(please note that the names of the school and the identities of any staff members have been changed)
I wasn’t much happier upon arriving at the school-provided apartment.
The school had a nice lady from the accounting department drive me there because it was on her way home. The accountant was a true Thai - proving to be friendly, smiling, helpful and patient as we circled around, lost, seeking the apartment, which turned out to be far farther from the school than I’d thought. It was nearly 40 minutes away and in a neighborhood near an industrial area. Nauseating burning plastic smells from a nearby garbage fire filled the air… my throat got sore and eyes burned.
I was shocked how crowded the streets were, compared to the area around the school. There were swarms of motorbikes. Motorbikes driven by men, women, children as young as 9 or 10, motorbikes with 3, 4, 5 people, whole families, a baby or toddler stuck up front, motorbikes carrying large loads of food, bags, boxes, work, construction equipment, long, lance-like poles, live animals, things I couldn’t imagine could fit onto a motorbike.
Everywhere there were roadside, makeshift restaurants, butchers, fishmongers, vendors of all sorts, lining the main road adjacent to the highway, and twin Seven-Elevens on every permutation of parallel blocks.
The air was blanketed in diesel exhaust and charcoal smoke… The AQI must have been China-level. It was way busier, noisier and chaotic than I thought, but the Big C supercenter containing a massive grocery store, restaurants and a movie theater across the street made me feel better about living there and about being so far from campus.
Not only the area but the apartment itself was not as advertised.
It was further down a side street; nearly 10 minutes-walk from the main road, which was nice because it was far quieter and the air not as thick with diesel fumes. But I’d been sent a picture of a spacious studio with a big screen TV, fridge, two chairs and a small table. And what I received was a tiny studio with no furniture, no TV, no fridge and only a rock-hard box spring mattress.
The place had no windows, though a sliding glass door leading to a tiny balcony funneled in a trickle of sunlight (much of it obscured, however, by a rolling tarp, controlled by pulleys and rope, which I tried to roll up to the summit but broke in the process, and I was forced to tie it via laundry line rope to the balcony railing).
Worse than its size was its smell. It’s common in Thailand and other Asian countries for pipes in the bathroom to be built in a straight or slanted, / shape, and not the U-shape found elsewhere. The straight-line shape pipes allow in stinky funkiness to bubble up from the sewer or septic tank, and the bathroom being tiny and lacking a window that could be opened or any sort of ventilation, didn’t help with the smell, either.
Then the “wet” shower (one with no curtain or glass casing) didn’t have a water heater and the building didn’t pipe in hot water, which wasn’t always a problem given the tropical climate of Thailand- except for when I did want a warm shower.
Though I was misled, at the end of the day, the place was free not including utilities, so I couldn’t complain too much. However, I did need to pay rent until the semester started - a whopping total of $100.
I couldn’t grumble too much about that. You get what you pay for. The lower cost of living certainly was a benefit of Thailand and Southeast Asia in general.
Given the red flags raised in my first visit to the school and how incompetent they’d been throughout the visa process, I decided not to make myself too at home in the apartment. I bought only bare-minimum essentials, sheets, pillows, towels, cleaning supplies, a kettle and coffee maker. Bloody hell was I glad I did. Especially that I didn’t buy a hotplate, TV, fridge or other heavy electricity-consuming appliances, because it turned out the apartment management was charging the building’s foreigners electric fees that were far more than the official government rate of 3 baht per kilowatt. We were being charged 9 baht per kilowatt, 3 times the government rate!
This practice is officially illegal in Thailand. However, when foreigners who can speak little to no Thai or even those fluent in Thai complain, nothing is usually done.
Despite receiving electric bills nearly equal to, often more than our rent, and many previous teachers complaining to the school, the building continued to charge the inflated rate and so I decided to hold off on buying any electrical appliances and was glad I did when I saw what my neighbor was being charged for using his AC, TV, fridge, and cooker. Nearly $300 per month.
