Monday was working 9-7 in an office. Tuesday was working 9-7 in an office doing coffee runs for survival. Wednesday up until Friday was me sitting in front of a computer screen from 9-7, casually getting interrupted by other unhappy colleagues arguing with the boss. The ratio of week days to weekend never made sense to me. My weekends were crazy and spontaneous, travelling up and down the east coast of Australia. But before I knew it, I was back in front of my computer screen, enclosed in a small room.
I was scrolling through the net one day, (I say the net because you know how you’re on one website and after about fifty clicks on random things and an hour later, you’ve ended up somewhere completely off track?), I came across something along the lines of “Teach In Thailand!” First of all, I had no idea where Thailand even fell on the map and secondly, I was a horrid student. Potentially putting up with someone like me was not on my bucket list, but still I found myself clicking on the link and filling in my details.
It was the next day I received a call from a woman who would help me for the next few months planning my trip to Thailand.
I received my visa, quit my job, turned twenty, gave over half of my wardrobe to my lovely, Brazilian flatmate, and my cute but psycho (no not me) cat, Blaze, ran away which was perfect timing if you ask me.
Sitting on the edge of my bed with my mother who had flown over from New Zealand to say goodbye, life decided then and there that it would throw a brick at me. That brick would be my very first anxiety attack. I couldn’t breathe, every little worry that I didn’t think was there before, or at least hid very well, was screaming at me. Mum throws her arms around me and is repeatedly saying, “It’s ok, just breathe.”
Bangkok, an overwhelming city of discovery.
Not even half a day later I arrive in Bangkok airport. Of all places for a twenty year old girl who has just had an anxiety attack to go, SHE GOES TO BANGKOK? It’s almost like I was begging for another episode.
I meet up with the small group of other people who have given up their lives in other parts of the world to do this. After just one hectic night together on the streets of Bangkok, I can say I honestly felt happy, excited and most of all my mind was free of bad thoughts.
We study, party, learn, explore, meditate and even at times cry together. Then I get the news that I got offered an ESL teaching job, even though I hadn’t graduated with my TESOL certificate yet.
I take it.
I cry as I hug my friends goodbye and jump on board a bus that will drive for ten hours to reach my new home; Trang, located in the southern part of Thailand.
Starting Out as an ESL Teacher
Adventures in Trang
Don’t ever expect something when going into unfamiliar grounds. I thought I was going to be able to chill out, explore my new town, make some friends maybe. Wrong. Oh, how wrong I was. They threw me into the school almost as soon as I put my feet down on Trang soil. Like, Eden, don’t catch your breath just yet. My new job was teaching 6-12 year old, Mini English Program Students English and Art at Anuban Trang School. Mini English Program basically is a segregated part of the school where students learn most of their subjects in Thai AND English, of course at a bigger cost. My agents take me in, I meet a few of the other foreign teachers and then I get given my timetable which shows that I have five classes to teach that day. I’m thinking great, I can go home and prepare lesson plans for these classes next week. Wrong again. So, so wrong. I am told I have to begin teaching straight away, no lesson plans. Just wing it basically. I think I muttered a “Are you being serious?” There I was, standing in front of this class of seven year olds, in a country where Thai is their first language and me not knowing what they even know about English or Art.
In all seriousness, I don’t know where I pulled it from, but I fully aced teaching this class. We’re going over fruits. I’m drawing. I’m asking them what it is. They’re all yelling the answer at me. I say “Are you sure? I think it’s a banana.” They’d respond, “Noooooo, Teacher! Apple! Apple!” We’re laughing and joking and learning. My agents are sitting there with massive grins on their faces. They don’t even stay for the whole lesson. They’re just like yeah, this girl’s got it.
That day a South African woman from my school, whom I would become very good friends with, side saddled me on the back of her bike and we rode to my new apartment. I was shown about five different places that I could move into. One place had a major ant infestation, another was so dark and gloomy I felt like the sun had disappeared. Of course it wasn’t until the fifth one was shown to me that I had decided, yes. This is the one. It was a brand new modern apartment with a huge room already furnished with a king sized bed, table and chairs, television, vanity, wardrobe and fridge. Off from that room was a bathroom with a modern toilet and a hot shower. The apartment building had free parking, 24 hour surveillance cameras operating, big security gates and my favourite; FREE WIFI. Obviously I decided to pay more for the luxury of all these things. I was well aware of cheaper accommodation but I knew that it meant bucket showers and squat toilets which I hadn’t quite yet accustomed myself to.
The best thing about teaching ESL in Thailand? The students.
Soon enough I get myself into a really good rhythm at school. (Wait, do I call it school or work? I don’t know.) I planned my lessons according to the textbooks the students have. They’re great. One topic will generally last a few weeks. One of my favourite topics in English I did with my P4 students was Emergency Services. Teaching them what to do in the event of a house fire, doing role plays with each other with one acting as someone who has an emergency and the other acting as the phone operator for the emergency services. We even did a few classes on Tsunamis, which really interested them because they all knew about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Thailand. At the end of this topic one of the other foreign teachers organised for the local Fire Fighters to come into school and speak to the students, they had the best time.
The feeling you get from giving your own knowledge to someone who takes it in willingly and appreciates it is completely overwhelming. I never realised how extremely lucky I was knowing the English language. Thai’s know that English is the key to so many opportunities and that’s why they’re eager to learn it. No one should be denied the right to be educated, so I think it’s wonderful that there are so many foreign teachers leaving their western lives to pass on their own knowledge to these beautiful people.
Having a great time in Phuket.
When I wasn’t working I was off exploring the country. Like any other twenty year old would do, of course I headed to Phuket. Where of course I partied for days until I literally was lying on the floor of the backpackers exhausted like “Help me”. I got that help alright, helped onto the boat to Phi Phi Island where I partied even more except I had a bloody brilliant beach to fall flat onto.
I got to experience high-end shopping in Bangkok, Songkran in Chiang Mai, blessings of a Monk in Phuket, snorkeling in Phi Phi Island, amazing/endless market shopping in Songkhla, cricket eating in Hua Hin. Just endless amounts of new experiences and fun.
Looking Back at Life as an ESL Teacher
Looking back at Teaching ESL in Thailand
In March 2015 my teaching came to an end. Unfortunately visas can get difficult and you need to make sacrifices. I have returned to New Zealand where I am going to begin university. It was such a hard decision for me, but I know that once I get my degree I can return to Thailand and teach once more. The relationship I built with my students, my 6-7 year olds in particular gave me feelings I had never had before. I left them begging me to stay, crying, tugging at my skirt. I miss them every single day and I love them like they’re my own. Teaching in Thailand is by far the best decision I ever made and it makes me so excited for my life ahead. I mean, i’m almost 21, and I feel like I’ve already accomplished such a huge thing in my life. I will always encourage people to never settle for a life they know is too small for them. Get out there. Try something new. Go somewhere you haven’t been before. Offer all that you have to give to someone who wants and needs it. I promise you will feel richer than the man with the most money in the world.
Eden Le Comte
Eden is Australian born, and lived in New Zealand most of her life. She grew up in a squash orientated family but I broke herself away from it after realising it wasn’t what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
Eden has a lust for travel, adventure and throwing herself in the deep end.
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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.
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.