Diary of the recovery effort

Tsunami Victims
A poster in Phang-Nga Province, Thailand following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The people pictured are dead.

Diary of the Recovery Effort

My journal is below. I edited it and sent it out to friends from January 25 to early February, only about eight days. I did not include four weeks afterwards, when I recovered from what a psychologist in Shanghai would later diagnose was post-traumatic stress syndrome. That, I’ll save for another time. A time when I am comfortable exploring the psychological stress of revisiting grief unresolved.

But what you may be able to discern from the story  I am going to tell you is that to volunteer following a natural disaster, even when your heart is in the right place and you think you know what you are doing because you are otherwise an intelligent person…well, it’s never what you expect. There are things that the presence of death and destruction will invite you to revisit in your own life, things you thought, perhaps, that you had handled years ago, that will come back. That’s what happened to me. But, like I said, that’s for later, after you see what I saw, experience what I experience, understand what I understand.

To be able to help someone help him or her self is the highest form of charity. To be able to self-actualize — that’s another sort of gift, a psychological gift, a spiritual gift, like a friend, that you give yourself if you can.

When the tsunami struck I was in Shanghai, China. I first learned about the disaster from Yahoo news. I then became aware of the severity of the crisis when friends from the United States, who knew I often traveled to Thailand for my winter break, wrote me to confirm that I was alive.

Two days after the event I was shocked when one of my master’s students replied to my calls for action by arguing that China had to first look to their own. But this shock paled when compared to China’s silence: a hundred other master’s students and all of my freshman students were unaware of the event. Three days after the event news coverage in communist China, which takes its cue from the government, was nearly non-existent. Two weeks after the disaster the foreign language and literature department at Fudan University in Shanghai – and every other department at the school, I believe, began collecting contributions. Most likely that charitable effort was coordinated by the government, since it was not common for institutions in Communist China to function autonomously and independently outside the scope of the Party. Colleagues said I could benefit my students by going since they could not. None had any idea how the experience would also enable me to benefit myself.


January 25-February, 2005
Khao Lak, Phang-Nga Province, Thailand

Dear Friends, family:
I’ve thrown my lot in with a wonderful group of left-leaning secular folks who seem to really have their act together. I recommend the group’s site www.tsunamivolunteer.net for information and updates on what is going on in the hardest hit parts of Thailand.

Focus is quickly shifting to long-range rebuilding.  Those with the perspective and respect for local autonomy take precedence now. When I showed up at the Red Cross in Bangkok last Saturday it was the first day they said they weren’t looking for volunteers. I’ll be gone on Tuesday. Long-range commitments are what are needed now.

Good things are happening. Today a group of 35 Korean and Japanese college kids encamped for the weekend at the Ban Nam Kem school where I am teaching. They have the energy to light up all of Asia. Faith in the future of the world can be found here and now in Thailand.

I’m impressed with the tsunamivolunteer group, in large part, because they are very sensitive to the fact that whatever they do has to be with the consent and acquiescence and support of the local population. I trust the way they are coordinating. I am watching them professionalize and dig in for the long run: regular meetings, a steering committee, rules, orientation, a complement of Thai translators and culturally sensitive attaches to every Western task force.

Here is a page from my journal(updated):

Overnight, Monday-Tuesday

“Where are you going?” Even now I have to look at the paper. “Takua Pa,” I tell the Thai woman across the isle. I had earlier observed her offering some of her melon to the young girl who now slept in the seat behind her. Strangers, but we are all on this bus for the same reason. The woman is on leave from her job as an HIV researcher in Bangkok. I have been referred by the Red Cross. She’ll head to the naval base and then serve donated food for a week. The sleeping girl is headed back to the school where she teaches. On the Sunday morning when the waves hit, a teacher and her students who were doing extra classes there were killed. Buddhist nuns in white and monks in orange in the front of the bus are going to relieve staff at their temple. I tell the woman about myself and my feelings.  I feel I represent my family, my friends, and my country. “I am here for them too,” I say.  “You are lucky,” she replies, “you can help.” Her words hang in the air as if they shouldn’t have been said. Lucky? “Is it true American government knew the waves were coming?” Now I know why I am here. I draw breath and speak softly.  “Would a human being, if they could prevent the death of just one other let alone 150,000 — would it be reasonable to expect them to act?” Again, more words in the air. Now she wants to know why America is in Iraq. She is blunt, but not malicious. “Many reasons,” I tell her. We are distracted by the movie.


