Projected at force, a hot tan vomit of soup, cocoa, wasabi and stomach acid shoots out of a student’s mouth onto the back of the classmate seated in front of him. Muttering apologies, the freshman is ushered to the outer rings of a spiral of 80 or so peers sitting cross-legged. Vomit slides over everyone as they move along the tarp.
“You’re worthless unless you help your friends drink it up!” yelled stern upperclassmen staring down at the initiates in a camp in Saraburi. The sophomores dragged in meter-and-a-half high vats filled with what then-freshman Sansern “Praise” Prapa-apirat called “fake puke.”
“Cocoa, rice krispies, tea, kaeng jeud soup, taro fish snacks, wasabi. They boiled random stuff together into 15 vats,” Praise recalls with audible stress. “There was just so much. That was the worst part. They didn’t tell us how many vats there were. They just kept coming.”
Seven years later, Praise still remembers the camp clearly. He had just graduated at 18 from the international school he had attended 13 years, where approachable foreign teachers taught all classes in English and extracurricular activities such as drama and sports were optional. Not the kind of place where you were screamed at or covered in vomit.
Yet there he was, after enrolling in a Thai university’s international program, subjected to the kind of hazing abuses defended under the creed of “Seniority, Order, Tradition, Unity and Spirit,” or SOTUS, that marked his re-entry to mainstream Thai education.
For many international school kids – called dek inter – who opt to attend Thai universities, their first brush with Thai education culture is SOTUS hazing. The students wrestle with degrading activities they weren’t taught to tolerate in their Western-style upbringing, but the feeling of obligation to assimilate and reconnect with their parent culture adds pressure. In response, rather than blow the whistle on abusive traditions, a new generation is making its own welcoming activities that bring together the best of both worlds: the Thai-style collective and the respectful and inclusive ways they are familiar with.
Many international school graduates try to avoid SOTUS rituals when attending state universities due to unpleasant experiences they had with them, American educator Robin Montgomery noted in a doctoral thesis examining the integration of dek inter at state universities.
Seven of the 10 students she spoke to – all “educated by people who had a different worldview than their parents or than teachers at a Thai school” – used words such as “a very strange culture,” “extreme behavior,” “orientation slash hazing,” “second years yelling at first years who jump and dance” and “dumb” things that “we weren’t raised to do” to describe SOTUS.
When they return to their home culture, they expect the transition to be easy – after all, it’s a return home. But things change when you are away from home. And even more than things change – people change
“Over and over these students told me they did not understand how suffering by voluntarily doing stupid things that were ordered by older students would enhance their friendships,” she said.
At the Saraburi camp, Praise was also “encouraged” to go on a five-hour night trek which included a pit stop in a tent where freshmen had to pull their pants down to expose “half a butt” and be branded with a fake iron as Chula students.
“Some people were drunk and mean, but some weren’t. Of course, they were bluffing that the iron was hot. But I heard of a case where one upperclassman was really drunk, so it made a real wound,” Praise said. A professor ordered the activities toned down after someone was hospitalized with a head injury.
SOTUS is found in Thai universities nationwide, but the degree of hazing varies even between faculties within the same university, or different programs within the same faculty – architecture and technical faculties, for example, have a reputation for having extra-harsh initiations. The worst abuses of the tradition hit the headlines, with students hospitalized – or even dying.
Even my parents or my teachers never did this to me. So why did we let someone else do this to us?
Praise, 25, remembers yet another orientation event, a hot day full of yelling at his Faculty of Architecture at Chulalongkorn University.
Freshmen were corralled into different locales from 8am to 3pm, their phones confiscated sometimes under blindfolds. At one spot, freshmen had to take turns standing on a chair in a quiet room to yell a pledge to their faculty at the top of their voice.
“After you said three words, they would interrupt you and make you start over. I had to yell at the top of my lungs and scream the loudest and as aggressively as I could,” Praise said. “If they didn’t let you finish, then you couldn’t get off the chair.”
It took hours for everyone to finish take turns being verbally heckled on the chair.
“I was wearing the wrong pants,” Praise said. “So when I came to my turn, some of them were really angry at me. And if you looked back at their face, they would ask, ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’”
‘I Wanted to Understand’
Chelita Dhanarajata attended Harrow International School, where students didn’t have to wai their British teachers. So after enrolling at Chula, the then-16-year-old joined her faculty’s cheerleading team – feeling that connecting with Thais and Thai culture was necessary.
