A Cold, The Flu, The Stomach Flu: Keeping them Straight

I see A LOT of confusion about this. Just this morning, I had to seriously restrain myself when I read the following on Reddit: “you couldn’t have known it was gastroenteritis and not the stomach flu”. And the other day, during a class observation I was doing for my TESOL, the teacher was doing a presentation on colds and flus and was insisting on nausea and diarrhea as the main symptoms of the flu (and disregarded suggestions of “muscle aches and pains” and “fatigue”).

So for the sake of clearing up misinformation, here’s the run down on the three VERY DIFFERENT yet so often confused ailments. I”ll add some links too, in case you want to read more or, as a good critical reader, you want to make sure I’m not writing out of my ass.

The Common Cold

You know you have it when: You had a sore throat for a day or more, which slowly turned into a running nose, which eventually turned into the Niagara falls gushing from your nostrils. You might have a mild cough, a low grade fever and some light headaches, but you’ll feel better in a week, maybe two.

You caught it because: You were exposed to a cold virus. Perhaps you were a bit more tired than usual, perhaps not, but you definitely met a virus.

You can treat it by: Letting your body do its thing. There’s nothing you can do to make it go away. Lots of rest and water will help you fight it faster and feel less shitty. If the symptoms are getting in the way of your life, you can take some cough and cold meds from your pharmacy but make sure you read the instructions and follow them carefully! A lot of medical incidents are caused by misused cold meds. Have a chat with your pharmacist if you need help.

You should see a doctor if: You’re still having heavy symptoms after 10 days. Or your symptoms are way more intense than expected for a cold (think fever, thick gooey mucus, chest pain, severe fatigue, severe sore throat that doesn’t go away after a few days). Also, if you didn’t have a sore throat, your runny nose is persistent but the intensity changes with the time of day, maybe you don’t have a cold, maybe you have allergies.

Clearing up myths:

You won’t get a cold for sleeping with wet hair or going outside without a hat. (Though going outside without a hat in intense sun or cold might cause you other problems.) We get more colds at times of the year where we’re indoors and in close contact a lot, which is fall to spring for temperate climates and rainy season for tropical climates.

There’s no miracle cure for the common cold, or you’d know about it. Antibiotics can’t help you since you’re being attacked by a virus. The highly-publicized herbal products might have a slight effect if you take them every day for months and month before you get sick (like, your symptoms might last a few hours less) but up to you whether you think one less cold over X years or colds that last 2 hours less are worth the 100s of $$$ and risks of adverse reactions. Better time management, lots of water and good sleep is cheaper, safer, more effective and you’ll feel better all around.

Where can I read more about the Common Cold?
Mayo Clinic – The Common Cold
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Common Cold
CDC – Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others

The Flu

You know you have it when: You’re inhaling fire, you feel like you were just put through the blender and you’re completely exhausted even though you’ve done little but sleep the past few days. You might also feel hot or cold (or both at the same!) if you have a nasty fever.

You caught it because: You were exposed to the influenza (“flu”) virus. You probably didn’t get your flu shot, or you were exposed to different a strain than the ones you were vaccinated against.

You can treat it by: Getting a lot of rest. If you see a doctor and are diagnosed early enough and/or are considered “high risk” (very young, very old, has a breathing condition, has a suppressed immune system, or other) you might be given antivirals.

You should see a doctor if: You are “high risk” (see above), you’re having a lot of trouble breathing, your chest really hurts, you’re confused or suddenly dizzy, you’re throwing up a lot for a long time or you were starting to get better when your symptoms returned with a vengeance. If you’re concerned about a child, refer to this list by the CDC.

Clearing up myths:

GI symptoms (in scientific terms, puking and liquid poop) are not typical of the flu. They occur in certain strains or populations, but the flu is primarily a respiratory (breathing) infection.

Antibiotics won’t do anything for the flu, because they don’t work on viruses. You might get antivirals from your doctor, they’re not the same thing.

The flu is serious. In 1918, the Spanish flu killed about 50 million (MILLION) people worldwide and 675 000 in the US. In 1956-1957, another flu killed 69 800 people in the US. The CDC estimates that between 1967 and 2007, between 3000 and 49 000 people in the US die from the flu each year (the numbers vary a lot depending on how aggressive the strain is that year) and an average of 200 000 people are hospitalized, with the number going up each year. The very old, the very young and the already sick tend to be the most affected, but there have been years where there were the strains were particularly fatal to young, healthy adults. While you don’t have to running to the doctor if you catch it (in fact, we’d rather you don’t spread your germs around a clinic if you don’t have to), do take the disease seriously. If you take a turn for the worse, seek medical attention. And get your flu shot before you get sick.

