Teaching English (and Gossip!) in Thailand

One thing you learn fairly quickly as a teacher in Thailand is that your local counterparts love a good gossip. They aren’t particularly fussed about who showed up late for work two days in a row or who is a terrible teacher, but who is sleeping with whom? Now that is a beloved topic of choice.

On the gossip front, working in a Thai school is largely like being back in my small hometown of 700 people. There are about 1,000 students and teachers who inhabit this school, and it seems in small circles such as this, talking about each others’ business is a right of passage. It’s inevitable that some scandalous couple will emerge, blindsiding everyone with their sudden sly smirks and Sunday “work” dates in the library; their husbands, wives, and children all seemingly clueless.

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Teaching my coworkers at Wang Nam Yen, Thailand. Photo by Rissa Sadey.

In Thailand, a country known for it’s open sexuality and third gender (lady-boys), with cities rampant with red light districts and ping pong shows, it’s also quite common for married men and women to take pleasure in what they call giks. When we (westerners) tell them our understanding for a gik is a “f*ck buddy,” they cringe and think it sounds terrible. And in truth, the translation isn’t really that simple.

A gik relationship isn’t always a sexual affair; It falls somewhere between “more than a friend” and the aforementioned “f*ck buddy.” In a country where men and women aren’t often friends with the opposite sex, and where the term friend is used quite loosely (more like an acquaintance), a gik might be someone whom you enjoy spending time with on an emotional level. It might also be someone you enjoy “fooling around with,” but not reaping all the benefits, if you will. However, more often than not, a gik relationship is comparable to our own version of the term, except one important detail: a gik is not a gik unless it’s also an act of infidelity.

The term only originated about 20-30 years ago (though it was probably happening before there was a word for it) and today gik relationships, though somewhat secretive, are the culprit of many rumors and jokes, despite their commonality.

Last week, I was teaching English to a class full of teachers, and the hour turned into a rather entertaining event. One of the two male teachers in attendance was unabashed in his flirtations with me. After asking if I like Thai men, and my dodging the question by saying I’m going back to America in May, he then told me it was no problem. “I go America with you,” he said.

“Oh I see,” I joked. “You just want American visa!”

“Wait, wait,” he said. “How many wives can you have in America?”

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That’s him, on the right! Photo by Rissa Sadey.

I laughed, seeing where this conversation was going. “You get only one wife,” I said. “Only one.”

“Oh, okay…I stay in Thailand then!” The class erupted in laughter, but they didn’t think I understood.

“It’s same-same in Thailand, right?” (Thais don’t understand ‘same’ unless you duplicate it.) “Only one wife?”

“Yes, teacher.”

“Well then,” I said, catching them off-guard. “How many giks can you have?”

They all hooped and hollered at my knowledge of their well-used term, and everybody began shouting random numbers.

“Five!”

“Seven!”

“Ten!”

“Teacher, you can have many, many. As many you want,” was the final answer.

Even though it’s a very common thing, because of it’s stealthy nature, gik relationships give people in a small town something to talk about. Fortunately, the young, married, female teacher and mother of one who is the current gossip rage among the teacher crowd, was in the other classroom, sitting next to her coworker and gik.


Teaching English in Thailand: Gossip
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Teaching English in Thailand

I have a newfound respect for primary school teachers worldwide. Before I returned to Thailand and begged my old agency for a short-term placement in the midst of summer break, I hoped it would be an elementary position Not necessarily because I was looking forward to teaching young, adorable children, but because I really wasn’t looking forward to going back to high school.

Due to a nonexistent schedule for the first two days of class, I was randomly assigned the lower grades of 1-3, and told “just do whatever you want” by my Filipino manager. I entered the room to smiling faces and was greeted with a standard, synchronized, “Good morning teacher!”

teaching in thailandThey were absolutely adorable. For the first five minutes. That’s all it took for any last-minute lesson plan to morph into Plan B: Babysitting.

I have no patience for this. I signed up to teach students, not daycare. It’s adorable when you hug me, but not when five of you cling on and tug my arm and slap the back of my neck, all wanting simultaneous attention. I didn’t sign up to be a mom.

