Memoirs of Thailand
2010 - 2012
“There is a limit at which forbearance ceases to be a virtue” says Edmund Burke. I begin my ‘Thai Memoirs’ with this quote quite simply because I have come to realise that whilst forbearance is an essential quality of the heart for anyone living in a foreign land, it is by no means a positive stance when certain elements of what one must ‘forbear’, so to speak, is plain ignorance of another’s culture, race or language. This is said with reference to my experiences of living in the Isan town of Surin; a largely rural part of Thailand situated in the Northeast of the kingdom close to the border with Cambodia and where agriculture dominates the local economy and way of life.
Now, coming to teach in Thailand is rarely as rosy as it is made out to be by online recruitment agencies or volunteer organisations plugging it to fresh graduates in search of a ‘new experience’ but it does have its rewards. Please don’t assume at this stage that I consider myself one of those people, for it was after more than a decade of correspondence with my dear Thai pen pal Nui that ultimately brought me to the shores of the “land of smiles” as the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) likes to trumpet. It was not without prior knowledge of Thai culture that I came here, although admittedly, it was indeed the first time I had ever set foot in the country. Rather, thanks to the gracious manner in which Nui presented Thai culture, heritage, religious belief and etiquette I was relatively well armed with information prior to arrival.
Like any other country in the world, Thailand has its own ways of doing things, its own contradictions and hypocrisies and its own sense of national pride. There are also certain restrictions, or perhaps more diplomatically expressed as sensibilities, that foreigners (particularly Western) should be aware of and at least attempt to observe for the sake of harmony and ‘integration’, as much as that is possible for a foreigner in Thailand. Living in this country bordered by the Mekong River and the other soon to be member states of ASEAN is an eye-opening experience and, if one has the chance to visit Thailand’s neighbours, allows for a most insightful comparison to be made. Furthermore, being an English teacher and interacting with young people and local teachers presents a fertile ground of experience that is simply not accessible to the occasional traveller who just passes through observing everything as if a pleasant dream. Becoming part of (or not as the case may also be at times) the local community thrusts one into the direct firing line of a barrage of opposing forces.
Happily, the majority of those educated people with whom we worked were the epitome of kindness and generosity. It is really outside of my range of perception how many times little words of comfort, a warm smile or a gift of fruit brightened my day. Even the country folks, who are quite unused to interacting with foreigners, demonstrate an earthy form of hospitality, that to the untrained eye may well seem like mocking but, I’ve come to realise, is in fact their own down to earth way of saying “maa gin khao” or “come and have lunch”!
If I were to compare Thailand with some other countries, I’d say the attitude and mentality is laid back and relaxed. There are not many countries which are still developing where you can be gay and live in relative ease, wear skimpy clothes and not be admonished (that happened to me in France!), celebrate Valentine’s Day and it actually be encouraged (look at the Muslim world) and generally not fear for your life just for being a British caucasian. Despite these aspects of Thailand there is a lot of racism even towards other Asians, particularly if they have darker skin. They consider white skin to be very beautiful and seem to look down on Indians, Africans etc. Their hubris is sometimes very ugly. Towards westerners, many people have a tendency to be unnecessarily rude. There has not been a single day in Thailand that I have not been yelled at, laughed at or stared at just for being cuacasian. I think they impose on us whatever pre-constructed opinion they have of westerners and assume we are all the same. Try speaking to me in a polite and respectful manner and they may learn that I’m a Buddhist Englishman teaching their own children because I wanted to make a difference locally whilst practising meditation in a Buddhist country. ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ would be a very apt thing to say at this point.
It has without doubt been a difficult two years, this cannot go unsaid. The Thai education system is in dire need of reform and if the country is to open up and integrate successfully with the ASEAN Community from 2015, then some serious changes need to be made soon. During the entire period of my two year contract at Surawittayakarn School (the main provincial high school of Surin) I have witnessed great disinterest in the English language, a totally chaotic system of grouping students (they are not grouped according to ability in each subject!) and a lack of self-discipline with regards to learning what is presented in the classroom (nothing new amongst teenagers anywhere). These negative factors combined with a preference for shows and entertainments over academic achievement in school as well as a reinforced attitude of racism towards the Western teachers contributes to the most bizarre situation I have ever come to witness.
