WorldTeach Thailand volunteer Caitlyn Pisarski writes about taking part in a cultural ritual that drew her into her community and helped her re-connect with her experience, her colleagues and her students.
This picture is a result of a string-tying ceremony I was a part of last Thursday at Wang Yang Elementary School. These ceremonies are an important ritual in Thailand, usually performed when someone enters or leaves a community, or when two people are wed. The ceremony I attended last week was to welcome the newly appointed principal to our school and say goodbye to the former; Teacher Bai-Khao was to receive strings as well, unbeknown to me until the ceremony was underway!
The ceremony started when the new principal lit a candle at the top of the banana leaf structure (see below) holding the strings soon to adorn our wrists. This structure is an intricate centerpiece of leaves folded into origami-like shapes and accented by flowers. Beneath this centerpiece is a whole, cooked chicken on a platter, numerous boiled eggs, and sticky rice wrapped neatly in banana leaves. I was seated in a circle around the centerpiece with principals from several surrounding schools in addition to the Wang Yang principals. Then a village elder offered prayers, and oratorical performance that, at the end, elicited shouts of jubilation from his audience, and a shot of whiskey from a principal. Then we began the actual string-tying; one of my favorite aspects of this part is how everyone in the ceremony connects to the receipent of the string, as everyone touches an elbow, forearm, or shoulder of another, until each person in the room is connected.
When it was my turn, I had to blink back tears as the village elders, students, and their parents circled around me and waited for a chance to tie a string and give me their kind words. Many wished for me to find a handsome husband, happiness, or good luck, though quite a few (from the limited Thai I was able to pick up) also wished upon me a quick return to the school, or to not leave them at all. With a hard-boiled egg and sticky rice in each hand, I looked around at the faces of my students, trying to imprint the moment forever in my memory as one of unconditional acceptance and appreciation. I noticed one of my third-graders wiggling back into the circle at least two more times to tie more string to my wrist, his face just beaming with what I thought to be excitement and adoration, the same look I get after giving him words of encouragement in class. As the ceremony was wrapping up, one of my co-teachers asked if I understood what people were saying, and when I replied “A little,” she responded by saying “Everyone loves Bai-Khao.”
For me this experience came at an incredibly important time, as I was struggling with (admittedly) self-centered feelings of under-appreciation, becoming extremely critical of my co-teachers’ styles of instruction, and having a hard time re-adjusting to my daily routine after saying goodbye to my latest visitor from the States. This experience put me in check and reminded me how lucky I am to live and teach in this community. I was so humbled by the ceremony and it truly could not have occurred at a better time. My life in Thailand has been surprising in that regard; no matter how confusing, disheartening, or impossible a situation may seem, things just have a way of working out when it’s least expected.
In other words: mai pen rai.