The following post is not intended in any way or form as an insult to the monarchy of Thailand or its common people. It is merely this individual foreigner’s view of some of the less than desirable situations occurring in this particular culture, by some of its people and / or institutions.
In light of the recent incarceration of several individuals within three Southeast Asian countries (Specifically Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) regarding lese majeste laws or other allegedly insulting comments directed towards government figures, Islam, or religious leaders, and published on the Internet or in print, I am taking this necessary precaution before posting my thoughts and experiences in this forum, written while living in this supposedly democratic country.
As most of you already know, I used to work for Stairway English agency based in Hat Yai, an agency providing the services of native English speaking teachers to schools with which the agency has contracts. I say used to work for them since I no longer work for Stairway English, something for which I am quite relieved.
An Australian named Mr. Craig Hanks originally managed Stairway English, which was owned by his Thai wife. I worked for Mr. Hanks for well over two years as a teacher at a private school here in the South of Thailand near the Malaysian border before he decided to pack it in and move his family to Australia, selling his business to a couple of Thai women.
Mr. Hanks was very helpful to me in general but towards the end of his tenure as manager of Stairway, our relationship was severely strained due to his propensity for late payment of my salary or failing to deposit my salary at a reasonable time on scheduled paydays. He also possessed the annoying habit of giving unsolicited advice in a know-it-all sort of way, often beginning his sentences with, “You should…” or “You have to…” as if I had no capability of thinking for myself.
Once the Australian fled the scene, the two Thai women (one of which used to be my classroom assistant) proceeded to run the business directly into the ground. Suddenly money became a very big issue with them; a bigger issue than providing acceptable standard business practices, employee support, or upstanding customer service.
It had always been a tradition of Stairway English agency to pass out Christmas candy to the students in December, but once the new management took over, suddenly they claimed they didn’t have the money to provide candy for the kids. In addition, monthly stipends dropped from 1000 baht to 500 baht, nothing in our classroom was maintained and requests for repairs or maintenance went unanswered or outright ignored.
After a year working under the new management I asked for either a raise or the reinstatement of my end-of-year bonus that Mr. Hanks had taken away, to no avail. The new owners stated, “Jim, you are the highest paid employee at Stairway and we cannot afford to pay you anything extra.” This was all fine and dandy except for the fact I later found this out to be a blatant lie. Not only did I discover there were other employees getting the same salary, but they were receiving yearly bonuses as well.
At this juncture, quite naturally, I began looking for another job. I soon found a suitable one in a nearby province, offering a salary of 40,000 baht a month, a 40,000 baht bonus at the end of term, and free accommodation. This naturally was an offer I couldn’t refuse so I answered their ad and sent them all my particulars. They contacted me soon afterwards saying they were very interested in hiring me but wanted a reference letter from the school where I was currently teaching.
The next day I asked my immediate supervisor at the school if she would provide a letter of reference for me. She said she would but was upset to learn I was thinking about leaving the school. I explained to her my distaste for Stairway English under the new management and the poor way it was currently being run, telling her, “Hey! Money talks, bullshit walks,” a little Western proverb she obviously didn’t understand.
When my supervisor finally coughed up the reference letter I had asked for (a week later and after I had asked for it four times), she asked to speak to me privately. She informed me the manager of our school was upset that I was thinking about leaving and he was also upset with the performance (or lack of) from Stairway English. She said the manager told her he had made a decision not to renew the schools contract with Stairway English agency next term, and wanted to hire foreigners privately, asking what amount of money I would need in order to stay on with the school.
I had known for a long time that this day was coming since I had heard numerous times in the past that the school was upset with Stairway English agency’s new management. The new owners had failed to provide a new foreigner teacher for quite some time after one had quit, but still charged the school the same monthly fee even though the school was operating with only two foreign teachers rather than three. I had also heard through the grapevine (which in Thailand is a very big vine, sans grapes) that the school was tired of paying so much money to the agency and not getting quality service.
