I arrive in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, where my new home in suburban Land and Houses Park is sweet, light and airy. It has tile floors and a traditional outdoor kitchen with two gas burners, a temperamental microwave and a sink. I shop at Carrefours for a crockpot, a toaster, a coffeepot and a wok. I open an account at Siam Commercial Bank, arrange a rental car and visit the university where I will teach. It is modern and manageable in size. The next day, my neighbor guides me to the Internet cafe, the cell phone shop, and the cheapest place to buy gas. I hook up the T.V. In short, my Chiang Mai life has begun.
Thai people are gracious, calm and reserved. The ubiquitous greeting, Sawasdee-(ka), is often accompanied by hands clasped as if in prayer, and a gentle bow, or wai. I sense that Thais are just as private as they are polite. Confidences are only shared with family and family life is important. The babies are gorgeous as are the young women with their slim hands and graceful, small bodies. Cars, gas, books and imported foods are expensive. Eating out is cheap. Life seems surrounded by an aura of calm. Giant shopping malls, five-star hotels, urban sprawl and pockets of smog dot the landscape. Thais drive like maniacs and copious motorbikes are particularly threatening. There are three temperatures in Thailand: Hot, hotter and get me outta here! Night Market is wonderful!
They are from Thailand, Burma, Japan, Indonesia, Turkey, China, Korea. They are curious about their new achan (teacher). And they are young – nineteen or twenty; I feel like a western relic. But age and teachers are respected here and their beautiful, dark eyes are fixed attentively upon me as I introduce myself and the courses I will teach in the International English Communication program.
Coming to teach here has presented a new challenge. I must slow down, enunciate clearly, interpret idioms, and plan creative, well-paced weekly lessons. As the first week of my new adventure progresses, I grow increasingly comfortable. My colleagues have been helpful and my students are so eager that when I have them complete a brief questionnaire, they whip out electronic dictionaries and oversized erasers and hunker down over their papers. As we begin to focus on the work before us we develop a group dynamic of trust, inquiry, risk-taking and fun.
Classes are dynamic and applied. Each day I arrive in class armed with exercises I hope will be instructive and entertaining. Sometimes they flop, like when I provide names of famous people and have students write questions they would ask if they interviewed the historical figures. Many of them have never heard of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. But mostly the exercises work. Students talk or write about things they wish for, animals they would like to be, guests they would invite to dinner. These early exercises serve as icebreakers, assessment tools, and practice sessions. Students experience my teaching style and I learn their personalities. I see their strengths and areas for improvement. I know who is coping away from home and who is lonely. I plan lessons with more confidence.
According to The Handbook for International Staff provided by the university, I’m on schedule. Now that I’m settling down to my busy routine, I have entered the first stage of culture shock when energy drops and you make a lot of comparisons between your new life and your old one. In stage two, most significantly, “you may find yourself getting irritated over minor things” and “being critical because Thais do not do things the way you do them.” I begin asking why no one speaks any English. Why don’t motorbikes stay in designated lanes? Why can’t people stop saying if I can’t take the heat I should leave before summer arrives? Why aren’t there fewer mosquitoes or more geckos to eat them?
The handbook says in stage three “you can end culture shock” because “you realize you are a foreigner spending a short portion of your life in Thailand and do not have to act just like they do.” Then why must I sign in/out every day and wear skirts to teach? Why not touch the head of my neighbor’s baby? Why never display emotion?
Mai pen rai. Nevermind. I will keep jai yen, a cool heart, and learn patience. I will keep my perspective and realize that I represent the stereotypical farang. I will “evaluate expectations” and “take the initiative.” I can’t promise to “learn the language.”
I love two of them, tolerate a third, loath the fourth. Three times a week, in remedial writing, I struggle with a diverse group of kids who don’t understand most of what I say, and who can’t tell a verb from a noun. Despite their ambitions, they seem entirely unmotivated, drifting in late for class, talking among themselves, paying little attention to assigned exercises.
