Amanda's Epistle

The continuing story of my life in Thailand


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Smog in the jungle

When you think of smog, you probably don’t think of a forest or a jungle. More likely, you think of a large city congested with traffic. I would think of the same thing.

Then I moved to Thailand.

In Thailand, smog = February until Songkran (the water festival in April).

This is what I’m taking about. The following photo was taken in June, the beginning of the rainy season. The mountain in the background can be seen quite clearly.

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This photo was taken earlier that same year, during the “smog” season. It was taken in generally the same location, a short distance from the building in the first photo. Normally, you would get an even better view of the mountain from here, as the trees aren’t in the way. But you can’t see the mountain at all.

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This is the problem that we face year after year. Ou lovely hillsides disappear in the smog.

Here’s how it goes. The farmers harvest their crops in the winter, starting in November and going to January. After that, it’s time to burn the fields to make room for next year’s crops.

Oh yeah, and you can’t grow next year’s crops until June, when the rains come. So the farmers will also burn the underbrush in the surrounding jungle so they can go hunting. So even those who have not burned their fields, perhaps because they’re still growing something, still have to create a fire-break AROUND their fields to protect their crops from the fires coming out of the jungle.

My husband and his brother had to do this last week. They had a crop of garlic and a patch of bamboo they had to protect. Fire from the jungle was headed their way, so they had to drop everything and go out to protect the field.

We failed to do this when we planted avocado trees. We lost over half of them to the burning. We paid good money for those trees.

Of course, we can’t pin it ALL on the farmers. Even those in other occupations contribute to the problem by burning their trash.

Yes, people burn their trash here. If the environmentalists REALLY wanted to make a difference, they’d come here and organize trash pickup. Most places have trash pickup, but a lot of people just don’t bother to put their trash in the designated bins (which look a lot like a witch’s cauldron, sitting on the corner). Even if they do, the dogs get into it and litter is everywhere. There has never been an anti-litter campaign here.

But the smog is considerably bad this time of year. We had to move out of the village primarily so we could use an eletric air filter. My mother-in-law has terrible asthma and the smog nearly killed her last year.

She’s not the only one. A lot of folks wind up in the hospital with respiratory illnesses. Including a lot of kids. And the problem is worse, yes WORSE, if you live in the country. We’re right next to the fields that are getting burned. Of course, being the city isn’t that much better.

Other consequences? Thailand’s main industry is tourism. But no one in their right mind would visit this time of year. Flights wind up getting grounded because the pilot can’t see anything.

So the big question is, what can we do about it? The Thai government has been going around and around the issue for years. They try blaming it on Burma and Laos, but I know better.

I know the farmers. I’m even married to one.

The root of the problem? It’s not the farmers…although it’s close.

A couple years ago, a company set out to purchase the corn chaff from the farmers in Chiang Rai. They then processed it into fertilizer and sold it back to the farmers.

There was considerably less smog in that area that year.

I’m not sure what happened to that program. Trust me, if somebody would buy the corn stalks from the farmers, they would gladly sell it instead of burning it. I suppose the program didn’t have enough support or something.

But now that I’ve been married to a farmer for four years, I think I’ve spotted the underlying problem behind the smog. At least one of them.

The real problem is WATER.

We have a corn field. We can ONLY grow corn in our corn field during the rainy season as it has no WATER. So do all our neighbors.

The fields without water get burned.

There are however, a few fields that DO have water. They are the ones located next to or below a local spring. These fields are used year-round for crops like beans and garlic.

The fields that have water DO NOT GET BURNED!

You always know a field has water because it is green in March. You know the fields without water, as they are black in March.

Think about it. If your field has a steady supply of water, you plant another crop after you harvest. You are also more inclined to grow a crop that does not require burning, such as beans or peanuts or garlic. Farmers are forced to grow corn because it’s one of the only crops that will grow within the confines of the rainy season. Farmers with water in their fields can grow something else.

By the way, if your field has water, you are working year-round. This means you do not have time to go out hunting, which means you do go out to burn the underbrush in the jungle for this purpose. At least, you’re less likley to. You do, however, still need to burn around your field if one of your neighbors decides to do this.

Perhaps it’s not that simple, but maybe it is. All we need to do is get water to the fields that don’t have it. If all the fields have water, more than likely the amount of burning would go down.

Now it’s more of a physics problem: How do you get water to go UPHILL?

