28: Shocking culture? Books and covers
Working at Jindaratana is endlessly fulfilling, I'm told hard work is often the most rewarding, and that is certainly the case here. I'm starting to feel more and more 'part of the fixtures.' The small amount of 'survival Thai' I have picked up enables me to interact on some level with most of the teachers at school, it is almost as if working in this wildly varied and constantly challenging job on the other side of the world is becoming (and I almost choke saying it) routine! Not the sort of nine 'til five, yesterday's the same as today's the same as tomorrow routine, just more of a settled path through the week, although I have learnt not to underestimate the Thai teachers at Jindaratana's well honed and expert use of the element of surprise!
This is my first teaching position, and I feel I can cope with the teaching side of things adequately, though I am of course learning day by day (everday's a school day so they say). Living in another country hasn't really been difficult, in fact it has been the complete opposite, it has been a most pleasurable and fulfilling learning curve observing and becoming part of a culture far-removed from my own. It is with this in mind that I wonder why this profession has such a high turnover rate? Is it down to the teaching being too stressful? Is it that EFL professionals are prone to home sickness? Are the salaries on offer too low? Perhaps it's because so many ELF teachers think only about travelling and living in a foreign society, without giving enough consideration to whether or not they actually want to teach (the teaching is of course fundamental, if you are enjoying the teaching, you are generally enjoying life). In reality, the reason so many people aren't able to complete EFL contracts is probably an amalgamation of two or three of the above, sometimes however, they may be shocked into returning to the familiar surroundings and comfort zone of home.
The term culture shock in its wording seems to suggest that it is something you feel instantaneously. I keep expecting to slip into a hair pulling fit of culture shock on seeing a monkey driving a tuk tuk while smoking a banana leaf (or something to that effect) when I'm out and about in LopBuri. This week, I believe I may well have experienced my first dose of something like what people refer to as culture shock. There are many scores of things which are inherently different here than in England, I haven't found myself upset or shocked by any of them (it is simply part of life now that an elephant with a flashing reflector light tied to its tail should walk past during dinner). This week though, I have (purely coincidently) heard several stories from a number of foreign people regarding a reoccurring theme, that is the Thai habit of continually judging (and making comment) on the appearance of others, with whom they also love to make comparisons with themselves. When this is coupled with a lack of vocabulary and/or a lack of cultural awareness, it can lead to some difficult situations. I have heard comments such as "Hello, you look fat today," or "today you have many spots;" a friend who works at a nearby school told me that she heard one of their Thai teachers saying (in Thai) "one place remaining on the bus," before the classic, "I said one place, you're too fat, go back and tell a thin child to get on the bus!" This constant judging isn't always negative however, people often(ish) say; "You look handsome today" or (the ultimate complement for Thais, the opposite for us pasty Brits) "Look at your lovely white skin!" I suppose then, you have to try to take the rough with the smooth, all the while remembering that we are guests in the Kingdom and that it is us who must try to adapt. As you may imagine though, adapting to "Good morning ugly features" style banter is not always easy!
Wednesday brought another cultural discrepancy, though in slightly different circumstances. It was "National Teachers Day" which meant the morning lessons were cancelled, instead I spent the morning sitting on an armchair on stage in front of 800 students. During the 2 hour long stint, lots of students walked (on their knees) across stage, wai-ed (bowed) down to the ground before presenting us with flowers. This is all in aid of showing respect for our teachers, I would rather they did this during lessons but it appears I don't have that option! We then listened to Khun Jhum (the school owner) make a speech, for some of which she even spoke in English. I found the whole experience uneasy, I felt completely undeserving of the respect being bestowed upon me, and while I fully appreciated the school allowing me to sit on stage with senior members of the Jindaratana hierachy, I wasn't comfortable receiving it. I employed one Thai cultural trait I haven't had trouble adopting, like on several occasions here in the land of smiles, I assumed a stupefied grin and tried to look like I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Well, when in Rome...