Friday, May 02, 2008

A trip to China.

Longer ago than I'll admit here, I took a trip to Shanghai for 4 days, and subsequently uploaded pictures to blogspot but never actually made a post out of them. Well, as I often tell my students when they wander in sheepishly in the middle of class, better late than never!

My trip to Shanghai was entirely impromptu, the result of having 5 days off in a row and a friend there I wanted to visit. So, I went to Shanghai without knowing almost anything about the city, and was immediately struck by a few things, especially as they compare to Bangkok.

First, the city is HUGE. Wikipedia puts the population at over 18 million, and because the city is concentrated and organized it feels like its population is that high. Spending time downtown, walking on crowded streets surrounded by skyscrapers, the city felt 5 times bigger than the sprawling disorganization that is Bangkok, instead of just double it.

Second, there are bicyles everywhere, while in Bangkok almost no one uses them to get around. (And for good reason- sidewalks are narrow if there even are any, streets are narrow and crowded, Bangkok isn't on a grid, and it's too hot anyway).

What's more, there were people walking everywhere. Of course people also walk in Bangkok, but primarily as means to getting to or from a bus stop or train station, and go through great lengths to avoid it. But in Shanghai, it seemed more the norm and also (relatively speaking) was exponentially more pleasant to walk. I lucked out and experienced weather between about 50 and 70F, and greatly enjoyed wandering around the city for hours by foot.

The most surprising thing to me about Shanghai was how modern, clean, and organized the city is. In other words, there is actual city planning, a concept that does not exist at all in Bangkok. There are wide streets, good sidewalks, nice public squares and parks, and an expansive subway/commuter train system. It reminded me of a much larger Singapore, though not quite so planned.

Many parts of the city are very pretty, again contrasting heavily with Bangkok.

There sure are a lot of Chinese people, though. Shanghai is crowded! For all it's traffic, lack of standing in lines and general chaos, Bangkok never feels as "people crowded" to me as Shanghai did. It's definitely a push-or-be-pushed kind of place at times.

The Oriental Pearl in Pudong (the very recently developed area of Shanghai on the east side of the river) is one of Shanghai's most famous landmarks... and it was exactly what it looks like. A massive, ugly purple tower that tourists flock to because, well, it's a massive, ugly purple tower.

Pudong itself is fascinating though, as almost everything you see in this skyline has been developed in the last ten years. China, despite it's many (many) problems, is developing at an astonishing rate.

The highlight of my trip was going to West Lake for the day. Located in the city of Hangzhou, about a 2 hour train ride from Shanghai, West Lake is sort of a national park area centered around a large lake. It was a fairly touristy area, full of families visiting for the afternoon, but beautiful and peaceful nonetheless.

We actually started the day in a nearby tea village, which was somewhat touristy but interesting and beautiful, requiring a taxi ride up a windy road lined with trees.

We (that's my friend Ned, to whom I must apologize for this picture) had lunch and tea at this little cafe run out of a families home.

The road leading up from the lake to the tea village.

After lunch we wandered back down the hill, hiking down through some fields and past traditional Chinese style temples and other buildings. Again though let me restate the touristy nature of the area, lest you think I travelled anywhere half as exotic as some of this might look. (I mean, just a few miles from this, Ned and I had a snack at a KFC.) But it was still beautiful.

The lake itself really was a stunning sight, and we managed to catch the sun setting there before we went back into town.

Even the last few minutes of my trip were fun because I got to ride on the Maglev, the world's fastest train. See the km/hour figure above? The train runs from southeastern Shanghai directly to the airport, and is capable of exceeding 430km/h. Actually though, cool as it is, this is a great example of what happens with a communist government spending the people's money. This train only goes between this one station and the airport, and the ride takes 7 minutes. The Maglev barely has time to accelerate before it must slow down again. Thus the train could easily have been built using a normal high speed system and still get to the airport in like 10 minutes and not have cost $1.33 billion US.

But then, China couldn't say "LOOK WORLD! I HAVE FASTEST TRAIN!"

