Thailand is an amazing country filled with friendly people and beautiful mountains. It is called “the land of smiles” because everyone is helpful, respectful and friendly, especially to tourists. I recently journeyed there with my mom to teach an English Camp in Mae Sariang.
The flight from Raleigh, North Carolina to Chiang Mai, Thailand takes roughly 29 hours. However, for us it took four days due to unexpected delays and layovers. This rough start gave me a sinking feeling about how the rest would go; I hoped that it would be better, but since things were already starting to go wrong, I was not sure.
Our missionary friend, who has spent two years teaching at an English school for missionary kids in Chiang Mai with her husband, met us at the airport and took us to her house. She was a sight for sore eyes and we gladly crashed in the guest room upon arrival.
But two hours later, nine people, my mom and I included, piled into a van and drove three and a half hours up the twisting mountain roads to get to Mae Sariang where we were going to teach the English Camp.
We visited Maesalab School where the camp would be held later that day and our spirits immediately fell. Dirt completely covered the entire front yard of the school and, since it was the rainy season, it had been transformed into one big muddy mess. We later found out that the government had plowed up the field for an unknown reason and left it that way.
Determined to check out the school before it opened the next day, we all trooped single file through the least muddy sections, wincing as the mud came up over our flip flops, but smiling, nonetheless.
We had the principal of the school open it for us so that we could look at our classrooms and prepare for the next day. She spoke broken English but was ecstatic that we had arrived. She was the only Christian in the village, and she knew that we were Christians as well. Along with teaching English, we were also planning to share Jesus with the kids. The principal was excited about this as well because the kids would be hearing this for the first time.
The school was in the poorest neighborhood around; the kids all lived in huts within walking distance from the school and the school itself was composed of two small buildings with classroom doors opening up to a porch. There were no air conditioners so two fans, one for the teachers and one for the kids, kept the humid outside air circulating. The bathrooms were also very crude, little more than a hole in the floor, and the playground equipment was badly in need of repairs.
The next day we arrived at the school at 8:00 a.m. (keep in mind that Thailand is 11 hours ahead of the North Carolina). All of the students filed out to our van to help carry in supplies. They did it because they were happy to, not because they were forced to. They also carried bricks that they laid down as a pathway so that we would not get our feet dirty.
It is customary in Thai culture to remove your shoes before entering a room, so even though it was extremely muddy outside, the mud did not enter the classrooms.
The students start off each day with a pledge and a salute to the king, very much like the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem we recite for games and important events. However, unlike ours, theirs lasts for roughly twenty minutes during which every student must stand at attention, sing and chant. After the ceremony, all of the students file into one big room and sit in rows according to age.
Thailand culture is all about respect for those older or with a higher position then you. The students must bow as they pass in front of a teacher and a younger person must wai before an older person. Wai-ing (pronounced “y”) is similar to a wave in America. Both hands are raised, palms joined with the fingers pointing upwards as if in prayer, and brought to the nose while bowing slightly.
“Hello” and “thank you” are also used very frequently. “Sa-wat dee” means hello and “korp khun” (pronounced “cop coon”). If the speaker is a female, “ka” is added to the end, making it “sa-wat dee ka,” a male would add “krap.”
We started off each day with songs and a Bible story, which the students listened intently to through a translator. An absolute favorite song was Head Shoulders Knees and Toes.
After the morning assembly, the kids broke up into their grade levels and dispersed to their classrooms. I taught kindergarten with a college student from New York, 18, and a missionary’s daughter who lived in Thailand, 15.
The goal of our group was to teach the younger students the A, B, C’s, colors and simple phrases such as “hello” and “goodbye.” The older students would learn this as well; however, since they have a longer attention span, they would also learn basic sentences and questions such as “how are you” and how to respond.
The first day was rough. The kids in my class were more or less afraid of us and refused to volunteer or speak when asked to. The English lessons went smoothly because they had already been taught most of the basics, so we moved on to games, hoping that they would loosen up after they had played.
I suggested “duck, duck, goose”, but the translator said that they did not know what a goose was. Thinking quickly, I decided to make it “duck, duck, chicken” because of the many chickens that roamed around outside. The kids absolutely loved the game but refused to tag any of us, their teachers. The translator explained that it was out of respect; they also would not tap us on the head, rather, the shoulder due to respect.
We finished out the day and left around 4:00 p.m., a little disheartened at how the day had gone. The next day, thankfully, was much better.
The kids dispersed for class and we immediately started off with games. This time when, we played duck, duck, chicken, they became a little braver. They still tapped us on the shoulder but began to tag us. Once they found out that this was an okay thing to do and that it was actually fun to watch us try to catch them without success, they began to tag us repeatedly, barely giving us time to catch our breath.
By day three, I was teaching the kids how to “pound it” and give high fives. The kids had also begun to tap us on the head when we played duck, duck, chicken. They laughed all the time and could not seem to get enough attention from us. We happily gave them as much as we could by picking them up, tickling them and over exaggerating any emotion to get a laugh.
Two little girls latched on to me by the third day and I hated to leave them behind when I went home. They always wanted to be close to me and hold my hand if we were playing a game and fight off others who wanted to do the same.
On the fourth day, the kids all showed up for school in their traditional Karen dress. They are required to wear this every Friday, but since we were not going to be there, they wore them on Thursday so that we could see. Since the principal is Karen, the entire school is required to wear the traditional dress, whether they are Karen or not.
The fourth day was very sad because it was our last at the school. The kids did not seem to realize this, or if they did, refused to acknowledge it. We played as many games as we could in the shortened amount of time, asking the kids which ones were their favorite (duck, duck, chicken and head, shoulders, knees, and toes), and then we went in for one final assembly before the kids went to lunch.
During the assembly, one of the missionaries showed them a slideshow of the pictures we had all taken throughout the week and we all presented the teachers with small gifts of thanks. Then, the kids surprised us by giving us hand made bags which they filled with hand picked rice and bananas. This was symbolic because when missionaries use to come to towns, they had only the clothes on their backs, so the people would feed them.
After the moving presentation, all of the kids rose simultaneously and surrounded us. The normally shy and respectful kids hugged each of us with tears streaming down their faces. I looked at the faces of my teammates through teary eyes of my own and saw that their faces resembled mine. We were all thinking the same things: “how can we leave these kids” and “how soon can we come back?”
The principal herded the kids outside and told them to go eat lunch, but many hid out in the classrooms and cried by themselves. A few members of my team, my self included, went around and comforted them enough so that they could go to lunch.
The two little girls that had latched on to me stood stone-faced on the porch. They finally realized that we were leaving for good and tears began to role down their cheeks. We managed to comfort all of the students before we left.
As we boarded the van, we were surprised to see that all of the kids had lined up beside the road to wave goodbye. That, of course, brought fresh tears to my eyes, but I managed to wave as the van pulled away.
It still amazes me that they were so happy and satisfied with what they had, so unlike most Americans. I experienced a major culture shock in my 20 days in Thailand and was almost reluctant to return home. I hope to return soon and would willingly go back tomorrow to see those kids again.