Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fuck It in Phuket

So here it is -- the long lost story of how I sprained a kid's arm while teaching in Phuket, Thailand, in 1999. As featured in TO TRAVEL HOPELESSLY, my compilation of late-90's old-school English teacher adventures.

I knew the job was probably doomed when I sprained the kid’s arm.

I arrived in Phuket at the beginning of the rainy season, at the end of May. I checked into a cheap Chinese hotel in Phuket Town and then went to meet my new colleagues.

It was a small school, only two teachers, a few secretaries and one manager. The other teacher, and titular DOS, was a wan yet chirpy British woman of about my age. (I would turn 30 soon.)

We chatted briefly about the job and then she said, “Oh, and one more thing, do you mind starting the day after tomorrow? I know we said next week, but our other teacher injured himself.”

“Oh, sure, no problem. What happened?”

“He accidentally cut his foot with a samaurai sword.”

“Oh, right. Occupational hazard. I’ll be here.”

The next day, I rented a Honda Dream scooter and drove down to Kata beach to look for a place to stay. All the beach huts and small hotels seemed overpriced, but I saw an “apartment for rent” sign on the road leading out of the city.

I stopped and checked it out; it was a small row of five apartments and a café run by a French guy and his Thai wife, and a young transvestite guy worked as the sort of manager and attendant of the place.

It was about $150 a month, and by the standards of most places I lived in Thailand, luxurious and roomy. It actually had a living room, with a big vinyl couch and an end table. The bedroom had a big double bed, a ceiling fan, and was blessedly free of windows to keep the blazing tropical sun out.

It even had a kitchen and a refrigerator, although no stove or oven, and there was no hot water, unless the sun made it hot during the day.

I rented it immediately.

The job in Phuket was the one that most English teachers dreamed of – working 20 hours a week on a tropical resort island? Oh man you lucky bastard!


A few things.

First of all – when you imagine living in the tropics, you probably don’t imagine the rain. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. Every day, all day, rain was POUNDING down. For WEEKS at a time.

This kind of stops you getting out much. Even moreso than heavy snow.

And then various creepy-crawlies from the jungle start trying to seek shelter in apartments like mine. I had a foot-long blue and red lizard living in my bathroom for quite a long time.
I got used to him. “Good morning lizard!” I’d say.

I had to ride my scooter 17 km to work, from Kata to Phuket Town, in the rain – my bright orange poncho whipping around me, the rain spattering on the plexiglass faceplate of my helmet, big delivery trucks roaring and grinding past me, my work trousers rolled up and my work shoes in a plastic bag in the front basket.

Second of all – when you imagine this dream job in the tropics – you probably aren’t teaching a bunch of little kids.

The weekends were the hardest part of my schedule – I had two six hour days, full of little kids between the ages of 5 and 11.

Old enough not to be intimidated by their English teacher, young enough not to give much of a fuck about actually learning English.

Two times during the week, I had to go teach at a kindergarten.

Some of these children were so small they couldn’t walk. Most of them were 3 or 4. I had four 30-minute classes in a row, each composed of 20 to 25 little kids, screaming and peeing and and sneezing and snotting.

English Manager C had conveniently waited until after the interview to tell me that, “Overwhelmingly, the majority or our students are young learners.”

Miss Dim, a secretary at the other school I worked at in Bangkok, put it more succinctly – “X teach babies!”

Nonetheless, I put some effort into it. Having finally gotten a job at a school that had some books about teaching, I read up on how to teach children and generally manipulate, intimidate, and brainwash those who you have some authority over.

My rowdy class of 8-9 year olds spent the first class running wildly around the room and wrestling as I futilely attempted to get a few of them involved in playing Hangman.

Two lessons later, I had conquered them like Ghengis Khan.

I had them seated in rows raising their hands to participate, organized into Teams. If one student misbehaved, the whole team lost a point. This left the discipline to brutal peer pressure. Whichever team had the most points at the end of the lesson got some various cheap prizes, including gold stars and certificates I whipped up on Microsoft Pagemaker.

I later demonstrated my powers to the other teacher and DOS during the break by holding up two fingers – the accepted signal for “two points” and getting the whole class to scream in unison, “X is a good teacher!”

The little kids—the kindergarteners, the 2-4 year old – I conquered with songs and puppets. (Having to do this in the morning, I owe a great deal of thanks to the original Red Bull Krataeng Dang energy drink. )

They loved me, too. When I pulled up on my scooter, they all came running out screaming, “Hello Hello!” and “Bee bee bee!” and “chicken chicken chicken” referring to the bee and chicken puppets I used.

