Being Fat And Brown-Skinned In Thailand: The Truth About ESL In Thailand
Let me first start off by saying that this is my own personal experience. Some people will have far better experiences, and others, far worse. Considering the growing issues of the western world and the increasing number of people who want to escape to Asia in order to teach ESL, I feel it is my duty as a person to warn anyone about coming to Asia to teach English. Number one, let me say that I do not think all Asians (or in this case Thais) are racist or uneducated. When I was living in Thailand, I had a wonderful Thai girlfriend and her friends and family treated me wonderfully. I have met some who I found to be accepting of me at some level, but that was the minority, not the norm. This article is for those who are African, African American, Hispanic, or any non-white race. This article is for people who are on the fence about coming here and have read the horror stories of being colored in Asia. This is an article to anyone who is considered overweight in the Western World and is concerned about how that will affect their job chances in Asia.
My advice is think long and hard before coming to Asia, especially Thailand, to work as an ESL teacher here. Remember, they ask for your photo when you apply for the job. I know many will scoff at my warning, but first hear me out before you consider moving to the other side of the planet.
I will begin with a little background info about me. I’m an American from the Midwest area of the country. I’m of Mexican descent and yes, I’m overweight. I point that out because I made the mistake of underestimating the vast cultural differences of the Asian world to the western world. I first came to Thailand in 2014, on a holiday, and although I sensed the animosity of Thai people toward me, I, like so many others, was taken in by the cheap cost of living and the women. I decided in 2015, after 6 months of teaching ESL in Mexico, to try my luck in Thailand.
When I first arrived, the problems began to set in. The most obvious was that my skin is brown toned. I could not believe how racist Thai culture was towards me and anyone else not white skinned.
Every job that I applied for either did not write me back or just said you are too dark-skinned to be a teacher here. Furthermore, my weight was another issue also. I was told many times that I was too fat to be a teacher and that I should be a cook instead. However, me being the determined person I am, I decided not to give up so easily. I remember sitting in the Subway restaurant on Silom Road when I got the email from an agency that a school had accepted me to work at their kindergarten school. However, all was not what it seemed. This school was in Sa Kaeo rovince. I remember getting to the school on a Sunday and I quickly made friends with the other western teachers there. My first day seemed okay and everything was cool the first week or so. Quickly that changed and the problems began to start. The first being that my Thai co-teacher was a lazy bump who only cared about being on her phone rather than taking care of the students. Second, the vice principal of the school made a mockery of me in front of some visitors of the school. She grabbed my stomach and told me how fat I was and everyone had a good laugh at me. I quickly walked away, grabbed my stuff, and left the school immediately. My co-teacher got mad at me, and later I learned I made her lose face by reacting like that. The school tried to apologize to me, but the damage had been done. In the coming three weeks, I was accused of going in to the boy’s bathroom; my co-teacher made up a story that I was sleeping on the floor; and countless other issues, which later led me to be fired from the school. I learned before I left that my co-teacher had seven other teachers were fired as well! In that time, I learned the harsh lesson of making a Thai lose face and that in Asia you must keep your mouth shut, even if you are right.
I came to Bangkok and tried one last time. I found a different agency and I began teaching at a high school. The school was a little better and I learned a lot there. However, eventually, the Thai way got me again. Whether it was the disrespect from the Thai students, who were allowed to say to the teacher “you’re so fat,” or the utter incompetence I witnessed, I never saw such disorganization from a school before, and I’m from the inner-city mind you. I never would have believed that students could be passed even if they got a 38/100 in the class. Adding to the misery was the fact that I got very little support from anyone in the school. I remember listening in the teacher’s rooms and hearing the Thai teachers, saying “farang” this and “farang” that. It was constantly a me against you attitude and you were always made to feel like an outcast. It was a losing battle all the way.
I will be first to admit I was quite naïve and had to learn some hard lessons about teaching. However, no one can be successful when your bosses are only concerned with saving face and making themselves look good. In the end, I was fired again. Adding to the stresses is something no one tells you on your TEFL course: The xenophobia and swindling that Thailand has to offer. When you are a teacher in Thailand not only will you have to deal with the problems at school, but you must also be ready to deal with shady landlords, shady teaching agencies (who by the way get a commission from your salary), and, of course, people making racist remarks about you as you walk down the street. Be ready to lose your deposit over the smallest thing and be ready to get defrauded at every corner. Make sure your teaching agency doesn’t pull the “we can’t pay you until later” crap. Do not think for one minute that they care about you. Always remember you are just a number and nothing more.
There is a saying amongst the Thais, “Farang roo mark my dee”— the foreigner who knows too much is no good. Anyone who has experience doing business or living in Thailand for longer than three months knows this to be true. I could go even deeper but I think you get the pattern. There is no winning, and even after trying my best. It was just not good enough. Some will say, you were just a terrible teacher! To that I say, maybe you are right, but why was I never given support? Why was I always treated badly? Why was I looked down on for how I look? Why was it that I had lies spread about me? Why is it that I was already judged before even walking in the door? Why is that a white teacher from Russia gets the job before a Black American, Asian American, or Hispanic American? Are Asian schools looking for teachers, or models? If government schools in Thailand are so great, why are teachers coming and going like a revolving door? Having said all that after the firings, I was happy and ready to go home.
At this present time, I now work online and I’m very happy about my current job. I can come and go as I please and travel when I want. I know many will call me stupid or say I should have researched better and maybe they are right. However, I learned all these lessons the hard way and I have enough concern for you, to advise that, unless you’re white, I would think deeply about whether you want to deal with the attitude here, the racist thinking, and the utter distaste for people of color. Also, sadly, the terrible conditions that Thailand schools are in are not going to change any time soon.
To be fair, it was a great lesson for me and I learned what I did not want to do in life. Also, some things about Thailand are great, the food, the mai pen rai attitude, and many other things. Sure, it was not all bad and if it’s your dream to do this, then go ahead. Just please be realistic in your thinking and understand what you are really walking into. If you still decide to go, I sincerely hope and pray your experience is better than mine was. Everything I learned came at a great price, and after reading what I just wrote, ask yourself: Is this something I still really want to do? Ask anyone who has taught ESL here before and you will hear many of the same things I have written. My final thought is this. Think of ESL teaching in Asia, for westerners, as being a bit like a casino. A casino is a place with a touch of excitement, the lure of an easy job (ESL) and a place for fun, even with a bit of a risk. Go to a casino every now and then for fun and that’s OK. Go there every day all day and you will ultimately lose because the House Advantage will always get you.
While I feel sorry for you and how things have worked out, I get the impression that you might have been rather sensitive and perhaps did not give it enough time. Working in another country you do have to be willing to adapt to some things, although obviously you should never abandon your principles. On the subject of being teased about being fat, that is common in Thailand. Many people joke around about people being fat and while Thais don’t like to cause others to lose face, joking about someone’s weight seems to fall outside of the usual face loss rules and does not cause people to lose face unless it is done in an especially mean way. When the deputy principal grabbed your tummy and said you were fat to outsiders they were actually being endearing and probably thought you were ok with it. They did not mean to upset you, I am sure.
As for some of your other complaints, you make fair points. Teaching in Thailand is not for everyone – but I maintain that it can be fun for a while.
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