Learning English for Thai People: A Path to a Better Life
Before expats come over to teach in Thailand, many assume that Thai peoples’ main motivation for learning English is personal interest or as an extracurricular activity. This idea tends to be founded from our own personal experience as most of us learned French or Spanish for those same reasons throughout our primary and secondary schooling. We studied other languages either because of a desire to travel or to enhance our university applications. However, this assumption of Thai peoples’ motivations for studying English is slightly misguided. While some Thai people do learn English because they plan to travel or for fun, the majority of Thais study English, or pressure their children to do so, in order to improve their material wellbeing or social standing.
English language skills are in great demand in Thailand. One widely recognized reason for this is that they are essential to supporting the country’s burgeoning tourism industry. Last year, Thailand had more than 26 million visitors arriving by plane—an increase of over 200% in the past decade. However, an often overlooked and arguably more important reason that English language skills are in such high demand in Thailand is to support the country’s massive export manufacturing industries.
Thailand competes with many of its regional neighbors to be a top destination for foreign direct investment (FDI). Thai government officials do everything in their power to attract the attention of multinational corporations like General Electric, General Motors, Unilever, and Microsoft to convince them to open a factory or regional headquarters here in Thailand instead of somewhere like Vietnam, Malaysia, or China. While Thailand’s beaches, mountains and the friendliness of the Thai people make a persuasive argument, promoting strong English language skills of the local workforce is the final frontier. As a result, this is something that the Thai government fixates heavily on. Every two to three weeks there’s an article in the local media lamenting that Thailand is falling behind its neighbors in standardized tests of English language capability. With the exception of the agriculture industry, English language skills are in extremely high demand. Unfortunately, throughout the tourism, manufacturing, and education sectors, Thailand is falling behind its regional neighbors in this regard.
There is another important reason that learning the English language is currently in such high demand in Thailand. On December 31st, 2015, the countries of Southeast Asia will enter into a new phase of regional integration known as ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Thailand is a member of this union which began an unprecedented era of international cooperation between nations. ASEAN established a regional trading bloc that will lower the barriers to the movement of people, goods, and services across Southeast Asia. Being that there is no common language amongst the countries in the region, communication between nations is done almost entirely in English. As a result, English has been declared the official language of the ASEAN community. Therefore, not only are English language skills in demand in the private sector, but in the Thai government sector as well.
How big of a difference does learning English make to the typical Thai worker or government employee? It really is remarkable. If you take two Thai workers, who are in all ways equal (education, age, experience, performance), but only one has strong English language capability, he or she can earn anywhere from 2-3 times the salary compared to their non-English speaking counterpart. This is why from the national government level all the way down to the individual family, massive financial investments are made in English language education. It is important to not only Thailand’s development as a nation, but also for the development of the individual Thai person and their earning potential.
Thailand is still a developing country. The average salary of a Thai person is roughly USD 5,000, compared to USD 40,000 for someone living in the United States. In fact, the economic and class structure in Thailand looks nothing like that in the United States. Thailand’s middle class is very small compared to the United States and is a relatively new socioeconomic group. A few generations ago, there was no middle class in Thailand. Bangkok is the only area of Thailand where the middle class is prominent and it makes up 50% of the city’s population. This figure accounts for the majority of middle class individuals in Thailand. Outside of Bangkok, the middle class shrinks to a very small percentage. For example, in one of the most populated regions of Thailand, the Northeast, the middle class makes up less than 10% of the population. The vast majority of Thais in areas like these are poor farmers.
Because the middle class is a relatively new social group, the class system in Thailand still largely resembles pre-modern times and is built upon unequal relations between the traditional elites (land holders) and peasants. While we are a long way from those ancient times, this pre-modern class and social structure still exists in many ways, and it represents a huge barrier to upward mobility.
A majority of Thais are born poor, they live poor, and they die poor. Their children end up going to underfunded schools with apathetic teachers and often drop out before they reach graduation. Sound familiar? You could say the same thing about many inner-city communities in the Western world. The main difference is that those communities represent nearly 75% of the population in Thailand. To this day, there is still very little upward mobility for Thais born into a lower class family. Chances are, if you are born poor, your offspring will be poor, and they will in turn raise family trapped in this vicious cycle of poverty that repeats itself generation after generation. There is a way to break this cycle of poverty. This is where English language comes in.
If you can speak English, you can move up in Thai society. You can move out of poverty and provide a better life for yourself and your children. English language skills are an important springboard to the middle class and a way to leave poverty behind. Young Thai kids who you encounter in the classroom might not appreciate this, but their families, their communities and the Thai government certainly do. As a result, Thailand hires more than 10,000 native English-speaking teachers each year. Despite this, the current supply of native English speaking teachers still doesn’t meet the overall demand.
