When I decided to study in Thailand for my semester abroad, I did so with the hopes of making friends with elephants, avoiding another brutal D.C. winter, developing a tolerance for spicy food, and travelling throughout the diverse country. After spending six months exploring the splendors of Southeast Asia, what I cherished most about my experience was not what had originally led me to the other side of the world. What I found myself missing most when I returned home was the respect that is integral to the Thai way of life.
Maybe this role of respect in Thai culture remained with me so strongly because it was such a departure from my past. Being from the Northeast, I am used to a fast-paced and competitive environment that leaves little room for respect. Or maybe this role of respect remained with me because of the environment I returned home to. Being the most politically active school in the country, respect is often tossed out the window at GW. While I loved the aggressive classroom debates and campus protests, I found myself missing the respectfulness of Chiang Mai.
Either way, when it came to making my post-graduation plans, it was this respectful way of living that drew me back to Thailand. My time studying at Chiang Mai University left me feeling like I had just dipped my toes in the water, and now I was ready to submerge myself fully in Thai culture. For me, Fulbright was the best opportunity to do so. I knew that by living in a rural village, I would be able to pick up a thing or to from the locals on living a respect filled life. One thing I really love about Fulbright is that although we teach English, we are also encouraged to be students learning all things Thai.
My lessons in respect began as soon as I arrived in Mae Moh. My first official day at Mae Moh Wittaya School, I gave a short speech to the school during our morning assembly. Afterwards, I awkwardly waved and turn around to return to my seat. One of my host teachers, Kru Jang, stopped me and told me to wait a minute. Standing in front of the crowd of 750 students, I saw them rise one by one from their clusters, each with a gift. Students came forward, forming a line in front of me, holding flowers, drawings, potted plants, snacks, and small boats made out of banana leaves called kratongs.
|Receiving welcome gifts from my students|
I couldn’t believe the outpouring of generosity from my students. These students had yet to meet me or learn from me, but they already respected me as their new teacher. After the receiving line was finished, I sat down and looked at all the gifts I had received. The only thing that ran through my mind was “This would never happen in the U.S.” (Disclaimer: Maybe in some places it would, but in my experiences, it would never.)
After morning assembly finished, I again looked at my gifts with astonishment. How was I going to carry all of this? One of my host teachers, Kru Yao, saw this look in my eyes and called over some students. Quickly in Thai, she instructed them to bring the gifts to my home behind the school. Overcome with gratitude, I continually thanked the small team of girls who were taking time out of their day to help me. Kru Yao patted my back and told me “Mai pen rai (Don’t worry) You are their teacher. They are happy to help you.”
|The very kind team of students that helped transport my gifts home.|
Believe it or not, this respect carried over into my classroom as well. Nervous doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I first found out I would be teaching high school students. Previous experiences lead me to believe that high school students aren’t the most respectful students. I believe hormones plays a big role in that phenomenon. I began having these daydream-nightmares of myself cowering in front of a room of 100 students, all throwing paper airplanes and rotten tomatoes at me.
Luckily, Thailand is very different from the United States, and my classes greeted me everyday with a friendly smile and sat down ready to learn. Not a single rotten tomato has been thrown at me… yet.
Throughout my first semester, I have been amazed at the respect the students demonstrate. Without asking, students will empty out the trash, sweep the floor, or clean the whiteboard. Often times I will bring in some Tupperware with fruit for the students. One of them always slips out of class and washes and dries the Tupperware after they finish the snacks. Students will notice me struggling with technology and come up and solve the issue for me without any hesitation. I often see students helping out other teachers as well, always happy to lend a helping hand.
When walking the hallways, students stop to politely “wai” and greet me with “hello teacher!”. When I see students outside of school, they greet me just as warmly. I have been able to meet many of my student’s families at the local market or at my favorite coffee shop in town. When I spending time with my host teacher, Kru Yao, we are often stopped by her old students who want to say hello and find out what she is up to. Some of these students were in her class 20 years ago, and I can tell by the look in their eyes that they have even more respect for Kru Yao now than they did when they were students.
This respect at school is not a one-way street. On several occasions, I have seen teachers happily go out of their way to make their student’s days better. For Christmas, each teacher donated a gift to be auctioned off to the students. On the last day before our New Year break, homeroom teachers organized special lunchtime meals for their students. One room made somtam (spicy papaya salad), while another teacher brought in 5 hotpots and allowed students to cook their own food on their desks! When I attended a field trip, I was astonished at how much teachers respected the students. Four busloads of 14-year-old students were allowed to roam Chiang Rai freely with no chaperones or assigned groups. Teachers treated students as adults, and our students responded to that respect by acting as adults.
|Students posing in front of the White Temple on our field trip to Chiang Rai|
I believe a lot of this respect comes from the overall aura of collectivism present in Asia. Collectivism means that people are more focused on the overall good of the group, not the individual. Studies have shown that while most of the world operates under collectivism, the United States leans more towards individualism. Working for the good of the group allows people to get rid of their selfish desires and do what creates the most good for the most people. In many cases, collectivism allows space for respect in everyday life. At Mae Moh Wittaya, I have often witnessed student and teachers putting aside their own desires to help out someone else.
|A teacher laughs as he helps a graduating senior pin a flower on his shirt.|
Mae Moh Wittaya School is one big family. Students talk about their teachers lovingly and with admiration, and visa versa. Everyone looks out for each other and works together to make our school a happier place. Respect plays a big role in my school’s community, and coming from the U.S., it is easy for me to see the effect it has on our community as well. Thanks to the opportunity Fulbright has provided me, I have been able to learn the positive effect of respect not only in student teacher relationships, but also on a community. Without a doubt, I will return to the United States a more respectful person.