May 22, 2007

A Traveler's Thailand: Primary School Pupils
Ranong, Thailand

One nomad, 500 Thai children, and countless smiles.

As I wandered the city of Ranong, searching for accommodations, I walked into the courtyard of what I thought might be some type of hotel; although I quickly came to find out it was a school.

Slipping my sandals back on from my brief time inside one of the buildings, I strolled outside behind the lady headmaster (who just so happened to be working there on a Sunday). We sat and chatted for a bit, while I asked a few curious (but polite) questions about the place.

Duang Kamol School, Ranong

The school, Duang Kamol, has been open for 13 years—10 of them run by her. It was a private kindergarten and primary school that educated somewhere between 400–500 children.

As our quick chat ended she invited me to come back and visit the students the next day—The children love farang, she said. I thanked her and wandered off, not knowing if I'd be in town or not.

Farang is the word Thais use for foreigners. Although the etymology of the word is debated, one theory is that it's derived from the word for French (farangset) and, depending on the situation, can be merely descriptive, mildly derogatory, or openly insulting. Just like using the word gringo when I was in Latin America, I use far?ng in my everyday speech (both descriptively and negatively), and think nothing of it when referred by it. I'd much rather here gringo or far?ng from a stranger than "Hey, my friend!".

An Afternoon At School

I switched hotels, worked on several updates to Travelvice from a cheap Internet caf?, and then decided to take the headmaster up on her offer. It was an unusual opportunity that most travelers in the city would never think of doing (as Ranong is simply used and discarded by most for it's proximity to Myanmar). This would be my second time doing such a thing (the first was in Ecuador).

It was early afternoon, and school was in full swing as I entered the grounds. An instructor fetched the headmaster for me, and we sat and chatted again for a bit, accompanied by a third—Plar, a 37-year-old woman teaching part-time (while taking courses for a Masters degree). Her English was very good (and her German on par with mine), and I learned that she'd worked as a tour guide up in Bangkok for a spell.

As we talked, the headmaster revealed that she was very interested in hiring a foreigner to teach English at the school—both were hoping that I'd take the job. I told them I'd give it some thought.

Plar's next class was about to start, and I took her up on the offer to join in. Moments later I was standing at the front of a room with a low ceiling, feeling awkward.

How is it that a classroom full of Thai children can be more intimidating than angsty street thugs? Perhaps it's because I know what to do with the latter.

The class period was Art, but there would be no drawing this day. I was more than just an observer in the room; I had become the subject.

Plar was speaking to the class in a mixture of English and Thai. The English was mostly for my benefit, but also to show the students what they could achieve linguistically if they studied hard. She wanted me to speak as much as possible, allowing the students could hear English in my (neutral) accent.

We spent the period talking about the simple things in life. I asked the students quite a few show of hands type questions (translated by the instructor), and they in turn asked inquisitive stuff about me. Some of it was observational, like what the ribbons on my ankle were all about.

Two star pupils were sitting in the front row (just like in the U.S.) were coaxed by the teacher into small conversations with me in English. Plar said that Thai people are taught English, but many are too shy to speak. She added that children today are much less reserved with such things, given the amount of western media their exposed to.

I wrote my e-mail address on the whiteboard, and I thought it a good time to take a quick snapshot as they jotted it down. They noticed and the room went into an absolute tizzy. Kids climbing on top of kids, show-boating for the camera. Awesome.

A lot of the boys were doing this hand gesture against their face that I didn't understand—sort of an "L" with their chin in the middle. Asking later, I learned that the children think it makes them more attractive/handsome for photographs. The kids see all these (western?) studio headshots with folks resting their head against a hand, and associate the pose with glamour. The "L" against the chin is sort of a fun, child's take on it.

School was over and I snapped more photos as the kids either bailed out or swarmed around me. Some were particularly fascinated with the blond hair on my arms, tugging at it playfully. They told the instructor I looked like a Hollywood movie star—Brad Pitt, the Plar added innocently.

I ended up staying at the school for almost four hours. I played with the kids and chatted with the headmaster while waiting for Plar to fetch her own son from school. After returning I asked for help with some essential English-Thai vocab translations. I've got a standing invitation to stop by Plar's home, meet her husband, and chat about a teaching job when I return to Ranong.

A very neat experience.

Craig Talk Thai—Absorbing The Language

I don't have a phrasebook for Thai (yet), and really only have the teachings of others and street conversations to go off of. Although, after staring at a map for long enough I'm starting to see patterns in the names of locations, which is very helpful. For example, Ao seems to mean "bay", Hat is used for "beach", and Ko for "island". So on the island of Ko Samui there is a beach called Hat Na Thian, next to the bay Ao Na Khai. Simple, no?

This is not an easy language, though. It's tonal, where changes in pitch affect meaning. The range of all five tones is relative to each speaker's vocal range, so there's no fixed 'pitch' intrinsic to the language. The same word in Thai can mean "near" or "far," depending on how you say it.

I often wonder how things are for teenage boys going through puberty in this country, and if their deepening voices cause problems. Perhaps their voices don't change that much.



May 30th, 2007

I'm jealous! I want to teach a bunch of cute Thai kids how to speak English! How fun!

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