A Teacher in Rural Thailand

Charlie with a student at Phanatpittayakam School

Charlie identifies himself as a semi-retired writer, actor, and educator from Watsonville, California. We talked on Skype while he was in his beach house in Ban Na Jomtian, Chonburi, Thailand, and I was in the Philippines. Charlie also provided the pictures.

Charlie’s story

Charles and Celeste DeWald

In 1994, I was hired to teach English in a language school in Seoul, South Korea.  While I was teaching there, I brought my daughter to Asia and we toured Korea and traveled to Thailand.  I fell in love with the Thai culture, the climate, the cost of living, and, most of all, the friendliness of the people. I continued to travel to Thailand many times and I finally married a Thai woman who now lives in the US. I started learning Thai and mixing more with the people, who believe in mai pen rai, meaning “don’t worry, be happy.” I discovered that the Thais are, for the most part, playful, funny, and always joking.  Even though I eventually moved to California to teach, I still maintained a relationship with the Thai people and culture.

Five years ago, I decided to retire in Thailand.  I happened upon this very cheap apartment in Jomtien, a small beach community about 10 miles south of the big tourist city of Pattaya. I got on a bus, paid ten baht, and got off at the end of the line. Amongst some highly priced condominiums, in a little tropical jungle, was an older apartment building, mostly occupied by Thai people.  An apartment was available for $120 a month. This old building has problems, like the water pressure can be so low that water sometimes doesn’t make it up to the second floor. But I have a balcony and an ocean view.

In my opinion, the Thais have a sharing culture. They call themselves “sisters” and “brothers.”  Thai sharing even includes sharing the road while driving, like salmon swimming upstream, or sometimes downstream, or any direction.  You can even experience Thai drivers going the opposite way backwards, which can surprise you.  But everyone seems to make room and accept it. Once I was driving on a two-lane road in the country with my Thai wife, and a car was coming toward me, passing another car, in my lane. I said, “God, what should I do?” and my wife said. “Pull over and let him pass.” The simple reality had eluded me—just let them come through. But people don’t always pay attention to what they’re doing and expect people to move over when they don’t, and there can be a lot of accidents. If there’s an auto accident, they’ll wait for the police to come, who then fill out a report, wait for the insurance companies, and then politely say, in the Thai way, “Okay that’s settled. We’ll take care of it and make it right.”

In Thailand there are three distinct cultures: the urban areas in Bangkok and other large cities with their diversity, the rural areas with a quite simple agricultural life, and the tourist areas. This simplicity has led to a lot of political conflicts, unfortunately.  After I lived here for a year or so, I was asked to teach out in a rural town of about 10,000 people where everybody knows everybody. I have an apartment there, and on weekends and holidays and time off, I come down to my beach apartment. It works out all right.  If I want to see some quality entertainment, I can easily go up to the cosmopolitan capital city of Bangkok, and see, for example, musicians like Santana or Eric Clapton, who recently played there.

Chonburi Province

Since this is a Buddhist country, every morning at school we have a large ceremony.  We sing the national anthem as the flag is being raised.  The schoolchildren sing over a loud speaker, leading all three thousand students, and the flag-raising is often accompanied by a brass marching band. Then the children are led in reciting musical Buddhist chants.  After that, we turn toward Bangkok, and the children again sing and praise the King. At eight o’clock in the morning and at six o’clock at night, even in Bangkok, you’re supposed to stop and listen to the national anthem for a couple of minutes and praise the country and the King, who’s an impartial moral compass for the country. He’s a wonderful man but very ill most of the time now. He’s the oldest and longest ruling monarch in the world and also the richest. He has great respect from the people, and from all I’ve read about him he’s very learned, intelligent, knowledgeable, and, above all, benevolent.  It is actually a crime to say anything derogatory about the King in Thailand.

In the rural area where I teach, I’m a bit of an oddity. There are only two other foreigners living there that I know about. One teaches in the elementary school, and the other at the college down the road. I’ve been working at the school for three years. The area is so rural that at night the final bus goes to the nearest metropolis at seven o’clock. Miss that bus and you’ll be in town for the night. Unlike the tourist area—where you see a lot of diverse people of all ages and nationalities—around the rural town of Phanat Nikhom, you see real old people, many who’ve lived their whole lives there. A lot of townspeople are lucky if they make it to Bangkok, which is a big trip for them. So is going to the beach. Most of the kids in my classes have never been to any of the tourist destinations, and I’ve been all over Thailand. In my school, I’ve rarely spoken with any student who’s been outside of Thailand or traveled very far within Thailand itself.  It’s mostly an agricultural community.

