Can Thais Be Taught?
My fascination with Thailand began back in 1974 when I first came to the Kingdom as a dewy-eyed religious instructor. My first thought when I got off the long flight from Hawaii was “How can anyone live in such hellish heat?” My second thought was “What is that rotten smell?” And my third thought was “Can I get anything decent to eat here?”
The heat, as any expat can tell you, is a constant irritation and menace, and does not decrease with length of stay in Thailand. There are days when the heat feels like a warm, wet towel wrapped around you like an anaconda, squeezing the very ambition to live out of you. But as consolation, there are evenings on the beach in Thailand when the stars seem to bend down, ready to graze your brow, and the breeze is as sweet and cool as a maiden’s prayer.
There is always some kind of rotten smell in a humid country, and Thailand is no exception. After a while you get used to the tropical corruption that spills fruit and blossoms into the street in careless profusion, letting it sit and stew in the boiling sun for days on end. The result is a miasma that is hard to describe, but once you’ve inhaled it you’ll know it again however many years you may be away. Right now I’m sitting on the back porch of my new home in Virginia. It’s spring and the lilac are in riotous bloom, along with the tulip trees and magnolia. It’s a very sweet smell. But when the garbage truck goes by on its weekly rounds I get a whiff of corruption that makes me homesick for the shores of Ban Phe and my old ESL teaching job at the school.
As for the food, well, anyone who goes from the rich curry sauces and fresh produce of Thailand to the burgers and fries of America, as I have done, is in gourmet Hades. Even the humblest of Thais generally eats better and healthier than most Westerners, what with bananas and coconuts growing on the side of the road like weeds and half of the trees you see have leaves and bark that can go straight into the stew pot.
I’m stuck here in America for the time being, and so I send my mind shuffling back to the past, where I can once again stuff my face with somtum and swim in the azure water of the Gulf of Thailand, drifting with the current amidst the flotsam and jetsam of plastic bags and slimy mango pits. And that’s where I find my first memories of teaching the Thais, or rather trying to teach these good people and wondering if I was actually making any headway with them.
In those early days of mine in Thailand I often went door to door to find people who wanted to listen to my religious stories. Without exception, the Thais who were home were gracious and welcoming. Of course, dressed as I was in a white shirt and a necktie, they may have thought I was with the CIA (this was during the height of the Vietnam War.) Many was the time when I had to stop going door to door simply because I was stuffed with too much good food and drink; a Thai will never let a stranger or visitor enter their house without offering them a full course meal, at the least.
And let it be said, and let it be written, than any time I came upon a Westerner, a farang, while out knocking on doors, they always slammed the door in my face, usually with a foul curse by way of farewell. Their reward lieth below.
One hot afternoon I was admitted to a well-to-do Thai’s house, where I began my lecture on religion to the family. They sat attentively, smiling and nodding as if they agreed completely with my moralizing. At the end of my discourse, when I asked them what they thought, they would always say the same darn thing: “Every religion teaches men to be good.”
The Thais back then, as now, were not overly concerned with sin and damnation (and the older I grow the more I am inclined to agree with them that those subjects take up too much of our time) but at the time I had to show them what sin meant. So I asked this rich couple for one of their fine crystal glasses, filled with water. When I had the expensive crystal glass in my hand I removed my fountain pen from my shirt pocket, opened up the petcock, and squirted a dollop of black India ink into the water.
That, I triumphantly explained, was what happened when sin was let into our lives – it polluted everything!
The lady of the house took the glass from me, while everyone nodded agreeably, and for the rest of my visit she stayed in the kitchen, vainly trying to get the ink stain out of that fine crystal glass. I don’t think she ever succeeded.
It was obviously the family’s fault for not instantly recognizing my lucid teaching.
I also took a stab at teaching English back then, as a way to be of service to those good people. For some reason I thought that tongue twisters would be the appropriate way to begin, so I had them learn by rote: she sells sea shells by the seas shore Which, with their Thai shibboleths, came out as: see sell sea sell by see sore.
Once I had them all talking like Warner Oland in a Charlie Chan movie I was satisfied I had done my job.
Soon after my two years were up and I returned to my career with Ringling Brothers, always wondering if anything I had said or did had made an impact on that wonderful place and people now so far away from me . . .