A little explanation here. Northern Thailand is populated by mountain farmers. The fields are on the sides of the mountains, usually ABOVE the nearest water source. Hence why they can only grow crops during the rainy season, from June to October. This severely limits what they can grow and most of the people in our area grow corn.

Most of our neighbors get very little money for their corn. My brother-in-law barely broke event this year with his corn.

My husband is currently working on a water pump he saw on YouTube. It uses a vacuum of air to pump water uphill without using any outside power source. If he gets it to work (and I pray that he does), we may be on to something. My brother-in-law would be able to pump water to his corn field and (gasp) GROW SOMETHING OTHER THAN CORN! We could also water our remaining avocado trees, which are in this same corn field.

A businessman has also been visiting our area from Singapore. He has specific crops that we can grow for him and his company will buy them back from us, with a set minimum price. A great deal. Catch is, the crops his company wants REQUIRE WATER!

So really, the solution to the smog problem in Thailand? Get water to the fields! Forget passing out free surgical masks (which is what the government does now). Why not help the farmers get water to their fields? A field that is WET is far less likely to catch on fire.


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What is a “tattle-tale” and why is it supposed to be discouraged?

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“Teacher! She is eating chips in class!”
“No eating in class. Put those back outside.”

The offender takes her bag of chips out of the classroom and then returns. The other students snicker a bit, but then class resumes as normal.

And I am totally confused.

My Chinese students will “tattle” on each other all the time, mostly on those breaking the “no food or drink in the classroom” rule. And yet all of them are good sports about it and it doesn’t bother them at all if a “squealer” spills the beans.

I scratch my head. After all, when I was in school, we were told that it was wrong to be a “tattle-tale.” You’re not supposed to purposely try to get your classmates in trouble. I accepted this and would say nothing, even if I saw a classmate breaking the rules.

Now I’m a teacher and I’m beginning to question this practice. It doesn’t seem to be indoctrinated here in Asia. Kids seem to think that they are EXPECTED to point out rule-breakers. They must be the eyes and ears for the teacher. After all, there’s only one teacher and two dozen kids.

So why do Americans discourage tattling?

What I was told was that it’s wrong to “purposely get your classmate into trouble.” This seems to be an attitude check. A kid purposely squeals on another kid because he doesn’t like him and this is not a good attitude for a student to have.

But when a kid tattles on another kid, how do you know he’s doing it out of spite? In my class, they seem to be doing it more out of a sense of fairness, rather than just to get others in trouble. “I can’t eat chips in class and you shouldn’t either.” And even the kid who was tattled on seems to accept this. “I broke the rules and I should face the consequences. It’s not your fault if I’m the one not following the rules.”

Even if it is done out of spite, does this mean the teacher has to ignore the transgression and punish the tattler instead? This doesn’t make sense to me. If a student is breaking the rules, regardless of how the teacher finds out about it, the student needs to be held responsible for his actions, be it detention, a lecture, or whatever consequence is in place for said rule.

I do not believe in letting ANY of my students get away with breaking the rules. It undermines the authority of the teacher and teaches them that rules don’t mean anything. Big rules or small rules, they should be treated the same, as you can’t expect kids to follow the big rules if they think they don’t have to follow the small ones at all.

If a teacher puts too much stress on “don’t be a tattle-tale,” what will happen if a student witnesses a bully taking a smaller child’s lunch money? Is he going to report it? Or is he going to keep his mouth shut for fear of being labeled a “squealer?” If a fight breaks out on the playground, are the kids surrounding the fight going to stand there and watch? Or is one of them going to report it to the principal?

On the other hand, I do see where tattling can get a little bit annoying. But this just means specific rules should be in place. One student reported to me that a classmate was doodling. I have no rule against doodling. I do have a rule against being out of your chair without permission. I told the “tattler” he needed to go and sit down, as he had no reason to be out of his seat.

When my four-year-old neice comes to visit us, I had to put some limits on Ben, my eight-year-old. He doesn’t like his cousin and is constantly running in to “tattle” on her and try to get me to punish her. But in this case, as it’s my kid, I know what he’s up to. Again, I lay out specific rules. If his cousin breaks one of those rules, feel free to tell me. But those rules do not include her staying away from your stuff and not eating any of the food in the house. If you don’t like her playing with your toys, PUT YOUR TOYS AWAY SO SHE CAN’T GET INTO THEM!

If you follow the rules, you won’t get tattled on. Simple as that.

