I’ll get straight to the point of this month’s column: I have given up my job and left the Land of Smiles. I already hinted in my January column that 2008 might be my last year in Thailand, so it’s not a big surprise for most people who know me. The questions I get asked most are: 'Why?', 'What are you going to do?', 'Where are you going?' and 'Are you going back home?'
I'll answer these questions in reverse order as the last ones are the easiest. Am I going back home? What a silly question; I go home every day. Actually, Thailand has been my home for more than four years. Of course, most people use the word home to refer to one's country of origin or birth. Anyway, I'm not planning to turn back the clock and pick up one of my former lives.
So where am I going then? I don't know yet. I could have looked for a new job before quitting my old one, but I wanted a temporary break from work so I could have some time to relax and travel. By the way, I know that starting all over without planning too much in advance can be a refreshing experience; I’ve done it before. Also, I hope I'll be thoroughly rested and brimming with new ideas after a prolonged stay in the Land of a Million Elephants, probably followed by a tour of some other South-East Asian countries. Although I liked my job, I always thought that I didn't have enough time off to enjoy life and get away from it all.
What am I going to do? This question is relatively simple. Unless I get offered a really well-paid job out of the blue, I'll more than likely find a new EFL job, probably somewhere in Asia. Teaching is what I apparently do well and it's also what I've been doing for the last twelve years. Many countries need qualified teachers, so finding a new job shouldn't be that difficult.
So the question remains why? Why leave Thailand, the Land of Smiles, the best country in the world if Thais are to be believed? The short answer is that I didn't have enough reasons to stay.
Those who have been reading my column regularly will know that I acknowledge and welcome different cultures. When teaching, I don't want to radically change local students' cultural values or ideas as I am convinced that English should be taught as a world language, not misused as a colonial tool to shove British or western values down someone's throat like it was sometimes done in the past. On the other hand, I don't think every cultural reference should be banned from a language course, as it can broaden students' horizons and help them develop their critical thinking skills and personal world view.
I have to admit that I was getting a bit bored with both my job and my host country, so simply finding another workplace wouldn't have solved my problem. I made a list of positives and negatives, and – surprise - the former list turned out to be the shorter one. The plus list told me that I mainly appreciate Thailand because of the climate (hot all year round), the food (one of the best cuisines in the world), the travel and sightseeing opportunities and the low cost of living.
This 'what-I-like-about-Thailand’ list is a very personal list, and although many foreigners in the Kingdom might have one, the contents probably vary. Although quite a few long-term residents or repeat visitors might add other positives such as the abundance of teaching jobs and the wide availability of cheap prostitutes to it, I would rather put them on the negatives list as they often attract unskilled would-be teachers to the Kingdom for the wrong reasons.
My 'pet peeve' list on the other hand started to get too long, although after some reflection, I came to the conclusion that many items were quite trivial. As already stated, I respect other cultures and when living in a foreign land, I'll try to live my life as similar as possible to locals. I'll eat their food, use their means of transport, adapt my teaching style if needed and enjoy local markets and travel opportunities. However, when local culture clashes with my personal beliefs and values, I'll still respect the former but I won't necessarily give up the latter.
Here are some entries which figured on the 'what-I-don’t-like-about-Thailand’ list. By the way, I think that after being away from Thailand for a while, I might change my mind about some of the items and realise I was exaggerating.
Although Thailand has many breathtaking places to offer, Bangkok and its suburbs – where most jobs can be found - are just one big, ugly, noisy, polluted mess.
The majority of Thai students are rather uninterested, unimaginative and lazy. Instead of soaking up knowledge as a sponge, they usually need to be force-fed.
Appearance is more important than substance. Good-looking (white) teachers will always be in high demand, even if they have never taught and think a gerund is a tropical disease.
Any form of criticism in Thailand is taboo, even positive criticism. People prefer undergoing bad practices instead of wanting to change them, as this might cause loss of face for the one who implemented them. Actually, causing loss of face is probably considered worse than committing murder. Lots of people have been murdered because of petty insults.
Dual pricing and ongoing tourist scams ensure that foreigners will often leave Thailand with mixed feelings.
No-fail policy in all schools ensures that enough teenage morons graduate to fill universities. Many university graduates (esp. from private universities) would probably fail western high school exams.
Foreigners cannot own a business, land or a house (condo only). Buying a car or motorbike is possible but not straightforward; red tape and corruption are prevalent; banking is anything but foreigner-friendly; consumer service is virtually non-existent.
Traffic is dangerous. Most motorists think speeding, tailgating, weaving through traffic, using a mobile phone and drink driving are no big deal, despite the abhorrent death toll on Thai roads. There is a complete disrespect by motorists for pedestrians and cyclists.
Some of my concerns might seem petty and also exist in lots of other countries, so they’ll erode over time. I don't think I've been much of a moaner during all the time I've been in Thailand, partly because I feel that endless complaining doesn't solve any problems.
As a final thought, I really enjoy the teaching profession and have always done my best to further my students' English skills. However, being employed by a language school where many young students study at the weekend, I feel that Thai youths are somewhat being denied their childhood. For many of them, life is a continuous learning nightmare as they are being dragged from one tutoring school to another. Few seem to realise that all this tutoring wouldn't be necessary if youngsters were given an adequate education from Monday to Friday. Unfortunately, unless parents can shell out big bucks for top international schools, this a pipe dream as the Thai education systems remains in tatters with oversized classrooms, inadequate and apathetic teachers, lack of decent materials, a no-fail policy and an everything-needs-to-be-fun attitude completely undermining effective learning. Unless the whole education system is fundamentally revamped, the future of Thailand looks gloomy. But hey, who cares as long as we’re all having ‘sanuk’ (fun)?
After rereading this column, I felt it was too negative. I trimmed down the negatives list and decided to go ahead with it anyway as most – if not all – of my previous columns were by far and large positive. Thai censors would probably want to take it off-line or censor it if they could find it and understand it. Thailand is a wonderful country but I doubt it’s the best in the world; I surely wouldn’t want to be stuck here for the rest of my life. I’ve been to quite a few countries, but there are still countless places out there waiting to be discovered. Because of my thirst for change and with life being so short, I feel there is no time to waste.