I really am sorry if your head hurts, or your classmate scratched you with his ruler, or punched you in the face after you tried to choke him out, but I didn’t sign up to be a nurse, either.

teaching in thailandI understand this is a necessary part of teaching youngsters, but it eats away at my patience like the roof of my room, hidden inside the school’s library, which cracks under too much pressure, giving way to a flood of water. Okay, that’s an exaggeration; I haven’t cried. Yet.

But that’s what you folks back home willingly sign up for, albeit with much better behaved students, hopefully, and I commend you.

When my schedule was finally made, I was relieved at what felt like a blessing to be given the older children in grades 4-6. However, my little paper timeline had classes marked “computer” and “math,” as well as “English.” It surely couldn’t be mine, for I haven’t seen the inside of a math book since high school. (That class at fashion school certainly doesn’t count as I’m sure the teacher sought to erase all previous knowledge and start again, using graph paper and a ruler for simple math equations. The ruler was for drawing a square around the answers so he could easily see them. This was a man who prided himself on his fluency in four languages. Last time I checked, those who excel in the liberal arts do not necessarily do so in math. It was true for him.)

Thai students“Uh, let me see if I got this right. So I’m teaching math to the older students whose math I don’t even understand?”

“It’ll be fine. It’ll come back to you,” offered my English coworker. “But if you fancy the younger ones, we can switch.”

I thought back to Grade 2 racing around the small room with scissors in their hands and shook my head. “Nah, I’ll figure it out. Thanks!”

And she was right. Math is actually my favorite of the three subjects to teach now, and its a good refresher for me as well. Grades 5 and 6 are small, only six and nine students respectively – a nice change from my classes of 50+ in Suwannaphum last year. Their English is already much better than my high schoolers, and they’re quite good students who can have a laugh and get their work done at the same time. I’m rather enjoying my short time with them.

Grade 4 still gives me problems, particularly because they’re stuck between the “clingy” phase and the “I’m too cool for school” phase. When the latter half gives me grief, I just look at the innocent faces of the others and remind myself it’s only three more weeks.

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Three more weeks. Three more weeks. Three more weeks!

One month will pass before I even notice it, but I still won’t know how my counterparts back home do it for nine, year after year. You’re immortal souls.

God Buddha bless you.


Teach English in Thailand
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.

I just gave up the only job I’m probably ever going to have that requires me to work less than 20 hours a week, only eight months a year, and pays me for two of the other four. But before you call me crazy, hear me out.

Some of you know from our Skype chats that a few weeks after arrival in China my face exploded in a shattered array of white and red zits much like the firework pattern I witnessed nightly from my apartment there (the students light them off whenever an upperclassmen starts dating a freshmen girl). At first I thought it was just the small breakout that occurs each time I travel to a new country, but before I knew it, the acne had manifested and refused to dissipate.

Not only is it the most hideous, disgusting, embarrassing, hibernation-worthy thing that’s ever happened to me (it definitely tops falling in the pool at that swanky L.A. party), but it was painful and itchy, too.

I tried to remedy it with internet research and frequent visits to Watsons, and each time I would try something new, it would appear to heal – but only temporarily. By the end of four months, I knew I needed to see a dermatologist, and that I wasn’t going to do it on the mainland after the stories I’d heard. One of my friends went to get his testicle tested and was told they needed to operate. Thankfully, he denied their urgent request and returned to the U.S. instead, where the doctors told him he surely would have died in the Chinese operating room had the doctors done what they suggested. (He blogs about this experience and many others here.)

I know my acne doesn’t pose a death threat, but I’ve also seen the inside of two hospitals that I don’t care to revisit, and been totally ripped off at a private clinic. Plus, all of these experiences were met with doctors who didn’t speak English well enough to satisfy my need to know what I’m putting in and on my body.

Then I thought, Maybe it will just go away when I leave China? It did improve rapidly in my first two weeks away, but then it got worse again. So I finally went to a skin doctor (India’s doctors are quite reputable and they speak English) with one of my Couchsurf hosts and have been following a strict regimen since. It improved, however painfully slow, and I’m confident it will fade in due time.

I’m not confident, however, that if I return to China I can handle another four months of the acne at it’s worst. In fact, I don’t think another four months of an awesome job (albeit in a country I don’t really enjoy living in) is worth the potential scars I could be left with on the one part of my body that’s impossible to hide. I’ve decided instead to follow my heart, not knowing exactly where it would lead me. When I really listened however, it screamed for Thailand.

