In our Dave's Journey and Julia's Journey features, we've focused on two people who have given up on life in their respective countries and decided to teach English in Thailand. We've monitored their progress as they've packed their suitcases. written their to-do lists and taken their first hesitant steps on Thai soil.
But how does it work in reverse? How easy or difficult is it to adapt back to a life in your native country after spending seven or eight years teaching in Thailand? Will jobs be easy to come by? Are your old friends still around, and if so, how will they react when the wanderer returns? How does it feel to suddenly find yourself thrown into a world of credit crunches, binge drinking, escalating crime rates and a world far removed from the one you left behind?
In PJ's journey, we'll document the process of one man and the almighty task of simply 'fitting in' one again.
In the beginning........
After graduating and flopping around the UK for a year I had completed my CELTA and moved out to the land of smiles to ‘teach my way around the world' . I fell in love with Thailand on a 4-month travel experience and decided that I needed to escape the rat race and try something different. I was tired with seeing all my friends swimming up stream just to get an apprenticeship for an advertising job, or something as equally conformist, and so made a break for it.
For four or five years I was living the dream to the max. I had moved from a start-up job teaching lexis and vocab from flash cards to working as a lecturer teaching in a university. I had a 3-bedroom house with a couple of rai and our own little orchard, a wonderful girlfriend and a dog named Sadie to tick all the boxes of settling down Thai style. With a great bunch of mates thrown in, I was well and truly happy with my decisions and with life in Thailand. I learnt the Thai language, including reading and very poor writing skills, to help me empathise (and communicate) with my students. I was also able to integrate so much more by having a pretty good command of Thai and found wonderful friends from shop keepers to professors, and monks to businessmen.
Slowly my girlfriend and I made the decision to move to the big city and progress financially as well as professionally. After avoiding it for 4 years, Bangkok was finally calling. It turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
I moved to a prominent language school and quickly started working my way up the ladder. Within a year and a half I was an Assistant DOS and then a DOS. The baht was rolling in and life was peachy. Air-con classrooms, bright students and a good location. My other half found a job with an international school and our salaries were providing us with a carefree lifestyle and our C.V's were improving to boot. The only problem was that I was starting to get back to the farang lifestyle and wasn't too sure that this was why I had traveled 6,000 miles to the other side of the world. Traffic jams and sky train sardines were the name of the day and I started getting home pretty late. The ungodly hour of 6pm on some days!!!!!! 'Different city, same old shit' I thought to myself.
I made a final move to a more ‘relaxing job' (which turned out anything but) however my colleagues and friends gradually started to move on, go back home or just drift away. It was beginning to feel that the Thailand I was living in wasn't the Thailand that I had signed up for and had lived in for the past 7 years. Disenchantment was lurking around the corner and I was starting to question whether this was what I really wanted.
I umed and ahed for about a year as I slowly started to lose faith in many things - the system, the government, the psyche, the workplace and professionalism - associated with the place I was living and working in. I knew that leaving Thailand would be harder than leaving England (I arrived on a one-way ticket with 200 quid in my pocket and an overflowing backpack) I had a 2-bed condo filled to the brim with sofas, kitchenware and all the stuff that you acquire in 7 yrs of living. I was also shit scared of what it meant to decide to return to England to live and work. Credit crunch??? Who cares... Negative equity.... what's that? Price of milk... must be the same as before... Getting a job... oh my God!
I finally took the decision to return home in the October break to do a 'recce' of the UK and see what I found. This helped immeasurably as I was able to spend time there not rushing around like a maniac as I would normally do on a home visit at Christmas. I grilled everyone about the cost of living, tax rates, rental prices, job availability etc. etc. The funny thing was that I was able to decide that I could actually give it a go working there.
