Clutching it to my side, I huddled with the others in the line. I pressed myself as closely to the side of the wall as I could. So close. No one had noticed me yet, I was doing pretty well.
I kept my eyes lowered but every once in a while, I would risk a look at her. She was standing there, watching them, yelling every once in a while if they weren’t doing it properly. I willed her to turn the other direction and walk back up the way I had just come.
I was second in line now, I could see the dishwater and I started to allow myself a moment of relief. Victory was nigh.
I’d been spotted.
The dish and my spoon was wrenched from my hands. It was Abigail. The dishwashing guardian. She had seen me, I never get past her watch.
Perhaps it is left-over insecurity from when I first arrived but I always try to wash my dishes. I will prove to them that I am not helpless. This is how I rebel against the stigma…. which now that I’ve written it down, seems a bit silly. These self-sufficient Thai children will never cease to be amazed at how little I know about simple things in their world.
I sulked out of the kitchen and she stood shaking her head at me. No teacher, you aren’t allowed to and you know it.
Sometimes I rant in English as I leave, but this time I just walked away. It was after lunch and the line to wash dishes was long. There are four huge sinks, the first is plain water to rinse excess food off, the second is a soapy, fluffy dish-heaven where you scrub with the scouring pads, the third is the first rinse, the fourth and last sink is the final rinse. Abigail stands watch and inspects the plates when they are finished. Then, and only then, they are allowed to be placed in the drying racks.
Other inspectors look the other way when I go through the line to wash my dish, others sweetly beg me not to, which I cannot resist, but Abigail does not mess around. If I am caught by her, there is yelling and hard looks of dark disappointment.
The kitchen girls are already prepping for dinner, cutting vegetables, frying meat, and starting the huge vats of rice. I tiptoed between them and stepped into the mess hall, where kids were washing tables and sweeping rice off of the tiled floor.
After lunch I teach sixth grade. There was a bounce in my step. It has been two days since I’ve been with them and I’d never tell those rebellious little teens, but I miss teaching them sometimes. Sometimes. Other times I walk in and just know I’ll have my work cut out for me.
Since many of these kids are from hill tribes and have never taken much English in school, we have had to back up from verb tenses and pronouns and focus on a more basic approach. Reading. Mostly letters and their sounds.
So I’ve been working through the alphabet. Which garners many groans and sighs from my more experienced students. Sorry guys. Chai and Seegame don’t get it yet. No child left behind…
Chai…. oh Chai. He’s the one that growls. Sometimes I’ll be walking down a path and I’ll hear a gravelly, “Teacher!” from somewhere up above my head. Then there is the frantic rustling of branches and leaves.
It’s just Chai, in a tree.
I’ll be walking down the hall at school and I’ll hear the low, “Teacher!” emanating from behind a door.
It’s just Chai, lying in wait.
Sometimes he will walk by in a herd of boys and I’ll hear that “Teacher!” coming from the midst.
In those cases, I usually growl, “Chai…” back into the mass and am rewarded by a glint of mischievous eyes and that naughty smile.
Now, Seegame is the mystery boy. I thought I had him figured out as the tall and dopey, good-natured boy. Which he is, except apparently, the dopey part. He was the one in class that never paid attention and tried to get out of his work. I truly and genuinely love him in spite of all the trouble.
He shocked us all with his high scores during finals and that was my first clue that he wasn’t as unintelligent as he seemed.
We usually start the class with general mayhem that sometimes subsides into less mayhem. This day, we sat and talked during the introduction period, mostly them trying out their English on me which we all enjoy.
Somehow the conversation switched to their tribes. In the class there are mostly Hmong with only a few exceptions. There are two Lahu boys, one of which is Chai, and one Lahu girl. There is an Akha girl and then there is Phet, who is a Thai boy and Athawm and Seegame, who were siblings. The reason I thought they were siblings is because once Athawm had said he was her brother.
Today, however, when I asked Athawm what she was, she answered, “Thai.”
“So you, Phet and Seegame are Thai?” I nodded, it made sense.
