Visiting the College
A sea of curious and fascinated almond-shaped eyes stared expectantly up at me. The sparse classroom was silent except for the stuttering whir of a ceiling fan and a few nervous giggles among the splintered desks.
I stared back, but in more of a deer-in-the-headlights manner. Here is what I was aware of as the van from the Nong Bua Lamphu Community College navigated a cratered, dirt road through a rice field.
The college’s director wanted me to see the satellite campuses of their developing higher-education institute.
And he wanted all of them to see how prestigious the main community college was, since they had a farang (Westerner) working with them.
This much I knew by this point in my 10-week volunteer assignment through Kenan Institute Asia (KIA) in Nong Bua Lamphu, a northeastern province of Thailand.
There were five Americans at start-up community colleges throughout the northern part of Thailand to assist them with their Self-Access English Language Centers, a United States Agency for International Development–funded project through KIA. We were the implementers.
At Nong Bua Lamphu, since there was no Self-Access English Language Center, most of my duties consisted of being paraded throughout the province
(and perhaps farther, I rarely knew exactly where we were going) to say a few words in a microphone, and then sit on the VIP couch and be served coffee and sweets while the real seminar/conference/workshop proceeded in Thai.
Sometimes I would break into song and dance, and as word got around of what this farang was capable of, this became a staple of my public appearances. This is what I did not know on that first day.
My Teaching Experience there
I looked helplessly as Sawart, my assigned Thai counterpart/roommate/manager gave me a one-armed shove into the classroom. “What are you going to teach them?” she whispered. I didn’t happen to bring a lesson plan.
Curiously, no one had bothered to mention I would be teaching, something I have never done, but would become rather effective at as the weeks went on.
“I’m teaching? You didn’t tell me that!”
“Well, yes!” she said in an exasperated voice. “Just talk to them, they have never heard English from a real native speaker!
They are very excited to hear you!” I took a deep breath, thanking my long training as an actress.
“Sawatdee kaa!” I greeted them in Thai with my brightest smile, and bowed deeply. They exploded with delighted laughter and applauded.Sawart looked at me, “Michelle! In English!”
“My name is Michelle. Do you have any questions for me?”
It was their turn for the deer-in-headlights moment. The students were mostly women, ages 25 to 55, and most all covered their faces with their notebooks, afraid I would call on them, afraid they would have to speak English to a living and breathing farang.
Finally, after several minutes of hushed consultation with her classmates, one brave woman peaked out from behind her notebook and said:
“Where you from?” before darting back behind the yellowish papers marked with notes for her continuing-education class I had interrupted.
“Well, I am an American, but was actually born in Germany, and I have been living in Lebanon for the … ” I stopped as I began to see wide grins accompanied by frantic eyes. They were lost after “American.”
I recalled something an English teacher had told me back in Bangkok. If all else fails, have them sing or play a game.
Teaching them a Song
They’ll think you are a genius. My mind raced through summer camps, church treats, primary school sing-alongs …
“I am going to teach you a song! Rao rawng plang!” Delight again fired through my audience. I had everyone stand up and form a circle.
“It’s called the Hokey Pokey, and is very famous in my country!”
And so, letting any last shred of dignity wash away with the monsoon raging against the tin roof above us, I launched into an enthusiastic rendition of that childhood classic, including, “You put your whole butt in!” Unexpectedly, it was the favorite verse of these ladies.
After the song devolved into laughter and clapping, the ladies forgot that five minutes ago I had been a white-skinned foreigner bent on destruction of all those who had the audacity to massacre my preciously guarded language. (I lived in Wisconsin, for goodness sake … if these ladies had any idea.)
Many of the women began to pet my arm and put their faces to my skin. “Sii kaao! (White!) Suwaiy!(Beautiful!)”
Dancing & Singing with Them
I looked a bit wildly at Sawart, “Oh, they just want your white skin to rub off on them. They think you are a superstar because you are a farang and you aren’t fat.” Point taken.
“We teach you song now!” shouted an excited plump older lady. “Follow me!”
We stood with hands together, like oysters, and began to spin in front of the laughing, cross-legged crowd. (By now, the doorways were spilling over with students from the classrooms within a mile radius of our spectacle.)
“Hooooy ah!” On the last syllable, we stopped short and spread our knees open. Hmm … something felt a bit off about this one, but I followed along, in the name of cultural understanding.
I followed her actions, which made various gestures of inviting people in, mixing something up, back to the “hoooy ah!” move, then apparently, a display that whatever, uh, did not smell good at all, and the grand finale was three explosive “hoooy ahs!”
They went wild with laughter, and not necessarily in a how-cute-was-that way, but with slightly more naughty overtones. I was ready to ease out with a smile and a bow, but after this display, I had sealed my fate.
That Was Great Fun
One hour, several vulgar children’s songs, a few traditional dances, a group picture, followed by 35 individual ones, a couple of autographs and a marriage proposal later, I melted into the van’s seat.
“You were great! That was very fun! So we only have 15 more campuses to visit over this month. Maybe we can do more!” Sawart enthused.
I had no energy to argue. “Oh, ha ha, do you know what that first song was about?” I shook my head with some effort.
“It’s about oysters, and the woman selling them asks everyone to come try her oysters, they’re open. Even though they smell bad, everyone still comes for her oysters, something like that.”
She turns to peer at me over the seat, with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. “But you know they aren’t really talking about oysters, right?”
Fantastic. Perhaps that’s where the marriage proposal came from. I suppose, bringing joy to people is part of development work right?
An end note: Several weeks later, we returned to the same area (unbeknownst to me) and ended up having lunch at one of the ladies’ houses from that initiation day.
After I had slipped my shoes off, she grabbed my wrist and led me to the kitchen, pointing excitedly to a frame above the kitchen table.
As my eyes adjusted to the glare, I realized that it was the picture of me taken with her that day, displayed proudly above the dinner table.
I never took that smile off my face for the rest of those weeks. It may have been just a bad moment for me, but I realized that for the residents of greater Nong Bua Lamphu, it would likely be their lifelong image of all things Western.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad being a walking cabaret sideshow — it was certainly better than being considered to be like one of the promiscuous, family hating characters of Hollywood that the rest of the world has come to know so well.
It’s a powerful discovery, when you find that one person can make a difference. And that it’s you.