Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog November 13th, 2010

Food For Thought

“What you name?”

“What is your name – try it again, please.”

“What you name, please?”

“No, I meant . . . oh, never mind. My name is Tim . . . “

Ah yes, what ESL teacher in Thailand has not had the above dialogue (and frustration) hundreds of times over his or her professional career? Only the diehard, dedicated pedagogue can put up with it, month after month, year after year. And then – voila! – one day you find that you have hit upon the golden mean; you don’t really care anymore and yet your students suddenly pick up on the correct grammar and pronunciation, seemingly all by themselves.

That is when you know you have become a master teacher. For some, it takes a matter of months. For most, it takes years. For me . . . well, I’m still working at it.

Not that I am not a competent ESL teacher, you understand. I have my lesson plans and am an old hand at classroom management, but lately I have come a cropper in teaching certain important skills to my Thai fiancé Joom. Her English, I am proud to say, has expanded and improved tremendously since we have gotten together.

But my attempts to teach her the fundamentals of Western cooking – well, thereby hangs a tale, or two, that do me no credit as an instructor.

Let us start with that staple of American Midwestern cuisine – the grilled cheese sandwich. I learned to make these as a beardless youth as a way to stave off starvation when my mother was not home on weekends during lunchtime. You simply butter the outside of two pieces of bread, toss one piece, butter-side-down, into a hot fry pan, lay on a thick cheese slice, top it with the other slice of bread, butter-side-up, and when the bottom begins to sizzle and hiss you turn it over until the other side is sizzling & hissing, and then you remove it and wolf it down. Repeat as often as necessary. It’s as easy as falling off a log.

Thais, apparently, do not fall off of logs very often. First of all, of course, is their deep-rooted aversion to the very concept of cheese. Milk from a cow, as opposed to a soy bean, is not something the Thais feel comfortable with – and then when you tell them that cheese is a sort of fermented milk, they get all huffy and suspicious about it – as if they didn’t chop up fish and let it sit and rot for all sorts of Thai dishes, the hypocrites!

Anyway. I demonstrated the technique to Joom one rainy Saturday afternoon – just the kind of weather to keep one indoors and munching on grilled cheese sandwiches with some tomato soup. She seemed confident and eager to try it herself, so I handed her the spatula and left the kitchen to tidy up a pile of scallop shells I had left out on the porch after a day at the beach. As any good teacher will tell you, it’s important to not micromanage your students all the time – let them alone to work things out by themselves once in a while.

When I returned to the kitchen I found Joom staring helplessly up at the ceiling, where what I took to be the remains of a perfectly good grilled cheese sandwich were securely glued. My gentle questioning led to an explosion of wrath, during which it was intimated that the cheese in question had begun acting suspiciously and that when Joom had attempted to flip the sandwich over it had maliciously flown apart and rocketed to the ceiling. Besides, didn’t I know how hellishly expensive cheese is in Thailand? When had we won the lottery and become millionaires? I beat a hasty and strategic retreat; there will be no grilled cheese sandwiches in the Torkildson household for the foreseeable future.

But a good teacher never gives up on a pupil – especially one he hopes to marry in a few months. So I waited a few weeks for tempers to cool and then introduced the concept of chili con carne to my future bride.

Again, I broke the steps down to very simple basics – a can of beans, a can of tomatoes, some hamburger, a chopped onion, and the appropriate spices. Stir together and let simmer.

This time I stayed in the kitchen for the entire process.

It did not last long.

Turns out we don’t possess a can opener. We’ve got dozens of bottle openers – I’m not naming any names but a certain someone in our household would probably die of thirst if she couldn’t open a bottle of Leo beer every hour on the hour – but Joom is not accustomed to getting anything edible out of a can; she buys everything fresh daily at the local outdoor market.

My attempts at using a large butcher knife to slice open the can of beans led to nothing more serious than a flesh wound requiring a few paltry stitches and a tetanus shot. But that minor accident was enough for Joom to Pronounce Judgment: Anyone in their right mind knows that beans are to be sweetened with sugar and coconut milk and consumed for desert – they are not meant for the main course. Arms akimbo, she gave me the stink eye . . .

So what’s wrong with fried rice, I’d like to know?