nana Plaza

Stickman Readers' Submissions December 13th, 2007

How It All Began Part 9

House warming ceremony

He Clinic Bangkok

The day finally arrived when everything was finished. It was time to have a celebration of our own. Our friends insisted that we absolutely had to have a major blow out. We had dozens of people who we needed to acknowledge for all the kindness that had shown us since our arrival in Lampang. In the end, over 200 people attended, including half a dozen policemen! Why the policemen?

When The Monkey heard about our planed party he made a concerted effort to prevent us from having it. “It’s against the law. You can’t block your street. You can’t have loud music, yada, yada, yada. I’ll call the police to shut it down!” Now by this time we knew he was all hot air. He had zero power to stop us from anything. In fact the story of he received his nickname from me was that one day he came over to harass our crew. When he left, I told them to ignore anything he has to say. I said: “He thinks he is King Kong, but he is only ling-lek (a little monkey)” It took 10 minutes for the laughter to stop! They started making monkey noises whenever they saw the shmuck.

We had had just about enough of The Monkey. It was time to shut him up once and for all. First we went to the local police sub branch and asked the chief officer for official permission to have our party. No problem! In fact he would come by himself with a few officers to help out! One of our friends knew a high ranking member of the police. We went to his office to complain about our continual harassment by The Monkey. Once again, no problem! Because there are so few farangs living in Lampang, he had actually heard of me, knew about my volunteer efforts. He told us that Lampang is happy to have a nice couple like you here. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. I have no idea what he did, but from that moment forward, The Monkey never bothered us again! When he sees me coming, he turns and quickly walks away muttering to himself.

A day before the monks came to perform the house blessing, we had a ceremony for our pheebaan (spirit house). Someone who specialized in this came by to perform the rite.

None of this has anything to do with Buddhism of course. Before they were Buddhists, the Thais were Animists, and still retain a lot of those beliefs in their daily lives. My college educated wife firmly believes in ghosts. One night when our baby (whom you haven’t been introduced to yet) was fussing, Som had me light candles and incense at the shrine, and set out a slice of pizza and a glass of beer to “make the ghosts happy”! Oh well, it’s all no sillier than Western religions, and at least no one is slaughtering anyone else in “in Buddha’s name”!

Some friends came by early the next morning to create a bamboo and string structure decorated with plants, fruit and flowers in our living room that we sat in while the monks said their prayers.

I don’t know about any of you reading this, but I really enjoy Buddhist payer ceremonies. The chanting seems to have a calming effect. Afterwards we served the monks breakfast and made a nice donation to the temple.

In front of our home a large marquis had been set up, along with a stage for the evening’s entertainment. Our crew had hired a band and some dancing girls as their gift to us.

Two meals were served that day. We had a lunch for a few dozen friends. This was a more laid back meal than dinner. We had hired a caterer from Isaan since all of Som’s family were visiting. They were damned fine cooks! That evening we had quite the extravaganza. Our house and the pavilion were lit with colored lights. No one we had invited refused their invitation. I had just started teaching full time at a school a few weeks before, and many English teachers, along with the school director were in attendance that night.

Som and I spent most of our time going from table to table chit chatting and making sure everyone had everything they needed. Then it was party time. The band was hot, and so were the dancers! You know that’s one of the things you’ve got to love about this country. It’s such a study in contrasts and seeming contradictions that all blend together beautifully. That morning we had chanting monks. Now we had scantily clad coyotes wiggling their butts on stage. Somehow it all fit! None of the middle-aged or even elderly woman seemed to mind, in fact they were up and dancing! I have no dancing ability what so ever, but that didn’t stop me from getting up with everyone else.

At one point it was time for Som and I to get up on stage and make speeches. I wasn’t worried. I had done quite a lot of public speaking in my life. Som was as nervous as a Siamese cat on a hot tin roof. One of our friends had taken on the role as master-of-ceremonies. She was perfect as she is a real ham. Before our speeches she called up various people who welcomed us to Lampang and wished us both chok-dee (good luck). Some friends had funny stories to tell, and I was the object of a good natured roasting, especially about my becoming a father at my age! Eventually we got up and gave our little speeches. I let everyone know how thankful we were to be living in Lampang, and to have such good friends, who were all jai-dee! We were happy to be part of the community and hoped we could make a real contribution to Lampang. A very pregnant Som was shaking like a leaf as she made her remarks, and several times was ready to burst into tears, but she made it through and received thunderous applause!

The singing and dancing went on into the wee hours. Among those having a great time was our contingent of policemen. Hey, it never hurts to be on the good side of the boys in brown!

Eventually the party was over, and we were ready to start life in earnest in our new home.

