Friday, May 22, 2015

Thailand: The Whole Truth

The post below was written a little over 2 years ago, after moving from Michigan down to South Carolina. At the time, I was still searching for employment and I wrote this as a reflection of my experience working/living in Thailand in 2012. I shared it with some of my friends and family back then, but the whole experience was pretty personal and I was still trying to wrap my head around the deeper reality (the story within the story) of our time in Thailand. Here I am--years later--still looking back on Thailand and how that experience shaped me. Having had the opportunity to both live abroad and travel for pleasure, I can differentiate between the two experiences and how I have been impacted by each. Both are absolutely amazing, priceless experiences...but one challenges you in ways the other does not. It changes you. The travel, the adventure, the wild beauty, the exotic flavors, the absurdity which I found amusing--all of that was easy to love. Highlights such as jumping off of rock cliffs into the ocean, venturing through the jungle, elephant-riding, longtail boat rides, exploring ancient temples and jumping fire ropes on the beach to dubstep music. I wouldn't even trade the burn scar on my ankle or the broken tail bone that still bothers me to this day! It was all worth it. However, those experiences directly related to working as English teachers--that was an entirely different side of the coin. Corruption, depravity, immorality. They say Thailand is a land of contrasts and I would have to agree. While there was constant curiosity and amazement--there was also disappointment and disgust. It took a while after returning to the U.S. for me to try and process everything in a way where I knew how to answer everyone's questions. Actually, I don't know if that has changed, entirely. I suppose it has always depended on the audience. As much as I enjoy writing, it's somewhat hard to put all of it into words. What I wrote 2 years ago is still aligned with how I feel now, but almost 3 years later, I can say I have gained additional perspective on the whole picture. Perspective that only time and space could provide...and I'm sure will still continue to do so. Despite all of the ugliness which occurred as far as our work life went, I truly do look back on my experience in Thailand as an unforgettable one. In many ways, due to the difficulties I underwent. I carry it with me and it is permanently rooted at the very core of me. I suppose I am sharing this now because this chapter of my life was so integral to developing who I am and I was forever changed by it. For the better. I am so grateful for all of the disappointments and shortcomings Stephen and I faced after graduating college because I now realize it led us to seek out an out-of-this-world experience we never could have anticipated. It is such an incredibly strange feeling to realize it was 3 years ago and how much has happened since then. We all have to make decisions in life and sometimes we wake up one day and realize where we are and how we got there and just think to ourselves "Life is fleeting and what a ride it is." Almost makes me wanna get lost again... ;)

February 20, 2013

Today has begun like most days: Drowsily kiss Stephen goodbye for work, wake up at 8:00, shower, let Neela out, eat breakfast and hop on to my computer to check for any responses from jobs I've applied to. I've been doing this routine a little over a month, having recently moved from Michigan down to South Carolina. It's still early and I have the whole day ahead of me, so aimlessly I log on to Facebook...
I scroll through my news feed and something from the OEG/CIEE Teach in Thailand May 2012 group catches my attention. "Any advice regarding shipping luggage home?" "Who has been to Laos from Cambodia (Phnom Penh) to Laos (Vientiane)?" or "...if your kids like to 'singasong' like my kids do, I highly recommend you finish off the year with the Vitamin C's 'Graduation'. It's got the perfect mix of Thai pop sentimentality and slow enough lyrics to sing and understand in one class. Hope everyone's having a great few final weeks!" Most of the time, I quickly scroll past these kinds of posts for fear of facing the mixed emotions I experience when I allow myself to read them and the memories of living and working in Thailand begin to flood back in. I feel this pressure pushing down on my chest as though I've forgotten something and it's half way across the world.
Like a wave, I am letting it all rush over me, now. It's pushing from my insides out, begging to be released.
As I write this, gathering my thoughts and emotions, I am not entirely sure of whether it is meant for you or for myself. There is simply so much that I have not tried or been able to express about what happened in Thailand. What is still happening to me, 6 months after finishing teaching at Anuban Khon Kaen School. Just hearing or writing that name sends pangs of panic and a wave of confusion through me. Why?

