Spend any great length of time in Thailand and sooner or later you'll be pounced upon by a small group of primary schoolchildren who have been given the unenviable task of hunting down friendly-looking foreigners. Usually part of a class project, the English teacher gives students a questionnaire and asks them to prowl shopping malls and tourist areas to find willing 'foreign victims' to provide the answers. This is not however to be confused with the bunch of commission-driven idiots who stop you near BTS Asoke and ask you how long you've been in Thailand and where you're currently staying. Their objective is solely to get you to into some nearby 5-star hotel where hopefully you'll part with hard-earned cash for a membership scheme entitling you to a double room three weekends a year and half a dozen buffet lunches.
I was approached on Saturday morning in Central Bang Na Shopping Mall by four very polite schoolgirls. Firstly, having taught a bit myself, I know how much courage it can take to ask a foreign stranger if they'll answer a few questions - especially one being dragged around the shops by his wife and now taking five minutes rest to ease his nagging lower back pain. My expression must have conveyed all that and more. But suffering aside, I'll always take the time out to answer carefully and even correct any grammatical errors in the questions. I've never worked out whether or not students appreciate me putting my teacher's hat on at times like this but I guess old habits die hard.
I've never really taught students of this delicate, impressionable age nor have I ever set students the task of 'harassing' foreigners while they go about their daily business but I do get so irritated by the questions themselves. On Saturday morning, the girl who had been chosen by her friends to enter the dragon's lair and engage me in conversation, put the ten questions in front of my face and said "can you answer these?"
I asked what school they were from and what nationality her English teacher was. The school I must confess I'd never heard of and their teacher was apparently a Thai lady. That might go some way to explaining why the first question was "how long have you ever go to Thailand before?" and then moved to "what is your phone number?", "what is your e-mail address?" and ending with the utterly bizarre "what about Thailand?" Well, what about Thailand indeed?
Perhaps I shouldn't interfere and bring the occasion down, but I can never just answer the questions as best I can and let the students walk away happy thinking 'mission accomplished'. Before you know it I've whipped out a biro and I'm making corrections and explaining verb tenses. All in the middle of a busy shopping mall. I may be coming at this from the wrong angle but isn't this their teacher's job? I wanted to know what they stood to learn from letting me read the questions on the clipboard instead of holding it away from me and relying on their spoken English. I was also interested in what they were going to do with my e-mail address and phone number? And finally we worked out that "what about Thailand?" would be better phrased as "what do you like most about Thailand?"
I think it's a terrific idea to send the kids out and get them comfortable with talking to foreigners. But why not ask questions worth asking? What's your favorite day of the week and why? Do you live in Thailand or are you on holiday? When is your birthday? (the answer practices months and ordinal numbers) How many countries have you been to? Which one is your favorite? How often do you eat fish? It makes the whole experience so much more enjoyable, not to mention educational, for both parties. Honestly, if I see or hear "how long have you ever go to Thailand before?......once more.