21 July, 2015

Soccer: A Gateway to the Thai Culture

Graduation Day with M6 Students
William Glass is from Birmingham, Alabama and graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida with a BA in international relations. William is currently a 2014-2015 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at Jorakhe Wittayayon School, Khon Kaen, Thailand. Outside of the classroom William enjoys riding his bike through the surrounding rice paddies and eating the local spicy foods. After the grant he plans to return to the United States and gain meaningful work experience before attending graduate school.

Soccer or as the Thais (and the rest of the world) call it “football,” is an important part of Thai culture and derivatives of the game can be seen across the country. Takraw nets can be found universally in every city and rural school. Futsal courts are squeezed in between buildings in the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Large soccer goals adorn the front lawns of local government buildings and factories in the countryside. The local markets sell Bundesliga, La Liga, and Premier league jerseys at almost every clothing stall. Bumper stickers from the Thai leagues can be spotted on the backs of cars, trucks, and even motorbikes. It is easy for even the casual observer to see that Thai people love soccer. Yet there is a deeper role that soccer plays within Thai culture that after spending nine months in Thailand becomes more apparent to me each day.

Jorakhe Wittayayon School Soccer Field

First let me explain the important role the beautiful game has played in my life. Growing up in the South, soccer was barely a blip on the radar. Most people only paid attention once every four years (if that) when ESPN would show highlights from the World Cup. Beyond that, soccer did not exist except in far away lands to be played and understood only by foreigners. All that mattered in my hometown was American football. Let me be clear not just any American football, but specifically college football. The most common question asked to new acquaintances was “so are you an Alabama or Auburn fan?” As a soccer player in Alabama, I was a part of a subculture where only those who truly loved the sport played throughout their youth. A dedicated few of us traversed every season continuing to train and play year round simply because we found a unique comfort and joy playing an outsider sport. Only as I got older did I truly begin to understand the global reach that soccer possesses.

Ten months ago in early September, I was preparing to come to Thailand and was struggling over what to pack and what not to pack. I spent hours going over my mental checklist in order to eliminate unnecessary items each day. I would take out most everything and contemplate if I really needed this shirt and those pants, until I eventually condensed all my “necessities” into one checked bag and a carry-on. The one item that I never considered leaving behind was my soccer cleats. No way I was leaving those bad boys at home. I had been to Thailand once before and had had an opportunity to play a pickup game of futsal in Chiang Mai. I knew the popularity of the sport and was determined to use it as a way of connecting with my community early in the year. A few weeks later it was time to depart and with my cleats packed, I headed to the airport ready for the land of smiles. 

Jumping ahead to November, I had just arrived in Isaan, which is famous for its extra spicy food and brutally hot summers. I had been placed at Jorakhe Wittayayon a rural high school located about 30 kilometers west of Khon Kaen city. It sits back off of a major highway surrounded by rice paddies and sugar cane fields. As I pulled into the school for the first time I remember seeing the long entrance gate and driving up past the dirt patched soccer field and taking in all of the greenery and newness. Approaching the first building, I immediately noticed a small futsal court and two takraw nets that sat out front of the main office building. At last, I had finally made it and was allowing everything to sink in as an intense stream of information and emotions were thrown at me all at once. 

Takraw courts

I was nervous for the first day of school and arrived early dressed in a suit and tie eager to meet the students. Before morning assembly students played futsal while those just arriving to school sat around the edge of the court and watched. Periodically students would call their friends out of the game and a rotation between players began. It was mostly the younger students playing this early in the morning. The older students were still half asleep as they sauntered into school. Yet as I passed the courts periodically throughout the rest of the day, I would see a different set of students from every level playing in their off period. It started to become clear how important the game was for the students. At lunch students rushed through their meal and hurried to the futsal court to be the first ones to play. 

I had taken a few days to get familiar with the teachers and now wanted to put my plan into action and start connecting with the students through soccer. I had told my host teacher how I wanted to play soccer with the students and she had relayed this information. Later in the day she approached me saying, “The students would like to play football (soccer) with you. Go and join the friends.” After school I changed out of my teaching clothes and picked up my cleats as the anticipation of playing with the students built. I was excited, but also a little nervous as it had been awhile since I last played and was out of practice. I walked up to the soccer field only to realize no one was on the field! There had been a miscommunication and the teacher had really meant futsal, not “football.” So I left my cleats on the sideline and played in my tennis shoes. It was great to be able to play and start connecting with the students through the game. I knew very little Thai; just enough to say hello (sawatdee khrap!) and I am full (eem mak!). Thus playing futsal became an early way for me to bridge the communication gap. I found myself playing after school everyday with the students whether it was futsal, takraw, or soccer. It became my routine and I looked forward to the afternoons where I could relax and cut up with students using the universal language of soccer.

M1 students playing futsal before school 

I saw this openness mirrored in other ways as well. When the futsal court was already taken students wandered over to the takraw nets and casually began kicking the small reed ball over the net. A pattern emerged on the futsal court where the younger students would only play each other and the older students would only play each other. This age divide was quite clear and understandable as the 19 year olds were physically much more developed than the 13 year olds. Interestingly, this same divide did not occur on the takraw courts where older and younger students playing together was the norm, rather than the exception. Parity existed between the students, no matter their age or skill level. The purpose of the sport was not hyper competitive, but rather about enjoying the time together. This wasn’t clear to me early on as I was struggling to remember when and where my classes were much less distinguishing the Mathayom 3s from the 4s. 

M6 students and I at Buriram Football Stadium

I mentioned earlier that I have begun to understand the deeper role soccer plays in the Thai culture. Thai people truly are some of the most friendly and welcoming people I have ever met. I found the cultural willingness to include reflective in the Thai style of play. The female students regularly play with male students after school. A lack of gender segregation exists that allows those who want to join to do so. I saw this during sports day at my school where the boys helped coach the girls’ teams and vice versa. Older students could be seen mentoring the younger students and working together to accomplish their goals. It was a beautiful thing to watch and gave me a deep insight into how the community aspect of Thai culture is reflected in the sport. The Thai style of play focuses on inclusion and cultivating relationships. Whether it is different ages playing takraw, female and male students playing futsal together, or a foreigner teacher playing soccer with his students, Thailand is all about fair play. Playing soccer with my students has become an integral way for me to connect, as well as a resource for me to better understand Thai culture. I am so thankful for the kindness they have shown me and for the unforgettable moments on the field.

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