Andrew Marshall had been a teacher in Thailand for two years. He knew the score. He’d passed the naïve stage, when everything seemed so perfect and mysterious. He loved Thailand, but he knew that it wasn’t the famed “Land of Smiles” that it was made out to be in travel “propaganda.” All cultures weave myths about themselves, Thailand would have you believe its people live in harmony, regardless of creed, class or ethnicity, their stability and prosperity assured by unwavering loyalty to the King, country and religion – the so-called three pillars of Thai-ness. He knew in reality, Thailand was separated along racial lines, the rich and white-skinned Chinese-Thais usually holding the positions of power, while the dark-skinned natives eked out a living in the most menial jobs, often earning little more than 200 dollars per month. Even in the schools, you could almost see the gradation in skin colour from the highest achieving classes down to the lowest achieving classes. These Chinese-Thais were usually enrolled in the “gifted” classes, though in Andrew’s experience, the gifted children just had “gifted” bank accounts.
Being white in Thailand was like being tanned in the Western countries: it made you look beautiful, rich, sexy. People would lather themselves with facial creams that claimed to make you whiter. Parents would cover their children’s faces with talcum powder, perhaps fueled by some belief that the white powder would actually make them whiter. Being dark skinned in Thailand was perhaps the least desirable of all things. You could be poor with light skin; that could be bearable. But being poor and black in Thailand, you might as well be a buffalo, because they’ll sure as hell call you one. In most classrooms in Thailand, there is always one kid who no-one wants to sit with: the black kid. Andrew thought it was all such nonsense, what the hell was wrong with dark skin. He just couldn’t get his head round to their way of thinking. He would try to spend a few moments with his rejected dark-skinned kids, try to build up their confidence, or be their friend. He sometimes felt like he was just emphasizing their loneliness.
Andrew found himself thinking about these things as he walked to his class one Monday morning, with a stack of test papers under his arm. He sometimes wondered why he went to the trouble of making tests, the children couldn’t fail; failing is bad for business. He remembered a story one of the other teachers had once told him. The original founders of the school had been a married couple. When their marriage broke down acrimoniously, the couple had fought over who would get the money from the school. Apparently, they had even made attempts on each other’s lives. Just another happy little school for your children! Run by the mafia! He wondered about the current CEO. She held almost queen-like status within the school. Andrew and his colleagues would often joke whenever some money-raising event happened at the school that it was to fund her new Mercedes, or widen her swimming pool.
He climbed the stairs to his classroom as he did everyday: with leaps and bounds and an energy that belied his boredom with the job. On the way up he passed a Thai teacher who smiled warmly at him and said hello. Not all of them were so friendly. There was certainly an amount of jealousy. The foreign teachers earned more money than the Thais, and they had fewer obligations. While foreign teachers got somewhere in the region of two months holiday every year, the Thais only got around three days. These things always made him feel uneasy. He wouldn’t want to be a Thai person in Thailand.
He came to the top of the stairs and walked the length of the corridor to the classroom where he would be teaching. He taught grade 6 students, though he really preferred working with younger children; they were easier to please. He saw one or two of his other students milling about between classes. “Hello, Teacher Andrew,” one girl said cheerily. The girls were always more polite than the boys, and willing to acknowledge him outside of the classroom. “Good morning, Pim,” Andrew returned. “How are you today?”
“I’m fine, thank you. And you?” This was their token response to the How are you question.
“I’m fine, too.” He’d resigned himself to the token counter response. The students laughed and smiled at him as he walked on to his classroom.
He came to the door of his classroom and peaked inside to make sure there were no other teachers still teaching. There were none, just the students hanging around each other’s tables, eating snacks and drinking water before their next lesson. When they saw him they began calling out “Teacher ma laew! Teacher ma laew!” The teacher is coming. For some reason unbeknown to him, foreign teachers were never called by the Thai word for teacher (kru) but were always called tea-cher, with a falling tone on the cher. It had once annoyed him as he felt like he wasn’t being treated with the same respect as the Thai teachers, but he’d long since gotten used to it.
He slid open the door and entered the cacophony of the classroom.
All at once, students were coming up to him, wishing him a good morning, grabbing at his arms, showing him things, telling him things, making jokes. He did love the students when they were like this, though that same exuberance could become annoying when he was actually trying to teach. He continued walking slowly through the crowd of students, like some Michael Jackson being groped by adoring fans. He set his exam papers down on a spare desk and stood at the front of the room. Already students were beginning to go to their seats, others would need telling. One girl, who he was certain had a crush on him, made a beeline for him then smiled: “Tea-cher,” she said. “Am I beautiful?” He really didn’t know how to answer the question appropriately, so he made a joke out of it. “Best is beautiful,” he said, pointing to one of the boys. Everyone who heard him laughed, including the rather large boy; Thai children are thick skinned.
“Right!” said Andrew, clapping his hands loudly at the same time. “Time to sit down everyone.” The kids began darting into their seats. “Okay,” he said. “That’s good. Now I need all of you to be quiet and listen carefully. We have a test paper today,” an audible sigh passed through the room. One or two die hard students actually looked pleased.
“No teacher,” said one girl. “Play game.”
“I’m sorry guys. I know you all like games, but we can’t play games all the time. Today is a test and I’m going to explain the different parts before we begin.”
Andrew went ahead and explained the test paper, occasionally stopping to ask concept questions to make sure that the students understood. He never asked yes or no questions as the students would invariably answer yes. After about 2 minutes everyone seemed confident with the task ahead.
“Okay,” he said. “We’re ready to go. If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask.”
It was a strange thing about Thai students that most of the time they would talk over the teacher, draw pictures, or just gaze into space while he was teaching. But whenever the word test was mentioned, they went into hyper-serious mode, everyone quietly working away in their own little space. Some students would even build walls of books around their desk so that other students couldn’t copy them. It was one of those rare moments in Andrew’s class as he monitored the 32 angelic kids, all beavering away at their test. He knew the test would last most of the lesson, so he wouldn’t have too much to think about.
“Teacher,” one student had her hand up.
“Help me, please.”
Andrew went over to her desk. “What is it Palmy?”
“Teacher, do I use verb two?”
“Yes,” replied Andrew. “When we use reported speech we have to turn the verb into the past tense. So I play football becomes: He said that he played football.”
“Thank you Teacher.”
“Wait,” said Andrew. “What are you doing?” The student had begun using Wite-Out to erase the entire sentence. “Just add a d to the end of like,” he said. But it was too late. The student seemed oblivious to his suggestion, and blissfully obliterated her mistake. She waited all of two seconds before smudging the white liquid with her finger then rewrote the entire sentence without the mistake.
“You know, you should learn how to turn your mistakes to your advantage,” said Andrew. The girl looked up at him with a smile; she clearly hadn’t understood a word he’d said, but he stubbornly continued. “Covering up your faults is like denying they exist, and then you’ve got a problem.” The girl was now working on her test again. His little sermon fell on deaf ears, and he realized he was just trying to impose his beliefs on a culture that functioned in completely different way from his own. “Good work, Palmy,” he said as he walked away from her desk. “Good work.”