When my plane landed in Bangkok, I felt like I had come home. And since I’ve arrived, things have fallen into place. I’m staying with a friend who, unbeknownst to me, lives one block from my agency’s office. My old boss is pulling magic cards out of an ordinary deck to find me a job at this point in the semester (the Thai school year will end around March 15), and has promised to even hire me as a substitute for next semester, should I still be here.

Until my position is confirmed (a two-month summer camp is probable), I’ll be bouncing around the country working with English Camps (Get paid to travel around Thailand? Yes, please!), the first of which is in Khao Yai National Park. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the teaching part of my stay before, I’m excited to give it another chance with a different school.

So far, my heart has yet to lead me astray. I think I’ll listen to it more often. China can keep it’s (up-and-over-the-top-of-the-charts) pollution, sulfuric water, oily foods and whatever other component is responsible for messing up my face. I’ll be just fine right here. And when I’m not anymore, I’ll leave.


Goodbye, Acne. Goodbye, China.
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

How to Survive the End of the World

For final exams, my students became the teachers. I learned all kinds of things from proper Chinese table manners and new dinner recipes, to magic tricks and origami, to kung fu and basketball. I learned how to weave a scarf and make traditional Chinese paper cuts. I also learned about the famous foods in provinces around the country, which made me eager to visit.

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Photo of Mahjong, courtesy of the free stock at 123rf.com

Later, I learned how to play Uno, Mahjong and a variety of card games. I learned the history of traditional Han Chinese clothing, some basic yoga poses and even how to be a proper Chinese wife, in case I meet and fall in love with a Chinese man. Then I learned the aspects of a traditional wedding, including the jokes played on the happy couple that signify good luck for a fast baby. But before the love and marriage stuff, I was informed (twice) on how to properly care for a baby because, you know, I’m probably going to want one of those one day soon.

The most interesting exam, however, might belong to Harden, the student who gave me four tips for “surviving” the end of the world. His number one suggestion? Find a rich boyfriend who owns either a helicopter or a hot air balloon so we can rise above the destruction and share the world’s most romantic experience together.

#2: Everybody should know Chinese Kung Fu, then the aliens and zombies would be too scared to attack. (Thank goodness another student taught me that.)

#3: Adopt a pet. At least you won’t die alone. (I’m one step ahead!)

#4: Never say never. Learn how to eat everything that flies, walks and swims, because you never know. (Luckily, I’m an adventurous eater.)

Taken by the waitress.
Taken by the waitress.

After the exams, Harden’s class invited me to dinner. We went to a local restaurant and the students asked what I wanted. I replied anything but the dog (which was on the menu) and we feasted on things such as sweet and sour chicken, grilled eggplant, frogs, fried lotus root, pig intestine and more.

Nobody expected me to try the frog. It was placed at the opposite end of a table large enough for 18 of us, and when I said I wanted some, they eagerly filled my rice bowl with a variety of juicy parts (more than just the legs, folks!). It tasted delicious, and I ate everything but the skin (eww). When I was finished, Harden was impressed.

“You stronger girl than I thought you are,” he said. “I think you can survive the end of the world.”

After everybody was full, we went across the street to play Mahjong. We enjoyed a great night of laughs, beers and learning how to play one of China’s most traditional and fun games. The students were good about explaining everything to me in English. It seems this class took their exams seriously. And for that, they all got A’s.


How to Survive the End of the World
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Charades in Zhaoqing, China

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I should have played Charades more often when I was young, but back then, I couldn’t have known how useful the art of body language can be when traveling the world. My Chinese skills range between shoddy and nonexistent, leaving me up for a challenge whenever I leave the security bubble of Peizheng College, where nearly everybody speaks at least some English.

Two weekends ago, I had a serious craving for adventure. I flipped open my found 2002 Lonely Planet China in search of a day trip that would curb my appetite and give me a reason to get out of town. I landed on this description of a smallish city only hours away: “Home to some craggy limestone rock formations similar to those around Guilin…”

The beauty of Yangshuo without the nightmare of getting there? Sold.