During Mr. Hank’s tenure, I saw him at our school at least two if not three times a month, even when there were no problems, just as a courtesy call to check how things were going and see if his customers needed anything and were happy. In contrast, three, four, sometimes six months would pass without ever seeing one of the new owners at our school, and if we did see them, it was typically because there was a problem.
I told my supervisor I’d think about the manager’s inquiry and get together with her the following day. The next day I told her, “I will require 40,000 baht a month, a 40,000 baht bonus at the end of the year, and the school prepares and pays for all my visa renewal paperwork, work permit, and teacher’s license.” I figured I had nothing to lose since I had already submitted a scanned copy of the reference letter to the other school and they had scheduled an interview with me for the following week.
My supervisor then wrote the amount I had stated on the palm of her hand (a silly, pseudo-secretive habit of hers), showed it to me, repeated the amount, and told me she would present my request to the school manager and get back to me.
“Please don’t dilly dally around about it because I’ve got an interview set up with the other school and I need to make a decision soon about what I’m going to do,” I added.
“Okay. Hopefully I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
I already knew they would say yes since even if they paid all three foreigners a salary as large as what I was asking, plus bonuses, they would still be saving money. I had made it a point to tell them this little gem of information in the past after my supervisor had entrusted me with the amount of money her school was paying Stairway English agency on a monthly basis. A shocking amount indeed.
The next day I was told everything was a “GO.” I was to receive the amount of remuneration I had asked for, but (There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there?) they wanted me to help set up an English program including a curriculum, necessary forms, foreign instructor contractual agreements, and hiring foreigners as an addition to my duties. I agreed wholeheartedly since I actually enjoy doing that kind of work and I already knew that nobody at the school had a clue about how to go about accomplishing those tasks.
Mam was ecstatic over the news since she was worried we would have to move. Three years prior she would have gladly moved, but has since settled into our private little compound out in the woods very nicely and loves living here now. I reluctantly called the other school to tell them I had made a decision to work elsewhere, and they were naturally very cold towards me, probably feeling I had wasted their time.
In the months to follow (the situations above having happened around November 2008) I did an enormous amount of work for the school. I put together a decent English program; did research on what materials the school would need in order to prepare foreign teachers visas, work permits and teacher’s license; worked on a new curriculum; prepared new documents specific to our school; and reviewed job applications from foreign teachers applying to our school, just to name a few. My computer and printer at home were smoking from all the use.
Without a doubt, somebody noticed the ad I had placed on ajarn.com for hiring foreign teachers and eventually the word got back to Stairway English agency that our school was preparing to give them the axe and I was helping them. In the interim, one of the foreign teachers working for Stairway, who taught Matayom students at our school, quit. This was yet another example of the piss poor employee support Stairway English was guilty of providing.
Then, to my utter shock and dismay, about 8 to 10 weeks after I had begun to undertake all the work for the school, I was walking out of my class to go home when my supervisor saw me and casually said in passing:
“So Jim, the salary amount you wanted from our school was what?”
“Huh? What are you talking about?”
“You wanted 30,000 baht right?”
“What?” I said, raising my voice several octaves. “What are you saying?”
“You said you want 30…35,000 baht a month right?”
I could feel my face getting red and my hands beginning to shake, a sure sign I was going to lose my temper, so I began to reign myself in, knowing all too well my propensity for totally losing it, a scenario that has never once helped my situation. So, I took a deep breath and forced myself to be calm and collected, which ended up failing miserably.
“No, I – told – you - very, very – clearly - two months ago what I wanted for a monthly salary and you not only wrote it down on your damn hand (I was talking through my teeth at this point) but – you - repeated the amount again and said you would tell - the manager - how much I wanted, - including my yearly bonus.”
“How much was that?”
“You know damned well how much it was (Now I was seething). It was 40,000 baht a month and a 40,000 baht a year bonus, plus the school prepares and pays for my visa renewal, work permit, and my teachers license.”
“Hum. Well, the manager is prepared to pay you maybe 36,000 baht.”
I knew I was being set up for a grand screwing. I was so pissed off I could hardly speak, but I managed this:
“You ****ing lied to me!”
