01 March, 2016

Cultural Understanding: Verbal and Non-verbal

Dung Nguyen (aka Nu Dee) is from Atlanta, Georgia. Her Alma Mater is Wake Forest University where she earned a BA in Politics and International Affairs and a minor in Sociology. Dung Nguyen is a 2015-2016 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA in Ubon Ratchathani province in northeastern Isaan Thailand. In her free time, Dung likes to explore hipster coffee shops in Ubon, looking for delicious coffee beans and pastries. After her Fulbright fellowship, Dung plans to explore more of Southeast Asia. Once she gets back to the U.S., she will pursue a Master’s degree in public policy.

Teachaa, Teachaa, Poot Pasa Thai!” (Teacher, Teacher, Speak Thai!)

My Thai 7th graders screamed, “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa Thai!” from behind the classroom as I tried to explain an activity in English. Sitting on their wooden chairs and edging their bodies against the wooden desks toward me, my 7th graders expressed in unison with a rather confused look on their faces, “Mai kao jai Teachaaa” (I don’t understand, teacher). As flustered as they were, I tried to use body movements, hand gestures, and repetition of simple verbs to show them what I wanted them to do. After a few demonstrations, they finally understood the tasks assigned to them, which was to write 5 sentences using the vocabulary that they have learned and then act it out with their partner. This was my first week on the job as a Fulbright English Teacher Assistant (ETA), and it was the first time in which I felt inadequate and overwhelmed as an ETA. “How can I teach my students if I don’t speak their native language?,” I thought to myself. But with time and knowing the personalities of my classes, “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa  Thai!” and “Mai kao jai Teachaa” became two of my favorite Thai phrases. Instead of internalizing these Thai phrases as an indication of my bad lessons or teaching abilities, I now use these occurrences of “Mai kao jai” as opportunities for both my students and me to have moments of cultural exchange and understanding.

Dung is teaching her 7th graders about holidays in November--Thanksgiving,
which is celebrated in the United States and Loy Kratong, which is celebrated in Thailand.

I notice that sometimes students say “Teachaa, Teachaa, poot pasa Thai!” and “Mai kao jai Teachaaa” because the content is overwhelming. To simplify the instructions and bridge our language differences, I tell my students, “I teach you one word, and you teach me one.” It’s only fair that I go through the same struggles that they do when it comes to acquiring a new language. So, with each lesson that I teach my students, they would say the vocabulary words in Thai and then repeat it again in English. There are definitely moments of laughter as I mispronounce words and make a fool of myself. For instance, I said two Isaan words, “Bak Nat. Bak Si Da” (pineapple and guava) during a fruit lesson and my students got super excited and interested as they screamed “Ohhhhh Teachhaaaa dee mahk!! (Teacher, good job!)”. Because I was being silly and showed an interest in learning about their culture and language, it made my students comfortable and interested in the lesson as well. In this process of language exchange, it motivates and encourages my students to speak English and not be afraid of making mistakes. Now, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa” becomes 

Dung is pictured being goofy with her 12th graders. 
“Teachaa, again please?” because they want me to repeat the instructions or vocabulary words. Or perhaps, they just want to see how ridiculous I am as I repeat the words both in English and Thai and act it out. But regardless of their true intentions, I made them interested and that was a victory for me. So, sure, I’ll speak Thai and Isaan. But, I always say with a smile, “Okay, now it is your turn. Speak English students (Phoot brasa ung-grit nak rearian)!” 

Beyond the Classroom 

Other triumphant moments that I have with my students are when students go to my office hours or invite me to coffee shops to practice their English. 
They would say with a smile yet confused look on their faces, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa. Explain please.” when we stumble upon phrases that they don’t understand. For example, one of my 12th graders, Preaw would come to my office hours and invite me to coffee
Dung is tutoring one of her students during office hours. 
shops to talk about similarities and differences between Thai and American culture, our family, our thoughts about Ubon Ratchathani, future plans, and etc. In between stories, we would laugh at awkward English phrases that she says or my Thai mispronunciations. Through these interactions and relationships that I have developed my students, they now no longer have faces of confusion but faces of curiosity. I show them that learning English does not only give them an edge and advantage in this global world, but it also allows them to create these meaningful relationships with others who are different from them.

Talking Bodies

It’s these human interactions and relationships that I have developed with my students over time that exemplify the power of attitude and a smile. Knowing English in our globalized world is an important asset, but smiling is also very advantageous. A smile is welcoming, inviting, and warm, and it is here in Thailand that I’ve seen the most smiles. Thailand, known as the land of smiles, rings true to its reputation. I notice that my students say “Phoot brasa Thai, Teachaaa” with a smile. They say, “Mai kao jai, Teachaaa” with a smile. To break the barrier between my students and me, I also use my smile in and outside the classroom to show them that I am not some scary, foreign creature. I teach with a smile and greet them in the morning with a smile. I show them that my smile is like theirs. My laughter is like theirs. Although we might not speak the same language, we both have bodies that do speak the same language. 

A Smile is A Smile
What’s in a smile? But specifically, what’s in a Thai smile? The simple and short answer to this question is that a Thai smile could mean many things, but it could also mean nothing. I now know that a Thai smile could mean ‘Yes teacher, I understand the lesson’ or ‘no teacher, I do not understand the lesson’ or ‘I am bored out of my mind, but I will smile to keep you happy’. 

Dung went camping with her 8th graders,
hiking on a trail together.
A Thai smile could mean nothing in the sense that my students are genuinely happy that particular day and want to smile to portray their jolly vibe. I used to think that Thai smiles are confusing and difficult to decipher, but when I pay attention to the creases of their eyes as my students smile and their body postures, it is not hard decode their true meanings. A smile is a smile, and it reveals all types of messages!

Fusion of Body and Spoken Language

My Fulbright ETA experience has taught me many things about myself and Thailand. But, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the power of a smile—the power of merging spoken language and body language into communication. Our body language, specifically, our smiles speaks to one another, telling each other that it’s okay to be silly and laugh. It acts as a comforter, supporter and catalysts for human interactions. Our smiles and facial expressions sometimes do not require spoken words to tell one another how we feel or think. The fusion of body and spoken language in communication is powerful when closely examined! So readers, when you travel to a country with a limited knowledge of their language, smile and embrace the adventures and awakenings that awaits you!

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