Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

“Making Bunny Ears” by woodleywonderworks (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

 

“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.

 

The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer.  Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena.  The Macarena?  Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line.  In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.

  

Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear?  To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.  

 

Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.

 

“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests.  His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe.  The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.  

 

I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.”  On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.  

 

For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check.  An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson.  However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget?  Mere negligence? Simply distracted?  Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself.  A “wrong” to made right!  

 

Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.  

 

The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”  Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!

 

During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room.  It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair. 

 

Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…”  I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself.  Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse.  More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again. 

 

This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.   

 

Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.

Time for Action: Reaching Unity in Diversity

   Photo by Brittani Burns on Unsplash 

I am sitting in a room surrounded by fellow teachers and administrators, mindful of our physical distance.  A grin on my face, not because we just successfully concluded our fifth week of classes.  Rather, I am tickled by the irony.  Distanced as we discuss “togetherness.”  More specifically, intercultural competencies was to be the  focus of our dialogue.  I felt privileged to have the time and space to converse openly because so critical is the work that needs to be done.  As part of an international school, one that clearly is not American-centric, we must first consider our context. With students and faculty cultures representing more than sixty nations, there is credence in remaining cognizant of the influences of the host country culture. Possibly the country power structures may even be more hierarchically structured than egalitarian. Furthermore, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the large degree of diversity representative in the range of people’s experiences and quite possibly, readiness to reflect on privilege, equality, and oppression. 

Over the summer I wrote an article titled, An Authentic Response to Take Action.”  In it I ask, “Might 2020 be the nascence of more leadership from the heart.  Passion hangs heavy in the air, as people imagine a tomorrow they long to live in.  Changes bent on solutions, not blame, as  millions get down on bended knee in silent protest.” The protests have not abated, if anything they have grown more intense.  All this amidst an uncontrolled pandemic and under apocalyptic skies of the Wetern United States. In this same post I introduced Safaa Abdelmagid and her open letter to SEARCH Associates published on June 8.  In it she concludes, “Do better, Search Associates, much much better. Start by being honest…Own your privilege and use it to serve those who truly deserve it.”  For context, this was but three days after the tragic death of George Floyd.

Then, August 26 The Search Associates Team and CEO Jessica Magagna, responded with their own letter.  Addressed, “Dear Search Associates Community,” Magagna cites “tangible actions and evidence of change.”  A move beyond awareness and to greater responsibility.  Clear points outlined by a 3-section plan, where actions are determined immediate, by the end of December 2020, and by the end of March 2021.  

The school where I am employed endeavors to determine measurable action points as well. Thankfully, we too were challenged, most notably by alumni, as they shared their experiences and offered suggestions. The conversations with this invaluable group will continue.  

There is much work to be done.  The issues do not begin, nor end with race.  The move is to reflect, take ownership, and become far more inclusive.  So our school, the people but also the systems, are more fully equitable to all cultures; be they defined racially, linguistically, by gender, sexual-preference, or ability.  Schools must take a stand.  Furthermore, akin to SEARCH associates, a degree of poise but also power must be established. A power which links us as human beings.  Our minds simply will not think the way out of this.  Our hearts are to play a key role as we feel our way into a reality so many have felt, for so long.  

The good news is, the iGen or Generation Z, consistently proves itself to be more accepting of differences than previous generations.  It is us educators but moreover the institutions and broader cultures that need to “catch up.”  A sensible starting point is to begin by having these long overdue conversations, determining our priorities. Mahatma Gandhi advised us well when he said.  “Action expresses priorities.  Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.”  The time for action is yesterday.  

TAPPING INTO FEEDBACK

“Is this summative or formative?”  A question as contriving as common.  Often latent in the query is the presupposition that summatives are the end all, be all.  Possibly implicit in the question is a credo, “Well, if it is just formative it is practice, so it really does not count.”  

Count?  

Everything “counting,” the teacher is quickly retorts, “It’s feedback.” 

Feedback.  Something teachers provide in abundance but may not necessarily receive enough of. Yet, how ubiquitous is feedback!  So much so, we may not even realize how we swim, quite possibly even drown, in feedback loops.  Technology “flattening” our experience. In many ways it removes the variance of chance, but ultimately its purpose based on improvement.  From the things we purchase, the movies we watch, places we travel, and the food we eat.  It is all being reviewed!