I don't know where to begin.

Stephen and I left Khon Kaen on a bus at 4:00 in the morning on Saturday September 1, 2012. We were headed to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and we felt like we were pulling off a big heist. With our 2 large pieces of luggage stored safely away in Khon Kaen with our one trusted co-worker, we made off in a taxi in the middle of the night with the least we could get away with, packed in two backpacks. It felt like a major transition, leaving our "coming-to-teach-in-Thailand-for-a-year-luggage" and replacing it with our "carefree adventure packs". To calm our nerves, I remember joking with Stephen about how we were making "The Great Escape". 

We didn't want to leave Anuban this way. We had been feeling for months that our hearts weren't in it, but the dysfunction at Anuban was beyond our experience. We wanted to do the right thing. We wanted to tell them. To warn them. To explain to them that we were unhappy and that we no longer wished to teach. This, in itself, was hard to face because we didn't want to be quitters. We had prepared for this opportunity for so long and desperately wanted to make the most of it and live up to the expectations we had given ourselves. But it wasn't that simple. You may not understand, but it wasn't that we just didn't want to do it because it was hard work. There was so much more behind our decision. I felt like we were supporting a system full of liars, cheats and thieves. The majority of the Thai teachers were in full acceptance with the corruption that was their school system. I say "majority" because it is unfair to generalize and say that every Thai teacher operated this way. But on the whole, this was our experience with the Thai teachers at Anuban: They manipulated the schedule so that foreign teachers (us westerners) taught anywhere from 16 to 20-some classroom hours a week, while they were expected to show up for around 6 classes. Even then, there were teachers who would decide they would rather do something else and put their Thai assistant to the task. Countless "meetings" were going on in one of the two staff rooms (often during their class hours), where Thai teachers would simply chat and gossip about the foreign teachers, devising plans which further separated our kinds. Kids who excitedly joined school competitions didn't know what they were getting into and soon found themselves practiced day in and day out by their Thai teachers and often taken out of their courses, making them fall behind. The trophies they won were kept by their teachers, instead of sitting on their shelves at home in their bedrooms. Money was always changing hands in the back of the classroom among the Thai teachers. They treated their assistants like dogs and made them do all the dirty work which half of the time should fall upon themselves. Thai teachers allowed more students than a small classroom can comfortably hold (or a new western teacher handle, for that matter) all for money. They even took a portion of our salary every month. Students who fail exams or even an entire class are given passing grades, resulting in an unbalanced dynamic in the classroom and stunted educational growth. What bothered me first and foremost, was that it became quite clear that more important than the children learning was the money and perceived fame of the school. To the Thai, all that's gold does, indeed, glitter.

Before leaving for Thailand, when I talked to people who had taught there before, I was told Thai people are so friendly, generous and welcoming. That they will share their culture with you and be your second family. Why couldn't mine and Stephen's experience have been that way?

I got pneumonia which lasted over 2 weeks because I had thought I was just reacting to the extreme dust and pollution of the city and therefore didn't go to the doctor's until about a week in. This sickness caused me to miss about 5 teaching days and instead of my Thai teachers being there for me as second mothers, one of them actually started spreading rumors about me throughout the school that I didn't want to teach and was lazy. The day I came back after being sick, she decided to take the first opportunity she had and inform me of all the things I was doing wrong in the classroom and how every break I am not teaching I had to stay in the classroom with her to grade and observe her teach (which I did not do because concentration grading in a Thai classroom is not possible and no other teacher at Anuban was held to this standard). I found out after leaving Anuban that she actually tried to replace me because my absence had apparently put her in a position where she actually had to show up for class instead of leaving the school to shop and get her hair done to her heart's desire. They even tried to go into my bank account and take money back for days I had missed (mind you, we were allotted 15 sick days). Stephen's teacher far surpassed mine, acting as a tyrant over her class, instilling her students with fear and forcing superiority over her co-workers. On our last day at Anuban, Stephen's teacher scolded Stephen for having monotonous lesson plans, which perfectly prompted Stephen's reply, "Oh, like what you did this past hour?" pointing at the whiteboard  covered from top left corner to bottom right corner in Thai symbols, which the students spent the entire hour copying into their notebooks. Can you sense my bitterness?

