Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Phufa, the Little Drummer Boy

I could write a compelling profile of many of my students at Anuban Songkhla, and I feel so fortunate to be interacting daily with such a fun, caring, interesting, intelligent group of kids. I suppose at the end of my time here I'll write a little something about each of them because they're such a dynamic group, and I want you all to get at least a peek into a Songkhla child's life. But there's one student of mine who I'd like to dedicate a whole post to, though he certainly isn’t a good representation of a “typical” student. But I’ve spent a lot of time with him over the last five months, so I'm going to step-out of my usual recounting routine and put my creative non-fiction training to work for a post (shout out to Dr. Rick Barot for weaseling your way into my head during times like these).

Phufa (pronounced Poof-uh) Somchanakit is seven years old and would like everyone to know that he has a real job every Saturday and Sunday. He works at a place called Blue Smile Cafe where they make really good pizza and have a lot of different kinds of drinks and there's a Canadian guy named Paul who cooks in the back. Phufa even has a shirt and everything. One time his mom hadn't done the laundry so his shirt wasn't clean and he couldn't go to work, because everyone knows you need your uniform to go to work. He was sad about it, but being professional is very important to him. Phufa would also like everyone to know that his favorite food is spaghetti.

“My mom says I’m fat and I need to go on a diet,” Phufa says, looking disappointedly down at his stomach then to the chocolate milk in his hand. “Maybe I’ll jump rope a bit.”

We’re in my office during lunch time, and I keep the PE equipment (four plastic balls, five jump ropes, and one hula hoop for 35 kids) behind my desk, so he trades me his milk for a jump rope and sets to work as I continue writing. He’s not fat—true, he’s not stick-thin like a lot of my kids, but he’s short and compact, an energetic and jolly “little drummer boy” one of my coworkers fondly started calling him around the Christmas season. I doubt Joe was envisioning the cute little selfless lad going to play for baby Jesus—think a little more along the lines of the energizer bunny.

I was warned by coworkers back in October about Phufa before I'd ever met him. Yes, he speaks English like a little native child and can translate anything you want to the whole class, but he's such a handful, it's easier to run the class without him. He's dramatic. He's a baby. He believes he deserves special privileges because of his English skills. He probably has the English vocabulary of a native speaking 9-year-old but he bursts into tears and bangs his head on the desk when he breaks his pencil. All of these things turned out to be true. But I've since learned there's quite a bit more to him than that.

More than anything, Phufa just wants to talk to people. In English. There are four Filipino and two other native English-speaking teachers at my school, but somehow, I’m the one who Phufa really hit it off with. It may have had something to do with the fact that I knew all the weird American TV shows he was obsessed with and need chocolate on the daily almost as much as he does. So, mid-November, Phufa started buying two chocolate milks at the student store every day during lunch. Like clockwork, he appears in my office at 11:45, and we kick back in our plastic blue chairs, sip our chocolate milk through those ridiculously tiny straws they glue to the side of the carton, and we discuss the latest topic of interest. Our conversations range from Pixar movies to greatest fears, from the technicalities of piano playing to Phufa’s unsuccessful dating life (“She just, didn’t even return my note”). One day, Phufa spent lunch telling me all about the bot fly, which is some parasitic, absolutely disgusting creature I now know much more about than I really wish to. When we can’t think of anything to talk about, we tell jokes, because Phufa loves jokes. Sometimes I find a website online and we take turns passing my phone back and forth and reading them to each other, though sometimes such jokes have punch-lines that utilize words like “canoe” or “hipster” or “Noah’s Ark,” and we decide to just make up jokes ourselves.

“Okay, I really have to use the bathroom, can you finish interviewing me later?” Phufa asks, throwing down his jump rope and inching towards the door.

“Only if you take your toothbrush with you, dude,” I say, holding up a plastic bag with a green case in it. “This is like, strike 13. Teacher Joe’s started a tally.”

“Ah, c’mon, no way!” Phufa laughs, snatching his bag from me. “I remember it most of the time.”

“Uh huh, sure, Phufa.”

“Oh my god!” Phufa doubles over, holding his stomach and laughing hard enough to be in a scene of a soap opera or silent movie. Half the time I don’t know why Phufa’s laughing, but it always makes me crack up too.  


