Teaching in Pattaya, Thailand: Where the Tourism Ends
When I first moved from Cambodia to Thailand to finish the TESOL certification I was pursuing, I was required to complete a two-week volunteer teaching assignment in Pattaya. For those of you who are blissfully unaware of the atrocities against women that go on in this city, I envy your ignorance. I have found this experience extremely difficult to express in writing, not because of my vitriol for this controversial topic, but out of lack of literary freedom. I am struggling to keep my steadfast convictions from interfering with my intentions of respecting a culture and community foreign from my Westernized grooming and independent beliefs.
I recently drafted a hate-fueled diatribe aimed at the tourists who capitalize on Thailand’s infamous industry, in which I detailed my many encounters in a local coffee shop. Here, I would sit every night for hours diligently applying to teaching jobs in Bangkok, while sipping a few Leos and multitasking on social media of course. My curiosity tempted me to periodically look up from my computer and scan the room to take in my peculiar surroundings. I helplessly watched as a plethora of pathetic, old, sweaty, overweight men piled in and plopped themselves down across from their evening companion.
I am struggling to keep my steadfast convictions from interfering with my intentions of respecting a culture and community foreign from my Westernized grooming and independent beliefs.
Since there was a significant void in verbal communication between the pairs, they would usually sit in silence until the women pantomimed basic language in attempts to signal they were tired and ready to leave. In my initial written tirade, I also described the sensory overload one absorbed when exploring Walking Street at night and my visceral reaction to discovering the activities that took place at local Ping Pong shows. After a quick read of my own work, I begrudgingly scrapped that piece and started fresh.
While I feel responsible to give these women a voice in their silent discretion, I fear unintentionally disrespecting a cultural tradition beyond my moral comprehension. Mostly though, I just fear prison for not clearly understanding defamatory laws, which truthfully, is my biggest hindrance. This self-censorship has proven to be quite difficult for me considering I was once deemed Queen of the Adjectives by a former college editor (i.e. ex-boyfriend). I enjoy using colorfully worded imagery in projects I am emotionally involved in, such as human rights and equality. Therefore, I am going to try and highlight the positive experiences that came from this endeavor, which fortunately were far more than expected.
When I first learned that I was to instruct women in the tourism industry, I was quite taken aback. Another teacher and I were appointed to a non-profit women’s center aiding 1,750 students annually, aged anywhere from 15-45, 98% of whom were industry-employed. Teaching assignments are tailored to each trainee’s background and future educational career goals. Since I requested to mentor adult learners and have a history in the service industry, food and beverage that is, this was deemed the most appropriate fit for my teaching objectives and personality (meaning I don’t adapt well to small children).
While I feel responsible to give these women a voice in their silent discretion, I fear unintentionally disrespecting a cultural tradition beyond my moral comprehension.
The center is an aesthetically pleasing compound securely nestled behind large gates, only permitting staff and students committed to furthering their professional skills and obtaining knowledge. The center provided a brief pause from the chaos of the city and an opportunity to learn in a socially collaborative and accepting environment.
The center was supervised by an endearingly demanding elderly nun. She was determined to keep the center running smoothly and successfully and took great pride in the community she built. The majority of the other educators were Christian missionaries all originating from Europe, who volunteered upwards of a year. The students were not required to pay if they could not afford to do so, however small monetary gifts were accepted in a discreet donations box. The staff and students were provided a complementary supremely spicy lunch daily.
During one particular lunchtime episode, my partner Eleni was unable to clear her plate. In order to be courteous towards our host’s hospitality, I offered my free food devouring services in an attempt to avoid shame. By the time I choked down the last piece of flaming hot mystery mush I was sweating from every orifice on my face. A few swigs of bacteria-laced, unfiltered tap water temporarily soothed the burn, at least until later when I would encounter a whole other fiasco.
The ten students we taught everyday were lovely, capable young women merely seeking an educational outlet to improve their quality of life. Considering this was the first teaching assignment of my career, I was quite nervous in the beginning. The women’s positive attitudes and friendliness eased my worry and enabled a fun and fearless classroom. Since the relaxed curriculum allowed for creative liberties, I made sure to educate their inquiring minds about the most important aspects of English like Glee, Titanic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Because the women were solely there on their own volition, they were attentive and genuinely eager to learn from our specialized interests and experiences. They were drawn to our American accents and in awe of our desire to leave our former lives in the U.S. to teach in Thailand. To indulge their fascination of American culture we introduced them to our personal stories and they in return shared their motivations for learning English. Many were savvy businesswomen while others dreamt of traveling abroad.
Since the relaxed curriculum allowed for creative liberties, I made sure to educate their inquiring minds about the most important aspects of English like Glee, Titanic and Where the Sidewalk Ends.
When those brief but fulfilling two-weeks ended, I felt extremely fortunate to have had this experience. While I was relieved to be leaving Pattaya, I was going to greatly miss these wonderful women, their smiling faces and amazing energy. In our brief time together I was able to learn a lot from them about simplicity, appreciation and the admirable testament to the human spirit. Cliché, I know, but true nonetheless. My final day at the center, one student I was particularly fond of for our shared affection of German Shepherds gave us a tear-inducing farewell speech to show her gratitude. Luckily, I could just blame my tears on the green curry.