Wednesdays are my favorite days at work. My teaching schedule is such that I don’t have class until 11:30 in the morning. So I usually take the bulk of the morning to catch up on either work or errands. And if those are caught up, I spend the morning reading, writing, or watching something on Netflix. Today, I needed to get my motorbike washed. Luckily, there is a place across from the school with a cafe next to it. So I thought I’d get the bike washed, fill up on caffeine, and work on progress reports due in about 3 weeks (don’t get me started on those).
As I was driving through campus, I saw a seventh-grade boy throw a pencil case at a girl. Thai kids can be very physical in their expression, so I’ve grown accustomed to shrugging these gestures off. But then he threw his book at her.
I stopped the motorbike and parked it right there, next to the students, who were standing in the campus road (also something I’ve grown accustomed to).
Once I took my helmet off, they knew I was a teacher. I could see they wanted to scatter. “Come here,” I said to them.
Fortunately, Thai kids are extremely respectful. So now that the order had been given, they wouldn’t dare run off. Instead they waied and said, “Sorry, teacher.”
But that wasn’t good enough for me. “Why did you throw your stuff at her?”
Silence. Not as much from guilt, but from a limitation in language. Other students who had crowded around interpreted and helped the boy with the right language. “She say bad thing.”
“What did she say?”
More interpretation and discussion. “She say I’m ladyboy.”
Suppressing my amusement, I turned to the girl, who was fuming at this accusation. “Is this true? Did you call him a ladyboy?” She nodded, steam rising from her head. “Why?”
“Because he say bad about my skin!” she pointed to her arm.
I’ve lived in Thailand long enough to know what he said. But I continued to play detective. I turned to the boy. “What did you say about her skin?” I asked, pointing to my arm.
Translation and discussion. I heard the Thai word for black which confirmed my suspicion. “I say she black.”
It’s worth explaining here that when Thai people say black, they mean tanned. And if you don’t understand Thai culture, or Asian culture in general, tanned skin is generally considered undesirable. Rich, high-born Thais do business indoors and languish in their shaded courts. Peasants work the fields and get a tan. So even though the insult seems silly, especially given that the skin tones of the two students was nearly the same, for the girl it was a remark about her beauty and her status.
“Why did you say that to her?”
He understood the question, but was now too embarrassed to answer. He looked at me sheepishly and bowed slightly, saying, “Sorry, teacher.”
“Don’t say sorry to me. Say it to her.”
“Sorry,” he said to her, somewhat half-heartedly.
“Say it in Thai. Say it like you mean it.”
He muttered an apology in Thai. I know enough Thai to know he actually apologized politely.
“Good.” I turned to the girl. “Is it right to call him a ladyboy because he calls you black?”
“No. But I angry.”
“I know. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to be angry. Do you understand?” She nodded. “Say sorry to him.”
She waied and choked out an apology in Thai, though I could see she resented it.
I asked their names and classrooms. Then I warned them that if I ever saw them fighting again I’d take them to a Thai teacher. It was clear that they preferred my soft American mediation to the beating they’d probably receive from my local counterpart. The threat to involve a Thai teacher struck fear in them. They both waied again, and ran off.
As I continued my short trip to the car wash, I couldn’t help but think This is Thailand.