I doubt anyone is unaware of the plane crash in Phuket. There isn't much more to say about this. It was tragic. My heartfelt condolences to those who lost loved ones. The Thailand blogging community has proved its worth again with good pieces here , here and here. I cannot do any better so I won't try.
"'Foreign passengers usually have their own life and accident insurance, but Thai passengers, who are now being treated at local hospitals, will be able to get compensation from OneTwoGo, which will have to pay hospital bills immediately'."
Those were the highly infelicitous comments by the Insurance Commission Office head after the Phuket plane crash.
At the same time, one of my favourite webboards has kicked off a real old chestnut argument between the ex-pat and Thai communities. The same old lines are showing up: "Why are foreign teachers so bad?" "Do we need them?" "Do foreigner teachers get paid too much / not enough?" (Delete according to your stance).
All these quotes don't sit easily with Thailand's "Welcome foreigner!" image do they?
So what do Thais think of us? Do they like us as much as those welcoming smiles they give the new tourists would suggest? Or are the cynical old ex-pats right when they say the Thai smile is a crocodile smile? Is Thailand a jingoistic country? Or is it an ex-pat paradise?
I sometimes think back to the day I first arrived in Thailand and the first time I received a real 'Thai smile' from the receptionist in my hotel. I had just spent three months in Hong Kong, and as much as I loved HK (and still do) I was relieved to get aware from people who gave me "dagger" looks as I smiled and held the door open for them.
In Thailand, there were friendly smiles everywhere. Everywhere I went, people seemed truly happy to see me, chat with me to practise their English and ask me about my country (and football, once they realised I was English). It seemed like the most 'foreigner friendly' place I had ever stayed.
Now let me fast forward four years. Things changed. I've gone through what I now call "The six month honeymoon period". This is the period when the typical farang first moves to Thailand and believes he (for the typical farang is surely a 'he') is in paradise. The girls are all friendly, the food is fantastic, the accommodation is good and cheap. Everything is just great.
But this illusion gets chipped away. One of the sharpest drops down to Earth can come with a visit to immigration. Anyone who believes all Thais are friendly has never had to deal with "immo". Immigration in Thailand is not only slow and inefficient, it is also populated by some of the rudest and most obnoxious people on earth. I could go into stories here but I won't. Suffice to say I was relieved this year when my visa renewal was handled by one of the more human Immigration staff.
But it's not just Immigration. There are con men amongst the builders, telephone companies, taxi drivers and so on. Thai politicians often blame foreigners and foreign influences for their own problems. And of course, there are simply good people who dislike farangs. If they dislike you they might call you "farang kii nok".
The first time I heard the term "farang kii nok" I didn't know what it meant. (If you don't know either, read my blog here, but know that with this knowledge you can never be 'just' a tourist in Thailand again!). The second time, it was shouted by an obnoxious eleven year old kid whom I had asked three times to stop throwing garbage in my garden. (I exchanged words with him and he thanked me by pouring chili sauce all over my car).
But without doubt, the biggest raise in 'anti farang' awareness can come from dealing with Thai government schools. As wonderful as the children in these places are, some staff can be very hard to deal with. In government schools, staff gain in rank, salary and influence simply by staying put and getting older. Many Thai English teachers cannot hold a conversation in English. They can become very hostile because they resent younger foreigners coming in and using a different style of teaching. Of course, there are friendly and welcoming teachers too.
So the verdict is Thailand is not a paradise that lays down the red carpet for foreigners (unless you are rich enough) but then, why should they? The reality is that some like us, some don't. In my experience there are more of the former. Just like in the west, a friendly attitude and a "hello" with smile in the morning will elicit a warm response in most people, if not all. There are plenty of locals who enjoy making friends with the foreigner, showing Thai hospitality and being your friend.
It's true that the Thai smile takes many forms (including the kii maa smile, you know about that right?) but a real "yim Thai" is never far away.
Part two - the farangs
As I said in my other blog, Thailand does not usually lay down the red carpet for farangs, but why should they? A few weeks ago I wrote an article about moaning foreigners who seem to believe that they should be treated like a heroes simply because they moved to Thailand.
