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Cheng Chin Yuen

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Chiang Mai (Part 3)

CMU

Yesterday, we visited the Chiang Mai University. The universiy uniform comes in an unattractive black bottom-white top combo! Can you imagine an NUS uniform? I can only imagine the uproar. The general feel is that we were roaming in a very very large JC in the mid-80s. OHPs can still be found in non-airconditioned lecture halls and chalk dust is still aplenty. Some of the segregated dormitories were freshy painted while those which weren't, were dreary and intellectually uninspiring. A dour security auntie guards the only stairwell up the purple 3-storey girls' dorm so jumarring and rockclimbing skills would be excellent for that Thai Rupunzel rendezvous.

Some of the Rupunzels try really hard to stand out in the sea of Othello. They cannot change the colours so they change everything else. Hair is almost always rebonded and dies down to the mid-spine. The variety of hairclips, pins, spectacles, minature handbags and furry handphone pouches are the differentiating decor. The strongest emphasis is placed on the skirt and the shoes. Despite Thai conservatism , what originated as 'knee-length' frequently ended up somewhere above the mid-thigh. The alternative plaited skirts also shared the same 'mini' ending. The 3rd alternative of un-minifiable black pants is rare indeed. Shoes ranged from 'o-biang' white canvas to purple 2 -nch stilts so shiny that they could cause a minor accident on the campus roads. Interestingly, the probably mandatory thick black belts where clipped to the skirts using black butterfly clips (the ones we use to clip thick wads of notes with). The prominent sliver levers really spoiled the whole image but everyone wore them. Well, there seem to be more female undergrads to go round hence the stiff attraction competiton.

Male undergrads unfortunately had much less they could modify. White shirt and black long pants. The only thing that differed was the colour of the tie. The colour, not the design. Dramatic shoes didn't work for the guys. The favourite hair-do amongst the guys? Just imagine F4...

One effeminate guy we saw was really severely made up, earrings and all. Effeminate guys seemed always accompanied by girls.

Hardly anyone carried a notebook. Almost everyone rode a Honda Dream, Honda Wave, Honda Sparkz or Honda something.

Karen visited the Central Library (I was denied entry by yet another dour auntie who didn't approve of my singlet, shorts and slippers. I don't blame her as I probably broke every rule regarding dresscode) and she emerged 20 minutes later, pleased to announce that the library was quite unlike the library in NUS or those in any part of Singapore for that matter:

It was quiet. Undergrads sitting in groups were actually studying.

We walked past 'The Office of the Dean', somehow missed the entire Faculty of Humanities and decided to sample the canteen food which at 12 bhat a meal was really cheap and good. Everyone, including the sparrows, ate together on low benches and tables. A huge metallic water dispenser was where everyone refilled their small blue plastic cups.

The Faculties of Tribal Research and Agricultural Reseach were something new to us. These may appear in Singapore in 3000 years. The Educational Studies Centre is also intergrated into the university. One interesting buuilding is the Demonstration School, where pedagogical skills are experimented on selected groups of shool children. In NIE, 20 and 30-somethings were asked to imagine that we were school children during Classroom Management 1101.

After visiting CMU, I appreciate the 3D-ness of our universities back home. Having a flat campus of grey buildings is very visually uninspiring.


One Strange Lesson

I returned to Wat Phra Sing (the royal temple) while Karen visited the Chiang Mai Zoo. She had enough of schools and I preferred the monkeys in the schools to those in the zoos. I was invited by Tham, the trainee teacher I met the day before to attend a celebration in the school in the temple so eagerly I went expecting to walk into a Yuparaj-like party.

The school was deserted. Oh Ya I remember, Buddhist Day, must be the celebration of silence and solitude. As I was about to leave the temple grounds, I heard some noises from the main temple and found it packed with students and teachers. Funny how I missed it when I came in.

The monks were herded into a pretty banana leaf and bamboo enclosure just infront of the giant sitting Buddha staue. From his neck several strings radiated out to the the huge oblong grid of white strings that formed a low webby celing above the monks. From this grid, several hundred lines hung down to the red carpet. When the lesson started, and attendance was taken, the monks 'bowed' 3 times, sat upright, wound the length of vertical string around their foreheads, tied off the excess string and were ready to receive holy broadband transmission from Buddha himself. My science-fi brain was already twitching wildly, thinking of The Matrix, where before me, 80 Neo Andersons were being 'plugged in' through the back of their skulls. 'Are you the ONE?' The Oracle was asking.

