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 last September, 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.