Hot Seat

Duncan Donut

He's terrorized any Thailand discussion board you care to mention and given moderators sleepless nights. Not sure if he'll send Smeg, Domunique or Wolfslayer, but we'll keep the crucifix handy.

Q

Welcome to the hot seat. Now before we proceed, can we underline a few points first young Duncan? How long did you actually spend in Thailand and how much of that time was spent teaching?

A

Thanks Phil. I’m in awe of your set of questions. Even Domunique would have struggled to come up with such a probing range of topics.

I first arrived in Thailand in March of 2002, with the sole aim of spending some time away from the UK. Teaching in Thailand wasn’t actually on my mind back then. I had lived abroad before, but only in Europe, so I wanted to base myself somewhere in contrast to the general European, “boring farang” way of life. A friend recommended Thailand as a good introduction to Asia, and a place with a magical appeal. That fitted my requirements precisely, as I needed to give my life a good shake-up. When I arrived there back almost 2 years ago, I didn’t have a clue what to expect, and had no plan of how long I would stay there or what I would do there. But I had plenty of money in the bank, and I was determined to do some serious exploring.

In total I spent 16 months in Thailand, of which about 10 months were spent teaching within 3 different roles, all very different, and all of roughly equal duration. The final “job” was freelance, arranged through friends and contacts. I was charging 500 baht an hour for small tutoring groups of high school and university students, and we met anywhere convenient to the students. Working in Thailand was fun, but didn’t feel real, and I didn’t sense a sufficient career challenge or scope for advancement, which led to my departure from the scene after such a brief time. I felt as if I was standing tall and enjoying my work, but I was standing on top of a jelly Eiffel tower (perhaps that should be a jelly Baiyoke tower), which I was sure was about to reintroduce me to the ground at a painful speed.

Q

You've made a name for yourself on various discussion boards for being Thailand's 'number one detractor'. Is that a fair label do you think?

A

Honestly, It’s not a label I set out to be awarded. I am all too aware that in rocking the boat on various controversial issues, I will be ostracized by the majority of those who will read it. But I believe in freedom of speech, and the fact that individual opinions should, and will, differ. I do believe in the views I post, and I’m very interested in the feedback that is always forthcoming. The mind of a Thailand TEFLer is a fascinating place, and this is a great way to take a look around inside a few of them. And to be honest, I gain a certain amount of pleasure from the heated debates that occur, not least because I enjoy having the odds stacked against me. I see it as a game of “word chess”, where I’m playing against hundreds of combined brains, tackling topics very dear to the hearts of all concerned, with almost all other “players” in disagreement with myself. Sometimes it’s necessary for the mods to come along and knock over all the board pieces, which is fair enough, but I always sense that it’s because I’m on the verge of actually winning the point rather than to stem any damaging board unrest. Go on, admit it!

Q

Most discussion board members will know you as either Domunique, Wolfslayer, Smeg or Duncan Donut (apologies for others I've forgotten). Domunique, who was an ever present on the old ajarn board, seemed to be a particularly evil character. Was that a happy time for you?

A

She was indeed. RIP down there Domunique. She was my original "character" username, and was actually based on a real person, an old boss. Before venturing to Thailand I worked for an investment bank, but I also did a stint as a trainee trading standards officer. She was the big bad boss, who revelled in her job, and gained pleasure from making those she targeted squirm. I thought it would be fun to mimic her style by trying to apply some pressure to the board, and especially those trying to generate business through it, in an attempt to get below the gloss and spin, and to find out exactly what sort of people were running these operations. This was the period of my arrival in Thailand, and so I probably spent more "unemployed" time than was healthy pursuing this cause. When people I’d met suggested that we go to Patpong, or beer bars on Samui every night, I’d often instead choose to head off to an internet café armed with a large bottle (or 3!) of beer chang. I certainly ended up spending a lot less money than the rest of the gang, but perhaps they had more fun. Who knows, but the computer was unlikely to give me a dose of the clap! I wasn’t as bitter as I sounded, but once I opened cans of worms, I was determined to get to the bottom of them (despite the foul aftertaste of invertebrates!)