“The fact that a period of your life revolves around whatever a senior student says was really weird and new for me. But on the other hand, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Chelita said.
But for months, from 9am to late at night, upperclassmen forced her to run endless laps around her university buildings, wave her arms in cheerleading gestures and sprint somewhere to sing her lungs out. Her arms tired; her hands shook.
“I thought, what the hell is this? Why am I being punished so much? There should be a science behind it. Physical training shouldn’t be this harsh,” she said. “Even my parents or my teachers never did this to me. So why did we let someone else do this to us?”
It’s not about being Thai or not, it’s about having ownership of my own identity
In the space of the three weeks before an annual freshmen sporting event known as Freshy Games, Chelita ended up hospitalized three times with inflamed arm muscles from the toll. Five days before the games, she threw up her cheerleading arms and quit.
“I felt like they cared more about the performance than my health. I would be living in my body for the rest of my life, but the game happens once,” the 23-year-old said.
Montgomery, who spent a decade teaching in Thailand at an international school, found in her study that students going from international high schools to Thai universities often attempted to readjust to their home culture under the pressure that they must do so.
“A person expects to feel out-of-place in a foreign country, especially if they are surrounded by people who look differently than they do. But when they return to their home culture, they expect the transition to be easy – after all, it’s a return home,” she said. “But things change when you are away from home. And even more than things change – people change.”
“I’ll never think like them and there are certain things I’ll never agree on, like how procedural and time-consuming the seniority and Thai system was, but I wanted to understand,” Chelita said of her reason to voluntarily join the spirit squad.
Hate It? ‘Not Thai Enough.’
Dek inter’s adjustment “back” into Thai culture in university isn’t the same for everyone. Depending on the individual, it can range from lighthearted social gaffes with new friends to the extreme end of running up against a depressing inability to connect.
Montgomery documented students who were embarrassed when more “culturally Thai” peers didn’t understand their Western-style humor, as well as ones who entirely withdrew, eating lunch alone and chasing scholarships to take them overseas.
One can guess what harsh SOTUS traditions can tip the scale toward a positive or negative transition experience – and it doesn’t help that, coupled with the pressure to “become Thai again,” failure means being branded as “not being Thai enough.”
I’m just gonna come out and say it, if they came from a public school, they’re gonna submit
But those who see value in the practice often criticize SOTUS critics as iconoclasts disrespectful of tradition.
Bandhukavi “Keng” Palakawong na Ayudhya, is an anti-hazing activist and part of an online group called Anti Sotus. He’s the only one to study in an international university program. He said SOTUS upperclassmen often view dek inter who don’t participate as being disrespectful – but that perhaps it’s the traditions that need to change.
“Traditions need to be flexible to adapt to the modern era. If we don’t adapt these traditions, then people, not just dek inter, will equate Thainess with backwardness,” he said.
Chelita, the former cheerleader, also faced the “Thainess” dilemma. By going to the hospital three times due to physical practice for a university event. Was she being Thai enough?
“Do you define Thainess by obedience? It’s not about being Thai or not, it’s about having ownership of my own identity,” she said.
Raising Eyebrows – But Not Whistleblowing
Dek inter are enculturated with different values and principles than they would have acquired from Thai schools. Both Montgomery, the educator, and Keng agree that growing this way gives them the cultural framework to object to more notorious SOTUS practices.
“Dek inter are able to refuse this silly brainlessness. Back at their schools, they had no one to wark them,” Keng said, referring to the practice of loud yelling endured by freshmen. “In Thai schools they don’t really train you to develop critical thinking. I’m just gonna come out and say it, if they came from a public school, they’re gonna submit.”
But avoiding hazing episodes is an easier way out than openly opposing it. In the past seven years that the Anti Sotus group has been active, members said none of the many reports they receive have come from dek inter.
Keng says that most dek inter try to avoid SOTUS activities, while others are roped in, not knowing that the initiation activities are not academically mandatory or succumbing to peer pressure to participate. The more adamant may refuse to pay SOTUS fees collected by upperclassmen by literally running away from approaching seniors or quickly paying them off to end the nagging.
Katherine Rachada Vanishprasertporn, an alumna of both RIS school and Thammasat University, said that although dek inter might raise eyebrows at some SOTUS activities, not making a social fuss is more important.