Popping into my old college was a great help. With some advice from my old tutors, I learnt that I could open access courses for immigrants wanting to improve their English, I could also do some teaching with students going for their A-Levels if I liked - anything to start getting experience. Keeping busy was a bonus. What I didn't do was call in at the language centres as I thought it pretty useless to pop in and say ‘ Hi I may come back in 6 months, do you have any jobs?' So i just collected website addresses and telephone numbers and looked at locations. I didn't want to burn bridges by making empty promises about committing to a job. Something I also advise any of you to consider.
I ate fish and chips and even the odd kebab. I drank real ale and took some brisk walks in the countryside. I tried to get back into the TV soap opera, Eastenders, (but gave up) I even adopted the English reserve, or the grumpy bastard look, that was so far from my Thai personality. I finally resorted to never speaking to anyone on trains or buses for fear of getting happy-slapped by a 9yr old with a new (but recently stolen) i-phone. All in all I was immersing myself back into the culture, and you know what? It wasn't that bad. I had had enough of inane smiles so grumpy would wear for a season.
England was somewhere I could try, so the decision was set. On my return I asked the question to my girlfriend and of myself. " Are we really going to commit to living another ten or twenty years over here in Thailand and raise a family, or am I going to give it a go back home and stay with my family and friends for a while and see how things go?" The decision was one of the biggest; to give it all up and go home. Was it failure or prudence? Would it be a disaster or a success? Could I stop myself from saying ‘Kap' at the end of every utterance??? What would it feel like to be cold.................
So many questions had been answered after my initial trip back and I totally recommend this to absolutely everyone. If it has been a while since you have swum at home then dip your foot in the river to see if the water is too cold for you. But always remember that you never step in the same river twice! It would be madness to leave Thailand without researching life back at home, just as it would be madness to leave for Thailand with no idea of what it is like.
I resolved to quit my job and my girlfriend would come and join me once I was set up with a flat and job and we could satisfy the visa requirements. I would leave in 6 months. Plenty of time to figure out what I was going to do next. Only question. How do I figure out what I needed to figure out? Next step, was packing up and looking for a job. Not the easiest so Ill save that step for another episode in my journey home. Keep you posted.
So, I had decided to leave and had to sort myself out. First point of order was to decide what was going to come with me and what was going to stay in Bangkok. We knew that we could no longer afford to keep the condo that we were currently renting and a downsize meant that a lot of the stuff that we had would have to go as well. This included an oversized 3-piece suite and a lot of other stuff. Question was who would want to take it all off our hands? The answer was to go onto ‘craigslist' and sell it all through the internet. We also had to sublet our condo as our contract was half-way through. A kindly spoken word with the landlady and some ‘baak - waan' (sweet-talk) meant that she agreed that if we could find someone to rent the place then we would get back all of our deposit.
Craigslist is basically a ad site for absolutely anything and is not only the perfect swap shop place to find stuff if you are a new arrival but it is also the perfect forum to have a garage sale of all that you want to get rid of. In a matter of weeks I had managed to sell my sofa for a cool 20,000 and passed on a truckload of books, lamps, and other furniture.
Renting the condo proved a bit harder but eventually I found a guy willing to take it on at the right time for us and so it was all done. Without the web site I would have had to take a loss on many things and maybe had to give stuff away for free. So tip of the day is to get on to this website for anything that you may want to sell (or indeed buy!)
I sent the Missis round to rent a condo close to our current one and she managed to have them arrange a pick-up truck to move us down to the smaller place. I also had a bit of a fire sale at the condo we were in and managed to offload a lot of plants and other bits and pieces. The final call was to take stuff to my place of work and leaving it with a small price tag I soon found that they were getting snapped up quicker than Som Tum and sticky rice. All in all it wasn't too bad and with the added cash in my pocket, deposit money etc I was looking to the tune of another 60,000 in the bank which was great.
Then it was time to let the job hunt begin. I had heard about teachers getting paid 15 quid an hour in the UK for teaching as a standard rate and wasn't thrilled by this (I had a private class teaching at a media magazine for 1,000 an hour as it was) so I really wanted a full time position and job security. But then again didn't everyone else? And how would I return to usurp all the other incumbent teachers in the UK? Certainly not a prospect I was relishing.