Where can I read more about Influenza?
Mayo Clinic – Influenza (flu)
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Flu versus a pandemic flu (Also has a good comparison chart for Flu VS Stomach Flu VS Colds)
CDC – Flu Symptoms & Severity
CDC – The Flu: What To Do If You Get Sick
CDC – Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) & Flu Vaccine
CDC – People at High Risk of Developing Flu–Related Complications
flu.gov – Pandemic Flu History
CDC- Disease Burden of Influenza
CDC – Seasonal Influenza-Associated Hospitalizations in the United States
CDC – Estimating Seasonal Influenza-Associated Deaths in the United States: CDC Study Confirms Variability of Flu

The “Stomach Flu”

I hate the nickname “stomach flu”. It’s terribly misleading.

The “stomach flu” is the colloquial term for gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach (“gastritis”) and the intestines (“enteritis”). Stomach flu, gastroenteritis… THEY ARE THE SAME THING (though, after research, it seems that stomach flu generally refers to the viral form of gastroenteritis, only it’s kinda hard to identify the offending germ without lab work). When I was a kid in Quebec, we called these unpleasant afflictions “gastros”, which, in my opinion, is a more accurate nickname.


Now back to our regular format.

You know you have it when: You feel kinda queesy, think it might be something you ate, then the next thing you know, you’ve got liquid rushing out of one or both ends.

You caught it because: You were exposed to a virus (usually a norovirus or a rotavirus), a bacteria or a parasite. You could have caught it from something you ate or from another person. Gastroenteritis can have non-infectious causes as well, but they’re less interesting common.

You can treat it by: Drinking lots of fluids to prevent dehydration. Mild cases resolve on their own as long as you keep replacing the water you’re expelling. In a more serious case, you might want to upgrade to electrolyte formulations (Pedialyte, for example) in addition to water, especially if you go long enough without eating. In persistent cases, an antiviral, an antibiotic or anti-parasite medication, depending on the offending germ, might be needed. Listen to your body, get as much rest as it requests and eat what it will tolerate (mainly bland stuff like crackers, bread and bananas. Save the coffee, the steak and the spicy exotic stuff for a few days after your recovery.)

You should see a doctor if: You’re really dehydrated. The warning signs are usually lightheadedness and dark urine. You should also see a doctor if the throwing up is particularly severe or doesn’t stop on its own after 2 days. Same goes for the diarrhea, if it’s bloody or continuous or sticks around for too long (give it maybe 5-7 days), you’ll want medical help. Severe stomach pain or a high fever (Mayo Clinic suggests 101F/38.3C) or a change in mental state (aka confusion or saying weird things or fainting) also warrant a doctor’s visit. If you’re concerned about a child, please read here.

Clearing up myths:

The main point is, as you probably know by now, the “stomach flu” has nothing to do with the flu.

Another myth is that your gastro is caused by the last thing you ate, or the last restaurant you went to. In reality, it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks for the little critters in your food to knock you on your back. So, unless a lot of people who haven’t had other contact with each other get sick from eating at the same place around the same time, it’s almost impossible to know where you picked up your germs.

Where can I read more about Gastroentritis?
Mayo Clinic – Gastroenteritis: First aid (Best page I’ve found.)
Mayo Clinic – Viral gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
NHS Choices – Gastroenteritis in adults (This looks like the UK Government Health Website. I’m not too familiar with it, but from a quick overview it seems legitimate.)
CDC – Foodborne Germs and Illnesses
CDC – Diagnosis and Management of Foodborne Illnesses (This one is intended for physicians and is very technical, but if, like me, you’re a microbiology enthusiast, there are lovely tables describing the different causes of foodbourne illnesses, their incubation period, their typical clinical presentation and more.)

Hopefully that clears up some of the confusion around these three super common illnesses and will lead you to pass on the information to others. If you have questions, know of other myths that need clarifying or have found wrong information here, feel free to let me know.

Also, be a responsible citizen and get your flu shot.

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Vignette of Thai Life: Of Kids and Bicycles

My favorite moments on the road are the small slices of life that simultaneously remind us how alike us humans are, and highlight how differently we express it.

