As expected, one of the strangest aspects of living in a rural village in central Thailand has been acclimatising to the culture.
Thai customs, beliefs and their way of living differ so much from that of the western world that it can often be quite overwhelming. What we would consider the height of rudeness at home is often perfectly acceptable and normal here in Thailand, and vice versa.
Under strict lese-majeste laws, it is a prisonable offence in Thailand to insult or defame the royal family. Everywhere you look regardless of where you are, pictures, shrines and monuments to his and her majesties King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit are in abundance.
Whilst in Bangkok, Usana took me to the cinema to see Maleficent. Between the adverts and the film, a short video presentation was displayed of King Bhumibol to which the audience rose for the national anthem. Similarly, the national anthem is played at various times throughout the streets of Bangkok (and most probably other areas/districts of the country). As Caitlin and I discovered as we crossed a busy road at Mo Chit to be halted by the armed forces to observe the ritual with every other citizen who quite literally stops in their tracks.
As it is the colour of King Bhumipol, every Monday the students at Watnongtakae wear yellow in his honour.
In fact, the students are obliged to wear a different uniform every day of the week, giving the Plastics a run for their money. On Wednesdays, black sweatpants and orange polo shirts are worn by all as every class will have a PE (basically just volleyball) lesson at some point during the day.
White is Fridays colour for religious observation and for any day in which the students are required to go to the temple.
Tuesdays and Thursdays uniforms are seemingly interchangeable, and I never know which the students will turn up in. The first option being the scout uniform, which invariably turns all the boys into Russell from Up. If not berets and cowboy hats, the fifth and final outfit choice is the schools actual uniform.
For anyone thinking of visiting/living in Thailand, my sole piece of advice is to bring slip on shoes. One is required to remove their shoes before entering most buildings, and you’ll frequently see masses of shoes piled up outside doorways. This rule is even extended to the classroom, with the exception of teachers. As a result, the students run around Watnongtakae with barely there tatters of material flapping over their feet.
Despite her ‘restaurant’ being outside, one of the first times I visited Poin’s for dinner I forgot to take off my flip flops before stepping over the threshold. Consequently, the moment I realised my error I sat terrified in shame hoping for my shoe-d feet to go unnoticed. Now however, taking off my shoes has become so habitual that I worry I’ll forget it’s ok to traipse my Chelsea boots through Humss once term starts.
The one Thai custom that’ll never cease to shock me however is the beating of the students. Almost everyday after school, the naughty ones are brought to the office to be punished. This usually involves a small group of boys sitting on the floor being yelled at by several teachers, and then seemingly voluntarily lining up with their palms outstretched to be hit. If the crime is wicked enough, they’ll receive several blows to the backs of their shins.
In lessons, punishment is used with much less force, but seldom a day goes by where students in my class are clipped round the ear or slapped across the back. It’s strange to watch the people who would do absolutely anything for me, carry large wooden canes around school ready to lash out at misbehaviour.
In one of my very first classes at Watnongtakae, Usana pointed out a student in the class and announced ‘he is the fattest boy in the whole school, he weighs about 120kg (around 18 stone), he likes to eat fried chicken all the time’. I was utterly horrified. True, the student is very, very large, but neither I nor the whole of Matthyom 3 needed to be told it. To my amazement, as I recoiled in mortification for the poor boy, he and the rest of the class just laughed and brushed it off. As I have come to learn, preserving face is paramount to Thai culture. In order to save somebody or themselves from embarrassment, they laugh it off.
Unlike in the UK, a persons size is oft talked of here openly, and is by no means to caus offence. When I first arrivedI was chagrined to hear everyone I met talk about my weight, more often than not telling me I was fat (!?). Before I learnt to say what was going to be my saving grace, ‘no thank you’ in Thai, and when every food imaginable was being force fed to me, Usana’s favourite saying was ‘you go home and your mum not recognise you, you be so fat’ much to my dismay. Thankfully, I now exercise ‘Mai ka khob kuhn’ at every possible opportunity, and Usana has changed her refrain to ‘you go home and your mum will not recognise you, you so thin, she think I not look after you’.