Teaching kids that small – especially in large groups – there’s not much you can do. We sang some “eyes ears nose” and “head shoulders toes” kind of songs. I held up flashcards with pictures of animals, fruits and vehicles, and they repeated the names after me. Then we played a game where I put pictures of different things on the wall, called out the name, and the students ran to them.

I remember thinking to myself, as the students laughed and cheered and followed me around shouting the names of fruits and animals, “Wow, you’re really doing a good job of this, these kids are really learning.”

It was a couple months into it when the DOS told me the the owner of the kindergarten was VERY displeased with my lessons, that they needed to have some system of evaluation and that the lessons should contain more writing and not so much pointless playing.

“Evaluation? Writing? These kids are TWO YEARS OLD!”

“I know, I know,” said the wan but chirpy DOS, now more wan than chirpy. “I have to come observe you, believe me, I’m no more happy about this than you are. It was apparently the reason the last DOS left, incidentally – we can’t do anything right, as far as that kindergarten is concerned, but that’s a big contract.”

They got a new Thai manager of the place, about that time. She was a chipmunk-faced Thai woman of about 26 who had just returned from studying in England, and I think she was the daughter of some friend of the owner.

I would say her English was about Intermediate, at best, though she’d just completed a Master’s in something at some diploma mill for foreign students.

“I will help you solve this problem,” she assured me, but I knew from experience that when dealing with Thais, by the time you know about the problem, it’s usually too late to do anything about it.

We met with the owner of the kindergarten, an old sour-faced Thai spinster who simultaneously insisted that everything we were doing was wrong and refused to tell us why, and our young Thai manger rattled away in Thai at her while the DOS and I sat, arms folded, trying to remember to smile, as we’d been instructed.

Finally we came up with a completely nonsensical system of evaluation – I’d hold up a couple of pictures, and if the student could say the name of one of them, they passed, and we came up with some worksheets where the kids had to sit and color in the letters of the English alphabet.
Then, I sprained the kid’s arm.

As I mentioned, there were 25 kids in each group, and one of them, a lively little curly-headed half-Western 4 year old, had wrapped himself around my leg and refused to let go.

I attempted to lift him by his arm and there was a POP and a piercing shriek.

Don’t ever lift a kid by one arm, by the way. I know that. Now. Especially little Thai kids with arms like pretzel sticks.

Everyone assured me that it was okay, that I’d done nothing wrong, that everything was fine.

“Look,” I said to the DOS. “I know how this works in Thailand. They never want to deal directly with problems. I’ll resign now. Because I know what will happen – I’ll just come in here one day and I won’t be on the schedule, and they’ll say, “Oh, sorry, come back next month, the owner can’t talk to you right now.”

“Really, I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said, wanly. “I told them in your evaluation that you didn’t really do anything wrong, it was an accident, your lessons are fine.”

But she didn’t seem convinced at all.

They took me off the kindergarten class and gave it to a fat English chick they hired. There was some worry at first that she would frighten the kids, but it seemed they didn’t mind her, and as per the instructions of the kindergarten owner, the kids were sitting and coloring their worksheets most of the class now, anyway.

A couple weeks later, she told me the curly-headed little bugger was back. “And he’s right as rain. It was a mild sprain, that’s all.”

My social life in Phuket was actually a bit slow. During the height of the rainy season, I actually went out and bought a Playstation (chipped to play bootlegged games) to help keep myself entertained.

Other than that, I went into the main Patong Beach strip in the evenings, where I befriended several cute young bar girls. I celebrated my 30th birthday with two of them, only one of whom I paid.

I swam a lot; I was fit and tanned and my mousy brown hair went streaky blond. The off-duty bar girls at the Shark Club loved me.

My favorite game was seeing how much I could get them to do without having to pay them. I discovered that in low tourist season, when there were a lot more hookers than guys, the girls considered there to be some issues of “face” in having a guy taking them out of there, even if he was only giving a nominal payment or no payment at all.

I invited them over to play Playstation and bought them som-tam.

I spent about an hour making out with and feeling up a lovely young big-breasted hooker on my vinyl couch in the living room, after establishing she would do that for free, before she finally asked me if I wanted to have sex.

I told her I didn’t have any more money.

“It’s okay,” she said. “Pay next time.”

Hey, whores get bored, too.

Other than that, there were tourists. One evening I picked up an Australian girl visiting Phuket on a package holiday; we danced for hours and then went back to her room at the Holiday Inn at about 2.00am. We swam in the hotel pool, making out, and then went back to her room, without turning on the light, and got in the shower, and then in the bed.

Afterwards, pleased, I dozed until the sun come up, filling the room with soft blue light, and I noticed some dark spots on the sheets.

She came out of the bathroom. “Uh,” she giggled nervously. “This isn’t the best time of the month for this. . .”

