Readers' Submissions

Rong Rian Antarai




Continuing on from the previous chapter of this report on my return to Thailand in 2006, I woke up on Sunday morning, May 28th, with four weeks of visa left, a mobile yet rather blood-stained Honda with bent footpegs, and an appointment for a massage courtesy of Dr Kom at 11:00. The bike was in better shape than I was.

Left-handedly dragging the rucksacks down to the carpark, I noticed that the dislocated right shoulder had stiffened up rather painfully. A couple of broken ribs were knocking the heart and lungs around inside, and the usual early-morning smoker's cough just wasn't an option. It hurt more than it helped to cough Bangkok and Marlboro from the windpipes. I let them be. Checking out of the Natnum Apartments, it was only 20km down to Amphur Rayong and the Orchid Hotel.

DR KOM TO THE RESCUE

It was a pleasure to meet Dr Kom again after months away. She'd given up the fags and the Sangsom, and looked ten years younger than I remembered; really beautiful. She'd finally put herself through a massage course at Wat Po, up in Bangkok a few months earlier, and really seemed to be taking proactive control of her life again. She took pride in showing me her 3500 baht certificate from Wat Po, and I was proud to know her for what she'd sacrificed to better herself, away from that slow, downhill path she was on the year before. She turns 44 this year.

Her expertise was most beneficial that day. She couldn't undo the damage I'd done falling off motorcycles, but she knew how to gently work the deltoid muscles back into their rightful places again. She knew better than to muck around with the ribs. That posed a bit of a cardio-vascular risk, we agreed. Jep! Jai mai sabai. (Ouch! Heart no okay.)

Two hours later, I felt sort of rejuvenated, and hopped on the bike for the trip back to Nonthaburi. Sometime around 16:00, I made it back to the TUB Mansion, asked Suphap for a hose, and had a go at single-handedly scrubbing the blood off the Honda. Then it was up to the room to work on lesson plans for the six classes I was expected to edu-tain the next day.

MONSTER IN THE CLASSROOM

Five tiger-plasts sort of covered the facial damage on Monday morning, still I was hardly suay. I stopped into the agency before school to pick up some text books that had been undersupplied the previous week. I asked the girl managing the office if she thought it was better to go to work looking like Frankenstein's monster, or take an unpaid week off and let my wounds heal. She said she didn't know. That helped. I made it to school before the national anthem was sung, and went to class.

Being right-handed, writing on the blackboard was most entertaining, particularly for fifteen year olds. I couldn't raise my right arm above shoulder-height without taking the wrist in my left hand, and some of my mattayom 3 classes were in hysterics watching me add points to their team's score at the top of the board. Elder classes that week really showed some compassion, helping me dust the blackboards and stuff. One young lad even offered to write on the blackboard for me. He was a rather mature mattayom 2 student, if I remember.

Speculation on what had happened to Mr Sean's face was quite a conversation topic that week, but eventually Friday came, and I'd had the chance to explain the cause of my ugliness to every mattayom class in the school from 2 to 6. Word had passed around, the consensus being that motorcycles are just too dangerous for farang. It was better than the supposition I'd most feared, that they'd think I'd been hit over the head with a bottle in a drunken brawl, for that's what I looked like.

The following week eventually came to include a Friday off to celebrate the King's 60th anniversary. The thought of a few days off, (five in fact), was most welcome in my unfortunate state, although it meant a week away from my favourite class.

THAI MENSA

Mattayom 6.1 were brilliant students. In the first week, one of the lads was inclined to raise his hand to answer questions before I'd asked them. He knew it all. The question might then become something like, "What is the speed of light?" Or "What is the average surface temperature of the planet Venus to a precision of ten degrees celsius?" Not quite English teaching, but Mr Speed-of-light could answer in English. I assume he could have answered the same questions in pasa Thai, and probably a dozen other languages, from the impression he gave. Compared with "What it you name?", and "Where do you fom?", he and his cohorts allowed me to take pasa Angkrit to another level.

