Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Misadventures in EMS

In Adventures in Asia on April 26, 2008 at 12:13 pm


Misadventures in EMS

American EMT Student in Manila

By Antonio Graceffo



Ma’am Joan taught a lesson on airway devices, plastic appliances we can insert in a patients throat to keep him breathing. She showed us the newest model which was considered safer because it didn’t have to go all the way down the throat. “This one is very expensive, 10,000 Pesos. In America they consider it disposable.”


The students all balked. “Yes,” she agreed. “In the Philippines nothing that costs ten thousand pesos is disposable. You can wash it and use it again.”


“Americans are stupid.” Said Aden at the beginning of our next lecture. “And so is smoking. It is a terrible habit that destroys your health and it will kill you.” He pointed out Arvin, who smokes on all of our breaks while he ogles the caregiver girls. “It will kill you.” After that sank in he added. “Smoking came from America.” He likes ripping on America. Everyone had a laugh at my expense. Then Aidan felt bad and added. “Actually smoking was started by the Indians, and you know what happened to them? The Americans killed them all.”


“With cigarettes?” I asked.

“No with guns.”

“But they would have died of cigarettes?”

“No, they were killed by Americans with guns.”

“So, are you worried that Americans with guns will kill Arvin?”


“You told him not to smoke. Is it because Americans will shoot him?”

“No, cigarettes will kill you.” Insisted Aidan. Then he went after our mutual colonizer, England. “It was Sir Walter Raleigh, an English bastard, that started the modern trend of smoking. Indians only smoked ceremonially, but Europeans started smoking all the time.”


“And that’s why the Americans killed them?” I asked. 



“I saw a movie about World War two and Americans killed a lot of Germans. Was it because of smoking?”


Aidan is so patient, he went on to explain World war Two to me, eating up another thirty minutes of class time. It was funny, but when I started working as an EMT someone could die because of what I missed in class while I was harassing Aidan. When he was finished, he showed us a photo of a smoker’s lung. “Smoking killed this man.”

I was about to raise my hand and ask if he was sure it wasn’t the Americans, but I let it go.


Another habit Aidan hates is spitting.


“Spitting is a filthy habit. Keep your secretions inside of your body.”


I compromise with Aidan’s instructions. I keep my secretions in a bag under my desk.


“There is hydrochloric acid in your stomach that will kill the germs and you will be fine.”


So, keeping my excretions in a bag under my desk would be OK if I bought some hydrochloric acid. I made a point to stop off at Caustic Chemicals ‘R’ Us after school.


“That’s why that system exists. Just swallow your excretions.”


I know that he meant mucus, but I wanted to point out that fecal matter and urine are also secretions, and I am not swallowing either of those.


He showed us a respirator that had been frozen shut because it wasn’t cleaned. “The valve was filled with either dried blood, vomit, or urine.”


I had been playing with this valve during the break. Now, I was thinking, please be urine please be urine.


We get a lot of training of what to do when we are called to a trauma but it is a crime scene. We are told not to touch anything that might be evidence. Still thinking of the vomit soaked valve, I asked.


“What if we are called to a case and it’s a crime scene. And the patient is chocking on vomit, but the police aren’t sure whose vomit it is? If we clear the airway wouldn’t that be tampering with evidence? So, we should really wait till the police have dusted the vomit for prints.”


“Why would someone else’s vomit be in the patients mouth.” Asked Aidan.


“Because, it’s the perfect crime. You vomit in someone’s mouth and let them choke to death. Then the cause of death is obstructed airway. No one even knows it’s a murder.”


You could even eat something chunky first to really make sure the airway will be blocked. But you couldn’t do it to someone on the bus. It would really have to be done to a sleeping victim, but maybe you could cank him on the head with a cinderblock first.


I entered the Philippines on a tourist visa which was about to expire, so I went to Joan for directions to the Immigration Department. There is a famous poster of an incredibly messy desk and the caption says something like, “if your desk looks like this, the inside of your brain must look the same.” If the way she gave directions was an indication of what was going on inside her head, Joan must be under a lot of stress.


She started talking and other than the occasional word I recognized, such as street, road, left, right, luncheon meat, or parachute I really had no idea what she was talking about.


“Do you know the MRT?” she began.

“No, I don’t know anything.”

“OK, take the MRT to Cazero and change to the LRT.”
”I don’t know where the MRT is? What is an LRT?”
”It’s right there.” She said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the restroom.

“It’s in the toilet?”

“No, the LRT.”

“What is an LRT?”
”Yes, then you will walk on Adriatico.”

“Is that near the LRT?”

“No, you have to take a jeep.”

“What jeep, where, who?” Seeing that I was completely lost, Joan took paper and pen.

“I will draw you a map.” She said. She began talking again, at the same rate and with the same level of confusion as before. The only difference was now, she was also drawing. The images on the paper seemed to represent crossings and turns, but none of them were labeled. Worse, they weren’t connected. She didn’t start with the front door of the school, tracing a continuous line to the front door of the Immigration department. Instead, she drew separate, disjointed, pictures, of whatever she happened to be talking about at the moment. 


“Then you turn right on Rodriguez Street.”

“Wait! You mean from san Fernando Road?”

“No, you take the train?”

“What train?”

“Yes, and a bus.”

“Where do I catch the bus?”

“Diego Avenue.”

“I catch the bus at Diego Avenue?”


“Wilfred what?”

“No, that’s where you take a right.”

“Onto Rodriguez?”

“Across the plaza.”

“The Plaza is on Wilfred?”

“NOOOOO that’s for the train, before the bus…inside the immigration there will be many desks, go to the one in the far corner.”

She was already telling me what do when I arrived and I still didn’t know if I should go left or right when I walked out of our door. “Is the Immigration Department on Rodriguez?”

“No, Intramuros.”

She was making this stuff up. She had to be. She already had me standing in line at immigration and hadn’t mentioned Intramuros. Now, she was claiming that’s where it was located. In my life, I had done a lot of bad things, and now they were coming back to haunt me. I had no one to blame but myself.


“Is anything on Rodriguez? That name came up a few times, and you didn’t really go back to it.”

“Go past the big vegetable market.”

“In Intramuros?”

No, on the train.”

“Ah yes.”

I know money is tight in Manila, but no one ever wants to take a taxi. Often when people give directions there are multiple taxis, buses, trains and donkey carts involved in what seems like the most complicated and time consuming way of traveling five kilometers ever conceived. When you ask someone how far away something is, a typical answer is “Very close, just three rides.” They don’t count distance or time. They count the number of transfers it takes to arrive. In the end, even if each of those changes only costs around ten pesos, it would often be cheaper, let alone faster and more convenient, to take a taxi, but no one wants to do it. 

“It should only take twenty minutes.” Said Joan.

“To get there?” This was looking promising. Maybe it was difficult to describe where the place was but it was actually close by and I could get there easily by taxi.

“No, to do your visa.”

“How long to get there?”

“About two hours.”

Two hours! This was one of the other issues with Manila. Traffic was so horrible you had to allow about two hours to go anywhere.

“Does the train stop at Intramuros?”

“No, you walk there from the hospital.”

Hospital? There’s a hospital? This was the first I had heard of a hospital. Next, she was saying something about the monkey king and answering the ancient riddle. This just seemed to complicated for me. The paper was now nearly black, covered from top to bottom in black ink, with images of streets and traffic lights, and the crown of the monkey king. Not a single word was written on the paper.

In the end I took a cab.







My school warned me that because of corruption, getting a student visa would be too difficult. Instead, I was told to tell immigration that I am in the Philippines looking for business opportunities, and ask for a 90 day visa. I was really worried that someone at immigration would try and rope me into selling Amway or Herbalife, or some other some network marketing scam. He would be like “If you are starting a business you need to buy $1,000 worth of merchandise to show you are serious.”


By the time he finished with me I would wind up wishing he had sold me on network marketing.


When I turned in my form asking for 90 days, I thought the immigration guy was kidding when he said. “I can only give you 68 days?”


In my life of living internationally, I had never heard of a 68 day visa. Why 68 days? I don’t know. Maybe because they are Catholic instead of Buddhist. That is the usual answer for why things are strange in the Philippines. The standard Philippine visa is 21 days. So, 68 is not even a function of 21…in other countries it is 30 days and 90 days. But what do other countries know?


Anyway, the fee for the wonderful privilege of remaining in smelly dangerous Manila for an additional 68 days is $200 USD!


In Thailand a sixty day visa is $35 USD and we all complain. Not only was this visa crazy expensive but they told me to come back at 1:00 to pick it up. Having nothing to do, I wandered around Manila for a few hours. Normally, I would be afraid about getting mugged, but luckily the Immigration Department had already cleaned me out. Anyone approaching me with a gun would be wasting his time.


And best of all, to do the entire paramedic program I need to remain here for about six months. That means two more sixty-eight day visas. But I think I read that your second sixty-eight day visa is actually seventy-two days and your third sixty-eight day visa is considered your fourth, is naturally only good for sixty-four days. It was all quite complicated, so I took a copy of the visa schedule with me. It was nearly as thick as a New York City phone book, so I stuffed it into my shirt, hoping it would stop a bullet.


Wandering around Manila’s aromatic riverfront, I thought about the reasons why I came to study here. I am doing this paramedic deal because of the adventure and because I have always wanted to do this. It is a dream. And, believe it or not, one part of the dream is to work, even for six months, as a paramedic in New York City. I think no paramedic can claim to know about medical trauma till he has worked a twenty-four hour shift in the Bronx. And no human being knows real trauma till he has tried to hack out a living in the toughest, biggest, busiest, loneliest, most wonderful city in the world. This is one of the few adventures that I thought of that could be done in America. New York paramedic would be a hell of a ride.


While I was waiting for my visa I wandered around China town, where I spoke Mandarin with a shop owner. He said that his normal dialect was Hokien. He told me “the children forget their language. We have a Chinese school for them, but if they don’t read Mandarin everyday they will lose it.”


This is the curse of many of the world’s Chinese communities, who have given up their language and are now regretting it because of the business opportunities that speak Chinese present. I still haven’t figured out how to make money off of my knowledge of Chinese, but it seems better to know it than to not.


At the internet café the kids were speaking Chinese dialect to each other while they played online role playing games. That was actually pretty cool. It is good that they can speak dialect, but these dialects are often so old or so regional that anywhere outside of their neighborhood the dialect is useless. 


Near the Spanish ruin of Intramuros, I met Jay, another American at Starbucks. “Are you here waiting for a visa?” I asked.

He laughed. “I think all foreigners at this Starbucks are waiting for a visa.”


It was like Rick’s Café with everyone waiting for their visa to get out of Casa Blanca. I told him about my walk about the old part of Manila. “This city would be nice.” I said realizing I had never said that about a city before. Normally cities are either nice or not. But Manila would have so much to offer if they could get a handle on poverty, crime, corruption, and garbage.


