One reader emailed me to say that there aren't enough dames doing these hot seat interviews. OK, why should the lads have all the fun? Erika Stevenson has been working at Rajamangala University in Songkhla for the past two years and she's got a few experiences she's just dying to share. Take it away girl.
Erika, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I presume you've been following 'Julia's Journey' on the ajarn.com website. She's done well so far hasn't she? And if you haven't been following the story then at least the interview can only get better.
Thanks, Phil. Yes, I’ve read “Julia’s Journey” Great idea, by the way!! I was very impressed with how Julia did so much pre-planning and getting contacts before she left UK soil. I set up my enrollment beforehand in a fabulous 6 week TEFL course on Koh Samui. But I randomly chose Songkhla as my teaching destination. I arrived laden with 2 giant suitcases. My tuk-tuk driver did not know the guesthouse I was looking for and I didn’t have an address. We drove around and I saw a pub with some white faces and told him to stop there. The lads helped me with my bags and 3 beers later, I had great friends, a place to stay, and a good idea what I was getting into. The bar, The Office Bar, has become my favorite haunt. The next day I had an interview and was teaching by noon.
So getting a job and settling down in Thailand was far easier than you expected?
You really can’t swing a cat without hitting a place looking for teachers, whether government school, language school, or private gigs. I get asked at least twice a month if I know of anyone looking for work or if I’m free to do extra work. Ajarn.com is a great site to find jobs, but if you’re already in Thailand, I would highly recommend popping into a school and visiting the English dept or going to a farang pub. You’ll find someone who knows someone who’s looking for a “native speaker” to teach somewhere.
On a side note: I absolutely love where I work. It’s a poor government university whose higher ups aren’t too convinced about the need for native speakers. I have a desk from the 1950s, our building just got indoor plumbing, we’re all underpaid and work more hours than we should, the students’ proficiency is abysmal. BUT we are one huge happy family dedicated to revamping the program and I think a lot of changes have been made in the last two years. I have a degree in English and Secondary Ed, 10 years teaching experience, and an MA. I could maybe be at some fancy language school in Bangkok making 50K a month. But I didn’t come here for the money and I love that I’m in a place where I get to use what I learned in graduate school to make changes.
What worried you most before you left home?
I honestly can’t remember. The only thing that comes to mind is my irrational fear of bugs, especially cockroaches. I do occasionally see cockroaches the size of an SUV, but our university apartment complex is pretty good about spraying for bugs. Ants are everywhere and now if I see an ant crawling on me (a daily occurrence), I just brush him off.
You're not just the only foreign female teacher at your university, you're the only foreign teacher period. How you must miss all that male banter about beer and football? Seriously, it must get awfully lonely?
Oh man, does it ever! Our department tries to do the staff meetings in English, but they usually dissolve into Thai. Sometimes after a few days of being surrounded by only Thais speaking Thai, I get a “Thai headache” and have to go to a farang pub where I can do the Bangkok Post crossword with some other teachers, gripe about teaching, and generally bullshit in English. I’ve worked hard to be accepted into this club which means just going with the flow when the conversation turns a bit “bawdy”. There are also a fair number of oil guys and ex-pats from all over the world. I’ve actually learned as much about English and other European cultures as I have Thai culture. The guys at this particular pub are a bunch of good eggs who look out for me and I’m lucky to have this sanctuary from the university.
However, at this pub, I am the only female and the only American. I have tried, I mean really tried to grasp soccer, er, I mean football, but it is way too complicated for my tiny female brain. I find though, that if I watch the games to decide who I think is the hottest player, I can enjoy myself. One other problem about being a female farang: Thai “wives”. I’m 33 and according to some, kinda hot (well, what chick isn’t after a few beers, eh?). I’ve been screamed at a few times by some Thai women who think I’m trying to move in on their man (which I am not by the way). I actually got physically attacked by one and have a scar to prove it. A very bizarre incident…..
Ah, the infamous 'beer goggles'. But generally the Thai people have made good friends?
Indeed. I feel very close to many of the Thai teachers I work with. I’ve been lucky to be invited to many of their homes in rural places where many of the people haven’t met a farang. Because of my friendships, I feel I’ve been able to see a lot of “the real Thailand”.
I’m the youngest teacher in my department so many of the Thai women have taken it upon themselves to be my surrogate mother. They look out for me and go out of their way to help me when I need it. I also have some friends who also like to drink beer and going out for a night in a Thai pub is definitely an experience. I’ve sang more karaoke in the last 2 years than I have in my entire life.
These are good times to be a female teacher in Thailand aren't they?
There are a lot of lecherous, lascivious, creepy bastards out there who want to teach in Thailand for the obvious wrong reasons. I’ve met a few of these guys and I wouldn’t let them step foot into my classrooms where most of the students are young attractive females. Then of course, you got your pedophiles too. I think Thais are getting more wary of male applicants. So I think if you are a female looking for a job, you are more likely to get hired than a male. I don’t mean to say that all the guys out there looking to be teachers are creeps. Most are upstanding blokes.
Songkhla eh? Everyone I know who has taught there says good things about it. Have a quick shufty at our region guide to Songkhla - anything there you'd disagree with?