But, what about teaching and learning?  How embedded is the practice of giving and receiving feedback? Infrequent enough for many to consider teaching to be the second most private act. Sure, autonomy is invaluable for a teaching to honing his or her craft and yet, education is something we do together.  Superseding the design of transparent learning spaces and windowed classrooms, is the need for a greater shift in consciousness.  One where schools and educators not only are okay with a more complete picture, but begin to innovate in ways which might invite and also thrive from the feedback parents and students are able to provide.  A semestorial SurveyMonkey approach clearly leaves room for aspiration. 

How We Might Go About Eliciting Feedback

It might help to look at the wellspring of this World of Feedback. It is 1986 and Roger Ebert leads in with, “When the movie is on the ground, is when it runs into trouble.  The love story is not only unnecessary but unconvincing…The whole relationship seems to have been written in as an afterthought and the other relationships are awfully predictable…Somehow we’ve been here before.  I give the movie thumbs down, despite the great action sequences.”  

Can you name the movie?  

Despite mixed reviews it went on to win Academy Awards for Best Original Song, “Take My Breath Away.”  Give away, right?  Top Gun.  Prior to Siskel and Ebert, there was little “giving of thumbs up or down.”  In a quirky way, they revolutionized movie reviewing.

Fast forward a little more than two decades and Facebook begins a trend where everyone (with a Facebook account of course), is suddenly able to be give and receive feedback.  The birth of “we are all critics.”  With the tap on “thumbs up,” a person could indicate approval or “like” a another’s photos.  They may even leave a comment.   A confirmation of sorts, more than a review because silence is not necessarily a thumbs down.  

Or take the story of Trip Advisor and how in the first years of the millennium they stumble upon the power of reviews.  Enough so that their entire business model shifted.  Initially developed in an effort to focus on the “official” words from guidebooks and newspapers, an uproarious response became of s simple and  inviting button saying, “Visitors add your own review.”  There was no denying how the “people had spoken.” Or, at least they desired to!   Almost overnight, the tiny firm run out of an office above a pizza shop, became the world’s most visited travel website.  In 2019, Trip Advisor reported to the United States Securities and Exchange Commision,  “The website has versions in 48 markets and 28 languages worldwide. It features approximately 859 million reviews and opinions on approximately 8.6 million establishments.”   

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner were not so ancient and living today, he might reflect, “Review, review everywhere, and whom do I trust?” Items get reviewed on Amazon.  Videos on YouTube and movies on Rotten Tomatoes.  Books by the New York Times and Good Reads.  Restaurants on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and within Google Maps. Then, there is a whole host of other platforms specific to individual countries.  The point being, every which way we turn, we are giving and listening to the stars and reviews.  A viscous flow of feedback.  

“Buyer beware. This is a knock off. I have several (fill in the blank) and these are not like the others.   After taking a closer look I could tell these were not real.” When it comes to shopping online, 74% of people trust social networks to guide them to purchase decisions.  The “Buyer beware” review may be enough to sway a person to look at a different product.  The reviewer’s feedback effective, independent of who they may be.  This is something to consider as the 21st century ideology where “everything is reviewed, all the time,” spurred an entirely new niche.  The industry of social media influencers.  

In a BBC article titled, “Social-media influencers: Incomes soar amid growing popularity,” technology reporter Jane Wakefield wrote, “The money made by social-media influencers has risen meteorically in the last few years, according to a new report.” The marketing firm Izea predicting that greater spending on influencers in 2020, will lead to a $10bn industry.

Bringing It Back to Schools

So, what does all this influencing really mean to the field of education?  So far, very little?  A missed opportunity of sorts.  However, we are perfectly positioned in a time of transition.  We need not look forward but only to today. The pandemic in many facets, a catalyst for education systems to be more nimble and quick, as they jump over and under the COVID stick. An appeal to progressiveness.

Whether we redesign or just improve our schools, it behooves us to consider the nature of the times in which we live. Where opinions are omnipresent and yet little have we tapped into our communities to receive a fuller picture of our effectiveness.  The key, integrated systems or platforms that allow for consistent, authentic, and timely feedback. Moreover, the crowning jewel being a team mentality.  Schools, homes, and the greater community as one.  The solicitation of feedback driven by genuine motivation conveyed to be as effective as possible.  Thoughtful and constructive feedback allowing for improvement.  

Just as social media permitted us all to review, so too it might allow us in the field of education, all to improve.  

 

Author’s Note: For a truly amusing experience, check out author John Greene’s podcast titled, The Anthropocene Reviewed.”  A listener might think that Greene would choose to review only ideas and objects of 5-star quality. However, he consistently surprises, as he concludes with an honest critique after fully teaching about everything from air conditioning and sycamore trees to most recently, mortification and civilization. 

