April 16, 2011:
“Are you a Christian?”
The first question that P’Jat ever asked me on my first day at Buranat Christian School concerned a subject I have a hard time addressing seriously. I attempted a wry smile to showcase my witty charm and start our relationship on a light note with a little inside joke.
“No, but I can pretend to be.”
Wrong answer. P’Jat had all the well-developed sense of humor befitting an Asian administrator at a private Christian school, which is to say none at all. She was not prepared to discuss humorously the savior Jesus Christ. She scowled and motioned for me to follow her. My employment had not begun well. I followed her awkwardly into the teacher’s office, and felt something like a misbehaving student being led outside to the whipping stable to pick my switch for the beating, which would not be the last time I felt that way. She was a very little woman that commanded a very enormous clout. She spoke brutally and carried a big stick. We entered the foreign teachers’ office, a well-ventilated and air-conditioned large room, a very comfortable venue for the new Cold War showdown that had developed at Buranat Christian School in the proxy war theater of Thailand.
There were eight desks arranged facing each other in an administratively perfectly aligned configuration on each side of the room, which carried an abstract Nuremberg Trial feel. P’Jat escorted me to the far side of the office from the door, where there sat three white males, and introductions were made. Buranat’s English teachers, including me, were: Mark from Holland, Markie from Vancouver, and Richard from Latvia.
They were all seated on one side of the room, so after a few minutes of small talk and formalities I asked them who the other desks belonged to. A kind of hush fell over them, as if it were a subject not fit to be discussed in public. The desks belonged to the four Mandarin teachers in the employ of Buranat. They were scheduled to appear at work later in the day due to some special arrangement they had worked out. The Chinese are excellent negotiators.
At about 10:30 a.m., the first one appeared. A stony silence fell over the room. What had been a lively conversation I was having with Mark about Dutch waffles was cut short, and the showdown had begun. The Chinese girl, probably about 25, that had walked in did not even acknowledge that anyone was in the room. I attempted to greet her with “Nee-How,” one of the only Mandarin phrases I had managed to retain after the three months I spent ostensibly teaching English, but mostly drinking, in the Taiwanese mountains. She refused to even look at me. At the risk of over-generalizing, it would be safe to say that the majority of Chinese I have met in my life have the quaint personalities of autistic goats.
A moment of silence passed before the second two entered- this time a husband and wife. They greeted the girl in rapidly fired Mandarin and took their seats at their desks with militarily precise movements. Again, not so much as a glance at the other side of the room. The three Chinese chatted with each other, and even laughed occasionally. Certainly not a full-throated chortle, but a quick, socially polite, very Chinese giggle- usually followed by a darting stare across the room, as if they suspected that we may have seen them laugh and might report them to the authorities.
The fourth Chinese walked in, again a girl about 25, and this one much more attractive than the first. All the more pity that our worlds were so partitioned. Although she did not acknowledge any of the white people on our side of the room, eventually she would become the one to extend the white rose of peace. Sometimes when all the other Chinese were out of the room, she would even look over and smile at me. I liked to imagine that we were Romeo and Juliet, two lovers kept apart by a callous world of regimented order.
My fellow English teachers and I, and I assume the Chinese as well, were supposed to spend the two weeks in our office before any students returned “preparing for class.” Whatever that meant, I had no idea how to go about it. Although the school operated on the assumption that I knew what I was doing, based on my “experience” in Taiwan, I actually did not. As I discovered there, and to a much greater extent in Thailand, teaching English to Asian kids that don’t speak the language at all, many of whom have no interest in learning either, with no common language as a reference point is much more difficult than it sounds. And also exhausting. And as Buranat Christian School fails to provide its teachers with any meaningful amount of teaching materials- one book, no curriculum, no coloring worksheets, and no props of any kind- I was left to my own devices.
The two weeks of “preparation” were mostly spent playing chess with Richard, a Latvian former radio DJ. His English was completely sub-par, yet somehow he had convinced P’Jat (and everybody else at Buranat) that English was his native tongue. He had no formal education beyond the age of 16, but what he did have was a degree he had purchased for two hundred dollars from an illicit printing press in a backroom office in Bangkok that proved he had graduated in 2003 with a liberal arts degree in philosophy from the University of Toledo. Although the University of Toledo is in Ohio, a place Richard had never come within five thousand miles of, he was never subjected to any really incisive questioning about his educational background. And, to be fair, he was a philosopher in his own way. Richard idolized Quentin Tarantino, and on at least three dozen occasions he would pressure me into rehearsing the scene from Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis picks his annoying Portuguese girlfriend up on Zed’s motorcycle after the basement rape.
