Friday, July 1, 2011

Islamic Education in Thailand

      In my classes at DeLand High School I meet kids who are eager to talk to people from foreign countries, dream about traveling the world, love to perform, and love to giggle, to talk amongst friends, and to play sports.  At the Prateepsasana Islamic school I found the exact same kids in different packaging.  This school is in the Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south of Thailand where there are a lot of Muslim Thais.  Officially, Thailand is about 90% Buddhist and 6% Muslim with some Christians, Hindus, and Sikhs thrown into the mix.  Most Islamic Thais live in the south and the Prateepsasana academy is a boarding school so parents from the region can give their children a sound education with a religious foundation.

      We were welcomed there as honored guests and greeted by the headmaster’s son, who I believe is currently a graduate student at Harvard University.  He explained how the school appreciated the Thai governments spirit of religious freedom which allowed them to operate and emphasized that the school stressed the interconnectedness of all the Abrahamic religions and that we all served one God.  It was evident by the students’ reaction to us that they had a positive image of America and the ones who received American flag pins from some of our group proudly pinned them to their school uniforms.  

After the obligatory greetings, speeches, and introductory media presentation we were once treated to performances by several student groups.  One student recited from the Quran while another translated, a boys’ choral group sang for us, and we were entertained by a regional dance performance.  Then a group of girls gave us a cooking demonstration, practicing their English by explaining each step in making “Rainbow Rice”, and giving us all a taste – it was delicious!

      Next, we broke into small groups of about a dozen students, five members from the Fulbright group, and a teacher to translate.  Actually, our translator was Uzma, the 18 year old niece of the headmaster.  Uzma had spent her junior year of high school on an exchange to Wisconsin and spoke beautiful English, complete with all the high school slang she picked up in the states.  This fall she will be attending college in Iowa.  Anyway, she was as cute as she could be and she proctored a lively Q&A session between the Americans teachers and the Thai kids (our group seemed to be in about 8th /9th grade).  They asked us questions such as, “What do you like most about Thailand?” and “Do people in America know anything about the Southeast Asian economic community?” and answered our questions about how they felt about attending a religious boarding school and what their career goals were (answers included “flight attendant”,“lawyer”, and “philosopher”)!  When asked about what was hardest about their school curriculum the answer was that they were expected to learn English to be successful in school but they didn’t have any native speakers to teach and talk to them.  A lot of them expressed the desire to visit America. The conversation was sprinkled with lots of laughter and eagerly raised hands – and the longer we talked the more the kids started trying to speak to us themselves in their halting English rather than have Uzma speak for them. 

      Next was a tour of the school, looking at several classroom buildings funded by prominent Muslims such as a sultan in Dubai and some Japanese businessman.  Our group of students excitedly showed us around. We saw the cafeteria (an open-air area where students could choose from several booths featuring different foods), the library, sports fields (the girls play even though they have to wear the hijab and abaya... it was a HOT day, too!!), and then were taken across the street to the dormitories.  I found it intriguing that, despite the stereotype of the Islamic world disrespecting women and treating them like second-class citizens, the girls had a modern new block of buildings to serve as their living quarters whereas the boys’ “dorms” were mostly just bamboo huts!  As we walked the students asked us eager questions and tried to teach us some Thai.  At the end of the tour we dispensed the gifts we’d brought for the kids.  Some teachers brought pencils, others notepads… one smart teacher from Connecticut had postcards from his state with messages on them written by his students.  I brought a whole bag of plastic Stetson baseballs and was happy to see the kids were pleased with their gifts. “Khab koon kaah!*” they exclaimed as they wai’d* me and then asked me to sign the baseballs!  They must have seen some TV or something for them to know that signing baseballs was a tradition.  As we hugged the students goodbye to be ushered in for our luncheon banquet I looked back to see they were playing with their gifts.

The students asked us questions about education in America

The "canteen" (cafeteria)


Girls' dorm

Uzma, our 18 year old hostess who will be attending college in Iowa in the fall

Boys' dorms

      At the luncheon we learned that we were the first “ferang” to visit the school, which explains why the kids were so excited. Even better, we found out that the America ambassador to Thailand was visiting the next day and would be getting the same show that we did (I guess we were the dress rehearsal).  Our host explained that the ambassador is very interested in the school as she sees that a place such as this could be an important bridge between two cultures who have difficulty understanding one another.  It also turned out that the headmaster is the Secretary General of ASEAN and the former Thai Foreign Minister, so his international connections have been helpful in cultivating support for the school.

      After the banquet and a few more speeches we left, with our entourage of photographers with us.  From the extreme south of Thailand we are next scheduled to fly to the extreme north to visit the Golden Triangle of the opium trade!

  • Khab koon kaah = my pathetic attempt to phonetically spell “thank you” in Thai
  • wai = bowing down with your palms together in front of your face – done to show respect, thanks, apology, etc.
  • ferang = foreigner
  • ASEAN = Association of Southeast Asian nations (like the European Union for southeast Asia)