a blog about the cultural experiences my husband and I have because of our work abroad...what's delightful and beautiful about different countries and cultures...what we have learned from living and working in countries other than our home country...and how those experiences have changed us

Friday, November 2, 2018

Music Teacher in Butte, Montana USA

Happy November! I tried to get this post ready for October but it just didn’t happen.  

As it’s been two full months since I started, I think it’s a good time to announce: I am the new elementary music teacher in Butte, MT! 

I have 520 students across three elementary schools, teaching general music to 3rd grade through 6th grade and orchestra class for the 6th grade at one of the schools. 

So let me back up a bit.

On a Sunday night in July, I submitted online job applications to two music jobs in different towns in Montana. I received a call for an interview in Butte that following Monday morning! By Thursday, I was offered the job for Butte and then received another call for an interview for the other job I applied for. I liked the the job description for Butte the best so I accepted their offer. Stephen and I also liked how friendly people were across the town. Although born and raised in Montana, I’ve barely been to Butte. Mostly, I drove past on the way to Billings or Bozeman. 

As many of you know, in January of this year, I attended the University of Montana and started a Master in Music Education program. I originally thought I would spend two years getting my second masters degree. But by mid-summer, I had completed all the steps for certification in Montana and felt like the best idea for the fall was to start working with kids again instead of continuing with the music education program. Having already earned certification in Washington made the process somewhat easier, but Montana has a pretty lengthy process.

It was a good decision: I’m really enjoying my new job! The district spent $60,000 last year buying new instruments and a new curriculum.

New xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels and more. These barred instruments are super fun for the kids and I love the curriculum that incorporates them into the lessons every week! After so many years writing my own curriculum and creating my own activities, having a great curriculum like this one is awesome. I still have to work tons of hours outside the school day to prepare, but it does make life somewhat easier.

Well I better get back to it. I have to practice cello, violin, piano and trombone! But I'll try to post a bit more often!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Staying in Laos

Well our three months in Laos has turned into six months…and counting! Stephen was supposed to have completed his consultancy by the end of February.  But after only a month and a half, the organization offered him a full time position. As the country director! We had to really think about it, but ultimately Stephen and I agreed that he should accept this offer. So now he’s the country director for a small Dutch NGO in Laos. We came here thinking it would be short-term and now we have agreed to stay on permanently!

This may not seem unusual, for us to be living in Laos (another southeast Asian country). But if you had asked us a year ago what we thought we would be doing and where we would be living, it isn’t likely we would have mentioned Laos. But while we were pursuing a life back in the US, this opportunity appeared out of nowhere. So a bit reluctantly and cautiously we agreed to accept. It was only short-term after all! But Laos has turned out to be quite a nice surprise and we are not unhappy to be staying for awhile more.

Since we are now residents of Laos, I want to share with you a few things about this little southeast Asian country. But before I do that, I want to make a correction on something I wrote earlier.  I said before that it’s not correct to pronounce the ’s’. However, as time has gone on, Stephen and I have noticed there’s some confusion on that. We hear both with an ’s’ and without from Lao people. So we are not quite sure which is appropriate. (By the way, Laos rhymes with ‘loud’ but with the ‘d’ replaced by an ’s’. It’s not “Lay ocean” the way I’ve heard some American politicians in videos from the 70’s pronounce it. Nor is “Laotian” a real term. It’s Lao people, Lao food, etc.)

Laos is bordered by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. Unlike it’s neighbors, Laos is a landlocked country, so no beaches. The language is Lao and it’s very similar to Thai. In fact the two languages share about 70% of their words. Written Lao is script that comes from ancient Khmer (Khmer is the language of Cambodia) and looks very much like Thai. Here is an example of how to write the script for the phrase meaning "Happy New Year" in both Thai and Lao. They are so similar it might just be a matter of different fonts!

So far Stephen and I know “sa bai dee” which is the Lao greeting and “khop chai” which means thank you. I have spent a bit of time studying Thai online. Since we visit Thailand frequently and the two languages share so much in common, I thought it would be a good start. Just recently I found a YouTube channel for Lao language. Vanida is quite funny.

I have found it challenging to learn SE Asian languages. Serious language study is time intensive and sometimes plain exhausting. But I hope to make a little bit more progress with Lao than I did with Burmese or Khmer. If I could go back in time and relive my college years, I would study languages (and art). :) So we’ll see if I can manage to do my own independent language study instead. 

