Friday, May 19, 2023

Q&A with Dian Seidel


Photo by Derek Parks



Dian Seidel is the author of the new memoir Kindergarten at 60: A Memoir of Teaching in Thailand. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times. She worked as a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir about teaching in Thailand?


A: Writing a book wasn’t part of my plan for teaching in Thailand. But when we came home, I wanted to inspire other people to try something completely new, too. My story is just that—my story. The book is neither a how-to guide for retirees planning their second act nor a comprehensive exploration of life as an American retiree in Thailand. But I hope it might show readers that, with an open mind and a mai pen rai philosophy, older adults can explore the world, and themselves, by teaching abroad.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It took me a long time to hit on Kindergarten at 60, but when I did, I was tickled. The title has two meanings.


It tells the reader what the book is literally about—a 60-year-old goes to kindergarten. The subtitle, A Memoir of Teaching in Thailand, makes it clear that the author is the 60-year-old and the kindergarten is in Thailand.


The symbolic meaning of the title is echoed in the cover illustration showing two pairs of shoes, a woman’s pumps and a little girl’s Mary Janes. I may have been the teacher, but I had a lot to learn.


As Anna tells her students in The King and I (and no, I didn’t teach royal Thai children), “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.” In Thailand, I had to put myself in other people’s shoes to understand a culture very different from my own and to get to know my pupils, my co-teachers, my husband, and, most of all, myself.


Q: What impact did your time in Thailand have on you?


A: My time in Thailand had two almost opposite impacts on me. It was simultaneously humbling and empowering.


Humbling because I had no idea how to do my job or how to manage daily life. At home, I was a reasonably competent professional. In Thailand, I had to put away my ego and rely on other people, and on my own inner resources, to survive.


Empowering because putting my ego away let me be more open to experiencing life as it presented itself day by day. By becoming more childlike and being open to new ways of seeing, we grow and learn, which makes us stronger. For me, that was an essential lesson of Thailand.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the memoir?


A: I hope readers enjoy the ride. My adventure wasn’t especially dangerous, daunting, or dramatic, but it was filled with lots of experiences that were new for me and will be new for readers, too.


I hope they’ll gain an appreciation for Thai culture, language, food, and lifestyle. I hope they’ll grow to love some of the kids and teachers at our school, just as I did. I hope they’ll have some “Oh my gosh yes!” moments when they put themselves in my shoes and understand my reactions, perspectives, and feelings. And I hope they’ll laugh along with me at some of the more ridiculous situations I encountered, or created, as a kindergarten teacher in Thailand.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Writing Kindergarten at 60 was a multi-year project, and now my focus is helping get the book, and an audiobook version, out into the world. I’m writing mainly shorter forms now—personal essays and flash fiction. I’m also planning another gig teaching abroad and hope to write about that, too.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This is my debut book, and, obviously, I was over 60 when I wrote it. I want to encourage other older writers to tell their stories. The writing life isn’t easy, and the publishing world is daunting, but I think many older writers, with life experience, are well equipped to meet these challenges.


There are plenty of courses, writing groups, and workshops that support writers of all ages, and the literary community is full of opportunities to learn and make new friends. Who, at any age, wouldn’t want those opportunities?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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