Why you should teach English in Thailand
by Austin Bentz
he year was 2008 and I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. While decorating my tiny, second-floor apartment on El Nido Lane, I bought an old 4’ x 6’ poster of a wooden boat resting peacefully
on a sea of cerulean blue water. I learned the name of the beach it was taken on and giggled immaturely as I incorrectly pronounced the name of the island (Phuket). Unbeknownst to me at the time, this tattered photo print would foreshadow the backdrop of my life half a decade later.
I’ve been living and teaching English in Thailand for the past two and a half years and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’ve learned to speak a tonal language, eaten the most delicious food in the world, and refined my perspective on things that I think are important. If you’re someone who wants to get a taste of what life is like on the other side of the planet, I can’t recommend an experience like this enough. It will challenge you but it will also allow you to experience the world like never before and leave you with a lifelong story to tell.
Austin, what has your experience been like?
Like countless other millennials, I spent my post-university years working in the glamorous life of the hospitality industry. However, after growing tired of outrageous hours and working weekends and holidays, I decided to “grow up” and “get a real job.” However, despite my charming nature and functioning knowledge of both SOH CAH TOA and a²+ b²=c², the hiring manager at Verizon Wireless was unimpressed. I had to try something else.
Fast forward 6 months and I’m living in a tiny town about 3 hours north of Bangkok. Like life in a cartoon, my mornings begin with the sound of roosters cawing outside my window. That’s because my neighbor literally raises chickens to sell to hungry folks throughout the community, i.e., they are not pets. While I never took him up on his offer, he always said that I could get a discount on any chicken that I wanted.
Have you, dear reader, ever taught before? Nope, I hadn’t either. Teaching, like any job, is full of challenges, successes, and moments that make you question your very existence. While I’ll always remember the tough days, they pale in comparison to the amazing ones. A particular day that stands out happened during a lesson on countries. I taught the students the English lyrics to the Thai national anthem and had them practice and perform it at the end of class. Just before the bell rang, one of the students asked me to sing the U.S. national anthem for them. I’m not entirely sure why, but this was one of the few times during my time teaching that I remember feeling nervous and vulnerable in front of the group. I sacked up, channeled my inner patriot, and proceeded to nail it. Two minutes later, after my Lady Gaga-esque performance and standing ovation, the first thing the students asked was, “Teacher, why so long?”
For all the memories I have in the classroom, so many more came from the people I met outside of it. At my school, my best friend was a Thai guy named Aof, who was both the local hunter and Thai language teacher. Because of course he was. Using a combination of English, Thai, hand-gestures, and smart phone apps, Aof and I formed a fast friendship. During that first week at school, we drank whiskey, laughed, and ate fried rat over rice.
As the only westerner in my town, it took time and a lot of patience to build a life for myself I was content with. The first time I walked through the local market, I was legitimately met with gasps (as a 6’2” bald guy with a red beard, blending in isn’t the easiest thing to do). I wasn’t sure if I was the town rockstar or the local leper. Plus, before I got to know my hunter-buddy, my only friend was a frog named Stevie who lived on the floor of my bathroom. While times were a tough at first, Stevie was nothing if not a great listener.
The final tidbit about my life at school represents one of the most challenging and eventually most satisfying parts of living here. When I first arrived, my advisor began by walking me through the apartment I would be staying in.
We meander around and everything looked pretty good. Bed? Check. Air-conditioning? Check. Western toilet? Check. “This is going great!” I think to myself. Then, as my thighs rejoiced over the toilet situation (Google squat toilet), my eyes wandered around looking for the showerhead. To which, of course, there was none. I nervously said to my advisor, “There’s no shower?” He laughs and points to the green trashcan sitting beneath a wall faucet and says, “No, Thai bath!” The uncomfortable laugh/shriek that subsequently came out of my mouth is a sound I haven’t heard since and is something I’ll never forget. But guess what? I did it. For 148 days.
I realize these stories probably weren’t what you were expecting to hear about “teaching in paradise.” Teaching English here isn’t going to solely revolve around beaches, rock climbing, and jungle treks. The true fruits of this experience will come from immersing yourself and embracing a culture that couldn’t be more different than ours.
Why Should I Do This?
better question is really, “Why shouldn’t you do this?” Let’s say you just finished school back home and you’re on your way towards becoming a certified teacher. Come here and get some
real-world experience before fully settling into your new career. Maybe you just finished your undergrad and plan on applying to grad school. Come here, teach for 4-5 months, travel for a bit, then go back home refreshed and ready for the next step. Or, if you’re like me and just have no idea what you’re doing, come here and get some life experience as you try to figure things out (or at least postpone figuring things out for a while). Regardless of which category you fall in, an adventure like this will likely become one of the preeminent periods of your life.
One of the best parts of living here is adapting to the local way of life. Thai people operate at a different speed compared to our fast-paced Western ways.
Where we come from, we’re big planners. We wake up with a schedule for the day, we know what we’re doing next weekend, and we’ve got a trip mapped out for early next year. If at any point during that timeline something goes wrong and we have to change our plans, we fuss, pout, and eat Ben & Jerry’s in the dark. Meanwhile, Thai people just keep smiling and adapt.
Sabai sabai is a local phrase that really embodies the Thai perspective. There’s no direct translation, but the gist is that the main goal of life is to just be happy in the now. Don’t worry about what happened yesterday because it’s in the past. Don’t worry about what will happen tomorrow because you never know what’s going to happen between now and then. Need to change your plans? No problem. Nothing is permanent. Let’s just be happy and be.
Of all the times I’ve told the trashcan-shower story, the paraphrased reaction I typically get is, “OMG, I couldn’t do that.” And don’t get me wrong, when I first saw it, the first thing that ran through my mind was, “OMG, I can’t do this.” But then I made it work. Living here will challenge you in ways that you’ve never imagined. After getting through it, telling people I showered out of a trashcan for 4 months is one of my favorite parts of my story to tell. Sure, lots of things will be scary and intimidating at first. However, those “Oh my god” moments that you overcame will become the defining ones of your journey.
As you overcome the inevitable challenges that come with living in a new place, embrace the sabai sabai mentality. You might not always know what’s going on around you or understand what people are saying, but living and teaching in Thailand will help you grow as a person and adjust your perspective on the world. To truly succeed and thrive though, that will be 100% dependent on your own mentality and willingness to embrace the madness. Be brave and dive into the unknown.
You’ll swim back up with an amazing story to tell.