Speaking of Talking
Thais are born chatterboxes.
Put a group of Thais together, total strangers to each other, in a bus station, at the fish market, at the beach, and they will be yammering away with each other like bosom buddies within the first ten minutes. And the chances are good that some of them are distantly related. Or come from the same province. Or share the same lucky day. A few weeks ago my fiancé Joom and I went down to the beach for a swim and picnic. We parked the car next to a small tent that contained a rumbustious Thai family, who turned out to be some of Joom’s upcountry cousins, on her mother’s side, that she hadn’t seen in twenty years. There was no awkward pause or halts in the ensuing conversation – Joom and her long-lost kin sat down over roasted watermelon seeds and chewed the rag with unaffected familiarity. The last time I met a long-lost cousin of mine, we were both afraid the other one was going to ask for a loan, and we were mutually relieved when we had to part company after ten uncomfortable and mostly silent minutes.
Even during those dreadfully long waits at GrungThai Bank, as the electronic billboard glacially blinks numbers that are light-years away from the number you’re holding, there is a constant, good-humored clatter of tongues as the Thais manage to lounge in molded plastic chairs that were invented by some Nazi chiropractor during World War Two. It is a sad commentary on the West that the few farangs you will see waiting at the bank are universally scowling and cursing under their breath; solitary, mumbling, iconoclasts, with never a friendly nod or neighborly word to anyone!
The incessant hum of voices is especially pervasive in the Thai classroom. Thai children emit a constant hum like an active bee hive. They are yelled at, occasionally beaten (by their Thai teachers only!), rarely entreated, to be silent during lessons. With the advent of cell phones and iPods, the chances of silence during class are about as dim as crows down a coal mine.
Most ESL teachers eventually learn to talk over the mild susurrations of conversation that laps around their knees, and eventually discover that Thai children, like their cohorts the world over, have mysteriously evolved into beings who can both hold a whispered conversation and remember what is being said by the teacher. When you pounce on them, ask them to stand, and then quiz them about the subject you have been droning on and on about for the last twenty minutes they somehow manage to give you an intelligent answer.
I just don’t understand that at all. When I was a kid in class I’d gaze out the window at a cloud floating by, imagining it was some kind of fluffy magic carpet taking me far away from long division to some lovely isle where volcanoes roared to life and French fries sprouted in the soil like weeds, with ketchup flowing like lava. Rudely brought back to harsh reality by a rap on the head from my teacher, I’d be asked to regurgitate something or other about geometry or geography. All I could do was gape at the class in complete ignorance, my mouth working like a hooked cod. With a look of robust disgust my teacher would bid me be seated and try to stay on this astral plane without becoming disembodied again. So I would sit and try to concentrate, as did every other child – and we did it in silence. You could hear a dandruff flake drop, a butterfly wing flutter, in the classrooms of my gilded youth. We kids were nitwits, but by golly we were quiet.
The last time I taught an English class here in Thailand the kids were noisy, as always, but they actually managed to pick up some of the things I was teaching. Which, as always, surprised the heck out of me. How do they do it? I claim no supernatural abilities as a pedagogue, so it wasn’t my doing. I was just following a worn-out old lesson plan I’d inherited from the last language teacher.
Kids today, especially here in Thailand, can talk and think and remember, all at the same time. In a way that was impossible for me as a kid. It is totally unfair, not to say uncanny.
We teachers are faced with the fact that either these children are much more sophisticated than we ever were at their age – or that they have all been kidnapped by space aliens, zapped with some kind of brain power ray, and then set back down on Earth to eventually overwhelm us old fogies with their superior ability to play video games while doing their homework and talking to friends on their cell phones.
Perhaps I ought to just go sit in the market and let the inconsequential Thai chatter wash over me in waves, to cleanse me of this malaise. Man does not live by bread alone – but by Blackberries as well!