som’s two-year old daughter, First, was there as well, spending most of her time playing with her father.  Tawn was playing with her but she seemed a little shy.

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While not officially involved in the project, Chef Ian Kittichai (who has several famous Thai restaurants in New York, Barcelona, and Mumbai) had chefs from his organization conducting the class.  Tawn has appeared on his local TV show before as a guest (just chat with the chef and help as he cooks) and also knows his wife through common friends.  Had a nice chat with him about the challenges of managing restaurants around the globe and he provided some assistance with our truffles.  All the ones that are actually round were rolled by him!

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Next up was the Linguine Carbonara, which actually was not a Carbonara sauce since it contained milk and cream.  Nonetheless, Pueng practiced her technique of putting the pasta into the boiling water, twisting a standing bunch of dry pasta so is splays out.

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Somehow, partners were swapped during the course of the cooking so Tawn ended up helping me finish the pasta.

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Looks quite pretty, doesn’t it?  I hadn’t cooked the bacon as crispy as I could have and didn’t salt the water sufficiently.  Nonetheless, it was tasty.

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Pueng, Tawn’s elder, feels compelled to help him eat his pasta.

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I poked my head into the adjacent kitchen to see the cleanup process.  This being their trial run, they had tons of staff on hand and still seemed a little overwhelmed.  I think they didn’t anticipate just how much counter space they will need to handle the cleanup from fifteen cooking stations.

It was a fun experience and I enjoyed the chance to spend more time with Tawn’s cousins.  It is fun watching them interact with each other and I look forward to the day when I can be a part of family events.

 

Another Class Graduates

P3140250 Friday was the final day of school – or nearly the final day, depending on whom I asked – at Bangkhonthiinai.  Wanting to take the opportunity to see the children before the end of the term, and a final chance to see the graduating sixth graders, I drove down to Samut Songkhram province with Kobfa, Ken and Markus.

Left: First and second grades, with one sixth grader on the right.

Our arrival was eagerly anticipated and we soon had all fifty students crowded into a single classroom, antsy to play bingo.  We made the pretense of practicing English for a little while, but it was Friday afternoon and nobody had any patience for that.  Ken and Markus arranged some games of bingo and “A calls B” while I assisted Kobfa in reviewing the English proficiency test the sixth graders had taken the previous week.

As with last year’s batch of sixth graders, the girls generally did pretty well and the boys were goofs.  Sadly, just listening to the three boys it is clear that they’re smart and with some extra time and tutoring, they could perform much better.

P3140254 I’m continuing my effort to get students involved in practicing their English or, for the younger ones, just staying in touch with a farang in the hopes it encourages their interest in studying English.  When I left the school officially in September, I had distributed my address card and encouraged people to write.  It wasn’t until I received only one postcard from a student that I realized that maybe they don’t have access to writing materials and stamps.  They come from very poor families and I doubt that writing letters is a part of their everyday experience.

So this time I arrived with two-baht postcards, a nifty and inexpensive sheet of paper that is blank on both sides and preprinted with the postage.  Considering that the postage is two baht, the cards themselves are essentially free.  This is a really good deal and is designed with the exact same target audience in mind of which my students are members.  I printed my return address on them and then distributed the postcards to students (above) with the explanation that they could use these to write to me and that I’d return all letters that I receive.

Below: Explaining what to do with the postcards.

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Some people mistook that to mean that they should immediately fill out the cards.  By the end of class I had to direct a few students to put the cards in the letter box.

One student sheepishly approached me after class and said he had already lost his postcard.  I gave him another.

We’ll see how this works.  I suspect I’ll receive a flurry of postcards this next week.  Will they respond to my responses?  I think I’ll send a blank card with each response I send, to prime the pump a bit.

Below: The Thai concept of grangjai – not wanting to obligate or impose on someone – in action as the teachers present Kobfa and I with a gift basked of fruit.  Later, one of the sixth graders, co-president of the student body association – made a brief speech thanking us for our volunteering at the school.

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The teachers, who are still without a school director, once again invited us to resume English teaching.  Maybe when school starts again in June or July, we should make an effort to go there once a month.  Weekly is no longer workable, but once a month – especially if we worked specifically with the upper classes – would have some good impact.

