To my surprise, the students assigned to me when I started teaching at Payap University were not Thai but Chinese. They are Thai majors enrolled at a Chinese university. As part of their program, they all spend their first year of college abroad, for language immersion. Since their Thai language instruction is delivered in English, the study of English directly enhances their education in Thai. All of these study-abroad students live in the dormitories so they are also my neighbors; we cross paths all hours of the day and night.
Although at first being a teacher and living in the dormitories seemed quite strange to me, it is not some unique arrangement devised for the Grinnell fellows; a room in the dorms is offered to all teachers at the university and my next door neighbor is a much older woman who is a professor in the Pharmacy department. This is certainly a living and working arrangement I haven’t previously experienced, at least not from this side. Every night I can hear a group of my students practicing Tae Kwan Doe together next to the small pond outside of our dorm. Although this close proximity to my students is a different experience than I thought it would be, I’m learning a lot about Thai and Chinese student life.
My time has been filled with classes in the role of student, as well. Earlier we had TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) training and this month we started an intensive (3 hours per day) Thai language course also at Payap, deemed by all I’ve spoken with to be the best available in Chiang Mai. I’ve certainly learned more Thai in the last three weeks of this course than in two months prior to it. Next week I start the second of eight levels and I plan to keep on with the classes for as long as my schedule allows. This is a great perk of being placed at Payap as we receive both the TESOL and the language training for free.
Although I’ve worked primarily with non-English majors, I have participated in some department-specific events: I judged a speech competition during English Day, cheered on the students at the annual cheerleading competition (more on that in a minute) and accompanied the seniors on a trip to a mountaintop in a national park for a weekend retreat.
Payap University owns about 6 acres of land in the middle of a mountainous national park, which is a pretty lucky position to be in. One lovely thing (in addition to the beautiful views and fresh air) about this national park, is that halfway up the path there waits a noodle stand. A slow hiker and a lover of snacks myself, such an addition to the trail was much appreciated. When we reached the campsite, there was dim sum and hot chocolate waiting for us. We spent a little time cutting up long beans for dinner, and then we hiked to a summit, which offered an incredible view. The weekend spent hiking and camping with the department was a good reminder that we’re in Thailand right now, and in a beautiful mountainous area at that- something that’s easy to forget now that we’ve established routines and become accustomed to the city.
Last night I attended Payap’s annual cheerleading competition that I’d been hearing about since arriving in October. First and second years from all departments prepare approximately 25 minutes of cheering and dancing, which must include the school song and may include costume changes, elaborate scenery, and pyrotechnics. When I arrived at the stadium, the same one used for the formal graduation ceremony only a month or so earlier, I saw black lycra, hair that made me think of Lady Gaga, fake eyelashes made of peacock feathers, lots of smoke from a machine, and a huge crowd. The numbers that followed included a queen leading the cheers, a dance-off between topless guys in cut-offs and a crew in business suits, and an entire number based on the recent movie Burlesque. Such a display of school pride and community is certainly not unique to Payap. A friend who teaches at Chiang Mai University, on the other side of the city, reported that they have a nearly identical event. In this way, such a fun event seems to reveal an emphasis on the positive expression of a strong group unity.
On the topic of community, something I’m grateful for in Chiang Mai is the Grinnell alumni community. There are four of us who graduated in the last decade and three who attended Grinnell in the 1960s. Our older counterparts are intelligent and adventurous people and they spoil us with things like bagels and chocolate fondue. They’re always travelling about and trying new things and they are so incredibly informed. Hearing how they spend their time comforts my ‘will my life be boring after Grinnell?’ fears. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and random weekend evenings have been spent in the warm company of other Grinnellians. I feel so fortunate to have a sense of home provided by a community with the common experience of time spent at Grinnell.