My Complete 180 on Uber

 

I have done a complete 180 with regards to my opinion of Uber. I used to mildly dislike them. From various conversations with Uber drivers, and from a few videos and articles, I have become aware of an employment structure that essentially exploits drivers to offer competitive pricing for transportation. Uber is part of the sharing economy, a trend in business that shares everything but liability. The whole concept of the sharing economy is suspicious to me in principle. Companies profit off non-employees who are willing to use their own property, skills, or expertise to make a bit of extra cash, and refuse to pay much more than a commission for it. And if something goes awry, it’s not their problem.

Moreover, Uber is particularly nefarious in its quite obvious goal of taking giant losses in order to aggressively battle for market share amidst rapid worldwide expansion. I’ve always seen them as the Wal-Mart of transportation—not necessarily in the quality of the service, but in the strategy of undercutting all the competition until the competitors have to close shop, thereby leaving a monopoly.

In the same way Midwestern towns have lost their thriving main streets to Wal-Mart, with communities being deprived of options in both shopping and employment, Uber could very well become the only taxi business in most cities, leaving riders and drivers alike with little else to turn to. If Uber succeeds in the way Wal-Mart has in monopolizing markets, they will be able to set the conditions and pricing for transportation in those markets.

In essence, my suspicions towards Uber are motivated by a long and deeply felt need to defend the “little guy”—that is, currently existing taxi drivers who pay the licensing fees (which Uber bypasses) as well as the drivers that Uber refuses to pay benefits to. These suspicions have made me wary of Uber, and thus reluctant to use their services on principle alone.

And so, when Uber came to Chiang Mai two months ago, I was leery. Chiang Mai doesn’t need more American corporations diluting their beautiful culture and atmosphere with mediocrity and greed, I thought.

But other expats didn’t share that sentiment. They were all too eager to start using Uber to get around town. And I recently learned why.

My mother came to visit. I don’t normally need fare-based transit, as I have a motorbike that I share with my girlfriend. But with three people now needing transportation, the bike was insufficient (we weren’t about to do it the Thai way and ride three to a bike). So I started talking to tuk-tuk drivers. My mom and I wanted to go to Sunday Night Walking Street, the night market that extends from Tha Pae Gate. From her hotel, it was a 4-km trip. At 9pm.

So I asked a tuk-tuk driver how much. 180 baht. I’d taken tuk-tuks from my girlfriend’s bar to my apartment—an 8-km trip—for that price. So clearly this was negotiable. “One hundred twenty,” I said in Thai.

“One hundred eighty,” he repeated, in English.

“That’s too expensive,” I said in Thai. “One hundred fifty.”

He waved me off. “Traffic jam,” he said.

Bullshit, I thought. But it was getting late and this was the only Sunday night my mother would be in town, and I really wanted her to experience Sunday Night Walking Street. “Fine,” I said.

At nine o’clock at night, the only traffic we hit was literally right in front of our destination. I angrily paid the bullshitter his fare and we got out.

We enjoyed walking around Sunday Night Walking Street, and some time between 10 and 11pm many vendors were starting to close up. So we went back to Tha Pae Gate, where tuk-tuks were lined up. This time I wasn’t being had. I went to the furthest tuk-tuk from the gate. He quoted me 200 baht. “Too expensive,” I said in Thai.

“Traffic jam,” he said.

“No traffic,” I said. “One hundred fifty.”

“Traffic jam. One hundred eighty.”

“Fine.” I should have walked away. I knew better. There were 10 other tuk-tuks around and I probably could have worked my way into a tuk-tuk for 120. But maybe not. The problem was this was high season. With so many tourists, most tuk-tuk drivers know they’ll get the fare they’re asking for eventually.

Four kilometers and zero traffic later, and we were pulling up to my mom’s hotel. I got out and looked at the tuk-tuk driver. “So much traffic,” I said.

He laughed.

“I’ll give you one hundred fifty, and no more.”

“Up to you,” he smiled.

The next day, we needed another ride. It was a gorgeous day and I thought my mother would enjoy a walk around the moat. The northwestern corner of the moat—the corner nearest to her hotel—was only a kilometer and a half away. Surely a tuk-tuk ride wouldn’t be too much. So we talked to one in front of her hotel. “One hundred fifty,” he said.

“Huh? No! Only one kilometer!”

My girlfriend was with us this time. She started working her native tongue, negotiating him down. Here we go, this will get us a cheaper ride. We’re Thai now.

