Chapter 15

It’s fun to teach at the Y-M-C-A!

I’m standing outside 7-11 drinking a bottle of red soda with a straw. I don’t really care for whatever flavor “red” is, nor do I need the straw. It’s just an automatic in Thailand. Buy any beverage, and a straw is supplied. I’ve not yet figured out how to get them to not give me one. 

I didn’t purchase the soda because I am thirsty. I only need the bottle. I suppose I could have swiped a bottle from one of the spirit houses that are in front of almost every home and business here. These tiny, almost birdhouse-sized altars to the protective spirits receive offerings placed in front of them every morning. Plates of food, candles, and open soda bottles, complete with straws. The gods seem to prefer the red soda, as they comprise 90% of the beverage offerings I’ve seen during my first few months here. I don’t know why. I have yet to see another actual person drinking it. Perhaps 7-11 only sells them for people to please the spirits?

The reason I need the bottle is because I am starting my first paid teaching class this morning. A week-long English “summer camp” at the local YMCA here in Chiang Mai. I found the gig through a Facebook post in a teachers’ group. And I’m desperate to start teaching. 

After finishing our CELTA training in early February, Jacob and I found adjoining apartments on the west side of Chiang Mai. For 6,000 Thai baht per month, we each rented a studio in a building on Huay Kaew Road near the intersection of Nimmanhaeman Road (Nimman for short). Jacob heard that all of the cool kids were staying near Nimman, so that’s where we spent the better part of a day looking at places to rent. In retrospect, we could have done better, but at the end of several hours walking in the heat I just wanted to put down my bags, shower, and lay in the AC. 

One nice thing about living here is our proximity to the Maya Mall down the street. As I’ve said before, I’m not a big fan of malls in general. But there’s a nice, air-conditioned food court on the bottom floor, with a variety of local dishes available at cheap prices. We’ve tried quite a few, expanding our knowledge of Thai food. There’s also a pretty young lady with a coffee kiosk that I now frequent. 

We received our CELTA certificates about two weeks after our class ended. Then began the task of finding work. Jacob has been more proactive in his job search, going from school to school in his endeavor to secure employment. He’s had a bit of success, having a Masters degree on top of his teaching certification. Nearly every school where he’s applied has offered him a position. 

I’ve had a more difficult time. I don’t have a college degree, and this has been a roadblock for me to get past the interview process. Most of the schools require their teachers to have a four-year degree in order to get a job with a work permit. It doesn’t matter what the degree is for. Jacob’s area of study was forestry, not English. If I had a degree in bicycle repair, it would be good enough to get me in the door. 

Two weeks ago, I went out into the heat dressed in my newly tailored black pants, white button-down shirt, and a tie. I walked through the city, into every school I saw, handing out copies of my CV (resume) and my CELTA certificate. After a few hours, I was drenched with sweat, and my feet were killing me. I hadn’t spoken to anyone in a position to say “yes”. 

As the afternoon wore on, I was almost out of energy. I had walked around the entire square that encompasses the old city of Chiang Mai, complete with walls and a moat. There was one place left on my list, a rather large school near the southwest corner. The students had already left for the day, and I walked up to the first building and asked the woman at the desk where I would be able to leave my documents and perhaps talk to someone. She told me that they were finished for the day and I would need to come back the next day. 

A bit dejected, I started to walk away to go back home, but heard someone calling after me in English. When I turned, I saw an older lady with heavy makeup and hair dyed black waving me back to the building. As I neared her, she asked me what I was looking for, and asked me to sit down. She said she was a director and was interested in talking to me. 

Her name was Viriporn, and she had many questions for me. Personal questions. How old was I? Where was I from? How long in Thailand. Married or single? After I explained that I was 48 years old, divorced with grown children, a native English speaker from the US, recent graduate of the CELTA program, and looking for a long-term teaching position in Thailand, she picked up a phone and made a call. 

I didn’t understand much of her side of the conversation, but when she hung up, she told me to take my documents to another building where the English department heads were waiting to meet me. She wished me luck and asked to add me as a contact on LINE, the most popular social media app in Thailand. 

I thanked her and went to the office where she directed me to go. There I met an American woman and a British man who were quite friendly and took a look at my papers. They asked me about my university degree, since it wasn’t listed in the education section of my CV. 

