An English teacher and proud
Do those who don't teach English in Thailand look down on those that do?
One question often asked by the more sensitive English teacher in Thailand is - are we looked down upon by other expatriates? Do those who don't teach English for a living sneer and jeer at those who do?
Then with perfect timing, an invitation to a business networking evening pops through the letterbox. It was time to find out.
Oh no, not again
I don't do networking evenings as a rule - especially networking evenings in Bangkok. You only need to attend several of these events to realize it's the same old faces handing out the same old business cards.
And let's face it - were it not for the free food and wine, the vast majority wouldn't be battling through monsoon rains anyway - certainly not to shake hands with complete strangers and discuss who lives in the nicest apartment.
I'm probably not the most approachable person in the world (or so my wife tells me) - and that's always a huge disadvantage to a networker - but I did once get collared by a chatty Indian fellow at a networking evening off Silom Road.
He shook my hand and before I even had chance to tell him my name, he'd told me what business he was in, his plans for expansion, his analysis of the company balance sheet and a small problem they had with pilfering from the staff canteen.
After twenty very long minutes of nodding and inserting "really?" during appropriate pauses, my brain shut down and my eyelids started to feel like two lead weights. I'm still not sure how I managed to get away from him but make my escape I did.
I was determined that this time would be different. I wouldn't just stand there and wait for boring people to sidle up to me by the vol-au-vents. I wouldn't stare into empty space and become a target for the socially inept to make idle chit-chat over the curry puffs.
This time I was a man on a mission. To find out what your average high-flying expat thinks of us TEFLers. And here was the perfect opportunity.
So it's 7.30pm in an unremarkable Irish pub off Sukhumwit Road. The networking evening is in full swing. At a glance there are about thirty to forty willing souls all ready to offer me their opinions on English teachers.
Perhaps these conversations might even lead to a job offer? They might also lead to insults. I might even get thrown out.
I decided to play it safe and start with a navy blue suit standing on the other side of the room. Safe inasmuch as I had chatted to Trevor before. I knew he was a financial consultant of some description and I knew he spent a lot of time in Hong Kong.
After the obligatory opening exchange of "look what the cat dragged in?" I asked Trevor his opinion on English teachers. He thought hard about the question. "Well I suppose everyone's got to make a living. It's not my idea of a good time because I imagine it would be a bloody hard job"
I wanted to know how many of Trevor's friends were English teachers? How many of us had penetrated his intimate circle?
"I tend to hang around with financial people and investment people most of the time. I've got friends who have been English teachers for a time but they've all gone on to better things"
Ah, Trevor lets the cat out the bag. "Gone on to better things" It's Trevor telling me that English teaching is a shit job.
Time to mingle.
The Thai recruitment lady
I spot a middle-aged Thai lady daintily placing tuna sandwiches on a paper plate with a pair of tongs. She's wearing a very expensive-looking Thai silk suit and I squeeze in next to her.
"These look nice" I said. Here I go again - the king of the chat-up line. What am I like?
Within minutes we're getting on like a wooden Thai house on fire.
She's the director of an exclusive recruitment agency that supplies multinational companies with quality Thai management staff. I fake interest until eventually she asks what I do for a living.
"I'm an English teacher" I reply, hoping my tone of voice doesn't make me appear ashamed.
Her eyes instantly light up. Apparently just about every member of her family tree - and it's a hell of a tree - is looking for an English teacher to study with. "Good private teachers are so difficult to find" she says.
I get a feeling it's because none of the family has ever bothered looking.
Thais always do this. You get chatting to people who are on the lookout for private tuition, tell them you're a chalkie, and suddenly they've signed up the whole family for English lessons with you.
Phone numbers are scribbled out on pieces of paper with the promise of ‘I will call you'.
Six months later, desperate and starving, you dial the potential student's number with pipe-cleaner thin fingers and it takes them ten minutes to realize who you are.
I never actually exchanged phone numbers with this particular lady but between mouthfuls of tuna sandwich, she did give me an in-depth analysis of the failings of the Thai education system.
When she said that what Thailand needed was more and more foreign teachers, I could have hugged her.
Now here's a woman who appreciates what we do.
I spied another lost soul standing by the fire exit. He looks desperate to get involved so I walk over to him with the Thai recruitment director immediately deciding she wants to come too.
I offer my handshake and blurt out "Look at you standing there smoldering with your gypsy good looks" Yes, I know there are better approaches but as I mentioned before - I'm hopeless at this networking lark.
John is in the real estate business. He whips out a business card so fast I can't fail to be impressed. Talk about the fastest gun. If this had been Billy the Kid in a showdown at Dry Gulch, half a dozen ranch hands would be dragging my wounded ass into the saloon.
As it is, I get a blow-by-blow account of how Bangkok's condominium market is going to develop over the next ten years.
Does John think that it's a property bubble that will eventually burst? Which areas will become the most desirable? Eventually I run out of questions because frankly, I couldn't give a shit. I want to know what John thinks of English teachers.
