Emma is a 23-year-old Canadian who grew up in Ottawa. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in English and History at Trent University in Peterborough and her Bachelor of Education at Queen’s University in Kingston this past spring. She is currently working at an international school in Bangkok, Thailand as an English and Social Studies high school teacher. Moving to Bangkok was her first time out of North America- moving back home after five years of attending university out-of-town seemed like the much scarier and much less desirable option. She knows just enough Thai to get around and order food and her ability to explain herself via hand gestures and charade-like movements has also risen exponentially since she entered the country six months ago.
What made you decide to move abroad rather than stay in Canada and find a job there?
I’d known since my first year of university that I wanted to teach overseas when I graduated. In my final year I had a three-week teaching placement in Jamaica but before that, I had never been outside of Canada and the United States. I didn’t think that made me a very well-rounded teacher. The current reality of there being next to no Ontario teaching positions (particularly for a female English/History teacher) available provided the extra push to search internationally.
What made you decide on Thailand?
I never decided on a specific country to look for a job in, my focus was more on finding a secondary school position in at least one of my two teachables (English and History). I’d narrowed my search down to Asia because Europe is currently too expensive for me (five years worth of student loans later), and the schools here seemed much more open to hiring first-year teachers.
How did you find your job? (recruiters, job fairs, internet searches – please be as specific as possible)
I attended the Teaching Overseas Recruitment Fair (TORF) at Queen’s University where I was attending school at the time.
When I contacted my references for TORF, one of them contacted anyone he knew teaching overseas at the time. One of those turned out to be my future principal – he was at a school in Bangkok and would be at TORF, and he said that I should get into contact with him that weekend.
Our chat turned into an interview (ie. he grilled me) and although there were no high school positions available for me then, he said he would keep my portfolio on file. He did however end up hiring my best friend Kelsey that weekend.
I only had one job offer that weekend, from an Ontario curriculum-accredited school in Jiangmen, China. For whatever reason, accepting the contract didn’t feel right.
The principal at my current school contacted me again in April when one of their teachers that was supposed to be returning backed out. The Skype ‘interview’ was a quick job offer, and with Kelsey already headed here it was kind of a no-brainer.
What credentials were required for your job?
A Bachelor’s Degree (I have a joint major degree in English and History) and a Bachelor’s of Education. Most schools will claim to require a minimum of two years teaching experience (and in some countries like Malaysia they require that or for the expat teacher to be older than the age of 25 by law) but some schools are willing to bend this rule to include ‘teaching-related’ experience- this includes tutoring positions, coaching, working as a teacher’s assistant, and so on. I know of at least eight teachers at my school hired last year that are currently in their first year of teaching, like myself.
In addition to finding employment, what did you have to do to prepare for your move?
The first thing was to sign the contract, which they had to email to me and I scanned and emailed back.
I obtained a tourist visa to enter Thailand. This required providing documentation from the school that was couriered to me. Since I’ve entered the country the process of applying and obtaining my work permit and multi-entry visa has been handled by the school.
We also had to book our own flights to Bangkok and were reimbursed a few days after arriving.
Tell us a little bit about your job.
According to the contract our hours are 7:30am – 3pm Monday – Friday and some Saturdays, but I usually arrive at the school by 7am and leave by 5 – 7pm.
I have a full teaching schedule: two grade nine World Geography classes, grade 10 Modern World History, grade 11 English, grade 12 English (with students who are mostly ELL) and grade 12 British Literature. I see all six classes on Monday (40 minute periods), four on Tuesday and Thursday (120 minute periods without a prep period), and two on Wednesday and Thursday (preps first and last block). All teachers also have daily supervision duty.
I am also the coach for the girls touch rugby team and assistant coach the boys rugby team, which is a 5-7 hour weekly commitment with training sessions and games.
We are paid a monthly bonus for coaching and some other extracurricular activities. We also receive a stipend for rent and transportation. We have a health coverage plan and were also provided investment opportunities which reward teachers that chose to extend their contract at the end of their original two years at the school.
If someone wanted to teach in Thailand, what advice would you give them?