I got up and went into the bathroom. My face, my chest, and my stomach were all smeared with frothy dried purple menstrual blood. I burst into hysterical laughter.

Generally speaking, when it wasn’t raining, I would spend the day on the beach at Kata, near the Club Med, or snorkeling at different points around the island I’d reach on my Honda Dream scooter.

I discovered an abandoned resort in the trees up a hill near Kata – this was one of my favorite places. Hillside cottages empty, a central building full of discarded papers and furniture and even a pickup truck. I wandered around it in the gentle tropical rain, startling green snakes and looking for interesting odds and ends, occasionally breaking windows and sitting on the rotten deck of the empty restaurant and watching the sun disappear into the purple, orange, and violet sky.

In my evening classes, which consisted of adults, I actually worked hard to be a well-organized teacher and cover the material thoroughly, which I should ALSO have known was a bad idea.
Generally, after a day on the beach, all I wanted was a nap, and resented having to go into work. The adults thought I was unfriendly, and I resisted their attempts to invite me out for dinner and things.

So then basically, about five months into the contract, towards the end of October, I went in one day and was told that the Thai manager hadn’t put me on the schedule for November.

Despite good evaluations of my teaching, the manager didn’t actually want to meet with me to discuss it, although the vague reason of students finding my lessons “too difficult” was mentioned, and they wanted me to transfer back to the school’s main branch in Bangkok.


I dug out my contract.

I found an ad for a lawyer, in Phuket’s small English language paper. I rode to the office on my Honda Dream, jittering with anger.

The lawyer was the unfortunate product of a law school in Pennsylvania in America. Despite looking like a usual dignified business-suited Thai office worker, she spoke with an unbelievably annoying whiny American voice that inflected every sentence like a question.

Nonetheless, she did her job.

I explained the situation to her, showed her my contract – which guaranteed me at least one month’s notice of termination of contract – and asked her to phone the school to discuss breach of contract.

This was, amazingly, one of the few jobs in Thailand that had actually bothered to get me a legal work visa. I’d gone to Malaysia to get it a few weeks after I’d arrived in Phuket, and they had registered me as a legal employee. I had a little ID card, even.

It was always amusing to watch Thais who had been in America speak Thai. When reverting back to Thai, all the brash inflection they copied from Americans was gone, and they were again the modest demure Thai kunla satri (good girl).

While my Thai ran the gamut from none to almost none, I could follow the conversation very well.
My lawyer began with clear indirectness and deference, speech laden with the polite particle “ka.” Then she began interspersing it with American lawyerisms, particularly “lawsuit” and “breach of contract.”

She became more firm and accusatory as the conversation continued, and it was clear that the Thai manager was backpedalling and making excuses furiously and hadn’t actually bothered to look at the contract. I made my lawyer tell the manager that we would discuss this with the owner of the school as soon as possible.

Half-way through the conversation, she wrote on a small piece of yellow memo-pad –“Take this to court!” and slid it across to me.

When she was done, I applauded her, and told her she’d clearly done a beautiful job.
I can’t remember how much money I gave her. I think it was about $50. One of the better $50 I’ve ever spent.

I wrote the now-stereotypical indignant letter to English Manager C in Moscow, and claimed that I was sending copies to English teacher forums and the Thai Department of Education. (Ha! Whatever the hell that is.)

A few days later, it was a very pleased English Teacher X who interrupted his sunbathing to ride his scooter into Phuket Town to meet with the young chipmunk faced Thai manger and the DOS.
The owner missed the meeting, perhaps to save face or perhaps out of genuine lack of interest, but I accepted a check for “a final agreed sum of 13,000 baht, for a 2 week period, November 1, 1999 – November 16, 1999” in lieu of proper notice.

I cheerfully signed a document stating that I agreed not to pursue any legal action against the company, or “bring the name of the company into disrepute.”

I made plans to move to Ko Samui, which I liked a bit better than Phuket, for the Millenium New Year’s Eve. I sold my Honda Dream to a British scuba diving instructor and rather regretfully told my French landlord that I was leaving. I’d miss that place. Even the lizard and the ants.

A few days before I left, I saw the DOS of the school, and the fat English girl who’d taken all my classes, sitting on the beach. I sat down and chatted with them for a while.

“Would you really have sued the school?” she asked me. “You know that’s a pretty dodgy thing, in Thailand.“

I thought about it. “I don’t know. Mostly I was bluffing, I think; I knew a bluff would work. Chipmunk Face clearly didn’t know what she was doing, so I knew I could play her against the owner.”

She smiled. “You’re good at this.”

“You gotta take care of yourself in this game, baby, nobody else will.”

“You know, they re-wrote the contract, and put in a clause for immediate termination.”
I laughed. “Always leave a place better for your having been there, that’s what my granny used to say.”

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