“They have a river, old Spanish ruins, ancient churches…they have a potentially romantic promenade along the river, it could be really special…”


“But it isn’t.” concluded Jay reading my mind. We decided this was the unique charm that is the smelly and dangerous city of Manila.


During the long, overpriced taxi ride back to school, a report on the radio said scientists have determined that one in four people suffers from mental dysfunction. Doing the math, I decided if you have three sane friends then the law averages says you are crazy. I only have two friends, so I am like crazy and a half. I had always suspected it. But now I had definitive scientific proof. A voice on the radio never lies.


Back at school, one of my friends is called Arvin, who I often refer to as Joe college; because He always wears walking shorts and golf shirts, with his sunglasses up on his head. Allegedly he only majored in nursing because it was a good way to meet girls. I wonder if he chose this EMT program simply because it is located beside an Asian Caregiver school, where the students are extremely young and mostly female. These are the girls that go abroad to take care of American and foreign old people whose kids are wealthy but don’t care about them anymore. Arvin seems like a smooth operator and could just as easily be using the overseas employment option as a way of avoiding a shotgun marriage. He and Ben always chat up the caregiver girls when they come outside to smoke on their breaks. Their white uniforms are silhouetted against the intense Manila sun, clearly showing the outline of their bodies. It makes you feel jealous for some old guy in Hong Kong who is going to be getting sponge baths from these long haired beauties. It almost made me wish I was wearing adult diapers…I mean, it makes me wish they were taking care of me.


Ben is girl crazy. Unlike Arvin, I think he has less success but infinitely more enthusiasm. Any mention of a girl brings him flying no matter how far away he is. He was three blocks away when I mentioned that the students who live on my floor are female. Ben came tearing into the room, “Can you get their number for me?” This was followed by, “Are the cute.” Perhaps I should respect him for not being so concerned about how the girls look. Just being female is enough for him. I mentioned that my ex-girlfriend, Aymi, is a nurse practitioner and that are younger sisters are Filipina because her dad remarried.


“Are they cute?” Asked Ben. “Can I meet them?”


A huge, front-page story in the news paper today said that president Gloria has declared Black Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, as a national non-working holiday. The article went on, in great detail, explaining how important it was that people observe the holiday. On page three, there was a small story that said the presidential palace whishes to assure the public that the government is addressing the issue of unemployment. This shows the priorities. Also with such a high percentage of the population unemployed, was it really necessary to declare a non-working holiday? Most people aren’t working anyway. Another story said that crucifixion is unhealthy and anyone planning to be crucified this weekend was urged to get a tetanus shot. Man, this story ran 2,000 years too late. Crucifixion is unhealthy? That’s news to me. If it wasn’t for this story I would have thought crucifixion was a good thing.


Well, I guess now that there is no crime, unemployment or other social problems in the Philippines the government can crack down on important issues, like crucifixion.



To see Antonio Graceffo’s Burma and martial arts videos, click here.


Currently, Antonio is in Manila attending paramedic training. When his course finishes he will return to the conflict in Burma as a medical volunteer. He is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to his paramedic training or his “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.










From Fighter to Paramedic

In Adventures in Asia on April 23, 2008 at 4:47 am




From Fighter to Paramedic

A Brooklynmonk in Manila EMS School

By Antonio Graceffo


 Having spent most of my life learning to end life, it is a bit of a change learning to save it.


“Bakers cover their mistakes with frosting. Carpenters cover their mistakes with paint. Paramedics cover their mistakes with dirt.”


The course began with a playing of the Philippine national anthem, followed by a prayer. Being in a Catholic, rather than Buddhist country, it was so refreshing not having to take of my shoes. And, unlike Thailand, I was permitted to point my feet at anyone I wanted and even rub their head. It’s good to be among my own people…sort of my own people.


Sir Aidan is the owner of our school and the primary instructor. He hates George Bush, which is a good thing. He hates Americans, which I could understand but could also do without. Being Irish, he also hates Briton, which I feel ambivalent about. So, when class gets boring I bring up stories of my family being driven off their land by imperialist British soldiers who burned our thatched hut.


“The F…ing British.” Aidan begins. “They are worse than the Americans.” Once I get him on this subject, we are guaranteed at least twenty minutes that we don’t have to take notes. Or, just one note, in case it comes up on the test, I simplified the British/Irish thing for my classmates. It reads “British bad, Irish good.”


I enjoy studying with the Irish. They are one of my favorite translucent people. And as organ sales are common in Philippines, being the owner of two healthy kidneys, I try to make friendships with rich alcoholics who may need to buy one.


Or is that the liver that alcoholics need? Probably not. Liver and alcohol upsets your stomach. Anyway, I could sell them one of my livers if things got really desperate.


You do have two livers don’t you? That would be an example of one of those times when I should have been taking notes instead of winding Aidan up.


As for EMS emergency medical services, Aidan is recognized as one of the leaders in the world. I was googling his name the other day and was blown away by how many times he is mentioned in professional journals. He founded the EMS systems in a number of countries, higher the staff, trained them, bought the ambulances. He is really amazing. In terms of his practical knowledge, he was a dive paramedic, and a member of the faculty at the dive academy in the UK. He was a military paramedic, and who knows what else. Maybe he was a rescue swimmer like Kevin Kostner in “The Guardian.” The man knows his stuff.


Ma’am Joan, is Aidan’s wife. She is a Filipina, and is certified as both an RN and a paramedic. She is our second primary instructor. Aidan and Joan both said that once you learn EMS you don’t want to do normal nursing anymore because ongoing patient care is boring in comparison.


My friend and classmate Ben is RN, but he is becoming an EMT because he didn’t want to wash the patients. “Sometimes you even have to clean up their poop.” He confessed. I could see why four years of really difficult university studies, followed by intimate contact with excrement could be a downer.


Aidan’s take on EMS versus medicine was, “We see the patient from the time of the injury, to the time they get through the emergency room. After that, they become boring. We are lucky to have them at the most interesting time.”


It also seems that in EMS when you rescue someone, they thank you, and the family thanks you. But once they are in the hospital as long term patients, they behave like hotel guests and start complaining.  Once again, to have four years of university studies capped off by complaints about dinner…It would feel like being a highly specialized waitress.


“I am the only RN ho ever came back to my country.” Said Joan.


Ben told me that the normal RN salary in Philippines is 5,000 Pesos per month (about $120 USD). In most of the world, with the exception of the USA, paramedics actually earn more than nurses. The reason is that the US set up their paramedic programs in the 1970s. So, they are already established and well-manned. In the rest of the world, 911 type response systems are new, and training programs are either developing or non-existent. In these countries there is no shortage of doctors or nurses but a fully qualified paramedic is a rarity.


Most of the course is taught in English, but the students sometimes ask questions in Filipino. It is OK, I am trying to learn the language. Generally, even the instructors don’t know the Filipino words for the specialized medical vocabulary. This country is so America-centric it is amazing. I think it is one of the few places on Earth where they still like us. When I walk down the street people always shout, “Hey, Joe.” The first time it happened, I looked around for my father, but then I realized it was me. We all look alike.


There are innumerable dialects and languages spoken throughout the more than seven thousand islands of the Philippines. Tagalog was chosen as the national language simply because it was spoken in Luzon, the big island where Manila is located. Many Filipinos resent being forced to speak Tagalog when they meet their country men from other parts of the country. Since they don’t speak to each other’s dialects, English was seen as a politically neutral lingua franca. So, it is normal for Filipinos to speak English to each other if they have trouble communicating in dialect. It is also normal that university and school courses are taught in English. So, having me in the class only slightly alters the language usage. Still, I am amazed that the Filipinos are so polite that the presence of a single Cano (Americano) causes them all to speak English.


While their accent is American, unlike Hong Kong, their pronunciation is at times, a bit…creative. At first I thought I was the only one missing out on one word in seven, then I realized they have trouble understanding each other.


Ma’am Joan was saying something about blacking the arteries, we asked her to explain what that meant and she wrote on the board, “Blocking the arteries.”

“OH! BLOCKING the arteries. That makes more sense.”

“Yes, blacking the arteries.” She repeated. “Try to listen more closely next time.”


I have no idea what it will be like when I start doing my practice on the streets of manila and people are shouting at me in a language I don’t speak, and then I discover it is English.


Our first lessons were on human anatomy. Here I had another linguistic adventure in trying to understand Sir Aidan. Apparently, in nearly all biological terminology, the people from those islands, UK and Ireland, put the accent on a different syllable than the Americans. The spelling is the same, but they move the accent in capillary, bronchioles, and many other words. They also refer to the gurney or stretcher as a cot. Which was doubly hard for me because, when I used to have a British girlfriend, she taught me that in UK, a cot was what Americans call a crib. But now, in the ghetto, crib is what Americans used to call an apartment. And in EMS class, a cot has wheels on it and is used for moving injured patients.


Many of our training videos are from those islands where leprechauns run free, and everyone drinks tea instead of coffee, and lives in a castle. Most of the English ones aren’t too bad, but Aidan has a slue of videos from Scotland. Those people should just be fitted with a subtitle generator at birth. I have no idea what they are blabbering on about. Judging by the glazed look on my classmates faces, they don’t understand Scottish any better than I do.


This confused me, because in school we were taught that the British invented our language, but none of them seem to speak it.


When I protested, Aidan mumbled, “Bloody American.”


Converting my mind from Martial arts to paramedic has been difficult. I normally refer to the patient as an opponent. I also learned a lot of new terminology like blood is called hemo, and unlike when I am fighting, the blood, I mean hemo, is supposed to stay on the inside.


Through years of martial arts training, I knew some of the anatomy, like carotid artery. This is where I strike with a chop, to knock a man out. This technique is often referred to as a “Jap drop.” Not very PC, I know. Kidneys are something I hit with a knee. Trachea is with the open hand. The armpit contains the axially artery, which is one that has to be done with a knife thrust


Aidan told us, “As an EMT you will have life and death in your hands. And what you do will decide if the patient lives or dies.”


As a soldier, I was taught almost the same credo, but sort of in reverse. 


During this course I am always amazed at what a wide variety of things we learned in high school. We had basic anatomy, biology, chemistry…I didn’t think I had learned anything useful in those classes, but when we see it in EMT class, although I don’t know it cold, I know I have seen it before. What I like abut EMT is learning all of the life saving techniques without having to struggle through biology, chemistry and math which would be impossible for me. That’s why doctors have to be right clever people to get through their years and years of education. I have huge respect for them now.


Our goal in EMS is very simple, to keep Oxygen going to the brain till the patient gets to hospital. Without oxygen, the brain begins to die in four minutes. Organs take 50 minutes, skin and muscles take five hours.


The EMT must assess quickly and decide to “load and go” or “stay and play.” You have to make a lot of decisions, in a short period of time, with the pressure of life or death hanging over you. Being an EMT is not so different from working on Wall Street or even boxing. It appeals to me.


When I teach self-defense, I always tell people not to fight especially if the assailant has a knife. Self-defense is like baseball, the goal is to run home. If you reach your destination alive, you are a winner. In EMS, the goal is to help the patient reach the hospital alive. In most cases, you don’t stay and fight, you run away and save a life. 


