His Name is Charlie

For the past few years, I’ve watched with some amusement and bewilderment at the popularity of the “Elf on the Shelf.” For a mere $30, you can buy a book and an elf, then spend hours perusing Pinterest, Facebook, and countless blogs for ideas to have some fun with the kiddos.

But the thing is, I grew up with that elf. And the elf had a name: Charlie.

My grandma moved in with my family when I was around seven years old. When she moved in, she brought all her old (and I do mean old) Christmas decorations with her, including a cheery-faced elf she called Charlie. We had some other elves that were kind of similar but smaller; they sat with their knees pulled up to their little pointed chins, their arms looped around them. Charlie was bigger than these and had long since had his legs freed. I can’t remember when it began, but before Christmas one year Charlie started getting into trouble. When my sister and I would get home from school we would find Charlie in the craziest predicaments. I remember finding him dangling from a high branch on the Christmas tree, a doorknob, the corner of a picture frame, or other potentially dangerous spots for an eight-inch elf. He also got into some other problems that were obviously of his own doing, like when we’d find just a red felt leg hanging out of a cookie jar. But these problem spots often clued us in to treats that grandma had conjured up while we were at school, like freshly baked cookies in the cookie jar that Charlie had gotten stuck in.

I found his twin on eBay!

I found his twin on eBay!

My memories are a little hazy, but I think one year Charlie stuck around after the holidays. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think he was around for a whole year that time. We didn’t find him in a new spot every day, but he would occasionally pop up when we didn’t expect it. I can remember finding him on my nicely-made bed… and I hadn’t made it before school that day. Or with clean laundry that had been put away for me. Or with more freshly-baked cookies. 

Unlike the current version of the elf, I don’t think Charlie’s adventures were something that my grandma had carefully thought through in order to orchestrate good behavior from my sister and me, or to try to engineer happy memories. It just kind of happened. Even though grandma and I didn’t always get along very well, little things like Charlie let me know that she did love me. And the un-engineered, just-happened happy memories are obviously still with me.

After I got married, Charlie came to live with me. Most Christmases found him once again dangling from a high branch on our Christmas tree. He hadn’t yet started getting into real trouble when we made the move around the world. The move meant that we had to get rid of most of our possessions… but I still have Charlie. He’s in a box in my sister’s basement with other Christmas decorations that didn’t make the move to Thailand with us. I’m planning to bring him back with me after we visit the U.S. next summer. I don’t see myself going down the “Elf on the Shelf” road with elaborately planned elf-adventures like I’ve seen on Pinterest. But still, I wonder what kind of new trouble he could get into in the tropics?

It’s everywhere you want to be.


If you’ve been following us on Facebook lately, you might have noticed a couple of posts where we complained about our visa troubles. Now that (we think) we have things straightened out I thought I’d explain what’s going on.

First of all, a visa is what allows a person to enter a foreign country. Thailand has many different types of visas–exactly how many I don’t know. An official Thai government website lists six different categories, most of which also have subcategories. I counted 16 different types and subtypes on that page and I don’t know if it was a complete list. The visa type determines how long a person can stay, whether they can leave the country and return, and whether they can work; and the requirements and qualifications for each type of visa are different. Needless to say it can be very confusing to figure out exactly which visa category one is supposed to fit under and how to go about getting it.

Before we came to Thailand initially we did a lot of research and finally figured out what we needed: a one-year, non-immigrant, multi-entry O visa. This visa was good for one year and allowed us to stay in the country for 90 days at a time.That’s the reason for our border runs; we had to leave the country before 90 days were up, but since our visa allows for multiple entries we could just turn around and come right back. We are allowed to do volunteer work but not get a job in the country. That visa expires on May 8, but since we did a border run last weekend we’re allowed another 90 days in the country. However, if we leave the country after May 8 we cannot return since our visa is no longer valid for entry.

We knew before we came that when our first visas expired we would need to get a different visa type. Many visa types require you to be sponsored by a foundation or agency. Before we even got here we spoke with the national foundation that our organization uses. We were told they would have visas for us and we could begin the process of applying for them after we were in the country. Right after we arrived the foundation informed us that there had been a mistake and they did not have any visas available for us. Back to square one, but at least we had a year to get it sorted out.