Oh and there's even a VIP section, which costs double the regular fare, because nothing says VIP like sitting in a slightly more comfortable chair for 7 minutes.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Attempting to Learn Thai 17

April 29, 2008

Months in Thailand: 22

Hours at AUA: ~1500 (Level 5-10)

Reading and Writing: AUA Level 4 (~8 months/~200 hours in class time)

(Not) In Class:

I haven't attended classes at AUA since the end of February. I didn't plan to stop at exactly this point, but as a result of a number of factors (i.e. life outside of AUA), what was meant to be a one week break turned into what is so far a two month one.

By the time I stopped going, I was only attending a few hours of Listening class per week, and doing so mainly out of habit and for their entertainment value. Level 5-10 was, by this time, usually helpful only in providing some specialized or unusual vocabulary, as I would normally understand 99% of the discussion and perhaps 95% or more of the words and grammar used. Additionally of course, classes still continued to give listening exposure, which, even when it is easy, never hurts. But there was little real benefit and I would definitely say that time spent with other sources of exposure- TV, movies, news, conversations, etc.- was by this time vastly more useful to me.

Please note, however, that this is not a criticism of AUA or its methods. Not needing to go anymore was always the goal, and really in terms of Listening class, this had already been the case for 6 months.


I took AUA's writing through level 4, and then repeated level 4 (most students do this), though with a number of absences, before I stopped going to class. Levels 4-5 are essentially just daily practice and do not have a linear progression through rules etc. as did levels 1-3, so "repeating" is just a matter of getting more practice. In class itself, Level 4 included reading outloud from (roughly speaking) elementary level passages, learning vocab and grammar from these passages and related excercises, and taking dictation of these passages to practice writing, spelling, etc. Homework involved writing sentences, paragraphs, or very short essays. I was getting lazy during level 4 though and as a rough estimate, only did about 30 mintues of homework per class.

Outside of class, I finished "Mee Why Pua Sap," the book of short stories that I previously mentioned, about 2 months ago. Overall, I was reading faster and with better comprehension as I progressed through it, though this would vary according to the content of the different stories. When I was reading with full attention, I'd say I had the most basic gist 80-90% of the time and understood the majority of the language used, but would still find many sentences and phrases that I didn't understand. And it still took something like 5-10 minutes on average to read a page.

I also read, back in January, a cartoon novel called "Firehead and Bean Sprout" (don't ask). The book had illustrations on every page but also large blocks of text, sometimes whole pages, written at a similar level as "Mee Why Pua Sap" that I mentioned above- so it wasn't really a kids book. Because of the illustrations I could follow this better, rarely losing the most basic gist but still constantly encountering words, phrases, idioms, etc. that I didn't understand.

Beyond these, I've read some magazine articles with varying success, understanding anywhere from 50-90% depending on the topic, style, and vocab. The newspaper though is still more like deciphering a code than "reading." Another interesting benchmark is my speed at reading Thai subtitles for English language movies has vastly increased. I remember typically only being able to read the first one or two words before the words changed, but can now sometimes read half or all of the subtitles before they disappear, dependent of course on the level of vocab and how quickly the text changes.

Out of Class:

Noticing progress from day to day is becoming impossible, but I still often have moments when I realize that I am speaking more fluidly, or more confidently, or just faster than I used to, or using vocab, slang, or structures that I previously didn't. Furthermore, though I can't really quantify it, I think in Thai more often now and in more extended, advanced ways.

I recently hurt a friend's feelings during a serious conversation by using a phrase that, while it had the correct meaning and was not strange to say, was just a little too direct and not exactly what a Thai would typically have said if they wanted to be sensitive about it. The difference really was slight, the sort of slip that occurs all the time with people speaking the same native language simply because someone doesn't think quite carefully enough before speaking, and so I asked her to cut me a little slack since after all, I'm speaking Thai.

In turn, however, she only got more insistent that I can't say things like this if I don't know the exact implication or level of directness implied. Then she told me that if another foreigner had said this, she would not have been upset, but because my Thai is so good she hadn't considered whether or not I had actually intended to be as blunt as I was.