Aidan and Joan are very religious, and they have a nice philosophy which they live by. “People arrive on the scene and see problems. We see solutions.” That was Aidan’s EMS motto, but his next statement was like a lifestyle mantra. “The only true problem is death, because once it happens it can’t be solved. Everything else has a solution.”


He asked my class, “Have any of you had a problem in your life? Yes, but you solved it didn’t you? So, you didn’t really have a problem. You had a solution. And you know how I know? Because you aren’t dead yet.”


We learned about the circulatory system. An adult heart pumps 5 Lt of blood per minute. An adult body contains 5 – 6 Lt of blood. That will cause some dry cleaning issues. I remember my Uncle Sonny telling me he preferred a .22 to a .45, “That way your suits will always stay nice and fresh, after a job.” He never went to school, but he had a certain homespun wisdom that you could live by.


The rule book said, Safety first: Size up the scene. Make sure it is safe for you and your patient. Don’t go from being a paramedic to being a patient.


Relating this to going back to Burma as a combat medic, however, you are in the same danger zone as your patients. And you can be injured, but have to focus and work. I had that experience when we had an accident on the Burma border. I was knocked unconscious, but still had to crawl around and render aid. A friend working for a security contractor said that they hire both SWAT and ex-military to work as security contractors. He said that they were both good, but the problem with the SWAT guys was that when they were rushing into a building to get a sniper out, they assume that their back is safe. The danger is only coming form inside the house. But, in real combat the whole area is hot. There is potential danger on all sides. It is the same for combat paramedic. You are almost never safe. In fact, since you are traveling with the troops, then it stands to reason, if they are injured, you are in an unsafe place, but you still have to go about your work.


My family and friends keep sending me emails that say things like, “We are so glad you are out of Burma and safe in Manila.”


I like the people here, so I don’t want to insult anyone, but Manila is a lot more dangerous than Burma. Violent crime is rampant, and people get shot here all the time. And, unlike the States, you can’t trust the police or emergency services to come help you. We are the best EMS in the Philippines, but we didn’t graduate yet. According to Aidan, in Manila, of 280 EMS calls per hour, less than 20 get answered.


One of the UK training videos we watched was of a paramedic on a motorcycle. The idea is motorcycles can arrive at the scene faster and start rendering aid while waiting for the ambulance to come and evacuate the patient.

“Any comments?” Aidan asked, when the video had finished.

“Cool uniform.” I said.

“We all wear that flash-green jacket and helmet in the UK.”

“No, I meant the leather pants. Do we all get to wear leather pants?”

“No, EMTs don’t generally wear leather pants.”

“Well, is there some other career I can pursue where I do where leather pants? I don’t want to throw away six months of hard work and study only to continue wearing cloth.”


The only career I could think of where I could wear leather pants was go-go boy, but I had already done that one. My go-go license had lapsed, and there were no course openings in Manila.


Aidan told us that in the UK all people are assigned a primary care physician from birth. “For the rest of our lives, if we have a medical problem, we get free medical care. If you are injured and need to get to your physiotherapy appointments, the ambulance will transport you for free. That is what a government can do if it sets its priorities on the people.”


Yes, maybe in a perfect world. But, if governments squander their tax budgets on medical care how will they fund the military?


Saving lives is a calling. Aidan served in the military, but in UK an army medic is a noncombatant. In the US military he is a soldier first. He is armed and must engage the enemy if called upon to do so. The same is true in the war in Burma where no one can afford to specialize. I want to learn paramedic skills to help save lives, but I favor a military solution in Burma. I believe there are times that violence is justified or even called for.


Aidan, on the other hand, finds killing appalling. For this reason he is better at his job as a paramedic. “Only God can take life.” He said.


I wondered if he would hate me for my willingness to pickup a gun. It made me a bit sad and introspective. With the exception of psychopaths like Hitler and the Junta who run Burma, no one wants to be the bad-guy. It pained me that someone might point at me and say that I am the villain.


Ma’am Joan taught our next block of instruction. She talks a lot about the rights of patients. The Philippines is a very stratified society, where half of the haves don’t have very much, the other half have everything. The have-nots comprise nearly 80% of the population, and they have absolutely nothing.


“In the Philippines no one is to blame if they are poor. Being poor is not your fault.” She paused to let that sink in. Then she added, “But being rich is. If someone in the Philippines is rich, we have to ask where the money came from.”


Corruption is rampant in the country and is often identified as the single most crippling force holding back the economic development of the people.


Joan gave a lengthy lecture on discrimination against poor patients in the hospital. Sometimes these people were abused verbally and even physically. She said things like “Don’t try this with white people. They will stand up for their rights. But we Pinoys let people push us around.”


Organ sales are common, and apparently, some medical staff accept a commission for brokering the sales when a patient dies. “This is unethical.” Joan told us, as if maybe we didn’t already know. “Let the families make their own arrangements to sell the organs.”


“It is illegal and awful, but poverty makes people desperate.”


This phrase, “poverty makes people desperate,” is a recurring theme in the Philippines. There are a lot of cases in the news of people jumping off of bridges or committing violent robberies that are so public and stupid, they seem more like cries for help. Money is really tight for me during school, and I live in very basic, jail-cell-like conditions, but I still can’t imagine the grind of real poverty. To know that you can’t provide for your family and that there is no hope that tomorrow will be any better must be absolutely incapacitating.


Doing my anatomy homework, it occurred to me that this stuff is freaking hard. There is a reason that doctors study for ten years.  In Manila, however, anatomy study is slightly easier, because I can just drop by the market and pick up a human kidney and practice in my room.



For all of their education and training, the Filipino’s approach to diet and exercise is dated. In fact, everyone smokes. They are all fat, and no one exercises at all. The course had a unit which said EMTs should be fit, exercise regularly, and eat right. Joan repeated what was written on the overhead, basically, “you should exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, and keep fit.” But that was the end of it. We went on to the next slide. No exercise program was laid out, nothing was planned. It occurred to me, how many times in my life have I sat in an orientation at a school or a company where they said, “You should do fifteen minutes of aerobic exercise per day, keep fit sleep and eat right, next slide.”


 In America, kids are required to attend gym classes but they don’t work out or do any serious exercise. The kids who are fat or have no fitness or muscle tone in September are fat and have no fitness or muscle tone in May. I think the kids should be given a fitness test at the beginning and end of the year. If they fail, the gym teacher should be fired. Seriously, if we are going to eat up an hour of class time per day, why don’t we demand fitness?


According to a July report, the National Center for Health Statistics indicate 15 percent of children ages 6 to 18 were overweight in 2000, up from 6 percent in 1980. Fifteen percent of youngsters ages 6 to 19 and 10 percent of children 2 through 5 were considered seriously overweight. Sources: AHA.


According to the Weight Control Information Network, which may or may not be a reliable source, today, more than 65 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese. Obesity puts people at increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and some forms of cancer.

In our EMT course we learned that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the world. WHAT are we waiting for? Get off the freaking coach already. And as for the kids, kids shouldn’t be fat. And parents shouldn’t make the kids fat. If kids get fat later, at least they had a choice. But as children they rely on their parents to take care of them. Once again, parents of overweight children should be fined.


I spend less than 45 minutes in the gym per day and I am probably fitter than 90% of people. Why can’t we do this for our kids?


The next slide was a dietary advisement right out of the 1950s when bacon was thought to be good for you. It had a picture of the food group pyramid and it said that 60% of our diet should be composed of carbohydrates. Joan stressed to us, “If you want to lose weight please don’t cut carbs. Your brain can only function on glucose.”


While it is true that your brain only functions on glucose, carbs are the first place you should cut when dieting. Otherwise, what are you going to cut? Fish, meat, vegetables, fruit….


Time sense is an issue here. You wait for everything. I waited in line for an ATM for twenty minutes the other day. You are always waiting, things take longer and everyone is late. But no one seems to mind. To travel five kilometers could take one and a half hours, but no one ever walks. I walk to the mall and my classmate got lost on the public transport. It’s only like 600 kilometers away. Why not walk?


My classmates and I got drunk after class and gave each other tattoos with IV needles. We were working together on an assignment. Aidan had asked us to design an ambulance, inside and out. Ours had Playstation, CD, DVD, and a Borat headbobber. For an engine, I chose a straight twelve Hemy. I am not exactly sure what that is, but I suspected it was wicked fast.


When we presented our design, Aidan said, “That all draws current and runs down your battery.” A serious concern in the ambulance is running out of electrical power before getting back to the hospital. Incubators, for example, draw a lot of current. If you get stranded, you increase the chances of your patient dying.


Filipinos talk about America constantly. America is the standard by which everything else is measured and still the number one country they want to go to. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in USA paramedics only earn about $2,500 per month. In the Middle East they can earn $2,500 tax free, and get free accommodations and food. If you did the Middle East deal you could easily save $2,000 per month. In US, after paying taxes and apartment there would be nothing left. In many, many instances my classmates mention that one or the other country in Europe has a better procedure or equipment than the Americans. But America remains the standard. I tried to convince Ben he would be better off as an EMT in Qatar or as an RN in America, but going to America to be a paramedic was not a good idea. They don’t understand that $2,500 is nothing in USA and $2,500 in the Middle East is a better deal.  


Sir Aidan always gets talking and forgets about our breaktimes and lunches. I wrote the word coffee in huge capital letters on the back of my textbook, so when it is time for a break I can hold it up. Ma’am Joan always says “just one more minute and I will let you go,” but it’s generally another thirty five minutes. I had to fake a seizure to get us released for lunch. Monday I have to produce a note from my doctor confirming that I have a medical condition called hypo-cafination and need coffee every two hours or I will descend into a state of hypo-cafiosis. That will cost a pretty penny.

After school, before Ben went home, he took his ATM cards out of his wallet. “This is manila we always have to prepare in case we get robbed.”


EMTs here have not cross trained most police and therefore don’t have advanced first aid and EMTs don’t learn rescue. Sir Erik told us “You are EMTs. That means no Spiderman. No rescue, no rappelling, no defusing bombs, and no terrorist threat elimination, you only think about the medical.”


Too boring. I want to change courses.


Sir Erik told us how to do triage in Manila. “If you have one patient suffering from a gunshot wound and one with a sprained wrist, who do you take to the hospital first?”

Answer, the rich one.


We are only supposed to have one patient in the ambulance, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sir Eric told us that once in the Middle East he had a whole family and a goat, which is strange because in the Philippines, you don’t usually use an ambulance to transport a goat. A pig maybe, a few chickens, but never a goat.



Sir Eric lectured us about the golden hour. Basically the brain starts to die after 4 minutes, but if it is still getting oxygen. It takes ten minutes of no oxygen for the brain to completely die.  Then the next deadline is the internal organs, which start to die after 50 minutes. So, we call it the golden hour, the narrow window of time we have to respond and take the patient to the hospital. Of course the hour starts when the patient gets hurt, not when we arrive. We are told that our goal is to spend only ten minutes on site.


