Teacher Tim Gets The Business
ESL teachers in Thailand find various antidotes to the trials and tribulations that face them on a daily basis. Some find solace in a few pints (few is a relative term, you understand) down at the local expat pub. Some fall into the arms of adventuresses – or adventurers. Some take up a hobby, like stamp collecting or banging your head against the bedroom wall every night for ten minutes. Some write murder mysteries, wherein they portray themselves as the astute police inspector who brings to justice (but only after the fact) the serial murderer who has been wiping out lazy ESL students and obstructive, double-dealing school administrators.
But most ESL teachers in Thailand spend their idle hours daydreaming and talking about “The Big Break” as a way to lessen disillusionment and creeping tropical ennui.
The Big Break does happen – I’ve known ESL teachers up in Bangkok who’ve experienced it and now live a life of pampered ease and wealth that rivals anything in the Arabian Nights.
Here’s how it’s supposed to happen: One bright day you are valiantly trying to instill in your torpid pupils the difference between “We see it” and “We saw it” when the classroom door bursts open and your school administrator comes rushing in to breathlessly announce that Mr. Praphan – in person – is waiting to see you in the office. Mr. Praphan, of course, as everyone who reads The Wall Street Journal knows, is a fabulously wealthy industrialist whose son just happens to be one of your English students. Class is summarily dismissed. You greet Mr. Praphan with a reverent wai and, being the big businessman that he is, he gets right to the point. His son has told him how very, very well you marshal your lesson plans into gems of lucidity and cohesiveness. Mr. Praphan needs just such an individual in his vast organization, and if you’re willing to settle for half-a-million baht per month to start, he’d like to take you on as his personal assistant. As you drive away with Mr. Praphan in his chauffeured limousine you look back at your bewildered students and the school administrator – who is a bilious green with envy – and let slip a quiet, wry chuckle. After all those years of steady application in a mostly thankless task, your true worth has finally been recognized and you have been blessed with . . . The Big Break.
It could happen to any ESL teacher in Thailand. It almost happened to me . . .
I was slaving away at a technical college in Nonthaburi, teaching so many courses on hotel and tourist English that I began gibbering “May I have your credit card please?” in my sleep. One fine day a friend of mine called to say that a certain well-to-do import/export maven was looking for a farang to work at his headquarters to handle the increasing press of foreign business coming his way. If I was interested, my friend said, he would arrange for this gentleman and I to have lunch together at a fancy-schmancy buffet down at one of the big river hotels in Bangkok that Saturday. I didn’t need asking twice.
Wearing my very last long-sleeved white shirt without mildew smudges and a dark conservative necktie with elephants discretely cavorting on it, I sat down with this import/export gentleman and had a very good lunch. He drank only mineral water, so I followed suit. He asked about my background, my education, my current position, and my future goals. I answered appropriately, and modestly. When he got up to pay the check I had a new job, with the glorious title of Overseas Coordinator!
Of course to begin with, he explained, he couldn’t pay me more than what I was already making as an ESL teacher – but he was certain that within a matter of months, once I had settled into the job and began bringing in massive overseas orders, he could justify boosting my compensation into the stratosphere.
I gave notice at the technical college (they did not seem too surprised at my sudden departure – in fact, when I showed up the next day there was already a new farang teacher sitting at my desk, looking rather embarrassed – it’s uncanny how these Thais can sometimes predict the future!)
I am not a name-dropper, so you’ll never know who it was I went to work for. I strode into the import/export office later that week and made an immediate, electric, impression by tripping over a wastebasket someone had thoughtlessly left next to their desk. My boss introduced me to the office manager, showed me my desk, and then left to play golf with the Prime Minister of Malaysia, no doubt.
I sat at my desk, ruffled some papers, tried to look important, and waited for the phone to ring. It didn’t – mostly because I didn’t have a phone on my desk. The office staff was not exactly cold, but they never did anything more than nod whenever they passed my desk – which for reasons that I still haven’t quite figured out, was next to the men’s lavatory.
I’ll cut to the chase. I spent a month in that office, at that desk, and never saw the boss again, and never did a single scrap of work.
When I collected my first paycheck I told the office manager that unforeseen circumstances had called me back to Bemidji, Minnesota, for a volunteer fireman’s reunion. She seemed relieved, and once again when I went back to my desk to pick up my comic books and bag of shrimp chips there was already someone else sitting there – only this time they did not look the least bit embarrassed.
I quickly found another ESL position.
Now imagine a cinematic montage as the leaves of a calendar begin to cascade off the wall – bringing us to the year 2010. I’m looking at the Sunday edition of the Bangkok Post in the sleepy little house on the sleepy little soi where I live in Ban Phe. On page three there is a huge photo of my old import/export boss – shaking hands with a bunch of Chinese guys and grinning like the Cheshire cat on speed. He has just gotten these investors to cough up a tidy sum, and every current employee has received a tremendous bonus. I can’t say the news really spoiled my appetite that morning – I just wasn’t in the mood for sticky rice and somtum, that's all.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to spend some time with my favorite hobby – banging my head against the bedroom wall.