One of our little ones puzzling out the science of pedaling.

One of our little ones puzzling out the science of pedaling under the watchful eye of his teacher.

We spent two months at a Thai special needs school, hanging out with the kids, helping out where we could and learning about daily Thai life. The school ran heavily on donations, mostly from local individuals and organizations. It wasn’t unusual for a high school or a local business to show up to serve lunch, or for a truck to back into the parking lot to unload new toys or teaching materials.

This particular moment was during morning assembly. The teachers happily announced they’d recieved a donation of “jakayan” (bicycles).

I cheered a little bit. (Finally a morning announcement with words I knew! Plus I love teaching kids to ride bikes.) As for the kids, like any human child, they cheered, clapped and ran around excitedly as the staff brought out 10 or so bicycles or various sizes and colours.

Then… they climbed on the bike luggage racks and waited.

* * *

I laughed and laughed. I’m laughing as I write this. The behaviour was funny because it was so foreign to me – in a lifetime spend around children, I’ve never seen that before – but it made so much sense.

Kids love bikes. European kids love bikes, North American kids love bikes, Australian kids love bikes, Asian kids love bikes. I’d bet money on South American and African kids loving bikes too. They take a little bit of skill to ride, but not a huge amount, you can control them, they can go fast, you can ride them with friends, you can ride for either fun or getting around and the list goes on.

So of course, these kids loved bikes too. Some didn’t know how to ride, either because they were too young or because they hadn’t grasped the concept of pedaling (remember, special needs school – many kids were non verbal, so you couldn’t just explain it to them) but they all loved having this toy to play with it.

Sitting on the luggage rack, though, gave the scene a uniquely Thai flavour. In Thailand, and particularly in this region of Thailand, people use bikes a lot, both for getting around and for exercise. Bike child seats aren’t readily available like they are in more developed countries/regions (or perhaps not affordable, but we never even saw any for sale), so most children learn to ride on the luggage rack as soon as they’re old enough to sit up and hold on.

Add to that their age (most of them under 7) and they development differences, and it’s only natural that the first thing they do when given a bike is wait on the luggage rack.

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Check Point: Almost a Year and a Half on the Road

These days, I’m in Taipei, Taiwan. I’m studying Chinese (or as I tell everyone around here, wo xue zhongwen) and I enjoy it (wo xihuan xue zhongwen).

I would have loved to be a travel blogger, but given that I can only find the motivation to update once every 6 (8?) months, it seems I’m not destined for such a career path. I always have lots to say and I tell it to myself as I’m lying in bed at night trying to asleep, but forging the link between my mind and the keyboard is, well, a lot of work. Also, while I wasn’t blogging, WordPress went and made their interface super ugly and unpractical so now I waste a lot of time cursing at my screen.

The last time I logged into the blog, we’d just crossed the border into Laos after 3 months in Thailand. Since then, we’ve…

…spent a month in Laos

Morning on the Mekong

Morning on the Mekong

…spent a month in Taiwan

Taipei on a smoggy fall afternoon.

Taipei on a smoggy fall afternoon.

…spent a month in the Philippines and visited a child that I sponsor

The gorgeous village of Batad in Luzon. (Not the town of my sponsored child - confidentiality prevents me from posting photos of the visit.)

The gorgeous village of Batad in Luzon. (Not the town of my sponsored child – confidentiality prevents me from posting photos of the visit.)

…spent 2 months going between Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei

Kampong Ayer, the water village in Brunei that we had the privilege of staying in.

Kampong Ayer, the water village in Brunei that we had the privilege of staying in.

…went to the Rainforest Music Festival in Sarawak, Malaysia

One of my favorite performers of the festival, Sona Jobarteh.

One of my favorite performers of the festival, Sona Jobarteh.

…went back to Taiwan to study Chinese for a few months

Also casually picked up rock climbing.

Also casually picked up rock climbing.

…took a weekend trip to Kyoto, Japan which really wasn’t long enough

Loved our Kyoto neighbourhood.

Loved our Kyoto neighbourhood.

…thought that Chinese wasn’t using enough of my learning power, so started taking an online TESOL (course on how to teach English) for my own personal interest

Sorry no pictures of that!

The Present

When I piled the last of my belongings into my car and drove away, I was exhausted. 3 years at a stressful (but rewarding! I do miss parts of it) job had gotten me to the point that I flew into a rage whenever I heard a phone ring. Walking into a pharmacy had me fighting the urge to turn around and storm out, and I had no patience whatsoever for people.

