“An autobiography is only to be trusted
when it reveals something disgraceful.
A man who gives a good account of himself
is probably lying, since any life when viewed
from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”
Although I am tempted to see this column’s niche as that of humo(u)r, parody and facetious rendering of life as an English teacher in Asia, my foray into long-winded, first person narrative last month got more feedback than usual. It seems that there are some out there who actually want more. I received several responses mentioning an interest in my life in Isaan, the job scene and so on. Well, some writers write for their own gratification, I am not among them; I’ll easily prostitute myself for a bit of praise. So, with no further ado (or doodoo), I give you my life in Isaan: December ’04 - July ’05.
I arrived in December from Japan and was joined by my long-time girlfriend, now wife, for a week in Koh Chang. After a pleasant vacation, we returned to Bangkok greeted by the news of the tragic tsunami that we were fortunate to have avoided by being in the wrong place at the right time with an isthmus of land between us and the disaster. We then made our way to Khon Kaen.
I should jump back at this point to clarify why we had chosen Khon Kaen to settle down in. Firstly, my wife is from the general area. Secondly, Khon Kaen was big enough, and with a University, to promise decent opportunity for an English teacher. Thirdly, I have a special place deep within me that is reserved for the sole purpose of loathing Bangkok. And so we found ourselves in deepest, darkest Isaan. No, strike that – Khon Kaen is Isaan at its most cosmopolitan and refined. The city is no beauty, but I have yet to find any Thai city that is, nonetheless Khon Kaen has a lake in the center, the city streets our laid out on a grid, and the larger avenues are much wider than in places like Ubon Thani, all of which lend Khon Kaen a feeling of openness and not sheer urban intrusion. There is a Big C and Tesco for those seeking high-end items. For those seeking intellectual stimulation there is a Pizza Co., McDonald’s and KFC where the local intelligentsia can be found mulling over the machinations and vicissitudes of life in the driest region of the country. Also there are expat bars if you find the discussion of the high-society types at the former to taxing.
Finding a rental place was all too easy. We simply hired a tuk-tuk to drive us around the local housing estates, or moo bahn, where we would inquire with security guard at the gate as to whether anything was for rent. It took us two days to find something that suited us perfectly. It was a small house with a little yard on the outskirts of town for only three thousand five hundred baht a month. The landlord had us in the house only a couple days later. Dealing with him would be the first in several now-I’m-in-Thailand learning-curve experiences.
Moved into the house we faced the next problem of finding reliable transportation. For all its metropolitan flair, there is a dearth of available tuk-tuks in Khon Kaen, its songtaew-bus system is convoluted at best, and I’ll be damned if I am riding a motorcycle for any length of time – chalk it up to my strange fondness for an intact skeletal structure. We bought a car. That was not an expense I had anticipated, but of several decisions I now regret, that was not one. The simple luxury of having my own car after years of hoofing it everywhere in Japan is well worth the investment, and then there is the whole intact skeletal thing to consider.
In the meantime I had been on the job hunt as well. Using the ajarn.com job database I contacted a local language school. The location was nice and it was obvious that the proprietors had invested a decent amount of money in it. The space was large, fully air-conned, well appointed and bespoke professionalism. I would learn that looks can indeed be deceiving. The management offered my thirty thousand a month, a visa and a fair schedule. I didn’t even bother to look elsewhere. I should have.
Back to the landlord. We were trying to get a phone line for the internet when it first came out that he might not, in fact, be the owner. There was some irregularity with the bank. Through a jumble of translated Thai it appeared that he had either defaulted on the loan or was never approved for it. I simply shook my head. The man had the keys to the place and repeatedly repaired our water pump, so we continued to pay him the rent.
I was back to the language school for a second interview. It turned out that the job only paid twenty four thousand a month for one hundred ground hours – not all of them teaching. They still held out the promise of a visa and hinted that they had contacts at the University that could supplement my hours. I wasn’t fully discouraged yet.
