Sunday, December 6, 2009

Jinger Ben

Christmas has come to Thailand in husk form, which is to say that some of its least meaningful externals are wildly popular. This isn't remarkable, considering that 99 percent of Thais are Buddhist, and that they celebrate Buddha's birthday joyfully each year, meaning that Christmas is -- at least as a birthday celebration -- an anticlimax as well as being an artifact of an alien religion.

But many aspects of Christmas are completely in tune with Buddhist precepts. Good will to others, peace on earth, generosity, compassion, and charity -- all appeal instinctively to the Thais.

What Thais like best in the world, though, is a good party, and Christmas offers opportunity galore for celebration, even if that celebration has undergone something of a sea change in being transplanted to a tropical, Buddhist Southeast Asian country. More than anything, Thai Christmas is an excuse to get together, to dress up, to buy things for loved ones, and to focus on kids. And especially on kids wearing the universally recognizable Santa hat.

Santa hats are everywhere in Thailand, beginning in November, right through the end of, say, February. You see hats with pom-poms that light up, hats with stars all over them (sometimes
complemented by somewhat witchy crescent moons), hats with nylon fur, hats with pom-poms that squeak or give out a baleful HO HO HO when squeezed. Almost the only thing they have in common is the indispensable red-and-white color scheme.

The young woman here is a Thai interpretation of Mrs. Claus, dressed to take part in a Christmas parade. The hemline, the ermine boa, and the long white gloves are Thai improvisations, but the hat is reasonably authentic. I think what I like best about the outfit is the little hand-woven Hill Tribe purse she's plainly unwilling to entrust to anyone. Oh, and the red boots. I'll never think of Mrs. Claus again without seeing these red boots.

The Thais are instinctive capitalists, so millions of dollars are spent every year in Bangkok on Christmas decorations for hotels, shopping areas, banks, and other establishments where Christmas primarily signifies a free, if not abandoned, exchange of currency. Even the street markets, which are essentially frameworks of rusted iron poles supporting plywood displays of whatever's for sale, are framed in twinkling Christmas lights and the vendors try to outdo each other with the most ornate Santa hats. And everywhere, from all directions, you hear the most pestilential manifestation of Christmas in Thailand, a very large choir of tone-approximate children absolutely belting out phonetically learned Christmas music.

Phonetically is the key word. Thais have trouble with words that end in an "s" so they sing about Santa Claut coming to town and White Chritmat. But the song that drives all farang, or foreigners, to the point of contemplating very unseasonal scattershot violence combines the Asian issue with "l"and "r" with a Thai tendency to pronounce the last "l" in a word as an "n." Thus, everywhere you go, and I mean everywhere, you hear children shrilling Jinger Ben, Jenger Ben, Jinger ah da way.

On the other hand, the kids in person are beyond adorable. Here's a school parade featuring a crew of totally authentic angels.

They're running interference for Mary as she totes the Baby (somewhat unceremoniously), with a couple of sheep bringing up the rear, having apparently strayed from the shepherds. Please send up a prayer of appreciation for the dedicated teacher who's bundled up in a winter scarf despite a temperature in the mid-nineties.

And down below, to finish this off on a genuine Thai note, are the shepherds the sheep deserted. I'm crazy about this picture (which I didn't take) because the smiles on those kids' faces symbolize what I love best about the Thais: a God-given ability to enter whole-heartedly into whatever silliness life presents, extract the maximum amount of joy from it, and share the joy with everyone around them.

Oh, well, maybe it's a traditional Christmas after all.

Tim - Sunday


  1. Hi Tim,

    I have always wanted to go to Thailand and having read this wonderful text I have even begun to think I could make the long non smoking flight.

    A great insight into a country of what appear lovely people.

    bye Yrsa

  2. Tim - "Jinger Ben" is very funny although it is easy to understand that after the 100th time in a day it could be wearing.