Where to start? My first thought was to send off my C.V to every school I could find on the web, second was to see if they actually had any jobs going. What I found out was that there were a number of jobs advertising for ESL teachers to come and work in summer schools throughout the UK. Could this possibly be a good place to start? They were by and large residential so I didn't have to worry about finding accommodation and they all lasted a survivable 4 - 6 weeks a pop. I decided that I would apply for a few and see what feedback I got.
From having done loads of recruitment myself I was wary of applying from overseas but found that this wasn't the case with the companies I applied to and within a week or so I had 3 telephone interviews for summer school jobs lined up. I had researched what a summer school was and found out that in comparison to many of the schools you may teach in in Thailand they were pretty good. Hours were long but conditions good and you got a lump sum pay cheque at the end of your contract which really appealed to me rather than spending a load of cash as soon as I arrived. Why not get a teaching job with full board and save every penny whilst getting your feet on the ground.
Stage one: What jobs were on offer...
Teacher ( basic ESL 20 hrs per week non- residential)
Teacher / Activity Leader ( basic 20hrs teaching plus responsibility for assisting with activities / games / excursions etc. Residential )
Activity leader ( leading activities , no teaching)
Senior Teacher ( bit of teaching and office duties)
Senior Activity leader ( lead the activities team)
Centre Manager ( no teaching , admin only, more money )
Obviously I was shocked that the lowest number of teaching hours was 20 hours per week. Could this be right? My Thai bubble was beginning to burst. Never let it be said that you have too many hours in Thailand. As I was to find out, if you want to live and work in the UK then expect to work 30hrs per week MINIMUM if you want to earn some real cash. Unless you get a juicy contract in an academic post this is a given.
So to all teachers in Thailand I would say that the 20-hour a week contract you are on (25 max probably) is less than what you can expect to do in the UK so don't get too complacent. Trust me, as I continue this journey you will find out that many things in Thailand may not be that bad and whilst you may moan and bitch about the Thai lifestyle there is just as much to moan about over in England - only less time to do it all in as you are constantly working!
On that note, go and get the BTS home or take your motorbike taxi in that nice tropical weather (not the freezing rain) and enjoy leaving work at 4pm. I'll be here till 6.30 !!!!
Update to follow after a pint of real ale in the pub (there are some good bits) what I am saying is that once you leave Thailand, you realize that you may not necessarily look back in anger at the politics and mai pen rai attitude. Sometimes it is nice to have something getting in the way of work - other than more work.
With phone interviews all lined up, I was ready to go. I had to schedule the calls to make sure that I would get a good reception and hope that there was as little time delay as possible. The interviews themselves were quite standard but less 'chatty' than the ones you usually have in Thailand. there were also some very specific grammar and management questions so you certainly couldn't blag your way out of things. Fortunately I had 4 years experience in management roles and had taught all ages from young kids to post grads at the universities. I was hoping that all my experience would make me a shoe-in for a job as a teacher.
The thing to remember here is that it makes no difference to someone in England if you drop names like Chulalongkorn University or Dr Thaksin as employers have no connection with the names. You are actually better off if you have worked in language centre and thankfully I had done so at a British company that operated out of England. Having a DOS/referee that they can call, preferably a native speaker, is a very important thing. Letters of reference don't go very far these days (but can help at the start) What employers are looking for is a brand that they recognise and someone's name that they can pronounce. They will and did indeed phone my referees.
As always, be prepared to ask some questions on the phone, after all, lots of these posts are residential so there is a lot you should find out (accommodation / location / work hours and responsibilities etc. ). Research the company and make sure that they understand you have been away and will be returning at a certain time. Most companies will have you come and do some training before the course starts. I found all companies to be very helpful and secured second interviews for 2 positions out of 3 . At the end of another round of phone calls, I had two offers tabled for schools near my hometown for the posts of centre manager and senior teacher.