Body language wasn’t looking promising, though. “He says there’s heavy traffic,” my girlfriend finally told me.

“It’s always heavy traffic with these guys,” my mom retorted.

“It’s ok,” I said. “We’ll take Uber.”

I had hoped hearing the name of the newest competitor in town would manipulate him into acquiescing to our will. I was wrong. “Up to you,” he said, and went back to sleep.

My mother was flabbergasted. “He’s gonna let us walk?”

“He’ll get one-fifty from some sucker. Not us, but someone will pay it eventually,” I said.

This is the way of the tuk-tuk driver. They sit on their ass all day nodding off lazily into profitless slothfulness, and then try to make up for it by overcharging naïve tourists for easy trips around the city. They seem to be quite aware at how novel a tuk-tuk ride is for most tourists. The unwary tourist sometimes even squeals with delight at such a nifty way to get around town. And so they pay anything. They don’t know the city, so they believe the line about traffic. And honestly, where else are they going to turn for transportation? Songthaews which charge more? Taxis which are hard to come by? Buses that were all but driven out of Chiang Mai years ago by the tuk-tuk and songthaew mafias…uh…I mean “cooperatives”?

So we got into our first Uber car in Chiang Mai. American corporations are good for at least one thing: consistency. The only difference between Uber Chiang Mai and Uber San Francisco was that this driver was a little shy about speaking English. Otherwise, we rode a clean, semi-luxurious, air-conditioned sedan, driven by a polite and friendly driver who, like her American counterparts, seemed all too pleased with the chance to earn an extra buck or two driving around her own city.

And the fare? A measly 25 baht. I more than doubled the fare with my tip, giving her 60 baht in cash, and giving myself the peace of mind that she was adequately compensated for her efforts.

So let’s do a quick comparison. In Chiang Mai, you can either ride in a welded, uncomfortable motor-trike in the open air, driven by a lazy alcoholic/drug addict, for 150 baht. Or you can ride in a commercially produced vehicle that passed international safety standards in the air-conditioned comfort of the backseat of a sedan, driven by a self-respecting individual who is proud to earn extra money, for 60 baht (if you’re a generous tipper). For a rider, it’s a no-brainer. For an Uber driver, if enough people pay it forward like I do, it’s also a win.

Since that pivotal day, I’ve taken five Uber trips. Every single one was a positive experience that cost me a fraction of what tuk-tuks would charge, despite paying 50-100% tips. The drivers all spoke enough English to chat with me at least a little bit.

The last driver spoke enough to discuss global politics. We also talked about the Uber experience, his and mine. He’s putting three daughters through university on a combination of his salary as a bureaucrat and his earnings with Uber. He enjoys Uber so much that he calls it his hobby. I asked him how he could possibly enjoy driving around the city picking up passengers. He replied that he wants to learn to speak English better, and the 10 to 20 tourists a night that he drives around give him ample opportunities to practice. “Instead pay money for tutor, I learn and earn,” he laughed.

We also talked about Uber’s grab at the international scene. I mentioned the taxi strikes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He said the same thing happened in Phuket, and that the tuk-tuk mafia is just as strong in Chiang Mai. “We’ll see how long Uber stays in Chiang Mai,” he said.

Sketches from Pattaya’s Parties

Hipster Backpackers

There’s nothing more amusing than watching hipster backpackers trying to play the pickup game in Pattaya’s party scene. The contrast of their handlebar mustaches, undercuts, and thrift-shop denim against the salon-shopped hair, painted faces, and skinny tight dresses of the Pattaya princesses is laughable at best. It’s like showing up to a baseball game wearing hockey gear. One whiff of that well-worn denim and hostel-induced body odor betrays to the girl an utter lack of everything she’s dolled herself up for. My advice: go back to Silverlake, the Mission, Portland, or wherever else you came from and try your luck with the ladies donning thick-rimmed glasses, flannel shirts, and black leggings. They’re more your style.

“Wiggle”

No song is less appropriate for the Pattaya party scene than Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle.” Sorry Jason and Snoop, in the Land of Smiles the big, fat butts are a rare commodity here, but your annoying single apparently isn’t. These asses don’t wiggle; they gyrate and stab. In a land where size 1 is considered fat, this song shouldn’t be popular, but strangely is. At least it’s more tolerable than “Mi Mi Mi.”

