I’ve been a little homesick lately. I think it’s because, after three months, the newness has worn off and the reality of day to day life in Suphanburi, Thailand, is exactly that — reality. Not a vacation and not always a wild ride, with the nuances of adjusting to life in a culture that isn’t mine causing a little more of a challenge, and a little less wonder.
So I’ll tell you a story of the day-to-day life of our school coordinator, Kanchana.
Kanchana has been a tough read. She is friendly, but not in the typical Thai way. The other teachers at our school truly do feel like aunts or grandmothers, constantly urging us to eat dishes of fruit they just sliced, asking where we traveled over the weekend, teaching us a Thai phrase here and there. (Correction. EVERY day, Preeda asks me, regarding lunch, “Aroi mai?” — “Is it delicious?” With a huge, expectant smile.)
Kanchana, as our “boss,” and someone who has ushered many, many native English speaker teachers through Sanguan Ying School, is a little distant. You can sense that wheels are turning, certainly none of them malicious, but none of them very visible. In my time at Sanguan Ying, we’ve had a couple of communication misfires. (One day we were clearly told we didn’t have class and then — we did! After missing my first class — oops! Wonder what those kiddos were doing for an hour in the classroom just ten yards away!)
I did notice early on, however, that Kanchana is not around as much. I never saw her at lunch in the canteen with the rest of the teachers. I mentioned this to Caitlin, and she explained, “Oh yeah, Kanchana goes home every day at lunch to take care of her mom and dad.” And then I DID notice – she quietly leaves the air conditioned sanctuary of the Foreign Language Department office every day promptly at lunchtime, armed with a large umbrella. And reappears later, without fanfare or really any hellos or goodbyes at all. Goes back to teaching English to her M5’s and M6’s. (11th and 12th graders.)
So she’s been hard to get to know. Which is fine, and normal. It’s entirely likely that the profuse kindness and generosity of the Thai people have altered my perception of normal. (God help my next set of co-workers who don’t deliver fresh fruit to me on a daily basis!)
A few weeks ago, Kanchana approached me and asked me to teach two extra English classes at her house, on Sunday the 28th. A paid gig, and with littles! (Ages 4-11 – how fun!) I accepted the request. So at 9:30 today, I walked over to Kanchana’s house, which you can literally see from the front parking lot of our apartment building. She briskly said hello to me, sliding the gate open to her front yard, and there was, I kid you not, a table with no less than: 50 instant noodle cups, 50 bottles of soda, a mountain of assorted (mostly seaweed or shrimp-flavored) chips and three coolers full of ice. And 30 kids running around. As kids do, particularly on Sunday mornings, and definitely when hopped up on sugar and MSG.
I looked up and noticed a couple of elderly Thai people sitting inside the house, on low-slung chairs with a Thai soap opera on the TV. But they, like me, were watching the kids buzzing about in the yard. Kanchana’s parents, I assume.
I had no idea what sort of teaching materials I’d need, so had spent my Saturday night creating alphabet and number flashcards, prepping for a basic lesson and assuming that I may be in a yard or a garage. But after offering me soda (“Pepsi or Coke?”) and then bringing me a cold water, Kanchana showed me into a room, not connected to her house, but next to it, where 20 Thai kiddos were seated at tables – eating, laughing, jumping around. With a whiteboard at the front. And English posters on every wall. So Kanchana has a small, legitimate English classroom at her house. It is obviously used for nothing else.
I flew through two hours of lessons with the little ones, with a LOT of translation help from Kanchana. We learned parts of the body and sang the Hokey-Pokey. And there’s really nothing more awesome than seeing little kids crack up at how silly I can be while “shaking it all about.”
After the last smiling kid had departed this tiny classroom, Kanchana discretely paid me. I asked her how long she has been doing this, and, “How do the kids know about the class?”
She said, “I started with my daughters, when they were young. I wanted them to love English, so I taught them at home, and then their friends came. And more and more friends. When I started I didn’t have this building, but I built it so we didn’t have to hold classes in the garage.”
“Oh my goodness! How old are your daughters now?”
“Oh, they are 29. They used to be able to help me, but they are busy now.”
“Wow. This is amazing, Kanchana.”
“It is important to make them love English when they are young. Today I could tell, in their faces, that they were learning. And if they love English when they are young, they will be good at it. Once they are in my class [11th and 12th graders], in a class with 50 students — too many students — it is too late.”
So one Sunday a month, Kanchana hosts 50 kids from Suphan in a classroom, that she built in the yard of her house, for free. She buys soda and snacks and paper and pens, and pays a native English speaker (me!) to laugh and dance my way through a halfway thought-out lesson.
So they will love English. And so she can prevent them from becoming despondent 17 year-olds in her classroom 10 years down the road.
I found out today, after writing this post, that Kanchana is retiring next year. But now, I’m guessing that her day-to-day life (quietly taking care of those around her, teaching English) really isn’t going to change all that much.
A good reminder for me to stop and take notice, even on my lonely or routine days, of the small things. Those almost-hidden things that, in a lifetime, end up being the most important: Everyday kindnesses, everyday grace.