    I live in a city with a large Asian immigrant population. Most are Chinese followed, in numbers, by Vietnamese and Thais. My last name isn't easy for some. Their names can be an adventure for me. They are so polite that they don't want to correct the old lady at the front of the classroom; often an American born friend will help and we get phonetic pronunciations for attendance so the child has some chance of recognizing his/her name.

    One of the funniest moments happened on the first day of school. I had a homeroom of ninth graders so reading the class list for the first time was going to create some confusion. (Homerooms are assigned alphabetically, so it is possible to have a class that is almost completely Chinese or Vietnamese). I had read through the list before homeroom started and most of the names were familiar. There was one, though, that was going to have to be handled carefully.

    As I worked my way down the alphabetical list, I watched a group of boys giggling. Clearly they were hoping I was trapped. Before I had a chance to try to pronounce his name, Phuok jumped up, loudly proclaiming that his name is "Foook". Disaster was averted and I knew then that this kid was going to be president of his class by the time he was a senior.


  3. And, Beth, how many years ago was that?
    And did he ever become the President of his class?
    I have to ask, because when you are lumbered with a name like mine, Leighton, you've got a problem when you're attending schools in the US/
    At the beginning of every school year, I dreaded the moment when a teacher called out the role for the first time.
    It was especially bad in gym classes, which were unisex back then (maybe still are). I can still hear the hoots and the derisive laughter.
    The first year it happened was bad enough. But, as I moved around a lot as a youth, and attended many schools, the anticipation of what was about to happen on that first day of school was so much worse.
    I applaud you for having the sensitivity to recognize what that kid might have gone through even more than the fact that he might have managed to work his way out of it.

  4. Hi, Yrsa -- Thanks for the kind words, and I hope you do go to Thailand. For all the problems the people face, they're the most charming in the world.

    Beth -- Lucky you, teaching classes with a large percentage of Asian kids. The cultural tradition of venerating education gives Asian-Americans the most supportive home environments of any group in the country. (And, occasionally, the most unreasonable amounts of pressure.) But to gauge the essentiality of parents playing an active role in their kids' schooling all you have to do is look at the percentage of Asian freshmen every year and compare it to the percentage of Asians in the population at large.

    And I'm with Leighton. I want to know whether Phuok became class president.

    So Jinger Ben, everybody, and Merry Chritmat. (Wish I were there.)

  5. Tim & Leighton - Phuok graduated last year but he isn't class president. He was the highest ranking officer in ROTC; his leadership qualities were very easy to spot.

    Leighton, I understand how difficult it must have been for you to have an unusual name but no one was going to mistake it for an obscenity. If you were in school in my city, you would have nothing to be concerned about regarding your name. Besides our large Asian community, we also have more than a few Russian, Albanian, and Indian students. There is no longer any such thing as an unusual name unless I count the kids of European descent whose parents come up with some highly original spellings of common names. We have Muslim students, too, and no one takes notice of the hajib either.

    The community was, until about 15 years ago, primarily Irish and Italian. Those are two of the groups who can't immigrate into the US. We border Boston so and are only a couple of stops on public transportation from Chinatown. Moving here wasn't an uncomfortable geographical step.

    The immigrant parents are adjusting more quickly to American culture as they move into neighborhoods where other Asian families have been living and working. In the beginning, the Asian kids didn't participate in any after school programs, like sports or drama. That has definitely changed in part because parents know that college applications should show extracurricular activities. Asian boys are on the football, basketball, and volleyball teams but not hockey. The girls play volleyball, lacrosse, and tennis. Both genders are on track teams.

    The social groups are mixed but there is very little dating outside ethnic groups. That will change soon. Benson is a senior in college now; when he was in high school there wasn't a girl in the school who wouldn't have thought she'd died and gone to heaven if she got to be his lab partner.

    Pressure to succeed is a burden for some of the students, particularly the Chinese. They will, politely, fight over every point on a test. It doesn't matter that a 95 and a 98 appear on a transcript as 5 points; they want the extra point if it means it is the highest grade in the class. Four times a year, when report cards come out, there are lines of kids waiting to learn how this report card has impacted on their class rank. Our high schools offer advanced placement courses that allow them to take a test and earn college credit. Entrance into those classes require approval from teachers in the department and it is a cause of great anxiety if they can only take advanced rather than advance placement.

