The World’s Oldest ESL Teacher in Thailand
Ambrose. B. Waxenwane has been teaching English in Thailand since 1862. I recently had the rare opportunity to interview Mr. Waxenwane about his remarkable career in Thailand as an English teacher. Here is what he had to say –
Me: Mr. Waxenwane, this is indeed a rare privilege to be able to talk to someone so experienced in the ESL profession here in Thailand.
Him: Don’t mention it, sonny. Say, have you got any sassafras leaf I can chew on? I been missing that for nigh on to a hundred years!
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t. Would you like a stick of gum?
Him: No thanks – I’ll just keep chawing on this betel nut.
Me: Well, now. I think the first thing my readers would like to know is how have you managed to live to such an extraordinary age and still keep functioning?
Him: All my family been long-lived. My pappy lived until he was 140 and I had an aunt that lived long enough to tell Jimmy Carter he weren’t no Andy Jackson! I drink a pint of palm arak every morning, and that kills all them tropical germs I hear tell about – plus it sweetens the breath. I only eat raw vegetables and fruit, with sticky rice and an occasional hard boiled egg, and take a coconut milk bath once a week. In my mind I got it planted firm that I ain’t going to die until I can get a Thai to correctly say “Venting Menthol Monthly” – and it hasn’t happened yet!
Me: Fascinating. Tell me, why did you decide on coming to Thailand to teach English in the first place?
Him: I weren’t a going to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s War, so I high-tailed it out of the country to the furthest place I could get – and that was here in Siam, what you young’uns call Thailand.
Me: And did you have any problems with your visa?
Him: Oh, they hadn’t invented visas yet when I come here. All you had to do was go see some high mucky-muck, kiss his toes, and give him a bottle of rotgut whisky and you was allowed to do pretty much as you pleased – long as you went back to the same feller each year with another bottle.
Me: Some things never change, I guess. Tell me, what was it like teaching the Thais English way back then?
Him: Oh, tweren’t nothin’ difficult. I just moseyed into a room full of kids, waved my rattan cane around until they sat still, then recited poetry or some speech to ‘em and had ‘em repeat it back to me until they got sleepy and I got sleepy; then we’d all lay down for a long nap and when we woke up we’d do it agin, and then they’d go home to dinner and I’d go out for an elephant burger or a walrus steak, and that was that.
Me: Walrus steak? Pardon me for saying so, but I don’t believe they have ever had walruses here in the tropics.
Him: Listen here, sonny boy, who you gonna believe – the history books or me?
Me: Whatever. And what were living conditions like here in Thailand back then?
Him: Oh, twas a hard place at first. I was always being chased by tigers or flying foxes and being bitten by cobras most every day . . .
Me: Wait a minute, Mr. Waxenwane. You were frequently bit by cobras, and lived to tell about it?
Him: Sure thing, Junior. They was everywhere – in your chairs and in your bed and you couldn’t walk down the street without tramplin’ on a dozen or so every step you took.
Me: But that’s incredible! Didn’t you get terribly ill from the venom?
Him: Naw. With all that palm arak I was guzzling them critters were the ones that got sick and died after biting me!
Me: Hmmm. Well, I’ll take your word for it. And what do you think of modern-day Thailand and the English teaching today?
Him: Pay’s a mite better nowadays. When I furst come here you didn’t get a single blessed Tikal for teaching. Instead, they give me a hut to live in and plenty of food to eat; I had fried bananas and fish balls and, and . . .
Me: And lots of walrus steak?
Him: That, too, Mr. Smart Britches! There was no clocks about, like there are today – so you just showed up when you wanted, taught as long as you pleased, and then quit. Some days there was no students at all, and some days I never bothered to show up, and things went just fine. Some of my pupils went on to become doctors and lawyers and even famous Siamese Twins.
Me: How’s that again? Twins?
Him: Yep. Twins. They used to sew two kids together and then rent ‘em out to circuses back in the States. One time I thought I’d do ‘em one better and sewed three kids together for Siamese Triplets, but that old P.T. Barnum didn’t think the American public was that gullible, so I had to unstitch ‘em and send ‘em back to their families. Then they invented the telephone and the horseless carriage and everything went to hell in a hand basket after that. It was those dang British that imported calendars and something they called a ‘sedge –yu – wool’, and suddenly I was expected to show up on time and teach a certain amount of time and quit at a certain time. By the great horn spoon, that almost made me quit the business and go back home! But by then I had me a pretty Thai wife and about a dozen brats to take care of – so I just put on my thinkin cap and came up with an easy way to stay in Thailand without doing a lick of work.
Me: And what was that?
Him: I been writin all the textbooks the schools use since 1925. It’s as easy as falling off a log. I just dictate some nonsense to my secretary, she gets it printed up, and I get a big fat check every month. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel! Why, just this year I finally got around to hinting, just hinting, mind you, in my English textbooks, that the Earth may not be flat at all, but round. This was too much for some of the schools, so they asked me to change it back – and I did, because I know what side my sticky rice is buttered on!
Me: This is all so fascinating. Do you have any final words of advice for those who would like to teach English in Thailand?
Him: Talk big, think small, and bring your own cobras so you’ll have a good excuse to drink up plenty of that palm arak.