Sunday morning and it just sunk in that forty hours from now I’ll be boarding a plane to San Francisco, where I’m attending my friend Ryan’s wedding on Saturday. There seems to be so much to do between now and then.
Friday was the final day volunteering as an English teacher at Bangkhonthiinai School. Kobfa, Ken and I went down there joined by another friend who works with non-government organizations, Prawit. Since Prawit served as our photographer, I don’t have a lot of photos to share yet and will post more of them as soon as he sends them to me. Markus is still in Germany, so he was not able to make it.
It was Valentine’s Day all over as the students had all brought flowers, mostly roses and about half of them real and the other half artificial, to present to their three teachers. There was a ceremony in which the students presented the flowers, at which point I handed to each student an envelope containing pictures I had taken of them over the last year.
This was wildly popular with the students, as each received between two and ten prints of themselves and their friends. Imagine that something like pictures, which you and I probably take for granted, being such a treat for them.
Included in the envelopes was my contact information, and I later explained that if they wanted to practice their English, or if they had questions or problems about the language, that they were welcome to call or write.
So they were looking through their pictures and laughing about themselves and each other. Ajarn Yai started with the speeches, punctuated by long pauses in which she struggled to regain her composure. This change, along with her impending move to a new position as a master evaluator within the education department, is really affecting her. There were some tears, mostly from the girls but also from a few boys. Plaques were presented as were gifts. In turn, I made a brief speech to thank Ajarn Yai and the teachers for their support and the students for the opportunity to teach them.
After the ceremony we went to the classroom for a combined class. Between games of bingo, I handed out cards to each of the students on which was written (in Thai), “If you would like to receive a postcard from the United States, fill out your name, family name, and address below.” The information that I knew was consistent, such as postal code, province and amphoe, were pre-completed, but what a challenge it was for the youngest children to complete even their name and street address!
Tanawut wrote his name, working slowly but methodically through his last name, then stopped at the tii yuu (address) line. He looked up at me with a pained expression on his face. “What’s your address?” I asked him in Thai. Kobfa walked over. “Are you able to remember?” He shook his head, no. Jam mai dai. Cannot remember.
Thankfully, one of the teachers was able to look up the information for the younger children and complete the cards, correcting mis-spelled surnames along the way. Several students were able to remember their street names but not house numbers. One helpfully wrote baan si daeng, the red house.
I also learned that Burmese don’t have last names. One of my students, Somchai, is from Burma. He holds the distinction of being the littlest of the students, with a big smile, round head and jug ears. And he does not have a last name. At first I asked whether he couldn’t remember it, but checking on the master student list I realized that he just doesn’t have a surname. Sort of a Prince thing. Somchai was also notable as being the only student who was able to remember the word “spoon” when I showed the group a picture of a spoon.
The big event of the morning was the raffle. Over the months and weeks, especially over the last few weeks, I had built a treasure chest of tchotskies: free hand fans from the film festival, note pads and pens from different events and clients of Tawn’s, a model Cathay Pacific airplane that Brian had received when flying them. All sorts of stuff. Children wrote their name on a card and we selected prizes and then drew names to learn the winner. There were enough prizes that we went through all the names almost twice before having one big final drawing for the grand prize: a hot pink “Amazing Thailand” tote bag filled with a variety of goodies and school supplies.
As you might imagine, the raffle went over very well. It was like Christmas in August.
For some reason, maybe the large number of people in the classroom, the day did not end in the orderly way it usually does, with students wai’ing their teachers and filing out of the room, often shaking hands. Instead, they just drifted away in small groups. Kobfa commented later how there was no satisfying conclusion to the class, no real good-bye. I agree that something was missing. We’ll be back for Ajarn Yai’s farewell ceremony on September 14th, though, so maybe that’s when we can get some closure.
After class the teachers went to an ocean-front seafood restaurant in Samut Songkhram famous for being the birthplace of Chang and Eng Bunker, perhaps the most famous “Siamese” twins. The food was good, although excessive in quantity as is always the case when these teachers order.
When I returned home from school, I found this very nice email from my mother, who along with my sister is a teacher.
I know how you feel. It seems to me that each experience we have is a part of our whole being. We
are shaped by that experience; we influence how others are shaped in the sharing of the experience. At the
least, which probably isn’t so small in the long run, you had an opportunity to learn Thai language much
more quickly than might otherwise have been. …As for the children, you will never know the impact you have had on their lives. At the least, and this
could be the most in the long run, they have had a chance to be in the company of a farang who cares
about them as people. That only helps lead to better understanding between cultures. They have had more of
an impact on you that you might realize…struggling with how to teach them your native language while
having very little skills in their native language. Of course, as you’ve learned their language (the
greater learning, I’d say), you’ve been better able to communicate with them as well as others.
There is always a bittersweet feeling when moving from one path of our journey to another. Letting go is
usually difficult, but I sense that you are ready to move on – to walk other paths, using the knowledge and
understanding that you’ve gleaned from this teaching experience.
Another thought in this regard is the number of people you’ve taken on this journey with you. We would never
had been exposed to this part of Thailand or the people in this province without your involvement at
the school. How important to see these children, like most children in the world, struggling with their
learning or embracing it with eagerness and enthusiasm. Many of your friends have accompanied you
on your teaching days, not because they had to, but because they wanted to. Think of the long-reaching
Just a few thoughts from your Mother. As usual I’m proud of the work you do and the caring and compassion
you show for those around you. That you were willing to dedicate so much of yourself to this part of your
journey says worlds about who you are as a person.
How nice is that?
So it has come to an end. For now… but the teachers who will remain did mention to Kobfa that after Ajarn Yai leaves they might be interested in us still having some sort of involvement at the school, maybe going down there once a month or something. It depends on the new Ajarn Yai and whether he or she is friendly to the idea of undocumented farangs teaching at the school.
More pictures when they become available.
that photo on the bottom of your post is stunning-Landis
How sweet the kids wearing pink on V-Day…I hope there’ll be some kind of continuity in the English program!Very well written letter indeed!!
Sounds like you had a really great day! Bittersweet, but definitely memorable. Speaking of the Burmese kids in your class, how accepting are Thais of other cultures? I was only in Thailand for a few days and they seemed to be the nicest people on earth, although I wasn’t sure if they were just keeping up appearances? Are they genuinely welcoming of other cultures or is there some sort of underlying animosity?
That’s a good question. Thais are generaly accepting, at least to the point of being good hosts. But in some respects, Thailand is much less foreigner-friendly than many other countries. For example, if a farang man marries a Thai woman, there is no guarantee he will be able to get permanent residency, let alone citizenship. If you’re a tourist, of course you’ll be very welcome and well-accepted so long as you behave properly.
There is a bit of mild discrimination here against people from relatively poorer surrounding countries such as Burma and Laos. But generally it is not too severe.
Hope new Ajahn Yai is as nice as the previous one.