May 12, 2016
I haven’t talked much about Thailand these past two years or so, and I certainly haven’t talked very much about my job. The truth is that I really can’t make heads or tails of anything out here. I am halfway to my third year, and what little traction I have achieved is laced with so much paranoia. It is all I can do to simply hold still, let my back account slowly heal, and let my body slowly heal as well through diet and exercise.
But what is it like living here? Let me try to illustrate in a soul-crushingly hilarious way.
Imagine you go to Little Caesar’s for one of their famous five-dollar pizzas. You point to the delicious pizza, which is hot and ready. The woman smiles and nods and retrieves your pizza.
“That’ll be six dollars,” she says.
“But wait,” you say, “the sign says five dollars.”
“Yes, but this one is six,” she replies, still smiling, albeit nervously.
“Well, I wanted a five dollar pizza,” you argue, trying to keep your cool.
“But I have already retrieved this one. It is on the counter, and you have agreed to buy it.” Her smile is starting to make you angry.
Then you notice that all activity has ceased. You notice that customer and employee alike are staring at you in terror. The woman is still smiling, but it is clear by this point that she wants you to simply give her six dollars and get out. You don’t know it yet, but you have completely messed up. If you ever see any of those people again, they will tell everyone in the room what an unreasonable piece of crap you are. It will have such a profound ripple effect that you may have to start buying your supplies on a completely different side of town.
Imagine that you are at the gym. You see a young man on a standard bench getting ready to do bench presses. To your surprise, he lays back, lifts one foot in the air, and proceeds to do quarter to third repetitions quickly and furiously, all the while his neck is raised and his upper back isn’t even touching the bench. You look around to see what all of the other employees are doing. You see that several of them notice him, including a few that you presume to be personal trainers judging by what they are wearing. By this point, you’re a little worried, because the young man on the bench is performing what is arguably the most unsafe exercise in the history of public gyms.
So you go over to him. You say, “Hey, man, hop up for a second and let me show you the right way. What you’re doing is unsafe, and you can really hurt yourself. Here is the standard way.”
You perform a correct bench press. The young man smiles and nods in what you suspect but truly hope is not a patronizing manner. He gestures to the bench, so you get up. He lies down, and follows your method.
But you notice something. Everybody in the gym is now staring at you, some quite angrily. The young man stupidly mimics your movements with an idiotic grin, but you realize too late that you have screwed up. You’re not supposed to correct anybody. You’ve made this guy lose face, and now you are a savage and a piece of crap. You may as well pack it up and find a new gym, because by tomorrow the word will have spread to a hundred people what a piece of crap you are, and they will always treat you with disdain while maintaining an infuriatingly mocking level of decor and politeness.
Even worse, you notice in one of the gym’s mirrors that as soon as you turned your back on the young man, he has returned to his idiotic manner of bench-pressing.
Imagine being in a country that has to approve your departure. You literally can’t leave until they let you, and you will be subject to a monetary shakedown if you simply quit your job and try to leave.
Imagine having to pay extra for everything you do because you are a wealthy, fat American who is here to ruin everyone’s life.
Imagine being stuck in a van on a visa run with half a dozen drunk and violent Turks and Russians, all the while tearing down a road with a thousand potholes, no safety rails, and a deep trench in place of a median, all at speeds in excess of a hundred miles an hour.
Imagine being antagonized by people just because they know if you react they can call fifteen of their buddies to kick the crap out of you and then everyone within four square miles of the incident will tell the cops that the affray was your fault.
Imagine having to defecate in a hole without any toilet paper.
And what is is like to work where I work?
Imagine you are standing at the front of the classroom, when all of a sudden one of your students takes his pants off. He doesn’t remove anything else, he doesn’t gyrate or gesture, he simply removes his pants and returns to the assignment you have given him. You wait for a few minutes, and knowing what you know about the culture, you know that nobody is going to say anything. However, your instincts are too strong, and you finally speak up.
“Hey, put your pants back on,” you say, with only a hint of an edge in your tone.
But the student simply shakes his head.
“Put your pants back on NOW,” you insist. By this point, the same thing is happening once again. Everyone is staring at you in horror, and all working has ceased. Class ends on a sour note, and thirty minutes later, your boss calls you into his office.
“You can’t do what you just did,” your boss explains with a hint of impatience.
“The kid took his pants off! You know that is inappropriate!”
“Yes, I do,” you boss agrees calmly, “but you made that kid lose face. This is simply a part of the culture, so you’re going to have to learn to ignore certain things.”
“BUT THE KID TOOK HIS PANTS OFF IN CLASS!!!”
“I’m going to have to write you up for this incident,” your boss explains with a look of sad regret. “In the future, please take care not to make another student lose face like that.”
Imagine being pelted with rocks by a group of [nationality redacted] teachers. One day, you’ve finally had enough and you tell one of them angrily to chill out. Once again, you find yourself summoned to the boss’s office.
“I’m going to have to write you up for shouting. You don’t do that with this culture.”
“But they were throwing ROCKS AT ME!” you shout.
“Yes, I know,” your boss calmly explains, “and I’ll look into it. In the meantime, I’m going to have to write you up. In the future, just let them hit you with the rocks until they get bored.”
Imagine an administrator who willfully withholds deadlines, comes to you after the deadline to tell you that you have missed it, then merrily skips down to their office to write a letter to the director about what an irresponsible turd you are.
