Thursday, September 21, 2006

Living and Teaching in Thailand

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

This week it was a coup d'état. What next?!!!

My wife Bernie and I moved to Thailand from Canada several years ago just for the adventure. Well, adventure it has been, and we have enjoyed almost all of it! It’s a beautiful country, and we love living here.

We have observed the extraordinary economic development of the cities, and the growth of the middle class. However, we have also watched predations by government on the lives of Thai people. (We hope the peaceful coup will bring that to an end, but we have our doubts.) We have witnessed the desperate poverty of many people in hills and slums. And delightfully, we have also experienced the great kindness and gentleness of the Thai people.

Underlying all of this was my job as a teacher. I began teaching English, but today I teach visitors to Thailand how to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). My work has brought stability into our lives, and it has brought us in touch with the Thai people. In Thai society, teachers are held in high esteem, and Thai students are a pleasure to have in class.

In this commentary I want to talk about living and teaching here, but also to offer a perspective on the country’s culture and politics. If the latter isn’t your thing, you can always stop reading!

Working in Thailand. I enjoyed a long corporate career before coming here. However, to get a job and a work permit in Thailand, before leaving Canada I took a one-year fulltime university program to get certification as a teacher of English as a second or other language (CERTESOL). That was a lot more than I needed, but it made it quite easy for me to get a job at Chiang Mai University (CMU) when I arrived. A year ago, I moved from the English Department to CMU’s Language Institute.

If you want to work in Thailand, TEFL accreditation is now required. You can get this from a number of places, although I personally think the TEFL course my colleague Karla M. Portch and I have developed is first rate. You will find many references to it on this blog.

Effective October 1 of this year, Thailand is putting severe restrictions on the right of foreigners to stay here indefinitely on tourist visas. As a result, becoming a long-term resident is now much more problematic. So, the other thing you need when you come here is a non-tourist visa – preferably a B (business) visa. If you can arrange that, it will be much easier to get a work permit.

If you have a TEFL certificate, you will be able to find work. Jobs are usually available at language schools, but they do not pay particularly well as long as you are a part-time teacher. Even small pay checks go a long way in this country, however, unless you want to enjoy a Western lifestyle.

As you gain experience, full-time opportunities can open up at language schools. They are also available in the public and private school systems, especially beginning at the end of May when the academic year begins. Chiang Mai alone is home to five universities, and many technical schools besides.

Also, many of our TEFL graduates find themselves teaching individuals or small groups of private clients. Most Thai people know the advantages of having English language skills, particularly because this country relies so heavily on the tourist trade. The demand for better English is great.

Living Here. Now settled, our lives seem normal. We think of Chiang Mai as just the place we live. Oddly, the ways we spend our days sometimes do not seem terribly different from when we lived in Canada -- different landscape, different language, different climate, different food and, yes, definitely a different pace of life! We have the occasional twinge of yearning for things more familiar, but that generally passes quickly.

Since we arrived here, we have witnessed all of life's rites of passage among our friends: marriage and divorce, birth and death. When a friend died a painful and lingering death from cancer a few months ago, it oddly created for us a special closeness to this city.

We are nearing the end of the rainy season, and we have had quite a bit of the wet stuff this year. In this part of Thailand the rains generally come for brief periods (often at night, when we are asleep), and are not at all disturbing. The rains are warm, and they keep the air clean and the vegetation lush and green. However, we don't travel a great deal during these months. But the dry, cool season begins in October. That's a great time for road trips.

A Recent Diary. A few weeks ago, Bernie and I went to a refugee camp at the Myanmar (Burma) border as part of my Rotary work. It was extraordinary to see again how different the two countries are. At one point we went to a temple whose landholdings were now, by international agreement, half on the Myanmar side of the border.

Once the border dispute was settled, the Myanmar authorities destroyed the village on their side and forced the Shan villagers to flee to Thailand. The army took over the concrete temple buildings and filled them with soldiers. The border now bristles with these people, who have also laid land mines just inside the border.

It's hard to believe the cruelty of the Burmese government to its ethnic (for example, Shan) minorities. This kind of thing is routine. On the positive side, a sort of "normal" life has been created in the refugee camp compliments of the Buddhist temple and an NGO.

The refugees now live in single-family bamboo huts. The kids receive a basic education at the temple, many of the women receive vocational training like dressmaking and crafts, and the men and some of the younger women go off to the fields to pick chillies or whatever else happens to be in season, for 10 baht (25 cents) per kilo. These people do not have Thai citizenship, so their movements are at the discretion of the Thai officials.

Who knows what the future holds for them? Well, at least for now they don't have to live in fear.

East Asian and Western World Views. While Thailand now has much of the feeling of home, the cultural differences are many, with Thais seeing the world quite differently from the way we view it in the West. Here are our quick summary and general observations: Westerners see things as rather black and white, while East Asians see them as heavily nuanced by relationships. Beliefs in the equality of man and in human rights are very real in the West. In East Asia, patron-client relationships are more important. And the immediate family is an incredibly powerful social unit.

In Thailand, one of the most extraordinary institutions is that of the monarchy. His Majesty King Bhumipol has been on the throne for 60 years, and the celebrations here have been great. It is quite hard for westerners to appreciate the reverence Thais have for their king. He's seen as simultaneously the embodiment of the Hindu god Vishnu (the preserver) and the incarnation of the Buddhist ideal of a king inspired by Dhamma (cosmic law). Thais believe without question that he can guide his people toward greater goodness, and his support of the recent coup was essential for it to succeed.

It is impossible to imagine how this country will ultimately respond to his death. Long may he reign!

The Coup. Like other westerners steeped in the traditions of democracy, I believe coups d'état are terrible. However, until the recent one occurred, the political situation here was an incredible mess. The country was running smoothly because of its efficient civil service. However, Thailand had not had a functioning government since February. That's when the prime minister and his cronies finally reached a level of corruption even Thailand couldn't handle. Although popular in rural Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra was mostly despised by the middle class, intellectuals and the country’s elite.

There were weeks of mass protests and a rigged snap election that the opposition parties boycotted. The king called for the courts to settle the political controversy, and the results say a lot about the state of corruption at that time. The courts overturned the election and demanded a new one. The key members of the country's Election Commission were thrown in jail for their part in the travesty. It is unfortunate that the country did not have the political maturity to continue to rely on the courts to solve its problems. But perhaps the coup was the only viable solution. Who knows?

Final comment. There is still a great deal of blood being spilled in this country, but it is mostly limited to the three (Muslim) southernmost provinces. A tragic, shadowy insurgency began there nearly three years ago, and the previous government mishandled it from the start. People were being killed by both the terrorism of the insurgents and nastiness of the government, who waltzed over western concepts of human rights.

The recent coup offers some encouragement. The general in charge of the coup is a Muslim (such a thing has never happened before in this Buddhist country!) and he is known to be conciliatory. Perhaps the mess in Thailand’s Deep South can finally be resolved.

To my mind one of the biggest mysteries of this affair is how completely Thais seem to have accepted it. An extremely popular leader (at least, in rural areas) has been overthrown, yet the people have said nothing. Those I have spoken to seem to believe democracy is alive and well. Another common theme is that the king is safe and healthy, so why worry? Perhaps this just reflects how Thais view the world: after all, Buddhism teaches us to accept whatever happens.

Or perhaps they are afraid to express what they feel. The soldiers are serious about having taken power, and they will brook no interference.
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