We do some work permit stuff with Tely, and then she says we can sit in on a class with a teacher here. His name’s Nick and he’s Australian. He’s in his 30s, brown hair, average looking. He has a massive scar down one side of his neck, which is very intriguing. I resist asking him about it outright.
We sit in a corner of the classroom while Nick starts his class with four young Thai women, all fairly pretty. He’s very good at his job, getting the girls to tell him the answers and teach themselves through him. He’s manic, jumping around the room like a children`s TV presenter. Again I wonder how on earth Graham is going to manage, bless him.
It’s a two hour class but Graham is taken off by his head teacher during the break, leaving me with Nick. I ask him if the Thai girls knew any English when he started with them. He says no, and that he speaks very little Thai himself. How on earth did he teach them?, I ask. Pure role play, is his reply. He just acted out the words and made them repeat them.
When the girls come back one of them takes Nick outside the classroom and talks to him. They come back in a few minutes later. Out of the blue he asks me how to spell ostrich, he can’t remember. I tell him, slightly confused. She must have had an animal vocab question for him or something. He writes ostrich on the board and tells them about the bird, also writing emu. Then he randomly asks me if Graham is my friend. I tell him I’ve just met him, but I suppose I could say he is my new friend. Nick says he won’t say anything then. That’s when it hits me - I’m being dumb - they’re talking about Graham! The girl took Nick outside to tell him she thought Graham looked like an ostrich. I have to agree and laugh with them. God I’m a bad person.
During the rest of the lesson Nick is doing health vocabulary from the workbook. There is a picture in the book of a nurse from London, who is black. He asks girls questions about her. “Where is she from? Where is she originally from? Africa? The jungle? Does she run around going, ‘oh, oh, oh’?” he asks, running around the room patting his hand on his mouth. He looks at me and laughs. “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing racism in the class?” I shake my head and say no, laughing a little. But I’m horrified. This guy’s insane.
After the lesson I chat to Nick. He’s a different person: swearing a lot, slightly bitter, very dismissive. He tells me all the girls there were bar girls and only one of them has any promise with English. He’s been doing it so long now he can tell who has got promise and who hasn’t. He says one of them tried to sleep with him. He tells me this with a look on his face like a schoolboy telling his mate about the new toy his mum just bought him. He’s yet another seemingly very childish man. But then I guess a lot of Western men come here to escape the responsibilities of adult life back home. Here they can play to their heart’s content with the cheap booze and cheaper women on offer. It’s quite a depressing thought. And it’s hard not to judge all the Western men I meet here in that way. Half the time I find myself thinking, you’re only here cos you couldn’t get laid at home. But half the time it’s true.
I get the feeling Nick probably did sleep with this girl, and he doesn’t detect my sarcasm when I congratulate him on his professionalism at resisting. I change the subject a bit, asking him his story. He came over to teach from Australia and would spend all his money on gambling and booze and women (there it is! The truth in a flippant comment). Then he got some crazy tropical disease and his neck blew up to twice its size. He had to have loads of operations (hence the scar) and he spent all his savings on hospital bills. He went back to Oz for a bit but only to save enough to come back here. He still had very little cash on arrival and now lives completely on Thai money. He talks a bit about Thailand in a sneery way. “I have a love/hate relationship with it,” he explains. “It’s the Land of Sarcastic Smiles. Watch out, they’ll rip you off whenever they can.” He doesn’t explain what he loves about the country, but I can take a wild stab in the dark, as I’m sure he does whenever he can.
I thank him for his time, giving him a smile without any hint of sarcasm whatsoever. He was educational, I’ll give him that.
I go back to Pinklao and one of the girls who works behind the desk takes me to my ‘apartment’ to sort out the details so I can move in. Her English is much more basic than Maew’s so conversation on the way there is minimal, but I do my best. When we get to my apartment block the ECC girl chats away to the two women who seem to own (or at least run) the building. There’s an awful lot of talking in Thai, seemingly about not much at all. I think they’re talking money and deposit and all that business.
I find all this stuff annoying when I`m in the UK (and usually, lazily, left the information gathering to whoever I was living with). Now that I should be listening, I can’t, cos I can’t bloody understand any of it. Bugger.
