Last Thursday, I met Ja–my new partner that was assigned to me as part of the director’s most recent initiative to teach select Thai teachers conversational English. We were instructed to use our free periods, the weekends, or any opportunities available to tutor with our partners, many of which know only rudimentary English. Janurat, or Ja as she encouraged me to call her, is the five-foot tall, fifty-three-year-old, sprightly school librarian. She has high cheekbones, pointy ears with connected lobes, and large, egg-shaped glasses that overtake her round, full face. She reminds me of an elf. Her eyes are downturned, yet scintillating, filled with childlike wonder, curiosity and innocence. She looks at you expectantly, expecting nothing but the best. She believes in miracles.
Ja acted like she’d won the jackpot when she discovered I would be her partner. She ran to me, clasped her hands around mine and let out what seemed like a complacent sigh of relief. Like she’d been hoping for me. Ja was overflowing with excitement, had much to say to me, though no way in which to say it. She looked around then fetched a Filipino, a veteran English teacher with intermediate Thai named Shiela, to translate. Through our chosen medium, I learned that she was happy we were partners, that she will call me her new daughter, that she has much free time and I could come by the library to visit her as often as I wanted. And without our medium, without words at all, I learned that Ja has a good heart and a magnetic disposition. That I had been hoping for her too.
After the meeting, she wanted me to meet her friends–the library crew. I met B, and Kwan, and Oat. Two soft-spoken women and one outgoing, effeminate man about half Ja’s age. All of them seemed just as thrilled as Ja, were welcoming, and eager to induct me into their circle. They gave me my own computer station and told me that from now on, I could print and make copies for free. I was now a defacto member of the library staff, entitled to all of its privileges. In keeping with Thai tradition, Ja showered me with food as an offering of friendship. She peeled and sliced a hefty ripe mango, made me a little bag to-go. Also, to complement the mango, more mango–though this kind was preserved, pickled in a freezer-tight bag.
We settled on mornings for our meeting times, before I teach second period. We would eat breakfast together every morning and attempt to bridge the abyss of understanding between us. There were many hours of conversation, confused looks, awkward silences, and verbal slips that lied ahead of us. But Ja was adamant. “I want to speak English really really much,” she said clenching her fists, affirming her intention.
Last Friday we began our communiqué. But not before we shared spicy chicken and rice, egg noodle soup, green tea muffins, and grilled fish for breakfast. Despite our obvious impediments, we spoke comfortably, both of us freely giving of ourselves, unashamed to make mistakes. Whenever we reach a chasm in our conversation, she vigorously flips through the pages of her bulky 1970’s Thai-English dictionary until she finds the precise English word to express her intended meaning. She scribbles in a little blue notebook designated for English with an admirable, impervious concentration. Writes words she doesn’t understand, like ‘penetrating,’ and words she can’t pronounce, like ‘silk.’ Her determination to learn, to understand, to get through to me surprises me. I am used to a much different teaching environment. One in which I must be a magician as well, desperately trying to hold the attention of my students and hopefully tricking them into learning without their realizing it. But Ja was begging me to teach her.
Our meetings became more frequent, and our morning rituals turned into evenings and weekends as well. My school day starts and ends with Ja, who now teaches me Thai better and more often than I teach her English. She gets so excited when she teaches me, that it is hard for my mind to wander, to be anywhere but the present moment. She demands my energy, my awareness, my undivided attention and I give it to her. Her warmth and appreciation for me is overwhelming. Looking at Ja, I can see me as she sees me, and I feel like a better person in her presence.
She gave me a little yellow notebook with ‘Jos’ written on the cover in Thai to practice writing Thai script in. She sometimes keeps it at the end of the day, prints off new characters, new vowels, new translations, and glues them into the pages. She is both patient and relentless with me, will make me practice the pronunciation of a single character endless times until I get it right. She is a great teacher, my new friend. After only a week, I am beginning to be able to read, write, and hold (basic) conversations in Thai–a feat I had previously dreamed of, but thought unreachable.
On Monday, a copy of South East Asia Backpacker magazine, Issue 22 arrived in the mail for me. I brought it to show Ja my poem in print. She had been interested in my writing after I told her I was a journalism major. She made me read the poem aloud for her, and listened attentively. Now, she said, explain it to me. I tried as best I could using a coffee mug, water (“this is me”) and a tea bag (“this is Thailand”), but how do you explain words like ‘existence?’ She was far from understanding. In fact, I thought she never would. But Ja was not content to settle on half-meanings and incomplete understandings. She wished to know my poem, she wished to know me. She told me to write my poem in her notebook, that she would look up the words and she would understand. The next day, she had learned the word ‘rhyme’ and had decrypted the meaning of ‘penetrating.’ Both of the words were written, in English and Thai, next to my poem in her notebook. “Jos rhyme is penetrating,” she said confidently. Though there were still some words she didn’t understand, like ‘steeping,’ she liked it all the same.
On Saturday night, Ja and her husband (known to me only as Papaw) picked me up for dinner at their house. Ja’s aunts were visiting from the southern coastal town of Surratthani, and they brought with them two coolers full of freshly caught crabs. Ja jumped out of the car to greet me and squeezed into the back seat next to me. She was beaming with characteristic verdant energy. She instantly elevated me. For a moment, I felt like we were two giddy school girls in the back of our father’s car. On her lap, the enormous Thai-English dictionary and her English notebook, open to the page with my poem. On the following three pages was nearly every word from my poem, with the Thai translation next to it. She had completely dissected my words, studied them, memorized them, and understood them. I was impressed by her persistence and genuinely moved that she took the time to fully understand what I had written. “Now, I understand,” Ja said. “If I go to Atlanta, I steeping too.”
When we arrived at her home, she kept apologizing for her ‘ban rok roong rung,” or messy house. I didn’t notice. She cracked crab legs for me and we looked at her old picture albums, at which the aunts and I raved over Ja’s timeless beauty. “Suay mak!” we’d exclaim. Later we went for a night walk on the beach, and Papaw bought a khom loy (paper lantern) for us to set off into the sky. “This one will go all the way to America,” Ja said. Indeed, it will.