Everyone at Takua Pa has a death story. Pat, a volunteer from San Diego whose husband left her after she found another man, Jesus, recalled not wanting to see the face of her dead father. Jim, the 36 year-old planning engineer from North Carolina earned the wrath of his family when, as executor, he had to pull the plug on his grandmother. The Thai, though, are relatively calm. Buddhist tradition and beliefs presume the soul immediately or relatively soon will be reborn on its way to Nirvana. As a result, grieving is hard to spot. Some, I am told, do, however, fear the souls of the foreigners still hanging around. “Thai will not tell you their emotion,” Charoen Chitravarin, School Supervisor for Phang-Nga Province’s 180 schools told me Friday at a thank you lunch.

At the Bannamkem school where I am teaching conversational English on a busman’s holiday from a Chinese univeristy the four hours of waves took 10 of the school’s 413 children and 27 parents: Five children lost both mother and father; 16 lost their mother; 5 lost their father. Two children lost guardians. Almost all lost their homes and are now living at the school, or in tents or newly built structures that an NGO is constructing on school and village land. Mr. Chitravaren tells me 30 children died at another one of his schools. I saw government officials Tuesday giving some of the orphaned children bank accounts with 20,000 Baht or $500 in them. Even in the best of times this little place a little over 100 km north of Phuket doesn’t have a lot.

After class today Miss Nan, who Mr. Chitravaren sent to pick me up when I arrived Tuesday morning, showed me some of the 29 bank accounts books she had just opened for the children. She’d provide me with the account numbers if I want but I defer and suggest instead that I check at the volunteer center to see what is appropriate action. But I am inconsistent. Earlier I wrote down Mr. Chitravaren’s account despite the fact, I told him, that I am a teacher and this isn’t my area to decide.

On the bus to school today, my third day, I began to think long range. Mr. Chitravaren agrees that a native speaker willing to make a two week commitment would be a welcome aide for the school’s regular Thai teacher, Mrs. Sunee. She has warmed up to me slowly, in part because she doesn’t speak English that well. In the afternoon, after explaining that I need her help to translate (which I do) I coax an unwilling Mrs. Sunee, to observe my Western teaching methods.

Every day different white people appear in the school office taking pictures, delivering boxes. Every group seems to have its own hats, t-shirts, flap jackets and slogans. Some sport flags and banners. Two days ago reformed drug addicts were serving lunch and God. One introduced himself to me as a Korean War orphan who ministers at the Riverside Church in Southern California. When he tells me how proud Mr. Chitravaren was to have an American, college university English teacher volunteering I decide to sign on for two extra days. “We want to build a church here. Right now we just give them love.”
The Khao Lak Nature Preserve, in the absence of any business, has been converted into the Tsunami Volunteer Center. Thai women today, Saturday, make flags to represent the nations of the volunteers. So far up to about they are up to 25.

God Squads are out in full force. Thais politely welcome them but privately wish they would find somewhere else to sell their faith. Thailand is 1% Christian. Mr. Chitravaren says after lunch that he appreciates most those who give from the heart. I tell him Jews don’t proselytize, we’re just into guilt. He laughs.

Elections are coming Feb. 6. The incumbent government isn’t popular among the teachers. They back the Democrats. Just the same the tsunami’s impact may influence the mechanics of voting since so many have been displaced or killed. “You’ll be surprised if some of them come back and vote,” I tell Mr. Chitvaren who shares my black humor. “We worry about that back home too.”

Two large orange fishing boats in Ban Nam Kem rest on the sand where they were swept. This afternoon four of the many orphaned dogs roaming the village found shade under one wrecked motor boat. Lowering her hand to a table leg below my chair Mrs. Sunee displays how high the mud was when they came back into the office after the waves. The water was two meters deep inside, she said. 30 km up the road in Khao Lak, where I am staying, a navy ship which the waves took over utility wires, sits a good mile from the ocean.