Because of all of this, native English speaking teachers play a very important role in this country. They hold the potential to help a child born to a family of rice farmers to have a fair shot at providing a better life for their children. In my years of training and preparing thousands of native English teachers in Thailand, I think most Westerners coming over to Thailand don’t fully grasp the extent of good they can do. For most of us it seems strange that some language we grew up speaking and taking for granted could be so important to the future of Thailand. But that is the reality. As native English-speaking teachers, we possess an important skill. While I don’t mean to come off as ethnocentric, English language skills truly can be one of the most important skills that Thai people will learn in their years of schooling. I liken the role of teachers as somewhat akin to joining the Peace Corps, a wonderful program with a long history of helping people. In the Peace Corps, volunteers typically go into areas to build homes, wells, schools, and infrastructure to help communities grow. As ESL teachers in Thailand, we have the ability to impart a special skill that will enable hundreds and maybe thousands of young Thai people to improve their lives. They can use these skills to one day improve their homes, their communities, and reinvest in future generations. I imagine that many teachers didn’t foresee the potential impact they could make when they first decided to teach English in Thailand. And on top of it all, you get paid for it!
Michael Volpe is the Managing Director of XploreAsia. He has an extensive educational background in international business and political science, along with nearly 10 years of teaching experience at the university level in Thailand and the United States. He is a Fulbright-Hays Scholar with a PhD in International Public Policy from George Mason University.
Culture shock. Let’s be clear from the start. It’s not extreme homesickness, fatigue or frustration with a new diet of foods that we deem unsuitable for our ‘rich’ (bland) pallets. In fact it’s a combination of all of these things with so much more to boot. Everyone who has experienced culture shock will tell you that it’s a real challenge and that it’s something that has to be beaten actively. It won’t pass unless action is taken.
Culture shock is, in a way, a joy to experience. It’s one of the final barriers to truly immersing yourself into a wonderful new culture and surpassing it will enrich you and give you a newfound perspective on all the different things you encounter.
I overcame culture shock in a particularly strange way. It was relatively early on in my experience living and working abroad. I still remember how it happened vividly to this day.
I made some strong bonds on arrival in Thailand.
I spent my first couple of weeks in Thailand relishing the energy of other like-minded westerners all experiencing a new culture. These were really exciting times. Everything was intriguing, inspiring and just so different. I must admit, I found myself thinking ‘this isn’t so bad’ numerous times. I honestly never once truly felt homesick and rarely thought about my friends and family back home. I felt positive and, most importantly, present in every waking moment. I made the decision to practice daily meditation and yoga, enjoy a relatively healthy diet and focus on building close relationships with the people around me. I felt like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt secure, wanted, and happy to be a part of something much larger than myself.
These feelings only lasted up until the day I left to my first school placement in a small market town called Ban Mi. I was incredibly emotional on my journey to this new adventure. I felt like my entire world was falling apart and that everything that I had just achieved was for nothing. I admit, while I am an emotional person, I just didn’t feel prepared and I was afraid that I’d made a poor decision leaving so soon.
When the tears subsided and I felt the warmth of the sun pouring through the van window, I suddenly felt peaceful. I knew that the real challenge was about to begin and that this was my chance to start over. Once again, relatively quickly, I thought that I had overcome culture shock, that my low point had passed and that now I can do anything.
I have a habit of speaking too soon and this was most definitely one of those moments. My biggest challenges were yet to come.
I ate this everyday for two weeks. Same time, same place.
My first few days in Ban Mi were initially rather exciting/terrifying in equal measure. I’m not the traveller type, I’m certainly not fearless and I did thrive from the reassurance of friends & family. I came to Thailand to realise a dream of becoming a teacher in a foreign country. I never thought my first major issue would be plucking up the courage to go and buy dinner from somewhere other than 7-11. I eventually found somewhere to eat that would be my go-to place for the duration of my stay. Still unsure of myself, I ate the same dish every night for two weeks. It was good but hardly adventurous.
I’m the type of guy who thrives from routine, any time I’m derailed it’s a serious setback. Things have to happen on time, when they’re agreed and must play out to all of my many expectations. Having these expectations when living in a place like Thailand is simply asking for trouble. My first few weeks were spent becoming frustrated with everything around me. Nothing was going how I wanted it to, people weren’t adjusting to me and I was beginning to resent everything and everyone. I was feeling miserable, tired, homesick and didn’t really feel like being a teacher anymore. I avoided ‘conversations’ with the locals and just spent most of my days in silence apart from teaching. There were many days where I wouldn’t have a single exchange in English to anyone. In hindsight, I’d begun to alienate myself as I refused to accept anything other than my own way to be the ‘right’ way. This..is culture shock.