In USA someone sees an injured person, they call 911. The dispatcher uses GPS to locate them, gets some pertinent information, and sends out an ambulance. “But in manila,” laughs Erik, “things don’t work the way they do in USA. If they see an accident they call an emergency number. The dispatcher asks, what kind of emergency do you want: police, ambulance, or fire. You tell her which one you need. Then she asks, where are you? It’s not always easy in Philippines to know where someone is, so a long discussion follows. Then the dispatcher looks up your location and gives you a landline phone number for the closest command station. You call them and they refer you to the specific station. You call them and, assuming they answer the phone, they come. A lot of time is lost in traffic in Manila, where it could take over an hour to travel 5 KM. Also a lot of time will be lost looking for the place. When the ambulance arrives, the police are not trained and don’t necessarily take control of the situation. Often the crowd is a huge impediment to the rescue workers.


“When you have an accident in the Philippines the first people to respond are the onlookers.” In a country where many people don’t have a lot of disposable income and aren’t bogged down by a job which eats up their time, EMS emergencies can be seen as a cheap source of entertainment. “The second group to arrive is the media. Then the politicians.” Ostensibly this ancient system of ward bosses still exists where they would show up and shake babies and kiss hands. “Next comes EMS. Once we are sure the situation is safe the police arrive.”


EMS does their work and transports the patient to the hospital. At present there are only three trauma centers in Manila. It could take ages to reach one of these trauma centers only to find out that the hospital is full and you are being turned away.

The golden hour could easily turn into the golden three hours, especially if your patient is poor. For rich people, once again nearly everything is possible with private ambulances and private admission to the best hospitals.


In primary assessment training, we ask patient “What is the quality of the pain?”

Quality? It sucks. It’s pain, so, I would say the quality is quite shitty.


The book suggests giving the patient a scale so they can measure their pain. The example given in the book uses a scale of 1 to 10, ten being the highest. The book stresses that this is just a suggestion, and we can do it however we wish. Given that creative freedom, I prefer a scale of 3.9 to 11.7 with 11.7 being the lowest.


We studied ten ways to tell if your patient is unresponsive. Aidan pointed out it is pretty easy to determine. “Just say hello to him, and see if he answers. Ask him some questions and see if he gibbers nonsense.”


All the guys in my class knew that Master Frank is the one who took me to the school. They all love the UFC and knew that referee Big John McCarthy is a paramedic. They love martial arts and found my videos on line. Now, they all want to learn Kuntaw. It was one more sad example of a piece of local culture that is dying. I have studied the ancient Filipino martial art of Kuntaw, but they hadn’t.


This course is excellent. I am getting to find out interesting stuff like, what the hell is a spleen? I mean you’ve heard of the spleen, but what is it?


I am always amazed at the English spoken here. They do prefer to speak Tagalog to each other but when they have to talk to me in English they are all near native speakers. They watch all of our movies and eat at Taco Bell. So, the cultural differences are not so huge, except for the time issue.


I wrote in my notebook, “Cytoplasm is made up of protoplasm and occupies the space between the plasma membrane and the nucleus.” How many times have I written that exact sentence in my life? Probably at least five times between fourth grade and freshman year of college? Why? And why did it always seem new to me each time? Even now it has very little meaning for me. I barely understand what it means and how it reflects to what I need to do to save a life.


I daydream a lot in class and start laying out screen plays for movies that should never be made. During anatomy lecture I came up with this one, “Thoracic Park, a trip back to a time when the internal organs ruled the earth.”


Sir Eric was excited to tell the guys in our class, “Being a paramedic is one of the only times you get to cut a girl’s clothes off.” Of course he meant without buying her dinner first or getting hit with pepper spray. A training video from USA showed us how to cut the clothes off of the victim. Teacher Eric laughed, “They do it wrong in USA. They cut straight up the front. Here in the Philippines you need to cut along the seam, so that the people can have the clothes repaired if they want to reuse them.”


Currently, Antonio is in Manila attending paramedic training. When his course finishes he will return to the conflict in Burma as a medical volunteer. He is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to his paramedic training or his “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.






Checkout Antonio’s website

Get Antonio’s books at
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa



Cambodian Cinema in Decline

In Adventures in Asia on April 23, 2008 at 4:42 am





Australian Khmer Film Struggles to be Shown

By Antonio Graceffo


While Cambodian Cinema teeters on the brink of extinction, the Cambodian officials put stumbling blocks in the path of Tim Pek’s Khmer Rouge film, “The Red Sense.”


Tim Pek’s film, “The Red Sense,” depicts the struggle of a Cambodian woman who grew up as a refugee in Australia after her father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. The basic plot deals with the concepts of revenge and forgiveness, as she discovers that her father’s killer posed as a refugee and is now alive and well in Australia. Should she avenge her father’s death, or should she allow the killing to stop?


Khmer Film fans and martial artists around the world will know Tim Pek from his work with the Khmer kickboxing film “Krabai Liak Goan,” and his work as director and producer of “Bokator, the Great Angkorian Martial Art.”


His latest film, “The Red Sense” is extremely unique in many ways. It is probably the first movie shot in Australia which was done almost completely in Khmer language. It is also one of the first Khmer movies ever shot outside of Cambodia. The topic of revenge vs. forgiveness is one that most Cambodians live with on a daily basis, in the after math of the Cambodian auto-genocide. In other genocides, certain identifiable groups suffered at the hands of specific perpetrators. In Cambodia, the entire population was collectivized and subjected to horrible torture, starvation, and execution. One hundred percent of Khmer who were alive bwtween1975-1979 were victims, perpetrators or both. The parts of Cambodia, such as Ratanakiri province, came under Khmer Rouge control before 1970. Other regions, such as Pilin, were not surrendered until 1997, which means that some of Cambodia’s current teenagers suffered, directly under the Khmer Rouge.


When the war was over, and twenty years later, when the surrender came, these Khmer Rouge soldiers and cadre didn’t necessarily move away. Many remained in the villages, where they live beside and among the very people they tortured and whose family’s they killed.


With the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal already underway, and the world looking at Cambodia, “The Red Sense” becomes an even more powerful and more poignant film.


Why then has it been so hard for Pek, a young Khmer refugee from Australia, to debute his film in Phnom Penh. One would think that in an age when even Khmers have stopped watching Khmer cinema, the powers that be would welcome an international film in Phnom Penh.





According to Tim, he finished work on the film in late 2007, and lodged the paperwork in Cambodia in early January 2008. In an Orwelian twist of nomenclature, The Ministry of Information is the government bureau in charge of censorship and film permission.


Tim explains why he wanted to show the film in Cambodia? “Firstly it’s a Cambodian film, and it’s made by Cambodian living abroad. Second, it’s the message in the movie.”


I always wanted to examine what reconciliation and forgiveness means for those Cambodians who left the genocidal nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but never escaped it. And how do the survivors of a civil war such as that suffered by Cambodia reconcile the fact that there were no foreign invaders? The only criminals were their own people. And most importantly how do individuals find justice, or forgiveness? What would you do if you ran into the murderer of your parents in the street?”


When asked if Cambodia has a law preventing foreign movies from being shown in cinema? Tim answered, “Yes, I believe there are, plenty of them.”


There are also strict laws in Cambodia forbidding radio broadcasts in foreign language. The English language station must operate under strict guidelines. But, the first time the Cham ethnic minority wanted to have a Cham language broadcast, they were denied permission. Cambodia even has strict laws about the size of billboards which are written in foreign languages. Everything must be written in Khmer also, and the Khmer letters must be larger than the foreign language script.


Tim outlined the many steps he had to go through in the hopes of obtaining permission to show his film. “I was asked for a business registration number, a transferring letter and I sent them all. I paid film fess. Then they needed to have a few meetings amongst other organizers, that’s including the Australian Embassy and so on…I didn’t expect it to go on like this.”


What reasons might the government have for preventing Tim from showing the movie? “They think it’s a political issue, which I and other people don’t think it is, it’s the individual related issue.”


Tim believes the Khmer film industry is dying. “From my own perspective, and I have seen heaps of Khmer movies, which now have drawn my attention to why our film industry is severely declining. It still can not reach the international standard. If we go back to the 60s and 70s our Cambodian Films were the most prominent ones in SEA. These days most local film makers have very little choice, and they’re stuck within one boundary and can not pursue or expand their creativity.”


“These are the main obstacles from penetrating to the international market or SEA market, and the audience doesn’t understand that. It’s not healthy if we stay like this.

Most films that are allowed to screen in public are PG rated. The most popular film genres are: Super Natural, Ghosts, Romantic, Drama, and Period Piece. These are their best and safest genres. They only distribute domestically and to Khmers living abroad.”


In Cambodia, only one company has a monopoly for dubbing movies. All movies, whether shot in Khmer language or shot abroad, are dubbed. You never hear the actual actors speaking their lines. Worst of all, ALL voices in a movie are done by the same two men and one woman?


Yes, that’s so true. When I heard people talk about Khmer film, the only word I hear first is DUBBING. That’s one of the biggest issue we’re facing right now. We shouldn’t have any dubbing companies at all, unless for foreign films. To me using someone’s voice is like your hard earned 50% of the movie quality is gone.”


The dubbing studio is extremely archaic and when they dub, they shut off the original soundtrack and just lay Khmer voice tracks over it. So, you lose all the sound effects, music, and foley. If you are watching a “Die Hard” movie and Bruce Willis says something clever during a gunfight, the gun sounds are suddenly gone, as is the explosion happening in the background, and the same Khmer man who does the voice of Leonardo DiCaprio or Toby McGuire, gives some terrible Khmer version of the original text, and it isn’t funny, and makes no sense. Worst of all, each time Bruce Willis speaks, the dialogue is preceded by several seconds of the audio being cutout. The audio doesn’t return till several seconds after he finishes speaking. If two characters are having a conversation, the background sounds come in and out like a kid dragging a stick along a picket fence.


This dubbing only happens on films shown in the cinema or on TV. For one to two dollars, the original of any movie can be purchased any number of markets in Cambodia. Khmers who can’t even speak English would generally prefer to watch the original “Star Wars,” with all the laser sounds, rather than the Khmer version, which is like a silent movie with dialogue.


“No matter how great your movie is, and not to mention a major impact on character’s emotions and body gestures” the quality is lost when they re-dub it. And this dubbing is not just for foreign language films, but also for films shot in Cambodia in Khmer language. They are all re-dubbed by the same two men and a single woman. “That’s the key point I would like to address for all Khmer film makers. If the actors can act, they also can speak. All you need is a little training. Let’s move forward and make a change.”


Once your Khmer movie is approved, and re-dubbed, there are a number of options of how to get it into the cinema. “There’s always a negotiation. First they like to see your film. Then you can either rent the theater out or share 50/50. The best way is to know someone there and find a distributor.”


