Day in the Life of Self Study Thai Class
Aesop’s Fables in Thai
It is early in the morning when our staff member, Gary Trendler, sets up the video camera. He projects the pages of each storybook behind the students while he prepares to simultaneously record their performances. As the written stories and their accompanying illustrations are projected on the wall, simple props help bring the characters to life: two straw farmer’s hats, a plastic scythe, a colorful scarf that fills in for a snake. Som-oh, their tutor, is smiling supportively. She sits at the table while our director, Jeff Magoto, moves chairs and positions the props.
Jeff encourages the students as they take their places. “I think the fact that you’re doing this at 8 o’clock in the morning is astounding and amazing.” And he reminds everyone, “Kearney gets here at 7:40 every Wednesday morning!”
Thai is a tonal language, which means that the tone or relative pitch of the words can determine both meaning and grammar, in contrast with English, where tone is used primarily to express emotion or emphasis.
Som-oh describes what she listens for during the students’ presentations: “I look at how they react to the stories they were telling with the tonal sounds they created. For example, if it was an exciting scene, the students changed the tonal words into higher tones. Also, when they read the stories, they know where to pause. Moreover, I look at the pronunciation, especially the tones. Words can be changed to other meanings with the tones. But, in the stories there is context so [these meanings] are easier to understand.”
Kearney is first, reading aloud “The Snake and the Farmer.” In the story, it is freezing weather outside. A rice farmer feels pity for a snake lying in the road. He cuddles the snake in his arms, despite the danger. The snake, however, cannot change its inherent nature and, when it warms up, it attacks the farmer with a deadly bite.
Kearney explains the appearance of the snake in this fable. “There is no winter in Thailand, but the snake in the story is cold. The snake represents evil in Thai culture. It’s wet and cold in the forest and snakes may come into people’s homes to get warm.”
When the three plays are over, Som-oh tells us that these were familiar stories that she heard as a child, despite their often sad and brutal endings. Aesop’s Fables are shared across the world, across cultures, in new languages, despite the often-contrasting environment of their origins.
After the final presentations are done, Som-oh brings out a Thai breakfast she prepared for everyone, "khày kathá." It is a meal of fried egg and sausage from Mea Kong in Northeastern Thailand and is served in most Thailand towns.
Som-oh made other Thai treats for her students throughout the term. “In class, I prepared some food, too. I did pumpkin curry with chicken, fish sauce fried chicken wings with sticky rice. I brought some egg yolk sweet called Golden Thread, an egg yolk boiled in syrup water.” She also made pumpkin custard and brought tamarind snacks and other Thai candies.
The students all did very well. They pack up their belongings and say goodbye. When Kearney heads out, she will soon prepare for graduation and a move away from Eugene. Jonathan and Josh, enrolled in the next Advanced Thai course, plan to return.