Early one Monday morning I woke up with a particularly bad attitude. I didn’t much feel like teaching, let alone going to school. Reluctantly I got myself up, headed out of the door and started the relatively short walk to school in 45 degree heat. This journey took me through a market where I diced with death as a pedestrian amongst a million scooters. After the fifth near accident I scraped through the market and made it to the outdoor gym I often used in the evenings. As I walked up I heard a sound coming from a pile of rubbish on the side of the road. As I got closer I noticed a box. The sounds were coming from inside. I carefully opened the box, expecting some sort of death dealing monster to be inside, but was surprised to find four new-born puppies, most of which still had their eyes closed. Why these puppies were placed in this box and put there to be taken away by the refuse collectors I will never know or understand.
Two of the puppies after a few days of care.
All of a sudden, I had a purpose. I was going to take care of these animals to make sure they had a fair shot at life. I carefully took out each puppy and placed them in a safe place, away from harm, outside of the gym. I covered them up and went to work at the school. On my return after school, I got them out from my improvised kennel and fed them some milk, which they hungrily lapped up. I returned to this place every morning, lunchtime and in the evening to take care of these little guys. They grew so fast and I was quickly becoming a popular sight to see in the local community.
The Foreigner that Cares for Stray Dogs
The dogs showed real improvement after the local community got involved feeding and bathing them.
The locals started taking notice and I would often have local kids come, play with the puppies and help me feed them. Some were a little rough and had to be taught how to treat animals, but we got there in the end. I believe that the efforts I made, especially out in the open to take care of these dogs who couldn’t fend for themselves, helped open up the community not only to me, but also to eachother. People banded together to feed and clean the dogs, play with them and give them love. The dogs became part of the community, as did I. People often approached me to chat, to offer food and many times invited me into their homes. I realised that I wasn’t just giving these dogs the opportunity to have a good shot at life, I was giving myself one too. Before making this chance discovery I had all but given up. Now I had a community that supported me, friends, family and the greatest little buddies by my side. I got through culture shock by not focusing on myself but by finding a way to channel my energy into doing good.
The last photo I have of my little friends before leaving town.
By becoming selfless I had realised that the only barrier to overcoming my issues was myself and my own perceptions. So to all of you thinking about coming over or who have just begun your journey, get out there, do good things for others in your community, forget about your troubles and start living.
Culture shock is a necessary rite of passage for any long stayers. It’s also one of the most humbling experiences I have had in my life and I would live it over and over again.
Jon is a former teacher in Thailand. Now working for XploreAsia, Jon focusses on marketing and managing the blog. Jon is a passionate movie and music lover as well as having a keen interest in new cultures and ideas.
For more insights in starting out as a teacher, check out his blog here.
IN ALL OF US there are two fears that are constantly fighting each other: one, the fear of scary, risky, unfamiliar unknowns; and two, the fear of getting too comfortable in one place and missing out on a life well-spent.
It is the fight between our need for safety, security and familiar things and our want for new, exciting experiences worthy of telling your grandchildren—the nine-to-five desk job in the city versus the nine-to-whatever job in paradise, the shiny new briefcase versus the dirty old backpack, the low buzz of repetitive weekends out at the bars versus the constant, electrifying adrenaline high of adventure in strange new lands.
Hanging out with my family back home.
Three months before I graduated college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Not many of my friends did either. The fight between fears was playing loud inside my head… Should I move to the city and begin a career, or should I buy a plane ticket, fly to the other end of the world, and see what it’s all about?
I bought the ticket.
It’s been almost three months since I moved to Thailand. I haven’t been this happy since I was just a wide-eyed little kid who got away with eating pillowcases full of candy and pooping his pants at the zoo. In many ways, I have become that kid again… I am completely taken in by the magic of the world; I live in a constant state of surprise, fascination and curiosity; I am learning things about myself that only new experiences and challenges can provide; and I am always excited about what’s happening here, now, and whatever the future might hold (but I swear I don’t poop my pants anymore.)
So, why Thailand? I’m twenty-three years old, fresh out of college with a fancy piece of paper hanging on my bedroom wall that says I’m a Bachelor of Journalism or something… why not put that to good use?
