15 August, 2017

Thank You for Understanding

Shanera Brodie is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA teaching M1 to M6 (7th to 12th grade) at Watbotsuksa School in lower-northern Thailand. She was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, and recently graduated from Amherst College with a B.A in Sociology. When Shanera is not laughing up a storm with her students, she enjoys sunset bike rides alongside the rice fields in her town, indulging in delicious home-cooked meals with her host family, perusing through markets, and exploring beautiful, new destinations throughout Thailand. Upon returning to the US, Shanera will begin working towards a career in urban education, completing a year-long teaching program eventually followed by graduate studies.

In my classroom, "Do you understand?" is met with a variety of responses from my students. 

The enthusiastic "Yes!" It is a dream come true. My instructions were clear, I didn't ramble on for too long, talk too fast, or use too many nonsensical filler words.

The timid "Yes…" Only a few might answer, some enthusiastically and the rest not-so-convincingly. A timid yes is followed by whispers of "arai na," the Thai equivalent of "Huh? Wait, what?" Their groupmates will typically explain in Thai and then I will repeat myself using a slightly different choice of words accompanied by miming actions.

"Again, please." This a great response which I encourage more of my students to use. I appreciate their honesty and bravery to admit that they don't fully understand yet, but they haven't given up hope (on themselves or their crazy teacher that just spoke 100 miles per minute).

The legitimate "No." It is typically indicated by blank stares, sneaky glances at their groupmates, furrowed eyebrows, and, occasionally, an outright "No, teacher." At that point, I must reset and explain again. Oops, I think to myself, that was totally my fault. I jumbled up my words and I barely understood myself. English is hard; let me try that again.

Finally, my favorite, the illegitimate "No." A gradual hush falls upon the room as they realize that I have stopped talking. The blank stares and arai na whispers ensue. Well, darling, it is impossible that you heard what I said over the arm wrestling, selfies, combing your hair, powdering your face, and full-blown conversations about Buddha-knows-what drama in your teenage lives. I attempt to convey this exasperation with a ten second rant: "You're talking too much and not listening enough." To no avail, I must simply pause, give my best teacher stare-down until they are weirded out by my silence, and explain again. All the while, I'm trying to contain my laughter at the hilarity of the entire situation.


My school honoring the late King Bhumibol, the world's longest reign monarch

"Do you understand?" is not only a question for my students in the classroom, but has followed me throughout my time in Thailand. I have received a great opportunity to completely immerse myself into a rich, new culture. As I observe and absorb this culture, I must ask myself whether or not I understand the meaning and cultural implications behind actions, words, and everyday circumstances. How do I wai properly when greeting someone, where and why do I remove my shoes, how do I pray when I visit the temples, how do I eat this, why are we eating again- we just ate twenty minutes ago, why are my students ten minutes late, why are classes suddenly cancelled all afternoon for the third time this month, why does my host family have fifteen cats, how do I use the squat toilet without peeing on my shoes?

It is an important question for both parties, the one asking and the one answering. To understand leads to contentment, an increased capacity for new knowledge, and belonging. When my students understand, they might cheer, applaud themselves, or do a victory dance and proceed to complete a task with more focus and confidence. In this collective action, they all belong in that space. Even when someone doesn't understand, the students' instinct to explain to their friend builds community in our classroom. It also unfortunately creates the nearly impossible task of encouraging students to think for themselves and not copy one another. On the other end, to be understood leads to similar feelings of satisfaction and more opportunities to impart new information. Wonderful, my students are actually listening to me; let's delve deeper into this content. A willingness to open up and share new information is a great indication of a sense of belonging, especially for an introvert like myself.

Touring local attractions with my students and ETA friends during English camp

From my school community, my host family, my internship community, shopkeepers, and kind strangers, I have felt welcomed, I have felt this strong sense of belonging, and, furthermore, I have felt loved. A love which stems from mutual understanding and appreciation of that which is understood. Consequently, an important part of my journey this year has been the realization of how highly I value understanding others and being understood.

One quiet night at home, I sat journaling, hoping to pinpoint exactly what had led to such warm, fuzzy feelings in a matter of a few, short months. I flushed out what I thought was a brilliantly original theory: seeing, understanding, and loving are three successive levels of acknowledgement and acceptance of others. The very next day, I came across a practically identical sentiment in the book I was reading. And in another book not long after that. So much for being original. What an eerie coincidence, I thought initially. Perhaps it was not merely a coincidence, but an indication of the timelessly universal desire to be seen, understood, and loved.