Does the “don’t be a tattle-tale” idea apply in adulthood? Are not convicted criminals given lighter sentences if they help the police locate the ringleaders, the mafia bosses, and the crooked dealers? If you witness a drive-by and take note of the liscense plate, is it not your duty to report what you saw to the police, even though it’s “none of your business?”

It seems to me we ENCOURAGE people to “tattle” on lawbreakers when we’re adults.

Back on the flip-side, consider Nazi Germany, where an “informant” is one of the enemy. Why is this? Because the governing authority was, in fact, the enemy. What the government was doing was flat-out wrong. They were hunting down Jews who had NOT broken any rules or laws. They were simply Jewish. Last I checked, a Jew cannot change the fact that he was born that way. Now those hiding the Jews WERE breaking the rules, but they were doing so because they deemed the rules to be unjust and the ruling authority to be wrong.

Perhaps that’s an extreme example. But the point is, most of the time, the authority over the situation is not the enemy. Be it the government, the police, the parent, or the teacher, the person in authority needs to know when transgressions are taking place and who is doing them. If someone takes it upon himself to alert the authorities when a criminal has been sighted, a child is being bullied, a sex-offender is on the prowl in a family neighborhood, I see no reason to discourage him.

Perhaps being a “tattle-tale” should be a GOOD thing.

What do you think?


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Does America really PAY you to have babies?

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I am currently expecting my second child. Naturally, I’m excited about this. So is Ben, our first “son”, who is unofficially adopted in. Johnny, the first baby I actually gave birth to, hasn’t caught on yet. Perhaps when Mommy starts showing.

And our friends and neighbors are excited as well. Many hope I have a girl, and I do as well, although I suppose it would make God laugh for me to have a house of three boys, as I grew up in a house with three girls. I get asked all sorts of questions, but this one surprises me, even though I got asked this question before when I had Johnny.

“Does America really PAY you to have a baby?”

When I was asked this question before, I laughed. I had no idea where this idea came from. I said, “Of course the government doesn’t PAY anybody to have a baby.”

Then I filed my income taxes.

For the first time, I was able to claim the Child Tax Credit. I cannot claim this for Benjamin, as he is not a U.S. Citizen, nor is he legally my child. But I was able to claim Johnny.

And I got extra money on my tax return for having a baby.

So now that I’m getting asked this question again, I pause for a moment. Having collected the Child Tax Credit, and also knowing something about my friends and neighbors here, I see where they’re coming from.

True, you only get a tax return once a year. But you have to understand that most Thai people are farmers. And farmers get paid ONCE A YEAR. They get paid when they sell their crops. Not only that, but the average farmer makes about the same amount of money that I got on my tax return for having a baby.

No wonder they think I’m getting paid for it.

Of course, you don’t just GET the money when you have an American baby. You have to file a tax return, which means you have to have a job and pay taxes to begin with. Also, if you owe taxes, they are subtracted from that money. My husband was disappointed that I got less money this year because I had to pay self-employment tax.

But one of my friends was not so happy when I told her how the Child Tax Credit works. She is Chinese…and she got angry.

“In China,” she said, “you pay MORE taxes when you have a baby!”

Ah yes, the Chinese government only wants the family to have ONE baby, so I suppose it makes sense to make families with more than one pay more taxes. My friend is single, but came from a large family with four children. I suppose they live in Thailand for a reason.

But at least she was able to understand how taxes work. I tell other people that it’s a tax credit and not an actual salary, but all they hear is, “You get money for having a baby in America. You should drop everything and go to America and have babies so their government will give you money.”

And people wonder why we have an immigration problem.


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The Yankee, the Rebel, and the Cowboy

It was the late sixties and the young Catholic girl went to a dance with a number of her classmates. When the girls arrived, a chaperone greeted them and told them to mingle with the young soldiers from the nearby army base. But he also gave them a warning.

“Don’t get too attached to these guys,” he said. “They may very well be shipped off to Vietnam…and you may never see them again.”

On that note, the girls went into the dance. The young lady soon found herself face to face with three handsome young soldiers. So she politely asked them where they were from.

“I’m a Yankee,” said the first, in a distinct Northern dialect.
“Well I’m a Rebel,” said another, with a classic Southern drawl.

The young woman smiled and looked at the third young man, who was tall and thin and wore glasses. The other two men asked him, “So what’re you?” Without missing a beat, he said, “Me? I’m a cowboy!”