They manage to communicate to me that they want first month’s rent, and money for the deposit, straight up. I explain that I need to go and get the cash from a cashpoint. I explain this about 13 times. They seem to think I’m saying I haven’t got the cash, even the ECC girl. There’s a lot of rapid-fire Thai going back and forth. I’m starting to worry I might lose the bloody room. I try once more with the ECC girl and she finally comprehends. We head off to get cash, although not before I refuse to sign the contract before someone’s translated it for me. The ECC girl negotiates that Binnie will translate it for me and then I’ll sign it. They seem happy with this.
Once it’s all sorted I head up to my room. I put my bag down by the bed and look around.
It feels very empty. I came away with the bare minimal and so now I have nothing to fill this room that I will be staying in for the next six months (at the most). I set up my iPod speakers (possibly the best going away present anyone could have got me, thanks work people!) and put some music on, and this makes the place a fair bit more homely.
I head back to the office, and amazingly I don’t get lost. I think getting lost with Maew was actually beneficial cos it made me learn the way quicker so it didn’t happen again. At the office a very short Asian-looking girl comes up to me. She introduces herself as Mengly and I realize that this is the American girl that Masako, the i-to-i coordinator who sorted out the teaching placement for me, was telling me about. Masako said she put me at Pinklao so I could be with Mengly. We’re both journalists (she specialises in fashion) so Masako thought we’d have a lot in common.
Mengly is from LA and talks at a million miles an hour in an accent straight outta Clueless. It’s a bit of a shock after speaking slow, broken English with Thai people. But as soon as she`s arrived, Mengly has a lesson and has to go off and teach. She tells me she’s going to a party at her apartment block (which is also nearby) later and would I like to come. Of course there’s no need to even check my diary and I say yes straight away.
When we meet later, we head straight out of the building towards where she lives. Mengly immediately tells me she’s quitting teaching (although not Thailand or Bangkok I`m relieved to hear - I only just met her!), and starts telling me about all the troubles she had since she arrived at Pinklao at the beginning of January. She’s tiny, only 4’10’ (“Lil’ Kim size!” as she puts it), but can talk for America. And she has quite a story to tell. Her problems with ECC and her teaching placement are too long to list here but they basically all boil down to the fact that she is of Asian origin (her family are from Cambodia), and when she rocked up to the school Binnie suddenly realised she didn’t know what to do with her. Basically, despite the fact that Mengly is a born and bred American who cannot speak a word of Thai, the Thai parents of the kids who come to ECC want the teachers to look like Westerners as well as actually be Westerners. It’s racism but it’s there, and at the end of the day ECC is a business. If Binnie has a teacher there that she thinks might not appeal to the ideals of her customers, then she’ll anticipate problems. Even before she started teaching Mengly experienced it herself when she, also, sat in on a class with Nick, assisting him in parts. The girls ignored her completely. And so Binnie’s treatment of Mengly sounds pretty bad; she’s basically been messing her around since she arrived. Mengly`s even having trouble quitting, with Binnie keeping her hanging on by being vague about the whole quitting process.
That Mengly’s a woman also hasn’t helped her experience of Thailand thus far. I’ve taken it for granted that I can go out whenever I want, and on my own. She can’t. It’s fairly dangerous for any woman to be out on her own in Bangkok after about seven or eight, but factor in that Mengly could (and does) pass as one of the locals, and it means even more harassment from random Thai blokes if she’s out in the evening.
This was drummed into Mengly by Binnie when she arrived, which frustrated Mengly. Mengly came to Thailand as an indirect route to Cambodia. She thought it was better to come to Thailand first before jumping straight into Cambodia. And also a story she read when she was younger written about Thai sex workers was one of the things that inspired her to become a journalist, so she wanted to go and have a look at Bangkok and that scene as well, get her own experience of it. She had no idea about the restrictions that Bangkok would place on her - as someone of Asian origin, and as a woman.
At 21, you might dismiss her as being naïve to come to this country without finding out stuff like that, especially as a journalist. Why didn’t she do her research? But Mengly’s approach to journalism, and having experiences generally, is very similar to mine. I like to do as little research as possible, just do what I need without delving too deep. If I can, I forgo it completely. That way you have a completely unbiased and fresh experience, not hindered or tainted by anything you’ve read or heard said.
