Why Wai?

I remember high school. It has now been over eight years since I graduated, but I can still feel the atmosphere of paranoia and despair that was palpable throughout my four years there. American high schools lack one crucial detail that separates them from their foreign counterparts: respect—respect for the teachers, respect for the surroundings, and respect for one another. So you can imagine the dread I had when I began teaching adolescents who don’t even speak my language.
The first day went…okay. I quickly realized that the students knew even less English than I had thought. Teaching them for four months seemed to be an insurmountable task. But then the second week was better, and the third week better than that. Three months in, I am very confident with this teaching thing. I attribute this largely to the experience I have gained from teaching 22 classes a week for over thirteen weeks now (although just once have I actually taught all 22 classes in a week; quite often I have had a day or two off for one reason or another). But there is something else that makes teaching in Thailand a lot easier—even with the language barrier—than, I suspect, teaching in the US: it’s that level of respect.
Thai students/children are taught from a young age the concept of modesty. They are taught to always respect their elders. Sure, in my own country children are taught that as well, but mainly from their parents. In Thailand, respect for teachers and anyone else older than you is an institutionalized value. This is especially important because the lessons humans are taught as children correspond with how they will most likely behave as adults. So, while there will always be a few troublemakers and the language barrier can be quite challenging, Thai students are a pleasure to be around because there is always a level of respect for teachers that I never witnessed in my own school days. In fact, I remember many of my fellow students being rude, smart-alecky degenerates who seemed to always have some sort of retort to whatever the teacher said to them. My Dad has occasionally said that children had a lot more respect for their elders in his day than they do in mine. I believe him. American children are taught to believe that they are very special—that they can do anything. This, of course, is not a bad thing. But with this kind of mentality comes some glaring side effects. An inflated ego may be developed which in turn can lead to treating others as though they are beneath you, whether or not you even know you’re doing it. Educators and authority figures are consistently challenged when they are just trying to do their noble jobs. But this simply doesn’t happen with Thai children. If a student here doesn’t say “Hello, teacher” as they walk past me, I am genuinely surprised—so common is it for the students to display their respect to both their elders and their teachers.
But it isn’t just a friendly “Hello” that makes the Thai students so charming; there’s also the matter of the wai. The Thai wai consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion. It is both a greeting and a sign of respect—efficiency at its finest. As I stand by the door of my classroom and the students file past me one-by-one, they will all wai me with varying degrees of sincerity. Sincere or not, the very idea puts a smile on my face. And another thing that I’ve noticed about Thai students: they will not allow themselves to be seen as taller than you. When they walk past, they will bow so that they are not “above” you.This is especially amusing as Thais are generally short people, so there’s no reason for them to do this except simply as a sign of respect.
Now, of course the language barrier is very difficult to overcome. The majority of the classes I teach are Mathayom one, meaning their pre-existing level of English is the lowest in the school. So if I sway outside of the material from the Powerpoints I am given, I am likely to be met with exchanged looks of confusion amongst students. Example: a student may approach me and ask “May I go out, please?”—language he/she learned from one of my lessons. But if I attempt to challenge the student a bit and respond with “Why?” (a basic word that they are unfamiliar with), the student will more than likely go and sit down, rather than at least try and work through the problem. It can be quite frustrating. Total Physical Response can only get you so far before not speaking the same language becomes problematic. In the end, though, I am in their country, so maybe it would behoove me to learn their language. Admittedly, that will not happen; I have been learning a bit of Thai but I can say many of the students probably can speak more of my language than I can of theirs. So the best way to deal with the language barrier is to remember that English is already a difficult language, but even more so as it uses an entirely different alphabet. If the students spoke to me in Thai and expected me to follow their commands or answer their questions, I am sure the same frustrations that come from the opposite scenario would arise. Ultimately, patience is key.
I am now three months into teaching English in Thailand. Many of my classes seem to have progressed a lot in their English skills, and I like to think that much of that can be attributed to me (although I’m not naive enough to overlook the fact that they have another English class with a Thai teacher as well). So as I enter the last month of the semester, I will try my best to limit my expectations. Sure, many of the students may forget what they learned in my class, but I believe there will be quite a few who will hold onto the knowledge they have gained and use it as the foundation for a future in which they speak English quite well, and thus have more opportunities available to them. Whatever happens, I’m just glad I was able to have this one-of-a-kind experience in a country that has become my favorite.

Today’s lesson: numbers!


Playing games with the students

Morning Talk!


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