I wanted to become a better person—a more compassionate, patient, responsible, fearless, open-minded, hopeful, happy citizen of the world—and this I would achieve by forcing myself outside my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory, into a culture totally unlike my own, surrounded by people who think and talk differently than I do.
I wanted to help push the world in the right direction—and this I would achieve by teaching English.
How I Started Teaching English in Thailand
The XploreAsia Songkran crew, Hua Hin.
My journey as a Foreign English teacher began with XploreAsia. For one month I lived in Hua Hin with close to a hundred other people from all over the world… my whole life I had been surrounded by mostly midwestern Americans, ate mostly midwestern American food and drank mostly midwestern American beer… I was, mostly, a midwestern American.
By the time I left Hua Hin I was a changed person. I had gained more than just a certification to teach. I gained a new, exhilarating confidence. I gained new perspectives and a deep respect for the awesome glory of the world around me. I gained life-long friends.
And I’m still changing every single day.
Some of my high school students in Thailand.
For two months I’ve been teaching English to high schoolers in a small southern town called Thung Song. Everything about the town is totally, magnificently authentic. If I wake up early enough in the morning and open my bedroom window, I can hear beautiful Buddhist chants floating down on a cool breeze from a temple silhouetted on the horizon. The rush-hour traffic on the road outside my house consists of smiley teenagers zipping by on motor scooters, curious dogs, fidgety little roosters and giant bulls being herded from one patch of muddy grass to another.
The locals have shattered my once long-held belief that Minnesotans are the friendliest people on the planet.
This is my view every morning at school. This is why I’m here, incredible.
Several times throughout the school day I am hit with intense bursts of gratitude and peacefulness. My students and co-workers have accepted me as their own. They appreciate me and respect me. They want to be my friend. Walking through the hallways, I smile and laugh and give out so many high-fives it damn-near hurts my face and hands.
Three months ago my family and I said our goodbyes at the airport. I hugged them, threw on my backpack and blew a teary-eyed kiss from behind the row of conveyor belts and body scanners.
I started walking. To where was I walking, and why? A better me, a better life, a better world? Yes—but the paths we walk and the destinations for which we are bound ultimately cannot be seen. I was walking with that mantra humming somewhere in the back of my mind—a better me, a better life, a better world—but there was one thing burning white hot in my heart, driving me faster and further than any pretty-sounding humble idea can do; and that is the desire to go—the desire to get off your ass, throw yourself into the winds of the world, and make some memories—go! All we can do is just go.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Michael is a 23-year-old graduate of Iowa State University. He has served as a reporter for the Iowa State Daily, as a writer for Ethos magazine and as Co-Editor-In-Chief of SIR, a student-run men’s magazine. His latest project, Eyes of an Expat, is an ongoing collection of stories about his adventures abroad.
Teaching in Thailand can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Here are our top ten tips to ensuring your experience teaching in Thailand is an unforgettable one.
Teaching in Thailand: Top Ten Tips
Find Inspiration Every Day
Keep a record of all your experiences in a handy journal
As often as possible, document your journey. Upon arriving in Thailand everything is new and fascinating. Journaling about the adventures of every moment is exciting. Filling a camera with photos of majestic temples, postcard-worthy beaches and super happy selfies is unavoidable. But eventually, finding the time for those things can be challenging. Discover a perspective you’re passionate about and blog, journal, draw, photograph or do whatever will allow you to express and share the things that inspire you.
Release All Expectations
Many things work and function very differently in Thailand than they do in other parts of the World. For people who are used to being in control of most day-to-day situations this can become an extremely frustrating part of adapting to the new culture. Detach from your ego, accept the way things are and be willing to let little things go without feeling the need to rationalize them. When unexpected challenges arise at school, always remember to ask, “Why am I teaching?” Your answer will keep the big picture in perspective.
Accept the Truths of Being a Teacher
As the saying goes, you only truly appreciate your teachers if you become one. This role has an amazing ability to inspire humility and a sense of duty to the school community and beyond. Teaching in Thailand is so much more than just a job. In Thailand, teaching is seen as a virtuous service regarded with a lot of respect. The fact that this title follows you even outside of school is a blessing in disguise. Accept the responsibility and know that you have the opportunity to make a lasting impression on many lives.
Learn Some Thai
Becoming fluent in the Thai language is not realistic in the 1-2 years most teachers spend here, but with some time and commitment anyone can speak enough to impress the locals. There are endless resources online to get you off to a good start. Practice with Thai teachers, chat with people at markets and become a regular at cafés to make some Thai friends. My favorite website has been thai-language.com. This site also has a wonderful iPhone app that I probably use more than any social media app.