Teaching in Three Dimensions

Self-compassion and seeing clearly of necessity as teachers navigate 3-dimensions.
Photo by: Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

The start of a new school year resulted in my taking a bit of a hiatus in blogging.  No doubt, being in three places at the same time has provided some challenge.  Three places?  Live with five classes of twenty-something pre-teens wiggling before me in the classroom.  Getting to know students and  putting faces with names is the first order of “business.”  This year I have a student named Whale and another I warily call Honey.  “Good morning Honey!” just does no’t feel right for some reason.  I remain thankful Honey is not in Sweet’s class, or Sweet Honey might just sit alongside each other.  A colleague has Putter’s little brother, Birdie this year.  Thai nicknames often add  a bit of joy to the classroom and it is quite possible to have a whole fruit salad, with students named Apple, Pear, and Peach!  

 

3-D Teaching

Face to face, or dubbed f2f, often focuses the first days upon building routines and  just putting students at ease, so the classroom is a place each child feels comfortable. A second dimension being explored, is “the virtual.”  Back to Zoom and synchronous virtual learning. While the third space is reserved for the asynchronous and for students  currently out of the time zone.  These learners receive a link to the recorded class and sometimes  the addition of more succinct tutorial videos which teachers create.  So, a start to a school year unlike any other.  Three-dimensional!

Though only two or three class periods in, humorous stories already are being amassed.  Of such things as an unaware synchronous student,  broadcasting inappropriate comments  over the classroom speakers for all to hear.  Or, of the student projected on the screen in front of the whole class.  Only, everyone’s attention is on the mother who is behind her and acrobatically dodges out of sight. Dropped Zoom calls, forgotten recorded sessions, audio input/output incorrectly set.  Whatever the case, even with the fumbles and follies, the first two weeks back to school were a definite success.  One that required teachers both compassion for students and themselves.  

Here in Thailand we consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to be face to face.  This a possibility because of the stellar response of the  nation.  In fact, the end of  July saw Thailand ranked number one in the world out of 184 countries for its ongoing COVID-19 recovery effort.  This,  according to the Global COVID-19 Index (GCI).  Nearly a month later, Thailand remains on top.  As of August 16, the total numbrer of confirmed cases stood at 3,377, where 95 percent recovered and just 58 total deaths recorded.  Further, Thailand had no new domestic cases of COVID for 83 days.

 

New Normal Comes With Some Hard to Reach Directives

Throughout the pandemic, news of COVID stipulations seemingly shifted from morning to night.  However, society was steadfast in being compliant regardless if there appeared to be contradictions. Certain regulations appear to be for perception as the logic is difficult to understand.  For example, in schools students can pass a basketball but not borrow a pencil.  The importance of exercise a priority, while the pencil is deemed a risk that can be mitigated. Keeping account of the dos and don’ts or cans and can’ts can be difficult.  However, more challenging is to break socialization habits learned in kindergarten, where sharing was  “what big boys and girls do.”  First grade began with the importance of washing hands but also that there would no longer be the sharing of anything, toys included.  Then there was the valiant and never-ending  attempt to control for social, or what we call physical, distancing?  Social distancing, a bit of an oxymoron, as we want students to be social, but so long as there remains  1-2 meters of distance between them.  Middle school students huddle around an infographic the teacher probably should not have even printed and handed out.  Yet, the motivation being one of learning, sharing  ideas, and being together.  Laboratory work in the high school can be interesting if physical distance is to be maintained.  Need I even “touch,” no pun intended, what physical distancing might mean to a classroom of 3-year olds who is not yet even proficient in the language of instruction?  

Thai national  schools began the first weeks of July, whereas  the independent international school where I work just wrapped up week two.  However, mid-game (if ever there was a mid-Corona game) yet another measure of compliance was just handed down.  Impossibility absolutely inherent in the “design.”  The Ministry of Education requires all schools to ensure students maintain a daily record of their whereabouts outside of school hours.  The purpose is  to  facilitate any needed contact tracing should a case of COVID be reported (confirmed) in the community.  This means all students need to record where they go daily.  Being a middle school teacher, it often is challenging enough to have a chiild write down their homework when it is written on the board and given as a directive.  

In May Thailand’s government launched a contact tracing app, declaring it vital in reducing a flare up of virus cases. Public buildings required app and temperature check-ins  via prior to entry.  The shopping mall was the first place I encountered this, then the domestic airport.  Unable to mandate the use of the app, because not everyone has a phone, the alternative mirrored how it used to be to make a walk-in restaurant reservation.  A piece of paper on a clipboard and just your name and phone number penciled in. Initially I could not help but question the legitimacy or accuracy of this alternative.  However, Thai culture’s high degree of respect and deference shown to authority likely results in near perfect record keeping. A system like this in the United States would  play host to an array of absurd names and numbers.