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Hopefully the graduating sixth graders (above) will stay in touch.  The girls have written a few emails, one more consistently than the others.  She has the most potential of all of her peers and I’m confident she’ll go on to do great things.

P1050637 The most fun was the lucky draw.  I’ve been saving up various promotional tchotskies that Tawn receives from his clients – calendars, not pads, a backpack – and those were used for a raffle.  This is really fun for the students and it was amazing because even pretty simple things were really a big deal for these children.  The Thai belief in luck was noticeable as some children had their hands together at their heart as they prayed that their name would be called.

One third grader would call out his own name – “Anurak!” – at every draw just before the name was revealed.

We made sure to have enough items for everyone, and once we had pulled all the names we put them all back in to give away the final few big items. 

Finally, an hour after school is normally supposed to end, the last items were given away, the goodbyes were said, and the students stood up and sang the “Goodbye, My Teacher” song, below.  Very touching.

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DSCF0208 Last August, when I wrapped up my volunteer English teaching at Bangkhonthiinai School in Samut Songkhram province, I provided each of the students with a business card containing my contact information, encouraging them to write.

The next few months were very silent.

Then, Khruu Somchai introduced the sixth graders to the mismatched computers in the school’s computer lab.  Shortly thereafter, I started receiving emails from some of the sixth graders. 

At first, they were in Thai.

พวกเราคิดถึงคุณครูมากๆคะ ถ้ามีโอกาศกรุณาส่งกลับมาด้วยนะคะ (ส่งเป็นภาษาไทยนะคะ)

We miss teacher very much.  If you have an opportunity, please write back. (Write in Thai, please.) 

And other messages like that.

 

Since my computer doesn’t have Thai on it (and since it is my employer’s computer, the Windows disk that I need to install the Thai language capabilities is in Houston, Texas) I have to use a virtual Thai keyboard.  That makes for some really slow typing on my part.

Finally, I sent the following message to the sixth graders:  Translations in italics, below.

ครูหวังว่าหนูจะฝึกหัดเขียนภาษาอังกฤษต่อไปเรื่อยๆ

ถ้าหนูอยากจะฝึกเขียนภาษาอังกฤษ หนูควรจะเขียน e-mail ให้ครูเป็นภาษาอังกฤษ เขียนผิดก็ได้ครูอ่านรู้เรื่อง เหมือนกับเด็กฝึกหัดเดินต้องมีล้มบ้าง แต่ก็จะเดินเก่งได้ในที่สุด  เหมือนกับหนูที่ต้องฝึกเขียนอังกฤษบอยๆ ครูเชื่อว่าหนูจะต้องเก่งแน่นอน

 

So from now on, I will write to you in English.  And you can practice writing English to me, too.

 

Best regards,

 

Teacher Chris

I hope that you will continue practice writing English [after you graduate].  If you want to practice writing English, you should write your emails to me in English.  Even if you write incorrectly I will still understand.  Just like a child practicing walking must sometimes fall but will walk well in the end so, too, you must pracice writing English regularly.  I believe that you will certainly become good [at writing].

 

Of the three sixth graders to whom I sent that message, one has stopped writing, one has continued writing in Thai, and a third – the class president – is actually making an effort to include some English.  Here’s a sample:

how  are you way teacher  com on  school one ครั้ง because we
 go out from
Bang khonteenai school we
คิดถึงคุณครูนะคะอยากให้คุณครูมาเที่ยวที่โรงเรียนบ้างเพราะนักเรียนทุกคนรักคุณครูนะค่ะ
Hataichanok

It is kind of funny how she ran out of English and switched to Thai.  The first Thai word is “time”.  To encourage her, my responses have been a combination of correcting her English, encouraging her (in English) to continue practicing, and then adding a little bit of news in Thai so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by an entire email in English. 

A week ago, my email inbox showed messages from two new students: the fifth graders are now in the computer lab, too!  One of them pre-emptively explained that she wants to write in English but isn’t ready yet.

Curiously, only the girls seem to be interested in writing the emails.  None from the boys.  I sent an email response to the pair of fifth graders and asked whether the boys were scared of computers or the girls are just more clever.  Nothing like a little bit of a rivalry.