Trekking the Himalayas

For Spring Break of 2021 my roommate asked if I’d like to join him on a trek in the Himalayas. We’re living and working in India and international travel is out of the question but heading somewhere remote with a small group of people seemed a reasonable way to spend the break. It also gave me motivation to start getting into better shape. A year into the pandemic, my lifestyle has become pretty sedentary so I took this opportunity to push myself to start focusing on my fitness a bit. I thought I was decently ready but it turns out walking 10 km on flat ground in Delhi is uh, not quite the same as walking 10 km up in the mountains.

The trek took place in Uttarakhand and the trip itself lasted a week. We flew from Delhi to Dehradun and stayed the first and last night in Rishikesh – yoga capital of the world. We were picked up and dropped off by the company – Trek The Himalayas – and transported from Rishikesh to Joshimath. We travelled by van for about 9-10 hours both ways. We stayed in a guesthouse in Joshimath the first and last nights of the trek and camped in tents a total of 3 nights as we made our way up to Kuari Pass and back down. The first day of trekking we went from the end of the mountain road up through a few villages and to our first base camp. About 6 km of hiking uphill. It was a bit hotter than I thought it was going to be but it got chilly that night. So much was taken care of for us – tents were already set up including a food tent, supplies were brought via mule, we were led by highly experiences trek leaders including one local guide. They led us in some games so the members of the group would get to know each other. We were also led through some cool down exercises at the end of each hike. We took acclimatization walks at the different camps to get us used to the altitude. Our oxygen levels and resting heart rate were checked each evening. Even though I was extremely challenged each day of trekking I always felt safe thanks to the TTH staff.  Day 2 was only 3 km but it was a total ascent so it was still a tough day and after reaching camp we also took an additional 1 km walk to a nearby saltwater lake. Day 3 we went up about 5 km to the summit, then came back the on the same route. And the last trekking day was back to Joshimath (I opted to take the same path down that we had come up Days 1 and 2 but the other trekkers took a different route (both ways were about 9 km but for me it was 9 km downhill so I finished much earlier).

The food during the entire trip was great. We found good places to eat in Rishikesh – some small restaurant on the roof of a building near our hotel the first night and the Beatles café our last day (I only just learned while I was there that Rishikesh was where the Beatles stayed during their trip to India). On the van rides to/from Joshimath we stopped at good places to nosh. But most impressive was how good all the food was during the camping/trekking itself. No meals were repeated. We had great chai every morning and evening. There was amazing soup that became a running joke in our group (gotta wrap up the trekking quick to get back to that delicious soup each night!). The whole week we ate veg and it was so good I never had a thought about missing non-veg meals.

There were lots of other great parts of the trip besides the food. We got to learn about the area we were travelling through. We were told about the various flora and fauna in the region. The trek itself was diverse with different types of terrains and all kinds of incredible views. I also enjoyed bonding with the other members of the group. There were 17 of us in total and though my roommate and I were the only non-Hindi speakers we were made to feel included and had a great time all together. People looked out for one another and gave support when needed. I was consistently in the back of the pack during hikes but I was never made to feel rushed or looked down upon. We all celebrated one another’s success. It was great that all 17 of us reached the summit – that’s not always the case.

Since the physical aspect of the trek was quite difficult for me I was so focused on making it to the next destination that sometimes I forgot to stop and just look around at all the beautiful nature I was surrounded by. I take for granted sometimes the amazing opportunity I have to live in India. There’s such a diversity of geography, food, culture, languages, etc… Near the beginning of our trek was Holi and we had a brief celebration with some color powder at one of our rest breaks. Trekking through the Himalayas is something that always sounded like a great time but I didn’t know if I’d ever actually get the chance to do it. There were several times during the actual experience that felt grueling and I just wanted it to be over – to get to camp – to get back home. I’m back at my place in Delhi now and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for being able to have the experience.

I’ve mentioned a couple times that this trek was tough for me. I’m not exaggerating when I say this was the most I’ve ever been pushed physically in my life so far. During the final ascent at one point I was crawling on my hands and knees for several meters. As I saw the top peaking over the ridge where the others from my group were waiting I got up to my legs and walked the final 50 or so steps to join them. I felt like crying but held back the tears more due to self consciousness than any kind of mental toughness.

In the end, I was able to reach the summit but the way back down was so much harder for me because I had pushed myself past my physical limits and felt like I had nothing left after that. I was experiencing some unpleasantness like headache, nausea and fatigue on the return hike. One of the trek leaders stayed with me and one of the members of staff from camp even ran out to bring me samosas and chai on the way. I made it back to the camp about an hour after everyone else and felt completely drained. I skipped dinner that night, took some medicine and at the trek leader’s suggestion went back down the same way we came up on the final day. I still feel proud of making to the top and overcoming my body’s desire to give up. This is definitely an experience I’ll always remember and now that I have one trek under my belt, I’m already thinking of the next.