Phufa's mind is a fascinating smorgasbord of American and Thai pop-culture references that never ceases to confuse, concern, and entertain. One time, after discussing the finer points of the TV show, Adventure Time, Phufa asked me, "Do you want to go to heaven or hell?" I sort of cocked my head and thought for a moment, since I was apparently being given a choice in the matter. "Well, I guess I'm not sure," I said. "Why don't you make a solid case for me? What do you think they're like?" Phufa elaborated as follows: "I think that in heaven you can eat whatever you want—you can have KFC every day! And ice cream! In hell, there's a big pot over a fire, and you don't want to get in the pot, and if you call out for your mom and dad, they won't hear you cuz they're in heaven. Yeah, I think I would chose heaven, Also, you get to meet all the gods in heaven--like Zeus and Jesus and Buddha...that would be so cool! Not Satan, though--I don't want to meet him. I've seen pictures, and he's freaky." I decided to agree upon the Satan point and let the rest go. 

Although his world collides and combines in interesting conversations like these, sometimes it seems like Phufa is living two lives. After weeks of begging, Phufa finally convinced me to come visit him at Blue Smile Café one Sunday. Blue Smile is a hip, friendly café with murals painted on the outside and art for sale on the inside. It’s owned by a Thai woman and her Canadian husband, so you can get amazing massaman curry AND Belgian waffles with real maple syrup. I have to give Phufa the credit for making me a regular, but who can resist a place that has Jenga, Wednesday movie nights, fresh baked goods, and a rooftop lounge?

El, one of the co-owners of Blue Smile just laughs and shakes her head whenever I talk to her about Phufa. The boy had been hanging around so much after they first opened that she’d told him he was going to have to work there if he kept showing up. Phufa, of course, didn’t realize this was a joke and was elated by the idea, despite El’s reactionary skepticism. “What can you do?” She asked Phufa. “Like, can you serve, or cook, count the money?” Phufa shrugged his shoulders and said enthusiastically, “I can be an entertainer!” So, he showed up every Saturday and Sunday religiously to bother Paul—the other co-owner—in the kitchen, El, whose English is very good, or anyone else who will talk to him in his special language. The only times he didn’t show up was when his official t-shirt wasn’t clean, because, as aforementioned, he didn’t feel he could go to work without it. After learning that’s why Phufa hadn’t shown up one weekend, El sat him down and told him he didn’t have to work at Blue Smile; he was welcome to just come and hang out. Unfortunately, Phufa thought this meant he was fired. He didn’t show up for two or three weeks and was inconsolable until El went to his house and cleared the miscommunication.

Being at Blue Smile Café is a sort of extension of Phufa’s English life at school with me and the TV shows and YouTube videos he watches at home. He can say things like, “Holy sweet mother of god!” when he’s really surprised (when he found out my dad and sister were visiting Thailand in December) or “That’s a damned lie!” (can’t remember, pretty sure it was aimed at Teacher Joe). But after our third meeting at Blue Smile, Phufa dragged me down the street to his house, where he isn’t wonder boy, he’s not an over-the-top cartoon character, he’s just another boy who lives in Songkhla.

El told me that when Phufa speaks in English, he’s brash, full of energy, and dramatic—he emulates what he sees in his favorite American TV shows. But when he speaks in Thai, he is very quiet and polite. I really experienced that for the first time when I visited his home.

Like most Thai homes in Songkhla, Phufa’s house is connected seamlessly with the building next to it, so you almost miss the gate that lets you in. One of his two high school-aged brothers let us in, and led us through a dimly lit patio space where we took off our shoes and entered the house. Phufa greeted his mother and explained in Thai who I was, though I’m sure she knew exactly who I was, seeing as white girls don’t just show up at your house very often cuz there are only like six of us in Songkhla. She was short, like Phufa, and had the same round face and smiling eyes, but she looked much softer. She clearly wasn’t one of those moms that wears the fashionable sunglasses and skinny jeans, cowering under their umbrella to keep their skin from darkening by the sun, so I liked her immediately. Also, she gave me watermelon, which is always a way to win me over.

