Piercing Thai culture
Toning appearances down for the classroom
I have nine piercings: three on each ear lobe, one on each nostril, and one through my septum. And up until I attended my TEFL certification course in Phuket, I had a partially shaved hair with dark purple highlights.
The trendy Bay
I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area, where meeting someone with an outlandish appearance - even a teacher - is an everyday occurrence. I’ve taught science in elementary schools with a colleague who had long pink dreads, another had stretched ear lobes, and my boss had quite the ornate nose ring. Within my own education, I had a professor who wore mostly neon and had magenta colored hair. Within the Bay Area culture, alternative was normal.
Then I decided to enroll in a TEFL course to teach English in Thailand, where I quickly found out that appearing “loud,” as we say in the Bay Area, isn’t quite acceptable, especially inside the classroom.
With two new fresh nose piercings still healing, I received my TEFL course information packet. In the packet there is a section dedicated to dress code that stated, “All tattoos must be covered and you must take out any facial piercings during teaching practice”.
I was livid. My facial piercings were more than just something I decided to do on a whim; each one took meticulous consideration and planning. Having to take them out felt like I would be losing a core part of myself and I was not ready to do that.
Conformity was key
But hindsight is 20/20 and I now know I was acting like an entitled brat throwing a tantrum because she wasn’t getting her way. I had to have my ego checked by my dear friends who reminded me that I while I didn’t have to agree with it, I was not in any position to argue otherwise, because quite frankly, Thailand isn’t my country and Thai isn’t my culture.
I ended up making many compromises like switching out my sparkling jewelry with more subtle, nearly invisible, glass nose rings and studs. As for my shaven head and dark purple hair: the shaved part grew out by the time I started applying for jobs, but the purple remained. I asked if that was okay and got different answers.
TEFL Campus’ Thai culture teacher told me my hair wouldn’t cause issue, but the Thai office manager said teachers shouldn’t have such fashion based alterations. It was oddly comforting that there were differing opinions on hair style, but regardless, I erred on the more conservative side and was ready to dye my hair black.
Words of advice
My facial appearance was not the only topic of concern. I also had to replace most of my professional wardrobe. Leggings have slowly been making an entrance into the San Franciscan professional world, but in Thailand, leggings are still not considered part of a professional wardrobe. As my course director stated on the first day of class, “If it’s comfortable enough to take a nap in, it isn’t formal enough to teach in.”
I switched out leggings for long skirts and dresses that went past the knee and sleeveless tops for high cut, shoulder- covering shirts and cardigans.
In the end, I decided respecting Thai culture bears a lot of similarity with respecting a host’s house rules: they may not kick you out for not following the rules, but you may wear out your welcome rather quickly. Perhaps you won’t be asked back - a bit like showing up for an interview without bearing local customs in mind.
Outside of work however, I still keep it Bay Area ‘loud’.
Fatima Cacho graduated from UC-Berkey with a major in Linguistics, and is also a graduate of TEFL Campus, in Phuket.
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I say the more tattoos and piercings, the better. It sends out a very professional image. Which is needed if you want to be taken seriously.
And it gives students more to gossip about.
After all , it is your body, and one of your only freedoms of expression , so why not paint and poke?
Tattoos are especially attractive on older people...something to look forward to.
By Bob Johnson, Bangkok (23rd December 2018)
I won't be so negative as the previous comments were. Maybe it is because I spent a few years in the Bay area. Seems like she has made the expected adjustments, and over the past few years we have surely seen a change with tattoos, piercings and colored hair becoming more common in Thai society. There is far more tolerance about these things than there was just a few years ago.
I am old school, I think most of these trends look silly and there is nothing individualistic about these styles, but just conformity to one's social group, but hell this is just an opinion from an old geezer. My children don't agree with me.
If she is able to tone it down in the classroom I suspect she will get by, assuming everything else is in place.
Anyway, good luck to her and at least from what she wrote here she has shown some maturity and realized she is not able to force her values on the society she is in, but instead is trying to find a "the middle path" between adjusting and adapting practices while retaining her core values.
By Jack, Land of smiles (10th December 2018)
Wot Jim said! Interesting that what these folks consider to be individualistic (tats, weird hair), is shared by millions and actually just part of a different (more annoying) herd. She doesn't stand a chance of being hired and even if she did, she wouldn't last a year.
By Mark Newman, The Land of Barely Concealed Rage. (8th December 2018)
Well bravo for owning up to the fact that no one in Thailand nor anywhere else owes you a job.
As head teacher, I would not hire anyone with a visible tatoo or readily apparent piercing, with or without jewelry. Especially for little kids, it's shocking. The lesson is the lesson, you are not the lesson.
It's not at all apart of mainstream, respectable culture although I will admit that young middle class men and women are getting small tattoos. Let's hope it stops.
Men and women should mirror what Thai teachers wear. It's Asia so the sharper dressed you are the more respect you will garner. Dressing well will help your career, I guarantee it. Dressing like shit only hurt your career.
Conversely, the more cheaply, ratty, sexily, shockingly dressed you are the more you have doomed yourself. Thai admin and teachers are not especially hip and you are not impressing them in the least by how trying to hard to be counter culture you are.
Sloppily dressed women, flimsy clothes, low cut dress, blouse, frumpy one piece muslin skankwear, anything off Khao Sarn. Should be fired and arrested by fashion police.
Proper clothes are cheap and last years.
No one cares that your snakeskin jacket is a symbol of your individuality.
Well written piece
By Jim Beam, The Big Smoke (8th December 2018)