Staying Sharp

When I first made the transition from working in industry as a firmware engineer to teaching high school, my technical skills earned through my education and work experience was a selling point in interviews. One thing I’ve worried about during my teaching career so far is “losing my edge.” I’ve had the thought that the longer I spend as a teacher and not working in my field, the more likely I am to lose skills or knowledge I once had. Maybe this fear is irrational, but I’ve taken some steps to prevent it.

Formal Education

The most straightforward action I’ve taken is to take graduate courses in computer science. During my first couple years teaching I was an advisor for seniors so I spent time looking into different university programs. At the same time I was investigating the requirements to teach dual credit courses. To my dismay and amusement, I was qualified to teach computer science both at the high school and university level but not dual credit (teaching a class that gives both high school and college credit). I had a B.S. in Computer Science and an M.A. in Secondary Education but I needed at least 18 hours at the graduate level in my subject to teach dual credit.

Eventually I found Georgia Tech’s Online Masters of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program which appealed to me for many reasons such as the low price tag, completely online nature, awarding the same degree as the on-campus equivalent without any special “online” designation and a wide range of interesting courses available. I’ve gotten to brush up in some areas like databases, artificial intelligence and information security, take classes relevant to my career as an educator like education technology and human-computer interaction and explore new topics I wasn’t exposed to in undergrad like machine learning. I feel like I’m getting to double dip: I’m learning content as a student in the program and I’m paying close attention to how these courses are run to think more about my own pedagogical practices.

Reading

I love learning from books. There are many must-reads like Code by Charles Petzold, Clean Code by Robert C. Martin, and The C Programming Language by Kernighan & Ritchie (even if C is the primary language you use). Not only do well established, popular books contain valuable knowledge and insights but it gives you common language to use when discussing technical matters with others.

I also enjoy reading more recently written books even if they center around a technology or tool that might not be around (or widely used) in a few years. A book that I attribute to pushing me to pursue computer science as a teenager was the book Game Programming for Teens which taught the basics of Game Programming using a language called BlitzBasic which I haven’t used or heard anyone talk about since I used it during my reading of that book. There’s still lots to be gained from the experience of using specific tools even if you move on to something else later on. Recently, I read a book about using Design Patterns in Unity 2019. I quickly jumped into Game Program Patterns by Robert Nystrom which is excellent.

I also try to diversify what I read. A good book that got me thinking more about ethical considerations of emerging technology was Weapons of Math Destructions by Cathy O’Neil. And there’s more to read than just books. There’s a ton to learn from articles online and blogs. I particularly like seeing blogs from other CS teachers like Mike Zamansky and Alfred Thompson.

Sharing

In addition to reading what other people have to say, sharing what I have to offer has been crucial in my personal development as well. Writing about my experiences in a blog has been a good way to stop and reflect and get something more out of those experiences.

I also share links to things I’m working on on social media like twitter. So far, I usually don’t get much feedback but the little I’ve received has been quite useful. I’ve thought about making an explicit ask of specific people to take a look and give me feedback since it is so valuable. I also understand that it’s a significant ask so I want to not do it too often and try to offer something of value to the community in return.

Something I have only done a couple times but would like to do more of is giving talks at conferences. At LexPlay (Game convention in Central Kentucky), I shared some experience using video games as a mode of learning with some fellow teachers. I also gave two talks (one regular and one “lightning”) at PyCon Thailand. One was about teaching with Python. The other was about using programming skills to help with language learning (It was only 5 minutes but I gave that talk in Thai which was pretty terrifying but worthwhile). I also showed off a game I made at the Louisville Arcade Expo which was an incredibly fun way to showcase a project I had made. Something I’ve recently begun is streaming myself working on some of my projects on sites like Twitch and YouTube. Even if there are few or no viewers, it helps me to talk through my process out loud as if I were explaining it to someone else.

Side Projects

I think probably the most important thing I’ve done to keep developing my programming skills is… programming. Time is a precious commodity. So, spending time outside work hours working on side projects can be tough but enjoyable if it’s something you’re really into. I have also spent planning time during the school day working on relevant projects like demos for students and tools like random name generators, group selection helpers and programming challenges with automated tests on repl.it.

