Hot Seat

David Fahey

What a treat it was to get an e-mail from David Fahey. Dave was one of our very first hot seat candidates over six years ago. Since then he has returned to the UK along with his Thai wife and built a whole new life for himself. It's surely time to put him back in the spotlight.

Q

Dave, it was great to hear from you. I remember that first hot seat interview. Oh Boy has the time flown.

A

It has and continues to, even before that first hot seat interview. I arrived in Thailand in September 1998, a skinny kid in his early twenties intending to teach English for a few months before heading to Japan. I stayed seven years. I can’t believe that I’m now a balding, very-soon-to-be- thirty five-year old wrestling with the onset of a spare tyre.

Q

Six years ago, you were the managing director of a business in Bangkok called Creative Language Solutions. What was it exactly and what market did it target?

A

Creative Language Solutions was my first entrepreneurial endeavour. I did it, so I thought, for all the right reasons – I thought I could do things better than what was on offer, I told myself! It all began shortly after completing my CELTA, out of my living room when we moved house in 2000 to a Moo Ban in Pakkret. I stuck a sign on my gate and before long I had my weekends booked out.

Six months later I had to make the decision whether or not to quit my existing job on an EP at a vocational business and hotel college in Pratunam and try go it alone. I got brochures made and put them in the local DK / Language Media Book Centre in Muang Thong Thani. That was great because I was inundated, including four mornings a week at the bookshop itself teaching their staff.

Steadily I began to teach more and more in-house business classes in Bangkok and the Chaeng Wattana area and this tied in with a growing interest in the business side of things and a subsequent part-time MBA with Leicester University. Essentially, Creative became a business English training operation and a conduit for me to experiment with integrating NLP, Multiple Intelligences / differentiated instructional strategies and mind mapping, all of which were of interest to me around that time.

I realised pretty quickly that although my reasons were honourable, they weren’t enough to run a successful business. As I took on staff and teachers, I realised that I didn’t understand anything about management and I didn’t understand money either.

The MBA was a useful framework for me to hang these experiences off but I had seriously underestimated (or not even considered, probably) how much money was required to move from being a one-man band to a real school. Fortunately, my wife was the high school Thai language teacher at ISB and earned close to B200K a month which meant I didn’t need to take a salary at that time and could reinvest and managed a team of eight at one stage.

I also worked on a couple of side projects and one operation in particular I have fond memories of which sells EPs into schools still advertises on ajarn.com. I was its first farang hire and my job was to win new business through demo lessons and then train new teachers and write all the early materials. I’m sure it has come on a great deal since then.

Q

Creative Language Solutions aside, what else did you do in Thailand because you were here seven years right?

A

On the face of it, I guess I might have looked like one of the farang teachers who landed on his feet – I had an American-educated Thai-Chinese wife with a cracking job, a great Thai family, a four-bedroom detached house, mortgaged in a nice Moo Ban, a nice car and a couple of Great Danes. But the flip side of that was I worked and worked and worked. I had a business to run so I couldn’t just take off.

There are so many things I didn’t do and wished I had. For example, spending a couple of months in a Thai boxing camp or heading off to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat or just spending time on some of the southern beaches. Now I am making up for it - learning Thai boxing again along with Krabi Krabong with my six-year old son Sebastian. Next year I intend to return to Bangkok and spend a month or so at the Buddhai Sawan Krabi Krabong school, assuming they will have me. It’s sad as I used to walk past it everyday for a time, back when I lived on Petchkasem Road. I never had time to go in and ask about lessons because I was working.

On the other hand, I was fully immersed in Thai culture. My family have a house on beautiful plot of land in Samphran, thanks to my brother-in-law, Wit, an award-winning garden and landscape designer, from which my sister-in-law Pim, runs an English school on the grounds called Baan Pasa. (It features regularly in Thai garden glossies and for those of you who are familiar with the formulaic Thai soap operas / mini-series, many are shot in Wit’s garden).

Mum and dad accepted me from day one and being part of a Thai family was and continues to be a deeply enriching experience for me.

I like to think I traded many superficial “beach” experiences for a couple of deeper, ones. I am trying to make up some lost ground on the superficial ones now though.

Q

You left to go back to the UK about five years ago. Reasons for the decision?