 

The Road Ahead

No matter the next edict, law, or measure, Thailand will hurdle, rather than grapple with any ostensible or grey space. There remains a tensile strength in Thailand’s hierarchical structure, one that begets compliance.  Businesses remain shuttered and the entire tourist industry gasps for a breath of fresh air.  Though there is no promise, hope remains and there is conversation about a plan to re-open international borders.  Meanwhile, schools may be in session, but the situation is fragile. Learning could go back to 100 percent virtual at the drop of a hat!  If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility.  This, along with the reckoning of how Thailand’s entire society remains under the auspices of the Kingdom. Yet, herein possibly lies the very reason why the country tops the list of safest places to be right now!

 

Thoughts At the Dawning of a New School Year  

The following post is divided into three sections:  Masks, Summer Happenings, and Getting Prepared. I hope you mith be able to find at least one nugget you are able to do something with.

Masks

United Nations COVID-10 Response on Unsplash

Who would have thought the maelstrom kicked off by the simple step of wearing masks in schools?  We are fortunate to be beginning the 2020-21 academic year fully in-person.  Masks are clearly a dominating concern, if not just something on people’s minds.  For parents this might begin with thinking about how to get their child excited about wearing a mask.  The tactics to mirror what many parents do with wearing “big boy” and “big girl” underwear.  Such things as superheroes printed over the mask, a possible motivator.  Then, there is the whole element of mask care.  Purchasing a holder that goes around the child’s neck, similar to a croakie for glasses, is one effort to prevent children from forgetting their mask, setting it down, or even crumpling and jamming it in their pocket.  But not all students will have these holders and a crystal ball is not needed to be able see the amount of masks that likely will be lying around.  Only unlike the myriad items spilling from a school’s “Lost and Found,” the masks simply will be tossed.  

Personally, I have given some thought to a sort of list of features to prioritize in a mask.  Finding the right mask of sincere importance, as covering my breathing holes eight hours a day is something that may not prove so easy to adapt to. 

  1. Breathability.  A clear frontrunner in the criteria.
  2. Comfort. On my face but also ears.
  3. Safety.  Meets the specifications to protect others and myself.
  4. Ability to project my voice. So students can actually hear me.
  5. Transparency.  I am thinking about how important it might be to show my mouth for students to better read my expressions and even lips.  Afterall, the majority of students are not native English speakers.  

*Notice cost is not an issue.  Over the summer I purchase a handful of different masks to experiment with, and never were they more than a few dollars.  Nor do I prioritize the design or message. However, the masks with “Make America Great” scripted across them, somehow don’t end up in my cart.

The last criteria, transparency are those masks designed specifically with the deaf in mind.  So they could read a person’s lips.  However, before even beginning the school year, it is easy to predict an added challenge hindering cross-cultural communication.  Facial expressions key, as is a face free of a mask so a student’s voice can be projected and pronunciation understood.


Summer Happenings

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Transitioning beyond masks, a recent end-of-summer reflection centered on how a clear shift was taking place between the Achievement Gap focus and what now gripped people’s attention, the Privilege Gap.  Certainly the pandemic exacerbated all the discourse around equity.  Besides all the hysteria around COVID and “to wear, or not to wear the question,” the summer of 2020 might aptly be labeled the Anti-Summer. Anti-racism and anti-feminism, two antis leading the charge.  One of the top five best selling titles, “How to be an anti-racist.”  Two others in the top five being “White Fragility,” and  “How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps.”  Equity, with good reason is legitimately on most everyone’s mind.  

Though I did not hyperfocus when the tides were high; Black Lives Matter protests, movements to defund the police, etc. my attention was grabbed recently by an article written in the San Francisco Gate. Definitely more low tide!  The title sums it up well. “’Learning pods’ threaten to widen the privilege gap in Bay Area schooling.” The author cites Clara Green and an opinion piece Green contributed to the NY Times.  