Fast-forward about six months: we hadn’t been able to work out how we were going to get new visas, and we were starting to get a little concerned. Even if everything goes smoothly visas can take up to three months to process. Then after a lot of effort by a lot of people we finally came up with a plan. We would still go through the same foundation but in a different way. The new visas we were applying for would eliminate the need for border runs; we would have to report to the local immigration office every 90 days and let them know we’re still here, but not make the four-hour drive to the border. For an extra fee we could get permission for multiple entries, so we would be able to travel to other countries and still be allowed back in. We pulled together loads of paperwork, letters from all over the globe, photographs, and copies of everything from birth certificates to college degrees and handed it all off to a Thai national who would take it through the next step for us.

The next step was not the Thai government, however. It was the foundation. We thought that since we were going about things in a different way everything should work out fine. But it didn’t. This time it wasn’t that they didn’t have a visa for us; the foundation had changed its internal requirements for approving visa applications and they said we no longer qualified. Our paperwork never even made it to the immigration office.

We found this out about a month before our visas were due to expire. By this time our options were very limited. In fact, we had only one option left: an education visa. There are many language schools in Chiang Mai, quite a few of which are approved by the Ministry of Education for granting ed visas. We did some quick research and narrowed it down to three schools. The schools’ requirements varied by quite a lot, from two hours of class twice a week to three hours of class three times a week. Out of those three, we ended up choosing the school with the highest requirements. We had a couple of reasons for this: a big one is that this school works with many people in similar situations to ours. I (Lisa) will be the one getting the ed visa; Tim and the girls will be granted a non-immigrant O again, attached to me and my ed visa. Our school will help us with not only the ed visa but the visas for the whole family. The other schools not only weren’t able to help us with the rest of the family, but weren’t even sure what to tell us to do or whether it was possible. The other reason we chose this school is that we’re thinking that this is actually a good opportunity for us. For the past year we’ve been taking private lessons, first three times a week then two times a week for two hours each day. We’ve made decent progress but not as much as we could have if we were spending more time and effort on it. We decided that if we’re going to be forced to go to language school we might as well jump in with both feet and push ourselves hard to get a good grasp on the language.

Ed visas are single-entry (meaning that if you leave the country you can’t come back), but like the other visa type we were trying for it can be changed to a multiple-entry for an extra fee. We’ll need to do 90-day reporting at the immigration office, but not border runs. These visas will be good for one year, after which time they can be renewed. We have also made contact with a different foundation that has told us to get in touch again in about six months to see if they might be able to help us next year, so maybe we’ll be able to switch visa types to one without the requirements of an ed visa.

We have started the paperwork process with the school and they’re telling us that it should take four to five weeks for everything to be complete. We’ll start classes the first week of June. We know this is going to be a challenge: three half days a week of school for Tim and me (we’ll be taking classes together even though I’m the only one with the ed visa) along with outside study time, required field trips, work for him, and homeschooling and co-op for me. The girls will most likely tag along with us to the school and find a quiet place to sit and do their own schoolwork, read, or (once their schoolwork is done) watch videos or play games on their iPods. We may leave them home some of the time as well.

One sad thing will be losing our current Thai teacher. She’s a dear sister and wonderful teacher who has been great with us and with the kids. The kids won’t be taking lessons anymore since our schedules will be so full. But as Tim and I are able to improve our own language skills we’ll be able to speak Thai to them more and more, which should help in their language acquisition. And perhaps as we get settled into a new routine we’ll be able to start their lessons back up.

So there’s a very long explanation of a very complicated subject. Hopefully next year everything will go smoothly and we won’t need to go through anything like this again.

First World Problems (or, Between Worlds)

I’ve had bits of this post floating around in my head for a while. In the past couple of years there’s been a lot of talk and joking about “first world problems.” You know, like this:

It got me thinking about what exactly a first, second, and third world country is. First world is pretty easy: the countries that are economically and technologically advanced. I Googled to try to find out what the others are but didn’t have a whole lot of success. It’s easy to categorize the richest and poorest countries. But where does a place like Thailand fit? There are parts of the country that would definitely fit any definition of third world–small villages where hill tribes live in much the same way as they have for hundreds of years. There are other parts of the country–like Bangkok–that are nearly on par with any other major urban area (not quite, but not quite third-world either). I’d say that we live somewhere in the middle. Chiang Mai is a moderately-sized city of about 190,000 in the city itself, nearly a million if you include the surrounding developed areas. It’s an old city–established in 1296–and there are still visible remnants of those early days, especially down around the moat. Yes, there’s a real moat that surrounds the “old city,” and parts of the original city walls are still there too. But I digress. :)

