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Behind Those Eyes


During the ’80s, I was an English teacher at a refugee camp, Panat Nikhom, Chonburi, Thailand. All refugees there were either Vietnamese, or minorities from Laos, who escaped from Communism in their own countries. Thailand wasn’t their destination. Our Thai government had an agreement with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to prepare secured places, or ‘camps’, for them on the condition that they would finally be sent to another country, in this case, the U.S.A. Such ‘camps’ were all over Thailand, but my camp was the transit point. They would be ‘made ready’ here, before leaving for their final destination, the ‘war free’ home where they would be able to establish a peaceful life.

How did we do it? In a very systematic and well organized way. In the 6-month term known as a ‘cycle’, all adults would attend three types of training: English as a Second Language (ESL), Cultural Orientation (CO), and Work Orientation (WO). Children were put into a Preparation for American Study System (PASS) class, so that they could go to school immediately upon arrival in the U.S. They also had to attend the CO class, while a Learning Disability (LD) class was always there for those who needed it, young or not so young.

My ‘students’ were all adult hill tribes people: Hmong, Mien, and Lahu. They were, more or less, excited for the new life ahead, except for one. He was always quiet, his eyes often wandered out somewhere, and when caught not paying attention, he just guiltily looked down at the floor.

I had been wondering for a long time what was really hidden behind those eyes.

All of the staff knew that, to the students, the ESL teachers were ‘angels’. Often in the CO class, especially when it came to culture shock lessons, we could always guarantee that many students, if not all, would run to us with fear, complaining that the CO teachers were so mean. Of course, they were mean. They had to play the part. The angels’ job, then, was to give them comfort, and let them know it was just a simulation.

All my students, men or women, would often seek comfort with me, except for one. Didn’t he need help too? I wondered.

One day, I bumped into him after class. I took a chance to greet him in Thai, though we weren’t allowed to speak Thai to the students in the class, but this wasn’t in the class, was it? He seemed more relaxed. After a little chit-chat, I found out that he was once in the Hmong army, trained by the US to fight the communists. He had nobody left – not even one.

“I can’t be American”, he said, “What should I do, teacher?”

That was it, I thought. That’s what’s hidden behind those eyes: confusion and suffering!

The first few seconds, I didn’t know what to say. How could a 23 year old ‘teacher’ advise a 40 year old ‘student’? But when I saw him looking at me with full respect and hope, I automatically said to him,

“Find peace in your heart first, then you’ll find an answer to all questions in life.”

I was stunned by my own words, and so was he! How could I say such a thing? Perhaps I felt his suffering? Or perhaps that’s the way I was brought up as a Buddhist? Peace in your heart is the key, understanding the cause of your suffering is next, then solve it with your intellect, not emotion.

Many years later, I still occasionally received letters from students, telling me how their lives were in America. I was happy to know that they were happy too.

To my surprise, I received a letter from my ‘wandering eyes’ student. Unlike the others who got their letters written for them in perfect English, this one was written in his own handwriting. It read, “I carpenter now. I happy. I American. Thank you teacher, signed….”

Attached to the letter were two twenty-dollar bills. I guessed he’d like to show his gratitude to me. That letter really made my day! I didn’t even know my tears were running down my face, but I knew for sure those eyes of his weren’t wandering anymore.


By: Varavadi Monaghan (M.Ed, M.A.).

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