It was a normal day like any other in southern Thailand — hot. Wooden fans creaked sleepily above my head and those of my forty-seven twelve year-old students. My classrooms were not air-conditioned, but they did afford a nice view — outside, lush palm trees susurrated in the breeze. It was morning, and the sky was a brilliant blue. In the afternoon, it gave way to clouds and some showers. It was June, and the rains had come to Southeast Asia.
I was giving a lesson on some basic verbs and was trying to get the kids to use them in a sentence. I had put the classroom into eleven teams of four, and the way the game worked was two people per team stood up at a time, and tried to tell me their hobbies using as many different verbs as possible. One verb equaled one point. For example, I like to listen to music got one point (listen), while I like to listen to music and ride my motorbike got two (listen, ride). This had proven to be one of the most popular games in all of my classes. Some students who I was unsure could even tell me their own names were suddenly jumping up and yelling, “Teacher Paul! I like to ride my bike and I like to sleep in my bed and I like to read a book and I like…” Some particularly bright young girls were scoring upwards of ten points per round, especially when I awarded two points if the verb they used was one we hadn’t officially learned in the classroom yet.
On that day, as was usual with the game, everyone was excited and cheering, especially when I tallied the new scores on the board. Except, I noticed, for Jupjang. Jupjang was on the team that had named themselves “Because of You,” and while her teammates were jumping up and down for me to call on them, Jupjang remained seated, motionless and silent, simply staring at her desk. My initial reaction when I noticed this was that I had done something wrong. I always kept track of all the students who had spoken already, and I tried to have it so that by the end of the lesson, every student had had a chance to speak. Had I missed her by accident?
I went over to team Because of You and asked Jupjang as nicely as I could in Thai, “Lae Jupjang la krup?” “And you Jupjang?” No response. Nothing. She just stared straight ahead, not even looking at me, not even blinking, and the other students around her began to appear about as shaken as I began to feel. Whatever was going on with Jupjang was strange, but I still thought it was something I had done — maybe she’s painfully shy, she didn’t want to be called on. There were always a few kids like that in every class. I walked away from her and called on another team, hoping to make it clear that if she didn’t want to play, it wasn’t a problem. I wasn’t going to put her on the spot.
Team Retto Potato rattled off eight points worth of verbs. I went to the board and began to add to their score, when… there was a scream so loud I dropped the chalk. The crack of a chair and the cold slump of a body falling backwards onto the floor. I turned around to hear more screams now from the other students, and a circle of students surrounding Jupjang who was lying on the floor on her back, her legs and arms flailing, her body convulsing. I ran over, pushed kids aside. Some girls were trying to lift her up, but I yelled at them — in English, as I had forgotten all Thai at that moment of chaos and unlimited panic — to leave her alone. I pushed them all off her. I was horrified. Looking back, I didn’t think it could be at all possible for these Thai kids, with their beautiful brown skin, to look as pale and white as Jupjang did at that moment.
A crowd began to form at the door and, thank goodness, a few Thai teachers who must have heard the screams came into my classroom. I let them take charge, as they seemed, miraculously to me, completely unfazed by what was happening. They also pushed the kids aside, and one teacher knelt down and placed Jupjang’s head in her lap, stroking her forehead lightly. After about fifteen seconds, the convulsions, which had dwindled, stopped completely. After about fifteen more, she began to come around. The color began to come back into her face, her eyes opened. Thank God, I thought. The Thai teachers helped her to her feet — I still thought they should have let her lay there for a while longer — and they helped her out the door.
As quickly as it began, it was over. I was struck by the thought that there were still ten minutes left in the lesson, but it was laughable to think of immediately getting back to the verb game. The classroom was a total mess — chairs were overturned, desks askew, papers everywhere. I looked at the kids. They looked at me.
“Phee,” one of them said. Ghost.
I first came to Thailand just over ten months ago, my plan, vaguely, ambitiously, to learn to speak and read Thai, then to get a teaching job somewhere off the beaten path where I could carve out a small niche for myself. I wanted to experience an aspect of Thailand and Thai culture not available to the casual tourist or backpacker. I first lived for nine months in Bangkok, amidst all the political turmoil of the Red Shirt rallies, and all the violence and chaos that ensued. Despite this, the university I attended attempted to hold class, and I steadfastly attempted to learn Thai. I came here with no background in the language, and for the first six months, I felt like I was learning at the rate of a buffalo plowing a rice field. I could order Pad Thai, I could tell a cab driver to turn left, I could tell people my name, but I couldn’t exactly speak or understand much beyond that.
