Living in a goldfish bowl

One of the jobs I have to do at the school is to look after the foreign teachers. This term we have four new teachers fresh off the boat. The teachers are staying in a townhouse belonging to the school. Their contract is only for this term though a couple of them will probably stay longer.

Whenever we have a group of new teachers I have to do an orientation meeting with them. The idea is not only to help them fit in at school but also to help them survive in the local community. One of the first things I tell them is that their life here will be like a goldfish in a bowl. There will be no privacy for them at all and literally everyone will know their business. Both inside school and outside. As there aren’t too many foreigners walking the streets in Paknam whatever they do and however they dress will attract attention.

Unfortunately for them there is no distinction between school and home life. How they act around the townhouse, even in their own time, will reflect back on the school. In the past, the school administrators have asked me to tell some of our teachers to dress more appropriately and also not to go to some of the nightclubs near the school. A task I am not always that happy to do. After all, in Western society, what you do in your free time is your own private business.

In Thailand, teachers get a great deal of respect in the local community. (Unluckily they don’t get much money). As a consequence, we have to set good examples of being model citizens to not only our students but also to just about everybody else. It doesn’t really matter if we are Thai or not. in fact, it is probably worse that we are not Thai. Any mistakes or blunders we make are usually magnified out of proportion.

A good example of this in practice comes from an excellent book by Phra Farang. This is a Westerner who came to Thailand to become a monk. He makes a comment in his book that if there were two monks sitting on a bench smoking and one was Thai and the other was Westerner, then Thai people would give two very different reactions. The Thai person they would ignore. However, seeing the Westerner smoking would shock them.

When I first came to live in Paknam I was probably the only foreigner here. I certainly never met any others while I was walking the streets. Everywhere I went I felt eyes following me. After I had started to learn some Thai I could then hear them talking about me as I walked by. I didn’t know who these people were but they all knew me. This made it rather difficult to get angry with someone when they push in line at the local 7-Eleven. This person could be a parent or someone who knew a teacher at school.

This brings me back to the foreign teachers we have now. When I was at the school I never knew of the “secret service” that was working away in the background. Now I was starting to hear “gossip” of everything these foreign teachers were doing. They went to a local swimming pool and sunbathed on the deckchairs. They went to a restaurant on the other side of the river and drank lots and lots of beer. They walked down to the market holding hands. They invited a girl back to the house. They went to watch a movie at Central City Bangna. It was just incredible how much news was finding its way back to the people at the school.

I will write later about the do’s and don’t I give to the new teachers for living and working in Thailand.

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