Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog February 19th, 2011

Salvador Dali Was A Thai


I wish, oh how I wish I had saved some of the artwork my Thai students produced while I taught English! With Valentine’s Day coming up, there are all sorts of strange and disturbing graphics popping up on cards and done on Photoshop to be taped up on office walls throughout the Kingdom. I have one before me; it shows a young Thai guy with a lovely Thai girl coming out of his chest; meant, I hope, that she is in his heart. Unfortunately, the way the graphics have turned out, it appears as if the girl is some kind of space alien bursting through his rib cage, ready to devour more innocent pedestrians on Wireless Road.

Today, of course, it is pretty easy to Google an image of anything imaginable. If I were to tell my students to draw a hippopotamus, they would simply pull up a photo on their laptop and draw it from life. Pretty boring, really. Back in the day, when I would ask my erstwhile English scholars to draw things like the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, or Santa Claus, they did not have much of a data base to choose from, so they had to use their imaginations, plus whatever they had picked up in English class.

Did I really teach them that the Easter Bunny had wings and flew over the peeked roofs of Buddhist temples bombarding them with exploding eggs?

The Tooth Fairy turned into a yuk, stalking children in their sleep and pulling out their molars with a medieval forceps that belonged in some despot’s dungeon.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to draw and paint aspects of Western culture; I found it very helpful to have them draw cowboys and Native Americans when we were learning something about the American West (it wasn’t in the syllabus, I know, but dang it, I wanted them to be able to say “howdy” and know what a ten gallon hat is!) Thai children have a great aptitude for the visual arts and, as every harried teacher will tell you, sometimes it’s the only thing that will keep the little hobgoblins from racing around the room like hamsters. They rejoice in bright colors and bold outlines, as well as some surprisingly subtle patterns. So whenever there was some kind of holiday coming up I’d give them a vocabulary list to learn and assign them a mural as well. A good stiff roll of brown butcher paper costs next to nothing, and you can bring off a brilliant lesson if you roll it out on the floor, give the kids some crayons or colored pencils, and have them illustrate Columbus Day or Guy Fawkes Day.

They are old hands at Halloween, since Thai culture is drenched with ghosts and spirits – every time there’s a full moon you’ll find Thais eagerly repeating the latest report of a haunting at someone’s house or an eye-witness account of the benevolent spirit that visits the local Buddhist temple. The supernatural has always been the easiest English vocabulary for Thais to learn. Just mention the name “Dracula” and the most rustic rice farmer knows, and enjoys, his gruesome story. One year I had my students illustrate a Halloween role that stretched a good five yards – and they filled it up with more weird things than a Stephen King novel – and knew the names of these evil creatures in English!

One of the last English classes I taught before hanging up my ferule had to do with the Christmas season. We discussed snow, icicles, Santa Claus, and other secular notions. As I recall I did not bring up any of the religious aspects of the season outside of explaining the origin of the word itself. I announced we would be decorating the classroom with their Christmas pictures, and they got to work, busy as beavers.

Most of the drawings were of the fluffy, jolly type that would have passed muster with Currier & Ives – my students really outdid themselves. One little boy, however, got things a wee bit mixed up and had Santa nailed to a crucifix. And the old elf was still laughing. I hadn’t the heart to hide it, since the kid had really worked hard on it. So it went up with the rest of the Holiday drawings, where it drew no more attention than a spider web.

I’ve always wondered whatever happened to that kid. Maybe he’s one of these celebrated painters or movie directors in Bangkok right now. I shoulda kept that drawing – some day it might have been worth the price of an early Picasso!

Ah well, if wishes were fishes beggars would ride . . . or something like that.