Having said that, the more I hang out in 100% Thai situations in which I'm the only foreigner and no one is adjusting their speech on my behalf, the more I realize I have a long way to go. Just last night I went out with 4 Thai friends, one of whom speaks notoriously fast (his girlfriend doesn't even understand him sometimes), and while I followed some conversation 100% and participated easily, sometimes I was pretty lost. But whenever someone addressed me directly and we talked one-on-one, the confusion always cleared up. It's not even a speed issue actually, because talking one-on-one people who accurately access my Thai don't slow down much or at all. It's more about slang, idioms, and the sort of bad pronunciation that natives (of any language) use when speaking to each other. I mean, I sometimes don't even follow everything being said between two British guys. So in fact, it's parallel to what I see with my better students. I can talk to them directly without much trouble, even joking and speaking quickly, but if I start talking to them as if they were an American friend of mine, they get completely lost.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Attempting to Learn Thai 16

December 13, 2007
Months in Thailand: 17.5
Hours at AUA: ~1319 (Level 5-10)
Reading and Writing: AUA Level 3 (~4 months/~90 hours in class time)

In Class:

I just went to 2 listening hours for the first time in weeks, and my comprehension was 95-100%. I even knew basically every non-specialized word used. My "Language Acquired" is now rated at 78%, which I feel is low... but then again, AUA classes are totally free after reaching 85%, so they may not be in a hurry to award the last few percentage points.


Tomorrow is the last day of Writing Level 3. At this point, I know the entire alphabet, Thai numerals, and all of the "rules" (more like guidelines...) for irregular spellings and pronunciations. Essentially, at this point I have all the needed tools for deciphering written Thai. If, given enough time, I still cannot make sense of something written in Thai, it now comes down to vocabulary, idiom, or cultural references or implications that I don't understand rather than inability with the actual writting system. Here are some examples of attempted reading:

Newspaper: I can get the idea, but newspapers are full of names, royal terms, and language that is too formal for me to really read yet.

Comic Book: About a month ago (a long time given I've only been doing 4 months of writing) I read through a volume of Initial D in Thai. It was very slow going and I needed to look up a few words, but I could really read and follow it. Comprehension ~80-90%... though keep in mind there are lots of pictures! (On a side note, it's very strange to be reading a Japanese comic book, which was later made into an animated series that I have watched in English, translated into Thai.) The 10 volume first series, combined into one paperback with about 200 pages, took me at least 5 hours. It was my first real, extended attempt at reading.

Car magazines: If I slog through every word, 70-80% comprehension, but it's too slow and tedious to enjoy. If I try to read at a faster pace, I lose the gist because the narrative isn't continuous enough; one sentence is about suspension, the next about tires, the next about brakes, and it's all too detail oriented to really absorb.

My first "real" Thai book: I'm reading a book of short stories by an author from Chiang Mai called "Mee Why Pua Saap," which I don't know how to translate. The first short story was 15 pages and took me about 10 hours to read; the second was 25 pages and also took about 10 hours. If the reading were any more difficult, I don't think I could stand it, but I am engaged and following it just well enough to keep going. My understanding of the most basic gist is ~70%, meaning I follow the general story and many of the details, but am often missing the finer points and at times, am confused about certain nuances of the plot. At the sentence level, sometimes I understand every word as well as every implication in a sentence; in other sentences I understand all the words but am not certain about the meaning, and others still I really don't get a thing. Nevertheless, I can follow the narrative at this slow pace and without a dictionary (though I often use one to check words I'm especially curious about or stuck on).

Out of Class:

It's harder and harder to mark progress, but I still feel it. Things continue to get smoother. The most noteworthy recent example is that I was able to explain turbocharging, and a number of other things about cars and engines, to a taxi driver. It was kind of bumpy because I lacked certain specialized terms (names of parts etc.) but I could do it, and he could follow it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Royal Barge Procession (now with videos! see link at the bottom of the post!)