Outside of work I’ve participated in game jams like Global Game Jam, made a Thai language learning app for Android and just generally fiddled around with tools like p5js, codepen.io and Unity. By trying to use tools I’m unfamiliar with I can experience the pain of setting up new and sometimes confusing software just like my students do. I also get to experience the joy of finally getting things to work.

Teaching a variety of courses

There are definitely pros and cons of teaching a large number of courses. It would be nice to have a semester teaching multiple sections of the same course or teaching the same courses for several years in a row to be able to reduce the workload and time spent on planning, curriculum design and creating assessments and rubrics but there’s a benefit to constantly changing it up as well.

I’ve only been teaching for 5 years but I’ve already taught Computational Thinking, Computer Programming, Web Development, Robotics, Design Technology, and IB Computer Science (Year 1 and 2, Standard Level and Higher Level). In addition to IB I’ve taught under the Common Core in the U.S. and British Columbia curriculum in a Candian overseas school.

I feel that I get a chance to learn as I review code that students produce. I have gotten better at paying attention to detail. I have to make robust tests since students will create all sorts of unpredictable code that could pass simple tests but still be incorrect. I have to learn common misconceptions and anticipate them.

I’ve been teaching math too: Algebra I and II, Geometry, Precalculus and Calculus. Every new topic I teach, I feel I get a deeper understanding of the content and I grow in my ability to relate a wide variety of topics to students. I try to make connections between and within content and to the outside world. In my math classes I always try to sneak some computer science in and in my CS classes I sneak math in.

Collaboration

In addition to combining CS and Math content in the classes I teach personally, I’ve found that I get even more out of cross-curricular work when collaborating with teachers in different content areas. I no longer have an expert view of the whole problem domain, I have to learn to work with others to create something better than either of us could’ve done alone.

I’ve worked with an English teaching colleague to have students develop Choose-Your-Own-Adventure stories in HTML in our Web Development class. They also made Mad Libs in PHP and Buzzfeed style Top 10 lists populated with data from student created mysql databases. They used CSS to style their projects to help convey theme and mood.

I’ve collaborated with a Physics teacher to create visualizations and we got our students working together to make physics simulations for their final projects where my students made sure the simulations worked properly and allowed for customization of parameters while her students were the content experts and made sure the physics concepts were portrayed accurately.

Conclusion

A common theme in all of the ways I’ve tried to grow as a computer scientist and as an educator is that I always try to stay curious and try to go outside my comfort zone doing and learning new things. I try to put my learner hat on and not take myself too seriously. It’s also important to always step back and reflect to get the most out of every experience and to celebrate the successes along the way. I love what I do and I look forward to continuing to explore more topics over the years and sharing my accumulated expertise with others.

Asking Questions in Thai

When I told คุณย่า (koon ya – paternal grandmother) I was moving to Thailand she offered to give me a little crash course in the language. She had taught me bits and pieces throughout my childhood but never anything too formal so I was definitely interested. There was one grammatical structure she considered the most important for me to know for asking Yes or No questions.

It looks like this:

Question:

X mǎi?

Negative Response:

mâi X

Positive Response:

X

Note that mǎi (ไหม) and mâi (ไม่) have different tones (rising VS falling) but it’s one of the only time the tone makes total sense to me since you put an inflection that sounds like you’re asking a question for mǎi and and tone like you’re responding with “No” for mâi. Also, if you’re reading Thai script, you’ll notice there are no question marks, the particles/ending words are used to signify a question instead of any dedicated symbol.

Some examples:

เอาไหม (ow mai?) – Do you want?
ไม่เอา (mai ow) – I don’t want.
เอา (ow) – I want.

ชอบไหม (chawp mai?) – Do you like it?
ไม่ชอบ (mai chawp) – I don’t like it.
ชอบ (chawp) – I like it.

หล่อไหม (laaw mai?) – Handsome?
ไม่หล่อ (mai laaw) – Not handsome.
หล่อ (laaw) – Handsome.
หล่อมาก (laaw mak) – Very handsome.

ไปไหม (pai mai?) – Go?
ไม่ไป (mai pai) – No, let’s not go.
ไป (pai) – Let’s go.

Or, if you want to sound really Thai say ป่ะ (bpa)

Another way to ask yes/no questions is to make a statement then add ใช่ไหม (chai mai?) to the end. To answer you would say ใช่ (chai) for yes, ไม่ใช่ (mai chai) for no. There’s also อาจจะ (aht ja) for maybe and ไม่รู้ (mai rue) for I don’t know.

