Yesterday, I celebrated "Thanksgiving" at a woman's house whom I've never met, with a few strangers and a few new friends. We had turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and tacos. It was a day filled with both familiarity and strangeness, but when asked what I am thankful for this year in Thailand, I did not find it difficult to think of a couple things at the top of my list. So here it is:
Being a Native English Speaker
A few days ago, I asked my M6 students (M6 is like senior year, in America) to tell me one reason they want to learn English. Most of them said that they dreamed, one day, to travel outside of Thailand by themselves. Not just to America—to anywhere (many of them mentioned Laos, Korea, China, England, Canada). They knew they could only do this if they knew English, the world’s quickly growing #1 form of communication.
This dream is so earnest and pure and beautiful. I think we can all empathize with this desire. They simply want to communicate, professionally and personally, with the rest of the world, of which they know only a tiny, tiny part.
They trust English to build them a new life, even if they can’t imagine what this life is supposed to look or feel or sound like. And they trust me, their teacher, to get them there. They assume that I know best, that I am intelligent, because I am a native speaker. For them, being born a native English speaker is like being born lying on a pile of gold.
There is nothing wrong with the Thai language. In another reality, another world, perhaps Thai would be the language taking over the world, and I would be the one struggling in the classroom because if I did not learn it, I would never have the privilege to enjoy travelling by myself as I am right now. But this is not another world. So I have learned, here in Thailand, to be incredibly thankful for the arbitrary blessing of being born to two parents who speak English as their first language.
I have been told that, in Thailand, when you are 21-years-old you go to the store (or, you go somewhere… I think my coordinator said store, but I might have misunderstood), and you stick your hand in a basket, which contains red and white cards.
Red: You are obligated to join the army to fight for your country for two years.
White: You are not.
This is how I am beginning to feel, in regards to my slowly growing understanding of the importance of being a native or fluent English speaker. I feel as if I have pulled a white card out of a basket. I mean, many of us (us meaning me and whoever is reading this, assuming you are from America) are in the top 7% of the world: we have a college degree (only 6.7% of the world has one), we live in America, and we are native English speakers.
Being Paid to Live Abroad
Last week, my student Fluke stood up to describe an item that “reminded him of home.” His item was a grey nondescript sweatshirt he wears every day.
“This is my favorite item from home because it is the only birthday gift I’ve ever gotten, from my friend,” Fluke said shyly. I didn’t really understand, and, ridiculous as it is, I still felt bad (here I was, fretting that this was the only birthday gift he’d gotten this year). “No, teacher,” Fluke clarified for me. “This is the only birthday gift I’ve ever gotten.”
Fluke and my other students have reminded me of my fortune. Some of them have no concept of the rest of the world. I showed a few of them pictures of Switzerland the other day, because they’d never heard of it. When I mention small weekend trips I’ve taken or plan on taking here in Thailand, many of them tell me, “Oh, Teacher, I’ve never been there.” Some of my students truly do not know how big to make their dreams. Nevermind leaving Thailand… some have never left this town.
What I am saying is, my job is the second reason I feel thankful. Because for long periods of time, I forget that I am technically getting paid to do this job, and that I am not doing it simply because it is so painfully essential that it get done, for all these students who deserve opportunities similar to mine. For me, I feel lucky to realize that my trip to Thailand, an experience I thought I was doing just to open up my own world, is really a chance to open up someone else’s.
A 6-Month Time Limit
This sounds a little ridiculous, but bear with me. I do not mean that I am thankful I only get to be in Thailand for 6 months, or that I would not be thankful for Thailand if I stayed longer. What I mean is, the time limit gives every day this sense of urgency (the thought, “If I don’t do it now, I never will,” of which many travellers are familiar). I feel pressure to say yes to every adventure. I feel pressure to explore side streets that I have not ventured down. I feel pressure to try strange foods. I feel pressure to stay out late despite exhaustion, and to wake up early to glimpse whatever it is Thai people do at 6:30 in the morning. When someone says, “Want to take a kickboxing class with me?” I do not think about all of the work I should be doing, or whether or not I will embarrass myself.
I think, “Well… I am only here for 6 months…”
And this is the third reason I am thankful for Thailand and it’s 6-month expiration date. This urgency dissipates when we live the same lifestyle for a long time.
Thai’s “Work Mentality”
This morning, by 9 o’clock, I was ready to go home and go to bed. I was tired, I had to fill out all of these stupid sheets having to do with my grading system and my syllabi for the semester for each of my classes, and everyone just kept talking all around me. And then, when I went to the refrigerator, we were out of water, and I felt incredibly dehydrated. I turned to my friend Teacher Ying and, barely capable of not snapping at her, said, “Teacher Ying, where can I get more water?”
“Hmm, shoot. I will have to go get some more down the street,” she said. She looked up at the ceiling and then her face brightened. “There is a coffee shop near there. Want to come with me and I will take you there?”
“Yes!” I could not say yes fast enough. I wanted out of this fluorescent office, of these people talking all around me, of these stupid sheets I’d been filling out for three days.
So I went to this cute coffee shop with her and ordered a very delicious, very American-tasting iced coffee and a cake (because why not?). When we got back to the office, I’d barely sat down when a teacher I work with asked me, “Caroline, want to come get lunch with us? We’re going to sit outside and get chicken and sticky rice from a restaurant down the road.”
So I went with them, and ate chicken, and learned about these porcelain dolls in Thailand that people sometimes try to put spirits into (illegally, by stealing corpses, which is a whole other topic… Google it). These dolls are supposed to bring you good luck as long as you don’t forget to feed them (like your children).
After lunch, Teacher Ying asked if I wanted to go to the mall, so I went with her and played Dance-Dance-Revolution in an arcade. My 1-hour lunch break turned into 3-hours. When I returned to the office around 3 p.m., my director said, “Okay, that’s enough working, everyone can go home early today.”
This is one other thing I am thankful for, here in Thailand. Just when you are ready to explode because everything is feeling frustrating and mundane and stifling, you realize that YOU are the only one who is making it feel this way. All of my other coworkers understand Thailand’s work mentality (one which I think should be adopted everywhere). Luckily, they are slowly teaching me: you do what you feel capable of doing that day, and then you take the rest of the day off to play arcade games at the mall and discuss porcelain dolls at a chicken shop. This is not to say that they do not work incredibly hard—they do. It is just to say: they know when to take a deep breath, push their chairs back away from their desks, and say, “Okay, enough.” They know the importance of spontaneity. I do not know if I have ever learned this, back in America. I am thankful for the chance to learn it now.