Everywhere surveyors peer through instruments on tripods. Gone fast were the Muslim Burmese squatters. “Many kinds of people come from everywhere in Ban Nam Kem because we have tin in the sea,” Mr. Chitravaren tells me over lunch. The Burmese harvested tree rubber and built boats, he says. The day after the waves hit the government sent all the Burmese home, explained Miss Nan. Accounting the village’s dead she enumerates the Burmese deaths separately. An NGO worker explains that when the water receded it also revealed old political problems.

I had expected to find shock and crises, but I have encountered survival. The village area wat (temple) has been converted into a command center. Efficiency is high. Boxed lunches are stacked neatly with a sample representative of their contents on display in front of each pile. The fried chicken is good. At a drink station you can have anything you like. It’s all free.  All sorts of professionals mill about with less and less to do:  police, therapists, masseurs (for those in the morgue who are stressed out) food servers (mostly women) translators and many others. Two Somerset, England police in black polo shirts with the emblem of their department on them say they were sent with 15,000 pound sterling to donate but they don’t know to which group to give it.
As I write this a doctor from the German embassy inoculates me for free against typhoid. I don’t even get up from my chair.

The Thai demonstrate unending gratitude. Though 4,029 are dead in Phang-Nga it is the memory of the foreigners with only the clothes on their back that Mr. Chitravaren recalls to me over lunch. Starting yesterday my students stood, wished me good morning at the start of class and, at the end of the hour, stood and, in unison thanked me. All hitch hikers get rides since they are all volunteers. I had to force 10 baht into the hand of taxi driver this morning.

Guilt for not doing enough seems to be pervasive among the Westerners. Thursday morning I was late for class because I stopped to listen to a tireless worker as she fought back tears. Desperate family members had turned of the road to the inn which has been converted into a volunteer center.  Despite possession of records and reports they couldn’t find the body of their deceased and they had to fly back to Europe on an afternoon flight. Since she is in charge she tried to field their request for help but she simply couldn’t. After a month of non-stop volunteering the experience seemed to be a final straw for her and now she was pouring out her heart to me, a total stranger. This evening she was better. The American consulate had delivered toasters and cereal, everything asked for on her daily wish list. She cheerily solicited requests for tomorrow’s list. “Cheese,” said a volunteer, one of the army of white twenty-somethings who have flocked here from their college breaks and vacations.  Perhaps it’ll be on the agenda for tomorrow’s 8 a.m. meeting. In the meantime, she admitted to me, she has to take a break. “But I feel so guilty when I do,” she said. At Saturday’s meeting it is announced that counselors are available for those experiencing post-traumatic stress. We are urged to take breaks. Sunday there will be no work.


I sit down at the computer with a sigh. “Are you all right,” a young woman asks me. “I am by nature a sarcastic, angry person and being nice all the time wears on me.” We both laugh. Actually, it is staying focused that is exhausting.


“There is no water; consider other options.” – I leave a note on half a cardboard toilet roll on the toilets. Now I realize what was actually said at the meeting.


I’ve begun getting compulsive about this diary. Up at 3:00 a.m. “You can easily get sucked in,” Jim, the Peace Corp volunteer warned.  Benadryl and allergy pills help me sleep.

Saturday morning, 29 January

I am told the group supports my project to create an educational component to the long range rebuilding and reconstruction effort. Four teachers met with me after the morning meeting. Johnny, an elementary school teacher from San Francisco suggests a one-to-one partnering between Thai English teachers and teachers overseas. I already sense turf animosity from Mrs. Sunee.

