A Year in Bangkok – Telling Tales Out of School.

28 09 2010

A while ago, I made the mistake of giving a job to somebody I knew. He was down on his luck and had no income. As he seemed to have taken quite well to teaching with a somewhat dodgy agency, I decided to give him a chance with us. I now know that what he is actually good at is talking himself up. Terry has spent his forty eight years on this planet trying to perfect the art of assigning blame. His personal belief, that everything bad which happens to him is someone else’s fault, is something he manages to stretch to fit any circumstance. Therefore, when I had to fire him it was, of course, my fault that he was being fired and was apparently something I had been plotting for some considerable time. In fact, there had been three previous occasions when the director had wanted to fire him but, each time, she let me persuade her to give him another chance.

Students fascinated by the manic farang!

Essentially the problem was that he couldn’t teach, although his constant whinging didn’t help him. He, of course, thought that he could teach and whenever I raised something with him as the result of observation, it was always the fault of his teaching assistant. Apparently she made him behave in certain ways. He became something of a joke with our other staff. One day, I overheard two of our Australian teachers claiming that the expression ‘whinging Pom’ had actually been created with Terry in mind.

Primary 4 in a rural school.

Many a time, I tried to talk through his work problems with Terry. I spent several hours attempting to interact with him but he was more than a match for me. Not only had he acquired the rhetorical skills of a minor politician, he was boundlessly creative. No matter what happened, Terry always produced an elaborate excuse from which he would not budge, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Hey Santa!

So, although he had clearly convinced himself that the loss of his job was my fault, I found myself pointing out to him that the school have said they don’t want him back, the Thai homeroom teachers dislike having him in their classrooms and our Thai teaching assistants don’t want to work with him, largely because he has managed to insult every single teaching assistant who has had the misfortune to work with him. None of this, he patiently explained to me, was true. It was simply a figment of my imagination and a part of my plot to get rid of him. So I went on to talk about his teaching results which the school management were particularly unhappy about as they were not just bad but significantly worse than the teaching results of the other three teachers we have in that school. Again, this was not his fault. There was a simple explanation he said. The tests were exceptionally hard, especially as the children were only kindergarten level. Therefore, feeling sorry for the kids, the other teachers had helped them by giving them the answers to the tests. Terry, being a dedicated teacher, could not condone this so his students had been the only ones to take the tests without help.

Now, I don’t suppose he’ll buy me a beer at the end of the semester.

Chairball, a popular sport in schools without playing fields.

All Thai people have a nickname as well as their full name. This nickname is assigned by their parents and is generally much shorter than their real names, usually just one syllable. These nicknames are either phonetic Thai words which are then romanised or English words. Obviously with the phonetic Thai words, the meaning is clear. For instance Fon is rain and Nok is bird. I wonder though how many parents understand the meaning of the English names they give their children, many of which are quite descriptive. Two hugely overweight kids I teach are called Whale and Watermelon. Another girl, who is very tall and slender, is a superb Thai dancer and remarkably supple. Her name, of course, is Willow.

Secondary (mathayom) block in a rural school.

Others can be named after products and I have students with names like Heineken and Nokia. My favourite though has to be a girl called Nickname. I always ask students for their nicknames as I simply can’t get to grips with their real names, even though they usually sound lovely. You can imagine how it went with Nickname:

“What’s your nickname?”

“Nickname.”

“Yes, nickname. What’s yours”?

“Nickname”.

“But what’s your nickname”? And so it went for several rounds until I eventually cottoned on.

Morning activity - like assembly in the UK.

When I taught mathayom for the first time, I had a bit of a baptism of fire. Just to put you in the picture, anuban is kindergarten, prathom is primary and mathayom is secondary which starts at about age thirteen. At first, it seems a little strange that the boys all wear shorts throughout their school careers but, of course, we are in a much hotter climate here. My first class was grade three and the students are about fifteen years old. As I walked into the room, a boy in the second row had his hand down the front of his shorts and appeared to be playing with himself. No I thought, surely not! I looked at him and said “What are you doing?” “Nothing teacher” was the reply. “Okay” I said, “stand up.” “Please teacher no” said the boy. Well, he was not going to get away with that in my first lesson and when he finally stood up the presence of a small flagpole inside his shorts confirmed that he had indeed been shaking hands with his best friend and the rest of the class were falling about laughing. His name is Mit and, ever since then I have got comments from the kids about Mit flying his kite – a Thai euphemism for masturbating. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any repetition of that incident and Mit has turned out to be a great student with a fantastic sense of humour. A couple of days later, a new teacher started with us and he has the special needs class. On his first day, he walked into the classroom after lunch to find one of the special needs kids happily playing with himself with his shorts down round his ankles and the rest of the class seemingly oblivious to the sideshow. I suppose I should now stress that such behaviour is highly unusual and I have not heard of any other such incidents.

We love a good story!

On the same theme, I was doing a reading exercise with some students from the same age group. In the reading passage, Somchai and his girlfriend Somsri go to a certain well known fast-food dump. When asked what they would like to drink, Somchai replies “We’d both like cokes please.” The comprehension question relating to this was ‘What drinks were ordered?’ The boy I asked was initially stumped and started looking laboriously through the reading passage when suddenly he saw it. I had visions of Archimedes leaping out of bathtubs as his face lit up and he said “We both lick cocks.” It took a serious effort of will to keep a straight face.

Happy to be in school.

It is nigh on impossible to get the students to pronounce the letter ‘r’ correctly. Every ‘r’ becomes an ‘l’ when they say it so we have labbits lunning alound the fields, kangaloos (as opposed to portaloos?) and linos – large African animals with a single horn. Imagine my flustlation then when I walked into school the other morning to hear them singing an English song – I berieve I can fry!

