Thai New Year in Bangkok

Happy Thai New Year! Today is the first day of Songkran, Thailand’s five-day New Year celebration, and yesterday was my last day of teaching cute unruly, primary school children. Read: Let’s party!

Thai New Year
Student water fight at school.

I said goodbye to my students by dumping buckets of water down their backs, in true Songkran fashion (and got totally soaked in return) and packed my things in my trusty backpack to move out of the grungy room in the back of the library that I’ve occupied for the past month. I boarded a bus for Bangkok to celebrate the Thai New Year in style – in shorts and a t-shirt, sopping wet and wandering up and down the streets of Silom, water gun in hand.

The most exciting part? I’m meeting up with my friend from college – my freshmen year apartment mate, and also the author of this guest post – whom I haven’t seen in at least four years. When we tire of the nationwide water fight, we’ll probably find ourselves poolside, so as not to veer too far from the water on these 100+, humid days in Thailand’s hottest month.

Thai New Year
Waiting impatiently to begin!

When things cool off, we’ll surely need to hit another watering hole – the swanky State Tower Sky Bar for a mouthwatering Kiss Bliss drink. Perhaps we’ll hit RCA, the popular local club street, for some live music, dancing and, of course, a different kind of thirst quencher: Thai whiskey.

It will be nice to stay in one place this year, which should prevent a repeat of last year’s experience: waiting by a tree stump for an unreliable bus on the country’s biggest holiday; then hitchhiking in the back of a pickup bed (read the full story) before, finally, succumbing to a 24-hour train ride, complete with a water fight in the bar car. Yeah, I think this year will be a little more low key.

But what do I know? Thailand is full of surprises.


Thai New Year in Bangkok
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

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.

teaching in thailand
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?”

teaching in thailand
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

Overcoming Homesickness

Homesickness has hit me like a Thai teacher’s hand to the back of a rowdy student’s head – swiftly, consistently, and without reason. Each time my wanderlust wins the battle between stay and go, ten weeks later my homeland fights back with a vengeance.

I recognize it almost instantly, often when my mood is sour about something silly and unrelated, and I find myself saying I hate China, or Thailand, or Los Angeles or Spain, for some unworthy reason. It always attacks somewhere between the two-and-a-half to three-month anniversary of my absence, just when the newness of a place is beginning to wear off, a routine taking its place.

Yet it strikes me as odd that, for me, homesickness and wanting to go home don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Yes, in these moments I dream of sitting down for a face-to-face conversation with the ones I love most and curling up with my always-understanding pooch and squeezing him until all of these feelings pass, but I know I don’t actually want to return.

Well, when I look at this face, I do kinda want to return 😦

Things won’t be different if I return now or eight months from now, and it consoles me to know that. My parents will continue to enjoy their first year as empty nesters. My siblings and friends will remain busy finding their own ways in life. Everybody else will go about their daily lives as usual. And I know when I do go back, we’ll all pick up where we left off, just like we do every other time.

I know an impulse decision would leave me feeling worse in the end. If I flew home tomorrow, I’d be angry at myself as soon as I boarded the plane. I’d be mad that I’m ruining my chances of earning a teaching assistantship at CSU based on my one-year of experience teaching at the university level. I’d be disappointed that I gave up a paid, two-month holiday and my plans to go to India. And I’d be broke, wishing I’d stayed long enough to stash the savings I’m planning to return with at the end of my contract.

So I know the obvious answer is the wrong one. Instead, I just need to get my hands on a cure. A combined concoction of talking about it, writing, and Starbucks usually does the trick.

At about this time last year, I was writing similar words for Bella Vita. If you read this essay, it won’t surprise you that I’m now writing from the comfort of my cozy Starbucks chair, my red cup in hand and a savory muffin on a plate in front of me. I even managed to find possibly the only Starbucks in Guangzhou that has all the holiday favorites (including white chocolate, which most stores here don’t carry) and has been playing Christmas tunes all morning. I already feel better.

As I stare out the window at the rest of the city waking up to the dreary greyness of the day, I get lost in pleasant thoughts of home, making each delicious sip last. I know when my brew is gone I’ll still be in China, but I also know that if this cup (and telling hundreds of you about my woes) doesn’t completely cure me, I can always have another.

What do you do to overcome homesickness? 


Overcoming Homesickness
Written by:Jessica Hill

I Miss My Ex, But Not All of It

After teaching in China, I’ve been forced to admit how much I didn’t enjoy teaching in Thailand. It’s like the opposite of the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

I relate my experience more to a bad relationship – one where you don’t realize it’s bad until you’ve moved on to realize what a good relationship actually is. Now that Thailand and I broke up, I have not forgotten all the things I love about it – it will always be my first love, an affair that taught me a lot about myself and my partner – but I have since discovered one thing I didn’t like: Teaching.