A friend of mine (a Spurs fan) read the piece and debated with me about it.
"But look at all the red tape, look at all the things we have to do just to get a one year visa!" he said to me.
"So you don't have a visa? Of course you do! If they didn't want us, they wouldn't give us visas. And the slowness and complications are just pure inefficiency, the Thais have to deal with inefficient government staff just like we do" I replied.
"But what about our salaries? Why don't they pay us properly for what we do?" was his next line.
"Well first of all, what we do is not rocket science. Secondly we get paid a damn sight more than the Thais do for the same job. And thirdly, we actually do get paid very well" I said.
What my friend had said was simply a repeat of the gripes of many other farangs in Thailand. I know I am in the minority when I say we are well looked after but I now have one more point to make: many foreigners in Thailand should not be here.
The standard of English teachers in Thailand is very, very poor. The main reason for this is simply that demand for foreign teachers in Thailand exceeds supply. Many Thais believe that white skin = native speaker = best teacher of English. This is simply not true.
Such is the availability of English teaching jobs at the lower end of the pay scale that any Caucasian can walk into certain language schools and come out with a job. This person can (and sometimes is) a sex tourist, an alcoholic or a Nazi.
Furthermore, as I've said so many times, Thailand can encourage foreigners to become delusional. Many simply kid themselves that they've become a "Brad Pitt look alike super stud" by crossing time zones but others - older men especially - like to embellish about their past. They often do this so often they believe their own delusions. I've met hot shot lawyers, Black Panther activists, spies and UN activists all working in Thai schools. Strangely enough, three of the four people I've just referred to were so bad at teaching they got sacked by one of the lowest paying schools.
The problem with all this blase attitude and delusional thinking is that it isn't conducive to good work or good behaviour. Sex tourists and alcoholics turn up late and unprepared. They often convince themselves they are good teachers because they made kids laugh or got a smile from a female student. They fail to realise that these things are only good if some learning came with or after it. Over a period of time when the reality of their non sex god status kicks in, they often become resentful of Thailand and its people and become increasingly unreliable and derogatory to their chosen location.
Yet strangely enough, many teachers from this type of group also become professedly arrogant and resentful of their work. So many teachers are desperate to convince people "I'm not a teacher, I'm really a lawyer/Black Panther activist/ spy etc." as if they are too good for the job they are incapable of doing. Personally, I'm confident enough being what I really am.
Whilst many teachers fit the above descriptions, others are simply lazy, some lack pedagogical skills and others are just not very good at English.
So what's the solution? Well, for one thing Thai students and parents need to grow up and realise there is more to learning than throwing little Somchai in a room with a white man. Thai schools - both government and private - need to raise the stakes by being more diligent and considerate in their recruiting and interview process. Right now for the private schools it's simply a case of: "We need a teacher for this class, get in that room and we will pay you. You don't teach, the customer doesn't pay us".
I sense more parents are becoming aware of this. While some simply want to dump their precious offspring while they go shopping, others are becoming more curious about foreign teachers. I recall a particular grilling in a 'parents day' session that my school had given me all of five minutes notice for. I enjoyed the unexpectedly tough questions and I felt a genuine sense of approval and pleasant surprise from the large group of parents.
And finally, the "good" guys need to play their part by doing their best. There are plenty of good teachers in Thailand. Some have degrees in Education, some are simply effective communicators and others simply have warmth for young learners. I've recently become head teacher of an upmarket language centre (it has a black and white logo and has branches across Europe) , I'm lucky that my school actually give me some leeway in recruitment but even then, I have to employ at least two people I would rather not hire simply due to lack of good teachers.
If Thai people and government want to see why countries like Korea and even Vietnam are improving their English skills a whole lot faster, they should look at the learning system. Teachers with genuine qualifications who pass an interview, a test and practical assessment are invited to teach there. They are given accommodation, benefits and a good salary. Everyone is happy.
That's what I'd like to see happen here. I don't have a degree in Education, so it might mean that I had to leave. If that happened, so be it, I'd be glad to see Thailand had taken such a step forward. Then again, I hope someone might look at my record or watch me in the classroom and think: "Hey he's one of the good guys. Keep him".