Thailand Memories – The Worst School I Taught At (Part 1)

Before I begin this post, I would like to point out that I realise that there are many excellent schools in Thailand and I am not suggesting nor implying that they are all bad. I taught at five different government schools during my time in the country and this post is about the worst of those five.

 

I was in a bit of a pickle when I was offered the job at this school. I was all set to continue for another year at my current school, but the authorities there decided to change agencies (which seems to be the ‘in thing’ for schools to do these days) and I wasn’t impressed with the replacement agency (for reasons I best not go into). I asked my ‘old’ agency if they had any jobs going and they told me that the nearest they had to me was in the Bangkok suburb of Nonthaburi and, as the start of the new school year quickly approached, I didn’t have much choice but to accept it. I had to go for an interview first, of course.

 

I was driven to the school by the driver of the agency and was told to sit down in the English department while he chatted with two elderly women who later turned out to be the head of the department and a retired former head, who was enticed back to help the new head. I was then summoned to speak to the retired lady, who preferred to flick through the report about me that had been prepared by my agency (listing all my details and experience) rather than look at me. I told her about my experience, both in Thailand and overseas, the various levels I had taught, what I had taught, my knowledge of the Thai language and anything else I could think of. Her only reply was to ask me if I had any university transcripts with me. I thought that was a bit odd and I told her that I didn’t bring any with me and she seemed not to care. She then asked me how old I thought one of the other Thai teachers was and I gave her a number well below what I thought her age to be and then I had to do the same for her and the head of the department. This was again strange, but I thought I had made a good enough impression for her to joke a little with me and sure enough I was told by my agency later that day that I had been granted the job.

 

I turned up for my first day of teaching the following week and entered the English department office. There were no classes and no students and the whole place was very quiet and as I entered the room the two elderly ladies, who I had met the previous week, both looked up at me and then completely ignored me. I wondered if they had forgotten who I was, so I walked up to the formerly retired one and said hello to her (in Thai) and she told me to go and sit down with the other teachers. No hello, no welcome, nothing. I thought maybe she was having an ‘off’ day and I sat down with the other ‘farang’ teachers there, both of whom were American.

 

The female American, Lenore, was new and the male, Gibbs, had been at the school for several years and he took it upon himself to show us both around, which was very nice of him. It was the biggest school I had been at and it was a typical mix of buildings and old, worn out classrooms, some of which actually had bars on the windows and no glass. Some of the classrooms had wooden floors and ceiling fans caked with dirt that didn’t work. There was not a blade of grass in the whole place but the main administration building was quite impressive and obviously very old. Gibbs showed us where to go for all out printing needs and also where to get copies of our class lists.

 

Back in the office I was expecting to be spoken to by a Thai staff member to tell me who I was expected to teach, what I was expected to teach them, etc. Nothing. The three of us just sat there doing nothing but I met some of the other teachers there, many Filipino teachers and one charming Cameroonian maths teacher. At lunchtime I was feeling restless and hungry and was about to ask about lunch when we were told that we could all go home, so we did. Not a single Thai person had spoken to me all day.

 

The exact same thing happened for the next two days. Went to school, sat in the office, did nothing, was told nothing, and left at midday. I hadn’t been allocated a desk and so I didn’t bring any of my own materials and I still had no idea what I was expected to do. My feeling was to just wait until someone thought it would be good to get me to do something and I was far from impressed. The Thai staff, naturally, were all busy preparing and printing and photocopying, laughing, talking, gossiping, eating, all fully aware of what was happening. We all just sat there looking at our watches.

 

The next week we heard a rumour that classes would be starting and naturally I was told who I was teaching on the same day that the classes started, which meant that I could not prepare anything beforehand. I could have spent all of the previous week devising something special and effective to use but no, I was just expected to sit and do nothing. I was not left with much of a feeling of confidence for my new employers but I shrugged it off and made the necessary effort to teach my students. I was told that I would be teaching Muttayom 5 students, consisting of 15 different groups, as well as three ‘English Program’ classes in the subject of Social Studies. I had been told about the social studies by my agency, so it came as no surprise but when I was given a course description that said I should cover Buddhist teaching I decided that it would be nothing but a farce, and I was right. I naturally told me agency that I had no experience teaching social studies but the attitude was that it didn’t matter and so I never took these classes seriously. If the school was truly serious, they would have made more of an effort to find suitably qualified teachers but they assigned the classes to me.

 

Lenore, the lovely American lass, was in a more desperate situation than I was. She had arrived in Thailand the day before I met her and she was very keen to begin her teaching career, only to be ordered to also teach Chemistry on the day that classes commenced! She understandably protested (very courteously) that she had no Chemistry training and hadn’t even studied it at school, but it was no use. She was ordered to just ‘teach from the book’ and I remember watching her looking through the textbook with a totally puzzled look on her face. She told me that she came to Thailand to teach English and was very concerned that she would fail as a chemistry teacher. I tried to console her and advise her to not worry too much about being effective because all of her students would pass chemistry anyway, but she was not easily convinced. As with most new teachers, she was keen to make a difference in Thailand but the authorities aren’t interested in that at all.

Part 2: What happened when I had the temerity to ask my students what they wanted me to teach them

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Thailand Memories: My visa nightmare story

As hopefully most of my readers will be aware, I don’t think very highly of the visa/work permit system in Thailand and it was the main contributing factor in my decision to leave the country permanently. I base this dislike on an incident that happened to me while I was teaching in Phuket and it is proof that the system is deeply flawed and that the new changes to the visa renewal process are destined to fail.