Laos is a poor country. On the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2015, it ranks 138 out of 187. Just to give a little bit of reference, the US is ranked 8 and is part of the “Very High Human Development” group of countries. I’ve mentioned the Human Development Index before but for anyone not involved in development work, it’s not familiar or easy to understand. The HDI is a more comprehensive measure of the quality of life for people within a given country. Twenty-six years ago the first Human Development Report was published. Before that, how well countries were doing was based solely on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). But in 1990 the UN adopted a new measure. The shift acknowledged that looking only at the economy of a country did not fully explain the quality of life for all the people living in that country. The new three-dimensional measure tells a more complete story. Just because a country’s economy grows does not mean that all or even most of the people within that country benefit. By measuring 1) how many years people live and how healthy they are during those years of life, 2) how much education people receive, and 3) if they can earn enough money to pay for their basic needs, the UN can assess and rank the countries of the world. 

I’ve been reading the latest Human Development Report from 2016 online and it’s fascinating! There is a web version of the report with interactive graphics. (Click here to read the report yourself.) I love graphs and graphic representation of data. Hans Rosling a Swedish public health professor (who sadly passed away in February of this year) gave two awesome TED talks illustrating just how cool statistical information can be. (Click here to see his first TED talk) Graphs help make it easier to understand certain kinds of information. Below are three graphs showing the 3 dimensions of measurement that comprise HDI. I have included the US, South Africa, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos, all the countries we’ve lived and worked in. I have also included Thailand because it is a neighbor to Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos but has a much higher rank on the Human Development Index. 

Laos makes the third southeast Asian country we have lived in now. It feels somewhat familiar but also different. For example, there is still the language barrier but we can get by with only English. Most Lao people know a little bit of English, and the rest of our communications are with gestures: nodding or shaking your head, indicating whether to go straight or turn by pointing with your hand, holding up fingers to negotiate tuk-tuk fare. Three fingers means 30,000 kip. When we shop we know we have to search for ourselves for the items we are looking for because we mostly cannot ask. Well we can ask, but we won’t get an answer! I have gotten into the habit of going through an entire store just to make note of what they sell, for future reference. You can’t search the internet for stores that sell what you are looking for because a lot of places of business don’t have websites, or they aren’t in English anyway. It was the same way in Cambodia and Myanmar. 

Laos is in the tropics and has a similar climate to Cambodia and Myanmar with seasons being the following: 1) hot and dry 2) hot and rainy 3) cool and dry 4) cool and rainy. We use umbrellas to protect ourselves from the sun’s blazing heat as well as to shelter from the rain. I carry a bottle of water and handkerchief to wipe my face everywhere I go. I do a lot of laundry and I hang our clothes to dry year round. Dryers are rare. They use a lot of energy and mostly aren’t needed anyway.  

So those are a few of the ways that are similar and familiar to us having already lived in two SE Asian countries. But Vientiane feels different because it seems easier to live here than it did to live in Tugela Ferry, or Phnom Penh or Yangon. For one thing, the availability and reliability of goods is much better. In Cambodia we could go to the store and find cans of V8 on the shelves one week and then not see any again for months. Stephen likes Oat Squares cereal. When we found it here we were amazed and bought several boxes. But when those ran out we couldn’t find them in the three stores that had previously carried them. Stephen was sure we wouldn’t see any boxes for months. But it was only a week or two later, boxes of Oat Squares were back in stock. It might seem trivial. But this unreliability applies to many things in daily life. The inconveniences compound over time. But Laos is more reliable and that reliability makes it easier to live here. Not only can we buy the groceries we want when we want them more predictably, we also enjoy reliable power and reliable fast internet. These two things are huge. Power outages and disruption in internet access add a layer of challenge to getting work done and following plans. In Myanmar when I was teaching my music classes, my lessons almost always incorporated using the CD player, the computer, and the overhead projector. During a power outage of course I couldn’t use any of those. In 6 months we've had few power outages and the longest only lasting 2 1/2 hours. In Myanmar we would go all night without power and 6 hour power outages were a regular occurrence. Remember, no power means no air conditioner with temps in the 90’s and 100’s. 

So Laos feels easier and it is easier. We’ve experienced harder so this feels easier. I wonder, though, if we had come to Laos straight from the US without the other experiences to inform us, would we think it was harder to live here?? I also wonder what South Africa would feel like to us now. Any easier? A lot easier??? We have already been in Laos longer than we stayed in South Africa but the way the time felt to us couldn’t be more different. South Africa seemed like years, not months. We dove in to work, to language learning, to community involvement, to exploring the country. We read a lot of books on South Africa both before going and during our time there. And it all felt so very intense. With Laos, it’s much more laid back. 