That neighbor was one of the foreign teachers at the school. Many of the teachers came from India and Bangladesh, but the majority hailed from the Philippines (it wasn’t until later that I’d discover how these racial dynamics affected work relations) Most of the foreign teachers in my building were of the handful of farangs the school employed.
The neighbor being charged $300 a month for electricity was a guy named Will; Will came from Canada; he was 50ish, had a buzzcut, pearly white teeth, a cut, lean figure and scabrous legs from a serious motorcycle accident, which had rendered him clinically dead for almost a minute.
The accident left him with TBI (traumatic brain injury) and while he seemed quite together, well-dressed and sharp, when first meeting him, the cracks would show later, as he’d fly off his knurled handle on a whim, verbally assault coworkers and for no apparent reason, get up and leave work, disappear for a short time or exit our school van while it was stuck in traffic, walking down the highway off to who knows where.
He’d carry his heavy backpack filled with books and a bulky laptop in the crook of his arm. His lessons consisted of using small packets of candy as extrinsic motivation for the students to stand in front of the class and read from their books. He’d had no previous teaching experience, aside from a short TEFL course in Phuket. But he was white.
Another teacher was named Terry. A tall, 50ish, Irish American from Boston, with a big bulging beer gut, bouffant hairdo, fat head and florid face, gummy smile and raspy, clam chowda accent. He walked with a limp-like gait, always shaking his hands and legs and complaining of arthritis. An anomaly, he’d been in Thailand since the 1990s, originally as a Peace Corp volunteer teacher, and had just stayed, teaching at various schools and colleges throughout the Kingdom. He spoke perfect Thai and had a Thai wife who he rarely saw and fought like crazy with her on the phone practically every night.
Although he’d been in Thailand for nearly three decades, due to Thailand’s ethnocentric and stringent citizenship requirements, even after close to 30 years, he still didn’t have a Thai passport or a long-term visa, and would every year, every 90 days really, be required to renew his papers.
Terry spoke in hushed tones, often mumbling. You’d have to lean in to understand him and often ask him to repeat himself.
While he was once health-conscious, he’d taken to smoking cigarettes and drinking 5 or 6 tall bottles of Thai beer, via glasses filled with ice cubes, every night, saying that after he turned 50, he didn’t care anymore.
“Who wants to live to be 80?” he asked me once, mentioning how miserable his mother was, dying a wrinkled shell of her former self, in a nursing home that reeked of piss and puke and that sort of smell only old people make.
Terry would sit out in front of the building, drunk, and would rant in mumbles, usually about Trump or something he saw on Fox News, like how over 70% of people in America speak other languages than English at home, and occasionally using racial epithets to illustrate a point. He once said how his hometown was like the Congo these days, there were so many…
The guy he’d smoke and drink with was a weasel face, rat-tailed, beady eyed South African guy, 20ish, who didn’t teach at our school (instead he taught at a nearby private middle school). Weasel face liked to reminisce about South Africa and how much better his family said it was during apartheid. A guy weasel face worked with and lived next door to was a 30ish, super-skinny, tall, high pants wearing, dodgy-looking Hungarian, who didn’t talk much with anyone in the building.
Perhaps because he was fighting a war with the building manager’s dogs. Every time he’d leave the building, the (usually docile) dogs would go berserk, barking like mad at him. He’d curse and scream back at them, in a mixture of English and Hungarian and would kick the dogs.
There were a couple other farangs in the building, but they didn’t talk to anyone and just kept to themselves. One (who lived there before I arrived) was a heroin addict who flipped out in 7-11, throwing instant noodle packs at the clerks, storming out, because they wouldn’t sell him booze (it was either a Buddhist holiday or before 5pm).
The guy wound up dying, as do many foreigners in Thailand. This farang overdosed on smack. When the cops and paramedics brought him out, Terry Mumbles said that along with a river of takeout food trays and empty bottles, they’d found dead lizards scattered around his apartment. Apparently, he’d been stabbing the lizards with a switchblade knife and smearing the lizard guts and blood on the walls, writing gibberish and random curse words, drawing pentagrams with the blood.