John says that communication with his Thai staff is always difficult so he has nothing but praise for foreigners helping Thais to reach English fluency.
Get in there! Chalk one up for the teachers.
By this time, the Thai recruitment woman has wandered off to find someone more interesting. I'm all alone in a room full of people socializing without me.
Lloyd and Mike
There are business people sharing jokes and giving each other hearty backslaps. I'm very much alone and back at square one. I spot a couple of suits guzzling the complimentary red wine. It's time to be really daring and ask two strange men if they're up for a threesome.
Lloyd and Michael are only too happy to let me invade their personal space and engage in mundane tittle-tattle. They are both directors at a well-known printing and media company on the outskirts of Bangkok - so well known that I've never heard of it.
But the business cards are certainly impressive. They're a couple of fun guys but I bring the evening down by telling them I teach English. The silence is like you get in those few seconds just before a guillotine drops.
"There can't be much money in that game" says Lloyd
"Oh teachers can earn 50,000 in a good month" I reply.
Lloyd and Mick look at each other quizzically. Did he just say 50,000 baht a month? How do they afford the luxury weekends away or the membership fees at The British Club?
I tell them that 50,000 can afford you a good standard of living in Bangkok but they look remarkably unconvinced. In this threesome I'm suddenly the odd man out.
I'm about as welcome as the wino who's emerged from his cardboard box, draped his arms around them with a breath reeking of methylated spirits - and then accidentally relieved himself down their trouser legs.
Time to up my game and work the room.
I've got nothing but respect for Albert. Probably in his late 70s, this boy's been around the block and I've been watching him work the room like everybody's favorite uncle.
When our paths finally cross and he finds out I'm an English teacher, he brims with enthusiasm.
"If only I had my time again. That's something I would really love to do. What is there not to admire. You can travel the world and work at the same time. Wherever you lay your hat and all that. Look at all the wonderful experiences you are getting out of life instead of being some corporate slave until the day you die. Yes, I can certainly see the attraction in teaching English"
I decided I liked Albert. Very much in fact.
There was suddenly a collective but suppressed expression of delight as the caterers brought out the desserts. Fancy meringue nests with nubbins of fresh mango jostled for room on the cake stand with slices of blueberry cheesecake and apple tartlets dusted with a hint of cinnamon.
I might not be going home with a single decent business contact but I'm sure as Hell going home with a bellyful of pudding.
As I become gloriously lost in a world of bite-size marshmallows smothered in chocolate fondue, there's a tap on my shoulder and an Indian gentleman asking where he's seen me before.
He's either genuinely friendly or it's a clever ruse to try and grab the last meringue nest so I stick my elbow out to block his path. That meringue nest has got a name on it and it's certainly not Singh.
I tell my new friend that most Indian strangers I encounter are usually fortune tellers or tailor's shop touts. I laugh out loud at my own observations but he doesn't seem to appreciate the humour. I get the impression he thinks I'm a bit of a prat.
But I ask his opinion of English teachers anyway.
He immediately reaches for The Mahatma Gandhi Book of Quotations' - all memorized. I forget those nuggets of wisdom word for word but the gist was that 'to be an educator was indeed a man's greatest calling'.
"Now let me tell you a little bit about what my company does and where we hope to be in the next ten or twenty years"
I put a restraining hand on the Indian gentleman's arm and ask him to excuse me while I pay a visit to the little boy's room.
It was either that or feign a heart attack.
When I emerged from the gents - wiping my moist hands on my buttocks in the way that working classes tend to do - I noticed a tall, elegant, blonde lady getting stuck into a pint of Guinness and licking her moustache between sips.
No, she wasn't of course. She held a glass of the house white with immaculately manicured fingers, playfully pulling at her hair with the other hand.
I just had to talk to her even though I'm 'knocking on a bit' and I've never been comfortable approaching the gentler sex and making conversation.
It's a problem I've had since........since........well.......let me see..........since I was born really.
You have to put your natural shyness aside at times like this when you are taking part in a social experiment. I always give myself a pep talk and ask one simple question - what could be the worst possible outcome?
OK, she could throw a glass of wine over me, shout ‘Rape!' and I'd be wrestled to the floor by security staff and wake up among a pile of black refuse bags and food scraps at the back of the establishment. But let's approach things in a more positive frame of mind.
Gemma (what else could it be) was actually frightfully good company. She worked in the graphics department for several top magazines, holidayed in exotic places and knew every decent Italian restaurant in town.
As my father would say, she was a woman from 'good class kennels' Lo and behold, she'd even done a bit of English teaching herself.
"Oh I know first-hand how difficult teaching English can be. I have nothing but admiration for guys who can walk into a room of ten screaming kids and get them to learn something. There's absolutely no shame in being a teacher"
These were words I so longed to hear. I was really warming to Gemma - starting to fall for her even.
Rather like that scenario that plays out on the cover of brochures for new condominiums, I imagined the two of us flirting playfully on her high-rise balcony with pastel colored sweaters draped over our shoulders, a pre-dinner aperitif in our hands, and me pointing out a distant firework display.
