Teaching English in Thailand: Janel

Most of you who read this blog know Janel Torkington through her space con tomates, which includes snapshots of Madrileño livin’, Euro-travelin’, and a rotation of recipes from east and west. Here she whisks us to Asia in an adventure involving the facial cream delivery man, a weekly massage bill, the ugly side of Bangkok, the four pillars of Thai flavor, and, of course, teaching English in Thailand. 

Janel, I always knew that you’d written about the food scene in spicy Thailand, but it was only recently that I learned you had also taught English during your time there. Can you explain a bit about how you decided to set up shop abroad?

I studied Spanish Language and Literature in college and had planned on applying for a Fulbright since hearing about it back in high school – it was only too obvious that I was going to get an English Teaching Assistantship grant to live and work in Madrid immediately after graduation. I gathered all the requisite application materials, wrote a few perfunctory essays, then sat back in my Earlham-issued desk chair to relax. While everyone else was scrambling with cover letters for entry-level corporate positions and/or Master’s programs, I knew I had my bases covered.

January brought the notification of having made the first cut – as expected, no issue there. I coasted – if you can call six cups of coffee a day in the name of thesis research “coasting” – through to April, when each day was structured around the noonday mailbox check for those of us still in the Fulbright game. The reader already sees that thin envelope coming, but the unwarranted assuredness was blissfully blinding on my end.

Planless, I appealed to my longtime college mentors for direction, and was told I was absolutely cut out for entry into some kind of Master’s program. I began to look at some admittedly very intriguing options – most memorably a two-year experience entitled “Aesthetics and Politics” held at Calarts University. I went so far as to tour the facilities that summer, and drew up a neat little Excel spreadsheet with regards to just how long it would take me to pay off the $80,000 tuition.

It was during this anchorless summer that an old friend of mine from college contacted me over Gmail chat, of all things. He’d been making his way through Asia, beginning in Japan and subsequently poking around in Taiwan and South Korea. Now he found himself in Bangkok, Thailand, and was immediately enamored with the chaotic rhythm of the place; his stories of foods and noises and folks from all over combined with a select few wildly colorful .jpgs were all it took to hook me. A bit intoxicated on impulse, I booked my cross-Pacific flight for mid-September, giving me just a few paltry summer weeks to get my stateside affairs in order, pack up, and go.

A junk sails through Railay Beach in the Krabi province

What a way to begin your journey! Now you’re in home-sweet-Thailand. How did you slide into the English-teaching scene?

Part of my friend’s scheming involved sending me a list literally breaking down the process of snaring an English-teaching position into 10 steps over the course of 10 days (you can check it out for yourself here). Please note that Day 8 includes “Get a massage.” The demand for native English instructors is sky-high in Bangkok due to the enormous touristic sector of the Thai economy; if you are from a predominantly English-speaking country and have a Bachelor’s degree, you can get a job teaching English. Add a TEFL certificate to your minimal qualifications, and you can snag a position that easily pays for multiple massages a week.

Although many self-proclaimed internet experts assure that you need not make any arrangements prior to touchdown in Asia, my sense of adventure didn’t extend so far as to not make any stab at job-hunting whatsoever. While completing one of those 120-hour TEFL courses in the waning summer days, I scoured ajarn.com at night, sending my groomed resume out to the most promising postings. Wall Street Institute Thailand was one of my first bites, and after a 30-minute Skype interview I was all but confirmed as an instructor at their private English academy for adults. An on-site interview a few weeks after I arrived sealed my position, and I began the WSI training right away.

A typical street in Pai

Good for you. So how in demand are English classes in Thailand? How expensive are English schools or programs for the locals?

Like I said, English has become absolutely essential for Thailand’s tourism-heavy economy. It’s viewed as the key to competing on an international level, and is necessary for any Thai wanting to study abroad.

There’s also, of course, the uglier side – Bangkok isn’t just famous for its fresh fruit smoothies. Plenty of older male expats are drawn by the access to a pool of young Thai women seeking a foreign boyfriend. A Google search for “how to take care of your Thai girlfriend” turned up a “Guide to Getting Young Thai Girls for Guys Over 50.” Here’s a choice excerpt from a purported expert:

“These girls live on a budget of 6-10,000 a month so just by wearing a pair of sneakers costing 2000 baht your elevating yourself in her eyes. You could wear the daggiest clothes but if you have a nice pair of shoes on she’ll like it….