Q

You seem to carry a lot of pent up anger towards Thailand. When was the moment that you finally snapped and thought to yourself "I'm outta here"?

A

How does “at customs, 10 minutes into my trip” sound? No, seriously, I think that happened when the place had finally served its purpose. I went there originally to get away from a collapsed engagement in the UK. My fiancé had become involved with a colleague in the office I was working in, and I quit the job. 7 months later I was heading for Thailand, desperate to get away from everything for a while and have some fun. I admit to being one of those who used Thailand as an escape route, although there was no permanence to my plans. The first few months there were a lot of fun, but then I started to spend more and more time wondering why I was there at all. Then, I knew that the medicine had worked, and it was time to lower the dosage. My anger wasn’t so much directed at Thailand, but more at the way it had sucked me in during a period of distress, and seemed to have developed a hold over me, which could have easily overwhelmed my life. The only way to fight that “addiction” was to turn my anger towards it, and renounce everything I liked about the place. Hence I chose to concentrate on the negative aspects of the place to help me kick the habit and move on. Upon looking, I found plenty of them. Those thoughts filled most of 2003. I returned to the UK in July of last year, and felt next to no sadness about doing it. I missed my friends, but felt relieved to be back in reality.

Q

As I recall, you are currently back in the UK doing a PGCE. So the actual teaching is still something you want to pursue?

A

Teaching was something I wanted to do before I travelled to Thailand. Having quit the bank in the Summer of 2001, I stumbled across a department of education advert promoting teacher training courses. I took the bull by the horns and applied, fulfilling a lifelong curiosity. Three months later, and following countless tests, interviews, checks, teaching demos etc, I was starting the course. Half way through the course, I still wasn’t over the loss of my fiancé, and I quit the course after 2 months of university study and around 3 months of teaching practise. That’s when I headed to Thailand. Now I have completed the PGCE, as I was able to pick up where I had left off, and I am studying for an Med whilst teaching part time in a college.

Q

Back to those of us still in Thailand. We're seeing a lot of changes, mostly for the worst - things like visa price hikes, proposed minimum salary requirements. Do you think there's something almost biblical about this? Is this the plague of locusts? The 40-day rain that's coming to wash all the TEFL scum off the sidewalk?

A

hope that the changes made are for the benefit of the people of Thailand, but my cynicism of politicians and of Thailand’s current strange attitude towards foreigners leads me to think that there is more to it than that. In my opinion, the only way to improve the standard of education is to raise the entry benchmark for teachers, and raise the benefits on offer to those who are still suitable. This will make a lot of TEFLers feel uncomfortable, but I believe that those with decent qualifications, professionalism, and a sincere dedication to their work have nothing to worry about. Others should be forced to improve, or forced out.

The government and the schools need to introduce an apprenticeship scheme, which would encourage proper initial teaching skills development in real classrooms, and offer teachers incentives to continue their professional development. Schools shy away from doing this because of the unreliability of the recruits, but it’s a vicious circle, which only the schools and government can address. Perhaps they could keep a training bond, which they return after 1 years teaching. However, I'm guessing that with the unreliability of many schools, that could be asking for trouble, so who knows how to solve this one.

Thailand needs to develop strategies to stabilise farang teacher employment before it can hope to attract long-term, stable teachers

Q

I presume you must scour the ajarn jobs board from time to time. Is it done with one eye on your future or to laugh at what us poor schmucks have to put up with?

A

I have a read through the jobs board occasionally, but spend more time on the discussion board. I want to keep in tune with what is going on over there, mainly because it dominated my life for 16 months, but also because I never rule out anything in my future. One of life’s pleasures for me is not knowing what I will be doing in 5 years time. I don’t want to know, and if someone offered me a book documenting the rest of my life to me, I’d burn it.