“No I didn’t Jim! It wasn’t me, it was the manager!”
“What? What are you saying?”
“The manager changed everything.”
“So you knew all along how much I wanted and you were just now trying to manipulate me into accepting less for the sake of your beloved manager.”
“No nothing! I don’t like being lied to, so you can tell your damned manager that he can find himself somebody else to teach Prathom one, two, and three students. I’ll find another job somewhere else where they don’t screw the people who work for them.”
“Jim! We want you to work here. The kids love you. The management wants you to work here.”
“Well, you should have thought about that before your beloved management decided to try and screw me, first telling me everything was okay then reneging on the initial agreement.”
“I know, I know. I am very angry with the manager.”
“Well, if you’re so angry with him, perhaps you might speak to him again and tell him unless I get the money I’m asking for, I’m gone. He screwed me out of a job. I could have had a good job in another province right now if it wasn’t for him.”
“We are supposed to have a meeting tomorrow. Everybody knows that the manager often says things he doesn’t mean and my supervisor told me I should have asked for a meeting first to decide, rather than ask the manager.”
“It all sounds like a bunch of crap to me. You people don’t know how to do business. You need to get your act together. You cheated me. You got me to do all this work and then you tried to screw me by making me accept less money. Well, no go. I told you once, ‘Money talks, bullshit walks,’ either I get the money I want or I am GONE!”
“Okay, we will have the meeting and decide.”
“Also, the work you recently asked me to do? About putting up another ad on ajarn.com to hire another foreigner? Well, I am not going to do anything for you people again until I sign a contract for the money I agreed upon. Nothing.”
I figured I had them between a rock and a hard place with that last statement since my supervisor and all her little cronies working at that school had no clue about preparing an ad for the Internet. Not only did they not know how to post an ad, they didn’t even know how to word it since nobody in the school speaks or writes decent English. In the very recent past I had had to write out instructions in numbered order just so they could learn how to get onto the correct e-mail site and read incoming mail. Even then they came to me again, asking me to please go online to read the e-mail because they still couldn’t figure it out.
I haven’t yet met a Thai who could hold a candle to someone educated in the West in terms of critical thinking and deductive reasoning skills. They are apparently severely handicapped when it comes to current technology, and many of them appear to still live in the ice age. Linear or lateral thought is something foreign to most Thai’s, whereas many Western philosophers might construe this as fully acceptable (as long as their multi-processing abilities are used in a practical way), except for their total lack of critical thinking processes, crucial to approaching a complex problem in an intelligent manner.
I knew for a solid fact that the school didn’t want to lose me since not only had I been voted, “The best teacher of the school,” back in 2006, but also many parents of my students had expressed their opinions to the school about how happy their children were in my classes. I found this out through my wife, who knew many of the parents and often talked with them during her travels around town.
So I walked away wondering when I’d find out the fate of my existence at the school where I’d taught for the past four years. I was a little worried about standing up to the school so boldly like I had, since I was putting my job on the line and could end up unemployed. But, anyone who knows me well will tell you that one thing I’m all about is pride. I’d rather jeopardize my job than let my pride slip down a notch or two. I thought about Mr. Hanks and what he would have told me (never suggested) and I knew he would have told me to bite my pride, something I wasn’t prepared to do.
Now let’s travel back to a time in late December or early January when I received a call from a Canadian man inquiring about the job at our school after he had seen the ad I posted on the ajarn.com site. Many foreigners had called me on my mobile, since like a fool I placed my number on the ad posted at ajarn.com.
I answered my phone and about ten minutes into the conversation, realized I knew this guy, having met him through Mr. Hanks a few years prior. I also vividly remembered that I didn’t particularly care for the guy since, in my opinion, he was excessively sarcastic and extremely passive-aggressive (I’ve a degree in behavioral science, so I know passive/aggression when I see it). I also remembered Mr. Hanks saying about him, “I only hear from the guy when he needs something.”
However, I knew this guy had taught in Thailand for quite a while and was experienced teaching Matayom students, so I encouraged him to come in for an interview.