We decide to create lists. one has Thai teacher’s names, e-mails, phone numbers and school addresses. The only name on the list is Mrs. Sunee. A second lists English speaking teachers from around the world who are willing to partner with a Thai teacher. It is blank. A third lists native speakers and teachers willing to commit to 10 days to two weeks in a classroom. Grace Toki, the TESOL teacher is the only name on the list. After the meeting I call Mr. Charoen Chitravarin to ask if it will be ok for Grace to come with me Monday. He asks to speak to her and then says yes. I dread having to call Mrs. Sunee to ask but I will. A fourth list includes resources. I spend Saturday writing out my lesson plans clearly in long hand for this list. Sunday I create a book with folders and find the exact titles of books I use in Shanghai. This list includes songs like the Hokey Pokey and web sites like enchantedlearning.com. I leave my name card in the folder. A fifth folder which I put first in the notebook is a reflective teacher’s journal of suggestions, observations, and challenges. When I scramble around the center for a blank notebook I come across one with the notes of another teacher, a young girl in college. I pen the first words in the notebook placing her one reflective page before mine:
“These are the personal records of someone who came here before me. I found them, ironically, when I was looking throughout the center for a reflective teacher’s notebook. You may also find things from others who came before you. This folder is for that.

(Enc.) These are the artifacts of our experience. We may, right now, not understand why they are significant, or, why we save them.

To paraphrase Michael Kammen’s People of Paradox  (p. 13, Knopf, New York, 1972) history “…is the memory of civilization. A civilization without memory ceases to be civilized. A civilization without history ceases to have identity. Without identity there is no purpose; without purpose civilization will wither.”

Your contribution to this reflective teaching journal is the history of this project.


I already have already made one journal contribution — when I used the classroom teaching method of standing silent in the front of the class to get student attention it prompted one boy to express his concern that I was tired. I explained this to Miss Nan who then told the boy not to worry.

Saturday 6:02pm

Ray called. He was diving in the 10 foot pond behind the Ban Nam Kem school where I teach. “We were looking for a little boy. We weren’t successful.” Mud and muck. He was with the army. He says they’re limiting involvement of the Westerners. Face and race, I call this.

At the volunteer center I start picking up dinner dishes when I notice only the Thai are doing servant labor while the white volunteers relax and chat. “You didn’t sign up,” a white woman says. “A different form,” my roommate from Belfast calls it. Westerners consent, Thais do.

Sunday morning – at the restaurant overlooking the ocean near my cabin

“Was the water this high?” says a man with a red neck. I’m surprised to see tourists but they are doctors from Denver. Politely but firmly the man presses me for information. They were working up north with 800 pounds of medical supplies. I tell them the waitress is wearing donated clothes, the volunteers are stressed, and everyone helping seems to have unresolved grieving issues. The woman agrees. Losing someone when you are young will often drive a person into a career of care giving, she says.  They want to repay those who helped them.
Caption to photos which can be viewed at Khao Lak, January, February, 2005 PHOTO ADDITIONS PENDING
In the first five weeks after the tsunami all Tsunami Volunteer Center volunteers met each day at 8am for announcements and work assignments; Volunteers did not go into a classroom if, after reading the “Dear Volunteer” letter that introduced the English Project, they failed to ask “what does ‘race and face’ mean?” Every project manager had to make snap judgements about  people they knew nothing about. My litmus test for cultural and racial sensitivity was predicated on whether (and how) volunteers who wanted to be teachers raised the issue of race themselves; Posters for victims of the tsunami, like those for victims of 9-11, were everywhere. It is more likely than not that the couple and the baby  in the posters pictured are dead; Ban Nam Kem students were remarkably resilient; Ban Nam Kem students with Grace Toki (black and white) who, by succeeding me at Ban Nam Kem made it possible for the program to take hold; students and me; IT Project Manager Garry Frederickson, a Coloradan from Hewlett Packard, arranging a lap-top based system in the middle of the jungle. Garry lived with constant pressure since key to the TVC’s success was its ability to engage the world.  The circumstances of the volunteer effort bred unity among those from red and blue America during a time when politics and religious divisions in the United States were at their zenith. The mutual respect and genuine affability between Garry and other fundamentalists, such as 18 year-old Mandi Coulter, a college freshman from Georgia attached to a small ministry called Hands and Feet, and myself and other volunteers, many of whom leaned liberal to left, was evidence of this. The non-Thai volunteers came from some two dozen nations, mostly western. As the effort shifted from recovery to rebuilding tensions eased, but as they did religious and political tolerance lessened. Only on my last night did I encounter any anti-Semetism; I asked Tim Spedding (left), a volunteer from Redding, England to assist Grace. Later he teamed with English Outreach coordinator Joa Keis (right), from the USA; they became fast friends and served  in Khao Lak for a year; The two gibbons orphaned by the tsunami were welcome distractions from the tension. They began each day tormenting a dog.  Then, they fled like cowards to the upper canopy of vegetation that ringed the Khao Lak Nature Resort that was the TVC’s temporary home. There they circulated breaking only to come down among the volunteers and cause mischief. This one pictured is in the process of stealing my pen and throwing it into the woods.


