You invariably see them ordering the cheapest set meal in KFC or McDonalds. Sometimes they'll even pay the extra ten baht to be supersized. They are the shopping mall English teachers - gliding like pale, undernourished phantoms amid the hordes of weekend Thai shoppers.
And as those same Thai shoppers take a break from trying on pricey designer clothes to enjoy a Starbucks coffee and muffin or a cream-infused éclair at Beard Papas, the English teacher shuffles by and stands out like a nun in a red light district.
Years ago, when English language school chains like British American and ECC seemed to have branches in every single Bangkok shopping mall, the mall English teacher was a relatively common sight. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but they seem so much rarer these days. But on the occasion I do spot a farang in a crumpled shirt and tie, walking aimlessly around a shopping mall, I instinctively know he's not part of some retail development team. He's clearly a chalkie - probably a children's teacher.
The shopping mall teacher has just spent two hours showing flashcards to a bunch of unruly kids who have spent the whole time fighting and pinching each other or crying and shitting themselves.
After lunch there will be even more of it. More kids, more crying....and probably more shit.
And when parents ask how their precious offspring is doing, no one really wants the truth. That's the life of a weekend shopping mall teacher - babysitting kids and sucking up to their parents is basically the sum total of the job description.
Been there, done that
I see a shopping mall English teacher and I instinctively want to reach out and hug them. I want to tell them that everything is going to be OK. Nothing lasts forever. I want to assure them that they won't still be doing this in twenty years time and still getting paid 300 baht an hour for their efforts. Surely the world can't be that cruel.
But the main reason I empathize with the shopping mall teacher is because I was once one myself. I know how desperate and soul-destroying the job can be.
I once worked in one of the swankiest shopping malls on Sukhumwit Road - Times Square. Back then, it was one of the jewels in Bangkok's retail crown. I walked around it a few days ago for the first time in years. I can't imagine why anyone would want to go there.
The ground floor used to have a restaurant that specialized in tiny, overpriced portions of food and milk shakes and occasionally had a pianist who tinkled the ivories while genteel Japanese ladies sipped green tea and tittered at each other's tales. Now it's just an empty space.
Above the restaurant were several floors of retail space containing every kind of shop that you couldn't possibly ever want or need. Places where you could take photos of your dog dressed up as a film star. Shops that sold beauty products made from the gunge extracted from the bottom of The Dead Sea and sold for six thousand dollars a jar. And clothes shops that would put a pair of shoes and a shirt in the window and call it a display.
Time ticks slowly
I've browsed in these shops purely to kill time but it would eventually dawn on you that neither your face nor bank balance singled you out as ‘the right sort of customer' and you were politely told to get lost.
There were no price tags on anything of course. If you had to ask the price, then you couldn't afford it.
Most times, shops were either closed or in darkness - classic vanity businesses that only ever opened when the owner could be bothered to get her arse out of bed and drive into town.
Times Square was a miserable place.
Holed up on the 24th floor in a claustrophobic language school and going slowly stir crazy, these retail establishments were my only escape. Lord knows how many times I stood in front of a window display of Swarovski crystal decanters, playing pocket billiards and gazing at my own sad reflection.
How many times did I stand outside ‘Oriental Beauty' contemplating the ten-week spa package - or in front of the cosmetic dental surgery weighing up the option to have 120,000 baht implants to fill the gap in my mouth that the students all laughed and pointed at.
Only Asia Books and Boots were the two stores where normal people went. They were a godsend for the shopping mall English teacher who had four hours to kill before his next lesson.
Boots was always a good place to waste time in but once you had told the over-powdered, transsexual shop assistant that you were only browsing, the atmosphere would turn creepy and you would start picking up bottles of honey and eucalyptus foot rub for the sheer hell of it.
You had by now outstayed your welcome. The pharmacist would peer over his glasses and start glaring at you suspiciously and all you could do was smile back and shift uneasily between the tubes of nipple cream and the perfumed panty liners. Eventually you would buy a can of Coke to justify your presence and eke out the transaction for as long as possible.
On a good day you could string out Asia Books for at least half an hour. Asia Books is a fine chain of booksellers but even to this day the Times Square branch comes across as the one that Asia Books forgot. I'm sure it must send staff there just to be punished. "OK that's the third time you've been late so we're sending you to Times Square for a month"
There was always a display stand in front of the shop that had the strangest selection of discounted books imaginable - with titles such as ‘Living with Incontinence' or ‘An Idiot's Guide to Dwarf Tossing'
To be honest things improved very little inside the shop and the store only got three types of ‘customer' anyway - the tourist sheltering from the rain or looking for a Pattaya guidebook, the person who was there to take advantage of the complimentary mints - and of course, the mall English teacher killing time.
Times Square Building Sukhumwit never had a fast food joint but in recent times I've sat in the KFC at shopping malls such as Seacon Square and Central Lard Phrao, and always loved that moment when the shopping mall English teacher has walked in to order lunch.
Lord of the manor
"Mr Brian - Sawatdee Kha" The staff cry out in unison the moment Mr Brian crosses the threshold.
Everyone knows Mr Brian - the girls serving at the counter, the guy cooking the chicken out back, the delivery boy, the girl mopping the floor.
Mr Brian accepts the adulation and in turn performs a little dance with arms outstretched and delivers his own rousing ‘Sawatdee Khap"
This is Mr Brian's domain. It's here that he's king, if only for five minutes. Suddenly the last minute student cancellations resulting in no pay are all forgotten as Brian basks in the limelight.
The reason Mr Brian is so well known is because he goes there for lunch on virtually every working day. It's not that he lacks the imagination to try somewhere new. He just loves the comfort that familiarity brings. The mall English teacher is nearly always a creature of habit.
TEFL goldfish bowl
I feel most sorry for those mall teachers who work in full view of the passing crowds. They work in a sort of ‘TEFL goldfish bowl'. Shoppers and everyday city folk can peer into the mall teacher's classroom as they go up and down escalators and see what really goes on in the world of English teaching.
For the shopping mall teacher this sometimes create its own pressure as the teacher strives to keep his whiteboard tidy and the students actively engaged. The teacher who is teaching behind glass walls in the middle of a shopping mall is a living, breathing advertisement for the language school that he or she works for.
The weekend mall teacher lives in a world of confused reality. As they stroll around a shopping complex, the 'normal folk' are all immersed in their weekend activities. They've earned their coin from Monday to Friday and are now out enjoying life's simple pleasures.
Old friends discuss Sunday fishing plans over iced lattes. Young lovers hold hands while they window-shop. Noisy families fill their trays with curry puffs in Yamazaki and share teetering gooey sundaes in Swensens. It's like the world is throwing a party and the only person who hasn't been invited is the shopping mall teacher.
Let's hear it for the shopping mall English teacher - sadly a dying breed.