But first, what are “learning pods.”  No need to feign understanding as the concept did not exist two months ago.  Born out of student and family experiences with virtual learning as a result of the pandemic, learning pods are quickly becoming another option. Some families are distancing themselves completely from schools and opting for only learning pods, whereas others are utilizing them as supplemental.  More than a buzz word, one San Francisco-based group on Facebook has more than 9,500 members.  Furthermore, the “main” pandemic pods Facebook group is 30,000 and growing.  Their description on the “About this group” page:

Join this group to connect with other families, teachers, and caregivers as you figure out how to address your family’s childcare and educational needs during the pandemic…and stay for the information and resources shared in this group to help you navigate schooling and childcare during these difficult times.

The very idea one in which many families find to be of necessity.  A possible place marker for some, while others are likely to thrive and remain with this alternative model.  One in which individuals but sometimes also pop-up services in which teachers are hired and managed. In some cases, parents are even taking on the teaching as they share their areas of expertise.

Simple put, learning pods are all about education. 

However, in the NY Times article Green goes so far as to claim, White parents are again ignoring racial and class inequality when it comes to educating their children.  As a result, they are actively replicating the systems that many of them say they want to dismantle.”

Really?


Getting Prepared

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Last, I thought I would begin a sort of “veteran” teacher’s list of preparations for the start of a new school year.  The plan is to add on to this, up until the first day of classes, less than two weeks away.  This being my recipe of sorts.  In no way is it “THE” recipe.

  1. Know thy students:

I begin this by playing with students names, nicknames, birthdays, etc.  The more I write/type their names the better.  This begins with a spreadsheet where I note the aforementioned details and add notes such as, “Grace’s little sister,” “Lives downtown,” or “Father works at school.”  I also make a separate chart of birthdays by month so I can put these in my Google Calendar and be prepared to wish them a special day.  During this process, I deliberately think about each student and their name.  In Ecuador I worried about keeping the Marias straight.  Maria Elena, Maria Christina, and Maria Belen.  For Tunisia it was the Mohammads.  In Thailand I am especially tickled to read the nicknames.  This year I have no Sand or Beach.  However, I do have a boy that goes by Whale. 

  1. Organize the learning space.  This year’s social distance requirements add an interesting element to the classroom design.  However, I already have some ideas.  
  2. Prepare for first days (social emotionally and really building community and then context)
  3. Introduction of myself (a video to be shared with students and parents this year.  Taking what I learned from virtual learning about the power of teacher generated videos.
  4. Course overview (Syllabus? Video?)
  5. Google Sites creation (a place to store parent newsletter links, tutorials for example on how to read feedback on PowerSchool or whatever Learning Management System/Platform a school might have).  This Google Site is a new step I am taking to consolidate information and resources but also hopefully create more meaningful parent partnerships. It also doubles as we begin to utilize Google Sites as a beginning to reflective learner-centered portfolios.  A tool not only invaluable for student growth but also helpful in guiding student-led conferences.

Repatriation Success When We Can’t Agree on Wearing Masks?

Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

 

Experiments show how an overwhelming majority, more than 75 percent, want the bad news first.  I will do the contrary because what just happened in Asheville, North Carolina is colossal.  On July 14, the City Council unanimously approved reparation measures for black residents. The penultimate of a nine-bullet resolution states how the Asheville City Council, “seeks to establish within the next year, a new commission empowered to make short, medium and long term recommendations that will make significant progress toward repairing the damage caused by public and private systemic Racism.”  Systemic racism is a cancer, a triple helix seemingly rooted in the land, before the United States was even a republic. 

 

Maya Angelou said it best, “As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”  However, reparations are more than just “doing good.” Moreover, independent of a person’s stance on the matter, how reparations would work begs the question. Especially considering the United States is unable to agree on whether to wear a mask or not during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Early in the Spring, the World Health Organization (WHO), said there was no evidence that wearing a face mask would protect the general public from catching the virus. They since have reversed this decision.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) early on also did not recommend face masks for those that were not sick. They too went on to say the converse and that everyone should wear one, at all times in public. On July 20, Trump went so far as to tweet, “It’s Patriotic to wear a face mask.”  This, after he balked donning a mask for months, and fueling an American obsession with individualism.  Some would go so far as to claim it is their constitution freedom to remain unmasked. 

 

As of July 17, Johns Hopkins University, reported 3,105 people died in Georgia as a result of the coronavirus.  That is about one thousand more deaths than the entire country of Argentina. Meanwhile, Governor Brian Kemp opposed the Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, contradicting the order against mask mandates.  All the while, people are caught in the crossfires.  Many just wishing for an erasure of so much uncertainty and political “mask-uerading.”

 

Another bit of good news is the fact that human beings are resilient. Better days are ahead, even if the lenses we look out are fractured, smudged, or foggy. The greatest of fire begins with a spark.  For now, my eyes are on Asheville!

