At the school where I work in Chiang Mai, Thailand; we participate in “music in the garden” every Thursday. Music in the garden has the feel of a block party or a barbeque where all of the students and parents come together after school, make and sell food, and listen to musical performances by some of the teachers (and sometimes students!).
To set-up, every student has a job. Some students help set up the tables and music equipment, while some of the younger students help roll out mats to cover the grass in the garden.
Most of the students however, are helping to cook delicious food. The students work in small groups and have a mini-cooking class every Thursday. Every week they cook something different and there are always at least 4 or 5 dishes to choose from. We have had fried rice, eggs, chicken, BBQ mushrooms, noodles, pork and sticky rice, among many others. There is also always a homemade drink of either butterfly pea flower water or punch.
Around 4:30pm we walk outside to join the students and parents. The older students are set up at tables around the garden in order to sell their homemade food for between 5 and 20 baht per plate ($0.14-$0.57). Some of the parents and grandparents also bring food or other items to sell. The grandmother of a 4th and 5th grade brother and sister brings multiple varieties of popcorn (caramel, bbq, spicy, or seaweed flavored) every week. The mother of another 4th grader always brings the dried pork and sticky rice. At last week’s music in the garden, a group of parents sold jelly candies and mini-candles.
As for the music, one of the primary teachers always plays the guitar. The PE/nursery teacher usually sings. At one music in the garden, one of the 6th grade girls sang and played the guitar as well as any adult you might hear playing music live around town. This same girl is one of the singers on the school song recording they play every morning during morning assembly. At an earlier music in the garden, one of the 2nd grade girls (a 7 year old!) played some type of mallet instrument very beautifully for the entire hour.
While the teachers and older students play music and sell food, the younger students (nursery-P3) run around and play. Since we teach primary school, this is where Jake and I get our weekly dose of kindergarten fun. Since we are both foreign and not their regular teachers, the kindergarteners find us (mostly Jake) extremely exciting. There are lots of high fives, funny faces, general goofiness, and climbing all over Jake who is essentially a giant.
Music in the garden is generally a highlight of our week. We get to relax, eat great food, listen to music, and hang out and get to know our students outside of the classroom.
Do you want to hear more about our school activities? More about places to see in Chiang Mai, or about living in Thailand in general? Let me know!
At our small, alternative school in Chiang Mai, we have a few unique activities that we participate in each week that are pretty different from what we might do at an American school.
For example, on Wednesdays we do yoga with all of the prathom (elementary) students.
P1-P3 (1st-3rd grade) usually do yoga in the library, which also doubles as our office and is where Jake and I spend most of our time when not teaching. P4-P6 (4th-6th grade) are usually just upstairs in the music room.
We join the group in the library every Wednesday since the translated schedule we received on day 1 clearly stated, “the school would like you to do yoga with the students”.
This usually puts me facing backward for any poses that start off on our backs. I don’t understand most of the Thai directions, so I spend most of this time craning my neck around trying to figure out what everyone else is doing, getting into whatever pose that might be, and then realizing that they have already moved on to something else. The other problem with just copying whatever the students are doing is when 6-9 year olds are your model yogis, often none of them are doing the same thing as the instructor anyway.
This should say, "Me at Thai yoga".
However, the yoga instructor always seems very happy that we join her class, and the mid-workday savasana is amazing.
As a final highlight, the Kindergarteners do yoga on Tuesdays. Kindergarten yoga is possibly one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen.
Thai culture is extremely interesting. I am by no means an expert (I’m an American, and I’ve been living here for all of three months), but most of what follows is not only based on my experience living and working here, but was also taught to us on Thai cultural day during our TEFL course.
Thailand is 95% Buddhist and there are over 300 Buddhist temples, or wats, in Chiang Mai alone. When visiting a Buddhist temple you should be sure to cover your thighs, chest, and shoulders–men wear long pants; and women wear pants, skirts, or shorts that go below the knees. Everyone should wear shirts or blouses with sleeves so that the shoulders and chest are covered. In some wats, visitors wear all white or a white top with black pants or long skirt, although in my experience this is rare.
Take off your shoes before entering the temple. You will see shoes lined up outside of the temple, so just follow the lead of everyone around you and leave your shoes outside.
When entering the temple you should step over the door threshold, rather than on it.
In a Buddhist temple, women kneel with the tops of their feet flat on the ground and sit on their heels. Men kneel with just the balls of their feet on the ground and the soles of their feet facing straight behind them, and sit on their heels.
Monks are highly respected in Buddhism and Thai culture. Women should never touch a monk.
The head and feet
In Thailand, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body. Therefore you should never touch another person’s head (there are obvious exceptions for hairdressers, doctors, masseuses, etc. as well as some exceptions for children).