A

Many. One was the realisation that I had opened a language training business because I loved training and teaching, but I never really understood that a successful business needs to have so many other fundamentals aligned in its favour. I didn’t want to work myself into the ground with little to show for it at the end and although it was successful and very innovative in its approach, I decided to call it a day. Now this may seem materialistic to many in the teaching community, especially as I have just referred to a love of teaching. However, my priorities had changed. Sebastian had been born and with me working all hours and Ple having a demanding job at ISB, he was being brought up by our maid, Noy. Noy was lovely but the balance wasn’t right.

In addition, I had also finished my MBA and felt I could take on the world and I knew my parents wanted to see more of Sebastian (they had previously both been sick with kidney failure and cancer).

Ple’s sister had had a baby around the same time as Seb was born and as they lived with my wife’s parents and we didn’t, I felt less guilty about moving back to the UK, though I realise my logic was flawed and it must have hurt Ple’s family tremendously, though they never said. We understand only too well that we can’t keep everyone happy being in a bicultural marriage with such massive distance between our families but that never makes it any easier at the airport, more so now we have kids.

Q

One question we often get come up on the ajarn forum is 'will a lengthy stint in Thailand look bad on my resume in the eyes of potential employers? Did you back to the UK with that nagging fear?

A

No because as I have said, I felt I could take on the world and I had begun job hunting in advance. However, I was naive and the reality is there are few who will be able to understand the benefits your overseas experience brings. Although in my case the chance would have been a fine thing, it’s difficult for many, including hiring managers, to entertain the idea you did anything else but bum around on a beach smoking weed.

In my case, instead of laying down the foundations for a high-flying corporate career in my twenties, I went to Thailand and wrote off the best part of a decade of my life, at least in some employers and recruitment consultants’ eyes. However, that’s their lack of insight and understanding and therefore their loss, so I don’t worry about it because I can’t change it. However, the question posed by readers is a fair one with real implications.

Have I experienced difficulties and low points in since I returned from Thailand career-wise, you bet and lots of them. Do I wish I had stayed in England and laid those foundations for a corporate career instead? There would have been benefits I’m sure but at what opportunity cost?

Do I regret the choices I made regarding moving to Thailand and staying for such a long time? Not for a single micro-second because I have a fabulous wife and two beautiful children to show for it and compared to this, everything else comes a very distant second. I also learned a new language and culture and made lifelong friends. And whilst I didn’t lay those foundations for that fast-track corporate career, I was without realising it, laying those for a more independent, perhaps entrepreneurial one and finding more out about myself than I ever would have done being some firm’s champion wage slave instead.

Q

Did you plan to stay in the teaching game once you got back?

A

I toyed with the practicalities of retaining that aspect but I had spent most of my teaching years in a corporate environment teaching adults and teaching a class of 30 reprobates at a run-down secondary school in Huddersfield wasn’t appealing. I do, from time to time, think of doing a PGCE with the idea of teaching science at an international school in Bangkok. I am also drawn to the idea of starting an educational charity back in Thailand and perhaps Laos and Cambodia. For now though, the timing is wrong and the commitment not possible.

However, two of my friends who were out in Thailand with me did stay in teaching. One of them is a DOS at a private school in Scarborough now and the other went from teaching web programming one day a week to being a senior academic manager at a college in Kent. Both found it tough for the first couple of years as well but like me, came through for the better. They too married Thai girls, both of whom have been fantastically supportive.

Q

But you now run a successful recruitment agency. Tell us a bit about it?

A

Carter Croft is an executive search firm coming to the end of its first year of trading. We have been lucky so far and longer-term, time will tell as the UK economy is still very fragile. We focus on the clean technology, renewable energy and environment sectors and follows on from spending almost three years working for another firm in the same capacity. It has been good as these sectors are in vogue at present due to the convergence of a number of important drivers – aging infrastructure, security of oil supply with North Sea production in decline and European legislation. However, not having learned my lesson from Creative, I got into it because I wanted to combine my original career as an environmental scientist /consultant with the people side of things I had experienced in Thailand as a teacher / trainer, as opposed to doing it because it made economic sense. My timing was, whilst unintentional, perfect and we are about to push the button on our Beijing office. Generally speaking though, I enjoy what I do for the moment.

Q

What was the hardest part about settling back to a life in Britain?

A

This is a tough question emotionally for me because there were many hard parts and whilst none was inherently harder than the other the cumulative effect was at times soul destroying. Reverse culture shock had for me, a very real and prolonged effect. I debated how honest to be with this one too, but in the end decided to be open with the facts.

