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Archive for the ‘expat life’ Category

You Just Know

I don’t know about you, but when I arrive in a new country or city I just know if I could live there or not. I knew about Florence, I knew about Munich, I knew about Bangkok, and now I just know about Japan.

I’ve wanted to visit Japan for a looong time, but for some reason I never managed to organize a trip there. Maybe it’s because I thought it was too expensive (it’s not as bad as I thought), or maybe because I thought it might not be as “exotic” as some of the other places we’ve been traveling to (it was), or maybe because I was worried that it would be too cold (it was absolutely perfect). But somehow, finally, last April, Alex and I went to Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Yokohama for our spring break.

It was amazing.

Really. In every way. It was one of those experiences where you don’t even have to leave the airport to realize that you could be happy living there forever. Literally.

As soon as we left the baggage hall, we could see the carefully marked signs pointing us in the direction of the public transportation. Oh, the joys of public transportation, such sweet relief after having to cajole taxi drivers all around southeast Asia to cart us here and there. No stress about watching the meter or wondering if you’re being taken on the “scenic” route. No haggling about the fare. No barely-functional jalopies that look like they might actually fall apart en route.

But that’s not all, when we actually lined up to buy our tickets, for the bus mind you, there were porters. Wearing gloves. Gently cradling the baggage into the underbelly of the bus.

And of course, there was a system. Buy a ticket, get a baggage tag, tag your baggage, put it in line, handy digital display tells you in multiple languages which bus is arriving and when, when your bus arrives the guard tells you to get on, and the handlers put your luggage on the bus.

And everything runs on time.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds a lot like Germany, and thats true. But, really, these are the things I loved about Germany. Plus, the country is full of Japanese people. Adorable, respectful, quiet, geeky (in the cool Japanese way) people.

I mean look at this:

What other country in the world would have something like that?

So, long story short, here’s hoping our next move is to Japan (whenever that may be).

And, by the way, the fun didn’t stop in the airport bus terminal. We had a great time the rest of the week too. We:

discovered soba noodles (how had I lived without soba noodles?):

Soba Restaurant Dinner

wandered among the cherry blossoms:

Blossoms

pondered the serenity of a zen garden:

Path

gawked at the stunningly beautiful, traditionally dressed ladies in Kyoto:

All Dressed Up

learned that everything tastes good when it’s pickled (well, just me, really):

Pickled Eggplant

saw some lovely couples getting married in both Kyoto and Tokyo:

Married

contemplated the meaning of life in temple after temple:

Pink & Red

strolled in the many green spaces of Kyoto:

Alex

and Tokyo:

Gate

slept in a room with a view in Tokyo:

Tokyo by Night

hung out with lots of friends, new and old:

Tweet-up Dinner

geeked out on the subway (it is Japan after all):

Geeking Out

crossed Shibuya:

Crossing

and found my true favorite ramen (I only wish I knew what it was called in Japanese or the name of the restaurant we found it or basically anything about the ramen aside from it’s deliciousness in the hopes of someday enjoying it again):

Spicy Miso Ramen

I can’t wait to go back!

Have you ever been to a place where you just know you could live there?

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When I tell people back home in the US that I’m teaching in Thailand, they usually assume I teach English to Thai children. When I try to explain by saying “no, I teach at an international school”, I’m often met with a blank stare.

Understandable enough – before moving overseas, I never realized that there was a network of English-speaking American (or Canadian, Australian/New Zealand or British) curriculum schools all around the world. I have now worked at three international schools in three countries – Germany, Malaysia, and Thailand – and I often receive questions about where I work and how to start working overseas.

So, I thought I’d share some very basic information about this type of school for those who aren’t familiar with them.

What is an international school?

International schools are private schools serving mostly expatriate children (diplomats, multinational corporation executives, NGO staff), and usually some local families (that can afford the steep tuition). Student population is usually diverse, with students from many different countries. Most schools offer grades PK – 12 (ages 5 – 18), but some are restricted to high school or primary school, depending on the needs of the population.

International schools usually choose to follow a curriculum model from the US, UK, Canada or Australia/New Zealand. Sometimes you can tell by the name of the school (like the American School of Dubai) but others are more ambiguous (like the International School Bangkok). Still others choose to pull from all different curriculum options, finding the mix that best suits their student population.

