It happened again last week, only moments after I stopped into one of my favourite watering holes. I just wanted a couple of drinks and to relax in a small inconspicuous corner of the bar after a day of teaching.
This is a good bar. One of those ubiquitous outdoor beer bars found all over Bangkok, this one on Sukhumvit near Asok. I feel comfortable there, almost as comfortable as Norm on Cheers. People know my name and smile when I walk in. No one bothers me-- at least not anymore. Not even that bargirl named-- oh, I forgot. But at least she's stopped putting a small but visible sign on the counter right in front of me that read, "Please buy me Heineken."
Right after Noi fixed me my usual, a gin and tonic-- heavy on the gin, light on the tonic-- she went to serve another customer. And that's when it happened. Again. While talking to this customer, she looked over at me. Then back to him. Then over to me. After this irritating variation of ping-pong, he got off the barstool and began to saunter my way.
He introduced himself as Mike, but it just as easily could have been John or Jim or Hal or Bob. At that point, names don't matter. What mattered at that moment was his grin. It was that same stupid, dopey and half-witted grin that just about all first timers have after arriving in the City of Angels. As a redneck from Texas would have said, "Hell, he was grinnin' like a possum right after mating season!"
After finding out that we're both Canadian, Mike looks around and says, "Wow! Look at the babes! Amazing, eh?" Talking about "the babes" always follows the introductions with a newbie.
This guy kept turning and twisting his head in ways I thought were physically impossible. It reminded me of the girl in The Exorcist. Very creepy.
This Mike guy was your typical Bangkok newbie. Early 20's, tall, good shape, and tatooed. Lots of tatoos. And, of course, the grin. Like a retard who was just given his favourite toy. "I just got here yesterday, and I can't believe it. I mean-- wow-- the babes! How do you handle it?"
I was trying to think of an answer. I'm still not sure there is one. I downed my gin and tonic and ordered another. He was drinking Singha.
"Hey!" He slapped me on the shoulder with the back of his hand to get my attention. It worked. "Is that a ladyboy?"
"A ladyboy. He pointed to a bargirl. "You know, one of those guys that---"
"Yes, yes, I know. Ah, no I-- I don't think so."
"Good, because I wouldn't want-- I mean-- I hate misunderstandings. I've heard about them you know-- the ladyboys."
"There's a saying in Thailand", I reminded him. "Sometimes the best looking women in Thailand are men. You have to watch it." Again, that grin!
"So Steve, I hear you're an English teacher." I must have looked puzzled. "The bartender told me."
"Oh, Noi. Yes, I teach English here."
"What do you need to teach English over here?"
"Two eyes, two ears, and a clean pair of underwear?"
"Oh? Anything else?"
I think he thought I was serious. I told him what I thought he needed, giving him the benefit of my seven years of living and teaching in different parts of Asia. "Do you have a B.A?", I asked. "A teaching certificate? TESOL? TEFL?"
"TESOL? TEFL?" He could hardly get the acronyms out of his mouth. "Well no, I don't have any of them. But I know people that are here now, like this girl from Canada-- no degree, no certificate-- and she's making a stack of money. A stack of money!", he said again slapping his meaty hand on the counter of the bar. "I want one of those jobs!"
Then it hit me, like the proverbial ton of bricks. Playboy Mike was asking for my help. But the thing is, he didn't need it. I was the one who needed HIS help.
I've seen it all before. We all have. These young, naive 20 something newbies, these walking erections with a backpack, who get off the airplane at Don Muang with nothing but a goofy grin and a 42 work vocabulary, and magically land that 40,000 Baht a month job te aching English, while the rest of us, with our credentials, our education, and our experience are left wondering where the good teaching jobs have gone.
Whether it's Playboy Mike or Dashing Dan or Naughty Nick, the story is the same. "I was just sittin' on the beach and relaxin' on Koh Phi Phi, just mindin' my own business, and then BAM! from out of nowhere some guy just offers me a job at his school, and BAM! I'm makin' 40,000 Baht!"
Playboy Mike and Thailand. It's a perfect match. All Playboy Mike has to offer is his incessant grin and enthusiasm to a bunch of Thai recruiters and Language School directors who wouldn't know a good teacher if it slapped them on both butt cheeks and called them Honey! What chance do older, more qualified and experienced teachers have in that kind of environment? I was crying in my drinks that night while Playboy Mike was laughing in his. I understand why.
So far I've been lucky here in Bangkok. Even though I'm still struggling to find that really good teaching job, I've met some great people-- other farangs who are helping me to become a better teacher, especially for adult Thai students. I am greatful to them. I believe that we, as foreigners, should be going out of our way to help one another. Since it is not easy to live and work in a foreign country, that should be our primary concern and responsibility. I love the students that I now teach. We are learning together, and they are a joy to be with.
A part of me wanted to help Mike. But another part of me-- the sadistic part-- wished for that uniqely Thai misunderstanding: That he would have one too many Singhas, go for that Katoey, and experience his own personal Crying Game. I feel guilty for even thinking that.
So here's what I'm now thinking. Let Playboy Mike, Dashing Dan, and Naught Nick enjoy Thailand. Let then experience the Land of Smiles of their own terms. They're entitled to it. They don't need our help. But for those of us who are older, wiser, better educated, and more qualified to teach English, let's continue to support each other. For those of us who have truly taken Thailand into our hearts and want to make it our home-- not our temporary playground-- let's continue to support and encourage one another.
If Playboy Mike and the others want to join us in becoming fully qualified members of Thailand's ESL community, they are certainly more than welcome. But until that time, we have our own community: A community of older, wiser, more experienced and more qualified English teachers who are working hard to become the best that we can be.
It is this that we have to sell, regardless of who is buying.