Friday, October 08, 2010

The Origin of English Teacher X

This is the first story I ever wrote about English teaching, for the Angelfire website I started in 2003:

Bangkok, Thailand, April 12, 1995.

My first job interview had been going pretty well. The manager had offered me a full time contract, 28 hours a week, 20,000 Thai bhat a month. About $800. Not bad. I agreed I’d start the next Monday.

He spoke up as I was leaving.

“And one more thing.”


“Are you a fag?”

I blinked. “Uh. . . no. You uh. . have a problem with that?”

“Yeah, cause they don’t wanna work.”

“Well. . . don’t worry.” I tried to smile heartily.

The manager was a 40-ish American former military man with a walrus mustache stained with nicotine. He’d come to English teaching like many other men in Thailand – he’d married a Thai woman and been unable to find any other job.

He laughed out loud and turned to another teacher blearily smoking a cigarette nearby. “Heh, you should have seen the look on his face.” He lit another smoke for himself and turned back to the computer where he was busily playing “minesweeper.” “Heh heh. All right then. You can start next Monday, after the holiday. See you then.”

I nodded. I shifted uncomfortably on my new cheap buffalo leather shoes. “Big Buffalo” was the brand name. I was also wearing a new blue rayon tie that I’d spilled yogurt on while waiting for the bus to the school. It was located in a huge shopping mall on the outskirts of Bangkok that had a food court with animatronic birds and hippos and a waterfall. Somehow I’d envisioned working in a wooden shack.

“So uh, anyway. My experience has mostly been in, uh, private settings. So, as far as the classroom, uh, what should I . . . uh. . .” In fact I had no experience whatsoever. I’d spent the last three months living in a $2 a day beach hut on the island of Ko Samui, and the year before backpacking around Asia. I had contracted giardia in India and was 30 pounds underweight. And also something of a nervous wreck.

They’d seemed impressed by my BA in English Literature though. That was more than any of them had. The manager, I would later learn, had less than two years experience and no kind of teaching certificate to compliment his degree in engineering. He had become manager of this branch of one of Bangkok’s largest language schools because nobody else wanted to move to this remote area, on the opposite side of the city from the go-go bars on Sukhumvit and Patpong roads.

“Ah,” he waved his hand dismissively. “Just follow the book. Do stuff like your English teacher used to do in high school.”

I suppose I didn’t technically become English Teacher X until the next Monday, and it was several years before I really earned the title. But on that day I ceased to be a backpacker, anyway.

Why Bangkok? Why English teaching?

I was running out of money and I didn’t want to go home. Many people had told me that Taiwan was a gold mine for English teaching, and that I could save thousands of dollars. I had tried to get a visa at the Taiwanese consulate in Bangkok and been refused one. “You intend to work illegally, it is obvious,” said the fat angry Chinese man behind the counter in the busy office. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn a t-shirt and shorts to the interview.

Down to my last $800, I'd given a quick scan to the Bangkok Post. It had revealed a lot of ads for English teaching positions. I chose one at random and they told me to come by for an interview.

Did I ever imagine I’d do it for more than a few years?

No fucking way.

But here I am.

It was very hot, even for Bangkok, that day – over 100 degrees. The Thai holiday of Songkran, the Thai new year, was starting – every area with pedestrian traffic was full of people with water guns and buckets of water, splashing everyone in sight. It had something to do, originally, with washing away the sins, but has turned in recent years into a three-day water fight. (Complete with a lot of car accidents and eye infections from the filthy water.)

I was thoroughly soaked by the time I got back to the tiny room I was renting in a guest house near Khao-San Road. Kind of a christening, a baptism. I was born again, but I had only the faintest idea what I’d been reborn as. I felt good. I had a job. I grabbed my super-soaker, bought a Singha beer at the nearby 7-11 and headed out to the street to do battle.


Darren said...

Charming story.

I recently fled South Korea and am now teaching at a high school in Hungary. 1/5 of the pay, but work and life is easy. I wish I had a textbook to follow...

Anonymous said...

No textbook? Shit, that sounds like hard work. What an earth do you do in class?

Anonymous said...

Darren: where in Hungary? I taught there for a year. A town ne of Budapest.