How Americans Can Adapt More Easily to Living and Teaching in Thailand

ronald mcdonald
Even Ronald McDonald welcomes you with a ‘wai’ in Thailand.

How Americans Can Adapt More Easily to Living and Teaching in Thailand

There’s a joke that’s been doing the rounds in Thailand for years and it talks about the nationalities of teachers. The joke goes something like, “Americans tend to hate everything about Thailand and go back home after six months. The British complain about everything, but never leave. As for the Australians, nothing upsets them as every crisis is responded to with “Screw it. Let’s have another beer”.

That pretty much sums up perfectly all the nationalities mentioned, but definitely shows how Americans are often seen in Thailand. As a nationality that really doesn’t adapt well overall to the culture or to teaching in Thailand.

In the 11 years I’ve lived in Thailand, I have to admit I’ve seen the same. A number of American teachers that think everything is “bigger and better” in America and, consequently, look down on Thais and Thailand and, thus, don’t last long.

It’s sad really, as they miss so much about Thailand and its truly amazing culture and fabulous people, as they are too busy being homesick for what they left behind.

That being said, I have several American friends who have not only adapted well to life in Thailand but, in a couple of cases, wouldn’t live anywhere else. How did they manage to become Americans that adapted so well to living and teaching in Thailand, when a large percentage of others simply did not?

That can be summed up in just a few simple things I’ve witnessed all of them seem to do.

Never say “It’s better in America because…” – Every country has good things and bad. Some things are awesome about America, others not so much, but those American teachers I know who have adapted well to Thailand don’t even bother to compare.

To them, life in Thailand is one thing and life in America is something completely different. They enjoy both for different reasons but, while living and teaching in Thailand, by not comparing the two countries they see more of the good things about Thailand than the bad.

Follow the Thai saying “Mai bpen rai” – The Thai phrase “Mai bpen rai” means “Don’t worry” or “Never mind” and Thais say it a thousand times a day. They also don’t worry about the small things, particularly if they can’t change them, and instead enjoy the things that are good about the situation they find themselves in.

The American teachers I know who have adapted well to teaching in Thailand and Thai life in general, live the “Mai bpen rai” life. Instead of ranting and raving about stupid little things the Thai school administration is doing, or having a tantrum because their class schedule has changed, they just relax, sit back and do what the Thai teachers do. Chat with their friends, surf the internet or enjoy a tasty Thai snack.

When you think about it, the Thai way makes a lot of sense. That’s because, out of all the teachers I’ve seen having temper tantrums in Thailand with Thai teachers, Thai administrators and even Thai labor office employees, absolutely nothing changes after their emotional display as Thais simply don’t respond to them.

In fact, shouting and screaming pretty much guarantees you won’t get what you want in Thailand as it’s looked at as “losing face”.

Mai bpen rai. Never mind. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter.

You catch more flies..… – One thing I learned quickly when I started to teach in Thailand was how appropriate the phrase my mother always uses is in Thailand. “You catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar”.

What does that mean? Simply put, if you are polite and respectful and smile – a lot – you will get almost anything you want. Scream, shout and wave your arms around? Hell will freeze over and you’ll still be waiting.

One of my closest American friends is an old hand at doing things the Thai way and she always gets exactly what she wants, both at the school she teaches at and out of it. She smiles, she pays the person she’s speaking to a quick compliment, and she smiles. Again. Then she asks politely for what she wants. Smiles again and waits. In the eight years of knowing her I have never known her to be refused.

It’s the Thai way. Be polite, smile a lot and treat the other person with respect and, in Thailand, nothing is beyond your reach.

After all, if you come to Thailand to teach and expect everything to be the same as in America, you might as well stay home. The fun part of being in a foreign country, particularly one as alien as Thailand, is learning how other people do things and putting up with some of the crazy things that would never fly at home.

Follow these three quick tips if you’re an American coming to teach in Thailand, and you’ll find not only will your stay here be an absolute blast, but Thais will fall over themselves to help you and to make sure you’re always happy.

Then, when you move back to America, you’ll have problems adapting there as well.

For more information about adapting to life as an EFL teacher in Thailand or anywhere else, read this excellent article from ESL Focus.