Phang Nga Reflections

Photo by Artur Kornakov on Unsplash

 

A troop of monkeys skits across the barren beach.  A few others spy me from above on the branches of trees which attach alongside the precipice of the rock’s face.  Limestone karsts covered in jungle rise hundreds of meters out of translucent waters.  A rock climbers paradise, yet there surprisingly are signs threatening a 1000 baht fine if climbed. From first view, it is easy to see why Phang Nga was declared a protected national park since 2002.  More than 42 islands jut out of the water, their extraordinary shapes examples of erosion.  They too give credence to the name, Phang Nga literally translated from Malay to mean, “heathen, pagan, or primitive people.” The area, 400km2 definitely maintains an allure of “primitive.”  

Shade is cast by trees hanging out over the water.  The tide measured in the colors of the rock. The depths below easy to discern as the blues change from light to dark.  Hornbills screech in their distinguishable call, a much higher treble than the apneatic bass sound, a gurgling sound as water is pulled into caverns below and air pushed out. The earth clearly breathing.  Another layer of acoustics  is provided by the cicadas, their intermittent shrill droning, the result of a vibration from a ribbed membrane of their torso. Nature’s soundtrack. 

From time to time, small fish hurdle in arcs across the water’s surface; likey evading a predator.  Even lesser pisces appear, but as one large organism.  They jet in tightly knit groups by the thousands.  Rising up, sometimes breaking the tension of the water, are several species of jellyfish.  They suspend themselves as they pulsate forward. Their path buoyant, akin to a butterfly’s effortless float and glide. One species of jellyfish stands out as my favorite, for its beauty, not invasivity. Phyllorhiza punctata, has almost as many names as it does dazzling white crystalline spots. Native to the southwestern Pacific, it is also known as the Australian Spotted Jellyfish, Floating Bell, Brown or even White-spotted Jellyfish.  Approximately 20 inches in diameter, an individual jellyfish is able to filter as much as 13,000 gallons (50,000 liters) of seawater per day.  The downside being, they consume zooplankton, the food necessary for the survival of native species. Not to mention their painful sting.

Entering a cave revealed at low tide, refuse washes up. A message from the sea, as if to say, “humans keep your own waste.”  Numerous plastic bottles make up the flotsam.  Was it the naivety of my youth to think how a bottle in the ocean brought luck and would likely contain a message. Or, are we just polluting our waterways far more today?

 

Photo by yours truly

Nothing at the Cost of Dehumanization

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Photo borrowed from:  https://www.monsooncup.com.my                   Photo borrowed from:  https://astanatimes.com

 

We cannot let convenience disconnect us.  Only a decade in existence, applications like Uber and Grab, or Ola Cabs and Didi Chuxing in India and China, allow for ease of travel.  Some even now offer the opportunity to order food and deliver groceries to your door.  Yet, with such efficiency, it is however possible to default and adopt a more Miranda Rights experience.  You have the right to remain silent.  Yes, it is possible to order, confirm, chat, and pay without a single omit verbal exchange with the driver.  A spendy fare, the erasure of humanization. The loss of person-to-person encounters, a fading of life’s colors. Harrowing stories untold. Where mere anecdotes not only revealed beauty, but often were enough to reignited hope.  Now, passengers and driver sometimes sit in silence.  Non-experiences much like what we have when we pass through a toll booth.  The end instead of the means.  The destination everything.   

Yet, we can have efficiency and humanization.  Curiosity and a few  questions are a start. Not long ago I remember how I learned form a driver about not only how large the Ethiopian population was in the greater Denver area, but the greater context of why.  I also remember how my Armenian driver in New York City made most of his money from remotely mining Bitcoin on servers in Iceland. And these were just two rides.  Remember, everyone has a story is at the crux.  Simply put, are we interested?

An icon today who represents all things slow, is the passionate and wise, National Geographic fellow, Paul Salopek.  Walking the earth, his joy is in meeting people.  As he listens to stories of the people he meets, they surely are interested in his.  Not every day do you meet someone walking 21,000 miles and in their 8th year of putting one foot in front of the other!

Sacred or Just Sunscreen?

