The brightly painted bus came bouncing up the road in front of the school kicking up a heavy plume of dust. This wasn’t rainy season. All the kids stared; it was the first time the bookmobile visited them. It parked in front of the 7th and 8th grade classrooms. Three bookmobile employees quickly popped open some side panels to display picture books and a video screen. Next a set of massive speakers were hauled out and hooked up; within minutes the place was rocking. Starting with the kindergarteners, the classes filed inside the bus in small groups to look at the books and other displays and to interact with the teachers who had activities planned. While the smallest kids were enjoying the inside of the bus, the older kids were outside watching cartoons and singing karaoke.
Thais love karaoke and to them the louder something is the better it sounds. When I repeat words in class to correct their pronunciation they don’t change the sound of what they’re saying, they only say it louder. That morning I spent five solid minutes trying to get the fifth graders to imitate my way of voicing school. Thais have trouble with that final L. Football is footbon, volleyball is wolleybon, apple is appon, and school is sa-koon. Each time I slowly said school, it came back as the two-syllable sa-koon, sa-koon, sa-koon, SA-KOON, until I eventually gave up and accepted the fact that today we were having class at sa-koon. With karaoke, even though the tone may be way off, the melody lost, the high notes flat and the beat lagging, the louder the song is sung, it’s better than okay.
The girls from Grade 8 were in the canteen making salted eggs; I would be joining them later and Kruu Wamin wasn’t sure what to do with the boys in the meantime. This is our smallest class with only 4 girls and 5 boys so I suggested we teach the boys how to play UNO. UNO was one of the games that seasoned volunteers suggested we bring over with us. It’s a straightforward game that’s easy to understand, the instructions are uncomplicated and can be demonstrated without using a lot of Thai or English. The kids pick it up quickly. Plus, in Thailand I think card games are intuitively part of childhood development. If you spend any time at a Thai wedding or funeral you will inevitably see tables of people holding and throwing down hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs in raucous exchanges, while not far away another group is singing karaoke. I just had to shake my head as I watched the way the thirteen year olds shuffled and dealt the cards, the way they held and manipulated the suits fanning them out and arranging them by color and number, the way they drew cards from the deck, and the way they flipped the cards from their hand onto the discard pile. These kids were naturals. Even though the game was new to them the palpation of the cards wasn’t.
Each time they played a card Kruu Wamin and I made them say the color and number in English and we taught them the words pick up, skip, reverse/switch direction, pass. If they used Thai, they lost their turn. Because they were competing with each other they learned faster than they do in our regular classes.
Meanwhile the girls were making salted eggs. The fresh eggs had already been sitting in a salt water bath for two days and now the girls were mixing that salt water with the local porcelain clay in a large plastic tub. The eggs were scooped up and slathered with the kaolin. The eggs would stay in the clay for 2 weeks continuing to marinate and I have to assume that it also serves as a cushion for the fragile eggs. After two weeks the eggs could be cleaned of the clay and cooked, most commonly boiled. Once boiled the albumen takes on a slightly different texture and has a whiter, creamier color. The yolk is “orangier”. Left in the shell and cut lengthwise, the white and yolk are scooped out to accompany many Thai dishes.
Despite the fact that the sa-koon year was winding down and only a few students were fretting over upcoming exams, entertaining the bookmobile, singing karaoke and making salted eggs were not unexpected diversions. Recently schools have reduced classroom hours spent learning traditional subjects like Thai, English, math, science, those subjects the kids will be tested on, in favor of adding hours to promote and strengthen student Thai-ness. Students learn how to brine cabbage, fry chicken and fold table skirts. They learn how to play instruments and perform traditional Thai songs and dances. They learn how to decoratively fold ribbons around coins so they can be thrown by novice monks at Buddhist ceremonies. They prepare for sports days and boy scout camps and they clean the school and the grounds for visiting soldiers and dignitaries.
They are learning, just not the things I think they should. And I am learning from them, and not the things I thought I would.