In Rural Thailand, a Student Finds a Second Home

Photos and story by Pete Assakul '18

"Do you think you could put snow in a bottle and fly it back to us next time?" one of the fourth-graders asked me. I was pretty sure she knew that snow would definitely turn to water in the tropical rainforest. But I told her that I'd try anyway.

Last summer, I joined a group of seven other students from Bangkok on a community service trip to Nan Province, a rural and sparsely populated area near the Laos border in northern Thailand. Coming from Bangkok, the only city with glass towers and high-rises in Thailand, I considered Nan Province to be a world of its own. And it was. The way people speak, interact and behave is very different from the cosmopolitan community I'm used to at home. The Nan people speak in a different dialect that sounds a bit sweeter than the main Thai dialect, which makes them seem more relaxed and friendlier (which, in my opinion, they are).

Earlier that year, I learned about an opportunity to teach at an elementary school in a remote town enclosed by mountain ranges, with rice paddies surrounding it in all directions. At first, our only intention was to help them learn English, but the students' curiosity led us to expand our teaching menu; we, in turn, learned much about their way of life.

At the start of every school day, teachers used daily announcements to instill moral values in their students, giving them guidance about how to behave in certain situations: for example, they told students that they should help others by cleaning up the dining area and carrying materials to the classroom for their teachers. After the announcements, students meditated for five minutes. Then, they stood up and faced south, in the direction of Bangkok, for the King's anthem. In their daily rituals, I felt a strong, unspoken sense of age-based hierarchy. Whenever the students passed by an adult, they bowed, a cultural gesture of respect called a wai, and before entering any classrooms, they had to take off their shoes. 

During lunch breaks, students would play dodgeball, soccer, tag, and card games in the narrow concrete lane beside the main building. On the first day, I played Frisbee with the students during lunch. Of course, there were some arguments about who would have the next turn to throw it. Interestingly, I saw one student snatching the Frisbee, but instead of throwing it herself, she gave it to a classmate who had not had the chance to throw yet. For someone like me, who studies in the United States, where competition is highly prized, this gesture stood out.

A sense of community runs deep in the school's social environment, even though students come from a kaleidoscope of socioeconomic backgrounds. Whenever we asked a "yes" or a "no" question to the whole class, the few students who uttered an answer that was incongruous with the rest would fall silent. Not surprisingly, spontaneous discussions among students were not always very fruitful. 

Their grasp of English greatly varied. One day, I asked a sixth-grader to come up to the board and write the date for the class. After a few minutes, I found him stuck on the letter "t." He could not spell Tuesday. Some students had trouble reciting the days of the week, while others read the Harry Potter series and even participated in English speech competitions. Finding a way to teach everyone with this huge gap was a great challenge. 

Students self-segregated by gender and grade at lunch, which often included rice omelettes as well as spicy noodles (which even the first-graders had no problem devouring). On Fridays, students wore traditional clothes to school. The color of the fabric varied from region to region; for this district, it was dark red. After Friday classes, boys participated in Thai boxing while girls practiced Thai dancing. Although most boys and girls followed their designated activities, students occasionally broke gender norms: some boys opted for dancing, and some girls chose boxing. 

The school's director told me that some students enjoy a comfortable life, while others have to work in the rice paddies after school and subsist on only an egg for the entire day. At times, the director himself helped students with their chores. On weekdays after school, I would sometimes go biking with students on a dirt road that snaked around the rice paddies. Along the route, we saw students helping their parents in the fields: a first-grader helped his mother herd the cows and buffaloes; another planted rice, wearing boots clearly too big for his feet. One of them told me he woke up as early as five in the morning to help feed the pigs and cows, clean the house, and make food for their family. 

In the three weeks I spent there, I fell in love with the place. I grew to love everything from the cool air after the rain to the empathy and kindness of the people. The wide expanse of rice fields and the mountain ranges behind them restored my spirituality and sense of well-being. There was, I learned, something about the rural landscape and its people that an urban setting could never replicate. At the end of my visit, when my plane began its descent in Bangkok, I looked down at the gray towers and apartments that spike up against the sky like broken glass shards, and I already felt something missing.

This story appeared in the winter/spring 2018 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.

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