And of course, like any Thai sentence you can throw Khrap (if you’re male) or Ka (if you’re female) at the end to make it sound more polite. When I’m walking through any touristy area where I’m getting asked by Tuk Tuk drivers if I’d like a ride, I usually use the phrase ไม่เอาครับ (mai ow khrap) and give a smile to let them know, in a polite manner, that I’m not interested.

This definitely isn’t the only way to ask a question in Thai but very handy to know. Here are a few others:

…or not yet? – หรือยัง – reu yang

Example:

กินข้าวหรือยัง (gin khao reu yang) – Have you eaten yet?
ยังไม่ได้กิน (yang mai dai gin) – I haven’t eaten yet
กินแล้ว (gin laaeo) – I ate already

…or nothing? (…or not?) หรือเปล่า – reu bplao

…or… – หรือ – reu…

Really? จริงหรือ – jing reu

(Or จริงหรอ – jing raw)

This is a phrase I hear/use often in Thai. Usually is sounds more like “jing aw” than “jing reu/raw”

To respond affirmatively you could say จริงๆ (jing jing – really!) or to respond negatively you say ไม่จริง (mai jing – not true)

A pronunciation tip is that the จ sound here isn’t exactly the same as ‘j’ in English, it’s somewhere between ‘j’ and ‘ch’. If you’re familiar with J.J. market and were curious why J.J. was the abbreviation for Chatuchak, it’s because sometimes ‘j’ is used to transliterate ‘จ’ and sometimes ‘ch’ is used.

Thai also has the 5 W’s (and 1 H). All very useful for constructing questions (or for understanding that you’re being asked a question).

ใคร (krai) – Who?

ใครคือเพื่อนของคุณ
krai keu peuan kong koon
Who is your friend?

อะไร (arai) – What?

อยากกินอะไร
yak gin arai?
What do you want to eat?

ทำไม (tam mai) – Why?

ทำไมแท็กซี่ไม่หยุด
tam mai tak see mai yud
Why didn’t the taxi stop?

ที่ไหน (tee nai) – Where?

ห้องน้ำอยู่ที่ไหน
horng nahm yoo tee nai?
Where is the bathroom?

เมื่อไร (meua rai) – When?

ร้านอาหารเปิดเมื่อไร
rahn aahaan berd meua rai
When does the restaurant open?

อย่างไร (yang rai) – How?

คุณเป็นอย่างไรบ้าง
koon bpen yang rai bang?
How have you been?

You might also hear ยังไง (yang ngai) for “How?” since it’s a bit easier to say than อย่างไร

รู้ได้ยังไง
rue dai yang ngai?
How do you know?

It’s also useful to be able to ask about quantities:

เท่าไร (tao rai) – How much?

อันนี่เท่าไร
an nee tao rai
How much is this one? (can use to ask about the price of an item at a shop)

กี่ (gee) – How Many?

คุณมีลูกกี่คน?
koon mee luk gee kon?
How many kids do you have?

Public Speaking in Thai

This weekend Thailand hosted its first ever PyCon: a conference dedicated to the Python programming language. This was a great opportunity to meet fellow developers in the region and learn more about topics like Deep Learning, Natural Language Processing, Graph Theory and more. I even contributed with a talk on Teaching and Learning with Python. Another fun part of the conference is the lightning talk session. Lightning talks are 5 minute talks that anyone can sign up for that happened at the end of each day in the main hall. It’s a chance for people to dip into speaking at a conference or to test the water for new ideas or just to share something cool they’ve been working on. While I already have some experience in that arena, I have zero experience speaking in public in Thai. I decided to take the risk of trying my hand at it. I’d say around half or more of the audience understood Thai, but definitely a large part that did not so I made slides in English and Thai but made a goal of only speaking Thai during the presentation. There were a couple times when I couldn’t think of the word I wanted to say in Thai and was tempted to just say it in English but didn’t, I either found another way to express myself or just left the comment out. Below are the slides I created and used for the talk:

I already started realizing how hard translating this all would be by slide 1. For the first word should I use เรียน (riian – to study at the elementary level), เรียนรู้ (riian rúu – to undertake to study; learn; study), ศึกษา (sʉ̀k sǎa – to study; to be educated; to receive education; to go to school; to learn (at higher levels such as college)) or something else? And the connecting word, am I learning/studying with/by/through programming? What’s the most Thai way to express it? And it seems I was so focused on getting the Thai correct that I forgot to capitalize the ‘p’ in Programming for my title in English.

When I actually gave the talk, I was thinking “should I explain what I’m doing in English, that I’m learning Thai and want to practice speaking or should I just start speaking in Thai, I’m sure it won’t be very hard for them to figure out I’m just learning…” I jumped right in with an unsure “สวัสดีครับ… ทุกคน ยินดีต้อนรับ” (sà wát dii kráp… túk kon, yin dii dtɔ̂ɔn ráp – Hello… everyone. Welcome.”