Of course, the situation in which the unfortunate students and Thai teachers find themselves (i.e. ridiculously oversized classrooms, low salaries & poor facilities) only exacerbates the problem. Nonetheless, hope is not lost and indeed many of the students who are in the upper classes of each year tend to benefit more from the resources which are available. For example, during our first year the status of ‘World Class Standard School’ was bestowed upon us. This lead to investments in improvements to the school and a lot of funds going towards Surawittayakarn School’s first ever British style pantomime of Cinderella, adapted and directed by Richard as well as an increase in available laptops and sports facilities. Despite this windfall for the school, most students remain in classrooms without any technology. The prestige of the ‘world class’ status is, sadly, in name only.
Personally, my time in Thailand has been my training ground as an English teacher. The total absence of teacher training for foreigners and without any sort of curriculum to follow (there are no national grading descriptors in Thailand nor any educational body which continuously inspects teaching standards for Thai or foreign teachers) in a way gave me the chance to try out different teaching methods, refine my style, learn classroom management (the greatest challenge) and teach pretty much anything I deemed suitable. Despite my background in languages, I felt quite the amateur when it came to teaching my own language to Thai students. The Thai love of ‘sanuk’ (fun) means that a calmer more academic approach, which one finds more commonly in Europe, tends to only inspire the more academically minded of them and it’s a great strain, and I would even say ‘drain’, to give 24 hours of classes per week particularly in hot classrooms of up to 55 students in each. To some foreign teachers it comes easily to be a frolicking entertainer but my somewhat more reserved temperament leaves me feeling quite unsuitable for the Thai audience. I always wondered that, if I were to turn up in a mini skirt with some pompoms and just sang English cheerleading songs, I would get a better success rate! Alas, it’s back to subjects like music festivals, natural disasters and censorship with Mr Paul. Heaven forbid I should introduce the concept of expressing one’s own opinion! Shock horror!
It may also be suitable to mention at this point that there are a large number of students within the school who simply should not be there. There is no vetting system to determine quality/potential of students and so there are a certain minority who are nothing more than riffraff. I could cite numerous occasions when Thai students have broken teacher’s motorbikes (including those of senior Thai staff), vandalised the foreign teachers bicycles i.e. slashed tyres, stolen safety lights, tampered with the handle bars and cut the breaks!!! The deputy head, who is in charge of discipline, would often just laugh it off and mock the foreign teacher in front of students rather than dealing with it in a professional and respectful manner. Of course, teenagers will be teenagers but it gets really serious when stolen lights off bicycles may or may not have contributed to three careless teenagers smashing directly into the middle of my bicycle whilst riding out one evening. I will spare the good reader my lamentations about Thai driving skills (I don’t have a driving licence so it would be inappropriate and supercilious of me to comment). In a way, I should be glad road rage is less common here; it is the Thai way to repress your real feelings and never show any strong emotion on the outside. The problem with that however is that in fact, the same emotions are still present but they cannot get out. I believe this may well contribute to hidden eruptions too terrible to go into here. All I need say is that there is a cover up on a monumental scale; for the sake of ‘keeping face’ and of course, avoiding any damage to the tourist industry. Foreigners beware!
In my classes I like to stretch student’s minds a bit and get them thinking outside of the box and discussing (chance would be a fine thing!) or at least thinking about relevant subjects. An example would be the topic of ‘censorship’; when it’s good, when it’s bad etc. (in the light of the Wikipedia blackout etc. in January 2012). I asked the class about whether they thought that there was freedom of speech in Thailand and to what extent. I posed the question at the end of my class…I just wanted them to ponder on it; who knows it may sow a seed and blossom into something good for the future of their country. All I need say here is ‘Long Live the King’.
The King: a seemingly gentle man, reserved and devoted to his people and now, aged and frail. A great pillar of stability in a very politically unstable country, few people have known any other monarch - he has been on the thrown so long, along with His Queen. It will be interesting to observe the reaction to His demise. Perhaps that will never happen; he is revered as a God-King after all, which brings me nicely to religion or ‘sasana’ in Thai.
