A Year as an English Teacher in Thailand – Parting Thoughts

It has been more than a week since I left Tha Wang Pha (in the northern Nan province of Thailand), and although I really want to write about my thoughts about the final two months of my experience I have found it hard to sit down and put it in words. Part of the difficulty of writing about my final thoughts was the whirlwind of the last few weeks. The last two weeks of the semester were incredibly busy with finalizing grades, saying goodbyes to students, teachers and friends, and planning the trip that I am now amidst.

Thus, although I find it hard to define my parting thoughts at the present moment, while traveling in Cambodia, I know that the longer I wait to write something, the harder it will become.

Saying goodbye to the students was bittersweet. The days of dealing with frustration at obnoxious, disobedient students already seem unimportant compared to the relationships I made with the nicer kids. Although I am glad that I am finished teaching, I will definitely miss some of the students and their cheerful smiles. It was hard to answer those students when they asked me, “Will you return to Thailand?” or “Why are you leaving?”, but that is just the reality of the situation. I wish it were easier to come back and visit the students but the reality is otherwise.

I will also miss my friends and the teachers, but saying goodbye to them was less difficult. Though I will miss them, it is clear that they understand why I want to move on to something different, and though they jokingly mention seeing me again in Tha Wang Pha, they better understand how difficult it will be for me to return.

I think that in order for me to write anything at all, I need to write my post in a lighter format than usual, just focusing on my favorite and least favorite things and experiences of the last year.

Therefore, my favorite and least favorite things and experiences from the past ten months are as follows (in no particular order).

My favorite things/experiences:

Thai people. Although as a stipulation, I mean this in terms of Thai people’s overall dispositions and meeting people, not in terms of working with them (which is not always so pleasant). Easily the best part of living in Tha Wang Pha was being incorporated into the community and getting to know different individuals throughout the area.  Thai people are definitely some of the friendliest, most generous people that I have encountered. They love to help you out and give you free food or drinks without a second thought. Thailand is called the ‘Land of Smiles’, and certainly everywhere you go you will be greeted by smiling individuals. Thai people like to practice their English when they encounter farangs, or just get to know foreigners and it made me feel bad that I was unable to reciprocate in Thai. Saying goodbye to everyone I met was difficult as I expected, and I will certainly miss a lot of people.

The good students. While being a small minority, the good students are the ones that I will remember. Whether it was passing exchanges, helpful participation and attitudes in the classroom, or just overall friendliness and good humor, I am incredibly grateful for the great students I encountered, and their ability to turn my frustration and weariness into gratification and happiness. As I stated earlier, the less pleasurable experiences that I had with some students already seem insignificant in comparison with the positive experiences and connections that I was able to make with other students. It truly was hard to respond when they would ask me why I was leaving or when I would come back, as I do want to see them in the future and thank them for creating some of the most positive, concrete memories of my year of teaching.

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The low prices. While I knew before coming to Thailand that everything would be cheap by American standards, I think I was unprepared for how truly cheap things are. Especially in the remote north, where I was living, the prices for food, clothing, and massages were just ludicrous. I regularly went out to eat as it was actually cheaper to dine out than to fix myself a meal at my apartment. I would eat out and pay anywhere from 25 baht (about $0.75) to 200 baht (about $6.15), although the overwhelming majority of my meals fell between 30-40 baht (right around one dollar), and I rarely paid over 100 baht unless I was eating Western food or at a buffet.

Pumpkin and egg stir-fry from Chiang Mai
Pumpkin and egg stir-fry from Chiang Mai
Som tam (Papaya Salad)
Som tam (Papaya Salad)
Pork and Noodles in a gravy-like sauce. Notice the charming 'tablecloth'.
Pork and Noodles in a gravy-like sauce. Notice the charming ‘tablecloth’.

Although I wasn’t as incredibly stoked by this as I was for the food, the clothing prices were fairly low. I bought new shirts and pants as needed for $5-10 for quality clothes. This was less surprising to me as I knew that Southeast Asia has become sort of a hub for producing cheap textiles.

Finally, the massages were mind-blowingly cheap to me and I indulged frequently as a result. I don’t have a clear idea of how expensive they are in the U.S. (too expensive for me to have looked into such things), but in Thailand they hovered around 100-150 baht an hour (about $3-5 an hour), and occasionally were as ‘expensive’ as 300 baht an hour (around $10). Since there were three masseuses in Tha Wang Pha, I cycled between the different options as I regularly got two massages per week. One of the masseuses also offered foot massages, so I would go to him if I wanted a foot massage and to a different masseuse if I just wanted a regular massage. Admittedly, their massage ‘studios’ were somewhat ghetto and dirty by Western standards, but when you are only paying a couple bucks for an hour massage you really don’t care.