My freshmen university students here, in China, are absolutely fabulous. They actually want to be in class, for starters, not just because their teacher is white, but because they want to learn. They understand what I’m saying (it’s a dream come true!) and actively participate when asked. Even the not-so-enthusiastic classes will come to the front of the room and speak, even if reluctantly.

In Thailand, if a student was adamant about not speaking (which is the reason they were in my class), they would simply run out of the room shed. I do understand there are some vast differences between my high-school-aged students (eighth graders and sophomores) and my college freshmen when it comes to maturity and taking control of their own education, as is true in any country (in fact, I spent a lot of time defending my Thai students for these very reasons), but there are some other huge factors that play into it too.

Chinese students are told on the day they are born how important it is to be educated, and they spend their entire childhood studying and stressing about their college entrance exams. It’s a part of the culture to be studious, and more than half of my students named reading and studying as hobbies (as well as sleeping and eating, but that’s another story).

In rural Thailand, the emphasis on education is much lower. A priority list with education at the top exists for few, and not one of my students was ever caught reading a book. Students will skip class for reasons such as helping with the family farm or being too tired from a field trip (like I was after this one), and it’s perfectly acceptable in a country that allows students to drop out after freshman year of high school.

Many of my Thai eighth grade students will choose that option, and the few who do finish twelfth grade won’t further their studies at university. They have other priorities, like caring for the family and helping mom with the family’s street-food stand.

I realize it’s completely unfair to compare China to Thailand – they are very different countries in almost every respect of the word. However, just like a girl can’t help comparing one boyfriend to the last, it’s hard not to make these kinds of connections.

Living in China could (and will) never take away the unbeatable adventure I had in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, but I loved those countries for their people, their culture, their food, their sites, etc., not necessarily because I loved my job. I’m forced to see that now, as unfair to my ex (Thailand) as that is, but teaching is the only contrast I will allow myself to make.

I foresee my time in China being no less than wonderful, and though I know my job will be more fulfilling and beneficial to my future than any of my days in front of a white board in Thailand, I don’t believe the rest of my China experience will ever be able to top my village life in Thailand.

How to Teach Abroad: What You’ll Need

Update: For a more concise, complete version of this article (with links to all the important stuff), please click here to view my five simple steps to finding a job in Asia over at Bootsnall.com.

Native English speakers are truly fortunate to have English as their first language. In a world moving toward a global economy, other countries know they need to speak the global language if they want to keep up. In Asia, educated people are desperate to learn English. And you can help them, while you help yourself earn money, see the world and create a lifetime of memories.

Most schools require only a bachelor degree (in any field), fluency in English (check!) and either a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate. These terms are often interchanged and most schools will accept either, even if the job posting only specifies one. Don’t worry, the hardest part of getting a certificate is deciphering which online providers are legitimate. Here are my recommendations:

ITTT (International TEFL and TESOL Training) is the school I used. It is straight forward and quick. They provide you with a tutor who will send your assignments (a PDF information sheet along with a set of related questions) and then correct your work and provide appropriate feedback on each. I earned a 120-hr certificate in much less (though the program gives you six months to complete it), and Asian schools recognize it.

American TESOL Institute – allows you to keep track of your progress online, and there is no deadline to finish the course. You simply log in to their database to receive your course material and submit your answers online.

CELTA – is offered by the University of Cambridge and is the most respected and universal online course around. It’s also the most expensive and rigorous.

A quick Google search will result in various options for onsite courses. They’re expensive and aren’t any more respected than an online course. Their selling point (other than travel, of course) is hands-on experience, but you don’t really need that. Honest. Even the most prepared ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, as you’ll often be referred, is not prepared to step into a classroom full of eager, watchful eyes and immediately feel confident trying to break down the language barrier. I’m not trying to scare you – it’s fun! – just prevent you from paying thousands of dollars for a course that really won’t benefit you in the end.

You can ignore everything I just said if you’re qualified to teach in a western country. A master degree (or higher) and/or experience with teaching any subject/age/class size will almost always replace the need for a TEFL certificate.

I’m serious, folks. It’s that easy. What are you waiting for?

Next in this series: How to Find a Job.

Do you have any questions?


