The Buddhist Channel

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Memoirs of Thailand 2010 - 2012

Memoirs of Thailand

2010 - 2012

“There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtuesays Edmund Burke. I begin my ‘Thai Memoirs’ with this quote quite simply because I have come to realise that whilst forbearance is an essential quality of the heart for anyone living in a foreign land, it is by no means a positive stance when certain elements of what one must ‘forbear’, so to speak, is plain ignorance of another’s culture, race or language. This is said with reference to my experiences of living in the Isan town of Surin; a largely rural part of Thailand situated in the Northeast of the kingdom close to the border with Cambodia and where agriculture dominates the local economy and way of life.

Now, coming to teach in Thailand is rarely as rosy as it is made out to be by online recruitment agencies or volunteer organisations plugging it to fresh graduates in search of a ‘new experience’ but it does have its rewards. Please don’t assume at this stage that I consider myself one of those people, for it was after more than a decade of correspondence with my dear Thai pen pal Nui that ultimately brought me to the shores of the “land of smiles” as the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) likes to trumpet. It was not without prior knowledge of Thai culture that I came here, although admittedly, it was indeed the first time I had ever set foot in the country. Rather, thanks to the gracious manner in which Nui presented Thai culture, heritage, religious belief and etiquette I was relatively well armed with information prior to arrival.
I came with my then partner Richard Holme of Wigan (a relationship which within a year had ended, all be it reasonably amicably). It really is thanks to his continued support and friendship that sustained my will to complete the two year term; it was through the challenging classroom environment, the many frustrations of ‘the Thai way’ of doing things and of course the numerous wonderful road trips to all corners of the country that he became my loyal companion. Whilst these memoirs are written by me alone perhaps I’ll also try to capture a sense of Richard’s presence within them as it really has been a joint venture throughout.

Like any other country in the world, Thailand has its own ways of doing things, its own contradictions and hypocrisies and its own sense of national pride. There are also certain restrictions, or perhaps more diplomatically expressed as sensibilities, that foreigners (particularly Western) should be aware of and at least attempt to observe for the sake of harmony and ‘integration’, as much as that is possible for a foreigner in Thailand. Living in this country bordered by the Mekong River and the other soon to be member states of ASEAN is an eye-opening experience and, if one has the chance to visit Thailand’s neighbours, allows for a most insightful comparison to be made. Furthermore, being an English teacher and interacting with young people and local teachers presents a fertile ground of experience that is simply not accessible to the occasional traveller who just passes through observing everything as if a pleasant dream. Becoming part of (or not as the case may also be at times) the local community thrusts one into the direct firing line of a barrage of opposing forces.

Happily, the majority of those educated people with whom we worked were the epitome of kindness and generosity. It is really outside of my range of perception how many times little words of comfort, a warm smile or a gift of fruit brightened my day. Even the country folks, who are quite unused to interacting with foreigners, demonstrate an earthy form of hospitality, that to the untrained eye may well seem like mocking but, I’ve come to realise, is in fact their own down to earth way of saying “maa gin khao” or “come and have lunch”!

If I were to compare Thailand with some other countries, I’d say the attitude and mentality is laid back and relaxed. There are not many countries which are still developing where you can be gay and live in relative ease, wear skimpy clothes and not be admonished (that happened to me in France!), celebrate Valentine’s Day and it actually be encouraged (look at the Muslim world) and generally not fear for your life just for being a British caucasian. Despite these aspects of Thailand there is a lot of racism even towards other Asians, particularly if they have darker skin. They consider white skin to be very beautiful and seem to look down on Indians, Africans etc. Their hubris is sometimes very ugly. Towards westerners, many people have a tendency to be unnecessarily rude. There has not been a single day in Thailand that I have not been yelled at, laughed at or stared at just for being cuacasian. I think they impose on us whatever pre-constructed opinion they have of westerners and assume we are all the same. Try speaking to me in a polite and respectful manner and they may learn that I’m a Buddhist Englishman teaching their own children because I wanted to make a difference locally whilst practising meditation in a Buddhist country. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ would be a very apt thing to say at this point.

It has without doubt been a difficult two years, this cannot go unsaid. The Thai education system is in dire need of reform and if the country is to open up and integrate successfully with the ASEAN Community from 2015, then some serious changes need to be made soon. During the entire period of my two year contract at Surawittayakarn School (the main provincial high school of Surin) I have witnessed great disinterest in the English language, a totally chaotic system of grouping students (they are not grouped according to ability in each subject!) and a lack of self-discipline with regards to learning what is presented in the classroom (nothing new amongst teenagers anywhere). These negative factors combined with a preference for shows and entertainments over academic achievement in school as well as a reinforced attitude of racism towards the Western teachers contributes to the most bizarre situation I have ever come to witness.

Of course, the situation in which the unfortunate students and Thai teachers find themselves (i.e. ridiculously oversized classrooms, low salaries & poor facilities) only exacerbates the problem. Nonetheless, hope is not lost and indeed many of the students who are in the upper classes of each year tend to benefit more from the resources which are available. For example, during our first year the status of ‘World Class Standard School’ was bestowed upon us. This lead to investments in improvements to the school and a lot of funds going towards Surawittayakarn School’s first ever British style pantomime of Cinderella, adapted and directed by Richard as well as an increase in available laptops and sports facilities. Despite this windfall for the school, most students remain in classrooms without any technology. The prestige of the ‘world class’ status is, sadly, in name only.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Buddhist Pilgrimage to India

When embarking on any kind of journey far from one’s homeland and into unknown territory, there is without doubt a certain amount of trepidation and anxiety surrounding the thoughts of what may or may not transpire. Moreover, the mind itself tends to work overtime with its imaginings and concerns. On this occasion the pilgrim, me, was already reasonably well travelled and at ease with Indian customs having previously spent a limited but insightful period working voluntarily in the Himalayan region of Northern India. This journey however, would unlike that previous one so well documented in 2009, be totally motivated by a deep appreciation for that sagacious teacher & His dispensation we refer to as the Buddha and the Dhamma.

By paying my last respects to the late Luang Ta Maha Bua (a highly revered and accomplished meditation master in the Forest Tradition of Northeast Thailand) on the day preceding the cremation presided over by Queen Sirikit, I was in a suitably gladdened state of mind to begin the trip to India; the land of the Buddha. On arrival in Delhi & following a sleepless overnight stay in the terminal for the connecting flight to Patna (the capital of Bihar) I was keen to make my way towards that place where, sat under a ficus religiosa tree around 2600 years ago, a great being penetrated the cloud of dust obscuring the sight of all humanity and beyond. That place is known presently as Bodh Gaya (ancient Uruvela) and is about two and a half hours or so south (depending on your mode of transport and pot luck) from the sprawling Bihar State capital of Patna. This particular bus journey took five hours due to various unforeseen circumstances such as a bag tumbling from the roof and causing a great commotion between local villagers and the distraught owner who was unable to retrieve it and also the untimely loosening of a wheel, no doubt due to the enthusiastic and adventurous driver. Nonetheless, I was in my element and the presence of a small TV playing local Indian music and the sights and smells of Bihar passing by were all setting the scene quite nicely.  

Noting the dry, rocky hills at Gaya I started to feel that I was approaching or indeed passing right through an area that must have seen a great ebb and flow of human history over the ages. It just has the look of being well-used, rugged & almost severe in the baking sun of the Ganges plains. Taking an auto rickshaw for the final leg of the journey to the holy site proper, one is transported to a place quite unlike any other.