Exploring the country. While almost all of my travelling within Thailand is finished, with the exception of Surat Thani and Koh Pha Ngan in the South, I am very satisfied with what I have seen. From basic research on the country, one can easily learn that the South of Thailand is known for islands and beaches, the center is known for the hub of Bangkok and its surrounding cities, and that the north is known for its agriculture and mountainous areas.

However, it is also very interesting how culturally diverse the different regions of Thailand are. The center of Thailand, around Bangkok, is predictably the most diverse, international and commercially-focused area of the country. Here different cultural influences are immediately apparent, and within Bangkok it is also interesting to see how traditional Thai customs and norms converged and adapted to the modernizing forces of an international city.

In contrast, the north of Thailand (and especially Nan, the province I lived in), is much more traditional culturally. Although Chiang Mai is a fairly big city that attracts a decent amount of tourists, the amount of foreign influence in the north is miniscule in comparison to the center (and the south). I don’t want to say that the north is the more ‘authentic’ Thailand as that just sounds incredibly pretentious and isn’t true in any way, but it is clear that the north of Thailand is a better representation of how cities of just Thai people are developing and modernizing. Some people from the north that I talked to said that northerners were more conservative and traditional, and frankly I am unable to come to my own conclusions (partially because I never lived in the center or south), but it was clear to me that Buddhism, the family, and the community seemed to be the most important aspects of life for northerners.

Finally, the south seemed to have a great deal of Western influence, as well as influence from neighboring countries (i.e. Malaysia and Singapore), that gave it a much different feel than the north or even the center. Admittedly, I have hardly travelled in the south at all so I am not trying to speak too broadly, but this was the only region that I saw the open presence of other religions (i.e. Islam). The people in the south also seemed incredibly laid back, although I don’t know if this is just because of my limited experience on a somewhat touristy island.

Geographically, the different regions of the country provided for great, differing experiences in every place. I loved scuba diving and relaxing on the beaches of the south, exploring the huge urban expanse of Bangkok, swimming in the peaceful River Kwai, observing history firsthand at the ancient cities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, seeing the confluence of modernity and ancient culture in Chiang Mai, as well as getting to know the agricultural and rural lifestyle of the people in Nan. While there are always more places to be seen, I am satisfied with how much of the country I was able to see and experience during the past year. I am also incredibly excited to finish my time off in Thailand in the south, hopefully scuba diving with whale sharks and getting invigorating massages on the beach.

Koh Lanta
Koh Lanta
River Kwai
River Kwai
Sukhothai
Sukhothai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai
Around Tha Wang Pha
Around Tha Wang Pha

My least favorite things/experiences:

The language barrier. Obviously, I knew about this from the beginning, but I did not anticipate how vast and challenging it would be to overcome. Initially I viewed Thai as an interesting challenge; I wanted to learn as much as possible and become proficient in the language. However, as more time passed, I became discouraged and disheartened that I would even be able to attain basic proficiency. Saying that Thai is a hard language to learn is an understatement, and I am no better at hearing or understanding different tones than I was in May.

While I picked up some words and phrases and could occasionally understand what people were saying, I found it near impossible to speak Thai. Often I would speak some Thai words or phrases and the listener would either laugh or not realize that I was speaking Thai. Other times I would try and learn Thai words from someone, only to hear them say something slightly different each time they repeated the word. The lack of formal structure and tenses also bothered me, as I felt that learning individual words or phrases really did nothing to enhance my communication skills, as I was still unable to string together what I would consider basic sentences.

The language barrier was obviously even bigger in the classroom. Most of my students never understood what I was saying, and many were not able to read any English. I often tried to use Thai in the classroom, but this often failed too and my efforts were just met with blank stares. I was also initially surprised at how badly the Thai English teacher’s spoke English, but by the end I realized that many of them simply viewed teaching as a secure job and a means to earn a decent salary.

The Thai education system. I could write a long diatribe about the Thai education system but I will keep it short. The Thai education system is broken and a failure at every single level. Although earlier and in other posts I allude to frustrating students, the reality is that the bad students are only one symptom of the horrible education system.

The education system focuses on rote memorization, and encourages students not to think or engage with material. Students simply sit and listen to their teacher (or in reality talk to each other during class and don’t listen), and don’t learn how to think critically. Every time I would ask the students critical thinking questions (assuming I had a teacher translating what I was saying into Thai), the students would simply sit there and wait for me to feed them the answer. They don’t understand that they need to analyze and engage with what they learn in school, they just expect to be fed answers.

The curriculum is garbage and changes almost every year. The other Thai English teachers assigned the students the most pointless and horrible assignments I could imagine. Although the students didn’t understand basic grammar or communication, their assignments often used various complicated forms of grammar, or required them to understand advanced English, and I questioned whether many of the teachers could even complete the assignments they were giving the students.