So a little about Stephen’s work. He started with one project. His consulting was focused on a European Union (EU) health policy project in Laos, 1 of 8 such projects the EU is funding in eight different countries around the world. (Stephen’s work in Myanmar was also one of these eight.) The projects are all intended to advocate for good public health policy at the national level. This project is a “capacity building” project. Capacity building is a development term that means helping develop skills and increase the knowledge of the people within the country. Capacity building it often more challenging than things like digging wells, building schools, or distributing bed nets (to keep malaria carrying mosquitoes from biting you in your sleep). Capacity building means working alongside people to change them and/or their organizations in hopefully good ways. To do the work that Stephen is currently doing requires excellent relationship skills. As country director he is now managing several projects, people, and partnerships. It’s been a tremendous amount of work. Lots of “peopling” which is especially taxing and draining for an introvert, but also putting systems in place, getting a handle on the big picture ideas plus tracking down the small details. He is providing “Quiet”  leadership and building a good team around him. 

In December Stephen took me to the COPE center here in Vientiane. The knowledge that we gained from our visit has given us a feeling of connection to this country. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise. They provide prosthetics and rehabilitation for the people of Laos. Tragically, many people in Laos need artificial limbs because of the unexploded ordnance (bombs and cluster bombs) that were dropped during what Americans refer to as the Vietnam War, but that the Vietnamese call “the American War” and the Lao called “the Second Indochina War”. Around 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t detonate. The ground was soft and muddy from the monsoon rains, so the bombs didn’t meet enough resistance to explode.  As a result, there are still bombs in the ground, killing and maiming Lao people when they step on them, or when children pick them up not knowing their danger. Between 1964-1973, during the “Secret War” in Laos, the US dropped 2 million tons of ordinances on Laos. That’s the equivalent of a planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes 24-hours a day for 9 solid years. Here is a map that shows where that enormous volume of bombs were dropped on Laos.

I cannot imagine the hell those villagers lived through. And the horror lives on. These unexploded bombs are still in the soil all over the countryside ready to explode at any time. So that even today! about 50 Lao people, many of them children, become bomb victims each year.  This isn’t old news, on legaciesofwar.org the news from May 21, 2017 is that 1 person was killed and 12 were injured by a 4 decades old UXO (unexploded ordinance). Children often mistake the little bombs as toys, as the 10 year old girl did two weeks ago. 

Because it was my country that dropped these bombs, I feel that helping Lao people in some way, is a meaningful and valuable thing to do. The bombs were dropped before I was born, but the legacy of war is far reaching. If I can do something generative in a country that has suffered so much destruction, that just feels right and good.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Christmas in Laos, New Year's in Thailand

We spent Christmas in a foreign country again this year. This makes the 5th Christmas outside the US for Stephen and me. To be honest, during most of those years, I was happy not to have any pressure whatsoever to decorate or buy presents or really do any of the kinds of Christmas-y things I would normally do in the US. I think I was suffering from "Christmas fatigue". But this year I felt differently. I was delighted by any and all Christmas decorations or hints of a holiday season.

And even though we are just staying temporarily at a guest house, I bought a string of Christmas lights and taped them to the wall in the shape of a Christmas tree. Several of the coffee shops and restaurants, that mainly cater to tourists, had some decorations, holiday food and beverages.

Since I grew up in a place where December is snowy and cold, heat and humidity don’t really go with Christmas for me. But this year both Stephen and I were in the Christmas spirit despite the setting. We turned on Christmas music and enjoyed our Christmas “tree” twinkling in the background each evening.

Since returning to Vientiane after the retreat/conference in Vang Vieng, Stephen and I have been doing pretty ordinary things. It’s just that we are in an unordinary place. We have rented a room at a guest house that’s only a 10-minute walk for Stephen to his office in the National Institute of Public Health.

It’s about 30 minutes to walk into the city center where most of the good restaurants are. So nearly every evening we walk in to get dinner. Our room has a kitchenette with a sink, refrigerator, and two electric burners but I haven’t found a good place to buy groceries yet; so we mostly buy snacks and then eat out. I would prefer to cook but as we are so temporary, I don’t have any of my cookware and the ones provided by the guesthouse are rusty or otherwise questionable.

Just like we did in Yangon and Phnom Penh, we pay for everything with cash. The currency here is the Lao Kip (LAK). So far I’ve seen denominations in 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, 20000 and 50000.

The exchange is 8000 LAK to US$1. The ATM machines spit out 50000s which are only $6.25 each so a common amount to withdraw is 1,000,000 kip! Pretty crazy. It’s kind of like getting a whole bunch of 5 dollar bills. But it’s hard to think about such high numbers NOT being worth a lot. At the store a few weeks ago, the total was 400,000+ kip. The decimal point was in a strange place so I didn’t read the cash register correctly and I handed the checker a 50,000 bill.  That’s like giving the checker $5 when the total is over $50. Brother.