DJ Remixes

Ever want to hear John Legend’s “All of Me” re-synced to thumping techno? Yeah, me neither. But the DJs do it here all the time. And it’s not the only song they butcher with their hack spins. It seems to me that sapping Magic’s “Rude” of all hints of reggae robs it of the only thing it has going for it. I guess I’ll have to acquire a taste for whiny singing over sawtooth synths. Also, cutting short any track off Chronic 2001 is one of the DJ Seven Deadly Sins. Don’t fucking do it, asshole!

Korean Tour Groups

It’s beyond my mental prowess to explain why a coach bus full of Korean tourists would want to parade their children through Thailand’s seediest city—it’s no secret Pattaya is one giant Red Light. They swarm over a sight (not a site, mind you) and oo and ah and snap pictures with their selfie poles, only to evaporate within 15 minutes. This happened to me when I was at an Arabic shisha bar down an alley leading to the infamous Walking Street. They saw me smoking, gawked curiously, swarmed around me prattling in Korean, ordered their own shisha, coughed up smoke, laughed, snapped selfies, and were gone before I could even understand what had just happened.

Arabs

I think Arabs have to be the funnest people on the planet, besides maybe Brazilians. The younger ones are hands down the most energetic at the club, and most outgoing, too. Even the shy ones seem to emanate a unique enthusiasm. And although slightly creepy, the older ones—fat and balding—carry an air of style and composure when they lounge around their shops drinking and smoking shisha. My only complaint: do you have to play your treble-intense music so loud that I can hear your speakers blowing? It’s saying a lot to say that you’ve got all of Walking Street beat with your godawful, speaker-distorted noise.

Russian Packs

Even with the ruble’s recent crash, Russians are everywhere in this town. And it’s difficult for an observer to determine whether any individual Russian is a visitor or long-term resident, because they make so little effort to fit in. The funny thing about Russians is that they don’t have to say a word and you know they’re Russian. But then once they open their mouths, they’ve 110% confirmed your suspicions. Watching them in the party scene is particularly delightful. They sit in their little packs of 3 to 5 and try their very best to look cool. They don’t say much to each other, but just gawk at all the ladies. They’re usually handsome enough that some unwary passerby will stop to talk to them. Before anyone can blink, these girls are mysteriously clinging to these men who feign absolutely no interest in anything going on around them. But the minute she attempts to walk away, something switches on and they turn into pouting angry desperados. Just relax and sip your Wodka, Chekhov.

Black Dudes (and Black Chicks)

Nothing sticks out like a sore thumb in an Asian party town intermixed with old white dudes than black dudes of an indeterminate age. These guys are here just to remind us white guys that even in this town we’re not as cool as we think. They have a rather tentative relation with the ladies here. Many Thai girls seem to believe the popular idea that “black dude be hung,” and they’re quite frightened by that possibility. But a rare few seem to dig the natural chill that mists off their beings. I’m happy for them that the only prejudice they face has to do with their endowment.

Also, black chicks: equally cool, equally fun, equally head-turning. As with most foreign women in Thailand, you can’t help but wonder what they hope to get out of going to a club and seeing women objectified. Perhaps it’s the different experience of being in those places as an outside observer, as opposed to a desired participant. Lord knows I’ve never seen a man approach one of these lovely ladies. Yellow fever, and no other, is the plague of this town.

Shisha

Everywhere. In every club, bar, lounge, or restaurant in Walking Street. You cannot fathom how pervasive the sweet smell of shisha is in this town unless you’ve driven its streets. Never before have I danced to EDM-Hip-Hop mixes in a dark club with green lasers darting everywhere while a shisha gurgles at my side. It’s unreal.

Pasty Old Dudes

Ah, the Pattaya Retirement Scheme. Pensioners from all over Europe and the United States come here to stretch their retirement payments. And while they’re here, they might as well get a bit of tail, too. So they haunt the beer bars chatting it up with the bar girls. Everyone knows the game: buy her drinks to help her earn commission, pay the bar to take her home, then bang her brains out. The next day, you’re smitten and so you offer to take care of her because you hate the idea of her repeating the same exercise with some other schmuck (even though she had been for years before you ever arrived).

Many of these fossilized farang manage to find their way into the higher class establishments like iBar, Candy Shop, 808, and Lucifer’s. Whether they think the game is any different is unclear. In those places, it’s not much different, and only 80% of the girls are playing it, instead of 100%. But the men gyrate and drink their hearts out. They pretend to be decades younger so they can woo the decades-younger girl who was hours ago poured into her dress. Sorry, geezer, but these chicks aren’t attracted to you, just your wallet. And they say money can’t buy happiness…

Some Suggestions for Pattaya

While observing an English class at Maryvit, their teacher, Master Nikorn, led a discussion designed to help develop their use of the second conditional in order to express wishful thinking. The prompt was, “If you were the mayor of Pattaya, what would you change?”

