So, what are ya gonna do?

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Islamic Architecture in Kuala Lumpur

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are making our final descent.  As per Malaysian government regulation, your flight attendants will be fumigating the cabin with a non-toxic insecticide.  Please cover your nose and mouth.  Thank you.”

I look up in disbelief from the Duty Free catalog.  Rick and I make “significant” eye contact and look around.  No one seems alarmed as the flight attendants walk through the cabin spraying the “non-toxic” insecticide.  How the hell is it non-toxic if it’s meant to kill?  Damn Zika.   So, what do you do?  You cover your nose and mouth and hope to hell that you don’t grow an extra ear any time soon.  Where in the world are we heading?

Kuala Lumpur.  Or as the locals call it, KL.  It’s kind of a California thing, I guess.  Ultra modern city with skyscrapers and lots of shiny stuff.  Drivers stay in their lanes. People wear helmets.  There are rules here.  Plus, as a former British colony, English is spoken. Jackpot.  So, we got fumigated?  No problem.  This is going to be a great long weekend.  And it is.  Just not as predictable as one might imagine.

Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of sorts.  The state religion is Islam but there is a huge Indian and Chinese population as well.  So, throw in a little Hinduism and a little Buddhism and a history of British colonialism and, well, that’s interesting.

When our driver pulled up to our hotel, The Majestic, my jaw hit the floor.  This is one of the original colonial hotels of the region from the 1930’s.  Our valet was wearing one of those old jungle safari get-ups with the hat, short pants and side arm.  All in white.  The lounge (where we spent a million ringgits on drinks) included a quartet in white tuxedos playing old standards from the era.  Who knew that Hotels.com could pull that out of a hat?  Fabulous.

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British Colonialism alive and well.

Even the thunderstorm that night was amazing.  I had chatted with a guy on the plane about Southeast  Asian thunderstorms and compared the sound of thunder in Bangkok to  a “bomb.”  He told me not to say “bomb” on a plane and buried his head in his book.   But right when we landed (after the fumigation), in the pouring rain, he turned to me, smiled and said, “you think thunder in Bangkok is like a bomb?  Well, thunder in KL is like a nuclear explosion!”  He was right.  Now what?  We hunkered down in our hotel and enjoyed watching mother nature in a full-on rage.

Moving around the city, the Muslim influence was everywhere.  Pink “ladies only” cars on the subway trains; little prayer rooms right next to the washrooms.  More than half the woman wore a Hijab (head covering) and a good percentage wore a full Burka.  I had never seen uniforms (e.g. airport security) designed for Muslim woman.  We were able to visit the National Islamic Art Center which housed some incredible artifacts and artwork.  And, the call to prayer each morning and night.   My normal attire, beer logo t-shirt and shorts, was not going to work.  But everything I brought was somehow offensive.  I felt like a total hussy.  Running around with my sleeveless dress, bare feet in sandals and knees out for the world to see.  Solution?  I wrapped my beach sari around my waist and hoped for the best.  What’a ya do?

flag-klThe Hindu temple site, Batu Caves was a different experience entirely.   Hindu temples have been built into ancient caves located about 5kms out of the city.  Standing guard outside the caves is  Lord  Moruga.  At 140 feet high, his golden self is pretty impressive.  And everything is bright.  Blue, red, yellow, gold. Not just the temples and the gods and the art  – but the people!  Amazing colorful sari’s on Indian woman.  Beautiful bright tunics on the men.  Henna designs on faces and arms and legs.   As I stood and observed – what first appeared to be almost a carnival atmosphere – began to shape-shift right in front of my eyes.  Look a little closer.  A young child with shaved head and some sort of paint on her skull.  An old woman in worn sari shuffling barefoot up 272 steps toward a temple.  Smiling family portrait in front of a god that is tearing open his chest. And finally, two adults dressed in yellow, carrying a small body, wrapped in a yellow shroud, up those 272 steps.  A death rite.  This was a sacred place.   So what did I do?  I put my camera away and quietly observed.  Beautifully disquieting.marunga-kl

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272 steps…

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Family Portrait

That night, the best curry ever followed by beers at a bar that played “authentic” Western Rock music (Bon Jovi?  Are you kidding?).  Prada store two blocks from a seedy hookah bar and a walk through the best Chinese antique junk store ever.  “My husband he no like my junk.  I buy and then I sell it and then I buy some more.”  I liked that woman.  So, I spent way too much on my 1970’s Chairman Mao alarm clock.  Oh well.  Best money spent in a junk shop yet.

Too quickly, we are driving back to the airport and Rick mentions how great the traffic is in KL and how nice it is to not feel worried about getting somewhere late.  As soon as those words left his mouth – blowout.  Left rear tire.  We swerve and pull over to the very narrow shoulder.  The driver apologizes and goes to get the jack.  Broken.  Rick and I actually started laughing.  What do you do?  So we laughed and chatted with the driver and his son until another car got there. We made it. Barely.

So what are ya gonna do?  Mai Pen Rai.  I think I’m starting to get it.

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Same Same….Different

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Chairman Mao says “Good Morning!”

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With 5 floors, it’s important to make sure the kids stay to the…..left!! Remember, we drive like the Brits here.