This next section is something I wrote over a year ago and sent to Phil at, but it fits into the sequence of events. Some of the wording may not fit into the structure of the story so far, because it was written as a stand alone piece. I’ve tried to go through and tidy up a bit. So here it is!

My life as a Farang teacher or

A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

I probably should have seen the writing on the wall when I was asked to sign a contract in a foreign language, without a translation. I should have just slowly backed away and then run for the hills, but I was a new farang teacher and so happy just to have gotten a job! One term later I know that in the future I should always trust my instincts.

When I first moved to Thailand I had no intention of becoming an English teacher. I was actually looking forward to an early retirement here in the Land of Smiles. I have always loved Thailand and had visited many times before. My darling wife was Thai, and after spending six happy years living in America we decided to move to Lampang. We both liked the North, but didn’t want to live in Chiang Mai. For us, Lampang was perfect; not too big and not too small. We quickly settled in, made many Thai friends, and built a lovely home. In short I was here to stay!

It wasn’t long that people starting coming out of the woodwork, asking me to teach themselves or their children English. Of course I was happy to do so. I wanted to be a good neighbor and perhaps rack up some good karma. Often I did so at no charge. I started doing some volunteer work at a local school. Of course my wife, like most Thai women, controls the purse strings, and quickly decided that if I was going to be teaching, that I should be paid for it. So why not apply for a teaching position at one of the local high schools. Why not indeed? I actually have a degree in education so I might as well put it to use.

It wasn’t long before I was joining three other Farang teachers and preparing for my first day of class. Two of them, Ajarn M. from Australia and Ajarn D. from America had started here last year. Ajarn R. from Australia, like me was a newbie. All of them were first rate educators and great people. It was nice to make some Farang friends. I love the Thais, but sometimes you just want to talk to some folks who share your background and interests.

The Thai members of the English department seemed friendly enough, but from the very beginning were useless as far as giving out any practical information. Was there a syllabus? Were there textbooks? No, just make it up as you go along. Okay, no problem. I have plenty of ideas and there is so much information on all the ESL web sites. What were the policies and procedures that needed to be followed? No answer, even from the department head. Okay….just use my best judgment and common sense. Can I have a copy of the academic calendar? To date I still don’t have one! The only way I knew if there’s an upcoming day off is when I say to a class, “See you next week”, and the students tell me that there is no class that day. Ajarn M. and Ajarn D. have been as much in the dark as me. They told me never to hold my breath waiting for any information whatsoever, because it would never arrive. They of course have been 100% correct. When Thailand had yet another one of their military coups (Thai democracy in action), no one bothered to call us and tell us not to bother to show up at school. I didn’t know anything had happened until I arrived and saw the gates locked and armed soldiers patrolling the area!

Work permits? Five months have gone by and we still don’t have one! There is always one excuse or another, but the end result is always no work permits. Ajarn M. and Ajarn R. have wound up in plenty of hot water because of the school’s inability (or unwillingness) to fulfill their legal obligations. Ajarn R. had to fly to Laos last month and spent quite a lot of money out of his pocket. Since the teacher’s visas are tied to the contracts and work permits, not having the required paperwork is completely unacceptable.
But try telling that to the school officials. All you’ll hear is that we are a bunch of ingrates. That they have done everything for us and that all we do is complain! Luckily, I’m married to a Thai national, so I simply
went and got my own visa. But if I had waited for the school, I would be in violation now and would have incurred an astronomical fine! <Technically you are in violation of the law by working without a work permit but in a small town where you are seen as valuable to the community this would seldom be an issueStick>

To say that there is a lack of communication here would be an understatement. We have been in full mushroom mode since day one. Perhaps it is because when you come down to it, the Thai teachers resent the presence of Farang teachers at their school. We get paid more than they do, we have more freedom than they do, and of course we know more about teaching English than they do!

This brings us to the actual job of teaching. This is where most of my real headaches began. I’ve been teaching 18 classes, one period per week. Most of them are Matayom 4, with a few Matayom 3 classes. The average class size is close to 50. I of course knew that because of cultural differences that there would need to be some adjustment as how to communicate. My Thai is extremely limited. When I want a good giggle out of the class all I need to do is speak some!

What I encountered on my very first day was enough to drive one to tears…or to drink! With all the wais Thais perform everyday, one might think that the typical student would be more polite and respectful than his or her American counterpart…well you would be wrong! My first classes were complete and utter madhouses! The students would not even lower their voices to listen to me. I was reduced to practically shouting to be heard. I thought, well maybe they are just giving the new teacher a little initiation. Next time it will be better. Wishful thinking on my part.

When I commented to the department head on my problems, I was told that I don’t understand Thai culture. Why would I expect the students to be quiet? And after all, they probably just didn’t understand me, and were discussing among themselves what I was saying! So begins the real trip down the rabbit hole.