Image by Martine Auvray from Pixabay 

Shwepyinan, Taunggyi Maukmae, or Papawaddy?  Which would you choose?  The three are leading brands of thanaka, a traditional skin conditioner used for centuries in Burma (Myanmar).  Thailand shares more than just geopolitics and a 1,000+ mile border with their western neighbor. Routinely I have crossed paths with Burmese people, often curious as to what that “stuff” was on some people’s faces.  Was it sacred, a tradition steeped in purpose and history? Should I avert my gaze?  Though I wanted to know more, something else surely caught my attention and I always forgot to look deeper.  Maybe unconsciously it was my fear that beneath the custom of applying tanaka, there was a dark sanctity.  Possibly a way to protect from the evil spirits that lurked?

At various temples throughout Thailand it is customary to read signage of how best to behave.  One common literal translation reads, “Polite people are welcome.” As if to say, “All you rude people stay away!”  This usually has something to do with how to dress; no shorts, and the importance to just error on the side of respectfulness.  Being a relative newcomer to Thailand, I joyfully take a stance of thoughtful observer.  Observer, not scrutinizer as sometimes my wife’s nudges or, or better yet jabs, replace a need to say, “don’t stare.”  And so I nonchalantly look on in wonder, as I often did when I once again saw a “decorated” face, coated in yellowish tinted patterns.  “There must be a reason for this?” I would reckon.

So, nearly after a year and countless encounters, finally I looked into it and here is what I found.

 

Borrowed from: https://unctad.org/en/NewsImages/2015-04-27_ThanakhaMyanmar_350x301.jpg

Not being one to invite skin cancer, I often lather my face in layers of skin cream.  Operating under a philosophy of superlative, the thicker the better.  So much so, that sometimes my only worry is that I might be mistaken for a mime. Scootering around Southern Thailand I grew increasingly more comfortable with my blank canvas of a face. Of course there are not too many oversized Western men dressed as mimes touring the countryside.  Yet, here my coated face seemed to blend in in a way. This was because so many women, and sometimes children and men, were equally smeared.  Theirs a different hue, likely done for beauty, but for many, their utilitarian purpose the same as mine; to protect from the relentless tropical rays.

Borrowed from: https://magwayhealthtips.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/thanaka_5.png?w=656

Traditionally, 35 years is what is considered a mature thanaka tree.  Then it is ready to yield a quality product, often small logs which are sold individually or in small bundles.  However, the process is now hurried, with some trees harvested in as little as 7 years.  Nowadays it is not uncommon to purchase thanaka already in a paste or powder form. Yet, traditionally thanaka was simply bark, wood, or roots that were ground by a person into powder and then mixed with a bit of water. This natural sunscreen a far cry from the -ones, -enes, and -ates plastered to my face; chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octisalate.  Thanaka in its pure form also has a fragrance akin to sandalwood, unlike the fake coconut I smell.

Beauty clearly knows no boundaries. As the pervasive consumer culture chomps up thanaka, consumers are as likely as I, to not understand thanaka’s origins, cultural significance or that even that it has been in use for more than seven centuries.  Meanwhile thanaka continues to make an indelible mark as an international cosmetic, however 100% thanaka may not be what is actually purchased. Amazon and Etsy both feature vendors selling thanaka products. The first item I looked, a skin cream at had a laundry list of ingredients; thanaka extract didn’t appear until the 25th ingredient! Again, present were the -ones, -enes, and -ates; dimethicone and glyceryl stearate the two leading ingredients.

As thanaka continues to grow throughout southeast Asia, it is especially prevalent in Thailand and Singapore.  One Thai business, British Dispensary, spent close to six million USD just to market one of their product lines featuring thanaka. Within Burma, the use of thanka varies.  After a victorious Bamar majority junta, thanaka even became a sort of institutional expectation of dress code in schools. Note, this was forced acculturation and rather dark.  If none of this is enough, recently a Yangon-based virtual reality company launched its augmented reality on Facebook, allowing viewers to apply thanaka to their images.  Within a month, over 100,000 faces featured thanaka!

So, there you have it.  Sacred?  Sunscreen? Beauty product?  Shwepyinan, Taunggyi Maukmae, or Papawaddy? The choice is yours.

Discovering a Little History Beneath Your Feet (Bangkok)

Visitors prepare to cross Chao Phraya Sky Park, the world’s first public park spanning a river.

 

Chao Phraya, often translated as “River of Kings,” is the carotid artery. Without it, there would be no Bangkok.  The very origins of the name Bangkok being, “village on the stream.”  Pumping from the central plains to Bangkok, the Chao Phraya travels over 200 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand.   Along its course, it feeds the myriad klongs, or canals. Bangkok alone has over 1600 miles of these canals. Weathered wooden houses built on stilts line the waterways.  Their charm lost as the tides recede, unveiling the grime beneath. The klongs are everything.  They supply water to homes, allow for transportation, and even are a means to subsistence fishing. Similar to a king or queen’s hegemony, the River of Kings, is dynamic.

