The communists helped me learn English
Childhood memories of Thai village life
I must have been eight when the Communists came to our village, because that was the first year my grandmother told my father that I must stay in school. I had six older brothers, I was the first girl in the family, and there was a lot of cooking and dish-washing to be done in the morning. My father thought that girls who stayed too long in school would just get pregnant.
I called them "coms" but you didn't usually see them because they came at night, talking to the men in the shadows at the edge of the village.
Only one of the men in our village, our neighbor's son, joined them and went off to the mountains in the west, one day's walk. Now I think back and he was only a boy, he had some trouble or maybe he was just bored with life in the village. The name of our village was "cow stable village" and maybe you agree it does not sound very exciting.
No one said much about the boy who went with the coms, we were not a talk family. But the police killed him in the market a few months later when he came down from the mountains to get food. Once we went to visit my uncle in the mountains, where the coms were. I climbed a guava tree and I saw them, walking in a line with their guns. Coms, coms! I shouted. My brother pretended he did not hear me.
They said that the army was coming and that the families who lived in the mountains where the coms were must come down and stay with the families in our village which was between the highway and the mountains. But the soldiers stayed on the highway and at night the big guns shot into the mountains, you would hear the big wheee over our village and then counting to five, you would hear the boom echoing back from the mountains.
Two mountain families came to live in our house, we had space because my oldest three brothers had already married. The families were all big in those days, there were maybe thirty kids completely. I was very happy because some of the girls were older, maybe 16, ready to marry themselves, and they were given the work of threshing the rice and washing the dishes, so I was free.
Since I was the host I could tell these mountain kids, who felt a little shy in my house with so many big boys, what we must do after lunch. "We will sit under this big tree, it is a school," I told them. Then since I was the school principal I appointed myself to be the teacher too. "Boys and girls," I said, "we are going to learn the names of gup kow, all the tasty things to eat with rice." Gin kow, we say for the word eat. Years later I had a student, he laughed when I taught him this, he said that was like an Irish man saying I am going home to eat a potato.
At the head of my school under the big tree I pointed at the blackboard, which was of course also only in my imagination. "Miss Poo," I said, because she was not paying enough attention, "what is this gup kow"? She was quite bold, this girl. "That is a crab", she said, the word for her own nickname Poo. "Wrong! You are a crab but this is a shrimp", I said in a loud voice. Even though my body is small, having six older brothers taught me to have a loud voice. Everyone laughed, but the girl didn't mind because this was not really a school, I was not really a teacher, nor was she a student. We were just kids having fun under a big tree.
Now my story moves ahead two years. My father decided again that I had enough school, at age ten, which is usually when the girls stopped going to school in those days, but my grandmother said I should go more and of course the father must listen to his mother-in-law. Most of our land comes from my mother's family. My father thought that it was better I stay home and do the housework and help my mother, she was making and selling kanom in the market and he was busy finding wives for my brothers. "I need her to pick some chillies as a gift for this family, I must pay them ten thousand baht sin sot for their daughter," he grumbled to my grandmother. It was a long hot day for me alone picking chillies.
But my grandmother won again and now here I was, back in a new school, pratom 5, the only farm girl in the class. The teacher was doing funny things with his tongue to show as how they speak english. "This word is what, boys and girls?" He wrote girl on the blackboard.
This boy Pon that the teacher called on tried to say the english. Gleu, he said, like the thai word for "buddy". Everyone laughed. The boys hated the teacher to call on them. Even at that age they didn't like to perform. Usually, when they don't know what to do, Thai kids look at the parents or older family members or friends and someone will just do it for them. But no one knew how to say it better. The teacher looked at me. "Nim," he said, "how do you say this"? "GIRN" I said. I didn't mind everyone looking at me. In fact I liked it, it was like playing teacher under the tree. In fact I hoped he would ask me again next time, to be the teacher when he had to leave the class for a meeting.
These things I don't mind at all, I learned to like to perform because of the Coms!
So what can you learn from this story? I think three things.
First, the Thai kids hate to fail in front of their friends. So if you begin to teach a class, better at first don't say "No, that is not correct." maybe you can say "Oh, English is very hard to pronounce, I have big trouble when try to speak Thai."
Second, if you make the lesson a pretend game, such as "OK, today we are going to be tourists in USA, we go to the supermarket but don't know what is this strange fahlang food" of course everyone will make mistakes but it will not lose face, but enjoy the joke.
Third, after everyone relaxes doing this for a while, they will enjoy more performing and not worry about mistakes. It is all about confidence!
Auntie Nim grew up in a small village a long walk from the nearest paved road. In her twenties she started a Thai language school in Bangkok and later a real estate development company. She divides her time between Bangkok, her home town in the south of Thailand, and a small organic farm which she operates with her husband in rural Isaan.
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Great blog, Nim.
We must not forget that the Communist powers were equally tied with the West for the best part of 50 years.
And when you're #2, you've GOT to be good.
I had nothing but excellent students when I taught English in Vietnam and Laos.
By Geoff, Isaan, innit. (24th July 2012)