Things started well with two job offers from competing companies in my home town of Huddersfield within three weeks of landing – my preparation had paid off. My first job was as a business developer for an innovative training and educational company. For whatever reason, I struggled to fit in. I had come on ten weeks ahead of Ple and Seb to sort out our house whilst she finished the academic year at ISB so I was missing them terribly but that wasn’t the reason. I struggled to relate to people and to work out the office politics that were going at the time (it turned out that a couple of the other business developers resented my presence as they found it tough enough as it was, and looking back there were probably a few occasions where I didn’t help my cause). To cut a long story short, I stepped on enough toes so as not to pass my probationary period. My wife had been in England a short time, we had just found out she was pregnant again with our daughter Emily, and I had to tell her we had no income. That was when the adventure went pear-shaped and the start of a couple of relatively tough years for me.

Out of cash flow necessity, I took a job at a recruitment agency in exchange for a poor salary and the promise of commission. I hated it. On the phone all day trying to interest people I didn’t know or care about in the CV of someone else I didn’t know or care about in a market sector I had no interest in – a proper sausage factory where you were trained to be dishonest and shoehorn people into accepting jobs that weren’t right for them just to make a sale. It was 10 hours a day of misery and I felt a complete failure for having ended up in this position in the first place.

After eight months I decided to retrain as a plumber of all things, with a view to becoming a solar engineer (I am an environmental engineer by degree, and used to work on much bigger pipes than you find in a central heating system). I enjoyed the 3 month course and set up a little business called Fix & Fit, specialising in bathroom overhauls. I managed to get lots of customers to the point I was working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day and eight months in I was tired and the quality of my work was going downhill until one day I was thrown off a job by a client. That shock was a new low point for me as I have always prided myself on high standards whatever I did and there was no one to blame but me. I had two kids and a wife I had convinced it would be great to move back and I was trying to carve out a life for us almost from scratch but I seemed to be peddling hard and going nowhere, thwarted at every turn.

I was seriously thinking I had made a major mistake and instinctively wanted to bolt, back to Thailand but something in me decided I wasn’t going to let the UK break me so. Desperate to have more contact with people than what plumbing could offer, I joined an executive search firm to give recruitment one more go. It turned out to be recruitment how I envisaged it should be done – winning assignments and delivering them for clients by searching for and interviewing people at the top of their game. I built a renewable energy desk from nothing and began to thoroughly enjoy my work. I spent getting on for three years there learning my new trade and enjoyed almost every minute of it before deciding to strike out again, this time with a business partner, who ironically, I had worked with at the first recruitment firm I worked at and was also fed up with it. The result was our current business, Carter Croft so

Everything happens for a reason, I guess.

I’m more resilient now having gone through it. It has been a hard learning experience and you may have noticed a pattern already but I know that I am wired to work for myself. This isn’t because I might make more money from it so much as because it’s where I draw my security from. If I have a job, then it’s not really my job but the firm’s I work for and they can take it away from me if they want, leaving me high and dry. I am fundamentally uncomfortable with this. If I work for myself though, I might be broke but I’ll never be unemployed.

Interestingly enough, I was in good company. The two friends I mentioned earlier also found it tough going before coming through after a couple of years. Perhaps two years is the rule of thumb if you are returning from an extended period teaching English in Thailand?

Q

Your wife has been by your side through all of this. How has she adapted to life abroad? She must love those February mornings.

A

I am incredibly lucky in this respect and try never to take that fact for granted. Ple had graduated with a B.Ed in teaching Thai from Chulalongkorn University and when I met her at the first place I ever taught at, a vocational college in Samphran, she had just returned from furthering her studies with a Masters from Wisconsin. She was a proper teacher whereas I had spent a week with Murphy, Liz and John (I’m sure some of you will get this). In fact wouldn’t go on to do a CELTA for another 12 months (and if you are reading and you haven’t done a TEFL qualification either, then do so because without CELTA or its equivalent you are short changing yourself and your students massively). Her English was already great and she had been through the whole living abroad thing for the last couple of years in the US. We were married within 13 months of meeting – I was 23 and Ple was 30 so even then we were attacking the stereotype! Through Ple, I always had a guide to navigating the Thai system and she made my life much easier than it could have been.

Everything I have done, she has been supportive of, tolerating my whims and shortcomings with amazing patience and understanding. When I was struggling to get on my feet back in the UK, once again, she was the one who remained measured and grounded. She is certainly more resilient than me. Her father before retiring, was a successful orchid entrepreneur and was able to provide a great education and home for his family but that was only after he tried and failed several times. Ple, the eldest of three, still remembers the tough times and she was already equipped to handle them, at least that’s her take on it.