Now you look OK you meet the chick even if you can’t say much to each other just be funny. You Thai girls are easily amused and it doesn’t take much a good 20 minute time waster that makes her laugh is farm animal noises. Just ask her what a dog sounds like what a cat sounds like it’s funny because the way we think they sound is different to what they think it makes her laugh and makes you look like a funny guy.

If you’ve done all the right things picked the right girl, wore the right things and made her roll around on the ground in hysterics then if you don’t get laid then review the checklist to make sure you’ve done everything right.”

Further choice reading material:

It’s a complex issue, one that I don’t particularly fancy diving into any further, suffice to say that there’s a significant demand to learn for those seeking to connect with English-speaking expats (this is also true to a lesser extent for German and French).

English is taught in public schools, but from what I understand it’s not at too high a level, and almost never from a native speaker. The cost of private language academies is well beyond the reach of most Thai budgets, meaning those who can afford to study privately tend to be fairly well-off – which further exacerbates the gap between social classes.

You’ll have to forgive my starkness in answering this question; extreme wealth disparity is much more visible in everyday life in Bangkok than in, say, Mesa, Arizona.

Night scene in Pattaya

No worries, you’ve given us a peek into this complex situation. Additionally, you’ve got a unique experience in that you’ve taught English in both Thailand and Spain. What are some similarities and differences when it comes to teaching in these two countries?

There is almost no overlap whatsoever in terms of my experience in each country. In Bangkok, I taught adult students in an upscale private language academy; in Madrid, I teach high schoolers in a public instituto – comparing the two on this basis simply isn’t fair.

Kids seen on the way from Chiang Mai to Pai

Fair enough. What was the typical reaction when you mentioned you were a language teacher?

Being any kind of teacher is a respected position in Thai society. It’s generally well-known just how vital English skills are for the success of the Thai economy, so native speakers who offer their services are considered an obviously integral part of that learning process.

That said, being an English teacher is also the most common choice for young expats in Bangkok, and might get you dismissed as just another fresh-out-of-college backpacker looking for a cheap and easy lifestyle, particularly amongst other expats. Key, I think, is making sure you have something else going on as well; get involved in the city’s burgeoning creative scene, for example, or write freelance articles for one of the English language magazines. Then you can truthfully introduce yourself as a writer/painter/competitive billiards player/you-name-it, who teaches English on the side as well. It indicates an interest in investing in where you live, as well as passions beyond cheap buckets of Red Bull-vodka.

A small child requests ancient coffee

Good tip! Does the level of spoken English vary depending on the tourist level of each city? How easy or difficult was it for you to get around?

In Bangkok, it was never an issue encountering someone with at least a base level of English. When I went hitchhiking down south, I ended up traveling over six hours with a monolingual facial cream delivery guy, basic communication enabled through Sharpies and a drawing pad I kept on my person at all times.

Navigating Bangkok I found to be a bit of a mess; if you’ve the good fortune to find a street with a sign, odds are decent that it will only be written in Thai script. Add to that the notoriety of the general inability of Thais to read a map, and you’re left with directions like “turn right at the 7-11” – one of which is found on just about every single corner.

Bangkok is absolutely not a walking city – distances are far and sidewalks few. Getting around on the BTS (Skytrain metro) was fairly simple. If you could manage to pronounce your destination fairly well you could hire a car or motorcycle taxi to get directly to your destination. More advanced was the klong boat system, which zipped its way through the canals running through the center of the city, costing mere pennies but completely bereft of any helpful references in English. The expert captain of the sea of traffic would, of course, simply own her/his own motorbike – upon which I found myself a frequent passenger, although I never drove our purple hunk-of-junk myself.

While the process was frequently frustrating, arriving at last at your intended stop added an adventurous dimension to every single day.

I crack up at the thought of you communicating via pictures and hand gestures. Let’s turn the tables–how good did you get at speaking Thai? Teach us a handy phrase or two.

