Village Voice

Amy Salmon's E-Mail from Thailand (Part 9)

The biggest thing that struck me about the whole weekend spent outside of Chiang Mai was how much more attention I seemed to attract just by not being Thai.  Not only was the level of English markedly lower, but there were many hotel and restaurant workers who just stood and stared at me.  It was a little unsettling, but I found it interesting more than anything else.  They were transfixed by me, because they hadn't seen many foreigners. 

 Thailand is unique for many reasons, but one of them is that it's the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a Western or other outside power.  It has always been autonomous.  As a result, Thai culture tends to be very insular, and many Thai people, particularly in the more rural corners such as Mae Sai, have had little to no exposure to foreigners.  Tourism is the only contact many of them have had with Westerners.  So outside of the areas where tourists and their dollars spend lots of time, we're something of a novelty.  They don't know what to make of us.  Should they be scared?  What are we going to do?  Even at school here, the guy who brings the water into our office in the kindergarten building had to be coaxed into coming in while we were there.  We ran out of water one week because he was scared and/or embarrassed to have any contact with us.  So one of my jobs as a teacher is to teach this next generation of Thai children that the foreign teachers aren't going to do anything more alarming while you're bringing them their water than say "Thank You".  And then when they say "Thank You", you say, "You're Welcome". 

 My kids.  I love them.  I have so many different classes that I haven't been able to get to know the children individually yet; I'm still trying to remember which classes are more of a handful than others.  This seems to depend a lot on the teaching ability of the Thai homeroom teacher, and also on how much English she speaks.  It makes a huge difference in how much I can get done in the class.  When it takes twenty minutes to explain what I want them to do, that only leaves ten minutes to do it, and that leads to problems.  Especially since the kindergarten classes are subscribing to something known as "TBM", or "Teaching With The Brain In Mind", which emphasizes very strict time schedules.  Quite ironic given the concept of "Thai time", but that's just another day in never know exactly what you're going to get.  But in theory (and this, too, depends on the personality of the Thai teacher), if they're supposed to have "Fun With English" with yours truly, Ajarn Amy, from 8:30 to 9:00, and then go and do Hula Hoops at 9:00, they really need to be done at 9:00.  (Ajarn is the Thai word for teacher.) 

The kids have at least three different uniforms that they need to change into, depending on which activity they're currently engaged in.  Hula Hoops and Fun With English require different uniforms.  All are equally adorable, by the way.  My favorite is either the little red smock with the center pocket (perfect for crafts!) or what they change into when they all go to take their naps, which look like scrubs for mental patients.  Seeing several hundred kids all parading through the halls, pillows and blankets in tow, on their way to and from naptime, is priceless.  They are just so cute you can hardly stand it.  And, although it'll probably be a good long time before I learn their names, they all know mine.  We have huge ramps that go between the various levels of the building, which is centered around a large open courtyard, so if I'm walking to my office from one of the classrooms and the kids are on their way down the ramp to the room where they sleep, they can all see me.  This results in many waves and choruses of "Ajarn Amy! Ajarn Amy!" or "Good Morning!", depending on how awake they are.  It just doesn't get much better than seeing that many little faces smiling at you and so happy just to see you at the same time.  

At the moment, I've settled into a routine that is working well where I teach the kids a song, and then have them do a craft that's somehow related to the song.  This allows me to teach them some English without teaching them to read and write, which I'm not allowed to do because their parents aren't paying enough money. (Don't ask.)  By breaking the crafts up into steps which I explain and show and then have them follow, I get to work with them on following directions and generally get them interacting a little more with me on an individual level.  It's good for me to gauge where they are, particularly the shyer ones who won't sing, and it gives them a little opportunity to be one-on-one with me when their friends are busy doing other things.  And seeing them smile when they understand, or hearing them really start to belt out "If You're Happy and You Know It" with confidence that grows every week, is so rewarding. 

I like the repetition of it combined with the fact that it gives me a little continuity within the lesson -- song with related craft -- but with similar steps from week to week so that the kids can start to know what to expect.  I'd like to do a big, overreaching project with "Arky Arky" resulting in learning new verses each week and having some big Ark thing at the end, but I haven't solved that yet.  Time to hit the Internet again, I think. 

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