There are tuk-tuks here but they are much less comfortable than those in Cambodia and also much more expensive. A short trip is 50,000 or $6.25 which is 3 times as much as it was in Cambodia. So we have only taken a few tuk-tuk rides so far. Once with the country director to see his rental space, once with all our luggage to move from one hotel to another

and once to go to the airport.

What that means is that we are walking everywhere we want to go and getting lots of exercise!

Our guesthouse is $25/night which includes a breakfast. The breakfast is simple consisting of instant coffee, an omelet and a baguette with butter and jam. There are twin beds in the room and Stephen’s is particularly hard. The room is cleaned about every other day by the maid service but even so I bought some sponge cloths and scoured the shower, and revolting drain, and mopped the floors by hand. We need to be careful when we shower because the electrical does not really meet US-code, with a 220v outlet on the wall practically inside the shower.

The internet at the guesthouse is quite terrible. We are almost the closest room to the main office and we barely get a signal in the room. For the best strength we need to go sit inside the office or on the porch. But that doesn’t guarantee you will have internet. It fluctuates wildly. One minute I’m connected, the next minute I’m not. Going to coffee shops is usually better but not during busy times. Everyone has the same plan and it then slows everything down for all of us.

Since we are living in a guesthouse, I don’t have a washing machine. So we found a laundry service in the city center that charges 8000kip ($1) per kg.

When I give my clothes to the owner of the shop, I hand it to him in a plastic bag. The clothes are not itemized, he doesn’t ask for my name, or give me a receipt. He simply says, “tomorrow morning”. The first time we took our laundry to him he weighed the bag and told us how much it would cost. But since then he just tells me the total when I pick it up the next day. Quite an honor system. But so far we haven’t lost a single item of clothing. So that’s pretty great!

We decided to spend the New Year’s holiday in Bangkok. It’s about an hour flight and we don’t even change time zones. :) We always enjoy visiting Bangkok after living in one of the less developed countries in the region. Things work better like shower drains and internet, we can buy clothes/shoes, medicines and toiletries if we need to, and there's a Starbucks on nearly every block!  Each trip to Bangkok is a little reprieve from the day to day living challenges we encounter in whichever country we are coming from.

There were plenty of decorations for Christmas and New Year’s throughout Bangkok even though the whole country is in mourning.

In the Thai airlines magazine there was a section explaining that though it wasn’t mandatory, visitors were requested to wear dark tone clothing to honor the late king Rama IX. All Thais are required to wear black, grey or white. The inflight magazine had a large story full of paintings of the king. When we went to the movie, there was a long documentary honoring the late king. There were phrases like, “our father hasn’t left us, he’s in the earth…and the wind”. Almost like he was deity. And as usual we stood to honor the king just before the movie started. In the airport while we waited for our flight back to Vientiane, there was another, longer documentary about all the humanitarian projects the king had started during his 7 decades of rule. I don’t know long the period of mourning lasts. The king Rama the IX passed away on October 13, 2016 and most everyone was wearing black and/or black ribbons pinned to their shirts through the new year.

On the flight back a new magazine was in the seat pocket for January. On the cover was the new king Rama X, the son of the late king Rama IX. The article in the magazine stated that the new king has ascended to the throne. Maybe the period for mourning will end soon.

These customs and practices and reverence for a king are things that I, as an American, cannot really relate to. For me kings and kingdoms are only ancient stories I’ve read about. Most of the time when we visit Thailand it’s easy to look at the skyscrapers and high end shopping malls and overlook the Thai culture underneath. But this visit was different. Thai culture was more dominant and I was glad that just by accident both Stephen and I were wearing dark colors and white.

It was a nice short trip to Bangkok. We picked up a few supplies to bring back: coffee, shampoo & conditioner, citronella mosquito repellent, and high quality dark chocolate. Just a few things to make life a little nicer. The water in Vientiane, just like it was in Yangon, is harsh on my hair. Some good conditioner cuts down on the mass of tangles I have. And though we did bring mosquito repellent with us because mosquitos LOVE Stephen and find him everywhere, it didn’t seem to deter them and they would buzz in his ears all night. Unfortunately we did not bring our mosquito net with us. Stephen did a little research and found that the repellent that we had, picardin, has little effectiveness on the type of mosquitos here in Vientiane. I’m happy to report that the new citronella repellent does work. Thank goodness.

Vientiane really is a charming little city. I like it. And it’s nice to be back. Bangkok is so so crowded and there are traffic jams nearly all day and night. Not in Vientiane. There is a short rush hour around 5pm but the rest of the time it’s easy to find a break in the traffic to cross the street when you want.