Slowly, this all began to change as I started meeting every evening at a local coffee shop with Tik. Tik was a lawyer who lived in the same building as another American student at the university. One night when we were all out together, we struck a deal: Tik would teach me Thai, as best she could, if I would help her with her written English to prepare for her TOEFL exam. The meetings proved fruitful, and we began meeting sometimes up to six times in a week, for an hour or more at a time. I would correct Tik’s essays, and she would patiently suffer through my blundering attempts to speak these slippery, tonal monosyllables. I have often thought that trying to learn this language, where a slight shift in intonation can mean the difference between “ride” or “shit” or, amazingly enough, “beautiful” or “bad luck,” is like trying to climb up a water slide with the current coming against you. For a long time it seemed I would never have any success. But after about two months or so working closely with Tik, I noticed off-hand one day that I was saying things to native Thais and that they were understanding me. And that, even more remarkably, I was actually catching some of what they said back in their reply.
Once my language skills began to improve ever so slightly, my ears began picking up a Thai word being spoken everywhere, among young Thais and their friends out on a weekend, among older Thai shop owners, even among the Thai academics at the university I was attending. The word was phee (pronounced pee), and it means ghost. I began picking up small phrases around me – so-and-so saw a phee the other day, so-and-so moved out of their apartment because of the phee, you shouldn’t visit this or that cave because a particularly fierce phee lives there.
At first, my secular, Western sensibility was offended by such superstition. Phees! Shall we call the Pheebusters? I could not understand how people with professional degrees living in such a modern, metropolitan city could genuinely believe in what I saw as such nonsense. But in time, I began to realize that belief was the wrong word to describe this deeply rooted cultural phenomenon. In fact, it is completely incorrect to say that Thai people believe in ghosts. There’s nothing to believe in, because for Thais, ghosts are real — as real and as tangible as the chili peppers in your papaya salad. To say that you saw a ghost the other day would be as acceptable and as plausible a statement as telling someone there’s a sale on mangoes right now. You might frighten some folks, but people will take you at your word.
Ghosts are simply one part of the Buddhist cosmos. One evening at our usual coffee shop near the Chao Phraya River, sensing my bewilderment and skepticism, Tik took it upon herself to explain a few things to me.
“Ghosts are real because reincarnation is taken as a fact of life here. A ghost is simply a being filled with so much craving, with such desire, that it cannot let go of its previous life as a human being, making it unable to move on to its next life. Because of this, they are beings that are suffering immensely, forever wanting to regain something that has passed away, never to return.”
“Kind of like a Van Halen reunion tour?” I said, not buying any of this. I had to explain to Tik who Van Halen are. She laughed.
“Yes, perhaps in a way, it’s not unlike that. But in fact, I think it is far worse than the plight of Van Halen. The difference is this: you think being a human is tough? Try being a ghost.”
“Try being Sammy Hagar,” I replied.
“While human beings are largely creatures of desire as well, the significant difference is that humans are able to make conscious choices to improve our lot. You might want to eat that extra piece of cake or drink another beer, but you are fully capable to reflect on this desire, and see how it is all simply in the mind, insubstantial. However, with ghosts, try to picture a heroin addict. There is a desire so intense that they are largely unable to free themselves from it by their own volition. That’s where ghost doctors come in.”
“They’re called ghostbusters,” I tell her, rolling my eyes. “And they aren’t out to help any of these ghosts with their desire. They zap them with big lasers and lock them up into tiny little boxes, while this really awesome theme music plays.” But this cultural reference, too, is lost on her, and she ignores my sarcasm.
“I know you will scoff at this, but Thai Buddhists believe that it’s possible to treat ghosts with kindness just as you would treat another person or an animal. Ghost doctors — excuse me, ghostbusters for you — attempt, in their own way, to help the ghost, to convince the ghost to move on, to leave this plane of existence behind. Only then will they be able to further work out their karma.”
At this point my attention waned, and I didn’t bother to tell Tik that her definition of a ghostbuster wouldn’t exactly make a good Hollywood movie. Nevertheless, I thought to myself, I guess it makes some kind of sense, at least from this Buddhist philosophical perspective. But understanding is one thing — to come to believe takes something else entirely.
* * *
While I was relieved that Jupjang was fine, a part of me wanted to march up to Ajarn Jaroon, the head of our English Department, and ask him, as kindly as possible, why the hell wasn’t I told that I had an epileptic student. For a first-time teacher in a completely foreign country, this small bit of information might have made things a bit easier, in the off chance that this particular student should have a seizure during one of my lessons. But I took a deep breath, knowing that any kind of emotional outburst would not make any difference – in Thailand, losing your temper, even if you have good reason to, is always considered rude. At least now I know, I thought to myself, sighing, as I headed back to the English Department office.
As I walked towards the door, I saw Ron, our other foreign English teacher from New Zealand, sitting at the office computer.
“Have I got a story for you!” he said as I walked in. I practically laughed in his face.
“Ron, I can all but guarantee you that…”
“Had a girl have a bloody seizure in my class this morning. Thank God the Thai teachers showed up. The kids are scared half out of their wits, telling me it’s a ghost and some such nonsense. My lesson was shot.”
I stared at Ron without saying anything. A whole range of possibilities rushed through my mind. I was desperately seeking some sort of rational explanation for why this would be, but nothing made any sense. My stone-faced reaction was not what Ron expected.
“Something wrong, mate?” he asked. I ignored his question.
