Erich R. Sysak has lived in Thailand for almost two decades. He's got many years of English teaching experience under his belt but he's also written several Thai-themed novels and developed a permaculture farm in Isaan. Now this guy really does sound like an interesting fellow.
Erich, welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. You are originally from New Orleans, USA but I noticed your Amazon profile says you 'wandered the Southern United States for much of your adult life'. Wandering around doing what exactly?
Thank you for the warm welcome, Phil and ajarn.com readers.
Long, long ago back in the states I stayed in college and grad school as long as possible to avoid real work. I was lucky to have a small stipend and tuition waiver from a teaching assistantship at Florida State. But, it wasn’t enough money. So, I wandered the estate sale shops, Goodwill and Salvation Army stores throughout the Southern US hunting antiques and rare books I could resell.
I priced rare books with old auction guides and a general knowledge of dates and categories that collectors wanted. For example, golf books before about 1945 or anything about old guns like the Kentucky Rifle, art books by certain publishers of high quality, and so on…This was a few years before the internet exploded and everyone became a picker.
So what was the reason you chose Thailand? Had you checked out other countries in SE Asia as possible places to call home?
I was tired of academia and knew I had very little chance of landing a snug professor job in the States. So, I sent out feelers to many countries around Thailand such as Malaysia, Vietnam and China, even Russia and waited to see what happened.
The replies from a nice lady named Wachuree at a Rajabhat in Chachoengsao were inviting and detailed. I had zero idea what a Rajabhat was or what to expect, but I figured Bangkok was the center of the universe and I could put up with anything for a school year as I grew accustomed to life as an expat.
I came to Thailand instead of pursuing a PhD in English and it was the best decision I ever made. Now, many years later I have two sons and a wife and this is my home until the finish line appears. I’m 51 now and don’t see any shiny tape yet.
I guess with an academic background back in the USA, you had pretty much the pick of the jobs?
Since moving to Thailand, yes, I’ve enjoyed a charmed life in terms of jobs. I really had no idea an English MA was candy here and feel very lucky. I studied English because I love reading, writing and sharing knowledge. But I would like to add that the 'for-profit language schools' seem to care more about certificates like CELTA than degrees in English.
Also, international schools for kids seem unimpressed by me, but I have never tried very hard to get a job teaching children. Kids take too much energy and I have two already. I prefer the university setting and write about it often in my novels.
In a lengthy teaching career, you've earned good salaries at international universities and worked for standard government packages at Rajabhats. I'm taking a wild guess that you aren't driven by money?
I guess because it was easy for me to get teaching jobs I thought the money would always be there. It was foolish and I should have protected my career more carefully. I did not tend to a good relationship with a wonderful publisher out of Singapore, Monsoon Books, who published my first two novels in print. C’est la vie!
What's the closest you've come to your dream teaching job?
Five years in Hua Hin and Cha am in a bungalow a short walk from the beach for 10k baht a month and a rickety old Honda motorcycle.
I taught classes with fully fluent students from all over the planet, teaching creative writing, research papers and modern literature. Crazy paycheck every month. A broken down campus full of strange, brilliant expat rogues. I loved it so much it became a novel - Water Heart.
I always like to ask this question to teachers who have been here a long time. In what ways do you think the TEFl profession in Thailand has changed over the last 17 years?
Past few years I have met many Thai teachers who are aware of the hierarchy problems in the education system and are eager to tear it to pieces. They want students to get the respect they deserve, a real chunk of knowledge underneath that degree and a dose of truth.
There is talent, intelligence and money behind a growing trend toward better systems inspired by Montessori, Steiner and Finland recently. Even in my small town of Sakon Nakhon there are two Montessori-style schools. One inspired by the other. They are packed with applicants every year. Is the trend prevalent everywhere? Probably not. But, I am optimistic.
Also, I have noticed many teachers coming to the realization that phonemic awareness is the magic trick Thailand needs. So many Thai students know their ABC’s, but do they know the actual sounds the letters make and how to use their tongue, teeth, jaw, et al, to do it? We did a seminar a few months back with about 15 parents from our kid’s school and showed them phonemic YouTube videos. Most of the parents speak a little English, but struggle as per the norm. A few parents told us, 20 years of English classes and not 1 person showed us the sound of c is mostly /k/ or even what schwa is….and so it goes.
