Madison Morrison's Web / Places / Thailand

Thai Anecdotes

In 1990-1991, as Visiting Professor of Western Culture at Thammasat, the national Buddhist university in Bangkok (“Thammasat” = dhamma (Pali)/dharma (Sanskrit) sat, being, or the essence of the Buddhist Way of Virtue, MM was known as “Ajarn Madison,” the honorific term for “Teacher” used in Thailand. He was told by his gracious hosts that they wanted to learn all that he knew. Accordingly they asked him to offer a semester’s course in the history of western criticism from Plato and Aristotle to the present; year-long lectures in Shakespeare; a semester’s course in Modern English and American Poetry; and another in American Realism.

As the second semester approached he was told that he could teach another in whatever he liked. MM asked his students which subject they preferred. “Henry James, of course,” they said. “But have we enough books?” MM had checked the Thammasat collection and found only half a dozen; in 1991 Bangkok had few foreign book stores. “We will find them,” said his 26 students. Within ten days Ajarn Madison’s desk was piled high with books by and about the Master: all 26 novels by Henry James had been located; a two-volume biography; the letters; a dozen critical studies, all from universities and book stores scattered across the metropolis.

Fine. Each week MM would talk for half an hour in English about a short story by James, then ask three of his students to give half-hour-long reports in Thai on three of James’ novels. School desks pulled into a circle, we passed about a microphone (required by long-tailed boats with American automobile motors noisily plying the Chao Phrya River). To the dismay of colleagues, glancing through the open classroom door, nothing was audible but students talking among themselves in Thai but also listening to reports, fascinated by Ajarn Henry’s plots (which had enabled them to overcome his Mandarin prose and read such very long books).

And why such interest in Henry James? Does he not write about young women who, like upper-class Thai students (all but one or two were girls), wish to marry foreigners? By semester’s end on Ajarn Madison’s desk sat 26 term papers, each discussing a short story, the student’s “own” Henry James novel, plus two others reported on. The themes were brilliant. Ten years later, returning to Bangkok for lunch with one of his former students, MM naively inquired: “I suppose that you are all married by now!” “No.” “What do you mean? How many of your classmates are still unmarried?” “26!” she said. Perhaps Ajarn Henry had really taught them a lesson.

In 2005 MM moved to Thailand, which has generously granted him a retirement visa. He now spends most of the year in Jomtien, a city of 200,000 people on the Bay of Thailand.

Balcony sculptures

MM loves the Thai people, and the Thais reciprocate his affection.

Sumalee and friends