Many international schools also choose to run the International Baccalaureate program, which consists of the IB Primary Years Program, IB Middle Years Program and the IB Diploma Program. Schools which run all three are referred to as IB World Schools. Usually students from international schools attend top universities around the world due to the high quality of their education, advanced placement and/or IGCSE course offerings, and test preparation (for US universities).

The language of instruction is usually English, but you can often find German, French, Japanese or other international-style schools in major capital cities as well. There is usually at least one international school in the major cities of every country in the world. Here in Bangkok we have over 90 “international” schools, although, as I will explain later, some are less international than others.

International schools are usually affiliated with other schools in their region by the following associations:

What are the differences between schools?

Every international school (with a few exceptions) is its own entity. Even though I’m using the term “network” here, they aren’t really connected to each other. What might be common practice in one school could be unheard of in another.

One of the biggest differences between international schools is their management/ownership. There are really two types of schools: non-profit, board governed schools and privately owned (usually for-profit) schools. It’s well worth checking in detail which kind of school you’re investigating as the management/ownership can have a huge impact on educational practices within the school.

It’s also worth noting that schools labeled “international,” “American,”etc, are not always such. It’s common practice in many countries (especially developing countries) to label privately owned, for-profit schools, “international” to secure native-English speaking teachers and to provide a high standard of education to local (usually wealthy) children. Although these schools often do provide a more international-style education, the student body is not usually as diverse as you would find in true international schools.

Who are the teachers at these schools?

Teachers in international schools are very diverse, as schools often make an effort to hire a mix of nationalities and ages. Most are native English speakers, but certainly not all. You will find teachers who have been overseas almost their entire career working alongside teachers who spent many years teaching in their home country before choosing to move abroad.

Interestingly, schools usually prefer teaching couples, where both spouses work at the same school, so it is quite common to be working with families where both parents are your colleagues and their children are your students. This helps build a close community, ensures that teachers have some stability in their lives (moving to a new country is stressful), and provides the most economic method of hiring and employing foreigners.

Teacher contracts are usually for 2 years initially, and then will be renewed on a year-by-year basis (though some also renew for two years). It’s fairly common to stay at a school for just two years, although plenty choose to stay much longer.

How do teachers get jobs in international schools?

This is rapidly changing due to technological advances (Skype, anyone?). It’s worth noting that the “traditional” method of finding a job is still effective, and may be the best choice for teachers new to the international school network.

In the past, the majority of teachers would be hired at a job fair, the two major fair operators are International School Services and Search Associates (also COIS operates a fair as well as UNI and several others). Each company provides pre-screening for potential employers by requiring a detailed application process (plus fee). The companies then provide detailed listings of available jobs via a database. Finally, they organize “job fairs” in several locations around the world beginning in early January (usually Bangkok, Dubai, London, NY/Boston, San Francisco, and Philadelphia – but the locations change year by year).

The job fair is an intense experience, usually resulting in an emotional rollercoaster from moment to moment. You can walk in on the first day expecting to land a job in one region of the world, and walk out on the third day heading to an entirely different country (or, sometimes, without a job at all). 

Most of these schools operate entirely independent of each other (though there are a few that are connected), so getting hired at one school does not ensure that you’ll be hired at another. Each school is privately owned and operated and some are more highly respected than others, so it’s worth investigating a school’s reputation before accepting an offer. However, it’s also worth noting that many school directors, principals and teachers move from school to school, bringing their previous connections with them.

What are the benefits of working in international schools?

The main benefit of teaching at an international school is going to work every day in a diverse and stimulating foreign cultural environment, with the chance to explore new places during every holiday break. As if the travel were not enough, there are tons of additional benefits to teaching overseas.

For starters, the less developed a country is, the more benefits schools usually offer, including: free (often furnished) housing, utilities paid for by the school, free tuition for children of teachers, annual flights to your home of record, shipping allowance, transportation allowance, Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), and local taxes paid for by the school.

Most schools offer comprehensive health insurance, transportation at the beginning and end of your contract, and a professional development fund. All of these benefits vary widely, usually dependent on the location of the school (for example, most schools in Italy offer a limited benefits package because so many people want to live there).