Develop Healthy Habits
Mix up your food, try something new as often as possible.
Whether you’re a health nut or someone who can’t seem to find the time for an active lifestyle, develop healthy routines as soon as you settle into your new home. Find a go-to food stall that provides healthy options with lots of vegetables. Walk and explore as much as possible. Sign up at a gym or create a little workout space in your apartment. If you have never practiced some form of meditation, use this journey in Thailand to at least explore it. I guarantee 20-30 minutes of meditation every day for a month will change your life. Teaching in Thailand is an exciting job, but it’s exhausting. Add the intense Thai heat to the mix and there will be days when you can’t seem to function after 6pm. Eating well, exercising often and focusing on your mental health will give you the extra energy needed to prevent sleep-ins and inspire amazing adventures.
Make friends in your community whenever you can.
Developing friendships and being accepted into Thai circles is a very important part of the Thailand experience. Make a conscious effort to start learning names of students and teachers from day one. Knowing students by name will help build strong relationships with your classes, which in turn will motivate them to participate in that ‘community’. Remembering the names of the Thai teachers you see every day will create instant bonds. They will see that as a sign of respect and will accept you into the teacher family when they recognize you putting in the effort to acknowledge them.
“Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” – Dale Carnegie, How to Make Friends and Influence People
You’ll quickly discover that Thai teachers love to share food. If you have dietary restrictions or happen to be a vegetarian (mangsa-wee-rat) like myself, you’ll find Thais will go out of their way to find you some wonderful food that meets your needs. Return the favor. Take time every few days to grab some fruit from a local market or just pick up some treats from Lotus that you can share at your school. This simple, kind gesture will go a long ways.
Participate in Activities
Scout camp – a perfect time to get to know your students and colleagues
When teaching in Thailand you’ll experience so much more than the classroom. Schools in Thailand have many events and activities throughout the school year. Whether it’s one of the countless Buddhist holidays, a Thai-style Christmas celebration, or the infamous Sport Day, ask your students and the Thai teachers what’s going on around school and how you can be a part of it. Some activities will feel very random and spontaneous. Be proactive and find out what food to bring, what color to wear and when to bust out your camera.
Incorporate Cultural Experiences
When possible, bring some personal background into the school. Halloween, Christmas, New Years and Valentine’s Day are great times to bring your Western culture and experience. Students and teachers love learning customs and traditions from your home countries. Dressing up a bit and planning fun lessons and activities during these times of the year brings a lot of excitement to the office and into the classroom. Here is a link to an easy paper Christmas tree design that makes for an awesome lesson: http://krokotak.com/2013/11/fold-a-fir-tree/
Have this Adventure for You
Everyone comes to Thailand for different reasons. Whether pushed here by the struggles of the past or pulled by possibilities of the future, experience this journey for yourself. The time spent here will make a great story. Allow it to be a story of learning and growth and gaining new perspectives. Don’t forget home, just maintain awareness in each moment and be present.
Zach came to Thailand in 2014 and served one year as an English teacher. His experience in the classroom and traveling around the country inspired him to become a TESOL instructor with XploreAsia and help future teachers adapt as they begin their journeys.
“Fifteen minutes until boarding,” the calm, collected stewardess said over the intercom. I slumped down in the hard airport chair, grinding my knuckles into my 3:00 AM eyelids. Outside the giant windows Seattle rain fell over the dark runway. I stared at the massive plane waiting to take me 13 hours and 9763.6 km around to the other side of the world.
A million thoughts fired in my head all at once:
What if we can’t find jobs? What if something goes wrong with our visas? What if we’re flying to a meticulously-orchestrated scam? What if I quit my comfortable, secure, perfectly-mediocre job to move to a country that has just undergone a military coup, and we end up in an uncharted village being torn apart by savage cannibals!?
Oh come on, I’ve never been to Thailand before…
Fourteen minutes, still plenty of time to run back out through security, hail a taxi to the nearest hotel, and call my boss to beg for my job back.
I squeezed my girlfriend’s hand. She didn’t respond. We had spent the last week packing our entire lives into suitcases, cleaning the most foreign areas of our apartment, and changing every address on every paper trail, all the while waiting for the perfect moment to collapse over into a much needed coma-like sleep.
Lucky woman had gotten the jump on me, I thought with a smirk.
Every taped piece of cardboard and signed address redirect form had led to this big moment of shuffling in and out of relative’s cars, getting stuck in traffic, and then trudging nervously through a quiet airport.
I exhaled a long breathe, thinking— It really hadn’t been that difficult at all.