The agency-prescribed lesson plan for this class for the first week focused on a discussion of the Songkran holiday, with the students to report where they'd been and what they'd done over the holidays. One student, whose student number, I later discovered was #1, spent Songkran on The Moon. After a short reparte on ticket prices and whether we could still hire bicycles on The Moon, I withdrew back to factual topics and asked her, "What is the distance from Earth to Moon?" "One thousand kilometres." She replied in absolutely perfect British English. Almost correct! I reckoned she was smart enough to purposely provide the wrong answer, just to see how clever the teacher was. Besides, The Moon does follow a slightly eccentric path, so there's no perfect kilometric answer over any particular month. She was jolly smart, alright, and whatever Mr-Speed_of_light may think, I got the impression that she'd always manage to stay one step ahead of him.

In Australia in the early '80s, we all did IQ tests in primary school to see who'd be admitted to a newly-envisaged high school class, initially dubbed the IT program, which stood for intellectually-talented. Social dancing classes were a real buzz, for there were nineteen boys, and only six girls in the class. We "it" boys didn't get much chance to demonstrate our jive.

Although the boys outnumbered the girls intellectually, the one student who went from first-year junior high-school straight to senior high-school, skipping two years, was Debra.

She and I'd had a competition to complete three years of high-school algebra over a couple of months. She was always slightly quicker than I, and she wasn't trying too hard to beat me, I was Mr. Number Two. The hypothesis we young blokes came up with to explain the "Debra Phenomenon" back then, was that while most women were relatively dull (slightly), once in a while there is a girl with enough mental capacity to make up the shortfall and leave the rest of us far back in her wake, bringing the tally back to gender equality. My apologies to female readers, for I do not mean to offend on this one minor human trait about schooling. High intellect without good manners doesn't make the man. Further, the following year, the Academic Extension Programme division of the Western Australian Education Department apparently devised a "female IQ" test, so that future dancing classes could retain equal numbers of boys and girls. Thailand and the Mississippi River aren't the only places in the world where Mark Twain might reflect that truth is, infact, stranger than fiction.

Miss Moonlady, student number 1 in mattayom 6.1, seemed to possess the same, super-sized degree of genius as Debra, although I'd doubt she was a practiced exponent of happy-meals, and nor was Deb. Mr. Speed-of-light? He knew it all, and this young lady, she had it all, at her feet. I hope they both still do.

They were all 45 of them clever kids, though. Most of my time after school was spent down at the Internet cafe, researching lesson plans for them, getting my facts right for mattayom 6.1. They really made up for the future monkey-catchers and jailbirds in some of my mattayom 3 classes, and balanced my impression of the Thai school system.

Every morning from the teachers' room, we stood to hear the prathom and anuban kids sing the national anthem. Then after lunch, I'd get to stand under a tree down by the mattayom building and listen to them all assembled in neat lines outside the classrooms singing more songs.

Maybe it's the tonal nature of the Thai language? Thai high-school girls sing far more on-key than their Australian counterparts. Yeah, the boys have a little trouble holding a note, like most of the breaking-voice population around the world, but gee, the girls can really, really sing. This was one of the positive factors that tended to attach me to the whole farang teacher vocation. For all the bullshit, the heat, the problem kids, the low pay, the wounded face, shoulder, spleen, brain, and the pain, hearing them sing, nothing else mattered.

THE SERIOUS APPROACH

I guess I became engrossed in the newfound novelty of the whole teaching thing. There are two opinions I remember mentioning to other teachers and my boss. One was that these were not sacks of rice to load onto a truck, but human beings. The other was that while a doctor might fix up your body, teachers were special because they worked with the mind. Put some effort in, and be thankful that you're not picking rice, was my gist in general. Hmmm. I think I may have begun to take it too seriously. My sanuk had taken vacation down a narrow-minded path.

During lunchtime on Thursday June 8th, my boss's manager called me and asked if I could drop into the office after school. He said he had some ideas to help me discipline my unruly mattayom 3 classes. The ideal solution was not within his budget, nor is it legal for farang teachers to carry unconcealed firearms to school in the central provinces. I'd finished each class that day by writing on the blackboard, and verbally repeating, "Enjoy your holiday! See you next week!"

That afternoon at the office, the manager changed his mind and informed me that because the sole farang teacher at another school was consistently falling asleep during his classes, I was to be transferred to that new school, around ten km down the road from the new, monthly-rate apartment I'd just signed a four-month lease on, and paid four grand deposit.