The young lady then went to dance with the cowboy, a young man from Western Colorado.

That cowboy later asked her out. When she turned him down, mostly due to the chaperone’s warning, he decided to ask if she would attend a church service with him.

A guy can’t be THAT bad if he invites you to church.

After attending Catholic church services together, the cowboy was sent to Vietnam. The young lady wrote to him, and was shocked when he came all the way to visit her during his leave time.

She lived all the way on the east coast. The cowboy could have spent his time in Hawaii. But the poor guy was in love.

After his year of service in Vietnam, the couple married, as the cowboy was going to be sent to Germany next and the young lady didn’t want to spend yet ANOTHER year away from him.

And so my parents married in September, just before my father was sent to Germany.

Thank you Dad…for asking the pretty Catholic girl to go to church with you.

And thank you Mom…for dancing with the cowboy.

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Ten reasons I have an awesome husband

I was watching YouTube the other day and saw a top ten of married couples from television. I was rather put off to see that the top ten praised couples in which the woman “wore the pants” and bossed around her husband (Rosanne was on the list). They pointed out that even on The Cosby Show, it was really the wife who was in charge of things and the “stronger” one of the pair. They seemed to be praising women who took charge of their families and made their husbands do their bidding.

No wonder the divorce rate is so high.

No matter what society says, the MAN is the head of the family. Period. The woman is not a doormat for her husband to walk on, but guess what? That doesn’t mean the man has to be a doormat for HER to walk all over either.

I have a great husband and I have no problem letting him take the lead in our family. Here are ten reasons why (in no particular order).

1. He tells it like it is. My husband is not afraid to tell me when I’m doing something I shouldn’t be. As we live in HIS country, he has to do this often. I sometimes gripe about it, but I know he’s right. I’m not supposed to cross my legs when we’re with Lisu company, but if we’re with Thai people, I can’t point my feet towards anyone.

2. He does nightly devotions with our boys. My husband is a pastor, but I read in a book that while many pastors have a plan to win other people to Christ, they never make any sort of plan for their own children. I shared this with my husband and he immediately decided we had to do a nightly devotional with our children.

3. He backs me up with the kids. On one occaision, he was out of town and I was doing devos with the kids. But neither of the boys were interested in doing devotions that night. I got frustrated and called my husband, who talked to our older boy and told him flat out that he needed to do what he was told and not complain about it. Naturally, the older boy had a better attitude and the younger one followed suit.

4. He’s not afraid of discipline. Our older boy skipped school, and my husband lectured him about skipping school and being disrespectful to his grandmother (we were out of town and he told his grandma there was no school). He then gave him several swats with a switch. I reinforced this by taking away his bicycle until school lets out.

5. He takes care of his parents. This is expected in Asia, as most people have no retirement plan. My mother-in-law lives with us and does most of the cooking and cleaning, which I am grateful for. My father-in-law lives with my husband’s brother, filling a similar role.

6. He is not afraid to learn new things. Coming to the US was an eye-opening experience for my Thai husband. He admits that it “opened” his mind. He also says he would never want to live in the US and that all the Asians trying to immigrate there have NO idea what it’s really like.

7. He’s frugal, but not cheap. He will take me out for a burger or pizza from time to time, even though you can get twenty bowls of noodle soup for the same price.

8. He’s not afraid of making bad jokes. Most of his jokes make fun of the English language, or sometimes the Thai language, or both. He tells a great many puns that only people who know both languages would get.

9. He knows the value of being multi-lingual. Because of this, he has our older boy study Chinese (his fourth language) and our toddler speaks three (all at the same time). We know of other expats who do not allow their kids to learn Thai or any of the tribal languages. WHAT A WASTE! It is SO much easier to learn another language during childhood. We also know of a village where the children know up to eight languages, as a mixture of tribes are living together and the kids are learning other languages from their friends.

10. He built a redneck air-conditioner out of an old cooler and a desk fan. Growing up in a village, a man has to learn to run electric wires and install his own plumbing. So when I showed him a YouTube video of how to make an air-conditioner, he had one built by that evening.

Now THAT’S a man.

acunit


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Weekly Photo Challenge: Abandoned

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I wasn’t planning on doing the weekly photo challenge, but then I saw the idea of “abandoned” and had to jump on it. This is an old picture, taken a year ago, of little Rachel.