I love Creative Writing and Oral Presentation. My Chinese Three Musketeers, “Catherine,” “Sophia,” and “Margaret” take both classes. They are bright, inquisitive, mischievous. There is Burmese Yaw Bawm, charming and smart; Thai Woravit, excellent at interpretation; and Japanese Kaz, good at sharing ideas. WORKS
Creative Writing class carries itself as students explore writers like Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway. In Oral Presentation I do animated imitations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sojourner Truth, demonstrate spurious argumentation through vitriolic attacks on my American president’s logic, and digress on topics as diverse as flawed statistics and women’s rights in Iraq. They love it. I love them. We have a good time and I have an effect. They will be better orators and writers for having spent time with me, and I will be a better teacher for spending time with them.
It’s Friday and I’m burned out. I go ballistic when the same perpetrators straggle in wai-ing apologies. Nop’s phone rings. Naram is ten minutes late. Narumi has not done her homework. Despite the taboo on shaming, I raise my voice. “It’s unacceptable!” I tell Naram. I lecture them about (western) university standards, the privilege of education, and classroom etiquette, ending in a crescendo of personal affront. “I didn’t travel 9,000 miles to be treated like this!” I emote like an overwrought actress. “I try hard to make this class interesting and fun! I will not be treated disrespectfully!”
There is stony silence. Students slump into their chairs, stunned. I may have finally gotten to them. But on Monday the usual suspects arrive late, talk in class, and behave as if I’m a potted plant. I am so upset a colleague offers to take the class next time. “Say I’ve had a nervous breakdown,” I suggest. She settles for “Achan is under the weather.” The smart ones get it. Muthur sees me later. “Oh, Achan! Don’t leave us. You are the only teacher who corrects my work. I learn so much!” I promise I will not abandon her, regaining my dignity and sense of purpose.
They’ve been practicing all week. The campus is lined with vendors selling fresh flowers and stuffed animals. There isn’t a parking space to be had without a VIP sticker. Parents mill about with their excited children in black polyester gowns. Cameras are everywhere. Fully robed faculty assemble in the chapel. At 6:00 p.m. the national anthem rings out as the flag is lowered against a blue palette of sky. The walkway is crammed with parents, friends, grannies. Tears flow as revered achan march to trumpet fanfare. What moves me most is the hill tribe grannies who’ve come to see their grandchildren achieving something they never could have dreamed.
Saying Lah Gorn to Thailand
The rains have returned. The cycle of seasons is complete. It’s time to return home. Leaving is hard. Despite oppressive heat, demonic drivers, over-development and its resultant pollution, and the frustration of unmotivated students and unresponsive administrators, I will miss Chiang Mai terribly.
Once I lived in England. When I returned to the U.S., I couldn’t bear the noise and rush of New York. American aggressiveness and consumerism startled me. I disliked the size and scale of everything. Would I experience the same counter-culture shock? (Yes.)
In Thailand a profound calm enveloped me. I had quiet energy and a sense of self-acceptance unknown to me before. A friend called it “deep meditation.” Having learned about Buddhism, the analogy resonated. I’ve led a simple life here; no committee meetings or workshops, no serious dinner parties. I don’t go to the movies much. Yet I’ve experienced deep satisfaction, especially in the solitude of my sunny little house on a Saturday morning when I have enjoyed the breeze as it darts around my tropical garden.
I’ll miss my students and their eager curiosity about the world which they long to see. I’ll miss my colleagues. I’ll miss my new friends with whom I’ve had many adventures. I’ve been at the top of my form here, teaching my students things they didn’t know before, inspiring some of them to finer academic achievement, giving them insight into the human condition. I’ve helped them be less afraid of expressing their own ideas. I’ve suggested that learning can be fun and rewarding. I’ve modeled, mentored, made my own kind of merit. It makes me glad that I teach.
About The Author
Elayne Clift, a writer and adjunct professor from Saxtons River, Vt., spent 2005 – 06 teaching at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This article is excerpted from her book ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books, 2007). For more information, please visit www.elayneclift.com