It’s an interesting question for any city, but particularly for a Thai city, and especially for Pattaya. Without doing any real journalism, all I can say is that the current mayor seems to be shrouded in either corruption or incompetence, or perhaps a mixture of both. But again, I have no real evidence to back that up other than whispers and atmosphere. But Master Nikorn’s discussion question is one that I daily contemplate as I encounter different problems and annoyances around my new home city. These are just a few of the suggestions I have for the city of Pattaya.

 

  1. Develop some mass transit.

To help the students brainstorm ideas with their partners, Master Nikorn put up several issues on the board, and asked them if each was an issue that affected Pattaya. “Does Pattaya have a problem with pollution?”

“Yes!” they said in unison. They weren’t wrong. When I walk outside my apartment, I am so badly bombarded with irritants that I immediately start sneezing.

He checked “pollution.” Then he asked, “Does Pattaya have a problem with traffic?”

“Yes!” they replied, exasperated at Pattaya’s famously atrocious traffic situation.

He checked “traffic” as well. “Does Pattaya have a problem with public transportation?”

They looked at each other. Some shrugged; others tentatively shook their heads “no.” Master Nikorn called on students to dig up opinions. The students all seemed to agree that between motorbike taxis and songthaews, the city of Pattaya offered enough transportation options. And don’t forget walking, one student added. Master Nikorn didn’t argue, didn’t push, and seemed to be pleased with their answers. “There are many ways to get around, so it’s not really a problem,” he said.

Internally, I facepalmed. And as an observer, I couldn’t intervene. Even these students’ teacher couldn’t draw a connection between public transportation deficiencies and problems with traffic and pollution.

Motorbike taxis carry one, maybe two, passengers—hardly enough to reduce the average commuter’s carbon footprint. And while they can filter through traffic with greater ease than a coach bus, there are so many of them that they create impenetrable clusters weaving between cars and raising the risk of accident.

Songthaews—or “baht buses”—are pickup trucks with two benches in the bed of the truck. (In fact, songthaew means basically “two benches.”) While there are many of them, they’re highly inconsistent and unreliable, which I’ll get into a little later. They’re more a tourist attraction than feasible mass transit. And they’re less a solution and more the cause of traffic problems with the way they drive, anyway.

So, Pattaya, do you want to reduce traffic and pollution? Invest in buses and light rails. You won’t, I know, because the motorbike taxi association has too much sway. And with a Thai mafia presence in that sector of business, there’s even more pressure to maintain the status quo. But if you want your city to improve and progress, especially with the influx of people you hope all those new condominium developments will bring in, you need to rein in the absolute cluster-fuck that is traffic, as well as the poison that is your air.

  1. Orgnanize your Songthaews

Sure, if I want to get from one end of a major thoroughfare—such as Beach Road, Second Road, and Sukhumvit Road—they’re fairly consistent and predictable. But outside of maybe 7 of the most trafficked routes, songtaews are a waste of time.

Why is this a problem? Even in “East Bay,” the region east of the San Francisco Bay, where AC Transit has a regular bus schedule and well-planned routes, planning to get somewhere important on time is a pain in the ass and a possible crap-shoot. But if you don’t have a car, then a little careful planning can make great use of the AC Transit. My point is, buses aren’t inherently beacons of reliability. But if you add to this inherent unreliability drivers that don’t have schedules, won’t stick to predictable routes, and often neglect to even stop for passengers on their route, then you will have a transportation system that resembles songthaews. It’s a system that no personal, methodical planning can capitalize on, and that no one who needs to be anywhere at a particular time can rely on. Songthaews are so useless, there are usually only two types of people riding them: tourists or retired expats with lots of time to kill, and poor Thai locals who have no other choice.

Songthaew drivers once had routes with stickers or numbers indicating their route. However, as any drive up second road during peak hours will indicate, this has been abandoned. Now drivers go where the most passengers will be. And since most tourist’s route back to their hotel from Walking Street is north on Second Road, there are usually about 900 songthaews there.

Without knowing exactly why, I can only assume this is because the drivers are like private business owners. So they only make as much as their vehicle earns. Thus, they go where the most traffic is to increase their potential revenue. If this is true, maybe it’s time to incorporate them, so that they all get paid the same, no matter what route they take. And to make it even fairer, they can rotate between busy and not-so-busy routes. But alas, that’s asking too much organization and regulation of Pattaya, isn’t it? Never mind. Mai Bpen-rai.