Life in Chiang Mai doesn’t feel like what I would expect of a third world country. There is running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity in all but the poorest shacks. But it’s not first-world either: we can’t drink the tap water, and quite frankly the electrical system in my house terrifies me. We have a washing machine but no dryer except the sun (which is pretty efficient at this time of year). Dryers are available but not common and quite expensive. There is a building boom going on in Chiang Mai right now–condos, shopping malls, you name it. But the people building these luxury condos and shops often live in shacks. There is little to no oversight at these job sites, either. Just across the street from us a man was electrocuted and killed while building a house. I’m told it isn’t an unusual occurrence. Corruption is rampant, pollution is uncontrolled, driving is interesting to say the least, and yet… a lot of the time, living here isn’t all that different than our old life in the U.S. So where does Thailand fall on the spectrum of worlds? Developing, definitely. Different parts of the country are at different places along that spectrum, but it’s all still developing. 

But what got me thinking about all this today was food. When I look through my Facebook feed I see posts and links with information about paleo, vegan, vegetarian, whole-foods, raw foods, green smoothies, low-carb, all-organic, plus lists of “eat this or you’ll die,” and “don’t eat this or you’ll die.” I’m not going to argue for or against any of these, except to say that I would guess that much of the (third) world would be shocked to hear of people who can be so selective about what they choose to eat or to abstain from eating. Here in Chiang Mai with our western grocery stores, it would not be difficult to adopt some of these specialized diets (especially the variations on vegetarianism). When we were preparing to move here I was really excited about the prospect of fresh markets with inexpensive locally-grown produce, eggs, and other good things. But now that I’m here I’ve learned that the food in the markets isn’t necessarily the safest due to people using who knows what pesticides and other chemicals on it (see this article for more information). So now that my language skills are about to the point that I could shop in the fresh market if I wanted to, I still go to the western grocery store and I’m on the hunt for more places to buy organics. There’s a lot of produce in the grocery store labeled “pesticide safe” (see the article I linked to above) but with so much corruption here I don’t know if those labels actually mean anything. The article even says that buying organics can only make you “reasonably sure” that your food is pesticide-free.

So where am I going with all this? I’m not sure. I guess it’s just a snapshot of life as a first-world-native in a place that’s not first world, but not quite third world either. I still have my first-world tendencies to complain about petty inconveniences but I’d like to think that my perspective has changed at least a bit.

The Reluctant Homeschooler

When we meet new people, there are a few “getting to know you” questions that often come up. Once they know we’re homeschoolers, there are usually a few more. :)  The two most common are, “How long have you been homeschooling?” and “Why do you homeschool?” Neither of these questions have straight-forward answers for us.

So why do we homeschool? An article titled “Remind Me Again: Why Are We Homeschooling?” is actually what “inspired” me to write this post. In it, the author reminisces about going to their first homeschool convention when their first child was a few months old. That was totally, completely, NOT me. I never thought I would homeschool our kids, never really even wanted to. When they were little, Tim always said he wished he could homeschool them but since he was working full-time that wasn’t practical. He never pushed me about it, though. I just didn’t think I’d have the patience for it. (And honestly? I don’t.) 

Fast forward a couple of years. Bethany was four and in a free preschool near our then-home in Novi, Michigan. We realized after a few months that it was way too easy for her, boring even. She knew the things that this preschool was teaching–letters, colors, shapes, numbers, etc.–and more. At home she was doing simple math and beginning to learn to read. I’m not saying she was a genius, but this program was clearly for disadvantaged kids. She was ready for more of a challenge. So after considering it a little, we decided to pull her out of the preschool and start her with kindergarten work. I wanted something complete and easy for me to teach, so we got BJU’s K5 package and started homeschooling. We worked with that and Starfall for a few months then moved from Michigan to Florida. Our move was in mid-July; school in Florida started on August 1. Florida’s regulations don’t require mandatory enrollment until age six, so we just kept her home. Not only were we nowhere near settled, but it was a full-day kindergarten. She was a “young five” with a late June birthday and at that point was still taking naps most days. But we never really went back to using BJU. I like to say that I “unschooled” her for kindergarten. We kept working on Starfall, read lots of books together, and did other basic things, but mostly we let her be a five-year-old.