Cambodia is one of the most centralized countries in the world, with the possible exception of Lao, where all of the development and services are in exclusively located in the capitol. The first high schools were opened outside of Phnom Penh in the late 1990s and the first university around 2003.

“I know that’s there is one cinema in Battambang, one in Siem  Reap, one in Svay Reang and a few in Phnom Penh. That was in 2006.”


“Piracy and DVDs are the biggest problem, not only in Cambodia but around the world just a matter of more or less.”


Minutes after a film is shown in the cinema, it is available at the markets. Local movies sell for $1. A single ticket at the cinema can cost $1 or more, so a whole family can watch the movie at home for the same price of a single ticket.


Tim hopes that if he obtains the rights to show his movie, that it might generate worldwide interest in the Khmer cinema.


“I know a few young talented Khmer film makers living abroad. Their works were sensational, and I can see the big potential for the Khmer film industry.”


As for the powers that rule the cinema industry in Cambodia, Tim had this to say.


“We need their supports if they need us to bring the Khmer film back on track, and I am sure we will.”



Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website



Language learner misconceptions

In Linguistics and Language Learning on April 5, 2008 at 2:21 pm


Stupid Opinions on Linguistics held by failed Language Learners

By Antonio Graceffo


There are a number of urban myths, commonly held misconceptions, about the way we learn and process language. Unfortunately, these wholly untrue beliefs are shared by the majority of language learners, as well as teachers, and are reflected in modern teaching methods. As an ex-pat, listening to other foreigners talk about the best way to learn a language, I realized that any of them that managed to learn their second language did so in spite of, rather than because of, their belief system.


Recently, I asked an American student about Thai linguistics, and he said, “Linguistics is such a hard thing to pin down. It’s different for everyone.”


Linguistics is not hard to pin down. The linguistics of a language are set. They are facts. They do not change from person to person. Linguists studying languages may revise earlier theories or modify their opinions, but the linguistics themselves do not change. Thai will remain tonal, no matter who chooses to learn it. There will be no verb conjugation or noun declination even if your Aunt Tutti, who lives alone with her cats, signed up for classes.


The linguistic features of a language are a constant.


The student went on to explain that “Different people learn differently.”


My answer was, “Different people do not learn differently.”


Saying that at a teacher’s conference won’t win me any friends. Actually all human beings process images faster than written words. So, a visual method of instruction will always be more effective for anyone who is not sight impaired.


Other silliness I have heard spouted even by language teachers is, “Men are more visual?” or “I need it written down, I use the left side of my brain.” Or “the right side.”


My answer, again, is no matter what your sex, you process images faster than you process written words.


 To prove that this is a load of horse manure, look at a photograph, write a detailed description of the photograph. Then, show the photo to a female friend for three seconds and show the description to a male friend for three seconds. Then, ask each friend to describe what they saw/read. Award a prize, something small, maybe a Kit Kat bar, to the one who comes closer. I will bet any amount of money that the one looking at the photograph will win. 


“The best way to learn a language is go to the place where the language is spoken.” This is usually accompanied by the phrase, “total immersion.”


If this statement were true, then all ex-pats livening in a foreign country for two or more years would be fluent. But they aren’t. Why?


Certainly, living in the culture and being exposed to the language is part of learning, but most people will never experience total immersion. If you are an English teacher in Japan, how many hours per day are you exposed to Japanese language? You are sleeping eight hours. So that leaves 16. You are working 8 hours. So, that leaves 8. You probably wake up in the morning, take a shower and eat breakfast, then commute to work for a period of at least one to two hours. Generally, unless you are living with a Japanese lover who talks non-stop, you won’t be experiencing meaningful contact with language before work in the morning. That leaves the six hours per day from when you finish school to when you sleep. During that time, do you shower and change clothes? Go to the gym? Watch English language TV, or listen to your I-Pod?


How many hours are you exposed to a foreign language as a typical ex-pat. Studies have shown that you get less than twenty minutes per day, unless you are intentionally creating a learning environment for yourself. Studies have also shown that you don’t remember everything that you learn. In fact, if you are only getting twenty minutes of exposure to the language you will forget at a faster rate than you are learning.


So, had you remained in Wisconsin, taking Japanese classes three times per week, you would be learning at a faster rate than someone living in Japan, who is “absorbing” the language.


With that said, obviously taking Japanese classes in Japan would be even better. So, the ex-pat who works, but then attends classes everyday, will learn the fastest. But fans of “total immersion” would call that cheating. They think that classroom study is not as valuable as “real” language.


Once again, there is a co-modicum of truth here.


All human beings remember things experienced more than things learned. You could sit in drivers-ed classes for years and never become an expert driver. You need the practical experience to remember. You would never forget what side your gas cap is on or where the on/off button is on your computer because these are examples of experience based learning.


I published an article a while back called “Boxing Till Fluency.” It told about me learning Thai by practicing Muay Thai (kickboxing). The first words I learned and remembered where the names of the kicks and the parts of the body that we hit with those kicks. And why will I never forget those lessons? Because they were learned through experience.


There is a linguistic theory called TPR, total physical response. This is a school of language education, whereby every lesson is taught through some form of exercise or movement. By moving, you are employing muscle memory as well as intellectual memory. A good sports coach will use muscle memory to teach. Again with my kick boxing example, it took days or even weeks for me to learn the roundhouse kick properly, but once I had it, and was executing all of the steps with proper form, my coach had me do it, correctly, one thousand times. My muscles burned like they were on fire. The next morning I could hardly stand. When we started practicing, I didn’t have to think about how to move or which pathways my muscles should take because I knew to go through those pathways that hurt the most. The parts that ached were the correct movements from the day before. That soreness stayed over the next several days, with me ending each session, kicking 500 – 1,000 times, correctly.


The practice became permanent and now I always do the kick with that form.


Learning a language is no different than learning any other skill. We learn first through visual means. The coach demonstrated the kick. He never handed me a printed sheet with a description of the movement. Next, we learn through experience. I did the kick myself. Watching someone else do it wouldn’t have taught me anything. Muscle memory creates indelible imprints on our intellectual memory.


Another misconception is “practice makes perfect.” Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you practice something wrong, enough times, you will never be able to unlearn your mistake. Again, those misguided people who use the phrase “total immersion” as if it were a magic incantation, believe that when they live in the country, they can learn by speaking to people.


No one ever learned anything by speaking. Your mom probably told you that when you were a child, but you weren’t listening. Second, how can you “practice” speaking the language if you don’t already know how to speak the language? And, if you practice wrong, those mistakes will be permanent.


Total immersion, or let’s say immersion, or meaningful contact with native speakers is definitely useful once you have a strong enough linguistic base to work from.


When I went to live in the Shaolin Temple in China, I already spoke Chinese well. At the end of three months of living, sleeping, and eating with my Chinese training brothers, none of whom knew any English at all, my Chinese listening improved a thousand present and my speaking soared. I haven’t lived in a Chinese culture country for nearly five years and yet, just a few weeks ago I spent four days translating for a group of Taiwanese traveling in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t as sharp linguistically as I had been, but the point is, that experience, the combination of harsh physical training and the constant exposure to Chinese language left an indelible imprint on my brain.


So, total immersion worked.


When I learned Thai, on the other hand, I went to live in a temple, not knowing a word of Thai. By the time I left, I knew a lot of words. I could function, communicating with my training brothers. I knew what the Germans call Hauptworte, main words, verbs and nouns, which we needed around the temple and in our Muay Thai training. But I didn’t know any grammar and couldn’t construct a decent sentence. It also meant that when people were talking, I only understood 40% or less when they were talking about religion or boxing and 20% at best when they were talking about anything else. Studies have shown that if you only understand 50% of what someone is saying you are only extracting words, but not meaning. You are not actually speaking or communicating.


Here is an example “Blah, blah, blah, boxing ring, blah, blah, training brother, blah, kick, blah, blah, eat lunch?”


Would you know how to answer this question? I usually didn’t.


One of the reasons I left the temple was because I realized I was having the same interactions over and over, fifty times a day.

“Are you hungry?”

“Oh yes, very hungry.”

“Is training hard?”

 “Yes, it is very hard.”

“Does your training brother smell badly?”

“Yes, very badly.”

“You are a good fighter.”

“Thank you. Prah is a good teacher.”


Every villager who came to the wat for a blessing engaged in this dialogue with me, as did my training brothers and the monks. I estimated that if I stayed another thousand years I would never progress beyond this point. There was just too much I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out about the language.


Another stupid misconception is, being in the temple you would eventually just “pick it up, because you learn by listening.”


There is a linguistic theory called “Chinese radio.” Basically what the theory says is, if you were locked in a jail cell, with a radio, tuned to a Chinese station, twenty-four hours per day, for twenty years, you would never learn to speak Chinese. If you have no frame of reference how would you figure out the meanings of any of the words you were hearing?


Living in Germany I watched a lot of TV and it helped me learn the language, but I was already speaking fluidly. I learned new words and phrases through context. But to do that, I had to already have a context and understand all of the words surrounding the ones I was to learn.


“You find languages easy to learn.” This is the clincher that misguided language learners use when I tell them what they are doing wrong. This, again, is a complete falsehood. I don’t learn languages easily. In fact, I am severely dyslexic and my brain actually does not process images and information the same way other people’s do. My spelling and handwriting in my native tongue are atrocious, and impede me from learning foreign languages. I speak nine languages to varying degrees of fluency, but not because it is easy for me but because I work my ass off. Not many people would quit their job, fly to China and live in a monastery. But then they tell me, “Learning Chinese was easy for you.” There was nothing easy about living in the Shaolin Temple.


I spent years in sales and learned a lot of behavioral psychology which also plays a huge role in language learning. In sales we were taught a lot about Anthony Robbins, the motivational speaker. Anthony Robbins contacted tons of successful people, from all different fields, CEOs, sports figures, actors and actresses, and even Olympic shooting team members. He asked them, “Tell me what it is that you do that makes you successful.”


A typical answer was something like this.


“I get up at five thirty in the morning.”


So, to be successful we must get up five thirty? People who get up at another time, say five forty-five, won’t be successful.


“I run three miles.”


Not two and not five?


“I read Jack London.”


Not Hemingway?


The conclusion that Anthony Robbins came to was that successful people were able to tell you the things they did. They did not, however, know which of those things made them successful. Which, relating to language learning, people will tell me any of the stupid misconception above and swear that it is true because “I know this lady who married an American. She went to America and learned to speak English really well. And she told me.”


People who speak languages well don’t generally know why they speak them well. Linguists study how and why we learn language. In fact, some, if not all, of the top linguists I have ever worked with did not speak any foreign languages at all.


The statement that will send me through the roof, as if there were just one, is “My friend grew up speaking three languages, so he is really gifted with languages, and he said…”


Your friend who grew up speaking three languages knows absolutely nothing about learning languages. And, until he sets out to learn a fourth language we don’t know if he is a gifted learner or not. My experience has been that people who grew up multi-lingual had the same distribution of talented and not talented, with the biased being towards not talented since learning a language was a totally new skill for them.