In my head, I tried to piece together every factor in my life that had lead me to this terminal, like stitching threads of a disassembled map together.
I had been traveling to other countries before, an experience that had left me with an insatiable craving for new tastes, melodies, perspectives, and cultures.
I had a passion for language, all languages. I even had enough passion for the English language to devote four years of studying to it.
FFX – Looks a bit like the south of Thailand eh?
Final Fantasy X—weird I know, but the world in which that game takes place was modeled after Southeast Asia. I can’t help but think that on some subconscious level, the endless of hours I had plugged into playing through the lush tropical environments in that game had influenced me towards a future in Thailand.
Oh, how I would miss that game. Did they play video games in Thailand? Probably not like in America.
There was also the fear of being locked in a vicious nine to five cycle, stuck in the burbs in my early twenties, already signing off on my retirement package.
“Ladies and Gentleman we would like to start the boarding process,” a voice sounded from the intercom again.
I took another deep breath. Maybe trying to define the motivation behind this move wasn’t any less stressful than cataloging every possible crisis that could occur.
My girlfriend awoke, and we boarded the plane together, the first step in our upcoming adventure.
A Teacher in Thailand
With Krissy in Koh Chang
So far, the nine months my girlfriend and I have spent in Thailand has been a whirlwind of fun, culture shock, challenge, and responsibility.
Being one of five foreigners in the beautiful rural town of Phukieo, Chaiyaphum, I’ve learned to deal with things like loneliness, prejudice, homesickness, and the constant feeling that someone is staring at me (I always feel like somebodies watching me…). Dealing with these negative experiences however, has been a necessary sacrifice for me to experience the humbling hospitality, gratitude, respect, and endless supply of home-made Thai-food I’ve enjoyed from the same rural town.
I went from not using my English degree at all, dealing with sales quotas, emails, and a boss that never seemed to be impressed no matter how many more sales I put in the books, to dealing with mid-term test submission deadlines, communication failures, behaviorally challenged classes with fifty plus students, and the pressure of trying to fit into a work culture that is vastly different than my own.
The head of our English department gave me some home-made green curry and noodles…mm, mmmm
I could lie and write that the entire experience has been a rose colored box of new-born puppies wrapped in sunshine. The truth however, is that the road from my life in Seattle, to my life in rural Essan has been a chaotic and challenging one. It has been a timeline of joyous new experiences mixed with moments of inexpressible frustration.
From working with XploreAsia in the city of Hua Hin, bonding with like-minded individuals from all over the world and learning how to be an effective teacher in Thailand, to being the only foreigner at a Thai wedding for which I didn’t know the bride and groom, the experience has been humbling.
Conversing with my students, co-workers, and the local people has allowed me to see the similarities and differences between my culture in America and the culture here in Northeast Thailand. This experience has not only allowed me to better understand the things that are important in my culture, but also the things that are important to people all over the world.
Working in such a different environment has imbued me with the power to harness an inner calmness, or as the Thai’s say, a jai yen (cool heart), even during the most stressful and chaotic situations.
The tasks I manage everyday: making a fool of myself in front of classes of fifty teenagers who only partially understand me, stumbling through awkward communications in a language polar opposite to my own, and navigating the bus system and chaotic roadways of Thailand, has given me a self confidence that I never knew in the past. A self confidence that is reinforced every time one of my students shows progress, or thanks me for explaining a new concept to them. A self confidence that is reinforced every time one of the teachers at my school smiles and invites me to lunch, or drops a coffee at my desk because they respect me for who I am, and the effort that I put into my teaching. A self confidence that is reinforced every time the town fruit vendor drops an extra piece of pineapple in my bag because their child came home from school feeling more confident about their English skills.
Part of living in Thailand is making friends with elephants!
Sharing a tiny studio apartment with my girlfriend, there are things I miss though. There’s no hot water, we don’t have a television (no Playstation!), I can’t crank my electric guitar up to 11, I can’t escape off to the city of Seattle to indulge in the nightlife, and our air conditioner is a moody machine continually deciding to take a break every time the weather goes over 88 degrees Fahrenheit. But with the absence of these comforts, I have been able to prioritize my free time to allow myself to focus on the hobbies and goals that I find most important, free of the distractions that had disrupted my concentration in the past.
I have used my free time to continue my musical studies, focus on my writing, and develop new teaching resources. Not only has the absence of the aforementioned comforts allowed me to focus my time and talents, but it has also allowed me to develop a greater appreciation for those past comforts. It has allowed me to see firsthand that the seemingly inherent comforts a large majority of people in America enjoy, can easily be taken for granted.