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I stepped off the bus in Zhaoqing where approximately nobody speaks English. Luckily, on the way in I noticed the limestone mountains known as the Seven Star Crags (named from the belief that the rocks were formed after seven stars fell from the sky and formed a pattern resembling the Big Dipper) only a few blocks away. I walked back, made my way around the beautiful lake and down tree-lined pathways to the entrance. I paid Y60 to enter and managed to lose more than half a day wandering through, up and around the scenic reserve.

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It was late afternoon by the time I finished hiking to the top to see the view, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to go to the nearby Dinghu Shan area that Lonely Planet claims is one of the most scenic spots in all of Guangdong. I decided to take a solo walking tour of the city while I tried to find a hostel a friend told me about, though I had no idea I’d end up on a wild goose chase.

I had the address, and I found the correct street (or so I thought), but there were no numbers on the buildings. I asked several shop owners for their addresses by pointing to a business card and asking for theirs. It turns out, nobody knows their business address in Zhaoqing, but they’re eager to help. One nice lady pointed me in the right direction.

But she was wrong.

So I walked all the way back, and found a dead end.

Three hours and a few sidewalk snacks later, I stopped into another business, mimed to a nice man what I wanted, and showed him the hostel name I had written down. He Googled it and then gave me a motorbike ride. I was less than a block away, but the building lacked an English sign (despite the English website) and I knew I never would have found it on my own.

Once there, the woman asked me for Y80. “But online it’s only Y50,” I tried to reason with her. My friend had quoted the price from the hostel’s website.

She wrote 80 again on her paper, not understanding a word of my English. I pointed at her computer, said 50 in Chinese and made the sign for sleep and pointed upstairs. This incomprehensible conversation went on for a good 10 minutes, despite the fact I was ready to give her the Y80 she asked for. But she was determined and called her son.

“Room no have wifi,” he told me over the phone.

“I don’t need wifi in the room,” I said. “I was just trying to say that your website says the cost for the room is Y50, not Y80, so I’d like to only pay Y50.”

“We no have wifi in room. My mother say tell you we no have wifi.”

“I no need wifi.”

“Oh, you no need wifi in room?”

“No. I pay 50. Okay?”

“Oh! You want pay 50? Okay! You pay 50. I tell my mother now.”

Phew.

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The next morning I woke before the sun to give myself enough time to climb the mountain and return to Guangzhou before the last bus would depart for Peizheng. I found a taxi and asked him to take me to the local bus station where Lonely Planet suggested I start.

“Chi che,” I said in Chinese, without consulting my notes. “Qu Dinghu Shan.” Go Dinghu Mountain. I moved my hands as if I were steering the wheel of a bus, in my mind, and he told me it would be Y10 to take me there.

We drove around the corner, and he pulled over at the sidewalk bus stop and pointed to the number 21. I laughed and tried again to tell him to take me to the bus station where I could buy a ticket and actually know where my bus was headed, but I failed. I paid him and found another taxi.

Soon I was back at the Seven Star Crags, the driver having understood only the word mountain from my slaughtered pronunciation.

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“No, no, no.” I said. “Bu yao jigga.” No want this. “Yao Dinghu shan.” I drew a mountain with my fingers, and again tried my charades for bus.

Eventually, I did take the number 21 bus to the end of the line and the first taxi driver was right – it took me directly to the base of Dinghu Shan. I paid another Y60 to enter the protected reserve and began my accent up the paved pathway.

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I spent some time at the waterfall where locals were practicing Tai Chi and singing opera, then I walked further up to the Buddhist temple and bowed to the Almighty before continuing to Boading Park on top of the mountain, where one of the largest caldren replicas sits. Locals try their hardest to throw bouncy balls wrapped in lucky red ribbon into its center.

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I was exhausted from the hours of walking I had done, so when I began my decent, I gave an empty tour bus a friendly smile and got myself a ride. I assumed he asked where I was going and so again I said chi che. He then asked me if I wanted to drive his bus. I know this is what he asked because he pointed to me, made the same motion with his hands on the steering wheel as I had that morning, and then signaled that he would stand near the doorway and I could sit in his seat. Then he asked again, several more times, pointing at me and then his seat and the wheel. I adamantly declined, but I was thankful for the ride.

Once I was finally headed back to Guangzhou, I pulled out my notes from Chinese class. It turns out, chi che does not mean bus. It means car, which could explain a lot of my confusion. While my Mandarin skills remain fairly stagnant, I am getting some good practice for Charades.

