ESL Teaching in Rural Thailand – Nick Zeller
After a month-and-a-half long stint in the North of Thailand getting trained for ESL teaching and hopping around mountain towns, I finally ended up in a small village in Northeastern Thailand called Muang Khong. You might ask yourself where that is and try to google it. You won’t find much information online. Even an hour away from town I’ll tell people where I live an they’ll have no idea where I’m talking about. Oddly, Google already has Muang Khong on streetview if you know where to be looking (google is everywhere!). The town is about 5 hours Northeast of Bangkok in a large conglomeration of provinces in the East that everyone calls Isaan (there are like ten different ways to spell it).
Muang Khong and Isaan
Sunset over some rice paddies from a train just outside Muang Khong
Isaan has a few cities (Korat, Khon Kaen, Ubon), but it’s mostly flat farmland with rice paddies, their farmers, and small towns. This makes for some great sunsets, but doesn’t allow for many activities if one’s passions lie outside the wide world of agriculture. So this region (with a few exceptions) is not an undiscovered tourist destination waiting to happen, it’s a Kansas or an Iowa and only a few of the foreigners ever go outside Miami. Before I arrived, I was nervous that Muang Khong would be too rural, too flat, too small, and too far away from other foreigners for me to be happy. It is still rural, small, flat, and isolated, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised in what I’ve found to enjoy in all of that.
In just about everyone’s experience, Thais are naturally, and sometimes overwhelmingly, kind and generous. This quality is kicked into overdrive in Isaan. As a foreigner (Thais call us farang) teacher here, locals want to give you directions, help you get a good deal, make sure your food is delicious, and are very, very curious about you (although this usually boils down to four questions that I’ll get to later). Thai generosity has gotten me a free bicycle, more fresh fruit than I can count (or eat), dirt cheap motorcycle repair, last-minute rides to bus stations, several rounds of rice moonshine, and a road trip to a 5-hour Muay Thai extravanganza, just to name a few. Trying to reciprocate these favors is futile 99% of the time, which leads to some lingering grateful guilt that I don’t really fight anymore.
One of the fun (and occasionally creepy) aspects of being a foreign teacher in such a small community is that after a few weeks you achieve small-town celebrity status. I imagine it’s a similar feeling to being the new on-site reporter at a small-time local TV station. Regardless of where or when, if you come across a student outside of school, they will wave and yell some variation of “helloooooo teacher!” then giggle as if they have just done something exceptionally clever and silly. This has happened enough that now everyone in town knows I will answer/acknowledge when the word “teacher!” is directed at me. Especially in the evenings after school, my trips to the market or to dinner are filled with “helloooooo teacher!”s at regular intervals. Most of the time, this phenomenon is fun; everyone smiles and is friendly, I like that they want to interact with me, even if only for a few seconds, and it’s a good feeling when you’re walking down the street and everyone you pass wants to say hi! Other times it feels like the locals are those kids at the zoo that poke the glass to try and make the animal move: “If you yell ‘hello’ at the Farang, he’ll say something that sounds funny!”
School and ESL Teaching
Get stoked for directional vocabulary!
Teaching has been the best part of my time here so far. I teach 12-14 year olds for 5 periods a day (a little over 4 hours of actual class time). At the outset, I figured that since enthusiasm comes easily and I’ve been blessed with a 12-year-old’s sense of humor, teaching junior high would be pretty straightforward. My first week in the classroom was revealing. I found out pretty quickly it wasn’t going to be a breeze and my Robin-Williams-in-Dead-Poets-Society aspirations can be put out to pasture. Half of my classes have 35-45 kids in them, all with chairs and desks. The other half are double-classes with 70-90 students, all sitting on the floor. While there are some notable exceptions, 95% of my students have very, very low English proficiency. Kids in Muang Khong get instruction in grammar and written English (there is very little emphasis on speaking and conversation) from their Thai teachers, and those teachers often have poor English themselves. I’ll be the first native-speaker English teacher the M1s (12-13 y.o.) have had. Some of my twelve year olds can’t write their first names in English and even my oldest students have vocabularies limited mostly to nouns involving sports, animals, food, and the movies Frozen and Fast 7.