On the professional side, most international schools are very learning focused and provide extensive professional development for teachers, expectations are usually high, as is support for teachers. These schools are usually very well resourced in terms of both technology needs and teaching supplies and resources.

Of course, all of this is very general and should not be viewed as fact for every international school. This is just my opinion/perception of teaching overseas and working in international schools after 9 years abroad.

What other questions do you have about international schools? International school teachers, what did I miss in my basic overview here?

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Over the last few years Alex and I have been working on collecting art, specifically paintings, on our travels. Nothing fancy, but Alex now likes to refer to me (sarcastically) as a “patron of the arts.” Whenever we’re on a holiday, we tend to look for paintings by local artists as our souvenirs. Of course this also includes selecting special pieces here in Bangkok.

So, last week, we headed out to Chatuchak to pick up our second painting by a local artist:

Bodhi

This one is a Bodhi tree, the tree that Buddha meditated under, and a common site around Thailand and southeast Asia. I love the heart shaped leaves, a shape which is reproduced in all sorts of temple decorations around the country.

We had our first painting made (by the same artist) last year:

Swirls

This one is more of a modern twist on a similar style. I love the swirling style and flowing writing across the bottom. The three panels make it super easy to transport and gives it a more distinct feel than the single panel.

Both paintings have a dark reddish background with the trees and leaves pressed on in gold leaf. They are so shiny and soothing to look at. I love them!

What do you like to purchase as a record of your travels?

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Today begins our three week semester break! We started celebrating in style last night with a hi so (a cute Thai nickname for “high society) evening of drinks at the Banyan Tree’s Vertigo, dubbed the highest open-air bar in southeast Asia, and dinner at the Suan Lum night bazaar.

We arrived just after five, in time to see the cloudy gray skies over the city:

Gray Skies

Got to watch the beautiful sunset, while enjoying our drinks:

Sunset

Ben and Chrissy

Enjoyed seeing the evening lights slowly brighten:

Dusk

And eventually headed back down to the city for some tasty Thai food:

City Lights

Along with our lovely friends:

Celebrate

The perfect way to start a holiday break, if you ask me!

What are you doing this holiday season?

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This has been an interesting week. On Tuesday, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), began protesting at Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi, which resulted in the closure of the airport when they “stormed” the airport control towers and stopped allowing planes in and out. It’s now Saturday morning and both Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang (the older, domestic airport) have been closed for days. Hundreds of thousands of travelers are now stranded in destinations around the world while this major hub of travel in Asia is non-functioning.

Oddly enough, life seems to be going on entirely as normal here in the city. The streets are calmer than usual – less traffic, less people out and about – but that’s about it. We continue to go to school and work every day, ride the BTS, and enjoy living downtown. It’s a strange feeling, knowing that something critical to the county’s future is happening just on the outskirts of the city, but having absolutely no effect on our daily life.

I wonder when all this is going to end? Technically, I suppose I’m stranded in Bangkok, but if Bangkok is home, does that really count as stranded?

Treasure Island by Aaron Escobar

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Both Alex and I have wanted to go to Bhutan for many years. I think we first heard about this little landlocked country in the foothills of the Himalayas while we were living in Munich, and it was back then that we decided we would have to go. Someday.

Amazingly enough, someday happened a whole lot quicker than I thought. Last year, when we moved to Bangkok, we learned that quite a few of our teaching colleagues have been to Bhutan because the school offers a “Week Without Walls” trip for the high school students every year through Rainbow Tours and Treks, based in Thimpu, Bhutan.

Given that the Bhutanese government requires all tourists who travel to Bhutan to use an authorized tour guide, this was the critical information we needed to make our trip happen. As odd as it sounds, working through a tour guide actually makes me totally uncomfortable – you’re basically surrendering your entire trip to one person (who knows full-well that this is probably going to be the only time you’ll ever deal with them, so if they mess it up, they’ve already got your money). For the cynical and hyper-anal traveler, such as myself, this is quite a frightening thought.

So, knowing that so many of my colleagues (and students) had such wonderful trips with Rainbow Tours, I willingly surrendered a wad of cash to the lovely Sonam (you have to pay in full, in advance), in the hopes that we, too, could have an amazing adventure in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.

And what an adventure it was!