Since then, I’ve driven across North America, most of it by myself. I’ve chased cows and rode horses in Australia. I provided some entertainment (and hopefully some enrichment!) for autistic children in Thailand. I learned about elephants. I did a lot of hiking in rain forests. I met all kinds of people, laughed at all matters of jokes and said “thank you” in at least 5 languages.

It was around our first stay in Taiwan that I started to not hate the idea of slowing down. So at about 10 months in. By the one year point, so sometime in Malaysia, I realized I was getting tired of travelling. Which is good, really, since my savings won’t last forever.

In case anyone was wondering, there was never a big revelation moment where all the secrets of life become clear. Then again, I didn’t expect there to be. But I was hoping I’d figure out my priorities so I could decide what to come home to and I think I’ve accomplished that.

Ed and I survived spending almost every moment of every day together without either of us storming off. I won’t lie, the nights were, and still are, rough – I’m an ultra light sleeper with pretty severe insomnia and he’s a snorer who can sleep 12 hours a day…it’s like the worst sleep combination ever – but otherwise it wasn’t a big deal. I’ve come to understand what people mean by “when you travel together, you notice your differences more”, but it’s all just a question of realizing that you can either let your differences come between you, or you can just accept that you’re not and will never be the same person. Sometimes it was frustrating to not be able to move at my natural pace of ALL GO GO GO ALL THE TIME and do all the things I’d be able to do if I were by myself. But then I’d be reminded of all the things I could now do as part of a team that I couldn’t have done (or wouldn’t have enjoyed doing) on my own.

The last miles

I haven’t quite decided yet when I’m coming home. My “Epic Journey” account is running low but I can easily support us for a few more months without having to touch the “Back in Canada” account, so there’s no rush. We are thinking of spending Christmas in Taiwan, or rather I am and Ed doesn’t care. I still have a couple (3 I think) weeks of Chinese class and I might tack on a couple more if the school lets me. I don’t want to be on a deadline to return home, so I might as well spend Christmas here in Taiwan, where we’re comfortably settled in a decent apartment with Ed’s older brother.

After that, maybe we’ll go home, maybe we’ll make another stop or two.

I still have a lot of malaria pills left and it would absolutely break my heart to waste them (we ended up visiting way less countries than expected), so maybe we’ll make a stop in Cambodia. Myanmar, remote Indonesia and maybe India are options too but out of all them, Cambodia intrigues me the most. (They’re all excellent destinations, but I kind of feel like India’s too far out of the way while Myanmar and remote Indonesia are quite similar to places we’ve already been.)

Then, our taste of Japan was so short and so sweet that we can’t help but ponder the possibility of going back. It would be annoying in the winter since we’d have to stock up on jackets, but I do think Japan’s comfort, modernity and temperate climate would be a nice way to end this crazy adventure.

I love the possibilities.

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Looking back at 3 Months in Thailand

On January 1, Ed’s flight from New York and my flight from Sydney both landed at Phuket airport in Thailand. We didn’t speak a word of Thai and had only done basic research on the region. On March 31, we had our departure cards stamped at Friendship Bridge IV and entered Laos. Between those dates, we were given the opportunity to explore the country, try all kinds of foods and become fast friends with some really jae dee (kind/good hearted) people.

Our final itinerary: 1- Ranong 2- Bangkok 3,8 - Ayutthaya 4- Pak Chong 5- Khon Kaen 6- Phitsanulok 7- Sukhothai 9- Chiang Mai 10- Mae Hung Son 11- Pai 12- Chiang Rai

Our final itinerary:
1- Ranong
2- Bangkok
3,8 – Ayutthaya
4- Pak Chong
5- Khon Kaen
6- Phitsanulok
7- Sukhothai
9- Chiang Mai
10- Mae Hung Son
11- Pai
12- Chiang Rai

Continue reading

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Postcard from Thailand

Since finishing up our volunteering gig in Southern Thailand, I’ve been accumulating stories and reflections, but I’m no professional travel blogger and just can’t seem to make time for the occasional update. I also have trouble with writing just a few words – it’s either 3000 words or it’s nothing. And with my two modes being “on-the-go” and “asleep”, you can imagine how often I want to glue my butt to a chair to type up 3000 words!

At the same time, I do want a written trace of my travels because there’s no way I’m going to remember all this in a year.