Perhaps surprisingly, she has very few Thai friends in the UK and hasn’t actively sought them out, as is often the case with other Thai spouses coming to the UK. She hasn’t needed them because she just integrated very quickly, establishing a network of friends through nursery and school. Now it’s coffee mornings every other day, or taking the kids to some activity or another where she gets to socialise too. Last week she went up to her friend’s house where a few of them were getting together, cooked a couple of Thai dishes and had a girl’s night in and she has even developed a taste for good Indian food. She has little hobbies like jewellery making which she generates a bit of pocket money from from, but that’s not why she does it – she likes the social aspects. As for me I am really happy with this. If she decides to work again once Emily starts school in September, great, if not, well providing her with that choice has been very satisfying for me. She is now a UK citizen as well so we don’t need to queue for hours coming through immigration at Manchester anymore.

She has had her own knock backs too though. Early on in our return, she was one of two candidates for a teaching position in the Thai department of a large university in the North of England (which narrows it down to one) and clearly the best qualified. She didn’t get the job and it turned out that the person that did was married to a professor on the interview panel. Nepotism is not just a Thai problem, was the message she took from that, but the incident did frustrate her massively, to the point tears were shed.

Generally though, Ple is just incredibly outgoing, enthusiastic and a joy to be around. Along with the kids and 12 years since we met, I can safely say she is the best thing that ever happened to me. In those respects, the ones that really matter, I have been very very lucky indeed (don’t know what her assessment would be!).

Q

Every Thai I've met while I've been travelling through other countries has just laughed when I've asked them if they plan to return to Thailand one day. It seems other countries offer a much better standard of living and Thais realise that the grass is greener I think.

A

The grass is always greener until, perhaps you get there and discover that there are in fact numerous large dead patches, and people always what they don’t have, which is why I guess Huddersfield has coin-operated tanning salons and Big C sells Nivia Whitening. For most of us, to get something out, you have to put something in and work to maximise and build on the hand that you have been dealt. Ple and I have learned to navigate around the dead patches for the most part, both here and in Thailand.

I think your comment might be a reflection of the lives of many in Thailand who have endured real financial hardships and managed to escape that and if they feel better off for it, all credit to them. For us financial hardship was never the case aside from the occasional temporary cashflow problem. We aren’t expected to send money back to Thailand, for example. In fact, if anything it has been Ple’s parents that have helped us out and we are lucky in that we both have very supportive and loving families.

We do though intend to return to Thailand perhaps in about five years time or sooner, if the business can open a Bangkok office!

Q

An inevitable question I suppose but what do you both miss about Thailand?

A

Well it’s not the food! As I am typing this, Ple is cooking Masaman and it smells out of this world. She is a brilliant cook and we eat great Thai food all the time. Hang on…she wants me to taste it…..Mmmmmm!!!!

What do I miss? Lots of things. Thailand in general being the obvious one. I miss my family and friends there and I miss sitting in mum and dad’s garden in my hammock, reading a book next to the Tajin river (though I don’t miss waking up in it covered in fire ants). Whilst I still enjoy great Thai food, I miss sitting out at 2am eating Tom Yam Kung, Kai Jiaw and Laab Moo and Kao Niaw with all the sights, smells and sounds of the street. I miss practising my Thai with taxi drivers whilst stuck in traffic jams, kids in buses shouting “farang”, pointing and smiling as they pass by. I miss checking out the art in Jatujak on a weekend, though several pieces do have pride of place in our house here.

I miss getting stopped by the cops for no reason at the end of the month when their wages run out and discretely handing them a carefully folded 100 baht note to ignore whatever crime I was supposed to have committed, I miss the smells of Bangkok from the incense at the Erewan shrine to “moo bing” barbecuing on the road side, even the smells of the drains wafting up in the midday heat. I miss escaping the heat for half an hour with a cup of tea in Starbucks on the corner of Sukhumwit Soi 5, or a browse around an Asia Books before haggling over the price of a T-shirt back on the street. I miss teaching students of course, (two of them even came over to Huddersfield to complete their Masters at the university here which was nice) and the flash of understanding in their eyes as suddenly the penny dropped about one aspect of English or another after so many years of struggling. I know I had my fair share of difficult or lazy ones too but I saw them as a challenge and just sometimes I’d win them over. I miss the kindness and gentleness of the Thai people.