If you already have experience working in a public education system where you’re from, don’t expect it to be like that. It’s definitely been an adjustment working within a system where primary and secondary education is a business.
What is the best part of living in Bangkok?
My first answer is most definitely the culture of the city. It’s exactly what I was looking for when I planned to go abroad to begin my career. It’s also convenient when you’re living abroad to do so in a hot tourist destination- we’ve already had two friends visit (both teachers and friends from home, one coming from Seoul and another from Malaysia) with many more planning to during our two years here.
Is it bad if I conclude this answer with how cheap it is? It just blows my mind! Meals for a dollar, rent comparable to that of an apartment in Ottawa with a lot more space, monthly iPhone plan for about $20/month. There’s something called reverse-culture shock, at times experienced by expats when they move back to their home country. I see this happening in my future.
What do you dislike the most about Bangkok?
There haven’t been any complete deal breakers between the city and I since I moved here six months ago, but there have been a few things that took a longer adapting period than others. A characteristic of most countries in Asia is the sheer amount of people – I’m used to my wide-open spaces, and personal space in general back home. I love to run and although I’ve kept up with it a bit since I got here, the heat and lack of space makes it difficult. Also, if you can’t stomach (very large) rats and (very large) cockroaches, this may not be the location for you.
Kelsey would also like to warn you all about pigeons. We had one set up nest behind our laundry machine on the balcony and I think having three physical run-ins with the bird have traumatized her for life… She’ll never feel at ease doing laundry again.
***I would like to add that Kelsey had an irrational fear of birds (and dogs, for that matter) entering the above-mentioned situation.
What do you find to be some of the biggest challenges that you face living in a foreign country, and specifically Thailand?
Dealing with the life you still have back home! With the time change and the job it’s been incredibly difficult keeping in contact with everyone that I want to. Also, dealing with things like student loans and taxes (Canadian expats have to pay income taxes to both Canada and Thailand) is a huge pain.
The language barrier is also difficult to overcome. Bangkok has plenty of English signage which has made getting around pretty easy, but I’ve found that there are far more English-speaking Thai’s in the islands than in Bangkok, because that’s where the tourists frequent and their economy depends on it. That being said, Thai’s are extremely friendly and love it when you can speak their language.
Let’s talk food. Where would you recommend a visitor to eat when they visit Bangkok (this can be food type/area/specific local dish/restaurant)?
Thai food is phenomenal and Thais love to eat. The street food here is available all day, every day. One of the best places to go to for your fill of authentic and cheap (so very cheap) Thai street food is Sukhumvit Soi 38 (Sukhumvit is one of the main roads in the city). It’s packed with street vendors and most menus are in both Thai and English, and include pictures- perfect for tourists and new expats. Dishes are usually in the range of 40-150 baht, or $1.30 – $5. Soon after I moved here a friend of mine posted a top ten list written by The Ottawa Citizen on cities for street food. Thailand and Soi 38 were #1. This was nice to hear considering I had just moved into an apartment on the Soi right across from it.
A few other favourites include Iron Fairies, a pub with great live music and indescribable atmosphere… The upstairs has a secret passageway through a bookshelf to a designated smoking area. Food is great, cocktails are imaginative; Soul Food, for a fancier evening of Thai dining; Fire House, if you’re looking for a good burger; and I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t mention Nerfertiti, an Egyptian restaurant on Soi 3 (known as “Soi Arab” for it’s mix of West Asian and North African food selection) with fantastic hummus and owned by one of my Geography students’ parents.
My current favourite Thai dish is Som Tam, or Green Papaya Salad. It’s made with unripened papaya, green beans, tomatoes, crushed peanuts, garlic, lime juice and is mashed together in glorious fashion. Another favourite is cashew chicken. For dessert – mango sticky rice (mango, coconut milk, sticky rice, and a very happy belly).
Where’s your favourite place to get a drink?