So for the sake of journalling, here’s a somewhat-postcard format of a blog post.

Let’s start with a postcard photo. How about this one:

Dusk in Khao Yai National Park near Pak Chung, Thailand

Dusk in Khao Yai National Park near Pak Chung, Thailand

Dear postcard readers,

Finished volunteering in the South at the end of February. Was so hard to leave! Miss the staff and the kids at school very much. Also miss the food.

Went to Bangkok, stayed in a posh neighbourhood, visited touristy places. Took the train 90 minutes north to Ayutthaya to admire Thai ruins. Then took train east to Pak Chung to visit Khao Yai National Park. Didn’t see any wild elephants :( Did see some elephants by the road outside the park but unsure if they are wild. Our tour did not stop for them. Saw lots of bats and creepy crawlies. Took bus north to Khon Kaen because wanted to see Isaan region of Thailand. Khon Kaen ended up being beautiful but modern city. Loved Khon Kaen but will have to try again for authentic Isaan experience. Then took bus west to Pitsanulok. Scored front seats on top level of double decker bus. Very scenic trip through the mountains. Took bus from there to Sukhothai to see more ruins. Fell in love with Sukhothai countryside. Took excellent bike tour and visited several craft shops. Took bus back south to Ayutthaya to replace lost souvenir then took night train north to Chiang Mai. Visited museums, took street food tour and got massages. Leaving tomorrow by bus to Mae Hong Son further north west of here.

Miss you all, hope you are well and wish you were here.

In case that was too confusing, here’s map:

itiniary chiang mai

The Numbers:

1- Ranong, South Thailand
2- Bangkok, Central Thailand
3- Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
4- Pak Chung, North Eastern Thailand/Isaan
5- Khon Kaen, North Eastern Thailand/Isaan
6- Phisanulok, North Thailand
7- Sukhothai, North Thailand
8- Ayutthaya, Central Thailand
9- Chiang Mai, North Thailand
10- Mae Hong Son, North Thailand

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On Culture Shock

It was about 1pm. We’d been sitting on the concrete floor for over an hour with 30 children, many of them preschoolers with autism. The caretakers were sitting at a table in the middle of the room talking to each other and looking at their phones. There were no toys, no pillows, no distractions. If the kids got too noisy or too squirmy they were harshly scolded or slapped on the hands. I didn’t know how much longer we’d be stuck in here. The scene, after a similar one this morning (but that only lasted about 30 minutes) and some support staff members who were harsher than usual was too much for me. My eyes welled up with tears and I had to run outside to find a secluded spot for a good cry.

When travelers talk about “culture shock”, they go on about the food, the smells, the architecture (or lack thereof), but seriously, unless you’ve been super sheltered or are somewhere extremely remote, those things are trivial.

No, culture shock, the brutal in-your-face culture shock, happens when your beliefs get tugged at. And not your “you believe in God, I don’t really have a religion” beliefs either. Again, as long as your mind isn’t a narrow bridge, those are pretty trivial. I’m talking beliefs like about how life works, which values to prioritize, how you treat others. Controversial beliefs, you know, such as how people should behave according to their gender, how individuals should treat their families, how families should treat individuals, how friends should treat each other. And the biggest, baddest one of all: how children should be raised.

At that moment, my Western beliefs that school time should be structured, that students should be stimulated as much as possible and that they should be able to run around or play with toys during down times were facing the equivalent of a gang of sketchy dudes with baseball bats in an alley.


A bit afterward, I sat with Ed to talk about it.

Ed: So, what bothered you in there?
Me: I couldn’t stand to see all those kids penned up like that. Like cattle!
Ed: Ok. First of all, it was a big room. Second, it was air conditioned. And finally, the kids were having fun! Some of the staff were interacting with them, some were sleeping and the others were playing clapping games.
Me: But there were no toys! Nothing educational! Not even any music!
Ed: Sometimes when I was a kid there were times I had nothing do to do. You know what I did? I used my imagination.

Together, we reframed our observations of how the school worked. (Since we were both raised in cultures different from the cultures of our parents and spent our childhoods switching back and forth between frames of reference, reframing cultural observations is something we do together often, almost as game.)