Friday, November 2nd, I went with The British Club of Bangkok to watch the final dress rehearsal for the Royal Barge Procession on the Jaobraya River, Bangkok's main waterway. The real procession was to be held the following Monday in celebration of King Bhumibol's (pronounced closer to Boom-ee-bon) 80th Birthday. The British Club rented an open air , dockside restaurant, and so I had a great view.

The event was quite a spectacle, to say the least. 52 boats and over 2,000 oarsmen take part in the procession, and on Monday tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of people gathered up and down the Jaobraya to watch the real thing. Unfortunately the light made it extremely difficult to take good pictures, but the few here in this post (and the videos below) should give you the idea.

The day to day novelty of living in Bangkok has long since worn off for me, but seeing something like this reminds me of just how different and interesting a city I live in.

For more, see Wikipedia's excellent article here, and please see my youtube videos Video 1 Video 2

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Attempting to Learn Thai 15

October 21, 2007
Months in Thailand: 16
Hours at AUA: ~1280 (Level 5-10)
Reading and Writing: AUA Level 2 (~10 weeks/~50 hours in class time)

In Class:

Nothing much new here... still beneficial but far easier than I need. My understanding is 90-100%.

Out of Class:

Here's why I'm posting.

Last Saturday, as I was leaving work, I walked by the most beautiful woman I've seen in over a year of living in Bangkok. She was striking to the point that I couldn't not talk to her, so stunning that the impossibility of her being interested in me, or my looking like a fool, didn't even factor in, and the only question was what to say.

She was working as a presentor for this credit card promotion going on in the mall, and so I went up and asked her if foreigners could apply for this card, and we started talking just a bit. She asked what I was doing here, and hearing that I taught, mentioned how she'd like to study English again. After a minute other customers came by, and another sales rep started talking to me, so I excused myself and headed home.

But the instant I walked away, I made myself a promise: if she was working again Sunday- very likely since these are usually weekend long events- I was going to ask her out. I knew what would happen if I did, but she was too stunning to forget about. The Thai for this is "dit dah dit jai"- stuck to my eyes, stuck to my heart. Burned into my retinas.

So Sunday, I went back. I walked right up to her, and said, "Hey, how are you? Do you remember me from yesterday?" She smiled and said yes, and, we exchanged a few lines of small talk. And then, I just went for it. "So yesterday you said... oh, you know, I don't know your name yet?" June. "So, June. Yesterday you mentioned wanting to study English again, right?" Yeah, that's right. "Ok, so then, let me take you out to dinner. You can practice your English, and I can practice my Thai. What do you think?"

"Sure, sounds good."

Yes, that's right. She said yes. She said yes, gave me her phone to enter my number, and let me call to my own phone to have hers. The most beautiful woman in the world just gave me her number, and said she'd be pretty free in the coming week. We talked a little longer, I made a silly joke that made her laugh, and I went home, wondering if this sequence of actions might alter the space time continuum and destroy the universe.

Now, before you also start to worry about the end of the universe, I should add that I called two days later, and she said she wasn't free anymore this week or this weekend. It might be true, or I might have gotten blown off, and at any rate I certainly plan to call again. But whatever happens, the important thing is this:

Every word of the above exchanges happened in Thai, and without a hitch.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Attempting to Learn Thai 14

September 11, 2007
Months in Thailand: 14.5
Hours at AUA: ~1200 (Level 5-10)
Reading and Writing: AUA Level 1 (~5 weeks/~25 hours in class time)

In Class:

It finally happened... I've decided to stop attending so many hours at AUA. It's a little sad, actually, as AUA has become like a home to me, but the fact is that AT5-10 is too easy for me now and I believe that my Thai will improve more quickly through watching TV and movies and interacting with people outside of class. For 2 weeks now I've only gone to a single hour per day of listening class, attending the 12pm news hour because it is more challenging (and also more interesting) than most other hours. (In total though this still means being there 3 hours... one of writing, one spent in the library with writing homework, and News. So while 3 hours/day is definitely less than 5-6, it's still a fair amount of time that I am spending studying Thai.)

