Part of a teacher’s responsibility in Thailand is to visit their students’ homes to find out where they live, who they live with and what conditions they live in. If their living conditions are found to be rather poor, the school is then able to provide a form of scholarship to support them and their education. This week, I spent some time after school driving around the local communities to visit some of my students and their families, which turned out to be both very heartwarming and eye-opening.
Today our first stop was the home of a girl called Nongluk, a very quiet student in M5 (essentially year 12 in UK education system equivalent). For the first visit, this was a bit of a shock. Her home was pretty much only one room, from what I could see, only one floor for sure. Inside was very dark but I could make out a mattress on the floor at the back of the room. The girl’s mother sat on the floor inside, a hint of sunlight revealing a despondent look on her face. Outside the floor was covered with rubbish, old shoes and pieces of wood. The neighbours looked equally impoverished, each of them taking plenty of time to suss me out, the only farang (foreigner) they’ve seen in a while.
Here I felt rather uncomfortable. The process we had to follow was to have the girl’s mother sign a form for the school, and then pose for photographs with the family in their home. What was most striking to me was when I later learned that Nongluk shares this tiny home with 3 others! Like all of the students, she arrives at school so well presented that you’d never believe she lives in such a place.
Next we follow a boy from the same class, Yannakorn, to his house not to far from where we are. In contrast, Yannakorn’s home is huge. The house is elevated well above ground level to ensure safety during a flood (many years ago this area was devastated by some of the worst flooding in recent history) and it stands proud and strong with a very attractive look to it, a beautiful wooden staircase leading to an upstairs terrace. The boy’s father greets us and his little brother, 7 year old Satang rides around the garden on his brand new bike. He’s too shy to answer me when I speak to him, but he’s smiling proudly as he shows off his wheels! Yannakorn brings some refreshments out, we take a few photos & then move on. Now I’m feeling a lot more comfortable, knowing that not every student we visit will be living in difficult conditions.
Today we ventured a little further, to a different part of the district. It’s great for me to get off the beaten track and see these little communities and villages that I would normally never see as I travel to the centre or to the shops. But the phrase ‘off the beaten track’ takes on a whole new meaning today as we take the car literally off-road and into the forest to reach the home of Nattakarn, and it wouldn’t have been out of place if the theme tune of Jurassic Park played on our arrival, either. We receive a very warm welcome from the girl’s family and from a beautiful clutch of chicks following their mother hen around the grounds. We take some time to rest inside the house, which does have a very comfortable feel to it. This is a beautiful place to live, albeit a tricky one to get to and rather far away, but nearly every student regardless of their age rides a motorbike to school as this is sometimes their only option!
Our next stop takes us across the river and our driver and fellow teacher Teerapong isn’t entirely sure his car will be able to make it across the extremely old bridge, especially carrying three people. Charunee and I decide it’s probably best to walk across and let the car brave the bridge slowly and with considerably less weight. We eventually make it to the home of Pattarin where we are greeted by two very loud guard dogs, a friendly ginger cat and a menagerie of different birds in cages. We are invited inside for a cold drink and to see the inside of the house. Again, the home has a comfortable feel to it but by UK standards, this is a world away. No wallpaper, no paint, visible ceiling beams and no insulation (of course, not necessary given the climate). Yet this home proudly displays a vast collection of family photographs and a number of photographs of the Thai royal family, namely the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who sadly died last October aged 88. At first glance one might mistaken this home for poverty, but in reality I feel these people have everything they need, they are just living a very simple life.
This is our last day of home visits, and by now I’m really enjoying getting out and about and meeting the families of the students I am teaching. Our first stop today takes us to a village on the other side of the district, to a large community of people living very close together in what to me, felt very similar to the townships of South Africa. The first student we visit is Supamas, who lives in a pleasant-looking home on a very small but very pretty little street with her parents, grandparents and little brother. Her young niece and nephew join us as they approach the house on their little bikes, excited to see new and strange people. Their is a lot of talk in Thai so for the most part I have no idea what is going on. But in general I think the parents simply want to know how their children are doing at school, if they are well behaved and respectful to their teachers.
What I did learn here, was where this whole community initially came from. The village was created around 30 years ago after a terrible landslide devastated the town of Ban Kathun Nuea, which is now a reservoir hiding a tragic past. Many people died as a result and survivors had to find new homes in neighbouring villages. Supamas’ father was one of those survivors lucky enough to escape with his life.
Just around the corner is the home of Ancharee, one of the best students in this particular class. I remember her because she answers most of my questions and always sits at her desk with a smile on her face. Her mother is very welcoming, offering us cool water and a selection of biscuits. At the table we are joined by who I first believe to be her younger brother, an insanely cute little 5 year old. However, I soon find out that he’s her little cousin. His mother had five children who she did not want to look after herself, so distributed them between her family. Ancharee looks after this little guy like he’s her own brother, and her mother is bringing him up as her own son. I also learn that most of Ancharee’s days begin at 3am when she wakes up to help her mother to prepare and cook food to be sold at the market. Then she must get herself ready for school and arrive for 7am for a day of studying until 4pm. 13-hour long days for a 16/17 year old is simply unheard of back home. And yet this is a young girl who accepts that this is what she needs to do: help her mother, look after her younger cousin-come-brother and on top of all of this get herself an education. It’s remarkable.
Finally, we reach the end of our travels and conclude our home visits for this year as we arrive at the home of Jirapong, a young lad who lives right next to the school with his three younger brothers (two of which are twins) and his parents. With a very warm welcome, Jirapong invites us to take a seat on the porch of his house – a seemingly decent sized house but I imagine it gets rather cramped with 6 occupants. Dogs, birds and even caged squirrels dominate the outside of his house and at first he’s the only one at home. It isn’t too long before his mother joins us with the youngest of his three brothers and provides refreshments. On the surface, Jirapong is a very happy young man, who enjoys school and makes a solid effort to take part in class activities and also plays an active role in the student council, helping the school with assemblies and other events. However, after school is no breeze for him. His parents work nights on a plantation, when it’s the coolest time to work, and now that he’s old enough he helps them as much as he can. This means that some nights he barely gets 3 hours sleep as he’s busy working on the plantation with his mum and dad. And again, it’s commendable to see such a polite and hard-working student get through the school day after labouring through the night!
What I’ve seen in my first two months of teaching in Thailand is of course, many similarities between Thai students and UK students, after all, they’re all children. But their way of life is so different from that of students in the UK and from what I have seen, these kids just get on with things, even though in many cases, things can be tough.
I don’t want to talk-down the youth of the UK by any means, as I am fully aware that in some areas there are many young British children living in poor conditions or taking care of their parents and siblings, and this too, is incredibly commendable. Any comparisons I make are to my own experience at school and in life, and after seeing how some of these students live, I definitely will think twice before I complain about certain things again. Even as I write, my parents are doing up my bedroom back home, so the next time I get to sleep in my own bed, my room will be pretty much brand new! Indeed, we all take things for granted in this life, but it’s experiences like this that make you realise what kind of things we take for granted.
The one thing that resonated with each and every home visit, though, was the sense of community in every village and area we went to. Even if the students live with just one parent, or just their grandparents, the wider community is visible everywhere, all helping one another and all there for each other.