Yes, I know I was not working in America and therefore should not expect things to be run the way I am used to. Believe me, there were many things Stephen and I became accustomed to dealing with on a daily basis at Anuban, which in any western culture would be considered unlawful or unjust. It was the sheer disregard or disinterest (I don't know which) for genuine care and friendship which existed between the Thai teachers and the western teachers which ultimately drove us away. You could feel their hate despite their fake smiles and "We are a family" front. Corruption does indeed exist to at least some degree in all of Thailand's school system--but Anuban was an exception. I truly believe that the world in which Stephen and I entered was much unlike that of the journey other western young adults have made when choosing to pick up their lives and take it to Thailand. I know this because I see proof of it every day. On Facebook, there are countless posts of happiness and fulfillment emanating from Teach in Thailand-ers. Right now is about when Stephen and I would have been finishing our school year, had we finished our contract. I can tell, because everyone's posts look like this: "I am so happy here. I miss my family and friends back home, but I am so happy I made the choice to come to Thailand. This has been a whirlwind of a year and I wouldn't trade it for the world!" or even "I am not ready to come back home, I have become so close to my Thai friends here that I feel like they're my second family! I've decided to stay and teach for another year!" and things to that end. Around Thanksgiving time, "My Thai family made a "Thanksgiving meal" for me and it made me feel so at home!" Even our friends, Kyle and Gannett, who suggested the idea of teaching in Thailand in the first place, have been having the time of their lives in the northeast of Thailand right now. The teaching has been their favorite part. {UPDATE: Interestingly enough, not long after I wrote this, they actually left Isaan--the northeast of Thailand--for many of the same reasons Stephen and I left our school.} There are countless examples of these experiences and although at first they make me angry and envious, I am happy for these people. But it leaves me with a sense of loss. I feel like I've lost something but I never had it from the start.

So as for these posts from Thailand popping up on my Facebook daily...I can't seem to detach myself from that world. I contemplated deleting myself from the group and deleting some of the friends I had added on from the May group, as well. But, the reality is, I don't think I want to. Although they are a source of remorse and confusion, they are also a source of nostalgia. I may not have had the experience that these people had--or even the one I came for--but it was still a life-changing, amazing experience. I wish that we could have stayed longer, sometimes, but continuing to teach was just a sacrifice we weren't willing to make. We decided on a quality time instead of a quantity of time. And maybe that's not so bad...we came home 6 months or so earlier than we intended, but now look where we are. Stephen got a job with BMW, which he has been trying to do since college. We are living in a beautiful place we instantly fell in love with. We have each other, new friends, a fun city with plenty to do for people our age, the mountains, the sunshine...and a beautiful puppy we love! Life has really turned out so well. Maybe this was how things were supposed to turn out for Stephen and I, we just didn't know it. Still, the feeling of being young and "lost abroad" has an allure and for the time we experienced it, it was really something.

