Uniforms, poverty, and how to change the world

One thing that is noticeable in Thailand is how many people wear uniforms. Businesses of all kinds have uniforms, from the typical suit and tie apparel (YUK!) common to business throughout the world, to hotel and restaurant staff, to motorbike taxi and other transportation workers, to security, police and government workers, et cetera. The robes of Buddhist monks, novices and nuns can certainly be considered a type of uniform, as well. But the uniforms seen most often in Thailand are the ones worn by students of all levels, from the kindergartens to the universities.

Throughout my life, I have mostly detested the idea of uniforms, as I think they can suppress the ability to freely express oneself. Had I been forced to wear a uniform in school, I surely would have defaced it, or worse. However, the Thais, like many Asian people and contrary to many in the West, value a sense of community and belonging more than a need to express one’s individuality. This is a generalization, of course, but I’m hardly the first to make note of it. The Thais do like to look good in their uniforms, and they do. A Thai phrase which is very common is เรียบร้อย “RiapRoy”, meaning “polite and well-mannered”, “all set”, “everything in order”, “tidy”, and so on. In a songthiaw in Suphanburi, a sign read that a student riding without a uniform is not RiapRoy, and will therefore be charged full price for the ride.

One positive aspect of uniforms is that they put people on an equal footing, at least theoretically. It’s difficult to tell whether a student comes from a poor or rich background, without telltale signs like iPod headphones hangout out of the shirt pocket or expensive handbags or something. When you view a group of uniformed students who are laughing and smiling, it’s easy to miss the fact that some of them may have come from exceedingly poor backgrounds or have had or are having difficult family and personal situations. However, it is precisely the people from the poorest backgrounds that stand to benefit the most from receiving a decent education. Poverty in Thailand, as in anywhere else in the world, is a cycle which can be broken by the proper education of competent, committed students.

I read the books by Phra Peter Pannapadipo about two years ago. He is the (now former) English monk who gained some fame after his first book Phra Farang came out. His books can be ordered through thaihypermarket.com or you still find them at Asia Books. Two of them are set to re-released by a different publisher later this year. Peter has taken off the robes of monk, at least temporarily, and is now known by his name from pre-monk days, Peter Robinson. He directs a charity which gives help to students, which is explained both in the above-mentioned book and in the book Little Angels. I thought the charity sounded very worthwhile, so I gave a donation last year.

I have now spent three nights in Nakhon Sawan, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet Peter Robinson, as well as some of the students. The program, the Students’ Education Trust, really is amazing, and much care is taken to make sure that the funds donated do go to help those who both need it and show signs of making the most use of it. I highly recommend anyone reading this to consider making a donation of any amount, as you will then be contributing to making Thailand a better place and changing the lives of some of its people for the better. More information can be found at thaistudentcharity.org.

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