One late afternoon a very rich lady pulled up in front of our house. I knew she must have had money because she was driving one of those Japanese compact sedans that are the sole domain of Chinese Thai and Western insurance salesmen. In any case, she claims that she is the real-estate developer and from now on we will be paying her rent as she owns the house. Of course this is not wholly true; she is only the sister-in-law of the real-estate developer, but I am starting to learn that in Thailand the truth doesn’t emerge until you have met someone several times…if it ever does. When we contacted the man claiming to be the owner he stated he had no knowledge of Miss Piggy (yes her nickname was Muu – I wish I was making this up). Of course that wasn’t true either and we have never heard from the original ‘owner’ since. Luckily, it would seem everything worked itself out, though I am worried about our initial deposit and whether or not Miss Piggy will refund it to us given the situation.
Skipping forward a month or so, I am employed at the language school and have given them every form of paperwork necessary for a visa. But wait, it appears there is a problem. I should have high-tailed it out of the school when they told me they had never processed a teacher’s visa before. I had even read that somewhere on ajarn.com., something to the effect that ‘if your employer has never done a visa before – good luck.’ They were so ignorant of the procedure that I had to get online to find the information, then I had to ask them if they had the two-million baht in company capitalization that was required of a private language school wishing to employ a foreigner. Of course they didn’t, but they were fairly confident they could get me a teacher’s license (for those not in the know, a teacher’s license is meaningless if you can’t get the non-immigrant visa). I was starting to get good at this Thailand thing. I don’t even think I shook my head anymore.
As I was dealing with my silly employer I started to look elsewhere. I made the mistake of taking on part-time lessons at another private language school. Relative to this new school, my full-time employer was the picture of competence and professionalism. On my first day I was set to teach a class of eighteen students. Not one came. The staff blamed it on the rain. I blamed it on the staff. That wasn’t my first lesson, but it was my last. Like a gifted karate student I was racing through the grades in Thai related living soon I would be approaching my black belt.
It was during the same several months that I was dealing with my employment and visa situation that my wife started house shopping, this in turn sparked a lot of thinking about financial issues that I discussed last month. It was around April that I decided that I would be back in Japan at some point. Several months later I decided that it should be sooner rather than later and told my employers I would be leaving in August.
Not surprisingly, I am still wrestling with the administration over issues of fair pay, planning time and sensible class-size and leveling. To be perfectly fair, they are not unscrupulous as much as unaware of what goes on in the classroom and what sort of planning is necessary for classes like TOEFL or Business Writing. I suppose another observation that many old-time Thai hands are familiar with is the Thai penchant for trying to please everyone. Several of my classes have been extended due to student cancellations and are now causing scheduling conflicts with new classes. Inability to make good on promises seems to be a double-edged sword that cuts both teachers and students alike. I will leave my Business Writing class halfway through the fifty hour course with no replacement in sight; the same can be said for a TOEFL class that will have a dozen hours outstanding when I leave at the end of August. Both of these classes were opened well after I had given my resignation date.
Despite everything, I am having a great time in Khon Kaen. The nightlife is good relative to its size, far better than anything in Japan. There are several discos for the dancing inclined, dozens of venues with live music, more restaurants than you could shake a (chop)stick at. The city traffic isn’t too bad and there is free parking everywhere. My decision to return to Japan was explained last month by economics and has nothing to do with any dissatisfaction otherwise. Most of the snags that I have hit were at least partially expected. I have found Khon Kaen more livable than I had hoped. As much as I dislike visa runs, I don’t fear them like I did before arriving in the country. The car and the house on the outskirts of town afford me a degree of insularity that I could never find in Japan, meaning most of my interaction with Thais is limited to the classroom and very positive. Honestly, if I had a financial windfall today I would keep my butt right here.
Khon Kaen is probably a better fit for the highly adventurous, highly adaptable new teacher or someone with a bit of TIT under the belt. Access to Western amenities is limited and there is the dual Thai/Lao language barrier. On the other hand, the people are among the friendliest in the Land of Smiles and very few tourists come through, meaning that the amicable attitude toward foreign residents remains fairly unspoiled. In any case, if anyone is interested in an underpaid teaching position that doesn’t offer a visa, I know of an opening coming up quite soon.