The last farang I knew living there, Stan, was around forty years old with a hook nose and a shiny bright bald head; 5’5, skinny, he wore huge horn-rimmed coke bottle glasses and had electric green eyes that’d rubiate.
He’d sometimes wear suspenders and bowties but often wore short sleeve, button-down dress shirts with a necktie. He played the ukulele in his classes and taught his students how to prune topiaries.
Stan spoke in cyclic bursts. He intensely disliked Hillary Clinton and Greta Thunberg. No one talked much with Stan though (other than his students, me and Terry Mumbles). Most everyone was scared of him after Stan’d gone postal, one scorching hot day, the previous term.
That morning in the school van, after starting a near fistfight with another teacher over a seat in the van, he’d become apoplectic, barging into the Grinch’s office, ripping up sheets of paper, shrieking, cursing everyone out. His rampage culminated in he and the administration involved in a running shouting match throughout the office, one that ended with him banging and breaking a drumstick on a desk, throwing a chair into a wall, bursting into tears and running like a spider out of the office, with face red as a tomato. After that, amazingly his contract was renewed, but he wasn’t asked to any more meetings and was excluded from most school activities.
He was barred from the school van too, so he bought an old beat up navy blue Toyota, slapped tons of NASCAR stickers, MAGA stickers on it and would leave the car running for 10 minutes every morning outside the apartment building, creating a massive cloud of black smoke. (The Canuck would grumble that there was no way that vehicle could have passed any sort of emission test.)
Pretty much everyone was afraid of Stan after his meltdown, and he ate alone in the cafeteria and rode alone to work. He rarely came to the office either, spending his time in the library with his head down on a table sleeping.
The other farangs at the school, not living in my building:
Ronald: A 60-ish Brit, former soldier in Northern Ireland. He had slicked back salt and pepper hair, a furrowed forehead and crazy blue eyes; one eye always squinting. Irascible, Ronald hated the school and everything about Thailand and everything about the Thais. Every time you encountered him, he was pissed off about something Thailand. I couldn’t figure out why if he detested Thailand so much, he’d married a Thai lady and bought a house in the countryside nearby.
I wondered why he even worked. Don’t UK military servicemen get decent pensions? What would possibly make him stay living, let alone working, in a place he completely despised? Was it Brexit? It must have been Brexit.
When I respectfully quizzed Ronald as to why he remained at the school and in Thailand, he said he stayed for the students, that they were the best he’d had in 5 years of working in Thailand.
Nah, I thought to myself. It was probably because of Brexit.
Vinny: Nearly 80. A grizzled, hairy, leathery-skinned biker from New Zealand who’d retired to Thailand and worked part-time at the school. A genuinely friendly guy, well-read, knowledgeable. He was apt to complain, be annoyed with the school and its policies, but he rather enjoyed Thailand and his life there.
Kris: Late 20s to early 30s, a chunky, pallid Russian lady, her fire red hair usually worn in pig tails. Boisterous, she had a sonic boom of a laugh, a shrieking sneeze, and an aura of insouciance. Kris could turn petulant in an instant though and regularly fought with the administration and was loathed by the bosses. She was formally banned from speaking at staff meetings, yet was kept in her teaching position going on 3 years as of this writing.
Derrick (Dimitry): A Croatian, 60ish, gangly gray ape of a man. He was the longest serving farang teacher and had been made into the director of the English Department, despite his strong Eastern-European accent that made him sound sort of like Dracula.
Amazingly, he was not paid any additional stipend nor did he receive a raise to be director, even though it entailed a heap of extra paperwork, writing, spending hours creating, editing midterms and final exams. He’d done it simply because he was passionate about the work. So passionate in fact, that he ran his classes like the military - locking the door after 5 minutes and not letting latecomers enter. He would scream and berate those on phones or those who talked over him, ripping up small bits of money in front of students, telling them: “This is what YOU do NOT STUDYING!”