The lesson began. Buddha sang...through his disciple on the pulpit, through a microphone, through two very high-end BMG speakers (and of course also through the network of strings). Thais were famous for their sing-song voices, now I know the power of a 50 minute sing-song lesson. It was the most unique chant-singing I have ever heard. The most exciting part was when the melacholic voice tapered off to a perfectly-controlled but extremely high-pitched 'er-hu'-like tremolo at the end of certain phrases. It was not the sound that made you cringe. It was the kind of experience that made you creep closer to the pulpit to gawk at the owner of this rare and unbelievable talent!

This lesson (which was first sung in Pali and then in Thai) was about a universally interesting and inter-disciplinary topic which encompassed Eternal Love, Eternal Nagging and Eternal Housework. It was about The Mother, after all the one BIG reason why Thai boys become Noivces was to show appreciation for their mothers.

There were 13 long lessons in all. Fortunately for different groups of monks and students. But my poor friend Tham had to be there from 7am to 8pm. It was a Sunday. I left during the change-over and promised to come into his class the following day to teach (or at least try to) his students English.


Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

The last time I taught in a school was in May and it seemed so long ago. I was giving a talk on Cambodia and Vietnam to a bunch of Sec 4s. It was great fun especially with my Vietnamese friend present at its climax. Through my short stint in Hong Kah, I have invited quite a few 'outsiders' into class to spice things up a bit and more importantly to give the kids a different perspective of things and I have always appreciated these wonderful people who made the trouble to journey to this ulu part of Jurong West. So for Tham, I was just paying it forward.

The lesson was as simple as it was unsuccessful. I tried to get them to speak in English by ask me questions and in turn I ask them a few of my own. The pupils probably learnt close to nothing about English. But we did have some fun and good laughs. Here are some random somethings to share:

1) The students in both classes were all novice monks.
2) They were no different from the regular boys. Some blatantly showed their disinterest in the subject while others were angelic.
3) Like me, they adored Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer (in that order). Paradon too, they idolised.
4) They ask more questions than my ex-students back home.
5) They are free to bring handphones to class. Handphones didn't seem to pose a problem for the teachers.
6) It was a challenge to teach with chalk and the blackboard as your only teaching aids. The chalk kept breaking. The language barrier is a BIG one but they were amused with the little Thai I spoke.
7) They were very interested in how I felt about Chiang Mai and its people.
8) On the wall at the back of the class was a big vangard sheet with 5 numbered rules. They were all about keeping the class clean. The class was indeed very clean.
9) There were a noticable number of lady-monks. There were at least 3 in the senior class I was in. They were also the most participative. May, another trainee teacher told me that they were the 'colour of the class'.
10) While having lunch in the canteen, 2 lady-monks were holding hands and leaning on each other as they walked across the canteen. The teacher didn't seem to mind.
11) Lady-monks and Kratoy (Lady-men) were respected as artists. Tham told me that they were mainly responsible for the decor of the temple during the 'lessons' on Sunday and were the main make-up artists for movie-stars. The tolerance for gays and effeminate guys here is high even when they don monk robes.
12) Most of the students did not want to be teachers. They understood that the job of the teacher was harder than theirs.
13) They too found meditation sleep-inducing.
14) Most of them seemed surprised when I told them what the schools in Laos were like.
15) I wrote down many keywords on the board and the only one they copied religiously was that of my blog address.
16) If I ever wanted to teach in Thailand, I'd better buck up my Thai.
17) Their lunch break is an hour long.
18) Tham had two large vangards with pictures telling a story. The characters in the pictures could be 'animated' by manually sliding them across the slots. So birds could fly from the gorund to the trees and the hunter could run through the forest. Basic but effective, even for 16 year olds. I brought my laptop but the class was too big to use it effectively. Projectors were unavailable of course.


And all that jazz...

One night, we had the good fortune to bump into a Thai jazz sextet jamming on the roadside. They were all naturals and naturally drew a huge crowd of locals and tourists. The drummer had only his snare, a highhat and a ride. The guitarist had only one effects pedal and played with his eyes closed and mouth opened most of the time. The bassist was the bouncy type who bobbed to complicated 6/6 beats. The two saxphonists played harmony harmoniously and everyone had their window of improvisation. They ended their set with 'Watermelon Man' which was good enough for me to leave 100 bhat behind after an hour of world-class jazz. It is inspirational moments like these that make you want to go back and pick up your guitar. I spoke to the guitarist after the show and asked him if they were from some music school. The friendly giant laughed, blinked his sunken eyes and replied politely that they were just friends. Wow! Talent Galore again...Amazing Thailand, what an apt catchphrase.

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