The school is a junior and senior high school, so the students are twelve to eighteen years old. Our classes have about fifty students each. I teach all of the seniors, quite a few of the juniors, and special classes for the lower grades. The foreign teachers are strictly for English conversation—just listening and speaking. I have the seniors because of my background at the University of California, where I taught special international student groups and various tests like the TOFEL, the GED test, the TOIC and the IUC. I was hired to prepare students for the conversation part of the General Aptitude Test, which is a required test for admission to a college in Thailand. It’s a written dialogue with missing words or phrases that students have to fill in, followed by comprehension questions. I also prepare them for the English interview for college admission. We do a lot of conversation skills and one-on-one interviews. Since this is in a rural community, there’s no air-conditioner, and when you come out of the classroom you’re soaking wet.

It’s really a family school. A lot of the teachers went to school there and have children in school there today. Funding comes partly from the government and partly from the parents. I give tests and quizzes and assignments. About 90% of the students will turn in an assignment. Everybody gets a passing grade, even if they fail the mid-term. If the students fail I give them a project connected with the material we studied. If they do that, then I give them a passing score. If they don’t, we work out something. Sometimes you go to class and nobody’s there. They’ll just decide to take the afternoon off. The senior class has a lot of extracurricular activities, and the students don’t always tell me. It screws up my lesson plans, but that happens.

The kids can be absolutely wonderful. When I walk in, the class leader says, “Stand up, please,” and they all stand up and bow and say, “Good morning, teacher,” They wait until I tell them to sit down. Of course I get friendly and joke with the students, because I’m that kind of guy. At the end of class they stand up and bow and say “Goodbye, teacher. See you again next time.” I love the students, even the ones who are less willing to learn and want to be the class clowns. I earned their respect with my classroom management skills. Foreign teachers at the school who are new to teaching don’t always have those skills, so I have shown some of the newer teachers some techniques, like just walking over and standing behind the kids. That’s intimidation enough. Corporal punishment is allowed but not especially brutal.  I remember being slapped with a paddle in grade school when I was growing up in the US.

The Thai government informally recognizes “a third gender” in Thailand. Almost all of my classes have a few lady-boys, and they’re completely accepted. The “third gender” includes gays, lady-boys and trans-genders. On the women’s side, there are “tomboys” who have girlfriends. When I do personal interviews, the students sometimes share that information with me because they have come to trust me even though I’m an outsider. There are very few boyfriend-girlfriend relationships, not because it’s discouraged, but because most of these kids take all of their classes together for four and five years. When I bring students up front for a demonstration, I deliberately try to match up people who are going to create quite a stir. This cross-matching always brings a laugh to the class when I ask the boy if he likes the girl, for example.  When I interact with one of the lady-boys, they’ll often ask, “Charlie, am I beautiful?” And I reply, “Yes, you’re beautiful.” Then they giggle and laugh and tell me, “Oh, I love you.” And I respond in kind, saying, “I love you too.”  These lady-boys are fabulous performers. Once every two months certain classes are picked out to put together some very creative performances that are just amazing. The school also has sports days where they divide up into classes and colors. As the kids are competing in track and field events, the others have rooting sections under a huge banner, all trying to outdo and out-yell each other.  The kids become exhausted after a few hours, they rest, and then start up all over again.

Sports Day

Here women seem to have a role equal to men. There’s a lot of gossip, but very little violence or male dominance. There are certainly men who will take advantage of women, but there’s a great deal of understanding between men and women. Both men and women are very physical with each other. I have yet to figure out quite how they interrelate. The fact that a Thai man, the Boy Scouts of Thailand troop leader, accepted me as a friend was considered exceptional. He had never befriended a foreign teacher before me.  I can’t quite figure out the male bonding. In Korea it was quite obvious, but here men communicate very differently, and they also communicate with women differently.

I’m going to generalize that there aren’t a lot of professional teachers outside of Bangkok. Usually an English teacher is here for the experience of being in a foreign country, and sometimes they’re just grabbed up by a recruiting agency. Most of the agencies are fly-by- night outfits which don’t always pay the teachers. You enter into a contract where you have to have a work permit, but often you don’t get it until the end of the term, when you’ve got to start all over. The visa situation is very fluid. A little while ago if you went across the border and came back with a tourist visa you’d get to stay two weeks. Now they moved it back to thirty days. There are foreigners who’ve lived here for twenty years and have never crossed the border, but they’re a big exception.

