My Life In Thailand
For five winters, from 1994 to 1999, I volunteered teaching English and literacy to young Theravadan Buddhist nuns in Thailand. It was the best unpaid job of my life.
In Thailand, giving alms to a monk brings benefits to the donor, because a monk has taken 227 precepts and all of them reflect back on the donor. Since nuns only take eight precepts (high ranking nuns take ten precepts), there is less karmic return on the gift if one supports them, and until relatively recently, nuns (or maechee) were only found in wats doing cleaning and cooking tasks for monks. This is changing in Thailand.
I went to the north of Thailand, to a monastic community for young women, organized by Maechee Arun, who began, first in Bangkok and then in the north, to teach young women crafts, cooking, agricultural skills, anything that would give them a safe way to earn a living. She asked that they ordain as nuns while they were her students. In Theravada Buddhism it is not unusual to ordain and leave orders several times in one’s life. Although wats (temples) have a tradition of educating promising young boys, this community for girls was a new project.
The place I lived was some distance away from the community of maechee. In fact, I spent four hours a day in a songthao, a converted pickup truck with two benches inside a pickup-shell. When the benches were full, there was a ladder and framework outside the truck to hang on to, which I did a few times. I shared that bus with bags of garlic, with teak furniture, with more people than you’d think could wedge into such a space. It was always different, always interesting, and always extremely kind.
I faced a classroom of as many as 32 young women, aged 11 to early 20s, all with white robes, shaved heads, enthusiastic expressions, and names I’d never heard before. It was daunting until I could distinguish them one from another. No one could tell me what level they were at. They were all in one class, for three hours. I invented my own method of teaching without using their language since I spoke almost no Thai. The girls who had some English translated for the others when things drew a blank. I made up lots of flash cards, did lots of drawings on the board, taught lots of songs. We evolved. It seemed to work.
I taught them that the symbols of Roman letters held cues to sounds and if they decoded the symbols they could reconstruct the sounds. They learned our alphabet. They already knew the Thai alphabet. The moment that pleased me most was when a maechee said “When you came, I couldn’t read in any language. Now I can read in two!”
Some of my students had been in school before and were able to help others who had never been in school. One of the students passed the TESOL exam and went on to university. All these young women had an enthusiasm and a willingness to meet life head-on that I found inspiring.