A lot of the time this is impossible, or just downright stupid. I did a fair bit of research into going away because I’m gonna be doing it for a year. I need to know some stuff. But there was a lot of research I didn’t do, like go on message boards to read what other travellers said about certain places. I thought it better to do that if I was after specific information, rather than get a load of people’s random opinions about different places clogging up my brain before I`ve even seen any of it myself.
There are arguments for and against this approach, I know this, and it could be talked about ad infinitum. Of course in Mengly’s case it back-fired. She found herself in a job that was pissing her about, and in a city she couldn’t explore to take her mind off it.
But she’s resourceful, there’s no denying that. She tried to get Paul (bouncy Manchester lad with big arms) to take her out and about but he avoided it. As did James, another teacher our age I’ve not met yet. I tell her she would probably (no, definitely) cramp their style if she was with them. and that`s why they wouldn`t do it. So she made friends with some of her Thai neighbours instead.
Arriving at her apartment block (just five minutes walk from mine), I see I drew the short straw when it came to apartments. These are much nicer, with an entry hall almost like a hotel. The apartments themselves are bigger as well, actually having more than one room. Mengly’s has a living area, bedroom and a bathroom that you don’t have to go outside to get to. But we don’t go to Mengly’s straight away. She immediately and automatically heads to another flat, of which the door is open.
It belongs to a young Thai lady called Sai, who shares it with her brother Ting. Ting is not around but Sai’s friend Aom is, and her sister Aor. A book shelf, full of comics and various books, is on the left as I go in, next to a large TV. Next to that is a desk with a computer where, I’m told, Sai does her work – she’s a computer programmer. A balcony on the far side holds a rail of clothing that’s drying in the warm air outside, and on the right side of the room some more shelving holds pans, plates and various food stuffs. This is next to a door which leads to the bedroom and the bathroom. Next to that is a dresser covered in their belongings, and the whole effect is that the room is cluttered and crammed full of stuff. Yet there’s loads of space.
Sai, Aom and Aor are sat down on the floor round a low table, preparing to eat. I’m introduced by Mengly. Sai is warm and friendly with the most infectious smile. Aom is unusually big for a Thai girl and is bursting with personality, talking at 90 miles an hour in Thai. Both have a small grasp of English, Sai more so than Aom. Aor (skinny where her sister isn’t), however, is studying English at university and speaks it well. All have that inherent Thai prettiness about them. I’m quite excited to be meeting some Thai people properly - in a social situation.
They invite us to eat with them, and we sit down as they start to fill bowls with food, some bought from the soi (the nearby side streets), some sent from Sai and Ting’s parents. Aom, particularly, seems keen for us to join them and I discover it’s because she likes feeding the Westerners Thai food and seeing their reaction. She’s my perfect woman.
I almost forget there’s supposed to be a party until Mengly says she’ll take me down to have a look before we eat. It’s been organised by the residents of the apartment block and Mengly had said there should be some of the other ECC teachers there as many live in this block. We have a look but she can’t see anyone she knows. One of the Thai residents tries to get us to eat but we have to decline, saying that we’re eating upstairs.
When we get back, the food is all laid out on the small table. It is, of course, amazing. Lots of rice, spicy pork, stuffed squash soaked in brown soup, minced pork omelette, tofu with beans in sauce (I’m actually getting a taste for tofu, which I never thought could happen), and raw vegetables to take away the sting of the spicy fish sauce which I only dare to dip my little finger in.
There’s lots of chat. Aom is a salesperson and I imagine she’s quite good, she seems like she could talk anyone into anything. Aor asks me questions about English. I’ve never met such a keen student. Sai seems the most serious of the bunch but has a warm and funny side as well.
At one point I ask about the bombs in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, whether it’s had any noticeable effect on tourism here. Aor says no, not at all. People have still been coming in their droves. Understandably she doesn`t seem keen to talk about it further so I drop the subject quickly.
It’s a good evening, but ends pretty early when Aom and Aor leave at about 10. They need to get up early in the morning, and I need to go with them so they can show me the way home.
When I get back to the flat I realise I forgot to buy bedding. I get out my sleep sheet and stuff a pillowcase I brought with clothes. I move the wardrobe and the dresser about the room, and set up my iPod and speakers on the dresser. It`s a start. Tomorrow I`ll have a go at making this room even more homely.