Chapter 16

“It’s all a photo opportunity.”

During the two weeks before I kicked off my new career as a paid teacher at the YMCA, I received two calls from Viriporn, the older lady who was a director at the school where I had tried to apply. The first was to ask what came of my interview with the English department. 

I explained to her that my lack of a university degree was keeping me from being hired as a teacher. She commiserated with me, saying that she thought it a silly rule. If I was a native speaker, had a certification, and possessed the necessary people skills to do the job, then a piece of paper shouldn’t be a barrier to employment. She told me she would ask around to other contacts she had in the Thai school system to see if there were any openings I would be considered for. I didn’t know it at the time, but this woman held a PhD in education and knew lots of people. I thanked her for her concern, though I wasn’t particularly hopeful. 

Two days later, she called me again to tell me that she had arranged for me to meet the head of foreign teachers at a government school about 20km east of Chiang Mai. I thanked her profusely and made the phone call to set up a time to meet Mat, who was from Slovenia. He invited me to come down and see the campus, and meet the director. I explained to him that I didn’t have a degree, but he told me that wasn’t going to be a problem. The school would be able to hire me and process my work permit. 

Mat told me the school was easy to find, right across the street from the first 7-11 in town. I should have asked him for more details, because after riding my rented motorcycle well outside of the outer ring road that encircles Chiang Mai, I saw the 7-11 on the right. Instead of a school building across the street, there was a field with cows grazing. My phone app wasn’t much help, as it placed the school well off the two-lane highway I was on. I will learn that this is a bit of a problem in southeast Asia. Google maps often gives inaccurate information regarding locations here. 

Deciding to trust that there would be a school across from a 7-11 farther down the road, I continued on. Four kilometers later, my faith was rewarded when I spied a cluster of large buildings sitting around a soccer (okay, football) field across from yet another 7-11. I parked my motorcycle outside the gate and sent Mat a message to let him know I had arrived. 

There were no students present that day. The teachers and administration staff were engaged in some other activity, with tents set up on the field. Mat walked me around the campus and then introduced me to Prommin, one of the assistant directors of the school. Prommin was pleasant, but inscrutable in his reaction to me. He spoke little English, so Mat translated our brief conversation for us. It was a bit uncomfortable, and not only because in my attempt to put my best foot forward, I was dressed in one of my new long-sleeved shirts and ties. I was happy that I chose the white one, because the darker colors would have been visibly soaked with my sweat.

Actually, I selected the white shirt for another reason. All government employees were required to wear non-colorful attire for a full year following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, more commonly called “King Nine”, the beloved ruler of Thailand who had passed the previous October. Muted colors were okay, but employees were expected to wear a black ribbon in honor of the late monarch. The front gates and entrances of all government buildings were draped with black and white bunting during the 12-month period of mourning.

The following Tuesday was chosen as the time for my interview and a demonstration class in front of live students and the administration staff. I requested that I be allowed to finish by 9:30am, as I would have to race back to the YMCA to begin the summer camp class at 10:00. They kindly agreed to let me be the first to interview and do the demo class. 

The interview process was a bit weird. Most of the administration staff that were making the hiring decisions were not fluent in English, and mainly just smiled at me. One of those who did speak fairly well kept asking me odd questions, of the variety that would be considered unacceptable in the US. They mirrored Viraporn’s earlier queries: my age, my marital status, even if I had a Thai girlfriend. This interrogator, a large woman with a doughy face, had hair dyed jet black a few weeks before which now gleamed white at the roots on either side of her center part, evoking images of a skunk. Her coquettish smile and interest in my romantic life made me uneasy. 

Thankfully, the questioning didn’t take too long. But then I was forced to sit at a nearby table while two other men from the Philippines interviewed for the same position. I surreptitiously looked at my watch, trying to will them to finish so I could do my demonstration in time to leave for the YMCA class. 

Finally, we went upstairs to a classroom with about 25 students present. This was a first-grade class, the one Mat was assigned to. I was given no material to work with beforehand, but was expected just to prepare a quick 5-minute lesson. I chose the subject of “family”, and after introducing myself as “Teacher Bob”, I drew four stick figures on the whiteboard. Two taller humanoids, one with an A-line skirt, one without. The two smaller characters on either side mirrored the look of their larger companions. 

“Who is this?”, I asked, pointing at the tall figure sans skirt. Hands shot up. I gestured with an open hand (not using my index finger to point) at one of the little girls to answer. “Father!”, she shouted. 