    We are a working class city that was largely supported by shipbuilding. There are pockets of poverty throughout the area with the attendant social issues that impact negatively on success in school. The Asian emphasis on education has improved the schools for everyone.

    My, I do rattle on.


  6. Rattle as much as you like.
    We all rattle here.
    Your story just restored my faith in public school students of the current generation. Almost all the news I read is bad. Slipping standards, lazy kids, crime in the schools, and then you come up, Beth, with something like this.
    It must be a pleasure to work in an environment like that. Too bad that all of the teachers in the US can't be so lucky. My wife's mother, the one that stopped the Japanese from being hauled away, was a teacher in Sao Paulo for many years. My wife's sister is one now. The difference between their work experiences couldn't be more striking. Salaries have plummeted. There's no money for books. Many schools run three shifts, because there aren't enough buildings. And, the powers-that-be have determined that every student has to pass every year. The teachers in SP today are forbidden to flunk anyone. You can imagine what that does to the standards. And worse. What it does to the few kids who are motivated and really want to learn. The teachers can't teach to them anymore. They have to teach to what they've got in the class. My wife's sister has had about enough. She's tried, long and hard, through different organizations, to change things - but to no avail. Anyone who can afford turns to private schooling. Those that can't afford it, stand no chance whatsoever of getting a higher education. It's very sad.

  7. I had another experience that was the antithesis of the one in my previous story and this lines up with your sister-in-law's experience. First, to clarify, I am a substitute teacher but up until a couple of years ago, I did long-term coverage in emergency situations; sometimes long term meant the entire school year.

    About 12 years ago I was asked to take on 5 classes of 9th graders who had already driven out 4 teachers in 4 days. The first day I reported for this assignment the department head told me something that was frighteningly true. He said we can't save all the students. Some were murdered before we got them." Blaming teachers for the poor quality of education denies the obvious. Obama addresses it everytime he speaks about education. If kids don't have parents who believe that education is the most important thing in their children's lives,it is a rare child that can be rescued by a teacher. The kids who fail do so because they don't come to school or because their parents don't want to put in the time to see that they read and do homework.

    Bush's No Child Left Behind has hobbled education because it is virtually impossible for kids in the grades below high school to fail. We refer to education as teaching to the test. In Massachusetts there are state wide tests given at various levels (they keep changing them). MCAS, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, is given the final time in the 10th grade. If a student doesn't pass it, he/she cannot graduate. Of course, they get multiple opportunities to re-take the test for the next two years with each test getting simpler.

    Because of the tests, teachers are limited on how much time they can spend on lessons. For English and Social Studies teachers, creativity is sacrificed to the timetable. Foreign language is not tested so that department still gets to have some fun.

    The people who make the rules have no idea of what goes on in a school and they certainly don't consider that there are kids who are hungry and homeless sitting in some of those seats.

    As to private schools, parents who pay large amounts of money for tuition do not expect their children to miss getting on the honor role. Teachers have it made clear to them what is expected. Tuition pays salaries.

    I was educated by nuns back in the dark ages where questioning and discussion was frowned upon. I think teachers respect students more now than they did then. I don't think we respected our teachers as much as we feared them and that was not a good thing. But we did know that if we got in trouble in school, we would be in bigger trouble at home. I had four brothers; I knew how that worked. Today, if there is a problem, it is the teacher who is blamed. Parents seem not to want to allow their children to take responsibility for anything. We live in a truly crazy world in which perception is more important than substance and parents can't tell where they leave off and their child begins. The New York Times recently ran a story about prep programs for 4 year-olds to give them an advantage in the entrance exam for kindergarten because the right kindergarten is the first step to Stanford. No one wonders if perhaps the child might not want to go.

    One of my brothers has three boys. Their mother wants one to be an electrician, one to be a carpenter, and the third to be a plumber. She thinks more people should think about honest work for an honest day's pay. The boys have not expressed any interest in her plan.