The smaller classroom
Thais have a deep-seated cultural aversion to the idea of ‘losing face,’ and this makes things harder for them and me. Unless there is candy involved, Thai kids hate to answer a question they aren’t absolutely sure about in front of the class. I’m learning to fight through this with a lot of games, group-work, praise, and goofiness. For instance, if you can demonstrate that your students can answer a question in groups of three students, that they’ll have some time to prepare their answer in their group, and that the class will applaud when they’re done, you might have some volunteers. If you just ask for raised hands, you’re dreamin.’ Buuuuut since the students have such limited English, demonstrating this to them becomes rather difficult. A vicious cycle.
Another feature of the Thai educational system is that I can’t fail any of my students. I know it and they know it. This is rarely a problem, but in every class there are a few students who make it plain that they have no interest in learning English or doing much work. In an American school, I could make it clear that they will fail and be held back if they don’t put in a bare minimum of effort, but in Thailand this an empty threat. I have no little recourse if a student doesn’t want to do an assignment or participate other than making the assignments and activities as engaging as possible. A lot of the Thai teachers simply don’t teach to these kids and leave them to their own devices in the back of the class, and sometimes I do the same so that the rest of the students can keep progressing. However, when we have time the solution seems to be games, games, and games. If you can bring out the competitive spirit long enough for the kids in the back to nail ten or twelve words of vocabulary, that’s a win.
Bicha and his son Bat working on combos. Note the set of dumbbells made of two paint cans filled with cement and an iron rod.
In the second week at school, the janitor/handyman introduced himself and asked me if I like boxing. I’ve never been terribly intrigued by boxing, but I wanted to make friends so I said yes. WIth no other explanation, he told me to meet him after school and drove me to the neighboring town about twenty minutes away. It turned out that his friend Bicha runs a Muay Thai boxing ‘gym’ out of his front yard as a side-gig. This guy is pure rural Thailand: he smokes like a chimney, doesn’t speak a lick of English, and makes dirty jokes about you in Thai when he doesn’t think you’re hitting hard enough. He has two sons, (I think 16 and 17, definitely still in high school), who are both absolute lunatics with a pair of boxing gloves, and Bicha himself was a good fighter in his own right back in whatever decade was his heyday (he could be anywhere from 35-60).
Video of Bat’s kicks. Watch with sound
Muay Thai (thai-style martial art in which kicking, punching, elbows, knees, and wrestling are all allowed) has grown on me and I’ve been going every day after school for the past three weeks. Since no one speaks much English to give me instructions, I fall in behind Bicha’s sons and do what they do. The routine is generally a half hour running session (which is the most brutal part since it’s usually 90+ in the sun), followed by stretching, shadow-boxing, and hitting the punching bags. Then we go into the ring one at a time with Bicha and work through combinations with pads, followed by some sort of conditioning drill on the punching bags. The session always ends with the two boys doing ungodly amounts of situps, laughing at me as I try, sweatily, desperately clinging to my last shreds of dignity, to keep up.
Meeting the local 5:0
We showed up to school one Wednesday and were told that we wouldn’t have classes in the afternoon. Then, a little before lunchtime, we were updated that the reason we were excused from classes was that we were going to be teaching the local police force. The end of the lesson was a question and answer section in which the other English teacher and I were speaking on behalf of Western civilization. Most of the questions were things like “do westerners feel uncomfortable when we call them farang?” and “why is it bad to ask a woman how old she is?” The highlight was “if I meet a French person, will they expect me to kiss them on both cheeks?”
- Thai is a tonal language, so there are lots of words with the same sounds and different tones that all sound identical to me. The word bpaed can mean ‘eight,’ ‘duck,’ or ‘spicy’ depending on the tone you use, which can get very confusing at restaurants when the waiter keeps insisting that they don’t have duck even though you’re just trying to ask if one of their dishes is spicy.