The first job I ever went for there (but didn’t want) was teaching in a high school. I was offered the job and turned up at the agency office at 6:30am, ready to plan the 3 lessons for that day. The owners of the agency ignored me until 8am, as they were dealing with some crisis, and didn’t even have time to tell me the age groups or ability I’d be teaching. School began at 8:30am, but I walked out.

Over the past year, I have seen a slight improvement in the number and quality of jobs on offer, which has to be good news for all (unless this is because people keep quitting!). Some of the jobs do look awfully vague though. As for me applying for any of them, well I don’t think it’ll be within the next couple of years, as I’m enjoying life here again.

Q

A lot of your posts seem to make reference to 'dirty, smelly, polluted canals'. It's just a hunch but did you once fall in? Or perhaps you were pushed?

A

I have never tangled with the infamous murky waters of the klongs, other than some splash thrown up whilst on the Ramkamhaeng bound waterbus. That sent me bouncing back to the toilet every hour for a week! Full sympathy to Big of D2B, as I’d hate to have had a lungful of the stuff. I’m sure a few discussion board posters would love to see me wallowing around in the scum, but sorry guys, although beer chang did many strange things to me, and caused me to do many strange things during my time there, it didn’t quite push my loss of balance that far.

Q

You've gone down on record as saying that Thais could teach English as well as farangs. I've observed about a dozen Thai English teachers and I wouldn't have paid them in washers. You can't be serious?

A

It depends who you are talking about. If a Thai has received a similar standard of education to a farang, has spent lots of time with farangs, and then feels the urge to become a teacher, there is no reason why they can’t compete. The problem is that Thais in this position can earn far more via other career choices, especially due to the differential between Thai and farang teacher pay. I do actually have a very good Thai friend who is studying for a PHd in TEFL. He speaks 99% fluent English, having studied in the US. I have seen him teach, and I was impressed at the way he could interact with the students, explain things in Thai if absolutely necessary, and relate fully to the learning problems they were experiencing. Farangs aren’t good at these things, and this is where Thais can make up ground lost on their fluency limitations or lack of “dancing” skills. I also know Thais who can speak passable English but who have never studied under a farang (oo-er!), so some of the Thai teachers must be doing something right.

Q

Now what about these Thai girls studying at your university - miles from home and gagging for it. If they're that accommodating then why do you spend so much time on the net?

A

It’s true that there are lots of Asian girls studying here, including Thais, and their attempts at fitting in with western ways are quite interesting. You will very rarely see me online during the evenings, as I like to be out and about away from this cyber world. Posting on the discussion area is break and lunchtime filler, taking maybe 20 minutes per day. I like to avoid staff room politics, so tend to hide away in an office during NCT, to surf the net. I would just like to add that I actually prefer the Chinese and Japanese girls at my university. I can’t speak their language, but they seem to have more interesting personalities than most of the Thais. Plus, I’ve always preferred white skinned Asian ladies to the darker types. Meeting them in England is a lot of fun, and I don’t miss the “why do you come Thailand?” etc questions and cynicism that students over there persist with, one bit. Over here, I can turn the tables!

Q

You've had some serious axes to grind with Thailand's TEFL course providers. Will there ever be a time to let this go and just move on. Channel your energy in other directions?

A

As I’ve said before, I see this whole heated debate as a game of word chess. It takes two to play this game. I hope that my posts over the past 20 months have raised awareness levels about what I consider to be problem areas, and I know that occasionally changes have been made as a result of this. I’ve no regrets, but I’m hoping that someone else will pick up my baton and continue the cause, because it is a very worthy cause; education in Thailand. Phil, feel free to suggest a new cause for me!

Q

I'll put my hand up Duncan and say there are many things I miss about the UK (The Daily Mirror crossword, pork scratchings and Jaffa cakes to name three). When you returned to the UK after a spell in Thailand, what was it that hit home to you?

A

It felt like snapping out of a very long Sunday night dream, and waking up on a Monday morning. Everything was back to normal, and 16 months of memories seemed more like 16 days worth. Certain things were difficult to adjust back to, such as cooking and laundry, but others were welcome familiarities. I was able to trust people more, wasn’t constantly concerned with feeling out of place, or being overcharged, and knew how to go about doing things easily.