We learn by listening. But listening has to be meaningful and we need a frame of reference. We learn from experience. A combination of classroom hours, TV, and real life experience will help you to learn the language. No one ever “just picked up a language.”


And most importantly, boxing is still the key to fluency.


See Antonio Graceffo’s article, boxing till fluency



Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also a professional martial artist who has appeared in magazines, television, and films. See his website, contact him at








Gone Kurtz, on the Burma Border

In War in Burma on April 5, 2008 at 2:18 pm


By Antonio Graceffo



American Thomas Bleming sees himself as the new Karen liberation fighter, but does anyone else?


“Let me tell you about the army. The army is some guy you don’t know, sending you out to wack some other guy you don’t know.”

Al Pacino, “Donnie Brasco”


Mercenary, soldier of fortune, fast-gun for hire, even the job title sounds awesome. “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Dogs of War,” and most recently, “Blood Diamonds,” mercenaries have been the subject of so many great action movies that appeal to teenage boys.


I remember on my twelfth birthday thinking, “I wish I was half as cool as Han Solo and half as tough as Charles Bronson.” Sadly, my dream came true. I am only half as good as either of those movie characters.


If the movies are to be believed, mercenaries are shadowy blokes, lurking around bars in exotic places, like Biafra, East Timor, or Mae Sot. They are hard drinking, hard fighting men who will soldier for anyone, if the price is right.


Sixty-two year old Thomas Bleming, a Vietnam War veteran, the latest in a string of Americans who have shown up on the Burma border to fight for free, is one of the loudest mercenaries in history. He holds press conferences, gives interviews, and appears in several youtube videos.


Bleming claims to be a soldier for the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army), one of the armed resistance groups fighting against the Burmese junta. More than just a soldier, Mr. Bleming claims to have been appointed as the ambassador to the US, representing the Republic of Kawthoolei, the name which the Karen Republic will take after they win independence.


Because of my own involvement with the Shan State Army, the other major armed resistance group, many people have asked for my take on Bleming.


First, before this article becomes a long rant on how I believe the man to be “misguided,” let me begin by saying, the conflict in Burma is a just cause. The Karen, the Shan, the Palong, the Pa-O, and all of the many other ethnic minorities of Burma have lived under a regime of torture, execution, and genocide for decades. The SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) as the Burmese Army is called, is one of the most terrible entities in the world. Reports claim that Burma spends as much as 70% of their GDP on the military. Since they have no external enemies, the only purpose of the Burmese army is to kill the Burmese people.


And don’t forget that this conflict has been going on for sixty years. The citizens of Burma have suffered at the hands of their own government for sixty years.


These statistics are scary enough to make a normal person angry.  But, when you are living in Thailand, working on the border doing aid work and journalism, it is hard not to fall over the edge and go completely “Kurtz.” You hear horror story after horror story from the kind, gentle ethnic people who were rapped, mutilated, and driven from their homes. The lucky ones live in refugee camps in Thailand. Many didn’t make it that far. Their bodies line the mine fields where they were forced by the Burmese soldiers.


If you have a conscience, if you have a soul, you wouldn’t need more than one ten-year-old to tell you that he witnessed his parents murder or one fourteen-year-old to tell you of being gang raped, until you would be willing to pick up gun.


In the early days of the conflict, rumors suggest, that the Karen actually paid military advisors from other countries to help them set up their army and train their troops. Those days are long past, however. Anyone fighting today is doing so for free.


Ex-soldiers are attracted to this conflict for a variety of reasons. Some, the best one, are probably motivated by the same humanitarian drive that makes people do medical work or aid work on the border. These soldiers feel that they have a skill which is useful and they are going to help however they can. Others are simply adventure seekers, hoping to experience combat for the first time. Some have PTSD from other conflicts and just can’t “let go.” They need a conflict to fight, but they are still basically good people and don’t want to join a terrorist group to get their fill. They prefer a “good conflict” to a “bad one.”


Many of the older US veterans, including Thomas Bleming, are Vietnam vets. Many Vietnam War veterans were either drafted into the army or joined out of blind patriotism. Either way, they didn’t know much of the background of details of the conflict itself. For a man in a foxhole, the big picture means nothing. Personal survival is everything. After the war was over they began studying the issues. Some of the most well-versed Vietnam War experts I know are Vietnam vets, who have spent the last thirty years reading and researching.


For some of them, going to fight in Burma, or any other “just war,” is a way of making up for their forced participation in war which they may now disagree with. And this feeling of, “choosing my fights,” is not limited to Vietnam veteran, all veterans, even peace time veterans, realize with hind sight that they either participated in or swore to participate in a conflict that they knew nothing about at the time, and which they maybe have strong opinions on today.

In my own case, I was on alert for the Panama invasion, and later cursed my bad luck when my unit wasn’t called. Years later, I did an undergraduate thesis on American intervention in Latin America, and realized that the Panama invasion was anything but the “Just Cause” that the American government had dubbed it. I grew to respect Omar Torillos, and wondered what moron thought installing Noriega was a good idea. Oddly, this conflict is one I have in common with Thomas Bleming. One of the many wars he has participated in, as a freelancer, since Vietnam was Panama, where he was jailed.


During the first Gulf War I was a Merchant Seaman. When graduation day came and we lined up for ship assignments, just by luck of the draw, the five guys in line in front of me were sent to the Gulf. I was sent to Hawaii. They sent me one set of letters about how much their life sucked in the Gulf. I sent one about Hawaii, and I haven’t heard from them since. One of my boyhood friends, who was still in the army, was shot down in that war. He has had a colostomy ever since and is still undergoing surgeries, more than 15 years later.


Once again, at the time, I cursed my luck. Now, I am glad I wasn’t in Panama, and still not clear on Gulf War one. I am certain I am glad I am not in the current quagmire of Iraq, but would be willing to lend a hand in Afghanistan.


This is the kind of regret that both peacetime and combat soldiers can carry with them. A low intensity conflict for the right reasons, like Burma, may be just the tonic they are looking for to sooth their wounded souls.


If a man was a corporal in the “real army,” he may find himself an officer in a volunteer army. He was a trainee in his past, now he is the training officer. Low intensity conflicts are a kind of nostalgia, a way of living out the past way you wish it had been.


As far as conflicts go, Burma is one of the most comfortable. For one thing, the SPDC is so unbelievably, clearly wrong. Not since Hitler has their been such a clear-cut bad guy. So, if you fight in Burma, your conscience won’t eat at you. The tribal people need help and protection, and you are giving it to them. Case closed.


Physical comforts are also present in Burma. You sleep relatively safely in a base camp. You eat large quantities of pork and rice. And, you only go to “the fighting” when you want to. You sleep late. You wear what you want, and do what you want. It is like soldiering without all the hassles of a legal military commitment. And the best part, when you want to leave, you leave.


As far as I was able to verify, Thomas Bleming only spent six weeks in Thailand/KNLA on his first trip. It is not clear how long he is planning to stay on this, his second trip. But it probably won’t be a four year enlistment, as it is for the soldiers in Iraq.



When you make your way across the border to one of the rebel military camps, the rebels are happy to see you. They welcome you, and share what little they have. Your presence, even just seeing your face, raises their hopes that the world hasn’t forgotten them. They hope that you will be the one who will go back and tell the US government to take action on their behalf. Or, maybe you are a scout for the US military and soon, tanks, made in Detroit, will roll over the hills and take all their problems away.


To this end, the rebels will do nearly anything in their power to please you. They will offer you honorary citizenship or ask you to open an “embassy” in your home country. I personally saw an American offered the position of “Ambassador” three hours after arriving in a military camp.


The rebels are desperate for foreign aid and recognition. Many of the men who show up to fight are just desperate. The two together can be an unhealthy combination.


For most foreigners involved in the Burma conflict, the way in is through Thailand. They come to Thailand for one reason or another and at some point, by accident or by providence, they meet someone associated with the conflict and get hooked. For me, it was when I was living in a monastery, learning Muay Thai. All of my training brothers were tribal, and most were Shan. When I learned about the war in Burma and how these people suffered, only to come to Thailand to live on the streets and get hooked on Yaba, methamphetamine, I began looking for ways I could help. Another friend told me that his house cleaner asked for $30 to save a tribal kid from deportation. When he realized that a human life could be spared for such a paltry sum of money, he began doing full time aid work.


Every border worker has his or her unique story, but the similarity is that they usually spent a lot of time in Thailand, learning the language and the culture, before getting involved. Once in, they read voraciously. If you mention the name of any book written about this conflict, nearly every aid worker will tell you he has read it. In short, the people working on the border are informed. They understand the culture and the nuances of communication. Thomas Bleming only spent a few weeks in the country. He probably doesn’t speak Thai or Karen, and much of what he is quoted as saying suggests that he really doesn’t understand what he is involved in.


He is caught up in the fact that he was taken to the top echelons of the local KNLA unit. But, all foreign visitors are received by the highest ranking people. This is normal. He was allegedly awarded a political position. Once again, these are handed out like candy. He believes he was asked to be the US representative. The rebels are nice people and it is against their culture to disagree with anyone. If you asked, “Can I represent you in American?” they would definitely say “yes.” This would either be because they desperately need representation or because they don’t want to refuse a friend. But again, this great “honor” is bestowed on everyone. Bleming was quoted as saying that he was the only American or foreign soldier with KNLA. Not true, there have been many, and several were killed in the 1990’s. He also said he wrote the only book about fighting with the KNLA. Again, not true. Shelby Tucker wrote about KNLA in his book, “With the Insurgents,” and a silly marine, names Mike Tucker, wrote a terrible, 93 page book about his hair raising seven days with the KNLA.


One has to ask, what good would a 62 year old white soldier do for the KNLA? The terrain is absolutely brutal, up and down mountains, with no roads. Patrols last a minimum of one month, during which time, you carry your rice in a sock wrapped around your waist. You walk all day and sleep a few hours, maintaining noise and light discipline. It would be difficult for a fit US soldier in his twenties to keep up on such a patrol. It is extremely unlikely that a man in his sixties could even survive it. And if he slowed down the column or got tired or sick, he could get the whole team killed. Beyond the physical limitations, a foreigner is just a liability inside Burma. Any tribal person who sees a foreigner and fails to report him could be executed by the SPDC.


One of the things Bleming says he did for the KNLA was teach them how to use landmines. This conflict has been going on for decades. Even a slow learner would know how to use a landmine by now. It’s not like the KNLA were sitting on huge stores of munitions with no idea how to use them.


The KNLA and SSA (Shan State Army) don’t need foreign soldiers. One soldier more or less won’t have any impact on the outcome of the war. What they need are doctors, teachers, engineers, people who help them keep their people alive by building irrigation systems or rendering medical aid. They need material aid, clothes, food, medicine, and munitions. They also need journalists and writers who can tell the world about their struggle. Lastly, they need political activism. They need every person who reads this story to call his congressman and say, “please help the people of Burma.”