After the initial awkwardness, I felt a little more comfortable. Sure, I’m speaking a new language and I might mess up but there are slides to help people figure out what’s going on even if I mispronounce something. I push my students who are English Language Learners to take risks and make an attempt. It’s more about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and learning and getting your point across than delivering a perfect speech.

“วันนี้ผมจะพูดเกี่ยวกับ…” (wan níi pǒm jà pûut gìao gàp – Today I will speak about…)

Now for introductions. Pretty standard for a presentation, but it did feel rather like day 1 in a language class.

ประมาณ (bprà maan – approximately) was a new word for me. I’ve heard it before but I’ve never actually used it in conversation. I think the experience of using it in a talk in front of a large audience will help it stick in my memory pretty well.

Got my first laugh here. There’s a term for people who are half Thai, ลูกครึ่ง (lûuk krʉ̂ng – half child).

“ไม่ใช่ลูกครึ่ง เป็นลูกครึ่งครึ่ง” (mâi châi lûuk krʉ̂ng bpen lûuk krʉ̂ng krʉ̂ng) – “I’m not half Thai, I’m half half Thai”

The term for people like me who have 1 Thai grandparent and 3 non-Thai grandparents is “ลูกเสี้ยว” (lûuk sîao – crescent child) a reference to the crescent moon.

An interesting tidbit about the Thai language is that there are different words for maternal and paternal grandparents, so by using the word คุณย่า (kun yâa – paternal grandmother) instead of คุณยาย (kun yaai – maternal grandmother) it can be inferred that it’s my dad’s mom who is Thai, not my mom’s mom without me needing to elaborate.

After introductions I showed a few of the programs I made to help me learn Thai and explained briefly what they did. The first one was my program to help tell the time. This came from one of my first posts on this blog, Telling Time in Thai.

Second program, my Days of the Week quiz, also about something I made for the blog. I did say the English words “Saturday, Sunday, Friday” here because I was explaining that you have to select the correct English word in this example. Though my childlike enthusiasm when saying “ถูก!” (tùuk – correct, can also mean inexpensive) got me another laugh from the crowd.

This is the only example I shared that isn’t from the blog, JamDai, the Vocabulary Card Matching Game I made. Instead of ถูก, this one ends with a supportive เก่งมาก (gèng mâak – very good, clever, skillful, superbly performed).

The final example I shared was the Thai Chat Bot I made recently. Got a couple more laughs here excitedly reading the chat between myself and the bot and explaining that the bot is male since he uses the polite term “ครับ” (kráp) instead of “ค่ะ” (kâ).

Though, if I end up adding text-to-speech that may change since all the existing Thai text-to-speech tools I can find only have a female voice. I have noticed that general service messages, or posted announcements tend to be either gender neutral or use female terms. Another interesting difference between Thai and English is that there’s no difference between she and he, it’s the same word (เขา – kǎo) so no need to worry about misgendering someone because you don’t need to refer to people by their gender. Though you do gender yourself by the self-referential pronouns you use, ผม (pǒm – I (male)) and ฉัน (chǎn – I (female)). There are instances when speakers will use the opposite gender terms such as a male using female terms with close family members or intimate partners to show softness/gentleness (it’s common for male singers to use ฉัน in love songs for example) or women might use male terms to show harshness or to be stern. Reveals some of the cultural connotations surrounding gender.

I’m very glad I took this risk even though it was scary, I’m happy with how it went. I hope to continue growing and using my Thai language skills. It would be great to be able to speak directly to the parents of my students who speak Thai instead of relying on a translator (though, the Thai staff that helps us with that are awesome!) And of course, the most rewarding way in which I use this skill is getting to connect more with my family members on this side of the globe. Even though initially, I barely knew any Thai, they’ve been so kind, welcoming and warm to me.

I have to give a special shout-out to my wonderful girlfriend, Mild, who took a look over my slides for me and offered suggestions to improve them. In general, she’s been a huge factor in helping me learn and pushed me take chances like this.

สวัสดีครับ

Hi! I’m Michael, an American teaching at a Canadian International School in Bangkok, Thailand. I created this blog to both share my adventures with friends and family that are far away and to chronicle my learning of the Thai language and culture.  It’s my long term goal to become fluent and literate in Thai. My interest stems from the fact that my grandmother is Thai so learning the language and familiarizing myself with the culture is a way of connecting with my own heritage and exploring a part of my identity.