A Bit of Context From Bangkok

Hello class. Today’s lesson is about context. Say it with me? Context.

We’ve been doing a lot of learning this past week, which I will post about in more detail later, but one of the things that comes up over and over again is the idea of context setting. As English teachers in Thailand, our job is not to cram the heads of Thai children full of English words, but to contextualize the words they know to help them communicate. Of course there are many other parts of being a teacher, but from week one of class, I came away thinking very deeply about context. So here’s some context for you.

We are staying at a hotel in the Ramkhamhaeng area of Bangkok, which is about a half hour away from the downtown area by taxi. Ramkhamhaeng University is about a mile away from us, along with the Sports Authority of Thailand, which is a collection of tracks and stadiums where many sporting events take place. The area in which we are living is not a particularly touristy part of town, so on nights like Friday night when we walk to dinner in a pack of 12, we are rather like a parade.

The routine on weekdays has become pretty regular: wake up, cross Ramkhamhaeng Road from the hotel to buy breakfast from the street vendors (usually fresh fruit and maybe an omelet over rice or some chicken skewers with sticky rice), eat in the room, and sit down in class by 9am. Our Thai instructor, Pak, has told us that Thai time is different, in that most people are late for most things. She goes on to say, however, that she is a bad Thai because she gets very impatient. Therefore, we are all punctual to class so as not to upset Pak, because we love her. There is also a lot to learn and not a very long time in which to learn it. We grab lunch either from street vendors or from one of the two mall food courts nearby. Then back to class until 4(ish) depending on how the lessons are going. In the evenings we usually go to the gym, which is about a mile walk away. Some of us bought weeklong memberships, and on that very first day, we left the gym in the pouring rain. Luckily we got very quickly to a saturation point of wetness and didn’t notice it as much, and it was also still quite warm out. We got back to the hotel a bit soggy, but it was quite an adventure.

In terms of extracurricular activities, we’ve been out in the university area near the hotel, the Sukhumvit area, and to 79 THB movie night at the nearby CinemaPlex to see the The Martian (very good, highly recommend). The evening that we spent in the area by the university made me think about context a bit more outside of the classroom. In the classroom, it’s all about making sure that the students understand the situations in which the things they are learning are applicable. In a bar, with a live band, the stage banter acts as a bridge between songs, contextualizing the thoughts or emotions within the music. However, when that banter is in Thai and you only know colors and how to count to three, that context is pretty consistently lost. Lack of context didn’t stop us from enjoying the music and dancing along in front of the stage, but it did give me the fish out of water experience that I’m sure my future students will experience when exposed to English. Food for thought.

Speaking of food: Thai food tends to be either spicy or very very sweet. The beverages are all enormously sweet and you need to be careful ordering coffee, because even black coffee comes sickly sweet. That doesn’t bother me, as I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but some others in the course are finding it hard to adjust. We saw an instant “black coffee” packet in 7-Eleven that was 53% sugar. How does that even happen?

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