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Just kids…. mingling outside before school starts.

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From my blog posts so far, you may not realize that I have actually been working for the last 6 weeks.  My culture shock outside of school has been pretty dramatic.  Blog worthy stuff, I’d say.  My transition to my new school?  As the Thai say, Same Same….Different.

I start my morning with my vintage Chairman Mao wind-up alarm clock (a real find at a Chinese flea market in Malaysia 🙂 going off at 5:00am.  The little mechanical worker children on the face of the clock smile and wave madly at me as if to say, “Get up, it’s time to work!  Working is good!  Working helps your society!  Chairman Mao is smiling!”  Time to get rolling.

Get dressed, eat breakfast, hop on my bike and pedal to work.  Sunny mornings include a lovely sunrise over the Khlong (canal) and long-legged waterfowl stepping lightly through the rice paddies.  Rainy or post rain mornings are different.  Poncho, wind, dodging enormous puddles and hoping the passing cars are thoughtful enough to drive around these temporary lakes as they go by.  Geckos making one hell of a ruckus – took me a few weeks to figure out what the sound was!

Arrive.  First things first.  Turn on the AC.  The hallways are outdoor breezeways and the canteen (cafeteria) is a covered outside area.  So, 95 degrees going from place to place and refrigerator cold in classrooms and offices.  I’ve actually acclimated enough that I set my AC at about 80-82 degrees.  Yes.  A northwest girl just said that.  The change between the extremes is awful otherwise.

We speak English at Ruamrudee (RIS.)   While we are a K-12 Catholic International school, our student population is mostly Thai nationals seeking to attend American, Australian or British Universities.  So, the only Thai you hear is in Thai class, in the preschool, and by the Thai non-teaching staff.   More than half of our students are English Language Learners.  I am learning to change my communication and teaching style to accommodate this.   Plus, not all parents speak English so about half of my meetings include an interpreter.  I’m learning to “wei” (bow with hands as if in prayer)  more appropriately and have been told by veteran staff that a parent meeting that starts with a “wei” but ends with a handshake is considered successful.  I’m batting about 500.

My counseling day.  Hold onto your hat.  I haven’t had to de-escalate a single child yet!!  Overt anger and explosive behaviors are replaced by anxiety and covert anger responses.  But, this makes perfect sense.  The Thai culture is one in which feelings are withheld in an attempt to reduce conflict.   Laughter and smiling are the path of least resistance.  

Since  we are one of a handful of international schools  in Thailand with a full special services program, I am working with a good number of students on the Autism spectrum.  It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to work with these students knowing that the resources we are providing are so welcome. Parents are so grateful to have a place where their children are accepted and educated with knowledge and confidence.  

As a Catholic school run by the Redemptorist Order, we sponsor a number of social programs including a few orphanages and a prison education program among others so our elementary leadership program (we call it Phoenix Pals)  has plenty to do!!   I’m busy.  Just differently. Thank God  I have an excellent intern.  She has been in Thailand for 5 years as a teacher and knows her way around.  Plus, she is really good.  Actually really, really good.

Food.  Hell yeah.  The canteen has about 15 food providers.  Folks contract with the school and each run a little restaurant here.  We have Thai, Indian, Chinese, “Western” (mashed potatoes in a little cup), a Smoothie stand, a Coffee stand, a Noodle place, Greek and Italian.  The cost?  Anywhere from 30 baht to 60 baht ($1-2) for a large full-plate serving.

Just like the states, we have “guaranteed and viable” curriculum in reading and math.  Different?  We also have science, social studies, music, PE, Thai, and, are you sitting down?  Art.  Yes.  We have a full-time elementary art teacher. Mr. Josh has a FULL TIME POSITION as a Preschool – grade 5 art teacher.  By 5th grade, students create an on-line portfolio.   Plus, and this is about the cutest thing ever, Preschool, Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten have nap time!!  Each kid brings a comfy mat and blanket and they sleep or at least “rest” for about 90 minutes at the end of the day.  When parents come to get them they are fresh as daisies (complete with hilarious bedheads) and ready to take on the rest of their day!

Names.  In Thailand, everyone, and I mean EVERYONE goes by a nickname.  Given names  (both first and last) are extremely long.  So, nicknames are the norm.  And these nicknames range from the traditional to the unique.  Prim, Pan, First, Party, Ivy, Boss, Miaow, Boeing.  I haven’t quite figured out if these names are chosen with an intent or if they just sound nice.  One day, I told a girl the English meaning of her name, Bouquet.    I said it was beautiful and defined it as  a “bunch or collection” as in a “bouquet of flowers.”  The smile she gave me was unforgettable.

And the kids?  Same, Same.  Curious, funny, naughty, imaginative, impulsive, motivated, lazy.  Give ‘em an inch and they’ll take a mile.  Looking for attention and belonging.  Trying  to understand their place on this incredibly complicated, yet simple, planet.   Just like the states, THIS is the reason educators become educators.  The smiles, the tears, the moment when they “get” the concept you are teaching.  Smiling and waving  like the children on my alarm clock –  it’s the kids that bring us back to the school house each and every year.  Nothing different here.