Bringing up bébé in the West

In the West (Euro-American) culture (or in my perception of the West), kids, special needs or not, are stimulated whenever they are not in bed. Down times are accompanied by toys, playgrounds, TVs and, for this generation, computers or smart phones. Days are tightly structured with school, homework, sports, arts and other hobbies crammed packed into a few hours. (No wonder anxiety, depression and insomnia seem to becoming the norm rather than the exception!) Most parents recognize harm in aggressive discipline, but many don’t understand alternatives so they pass off behavioural education to the school and daycare systems. The ultimate goals for an individual is to be self-sufficient, hard working and able to support a spouse and children. Achievement of these goals is demonstrated by an accumulation of knowledge (not exclusively academic) and material wealth.

Western children requiring a specialized education are expected to work toward the same goals. Their education is based on developing independence and the ability to function within a structured environment. Social skills are important, yes, but they are tool toward autonomy rather than social harmony.

Bringing up bébé in Thailand

When it comes to education in Thai culture, we’ve had to guess.

With no one at the school speaking enough English to explain something as complicated as culture (and even if there had been, I’m not sure anyone had been exposed to other cultures enough to be able to describe their own – it’s pretty hard to name and describe values and beliefs you’ve had your whole life until you’ve had something to contrast them with) we were on our own. Ed offered a perspective based on his Chinese upbringing but while Thai culture is closer to Chinese culture than Euro-American culture, they aren’t identical. As for me, I went home and read everything I could find on raising children in Thailand, but there’s a pretty wide gap between literature and reality.

We figured family is important. I suggested that families here in Thailand might even be horrified to hear how crucial “moving out” is in the West and how most individuals who are unable to live independently live in support homes as opposed to with their families. So while “successful” parenting in the West might translate to raising a child who becomes autonomous and is able to start a new family early in adulthood, “successful” parenting in Thailand might translate to raising a child who participates actively in family life and who has harmonious interactions with others.

From what we can tell, hierarchy based on age and role (such as teacher vs student) is quite pronounced in Thailand too. When reading testimonials from Thai teachers attempting to use techniques developed in the West, though, I realized that this hierarchy isn’t so much based on the desire to dominate (which is how us Westerners tend to interpret hierarchy), but rather out of a “tried, tested and true” mentality. Those teachers were open to trying these techniques but were concerned that if their students stopped being afraid of them, they wouldn’t be able to learn anything. So the need for hierarchy was actually for everyone’s benefit, not just a “power trip” for those at the top.

As for work, it seems that, in Thailand, everyone works. There’s no such notion as overstaffing here. Even if you go to Dairy Queen in the late evening, you’ll still be served by 6 people. This must, I imagine, alleviates a lot of stress in the workplace. Staff take turns looking their phones, answering personal calls, chatting with their coworkers yet still manage to put out pretty good service. (I think this is a little different in tourist heavy areas, but here in Ranong, service has always ranged from “quite good” to “exceptional”) Unlike the West, where work is generally perceived seen as a necessary evil and where getting the most done with the least resources possible is the key to success, work in Thailand seems to be perceived as a fun social activity that also helps pay family bills. And because businesses hire so much staff, I imagine that there are a lot of job opportunities for unskilled labourers (at least in cities like this one), so even the most challenged of children at our school can probably find work and lead a relatively normal life once they gain some maturity.

Adding context to the scene

Back to that room.

We were sitting there because the military was taking photos of the empty classrooms (I’m not sure why they were doing this, but they did make a donation that morning and they are technically the government so who knows.) It’s too hot outside at midday for the kids to safely play on school grounds and being in air conditioned room is actually a treat. They were to return to their classrooms for nap time as soon as the rooms were free. It was just taking longer than expected.

Sitting quiet and still while doing nothing is an obsolete skill for most in the West, but if you consider that many Thai children frequently follow their parents to work, or are expected to attend family gatherings, or go out in public, you realize this skill is probably quite useful for them. And it’s not like they were forced to be statues either, some of the staff were interacting with the younger children, and the other kids were developing their social skills by interacting with each other, using their hands and feet as toys.

As for social skills, we noticed right away how well socialized the kids were. While some of the preschoolers cry for their mothers and the 4-7 year olds struggle with sharing, almost all the kids seem to have above average social skills when compared to their Western cousins. Eye contact is good, communication is effective (I actually had an easier time communicating with the kids than with the adults), fighting is rare and the older kids naturally look out for and help the younger kids. They pick up on cooperative games so quickly that I can’t tell which games are new to them and which they’ve known all along. And yes, this includes most of the kids with “severe” autism.