Another thing Bleming doesn’t seem to understand is that the war is real. The aid workers who cross the border every day are the real heroes. They can’t be photographed or go on TV, once their cover is blown they would be in grace danger. So, they live quiet lives, risking their lives for free, brining necessities to a tortured people.


I interviewed the leader of an aid mission in Shan State once, and asked, “What do the children need?” he answered, “What they need, I can’t give them. They need independence and peace for their country. But apart from that, they need clothing, food, medicine, education, and safety, like children everywhere.”


Bleming’s loud behavior has put a lot of people at risk. Also, Thailand can’t be seen as harboring dissidents or actively supporting the war in Burma. Every time a story of someone like Bleming comes up, the border suddenly closes and food and medicine can’t get in to the people who need it.


One aid worker, who requested that he remain anonymous, said: “Oh man, that Bleming guy is a real piece of work.  He’s walking around, giving out his business cards which he autographs for you, talking loudly in all the wrong places about going to Burma, blah blah. The Karen have issued all sorts of statements saying this guy is his own work, denying almost everything he says, etc.  The KNLA and KNU have worked for years at cultivating a good public relations, this guy goes and sets that back decades.  America just took ex KNLA combatants off the Homeland security terrorist risk list for refugee resettlement, and this guy goes and makes them look like a bunch of well armed terrorists again.  Plus he is big, loud, obnoxious and arrogant.  That equals dangerous in my book.”  


It is easy to point a finger at Thomas Bleming, or any of the foreigners showing up on the border to fight, and label them thrill seekers or, at the very least, slightly disturbed. But in the modern world of confused sides, things are never that simple.


Training in Muay Thai, I wind up training with a lot of security contractors. These are basically mercenary soldiers, employed by private firms to do military operations for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan. They normally work on rotations, so many months in combat and so many months on vacation. Many of them chose to take their holidays in Thailand, where they can live cheaply, and where they can squeeze in some martial arts training before returning to work.


An enlisted US soldier in Iraq earns about $3,000 USD per month. A contractor earns between $10,000 -$20,000, and a volunteer in Burma earns $0. Being a contractor or US soldier, fighting where you are sent, is legal, admirable, profitable, and won’t land you in jail. Being an unpaid volunteer soldier in a conflict of your choosing, on the other hand, is illegal, not paid, and can get you labeled as a terrorist which could have long-term negative impact on your life.


Taken to the strictest limits of the law, the same negative effects could befall an unarmed, non-combatant, who crosses the border to inoculate children living in a rebel refugee camp.


Once again, I have to ask, what kind of world have we created where rendering medical aid to children could be construed as a crime?



On the one hand, Bleming may have gone Kurtz.


“I’d never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.”

“Apocalypse Now script” by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola


He may have gotten so wrapped up in who he thinks he is or what he believes he is doing, that he is certifiable. On the other hand, if the UN would step in, or if the US would sanction this war, there would be no need for the Thomas Blemings of this world. All it would take is a single stroke of a pen from the UN Secretary General or the American president, and foreign soldiers could enter Burma and render the humanitarian aide so many are dying to receive.


As always, please say a prayer for the people of Burma.



Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” recently he has been working inside of Shan State, documenting human rights abuses, doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries:

Antonio is the author of four books available on Contact him

see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.





Fighting Mad Over Linguistics

In Linguistics and Language Learning on April 3, 2008 at 3:03 pm


“I can beat up almost any linguist who was chosen over me in the International Journal of Linguistics”



Sounds Vs. Words

By Antonio Graceffo


A reader sent me an email response to one of my earlier pieces about language learning. These reader mails demonstrate the commonly held misconception, about the way we learn language. My new strategy is to allow reader letters to become the basis for future articles. So, if you have any questions about language learning or want to share a story or some information, feel free to write me. 

 The reader wrote:   “When I first began to learn Thai, I was staying with my uncle- who is Thai.  this means that when I asked him something, or when he talked to me, or when I talked to him, I got a mix of both Thai and English together, either from him accidentally slipping a word of Thai out- I learned the word for ‘pencil’ that way (bakgaa)- or from him not knowing a word in Thai or in English, and both of us having to communicate the meaning of what we were trying to say in very basic ideas.” 

The situation with his uncle reinforces what I said abut the myth of total immersion. You can’t go in completely cold or not knowing anything in the language and expect to learn. His uncle spoke some English mixed with Thai. This is what you need, some point of reference from which to learn. If the uncle spoke only Thai, he would have learned more slowly. This is how I learned Italian and Spanish, my grandmother and the other older people always spoke a mix and I had learned a lot of words but more importantly a lot of mannerisms and inflections, passively, by an early age.


David Long, who runs the Thai program at AUA Bangkok, and is the leading proponent of ALG (Automatic Language Growth), believes, and I concur, that much of the understanding that we have in a foreign language is cultural, rather than linguistic. We know that in our native language communication is 80% non-verbal. Studies have been done, showing that we only hear one in five words spoken to us. So, language is not the key. Culture is. Mannerisms, inflections, concepts, thought-processes and attitudes are all extremely important in mastering communication in a foreign culture.


And these are all cultural nuances which the reader would have picked up from his uncle, which you can’t get from a book. But again, the only way he was able to learn is because the uncle knew some English.


This hypothesis could easily be tested. Go live in a tribal village on the border, but find one where no one speaks a word of Thai or English, and see how quickly you learn the local language. It will take ages.


When we talk about learning from “immersion” instead of school, I must ask, would your uncle teach you words for economic theory, political language, religion, history…Are these subjects that you would expect to come up in normal conversations with villagers? The answer of course is no, these are words and concepts we would expect to learn from school and from reading. Which stresses the importance of learning to read. Once you have a sufficient verbal ability then you need to learn to read in order to learn more elevated vocabulary. Most foreigners scoff at this.


“Who needs to talk about that stuff?” 

“My father had to go see the cardiologist, and she recommended an operation because one of his ventricles is not working right.”


If you told this story to an English native speaker and he didn’t know what a cardiologist was, or a ventricle, or an operation, you would think he was a complete momo. So, unless you want to be a complete momo in Thai, you need to learn elevated language. Generally, you will only learn this type of language from targeted reading and study. It won’t just come up in conversation. If you worked in a hospital, you might hear these words everyday, and eventually learn them. But you will lose a lot of patients along the way. For most of us, however, these words may come up in conversation, but not frequently enough for you to learn. Only frequently enough for you to look like a mook when you don’t know it.

 The reader wrote: “When his nephew came to stay with us, my Thai learning started to skyrocket, as did his English learning: we had to learn to communicate effectively, and I remember we would sit for hours at a time when we had nothing to do and point at things and say “Whats this?” “anii riak waa arai?” and write the answers down in some form we could understand later.  this wasn’t as much of a learning aid, simply because we’d find each other’s answers funny half the time and spend half the time laughing at the stupid words in each others languages, or else we’d try to make sentences with the new words in each other’s languages and get that entirely wrong, which would make us laugh more. But it meant that we had to learn to communicate with some effectiveness without having a language in common, and that was very helpful to me learning Thai.” Once again, the reader was able to learn with his cousin because he already had a good basis in the language. One trap a lot of people fall into if they learn a language at home with family or with their lover is that people who are emotionally close develop their own language, which is devoid of grammar rules and may include made up words, consistently mispronounced or misused words and words borrowed from other languages.  I was staying in a German guesthouse in Chiang Mai. There was a couple in the next room. When the man spoke, I could tell by his accent and dialect that he was clearly an uneducated laborer or factory worker from East Germany. His wife was Thai and had obviously lived in Germany for years. She believed that she spoke fluent German and was very proud of herself. She kept dressing down the Thai girls who worked in the restaurant because their German wasn’t perfect.  The truth is, this woman spoke something between Gastarbeiter Deutsch and Kindersprache. Gastarbeiter Deutch is the pigeon that is used to communicate with eastern European, Italian, and Turkish laborers working in Germany. Only Hauptworte, main words, nouns and verbs, are used. There is no grammar and no tenses. For example, “You tomorrow working 7:00.”  Kindersprache, or baby talk, meant, you had this adult woman saying brilliant things like “I want my baba, or “I have to make duty.” Once again, she believed she was totally fluent because she and her husband understood each other. And probably, when other people didn’t understand here she attributed it to the fact that they were stupid. This couple was traveling with two other German couples and I saw, time and time again, the Thai woman would dominate the German conversation to show how well she spoke German. After she finished the story, her husband would translate into real German. Then the other two couples would laugh or cry or whatever reaction the story called for. Also, I saw her husband desperately talking the ears off of his German friends, ostensibly telling them all of the things he couldn’t tell his wife because she didn’t understand real German well enough.  She was 100% fluent in the German she and her husband spoke together, but it wasn’t standard, adult German. And, it only worked because the husband dumbed down the things he wanted to talk about.  It goes both ways. I met a British guy who was so proud of his Thai. But, when I heard him speak, it was absolute shite. I knew from listening to the way he spoke, he learned from his girlfriend and measured his fluency by his girlfriend’s ability to understand him. The other Thai women in the room were straining to understand him. Switching back to English he was then lecturing a Belgian guy about how, now that he has mastered Thai, this British lad understood the key to fluency in a foreign language.  The British guy was missing the point that the Belgian spoke perfect English, Flemish and French, and was able to carry on a conversation in Germany. He probably didn’t need a lot of advice from this lad who only spoke one foreign language haltingly.  “The key is to think in the foreign language and not translate.” Said the lad.  Although this is true, he was misguided. To think in Thai, he had to lower his thinking to the level of his Thai, which compared to a native speaker, was the level of a three or four year old. If you think and speak like a three or four year old you will be a mook.  This is one of the reasons I left the Shaolin Temple, in China. I had reached a point where I thought and dreamed in Chinese. But my Chinese vocabulary is not even a tenth of my English vocabulary, so my thoughts were not even a tenth as intelligent. I was worried I was becoming stupider.  When I lived in the monastery in Thailand, and we had a professional fight, my opponent was the ugliest human being I had ever seen. I didn’t know the Thai word for ugly, but someone said that my opponent was Kon Lao. So, I thought Kon Lao meant ugly. I later learned, of course, that Kon Lao meant he was from Lao. But after that, when I saw an ugly person I always said Kon Lao, and my friends understood me. I had no idea this was wrong and got angry when outsiders didn’t understand me.  In Taiwan, when I first met my kung fu team mates I couldn’t remember all their names. I was trying to say, “what is the name of the fat guy?” and they told me Tai Pong De. So, I called this guy Tai Pong De for months. Later, in Chinese class I realized Tai Pong De means “too fat.” It wasn’t his name, it was a description. But everyone on my team understood me. So, the thing to be careful of is, whatever level of fluency you have at home or with your loved ones, decrease it by at least 30% to find your true fluency. The reader wrote: “ You can pick up individual sounds and remember them, even if they have no meaning to you, and from those sounds, you can get a translation and a meaning for the sound, and you can learn a new word or phrase from that.  one recent example is a word I just learned two days ago- ‘bra gorp’, or to assemble or to put together: this is a word I’ve been hearing regularly for maybe the past 3 months, maybe once or twice a week, and I’d always heard it in context with ‘fixing’ something, or doing maintenance, so I had a rough idea of what the word was without being able to nail down specifics.” 