As of 2 weeks ago, my Language Aquired was rated at 74%, which again means that according to the teachers, I now have a natural understanding of 74% of everyday, common Thai.

Reading and Writing:

I have just a few days left now in R+W level 1. At this point, I know 28/44 consonants and most of the single character vowels. I can read more and more of what I see around me, and also write some simple sentences if I chose my words carefully.

The most recent assignments for class have been to write things like "Mrs. Ploy is Thai. Mrs. Ploy's husband is Korean. Mrs. Ploy and her husband have 3 sons and 2 daughters."

Also as a gauge for total hours that I am studying reading and writing, I would say I've been spending about 1 hour doing homework and practice for every 1 hour of class, a 1:1 ratio. So up to now I've done about 25 hours in and out of class, about 50 total.

Out of Class:

Yesterday I had a cool experience. I happened upon a clearance sale in the department store inside Paragon mall, and as I was picking out a few things, I chatted a lot with two of the clerks who were working the sale. They ended up inviting me to go out with them after the store closed, and I decided to go along since I was going from there to the gym and would finish at the same time they got off. As it turned out, they didn't have anywhere in mind to go because they usually work at another mall elsewhere in the city and were here just to help with this big clearance, and thus didn't know the area. So in the end, I suggested we go to the food market by my old apartment.

As we were talking over dinner, I realized that for maybe the first time, I was the one in command of a long conversation happening entirely in Thai. I was doing most of the talking, asking most of the questions, and generally leading the conversation for the 2 hours we were there. At times I didn't know the word for something (scar, for instance) or had to repeat myself or restructure a sentence that didn't come out right, but overall it was more natural feeling than awkward. Let me note though that it was mostly everyday topics, things like the US and Thailand, food, weather, cars and motorcycles, teaching and studying. I am lightyears away from playing this role in a discussion about religion or philosophy or anything else nuanced and abstract.

It's hard to quantify, but comparing my conversational skills now to about 4 months ago when I first began to have many regular conversations in Thai, I notice that I am speaking much more quickly, and generally am able to articulate far more than I used to be able to. Conversations can also get much deeper these days, although there still is a long way to go before I can precisely word certain emotions or philosophical abstractions.

I have also watched 2 Thai movies in the last week, and never really lost the gist of what was going on. There was a lot of dialouge though that I didn't fully grasp as both films had far more slang and faster speech than I ever encounter in my day to day life. Even in listening to native Thai-Thai conversations, I usually don't hear speech this fast, improper, or with this much slang.

Despite all this progress, talking on the phone is still really difficult, and sometimes I manage to confuse myself and others pretty thouroughly.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Vermont, Boston, and back to NY.

Since this is already way past it's prime, I'll just let the pictures do the talking. A brief photo tour of the VT, Boston, and NYC parts of my trip home. Actually it's almost all VT but there are a few from the other places too.

If you want to appreciate a place, you should go somewhere else as far away and as different as possible. Vermont is BEAUTIFUL. I was so happy to be home. Here I am in Burlington with Lake Champlain behind me.

And here are Noah, Gianna, and Devin. Cutest picture ever.

And another. I didn't take many pictures of grown ups... they just aren't as cute!

Also cute? I'll leave that for you to judge. Me at the VT Teddy Bear Factory.

Church Street in Burlington.

Famous Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury.

Dad, Annemarie, Noah, Gianna, and Devin with their souvenirs. See the sign they made? Sawatdee :)

Me and Mom at our house.

SO happy to drive again. Driving is one of the things I miss the most.

Forget Ithaca. Vermont is Gorges.

With friends in Boston. I didn't take a lot of pictures in Boston, but this shouldn't reflect on the people I saw there. In fact, that it rarely crossed my mind is an indication of how engaging the company was.

Random NYC shot. I just took it because it kind of represents the typical feel of busy midtown Manhattan, which interestingly was the only place I went to the in States that even approached the feel of Bangkok. NYC never felt as calm to me as it did during this trip.
I finally bought a Taylor, the only acoustic guitar I've ever really liked, and immediately put it to good work.