I remember the day well.
It was early morning when I arrived at the school to find the Canadian sitting at the local coffee kiosk. Once I sat down with him, he didn’t waste a second dropping into his passive-aggressive / blatantly sarcastic mode and saying something smart assed to me. But, I managed to ignore it and we sat and chatted a bit before my supervisor showed up and I introduced him to her.
A few days after that meeting my supervisor told me, “I think he’s too old and he’s not good looking.” Prejudice at its best.
After four years living in Thailand I know all too well that a foreigners appearance is more important in most instances than their ability to teach. If the guy is a total moron, but he’s slender, handsome and young, they’ll hire him in a heartbeat, irrespective of his total incompetence as a teacher. This is a severe flaw in this culture’s ability to secure a decent education for their youth.
I really stuck my neck out for this Canadian guy, not so much for him personally as for the school, knowing full well that the school needed someone with experience teaching Matayom students, or they would fall into the all-too-typical pattern of hiring foreign teachers for the job and then having them quit. So, I referred to his resume and credentials which all seemed to be in order, as well as my personal knowledge that the guy had worked at two well-known schools in the area, to try and push to have him hired.
I spoke with this Canadian guy on the phone on several occasions since he kept calling me wondering whether the school was thinking about hiring him or not, saying he had to make some decisions about what to do, a reasonable request even though I hate talking on the phone. I explained to him the position I currently was in at the school, and how in the past I had been careful to place myself in a good position with the school for just the scenario that was now unfolding; agreeing to help them out by arranging to hire foreigners, prepare documents, etcetera, in order to facilitate keeping the English program going in a way familiar to Westerners rather than let Thai’s get their hands into it, as well as put myself in a good light at the same time.
Somewhere during this time our Matayom teacher, a German fellow, quit. Shortly thereafter the Canadian guy called me to say he had been contacted by a British man who worked for Stairway English to fill in the position until the term ended in March, excited that he would now be able to work at our school and would get to show the school how he teaches so they might hire him next year.
The Canadian was perfectly aware of my distaste for Stairway English, as well as their sour reputation among the ex-pat community, so he told me he was only planning to work for Stairway until March and then would seek to be hired privately by our school. I told him quite frankly, “Whatever. It’s really up to you. If you don’t end up staying we’ll just hire somebody else.”
Several times he mentioned or gave reference to the Brit working in the office at Stairway English, obviously somebody he knew from the ex-pat community in Hat Yai who frequents all the ex-pat bars, pubs and girly hangouts, and whom he was pals with. He mentioned this ex-pat by name and I reluctantly said, “Yes, I know him,” opposed to giving any more information since by now, after having dealt with him for awhile, I didn’t trust the Canadian.
I mentioned I was not on friendly terms with the British guy and made the offhand comment that he was working in Thailand illegally since he had no bachelor’s degree and it was doubtful whether he had even finished high school. I also mentioned that I knew for a fact that the Brit had lied to other foreigners I knew or had met, telling them he was the owner of Stairway English (something I had since passed on to the new management) or was the manager of the agency, which he certainly was not. All of this was information I was sure would be regurgitated onto the British fellow, but I didn’t care since it all was true and it wasn’t a secret that the Brit and I didn’t get along.
It appears to be a common occurrence here in Thailand to run into expatriates who tout themselves as something they most certainly are not. I’ve most certainly run the gamut of braggarts, drunks, liars, backstabbers and rumormongers from the ex-pat communities, forcing me to be extremely reticent when it comes to engaging with anyone new from the expatriate community.
Since the Canadian didn’t have a non-immigrant B visa, I emphasized the importance of his securing one since our school didn’t want to have to deal with a foreign teacher who had to make frequent border runs. But after several weeks of dealing with him, I was at a point where I felt it wouldn’t really have been such a great loss if the school decided to give some other foreigner a shot at the job.
Okay, now zip back to the time period when I walked away from my supervisor, angry that the school was trying to screw me, and telling her, “Well, I’m not going to do anything for you people again until I sign a contract for the money I agreed upon. Nothing.”