I see pictures of Khon Kaen and us teaching and my feelings are so conflicted. I feel like it happened a lifetime ago. Or that it never happened at all. It wasn't me that walked across the dirty street on a week night in my billowy chang pants (it's a Thai thing) to pick up 20 baht noodle soup from noodle lady. It wasn't me in front of 2 sets of almost 40-student Thai classrooms, teaching the proper use of "do" and "does", acting as a leader for the first time in my life. It wasn't mine and Stephen's past-time to eat 10 baht ice cream during our lunch period for a pick-me-up to get through the stressful, tiring day. We weren't the couple that spent countless hours after school debating on what to do with our situation, my eyes full of tears and our relationships' strength being tested like never before. But it was. And yet it seems so far away. 
It was the most challenging time in my life and I really, truly tried my best. I believe that we ended when we did because we were unhappy and we didn't believe in our cause anymore. Not because we didn't care. Not because we would rather just travel and have fun over working hard and earning money. After all, we saved enough money teaching to travel Cambodia, Thailand, Germany, Austria and The Czech Republic for a total of almost 2 months! And for that being on a Thai teacher's salary of 33,000 baht a month, or $1,100 (plus we utilized our thriftiness), I feel like we really did make the most of our situation, given the circumstances. The traveling part of our lives abroad was easy to love. Thailand included--even the hard, frustrating parts like getting lost, figuring out transportation or miscommunicating with locals I can still look back upon fondly. Living and working in Khon Kaen was a whole different story. That was incredibly real and was life in full force, but yet it still seems like a dream.

The only western teacher we worked with at Anuban whom we trusted and who wasn't caught up in the game of Anuban's web of lies was an older, British man named {name removed}. He highly suggested we didn't notify the school of our intention to quit. He told us horror stories of past teachers who had done the same and how Anuban had treated them so poorly and had gone into their bank accounts and taken back their money. Thursday August 30, 2012, we packed up our lives which filled a tiny apartment we had lived in for 4 months and on the next day, we left after 5th period (separately) and met at the bank, where we each took out all of our money and closed our bank accounts. We were terrified of being found out and I remember feeling my cheeks pulse red hot and my already sweaty body (that's Thailand) shaking with nerves as I went up to the bank counter. We were about to change everything and we were in a foreign country where the rules we knew back home do not apply. It was scary, but it was also kind of thrilling.

Today I caught up with a friend who lived and worked with her boyfriend just a province away from Khon Kaen and had gone through a very similar experience with her school and decided to cut her contract early, as well. It felt so nice to share our experiences again and empathize with one another. The four of us used to hang out on the weekends and even met up in Cambodia, after Stephen and I quit Anuban. I remember the first thing we did when we arrived in Siem Reap was drinking a beer by the pool with them at our hotel, empathizing with one another on the shitty placements CIEE had given us and relaxing in the wake of our new-found freedom. Sometimes it feels like we are the only people who can understand what it was like over there. Writing about all of this and facing my experience for the reality that it was already makes Thailand and my time there feel real and a part of me again. I find great comfort in this. 

I suppose anyone who has an experience abroad which they look back upon will always feel like they didn't have enough time. They wish they could have stayed longer. Held off on reality and lived in the carefree, amazing in-between of being in another world. Life can sometimes seem so much clearer and in your face when you're experiencing it in such a way. When we live our American daily lives; working a job, saving money, planning, etc., we can sometimes lose sight of the vast and diverse glory that is our world around us. You see, I don't want to forget. I don't want to hold this part of me as some kind of secret or remorseful memory. I want to carry it with me comfortably as a valuable piece of my history, without holding back or telling half-truths. Also, holding on to the way I felt traveling can sometimes make my life here seem lacking. But I know that isn't true. I love my life here in South Carolina and I choose to believe that there are more adventures abroad ahead of us. They will never be able to compare to that place in time when Stephen and I were just out of college. Other responsibilities will prevent our being able to replicate an experience like that. But I think that's what makes it so special. The best thing I can do is to appreciate it for what it was. I can't compare it to other people who taught in Thailand--because they didn't have the same experience we did. I have been thinking for so long how I missed out on the experience they had...but what I haven't been able to see is how they didn't have the experience we did. And ours really was quite unique. To worry about "what if" or "what could have happened" if we were handed an experience mirroring that of the majority of those who have taught or are teaching in Thailand is useless, I now realize. Maybe we are lucky on some other level for being given an experience which was adverse from the norm. Life is full of decisions and they are not all clear-cut, black and white, "right" and "wrong" decisions. Sometimes they are just what you make of them. 

Here's a thought: We could have never went at all...and that would have been the real loss.