When I explained that I hadn’t attended university, they were apologetic, but informed me that it would be impossible to offer me a position without a four-year degree. I thanked them for their time, then walked down the stairs and back through the gates to the sidewalk to go home. A shower and dinner might make me feel better, and I’d try again tomorrow.

My feet were killing me from the day of walking in the heat. I was probably 50 meters away from the school when my cell phone rang. A LINE call. It was Viriporn. She wanted to know where I was going. I told her that I was going home, and yes, I was on foot. She offered me a ride, but I politely declined, as I had the weird feeling that she was interested in me for more than just my teaching qualifications. 

The next day, I messaged Scott, the British guy whose wife ran Jessie’s restaurant near the CELTA school campus in Hang Dong. When learned that I had been going to prospective employers in the pedestrian fashion, he derisively told me that I was doing it all wrong. He said that I needed to get myself a motorcycle and go look for schools out in the more rural areas. 

So on Monday of last week, I walked up Huay Kaew Road and over one street to a motorcycle rental shop with good reviews. Victoria, the Thai lady who owned it, was out, but her British husband, Roger, took my $100 cash deposit and 2,800 baht payment for the monthly rent of a bright blue Honda Click, a 125cc scooter with an automatic transmission. Roger showed me the basics of operating the vehicle, gave me two helmets, and sent me on my way. 

Now that I had wheels, going from school to school on my job hunt was going to be much more efficient. Scott told me to go to the school where his daughter attended. The school year was about to end and there would be openings for new teachers beginning in May. Jacob was also interested, so he bravely sat on the back of the scooter and held on for dear life as I navigated the death machine down the highway to the Hang Dong district and back. 

The school eagerly took our CV’s and certificates, but didn’t have anyone available to interview us. Two days later, Jacob received a call and an offer. I did not. 

I’ll admit to being a little jealous of Jacob for his success. But I was also happy for him. He now had eight different schools who wanted to hire him, and he was weighing the decision based on money, class sizes, school locations, and campus amenities. I was still trying to get one school to be interested. 

So when I saw the YMCA post on Facebook, I responded, even though it was only a temporary gig. They asked me to come in for an interview. They barely looked at my CV and CELTA qualifications before asking me if I could start on Monday. They are paying me 6000 baht for five days. Not a huge amount of money, but it’s better than nothing.

I am assigned to teach a small group of kids two hours in the morning, and two in the afternoon. There is no curriculum. There are no lesson plans required. I simply have to get the kids to practice English that they already know. 

I have finished the terrible red soda and now have an empty bottle. I put the straw into the garbage next to the 7-11 entrance, then hop on my scooter and ride to the YMCA building a few streets away. What are my plans for the glass container?

We’re going to play “Spin the Bottle”. With a group of eight kids ranging in age from 8-13. Yep. 

Of course, many who are familiar with this game may wonder what the hell Bob is thinking. After all, the game is designed to require the person spinning the bottle to kiss the person at whom the bottle points after completing its revolutions. Not a game for a grown man to be playing at all, much less conducting with a class of minors. 

But don’t fret. I’ve adapted the activity to have the children practice short greeting conversations instead of smooching each other. 

I arrive 15 minutes early to set up the classroom, which is on the second floor. My first action is to turn on the air conditioning, as it’s quite warm up here. There are a few tables and chairs scattered about, so I arrange them lengthwise facing the whiteboard with a gap in between so my students can approach the board easily. Next, I use rubber suction cups to affix to the top of the whiteboard a small basketball goal I purchased for 60 baht (less than $2) at Daiso, a Japanese version of what we would call a “dollar store”.

Realizing that I will also need to use my computer for a couple of activities, I walk back downstairs to ask for the Wi-fi and password. I’m given a slip of paper with the Wi-fi ID, which is “Jack”. The password is… “password”. Unbelievable. 

My charges arrive. Five boys and three girls. As they walk in, I smile and introduce myself as “Teacher Bob”, because this is how I am informed students address their educators. Not “Mister Bob”. The Thai language doesn’t really have the formal titles for “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, or “Ms.” Instead, the polite way to address someone, especially of a higher status, is using the word, “Khun”, followed by the person’s first name. When speaking to a teacher, the title given is “Kruu”. But I’m teaching English, so “Teacher Bob” is the correct way to address me. 

