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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine September/October 2000
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Teaching English Abroad
Teaching English in Thailand
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Teaching English in Thailand

The Big Mango

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand by David Berkowitz

Bangkok is a very strange place. American guidebooks use words like chaotic, wild, manic, and out of control. Tourists, when asked to describe their first impression invariably say “Intimidating.”

When my girlfriend and I arrived to begin a year’s contract teaching English it was more than intimidating. We were speechless on the 30-minute journey from the airport, but not the taxi driver who talked incessant taxi-English all the way. It was easy for him, I thought. He didn’t have a sick feeling in his stomach and a “Whose idea was this anyway?” thought in his head.

In two days we had to begin teaching. The first classes were a disorganized, nerve-racking mess. If you are untrained, as we were, you must learn as you go and accept that you’re going to make countless mistakes along the way. In Thailand, knowing English is the quickest way to get a job or a promotion, and since every wealthy family wants its children to attend a university abroad, the children must know enough English to pass the entrance exams. I’ve been offered marriage, received expensive gifts. One 9-year-old kid even told me: “Do my homework or I’ll call the police and tell them you kill people.”

As the months pass, you’ll get used to things. The traffic will become less of a hassle. The food will be less of a mystery. You will start to feel a real sense of achievement just to be living in such an unusual place. But you can’t maintain that initial level of excitement or constant surprise anywhere, even in Bangkok. You will no longer notice an elephant passing, and the street children whose plight first appalled you will become invisible.

Teachers who have been living here for a few years nod knowingly as they listen to your complaints about the daily grind. “It’s the 6-month blues,” they explain. It’s at this time that a lot of teachers quit and go home, leaving a rushed note pinned to their locker. It’s just culture shock, and it does pass.

My solution was to take more holidays and get to know the famous islands of Thailand. It worked. They are magnificent. They give you a chance to relax, read good books, and get some perspective on how lucky you are to have such impressive places in your backyard. Before you know it you’re back to practicing your bad Thai in the local restaurant and marveling at the craziness of the city.

I’ve come to the end of my contract now. A couple of days ago I was sitting in the staff room when the head teacher came to introduce me to a new teacher. I realized he was to be my replacement and that I was expected to show him around. He stood there wearing a shirt and tie, soaked with sweat. He had that wide-eyed excitement that I must have had when I first came. I asked about his flight and what he thought of Thailand so far.

“It’s great, mad, y’know.”

After the tour of the school we stood outside looking at the busy street. I wondered if I should recite my litany of mistakes so he might learn from them or impart some useful advice.

But I didn’t. There was no point. He wasn’t listening. He was staring in slack-awed amazement as a kid who couldn’t be more than 14 got out of a BMW and walked past us talking on a cell phone.