The only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized by the West, the Thai people take great pride in the preservation of their way of life, and the customs and traditions that make their country unique. The culture revolves around respect, for the elders in their families as well as those higher in the hierarchial society. The relationship between puu yai and puu lek, literally adult and child, works both ways in terms of responsibilities and mutual indebtedness.
Thai schools stand as bastions of these traditions, with their emphasis on reverence towards teachers and state-sponsored Buddhism. One ceremony in particular illustrates the nature of the Thai hierarchial system. Known as Wun Wai Kroo, it is a day nationwide where students pay their respects to their teachers, taking vows to behave in class and devote themselves to studying. Unique to Thailand, the entire ceremony is based around the state religion of Buddhism, with symbolic flowers, lengthy rituals and a whole row of orange-clad, chanting monks.
The ceremony was held, per tradition, on a Thursday early in the first semester. It began with the entire student body of some two thousand pupils assembling in the new auditorium. This aircraft hanger-sized building was built over the summer with open walls, to let in the afternoon breeze and thus be more comfortable in the Thai heat. Unfortunately, the design proved to also let in the Thai rain, as a passing monsoon sent the students scurrying to the middle of the building. After the initial laughing confusion and intermixing was resolved, the students lined up in their respective classrooms and sat on the floor (typical for Thailand). The eighty-odd teachers sat in front on the students on plastic chairs, with a row of tables behind them. At the very back was a raised stage, with the principal, Mr. Supporch, on a leather couch in his position as puu yai of the school, the vice-principals arrayed behind him and a Buddhist shrine, replete with gleaming golden statuettes, shimmering mirrors and freshly arranged flowers, on prominent display.
The ceremony began with a mass standing wai as Mr. Supporch shuffled on his knees to the shrine. Once there, he slowly and gracefully lit a candle and three joss or incense sticks, reciting a Buddhist prayer to bless the proceedings. Once the principal returned to his seat, the entire assemblage sat down, secure that the ceremony had some form of higher approval.
A representative from classroom 6/1, known as the "king's class" and supposedly the best and brightest in the school, came forward to lead the students in the traditional oath. After swearing their allegiance to king and country, the pupils made a promise that seems completely alien to my experiences with Western education. My Thai is shaky at best, but I was able to paraphrase the following:
Rao nak rian pla poot laet faang took
We students shall speak and listen correctly
Rao nak rian ja tum took laet mai tum pit
We students shall behave well and never do wrong
Rao nak rian ja ruk ajarn rao laet mee kwahm suk rian tee rong rian nee
We students shall love our teachers, and enjoy learning at this school
There was a certain power to hearing those words spoken by two thousand earnest (to all appearances, anyway) souls, and I was struck by the evidence of feelings of respect and gratitude for teachers that are sadly absent from American schools, and Western culture as a whole.
After the oath was complete, a boy and girl leader from each of the six grades came forward bearing a meticulously designed floral arrangement, with one candle and three incense sticks wrapped amid the blossoms. Each pair of students walked to the stage, then crept on their knees, presenting their flowers first to the Buddhist shrine and then to the principal, each time with a deeply reverential wai, touching their foreheads to the ground three times. Mr. Supporch, normally a jovial fellow who joins wholeheartedly in evening pickup soccer, maintained perfect solemnity throughout the ceremony, showing his respect for the tradition and representing the entire school in recognizing the gratitude of the students.
The rest of the students now had their opportunity to show their individual appreciation for their teachers, myself included. I lined up with my colleagues in front of the stage, and pupils began come in waves, each bearing a small bunch of flowers with a candle and incense sticks. They presented this token of respect to one teacher with a wai and thanks for our efforts in teaching them, another idea that I had much trouble envisioning at an American school
The prayers then started, with one elderly monk beginning a deeply sonorous chant and the rest picking it up, gaining volume like a rock rolling down a hill gains speed. The principal, student body and teachers stood and assumed the resting wai position, with hands tented at chest level and arms pressed to the sides. I soon became grateful for the "resting" part of the position, as the prayers lasted well over thirty minutes. Each booming chant washed over us like the sheets of rain still falling outside, and left this simple transient with an altogether pleasant feeling of tranquil harmony. I was later told that these particular prayers were for the well being of students and teachers alike, as well as an allegorical wish for the seeds of knowledge to be duly planted, and the fruits of wisdom ably cultivated.
Several large metal jugs of water were brought out and perfunctorily blessed by the head monk, who then proceeded to throw the water over the entire assemblage of teachers. To do this, he used a long bamboo pole, sliced away at one end to resemble a wooden whisk. He walked slowly and surely through our ranks, with assistants bearing jugs to refresh his instrument. I was quite impressed with both the accuracy and volume of this elderly man's delivery, as I received a decent splashing of what I assume was holy water directly in my face (and with my hands in wai position, there was no way to defend myself). Now fully blessed, and apparently protected from all evils for the rest of the school year, we teachers set off to lunch, with a feast prepared for us similar to that of the monks. The students, after lining up to receive a summary splashing from the other eight monks, headed off to the canteen, the ceremony at a close, and classes to resume in an hour's time.