Somehow those long wait sessions were indeed educational, education being so much more than just learning facts and applying academic skills.

On Discipline

Discipline is probably the most controversial topic in child rearing anywhere. People just feel so strongly about the rights and wrongs in teaching your kids, well, right and wrong.

For me, the constant scolding (in a harsh, shrill voice) got under my skin. It was less about Thai culture, I think, than because of my experience with it back home. I don’t care for yelling. I was yelled at a lot as a kid (by teachers, by my mom – it’s just how things were done back then) and all it accomplished was develop my ignoring skills. Then, when I worked with children, yelling and harshness was seen as a loss of control, as a lack of empathy and as not having the competence to think of more child/situation-tailored solutions. The slapping of children in Thai schools doesn’t bother me as much, mostly because the slapping is very light, pretty much just a formality, but I still saw it as a waste of energy, especially when the child probably doesn’t understand what he’s being punished for anyway.

Ed offered a Chinese perspective: “My mom, my friends’ moms, my Chinese teachers, they all talked to me like that when I was little. With the exact same voice. I think that’s just how Asian women are expected to talk to children.” The testimonials I mentioned earlier suggested something along that train of thought, that teachers were worried that children wouldn’t behave or learn if they were not treated like this.

We can also consider it from the perspective of what earns respect for a teacher in the West. A Western teacher is respected for being empathetic, adaptable and interesting. So a teacher who scolds a lot in an annoying voice is more likely to be disrespected (hence my disdain for yelling). In Thailand, a teacher is automatically respected because they have knowledge to share. They are inherently “superior” in the social hierarchy. If they start treating the children as equals like a Western teacher would, they would theoretically lose their spot in the hierarchy and thus not be able to share their knowledge.

It must be noted too that the certified teachers at school, the ones who went to university (aka were expose to Western teaching techniques) were far less likely to use yelling and scolding to do discipline. (Which is actually not that different from back home – it seems that Western teachers and support staff, and even people like nurses and health care aids, who are older or less educated to tend to be gruffer and resort to yelling more than those with more extensive training.)

Where are the visual aids?

Visual aids have a huge place everywhere in modern Western teaching given that not all of us are blessed with being auditory learners. They are, however, especially crucial with special needs children, particularly with autistic children since struggles with spoken language are, like, a big part of what autism is.

It seems that visual aids are indeed used in some schools in Thailand and are taught in university (one of the teachers, I think she is a speech therapist, mentioned having used them at other sites in the past), but this school doesn’t use them. They also don’t use sign language with non-verbal children (they do use hand gestures for “hello” and “thank you” but because those gestures are part of normal interactions in Thai culture, they don’t think of them as sign language) All of my training has been about facilitating communication through visual aids so I had no idea what do.

I did make some pictographs (cards with pictures that can be used to communicate a need, discomfort or a want like thirst, tiredness, hunger or going to the bathroom) but since I was the only one using them, they ended up being more like fun flashcards or vocabulary builders than communications tools. I use sign language to back what I say too, a mix of Thai sign language and the hand signs I used back home, and the kids are somewhat interested, but again, no point in teaching them if no one else is on board.

I wanted to make visual schedules and timers too but ended up deciding against. After all, these kids were pretty good at communicating already. Thai life isn’t scheduled and timed the way Western life is either. Adults do go to work in the morning, come home at night and have hobbies, but routine, at least in more rural areas, isn’t as fine tuned or as strict as the routine we know. Oh, and nothing ever goes as planned. Some days cars break down. Sometimes there are random holidays. Sometimes people are late. For these kids, I decided, a schedule would be at best a waste of time, or at worst a source of frustration as it would rarely be followed. The notion of trusting one’s superiors makes me cringe, but given the cultural context, these children will probably gain far more by noticing cues from their parents and teachers than from a piece of paper. They would also gain a lot by learning how to deal with things they can’t control than by learning to control as much as possible.

One kid who was especially problematic by Thai standards (his behaviour was pretty average by Western standards) eventually got his own schedule, but he was the only one for whom I thought it might be worth the effort. By the time he learns to use it, I’ll have left, so I doubt it will be all that useful, but at least all the staff are familiar with it and might use it down the road if they see the need.

The ultimate ultimate goals are always the same: happy, healthy kids with bright futures

After taking a step back and putting everything I witness into cultural context, I ended up with a lot of respect for what they are doing at school.

