I remember having small competitions when I was in school: small spelling bees, after school sports competitions, a “field day” competition once a year. Overall when I think back on my days in primary and middle school there was a fair amount of competition present inherently in the school system. I thought I had experienced a pretty big dose of competition; that was until I came to Thailand.
Lately all the schools around the country have been preparing for competitions, in a wide range of subjects. They range from English, Chinese, and Thai story telling, English and Thai singing, traditional Thai dancing, drawing, making Thai flower arrangements and even competing in who has the best Thai manners. Students have been preparing for these competitions for about the last month, which has meant that for the last month about 50% of my various classes have been absent half the time. The students who have been “chosen” to participate in these competitions are excused from learning other subjects to prepare for the competition. This has made it very difficult to teach
About 2 weeks ago was the preliminary round for the competition. School was completely closed to all students for two days due to the competitions. After this, most students continued to miss class as they prepared for the provincial competition, which took place this weekend. School was only closed one day this time, since the competitions took place Friday – Sunday. I went each day, and though I felt like this challenged my patience more than almost anything I’ve experienced so far in Thailand, I came away learning a lot. Watching these competitions made me more aware of what the educational system values. There is a huge push for English and Chinese language improvement. Even though I find myself criticizing the rote memorization or the fact that a select amount of students are allowed to miss many classes and school is occasionally closed to all the students so a few can compete, it shows how much the system is pushing language learning.
Probably the most interesting thing to notice observing these competitions was how much these competitions seem to try to preserve Thai culture and customs. Students learn to make arrangements out of jasmine flowers and banana leaves like the ones commonly given to monks and used for various festivals, they celebrate traditional Thai dances and songs, and pass along traditions like the “wai.” For one particular competition, which I had to have explained to me in detail because I had no idea how a competition could possibly be made out of this, students were expected to “wai” (or bow) the proper way, with their fingers together and hands at a certain place on their face depending on the age and occupation of the person they were greeting. They had to wai the image of the Thai King and Queen properly, and then replicate how they would “wai” at a funeral, wedding, and other social occasions. Girls are expected to have their elbows in front of their knees when they bow while boys have their elbows beside their knees. There are so many intricacies to the culture. After watching a group of girls perform traditional Thai dance and listening to the criticism they got in front of the audience afterwards, I was surprised to find out that they lost points because one of the girls did not have her hair twisted up properly. All I had been paying attention to was the dancing! It seems there is a proper way to do everything here.
Sitting watching 3 days of these competitions was difficult, and not only because I had to listen to 10 year olds sing songs completely out of tune about “pretty boys that they love so much,” while knowing full well they probably cannot even tell me how old they are, with background music blasting so loud I could feel the vibrations through my body. What made it most difficult was the realization that I sat there the whole time judging what was happening around me and thinking about what could be done better. There can always be improvement, but there are probably a lot of things going well at the same time. It is easy to dwell on the negative. In the end, I think it is beautiful that even while there is so much pressure to modernize, Thailand remains proud of and values their own culture and traditions. (I will still have plenty of time to test this new found patience since the regional round of competitions is in 2 more months, and finally the national round next year.)