The first night I was at Mahasarakham University in northern Thailand, members of the Western Languages and Linguistics Department faculty took me to a restaurant. We sat around a large table with platters of artfully arranged and delicious looking food in the center. Waiters put food on our plates. No one moved. Everyone was looking at me — and I realized that they were waiting for me to begin. I had Googled Thai culture and read that when eating Thai food the fork is used to push food onto a spoon, and only the spoon is used to bring food to your mouth. I decided to trust the article, pushed some fruit with my fork onto my spoon and lifted the spoon to my lips. I heard a collective sigh of relief. Now everyone began eating, using their forks to move food onto their spoon.
When I asked a professor why they didn’t explain this to me as we were leaving the restaurant he replied, “We don’t use speech, or what you call behavior modification, to teach in Thailand.” He added with a smile, “We consider it gross to put a fork in your mouth, and we were happy to see you use your spoon, but it would be rude to tell you what to do.”
Another valuable piece of information was that students often prefer to work in groups and are not used to, or comfortable with, being signaled out. I did not feel successful with my classroom dynamics the first two days. For example, teaching storytelling performance techniques I gave students an introductory exercise to introduce the concept of embodying a character. I asked them to choose an animal from a folktale I told, write a line of dialogue for that animal and decide how he or she would stand and walk. They all wrote their sentences, but no one was willing to say theirs out loud, or to stand up to enact being that animal. They stared at me pleasantly, but resolutely — no one willing to do a demonstration. Later, with another class, I used the same exercise but had them form groups of four to work together on these exercises. This went well and now when I asked each group to send whoever wanted to volunteer to model their portrayal so that we could try to guess what animal they were portraying, nearly all the students enthusiastically and imaginatively performed.
Another USA cultural mannerisms I learned to abandon was how I called on and beckoned students. In Thai culture pointing is considered rude. Instead, looking at a student and raising your chin is instantly understood. Related to this, when I used my hand to indicate if they were to come forward, it is considered distasteful to use the hand gesture we use in the USA with palm up, or sideways, moving our hand or fingers toward us. In Thailand, your hand is extended with the palm down as you pull your fingers toward you in slow repetitions.
This is not academic or content oriented, but I have consistently found it useful when visiting or working in another culture to research their folklore, customs and traditions.
Ruth Stotter – Fulbright to Thailand 2016