Living in Thailand has allowed me to experience things, and mature in ways I have always wanted to. I’ve seen opulent temples, and gorgeous beaches. I have walked the streets of a sprawling city with over 12 million people. I’ve even made friends with elephants.
I am a stronger person with increased self-confidence. I am an accomplished educator, and scholar of the English language. Being in Thailand has given me the time and tools to absolve myself of the previous distractions that had kept me from working towards my personal goals. I have almost completed the second draft of my full-length novel. I am a better jazz pianist, classical guitarist, and music theorist. I am multi-lingual, and I have learned to forge relationships and prosper in a culture that is completely foreign to my own.
One of my classes, always willing to pose for a photo!
I know now, that nine months ago, standing in the terminal at Seatac airport, I had nothing to fear. That every challenge I would endure would be paralleled by a rewarding, and irreplaceable experience. That my time in Thailand would be one of immense personal growth greater than any Playstation game, secure 8-5, or 4O1K plan anywhere else.
Justin is currently teaching a second term at a school in Phukieo, Thailand. He graduated from the TESOL course last October with his girlfriend, Krissy. He’s having an incredible experience in Thailand and is a passionate educator.
Justin is one of our featured writers in the field, keep up to date with his progress on his personal blog.
Close your eyes. Now open them. Now just pretend that they’re closed again because otherwise you won’t be able to read this. It’s a Wednesday, and today is the day you’ve finally mustered up the courage to go and try the local restaurant down the street from your apartment. You arrive and plop yourself down on a plastic stool because you’ve realized that the cheaper the chairs, the cheaper the food. You’re covered in a thin layer of sweat. This is normal. Next, the equally sweaty and cheerful restaurant lady comes over to “take your order.” The following encounter essentially consists of a series of pointing, miming, and keeping your fingers crossed that you’ll eventually get a plate of food that isn’t alive or a member of the insect family. As she walks away, out of the corner of your eye, you see a family of rodents scurrying across the far side of restaurant. It’s in this moment that it finally registers, “Wow, I live in Asia.”
The scenario above represents some of the many challenges that exist while adapting to your new life teaching abroad. You’ll need to acclimate to a completely different style of food, navigate the language barrier, endure the constant battle to stay dry, and learn to unlearn the standards of hygiene that you’ve been acclimated to your whole life. It’s these kinds of things that we’ve taken for granted that will now become a key part of surviving each day.
One of the more obvious and initial obstacles you will face is dealing with the language barrier. It can make even the simplest of tasks infinitely more challenging. Whether it is ordering dinner, asking for directions, or even just getting a haircut, sometimes you’re just going to have to smile and hope for the best. While eventually you will pick up enough of the local language that you’re able to feed and clothe yourself, there will inevitably be some mishaps along the way. The key to surviving those mishaps is the ability to stay patient. It will be frustrating at times, but patience will really be critical to your happiness while living abroad. Just recently, a friend told me a story about how it took him 2 weeks and 4 different trips to Tesco to successfully buy one plunger. As much as it would be easy to blame the employees for not understanding English, miming out the act of “plunging a toilet” over and over really makes it hit home that learning some of the native language will go a long way.
The next big issue that we as expats face is the food. Eating what the locals eat can be an incredible, delicious, and terrifying part of immersing yourself into the culture. Saying that you’re open to trying new things and being offered fried rat over rice with spicy sauce are two completely different things. In the West you can buy candy on a stick, in Asia you can buy scorpions on a stick. Plus the diet in the Western world is completely different than an Asian diet. Whereas back home things are all wheat based, here everything is rice based. So on one hand, anybody with a fashionable, new gluten-allergy won’t have any problems, but on the other, everyone else might have some digestive adaptation to deal with on top a little bit of culture shock. But fear not! Pharmacies are ready for this. Yes, going in and miming out your symptoms can be embarrassing, but two minutes later you’ll get basic antibiotics over the counter for just a few dollars.
Another major part of adapting to life overseas is the inherent difference in hygiene standards. I’ve developed a simple principle that will be very telling of how well you will do in coming to terms with these disparities. It’s called the “hair-in-my-food” principle. For example, if you’re the type of person who finds small hair in their food, picks it out, and continues to chow down, you’ll do just fine living in Asia. If you’re more of the, “I’m gonna say something and send this back,” kind of person, you’re going to have a bit of a tougher time at first. Expats here see things every day that would make health inspectors back home quiver in their Birkenstocks. Want to buy meat at the market? Be prepared for your raw filet to be picked off the top of a pile that’s been sitting in the heat with complex mosquito-prevention technology spinning above it (see: stick with inflated bag tied to it).
