Target audience: The ambitious

“There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.” – Joe Dimaggio

Before getting my invitation packet to Thailand, I’d read that it takes a volunteer the first year to get comfortable in the community and the second year is when any real work gets done.  I’ve been in Surin since late March: ten months.  It’s true.

I feel comfortable in terms of safety, security and welcomed in my community, but I’m still getting the hang of communicating with my neighbors.  I’m at my best now, but I’m sure in four months I’ll look back and realize how much more I’ve learned.

The fact that I’m not living with Americans is obvious, but it sometimes still shocks me how un-American my neighbors are – in good ways and bad.  It’s not as if I’m living in the Southeast Asian section of a large American city.  This may seem extremely obvious to those reading in the states, but I’m still getting used to it.  I still expect the Thais to act like Americans now and then.

Why didn’t you tell me I was supposed to be here at 9 a.m.?  I would have been here.

Why is no one on time?

That guy cut you off!  Why aren’t you upset?

Hey, lady.  Didn’t your mother teach you it’s impolite to stare?

You’re laughing at me.  It must be because you’re an asshole.

Also, the breast-feeding women have shown me more boobs than a Tea Party convention.

The Thais un-American behavior is sometimes at its most obvious in school.  Americans complain of its education system.  My friend Erin, a full-time volunteer teacher, said we’re not really teachers – more like glorified babysitters.  Being part of the Peace Corps teaching program, she has assigned co-teachers, lesson plans and the same classes week-to-week.  As a community-based organizational development (CBOD) volunteer, there’s much less structure.  All the teaching I do is on a volunteer basis.  I don’t have to do it.  Most times I go to a school, the staff seems happy, yet surprised to see me even though I go to each school the same time and day every week.

In the states, this young man would create headlines across the nation. It's just something fun to bring to school in Thailand.

Early in my teaching days, many times I’d get to a school, talk briefly with a teacher and then be led to a classroom full of students and no teacher.  I’d estimate at any hour of the day at a Thai school, at least half of the classes have no teacher in it.  The students are either supposed to be studying on their own (ha!) or they’re watching educational television programs.

There aren’t enough teachers, right?  That’s why the students have to sit alone and wait for an available teacher, right?  No, there are usually four or five teachers (at least) in their office.  Many times teachers can be found doing nothing at all or even napping.  The teachers in the office who are at least doing meaningful paperwork = female.  The nappers and TV watchers = male.  The laziness of many Thai men makes me sick, but that’s another blog.

As for the comment about being glorified babysitters, I agree.  Thai children, especially boys, don’t find it rude to talk while the teacher is speaking.  Why?  Their parents do the same thing.  Most Thai people don’t do a lot of listening to the speaker.  Go to a wedding and watch the bride’s father making a speech for 15 minutes and look into the crowd.  Almost everyone is talking.  This would infuriate an American if no one was paying attention, but not the Thais.  They keep talking.

I do my best not to get upset at all the “rude” people in the crowd, but if the speaker doesn’t care, why should I?

It’s different when I’m the speaker in class.  We’re supposed to be teaching kids about America – so shut up and listen.  That’s what’s in my head.  I tend to stare down kids who aren’t paying attention until they are – a trick I learned at Columbus Elementary.

So how am I supposed to make a difference?  What will my community look like when I leave in March of 2013?

I’m beginning to realize it will look exactly as I left it.  I’m not going to revolutionize the schools to be more efficient.  Thai people aren’t going to learn new manners.  Men aren’t going to chew with their mouths closed.  That is not the kind of difference I can make.

I let them look at my end of the year edition of Rolling Stone. One of the boys pointed to every picture of a woman and said it was Lady Gaga.

However, I am learning what I can do.  It’s cliché, but I can help one kid.  I can be a good example to what you can achieve if you think outside of your local village.  When I teach, most of the kids do pay attention.  There’s usually three or four playing slap-and-tickle in the back.  Then there’s the majority who are paying attention only because there’s nothing else to do.  But there’s always the three or four who are diligently taking notes and, sometimes, have questions for me.

At this point, those few kids are my focus.  If they want extra help after school with their English, I can help.  If the slap-and-tickle students are bothering them, I’ll shut them up.  If the girls are bothered by the boys, I’ll tell every one of the future-whiskey drinkers to leave the room.

I know my neighbors enjoy having an American in their presence.  I always make sure to smile and wave at anyone who makes eye contact as I bike through villages.  I want them to know I’m here to help and set a good example.  But when I leave, Starbucks will not be in my village.  There will be no traffic lights.  The Christians will not say the floods are God’s wrath.

What I can do is help some kids find a suitable path for their future that goes beyond the rice fields.  That, I can do.

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