The jobs all begin in July, last about 6 weeks in total, and you can expect a salary of around 400 - 550 pounds a week. Of course there are no expenses (food and board included is included) so you can walk away from the contract with a clear 2-3 thousand pounds in your pocket, which is a very nice bonus when you consider all the costs of setting up a flat, buying a car and kitting yourself out with a winter wardrobe etc. etc ... Many of the adverts required a DELTA for the centre manager jobs but I was offered that position even though I didn't apply for it. Motto for the day - don't sell yourself short. I jumped at the chance and the next thing I knew I was sent a sample contract, job post outlines and details on how to get a CRB check (police check) - which is a must for all teaching jobs in the UK these days. I was also signed up for management training courses, first aid certificates and on-risk assessment duties (I'll come to these later). All in all the position was offering professional development, the kind of which is very thin on the ground in Thailand and seemed to be a pathway to a longer term position - which was certainly my objective. The thing I immediately noticed was that training was of high importance to the company and I found myself looking forward to working in a truly professional environment with career teachers, instead of some of the other kind of colleagues I have worked with over the years in Thailand. Would it all be a bed of roses or was I setting my expectations too high?
I said a very tearful goodbye to my girlfriend and a not so tearful goodbye to Sukhumvit and made my way with my exact 35kgs of baggage through the departure lounge (use the electronic scales you find outside TESCO lotus and such places to make sure you don't go over the limit!) I was listed as a British non-resident and had no bank account. This meant I was going to be in a world of trouble renting a flat as without a credit rating and past landlords, it was going to be hard. I couldn't open a bank account as I had no bills with my name and address on. I felt like a homeless person. All I needed was the cardbox box and a bridge to shelter under.
To add to this, about the time I was touching terra firma in good old Blighty, the world decided that it would be a good time to a) rain and b) have a global financial crisis . Still every cloud has a silver lining... surely.
As I landed in the UK I felt happy to be home. The sun was shining and a heat-wave was forecast for the coming week. I was picked up at the airport with my three bags and whisked back to my home town. I promptly went into the garden, popped open a can of beer and sat down to contemplate. What I noticed immediately was the amount of wildlife, birds singing and flying all around , all manner of bugs and insects and the colours of flowers and shrubs. After being surrounded by Thai flora and fauna for so long it was quite a welcome comparison. Best of all there was no smog, no sweat and the air felt fresh and clean. It took a while to take stock but I was really happy to have returned and it felt great. I spent the next week between pubs and meeting old friends and settling back in; even going to Sainsburys was a wonderful delight. Of course you can get most things in Bangkok but it was never the same as good old Sainsburys. I picked up some comfort food and bottles of wine that didn't cost an arm and a leg as they do in Thailand. I enjoyed sitting outside in beer gardens till ten pm with sunlight. It was refreshing not be on that 6am - 6pm sun clock that Thailand runs on.
Eventually my work start date came around and I was off to my residential summer school. This was to last for four weeks with up to 200 students at any one time. We had excursions to Windsor castle, Madame Tussauds, Arundel castle, Marwell Zoo and many more to boot. This meant that I was actually getting paid to travel around the country going to places that I had dreamed of and missed in all my years away, albeit with 200 kids in tow. But as Centre Manager you can allocate yourself with a floating role ie. no students, so I found this a great opportunity to reunite myself with good old England.
The days were very long but you can't beat good solid work. It was a real wake-up call to have to work under actual health and safety laws again, take a register 4 times a day and run fire drills every week. Then I had to write incident reports - even if someone broke a nail. I thought back to my camps in Thailand where the students just crammed onto any bus they could find and minor miracles were hoped for at every turn in that all students were present and with every part of their body still attached.
In England, I had about 150 students in the first week and 20 staff to contend with but it all went well. One thing that working in Thailand does prepare you for is how to work with initiative and adapt to situations. How to expect the unexpected, and how to improvise. So rest assured, if you work in a government school or for nearly any school in Thailand, those experiences are all of value and stand you in good stead when you return.