She and Phufa exchanged some words, Phufa explained to me, “She doesn’t really know English,” and he translated to me that she apologized for how messy the house was. I told him there was no need for her to apologize, and it was perfectly fine she didn’t know much English because he knew how rubbish my Thai was. He just laughed and let me into the living room.

You wouldn’t guess by Phufa’s house that his father is a fairly well-off engineer. I’ve learned that Thai’s spend their money on technology, nice cars, and their children’s education, so I wasn’t surprised, but somehow it did seem odd to see Phufa living in such an average space. The light-blue room we found ourselves in was small and crammed with piles of papers, stacks of books, an electric keyboard, a computer desk, and a couple of chairs. There was hardly room for the two of us to sit on the floor. We found a space right by a wooden staircase where Phufa keeps an enormous stack of English board games. He showed me a few science games in English on his ipad and then pulled out his favorite board game, a sort of fairytale mix-and-match storytelling game, which we actually played for an hour and I really enjoyed. But as we laughed over Red-Riding Hood losing her shoe at the ball and falling down a beanstalk, I couldn’t help but wonder—who plays all these games with him when I’m not here?


While I know how to interact with Phufa outside the classroom, in class, sometimes I’m stumped. He doesn’t always understand that our private conversations can’t carry on during class time. He also assumes that because he speaks the best English, he actually has a right to talk to me more than the other 34 students, and this drives me insane. I’ve recently found a balance, where, for example, Phufa will write out the symbol to about 15 periodic elements and every time I walk by him to call on a student or show a flashcard, I’ll point to one and make a guess. He’ll then check and either add or subtract to my tally as I continue on with the rest of the class. But every time we play a game, and I don’t call on him, he yells out in his distinct countertenor, “Oh, c’mon!!” and pouts. Usually it won’t go beyond that, but Phufa has become known for his royal-sized temper tantrums in MEP 1, which make me look pretty good as a 7-year-old, and I was almost as dramatic as Phufa.

One of Phufa's famous outbursts took place during the PE lesson where I introduced jump ropes to the class. I guess it's been a while since first grade, because I dumbly assumed everyone in MEP 1 would know how to jump rope. To be fair, there were some kids who really had it down, and then there was Nut, who would flop the rope in front of him, pass it with one hand around his back to the other, jump, and call it good. Phufa tried and failed. Multiple times. He couldn't quite swing the rope over his head correctly, and frustration turned into tears which turned into wailing and stomping and yelling, transitioning into flailing on the ground. The rest of the class just looked on with a sort of quiet, all-knowing sobriety in their faces, as if they were watching a beached whale. Pang nodded to me and said very observantly, "Phufa very angry." This was a statement she would find herself repeating to me on several occasions. 

The next day, when Phufa arrived in my office at lunch, and we'd spent a few minutes drinking our chocolate milk in silence, I noticed him looking at the jump ropes in the corner. "Do you want me to teach you?" I asked. "No, I just can't do it," Phufa whined with a grimace. "Not with that attitude," I replied (Eric, be proud). "You have to practice. Come on. We'll go step by step." Phufa whined some more but stood up when I put the jump rope in his hand. 

We spent the next ten minutes perfecting his stance, positioning, hold on the handles, and swinging technique. I wouldn't let him jump at all. Finally, when he could consistently get the rope to arrive at his toes correctly, I had him step over the rope slowly and repeat. We progressed to jumping fifteen minutes in. By the end of lunch, Phufa could jump 20 times in a row without a single mistake and the next week of lunch he spent at least 20 minutes straight jump-roping behind my desk until he collapsed in a puddle of sweat on the chipped, linoleum tiles. I am now proud to say that Phufa counts jump-roping as one of his "top skills." Along with English and saving the earth. 

The story of Phufa and the Jump Rope illustrates one of the major reasons why Phufa can be so difficult; he's used to everything coming easy to him. He can't handle failure because he hardly ever has to handle it. The other reason he is difficult is because he's been spoiled beyond belief--he's the youngest of three, he's coddled by the school and community because he makes them look good, and he's told on the daily he's special because of his unique linguistic talents. I had a class interrupted one day by eight members of Anuban Songkhla's administrative team who came in and proceeded to praise and interview Phufa in the back of the class about his regional English competition win the weekend before. They were literally petting him for twenty minutes. During my class time. I couldn't teach over that, because of course all my kids were trying to get in on the action, and I was furious. But this is where his entitlement stems from, this is why he says, "Oh, she can't solve that problem--she's not very smart--I'll do it!" during a demonstration in math class. This is why the concept of focusing on where your hands and feet are before you jump was so foreign to him. 