Mostly people drive slowly and there is hardly any honking. Yangon was a cacophony of car, truck and bus horns. The bus horns were especially obnoxious and loud. And on more than one occasion a driver would honk his horn just as he passed me, to see me jump, and enjoy a good laugh at my expense. I haven’t encountered that kind of rudeness in Vientiane yet. The tuk-tuk drivers are respectful too. They will ask me if I need a ride, but only once. If I say no, they most often reply, “thank you”. In Bangkok this time Stephen had to say “no” to several taxi drivers repeatedly. They did not respect our first “no” and instead went on to name tourist attractions they could take us to. I understand they need to make money, and I suppose that tactic must work for them sometimes, but it’s quite rude. So it’s nice that in Vientiane, by contrast, I can have pleasant exchanges with the tuk-tuk drivers instead.

Stephen is back at work after a little holiday break. And I’m working on my art. The ideal thing for me is a studio that I can set up and leave. But I’m trying to do what I can, given our unique situation. We’ve moved to a different room and the table outside gets a nice amount of natural light to work by.

It’s still the cool dry season so I don’t have to contend with high heat and humidity or torrential rains. So this little set up affords me a few good hours during the day to work on my colored pencil pieces. For now. :)

So that’s what we’ve been up to. We ended 2016 on a nice note and are excited to see how 2017 unfolds.

Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 10, 2016


We are in Laos! And it’s a bit unexpected! About 3 weeks ago, Stephen received an email from the project manager of the sister project in Laos to Stephen’s project in Yangon. The Laos project manager had been promoted to country director and so the project needed a new manager. He wanted to know if Stephen was available to consult on the project for 3 months. Just so happens that Stephen was available and it seemed to us this was an opportunity we couldn’t really pass up. So Stephen got the ball rolling pretty quickly and here we are back in Southeast Asia during the cool dry season, heading into Christmas in a country where it’s not celebrated all that much, and working on public health that will hopefully benefit some poor people in Laos.

I had little time to consider this opportunity and even less time to prepare for it mentally or materially. We only brought 3 bags with us, not even the full allowance, which is in sharp contrast to the 7-9 bags and extra luggage charges we usually have to deal with. The week before we flew out was Thanksgiving, which we spent with my family at my sister’s house, and it was just focused family time. I hardly even thought about what I might need to buy or pack to take with us overseas. Of course we have become quite familiar with where we can purchase the things we need in the region; Bangkok and Singapore have most everything we could want or need. Plus as we have been living out of hotel rooms for the past 7 months, we’ve learned that we can live without a lot of stuff that we once thought we needed. Both of us are going into this new country/new experience with almost no expectations. A bit of a change for us, but I think it’s a healthy approach.

Our first day in Laos was somewhat of a familiar routine for us. Our hotel has a similar feel to the three other SE Asian countries we’ve spent so much time in. Oddly though, there was no electric kettle in the room; something I fully expected as every other Asian hotel room has had one. I was prepared to drink the terrible instant nescafe I thought I would find in the morning. But I didn’t even have that luxury. Ha! At 6am it’s always hard to find a coffee shop open in SE Asia but the hotel staff were happy to bring us hot water. They brought a tea pot of hot water and one cup. I poured two Starbucks Vias and a packet of hot chocolate mix into the pot. I generally need milk in my coffee to drink it but a solid night’s sleep following a long haul international flight transformed instant coffee and cocoa mix into a marvelous treat!

Our bed was hard and our pillows were lumpy but we slept well anyway. We did things a little differently this time and didn't sleep during the 11-hour layover in Seoul like we routinely do, so we arrived in Vientiane with just a few hours of uncomfortable airplane sleep during the 40 hour journey from the US to Laos. I guess being that tired helps to eliminate sleep problems.

On our second day in Vientiane, we took a long walk. It’s hard with jet lag but lots of exercise after one of these journeys to the other side of the planet helps me tremendously. We walked towards the Mekong river and found a lovely park. Then a bit further we stopped into a guesthouse to check extended stay rates. After that we looped back towards our hotel and found a large indoor market and a shopping center.

At day two I was still feeling a bit ambivalent about being in Laos. Something that helped me turn the corner was when we stopped into an independent hair salon to get Stephen’s haircut. The owner of the shop couldn’t have been more friendly and accommodating. I liked him instantly. Before we had hardly stepped inside he said to us, “How can I help you?” and when Stephen replied that he needed a cut, the owner gestured to his assistant who would wash Stephen’s hair. (Later Stephen told me that is was the most thorough hair washing he’d ever received!) I sat on a cushioned bench to wait. As soon as the owner/barber/hairstylist finished with his current customer he turned on the air conditioner just for me. Even though it is the cool season, we had been walking a lot that morning and I was warm. I had taken out my handkerchief and wiped my face just after I sat down. Something I’ve experienced time and time again is just how observant and attentive people throughout SE Asia are.