Richard: Whose motorcycle is this?
Me: It's a chopper, baby.
Richard: Whose chopper is it?
Me: It’s Zed’s.
Richard: Who is Zed?
Me: Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
Cue the music.
Markie, a responsible middle-aged homosexual Canadian with a ponytail, would often warn us that if P’Jat walked in and discovered us spending our time “preparing” by playing chess and quoting 90’s cult American movies, she would disapprove strongly. And Markie was certainly an authority on P’Jat’s wrath. He had taught at Buranat for five years, which in farang teacher years is a millennium.
I never asked him how many misguided souls had come and gone in his term at Buranat, but the numbers were surely exorbitant. I was informed upon my arrival that I was the seventh new English teacher at Buranat in less than a year. Turnover rate? Wal-Mart’s got nothing on the English teaching profession in Thailand. Reasons for the English teachers’ terminations ranged in justifiability from urinating on the P’Jat’s rose bushes in her pristine garden after a night of binge drinking, as one gentlemen did several months before I arrived, to “Thai teacher don’t like him,” as P’Jat once told me when I asked her about the teacher I replaced.
There are several reasons for the astronomical turnover rate in the English teaching industry- and it is an industry. Firstly, in general the type of people who decide to make a move to a third world country, aside from the elderly, wealthy retired living lavishly off their savings, tend as a percentage to be more of the n’er-do-wells of the world- alcoholics, thrill-seekers, fugitives from the law, etc. Interesting people? Yes. Folks I love to hang out with? Absolutely. Competent, dedicated professionals? Debatable.
Secondly, and tangentially related to the first reason, is that many “teachers” are really just travelers looking for an easy gig that pays the bills while they have a grand time- admittedly a category I belonged to. There is a relatively high demand for white English teachers, the qualifications of a college diploma are not extraordinary, and if Richard is any example, those qualifications are easily skirted with a stroll through the back alleys of Bangkok. Teaching elementary English to cute little kids sounds easy enough, and before he realizes it the wayward farang is in way over his head, resorting to singing nursery rhymes and playing hours of hangman with blank, perplexed little Asian faces in a blisteringly humid, poorly ventilated classroom.
Lastly, as was the case at Buranat, there are the teaching agencies. The pimps of the education world. Agents’ jobs basically entail hooking schools up with teachers. The school signs a contract with the agency for x amount of dollars, and the agency pays the teachers x minus the agent’s fee, which is usually quite lucrative- sometimes triple what the agent actually pays in salary to the teacher.
This basic arrangement exists with minute variations in the details basically in the entire TEFL world- the only difference being that in Thailand, as is the case with most business arrangements, it is a total free-for-all and a chaotic clusterfuck. Agencies compete to amass the largest stable of prostitutes possible. There are relatively limited amounts of farangs to headhunt, so they treat their prostitutes well. I have been wined, dined, complimented endlessly, schmoosed over by the best of them. Agents plug pieces here and there carelessly- if a school decides it isn’t overly fond of a teacher the agency sent, they just ship a new one over on the next train until they find a winner. The most talented agents, as the last one I worked with was, simply maneuver the pieces around endlessly like a game of musical chairs. Teacher A is removed from School A; Teacher B replaces him.
Teacher C is let go from School C because he urinated on School C’s headmaster’s rosebushes. Teacher A is relocated to School C. Teacher C then moves to School B, where they are, for the moment, blissfully unaware of his penchant for Thai whiskey. Take that scenario and multiply the variables by ten, and that is how an agent spends the majority of the workday. It certainly involves a particular skill set, and it is not as if any schmuck could run a successful agency. After the third failed experiment in six months, it takes a considerable amount of charisma on behalf of the agent to keep the Ferris Wheel spinning- a characteristic that every agent I worked with possessed in spades.