As much as his ego frustrates me, it worries me even more. 

On one of our lunch dates in Blue Smile Cafe, Phufa asked who my best friend was. I told him about a couple of my closest friends, and he asked about their jobs and what they looked like. So then I asked him who his best friend was. "Hmmm....well, you, I guess!" he said with a big smile. I wish I could say I returned the same innocent smile, but I had to grin through clenched teeth and a breaking heart. "Really?" I asked. "Definitely," he said confidently. "Probably you and this guy I know on the internet from Malaysia who I think is 10." I thanked him, and probed a little bit more until he admitted that his best class friend was probably Porpeang, who is a student I really like, but who I doubt returns as much friendship to Phufa as my little buddy assumes. 

I watch the way the other students in MEP 1 interact with Phufa. They know he reads English better than Thai, and they know he'd rather talk to me than them. They know he watches The Simpsons on YouTube in his free time instead of playing with them outside. They tell me to call on him during games even when they so desperately want to be called on themselves, because they'd rather see him receive special treatment than deal with his wrath if he isn't chosen. In fact, they expect him to receive special treatment, and this is what ostracizes him from them. Phufa's too young to know it, and his classmates are too young to understand it, but unless his attitude changes, he's on a lonely path to success through abandoning his culture for mine.

The ego and elitism that come with Phufa’s preening and success scare me, especially because he’s still young enough to possess an innocent sweetness, love of learning, and sense of humor that makes him truly fun to be around. He’s the only Thai I’ve ever met who’s seriously concerned about recycling because of what garbage can do to the environment. After listening to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in music class, he declared it “totally EPIC!” and made me write down the composer’s full name for him so he could Youtube him later and listen to other work he wrote. And whether I’m there or not, there’s always a little plastic bag on my desk with a chocolate milk in it at 11:45.

For Christmas, I had my dad send me a joke book from Barnes and Noble for Phufa. Phufa unfortunately came down with Dengue fever, and was out for two weeks, but after the New Year’s holiday, when he was feeling better, he showed up for lunch and I pulled out the wrapped gift. He stared at me with his huge brown eyes and said, “Is this a Christmas present? For me?”

“Ummm no, this is for my invisible friend Frankie,” I said. Phufa doubled over, laughing, as he does. “No, silly, it’s for you.”

“Oh my god,” Phufa said, regaining composure but immediately shifting back to shock. “I’ve never gotten a present before. This is my first present! OH MY GOD!”

Birthdays are very different here than in the states, but I was still shocked that Phufa had never received a present before. I handed him the package and he just sort of stared at it with an emotion that made elation look almost like it was bordering on fear.

“Do I open it now?” he asked tentatively.

“Yup,” I said. “Go for it.”

Phufa carefully peeled off the tape and unfolded the corners of the cheap green wrapping paper I’d picked up at 7/11 that morning.

I wish I knew how to capture in words Phufa’s face when he saw the book. But I simply can’t. It was on par with watching Charlie discover the 5th golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

I’m pretty sure he said “Oh my god!” at least nine times, and “A joke book? It’s a joke book!” at least three. Then he said, “Am I dreaming? Because if I am I'm going to be so angry!" That one made me laugh, and I assured him that he definitely wasn’t dreaming. He flipped the pages back and forth and said, “I think I'm going to cry!”

So before he could, I turned the book to page 1 and we told jokes for about 35 minutes until I almost made him late to class, but didn’t, because I’m not a crappy teacher like that. So I watched him skip off to show all his friends, who I knew wouldn’t understand a single word of the book, but who I hoped would at least be excited for him. 

Nut (left) and I had an unfinished conversation about Star Wars one day, so he followed Phufa (middle) up to my office during lunch to confirm that Jabba the Hutt was indeed the best bad guy in the series.