With tall glasses of beer and ice, hot piles of rice and egg and peppers, Julia goes, “Ok, I heard something about Him.” She whispers this and we all lean our heads in because we know she is about to talk about the King and it’s illegal to talk about the King the way we, Westerners, sometimes do. It’s not that we’d get arrested there in that dingy restaurant if someone overheard our conversation, it’s that they would get very, very mad at us. They would kick us out, or push the men, they would be hostile. It just isn’t tolerated.

If you ask any Thai person anything about the King, no matter who, no matter how educated that person is, how long they have studied in the France or whatever, they will always, always say, “We love the King, we love him,” with this giant, sincere smile. He is God like. He is above everything.

This total, unwavering love for him confused me at first but after spending some time in the Thai school systems it began to make more sense. Respecting authority is the number one priority here. That is what they continually instill. Over and over again, pounding it in. They cultivate a society that respects their elders. (Have I mentioned how when I walk down the hallways my students part to the sides and deeply bow me?) And the King is the highest on the chain.

Where we, Americans, are basically taught the exact opposite, to question authority. Our classic literary protagonists who we grow up with would just not fly here. Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Scout from “To Kill A Mockingbird,” kids who see through the crazy adults, the crazy system around them, that is not something that would ever be celebrated in
Thailand, in the east.

So when we get together, other Volunteers, we tend to swap stories we’ve heard in secret about the King or the Royal family, because we just don’t get it, how one person can be so perfect. Because we know that one person has to have flaws, something. People aren’t Gods. I think it makes us nervous.

The closest figures I can compare to the King, in terms of how the people view him, is how Americans view our forefathers who wrote up that weighty Constitution. What they wrote goes. Maybe we all need something, a doctrine, a voice that we can trust wholly in this otherwise grey, blurry world. We crave a black and white, a right and wrong. It gets exceedingly confusing when the borders blur. When you realize that maybe that suicide bomber who killed that baby at the market isn’t really the one to blame, wasn’t the one who was completely wrong, because after all his family was murdered by the military, which is what left him hopeless and jaded. Maybe the military is to blame. But they were just following orders. And it goes deeper and deeper and the list grows longer and longer. Until you realize it goes through people, generations, borders, personal histories.

Thailand’s government is a mess. Thaskin, the former Prime Minster, sort of stepped down because of mass protests that have been going on for about a year. Thaskin is often compared to President Bush. A money guy. A guy who will do things that not everyone agrees with because he says, you don’t really know what’s good for you anyway. I’m your bullying father so shut up son.

Thaskin encouraged Thais to take out loans, to get into business, to compete. He said that you can be more than you think. You don’t have to work in the rice paddies your whole life just because your father did. You aren’t chained to that existence. Compete. Make money. At first the Thais liked this. And to Americans the idea makes sense. Yeah, you aren’t chained to your ancestors. We squirm at the idea of caste systems. We are individuals. You can be whatever you want to be!

But the King didn’t really like this. Though he wouldn’t come out and say it because the King has to appear like he above politics. He is in this holy plain that doesn’t get down in the nitty gritty. But a few opinions started to slip from his mouth that made people see that the King, though he never directly admitted it, wasn’t down with Thaskin.

The King said that the stress in life should not be in competition. Competing isn’t good. You should respect your family. Yourself. The people around you. You should work on being self reliant, being healthy. Being happy. Being whole.

Thais, Buddhists especially, believe that life’s a balance. A person can have too little money (Americans agree with that) but in the same way, a person can also have too much money. If you have too much money it is just as bad as having too little. It’s a collective, sharing society. This is pretty Buddhist. Nothing is really yours. Your body isn’t yours. Nothing. It’s your soul and your spirit and you’re just waiting for the Nirvana. The idea of ownership doesn’t exist like it does in America. So throwing in this Western idea of competing to earn a lot of money doesn’t make that much sense. Why would you do that? Why do you need a lot of money?

So when the mass protests were taking place in January and February people were not saying kick out Thaskin because he is screwing us over, or whatever. They were saying kick out Thaskin because he is disrespecting the King.

And that’s where it stands now. Hazy and confused. It’s more than just bringing in Western values into an Eastern society. It’s more than just blindly following authority figures.

That night at dinner we told everything we had heard that was bad about the King. That made us believe he was more of a person and less of a God. Because the idea that there is one man who is perfect and floating above the rest of us makes all of us Americans very, very nervous.

When I am teaching everything I say to those kids is right. If none of those kids understands what I’m talking about it’s their fault—the entire class is wrong and stupid— and they deeply know it, they deeply believe it. It cannot be my fault because I am a teacher and I am older. It never occurs to them that maybe, maybe this person talking down to them, from the front of that old, rundown classroom, doesn’t really know what she’s talking about after all.