  1. Paint lane lines on Second Road

While we’re on the topic of Second-Road, paint some goddamned lines, already! Not that it generally matters—Thai drivers rarely seem to stay strictly in their lanes. But at least they do it about 60% of the time, which is enough to solve about 60% of the problem with that road. Drivers wander aimlessly, uncertain of where they’re supposed to be, dodging thousands of sonthaews and pedestrians, and hoping they won’t accidently hit a motorbike. Instead of a torrent of inchoate traffic zigzagging down up the road, by painting some lines on the road you might end up with a clean, steady stream of order.

  1. Leave out more trashcans (that goes for all of Thailand)

Ever wonder why your country is so badly littered with plastic bags, empty containers and cups, straw and food wrappers, and other bits of trash? Because people are tired of carrying their trash around. So many times I’ve carried empty bottles and food cartons for nearly a kilometer, then realize the only thing preventing me from tossing it to the side of the road is my well-ingrained stewardship of the environment. I nearly scream, “Are there no trash cans in this country?”

I know. This is opening a Pandora’s box. If you put out more trash cans, that’s more work for someone to do. And since that someone is likely underpaid and lazy, they’ll probably not change the bins as often as they should. So your proliferated trash cans will be overflowing with garbage, adding a notable unsightliness to your country. But you gotta ask yourself, is that any more unsightly than visiting the beach or a temple and seeing trash strewn around carelessly on the ground? Think about it…

  1. Learn the physics of sound

Speaking of pollution, there’s another kind that’s a problem in this city: noise pollution. For example, if five different businesses or vendors within a 200-meter radius all blast their sundry songs at the highest volume, I can hear none of them. Or more accurately, I can hear all of them…at once. All I get is an awful blend of noise that annoys more than attracts.

Add to this the trucks with advertisement boards and blaring radio ads, drivers thumping their god-awful EDM, emergency vehicle sirens, and the foundation-shattering rumble of thousands of coach buses, and it’s wonder I ever sleep in this town.

I’ve learned to tolerate the noise about 70% of the time. But do you really think I care to shop at your appliance store, buy your CDs, eat your chicken, or visit your bar if your message is lost in the urban cacophony of a thousand songs? In fact, I’ve vowed to avoid some of these places merely on principle.

So Pattaya, if you can satisfy these five requests, your city will be just a little more tolerable to live in. Not that you’re doing anything wrong. The multitude of tourists that saunter into your city excited to have their slice of sex pie is surely evidence enough of your success to wave away any complaint.

Dilemma #1: Asking Refugees to Remember

During teaching practice in the CELTA course, most of my students were international refugees. They included people from Japan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria, China, Somalia, Ivory Coast, and more. If you can think of a political or natural crisis that would have sent people running to Bangkok, the students in my TP (teaching practice) classes have probably been victims of it. They’re wonderful and extraordinary people full of compassion, wit, and hope. And they’re fucking smart! All this despite enduring unthinkable hardships in their home countries, some of them with little hope of ever returning to see their homeland, families, or friends ever again.

Take this one student for example. We’ll call him Maurice since I don’t feel comfortable disclosing his name on the Internet. Maurice is incredibly sharp and witty. His proficiency in English is remarkable given the little amount of time he’s been studying it (a little over a year). And he’s funny! He’s the life of the class. He brings a charming sense of humor and an innate desire to please. He’d like to go to university in the United States to major in math, and if not for a stringent and complicated (not to mention lengthy) immigration process, he could pull it off. With his level of intelligence, I could see him getting into a state university.

But behind his smile, clever wit, and inspiring hope lies the story of a kid stripped from a murdered family. I never inquired the details (I’m always afraid to ask), but Maurice is a victim and survivor of a violent political conflict in West Africa. The circumstances of this violence matter less than the fact that his parents and sisters were all killed, and now he remains in a strange city and may never return to the land where he grew up and formed memories with his deceased family members. What’s absolutely tragic is that we can actually say he was one of the lucky ones. Simply because he lives.

