Traditions (Part I) — Thai Culture

I was feeling that perhaps my last post was a bit too much of an American’s rant about a foreign country. I am here with an open mind and a desire to be immersed in a new language and culture. Of course, there are challenges that are often quite humorous and/or frustrating, but really, for the most part, I am enjoying being somewhere so different.

I wrote previously about the school “culture”, but what I was really writing about was school organization and management. The real school culture reflects the culture of Thailand itself, and I’ve had the privilege of experiencing various traditions over the last couple of weeks.

A ubiquitous social norm in Thailand is the wai, a verbal greeting (sa-wadi-kah if you’re female; sa-wadi-kup if you’re male) combined with the bowing of one’s head with palms together and in front of the face. Everyone greets everyone else with a wai, and the school where I work sees it as their responsibility to reinforce and perpetuate this Thai custom. Twice in July I had yard duty, once at the front gate and once on the playground. The front gate duty involved greeting all students and parents as they entered the campus (from 7:00AM to 7:50AM) and to say good-bye to them as they left after school (from 4:30PM to 6:00PM). Every teacher does duty about once monthly (i.e., 2.5 hours/month as opposed to five weekly 15-minute duties at Dahl). After having served my time as the front gate greeter, along with a Thai teacher, I learned more details of my responsibilities there. In some handbook I found buried under other papers I was given on my first day, I read that the most important role of the front gate duty teacher is to enforce the rule that all students stop, put their bags down, and give a “proper wai”. The handbook author asks teachers for their cooperation so that there is consistency in this expectation of politeness. I will have to do a better job demanding that every kid does their wai correctly next time — I definitely let a few slide!

While serving as playground supervisor during my second July duty, I got to know one of the 4th-graders a little better. Each grade level in the school’s International Program has just one class of 30-32 kids per grade level. Namneung is a girl in IP4 whose brother stays after school to participate in a sport. While her brother practices, she hangs out on the sanam dic len (playground) and her dad reads the newspaper at a picnic table. I am thankful to my new friend for teaching me how to say ‘playground’; she also taught me some useful phrases for ordering food in a restaurant and other various words that will likely come in handy. I was overjoyed to have finally spent some quality time with a student. Because I started working at the school a couple weeks into the school year, I missed much of the getting-to-know-you activities that the first ten days of school are meant for. I’m still working on memorizing names — it’s taking me forever because their names are different from any I’ve ever heard. From Namneung I learned that she and her peers tend to eat sandwiches for breakfast (sometimes a hot dog), and that their after-school routines are familiar to me as an American schoolteacher. They go home, do their homework, eat dinner, play video games, watch TV, and then go to sleep. Variations include sports practice and doing homework last instead of first. As 6 o’clock rolled around, I told Namneung that I’d love to meet her dad, of whom she had spoken very fondly. She warned me of his great size, that I would be absolutely shocked because he is “big and very fat.” As I approached the beast, he stood up to greet me, with a handshake and a smile, standing about 5 feet, 9 inches and weighing no more than 170 pounds. I told him it was wonderful to meet him and that his daughter is a delight. I wonder if he knows what his daughter thinks of his stature!

Part II to include school assemblies!



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