School administrators know that their teachers are replaceable with as little as a phone call- and as they are writing the check, the agent will never dare to protest. Generally, school officials have no personal attachment to the teacher; especially if he has only been there for a short while. There are no messy goodbyes or lengthy paperwork to fill out. There will be no workers’ compensation claims or wrongful termination suits filed on behalf of the teacher. And from the agent’s perspective, his revenue stream is unaffected by any firings or hirings- assuming he has a fresh prostitute in the backroom to put out on the corner. His only incentive to find long-term, successful teachers is to not upset the school to the point that it cancels his profitable contract- a concern which is mitigated when, as is often the case, there are vested interests in the school that wish to remain with the current agency- a family relation within the school administration to the agent or a kickback from the agency to key decision-makers for the continued contract. Thailand is a breathtaking and intricate web of corruption and intrigue, and the perpetrators of massive schemes for profit pull it off so well with a heartfelt smile and easy demeanor.
Teachers are but a pawn in the entire game, an insignificant commodity to be traded, bought and sold. But let there be no soft violin ballads lamenting the struggle of the farang- the white English teacher in Thailand makes usually four times his counterparts and obscenely more than the average blue-collar worker. And to be fair, again, many of these professional educators spend their days in the office playing chess and quoting Pulp Fiction.
My co-worker Mark was a reformed amphetamine dealer from the Netherlands. The only product he moved currently were Dutch waffles that he and his Thai wife sold at the night market in Trang every Wednesday and Saturday. The night market was right next to my second home, the Wunderbar, so often I would meander over to his stand on Saturday nights and drink Chang with him.
One evening next to his waffle stand, he asked me to entertain him with the tale of how I arrived in Trang. The story necessarily involved a mention of my affinity for Xanax, as it had been a crucial element in the development of the plot. The very next day, when I arrived at work, there was a two milligram present greeting me gracefully on my desk. Most assuredly good things come in small packages. Mark smiled at me and said he had a couple left over from his trip to Bangkok a few weeks before. These were still the “preparation” days of the the term, and my list of activities for the day included endearing myself to P’Jat and ending the Cold War standoff with the Chinese girl that sat across the DMZ. The Chinese customarily arrived an hour after we were required to, so in the air-conditioned office sat only the four of us.
Owing to my previous habits, taking two milligrams the traditional way would have roughly the same effects as it would on a quarter horse. The only viable alternative to making the best use of Mark’s gift was via the nasal cavity.
I ground the pill up with a ruler, one of the few school supplies provided in our bare office, and cut it into neat lines with my passport, rolled up a twenty-baht bill, checked the windows on the door for P’Jat, and did my business. Sadly, I had witnessed so many other people in recent years grind up prescription drugs and snort them, and had done so countless times myself, that when Markie expressed his shock that anyone would do that, it seemed a little strange to me. As if there was something wrong with him, that normal people grind up pills to inhale through their nose all the time. I welcomed him into Generation Y, the future leaders of the world. It was a great day at work overall.
After school, I took a taxi to the Wunderbar and was chatting with Sri when my phone rang.
“Hello Ben, this is Pim, from agency.”
As the closest profession to the Southeast Asian TEFL industry that I could make the association with was prostitution, I found it supremely ironic that one of the agency’s representatives was named Pim- perhaps a close etymological relative to “pimp.” Alas, Pim was not the head of the agency; he was the well-meaning and blatantly homosexual assistant who was assigned by the owner to handle difficult situations, such as one of its teachers snorting Xanax off of their desk. Presumably, the owner had grown weary of dealing with these issues himself, and had assigned Pim to deal with poorly behaved teachers and irate administrators for him. Pim was in way over his head.
“Oh, hey Pim. How are you?”
“Good, good. How preparation going?”
“It’s going great. I like my co-teachers. My lesson planning is going well. Everything’s awesome.”
Except for the truthful part about liking my co-teachers, these were all outrageous lies.
“I get call from P’Jat today. She not happy.”
“Really? What happened?”
“She say one teacher walk by window in office. She see you at desk putting things in your nose. What you do?”
“Oh, no. I just have this cold. Sometimes in America we just breathe in the medicine through our nose. That’s all I was doing. I just wanted to make sure I didn’t have a headache at work.”
“Oh, okay. Thai people see Scarface, and someone maybe think you doing something bad. Please don’t take medicine at school.”
“Oh, absolutely, Pim. I would never want to make that impression. It will not happen again.”
Another damnable lie.
“Hope you feel better soon. Students come Monday, so I hope you ready.”
"I’m definitely ready for the students. It's going to be great.”