The religious beliefs of Thailand form an eclectic mixture of differing practices. Traditionally, Theravada Buddhism is the official state religion with around 95% of the population professing to be Buddhist (from birth). The King Himself is the patron of the religion and the equivalent of the ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title held by our own Queen Elizabeth II, which of course applies to the Church of England rather than Buddhism. Despite this asseveration of a devoutly Buddhist nation, again the reality is somewhat different. The old religion, that is to say the one prior to the arrival of Buddhism during the 1st Century C.E., was animism; a belief that spirits of nature inhabit the land, air, trees and buildings. Today, this is heavily intertwined with the daily spirituality of Thai people up to the point where the teaching of the Buddha becomes obscured by the reliance on supplicating a deity for some favour, success or avoidance of misfortune rather than practising according to the principles laid down by the Buddha. People have the religious freedom to believe what they wish and I am not criticizing whatever that may be. However, on arrival it did shock me somewhat to see how much the Buddha’s teachings had been either forgotten or misinterpreted. For sincere Buddhists, these sorts of beliefs are akin to the Brahmanism of ancient India from which the Buddha was trying to break free from. Sadly, superstition pervades the population right from the monastic Sangha down to the average person on the street. Amulets are big business and the art of tattooing ‘sacred’ verses all over the body is widespread. I’m not criticising people’s choices, religious freedom is important I just worry about the future and reputation of Buddhism. The bad behaviour of many Sangha members is contributing to the decline and in turn this is upsetting and discouraging to faithful lay people.
Those monks and nuns who are practising diligently are of course facing a society which is modernising perhaps a little too quickly and in turn abandoning its traditional values for a commercialised brand of typically East Asian consumerism where there is no quality. It can be seen everywhere from the TV shows and adverts to music and popular culture to fashion. The forest tradition of Thailand is one of the few standing bastions of good practise flying the flag for Buddhists across the nation. Being Buddhist myself, my number one motivation for coming to Thailand as a teacher was actually in order to be able to frequent Wat Pah Nanachat (International Forest Monastery) located in nearby Ubon Ratchatani. The monastery for English speakers was set up by the late Ajahn Chah, a renowned meditation master who started teaching the first Westerners how to practise meditation back in the 1960s. His disciples went on to establish monasteries all around the world and to this day people flock through the remote northeast of Thailand in order to seek awakening, spiritual solace, liberation call it what you will. I stayed there a few times; my teaching schedule not allowing for as many visits as I would have liked but in fact, in the end the classroom environment is far more ideal for growing in certain qualities such as patience than anywhere else so I’m thankful for that. (See my Wat Pah Nanachat blog for a more in depth account)
Having spoken to monks and teachers alike, they too have confirmed that they are seeing a shift within Thai society; a shift mainly amongst the younger generations who are now rejecting the traditional values and roles and embracing a more aggressive way of life in terms of their relations with themselves, with others and their education. The number of times I saw students playing fighting games in the internet cafes, racing around on the motorcycles as if they were in Tokyo or drinking to excess. All this sort of stuff is commonplace in many countries in the modern age but I believe that this may contribute to Thailand’s own demise in a not too distant future. Particularly as rising neighbours such as Myanmar and Laos compete as part of the impending ASEAN Community bloc. The main issue for Thai students with regards to English is that there is a disconnection in their daily life and their language learning in school. Unless the school has a full English Program where all core subjects are taught in English then students fail to grasp its relevance to them and their future within the common market that will be ASEAN. Few Thai people seem to be interested in travelling abroad, they generally have a very village-like mentality but this is of course a generalisation of the population. I know many of them do expand their horizons and learn about the world. It is also linked in with poverty. This is not immediately identifiable in the towns but if one travels just a short distance into the countryside it’s quite easy to see that Thailand is still very much a developing country. The poverty isn’t on the scale of what one finds in certain parts of India for example but it is certainly a great burden for many people.
My hope is that as the Thai economy continues to grow then so corruption higher up the ladder will diminish and thereby allow for a raise in salaries for the general population. It has come to my attention that Thailand is well within its means to raise Thai teachers’ salaries but the people at the top prevent this from happening and so the misery, low motivation and jealousy of foreign staff (who are paid about double) continue. Despite Thai perceptions that all Westerners are rich, which is quite laughable in the current economic climate, our salaries in Thailand are actually only a fraction of what we need to earn in our own countries in order just to pay for our university educations, flights to Thailand, higher charges for almost everything just for being a foreigner, rent and basic living costs; such are the differences in the economies.
The reforms that will eventually come to the Thai education system are long overdue. Let’s hope the government gets its act together in good time!