First of all, the Bhutanese government requires that all tourists pay US$200/day/person to visit the country, thankfully this is all-inclusive so we basically didn’t pay anything else above and beyond that base fee (except for souvenirs which were equally overpriced and a tip for our guide and driver). So, once we arrived, we just sat back and enjoyed being led around like little children day-in and day-out for our 8-day visit.

We started our trip in Paro, home of Bhutan’s only airport, where we climbed up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. There was some misleading wording in our travel schedule, something about a 4-hour round-trip climb, which may have lead to some slight crankiness on one member of our two person party, but we made it all the way to the top, on our own, without the help of the horses stationed at the bottom of the mountain.

It was quite a hike, this is the view from the half-way point (where there is an adorable little cafeteria and they serve you piping hot tea and cookies – who says hiking isn’t civilized?!):

And here we are a little closer, the view from just before you start down into the gorge between the side of the mountain you hike up, and the side of the mountain the monastery is on, prayer flags fluttering in the wind:

Speaking of prayer flags, it was absolutely amazing to be walking through them all over the place in Bhutan:

Unfortunately, there were no pictures allowed inside the monastery, but here’s a look at the sweeping view we had of the Paro valley from the top of the mountain:

Little did I know it, but this was to be the first of many hikes in Bhutan. Day two had us driving up to Thimpu, the capital city, and exploring some of the cultural sites:

Of course, we also did a little hiking:

After a few days in Thimpu, we headed to Punakha and Wangdue, which was actually my favorite part of the trip. Both Thimpu and Paro were comparatively crowded and touristy once we saw the little villages on the other side of the Dochula Pass, look at those stunning Himalayas – you can see clear across to the board of Bhutan and Tibet:

We saw more temples:

Made a few friends:

Saw some beautiful Dzongs:

Some amazing views:

Entered some mysterious temples:

Visited a local school:

And, Alex wore his Bhutanese traditional dress pretty much the whole time:

All in all, it was pretty amazing. Apparently Bhutan has only around 13,000 tourists visit the country each year. It was easy to tell that many of them spend the majority of their visits trekking, so there were very few other tourists every where we went – most places were completely deserted except for the monks and locals in their lovely traditional dress.

I have a few too many pictures posted up on Flickr from just about every moment of our trip, please feel free to check them out!

Basically, for me and Alex, this was a trip of a lifetime. As much as we’d love to go back, we probably won’t (especially now that we’ve heard the price is rising to US$400/day/person next year!).

Have you ever taken a trip like that? Where did you go? What was it like?

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I have always been a little choosy about what food I eat. I was raised almost entirely on Italian cooking – few ingredients, simple dishes, eaten when foods are in season – but I am American, after all, so despite my mom’s best efforts, I still crave disgusting delights like Taco Bell or Burger King every now and again.

I’m not sure if it was my mom’s influence, or just my personality, but I have always been wary of meats. I only like certain types of meats and certain cuts. I definitely don’t like my meat to taste “gamey.” There’s just something about meat that kind of grosses me out. I’m not sure if it’s the animal rights issue (because I do purchase leather products, although I would never feel comfortable wearing a fur coat or leather jacket, I appreciate the superior quality of leather shoes and wallets, for example) but something about eating animals seems a bit odd to me.

For a very brief time, I was a vegetarian. It was pretty easy to do while I was in university and the year afterward. I lived in Connecticut, tofu and other meatless products were easy to come by, and I never had to struggle to find what I wanted. Now I must admit, even during that time I was a very very lax vegetarian and would often “cheat” if there was something I really wanted.

However, all bets were off when we moved to Germany a year after I graduated from university. I tried my hardest to remain a vegetarian for about a month into life in our new home. Every time I ordered something from a menu I went through a complicated process of naming every sort of animal part that could be in, let’s say, my potato soup. “Is there ham? Pork? Bacon? Meat? Pig? Fat?”

Of course the answer was always no, and the soup always arrived with bits of fried pork skin (or something else I didn’t think to explicitly mention in my ten minutes of questioning prior to my order). So I finally gave in. I do have a weakness for pork products and I was living in the land of sausage.

Now, many years later, I have definitely given up any attempts to be vegetarian, but I still choose my food carefully. Unless I can clearly identify which part of the animal (and which animal) a certain dish is coming from, I opt for the vegetarian version. And I find myself choosing meatless products more and more lately.