School parade to mark the beginning of Buddhist Lent.

Teaching on the top floor of the school, at the end furthest from the stairs, a bee flew into my classroom not long ago. Nothing unusual in that you might think, but this bee was big. Seriously big. There are probably light aircraft smaller than this bee. The children shouted ‘peung, peung’ (Thai for bee, bee) and dived under their desks. It was at this point that I noticed there was no desk for the teacher and mild panic started to set in. It struck me as unseemly to pull a student out from under his desk so, in a lethargic sort of way, I flapped my arms at the monster. Lethargically because it was so damned hot and this was a classroom with no air conditioning, open to the elements and therefore made the greenhouse in your garden seem cool at the height of a British summer. To my surprise, the bee flew out of the door. I was, of course, surprised that it managed to squeeze itself through the doorway. A couple of minutes later, I heard the children in the next class shouting ‘peung, peung’ followed by the scraping of chairs as they pulled them out of the way in order to dive under their desks. After class, I made my way along the corridor to the stairs, passing the last class to the shouts of ‘peung, peung’ and, you guessed it, the scraping of chairs. I was almost knocked over by the teacher as he made good his escape.

Traditional dance performance by students.

Thailand is a Buddhist country and operates on a different calendar to us. Over here, it is not 2010 but 2553 so it’s easy to let myself imagine that I’m living in a kind of strange future world. When you meet a Thai person for the first time, conversation openers can seem very personal to us. Common first questions are ‘How old are you?  ‘What do you do?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ No, they are not being rude – status is very important in Thai society and these questions will help somebody to establish your status straight away. That also determines the amount of respect you should be shown. Much as in England many years ago, people are given respect here because of their status. As a foreigner still looking in from the outside, it seems to me that the people here are easily impressed by titles, uniforms and perceived social status. If I am to survive here, I should be seen to be giving respect in the same way that a Thai person would. So, even though I am not impressed by these superficialities and believe that respect has to be earned, I make the right gestures so as not to cause offence.

Primary 6 students.

Most of the kids I teach asked my age during our first lessons but one twelve year old approached it in an unusually subtle way for a Thai – she asked what year I was born in. Without thinking, I answered ‘1954’ which is true – it was 1954 where I come from. Teachers have very high status over here and, of course, never lie. The children’s faces as they worked out that I must be nearly six hundred years old were pictures!

Later, during the same lesson, another girl asked why October is the tenth month when it should be the eighth month. I was brought up with this calendar, I studied Latin at a minor public school in Yorkshire and this obvious question had never occurred to me. It took a young Thai girl to make me think about it and, at five hundred and ninety nine years old when I should have acquired some basic wisdom, I had to tell her that I didn’t know but that I would find out for her. Thank goodness for the internet! And did you know that July and August were inserted into the calendar later to honour Julius and Augustus Caesar? Of course, Thai people are well aware of our dates and most schools use our system of dates but I do like it when the minority stick to their own culture.

Teacher accommodation in the school grounds.

When I first started secondary school, I discovered the word ‘crap’. The exact meaning of the word was unknown to me but I did know that it was used to refer to anything one disliked. It quickly became an important part of my vocabulary until my father heard me and I received a lecture on bad language and learned precisely what it meant. Those were in the days when ‘bloody’ was regarded as a fairly bad thing to say and my father was a creature of his time. At least, he would have been had he been born some fifty years earlier. The Thai language contains gender specific polite particles which are ‘ka’ (pronounced like car) for a woman and ‘krap’ (pronounced just as you would think) for a man. I now derive immense pleasure from using this polite particle and from knowing that, by saying ‘crap’ in all the right places, I am being polite. ‘Thank you crap’ ‘Yes crap’ ‘I’m fine crap’ and so on.

Testing in the corridor.

We teach English using the total immersion technique. In plain English, that means we don’t use Thai in the classroom. However, one day a teenage boy came up and asked if he could go to the toilet which, of course, I agreed to. Thinking he was being clever, he said (in Thai) “I’m taking a shit, I’ll be ten minutes”. Thinking I was clever, I replied in Thai “No, you’ll be five minutes”. His face was an absolute picture as, in a very accusing tone, he said “You speak Thai!”

The posse arrives.

Actually, evacuation of the bowels does seem to be something of an obsession here but in a very different way from back home where your mother likes to discuss daily movements, or the lack of them, with her friends and occasionally with complete strangers. Here, it is simply the use of the words. Take, for example, the current prime minister (and I think Thailand may be competing with Italy for the most prime ministers in the shortest possible time frame) whose name sounds like ‘ave a shit. People who are tight with their money are referred to as being ‘kee-nee-ow’ which literally means ‘sticky shit’, the idea being that they are too mean to part with their own droppings.

Time for a drink.

I had been teaching my secondary students English through discussion of morning routines so I started the last lesson by asking them what they do when they get up. They dutifully used the vocabulary I had taught them, telling me that they take a shower, have some breakfast, get ready for school and other normal things. It was all getting quite tedious when my eye fell on M, sitting in the front row, I call him ‘M’ for that is his name. Single letters are quite commonly used as names here. I teach an A, a B, an F, a K, an M of course, an O, a P, and a Q and I long for the day when I have a full alphabet in my class. M smiled at me. “Teacher” says he “When I get up, I take a shit”. He had demonstrated understanding and communicated perfectly with me which, to my mind at least, is the primary purpose of language so I couldn’t fault him: at least he had livened things up a bit.

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