Steve Tainton

Casting off the shackles

A free agent at last

free agent
A professional athlete who is free to sign a contract with any team. For example, After he was released from the Yankees, he was a free agent and could shop around for the team that offered the most money.
-American Heritage Dictionary

Like a high school senior several days before graduation I am so out of here it’s like I’m already gone, dude. Something along those lines, anyway. For those of you bored enough to follow this column, you realize that I spent a fair amount of time teaching in Japan (six years to be exact) and then came to Thailand (Khon Kaen to be precise) to give life a try here. And like others before, and undoubtedly after me, I am headed back East to seek my fortune. So that’s it? You’re completely out of the game? No more Land of Smiles, bro? Not exactly. Like some bad Schwarzenegger flick, I’ll be back. I am married to a Thai lady and we are…building a house. I know this has never been done by a farang in Thailand and is strikingly original; It’s also the only way I can envision getting ahead in Thailand being that I have the business acumen of a road side mango vendor who sets up a stand next to a dozen others hawking the same fruit. To quote a poster on the Teachers in Thailand forum who goes by the name of Peeps, “…it really isn’t the wise man who come to Thailand to save money. For every success like BPhil (Bangkok Phil, webmaster) I bet there are many more who leave themselves financially vulnerable for the future.” That’s a bet I won’t take, which is to say our man Peeps has peeped the truth about teaching in Thailand. Nor is my idea of heading back to East Asia (Japan, namely) terribly inspired. Fellow ajarn writer, Ken May plus fellow frequent forum poster and Khon Kaen resident, Isaan Alex have both done the same, though their preferred money-maker is Korea. I know there are others who play for more than one team, drifting with the seasons between East and Southeast Asia, developed and developing countries. The developed camps seem firmly established as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Southeast Asia is represented primarily by Thailand with some real, I’ll say euphemistically, adventurers in Cambodia or Laos. Teaching in China and Vietnam - frozen communist dinosaurs thawing into hungry capitalist creatures - is still a gray area, perhaps better reimbursed than Thailand and company, salaries still lower than the developed camp and questionable livability.

Free Agency has its advantages.

Cost of living and salaries are equally high in East Asia, but if you are an adept player – rookies are rarely free agents – then you understand how to save money in the East. You mean, like no partying, man? Right. But the money you save in the East goes a long way in the Southeast. Conversely, the money you make in the East only goes so far in the East. A friend I’ll call Charles, a longtime English teacher in Japan, has just bought a mansion in Japan. It might be relevant to mention that ‘mansion’ really means condominium in Japanese, pronounced manshon - one of those great barbarized Anglicisms that I love so much. So Charles has been from bank to bank and finally got approval to buy his mansion at a cost of some 30million¥ - slightly under 300,000$US. This requires a 3million yen down payment – slightly under 30,000$US - and a thirty year mortgage (for-the-love-of-the-lord, one can build a nice house in rural Thailand for the amount of the down payment!). He’ll probably be spending 100,000¥ a month in mortgage payments – slightly under… you get the exchange rate by now, don’t you? After thirty years of work Charles will own his mansion outright, but I imagine there will still be committee dues and probably parking fees for as long as he resides there. This exorbitant expenditure will get Charles a spacious apartment (don’t let the adjectival descriptor overshadow the nominal reality, in other words, he ain’t got no friggin’ land).

Free Agency has its advantages.

As often as the debate roars about what a decent salary in Thailand should be, the talk is for naught. It’s a moot point. Mammary organs on a male bovine. As useless as a trash bins on Thai streets. The flip side of the cheap land phenomenon is the cheap salary phenomenon. My wife and I (my money, her name) bought a rai of land for 100,000 baht. If everyone was getting paid that much a month (teachers salaries are typically average as compared to other professions in a given society and a lot of English teachers in Thailand believe that’s about what they are worth) don’t think for a second that land prices would be so low. That’s the give and take. Teaching in Thailand is a great one year experience, a solid financial foundation for a future? - forget it. Even those who speak of saving money in Thailand as a teacher, talk in figures that would be easily wiped out with a monthly car payment or mortgage on a house of western standards.

I have chosen not to sit on the benches, dying a slow financial death, but rather to take to the field as a free agent, playing in conditions (Japan) that might be less than ideal in the short term. The long term goal is to have enough assets (no precipitation on this parade please from scorned, burned and divorced louts who lost everything in their wife’s name when they got caught cheating) that monthly expenditures are limited to perishables and sundries. My current line of thought is if you can’t increase the income, then at least decrease the expenses.