I do remember getting incredibly frustrated on a number of occasions about lack of urgency or traffic when I needed to be somewhere (many a time I have sat on the express way banging the steering wheel of my DMAX, expletives in Thai and English flowing liberally from my lips) but these events were only the actions of a 20-something hot-head, my short comings as opposed to Thailand’s or those of the Thai people.

I miss Thailand very much and the pull is always strong. Sebastian, my son, is now 6 and when he starts high school, I would like it to be at an international school in Bangkok like ISB where the education and intercultural experience is world class.

Ple misses the professional angle her life offered in Thailand and teaching at ISB, somtam, Bamee Moo Daeng and of course her family. The stuff about drain smells and paying off the police etc..well those sentiments are not shared.

Q

We recently had the political troubles in Thailand and those terrible images of The World Trade Center being burned to the ground, etc. How did that feel watching the situation develop in a country that you both have such an affection for?

A

Strangely detached because it wasn’t the Thailand I know, my time there was between coups. Of course we had concerns for family but satisfied they were out of harm’s way, we were merely spectators viewing it through two minute slots on the 6 o’ clock news. We saw the burning tyres, crashed buses and soldiers but we never got a feel for the tensions that must have been simmering. Again though, I am not sure that this even extended beyond Bangkok – my family in Samphran viewed it largely as an inconvenience for getting to Bangkok and saw about as much of it as I did via the idiot box. They have seen it all before though, Ple included.

As Thailand though has a long history of this kind of thing and perhaps in a country which is so easy going for the majority of the time, maybe the occasional nosebleed is inevitable. What’s more, as long as soldiers have the power to remove democratically elected officials, I doubt it will be the last time. On the other hand, democracy works as it should, I fear, only where there is a large “middle class” (for want of a better word) and I can only hope those in positions of power make creating this their mission and remember Thailand’s interests extend well beyond just those of Bangkokians.

Whilst I love Thailand and it is impossible for me not to have an opinion, I try to remember that I am not Thai and when I am there, like all other non-Thais, I am but a guest in the Land of Smiles made possible only through their good graces. It isn’t my place to interfere. I hope it gets sorted out quickly for the sake of ordinary Thai people.

Q

You check out the ajarn website from time to time. How do you feel - albeit from a distance - about the changes that the teaching profession has gone through here?

A

I do check out the ajarn website because I like reading the stories and biographies – Dave and Julia’s journeys I have particularly enjoyed reading.

I guess it is hard for me to really appreciate the impact of any changes on the ground for teachers as I’m not there now and I guess for many, their time in Thailand won’t be for more than a couple of years so they won’t appreciate them either. If rules surrounding who can teach are now tighter, then that’s a good thing.

Also, I never experienced difficulties when I was there either – my passport always said Thai wife, one year visa granted and my work permit easily secured as a result – I was in my own little cocoon in many respects. If times are tougher for teachers, that’s no different to what everyone else in the rest of the world is experiencing in these economic times and bureaucrats will always be messing about with the “rules” regarding teaching licences and work permits.

On the other hand, what hasn’t changed is that salaries seem to be in the same place they were 10 years ago so anyone feeling insecure about changes, there is always that constant to take refuge in (though that’s probably not what you all want to hear, is it?).

Q

Have you been back here for a holiday at all in the last five years?

A

Hell yes! Every year. In fact this year is the first year we won’t have returned and normally this week, when school breaks up, is the week we would have been packing our cases, so I am a little sad about that. We decided to finish a few things off on the house this year instead and see a bit of England. Fortunately, so far we have had a cracking summer weather-wise in the UK and we will all be coming back for six weeks next summer. Ple and the kids had six weeks last year and I had three and a bit and enjoyed every minute of it. It’s good to have something to look forward to too.

Q

Thailand isn't such great value now Dave. 48 baht to a pound and all that. It's great for those of us visiting the UK though.

A

True – and not so great for those of wanting to visit Thailand! Economically the UK is on its knees along with the rest of Europe and the US but we are slowly getting up which might ease the pressure (for me). There is lots of pain to come still and the public sector in the UK is about to be crucified but if you are planning a trip back here, now is as good a time as any exchange rate–wise, I guess.

Q

Thanks again Dave. It was great to hear from you!

A

It was great to be offered the opportunity to do another hot seat. Thanks to you Phil too and long may you keep up the marvellous work you do through ajarn.com. If anyone is thinking of returning to the UK, has concerns and/or would like a steer, feel free to pass on my email address.

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