But away with such small talk. Get a grip of yourself boy. You are an English teacher. Only in fairy tales do guys like you cop off with such fair maidens.
I was determined not to get sidetracked so I talked to Rick.
Rick was American. A bear of a man, he almost ripped my arm out of its socket with the heartiest of handshakes.
Americans were made for networking events. They just look so comfortable with it. I'm British. We're hopeless at it. We haven't even got the weather as a small talk option because the weather isn't a discussion topic here.
It's no good saying "weather's been hot again today" or "they say there might be rain this coming rainy season" because folks look at you as if you've just managed to give your carer the slip.
I remember years ago in a small expat beer-bar off Rama Four road. I was sitting on a bar-stool next to a hard-drinking Scotsman.
There were just the two of us enjoying some light mid-afternoon refreshment when suddenly the heavens opened and we were treated to the mother of all tropical downpours.
Eager to make some attempt at conversation with the Scotsman, I said "just look at that come down" He fixed me with a steely glare and replied with "Well it aye gonna f***ing go up is it?"
Since that day I refuse to use the weather as an opening conversational gambit.
Back to Rick the American, who incidentally had been posted here in Thailand as an advisor for the oil industry. He didn't know too much about the TEFL industry in Thailand but still had an opinion.
"I hear there's a lot of you guys out here" he said. "Sounds like a pretty worthwhile job to me. You guys are doing a heck of a lot for the future of Thailand. That can only be a good thing"
A sense of pride
I left the networking event feeling rather pleased. OK I had only talked to a very small cross section of the ‘non-teaching expat community' but by and large, they respected what teachers do here.
So next time you are sitting on a crowded sky-train. Delve into your back-pack and whip out your course textbook.
Go on. Flick through the pages with a theatrical flap. Look at the passengers around you and when one eventually makes eye contact, say it loud and say it proud. "I'm an English teacher you know"
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Guy, are you sure about those rent numbers? Even in Thong Lor and Ekkamai, you can find a one bedroom for 35-40k per month, and 15-20 should get you a one bed in most areas. And there's always the studio apt option (what I'm currently doing).
Sure, there's always the 250k per month 5 bedroom houses in Nichida etc, but I don't think most non-teaching expats here can afford those either.
By Will, Bangkok (18th December 2015)
It's very Thai to worry about what others think of us, but I know in Bkk that 'real' rent for a decent apartment is minimum 50-90 THB per month, well beyond the budgets of most teachers. Most of my relatives in NYC earn between 100-200 a month - that's dollars, not baht - and I know exactly how little they think about me. It's no surprise that I haven't seen any of them in 20 years, is it?
By Guy, Bkk (17th December 2015)
"I'm about as welcome as the wino who's emerged from his cardboard box, draped his arms around them with a breath reeking faintly of mentholated spirits - and then accidentally relieved himself down their trouser legs." This is Hemingwayesque! Loved it!
By joe, bangkok,thailand (16th December 2015)
I must say that I really enjoyed reading your article it was very funny...You most certainly have a talent for writing and I would love to read more from you....As well as your teaching...I would say that you had a flair for writing...perhaps you should write a book or two about your experiences. I am sure that both the rookies ( like myself ) and the more experienced or even none teflers / teachers would be interested in reading your stories....I would buy your book without a doubt...best laugh I have had today :) xxxxxx
By Bee, Blighty (20th November 2010)
I was sitting outside a Catholic Church Rectory one fine evening a few months ago having a smoke before an AA meeting started. An older Priest swung by on the back of a Motorcycle Taxi. He hopped off and walked up to me, introduced himself and I in return. He then asked me in German accented English waiting for the meeting?" I said yes and he then said "What do you do for a living?" I said I taught English. He made a guttural scoffing sound and said "not much money in teaching is there?" I replied No, there isn't. He then asked how long I had lived here and when I told him 7 years he asked why I didn't speak Thai. I replied that I usually worked 6 days a week and hadn't had time. He shook his head sympathetically and waved good by as he marched into the rectory office. I suppose that he concluded that I wasn't going to be anyone really worth knowing. That's all right. I love what I do for the first time in my life. I don't feel dirty after doing what I do.
By Michael, Bangkok (20th August 2010)
By Geoff, Thailand (16th August 2010)
50k wow Wish I was in your league!!
Well done I enjoyed the article very much.
I am sure there was plenty of "blarney" in the Irish bar
By Alec Hoare, Sriracha, Chonburi. (9th August 2010)
Entertaining read Being an English teacher is no easy feat...
Kudos to all!
By nadine, at the end of the rainbow (9th August 2010)
Happy to hear that Rick the American gave good closure to your evening. Leave it to an American to know how to work a room at a networking event.
By Guy, USA (5th August 2010)
What a refreshing and fantastic piece! Regardless of the content or the teaser 'what do THOSE people think of ME', (as if I care...but we all secretly do!) your writing style was...synonym of refreshing...I'm American...
By Gareth, Bang bua thong (5th August 2010)