“Very good!”, I exclaimed back. This was only going to be a short demo, and I wanted the students to feel and the staff to notice the energy I was emitting with my instruction. I was also aware of the young man with a professional-looking DSLR camera snapping several pictures of me and the students. “Now, who is THIS?”, as I put my finger on the shorter stick person with a bow on the smiling head. 

“Sister!” yelled out the young boy whom I chose for this question. Three questions later, I had elicited “father”, “brother”, and “family” from the students. I thanked them for allowing me to teach, then excused myself. Mat followed me out the door and told me that I had done well. He said the decision would be made later, but that he felt I was probably going to be hired. I shook his hand and tried not to run to my motorcycle. I had 20 minutes to make it to the YMCA. 

The third call from Dr. Viriporn is to ask me if I am interested in joining her on a weekend trip to Fang, which is about three hours north of Chiang Mai. I hesitate for a second, not sure of her intentions, then she goes on to explain that she wants me to help her and another teacher conduct a training seminar for a group of Thai teachers who are tasked to give English instruction at their schools. The government recently stipulated that all students in the kingdom must receive at least one hour of English class per day. 

I ask her how many teachers will be in attendance. She informs me that there are 15-20 expected. They will have English skills of their own ranging from almost fluent to zero ability. She then adds that I will be paid 6000 baht for the weekend, plus a room at a hotel and food allowance. If I agree, I will be picked up by a minivan and ride with her and the second teacher to Fang on Friday following my YMCA summer camp. 

This sounds like a pretty good offer, so I agree. 

Friday afternoon arrives and I am on my way to Fang. There’s lots of room in the minivan and I have a whole row of seats to myself, as there are only two other passengers, Viriporn and Nuchi, the other teacher. As we pass through Chiang Dao, the road is quite curvy and the lush greenery is lovely. After that, the highway straightens out a bit and the land is more flat. There’s a lot of pollution in the air, so the view of the mountains in the distance is somewhat obscured. Exhausted from my busy week, I drift off to sleep, and don’t even notice when we go through Chiang Rai, famous for many landmarks and tourist attractions. 

Our first stop in Fang is at the school where we will be conducting the seminar tomorrow. There is another group of teachers waiting for us when we arrive. They now say that there will be over 150 attendees tomorrow, not the 15-20 that I had been told.

Oh. Shit. 

Over the course of two hours we talk about the schedule, what will be presented, and by whom. The other instructors decide that they will demonstrate some games and a song that the attendees will be able to use in their classrooms. They look at me and ask what I feel would be most helpful to teach the teachers. Drawing upon my recent CELTA training, I decide that I will demonstrate how to teach students a language that they are completely unfamiliar with using the words along with actions, facial expressions, and hand gestures that are almost universally recognized. 

After our planning session, we adjourn for dinner. Ten of us sit at a large table together at a restaurant and I get my first real lesson in Thai-style dining. Instead of each person ordering a menu item for themselves, they order several dishes and share them. I am a little disconcerted when I observe my dining companions reach for more vegetables or curry dishes with the same utensil they have previously been using to put food in their mouths. Double-dipping is generally frowned upon in my home country.

But then I remember a wonderful experience eating at an Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago where we all used our hands to both eat and grab more. The intimacy of that style of dining was a refreshingly pleasant event. Plus, I’m not really a squeamish person, so I shrug it off and imitate the actions of the locals. 

Later, when we check into the hotel, I am given the key to my own room. Viriporn lets me know the room number she is staying in down the hall. Still unsure of her intentions. I tell myself that she only wants me to know in case I have a question, and quickly decide that I will not have any until the next day. 

After a fitful night’s sleep because of a noisy air conditioner, I shower and dress for the day. We arrive at the school for our presentation to the full auditorium. I am a bit nervous about my own 20-minute demonstration scheduled for the early afternoon. 

However, after observing the disorganized shit-show that my associates put on, I relax, knowing that I will not fuck it up that badly. It’s difficult to watch, and I’m a bit embarrassed to be a part of it, honestly. I spy a white face in the crowd of attendees, and during a break I walk up and introduce myself to her. 

Rachel has been teaching in northern Thailand for three years already, and informs me that what is happening here is to be expected. “It’s all a photo op,” she says. “Wait, you’ll see.”

My performance goes fairly well, not as smoothly as I had hoped, but not as agonizingly as the previous demonstrations I witnessed. We finish today’s session after telling the teachers in attendance that we will expect to see a five-minute presentation from each of them tomorrow morning. I don’t have any idea how we are supposed to observe over 150 mini-demos in a four-hour window, but at this point, I’ve given up worrying about it. 

