Saturday, June 26, 2010
Saturday, June 12, 2010
Last year, in my third month of service, I traveled about two hours away with my host dad and my host sister’s husband to visit a country school. It so happens that my host father’s father was the headmaster of this school about 60 years ago and each year my family visits the school to make donations and speak with the students in his honor. I loved the concept and it struck me as something that my family in America might do. I was happy to be apart of it. I remember the day as long, hot and confusing. My Thai speaking and comprehension skills were not excellent and I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb. I did not understand the ceremonies or really what was going on at all. I smiled when I was supposed to, bowed when others bowed, and remained quiet and tried to take it all in.
Since that visit I have learned a lot more Thai and a lot more about ceremonies and official meetings at schools. Most importantly, I have learned how I am viewed as a foreigner and how I fit into these situations.
Last week, a year to the day, we set off again to visit this country school. I woke up early for coffee and breakfast for my host mom and set about ironing my khaki pants and dress shirt for the day. I dressed and spoke with my host father as I promised I would be ready to go right on time. Then not five minutes before we were to walk out the door, he turned to me said that I needed to change clothes….I needed to wear a skirt. Now, during training we wore skirts everyday and I wear them for very formal occasions at site. But honestly, all the women around here were pants…teachers, nurses, government workers, all of us. I wore nice pants last year….why I couldn’t I wear them again this year…I was sure to be climbing in out of the pick-up truck and sitting on the floor. I diligently went to my room to change, much to my disappointment. You may be asking, “why didn’t you just explain that you prefer to wear pants?” Well, maybe I have been here too long, maybe I’m too complacent or maybe I just know how to pick my battles, but the thought did not enter my head. My father had asked me to change, so I did. I am a female, so I must wear a skirt, so I did. I was going along on this trip to honor my family and make my host dad happy, so I did.
I was sort of in a bad mood and had cultural differences on my mind. I have lived here over a year and knew what to expect of the event and what the day had in store. Still, the cultural implications and my feelings took me by surprise as the day went on. I was treated as an honored guest, forced to make a speech, was seated in front of the entire school and watched as the students crawled on their hands and knees to present flowers and blessings to me, my host dad, the principal and the other teachers. Basically I was being treated as royalty or as a celebrity. You might think it sounds nice. The fan was pointed directly on me all day and students rushed to bring me cool water. I was highly uncomfortable. I had not earned their respect…they had just met me! This happens a lot in Thailand. I am a foreigner and oftentimes I am presented as a teacher or mentor. This gives me instant VIP status. This day it really bothered me. I kept thinking of the American ideal of equality and how we have nothing like this system of hierarchy and how much I appreciated that. In America we do things for ourselves. If I had needed a cup of coffee or glass of water, I would have asked where or how to get some and done it myself. Yes, we are hospitable but never in a million years, would a student be forced to present that glass to you while crawling and kneeling with their head down balancing the full glass on a tray. It seems preposterous to imagine such a scenario at home.
We ended up with some extra time before lunch so I was asked to teach the kids English. This happens and lot and sort of bugs me every time. But up I went, to the front of the room, microphone in hand and led a basic conversation. Anything more than that would have been fruitless. Most of these kids had never seen a foreigner, let alone practiced English with one. I tried to get them to relax a bit by suggested that they ask me questions about America, using Thai. They looked at me in terror. Not a single student raised their hand. I was starting to get annoyed. I thought, if they want to learn English so bad and talk with foreigners, why aren’t they trying??
Then it hit me. They had been forced to wait me for the past three hours, kneeling and crawling all the while barely looking at me…no wonder they were intimidated!
I felt terrible for them and wished I could make them comfortable. I wished I could share the American culture of student/teacher relationship or even the casual and comfortable relationship between new friends. I wanted them to know that I thought of them as being on the same level as me, that we were equal and that we could be friends and communicate. I was not a VIP, I am not better than them because I am a foreigner and speak English.
It was hard dealing with all this at the time and it’s hard to verbalize it now. I hope that you understand a bit of what I was and am going through. I thought it was a good story to share and hope it reminds everyone not to take our culture of relationship and lack of hierarchy and notions of equality for granted.