Seth Leighton

Transitions in Thailand

The grass isn't always greener on the other side

Bored with teaching? Sure there is a better way to make a baht in Thailand besides the TEFL game? Well, I just finished a six-month stint working in the marketing department of a large Thai furniture company, and am returning to teaching with a far greater appreciation for the academic life. In particular, I have to admit that the respect and admiration afforded to teachers in Thailand is of a different sort than that given to businessmen.

This can be traced, I believe, to a cultural imposition for each member of the Thai citizenry to do his or her best to improve the country as a whole. Thailand is a hierarchical society, and the stratification relies on acceptance of certain roles, and a willingness to perform those roles to benefit the greater people. The role of teacher, with inherent sacrifices made to assist the youth, does more than nearly any other profession to further the development and success of Thailand. Thus, teachers are, by and large, afforded a measure of respect beyond that of even the most successful Thai businessman.

This is, of course, a generalization, and a solid case can be made for the prevalence of BMWs and other outward expressions of wealth as ways for the business classes to demonstrate their higher position in Thai society. However, from my experience, I noticed a definite change in attitudes when I moved from teaching to business, and then back to teaching. I came to Thailand through a program called LanguageCorps, and was set up with a Thai host family for my first year of teaching. This family owned the aforementioned furniture company, and I was quite friendly with several employees while teaching at the local high school. They were greng jai to the extreme, always willing to help me through all the bewilderments of life abroad. When the family suggested I begin work for them, assisting with marketing and maintaining customer relations, I accepted immediately, thinking that I already had several friends among my new colleagues.

The change in attitude, while subtle, was also immediate in its effect. The strongest example came with the head of Logistics, Khun Anong. She was, and is, a tireless and dedicated worker, and I often chatted with her happily beofre leaving for school in the morning. She even took the time to correct my scribbles during my first forays into the Thai alphabet. On the first day of my new job, I was given a desk next to Anong, and several of my new responsibilities involved working with her. From the first day, I had continued difficulties with every request and question, and it quickly became clear to me that Anong had no great wish for me to work with her.

Part of this problem came from my Americanized approach to business, as well as my inexperience in the export world and still evolving Thai language skills making communication an adventure. However, I was quite astounded at the general coldness from a woman who had previously been such a good friend. The only return to her previous good spirits and kindly interest came when I would leave to teach private lessons with some of my former students. Other parts of the job progressed well, as our Western customers were glad to have me working there, and I was able to learn about the world of international business. Still, the inequities inherent in a Thai factory were a nagging issue, along with the usual mid-twenties angst. After months of unending problems with Anong, and a creeping sense of immorality with the job itself, I decided to move back to teaching. I broke the news as gently as possible, not letting on that I was unhappy at this job, and hopefully not burning any bridges. My host family was understandably saddened, and I felt badly about leaving people who had done so much for me, but the strangest reaction came from Anong and other employees.

The past troubles were pushed aside, and they threw me a very sweet going-away party. Indeed, all was very much the same as during my first time as a teacher, and I felt a sense of general appreciation for my choice. Looking back, I believe that the troubles came from my innocently throwing away an occupation afforded such a high level of prestige. My brief foray into the world of international export, while understandable from an American viewpoint, was difficult for a Thai person to grasp. The return to teaching, thus, was a return to order, and reinstated me into an accepted place in the Thai hierarchy. We'll have to wait and see where I go from there.


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