By: Bob Sohigian
“We would like you to teach the kids English.” I looked back at this Thai man they called Kasem – I just knew him as my new boss – his face glaring back with a gentle, gawky gaze. I was looking for something else from him – maybe something along the lines of an outburst of laughter indicating this was some sort of practical joke. I thought to myself, “This is the only advice you have before throwing me into a classroom with 40 Thai kids that I know nothing about?”
Up until that point, we had been told that paperwork was the only thing on our agenda. In a matter of what seemed like milliseconds, I had gone from unconsciously scribbling my information onto an abundance of forms to coming moments away from being the center of attention in a room full of raucous, Thai adolescents. Who knew what they were going to do to me in there? The smile that consumed my face slowly morphed into a solemn stare. My eyes darted back and forth from Kasem to the classroom beyond him where these rowdy strangers awaited. With a final deep breath, I turned away from Kasem and my fellow foreign teachers, pushed open the creaky brown door, and took my final valiant steps into the classroom of kids. As I entered the room – sweat cascading out of every orifice – I felt the weight of every eye on me as I opened my mouth to utter my first words…
Three months prior to this, I stepped out of the airport, my eyes glazed over and slightly droopy from jet lag. The dry, air-conditioned atmosphere was sucked back through the automatic double doors, abruptly replaced by an overwhelming blanket of humidity. Within seconds, I felt the sweat seep through my cotton shirt as I used my thumb and my pointer finger to peel the garment from my skin. I sluggishly raised my head, scanning my eyes from left to right, taking note of the long line of taxi drivers eagerly fluttering their hands in the air in a “shoo” like motion.
There was a sense of urgency in the atmosphere and before I really had time to make up my mind, I was ushered into a disruptive-pink cab, my 70-liter pack carelessly hurled into the trunk. My right hand reached diagonally across my body, but as my fingers curled inward to clasp the seat belt, they surprised themselves by meeting my palm. I turned to my travel partner, shrugged, and off we sped into the night.
Each second that crept by, the speedometer casually ascended from one hundred and twenty, to one hundred and thirty, to one hundred and forty kilometers per hour, our driver staring straight ahead, unfazed. We whizzed past cars and motorbikes, moving from the right to left lane in a manner that showed no regard for traffic laws. There were gargantuan billboards towering over the highways – some adorned with indecipherable 13-syllable words, others embodying the majestic magnificence of the almighty King Bhumibol Aduyadej. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was no longer in America – nor would I be for a very long time. Everything that made me feel at ease, along with any sense of certainty I possessed at that point in my life, was stripped from me as my mind began to reflect on the reality that I found myself in. I had no job, no real knowledge of the country I just paid $700 to visit on a one-way ticket, and to add to the madness, no teaching experience whatsoever. I guess that’s where my Southeast Asia adventure began.
Four months before that first surreal night in Bangkok, I quit my job as a professional PC pusher. My days consisted of me slouching in my Herman Miller Aeron office chair, hiding in the confines of my cube, cranking out 90-dials a day as I clandestinely clicked through blogs about teaching abroad. Physically, I was alive and producing some sort of tangible work for my boss to consider keeping me on the staff, but mentally, I was in a constant daydream. It only took six-months of this repetitive, irrelevant nonsense before I contacted The International TEFL Academy. Before I knew it, I retired as “giver of the gigabyte,” completed my 4-month TEFL course online – working four part time jobs to get me by in the meantime – and arrived in Bangkok unemployed, with a smile on my face and my gut screaming for adventure.
The adventure that I was yearning for was indeed what I received. No longer was I trapped in a bubble of keyboards, headsets, and computer programs – a confusing time where Mondays felt like Wednesdays, Tuesdays felt like Thursdays, Fridays felt like a gift from the deities above, and Sundays felt like a blurry blend of chaotic relaxation. Instead, squawking chickens brought me to my feet every morning before I would prime and kick-start my second hand Honda Wave causing it to roar to life. As I cruised around potholes and stirred up dust from the dehydrated streets, I would pass the local markets that were vibrantly bustling in this otherwise sleepy, agrarian town. The aromas of jok (rice porridge), khao neow ping (grilled rice cakes dipped in egg batter), moo ping (grilled pork), and gai yang (grilled chicken – often served with papaya salad and sticky rice) tantalized my nostrils, making a pit stop virtually impossible to avoid before finishing my journey to school. Whatever food choice I made was always greeted with a smile and a wai from the local vendor.
After the 7-minute straightaway, I would pull into Tha Bo School – a public secondary school where roughly 2,000 Thai students eagerly awaited some sort of educational endeavor from a combination of 60 Thai teachers and 6 farang (foreigners). As I puttered my way through the main entrance, there were always screams of “TEACHER BOB,” nervous girly giggles, mischievous male snickers, students being scolded for failing to adhere to dress-code, and always – smiles. Whether it was a student, teacher, friend, or colleague, Thailand always knew how to make smiling a priority.
It took me a while to realize it, but the man they call Kasem didn’t need to give me any extra advice. The students and teachers at Tha Bo were not seeking pristine and disciplined lesson plans, propelling them toward fluency in the English language. They wanted someone who was excited to be there, different than them, and most importantly, someone who returned that smile. There were days where I struggled when no one was paying attention; there were times when it was so hot, students were sleeping, the electricity would go out, and I would be so dehydrated I would be tempted to sleep just like the rest of the class; or I’d spend nights pulling my hair out trying to craft up lesson plans that would cater to every student, only to come into class the next day to a room full of students playing guitar and dancing to Korean boy-bands on YouTube. Despite the consistent ebbs and flows of ESL teaching, it was important to give back to a culture that had given me a home, an adventure, and the freedom to give new meaning to my life.
On the final day of school, when it was time to leave Tha Bo and continue on with my life and other adventures, all of the hard work had finally come into focus. There were smiles, hugs, rivers of tears, Thai sing-a-longs, and bids of farewell using the English they had learned throughout the year. Students who were too afraid to say “Hello” during the first semester walked over to say what was on their mind – to prove that their silence was not purely disinterest, but a mere lack of confidence. Instilling confidence proved to be the most rewarding thing I could have asked for from a people that provided some of the more memorable times of my life. Teaching the students to tackle your fears by doing – whether that’s traveling the world to find a passionate path, or putting all of your efforts into a craft that makes you happy – was what the experience was all about.
Bob Sohigian is 26 years old and currently lives in Cambridge, MA. He went from teaching abroad in Thailand and exploring Southeast Asia, to working for EF Education. Here, he works with teachers and students in middle/high school helping plan international, educational trips! You can read more about his adventures in Thailand in Tha Bo, Thailand Q&A with Robert Sohigian.