During my time in Thailand I discovered and was reminded many times that appearances count for everything there. Foreign teachers are paraded in front of schools in the morning for no other purpose than to show passers by that the school has foreign teachers, whether those same teachers are wonderful or hopeless. Thai ‘superstars’ are admired because they are beautiful or handsome, regardless of the fact that their acting or singing is actually quite poor. I saw another, totally shocking example of this philosophy at the school I was teaching at in Phuket.
I returned to my office after a lesson one day to find the head of the English department standing at her desk, looking through a collection of her students’ work. She stopped me as I walked past and showed me one. “Beautiful, yes?” she asked me. It was a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh eating honey out of a jar with the word ‘fly’ written underneath. The picture was indeed very well drawn, an almost exact likeness to the picture it had obviously been copied from. What I didn’t understand was the word ‘fly’.
The head of the English department then told me that she had given her students from Muttayom 4 (mainly 16 year-olds) a project of choosing an English verb and then drawing a picture to illustrate it. So ‘fly’ was the verb and it obviously had nothing to do with eating honey. “So this is eating honey”, I pointed out to the head of the English department, “and the verb is ‘fly’?” “Yes”, she said. “Beautiful, yes?”
My God, I thought. Doesn’t she know it’s completely wrong? And the best verb that a Muttayom 4 student could come up with contained only three letters? A seven year-old could have produced the same thing. I looked at her face to see if she was hopefully pulling my leg, but of course she wasn’t. I was stunned. I wanted to tell her how futile the project was, that we were trying to teach English not art and that she should have expected more from a Muttayom 4 student. I wanted to, but I didn’t because I knew I’d be wasting my time and be seen as a killjoy.
So as long as something is beautiful it is to be admired, and the fact that it is completely incorrect or totally inappropriate is overlooked. I was to learn later that this philosophy summed up so much of life in Thailand.