My Curious Academic Career in Thailand
Hello everyone. First of all let me say that I don't hate everything about Thailand. I have been here for two years only. I don't hate Thai driving and I have no opinion about Thai politics (I think they're fascinating, actually, and the prime minister is a fox).
I came here to work. I finished my PhD in the humanities and I wanted an academic career. I tried Europe first. Two years and about 100 job applications later ("we've received 1400 applications for 1 job," I was told once, "it's the crisis, you know") I decided to follow my old dream of living in Asia. I thought about Japan first, but I knew it would be even more difficult there than it is in Europe, so I came to Thailand.
I knew nothing about the country, other than its bad reputation. Actually, I was a bit embarrassed at first. I didn't want people to think of me as a sex tourist. Then again, if they do there's nothing I can do about it, so I no longer care about that. I came here because it seemed easy: there is plenty of practical information online, all foreigners seem to find jobs etc. Of course, I had had a bad case of yellow fever since my teens, so women were always in the back of my mind (but this is a different story).
After a couple of months, I found a job at a provincial Thai university. This is what I've discovered over the past two years:
University is a reflection of Thai society as a whole. This might sound obvious, but it makes the whole thing look like a bit of a farce. For instance, group work is way more important than individual effort. What is more, individuality is frowned upon. I know this is an Asian thing, but as far as I know there is plenty of room to be a person in Chinese universities. Not so much in Thailand. If anything challenging comes up in the classroom they will have their little meetings around the smartest student and ask, "What does the farang want now?" This attitude makes progress impossible.
As university students I expect them to read stuff and discuss it in class (that is what a university is everywhere else in the world). They will not do that. There is a library, it looks good on the website, but it has 4 books that nobody reads anyway. One thing they like is playing games in the classroom. I mean games like fxxxing primary school games. I have heard many farang praise Thai students, which I don't get. Yes, they make me feel great often, especially the ladies, with their constant non-sexual flirting. But ultimately I expect them to deliver as students, and no one does. Besides, flirting (male and female) easily turns into arse kissing, which they do a lot, and it's fine apparently: that's how you get to places, by kissing arses and getting A's in return.
That's another issue. They all expect A's, like this is some weekend competition where all the kids get a gold medal, so no one cries. They respect my decisions, and always try to understand what I'm asking from them. But I can see they have decided I'm not as good as other lecturers who approach academic teaching with more of a Sesame Street methodology.
One of my students is a ladyboy, who seems to always be reading books. This is exceptional, even in a Faculty of Humanities. I mentioned to my colleagues that we should help her to become a scholar. The response I got? A rumour: "the farang fancies katoeys". And a bit of a laugh. This is Thai humour. Obviously ladyboys have better prospects in Thailand than in the West, but still Thai people do not think they can achieve anything, unless they become TV clowns or something.
Let me say a thing or two about my colleagues. They are mostly Thai. I didn't know this at first, but apparently I am the only one in my department with a PhD. Naturally, jealousy is in the air. There are a few doctors in the faculty, and these are the untouchables. Not me. I can't have any status other than "farang". So what they did was to push me aside in a very passive aggressive way: avoid calling me Dr. in official documents, business cards, on my door etc. I wouldn't care about this normally, I must say.
I have also learned that a lot of farang here can't believe their luck, because they barely finished uni in the West, then took a dodgy ESL teaching course, and suddenly they are "professors" in Thailand, with the added bonus of all these beautiful women floating around everywhere they go. I'm not judging, I'm just saying that some of us went through the whole process: 10+ years, then unemployment, then finally a job. The feeling is that I've been demoted straight away.
University here is all about events. These are at the heart of the system and are far more relevant than academics. Of course, reaching academic excellence takes more work (individual work, which they don't do) than showing up and smiling. In Thailand being there is all that counts. I found out that they want farang to attend these events because white skin makes everything seem shinier and more "hi-so" (high society), as they say here. But it's all a facade: you are there, they take the picture of you, then they politely invite you to fxxk off, so they can have their own very Thai conversation about important stuff.
Then there is Facebook, which in Thailand is more important than life itself. Honestly, I don't want to know when the Dean (the bloody Dean) is "feeling sad" or "excited". I don't want to see pictures of my colleague's new car. But apparently in Thailand everything is social, everything is public. As I learn Thai, I have read negative comments made about me by one lecturer. A few students who dislike me (or who don't get an A) "liked" these comments. I am puzzled, honestly. I hate the guy and he knows it but I wouldn't be so public about it. Why on earth are all students friends with their lecturers anyway?
So why do I stay? Like I said, I came here for the job. I am grateful that this country has given me a chance, even if I'm here merely as decoration. I am working on my CV, and there is some marginal interest in research, although of course over here there is little quality control. This is good (because I can publish everything) but it's bad (because terrible things are being published). Also, I don't want to leave with nothing. So I'm learning the language and I will look for a job elsewhere once I can read and speak Thai properly. That will be my achievement.
Anyway, I hope this helps if you're thinking of following an academic career in Thailand.
Thanks for reading
Stickman 's thoughts:
I can relate to all that you say. I never taught at a university but I did teach at a prestigious school and it was much as you describe. That said, the foreign teachers on the whole had a decent enough relationship with the Thai teachers.