“No, No!” Athawm shook her head so hard her braid flipped over her shoulder. “Seegame not Thai!”
Oh really? How in heaven’s name does that work?
“Isn’t he your brother?” I asked.
“No!” She said, “eh, he-he my relative.”
“Oh, so, cousin.” I stated, about to move on.
“No! Not cousin!” She exclaimed. She seemed disturbed by my inference that he could be related to her, as her relative.
“Same father?” I was curious now.
“No!” more emphatic.
“Same grandfather??” I was reaching for anything now.
She shook her head, more horrified at every suggestion.
“Same village?” I asked, having learned that some kids call people from their village their relative, even if they are not.
“No.” She shook her head.
“So what is he?” I was exasperated.
She said a word that I could not hope to spell or pronounce again.
“Oh? and what is that?” I asked.
“Lahu, Hmong and Thai.” She said counting on her fingers.
I happened to look around the classroom and I noticed something akin to personal pride on each face, mixed with a touch of something very close to scorn. As if Seegame could help his ancestry. Seegame looked uncomfortable. I was sorry I had stumbled upon a sore spot.
It was as if I was thrown back into a different era. In my country, we are all hopelessly mixed and we are proud of every strain of DNA that makes us who we are. Here, it is purity that brings pride.
I turned to the whiteboard and started the lesson abruptly. I didn’t want to bring any more attention to the already-uncomfortable Seegame.
Even with the trials, I don’t think I will ever meet a group of kids that can make me laugh quite like them.
The girls, carefully copying their work and making clever little jokes, Athawm interpreting where it is needed, Phet making single-word associations, like “wasabi” just randomly in the middle of everything, Seegame pretending not to know and asking a hundred times before I catch on and realize he has already written the correct answer down, and finally Chai, his stubborn chin thrust out, his eyes snapping and forever shouting out “Phonics!” when he is done. I am starting to believe he thinks it means ‘finished.’ I should probably correct that.
Sometimes it strikes me as odd that I feel so comfortable here. In some ways I’m enjoying it more then I could have imagined.
On the other hand, I find my biggest trials here. I’m seeking to discern between good change and bad. What ways should I allow myself to be stretched and grow? What ways should I stand firm?
What is my guide? What others think? Or God?
I’ve caught a glimpse of the depth of my weakness. I’ve found that my lines are drawn by what others will see on Facebook or how I will be perceived by the people here.
There is no consistency to be found there. No rock to plant my feet on.
Because my human motivation to do right has started to lag, I’ve realized how much of my ‘morality’ was based on peer pressure.
Yet, God is good. He is able to keep me from falling. I’ve seen that this is one of His lessons for me here.
Why, Eliza? Why do you believe this? Why to you draw the line here? Why are you doing this good thing?
I’ve been reading a book that I accidentally stole from a new friend here in Thailand. Absolute Surrender by Andrew Murray. Don’t worry, I’ve admitted the theft and she has graciously forgiven me. She says we can still be friends. Which is good, she happens to be the type of lady I’d like to be one day.
In this book is this revolutionary idea.
You are incapable of accomplishing godly things in human strength.
As of yet, I have not wrapped my mind around all the concepts in the book, but I do know this one thing, I am not strong and noble. Will I ever be? Or is the point of all this that God is strong and noble and He is working in me His own Image?
Lest at any time I look down and praise myself for how far I’ve come, God never fails to let me fall on my face when I take my hand out of His.
I would hate for anyone reading this to think that I’m being hard on myself. That my relationship with God is demoralizing and degrading. To the opposite. Just like that picture of a child being held secure by his father’s hand, I am held secure. I am never more peaceful and joyful than when I am walking close with God.
It’s like a well-spring of security. No matter what happens, it is for my good and in the end it will be according to His plan. I trust that. Like I trust that the sun will rise in the morning and set at night.
If you want proof of God, look at a society that denies Him. You will see the broken families, the abused children, the lack of light and you will know that what you have as a Christian should be shed abroad like spring rains on a parched world.
I want everyone to catch a glimpse of this darkness and perhaps savor the light a bit more.