I wasn’t sure how much English proficiency the hairstylist had so I thought it would be helpful to show him a photo of Stephen when his hair was short. So I found one and when Stephen came back out front I showed it to him and then with his permission showed it to the barber. He glanced at it for all of one second and then proceeded to cut Stephen hair in EXACTLY that length, shape and style! I would almost venture to say it’s the best haircut Stephen has ever received! So awesome. And the price for this expert cut? $10.

The subtitle of my blog notes that I write about things that delight us about other countries and cultures. This is a perfect example. Getting a good haircut has become so nearly impossible for me that I’ve given up. I cut my own hair. But here we just walked into a totally unknown shop and walked out satisfied beyond expectation. The experience lifted my spirits for the whole day!

These happy surprises in Vientiane are starting to accumulate. Like the fact that the sidewalks aren’t broken up and full of holes. Hold on, let me back up: that there ARE sidewalks is a welcome surprise! And these sidewalks aren’t mostly taken up with food vendors, motorbikes, or lots and lots of people.

In general it is a quiet city. Fewer people helps. Vientiane has an estimated 760,000 people, while Phnom Penh (according to Wikipedia) has 1.5 million people, Yangon’s 2014 census report revealed there were 7.36 million people living in that city and Bangkok (according the the UN) is home to 9.3 million people. Having lived in all three of those densely populated SE Asian cities, Vientiane is a breath of fresh air. Literally! That’s another pleasant surprise: very few foul smells on the air! You can imagine just how nice that is!! :)

On Monday we drove north to the town of Vang Vieng with the whole team from the organization Stephen will be working with. It was their annual conference and since we were here we were included. It’s an absolutely gorgeous spot set on the CLEAN Nam Song river with limestone mountains as a backdrop. This is a hot tourist destination as there are many forms of entertainment: 4 wheel exploring, river kayaking and tubing, cave hikes, hot air ballon and hang glider rides plus poolside relaxing with drinks!

I’m quite content to sit at the open air restaurant and watch the myriad of traffic crossing the wooden bridge or out on our deck just enjoying the peacefulness of the mountains.

Stephen spent a long day in meetings learning about the project and getting to know the staff. The last two days have been intensive work. There’s always so much at the start of a new job. What’s nice is he’s already familiar with the project and his supervisor. Much of what he did for his project in Yangon will serve him well in this new project. And of course I am biased, but the project and the organization will be well served by Stephen! :)

As we were sitting at lunch today I said to Stephen that it feels like this opportunity is such a gift. It wasn’t something we pursued, it came to us, but these past 7 days have just been so nice.

Until the next post…

(P.S. Writing takes a LOT of time and energy. I know that’s not a novel concept but it kind of hit me today and explains a lot why my blog has been so quiet for over a year.)

Saturday, January 2, 2016

First semester as the lower primary music teacher

As I wrote in my last post, once I started my job as the lower primary music teacher at MIS, all my time and energy went into work. My blog was one of the things I had to set aside. So now, on holiday break, I'm am doing catch up posts. The first was mostly about Stephen's work. This one is all about my work.

By mid-October I felt fairly comfortable in meeting the demands of my job. True I had all but abandoned the Urban Sketching Club I had started and did almost nothing on the weekends but the absolutely necessary chores. My job consumed my life. But I was doing a good job.  I was writing good lesson plans and submitting them early. I was creating activities for my students that helped them meet the standards for the National Music Curriculum of England. These activities were engaging and fun so that without even realizing it, they were developing a variety of musical skills. Slowly but surely I was creating my own music manipulatives such as laminated solfeggi circles for sight singing, laminated quarter notes and eighth notes for rhythm practice, and individual repeat sign cards for listening exercises. I don’t have an assistant so I do everything myself. And the laminating machine is in the main building across the street, so I need a large block of prep time for those projects. I only have a couple such blocks of time each week. Though I requested instruments in August, I received nothing. Nor was I reimbursed for the class set of shakers I bought which I used with nearly every class. The shakers and claves (rhythm sticks) were the two instruments I had enough of where each child could have an instrument. So wow did I make good use of those two instruments. Claves were excellent for rhythm practice. I would tap a rhythm using some combination of quarter notes and eighth notes and all the children would echo my rhythm—in unison. Then each child would have an opportunity to be the leader and the rest of us would echo that student’s rhythm pattern. This is excellent practice in working together as an ensemble. Laying the foundation for future participation in a band or orchestra when they are older. The shakers were especially good for my nursery and KG classes. I would play a variety of music and allow my young students to shake to the music in whatever way they chose. They could also get up and dance while playing their shaker. I gave a model for the children to follow if they chose, generally a steady beat or repeated pattern that matched the rhythm of the music. Smiles abound when they get the shakers and I turn on the music. They think they are just having fun. But actually they are learning to respond to a variety of music with movement and improvise with an instrument—two standards in the curriculum. :)

I love the challenge of taking curriculum standards and translating them into fun and engaging activities for kids. I love to make learning fun. Because it is! But it does take a lot of effort and by the end of October I was extremely ready for a break.