This is but one of the many stories I have come to know of these students. While teaching them, I ran into a bit of a moral dilemma, and even though the moment of crisis has passed, I’m still interested in hearing your opinions on the matter. See, a common practice in language teaching is to personalize the context, input, and language models students receive. We like to draw students into the lesson by asking them to discuss how they feel about something, or to use the language to relate details or stories about their family, or things along those lines. So in essence, we’re asking them to remember and share. We ask them to remember their family, their country, their childhoods, their friends, and much, much more. Keep in mind these are not therapy sessions, but language classes. The purpose is to exercise and practice English.

But whenever I ask my students to remember, I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I’m asking them to remember a country they probably can’t or won’t ever see again. I’m asking them to remember people they’ve may have been separated from – at best by geographical relocation, but more likely by violence.

I’m asking them to reflect on good memories, yes. But do they also feel a pang of sorrow with the happy memories? When they remember the prank they played on their sister, their mother’s birthday party, the football games they played with friends, or whatever else the memory is, do they also mourn the fact that they won’t be making new memories with these people?

So what do you think? Is it good for them to remember? Do they want to remember? Or was I stirring up pain in a smile?

 

Why Thailand?

I feel it’s important to answer a central question that is often asked of me. People often wonder why I’d undertake the prodigious and colossal task of relocating to another country and live there indefinitely. Anyone who knows me knows the most obvious, and most prominent reason:

I've moved here for love.
I’ve moved here for love.

But that doesn’t complete the picture. I am constantly pulled between two selves: my logical, rational, contemplative self, and my indulgent, passionate, optimistic self. As you can imagine, making up my mind is therefore quite exhausting. And being a recent divorcee makes me all the more cautious in matters of romance. So moving to Thailand for the sake of a relationship feels more rash to me than it does to others. As luck would have it, other factors led to my decision, and formed an amazingly fortunate alignment of several of my heart’s desires.

Me teaching

The first of these is the desire to teach. When I was a professional musician several years ago, I taught guitar lessons to supplement my income. Before long, the lessons became my primary source of income, as well as primary source of joy. I experienced the delight of those moments when a student “got it.” That sparkle of understanding in a student’s eye is priceless, and worth 6 months of patience achieving. Furthermore, I decided that it didn’t matter that I was teaching music. As long as I was teaching something I knew and felt passionate about, I was happy. This was why I went back to university, and what I kept my eyes on throughout my studies.

Teaching in the United States was definitely a possibility. I spent time learning in detail the process for getting into and completing a California teacher’s certification. But anyone I knew who was already teaching was disillusioned with the profession. And they weren’t anomalous, either. Many teachers change careers within five years of starting. They find the California education system highly unsupportive, under-financed, and unpredictable, the students lazy, rebellious, and overall frustrating to deal with, and the parents enabling, entitled, and irritating. Naturally, one can be faced with these problems anywhere in the world. But there’s an advantage to trying out a new, lower-paid career in a place where the cost of living is so much cheaper. Hence, Thailand.

IMG_0276
Banana Island, Trader Joe’s. Notice the green ones are on top. I do things differently.

Second, I’ve always wanted to feel like I was making a difference. Teaching by nature holds this potential. But being among people who know they would benefit exponentially from a good education, who appreciate teachers as sages of knowledge and wisdom, and who have real-world gains of learning my expertise, only amplifies the sense of moral-wholeness that comes with the job. This is an environment I crave. Too long I’ve lined someone else’s pockets with money using my labor, skills, knowledge, and fake smiles. Too long I’ve spent a large portion of my work week toiling for meaningless gains. I wanted have a job where turning a profit, satisfying shareholders, and making customers happy weren’t main aims of the business, or at least not the job. Teaching often avoids these ugly strivings. This is not to say education avoids them; many schools are profit-seeking, board-satisfying, parents-pleasing entities. But even at such institutions, most teachers I’ve known have been able to isolate themselves enough from these mechanizations to still absorb themselves in the empowerment of students. I’m not saying they’re ignorant of or happy about these things, but at least a teacher can focus most of their attention on leaving an impact on their students’ lives.

me with asians

Third, I’ve wanted to live abroad for nearly a decade. Before I went to university, I looked into moving to London. Quite difficult to do with no education and limited resources. I looked into Germany. Similar issue. While at university, I wanted to study abroad for a semester. Being married during my studies impeded that desire. Then, recently divorced, I visited Thailand. Within a week, the energy, warmth, and easy-going nature of Thai people made me feel that I could live here. Then there’s the food, and the temples, and a history that few Americans can comprehend or relate to.