  8. The "can't fail" system is the most pernicious idea ever introduced into public education, just in front of the "self esteem" movement of the 80s and 90s. We're turning out kids with no skills, no frame of reference, no cultural grounding, kids who have been taught that the way to deal with something difficult is just to blow it off frequently enough, and eventually you'll get validated anyway.

    The complaint used to be that American kids were taught only one language. At this point, I'd argue they're not taught any.

    And in the meantime, Chinese kids do an average of 20 hours of homework a year. Any teacher who tried that here would be fired for placing unrealistic demands on her students.

    Can anyone think of a better way to wreck a country than to customize the education system to the least promising students and bore the smartest ones into apathy? I can't.

  9. Tim - Kids who succeed in school, with rare exception, do so because their parents are motivating them, pushing if you will, to get the homework and the projects done, to practice the instrument, to participate in the after school programs that broaden their horizons and give them goals.

    Well-educated, financially successful parents are often those who don't have the time to do the pushing so teachers are expected to take responsibility for the success of students they see from 50 minutes to 5 hours a day. Big salaries generally require big commitments of time. When kids and parents finally make it home in the evening, there aren't too many more hours in the day. Parents don't want to spend that time fighting with their kids over homework. Solution: don't give kids homework.

    If parents want their children to succeed then they have to act like parents. Kids usually have friends; they don't need their parents to fill that role. They do need them to provide guidance and discipline and,strange as it seems, kids do like discipline. Boundaries make kids feel safe, not self-esteem.

  10. Agree completely, although I think there are some good parents at both ends of the economic spectrum, as well as in the middle. It's just a shame there aren't more who take the role as seriously as many Asian parents seem to.

    Randy Newman has written a great song, "Korean Parents," about it. And it's all about imposing boundaries and expectations instead of being buddies.

    And that's one of the problems with the "pass everyone" policy -- it sets no boundaries and imposes no expectations. If I had my way, beginning this Fall, all kids in first and second grades who can't read at or above level would be failed. And failed again the next year, if necessary. Then move that no-free-pass policy up to third grade in the following year, then fourth, etc. That way, at least, you're not penalizing eighth graders who were never placed in an environment where failure had consequences.

    In fact, it could be called "No Free Pass," as opposed to "No Child Left Behind." In the long run, it might be the single best thing we could do for this country. People who know something are less likely to vote for idiots, less likely to mismanage their finances and abuse credit, less likely to require a spell behind bars for attitude adjustment, etc.

    So there.

  11. Before you imposed your Draconian system, you should try to level the playing field before first grade. You would have to find many adults (one adult for every three kids) who would begin reading books with eye-catching art work to children no later than their first birthday. This would have to be done a number of times during the day and, definitely, just before bed.

    As they get older, one-on-one reading time has to be added into the day because some kids just want to hear the same book over and over.

    There would need to be other volunteers to check the homes of the children to determine if the parents read for pleasure. Books should be available in every room.

    It would get expensive, but each child should receive a book as a gift for every birthday and holiday starting at age two. They have usually stopped chewing on them by then.

    Children should be taught to print their names clearly before they are five so they can get their first library card; weekly visits to the library would need to be documented.

    With all this in place, you may, then, have a level field on which to begin the formal teaching of reading. Kids would already be crazy about reading so most of the work would already be done. Your system would be an enormous success if kids never lost their love of reading.

  12. Not to be contrary, Beth, but this sounds to me like the "it's impossible" posture many school administrators take.

    My parents did not have books in every room. They almost never read, beyond newspapers. I wasn't read to, although my father made up bedtime stories for my brothers and me. (Both brothers read, too.)

    While there's no doubt that the conditions you describe would be advantageous to the kids who experience them, I think it's hopelessly utopian to insist that all kids come to first grade from a level playing field, since it presupposes leveling the world. I also don't actually understand what's draconian about not passing children who fail on basic skills. What kind of favor is it to pass them?