The question that begs asking is if I regret my decision to give up a decent salaried job and come to Thailand only to turn around and head back so soon. Not at all. I have seen the light. Simply visiting Thailand hadn’t given me an adequate insight into the dynamics of working and living here; I had to experience it first hand. Rather than being put off by the teaching scene, I am somewhat reassured to find that adequate work exists even in the provinces. If I was disappointed to find that employers and visas are not as straightforward as I had wished, I am equally appointed (by all rights I should be able un-negate it by dropping the prefix) to find the cost of living to be negligible and visa runs viable. The idea of slogging away in Japan till the end of time in order to have a manshon is as depressing a thought when you consider the possibility of having something much closer to the real thing in Thailand. The downsides to free agency are certainly many, but I prefer these inconveniences to the alternative of signing a long term contract for either team developed or team developing.

One of the difficulties of playing for as a free agent getting Thaied down (I know, I really have to stop). A wife and kids put a crimp in the plans when thinking about moving between two countries. My wife and I don’t have children yet, but the visa process for her to come to Japan is painful one. Still the expenses involved will pay for themselves within a few months of work on a Japanese salary. I shouldn’t overstate the case however. The fact remains that with its overabundance of consumer retail outlets and drinking venues Japan is an easy place to spend every last yen earned. The difference is in the choice to do so. The option to save a substantial sum exists if one is willing to make sacrifices. The same can’t be said on Thai salaries that, even if saved in entirety, would amount to a bit less monthly than an ascetic Japan based teacher could pull of. Essentially that is what it comes down to for me, choice. Like some bizarre, economic refugee from the first world, I am choosing life in another country in order to gain an amount of financial success that I could not achieve here in Thailand.

It wouldn’t be unfair to call teaching in Japan a young man’s game. The median age for teachers in Japan would be around twenty-five years. That is based on a very unscientific, yet undeniably valid observation on the part of yours truly. This is not to say that older teachers do not exist, but when we speak of older teachers we are talking of people in their thirties. In six years I had the pleasure of working with two, only two, people who were over forty. Contrast this with upcountry Thailand where almost everyone teaching is over forty, and you realize that the two teaching scenes are very different from one another. I am certain that Bangkok draws its fair share of younger teachers. I wonder how many of the twenty or thirty-somethings living in BKK have been at it for years. My bet is that most younger teachers in Thailand wash out in a year or two. In other words, I have an unsubstantiated hypothesis that I would like to prove or disprove, and yet have been able to do neither on nor the other – it is this: English teachers in Thailand are either older, retired, semi-retired men or young, traveling (read backpacker) adventurer. There is no thirty something career EFL/ESLer in Thailand like there is in Japan.

Previously, I mentioned my friend Charles, a thirty something married to a Japanese lady, making a long-term teaching career for himself in Japan. In fact Charles is only one of about a dozen acquaintances of mine that fit the same description. These are mostly men, though one Australian lady married to a Japanese man fits the same description. They are all either married, engaged or in a long-term relationship with a Japanese person. They are all earning a reasonable living – though no one is getting rich. Some own cars. Some have children. A couple own houses. And they all have made their money in the English teaching industry in Japan. I would be extremely surprised to find that such a demographic exists anywhere in Thailand. Bear in mind that these people have bought houses (well, made a down payment at least), cars, etc. with money made from English teaching (there may exist such a non-teacher demographic in Thailand). A lot of these individuals came from difficult economic conditions in the West – industrialized northern England, Western Australia, mid-west of the US/Canada – and earned the entirety of their worth while working in Japan. Contrary to stereotypes, Japan is not such an expensive place to live, especially for an English teacher (I realize I am contradicting myself slightly, but it’s the question of choice again). Transportation is paid for by employers, insurance is cheap, and taxes are quite low for foreign residents. The elevated price of housing is offset by these factors and monthly expenses are about what you would pay in the West. All and all, there is fairly advantageous differential between salary and expenses, which makes getting by and then some quite feasible.

The conclusion is that there really is no conclusion. We all have to make decisions based on a given set of information provided at the time of the decision. Right now, for me that means abandoning Thailand and going back to Japan. As much as it may seem to be a step back, I am forced to see it as a step forward.


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