Why live abroad? Those who do it will give many reasons. The reason I’ve wanted to do it, and am enjoying it now, is to grow. I get restless when I’m comfortable. I need a challenge or adventure to excite me, keep my overactive mind busy contemplating the day-to-day. As I’ve discovered, and as this blog hopefully demonstrates, moving to Thailand has stimulated my intellectual, spiritual, and cultural curiosity.

And of course there’s the romantic curiosity. I moved here because I fell in love with a Thai girl. And she’s in love with me. We’re both interested to see how that works out in a real living situation, and not just over routine Skype calls.

For me, moving to Thailand presented an opportunity for all of the aforementioned desires and curiosities to be fulfilled simultaneously. It is a move that my mind and heart have been arching towards for quite some time. It’s not something I simply wanted to do. It was something I needed to do. No matter what happens while I’m here, I know I won’t regret it, because in my short time I’ve already learned so much about myself, about others, about culture, and about the world. Hopefully entries to follow will help share those insights.

Dilemma #2: Finding the Perfect Job

Getting a job in Thailand is more difficult than all the blogs, forums, and advertisements would have you believe. It’s not that jobs are hard to come by. Quite the contrary: there are quite a few. But one’s options are limited if one has standards. I am such a one.

When I left America, one of the ways I justified leaving my cushy Silicon Valley corporate job and taking an 80% pay cut was to tell myself I would be making a difference in my new country and profession. (There were other justifications, of course, but those will come in the next post.) So I began to envision classrooms full of enthusiastic Thai students with poor English and big dreams. I imagined myself being their inspiration to do anything their hearts set out to do, and to embrace the lingua franca of our time in order to realize those dreams.

Upon arriving, I found that it’s not so simple. Based on my findings so far, there are essentially four types of teaching opportunities here: 1) language schools, 2) Thai private schools, 3) Thai government schools, and 4) international schools. The language schools vary in terms of reputation, competence, and goodwill. Some are back-alley for-profit ventures, in it only for the money, while others have a high standard of excellence and care about people’s proficiency in English. Thai private schools also vary in their standard of achievement and approach to English learning (some are ‘bilingual schools’ and others feature expensive ‘English Programmes’). Thai government schools have a wide range of issues depending on the school, almost all of which are linked to either funding or the zeitgeist of Thai people in general. And international schools, although excellent in their standards of achievement, are usually only serving the richest percent.

Navigating these differences is harder than you might think. Making sure you get everything you want out of a job is even harder; you’ll have to sacrifice something, so you have decide what’s most important to you. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll receive plenty of offers. By the time I finally made up my mind I had received 7 offers for employment, all with varying degrees of temptation. The biggest lesson I learned during this process was patience. Don’t take the first offer just because you have no other prospects. Another one will turn up sooner than you think.

This was my lesson with Shane English School. At the time, they were the only employer that had made me an offer, and they wanted a decision pronto. They wanted me trained in time to start teaching in 10 days, which meant they needed to start training in 3 days, which meant they needed a decision in 1 day. At the time, I had only Burapa English-Programme School of Thailand (B.E.S.T.) showing any alternative interest, and it wasn’t promising. They liked me but had no openings.

There were some things to like about Shane: good pay, small classes, job security. But there were some huge negatives: badly reviewed by disgruntled ex-employees, no holidays, no license in Thailand and therefore no work permit, hour-long commute, seeming incompetence with regards to teaching methodology. So I had many reservations about taking the job. But with no other prospects, and a tourist visa expiration fast approaching, I got impatient. I wasn’t willing to bite the bullet and turn down the offer in hopes of other prospects emerging.

So I sat skeptically through training, feeling increasingly uneasy with the Shane way. What bothered me most was Shane’s ideology about education. For them, it’s a business, and their clientele are only the richest among Thai people. Because of this, it wasn’t about necessarily developing English proficiency. It was about the students coming out of classes enthusiastic enough to make the parents happy, and proficient enough to make them proud. If Shane’s students learned to string together an English sentence that the parents didn’t know, or could sound out the name of the chain store Tesco Lotus using phonetics, that was a success. It was a bar too low for my standards.

So before and after training hours, I frantically plugged away at sending out more resumes and following up on anything that looked promising. Finally, Maryvit Pattaya called me.

The president of Maryvit was a Thai national who had grown up in the United States. In fact, whenever I talked to him, I essentially felt like I was talking to an American. He was fluent, and understood American culture intimately. His parents, however, were the traditional Thai owners. So it’s the traditional Thai way at Maryvit. That means that quantity is prioritized over quality. In other words, there seems to be a belief among many schools here in Thailand that the more time spent in school on a weekly or yearly basis, the better educated the child. It’s not about using the time efficiently, or hiring effective teachers. So the Maryvit schedule is 10-hour days Monday through Friday, and another 5 hours on Saturday with seldom holidays.