How to Teach Abroad: What You’ll Need
Written by:Jessica Hill

How to Teach English Abroad: Decisions

Update: For a more concise, complete version of this article (with links to all the important stuff), please click here to view my five simple steps to finding a job in Asia, over at Bootsnall.com.

When I first decided to go down this road, I searched for hours trying to answer questions I hadn’t yet formed. Not knowing exactly what I was looking for, I would get lost in the possibilities. The Internet was an overwhelming source of information. If you’re headed down the same path, this post is for you.

This is my attempt to simplify the decision-making process. However, I’m biased. Thailand is the first and only country I’ve taught in, so most of the information will pertain to my experience here, but I believe it to be applicable at least in some respect to many other Asian countries. Without a doubt, wherever you end up, it will be an experience of a lifetime and one I would recommend to anyone.

Where do you want to teach?

Choosing a country will help narrow your search and allow you to learn about the culture while you do so. Asia is a landmine for teaching possibilities right now, so it’s a good place to start. It’s hard to find a paying job on other continents, such as Africa and South America (I looked into those originally), where it’s more common to pay for a volunteer program, but Asians, Thais especially, are hungry to learn English.

Thailand will become part of the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) in 2015, a community developed “to create a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN economic region, in which there is a free flow of goods, services, investment and capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities by 2020,” according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau. Already, Thailand is preparing for this with a lofty goal to be an English-speaking country before their induction, knowing that it is necessary for global communication.

The effects of this goal are already noticeable in the schools, which means many more teachers will be needed in the near future.

But maybe deciding why you want to teach will help you decide where.

Why do you want to teach?

Do you want teaching experience, a lucrative way to travel, or are you just looking for a way to pay back your college debt? If the latter is true, look in to South Korea (the EPIK program) where you can earn as much as $2,000/month plus all expenses paid. Japan and China both pay decent salaries, and I’ve heard the same of Taiwan as well.

If you just want to make enough money to travel around your chosen country, Thailand is perfect. With AYC (more about my agency below), I make $1,000/month, and I’m managing to save about $300 of that without trying too hard. I live in the Northeast (Isaan) where things are cheaper than the more visited parts of the country, but not by a significant amount. My rent is $150/month, which is on the high end, and other bills (water, electricity, internet and cell phone) total about $15.

If teaching experience is what you really seek, then your decision becomes a bit harder. Most Asian countries are going to significantly differ from your home country on many levels, so it will be hard to compare. If you’re a qualified teacher, look into teaching for an international school. They usually operate similarly to what you’re used to. If you want structure, look into Japan or China. And if you want a real understanding of teaching in a developing country, in a run-down wooden shed, in front of a battered white board, come to Thailand.

As different as Thailand is from the U.S.A., I do feel like I’ve received an experience that will undoubtedly help me in my future classroom. Granted, the lesson planning will be more intensive, the material I teach more extensive, and my requirements more strict, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to such a career.

Public or Private?

I have never taught in a private language school, but I made my decision based on the following beliefs: private schools are easier to get work, but they require you to work long hours, often seven days a week. They might also pay better than a public school, but you probably won’t have any free time to enjoy the extra money.

Doing an online search will often wield several results from such schools, often times because they are owned by westerners who actively seek other western teachers. If that’s the case, not dealing with a language barrier might be appealing to you. Other things to keep in mind: the students might be more inclined to learn – whether they are studying by choice or because their parents made them – which could make your job easier; You’ll most likely be dealing with a mixture of age groups, from preschoolers to middle-age; and many of the class times will be after school and work hours, which means nights and weekends that you have to give up.

I work normal school hours at a government school, Monday through Friday, 8am to 4pm. My weekends are free, and I get to take advantage of all public holidays, unlike a private school that wants to make money. However, my students don’t have a choice to learn English, and many of them would choose not to if they did.

I chose a public school because I felt that I would get a much more authentic experience (which is what I was seeking), and so far, I’d say that’s exactly what I’ve received. If you’re looking for the same, choose public.

Should you sign with an agency?

When my search began, I wanted to avoid paying any fees beyond the expected, so I was hoping to contact a school directly, and to have a job set up before I left. I wanted to avoid private institutions, despite the abundance of postings, and find work directly with a government school. That’s easier said than done, and after being in Thailand, I know why. Many of the rural areas don’t have internet, let alone websites, and they aren’t actively recruiting teachers. Many of the directors and other decision makers in the schools don’t actually speak English, so communicating with them is difficult. Plus, the school has to earn enough money from the government to afford a foreign teacher before they can even begin looking.