"When do you want me to start?" I asked him with totally contrived enthusiasm. "Next week." Hmmm. What would Mr Speed-of-light and Miss Moonlady think if I failed to turn up? Another farang teacher disappears off to Ko Samui, or the usual excuse. I was (seriously) hurt. One more week would have made the difference, to say goodbye. On the Friday, two weeks after accident tee song (#2), my face had finally healed enough not to need band-aids, but it was too late. Broken hearts don't mend quickly. Mine still has not. I don't think that that is one I shall ever forget.

One positive aspect of the Tuesday holiday before starting at the new school, was meeting a beautiful young teacher from The Phillipines, who I was supposed to take over from, teaching mattayom 1 to 3. We met at The Mall and she rode down to the Nonthaburi Pier on the back of my bike, which I thought was pretty gutsy (brave of her) after what she heard I'd been through in my mo-sai escapades. Our one hour briefing turned into six hours of cool chat in a restaurant by the river. I think she kind of liked me, and it wasn't difficult to reciprocate. We became friends, working for the same agency in a platonic kind of way, with a little SMS flirtation when appropriate.

Wednesday and Thursday were okay at the new school, except that they didn't sing. The kids were comparatively better-educated in English, and one of my classrooms was air-conditioned, and had whiteboards. Wow. Things were looking up apart from the singing void and extra travel-time.

Then a Ventolin inhaler ran out prematurely (a day after purchase) on that Thursday night, and I had a most memorable asthma attack from around 23:00 until 08:00 the next morning, when the drug stores opened and I could replace the Ventolin with one that reliably diffused the good stuff – salbutamol I think they call it. I was waiting outside when they opened shop, in a typical display of survival instinct.

Asthma seems a little like drowning sometimes, only longer lasting, less peaceful, and often it takes a day to let the body and mind re-oxygenate. I called in sick that Friday. I was a wreck.

On Saturday morning at around 10:15, I was down in the carpark, polishing the Honda, when the manager called and asked me to head down to another school on Monday near Chatchuchak (sic) Market to observe another teacher from The Netherlands in action. What a nice school. Elevators to the ninth floor, working ceiling-fans throughout, and really well-behaved kids. Apparently the Thai teacher for the first class thought that I was there to assist that day, meaning he needn't be. The Dutch teacher sent me off to find him, which I couldn't, and he then closed the class twenty minutes early. A cardinal sin, so they'd told us at the seminars, but he'd been teaching longer than me, and knew how pointless it could be trying to teach a class without a Thai teacher present to instill a little discipline. Ngiap! Ngiap! Quiet! Quiet! The rest of the day, Thai teachers were present in both his classes, and things went quietly and smoothly. The kids listened and participated in his classes. How uncanny. Hmmm. That taught me something.

That night, it occurred to me that if the agency could transfer me from one school to another without notice, and find an excuse to innocently explain their mistake to the kids with the farang becoming the scapegoat, they may do it again. In my opinion, the student-teacher relationship would suffer in such an instance, casting new farang teachers in a more unpleasant light until proving otherwise, which I didn't want to be part of. Without a native Thai teacher in the class, this relationship was quite an important part of the learning process, and I (seriously) contemplated methods I might use to overcome the problem.

Having only taught for two days, then been absent for another two, once by illness, the other by the manager's request, the solution was quite simple. I seriously quit. Staying away was better than knowing my students for a month before the possibility of another transfer, repeating the breach of promise I'd been forced to make at the first school. I'd been taken for another farang goose to be shot from the sky at a convenient time, again.

It was better to leave of my own accord, in this instance. My friend from Manila was soon back at her old school again, this time taking my place. She wasn't the type to take her work too seriously. She was too beautiful and probably only getting paid half what it cost them for farang teachers anyway.

The agency asked me to baby sit a couple of Saturday classes at their office, which was a fairly simple 500 yard commute. However hangman games lose lustre fairly quickly for some 38 year old teachers, and 1000 baht per week wasn't helping my savings plan too much. Luckily, they never did pay me, so the problem never required any arithmetic – nothing from nothing leaves nothing. Mai pen rai.

