Richard Constable

A year in Ubon (part one)

I know. I'll go and teach English in Thailand.

My wonderful wife slipped away three years ago. 

I had just finished serving my time and we were looking forward to a new lifestyle with freedom from commitments, when on that morning I awoke to find her body cold.  She had gone - and nothing would ever be the same again.  

Regardless of the fact that I endured a period of terrible depression, it taught me some important things which had previously escaped my notice. The first is our time is the one thing that we can never get back. Every single moment is precious and should be savoured. The second thing is that what we need to learn, we seldom ever choose to learn.

On saying that, I wouldn't want you to think I became a miserable bugger. After a respectable length of time had passed, I didn't let it stop me from enjoying life - my lovely wife would never have wanted that to happen. However, I always felt a little bit awkward at family functions and at social gatherings with friends, where everyone else seemed to be in couples.  Alright, I'll hold my hand up. I did go on the odd date, yet it was no more than that - with another widower who also just wanted a bit of company.

I tolerated eighteen months of getting up at eight o'clock, making toast for my breakfast, reading the Eastern Daily Press from cover to cover at least five times over, making a sandwich for lunch and doing the housework or the garden on alternate days, going for a couple of pints on a Friday night at the local social club and going into town on Saturday mornings to do the shopping. 

All very pleasant but sometimes a bit boring and often I felt like the loneliest bloke in West Norfolk. Then last January my life went bang - on a rare trip to the local library I discovered a teaching website - a site that advertises EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teaching jobs in Asia. From there on in, my head was full of possibilities:- doing a TEFL course, selling my bungalow, getting a job in a school, moving to Thailand. And maybe I could meet the right one - a woman that was more than just a bit of company.

First things first, before I did anything I spoke at length of the long-term possibilities to my grown-up son and daughter, both are married and have their own homes. Ultimately, the big issues were that possibly I'd get spliced again and the other was perhaps I'd die out there and we'd never see one another again. 

Both stated they'd be more than pleased for me to take another walk down the aisle as long as it made me happy. As for not seeing each other again, they said we could visit one another on alternate years. Well, I can't tell you how proud of them it made me feel and I know their mother would've felt the same. God love her and keep her.

About my bungalow, having thought it through with no pressure from the kids, I decided not to sell. My son and his wife have agreed to live there - pay the rates and take care of it and they're going to rent their flat for the interim. However, if the worst came to the worst, I have could return and they could move back to their flat. Whilst I also started a legal process of giving tax-free percentages of it to my son and daughter on an annual basis in about ten years, they'll own the property.

The next part was easier, I did my TEFL in bootiful (beautiful) Bournemouth, a four-week course which I passed. My fellow would-be EFL teachers and I were a real mish-mash of ages, backgrounds and former professions. As you can imagine, we had some bloody good laughs and all in all it was a really enjoyable experience. More importantly, for the first time, I felt that I can do this. I can be an English teacher in Southeast Asia.  

Officially you require a minimum of a BA to teach in Thailand, nonetheless, I had my old HND in civil engineering which is reckoned to be enough in a rural area if the school likes you. I knew I was being a little bit optimistic, but with my modest investments and small private pension, I didn't really need to work. 

In Thailand you don't get the National Health Service, no surprises there and I already had a few ailments and I was only going to get worse with time. Your health can be a fierce financial burden and I didn't want to crawl back to the UK at some time in the future and beg to be given a place to die in a grim old people's home. If I could hang on to the folding stuff I earned for those rapidly approaching stormy days and live off my pension that'd be marvellous. Above all, I wanted to be able to afford to be able to migrate back to see the kids on those alternative years for the rest of my natural.  

Three months came and went. It became now or never. The TEFL company have offered me a teaching position in Ubon Ratchathani, a city of around a quarter of a million in the Northeast of Thailand. It's at a secondary school which pays a salary of 35,000 baht on a nine and a half month contract (that's about eight grand a year). That'll do for me but I'll be going in head first at the deep end as I've never travelled to Asia before. I don't know a living soul there and I can't speak a word of the lingo.

My friends all think I've gone senile. Their reaction was somewhere along the lines of; Who are you? And what have you done with Jockey? As a result, they've told me among other things, it'll be dangerous, I'll get in with a much younger woman who'll bleed me dry financially. I won't be able to stomach the food as its too spicy and the standards of hygiene will probably kill me. Further to that, the heat will be unbearable as I'm way over-the-hill to get used to a new climate. A big vote of no confidence albeit they probably all mean well and have my best interests at heart.

The thing is, millions of people go there every year and manage to live, not all of them sixty-three-years of age, nevertheless some of them are even older.

The Thai Airways' plane touched down in Obon, having taken an indirect flight from an international airport in Bangkok. First impressions are it's as hot as a blacksmith's furnace, even hotter than I imagined and the traffic is horrendous even at 6:15 am, and this is a relatively small city in a rural area. They've sent a driver from the agency. He can't speak much English but he can turn this pickup truck on a sixpence - just like a young Steve McQueen. The school has also found me a two-bedroom rented house at the TEFL agent's request 3,500 baht; that's about £77 a month! At that price, I like it already.

The rented home turns out to be a small square shaped rendered, pastel pink painted, hipped roofed bungalow. Symmetrically and proportionally designed, at the front a bedroom, a hall, a living room, and at the back another bedroom, a bathroom, a kitchen. All very basic and spatially furnished, still perfectly fine, it'll do me until I get myself sorted out and it's within walking distance of the school, which on first impressions looks almost as imposing as Sandringham House; Queen Elizabeth's country residence.