Rachel’s parents split up and neither one wanted her, so she went to live with her grandmother. But she asked her grandmother, “When you die, who is going to take care of me?” She was sincerely worried about this, as her own parents had truely abandoned her.

This is not uncommon among the Lisu people we work with in Thailand. They have a terribly high divorce rate and even have a saying that, “A Lisu woman changes husbands like she changes her shoes.” But no matter what the culture is, it is the children who suffer most when it comes to divorce. A great many of the children in our village live with grandparents or other relatives because of divorce and abandonment.

Our own nephew was also a victim of this. His parents split up before he was even born and his mother left him with his grandparents when he was six months old. Fortunately, he came to live with us and still has some contact with his real mother (He calls her Mom in Lisu but he calls me Mom in English).

Rachel’s grandmother came to my husband, who is the pastor in their village, and decided to become a Christian rather than follow the evil spirits. When she did so, we heard the little girl’s story. I asked if we could give her a Christian name, which is customary among Lisu Christians, and was allowed to name her Rachel.

The Rachel in the Bible was not abandoned. She was loved. She was loved so much that when Jacob had to work for seven years to marry her, it seemed like only a few days. I told little Rachel that she is loved, and though her grandmother may die, Jesus will never abandon her. She is now loved.


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Classroom Issues in Asia

photo4I teach a group of Chinese kids in the evenings. These kids speak Thai, as they go to Thai schools, but every night they get an hour of Chinese script and then an hour of English at our little program. It works for the most part, but there are some classroom issues that I have here that I never experienced in the U.S.

1. Cheating

In this culture, looking off of your friend’s paper is not considered “cheating”, it is considered “helping.” This is a society where the group as a whole is considered before the needs of the individual (opposite of the US). I had to hammer into their heads that I want them to know the answers “without help.” I also tell my students that when it is time for the exam, I will be testing each student individually so they won’t be able to “help” each other.

2. Boys on one side and girls on the other

This is not only true in schools, but also in many churches and meeting halls. Men and women do not sit together. Yes, I know it is a cultural thing, but it’s not a good idea in a classroom. The boys sit with their friends and talk during class. The girls are doing the same thing. When I taught in the US, a boy/girl/boy/girl seating arrangement was usually (although not always) an effective way to keep the students from yapping during class. I’ve thought about tackling this issue with assigned seating, make sure no one is next to their best friend, but then I have problem number three.

3. I don’t know their names!

Yes, shame on me. A teacher should always make an effort to learn the names of the students. But when I ask them their names, they answer with the question, “Which name do you want?” These kids have one name in Chinese, another in Thai, and possibly several nicknames. If I ask for their Chinese names, I get a name that I could never remember as I do not know Chinese. Thai names are slightly better, but are usually rather long. I may start the next term with giving each student a very easy English name (they have dozens of names already, so one more won’t hurt, right?) and then tell Bob, Joe, and Henry that they are not allowed to sit together.

4. My own kid is in my class

This issue is rather unique with just me. Benjamin, my nephew who calls me “Mommy”, is in my class. This raises multiple issues just by itself.

4-A The students think Benjamin is teaching the class.

When I taught English for Ben’s first grade class, his classmates were always asking him, “What did teacher say?”, not realizing that I knew what they were saying. Even when the kids DO catch what teacher is saying, they tend to ask Ben if their understanding is correct or not.

4-B Ben is in the wrong class

Our little program splits the kids up according to their ability in Chinese. Ben knows very little Chinese and is in the “beginner” class. But that also puts him in the “beginner” level of English, even though he speaks it fluently. My first method of combating this was to focus on reading English rather than speaking, as then Ben is on the same level as his classmates. Problem here is that it’s awfully hard to teach kids to read words when they don’t know what the words mean, so I have to tell them what they mean at the same time. But it does give me a chance to focus on the phonetics, as English as a number of sounds (“th” for example) that Thai and Chinese do not.

4-C A kid should never be in his “Mother’s” class

This actually IS the same as it is elsewhere. Ben isn’t bothered by the fact that I’m his teacher, but he does have a tendancy to talk to me about other matters besides schoolwork during class. He also tends to flaunt to his friends that he speaks English better than they do. He actually got mad when one of the girls became just as good as he was in the “vocab game”, but I told him that we WANT his friends to know English and he needs to stop being such a snob about it.

Thankfully, the school year is almost over. Maybe next term I’ll figure out a better way to get these kids to pay attention.