Perhaps these children won’t be pushed to their full potential academically, but they are pushed hard where it matters for them. They’re learning to be good family members (remember that they will mostly likely live with their families instead of in a group home when they grow up), they’re learning patience, they’re learning general routines such as washing your hands before eating and brushing your teeth after, they’re learning table manners, they’re learning how to look after those lower than them in the social hierarchy (the older children comfort and teach things to the younger children), they’re taught how to cope with extreme Thai heat and they are taught some manual skills that will help them be employed later on. Perhaps they won’t have the experiences and resources their Western cousins receive (but they do receive a variety of experiences- for example, just two weeks ago they went horseback riding!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if their adult lives are happier and more similar to those of their peers when compared to Western persons with special needs.

As for how I choose to interact with the children, it isn’t possible for me to let go of my Western training (one of the teachers asked me to slap a misbehaving child once and I couldn’t bring myself to deliver more than a gentle tap. Physical discipline has been drilled out of me pretty hard!) and I turn a blind eye to a lot of behaviours that Thai teachers would correct in a heartbeat. I do have to admit, though, that because these kids are so well behaved and have such good social skills, they learn new games and new skills much faster and have way more frequent positive interactions with me than what I’m used to.

So perhaps there is a method to the madness and it just takes a step back (or two or three) to appreciate it.

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Extending Our Thai Visas

I’ve spent the last week locked in our relatively small (I say relatively because most of the time space is no problem, but during a few days of quarantine it gets real small, real fast) with my new companion, Laryngitis. Laryngitis wasn’t very nice. He’s mostly gone but left me with a post-viral cough, ensuring that no one within hearing range will get any sleep from now on. (Post-Viral Cough and I have a long history, last time it stuck around for 9 months. It included one ER trip, several doctors visits, a fortune in asthma meds, lots of cough-induced vomiting and the most intense abs workout ever. The time before that was less extreme but I did cough myself into in a back sprain which was really, really, really not fun. I wonder what exciting stories I’ll have to tell about this episode!)

Anyway, I sat on my butt from Tuesday to Thursday, not wanting to hand out my germs to the kids at school (didn’t want to start the next pandemic, you know!) and school was closed Friday. By Friday, most of my voice was back and I didn’t care enough about the coughing to let it hold me down (Post-Viral Cough is such a regular customer in my life that if I gave into it, I’d never get anything done) so we stuck by our original plan for the end of week 6 and biked to Immigration to extend our tourist visas.

I feel like I should have a crazy story here, but I don’t.

Immigration is a huge red building on a major road, you can’t miss it. It takes about 30 minutes to reach by bike. Figuring out where to go isn’t all that tough either – the bored taxi drivers hanging around are quick to point lost tourists like us in the right direction.

Ranong, as I love to point out, is hardly a bustling tourist and expat center. It does, however, share a sea border with Myanmar, so I’m sure work at immigration is never boring. The big immigration police trucks with their big cages are quite the sight and always make me wonder how often they have to use them and whether they ever fill those cages up.

As one could expect, the outdoor (but nice and shady) waiting area was alive with Burmese families and workers filling out forms and waiting to submit their papers. We were about to line up to take a number when another Westerner walked by us and disappeared through a blue door. It had a “One Stop Station” sign on it and listed a bunch of services you could obtain behind that door (like, you know, a visa extension). We gave up on being numbered and followed him in.

I’d not sure if it was because it was Friday or if every day kinda looks like that but there were 4 people ahead of us. It wasn’t lost on me that the Burmese were made to wait outside while us foreigners got to chill with some air conditioning. I guess that’s where all the tourist tax goes.

Filling out the form was probably the longest part of the process. It can be made shorter by printing it off the website and filling it out beforehand, but seriously, who backpacks with a printer? We also had to pay a reasonable 5 Baht to photocopy our passport, departure card and visa, which can probably also be done ahead of time by those backpacking with a photocopier.

Then we just waited our turn, handed in our forms and passport photos, paid, smiled for some photos (they record photos of everyone applying, I guess they’re more likely to be up to date than the ones we hand in) and receive a stamp with the extended date. Just like that.

And that’s how you extend your tourist visa. Maybe if you look suspicious they give you a harder time but we had no questions asked. I had heard rumors of proof of onward travel too, but that was also a non issue (perhaps it’s different for those who have a visa-on-arrival or no visa at all).

Now we’re all set for our upcoming trip to Bangkok, to Isaan and to the North!

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