Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why (I Think) I Understand Thai-Isaan Students...

From day one, I felt I had an unusually good rapport with my upcountry students--most of them from poor rural villages. The light just dawned on me today. We actually had very similar childhoods, albeit 35 years apart. Maybe the bamboo shed in the picture is not a good parallel to my childhood Seattle-area home, but the some of the cultural similarities sure ring a bell. I just received this little article in my email today, and reading through it, I was struck by the similarities between my upbringing and current life and culture in Isan. I, too, ask with the author of the following article: Was it "really all that bad?"

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Were you a kid in the "Fifties" or so? Everybody makes fun of our childhood. Comedians joke. Grandkids snicker. Twenty-Somethings shudder and say "Eeeew!" But was our childhood really all that bad? Judge for yourself:

In 1953 the US population was less than 150 million. Yet you knew more people then, and knew them better ...

And that was good.
[Isan: Everyone knows their neighbor and their neighbor's business]


The average annual salary was under $3,000. Yet, our parents could put some of it away for a rainy day and still live a decent life.

And that was good.
[Isan: I'm always amazed at how far a baht can go in Isan.]


A loaf of bread cost about 15 cents...but it was safe for a five-year-old to skate to the store and buy one...

And that was good.
[Isan: Kids securely play and travel long distances without worries.]


Prime-time TV meant I Love Lucy, Ozzie and Harriet, Gunsmoke and Lassie. Nobody ever heard of ratings or filters...

And that was good.
[Thai soap operas: You can hug, but can't kiss on the public airwaves.]


We didn't have air-conditioning...So the windows stayed up and half a dozen mothers ran outside when you fell off your bike.

And that was good.
[Isan: My first motorbike spill was attended by half the town.]


Your teacher was either Miss Matthews, Mrs. Logan or Mr. Adkins. But not Ms. Becky or Mr. Dan.

And that was good.
[Isan: Always the word "Ajarn" precedes your name, which is a term of high honor.]


The only hazardous material you knew about was a patch of grassburrs around the light pole at the corner.

And that was good.
[Isan: In Isan's dusty air, I've inhaled and ingested more dirt than I can estimate. I think it's fat-free. Is that good?]


You loved to climb into a fresh bed ... because sheets were dried outside on the clothesline.

And that was good.
[Isan: I know of no one with a mechanical clothes dryer. Why have one, when a bedsheet will dry in 15 minutes in the tropical sun?]


People generally lived in the same hometown with their relatives. So "child care" meant grandparents or aunts and uncles.

And that was good.
[Isan: The person you meet in the street is only one or two relational steps away from your boss, your co-worker or your landlady. Ergo: You better to be nice to everyone. ]


Parents were respected and their rules were law. Children did not talk back.

And that was good.
[Isan: That's still the unwritten law of the land, here.]


TV was in black-and-white. But all outdoors was in glorious color ...

And that was certainly good.
[Isan: TV is popular, but only at night. Kids actually play outside all day here.]


Your dad knew how to adjust everybody's carburetor...and the dad next door knew how to adjust all the TV knobs...

And that was very good.
[Isan: I use very few "professionals" for fixit jobs. Someone I know, or someone who knows someone always comes to the rescue.]


Your grandma grew snap beans in the back yard...and chickens behind the garage .

And that was definitely good.
[Isan: Your author now grows chili bushes outside his bedroom window, and a cow resides across the lane. Is that close enough?]

A
nd just when you were about to do something really bad, chances were you'd run into your dad's high school coach ... or the nosy old lady from up the street...or your little sister's piano teacher ... or somebody from church--ALL of whom knew your parents' phone number and YOUR first name .

And even THAT was good!

[Isan: Being a farang, you stand out anyway. Better mind your P's and Q's. Word travels fast in Isan. Yes, that does have it's good side, such as when you need to find things like a new apartment, a motorbike part, or a new friend! ]

4 comments:

witheringintuition said...

I grew up in the 80s so I am a youngin, but I have many similar experiences. I think much of it is due to the fact that I was raised in the south with a large extended family. I was always taught to call all adults “Mrs., or Mr.” and I was even to ask the cafeteria worker if I “may have some milk.” I always loved going to bed at my grandma’s house as the sheets smelled fresh and clean. The other day my grandma gave me some of her extra blankets from her house. I took them home and laid them out. They smelled wonderful and I cannot duplicate that smell in my dryer. Most of my family lived (as I was growing up) in the same town. We saw each other all of the time. To this day, I have close relationships with my 2nd and 3rd cousins, let alone my cousins which are more like sibling. We played outside all day every day. We played with sticks, ditches, and boxes. It was a glorious childhood full of imagination and life. My great grandma would always bring over green beans and we would sit in a group to talk and snap the ends off. I can still remember the way that it felt to the feel the bean pop within my hands. I have noticed a change in the last few years – even within my own family. I am getting increasingly excited about coming to Thailand in a few months.

Brian Hayes said...

I truly enjoy your observations.

I posted this marvelous vignette at http://brianhayes.com/2006/04/were-you-kid-in-fifties.html
to help assure you get around.

Chaichakri said...

This feels like Malaysia in the 1970s. Then, things were much more easier, less complicated and much more caring.

As Malaysia joins the ranks of the developed world, we have become less concern on our ongoings. We have become more and more selfish!

These days in Malaysia, the government has to emphasize on how to behave properly....

Garden Benches said...

I grew up in a city with lots of people but some of the experiences were similar, parents were respected, as were elders, friends all went to the same school etc, so even in a city we still had a community feel.