The next year we decided to put her in public school. That had been the plan all along, it just hadn’t worked logistically for kindergarten. We had to jump through a few hoops since she hadn’t completed kindergarten (on paper), but within two weeks she was placed in the first grade. She had an amazing teacher. At that time Bethany was a very anxious child and was easily overwhelmed. If her homework (which she had every day) was 10 spelling words to copy, or a page of addition, she would FREAK OUT. Even though the work was really simple for her she would just freeze up. I talked to her teacher, who told me: “I don’t care if Bethany does that homework. I know she knows the material. I just want her to not worry.”  With a teacher like that, Bethany did well in first grade. Ellie and Micah were in a three-half-days-per-week preschool program and also did well that year.

On to the following year: Bethany started second grade, Ellie and Micah started kindergarten. From the first it didn’t bode well. The night before school started Bethany had a full-on panic attack. The first morning she was crying from when she got up until we dropped the three of them off. And it continued like that. Ellie and Micah were nowhere near ready for a full-day kindergarten, especially Micah. She was a really young five, with a mid-August birthday (September 1 is the cutoff in Florida). All three kids came home with homework every day (homework in kindergarten, really?). Bethany would cry that her teacher was “mean,” she was having nightmares from the books that the teacher was reading aloud to the class (did I mention she’s very sensitive?), and talking to the teacher about it did no good. If I asked Ellie and Micah what they did at school that day, I would hear about what a kid named Dominic did: “Dominic threw a chair! Dominic pooped his pants!” And so on, nearly every day. They brought home almost nothing that showed what they had done that day.

Things went from bad to worse. Every school day we had at least one child crying from the time they got up in the morning until dropoff, then from when we picked them up until bedtime. Ellie and Micah were exhausted and missing their naps. They had no time for play or to just be kids. It was so frustrating to know that they were basically being told to sit down and be quiet for six hours, then they’d come home and be told to sit down and do your homework. Bethany was back to freaking out over all her homework. And I found I couldn’t juggle it all. Each child was supposed to be read to for a certain number of minutes each day. I remember one day, trying to get them all to sit down with me in the living room so I could read, and they were all so wrung out and upset that they couldn’t even do that. It was a Wednesday, about 5 or 6 weeks into the school year as I recall. Everyone was crying, Ellie wanted to draw, Micah wanted to play, I don’t remember what Bethany wanted to do. I realized at that moment, this is insane. I cannot do this any more. I cannot do this to them anymore. I told the girls (with no anger), “You know what? Forget it. Go and draw, play, do whatever you want to.” I’ll never forget the looks on their tear-stained faces as they said with quavering voices, “We can play? Really?” Yes. Really. Go play. That was when I knew that we were going back to homeschooling. It was confirmed the next day when I got a call from Bethany’s teacher: Bethany had drawn on a bulletin board in the classroom. If you know Bethany, you know how out-of-character this is for her. She was and is one of the most compliant, obedient kids you could want to know. That was Thursday. The next day I kept the kids home and they’ve never gone back. Enter the reluctant homeschooler.

So to answer to the first question, “How long have you been homeschooling?” We’re in our fifth consecutive year, but if you include Bethany’s kindergarten year and a half (which I kind of do and kind of don’t), it’s been nearly seven.

For the second question, “Why do you homeschool?” I have a short answer that I generally use: public school just didn’t work for us. I still think the school they attended is a very good school and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to others. But it didn’t work for us.

There’s a longer answer, though. Looking back, I can really see how homeschooling has enhanced our lives. We’ve been able to travel when we need or want to. I love being able to teach my kids things that I don’t remember ever learning, and in ways that appeal to both them and me. I love that we can devote time to learning interesting things and doing hands-on activities, and not worrying about standardized tests. I love being able to share with them things that I love–poetry, great stories, history. As time has gone on we’ve learned more and more how differently each of our girls learn. We’ve realized that if they’d stayed in public (or gone to private) school, even if we’d been able to pull things together that year, they would never have really thrived–each for different reasons. Most recently, not having to change anything about their schooling has made a huge impact on our transition to life on the other side of the world. Having that one thing remaining the same has been a real stabilizer. I guess the real short answer is, we homeschool because that’s the way God has led our paths.


Were they really that little?! A trip to Michigan right after we started homeschooling (which otherwise wouldn’t have happened). If we’d kept them in public school, they probably would never have picked apples or tasted fresh cider and donuts.

Got water?


The fact that we can’t drink the tap water isn’t generally a big deal. Most people have water delivered every week. We haven’t