Within days of that nasty event I received the following SMS message from the Canadian:
- Do you have a copy of the ad you put online? –
First off, the Canadian had never once sent me an SMS. The numerous times he attempted to contact me; he always called me on my mobile to talk to me in person. So why was he suddenly contacting me by SMS?
Because he is a coward.
I’m not a prejudiced individual. I usually give anyone I meet in life the benefit of the doubt. But Canadians? Well, I’ve come to a point in my life where once I find out someone I have met or someone I’m going to meet is from Canada, I automatically withdraw, becoming cold and recalcitrant, since in all my fifty some-odd years of existence, I’ve never once had a good experience with a Canadian citizen that I met in person. I’m sorry to say that is a solid fact.
Only a total moron would fail to figure out what this Canadian horse’s butt had done. Since my supervisor wasn’t getting any cooperation from me, she had turned to the “Old and not good-looking,” Canadian, who it appears wasn’t in the slightest bit hesitant to put the screws to a fellow foreigner.
He knew full well what my position at that school was and he also knew what I had to lose or gain at the school. But, he didn’t hesitate to sell me out when he had the opportunity.
My SMS response to the Canadian equine buttocks, was as follows:
- Nope, sorry. –
I never received another reply or response from him, nor did the Canadian donkey concavity ever mention it to me again in person, having met with me over three times since that initial SMS event.
One day as I walked out of the school when my classes finished for the day, my wife came to pick me up and said to me, “Your supervisor wants to meet with you.”
“What? How do you know that?”
“She called me.”
“How on earth did she get your phone number?
“I don’t know.”
We drove to the middle school and met with my supervisor, who spent the first five minutes chatting away to my wife in Thai while I sat there twiddling my thumbs.
Finally, massively irritated, I spoke up:
“My wife has nothing to do with my business in this school so can you please stop speaking in Thai and speak English so I know what the hell you are talking about, as it is extremely rude to do what you’re doing.”
“I was only…”
“I said, my wife has nothing to do with my business in this school so can you please stop speaking in Thai and speak English so I know what the hell you are talking about, as it is extremely rude to do what you’re doing and I will not tolerate your contacting my wife over business that you have with me.”
“I said, my wife has nothing to do with my business in this school so can you please stop speaking in Thai and speak English so I know what the hell you are talking about, as it is extremely rude to do what you’re doing and I meant what I said. If you insist on including my wife in my business then you will have to find some other foreigner in which to manipulate, because I will not have my wife involved in my business dealings.”
What my supervisor didn’t know was that I spent years training to deal with clients in corrections that were non-compliant or wouldn’t listen. One technique we were taught to use is constantly repeating exactly the point you are trying to get across and never veering from that statement, something I used on my supervisor and which worked rather quickly.
“Okay,” she finally said.
We were sitting outside of a building at a small table. On different occasions two Thai women just waltzed up to the table and sat down as we were having a heated discussion, with no tact at all regarding privacy. During these times I simply refused to talk until they left, or until my supervisor asked them to leave because she began to understand I was uncomfortable having them there. This is another example of the insensitivity and disregard some Thai people frequently exhibit towards others, either out of a severe lack of education or their perpetual habit of thinking only of themselves. In the West, only a total moron would ever have thought of approaching us, most people inherently knowing we were having a private conversation.
What came of our discussion was my supervisor trying to swindle me by getting me to accept a lower salary, at first, until I feigned getting up to leave, saying, “This conversation is over since you are not meeting my demands.”
After I threatened to go home, refusing her initial offer, she told me that after her meeting with the assistant manager, principal and vice principal of the school had transpired, all had agreed to pay me the money I had asked to be paid.
“Then why did you try to cheat me once again and get me to accept a lower salary?”
“You don’t understand…”
“Yes, I do understand. You try to cheat me every chance you get, and you will do everything in your capability to cheat foreigners since they are not from this country and they have to abide by so many of your laws and procedures.”