Since the mid-16th century, the Chao Phraya has borne its share of rerouting and diverting. If for no other reason than the fact that water is what allows life to prosper. Surprisingly, the Chao Phraya watershed covers more than one-third of the nation’s land. Crops, usually rice, depend on the inundating. Further, for generations the Chao Phraya has allowed for movement.  Of materials but also people. Barges pull materials up and downriver and for approximately .60 USD passengers climb aboard ferries, commuting into and out of the city. 

 

Khets and Khwaengs

Bangkok is so large that it is subdivided into 50 districts (khet).  These are then further subdivided into approximately 180 khwaeng. More complicated than New York’s five districts or boroughs. One glance at a map and the most intrepid cartographic adventurer’s head is left spinning.  A sprawling knotted maze, it does not remotely resemble a grid-design.  Having more than tripled the population in my lifetime alone, the rapid growth does not evidence strong urban planning nor regulation.  Unlike a city like Paris, designed for the pedestrian with its broad boulevards and green spaces,  Like many large cities in the developing world, growing so fast comes inevitably with challenges in avoiding chaos. Function winning out over form, leaves an unfortunate wake of severe pollution and congested roadways. 

Rising out of the tropical steam is a concrete jungle of sorts.  A city no foreigner, local, or even veteran taxi driver could fully “know.”  The rate of change simply does not will it. Rather, certain neighborhoods become more familiar than the next.  One such area is called Chao Phraya Riverside. For a visitor to Bangkok, it is virtually impossible to avoid this area.  Here is where the historic temples and palaces are, as well as many of the fanciest hotels.  Likely too, this is where a visitor will hop a ferry to cross the river or just enjoy a sunset cruise.  

 

The World’s First Public Spanning a River 

Out on the Chao Phraya, life appears to slow down.  I’m unsure if it is the slow speed of the boat and the water beneath us, a substitution for our feet.  A break from the seemingly infinite and relentless concrete. Maybe it’s just the gentle wind in our face or an ability to see all around.  With 14 million residents making up Bangkok’s metropolitan area, it makes sense that in Bangkok alone, more than a dozen bridges cross the Chao Phraya.  Automobiles, the metro, and boats all make the crossing, yet recently foot travel was an added means of transport.  In an attitude of “never too late,” June of 2020 commemorated the opening of the world’s first public park spanning a river, at  Chao Phraya Sky Park. In an effort to promote urban well-being, pedestrians are afforded the opportunity to walk or cycle across the river.  Remarkably, the project makes use of an abandoned Skytrain project and estimably is parallel to an existing bridge steeped in history.

 

A Confluence of History

The bridge over River Kwai, just 80 miles northwest from Bangkok, tends to receive more press than any other bridge in Thailand, if not the world. Understandably, because how many bridges have Oscar-winning epic war films screenplayed after them? Yet, the Bridge over River Kwai is not the only bridge of significance in Thailand.  The Memorial Bridge, like many place names in Thailand, has several titles.  Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge in Thai, is named after the first monarch of the 18th century Chakri Dynasty, King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I).  However, sometimes the name is shortened to just Saphan Phut, Phut Bridge, or even Buddha Bridge. Regardless of moniker, the Memorial Bridge is a confluence of history and is right in the heart of Bangkok. It was the first bridge to cross the Chao Phraya (1932), eleven years before the harrowing construction of the Bridge over River Kwai. Though not built entirely out of steel and free of the barbaric construction by the hands of  slaves, the Memorial Bridge reflects the early ties between Thailand and Japan.  It would operate for approximately a decade, before the world was thrust into war.  As possibly can be predicted, with Japan as an ally to Thailand, the Memorial Bridge would become a target. Though initial bombing raids in 1944 by the United States were not successful, less than a year later, the bridge was hit and partially destroyed. 

 

Uncovering History Without Digging

Amidst Bangkok’s concrete is story.  Many stories do not even require any “digging.”  Rather, a bit of adventure in your step and an opening of eyes and ears, likely will reveal the unimaginable. Answers to questions begging to be asked.  Like, how exactly did the Ayutthaya Kingdom maintain more than four centuries of rule?  Or, where did the idea come from to adorn what’s considered the most beautiful temples in Thailand, Wat Arun, with Chinese porcelain the Chinese used as ballast in their boats? Personally, I want to uncover why so many Buddha statues given in veneration at shrines, end up being headless.

Headless Buddhas