Steve Tainton

Poverty's paradise

Meeting kindred spirits

I have yet to find the road to riches,
though I have discovered a path to
poverty teaching in Thailand.

I thought I was alone. I felt helpless and isolated. I wished there was someone I could talk to, someone who understood me. Mine was a misery that wanted for company. So you can imagine my elation at finding a support group for people like myself. It’s called the Society for Teachers Underpaid in Country, but we tend use the acronym. How I happened onto STUC is a story in and of itself, involving some heavy consumption of Samsong whiskey, and that I prefer left untold.

My first meeting was a revelation. I felt that a great weight had been lifted. To know that there is not only another individual, but in fact many other individuals that are in the same situation as oneself is nothing short of cathartic. I shed more than my share of tears when I heard a fellow attendee, whom I’ll call Ron, tell of his recent hardship when a soi dog in his neighborhood made off with one of his flip-flops leaving him to assort a mixed pair from the remaining half and one from a previous canine-footwear-jacking incident. Poor Ron was a week from payday and it was either a new pair of sandals or his Sing and smokes; Ron chose wisely, but had to bear the brunt of giggles and snorts from his in-laws for an entire week. I felt his pain.

The next week Phil turned up and I was no longer the new guy. He stood up and introduced himself, “Hi. My name is Phil and I am stuck in Thailand.” “Hi Phil,” we echoed back. Phil’s story was a hard-luck one, but nothing unusual for us lot to hear. He had come to Thailand after University and the first couple years had been good. He was able to save a heady ten-thousand baht a month. He got involved with a woman and used his savings as a down payment on one of those flash townhouses with a faux balcony on the second floor. Things were ok, but then he got swallowed up in mortgage payments, UBC fees and the cost of school uniforms for his girlfriend’s kids. Last month he sold his 100cc Honda Wave. Now it’s songtaew or sandals for the old boy when he wants to get around. He said he’d like to go back to Blighty, but he doesn’t have money for the air ticket and his parents pulled life support after his trip to Pattaya last year and ‘Western Union mix-up’ as he calls it. At least he got laid.

Week three was a surprise. We had a lady in our midst. She didn’t think it would ever happen to her. “It’s just that when I used to hear about people stuck in Thailand it’s like that’s too bad, but it won’t happen to me. Boy, was I wrong!” She was wearing one of those Same Same T-shirts that they sell on Khao San. It looked like she’d had it for a longtime (by the way, you can sell just about anything in Bangkok and some of the guys in STUC know where you can get the best deal for your used threads). Doug, our group leader, offered her a Krung Thep cigarette. It was a generous offer – Doug isn’t doing any better than the rest of us, he just likes pointing. She smoked, cried and told us her story. “I had a really good job. I was making fifty-thousand baht a month. Then some friends from the States, they were like, ‘let’s go on a trip around Southeast Asia.’ and I was like, ‘cool’. So we went, but they kept buying expensive drinks and shopping and using their credit cards and stuff and I was like, ‘me too’ and then I got the statement and I was like, ‘no way!’, except it was true and so I had to pay off the debt while earning baht and the fifty thousand a month was, like, about what the interest was. That was three years ago. No one in the USA is interested in my resume because of the black hole in it. But I haven’t given up. I’m thinking about selling some local handcrafts on Ebay.” There was a collective sigh. We all knew the Ebay stage - the bird was in denial.

Last week was pretty cool. We did a potluck dinner and someone even brought pizza – cold and a couple days old, but pizza nonetheless. I pitched in with somtam and sticky rice, which evidently wasn’t that inspired because the cardboard boxes we were using as tables were lined with the same. Oh well. I got to chatting with an old hand that refers to himself in the third person as PiJon and sports a nice gold chain that I might have nicked if PiJon hadn’t been twice my size. PiJon doesn’t consider himself stuck in Thailand, but he likes socializing with farang once and a again. He says that every time he gets enough money for a tank full of diesel he brings the pickup down from Isaan for a visit to Nana, Cowboy and of course STUC. He turned me on to the fact that rice whiskey is a lot cheaper than Samsong. Thanks PiJon.

All and all, the guys (and gal) at STUC are really great. We share our hopes and dreams, our humiliation and shame, and sometimes tips on schools that will hire even if you can’t afford a necktie for the interview. I don’t think people should make fun or look down on us. I mean, you wouldn’t laugh at someone who had cancer. Being stuck in Thailand is like a disease - nobody chooses it. I think Doug summed it up when he said, “Look, if we go home now we’ll be on the bottom of our respective societies, but by continuing to teach in Thailand we guarantee ourselves a place firmly in the middle of this one.”

Anyway, if you still have a left and right sandal of any sort, and you can bum some fags (newbie fee), then why not drop by STUC and tell us your story. I promise not to steal your gold… but then again, if you had any you probably wouldn’t need us. See you soon.


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