Jason Jellison, 38, is an American-born academic who, like many of us, has adopted Thailand as his second home. He recently completed and published a research study, in which he gave thirty unsuspecting foreign teachers in Bangkok a surprise test on Thai culture. Most of them failed, in that they demonstrated a clear and quantified lack of understanding of the Kingdom. The Phuket News spoke with Jason to find out more. Here is the first part of the interview.
Tell us about yourself, and how you ended up as a student in Thailand:
Back in 2000, I decided to take a vacation in a warm country, and came to Thailand, initially for five and a half weeks, and it changed my entire life. I discovered a country where most people tend to deal with problems calmly. I also discovered a country where many people were much happier in their daily lives. From very early on in that trip, I became insatiably curious about how people could be so different. I wanted to know everything that I could about Buddhism. So, I set off atop a motorcycle, up towards Chiang Mai. I was entranced by driving through hill tribe country, discovering forgotten Buddhist shrines, as well as discovering strange religious texts that I sought to understand … After an injury in 2003, and I wound up retiring early due to medical problems, and decided to finish my college degree at Thongsook College, near Mahidol University in
Salaya, Nakhon Pathom. The College President, Dr. Pornchit, was kind enough to host over 150 foreign students, and I publicly thank her for envisioning such a new idea. The BA-TESOL programme would never have happened without her vision and expertise. I am about two years away from finishing my bachelor’s degree in International TESOL and intend to pursue a Master’s and PhD here too.
Tell us about your study, and particularly why you decided to pursue this research topic?
I recently became a Buddhist at Wat Naripilom, just outside Bangkok. Thailand is a second home to me, and I wanted to do something with my academic career to benefit the entire country. Someday, we’ll all be gone and, for those of us who enjoy research, we will be remembered for the body of work that we leave behind. Bangkok’s libraries are full of dusty books written by long deceased researchers. I was sitting in an old library, late one hot afternoon in Bangkok. Lest anyone think that those books are now “irrelevant dinosaurs,” I happened to come across a copy of Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation Stateby Charles F. Keyes. Although the book was written in 1987, I found it was still very relevant to Thailand as we know it today.
Also, a former Harvard academic, Donald Swearer, personally accepted a copy of the research once it had been submitted to my college. I had cited his work heavily in my paper, and this all gave me a idea never attempted before: Test a mass of foreign, second-language teachers to see just how much they are absorbing about Thai culture. I got the idea because there is a constant backand-forth between Thai academics and western academics.
Thai academics say that Westerners don’t understand Thai culture. Western academics from the USA, EU and Australia claim that they do. They often make direct policy suggestions to Thailand as the country develops. Recently, Mark Kent, the outgoing British Ambassador, wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of the Magna Carta in the Bangkok Post. W. Patrick Murphy, the US charge d’ affaires, made a statement recently that seemed to show a western view of human rights issues; which tends to be in conflict with [some views in] the East.
This back-and-forth, where the West tries to import its values to the East, has really boiled over recently. Western academics and politicos have claimed to understand Thai issues well enough to pressure Thailand towards Western values, and are sometimes critical of the decisions Thailand makes. As an aspiring researcher, I thought the best thing I could do would be to conduct a research study that took a snapshot of just exactly what Western academics did, or did not know about those issues. So, I decided to create a surprise test for foreign English teachers to take …
The conclusion of this interview, and Jason’s research can be found here.