Similarly it is just the same for the teacher, no excuses , no lateness, everything must be planned and prepared and you never, NEVER leave a class unattended , something that I would see very often in Thailand. It is very different working in a multi-lingual class as well. Students cannot rely on first language support and all of them will have different language difficulties. Still at least when you practice describing people they don't all have dark eyes, dark hair, dark skin , and a white shirt with black trousers!
I plodded through the 4-week camp and all of a sudden it was over. I had put in a great deal of effort to try and make it as successful as possible and felt that I had done a good job. What I was working towards was a full time contract. These are rare to come by, as I said before , most teachers are employed on short term contracts that are dependent on the bookings that a language school will have in the system. This means holiday is not paid, and there is a lot of uncertainty. Not something I really wanted after running from year to year , visa to visa, for all that time in Thailand. So, I intimated very clearly that if there was a job going I would like a full time contract with all the perks.
Standard teaching rate at language centres is about 15 pounds per hour. Most teachers will work 30hrs a week pulling in 450 a week before tax. Tax over here (after the allowance) is around 20%. Add 11% for national insurance and the 10% or so that so many people back in Thailand complained about suddenly doesn't seem so bad!!! OK you don't get much for your baht in return in Thailand but you have more in your wallet, and that is always a good thing. Without having the experience of coming in and doing a summer school my chances of getting a contracted job would have probably been zero to none. So it really is a good move to get your feet in the door doing such a programme. Some courses are longer - up to 8 weeks - and you may even consider taking the first term off, coming home and working for the summer, saving all your cash and then, if things don't turn out, go back to the land of smiles in October with some nice cash reserves in your pocket. I know a guy who does that each year and makes a good living and gets to live in both the UK and Thailand. Not a bad deal.
So what would it be trying to start a full time working contract and what are conditions like working in the UK as an ESL teacher?
I'll let you know next time. We are decorating the tree and having mulled wine and mince pies with all the students in our canteen in a few minutes. Then its off to the pub together. Its one of those crisp cold days - just three degrees but sunny, perfect Christmas weather. My nostalgia has finally become reality. And with the situation in Thailand at the moment I laugh at the tin pot government and people wearing coloured t-shirts making a mockery of a beautiful country. I miss you Thailand but I don't miss all that...
So Christmas has come and gone and we are back to school. As you know, most language centres have mandatory holiday over the Christmas break as no student wants to be here so you will get your two weeks off but it also means that you have to save the holiday from your entitlement which can be a good or bad thing depending on what holidays you are used to. Working in Bangkok and other places as an ESL teacher I have been used to a good 8 weeks holiday a year (for 3 years I was getting 12 weeks off a year!) so coming back to 24 days seems a bit short. Something to keep in mind . Anyway, Christmas was great and after seeing all that happened in Thailand I was glad to be with family and friends.
However , I will have to rewind a bit to when I started my full time contract with the school. . .
Summertime is far and away the best time to come back and look for work. The best thing about the credit crunch here is that whilst most businesses are going under and/or laying people off. The ESL industry is doing superb. With the falling pound and strong euro it has essentially meant that a lot of students are saving up to 30% on what they would have spent a year ago. Sales are good and student numbers are strong for now so there is a small silver lining for being an ESL worker for once. Already you can go onto TEFL.com and see all the summer school advertisements as the schools are starting to get bookings for their summer courses and so are looking for staff. I might like to add , as a summer school manager, that I will be offering the best terms and conditions, especially financially, for the summer so wait for my ad to go up in a week or so if you are thinking of applying!!
So, it was Mid September and I started my full time contract with my school. The school runs lessons for an hour and a half with teachers teaching up to 7.5hrs a day. If you are on an hourly rate then you will want to get all the work you can while it is there! That is nearly 40hrs a week of teaching. So, again count your blessings in Thailand. Classes are no larger than 12 and all have a good mix of students. That was the most refreshing thing to be honest , to be back with multi lingual classes where all the students were paying customers so are very motivated and also quite mature about their studies. I was on 15hrs a week being a contracted teacher / manager. I don't think I have sped up enough from Thai time to actually teach that amount. Still classes were a breath of fresh air. A well resourced school. Professional teachers who actually want to teach and are committed to education and teaching. On site professional development, training , seminars and support are all there for those interested.