Around two years ago I read Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour, which describes his international search to find the perfect meal. Many of the stories he shares revolve around the closeness of most cultures to their food, specifically the actual life and death of the animals they eat. He talks a lot about the sterile food environment that most Americans are raised in – meat comes from a tightly sealed, vaccine-pumped, package in the US, not an animal.

Personally, I can totally relate to this concept. If I had to kill the animal I eat to make my meal, you can bet I’d be a vegetarian (which I do understand makes me somewhat hypocritical for eating meat in the first place, but I think we all know I’m not perfect). I do find it strange that we are so removed from our environment – I remember watching a Jamie Oliver show around the same time that I read Bourdain’s book (so obviously the same problem exists in the UK) about how British children don’t know what vegetables look like before they’re cooked or what animal is inside chicken nuggets. Scary.

Just before we left for our summer holidays this year I watched the movie Fast Food Nation (based on the book by Eric Schlosser, which I also own). Not surprisingly I had to close my eyes during the final scenes on the “kill floor.” The industrialization of food consumption in the US is so disgusting, it’s almost unbelievable that it can continue to exist. It freaks me out that I have been eating food that is produced in such a horrific way, and that somehow, our culture seems to have been convinced (myself included) that it tastes good. As you might expect, I steered well clear of any sort of chain restaurant (as well as meat in general) this summer.

Around the same time I started learning about the eastern garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean. Our reliance on plastics, and their inability to biodegrade, is terrifying. And the fact that almost everyone I’ve talked to about the topic has never heard of it, is even more scary. I shared a few videos with my relatives and have started talking about it with my students when we learn about water.

Last year I watched The Story Of Stuff which got me thinking about how casually we throw things away, and to now see some of the direct results of this “disposable” plastic totally freaks me out. I mean who thinks about the plastic granules in their facial cleanser not being able to biodegrade and ending up eaten by fish who mistakenly think it’s food, and who are then, in turn, eaten by us. How much plastic have I consumed unknowingly? 

During our time in Oregon, my mother-in-law loaned me a book called My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki. It’s a work of fiction, but based in truth with tons of references and citations. The stories of hormone injected meat and the impact those drugs can have on human development (beginning puberty at 5 years old in some cases) got me thinking about what kinds of foods I may have been exposed to as a child – when we were less informed about what goes into the industrial food chain. I actually still feel scared, although considering I’ve made it this far, I must be reasonably OK.

Of course Eugene, Oregon is the perfect place to have these kinds of discussions. If there is one community in the US that has their heart in sustainability and healthy living, I think it’s those lucky folks that live in Eugene.

Unfortunately for me, I really do love living overseas, so even though I feel right at home in the Pacific Northwest, once we headed back to Bangkok I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself – foodwise.

So I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. And then, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. If I wasn’t already in a panic about making food choices before I started reading, then I certainly am now. 

It’s clear that I should be buying local produce – not only do I know it will taste better and be fresher, more full of vitamins and nutrients – but it will also help support a more sustainable method of farming and feeding ourselves. Plus, I don’t want all my foods flown in from all over the world, using more fuel and spewing more carbon emissions into our already polluted environment, just to have a strawberry in December in Thailand.

But I’m also worried about safe food practices in my local environment. I routinely walk through a fog of pesticide spray designed to keep us free from insect invasion, and see that the poor person doing the spraying has no mask, the cloud of poisonous gas working its magic not only on the bugs, I’m sure.

A standard sign of life in the developing world, for sure, but what does this mean about how vegetables and fruits are grown in the countryside? Or how animals are raised? And what about the horrifying business practice of our political neighbors, like China. How do we even know where all of the local items are really coming from if the labels are written in Thai and so many international corporations have parent companies to mask their true origins?

So here I am, loving life in Thailand, but wondering what to eat. And how to make ethical choices in a developing country. To be honest, I don’t even know where to begin… Anyone have any advice?

 

Images From:
German Sausages & More from reiner.kraft
Veggie’s Splendor from suviko
Packaged Chicken Image
Garbage Patch Image
My Year of Meats Cover
The Omnivore’s Dilemma Cover
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Cover

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