My first challenge presents itself almost immediately. I have made the mistake of putting four chairs at each of the long tables I intend the students to use. None of the young lads have any intention of being the lone boy sitting at the table with the girls. And the girls don’t seem to be in any welcoming mood to share their turf, either. Sigh. I grab a small table from the back of the room, add it to the boys side so they can all sit together. 

Asking for them to identify themselves, I write their names on the board so I can try to remember them. The boys all seem to have names from the English language, but not usual designations like “John”, “Michael”, or “Kyle”. Instead, they are named after objects. Auto, Ice, Dragon, Earth, and Lego? Okay, sure. 

But I will say that these are much easier for me to pronounce and remember than the girls’ names. They all give me their Thai names. spelled in English as “Namfon”, “Namtok”, and “Nampueng”. And I can only remember that they all begin with the same first syllable, pronounced “Nahm”. It will be a long time before I understand that these names mean “Rainwater”, “Waterfall”, and “Honey” in the Thai language. Beautiful. 

The kids seem to be hesitant to speak. I’m sure it’s partially due to not having confidence in their abilities in English, and partially due to being in the company of this strange man who can’t speak their native tongue. They don’t trust me yet. But I have tools at my disposal to get them to talk. 

The small basketball goal is probably the best 60 baht I have ever spent. The kids are eager to get the opportunity to toss the 9cm (3.5″) orange orb at the basket mounted on the whiteboard. In order to have that opportunity, they must participate. We practice identifying animals, objects, and colors using flash cards provided by the YMCA staff. Two hours goes by quickly at this point, and now it’s time for lunch break. 

While the children go eat their food in the dining area at the YMCA, I am free to walk to a nearby restaurant, where I order pad krapao moo, which is stir-fried basil with pork and chilis. It’s served with steamed rice. I have learned that I can have them add a fried egg on top by attaching the words “khai dao” when ordering. 

However, my understanding and pronunciation of Thai words is quite poor at this point, and I end up confusing the staff, who bring me stir fried basil with chicken and no egg. The word for chicken is “gai”, the word for egg is “khai”, and I have once again fucked up because I cannot hear (or speak) the difference yet. No matter. It’s still delicious. 

Upon returning for the afternoon session, I am confronted by a bit of graffiti one of these young artists have drawn on the whiteboard. It’s a penis. Complete with a scrotum. A crude drawing, yet quite recognizable. 

Not knowing which of the boys (I do not suspect the girls for this crime) did it, I simply give them all a stern lecture that this type of mischief will NOT be tolerated in Teacher Bob’s classroom, and threaten to tell the staff and their parents if it happens again. Cowed, the boys all hang their heads, while the girls smile smugly. 

Grabbing a rag to wipe the offending image from the board, I discover that the anonymous Vulgar van Gogh used a permanent marker instead of the dry-erase variety. Fuck.

After that kerfuffle, my “spin the bottle” game doesn’t go as smoothly as I hoped. Again, the children are recalcitrant to recite the conversations I have asked them to when the empty container points at them at the end of its revolutions. The boys don’t want to practice with the girls, and I discern that it’s because their English is not as good as the ladies’ level of speech. So, we return to the whiteboard and basketball goal, where the children seem to be more engaged with the lessons.

The second day of class, I produce a deck of playing cards that I brought with me from the US. The kids’ eyes light up when I begin dealing out three cards to each of them. My first request of them is to identify which numbers or royalty they have in their hands. Then they must decide who has the highest cards. That student is given the chance to practice a sentence chosen by me or to identify an object using the English word. If he or she does it correctly, they get a point. They then get to attempt a shot at the basket. If they make it, they get another point. 

Throughout the rest of the week, the children get very excited each time the playing cards come out. It is not until months later that I am informed that playing cards are heavily restricted in the Kingdom of Thailand as any game played with a standard deck is considered to be gambling, and is thus prohibited. 

This was illustrated in 2016 when a group of 32 elderly foreigners were arrested for playing bridge in Pattaya. The arrests were highly publicized, with the proud police officers, and even soldiers in battle dress uniforms, posing for pictures with the dangerous criminal offenders. The story caught the attention of the foreign press, and the jeers from the rest of the world embarrassed the hell out of the Thai government.

I had no idea that I was already corrupting young minds with my effective methods at engaging them in the classroom. Oops.