Living in Thailand was like being born again, resulting in having to learn a whole new set of skills, including speech and reading. That appeals to some people, and was a great experience for me, but I found it increasingly annoying that the 30 years of skills and knowledge I had built up in the UK felt almost useless in Thailand's society. Why go through life with your hands tied behind your back, or with the social/communication abilities of a child? Now I feel like an adult again, and I’m happy to no longer stick out like a sore thumb.

Q

Picture the scenario. You're in the local VG getting a bottle of washing-up liquid and you bump into an old mate you've not seen in ages. "Blimey Duncan, the last I heard you were off to live in Bangkok". And you say.....?

A

You’ve taken me back Phil. I haven’t seen a VG for years. It’s all 24 hour convenience shops now, similar to the 7/11’s of Thailand, but I couldn’t name one of them because they are all overpriced and staffed by Wayne and Waynetta types, so I avoid them. Ok, try my local Asda store instead, which is great, and full of Asian students.

I understand your point, but I was careful to not go down that route. I told people that I was going off travelling, and I didn’t know when I’d be back. I’d hate to be the type who heads home after a few months with their tail between their legs, having told friends and family that they were heading off for a new life in Thailand. God, that must be embarrassing. Maybe that’s why some of the TEFLers look so miserable, because they are too embarrassed to give up and go home! I’ve never felt the need to live anywhere else permanently, as that feels too much like giving up on friends and family, giving them the message that their presence in my life is almost worthless.

Of course, I’m curious about what it must be like to live in lots of places, from Egypt to Siberia, but my experiences tell me that most places offer a pretty equal level of happiness. It’s just achieved in different ways.

Q

OK here's another one. Some new-age chick, all tattoos and cheesecloth, tells you that she's off to teach English in Bangkok because " there are like so many temples, and it's Buddhist, and it's like whoa....Thai foodsville"

Bearing in mind that you would never strike a lady, what would be your razor-sharp retort?

A

I’d be seriously worried if I was socialising with such a lady! Tattoos are almost as bad as hairy legs or bad breath in my book. I’ve met English and Thai girls with all 3 of these features, which wasn’t pleasant in either country. Would this girl survive in a classroom over there? Quite possibly, but it’d be either Siam computer, or it’d be tiny, and in some gloomy back street off Lad Phrao, or somewhere near Kaosan. So my comeback would have to be that she’d certainly be able to offer an education to the Thais, but probably in bad fashion rather than English. Maybe we should just leave that to Palmy, eh?

Q

Prove to us that you're only human after all. There must have been some positive experiences from your time in Thailand?

A

I’ve said many times that my time in Thailand was one of the best periods of my life. It was fascinating, weird, bizarre, like being in a long sweaty but fun dream. The food is awesome and so cheap. I’m lucky in that I already had a fetish for spicy food before I arrived there, so I was able to totally submerge myself in it. I laugh whenever I read a thread about farangs desperately searching for cheap, easily available farang food. I remember eating the spiciest meal of my life in Surat Thani on a trip from Samui to Phuket, which was followed by 6 cups of water and 2 plates of cow suwai to try to relieve the pain. But I loved it. I really enjoyed learning the language, and the kindness and patience of my Thai friends in helping me to become semi fluent in such a short period is legendary. I keep in touch with many of them by email.

Q

We've deleted user account after user account. We've blocked ISP addresses. Short of buying nuclear warheads from the Middle East and blowing the UK off the map, we've run out of ideas. What are your demands?

A

Hey, well its great to know that I’m a valued member of the board! As I’ve said 100 times, if people don’t like my threads, why do they consistently attract so much attention and become so popular? I’m sure that the majority of my critics enjoy trying to grind me down as much as I enjoy winding them up, so I can never quite see what the problem is. I try to keep a balance, and speak for those back here who don’t hate the West. I’ve adapted things I learned in Thailand into my life here, and that seems to work well for me.

You must admit, the board wouldn’t be the same without me!

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