Among the other things I “learned” from my Thai supervisor during the following months were: The reason they are doing other teacher’s homework in your class is that that is more important than what you are trying to teach them. The same is true as to why they are not doing the homework you give them…and why are you giving them homework anyway. You were brought here to teach conversation. (Maybe I’m giving it because the amount of English vocabulary they understand is pathetic?)

I should say that in the end most of my students were fine. After a period of adjustment most of them learned to appreciate my style of teaching. Out of over 700 + students, 70% wound up getting
a good or excellent first term grade from me. (If course I was a VERY generous grader.)

But the other 30% were simply taking up space, if they bothered to show up at all. When they did, the girls spent more time putting on make-up and doing each other’s hair than listening to me. Or they were playing with their cell phones, reading Anime books, or just plain old gossiping. The boys spent most of their time simply being surly.

Any and every attempt I made to discipline them was met by a stern rebuff from the English department. Of course as a farang I knew I could not use corporal punishment, so I tried all kinds of other techniques. I had them stand in the corner of the classroom, until I ran out of corners. I tried marching them up to the English department, hoping that they would at least receive a lecture on respect. Of course they didn’t even hear one sternly spoke word, and once out in the corridor simply laughed at me in a mocking way. I had them write 1000 times: “I must be quiet in Ajarn L’s class”, or “I must do the homework for Ajarn L’s class”. Needless to say that I was told from the powers to be to stop this “cruel” punishment. I tried simply throwing them out of the classroom so that I could teach those students who wanted to learn. Not allowed. Instead I received lectures saying that there are no naughty students, that I am simply not “motivating” them! Sometimes I feel that I’ve been sentenced to some kind of Orwellian alternate reality, where Ignorance is Bliss. We Farang teachers often joke about this school as being the Ministry of Love.

Fast forward to the time for giving out grades. We were given a flash-drive with a grading program completely in Thai. No one, despite many requests would show us how to use it! Ask Ajarn M. I was told, he was here last year. I’m too busy. Unfortunately Ajarn M. had only the vaguest clue how to use it! Somehow all of us stumbled through the process without having a clue of whether what we were doing was correct!

When I handed in my results, I was in for another nasty surprise. Apparently this school has top ranking in the area, and so NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO FAIL. That includes the 90 students who I gave a score of zero. These are the sweet boys and girls who: came to class only if they felt like it, and then came 15-20 minutes late; would not pay the least amount of attention; disrupted the class continually, and finally did not hand in even ONE piece of homework for 5 months! I was told to change these 90 grades, not only from zeros, but to passing grades!

Oh, I see. This is how the school has such a high ranking! It gets even worse than this. Ajarn R. teaches Matayom 6. When he gave his classes a test for written English, 75% failed. The Thai solution? Post the test answers in the hallway, so that the students can learn the correct answers, and then retest them! Not surprisingly, every student received a perfect score! Guess which test results were recorded?

I have steadfastly refused to change ANY of my grades. If the administration wishes to do so, they can go ahead and do so, but I won’t be part of that little scheme!

What I wound up doing is going over EVERYONE’S head here. Luckily I am friends with the former director of the school. Last year I tutored her two grand daughters, and she likes my wife and I. Three of us teachers visited her home and poured out to her all that I’ve talked about here. Now this woman is a formidable lady and extremely well respected in the community. When she talks, people listen! She immediately set up a meeting with the English department to discuss all our concerns. Immediately the atmosphere got extremely frosty around here. The meeting turned out about the way I expected. The Thai teachers kept going on and on about how we simply didn’t understand Thai culture, yada, yada yada. There was a lot of shouting. Luckily the former director is still on our side. She conferred with the present director, and promises were given about improvements for the future. And my 90 failures?

Their parents will be contacted. They and their children will have to attend a special meeting, and the students will have a few intensive days to make up at least some of the work. I was willing to accept that compromise…if it truly happens!

And the future? Hopefully I can make it through the end of my contract with no major incidents. After that I’ll just have to wait and see. There are plenty of other schools in the area if things don’t improve. Despite all of my problems, I can I honestly say that I enjoy teaching in Thailand. The good students make it all worthwhile. I have a dozen girls who come over to our home each weekend to learn cooking from me. (I have a degree in Culinary Arts). You’d be amazed how much English you can absorb by learning to make pizza, cookies, ice cream etc.!

And the best news? Last week my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy! Hopefully he will be able to integrate the best of two cultures into his life.

Stickman's thoughts:

Teaching English in Thailand can be fun, but in some Thai high schools it can be a nightmare. I am surprised you stuck at it for so long, given that you do not need to work – but good on you for doing so! It's an important job and the needs in rural Thailand, and in fact pretty much anywhere outside the main centres are great.