I could barely point to the country on a map before I accepted a position to teach English in Thailand. As an American, we spend very little time learning about Asia in school, and even less time discussing the cultural, political or historical differences between us and the smaller, Southeast Asian Nations. So when I started looking into teaching English abroad, I didn’t even consider Thailand. But when I learned that Thailand offers short-term teaching contracts (as little as 3 months!) and is a tropical paradise to boot, I signed up and bought a ticket.
Needless to say, it was an educational experience for me as well as my students, and here are a few things I wish I’d know before moving to Thailand to teach.
Thai Time is real
I’m still not sure if it’s Thai time, or a complete disregard for time….but either way, the clock has a very different meaning in Thailand. It was one of the hardest things to get used to as an American, but once I did, it was one of the hardest things to leave. Your school might schedule a staff meeting at 8:30. By 09:00 you might be wondering if it’s happening. And eventually it will begin, and nobody will make note of the time. Life’s slower here, and time is of little importance.
The students wai all the teachers
I knew that teachers were highly respected in Thailand, but I didn’t know just how much. When I first arrived at my school, I was asked to get on the podium and introduce myself at the morning gathering. From that point on, every student who came within feet of me would place his/her palms together at the chin and bow; a greeting of respect for elders or those with more authority, called a wai. It was custom for me to wai the other teachers first, as they held more authority and most were older than I was.
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Toilet paper is rare
In larger cities and public bathrooms, there will usually be a toilet paper dispenser outside of the stalls, so you need to remember to get some before you go in, and hope you get enough. In rural locations like where I taught English, I never saw toilet paper in a public bathroom and I became accustomed to carrying it in my purse.
School can be cancelled for any reason
Do you ever have days where you press snooze a hundred times, drag yourself out of bed, get to work and just wish you could go back home? This wish is actually granted in Thailand! At least sometimes. As the foreign teacher, and the first for my school, I wasn’t always informed of the events or happenings around campus, so more than a handful of mornings were met with no students. The other foreign teachers and I would wander around until we found someone who could tell us where everyone was, only to learn school had been cancelled for a parade or some other event.
They don’t use chopsticks
Contrary to popular belief, chopsticks have only one use in Thailand: when eating noodle soup. And even then, the sticks are only used to pile the noodles onto your spoon, and then ladle it into your mouth. In fact, I didn’t see chopsticks in Southeast Asia at all; they’re more common in China, Korea and Japan where almost everything is eaten with them, even when it seems impossible! For dishes other than soup in Thailand, they use both a spoon and a fork; the fork is used to ladle food onto the spoon with which to eat.
The food is so good I won’t be able to stop eating
And speaking of food, I really couldn’t stop eating. Food is a huge part of the Thai culture, and there is a joke that a Thai is never more than 10 feet from food. Perhaps this is why food carts are so popular! They eat all day long, though they still have three main meals. I gained nearly 10 pounds, though this is not common!
It’s rude to touch a child on the head
This is a cultural sensitivity and since the head is considered the highest and most revered part of the body, it should not be demeaned by patting it. I had never realized how often I actually touch childrens’ heads until I moved to Thailand and had to fight the urge, or make a mistake and cringe as I looked at the mom with apology.
7-11 Stores are everywhere.
Who knew? 7-11 is a Japanese chain, and it has made a killing in Thailand. It’s the Starbucks of the States, with one on every corner. When people talk about how small a town is, they often qualify it by saying “there’s only one 7-11!” and others automatically understand the tininess of the town.
But then again, I probably couldn’t have learned all these things and fully understood them without actually living in Thailand and teaching English. Perhaps the journey really is all the fun.