I plonked my bottom on a seat – not something I usually do but the train was pretty empty being a Monday evening, post rush-hour – and opened my book, Girl In The Picture, the story of Kim Phuc, the child (now a grown woman) who became famous after a journalist captured a picture of her just after she had been horrifically burnt by a napalm bomb during the Vietnam war.
I always read on the train, yet feel a little odd doing so in Bangkok, as most people tend to look at me as if to say, “Why are you reading a book? Serious mak mak (very serious)” Being from London, where reading is commonplace on trains, busses, in the back of a car and pretty much anywhere one can cram a few pages in, I feel like 5 stops to central Sukhumvit is wasted just staring into thin air.
Conscious of the picture of the naked girl running terrified on the front of my book, I peered over at the business-suited lady opposite, desperately tapping away at her iPhone, playing Angry Birds or some Farmville, whatever. I then looked to my right, and shocked, I saw another woman of about 35 years old, reading….oh, just a comic book, never mind, I thought.
And so, true to form, it got me to thinking; no one reads here, and when I do spot a reader, it's nearly always a Japanese style comic book. Typically, or should I say, unfortunately, you'd assume educated people would read more than uneducated people, but this doesn't seem to be the case here. In fact, the motorbike taxi driver perched regularly at the end of my street, flicking through his newspaper each morning, does more reading than any other Thai I have encountered. Maybe this is pure oversight on my behalf and I just don't know enough Thais, or the right Thais for that matter, or maybe reading on the train isn't “the done thing”….but I think it runs deeper than that…
I asked a good friend about this “reading thing”, and she said that she, like others in her school, were never encouraged to read anything other than Thai history and books on Theravada Buddhism. It makes sense then that most kids would be put off of reading from a young age, if indeed the selection of material appeared so limited. She also commented that University didn't require much reading either, at least nothing passed the essential textbooks, unlike the extensive reading lists you get at universities back home. I guess “establishment guided” reading discourages the activity in a big way, in the same way forcing a child to eat greens often results in an adult rebellion against vegetables.
I wonder if it is the case that the Thai education system deliberately blinkers people to not want to read further than the greatness of Thailand, and, coupled with a culture where “being serious” – which includes talk of politics, war and oppression – isn't something to engage in too frequently, ultimately slams the door on looking overseas for great literature.
I don't think people don't want to read, as much as they aren't accustomed to reading, haven't been encouraged to read, and simply don't know of the wonderful books out there they could be learning from. In my opinion it is a culture discouraged from learning about the world; one only needs to refer to the recent Chiang Mai school incident, where teachers could see nothing offensive about their children dressing as Nazis for a school fun day. The ignorance is clearly systemic, and stems from a lack of reading.
There are clearly Thais that do read, though. I have seen a fair few book shops in Thailand with buried heads in pages. But I fear the majority of those inside reading anything other than Thai authored books, are those privileged to have been exposed to a broader international education or an abundance of foreign travel.
So why am I so bothered about books? Well, because I regret the years I didn't read, or should I say couldn't read. My concentration didn't allow me more than a few minutes of reading in my teens, and my mind wandered as words passed unregistered through the back of my head. Perhaps I was trying to read the wrong books, or perhaps I fell foul to its lack of “coolness” at my local comprehensive, where I was having a tough enough time finding some identity to survive.
Anyway, the point is, books have become a best friend to me, helping me seek facts, truths, insights; and helping me better understand human behaviour. Books have helped me to express myself better, and helped me be able to write reasonably well. And above all, books have helped me realise how bloody grateful I should be for my lot in life. The right books, in my mind, have an extraordinary capability to open the mind of any individual and enhance life in so many ways. Books open windows to the world, and give context and background to modern living through historical teachings. I guess all this summarises the reason why it bothers me so much to see people who have the access and opportunity to read, wasting their time on mindless games and phone apps.
I wonder what would happen if people were introduced to a diverse range of titles from a young age, whether it might spark a reading revolution. I believe it would completely change the dynamics of Thai society. And perhaps that is the reason it hasn't been at the forefront of the educational agenda. The being that knowledge is power, knowledge is the breeding ground for change. The difference between rich and poor is quite often a mere education; so what happens if you give people the tools to freely educate themselves? Lord only knows what would happen if people really began to think for themselves and challenged the status quo armed with “the bigger picture”.