You enjoy teaching but fair to say that writing is your first love?
Thanks to Gladwell, I know I am a maven or a person who enjoys sharing knowledge. Both teaching and writing offer me a healthy fix.
The major difference between the two: teaching can be laborious. 6 to 8 hours a day in class makes me tired just thinking about it. But, teaching is where they keep the silver and a good international university is an exciting stage to play.
Tell us a little more about a few of the books you have written, starting with Stage V. It's a thriller right?
Thank you for asking. A marketing manager named Lawson Banks is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given one or two years to live if he has multiple surgeries, chemo, and swallows handfuls of drugs. And of course spends all of his money. Welcome to America, right?
Banks loses his house, his job, his security, everything except a life insurance policy. The first twist: viatication. I had no idea people actually bought life insurance policies with someone’s future death in mind, but apparently it started up big in the eighties as an unregulated investment for aggressive Wall Street bankers.
Banks cashes out his policy for less than half its value, 400,000 dollars, and moves to a beach in Thailand to live out his final days in paradise. Because of the huge difference in the cost of living between the US and Thailand, Banks settles into a nice beach house, finds a girl and really starts enjoying life. But that does not last. The investors back home need that policy to pay and are willing to do anything…So it begins. The book is here for those who want to check it out further https://amzn.to/2LAENcT
'Water Heart' sounds as though it's based around the expat teaching profession?
Yes, Water Heart is my favorite novel of the bunch because it is my homage to the great John LeCarre. But, don’t compare, please…the title comes from the Thai phrase, 'nam jai' which basically means generosity, thinking of others, etc. The main character, an expat academic named Bonner, goes on a journey to find a missing grad student as an act of kindness.
I was always hoping a powerful influencer would drop an act of kindness on me and promote the book a little! It enjoyed very good reviews when it came out and has been selling a few copies every month for many years. But, I kind of disappeared from social view soon after it was published and am just now breaking water on Earth again. More on that later?
Finally, you contributed to a book called 'The Best of Asian Erotica'. Perhaps I shouldn't ask if this draws on personal experience but are you an aficionado of Asia's seedier side?
I just have one short story in that book along with Stephen Leather, John Burdett and many other great writers. My agent at the time, Richard Lord, asked me to contribute and frankly, I had never written erotica in my life. I wrote a story about a fellow teacher while I was living on Phuket (a great year). He was an upscale monger and deserved a story of his own.
For a good number of years, you've been running a permaculture farm in Isaan (NE Thailand). I'm a city boy Erich. You'll need to explain that to me.
An Australian named Bill Mollison wrote an amazing book in the seventies and coined the term, 'permaculture' from the words: permanent and culture. My wife and I bought three acres near our house and I commenced making a fool of myself. I have always been interested in plants, water and animals and just wanted to try developing a sustainable farm from the ground up, so to speak. I had spent most of my life in classrooms and it was time to play in the mud.
I could easily write another book about how to start a farm in Isaan and maybe I will one day. Needless to say, it was damn difficult. Three major factors became an unbeatable force. The first, people. Local villagers thought I was crazy and some even felt animosity, expressing it by stealing fish and trees, encroaching and other petty acts. It was also very difficult to find employees to help.
The second factor was money. Very slowly the costs went up and the earnings down. I could see that curve would never bend another way. The final factor: weather. three floods, a drought, and insanely hot days were taking their toll on my health and productivity. If you are rich and have infinite patience - have kids or a farm as your hobby.
You also run an on-line blog called 'Expat Life'. What's the focus of that?
The blog is more for friends back home in the West who are into Thailand, but maybe only get here once in a while or plan something big in the future. I like to re-post articles that seem more like scenes from novels than real life.
I am trying to be more social in my late middle-age and hope to connect with readers who also enjoy the kinds of books I read and write - a bit of community building if you will. After all, we are a fortunate minority!
Thanks for the chat Erich. You can check out Erich's Amazon page where you'll find all the books mentioned in the interview (at extremely reasonable prices I might add) and don't forget to pay a visit to the Expat Life blog.
Thank you so much, Phil, for this interview and also for keeping ajarn.com running. I have used it so many times to find a job, see who is hiring, read articles and interviews and just to enjoy the teacher talk. Thanks again!
Where all of my books, blogs and links meet: https://amzn.to/2GUUzvM