Social Science Docket
Summer-Fall 2007
P. 82
Teaching Ideas
Teacher Instruction in Post-Tsunami Thailand

In January, 2005, social studies educator Bill Marcus, living and teaching in China, contacted NYSCSS member Maryanne Malecki about his work with schools in Thailand following the devastation of the December 26th tsunami.  In an e-mail, Bill cited sharing several books used in the SUNY-Albany social studies methods class with program coordinators in Thailand and requested assistance in procuring additional resources for the program. Maryanne received a $500 mini-grant from NYSCSS for this purpose and Bill secured additional donations of pedagogical materials from publishers. This is an edited version of his report on the project.

On Monday, January 24, 2005, the Bangkok Red Cross referred me to the Phang Nga coordinator for teacher instruction. I was assigned to the Ban Nam Kem school in Takua Pa, Phang Nga Province, Thailand to teach for one week as part of the aid in tsunami recovery. Ban Nam Kem was ground zero for tsunami devastation. On December 26, 2004, waves took the lies of ten of the school’s 413 children and twenty-seven parents.  Five children lost both of their parents and almost all of them lost their homes. At the time of my arrival, many children were living at the school, or in tents or newly built structures that were constructed on school and village land.

I gave myself two jobs. I planned to teach students-centered lessons in a highly structured safe classroom atmosphere in which students would feel comfortable, and to coax the school’s regular Thai teacher into my classroom to observe Western teaching methods.  Realizing that what I was doing could continue to be done by others, I proposed to the Tsunami Volunteer Center the former creation of “The English Project.”

The program’s goals are to rekindle the joy of learning, to teach people rather than text, and to promote sensitivity to race and the cultural norms. A year after securing the support of the Tsunami Volunteer Center, “The English Project” had a presence in as many as ten schools.

Pedagogical Objectives

The pedagogical objectives of the “English Project” are to cultivate an atmosphere of trusts and a willingness to welcome pedagogical support; improve student pronunciation with immediate feedback, direction and correction; enhance language facility; enable students to benefit economically from improved English proficiency through improved instruction; and enable Thai teachers to gain access to professionals with whom they can directly partner.

The immediate impact of English instruction from trained foreign teachers assigned to local schools by “The English Project” has been significant. Thai Elementary School administrators told me that school children are no longer “afraid of Farang” (the Thai word for foreigners), that tedium in the fifth and sixth grade English language classroom has been replaced with engagement and enthusiasm, and that interest in the subject of English as a Second Language has spread to the younger children.  The smallest learners reportedly find learning English so much “fun” that they bring their lessons home to teach their parents.

American Teaching Methodology

The transfer of American teaching methodology and philosophy spreads pedagogical skills and peace through better inter-cultural understanding. Inter-personal interaction with foreigners improves learner attitudes and comfort in exploring the social nuances necessary to relate to Americans and other native speakers of English.  Improved English proficiency improves the economic prospects of English learners.

The simultaneous application of “passivity” and “advocacy” is key to the programmatic success of “The English Project.” Volunteers need to be asked to help and to win the trust of native teachers, goals that are not always achieved.

For Asian learners, “The English Project” challenges pedagogical intransigence and offers an alternative method of second language instruction by skilled professionals.  For underpaid and overworked Thai teachers and administrators, the program provides in-service training in teaching to multiple intelligences and increased attention to “right-brained” learning.  Learners are no longer constricted to learn English simply by rote and repeat.  For Americans, the program provides engagement instead of isolation.