Teaching in Thailand has been a unique opportunity to work within a culture that highly respects the profession. Being a foreign English teacher, specifically an American, has its own privilege. However, to be seen on the surface as someone who doesn't fit the stereotypical American mold because of my dark brown skin and kinky-curly hair certainly complicates things. Naturally, as most foreigners, I stick out as sore thumb and am prone to stares. To add fuel to the fire, I am also prone to occasional double takes, dropped jaws, pointing, laughs, or comments particularly about my skin color. Of course they see me, but their reactions tell me they don't quite understand my existence; this is quite exhausting to the soul. For me to understand the roles that white-centric beauty standards, colorism, and under-representative media play into attitudes about skin color is a huge part of understanding cultural practices such as skin whitening, avoiding the sun, and commenting that people are sii daam, literally meaning the color black. Thai people have a wide spectrum of brown skin tones, some even close to my own, but the darker end of the spectrum is not as revered as the lighter, whiter end. Whenever I hear a negative comment, whether directed at me, oneself, or a third person, I say, "It is a beautiful color! Beautiful, right?!" I carry myself in a way to signify that I am comfortable in my skin hoping to make others comfortable with their beautiful brownness as well, wherever they fall on the spectrum. Shanera doesn't want the umbrella, one of my host teachers stated to the other as I dodged the coverage on the short, sunny walk from our assembly hall. She is not afraid of the sun. It meant a lot that such a small gesture of mine was understood and respected in that way.

On a day-to-day basis, neutral and positive reactions are much more common. At school, I haven't heard a single comment about my skin color, but they love to talk about my hair! I have been embracing the versatility of my coils and figuring out ways to maintain healthy hair in the hot, Thailand sun. I have a rotation of about five easy hairstyles and, without fail, every time I change from one to another, the teachers and students shower me with compliments. Teacher, beautiful! New hairstyle? So lovely! You did it by yourself? Wooow! Very good! Can you show me?

Enjoying a riverside sunset with some of my internship students

Thai women have been my biggest supporters and care takers, emoting such strong, unwavering love. Have you eaten yet? Do you need a ride? Do you miss home? Eat more rice. It’s time to go home, go relax. From these women, I witness generosity and understand selflessness. I witness sacrifice and understand family. They show me the importance of food in their culture and how determinative your spice tolerance is of your Thainess. Wow you eat spicy food like a Thai person! Very good!

In their trust and vulnerability to share their lives with me, I understand the strong-willed mother who goes through leaps and bounds for her family despite a partner who is not pulling their weight; the young woman who followed in her father's footsteps to practice law, giving up her dream of working with children; the business woman who runs a successful catering company in addition to teaching full time; the four loving generations--grandmother, mother, daughter, granddaughter--who open up their home to a new American teacher every year and seamlessly adopt them into their family. In understanding these women, I am reminded of the wonderful women back home who raised me and are a constant support in my life. In womanhood, in communities of color, and in the intersectional experience of being a woman of color, it is far too commonplace to go unnoticed, to be practically invisible, to be misunderstood, and to be underappreciated. But, in understanding the commonalities between our two communities (the black American community in which I grew up and the Thai community in which I now live), I have formed deep connections in an unsuspecting place. A place where language and cultural differences could potentially hinder such connections.

All dolled up with my host teacher and her friends to visit temples

I believe that the nature of cultural exchange has contributed to the ease with which I have navigated my time in Thailand and built these connections. Many Thai people are curious and unafraid to ask personal questions, and I do my best to answer them honestly and completely. They also have misunderstandings which I can challenge with formal lessons or casual conversations that lead to a better, more complete level of understanding. And, of course, I have my own misunderstandings that Thai people help me through. No, we are not going to Vientiane, Laos on a whim; we are walking around the temple three times. The Thai word for this walking ritual sounds exactly like the capital city of Laos and, momentarily, I was in a quiet panic about not having a bag packed and not having a visa. My host teacher still laughs hysterically when we retell that story.

To all of those who have supported me along this journey, in ways big and small: how can I ever repay you for your overwhelming generosity and abundant love? The best way I know how is by loving you back. I'll show you love in my wholehearted acceptance of you and appreciation of who you are. Whether that means enduring long drives together for a relatively short trip, taking a million photos, dripping sweat together over a steaming bowl of noodles on a steaming hot day, loving your children as if they were my own siblings, and learning your language. I must admit, however, Thai is quite difficult. Please forgive me for butchering your words. But, always and forever, thank you for understanding.

No comments:

Post a Comment