“The Higher the Wai, the More Respectful”
Below you’ll find a story about the first day of school for Anne Greenwood , a current WorldTeach volunteer in Thailand. Quickly, she learns that cultural norms and habits are all relative to the environment. Learn about proper Thai greetings and why the proper “Wai” matters, below.
When I woke up this morning, it was still dark out. I carefully exited my mosquito net to turn off my both alarm and the air conditioning unit at 5:30 while the birds were starting to chirp and the motorcycle repair shop across the street was already starting work for the day (less pastoral). I’ve been trying to remain hydrated, so I like to get my water bottle and climb back into bed to drink it. And by bed, I mean “Thai rolling mattress on top of a rock solid mattress ensconced in a mosquito net”. It’s not fancy, but I’m sure it’s great for my back or something like that…
Now that I have a coffee maker, I can make real coffee to drink on my balcony. This morning I ate my breakfast and caffeinated myself while reviewing my lesson plans for today. I’m not an experienced enough teacher yet to make a plan and have it come to life in the classroom! Instead, I read over my plan while mentally rehearsing what exactly I am going to say and trouble-shoot any problem areas. I try to come up with alternate phrasing for instructions, ways to make the lesson easier or more difficult, and what I’m going to do if everything falls apart. Then I attempted to look polished enough to meet everyone’s expectations (the key is adding a braid or twist to make your hairstyle look more complicated and putting on lipstick).
School starts with an outdoor assembly from 8-8:30 where we sing the national anthem, say a prayer, and more talking in Thai happens but I don’t understand what’s happening. But today was my first day greeting students. And I’ll be completely honest: when I was told that we would stand at the front gate and greet students as they came in I thought that was an utter waste of time. Why couldn’t I circulate around the clusters of students while they wait for assembly? Why couldn’t I start a game or activity? But today I could see the value in my actions. In Thailand, a proper greeting consists of putting your hands together in a “prayer” position and raising them to an appropriate level in what is known as a wai. The higher the wai, the more respectful. I wai my coworkers with my index fingers at chin height, my boss or older members of the community at nose height, and monks at forehead height. I also lower my head and lean forwards. Students wai me and bow their heads and I return their wais, but not all teachers do. Unbeknownst to me, when the students enter the school grounds they wai to the Buddha statue on one side of the driveway, and wai a group of students and teachers, who return their greeting.
It doesn’t sound like much, but as I repeated this greeting over and over, I felt how this process of mutual respect shapes life here. When I ride my bike anywhere, there’s a trail of questions that follow: “Where are you going?”, “Where are you coming from?”, “What did you buy?”. I manage to say good morning to most of my co-workers everyday, and they ask “What did you eat for breakfast?”. The welcoming words might not be what I’m used to, but the sentiment is there. I hope your week starts off in an equally kind and gentle fashion🙂