The Hokey Pokey: Volunteering in Thailand


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.”

Even if you don't speak the same language, you can bond through dance and song.
Breaking into song and dance became a staple of the author’s public appearances.

I recalled something an English teacher had told me back in Bangkok. If all else fails, have them sing or play a game. 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!)”

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.

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?”

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