By Gerry Carter
When I arrived in Thailand the best part of 35 years ago one of the starkest contrasts was in the public perception of the Royal Family I had left behind in the UK and how the Thais perceived their own beloved monarch.
The British Royal Family was having a tough time in the 1980s while the Thais were seemingly to a man, woman and child in love with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Some years later he was bestowed with the title of “The Great” as his grandfather King Chulalongkorn had been before him. As the years passed it was easy to see why he was held in such extraordinary esteem.
His Majesty’s passing on Thursday is a life shattering event not just for the tens of millions of Thai people who idolized this great figure. It is also devastating for the millions of foreigners who have either made their home in Thailand or who just love the country and its people with a passion.
I count myself as one of those on both counts.
I had a very unusual job for a foreigner in the main part of my working life when I found it as my duty, honor and privilege to head up the Thai Department at a major international school set up in Bangkok in 1998. Naturally, as part of that job in helping to promote Thai culture and language to both the foreign and Thai communities within a growing school, I would find myself talking and teaching about the man who came to be called the guiding light of the nation, His Majesty.
That job was a fabulous 15 year journey that taught me as much about the respect for and greatness of the monarch from the students, fellow Thai teachers and parents as I was able to inspire and give myself in return. So on this sad occasion I would just like to share a few personal anecdotes as the nation grieves in somber reflection.
In my classroom, adorned with all the trappings you might expect of a Thai studies teaching room, I always kept a huge cut out figure of His Majesty standing in the corner of the room looking over the activities of the class, as it were. Whenever anyone was naughty all I ever needed to do was cast my eyes in his direction and the children would come respectfully into line.
No words were necessary. The level of respect and sense of humility instilled in the youngest child was never put there by me. Their parents and elders had done that. Everyone felt humbled by the need to be good in his presence, the need for respect and duty and service to others.
But in my fortunate position I was thankfully able to encourage the students to share and nurture these proud feelings. For many of the Thai children who found themselves in this “international” environment it was a source of great pride and inclusion to share their emotions and feelings about their king with classmates. In turn the foreigners, many of whom were rebellious teenagers not given to showing respect for any authority, were able to get closer to their Thai friends in this shared understanding of why their friends seemed to have not one father…but two.
I read a post online this week from a Welsh boy whom I taught who has since moved back to the UK. He wanted to register his heartfelt grief to his old friends in Thailand. It was one of many from non-Thai alumni of our school who were so touched by Thailand and the relationship of the people to their King. In fact, it is fantastic to see among young people who perhaps were in Thailand just for a few years what a dramatic effect this brief but formative time had on their lives. For me I had always hoped these young visitors to Thailand would take something of this nature away with them when they left these shores. I hoped for this as much as I wanted the Thai children in my care to proudly spread the good word about the kingdom as they themselves moved around the world after their own graduations.
Around the year 2000 I decided to teach the topic of the story of the King’s faithful dog Thong Daeng to my Year Six students. Sitting with the children at my feet all very attentive and excited by this very human story of a humble man who saves a soi dog, was an utter delight. The children learnt to read the story in either Thai or English – or for those that were able, both languages!
As part of the topic I invited Khun Chai Ratchawat the famous Thai Rath cartoonist who drew the pictures for the cartoon book version of the Thong Daeng story that the King had penned himself. Chai kindly visited my school to talk to the children about completing those drawings and about his own feelings for His Majesty.
Chai depicted the king in respectful, white outline only and it was fascinating to see the understanding of the ten year old students as to why this was so apt. He also told his rapt young audience how he didn’t sleep or eat properly for six weeks as he worked on the cartoons in honor of His Majesty. The children, both Thai and non-Thai nodded their appreciation as to why this might be so.
In 1998 I was teaching the topic of the great Thai kings of the Chakri Dynasty for the Year 2 children who were only six and seven years old. After learning something about all the kings we concentrated on the achievements of Rama I, Rama V and Rama IX in this half term topic. I remember to this day – and so do others who were in this class – how we spoke of Rama IX and the role he played during the events of Black May 1992.
I always felt that even very young children could understand complicated adult concepts if they were explained to them in a way they could connect to. I was helped in this by their British class teacher, Mrs Bridget Snow who attended all their Thai lessons even though her job description said she didn’t have to. Mrs Snow wanted to learn about Thailand and the kings as much as the children.
A chair was left empty in front of the class and the children were asked to imagine that the King was there. Then we showed how there were two people who were having an argument and how they came to see the king, sat down at his feet and agreed that they should resolve their differences. We role played this scenario.
This dramatic and real event I had witnessed myself in utter amazement some six years before on television as the warring factions of Suchinda Kraprayoon and Chamlong Srimuang came together in front of His Majesty to stop the bloodshed that had claimed so many lives and cause so much division.
Those little Year 2 students – including my own “luuk kreung” (mixed nationality) daughter Charlotte – were able to begin to understand what it was that made this person so special and this moment in Thai history so dramatic.
As part of my job I wrote more than a dozen plays in English to promote Thai culture at the school. Once, in one of these, I depicted a king – whose name was not specified – who did great good for the environment. This was to be performed for some 100 Year 5 parents at the end of term. The mother of the Year 5 boy who was to play the king came to see me to say she felt uneasy. There was no doubt in her mind who this king was and she felt uncomfortable with her boy playing the role of so great a figure.
We resolved those feelings by having the parent and son present flowers and perform a respectful “graap”, or prostration, in a private ceremony with a picture of His Majesty before the performance took place. The boy and the mother both had tears in their eyes as the little chap asked in Thai for the King’s permission to play the part. I will never forget that moment or the pride shown by all the children and parents during the performance. In fact I am crying right now as I type, just thinking about it.
For many years it was my pleasure to deliver speeches on Teachers’ Day that we held to honor the academic staff and assistants at our school every January. I felt it was right to bring this Thai tradition into an international school as I believed that the relationship between pupils and staff was pivotal and worthy of celebration. Many expatriate staff were surprised by this at first but were delighted to take part in the touching ceremony as garlands were presented and songs sung in Thai by students of all nationalities. Many of those staff had previously recounted stories of disrespect encountered in foreign countries towards teachers.
I used these occasions to talk about the role of His Majesty as not just a great example for all students as their second father but also as their teacher and role model. Glancing up and seeing 500 students on these occasions listening intently and respectfully to my words – with many smiling and nodding in appreciation – was a reward that I shall treasure for the rest of my life even though I am retired from teaching now.
Down the years various headmasters and school administrators asked my opinion – in private – on various matters in Thai life. I had always drawn their attention to the respect for His Majesty and felt this was something that needed to be celebrated and continue if and when the day came that he might pass away. I always felt that a fitting tribute to the passing of a great monarch was that which was practiced by our sister school in London, Harrow School, where a black tie was adopted in the school uniform as a sign of mourning and respect for the passing of Queen Victoria. Even when the time of mourning was over the black tie at Harrow was kept and has been to this day.
In honor of a truly great figure that has touched the lives of millions, I hope that the international school in Bangkok, that bears the same foreign name, might do likewise in the memory of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great. – thaivisa.com