You are encouraged to do your DELTA and this was actually part of my contract that I must complete it within 2 yrs, with it being fully funded by the school. This really is the next step over in the UK. Most schools seem to offer some kind of scholarship for teachers to do their DELTA, in return you will be required to commit to a two year contract or something similar though you can just pay them back if you want to leave. It's a great deal if you ask me.
Once you have a DELTA then you are that bit more employable. The problems I was facing were not coming from work but from life outside the office. I had been back for 6 months or so and still couldn't get a bank account. I was stuck in catch 22: to get an account you need bills or council tax. I didn't have that as I was still living at home. I couldn't leave home as you need a bank account to give to the letting agent/landlord. So with no bills and no bank account you are in a limbo. Also, even if you have an account you will find that with no recent references from past land lords you may well have to pay 6 months in advance to secure a place. I also have no credit rating having been away for so long and that caused a whole load of other problems.
Eventually I went to banks with my contract from work with my address on it. No good. Have you got a phone bill they asked? No, I cant get a mobile in my name as I need a bank account to set one up, it was in my Mums name. aarrgghhh and so it went on. Finally I went to Abbey National and they gave me a no frills bank account, no overdraft or credit cards. It was like a new dawn. And it only took 7 months to do. This was in part due to the fact I was waving quite a large cheque at them and also that the banks were losing money and customers - like rats leaving a sinking ship. They were surprised at someone actually wanting to give them money I think.
With that sorted I then managed to find a friend to rent me his place without the need for a guarantor or a deposit so sidestepped any more problems there. And suddenly I was feeling like an Englishman again. It seemed that things were turning around, until I looked at the exchange rate and realised that I could earn a lot more in sterling in Thailand than I had been. Not close to my English money salary but standard of living and all that I started to wonder again what might Europe or even the land of smiles have to offer me in terms of opportunity.
Pushing on at work and dreaming about other opportunities , its bloody freezing here and recently got down to -7. I honestly have not felt that kind of cold for so long. You wake up and at 7.30 it is still dark. You leave the office at 4.30 and it is already dark. Winter true and proper. With spring on the way. Still I'm coming over to Thailand for Easter. A month on the islands and spending a somewhat British pound means I will still feel rich as things are so cheap. Average pint in my town is 3.50 for a Stella. Ciggies 5.50, a single bus journey 1.80. Chips from the chippie 1.80. And get this , I went to the supermarket prawns are 25 quid per kilo and they are tiny little things. I nearly had a coronary... I remember them at about 250 baht for the biggest best ones at the market. A fry up in a greasy spoon is 4.50 on average (in London it is more like £8). So, yes Thailand will feel cheap and I got a flight for 25,000 baht with Thai airways. Nice.
Anyway. Maybe one more update to follow with a bit of a survivors guide to the first year back may just about do it from me. I hope this has given you all a bit of food for thought.
Loves: Food , culture (theatre etc), friends , family , professional work place, variety of students , no pollution , systematic accountable practices , buses and trains that come on time, lots of attractive blond women, animals , nature (birds, sheep seagulls etc), BBC TV, cultural events, no humidity, cold rain , beautiful sunsets that happen at different times, no need for AC.
Hates: Food (prices) grumpy people , hard work, no swimming pool in my condo , weather , systematic accountable procedures , everything being on time, no dark haired slim Thai women, dark mornings and early evenings. PRICES . no need for AC, central heating ...
You get the idea, wherever you are you will love and hate certain things. Often they are the same. Feel free to ask any questions if I can help I will. And I will recruit soon for summer school so keep an eye (I'm hoping Phil might let me place a small cheeky ad!)