At long last, VT Day, Tuesday morning, the fifteenth of May, 2018. I've gotten over the jet lag now having done very little in the past two days other than eat, sleep and think. I feel like Robinson Crusoe in an Asian suburban sea, hence I haven't ventured out. Fortunately, I'd packed a half a dozen cans of food and I've been living on a diet of tinned soup and tuna fish, needless to say, I've lost a little weight which I'm chuffed about.

Hitherto the school, three indescribably large flat-roofed buildings with any number of maze-like halls leading to an uncountable amount of cluttered classrooms. At 6:45 am. I've seen the odd Thai person, but none of them seemed to be able to speak much if any English, hence I don't know where I'm headed.

After a rigorous roam around, it's 7:30 am and I'm in the right teachers' office, I know because there are a pair of blokes here, a Welshman and an American. Well at least I think it's an office. It has four desks set out in a cramped domino four with a single central entrance, thus could use a window. The English teachers told me the first lesson won't happen as it is the first day back there will be an overlong assembly or recess. That'll suit me fine, I'm becoming more nervous by the minute because these classes can have as many as fifty students in them. I need to cool down in the teachers' room's air-conditioning, stop sweating and try to get a grip.

By the way, the school itself is an all girls institute. The agency thought this would suit me better than a co-ed as I might've had problems with discipline or crowd control because of my advanced years.

There are close on two-thousand learners but there are only four foreign teachers in the whole school including me. The other foreign teacher is Polish. Peter (Piotr) turned out to be such a nice chap and though he's over twenty years younger than me, we've kind of teamed up and have been spending quite a bit of time together in the evenings when I'm not too done in from teaching

My first lesson was all but a complete disaster. I lost my way and arrived at the classroom over fifteen minutes late. Half the students wouldn't quit nattering, most of the others weren't fully awake. 

I made two big mistakes, the first was to plan the lesson on myself 'An introduction to the teacher,' They weren't interested in the topic on an ageing portly foreign bloke with a rapidly receding hairline. 

The second was to allow five minutes at the end to answer all their questions - because they didn't have a single one! 

There I stood in silence in front them at the board and I couldn't think of a word to say now that I finally had everyone's attention. I could feel myself going redder and redder, with sweat leaking out of me, for what seemed like an eternity. Until one student, who had been listening attentively throughout while smiling amicably put up her hand and saved my bacon by asking, "What your name?" 

I'd already told them but I answered,  "My name's Jocelyn but you can call me Jock-ey!" modelling the word "Jockey." I was drilling them on the pronunciation of my nickname and all of a sudden nearly all the class were repeating my nickname over and over again and laughing and having a lot of fun with it. It gave me the kind of nice warm feeling in my heart that I used to get when my son and daughter were very little and called me, 'Daddy.'

From that moment, I was hooked on teaching and have been ever since. 

What about the considerate student that gave me a lifeline? Milk! She's become something of a teacher's pet. She and her mate often help me carry the class books' back to the teachers' office. 

While I don't like favouritism, I honestly try to treat all the students the same, - even the naughty and the lazy ones. 

My father brought me up to be egalitarian and I wouldn't like to let him down. It's just that Milk is still always the first one to put her hand up to volunteer.


Hey Mike,

I hear you!

I didn't actually teach myself to spell until the age of twenty-six and then not so well.

I spelt Ubon with an O and Phil spotted and changed the first two but not the third in the fifteenth paragraph.

By Richard, Bang Ns, Bangkok (24th February 2019)

B+ for style, spelling and grammar. I feel like you’re holding back, though. And isn’t it “Udon?” I am looking forward to part two.

By Mike, Bangkok (23rd February 2019)

Well done for what you achieved. You certainly have tested tourself and I bet you are a better Guy for it!!
I taught in Bangkok for 4 years and Vietnam for 2 years.
Most of my Bangkok teaching was in Government schools and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Get a bit of mid week Teaching and get yourself to mid 40's (Tb) then you will feel more satisfied.
Watch the Thai girlfriend bit-you have been warned.
Keep it up!

By Neil Wragg, Philippines (11th February 2019)

Hey George,

I wrote 12 stories in free teaching periods between October 2017 and March 2018. I was at the time and still am a part-time teacher at the language center Edu, Bang Na; teaching 22 periods a week. Alongside, being a full-time teacher at Yothin Burana, Bang Pho; teaching 22 periods a week.

Although, two of the original stories were deemed unsuitable by Phil, so I had to write two more to replace them. One of those I wrote yesterday; (Chinese New Year's holiday) about a recent trip to hospital.

Inasmuch to say, seven of the stories are fiction based on hard facts, however the other five are gospel.

After some complaints about a few facts I had included in a fictional story, Phil decided to state that all my stories were fiction.

In my experience the truth is far more emotive than any form of fabrication - I dare say that's what's niggled you.

Further, I have a wife and two daughters that I spend time with regularly - plus we generally go out to eat every fortnight. Not to mention my parents that live four floors above me in the same condominium who I visit weekly as a family we go to a restaurant every month.

Furthermore, I have a number of friends, all former teaching colleagues some that I meet up with for a few beers a couple of times a month at some lively venue.

An adequate social life for someone who will be fifty-six years old in two months time.

Anyhow, thanks for your concern.

By Richard, Bang Na (6th February 2019)

Another one of Richard's fictional stories....

May I suggest that you ought to consider 'getting out more' instead of penning stories that take the wee wee out of hard-working teachers/Thailand's education system. Just saying....

By George, BKK (6th February 2019)

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