THE IDES OF JUNE BELATED

On Saturday, July 1st, between "classes", my delightfully attractive friend from Manila called me to see if we could bring our Sunday date forward to that Saturday afternoon. We'd planned to see the new Superman movie at The Mall, and were about at that stage of the relationship to move beyond handshakes, just a little bit, if you get my geist. Without time to think with the "big head", I foolheartedly agreed to meet her after class, before getting back to warden the little ruffians for a few more hours.

Back home after four hours of "creative" classes, I was lost for a solution for this employment issue, and Ajarn.com was going through a quiet phase in the Nonthaburi region. I couldn't see myself just taking off to Kalasin or Mukdahan having agreed to herd the Saturday flocks in Nonthaburi. It wasn't about the money, thank goodness, but Nonthaburi was my extent of my turf, while that commitment stood in place.

On the whole, the profession just wasn't producing the kind of personal outcomes my imagination had described, and reality checks took precedence that afternoon. The phrase that stuck in my mind most was "No money, no honey.", and that was what I saw coming when I thought of Miss Manila. Being the kind of fellow who needed to shave his face everyday to look presentable, what motive would any beautiful woman have to love the idea of having a family with me if I was stricken with poverty. In pasa Thai, I think "soom" would be about the right word to answer that question. The transliteration to English being "zero".

I was also lost for words and sent her an SMS message something along the lines that I was tired, mentally and physically. I wrote that I didn't feel that my mood could do justice to either her nor Clark Kent that night, and could we make our date for the Sunday, as originally proposed. Fairly gutless of me to SMS, rather than make the call in person. Her reply SMS was quite scathing. "Okay, cancel then. Stand me up. Bye." I'm naturally attracted to intelligent, hard-headed women, but boy, I'd made the wrong choice of words this time.

It was exactly forty days before she returned any of my carefully dated emails or SMS messages, and I was afraid to telephone after what she'd said. I'd heard her shout at her students before, and certainly didn't want to be on the receiving end of her harsh words, myself. For a five foot one sheila, she was good at it. I guess the forty day thing indicated that she'd done time at Sunday School as a kid. Nah, that'd be a long shot. At least we're distant friends again now, although I continue to bite my tongue …

IN VINOS VERITOS (There is truth in wine)

Still further disappointed, I took myself down to an Italian restaurant named Muno's in Pak Kret that Saturday night for dinner, and did my best to drink as much Singha as possible, to get all these worries off my mind. The work, the women, there wasn't much else to think about other than beer and lasagna.

By 20:30, the band at the Country Saloon in Lak Si were all set to cover John Denver, The Hollies and Al Stewart, in a country where they can turn back time, if you've got the cash. The place was fairly busy that night, and no young ladies were available to sit by my side and order drinks on my account. I sat alone and sang along with the band at the top of my drunken lungs. Then Sue walked in the door.

I wondered if Miss Pen, the manageress, had called her back on duty that night to cope with the influx, and shut me up a little. Sue's English was superb, moreover she wasn't slurring her words like I was. I bought her a few Pepsii. Eighteen beers later, I dropped her outside her apartment in Muang Thong Thani, traded phone numbers, and found my way home to sleep off the booze for a day or two. She didn't work for the bar. …..

June wasn't a very exciting month. I think July had a few more interesting times, so I'll get those written up next week.

By the way, it ain't bird-flu after all. The doc finally came clean about the blood-test results. Antibodies for Ross River Virus were found at last. Don't fret, it's not on-sale in Thailand yet, only Oz and PNG. I might have a little longer to sit around here in my apartment and ramble on in Readers' Submissions. They say RRV can effect one's concentration span and intellect, so that's my excuse for this diatribe.

Only three more months to try to elucidate, for want of anything much else to do. I hope it passes inspection and that there's at least one audient soul left reading my October rant in a few weeks, for what it's worth.

When I was 16, a good friend of my Father's explained to me that 90% of the world's people were morons. Am I adding the quota up to 91%? Let me know, and I'll try to adjust my style.

Thanks for reading, sincerely.

Stickman's thoughts:

Just a comment on the asthma thing. Don't use Ventolin forever as it treats the symptoms of the problem, but not the problem itself. I have had mild asthma and went and saw a specialist at a local hospital who got me off Ventolin and on to something else. That ran its course and now I am asthma and drug free – which is great!