We got a full week off the last week of October for the Buddhist holiday Thadingyut Festival, or Lighting Festival. MIS had a half day before the break and everyone spent the morning in ceremony. In the Lower Primary building, specialist teachers for music, art, PE, and Myanmar studies went to each classroom so the children of each class could apologize for any sins or wrongdoings they may have committed and the teachers could offer their forgiveness and good wishes as is the tradition of the religious holiday. It was my first exposure to the holiday and the particular practices of my school and yet, in the very first nursery class where we started I was asked to speak first. I smiled at the room full of nursery children and expectant parents and said a few words wishing them good health and happiness. When I stopped speaking the nursery teacher clearly wanted me to say more but I had nothing else. I got better at my little speech as we moved from class to class adding words of forgiveness and elaborating on all the good things I wished for them.

It was a special day for the children to get to come to school dressed in colorful traditional Myanmar clothes instead of their customary red school uniform. Even the children who aren’t Buddhist or Myanmar dressed up. I didn’t have a traditional outfit made so I wore one of my skirts made out of traditional cloth.

After the asking for and receiving of forgiveness, the children present their teachers with gifts. As a specialist I have 175 students and I received so many bags of gifts I couldn't possible carry them all. Two of the women who clean our school noticed me staring at all the bags and saw that I needed help. They kindly offered to carry my bags to the street where I could catch a taxi home. Gifts of cookies, coffee, towels, blankets and yards of beautiful fabric. This pre-holiday ceremony was the first time I was able to engage with some of the parents of my students. It made the day a lovely send off to the much needed break.

As I wrote in my previous post we spent the week relaxing on the beach. I booked the trip knowing full well I would be exhausted by that point. Little did I know what was coming after the break would be the most taxing part of the semester!

The Wednesday before our week off, my principal said I needed to start thinking about “costumes” for my classes for the Holiday Program. Every year (since the school opened in 2009 I presume) the music teacher has hired a tailor to make unique costumes for all the children to perform in on stage  during the big holiday program. I wasn’t quite sure just what this holiday program was so I did some searching and found a video of the 2014 program. In the US there is usually a band concert or choir concert for the upper grades. Younger children generally sing songs and play simple patterns on percussion instruments. What I mostly saw on the video was class after class doing some rehearsed movements to pop music and in some cases lip-syncing too. Some classes had quite elaborate costumes. I knew before watching the video that I wanted my classes to sing and for the older grades to play percussion instruments to accompany themselves. But after watching the video I realized that people would not be expecting this and might not welcome the change that I would bring to the program. But I was really proud of the music skills I was teaching my students. They love to sing and can sing well, in tune and in unison. They enjoy playing instruments even more and love every opportunity I give them to try each new instrument I introduce. I really wanted to share all this with their parents. To instead teach them dance moves to some professional recording artist’s song, seemed to deprive my students of the opportunity to share their own musical skills.

So I decided to stick with my original concept of a concert for my portion of the holiday program. All my classes would sing songs. So the music was decided but I still had to figure out the “costumes”. The Holiday Program was scheduled for December 4 which meant when I returned from the break I would have basically 1 month to get custom made clothes for 175 children! When I asked my tailor over the summer to make my skirts, she took a week to make 4! I was in a panic. How in the world could I get all these tailor-made clothes made in time??? I didn’t even have a pattern to work from yet!

Stephen suggested I just have choir robes made. Fit wouldn’t matter so much, so in theory sewing could be faster. So I tried that idea. I found a few pictures of choir robes online. I measured my students and took photos of a few. With the drawing tool in my photo editing program I drew a crude drawing of a robe onto the photo of one of the boys. And I took all of these things to my tailor.

Complete disaster. She just kept shaking her head. Remember, she speaks very little English and I speak no Myanmar language. As best as I could understand, she had never seen a choir robe and had no idea how to make one, particularly not from pictures and without an actual garment to work from.