Thai is a tonal language, and also has no official transcription into Roman characters. I didn’t dedicate myself to its study, and actually knew nothing beyond sawatdee ka (“hello”) upon my arrival. Apart from numbers and taxi instructions, I think I first picked up gastronomical terms: aroy (“delicious”) and phet phet mak (“very very spicy”) both come in very useful, and I learned that I loved bum mee (thin squiggly wheat noodles), pahk chee (“cilantro”), cafay yen mai wan (“cold coffee not sweet” – Thai iced coffee ends up being about half sweetened condensed milk if you don’t request it like this!).

When meeting new friends, I liked to bust out Mii wela waang tham arai? (“What do you do in your free time?”), but I had to always hope the answer could be mimed.

Fresh fish on the grill on beach in Koh Lanta –aroy!

I know we couldn’t have this interview without mentioning a bit about Thai cuisine; what were the food highlights of your time?

Thai gastronomical philosophy holds that there are four aspects of flavor – spicy, sweet, sour, and salty – and that these ought to all be present in harmony in the ideal dish. I still use this approach when I put together hot salads, stir-frys, curries, and the like; it’s a great way of breaking down and analyzing what a dish “needs” to taste complete.

The other serious way in which my palate was altered was in terms of my heat resistance. I arrived in Thailand already a fan of Mexican-style spice, but the shower of fresh Thai chilies that infuse each bite of their cuisine with playful vitality are in another class altogether. I still douse much of my food with as many Scoville points as my long-suffering tongue can take, frequently in the form of dried bird’s-eye chilies (you can find giant bags of them in any Asian import store around Madrid, and they’ll last you forever).

The mangosteen fruit was also a landmark discovery. It’s unassuming at first, purple and bulbous with a cloverleaf topknot – you have to bust open the thick, bitter outer rind to discover the succulent sweet-sour white flesh that inspires the nickname “Queen of Fruits.” They’re not often exported as they lose much character on the way; I’ve spotted them in Barcelona’s Boqueria market but couldn’t quite bring myself to try the transplanted version of my juicy love.

This is water mimosa, also known as shy mimosa. The plant floats in curries. 

You’ve got me drooling. What tips would you give to someone who wants to pack it up and head to Thailand?

Just go. If you’re looking to teach English, living very well is quite easy. Get ready for nothing to be like you expect; come with mind and heart open. Do not forget your dancing shoes.

In more practical advice, bring the most lightweight business casual clothes you own, including shirts with at least a minimal sleeve and close-toed shoes. This will be your daily work uniform. Alternatively, you can pick up absurdly cheap and available clothes while there – but you might want something to get yourself started.

Learn to love Thai food. Besides being the most economic option, it’s across-the-board delicious. Take advantage of the local cuisine as much as you can while there, and really try not to lament the lack of readily available wine/cheese/bread too much.

Pick up as many small useful phrases in Thai as you can, as quickly as you can – they sharply enhance your experience. Be unabashed (yet humble!) about attempting to use them; demonstrated effort goes a very, very long way in showing respect.

That’s really the bottom line – respect/celebrate the culture around you as much as possible, in as many directions as that takes you: doing the wai, attempting a Thai-spicy som tam, being invited to midday karaoke and whiskey on the side of a mountain road while hitchhiking up north…

Red and green curries at cooking school

Finally, I hope you’ve got a language slip or cultural gaffe you can share!

The word for “beautiful” in Thai is suai, with a sort of “down-up” tone on the vowels. You hear it all the time – the countryside is suai, the girl is suai, etc. If you choose to leave out the tone and pronounce it flatly, it means “damned.” Linguistically convenient, no?

Crabbing on Tonsai Beach

Post-Thailand, Janel got that Fulbright after all. She documents culinary and European adventures on her blog, con tomates, as well as her twitter (with none other than the image of a tomato floating up top). ¡Tómate un segundo para echar un vistazo!

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  1. I’m really happy with how this turned out – thanks so much for proposing the collaboration!!

  2. Cassandra

    Tickled to hear you like the end result! Thanks for being a huge sport and for the awesome answers + photos.

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