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For the week of April 26 through May 2, 2000

The Thais that bind

Express Staff Writer

Thai schoolgirls
A group of girls from the Nongsuawittyakorn school where Collins taught English in 1990. “Every day they’d come and just stare at me,” Collins said of the fascinated girls. Photo courtesy JoEllen Collins

When JoEllen Collins left Thailand nine years ago, her Thai "family" said there would always be room for "Mama Jo," and they lived up to their word, hosting Collins and her friend, Judith Walker, with "great zest" during a recent trip back, Collins says.

Collins, 62, now a Community School teacher and Idaho Mountain Express columnist, first met her extensive Thai family of teachers during a two-year stint working in the Peace Corps.

The common Thai phrase "Mai pen rai," Collins says, pretty much sums up the Thai outlook on life: "It’s OK…no big deal."

Collins’ family of teachers might be poor by Western standards, but observed through Asian eyes they are rich.

"I saw that when they picked frangipanis, birds of paradise and orchids for us," Collins says. "Later, they demonstrated how to prepare som-dtom, a fabulous spicy salad, made from papayas grown in their garden.

"Their 78-year-old mother didn’t join us for the actual meal, but greeted us from the low teak table where she spends much of her time sitting cross-legged and overseeing the lives of her 10 grown children and their many offspring."

Collins says she was not surprised to see the many changes Thailand has undergone since she left nearly a decade ago.

Her travels on this journey took her from the teeming streets of Bangkok into the rural countryside of the north.

She describes tuk-tuks—three-wheeled taxis that weave through diesel fumes—and public buses that all but clog Bangkok’s city streets; Mercedes and Lexus car galleries that dot the new superhighways; and high-tech gas stations that appear like mushrooms.

"I know that this emerging Pacific Rim country is afflicted with too-rapid growth—government corruption, an exodus of the poor to demeaning lives in the bars and brothels of Bangkok and a proliferation of gross tourists who pander to the worst human impulses."

A local gives Collins a liftA helpful villager offers a lift back to Nungsua during Collins’ recent return visit to Thailand. Photo courtesy JoEllen Collins

Even so, Collins is happy to report that the fundamental spirit of the Thai people is unchanged.

"The pursuit of ‘sanuck’ (joy) is still alive with the buoyant Thais, who refuse to let their love of life be daunted by negativity and complaints," Collins says.

"Even if my Thai friends were upset, they would not show it. They place problems in a larger context and view irritations with remarkable equanimity that drives us Westerners mad."

Mai pen rai.


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Copyright 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.