How about the hygiene beyond food? Let’s talk about toilets. When was the last time you worried about the mere existence of a toilet? The first time you find yourself staring at a hole in the ground to squat over, you’ll think back fondly to these naive times. Toilet paper? That can be a luxury in Asia. Sometimes you just need settle for the water basin beside the hole and make sure not to eat food with your left hand. Let that sink in for a moment… Those of us who live here get used to carrying around an extra roll of TP with us at all times, just in case. Problem solved.
To the uninitiated, many of these things can be a little scary and unsettling. Yes, you will do and see things living abroad that you would never see or encounter in your hometown. But for most of us, we left our hometowns precisely because we wanted to see how the rest of the world lived and to experience a culture that is nothing like our own. I could’ve spent this whole article discussing the breathtaking scenery or amazing hospitality that you will inevitably encounter. However, it’s important to remember that any experience in life will come with both good and bad parts. The key is to embrace them both, find humor in differences that exist, and you’ll come out of this experience a wiser and more humble individual. “Suffering cheerfully endured, ceases to be suffering, and is transmuted into effable joy,” is a Gandhi quote that I’ve always liked and thought it applied well to teaching and living abroad. The things you’ll encounter each day will vary, but approach them with a smile, and your time spent here will truly be a life-changing experience.
Austin is our Education Programs Manager. Originally from California, Austin describes himself as a traveler, eager to see everything he can and curious as to how the rest of the world lives.
You’re on the way to the airport, there’s a silence in the car. There’s so much you and your family want to say but aren’t quite sure how to articulate it. Today is the day you leave your home country, your friends and your family behind. You still can’t believe it, it doesn’t quite feel real yet. In-between bouts of checking if you’d lost your passport since the last time you checked five minutes ago, you get flashes of excitement and fear, all at the same time. You are going to teach abroad.
You say your goodbyes, tell your mum to stop crying, your dad hugs you as he checks to see nobody can see him shedding a tear. You walk through those gates alone. Your family are still standing waiting for you to turn around and come back as they fade away into the distance. Nerves turn to fear, and then the excitement kicks in.
Rewind a few months, you’ve just booked your ticket: the tangible evidence of your drive, passion and hard work. You’ve given yourself a chance for something more, something different and something completely alien to you. You’ve accepted that things just haven’t been enough. You want to see the world and immerse yourself into a completely different culture. At the same time, you want to try your hand at teaching, maybe do some volunteering, and gain all-round new skills. It’s a huge, life-changing decision that is equal parts exciting and terrifying.
You’re officially on the plane. You’ve watched three outdated movies and the baby next to you hasn’t stopped screaming for the past two hours. You’re tired, weary and now so far from home. The plane lands with a bump and you fight your way out of the plane. The first thing you notice is the heat. Your bags are feeling heavier as you make your way to your pickup, but you can finally say you’ve arrived.
Welcome to your new adventure. You’ve come a long way, but life as you know it is about to change. You’re going to have an experience like no other. You’re going to meet likeminded travelers and forge incredible bonds with people who will be friends for life. You’re going to become a teacher, one that your students will never forget, and one who they’ll idolise and want to know everything about. You’ll talk about your experiences.
You’ll tell everyone about the first time you went to an elephant sanctuary and when you received a blessing from a monk at a temple built into a mountainside. You will never forget the first time you got a chance to try-out Muay Thai and the taste of the pineapples fresh from the ground. The dogs you meet at Rescue Paws will always have a place in your heart. You will tell tales of communities welcoming you with open arms, your students, your new families, friends and inspire others to follow their dreams.
You’re going to have tough times, times where you feel lost, frustrated, even angry. But with the supportive network of both the people you meet on the course and the XploreAsia family, you will get through these barriers and re-emerge ready to take on all challenges. These experiences inspire a growth within you that you would have never experienced back ‘home’. Chances are you’ll stay a lot longer than planned as you fall in love with the rich culture and the warm, friendly greetings from passers by. You’re living in a culture like no other, an experience unrivalled, a journey you chose for yourself.
This is your XploreAsia experience – embracing adventure, changing lives.
Our blog is unique as we have tapped into our network of teachers to provide you with an unflinching view of teaching abroad.
You can expect stories from past and present teachers, current TESOL participants along with history/politics from Michael Volpe. Staff stories and current news from everyone here at XploreAsia & Rescue Paws will also feature.
We are constantly on the lookout for writers, if you would like to contribute any of your own thoughts and/or ideas please contact me – email@example.com
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