Imagine a building full of kids who literally come and go as they please and you are not allowed to discipline them or give them a failing grade in spite of the fact that they have failed all of your tests and have not submitted a single assignment.
Imagine a kid calling you a bad word and then reporting it to the principal, only for the principal to smile and nod stupidly.
Imagine that you have tolerated all of the aforementioned nonsense with as much grace and aplomb as your demeanor and instincts allow, and then finally one day you say to yourself that you honestly don’t care if anybody in that building lives or dies.
There is a lot less hyperbole in what I have said than you might imagine. However, every job and every situation has its highs and lows. Whether or not I would be having a similar time at a job in America is hard to say, because the last real job I had was with the Army ten years ago.
And on that note, I want you to know that I am well aware of all the things I had to change. Between my spending habits, my drug habits, my eating habits, and my overall day-to-day decisions, my life needed to be taken completely apart and reassembled. I have voiced this on numerous occasions, and my position remains the same.
Much has improved. I have a little bit of money now. I have a much better diet. My exercise routine has much more focus and purpose. Furthermore, in spite of all the crap that I endure on almost a daily basis, I am managing to grow a little every day. This experience has been taxing, trying, and maddening, but I see the big picture here. I don’t believe that I would be in a better position if I opted to stay where I was.
In fact, I can’t really entertain a positive outcome whatsoever, because staying where I was would mean staying who I was.
When you know that trust is tenuous and you know that people are gunning for your kneecaps at your job, it can make you bitter. It can make you edgy. It can make you mean. It can make getting out of bed a decidedly arduous ordeal. But there has to come a point where you are honest with yourself. Where else would you be? Would things be any different if you continued down that road? This is the edge that I have over the people who insist on remaining the same. I may not have the slightest clue where this road will lead, but I have a crucial advantage:
I want to change.
Sometimes it requires a rather brutal proving ground to initiate this desire. I will no longer ignore the truth of this. I’m still at the stage where repeating these things is absolutely necessary, however. I’m new to being a new person. I’m new to the mindset of taking the path of least resistance. Although I am over two years into this intensive set of practices, it is all quite unfamiliar territory.
And there is genuine beauty here in Thailand. Truly. My girlfriend is amazing, and this is still an exciting experience. I won’t deny that there are things I very much enjoy. I am torn on the idea of ever leaving just because of the food and the wonderfully exciting atmosphere of the open markets. My life is not without its perks, trust me. My domicile is clean and spacious. I have food and coffee. My girlfriend is not a depressed white woman who has lost count of how many partners she has had. Certain people are quite amiable and polite to me as well. Life is still good. In fact, in some ways my life is better than it has ever been.
But there is nothing at this time that I can do to change any of the negative things in my life (and there are plenty), except how I respond. I’m entering my third year at this school knowing for a fact that nobody has changed, and getting myself in the right mindset is not so simple. These people (and I mean everyone, Thai and foreigner alike) are like lab mice. Some of the bad ones have been fired, and some of them reassigned, yet I can see that they are still mechanically and absent mindedly pushing the button with their little noses and waiting for the cheese. It is more than a little depressing to see people my age and older who are simply unwilling to change.
Because that is the worst part about living in Thailand. People don’t come here to change like I did. People don’t come here to think about their lives. They come here to stay the same. They come here to underachieve. They come here for easy access. They come here to find a place to do as little as possible and never be chastened for being selfish and stupid. So for a person who is focused, serious, and trying hard to be public-minded, you can find yourself hopelessly frustrated doing something simple, like going to a print shop to make copies, or even ordering a cup of coffee. Stuff can go so wrong so quickly, and often times you will never know what happened. Just be happy that there are fifty coffee shops and places to make copies. The only thing that is truly predictable here is that somebody somewhere is going to mess up what you are doing, no matter how passive you are or how reasonable your request is. I hate to be so blunt like that, but it has been long enough for me to move this phenomenon into the category of absolute truism.
So there is the challenge. No matter how passive I am this year, it’s only a matter of time before a student does something stupid and disrespectful. No matter how hard I work, somebody somewhere is going to complain. And when it comes time once again for administrative help, such as taxes, immigration, or entering my grades, somebody somewhere is going to either put my request at the bottom of the stack, pass the buck, ignore me, or grudgingly help me and behave the entire time like I have just asked them to remove one of their kidneys and give it to me. I’m not being cynical. This is reality.
So I just have to do my best to not say anything. This is my biggest challenge to date. Biting my tongue is going to be hard. However, there is one thing I know for certain: people are rotten here because they know they can get away with it. People are rotten here because this is a culture where confrontation is a greater misdeed than whatever misdeed sparked the confrontation. Even when I am perfectly polite and one hundred percent correct, I lose for saying something. This is why I keep coming up short.
This will be my greatest challenge. This will be my biggest test to date. There is a voice inside of me saying that I know I will screw up, but this time I really want to come out on top. It’s no longer about establishing some kind of image as a good teacher. It’s no longer about trying to repair or make up for past mistakes. No, this is about proving that I can survive under crappy conditions and still manage to set things right in my own life. This is about proving that I can run in to a hot spot under heavy fire and still manage to save a few of the kids from turning out to be complete worthless pieces of crap. I will not let them strip me of my desire to change, and I will not let them alter my outlook.
So, having finally grown bored with talking about myself, I figure this is a good place to close and get on with my day.
Khop Khun Krap,