After a dinner of Thai hot-pot, a few of us go out to a bar that has a live band and cold beer. I’m enjoying a conversation with a lovely Thai woman who is one of the instructors. She lives in Fang, is divorced, and has two kids. I would love to ask her to dance, but there isn’t any of that going on. It’s not really a thing here, as I’ll discover later. We just sit and enjoy the music and alcohol as we continue our half-shouted discussion, competing with the loud band. She gives me her LINE contact information, which is nice, but ultimately will lead to nothing and I’ll never see her again after tomorrow. 

Tomorrow comes and I dress myself, wishing that I had an iron for my wrinkled shirt. After packing for the trip home, I join Viriporn and Nuchi in the lobby to check out of the hotel. Dr. Viriporn seems a little cool towards me, and I’m wondering if she had expected more attention than I gave her this weekend. 

Or perhaps she’s salty because I had the nerve to speak up in our post-action session the previous evening and say that I looked forward to doing this again, but perhaps we could be a little more organized next time. I will later learn that I should always keep those thoughts to myself.

Most of the mini-presentations are painful to watch. Our team has been divided into six separate classrooms for the ordeal, and I am assigned to observe and give critiques on each of the student/teachers’ performances. 

The demos aren’t good, but in fairness to the trainees, they weren’t given adequate instruction the day before, and they are doing their best with a language with which most of them are still unfamiliar. Effusive with my praise for their attempts, I try to give each of them a helpful suggestion to take with them. 

Three hours later, we are back in the main auditorium where Dr. Viriporn instructs me to stand near her as each of the attendees comes up for their picture to be taken with us while we smile and they hold up their certificate of completion. My cheeks burn from keeping my face frozen in this happy expression. And Rachel’s words return to me. “It’s all a photo op.” 

The realization that I am a prop for the publicity pictures hits me as well. If Dr. Viriporn knew so many qualified educators, why pick someone green and untested like me? Because I checked the boxes they really cared about. White. Native English speaker. American accent as a bonus.  

After we finish with the students, Viriporn hands me my own certificate which states that I was a proud participant in the group of instructors, then stands next to me as we get our picture taken together. Several group pictures with VIPs and the team follow until it is time for us to go. I will never receive a copy of any of the photos.

Dr. Viriporn says nothing to me on the way home to Chiang Mai. 

Five days later, on Friday evening, I receive a call from the YMCA staff. Can I please make myself available tomorrow morning to help judge a speaking competition? Sure, why not. 

I ride into the parking lot at the YMCA at the designated time and am hurriedly put into a minivan with Mint, the very pretty, but impossibly-blue-eyed Thai office manager. Twenty minutes later we arrive at a large building on the north edge of the city where it seems all of the government offices are clustered. 

We’re obviously running late, and there’s no time for me to get proper instructions on what I should expect. They introduce me to a few Thais dressed in uniform who are to be my fellow judges. Then they sit us all down in front of a stage and I am handed a microphone. 

“Say something about their presentations when they finish each one,” one of the uniformed people says to me. Okay, this seems a familiar situation. For several years I taught a public speaking course and gave critiques to the students in the church ministry school. I find myself looking forward to it. 

A shy young woman of about 19 years is now standing on the dais with a microphone in front of her. She begins to speak about the importance of recycling or something like that. Her English isn’t bad, but not great. The flow of information is a bit jumbled and lacks coherence. 

I have my head cocked to one side, one eye on her, one on the page of notes that I’m furiously scribbling, trying to find something positive to say so as to soften the blow of the part where I tell her she will want to organize her thoughts better next time. 

But obviously, I have again failed to understand the concept of what is taking place. When she is finished, everyone applauds, and one of the other judges tells her she did a wonderful job, then turns to me and asks what I think. 

I cannot find it in me to openly disagree with the other judge whose uniform bears military style lapel pins of multicolored badges and probably identifies them as a colonel or some shit. So I smile and let her know that I really enjoyed her presentation and that I agree that recycling is super important. 

From then on, I simply write down what each of the next several speakers talks about and prepare some stock bullshit statement about what a great job they did. I’m not there to actually give any helpful comments on improvement. I’m simply a white face to legitimize the whole charade as being an English speaking competition. 

After an hour of this, we are finished. With the speaking part. Each of the judges write on a ballot the name of the person who they feel did the best job. Ultimately, the girl whom I felt was a long shot for third place won by a landslide. 

The photos take another 20 minutes. And I have to be in each one. I still have a lot to learn about Thailand, but damn if this lesson hasn’t been imprinted in my mind: If there’s no photo, it didn’t happen. 

I also don’t get paid for my time.