“No Jim, we don’t cheat. We want you to stay at this school.”
“Yeah, well whatever.”
I told her it was all very nice, but I was not about to agree to anything unless I saw it in writing and signed a contractual agreement. I also told her, “You need to stop running to other foreigners behind my back when we are in disagreement.” She denied (lied about) everything, saying she didn’t know what I was talking about.
So I attempted to refresh her memory:
“First off, you can hire foreigners and you may be able to speak some English, but never, ever, think for a millisecond that you understand Western ways unless you’ve lived in the West and have adapted to Western methodology. You expect us as foreigners, to understand Thai ways and comply with your cultural nuances, but you blatantly disregard our cultural habits.
Foreigners will do one of two things where money is involved. Either they’ll stab somebody in the back to get the money they want or need, or they’ll resort to the decent morals some of them possess and give you up for who you are.”
“Think about it. You couldn’t get what you wanted from me, so you turned to another foreigner who possessed lesser morals than I do, to do your dirty work for you. Unfortunately for you, the Canadian you turned to wasn’t very smart to begin with, ending up blatantly giving you up while at the same time trying to stab me in the back. You, being excessively stupid, lied about your attempt, which only made you out to be what you are…a bunch of liars. So now I don’t trust anyone at this school, foreigners or otherwise.”
“Trust is a funny thing. As we say in the U.S., ‘Trust takes years to build and earn, but it only takes seconds to destroy.’ Thai’s wai everyone as a sign of respect. They even wai those who are cheating them, messing with their wives or husbands, stealing money from them, or undermining them to surpass them in the business world. In the U.S., we have a word for that. It’s called hypocrisy. In the West, respect is earned. It isn’t something that’s bastardized like it is here in Thailand.”
All mud slinging and arguments aside, we eventually named a date in which to sign a contract for the salary and bonus I had initially asked to receive.
On the morning I was to sign my new contract, my supervisor approached me in a pseudo-secretive way, telling me in a low whisper, “The reason we’ve taken so long to prepare your contract is that your contract is different from the other foreigner’s contract.”
“Yeah? And how is my contract different?”
“Your salary is much higher than the other foreigners, and the other foreigners will not receive a bonus like you will. Please don’t tell anyone about this.”
“I don’t care about other foreigners or their contracts. What I do care about is not having to hear about the difference in my contract and the contract of other foreigners. Your comments to me, in that sense, are not only unfounded, they are severely unprofessional. You have NO business, whatsoever, in mentioning either my salary or contractual agreements to the other foreigners, or mentioning their salary or contractual agreements to me. What you need to do is look up the term, “Confidentiality” in the dictionary and begin to comply with that definition in regards to your professional business dealings with your employees.”
So, there you have it.
The ongoing saga of my life as a TEFL teacher in Southeast Asia.
Certainly not the norm, nor is it something which can be construed as “outrageous” in light of the constantly changing situation involving hiring of expatriates in Thailand.
Some foreigners arriving here in Thailand end up teaching only because they’re interested in making a buck in order to finance their traveling expenses. These expatriates usually don’t stay long, which can be harmful to Thai students who get used to “come and go” foreign teachers, and end up not taking English learning seriously.
Then there are other foreign teachers such as myself. We live and work in Thailand and are here for the long haul. Most of us are either married to a Thai, or chose to stay here because we can live a better life than we were living in the West.
Many foreigners living and working in Southeast Asia are a strange bunch. Certainly not your typical individual you might run into at the hair salon, or Safeway supermarket in the West. It takes a different sort of person to sell just about everything, reduce their possessions to what will fit in two large suitcases and a carry-on bag, and move to Asia. Many foreigners living here were / are running away from something, or found life in the West to be unsuitable simply because they didn’t fit in with the “normal” folks back home.
This is my fifth year living and working in Thailand and my sixth year living and working in Asia. Despite my rants and gripes I do enjoy living here, but it’s mainly my wonderful wife Mam, our lovely daughter Miuw, and our wonderful, private, secluded home life that keeps me here for the long haul.