    A more reasonable idea might be to lower the "pass" level in first grade on the assumption that basic skills can be built on in successive years. I'd rather have kids reading at a lower level to begin with, so long as they're acquiring have the skills to continue to learn, instead of just hitting a wall and being passed mindlessly while making no progress.

    I love the idea of early library cards. I love the idea of kids being taught to print their names clearly, even if it's in kindergarten. The idea of documenting weekly trips to the library, while I doubt it was a serious suggestion, sounds like it would turn reading into a chore to be resented. And people actually have learned to read for centuries without the necessity of documenting library visits.

    And finally, I don't think it's possible, or even necessary to aim for a world in which all kids love to read. They'll sort themselves into echelons of loving/not loving reading, but they can't even do that if they read so badly that the simplest text is a trial.

    Or maybe we just have to agree to disagree.

  13. Tim - My suggestions were definitely not to be taken seriously in that to do so would bring the ACLU down on me very quickly.

    There are multiple ways of learning. Some are auditory learners, some visual, some combine the two and become the inveterate notetakers (we learn best by taking what we hear and putting it where we can see it). Some people do best if there is an activity related to the learning. Some people need to read instructions and others need a diagram. Then there are the extraordinay people who do well on those multiple choice tests where there are different shapes connected to each other by either solid or dotted lines and you have to choose what it would look like it is was folded on the dotted lines. My brain does not do that.

    When my daughter was in law school she had a boyfriend who had acquired an engineering degree at a service academy. He was having a difficult time at first because engineering is a matter of measurements. If something is measured accurately, the results are always the same. Law is constantly in flux. Even the Constitution can be amended and the Supreme Court plays with it all the time.

    More importantly, every judge in the country can change the interpretation of the law by establishing precedent. Something may be one way in the morning and by afternoon a judge in Wisconsin can have changed it. He had a difficult time wrapping his brain around that. She finds that part of the law fascinating, bewildering, angering, and interesting.

    They got to the JD by different paths and that is how best to help children succeed in school - acknowledging that there are different ways to learn and establishing methods by which children can find their's.

  14. If I came on a bit heavily, it's because this is one of a very small handful of subjects that I take completely seriously.

    I worked for almost twenty years with teachers all over America, collaborating with them to build teaching websites, mostly for public television programs. Every one of them (and there were thousands) was frustrated, every one of them had horror stories about administration ineptitude and whimsical politically-driven curriculum changes, and every one of them was fed up to the eye teeth with learning theory when what was needed, in their opinions, was to let them do their jobs.

    What do Canada, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Poland, Germany, Spain, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and even Thailand have in common? They (and many other nations) all turn out high school graduates who can write, read, and reason at a higher level than those in the United States. They know their countries' histories. They can speak (at least, in principle) another language. Many of them even have a basic grasp of -- gasp -- science.

    Obviously, it's possible to improve American education, but not until the decks are cleared and the extensive wreckage of failure is swept away. THAT'S the hard part, not because teachers don't know what to do, but because of politics.

  15. Tim,
    Love your blog. Thailand sounds like a lovely place.

    Love this from your Comment:
    "The "can't fail" system is the most pernicious idea ever introduced into public education, just in front of the "self esteem" movement of the 80s and 90s. We're turning out kids with no skills, no frame of reference, no cultural grounding, kids who have been taught that the way to deal with something difficult is just to blow it off frequently enough, and eventually you'll get validated anyway."

    Is everyone in the known world a school teacher? Even I taught high school English back in the Dark Ages. After a year and a half I ran for my life, doing both myself and the public school system a favor. I have never regretted it.

    Pat Browning

  16. I'm with you, Pat, which isn't surprising since you were agreeing with me.

    It amazes me that the majority of public school educators are so resistant to any major proposed change (evaluation, for example) when the level of public education in America is in free fall and has been for decades. All the bile generated within the public education establishment by Michelle Rhee, and much of it boiled down to the fact that she didn't have much experience in the system. I think that may be her biggest qualification.

    Something has got to change, and the people who run the schools have failed to change it for more than 30 years now.