My principal told me to ask some of the homeroom teachers about the tailors they had used in the past. The Holiday Program is a major production and major showpiece for the school. It happens at a big hotel owned by the owner of our school. Fancy lighting and sound systems are brought in. Dinner is provided for everyone—all 650 students and their relatives, all teachers and assistant teachers. It lasts for hours. And it’s done every single year! You would think, at least I did, that the school would have found a lead tailor for this yearly project. But when I asked, the response was, “No, I don’t have a tailor.” and  “No, I don’t know a tailor.” or worse "Last year's tailor really messed up the costumes." So I decided to use my tailor and ask the assistant teachers in my building to help translate for me.

The robe idea was out. So I went to Ocean market and looked at the children’s clothes. I found a sweet little princess dress, a pair of boys short pants, and a shirt. Now I had actual garments, I just needed to get the right colors of fabric and then get measurements for all the students. Just that! Good golly!!!

Finally my tailor Oh Ma came to my school and some of the assistant teachers started helping me explain what I wanted her to do for me. Think about how hard communication is when people speak the same language! Now add to that that I was feeling the intense time crunch we were under! Many of the questions I needed answers to and instructions I needed to give Oh Ma were lost in translation. But the major message was successfully communicated that I needed Oh Ma to be the lead tailor for my project and find tailors to help share the load of work. Also that I had wanted to use the same basic pattern for the clothes, but that I needed a unique color scheme for each of my 10 classes. There wasn’t time enough to find 10 unique patterns so I wanted the colors alone to meet the criteria my principal gave me of something different for every single class.

Oh Ma left that first meeting with the job of finding tailors to help her and she needed to get back to me as soon as possible with whether or not she could do what I was asking in the time frame we had to work with.

She did get back to me quickly with the answer that yes she could get everything done, but the soonest was December 10. By this point, my principal was working to get the program changed to a later date. But it had not been finalized. I decided I needed to find more tailors if I could, just in case the program could not be switched to the later date.  With the assistance of one of the homeroom teachers, I found one more tailor. The manager of this tailor department was wonderful to work with. Because she was fluent in English, I could easily explain to her exactly what I envisioned. She also had a wonderful eye for detail and added things I wanted for the clothes that I just could not communicate to Oh Ma with the language barrier. Sadly this new tailor department could only handle one class. But at least it was one class less for Oh Ma.

Amazingly, Oh Ma delivered. Though everything was not perfect (fit could have been better, color choices could have been different, etc.), all the children had color coordinated clothes to wear on stage. And she even made the December 4 deadline! I demanded a lot from her but I gave her a big job and I think she came out financially better off for it. There were a number of misunderstandings and mistakes made that had to be corrected, and frustrations were high on both our parts. But I hope in the end she benefitted at least as much as I did from our work relationship.

The costumes project took a huge chunk of time out of my weeks: not just my prep time but also after school and during the classes with my students. Class time that should have been spent practicing music. Originally, my principal said that I needed one song for each class. That’s what I had planned and practice for. But when he learned that the songs my students were singing were only 1 minute songs and not the 3 minute songs of the pop type that they have danced to in the past, he said I need 2 songs for each class.

My students are young, the oldest classes are 6-year-olds. And add to that they are ALL English language learners. They need more time to fully learn the lyrics of new songs. Some of the classes had been working on their songs for months. Now I had to add new songs to each class and we had 3 weeks to learn them. When the program date was changed, I saw a much needed opportunity to focus on the music side of the program. Finally the presentation side was in hand. It was necessary, but for me the most important part was the music. So I made CDs of each class’s songs and typed out the lyrics, gave these to the homeroom teachers and asked them if they wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes of their day to quickly run through the songs. I used music with the lyrics to support reading skills when I had my own homeroom classes, so I thought this would not only be a help for me but could be added to the homeroom teachers’ reading lessons.

The final week of school was almost all about the Holiday program. Monday was rehearsal in the assembly hall at the school. Tuesday was rehearsal at the hotel. Wednesday was a half day with the Holiday Program commencing at 3pm. For the entire week I ran on adrenaline. By 3 pm on Wednesday afternoon I was calm and ready. I had never worked so hard to prepare for a production. And in the end I did it. All the details came together. My kids looked great and there were some authentic musical moments. My nursery and KG classes sang songs and did movements that either supported the lyrics or some musical aspect of the songs. My Y1 and Y2 students sang songs with hand motions too. But every class sang at least one sang where they also played an instrumental accompaniment. I used all the percussion instruments I had in my classroom (drums, guiros, claves, shakers, ring bells, and castanets) plus a set of bells I bought in Singapore in early November when I realized I was not going to get the hand bells I had ordered from the school. I managed to do what I set out to do despite many hurdles.

So here are the photos from my program, thanks to my Kiwi friend and fellow teacher, Kimberly.