So I found myself with an agency. I did my research, checked it out fully, and eventually signed up with ESLstarter. They promised to take care of everything from a weeklong orientation to organizing and paying for my work permit. After weeks of being overwhelmed with decisions (not a strong point of mine) and information, it was easy to let them take care of everything.

But when I arrived in Thailand, a company called AYC was waiting for me at the airport, not ESL Starter. I was confused, yes, but after nearly 24 hours in transit, I was just happy to have a ride.

Fifty soon-to-be teachers were also puzzled. It turns out we had signed with a recruitment agency that works for AYC, and they never told us. ESL Starter was full of empty promises and misinformation. They were eager to tell us what we wanted to hear: “Of course you’ll get two weeks for Christmas vacation…. Sure, we help you find living arrangements… Absolutely, we can place you on a beach in southern Thailand!”

And while all of those things were lies, I did in fact end up in Thailand, teaching at a public high school and enjoying my time here.

This post has been delayed because I wasn’t sure how I felt about recommending AYC to future teachers, and to be honest, I’m still on the fence. Everything I read before committing to ESL Starter said I should just come to Thailand and find a job after I arrived. That terrified me. I wasn’t brave enough, or rich enough, to walk into totally unfamiliar territory without speaking the language and find myself a job. However, after being here, I completely understand how it’s possible. Especially in Isaan, where not many travelers venture, the schools are overzealous to find native speakers willing to stay a while. They might even come to you!

But if you aren’t brave enough for that, take a look at AYC – directly. Don’t get suckered by the middleman like I did. I’ve mentioned before that AYC is a terrible company – that they would never be in business in the states – but they are the best in Thailand. They are the biggest, and the most known, for both good and bad reasons.

The big guy in the company is nearly impossible to understand, and he’s notorious for making empty promises, but he’s been good to me. He changed my placement that first awful day when I learned I was to be in Bangkok. He even personally apologized when his staff member sent me an extremely out-of-line email, to which I give him maybe more credit than is due considering his reputation.

On the bright side, I have a job. And I like my job. And because I have no problems, I rarely need to communicate with AYC, unless I need a work permit (which they pay for) or a visa stamp (dido). They provide insurance (which is automatically deducted from your wages, but it isn’t much) and they supposedly have your back should your school not want to rehire you (which can happen for any number of unexpected reasons, from being too fat or too ugly, to simply not making an effort to make friends with the locals).

Plus, AYC always pays on time. Going directly to a school can often make you 10-15,000 baht more than the 30,000 ($1,000) starting rate that AYC pays. But AYC is a security blanket, so to speak, because you never know what can happen.

So, I lay out this information in hopes of helping you make your own decision, though I can’t confidently say which is best. I’ve only done it one way. However, I can offer this: If I were to do it again (and I might, in another country), I think I now have enough courage to go on a whim and try my luck at securing a job without an agency. I feel more assertive in traveling alone, and more open to failed attempts. But if it were my first time all over again, I would sign directly with AYC.

I hope this helps at least a little. I realize this is only scratching the surface of the plethora of questions you’re sure to have, but stay tuned for more to come.
And if you have specific questions, just ask!

Angry Teacher

I’m trying not to lose my patience with high schoolers, but it’s happening. It’s nearing the end of the year, and they’re just as eager to finish school as I am. Their anti-learning mentalities don’t mix well with my readiness to stuff my backpack and hit the road again, but we’re all making do and showing up to class (at least half the time).

Walking into a room full of sugar-high children literally bouncing off the walls sends me straight into strict teacher mode. The first words I hear, even before the unified “good morning, teacher” (which has become half-hearted and apathetic) are “teacher, go home?” or “play game!”

If asking them politely to sit down and be quiet doesn’t work, I immediately begin using the only advantage I have in this language barrier: talking loud and fast, saying whatever comes to mind with full confidence that they won’t have a clue what I’m saying.

I usually yell a lot of promises I know I can’t keep, such as, “If you shitheads don’t shut up and listen, I’m going to mark you all absent and give you zeros!” If you read Paper Politics, you know I can’t actually do this.

But nothing irritates me more than when I ask a student to do something and he looks me in the eye and says, “no.” As much as I want them to learn English, it’s then that I’m glad they don’t understand it, because the worst of our beloved language comes out of my smiling mouth.

“Mai khao jai,” they say. (I don’t understand).

“Good,” I reply.

I believe my words are much kinder than the wrath I’ve seen some of the Thai teachers unleash, and the students actually understand those! Plus, I’m not hitting them on the head or smacking them with a stick (as much as I’d like to), so I think I’m entitled to a few bursts of aggravation that serve absolutely no purpose other than making myself feel better.

Right?