Terra Schwartz // Bangkok, Thailand

1. Who are you and what do you do?

I am Terra Schwartz, originally from Lincoln, Nebraska. I graduated in 2008 from Walla Walla University and am currently teaching in Bangkok, Thailand at Ekamai International School. I moved here two months after graduation and have taught various classes over the years.  Currently I am in charge of the school magazine, The Breeze, Asian Literature 1 & 2, as well as Spanish 1 and 2; I am also head of the Foreign Language Department. Aside from that, I am working on my Masters of Education from Asia-Pacific International University in Muaklek, Thailand.  

2. How do you approach the process of learning with your students?

When it comes to learning, I have realized that learning is a continual and ongoing process. Just because the "lesson" ends it does not mean that the teaching does. Inside the classroom, I try to emulate the things that I have witnessed and learned from those who taught me. I also try to create a safe, warm environment so my students can feel comfortable talking to me about assignments and issues that affect them outside of the classroom. When you feel like you can share your experiences with your students---especially your mistakes--your students begin to take new approaches to the literature, journals, and even discussions. I try to make personal connections often... because if I start, they usually follow.

I also try to emphasize character. I try to make sure that my students are not brainwashed but become critical thinkers who are able to care about others and show sympathy. Hopefully they will learn that kindness is the strongest currency.  

3. What things have you done/accomplished that you might not have if you hadn't gone to Thailand?

Work-related, I feel like I have had more opportunities for growth and leadership. I have been the head of the foreign language department now for 2 1/2 years, been in charge of the school magazine publication, and have been the head sponsor for a class of 113 students. I believe that these positions really escalated my professionalism. I came in here feeling like a teenager 6 years ago, now I feel like a mature adult who knows how to deal with many personalities, connections, and organizational skills that I previously lacked. Personally, I have been able to travel to many countries and develop strong friendships with many international people. Before foreign countries felt exciting and a bit intimidating, however, I feel that now, I could live anywhere in the world and make it work.

4. Tell us about the curriculum you created for your students?

About 4 years ago I began creating a class to cater to my students. Ninety-nine percent of my students are Asian, yet in class we mainly focus on British and American literature...I felt that things weren't equally yolked and kids were missing out on amazing authors from their own regions. So I designed an Asian Literature course. The class is very reading intensive as well as analytical. It started by reading and rereading many books and sorting through authors to finds the ones that (1) I thought were important and prominent to literature and the specific country and (2) would be interesting and exciting for high school ages. I find often that students like to read--but when Shakespeare or Austen is shoved down their throats, they are less inclined. They need literature that they can relate to and understand.  

I also worked on creating an overall curriculum for the Foreign Language department. Since my school is based off of the California State Curriculum, I was able to apply the necessary benchmarks and standards as well as add to them. The other teachers in my department spent many days in my classroom working on this with me.

4. You've been there for quite a few years now, right? What is it about Thai culture that has you hooked?

Yes, I've been in Thailand now for five and a half years. I first moved here in 2008, but I took a gap year (2009-2010 school year) to go back home to the states. Thai culture is very infectious.  It has an amazing indie scene with great indie music, mom-and-pop style cafes and restaurants, and kind people. I think for me, Thailand was a refuge. I was able to design a lifestyle for myself that is so different from any lifestyle I had while living in the States. There are so many things at my finger tips here (largely due to the fact that Bangkok is HUGE and quite international); also I find that I am surrounded with more like-minded people. I have many friends here who are at the same point in life that I am and that is pretty refreshing.  

5. What has been the hardest part about living in Thailand? Or your hardest experience?

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Distance.  Being away from family and friends can really hurt. I find that I miss out on so many events and milestones that I wish I could be there to celebrate. However, I feel that's equally why I am so close to many people here. They were able to experience important events in my life and I, theirs. I deeply miss my family and think of them many times a day.  

Efficiency would have to be the second thing that I miss. There is a phrase in Thai, "Mai pen rai" which means "no worries".  Sometimes I find that there are things that shouldn't always be overlooked, or should be done in a timely fashion...yet...at some point, I have to accept it and also say, "mai pen rai."  

6. How has Thailand changed you?

Living in Thailand has made me feel more confident. I'm sure part of that could also be due to an instinctual growing maturity. Living alone, learning a new language, and learning how to fit into a culture that is so different from western culture has really made me feel fearless. I am less afraid to speak up, take charge of events, and also sound like a fool. It's easy to screw up in any language, but especially in a tonal language. I have to laugh at my mistakes and learn from them without taking things personally or being embarrassed.

7. What are your plans for the future?

Million dollar question. I try not to limit my future too much--but I know at some point I will move.  Whether to the States or to another country to focus on a 4th language. I am not sure how long I will be teaching...I would like to work in a creative arts school start-up and also finish the novel that I have been working on for the past two years. I find that every time I go to write more, I end up editing and re-editing the pieces. Hopefully I'll make the push soon and take some time off to focus on my art.  

8. As an westerner/foreigner, what is it like to build relationships in the Thai culture--both romantic and platonic?

As a westerner, there will be a barrier there. Whether it's culture, language, or religion. However, with time, mutual understanding, and tolerance, relationships form. Platonic relationships have been easier to build in a way--they can be built quickly and last a lifetime. Once you have a solid friend, you know you can count on them forever. Romantic relationships at first seem to be easy to build because they involve more than conversation and aesthetics--they are sparked by attraction and chemistry which truly can blind someone. I have met some really wonderful people that will forever hold a place in my heart, yet there are things that made it difficult to be together. I think religion is the most difficult. Religion has a way to color inside of the lines of culture and character that affect you and your partner in ways you wouldn't notice when you date someone from a similar religion. It doesn't mean that I think I am right and they are wrong; it simply just means that there can't always be full understanding and you have to accept things blindly. I believe now that it will be hard for me to date a western man who has no understanding or appreciation for asian culture. Since I have spent my adult years here, I find that I am not fully western, nor fully Asian--I am merely stuck in limbo between the two.  

9. What is your advice for those coming to travel to Thailand? Tips?

Thailand is a gorgeous country with good food, friendly people, and beautiful things to see. I think if you are coming to Thailand, you should overlook some of the tourist attractions and get in touch with the local culture. It is rich, vibrant, and beautiful. There are many places around Thailand that contain a larger volume of westerners (or "farang" as the Thai people call them) than actual Thai people. These places are crowded and contain more of a backpacker vibe than an actual Thai culture.  I want to encourage travelers and visitors to go outside of these tourist places and explore the real Thailand. Be adventurous, but be humble. Being graceful and humble or "gren jai" are things that are very important to the Thai culture. If you are respectful and kind--especially to elders--you will find that people are more helpful and courteous!