“We sort of doubt what they’re doing when we see it,” she said. “But the majority don’t question, we just go along with it. A lot of us want to assimilate and not cause drama.”
Montgomery agrees, saying that the zero number of reports by dek inter is due to having participated in such events, or an attempt to assimilate.
“They don’t want to get their peers in trouble over a tradition with a very long history. It’s hard to be a whistleblower. I can also imagine that at the time, some students might do things they are later ashamed of,” she said.
I’ll never think like them and there are certain things I’ll never agree on, like how procedural and time-consuming the seniority and Thai system was, but I wanted to understand
Praise recalls some of his peers became inculcated into the SOTUS culture, even socially banning each other for not going to SOTUS activities for years.
“They’ll be toxic until they grow up and realize it’s bullshit,” he said. “But it takes years for some people to grow up.”
Sending tips to a Facebook page isn’t the only avenue to have a say. In the run-up to general elections in which 7.4 million first-time voters are in play, political parties have been taking public positions on regulating or evening banning freshmen hazing outright.
Breaking the Cycle
Katherine, 28, was 11 when she moved back from the United States to Thailand and enrolled at the Ruamrudee International School. But it was when she matriculated to Thammasat University that her parents, who had read about SOTUS in the news, started to worry. The upperclassman assigned to act as her senior mentor, a role called p rahud, had to call her mother and convince her to let Katherine attend a three-day beach trip for orientation.
Like Praise, she had to drink some unsavory liquids, in her case, seawater. “It was strange and unclean,” she said. “I had to pretend to drink it.”
Katherine also recalls an activity called saphan dao (“Star Bridge”) in which upperclassmen laid their arms on the floor and had the freshmen walk over them.
“I didn’t want to walk all over their arms, but they told me to. So I did it but I kept apologizing while walking,” the soft-spoken woman said. “I guess they wanted us to feel like they do a lot for us.”
From her discomfort with that experience, Katherine decided things had to change when she became a senior at school.
They’ll be toxic until they grow up and realize it’s bullshit. But it takes years for some people to grow up
“The point of having welcoming activities is good, but things have to be changed up to be safer. I canceled strange things such as drinking saltwater and saphan dao,” Katherine said. “I think I did break the cycle.”
Katherine says adapting the welcoming activities to be more friendly and less “strange” helped her and younger classmates to socialize and befriend others, a process called kao sangkhom. Other students interviewed said they also wanted activities reformed rather than abolished.
Indeed, many students found that the upside of SOTUS was gaining friends and participating in an authentic tradition. Chelita, for example, recalls the bai sri ceremony where seniors tied strings on the wrists of freshmen in a symbolic gesture of torch-passing. Bai sri is a folk ritual celebrated to welcome new developments in life or to welcome guests, and is often part of freshmen welcoming events.
“There was the brotherhood and sisterhood, not just seniority. That’s not really found in international communities,” she said. “At the bai sri ceremony, you could feel one generation being passed onto another. It felt warm. Before, no upperclassmen tied stuff to my wrists and said they would help me. It felt sacred, too.”
Kor Vitoonwithlukck, 24, a Chula graduate who attended Bangkok Patana School, said he initially “didn’t get the dancing and singing songs around a drum” activities at all, but actively participated and enjoyed getting to know the upperclassmen and alumni.
“One of my favorite memories was when all the graduates gathered, including the alumni. Some of them were over 50,” he said.
Advice from Roon P
To incoming dek inter entering Thai universities, fake puke-survivor Praise suggested compromise by embracing the best of both worlds.
“Keep an open mind. Don’t stay in your own little bubble and think you’re the best in the world,” he said. “But if you experience something like I did, you’ve got critical thinking skills to judge if it’s over the line or not.”
Montgomery said students who were “able to get past SOTUS activities,” whether they participated or not, were able to make friends if they tried.
“Students who went in to university realizing that they needed to learn more colloquial Thai or who were ready to seek out clubs with like-minded people did quite well. They were able to form friendships,” Montgomery said. “Others who expected friendships to form easily faced challenges.”
“Don’t close yourself off and be ignorant. Be informed about what’s going on around you, whether it’s good or not,” former cheer team member Chelita said. “Don’t be obliged to participate if you don’t want to. Just do what’s right for you. If the activity is where I wanna go, then yeah, maybe I’ll join. If not, then what’s the point of going?”