- There are four questions I always get asked, almost always in this order with widely varying levels of very creative Thanglish:
- “Where are you from?”
- “What are you doing in Isaan?”
- “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” (Cue shock and awe noises)
- “Have you eaten rice yet?” (This is akin to asking someone how they are doing, but it translates to “have you eaten rice yet.” I’m still not sure whether people are asking me how I’m doing or whether I’m hungry in different situations).
- I bought a scooter for 3,000 baht (a little under $90). The school janitor helped me pick it out, so I was pretty convinced I had gotten away with a steal when I got it home from the shop without any problems. Of course the next time I tried to ride it, the kick-start snapped right off and had to be welded back on, the exhaust pipe had something stuck in it, and the headlight wasn’t working. But four hours and $3.50 to the mechanic later and she runs like a dream.
Just a man, his switch, and the respect of everyone within a hundred foot radius
I wish I had a better picture to do this guy justice. This man is the head disciplinarian/PE teacher at Muang Khong High. All the young teachers love him and call him ‘papa.’ At any school gathering he can be seen walking around with his bamboo switch, a smile on his face and a whistle in his mouth. I’ve never seen him actually use the switch, but no teacher commands more respect/fear than he does among the students. Every morning the students gather to sing the national anthem and do announcements You can always tell where papa is because the students around him are singing louder than anyone else. In another life, he would have been great as a beneficent dictator maintaining an iron grip over a small, resource-rich nation-state. For now he just whistles at kids for being late and talking during announcements.
- About three weeks into my stay here, I started getting these little bug bite-looking itchy red spots on my shoulders and arms. WebMD had me convinced they were bedbugs, one of the Thai teachers told me I was allergic to the papaya salad we had had earlier in the week, and the doctor at the hospital assured my that he didn’t know so he just gave me some antihistamines. A few days later I went to a clinic with a different doctor and he told me I was just having a reaction to the extreme heat. Turns out I’m literally allergic to this place.
- Thai first names are a mouthful (Nathawat, Panintorn, Durmklang), so everyone has a nice short nickname to make things easy. For an English-speaker, these get pretty funny. There are a lot of Nats, Kats, Oms, etc. My favorites so far (I wish I had pictures) are Boss, a tiny, over-enthusiastic 12 year old with a penchant for asking for high-fives at very inconvenient times and a borderline obese, round-faced, jolly 14 year-old named Turbo. The English program director’s deputy is named Manoon Moonboom, which is also pretty cool.
Here, I’ve been asked to give a lesson on impromptu lesson on “the importance of punctuality” for a morning homeroom. The Thai teacher does not look pleased with my work.
Most of the time, it’s sort of shocking that Thailand has a functioning education system. Everything changes at a moment’s notice, no one ever seems to know the full story, things are at least ten minutes late, and no one stops to think “maybe if we tweaked a few things, this could go a lot smoother.” In this sort of environment, no two days at school are ever the same. We’re often asked to teach some special class or help out with another teacher’s lesson at a moment’s notice. Getting comfortable with freestyling lessons as you go is probably the single most important skill I’ve picked up here.
That’s all I have for now. Thanks for reading this far down! Next time: in which Nick joins a small-time Muay Thai entourage.
Nick graduated our Chiang Mai TESOL course in April 2015. Nick is a Colorado native and a somewhat recent graduate of Colby College. He got a little too comfortable living in DC and figured taking his talents to a different hemisphere was a good way to fix that. He likes mountains, rugby, anything with taro in it, students who prefer fistbumps to high fives, and chicken-on-a-stick. He will never understand Austin’s obsession with toasties, despite his best efforts. He’s a big fan of Thailand, the Thais, and being a teacher here and he totally thinks you should give it a shot.
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Moving On to Bigger Things
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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Fight or Flight?
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.
A New Beginning
“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.