Students cannot fail, or even be effectively disciplined, and as a result students misbehave, openly cheat, or don’t try at all. In reality, I was confused as to why most students came to school at all, as they could simply stay home and then show up the last few days to take the final exam over and over until they ‘passed’. Cheating was also so much more rampant and obvious than I ever would have expected, that it was really just farcical.

The teachers mostly don’t care about teaching or have given up because of the inadequacies of the system. There were literally some teachers who refused to teach the classes of bad students, and simply sat there while the students did whatever they wanted. Other teachers were clearly more concerned about increasing their salaries through various avenues than providing any sort of education (i.e. writing lesson plans to submit to an education office that would never be used in the classroom).

There is much more of a focus on appearance than on results. Although teachers and administrators were very focused on dressing the part, and making sure that students were in their proper uniforms, they clearly didn’t care about the actual results of the system. Students literally told me that maintaining a cleaned-up appearance was critical to being a good student, but expressed little concern over academic performance. As long as I showed up in professional clothing, I was doing a ‘good job’ even though I became more disheartened every day that I was accomplishing anything.

Finally, the administrators and officials in the Ministry of Education seem to be seriously inept and incompetent. Although I was told many times that officials who had studied in the U.S. and U.K. designed the curriculum and standardized tests, the material was so awful and blatantly unusable that I was aghast. I can’t say I know what is going on in the Ministry of Education but it seemed to me that everyone needed to be fired and replaced with competent individuals.

The weather. Thailand is ridiculously hot. I thought I had experienced heat and humidity before coming to Thailand, but in reality I had not. Summer is literally a boiling hell, and given the general lack of air conditioning or public pools I have no idea how people survive. During the ‘winter’ there were probably two whole weeks of somewhat ‘cold’ weather, before it became hot again and I found myself using A/C at night. I refuse to live another year in such a hot, humid place.

The lack of infrastructure or modern amenities. Again, I should have expected this, but I had no idea how hard it would be to find modern amenities in Thailand. The hardest thing for me to give up was easily playing the piano. I originally tried to bring my digital piano, and when that failed I told myself I would find the occasional piano to play. I didn’t realize that the only pianos I would find in Thailand would be in one store an overnight bus ride away from where I was living.

Other things were equally hard to accept, one being the lack of public pools. During the summer, it was so hot and muggy that I wanted to swim every day. However, there were no pools anywhere in Tha Wang Pha, and the nearest waterfall was about forty minutes away by motorbike (and not great for swimming either), so nearly inaccessible.

Another hard to face reality was the lack of a grocery store. I shopped at a small 7-11 for all of my supplies, and as you can imagine, there’s not a lot of things that a convenience store can carry. Sure, if I wanted to buy junk food, soda, or premade cheeseburgers I was in luck, but if I wanted to buy real food, meat, cheese, cereal, etc. I was out of luck.

The last inconvenience that regularly annoyed me was the lack of diverse food options. Granted, I expected this from the start but I think I at least expected the Thai food options in town to be delicious. Surprisingly, all of the restaurants in Tha Wang Pha were pretty mediocre and I would honestly say that Thai food in Davis, while slightly Americanized, tastes better and is prepared with better ingredients. I really expected to have some great dining experiences in Thailand and memorable meals, but I really can’t think of a single meal that impressed me in any way. In twelve days in Japan I was able to have many more amazing foods than I had the whole year in Thailand.

Anyway, rants and recollections aside, it was quite the year. Although the challenges and negatives were hard to deal with, I never once regretted my decision to teach in Thailand. It certainly taught me a lot about what is important to me, and put in perspective many different things that I took for granted in the past. I am incredibly grateful to all of the people that helped me throughout the year, and to all of the students who I hope to see again someday.

Although I don’t know if I will ever see Tha Wang Pha again, I will always remember the people and places that made my home the past year.

The building that housed the foreign language department
The building that housed the foreign language department
My desk (with the orange bag)
My desk (with the orange bag)
Home sweet home (the building on the left, second floor right door)
Home sweet home (the building on the left, second floor right door)
My sweet ride courtesy of Kru Kai
My sweet ride, courtesy of Kru Kai
With 2/6 students
With 2/6 students
With 3/2
With 3/2

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With 1/1!!!
With 1/1!!!
Saying goodbye at the bus station. From top left: Kru Noi, Kru Kai, Me, Mos, Ben, Kru Noi #2, Kru Rin. From bottom left: Tar, Nam Nan, Poi, Nook
Saying goodbye at the bus station. From top left: Kru Noi, Kru Kai, Me, Mos, Ben, Kru Noi #2, Kru Rin. From bottom left: Tar, Nam Nan, Poi, Nook
With Kru Kai
With Kru Kai
With Apple, her mother, and Ben
With Apple, her mother, and Ben
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