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The Buddhist temple on Dinghu Shan.
Sticky rice dumplings are very popular in Zhaoqing, and all the village shops near Dinghu Shan were busy with preparations for the popular fast food. However, I have yet to try one I like.
Sticky rice dumplings are very popular in Zhaoqing, and all the village shops near Dinghu Shan were busy with preparations for the popular fast food. However, I have yet to try one I like.
A young boy helps his father buy meat at the street market.
A young boy helps his father buy meat at the street market.
Riding bikes around the park near the Seven Star Crags is a popular pastime for Chinese tourists.
Riding bikes around the park near the Seven Star Crags is a popular pastime for Chinese tourists.

Charades in Zhaoqing
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

Peeing in Public: China’s Dirty Streets

I gasped when I rode by the adult woman squatting, her bare ass facing the road, her gaze upon the green fields out yonder. I pedaled my red, gearless, child-size bike past her and onto the busy roadway toward Shiling, the village north of Peizheng College, and reminded myself not to be shocked. I’ve squatted numerous times before – in wheat fields and alongside the highway each time I made the drive between Bend, Oregon and my parents’ house – but the difference between this woman and I, is I might rather pee my pants than give an audience a front-row show.

This sight really shouldn’t catch me off guard by now. It seems it doesn’t matter whether I’m strolling through a village, walking down a crowded sidewalk or waiting at the bus stop – the ground (or garbage can, or tree, or…) might as well be a public restroom in China.

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Peeing in public is an accepted act, it seems, for a child under say five (and that’s being generous), and parents often aid their children: I’ve seen fathers instruct their sons to urinate into a manmade pond in the middle of a nicely landscaped park in Guangzhou’s business district; I’ve witnessed a mother hold her small child over a garbage can and help her to aim for the hole, not 12 inches from where I sat waiting for my bus.

The Chinese have even manufactured crotch-less pants for babies under a certain age – I’ve seen toddlers daunting them, some with a diaper sagging through the bottom of their britches, others free to go wherever they please.

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Photo credit goes to ChineseTraditionsandCulture.com

Urinating isn’t the only thing the streets are good for. Spitting loogies and blowing snot are even more common, sound effects and all. I guess the pollution makes it a necessary evil, or something like that. I’m still not convinced there’s much of an excuse for peeing in public unless you’re miles from a restroom and you at least make an attempt to hide yourself, but what do I know?

I once saw a girl of about 12 remove her school uniform and relieve herself on the fancy brick decor surrounding a tree on a busy street and I remember thinking, I think she’s a bit too old for that. Now I’ve seen a full-grown woman in her 30’s strip her britches and let loose, and unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last time.

Note: Featured photo courtesy of The B Family AdventuresI wanted to post a picture for proof of this absurdity, but I can’t snap a proper picture without looking like a complete pervert. And, even when I do decide to take my chances, I can never quite lift my jaw from the grimy street and place my camera to my eye in enough time to even try. I did, however, manage to get this terrible shot (the first one) as an afterthought walking by, and then I felt like I should be the one going to jail for my indecency. Oh well.

Award: GoAbroad.com Blog of the Week

I’ve just returned from another blog-worthy weekend to the fantastic news that this here blog has been selected for another high honor – GoAbroad.com’s Blog of the Week!

I promise, the stuff you’re really interested in is coming soon. You can look forward to stories about the oh-so-common indecent exposure on China’s streets and sidewalks; photos and details from my beautiful trip to Zhaoqing, the Yangshuo of Guangdong Province; and more posts about teaching. I know you’re getting impatient, so feel free to click here and read my essay about teaching in Thailand over at Wandering Educators.

But seriously. If you’re interested in traveling with a purpose, GoAbroad.com is your one-stop shop. Whether you’re planning to volunteer, study, intern or work overseas , GoAbroad.com has the resources to help you. It even has a job resource page especially for Teach Abroad opportunities and TEFL certification programs.

Plus, the best part about GoAbroad.com, for me, is that it’s headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, precisely where I’ll be this time next year. Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to meet the guys and gals who make this site work – and maybe, just maybe, they’ll be hiring 😉

Check out their nice write-up about MissAdveture here.

GoAbroad - Welcome to the resource for meaningful travel!

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Award: GoAbroad.com Blog of the Week

Written by:Jessica J. Hill