I would have to include a place the teachers call Bucket Bar, but I’m not even sure that’s its real name. It’s on Soi 11, there’s a bunch of trucks parked on the side of the road serving buckets of cocktails, with chairs and tables set up beside the sidewalks. There’s one in particular that the teachers at my school frequent; whenever we show up the owner rearranges whomever is currently seated there to make room for us. The rest of Soi 11 has a great selection of pubs and restaurants. Khaosan Road is also a must-visit for any tourist. If you’ve seen the Hangover 2, you’d recognize it from the boy’s night out (re: face tattoo location). Finally, another Hangover 2 relation – if you have the money I’d have to recommend the Sky Bar at Lebua State Tower. It’s a location of a scene filmed during the day (when that guy is revealed as an undercover cop) but at night it’s probably one of the best views of the city, looking down from the 63rd floor. The drinks are around 20 bucks a pop, so we only stuck around for one and a couple of pictures, but it was worth the visit.
Where is the best place to people watch or just soak up the culture?
I would have to recommend Chitachuk Market. It’s the largest outdoor market in Thailand and is almost beyond describing in words – you have to see it in person to truly understand it. It has almost anything you could ever be looking for, and is dirt cheap for the most part. I have also heard very good things about Asiatique, a market that’s in old city near Chinatown and the Grand Palace. You take a river taxi to visit it, which can also include a tour of some of the more rural areas of Bangkok, the reclining Buddha, and the former home of the Thai Monarchy.
For people that want to visit Bangkok, what in your opinion are the must-sees and do’s?
You have traveled to quite a bit of Thailand since you have lived there. What are the best weekend trips from Bangkok?
If it’s more of a historical and culture tour you’re interested in, Ayutthaya is the former capital of Thailand and is only about a two-hour train ride from Bangkok. It’s the location of many temple ruins, left behind from the Burmese invasion in the 1700’s. We biked around there for a day, and then moved on to Lopburi, another hour or so away by train. It has temple ruins to visit as well, and is known as ‘The City of Monkeys- they’re freaking everywhere. It was like a scene straight out of Jumanji.
If you’re looking to relax on the beach, Koh Samet is probably the closest in proximity to the city and is also a cheap trip. Some people say you can do Chiang Mai in a weekend as well (popular for its elephant orphanages, Thai cooking classes, and temples, of course) but most say at least three days is best. That’s actually our plan for our next long weekend trip in February.
If you have a week or more to travel, the islands in the south are beautiful.
What are some things that a traveler to Bangkok (or Thailand, generally) should be aware of or avoid?
Don’t drink the water. Always buy bottled.
If you look/act like a tourist, you will be treated like one. Know at least a couple of phrases (bare minimum “hello” and “thank you”) to get any respect from Thai people.
Finally, something I read about a lot before I moved here and have witnessed a few times since is that you do not argue or become violent with a Thai. Losing face is extremely sensitive here, and if a foreigner engages in an altercation, it usually progresses very quickly and many more people will join in.
What do you miss the most from home?
I mean, besides the obvious answer of my family and friends, not too much. Snow on the ground at Christmas (that sense of longing was limited to the week prior to December 25 and ended at precisely 12 am, December 26). Excel Bubblemint gum. And asking for a vodka water at the bar and actually getting one.
Your best travel or moving abroad advice?
Don’t leave it all until the last-minute! I know this sounds extremely obvious, but things get away from you, especially if you’re working a full-time job before you leave, and the hours at a certain embassy are only 9 – 11 am and 1 – 3 pm.
This not only includes the things your school or agency has specifically told you to do, but your own personal shopping trips for things you may need (from luggage, to packing material, to your favourite hygienic products that may not be available in the country you’re going to) and check the expiry dates of EVERYTHING- a week before I left I realized the expiry date of my passport was the same as my contract with the school. Turned out to not be a problem because there is a passport office Thailand’s Canadian Embassy, but I think I took ten years off my life with worry.
Also, do whatever you can to contact people at your school, living in the country you’re moving to, or people just living abroad. I generally hate asking others for help (to a fault), but I’ve found that it takes a certain type of person to make this choice to work internationally and it almost always involves being extremely helpful and kind (thanks again for the packing tips Rachel!). Speaking with a few guys that currently work at my school and coach rugby with me now was also a huge help in transitioning into living in an entirely different world.
Thanks so much to Emma for sharing her experiences as a teacher in Thailand!