The average pay for a teacher in Thailand is about a thousand dollars a month, which is why most of the foreigners are just here for the experience. Also, a lot of the foreign teachers tend to drink a lot and sometimes don’t show up for work half the time. One guy I worked with was wanted by Interpol, with a warrant back in Sweden or someplace. He was a heavy drinker, but he would show up for work 90% of the time, and he wasn’t a bad teacher. He was funny, and the kids liked him. It was a shock when he was arrested, but you get a lot of that here.  Thailand is full of oddball foreigners.  The Thais welcome them, as they do all “falangs.”  It is a part of their tradition and history.  The real teachers in Thailand are often married to Thai women, and have children and live here full-time. They’ve made a commitment to the country. I came in kind of through the back door because at almost 69 years of age I’m at the end of my teaching career. I was just planning on working part-time.  But I gladly accepted.

I’m a disabled vet from the Vietnam era, although I never went to Vietnam.  From the US government, I receive social security and a little disability check, which amounts to about $1200 a month. I could never live in the US on that, but here it’s very easy, even if I didn’t work.  For thirty cents I can get around on a bus which will take me ten miles or more. For sixty cents I can take a motorbike taxi almost anyplace. I can eat for less than $3 to $5 a day. The tourist area also has Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald’s, Sizzler’s, Pizza Company, Korean buffets, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants. That’s another reason that I come back to my home on the beach on the weekends.  You can’t get that kind of food in a rural town, not that I eat at those places very much.

I got into a motorcycle accident about ten months ago. I was taken to a private hospital just five minutes away. I didn’t have any insurance here in Thailand.  The doctors there said I had a punctured lung, and even if I couldn’t pay they were obligated to save my life. After I notified the school, my two head teachers came out on a Sunday night to escort me to a big public ICU ward in a government hospital that was ten times cheaper. They were like angels—they took care of everything.  They took up a collection at the school—the students, the staff and the teachers. The school covered everything else and let me pay the rest of the bill off throughout the year. I said, “Thank you for what you’ve done for me,” and they said, “Well, Charlie, you’re family, and family takes care of family.” I’m indebted to them for saving my life, at least my financial life. If I’d stayed in that private hospital, the total bill would have been $40,000 instead of $4,000 or $5,000, and I wouldn’t have been able to pay. Other people also came to visit—friends, some Thai relatives, my girlfriend and other people from the school. When I had no visitors and the Thai families who had relatives in the hospital saw I couldn’t get out of bed or I couldn’t reach the urine bottle, they would come over and help me. The food was the same thing every meal—a bowl of rice and a fish and some kind of a vegetable. Your family was supposed to take care of you there, no private care. When I got out of the hospital, I slept in a chair with a pillow for almost two months because I couldn’t lie down.  At my age, it naturally takes longer to heal.  I’m still broken in a lot of places.

Insurance for foreigners is a big problem here in Thailand.  It’s also sometimes difficult to communicate with the Thai doctors, because of the language and differences in culture.  A doctor out in the countryside at this little government hospital said, “Charlie, we’re not going to operate on your clavicle even though it’s deformed, because we are Thai and we do it the Thai way.  We live with our deformities.”

The Thai government is talking about making it mandatory for full-time residents to have catastrophic insurance, but they haven’t quite figured out how to do it.  I know several people who have ended up in the hospital, some able to pay, and some not. A tourist might sneak out in the middle of the night, go to the airport and leave the country. That happens more often than you might think.

In the States, my Thai wife has a wonderful job, lives in a wonderful place and drives a new car. She wants me to stay there with her there, but I decided to retire in Thailand.  I was hoping she would follow me back to her homeland, but she chose a different path.  International marriages are difficult that way.  There is an age difference and certainly a cultural difference, so we’re at an impasse.  I have a girlfriend here who would like to have the legal status and the ring. In this culture, if everyone agrees you’re allowed to have two wives, only one legal one, of course. Both my girlfriend and my wife know about each other. They have talked on the phone and are friends on Facebook. Although, at the moment, it looks like my Thai wife in America has decided to get a divorce.  I support her in her decision and help her with her life in the States, as she helps me with things I need to have done, such as sending me my mail. We are the best of friends.

In spite of some very difficult medical situations, I thank God every day for just another day of life. I’ve got plenty of wonderful things going on with my family and my beautiful grandchildren, who I visit every six months or so in the US. I have a very full life. Everything is okay. I love my job, I love the people I work with, and I love the kids.  Most of all, I love living in Thailand.  And I think Thai people like me living here as well.