07 March, 2016

Communicating Without Words

Crystal Kumtong is a Thai-Taiwanese-Chinese-American from Los Angeles, California.She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a B.A. in Psychology and minors in Applied Developmental Psychology and Education. Crystal is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM English Teaching Assistant in Lampang, northern Thailand. She teaches kindergarten, a special abilities class, and grades 4 through 9, and promotes English learning through songs and silly tongue twisters. Crystal is passionate about promoting access to high-quality education to all students and wishes to work in early childhood education policy and reform. Outside the classroom, Crystal enjoys biking around her province and stumbling upon beautiful Buddhist temples, eating                                                                                          delicious food, and sleeping.

Having grown up speaking Thai with my parents, I was still nervous to come to Thailand and live here for a year. In America, the only people I spoke Thai to were my parents, but even then, I would often switch to English. I was ashamed of my American- Thai accent and would never willingly speak Thai to non-family members. I was afraid I would be judged and struggle to communicate with my limited Thai vocabulary. Despite my fears, I was very excited to come to my parents’ country and do the thing I love most: working with students.

My family

The past two summers, I studied abroad in Taiwan and
South Korea. I was in Taiwan for 2 ½ months to study Mandarin and I enjoyed the wonderful street food and milk tea boba. I learned how to (somewhat) haggle with street vendors 请可以便宜一点 (qǐng kěyǐ piányí yīdiǎn), and I nailed how to order a cup of milk tea boba with extra ice 一杯珍珠奶茶,多冰 (yībēi zhēnzhū nǎichá, duō bīng). I did not understand what was going on most of the time, but I was able to order my food and boba by pointing, gesturing, and using the limited Chinese I learned.

Enjoying milk tea boba in Taiwan

In South Korea, the only phrase I knew was how to say “I’m an American.”, 저는미국사람이니다 (chul-nun migook sarang imnida). I said that phrase loudly and proudly, and as an explanation and apologies for my poor Korean language skills. I did not progress much beyond “hello” 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo) and “thank you” 감사합니다 (ka sam nida). I struggled to speak Korean, but from my time in Taiwan, I knew that communicating was much more than speaking the language. I got around by gesturing, pointing, and trying really hard to get my point across through my body language and facial expressions, mainly of “please help this poor foreigner. I’m lost and confused”.

A temple in Korea

I knew that I wouldn’t have to struggle as much in Thailand, because I already knew the basics of Thai language. However, I was placed in Lampang in northern Thailand. In Lampang, people speak the northern language, or Lanna language ภาษาเหนือ/ภาษาเมือง (prasa nueu/ prasa mueng). Many words are similar, but it is a different language altogether. Classes are taught in “central” Thai, but it is not uncommon for teachers and students to speak and joke with each other in Lanna, the dialect they are most comfortable with.

Through my time abroad, I learned that communication encompasses more than just language. Yes, language is a huge part of being able to talk to someone and is a gateway to understanding new cultures, but there is more to it. Having been to three countries where I struggled to speak another language, I learned that the magic of communication happens when there are no words at all.

From my observations in Thailand, I learned that communication is …

A smile

Communication is when I visit the kind woman who sells tea and coffee in front of the school and she greets me with a genuine smile.

It is when the 2nd grade students sees me at the end of the hallway, yells out “TEACHER!” and tackles me down with a hug and then proceeds to carry my bag and pull me into their classroom.

Body language

It is when I am greeted every morning with a hug from the anuban (kindergarten) students, a high five from the prathom (elementary) school students, or sometimes even the middle finger. I do not know where these kids learned that from.

It is when a student shows you they are absolutely bored or displeased by your lesson when they sit with their arms crossed and eyebrows pinched together for the entire duration of you singing an English song. It’s a tough crowd.

Facial expressions

I teach a class of students with Special Abilities, and one of the students does not speak. At all. However, he is the most expressive and I do not have a hard time figuring out what he wants with just one expression.

He will touch my bag and look at me and I know he wants the stickers I periodically give out at the end of every lesson.

He will stand by my side, ready to pass out the papers or materials I have prepared for the class.

He does not always understand what the crazy lady in front of the class is gesturing and waving on about, but he will copy down everything I write on the board in his notebook. Everything.

One day, he showed me a live praying mantis and I nearly died inside. I asked him, “What are you doing with that praying mantis?” He smiled at me as his response. I told him to put the praying mantis down and let it back into the wild. Still smiling at me, he pocketed the creature inside his pant pocket and zipped it up. I somewhat hysterically exclaimed, “It’s going to die in there! Let it out!” He just smiled at me and let me know that the praying mantis was going to live in his pants for the rest of the class.

A kind gesture of gift giving

Being surprised with an orange here, a banana there, or a folded swan from a student. I have been so blessed with the kind thoughts and gestures from this community.

Sharing food

Every meal is shared family style and every lunch, the teachers sit together in the cafeteria. The teachers often bring extra food from home to share with each other. There is one teacher I do not really talk to, and she does not really talk to me. However, every time I sit down for lunch, she will hand me the plate of shared food to make sure I get some. She does not say anything or even look at me; she just hands me the plate and continues eating.

I know that there is no pressure to act, to speak, or to do anything with her. She simply acknowledges I am there, makes sure I am fed and then we go about our own lives. I am grateful for these quiet interactions where I am allowed to just be me.

Sharing time

The best gift anyone can give is time. It is those evenings where my neighbor(s) and I cook dinner and eat with other in front of the TV, speaking in a mix of Thai, Lanna, English, and Chinese.

Sharing food in Thailand with my Thai neighbors and Chinese teachers

It is when my ETA friend came to visit me and we just sat in comfortable silence, happy in knowing that we are there for each other.


Laughing with the students, teachers, and friends. Laughing at the way you mispronounced a Thai word in front of the whole class, but it’s okay because both the teacher and students are learning.

Teaching the 2nd grade students how to play the cup song from the movie Pitch Perfect.

I was nervous to come to Thailand, but now I know that I do not have anything to worry about. People are kind and there are more ways to communicate with someone than just language. If you are willing to make the effort to go out of your comfort zone, you will find that communicating with someone who speaks a different language and has a different culture than you will be no problem at all. In the end, we are more similar with someone else than we are different.

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