Peanut Sauce Film Project Explores Thai Education System


Photo by Janet Wu

Matt Blankinship, OC ’17, fifth-year Thanisa Durongkaveroj, and Anna Treidler, OC ’17, spoke about their experiences in Thailand at a screening of their documentaries about Thailand’s education system Saturday night.

Ivan Aidun, Staff Writer

The Peanut Sauce Project 2560, a documentary project with an eye toward the education system in Thailand and the marginalized groups within it, presented three documentaries in the Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space Friday night. The project was organized by double-degree fifth-year Thanisa Durongkaveroj, who was joined by Matt Blankinship, OC ’17, Anna Treidler, OC ’17, and collaborator Bitong Suchritt. Durongkaveroj, Blankinship, and Treidler were all in attendance at Friday night’s screening to present the documentaries and discuss their experiences in Thailand.

The project, which received XARTS funding, took its name from the current Thai Buddhist year, 2560, as well as a cultural mismatch that Durongkaveroj experienced when she first came to the United States from Thailand. “When I first came to Oberlin I was kind of surprised when people said they liked Thai peanut sauce, because I didn’t really know what that was,” Durongkaveroj said. According to Durongkaveroj, the sauce served with typical Thai food in the U.S. is used in only a few dishes in Thailand. She doesn’t consider it to be characteristic of Thai cuisine as a whole.

“I knew I wanted this project to be about marginalized groups in Thailand’s education system, but through a cross-cultural lense, so I felt like the Peanut Sauce Project was a pretty representative name,” Durongkaveroj said.

For the first documentary, project members visited the small Ban Phot Community School in the rural Thai province of Phetchabun. The school serves 275 students from kindergarten through grade nine. Durongkaveroj, who had never been to Phetchabun, found the school through an online video of students playing Thai music and reached out to them through Facebook.

“The [technology] teacher, who is really into social media, responded the day after. … zthere’s [an almost] 12-hour time difference, otherwise it would [have been] instantly,” Durongkaveroj said.

The film shows the school’s premises, a large courtyard surrounded by various classroom buildings. In the movie, Treidler notes that the buildings are well-maintained, but probably would not be up to U.S. code. The school has a computer lab and a small library, but the principal told the project members that many of the books are outdated. He hopes to get funding for more and newer books, as he says reading allows for a deeper kind of learning than simply using Google.

“There were a lot of ways you could probably tell that they didn’t have a ton of money, especially compared to American schools,” Blankinship recalled. “But it was also really clear what the priorities were in the school. There was a really strong priority on … good teachers.”

The film makes it clear that the teachers and students form a community, and that the teachers know each student’s story and difficulties. The school gives out leftover food from lunch to students who may not be able to get food any other way. In the film, the project members note that there’s a sense of shared trust and responsibility in the school dynamic.

“It’s literally a place where the kids can be to feel safe. It’s really a strong community,” Blankinship summarized.

The second film of the series followed the Peanut Sauce Project members to the Phetchabun School for the Deaf, a boarding school which serves not only Deaf students but students with an array of learning disabilities as well. The film begins with nearly two minutes of silent footage before introducing the school’s students and teachers. Project members interview some students, but their communication is very limited. Their questions need to be translated from English to Thai, then to Thai Sign Language, and then the students’ answers go back through this chain.

“That school, at least for me, was the hardest part of this whole project, because it took a lot of patience and a lot of time to go through the whole process,” Blankinship said.

Nevertheless, the school still has the same strong community as the Ban Phot school. Durongkaveroj noted that although the students who aren’t Deaf can speak Thai, the entire community communicates through sign language. In the film, project members also comment on the teachers’ dedication. Since getting teaching accreditation is complicated, rural provinces like Phetchabun don’t attract many teachers from greater Thailand.

Some students from Phetchabun taught project members some of the things they’ve learned in school, such as making artificial flowers and weaving baskets. “It was really cool to see some of the students kind of get into their element a little bit and feel really comfortable and confident teaching us how to do these things … It was good to see them feel valuable,” Blankinship said. “These students … I think in the greater society tend to be pushed to the side, and told they aren’t valuable. It was awesome to see them prove that wrong.”

The third film deals with Thai people of Chinese descent, who make up over 40 percent of the Thai population, including Durongkaveroj. Project members interviewed various Thai Chinese people, including a noodle shop owner and several other people they met on the street. Many of the interviewees gave similar reasons for their families’ immigration: better education, more jobs, more food. One person quipped, “as long as you’re hardworking, you’re all set in Thailand.” It sounded like a Southeast Asian equivalent of the American Dream. But the relationship between Thai citizenship and Chinese heritage is complicated, since teaching Chinese language or immigration history is forbidden in Thai schools.

“I wanted to [make] that history more present, because it’s kind of getting lost in Thailand’s mainstream education system,” Durongkaveroj noted. “We also have another path that our roots came from, and it’s important to acknowledge that. There’s a lot of ways that the Chinese culture is very present in Thailand, but formally we’re losing it slowly.”

Blankinship spoke about his Chinese background: “I really feel like I’ve lost that connection in a big, big way, and so what Thanisa [Durongkaveroj] is saying about not feeling that part of her roots is fully acknowledged, that resonates with me,” he said. “I feel I’ve been successful in a lot of ways because my upbringing has been pretty American … I find it really hard to tease out a theme or a thesis from all the interviews, because a lot of the things that are problems are also the reasons people move to Thailand.”

College senior Leigh Schumann, who attended the documentary screening, felt positively about the work that the Peanut Sauce Project had done. “I feel like there were some stereotypes in my head that were challenged. I feel like each one of the films challenged a certain stereotype,” they said. “I think the takeaway is that there’s a lot more to learn, and a lot we assume about other countries.”

There are no further screenings scheduled for the Peanut Sauce Project’s documentaries, but Durangkaveroj intends to put them up online in a few weeks so that wider audiences can experience the project members’ work and learn about marginalized groups in Thailand’s education system.