Actually, it is not possible to learn and remember a sound without knowing what it means. If you don’t speak any Thai at all you can’t even differentiate between sounds. Again, I have written about this at length elsewhere, but one of the points is that when you learn a new language you come in with the sounds you already have from your native language, and then match them as closely as you can to the new language. The problem is that they never match up properly. This is why half of the drunken foreigners are telling prostitutes that they are “very unlucky” rather than “very beautiful.” From their own L1 reference point, they can’t hear the difference between those two words.


In this example, figuring out the meaning of the word “assemble,” the reader is learning a word, not a sound. This is one example of why people need to study linguistics to understand how to learn and teach language and why their advice sends me through the roof. Learning a word and learning a sound are two completely separate concepts.


He probably already had all of the Thai sounds at that point. I don’t have an exact number, but most likely, by the time you have one thousand words you probably have all the Thai sounds. So, what he listened to and took with him was not an unknown sound but an unknown word.

He learned the word “assemble” from context. He already knew all the other words in the sentence. At the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey California, the concept applied to learning words in context is probability. When we hear a new word, we assign it a probability, and we update this probability each subsequent time we hear it until we are certain we know what it means.


This is why linguists are often employed as code-breakers. Mathematicians are the obvious first choices, but good linguists or let’s say good language learners, operate on an internal system of probability.


My Thai teacher told us a story about a women who “mi lup.” I didn’t know what that meant, so the teacher pointed at a classmate who was pregnant and said, “Kun Courtney mi lup.” I assigned “mi lup” a 70% probability that it meant “pregnant.” Pregnant also worked in the story the teacher was telling us, so I upgraded the probability to 80%. Over the next several days, when I heard stories that included the words “mi lup,” I substituted “pregnant” and the stories made sense.


One problem with guessing is that when we think we know, we stop guessing and move on to the next word. Months later, I learned that Kun Courtney had three other children and that “mi lup,” meant “to have children.”


We do need to do statistical guessing to deal with words and concepts in communication. ALG (Automatic Language Growth) however, would argue that becoming too focused on words, we miss out on learning the language and, of course, once we think we know something we stop learning.


Keep listening and keep learning.


Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also a professional martial artist who has appeared in magazines, television, and films. See his website, contact him at



Living to Help His Shan People

In War in Burma on April 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm


By Antonio Graceffo


“Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.” Said twenty year old Kawn Wan.


After his family was murdered and his village Burned, Kawn Wan completed his education and became a teacher and caretaker of orphans in Shanland, Loi Tailang, Shan State Army (SSA) Headquarters.


“You foreigners, when you aren’t happy with something, you go and change it. You protest and fight. But here in Burma, it is impossible for us.” He explained.


Kawn Wan sits in the bamboo hut he shares with several other teachers. The orphan dormitory is just across the way, and the boys are busy hiking a mile, down the mountain to bath in the river and wash their school uniforms for the next day. The uniforms are comprised of Shan trousers and pressed white shirt.


“It takes an hour to get the shirt clean.” Said a boy, toiling to bang out the wrinkles with a rock. Life in Loi Tailang is predicated on schedules. Kawn Wan and a few other grown-up orphans are the official caretakers of the young kids, but the children know their daily chores and for the most part, they do them. This includes the two mile river hike, daily, as the thrice daily hike all the way back to the school, on the other side of the camp, where they get their meals.


Some boys who have finished with their laundry are playing takraw, a game similar to volleyball, where the feet, rather than hands, are used to get the rattan ball over the net. The orphan area is surrounded by defense trenches and air raid tunnels, where the boys know to take refuge in the event of an attack. Further down the hill is a line of punji, sharpened stakes, designed to keep out the enemy. The steaks serve as a warning, to keep innocent people from walking into the landmines.


Seeing the boys laugh as they struggle to kick the ball over the net, you would think this was a normal school, at recess, anywhere. But it isn’t anywhere. The school, the dormitory, the base, and Shanland itself are inside of Burma. And, if it wasn’t for the thousands of Shan State Army soldiers protecting them, the orphans, as well as all the other refugees, would be killed by the forces of the SPDC, the junta that rules Burma.


“In Shanland, even the little children when you ask, what is your dream, they say, I want to go home.” Said Kawn Wan.


Most of the children came to Shanland because the SPDC burned their villages or killed their parents. They seem happy to be living in a place where they have so many brothers to play with, but like people everywhere, their instinct is to want to go home. Unfortunately, there is no home to go back to. And, until the war is over, or until Shanland wins its independence, a trip to Loi Tailang is one way. It would be too dangerous for the children to consider going back.


Kawn Wan came to Loi Tailing in 2001, and has now spent nearly half his life living as an orphan and Internally Displaced Person (IDP).


When the SPDC killed his mother and forced Kawn Wan to leave his village, in 1996, he was so young he couldn’t carry his own gear.


“The SPDC soldiers came to our village and told us we had to move into the town.”


The Burmese government forces frequently forcibly relocate villagers in order to better control them. Those who resist relocation are often murdered, and their homes are burned. In Kawn Wan’s case, his village was forced to move into a city.


“In the city it is hard for us to survive because we are countryside people. We don’t know how to get food in a city. Some people escaped from the town. From when I left until now, I didn’t hear anything about my family. They left the town to look for food. Then people told me the SPDC caught them.”


Eventually, Kawn Wan made it to Loi Tailang. He finished school and Shan college. Now, in addition to taking care of the other children, he works as a teacher of English and Shan Kung Fu. Kawn Wan teaches the nearly lost Shan martial art to the children in the hopes of preserving their culture.


“If we do not win,” said a Shan military officer, “Some day, if you want to know about Shan culture, you will need to go to a museum.”


Some of the boys living in the orphanage are not orphans in the strictest sense of the word. One or the other of their parents was still alive when they came to live in Loi Tailang. Inside Shan State, the SPDC has made life very difficult.  Parents cannot take care of their children the way they want to. Shan children don’t have access to education. At Loi Tailang, at least the parents know that their children can attend school and get three basic meals per day.


“They come day by day.” Says kawn Wan. “Some come alone, and some come with a relative. Their Uncle or the headman bring them here, because inside Shan State life is so bad. The government doesn’t allow us to teach Shan language at school.”


The orphans here are not only Shan, but also Lahu, Pa-O and Palong. The student body is composed of all of the ethnic groups who live in Shan State. Colonel Yawd Serk, the military and political leader of Shan State Army stresses the importance of racial tolerance. All of the many ethnic groups in Burma have suffered at the hands of the Burmese Army, but the SPDC has long used disunity as a tool for controlling the ethnics. If they combine their forces, under a single military ruler, the many tribes far outnumber the Burmese in the tribal areas. The Burmese soldiers are conscripts, who suffer oppression at the hands of their superiors. The tribal people, on the other hand, are fighting for their homes and families. United, there is no way they would lose.


“All the ethnics can bring children here to study.” Explained Kawn Wan. The term Shan State Nationalities is often used to describe the many peoples living in Shan State. “Some of them can’t speak Shan when they arrive here. So, they learn it. We also teach them English, Thai, and Burmese.”


“When I lived in Shan State I didn’t know what is democracy, what is human rights, what is other countries do. I didn’t know. I came here and I was sent to Shan college, and I learned. And now I can use my skill to help other people.”


Between leaving his village and coming to Loi Tailang, Kawn Wan lived as a novice monk in Thailand.


“I was a temple boy, cleaning the temple and studying with the monks, but could not go to regular school because I had no Id card.”


Many of the Shan leaders were monks in Thailand at some time in their lives. Up to about age fifteen the Thai police are rather forgiving about asking for ID. But, once the boys reach adulthood, they have to have legal papers to remain in Thailand, or they have to go home. The problem for the Shan, of course, is that they have no home to go back to. Luckily, Kawn Wan found a home at Loi Tailang. 


“When we live here, our heart is warm. These children don’t have parents, so I love to help them and be an older brother for them.”


What is the future for Kawn Wan’s young students?


“When they graduate, they don’t have to be soldiers.”


The Colonel gives the boys freedom to chose their own career.


“They can be teachers. They can be whatever they want. They can go to work in an NGO, or in a government department.”


The government of Shanland is called the Reconciliation Council of the Shan State (RCSS). The governmental departments are in place, and staffed with bright young Shan waiting for the world to recognize them as an independent country.


“If we have only soldiers, we cannot build our country. So, we need to educate our people, to have skills, to help develop our country. Even me, I lived with soldiers for a long time, but I didn’t want to be a soldier. I want to be a teacher. I don’t want to have a high position. I just want to stay with the orphans and take care of them. This is my dream.”


“It is important to teach the children what are human rights so they know the good way for them.”


The Shan all respect Aung San Suu Kyi, but they are realists.


“I think the NLD (National League for Democracy) cannot do anything for us inside of Shan State. We have never seen them. They haven’t visited us.


“I like other countries, they have democracy. I like Thailand. I only don’t like that I don’t have the ID card, but our food and everything comes from Thailand. I like the Thai King.” All Shan people respect His majesty, King Rama IX of Thailand. On the day of his 80th birthday, no one worked in Shanland. The villagers put on their best clothes and met at the temple to pray for the King’s health.


“We teach the children to respect Him.”


On the wall in his bamboo hut, just above his Buddhist shrine, Kawn Wan, like so many other Shan, has a trinity of kings. These include, the last Shan King, King Rama V of Thailand, and King Rama IX.  


“Even if we don’t know the future, our leader is trying his best to find our victory. Some of us work in different ways, but we have the same goal. Some work like soldiers. Some have skills and can help a lot of people. Even if we cannot go live inside Shan State we can have our school, and we can teach the children freely. Inside Shan State we cannot teach Shan language. And, when youth talk about politics there is retaliation. Even talking about the meaning of democracy, even thinking about the meaning of democracy is dangerous.”


Kawn Wan is fully committed to the path he has chosen.


“I don’t think about getting married. I think about my students. I sacrifice my life to help them.”


I asked Kawn Wan what message he would like to send to the American people.


“I want the American people to know that we have a country, but we cannot live in it. We have no human rights. The Burmese government doesn’t do anything for us. We want the Americans to help us, to tell the SPDC to give us democracy.  We want the power in the hands for our people. We want to live freely, like other countries. I think because in America they have freedom, and in democracy country, they have rights, and they will use their rights to help us. Please share our information with other people.”

    Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is the Host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” Currently he is doing a film and print project to raise awareness of the Shan people.  To see all of his videos about martial arts, Burma and other countries: is the author of four books available on Contact him see his website

Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute to the “In Shanland” film project, you can donate through paypal, through the Burma page of my website.