So why did I initially agree to this? Because of Maryvit’s philosophy about education. As a private school, they’re unique among other schools in their approach to English learning. Some schools feature expensive English Programmes that parents have to pay additional tuition to get their children into. Others are ‘bilingual schools’ in which there’s still a division between ordinary curriculum and English-directed curriculum, but these schools also cost a bit in tuition. Maryvit wants to incorporate English into it’s normal curriculum. All students are taking classes in English, and they’re all paying the same low tuition. It’s the most egalitarian system I know of in Thailand. For me, Maryvit was that opportunity to make a difference. I was eager to leave Shane and sleep better at night, even if it was only going to be 6 hours a night.

Upon starting at Maryvit, I realized how much need there was. I was the only Western teacher. The consequences of this was that the students had never had natural English modeled, so they were really bad at understanding and speaking, which made them really timid to use the English that they knew. Most of the English grammar classes were taught in Thai, so the students learned to use their native language as a crutch in learning. Even worse, most of the teachers were doing most of the talking, which makes little sense when learning a language involves the principle of practice-makes-perfect.

So I was excited about what I could do there. The students were all engaged and excited about their new American teacher. It didn’t take long for many of them to enthusiastically approach me with speaking assignments, or just to say hi and ask me questions about myself. They were all good, respectful, and charming kids. In fact, I’d take a classroom of Thai students over a classroom of American students any day.

But after a week at Maryvit, I started noticing some things. First, I had very little professional support. There was a teacher trainer–a Filipino-American with 22 years’ teaching experience in the United States. He was great. But his contract expired during the duration of my own contract. If he didn’t stay, there was little else other than peer support. And after a week, I wasn’t confident in that either. I started teaching some classes as part of my training. The teacher trainer was so excited about my lessons that he asked other teachers, some of them with nearly a decade of experience, to come to my classes. I was apparently doing something that nobody knew how to do: get the students using English in class. So was I ready to be the leader at Maryvit? Was I ready to be the professional support to others? As a novice teacher, absolutely not.

Second, I examined the schedules of the teachers I was shadowing. They had around 350 students each, some of them shared. When they called on students, they used student numbers because they couldn’t possibly remember their names. It felt like some dystopian-fascist society.

With insufficient support, a huge student load, long hours, and few holidays, it was only a matter of time before I burned out. Then how helpful would I be? How much of a difference would I really make in these students’ lives if I hated my job?

Then B.E.S.T. finally called. They were offering me 40-hour work weeks (8 hours a day Monday through Friday), nearly 3 months’ paid holiday, lower student loads, and a much more supportive environment where professional development is a high priority. The downside: they’re an English-Programme school, where only the affluent foreign parents send their kids. It’s not that these kids don’t deserve an education any less than the students of Maryvit. All kids deserve a quality education. It’s more the black-and-white impact I’d be leaving on their lives. Many of their parents are English, American, or Australian. English is spoken often at home. Their English is so proficient they actually have native-speaker dialects.

In taking the job at B.E.S.T., I had to accept a few things. First, educational impact isn’t as black and white as the color of a student’s skin, the language they speak, or the money their parents have. It’s so much more nuanced than that. It’s about my willingness to bring everything I have to the table, and inspire them to do the same. It’s about getting them to not only see the importance of my specialty subject, but the important of excellence in general. And that’s because while there is upward mobility, and education is every bit a catalyst to it, there’s also downward mobility, and a lack of education is its catalyst.

Second, I’m not superman. As much as I want to save Thai students from the inadequacies of their country’s education, to do so without experience is an arrogant exercise in futility. I may be successful for a time, but that will only inaugurate frustration and despair in the long run. I need to grow in my new profession under the guidance of experienced and compassionate colleagues and mentors before I can ever hope to help the most needy. In short, I need to take care of myself before I can take care of others.

Finally, I learned not to be so pompous. Classism is a two-way street. One can just as easily alienate others by taking the moral ‘high-ground’ as one can by being morally careless. In an effort to be a man of the people, I have intellectually insulted the value of a group of kids who equally deserve a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher.

As I finish this (unedited) post, I prepare for a solid night’s sleep as a prequel to my first day in my new job at B.E.S.T. I hope I can be the best I can be for every student I ever have, starting with the students here.