Land Of The ‘King And I’
By Gee-Gee O. Torres
When I visited our Filipino missionaries in Thailand I couldn’t help remembering the movie The King and I. Two things came to mind: the desire that Thais had for western education and their determination not to allow western education to destroy their wonderful culture. And to my surprise that is precisely the enterprise which many of the Filipino missionaries in Thailand are engaged in: helping in the field of education while respecting and developing the native Thai culture. Let me refer in particular here to the Augustinian Sisters who I visited in the Northeast in Thare, the largest Catholic community in Thailand.
Felt at Home
The Augustinian Sisters were very warm and welcoming. I really felt at home with them maybe because we were speaking Ilonggo all the time. Sr. Maritz, Eden and Veron are from Negros, too. I enjoyed listening to their funny stories. Sr. Maritz said that one day she went to the market confident with the new Thai word she learned. She wanted to buy a pineapple so she told the woman selling at the market, “Sukraprok.” The woman seemed not to have heard what she said so she repeated the word again and again. Then finally the woman raised her voice and told her to go away. When she went home, she shared what happened to her Thai friends, only to find out that “sukaprot” means dirty. Pineapple is saparot in Thai. Well, you win some and you lose some.
The Sisters are staying at the third floor of the Catholic Center in Thare. I occupied the guest room. When I was about to sleep during my first night at the Sisters’ house I could not lock the door. So I went to see Sr. Maritz and told her of the little problem. She said, “Don’t worry. We normally don’t lock our doors here except the one in the main entrance.” But, back at home Mom would always remind us to make sure all doors are locked before we go to sleep. Sr. Maritz must have sensed that I was still worried. She accompanied me back to my room and assured me that it’s alright. I tried my best to get a goodnight sleep but to no avail. I guess, this is what they call inculturation.
The next day Sr. Veron and I went to St. Joseph’s School with Sr. Maritz and Eden. Sr. Veron showed me around the campus. She wasn’t on duty as a nurse at the community clinic at the time of my visit so she had some free time to accompany me. While we were going around I was surprised to see many pairs of shoes outside the classroom. Seeing my puzzled face, Sr. Veron explained right away that it is a custom in Thailand to remove your shoes when you are entering a house as a sign of respect. Part of the culture which the Filipinos Sisters have adapted to.
Then another sight caught my attention. Sr. Eden sitting on a bench along the corridor surrounded with students kneeling on the floor. When I asked her why they were kneeling, she said it is a sign of respect. When a teacher is talking to the students, the heads of the students should be lower than the teacher because she is senior to them. So this must be why in the movie the King and I Anna had to keep her head always lower than the King. (Sr. Eden has been re-assigned to the Philippines as principal of La Consolacion College Elem. Dept. in Bicol.)
We also went to the classroom where Sr. Maritz was having her class. We were still about five meters away from the room and we could already her voice. When we reached the classroom we saw Sister marching up and down the flat form while singing with the students “once a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name...” With a teacher like this – full of life – who would like to miss a day in school?
When Sr. Eden and Maritz’ classes were over, the four of us went to the other Sr. Joseph’s School in Sakon Nakhon to see Sr. Imay in action. When we arrived she was teaching her students English and at the same time integrating values formation. Sr. Imay is now back in the Philippines. Her new assignment is teaching in St. Francis Parochial School in Talisay Camarines Norte.
Looking back on my visit to the Augustinian Sisters and indeed to so many of the ten different Filipino congregations, I recall how they were so determined not to be part of a shallow ‘hollywood-ization’ of Thailand but to be among those who strengthened this ancient oriental culture so that it can walk into the 21st century with its head up and proud of its traditions.
Srs. Maritz, Eden, Veron and Imay, thank you for the time you shared with me. Despite your busy schedule you still found time to accommodate me and bring me to visit the land of the Blessed Martyrs in Song Kohn and to Mukdahan where I got a glimpse of Laos and the great Mekong River.
And Special thanks to Fr. Anthony Weeradit, Rector of the Fatima Seminary, who was very kind to drive us to these places.
Again salamat gid.