Mar 3, 2015

Tots, Tutoring, and Tying the Knot

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all the messages, heartfelt support, and long conversations after my trip through hell. Since returning to Nong Khai, Thailand, my spirits have been nourished and lifted considerably.

I spent the first week back Skype-ing family and friends everyday, chowing down at the fantastic vegetarian restaurant in town, and riding my bicycle to the neighborhood massage parlor more than a few times. A friend at Mut Mee Guesthouse invited me along to the town orphanage where she spends her mornings volunteering and I jumped at the chance to play with adorable babies for a few hours.

At the orphanage with baby buddha.

I thought this would be how my entire time in Nong Khai progressed until...

At aforementioned vegetarian restaurant, I met an older gentleman who invited me to sit with him at lunch by asking, "Would you give me the pleasure of sharing lunch together with me today?" With such proper, old-fashioned English coming from a Thai man, how could I refuse? Mr. Jeyasak, I soon learned, was a native of Nong Khai who had become an engineer, and he traveled the world through his work. He emphasized his desire to understand and communicate with other people, thus why he can speak a bit of each language of every country he's visited.

We spoke about the Dhamma (Way/Law) in Buddhism and I was really touched by his compassionate nature. Mr. Jeyasak had started a KUMON center several years ago that his daughter now runs, right here in Nong Khai. He encouraged me to visit her there when I had a chance. A few days later, I did just that.

Ms. Porcupine Head checks the kids' comprehension skills.
Ever since meeting his daughter, Teacher Jiab, I've been taken under wing by this "mother" of the KUMON family. She is an embodiment of wisdom, sincere effort, and generosity. She also speaks English fluently at a very high level, and is eager to absorb more. She has dedicated her life to doing the best for her students and putting sincere practice into Buddhist meditation. On the third floor of the tutoring center she has her own mediation room which she openly invited me to use anytime.

Wow, universe. Just wow. How you provide!

Teacher Jiab took me through the course material, and I was so impressed. KUMON is a private company that began in Japan, and you can find their tutoring centers all over the world (including Southeast Michigan). What I found shocking was the lesson plans are...effective; the stories and dialogue practice are interesting and practical, and students have regular speaking practice beginning at the kindergarten level. This is an utter disconnect from my experience teaching English in the Japanese public school system.

If a student completes the entire KUMON program, they will have read O. Henry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Dickens. Dickens for goodness sake!! This really squeezed at my heart, knowing that my own students in Japan struggle so much. It's a completely different atmosphere and culture, and it's not fair to compare of course, but I wish I could make it easier for my Japanese kids all the same.

Nowadays, after correcting homework and tutoring the kids in the afternoons, the other teachers and I go out to dinner at a local restaurant. Over several savory dishes of tom yum, green curry, and sticky rice, Teacher Jiab tells me about the mythic history of Nong Khai, the living Arhat (a revered enlightened monk) who resides in Udon Thai, and the local parks and temples she wants to show me around town. After the feast, Teacher Jiab always insists she cover the cost herself. I am overwhelmed by her generosity.

Literally sitting in the street, passing out party favors.

One evening I left the center early so I could go to a wedding reception at Tim's (the coconut soup lady). It reminded me a lot of Kaori's wedding reception in Japan––the couple's main job for the night was standing in front of their guests, smiling for photo ops. Only this time around, in Thailand, it all took place at Tim's restaurant, with guests spilling out onto the sidewalk and streets. The gathering had an "aliveness" to it; celebrating alongside the busy street, dressed up among the grit, eating dish after dish of spicy pork and fried noodles in the open air under the stars.

I ended up working the "reception" (AKA the fahlang "foreigner" table) collecting money envelopes and offering out party favors to the guests. Two young girls took the karaoke stage and sang traditional regional songs (much like enka in Japan) with a subtle political undertone* to them.

[ *It is illegal for me to comment on their political message, because anything directly or indirectly spoken about the King could get me (or anyone else in Thailand) sent to jail. If you're interested, you can read about the imminent political change here. ]

These past two weeks have been exactly what I needed to lift my spirits. I think Thailand, especially Nong Khai, is one of "my places" –– somewhere I naturally fit in and get a special energy from being around; everything seems to fall into place with ease and satisfaction here.

Failing in my attempt to cycle through Laos to Vietnam forced me to turn around and go back to Thailand. A death in the family propelled Mr. Jeyasak to visit Nong Khai at the precise same time. From these sorrows, new joy was born that couldn't have taken place without them. From every death, there's potential for new life. How true Rumi's words are in his poem, The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival. 
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. 
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. 
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in. 
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


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