Katherine and Emmeline joined me in Manhattan for some good American bbq, which is definitely the food I miss the most.

Look at this! It's beautiful! And I ate almost all of it myself. Im jai mak luhee! (That's something like being really, really, really satisfied. Which I was.)
Attempting to Learn Thai 13

August 10, 2007
Months in Thailand: 13.5
Hours at AUA: ~1120 (Level 5-10)
Reading and Writing: AUA Level 1 (~2 weeks/~10 hours in class time)

In Class:

As predicted earlier, I have now plateaued in AT 5-10. I typically understand the gist of the classes 99% of the time, and I understand with precision exactly what is being talked about 90% of the time or better. There is still benefit to be had attending classes, but I really wish there was a higher level to move to as my progress is going to be really slow from here on out.

So, this means in less than one year, I've gone from being completely clueless in AT1 to being bored in AT 5-10. This ALG thing really works.

Speaking in class is rockier, but I'm getting more and more articulate, and when giving answers (or cracking jokes...) the teachers seem to get it 80 or 90% of the time. Additionally I can chat with the teachers outside of class now with little trouble.

Reading and Writing:

After 4 months or so in AT 5-10, my work schedule has finally allowed me to enroll in AUAs reading and writing class. Classes are once a day M-F, for 1 hour, and there are 5 levels total, each of which will take one 6 week term to complete. It's going to be a long process, but even after learning just 14 consonants and a few vowels (less than half the alphabet) and none of the complicated rules for irregulars and tones, I can piece together many words that I see around me. Last night I read the name of my favorite cow man gai stand (Cow Man Gai Champ Lok... World Champ Chicken and Rice), and everywhere simple things like some signs (room for rent, emergency exit, etc) are starting to make sense. Also when teachers write on the board now in class I can piece many of the words together since I know what teachers are talking about, if not truly read them. Additionally, just through exposure I can often recognize and guess the role of many of the letters and tone marks that I haven't been taught yet.

Out of Class:

Progress is also slowing outside of class, but it's still quite noticible. Day to day Thai (taxi directions, food orders, chit chat with fruit vendors, etc.) is rarely a problem anymore, and real conversations in Thai are almost a daily occurance now too. Group settings where I am in the middle of a bunch of Thais talking are still a problem, but it's all slowly getting easier.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Something I wrote while waiting at JFK for my flight back to BKK.

JFK, Terminal 7. Check-in takes away my guitar because it won’t fit in an Airbus 340 cabin, and security my Poland Springs water because Polish water is dangerous unless it costs $3 at shops inside the terminal. Duty free for a friend, a final American coffee served with a bad joke by the kind of girl I never realized I missed. She was beautiful and it was a house coffee. She asked if I wanted anything else with it, like maybe a car, and laughed at me when I said maybe just steamed milk.

Now I’m sitting at Gate 4, waiting for everyone else to board so I don’t have to wait in line, and wondering whether I’m leaving home, or going home…

Maybe it’s a little of both.


My next stop was Ithaca, NY, a four hour drive upstate, northwest of NYC. Ithaca is the home of Cornell University, and I still have a few good friends out that way I really wanted to visit. If I try to make this post creative I'm never going to finish it... and anyway, I know you all like pictures better. So here you go, photos with minimal comments.

Gimme Coffee: fabulous coffee beans, and cappucinos that actually look and taste like they should.

Where I used to live!

Pizza at the Nine's, with salt shaker for scale. Yep, that's once slice... and I already ate about a third of it before taking the picture! Sometimes I really do miss how ridiculously large American portions are...

And here's a bunch of Cornell.

It's easy to take for granted when you are there, and though I felt funny walking around and taking pictures like a tourist, I have to admit, the campus really is beautiful. It was nice to be back.

Last but not least, the real reason I went to visit. Here I am with Louie, Joey, Nate, and Sasha. Thanks guys, I couldn't have asked for a better 2 days.

Ok, well I guess it looks like I'm doing this in installments.... more soon. Peace.