From Thai perceptions of wealthy Westerners to Thai women (and men) who are literally programmed to spot a possible husband from across the street. This is a sensitive subject as I’m well aware that there is a transaction going on when I witness elderly Westerners with a dainty Thai girl/boy by their side and this is something which is widespread throughout Thailand and Cambodia. Basically, foreign men both Asian and otherwise, flock into Thailand for sex. Why? Because the whole world knows that Thailand sells sex more than any other country in the world (debatable?). Apart from the prostitution, there are also a large number who come here in order to find a wife and an easier way of life. What is wrong with that? Well nothing when it comes down to it. If a relationship is equal, respectful and genuine then who am I to judge such a fortunate outcome? What is bizarre and ugly is seeing people who are the oddest couples in the world walking around together just oozing sex addiction, perversion and a whole raft of unspeakable things on the foreigners part and lack of self-respect, greed and sadness on the part of the Thai person. The problem comes when this is not discouraged but rather welcomed by Thai society. They complain and grumble about Westerners coming in to take the women but in reality, they wish only to take advantage of that very influx. Isan is famous for its girl/boy go-go dancers who head down to Pattaya and Phuket to make some money. If there are willing buyers, Thailand will gladly provide the goods and so the vicious circle rolls on!
Whilst I was quite determined to write this blog without being so critical it seems it has become inevitable. After all, this is my honest perception of Thailand and nowhere else has been as frustrating to live in as this country even the word for ‘Westerner or someone who appears to be of European descent grates on the nerves. The word ‘farang’, which is used incessantly to describe anyone with white skin, puts all people no matter which country or continent they are from into this same category regardless of their mother tongue or their culture; most of the time it is used in a very relaxed manner with no offence intended. Every situation/usage is different and so one must be aware of that. Nonetheless, it is also often used in a very derogatory way which donates an attitude of racism towards the poor person who has to endure the ridicule of the naïve Thai group usually huddled like farm animals in the back of a pickup truck or sat drinking rice wine like a bunch of rednecks. Yes this is the Thailand Richard and I have had to endure with forbearance for two years. A place of hospitality with get out clauses and a country of people who don’t know what ‘Thai-ness’ is any more than foreigners who visit this country asking the same answerless question. Try explaining the difference between Britain and England; since in Thai you can only say England for both the country itself and the whole of the United Kingdom it’s like introducing a new concept entirely and it’s in a foreign tongue! Can you imagine the stress levels in a 5/14 class? It’s just not happening basically despite the fact that it is my duty to teach a minimum of cultural knowledge otherwise what is the point and result: Total disconnection from the English speaking world which is not the aim in my book. The Thai response to anything which cannot be justified is ‘mai bpen rai’ which basically translates as ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘never mind’. Fair enough, a culture built on this attitude would have endured great hardship in the past and indeed, the strength needed to say such a phrase in times of adversity would have been essential but it somehow loses its meaning when it is now applied to situations of racial abuse, incompetence or naïve ignorance in order to avoid dealing with it. The hardships of the past are fading as fast as Thailand’s wealth is increasing but as long as the ‘mai bpen rai’ attitude persists so it will only ensure the world continues to look on in pity as ASEAN becomes the order of the day.
Nonetheless, if you can embody this attitude as a foreigner then you can take it all in your stride. No worries of harassment in Big C (a supermarket chain) or the market place, no distress when Thai drivers try to kill you on the road from every angle, no hard feelings when colleagues ignore you just because you earn a higher salary than them, no problems whatsoever.
Oh what a life that would be!
I’m very glad to end my time in northeast Thailand. Who knows if I’ll return but as a result, I feel stronger, more resilient, a little less accepting of ignorance but certainly with a stronger sense of forbearance.
On a positive note, I really do adore and revere the natural beauty of this Southeast Asian country; the forests and waterfalls, tropical climate and pleasant evenings. Above all else it will be the weather that I will miss! The food is particularly delicious, as a vegetarian there are certain limitations but my local veggie stop never failed to provide me with a varied food source throughout my stay give or take a caterpillar or two. I am infinitely grateful for their presence without which I would have been lost. Furthermore, I would like to send out my heartfelt appreciation to all the truly kind people who Richard and I have encountered along the way both Thai and foreign. If it weren’t for their compassion and understanding, their support, kind ear and advice we would not have made it through. It must be exceedingly hard for them to have to face the limitations of the society in the long-term and I only hope things like true freedom of speech, equality and understanding manage to become part of Thai society without losing those traditional Buddhist values which were developed and cherished so well in former times.
If I were to write a British version of this, I don’t doubt I’d have just as much, if not more, to say about the goings on there in this day and age!