“Did the girl scream before it happened?” I asked.
“Like bloody murder she did.” Ron was freaked. How could I possibly know that?
“Ron, you don’t suppose these kids are putting us on?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the exact same thing happened in my class. A girl also, just staring blankly at her desk like a zombie, and then when I turn around she lets out this awful scream and it’s followed by a full-on epileptic fit. The girl, Jupjang, she was as white as a, as a… gho…” But I caught myself. I couldn’t bring myself to say the word.
* * *
After hashing out the details, Ron and I considered it unlikely that the kids had staged some kind of elaborate practical joke on us. We briefly considered it possible that when Jupjang screamed, it was the cue for the girl in Ron’s class to have her “fit,” and that it was all a show, a great way to screw with the new foreign teachers. But Ron and I taught in different buildings, on opposite sides of the school grounds, and as loud as the screams were, they couldn’t have carried that far. And even if this weren’t the case, neither of us believed that what we witnessed could have been faked, especially by twelve year-old kids. When Ajarn Jaroon came walking into the English Department office, we both had the urge to pull him aside, but no longer for the original purpose of voicing our indignation. At that point we just wanted answers.
Ajarn Jaroon, through the rambutan-vine, already knew all about what had happened. He laughed as he saw our bewildered faces.
“Ah! I hear you both have, ahh, a very excited day!” he said, smiling.
“You could say that,” I said.
“Yes, yes – sometimes it happens, you know?” and he sat down at his desk and began to grade papers, as if this was the most normal thing that had ever happened at Huai Yot School.
I had been in Thailand long enough by that point where I was unfazed by Jaroon’s completely casual reaction to something that struck us farang teachers as something very important. But cultural differences aside, I had become deeply involved in the situation, and I wanted an explanation — a rational one. It’s something in the stir-fry. Thai kids have weird allergies. Anything other than, sometimes at our school, female students get possessed by ghosts.
“Ajarn Jaroon,” I asked him, prodding, “Does this kind of thing happen very often?”
“Sometimes, sometimes,” said Ajarn Jaroon, not looking up from his work.
“The kids were all saying phee khaw tua – ghost enters the body. What do you think of that?”
Then Ajarn Jaroon looked up, and laughed again. “Ahh! In Thailand, we have, emm, you know? The belief in spirits. Some people really believe in spirits!” And he went back to his papers. But before I could press him further, he looked up at both Ron and I again, this time with an alarmed expression.
“Have you looked at their student numbers?” he asked, almost frantically.
“Student numbers?” Ron repeated, as confused as I was.
“Yes, yes – on the attendance sheets. Every student has a student number. Last time this kind of thing happen, it happen to two girls in my class, you know? Afterward the other teachers and I, we look up the student numbers of these girls. Then we all go out and buy the lottery tickets. Very, very lucky numbers. We win over ten thousand baht!” He began to laugh very hard. “Paul and Ron, you very lucky — very lucky today!”
* * *
After school, I walked down to the local branch of Bangkok Bank in Huai Yot. Outside, standing next to the fortune-teller seated yogi-style on her rattan mat, was a woman with a flat wooden suitcase hanging around her neck by a leather strap. The suitcase was open, and pinned to the inside were colorful Thai Government lottery tickets. I walked up to the woman and told her I wanted number nung gao paed gao jet, or 19897 – Jupjang’s student ID number that I got off of my attendance sheet. With five digits, the odds of winning were 1 in 100,000, or 0.001%. But when I paid her the one hundred baht and she handed me back the ticket, I felt strangely good about it, despite those odds.
That was the first lottery ticket I had ever purchased in my life. Back in America, I simply didn’t believe in that kind of thing.
Ajarn: a term of respect used for upper level professors and teachers.
baht: the name of Thai currency.
farang: the general Thai word for a white Western foreigner
nung gao paed and jet are the anglicised versions of the Thai words for single numbers: nung (1), gao (9), paed (8) and jet (7).
pad thai: a popular Thai dish containing stir-fried rice noodles with eggs and various other ingredients
papaya salad: also called som tam is a mixture of shredded green papaya, chopped green beans, tomato, etc., pounded together in a mortar using a pestle.
Lae Jupjang la krup?: “And you, Jupjang?”
phee khaw tua: ghost enters the body
rambutan: a fruit that is native to Malaysia with a somewhat hair-like covering and red skin on the outside.
Van Halen: an American rock band which formed in California in 1972.Sammy Hagar: an ex-lead singer of the Van Halen band.
Karma: the accumulation of each person’s acts during their life-time experience, all of which decide the fate for their next life
Illustration by Katherine Jones
Paul King is a twenty-three year old American living and working in Trang Province in southern Thailand. After graduating from school with a science degree that did nothing to satisfy his sense for adventure, so he took off for Bangkok over a year ago and has been bouncing around Thailand and Southeast Asia ever since. Currently, he teaches English to 7th, 10th, and 11th grades at a Thai public school. You can read his blog, or contact him on Facebook.
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