You also should never point your feet at anyone, as the feet are considered to be the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Accidentally pointing your feet at someone mostly occurs when westerners cross their legs while sitting, or while sitting in a chair with their legs outstretched.
Similarly, this is why you take your shoes off before entering some houses or buildings in Thailand, and always at a temple. You also should never raise shoes to unnecessary heights, or have shoes hanging loosely tied to a piece of luggage.
The wai (pronounced ‘why’) is both a greeting, and a sign of respect.
In any given social situation, the Phu Noi (little person) wais the Phu Yai (big person) first. This is usually based on age and status, but a number of different factors can come into play. I always wai first my employers, the director at a school I am visiting, or someone who is clearly older than me where we do not know each other’s status or position. When in doubt, it’s probably better to wai first. You do not need to wai someone you are paying for a service such as waiters or taxi drivers.
If someone wais you and you do not return the wai, it is considered very rude–similar to if someone goes to give you a handshake in the west and you leave them hanging. Obviously Thais are understanding of foreigners and that you may not understand their culture and traditions, so it’s unlikely you really will offend someone by not returning a wai as a visitor, but it’s much more respectful to understand how to wai appropriately.
There are three stages of the wai:
A first stage wai is for someone of equal status to you, or when acknowledging and returning a wai from someone of lower status. To first stage wai you place your plams together and equally lower your head while raising your hands until your index fingers touch the tip of your nose.
A second stage wai is for waiing someone of higher status. This includes elders, teachers, parents, or your boss. To second stage wai you place your palms together and lower your head while raising your hands until your thumb touches the tip of your nose and your index fingers touch the center of your forehead between your eyebrows. In a second stage wai you bow your head slightly more than you would in a first stage wai.
A third stage wai is for the King, the Buddha, or monks. You third stage wai while kneeing (as described above). To third stage wai you start with a second stage wai (thumbs to nose and index fingers to forehead) and then follow that by bringing your hands to the ground in front of you and bringing your forehead to touch your fingers on the ground.
In a temple you third stage wai the Buddha three times–once to the Buddha, once to the Buddha’s teachings, and once to the monks.
Thais value “jai yen” or a “cool heart”. In general, Thais are very laid back and you will hear “mai pen rai” very often. “Mai pen rai” can not be directly translated to English, but it is often interpreted to mean “never mind”, “it’s ok”, or “no worries”. To relax and go with the flow is a very positive attribute in Thailand.
Thais are said to openly avoid confrontation (for anyone who knows me well, this is obviously something I kind of love). However it also means that if a Thai has a problem with you, you probably won’t know it. This goes back to an important concept of ‘losing face’. It is very important in Thai culture not to ‘lose face’ so Thais would rather avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation (or person they don’t like) than to have any form of confrontation or disagreement.
It is also considered a major faux pas to outwardly express extreme negative emotions, so expressing anger or loosing your temper in public is frowned upon and causes you to “lose face”.
Thais do love to have fun (“sanuk”) and therefore all activities should have an element of fun–including work and school. This is a very important cultural point for teachers. On our very first day of school, Jake and I were asked by our supervisor if we could “make activities for learning”. We need to include creative ways to keep the kids having fun and engaged in order to ‘trick’ them into learning. Traditional teaching methods of lectures and worksheets and sitting at their desks for the entire 50 minute period just doesn’t fly here.
Similarly, it is not uncommon to see Thais at work, in a variety of work settings, laughing and joking and having a wonderful time.
Other random cultural points
Appearance is very important. Sometimes how you look and dress will mean more than other qualifications to show signs of status, or even to get a job. It is important to be well dressed and clean.
Thais use their first names rather than last names. Teachers are called “Teacher” or “Kru” (which means ‘teacher’ in Thai) followed by their first name. For example, I am “Teacher Nicole” at school, not “Mrs. Geller” as I would be in the west. Outside of the classroom this still applies, and people are usually introduced with the title “Khun” followed by their first name; rather than Mr. or Miss/Mrs./Ms. last name as you would be introduced in the west.
Beckoning a songthaew, taxi, tuk tuk, or another person is done with the hand down. To a westerner the symbol almost looks like you are shooing someone away–but in Thailand this is how you call someone over. As a westerner it can be a little confusing the first time you see it.
In Thailand, you eat with a spoon and fork. You hold the spoon in your dominant hand, and use the fork to push food onto the spoon, and then bring the spoon to your mouth. The exception is when eating noodles or certain other dishes, which you eat with chopsticks.
Hope this helps! As always, contact me with any questions. I’d love to hear about any upcoming trips to Thailand!