“a quick shufty?” Damn, I just can’t keep up with the slang. I’ve read this guide and I must admit it is, as the English say, “spot on”. Some of the prices and venues have changed, but it’s pretty accurate. Songkhla is a beautiful little town surrounded by water. It has an interesting history, great spicy food, and it’s near enough to Hat Yai and other places of interest so as not to get too boring.
It's still teaching in the troubled south though isn't it? Without using the words 'bulletproof' and 'vest' in your answer, how much does the tension bother you as you move around the region?
I get asked about this a lot. Songkhla is only an hour’s drive to Yala and Patanni, 2 places I don’t have any interest visiting. I’ll admit: I’m too scared to go there. However, the violence seems very far away and I feel safe here. There were those bombs in the farang area of Hat Yai several months ago and sometimes I feel a bit nervous when going to the cinema there, but for the most part I feel ok. I have many Muslim students who are from the three southern provinces and I worry for them when they go home at the weekend. All it takes is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time… I also know a couple of policemen who work in the area. I can’t even imagine the stress they must feel on a daily basis. Many people in those provinces come to Songkhla just to have a peaceful place to have a family picnic.
You're something of a known face in your area. You can't nip down to the local 7-11 for a phone-card without a dozen people saying 'hello teacher'. Sometimes you must hate that?
For the most part, it makes me feel like a rock star, but sometimes I just want to put on my grubby clothes, glasses and with my hair uncombed, go to get a quick bite without anyone giving me a second look. This is just not possible in my neighborhood because I am literally, the only farang here. So I just put on my most dazzling fake smile, say hello to everyone, and maintain my “teacher look”. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a tank-top or shorts in public. It just isn’t “proper”.
Let's talk about your teaching work. What are some of the more unusual things you've done?
The Rajamangala campuses were asked to produce several hour long shows on various topics for the Distance Learning Project (channel 3 or 4, I think). Our campus did 15 lessons “English in Everyday Life”. I wrote, designed, and “starred” in most of the lessons. Our telecommunications department did the technical work. It was a lot of work (unpaid) but I really enjoyed it.
I also did a couple of short gigs at Songkhla Canning Company. I could tell you exactly how the fish goes from the ocean into your cat’s food dish.
My Thai friend owns a neighborhood language center and for a couple of weeks I taught 2 groups of 4-9 year olds. I’m not used to this age group and I had to search my memory for games and songs appropriate for this level. I mostly just acted like a kid. I was amazed at how much it sapped my energy. But I did learn how to say “I need to go pee” in Thai.
I'm going to move on to your social life, if only because I'm nosey. Have you gone down the Thai boyfriend route yet and who ended up breaking whose heart?
Well for several months I was involved with a Thai professional. Probably the love of my life. It has made me question if there was some divine intervention in my seemingly random choice for Songkhla. But he’s married and these things all end the same way, though in this case with it being an arranged marriage, cultural issues played a bigger role in the end than it would have if the same thing happened back home. I could definitely have gone “Fatal Attraction” on him, but I respect him and his family too much. I gracefully exited the situation and no other Thai person knows the story.
So can I ask someone who sounds like southern Thailand's star temptress - why do foreign women tend to go for those Thai guys with dreadlocks, tatoos and Bob Marley sweatbands. It can't be the guitar surely?
Gee, I can’t help you out on this one, Phil. These guys don’t really appeal to me. For one, I’m 5’10’’ (177cm) so these guys typically only come to my armpit. Also, I had my phase of going for grungy musicians in my 20s.
I realise that this interview is going where other interviews fear to tread, but among your experiences you once stumbled upon a rather delicate situation in a local watering hole. Tell us the story and I can always edit it later :)
Oh yes. I was at one of the seedier establishments on Sadao Road drinking alone at the bar. I was talking to the bartenders to help them practice their English. There were two men next to me chatting away and smoking cigars. I happened to look over and noticed that there were 3 Thai women kneeling and providing a service to them as they chatted. My first thought was female indignation, “Why, they’re not even paying attention to these girls!” My second thought was, “Oh my god, these guys are getting a blow job 2 feet away from me.” My third thought was, “Wow, they’re kinda small” My fourth thought was, “Why three girls?”. And then I got the hell outta there. When I told my farang friends about this, they just laughed and said, “Didn’t you know what kind of bar it was?” Uhm, no. Needless to say, I don’t go there anymore.
Where else have you been in Thailand and if you had to leave Songkhla where would be your next destination?
I’ve been on a trip with 30 other teachers to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and with some of the Tourism students and staff to the islands in Satun province. We took the English majors to Sukothai and Ayyuthaya. By my lonesome, I’ve been to Koh Phi Phi, Pimai. I’ve been to some parties in Rattaphum and Phattalung and funerals in Nakhon Si Thammart and Bangkok.
I’m going back to the US at the end of my contract in April. But if I venture out again, I’ll probably try a different country. But if I were to come back to Thailand, Songkhla is where my heart is. The most beautiful places in Thailand, in my opinion, are the islands in Satun province: not too many tourists, no western food, and awesome snorkeling.
Tell me one question you're really glad I didn't ask you?
“Are you a lush?” I guess I’m glad you didn’t ask the frequency of my visits to The Office Bar. Sometimes I feel a bit schizophrenic: I have my bar persona and then my professional teacher persona. I’ve managed to keep them pretty separate. I take my work very seriously and always try to do the best job I can. I definitely didn’t come to Thailand to be a backpacker. But hey, I like beer too.