Monday, November 21
Thais love a party, even under the guise of another religion. Few give us a chance to celebrate, and no less than at Christmas - a puzzling holiday that brings out fat men in red clothes, and odd-looking deer.
I settled in Kamphangpet, Thailand, for my two years of Peace Corps Volunteer experience. Kamphangpet is equidistant between Bangkok and Chiengmai. Nobody stops, though, because it’s seven kilometers off the Asia Highway, and boasts only an old city, filled with crumbling Buddhas, ransacked four hundred years ago by the Burmese.
Kamphangpet seldom merits a place on the maps of Southeast Asia. Kamphangpet Teacher’s College is even less noticeable, three kilometers off, across the Ping River from town. But there I was.
This year, my senior English majors asked me to write the skit for the Christmas party. Their contributions to the festivities was entitled, “The Birth, Life and Death of Jesus” to be presented in seven minutes.
Everyone was relieved when I agreed to the writing of the script. The students didn’t want to tackle the English language, and I was just as eager to avoid last year’s woeful closing line, “. . . and at thirty-three, Jesus was died.” Not only did we all fear that grammar, but I dreaded explaining the idea of crucifixion to my twenty-year-old Buddhists. I’d already tried it last year. Perhaps it was beyond my own comprehension as well.
Wanlapa and Saichon nervously brought me the cassette. The two girls had made a tape of my narrative script, to be played at the Christmas bash that night in the auditorium, while the rest of the seniors acted it out in mime. Wanlapa had been chosen to narrate, because her voice was the clearest, and her pronunciation of English words the best. She had also engineered the background music.
Other students sidled in to the English Office to see my reaction to the tape. Saichon, the president of the English Club, shushed them while I listened to the carols of Pat Boone and Patti Page and the like, swelling up and out at appropriate moments in Jesus’ history. At the end of seven minutes I told them it sounded perfect. A collective sigh of relief was breathed. I noticed that they had stuck fiercely to the wording of my script.
Came the showtime. Most of the seniors were swathed in sheets like so many unrecognizable PLO members. I could tell Joseph from Mary in the manger scene, but the masked sheep all remained a mystery.
By the time Jesus grew up, two minutes later, the tape had shorted out a couple of times. Then he preached a while, to the tune of “Silver Bells.” When he began leading his disciples across the stage, the tape cut off for ominously longer.
The crowd of swathed disciples didn’t know what to do, because their leader wasn’t sure either. Will the tape start again, or should he meander off into the desert, to get ready behind the curtain for the death scene? He opted for the meandering - lucky thing, because suddenly the tape was on, Patti Page was longing for a White Christmas, and Wanlapa’s voice revealed the safest ending I could think of, “…and so he had to die.” The inner curtain opened slowly and Jesus was on the floor, already. The Crucifixion was avoided for yet another year.
At the gathering under the gift tree, few seniors spoke to me. Losing face was equal to or worse than sin in most of the country. It seemed that failure on the stage, too, merited loss of face. I congratulated everyone, though, never acknowledging the faulty tape. Equal congratulations also hid my ignorance. I still hadn’t known who was who under the masks and sheets. The makeshift Santa, a freshman, pressed presents my way. I passed them on, and as I kept us a merry front, laughter and smiling started up again and faces were found.
It was after midnight when twenty of the revelers and I went “serenading” as they call it here, around the campus. When we started out, we found that our mimeographed song sheets were worthless by candlelight. We hadn’t learned, year-to-year, to bring candles. Nor had we learned, year-to-year, the words to the songs. Students clustered around me to catch the words as I walked. We could all handle the repetitious “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” and the chorus of “Jingle Bells” but when I broke into “Joy to the World” I was on my own.
Wanlapa had a list of teachers and dorm mothers and fathers who had been warned of our coming. They came to their doors half-asleep, with the fare befitting the wanderers that we were: cookies, candy, and, for luck, hard-boiled eggs. Then the occupant was kept awake a few minutes longer while we read, by house light, the next name on the list.
By the time the names had all been ticked off, we’d amassed a good amount of food. Saichon ordered us all in a circle, and handed out tins of cookies and cartons of eggs to be passed around clockwise. We sat, now like a tight circle of Druids, and ate.
As teacher, and foreigner at that, I was given most of the food. I protested and tried to share it, but from experience I knew that it would stay mine.
I had given up and under their urging eaten quite a bit, when Saichon strung together some carefully-chosen words that resembled a request. I could only infer that no one wanted to have class tomorrow. Smart kids. How could I refuse on such a full stomach? A cry went up, echoing Saichon’s unassuming grammar, until I okayed. More cookies were slipped my way.
They watched as I packed up my share of the treats. They stirred only when I made motions of getting up, because I was the teacher and no student could be physically above me, ever. Saichon dusted me off, even though I had been given a shirt to sit on. We straggled, tired but unwilling to split up. Those denying fatigue tried to be livelier, but had to lean on each other as they walked. Groups of twos and threes followed different paths to the dorms. Strains of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” began and faded.
I thought of the huge cake at home with my name misspelled on it, and I knew no on could accept a piece of it. I had found dozens of Christmas cards and bunches of bananas at my door all week. This would probably be the oddest Christmas of my life. This could also be the best Christmas of my life. It would not be the same for them next year, either. The party had been planned in appreciation for the only foreigner on campus. I had given the Thais a chance to celebrate.