 

I began my English teaching career in a small language school in Phuket at the end of 2003 and initially it was the perfect introduction for me, as the classes were small and I was able to teach whatever I thought was necessary, rather than simply being told to teach ‘conversation’. The only problem for me was that the classes were very irregular, sometimes there being hardly any at all and then two weeks later I’d be teaching over 30 lessons per week. I was also expected to teach on weekends as well, and sometimes I would work many days in succession without a day off.

 

I made the decision to leave the language school and try to gain employment at a Thai government school purely because I wanted the security of knowing I would receive a stable salary and that I would have my weekends free to explore more of Phuket, as well as public holidays and annual holidays. I felt that I was experienced enough to perform the job and I was very happy when I secured a position at Dowroong Wittaya School in Phuket at the beginning of the 2005 school year in May of that year.

 

I was told by the Director (Thai schools don’t have Headmasters) that the school would process a work permit for me and this came as a great relief to me as it meant I could work there legally and not have to worry about travelling north to Ranong and taking a boat across to Myanmar every four weeks to renew my tourist visa. The school had to organise a few things in order to process my work permit first (countless documents that I had to sign as well as supplying a ridiculous number of photographs) and it was not until September that I was told by the lady in the small administration section that I needed to travel to Penang in Malaysia to obtain my coveted non-immigrant B visa. This visa entitles the holder to live and work in Thailand while their work permit is being processed (the B stands for Business). I made the trip by bus at my own expense, stayed in the very interesting town of Georgetown on the island of Penang for two nights while my visa application was processed at the Thai consulate and then travelled all the way back to Phuket. Believe me, it’s quite a journey.

 

My lovely new non-immigrant B visa was valid for three months and expired interestingly on New Year’s Eve, 2005. So the administration at the school had three months in which to process my work permit and if all went well I would have a nice New Year’s present of a little blue work permit booklet.

 

I resumed my teaching in the school environment and before I knew it, November had rolled around and I had no word about my work permit process. I had learnt by that stage that Thai people do not like to be ‘hassled’ to do things (especially by a foreigner) and if someone has been good enough to tell you that they’ll do something for you, then it’s respectful to leave that person alone to fulfil their promise to you. In our western culture, of course, we think nothing of reminding that person that they made a promise and that they have an obligation to carry it out. So I was in mixed minds when I started to wonder how my work permit was coming along, but I managed to bump into the administration lady and I casually asked her about it. She told me it was all being taken care of and not to worry about it and it would be ready soon. I was very relieved to hear that and also pleased that I hadn’t offended her in any way.

 

Very soon it was mid-December and I still had heard nothing about my work permit. I had about two weeks until my non-immigrant B visa ran out and then I would face the penalty of having to pay a 200 baht fine for every day that I was in Thailand after my visa expired (it has since been increased to 500 baht per day). I decided that the threat of the fine was worth the risk of offending the administration lady, so I visited her in her office and very gently and politely asked her about my work permit. She again told me not to worry and that she had a friend who worked at Phuket Immigration who was taking care of the whole thing for her. I let her know about the fine that I’d have to pay if the non-immigrant B visa expired and she told me that as long as the work permit application was in process, there was no problem about the visa expiring. I had not heard of this before but she assured me that it was true and so I left it at that. My work permit application had started and the visa expiration didn’t apply – great!

 

2006 arrived, quickly followed by February and it was not until the middle of March that I was notified to go to Phuket Immigration to collect my work permit. I had begun work at the school in the previous May and, 10 months later, my permit to allow me to work there permanently was ready. I was taken to Phuket Immigration by an elderly school official (on the back of his motorbike) and I sat down with him at the desk as the immigration official produced my passport and the small mountain of paperwork that accompanied my work permit application. He opened my passport at the page containing my non-immigrant B visa and pointed at the date. “Here”, he said. “Expire. You pay fine.” He then got his trusty calculator and the figure of 13,600 suddenly appeared. “This”, he said. “You pay.”

 

I remember remaining quite calm when this was presented to me, even though it came as a shock. I smiled at the official and said, “No. I am not paying.” The elderly school official looked at me strangely and asked what my problem was. I told him that the administration lady had assured me that I would not need to pay a fine and so I was not paying it. There followed a lengthy conversation in Thai between the two officials seated with me, probably something along the lines of, “What’s his problem?”, “He says he’s not paying it.”, “Why not?”, “I have no idea.”

 

Whenever either of the two gentlemen spoke to me all I said was, “I’m not paying.” Eventually there was nothing that could be done and I was taken back to the school on the back of the motorcycle. I walked directly into the Director’s office and he was already in discussion with the elderly school official. The Director entered the office and I calmly and slowly told him the whole story and how I had been reassured not to worry and that I would not be required to pay any fine whatsoever. He nodded in a very concerned way and told me he would go and speak with the administration lady in the adjoining office. I considered blocking my ears as I was sure he would ‘let her have it’ for her monumental stuff-up. I fully expected the Director to return very red-faced and apologetically offer to pay the fine, which was none of my doing.

 

There were no accompanying loud voices and the Director returned very quickly, sat down and said very matter-of-factly, “Yes, you must pay the fine.” I started to argue my case (still very calmly) but his response was (and I’ll never forget it), “She was good enough to process your work permit, the least you can do is pay the fine.” I was staggered that the administration lady (who was always pleasant and friendly) was able to not only tell me something that was totally false but also be totally absolved of all blame for causing the incident in the first place. She obviously had no idea what she was doing and, as far as the Director was concerned, there was no problem with this. Not a word of apology, either.

 

The 13,600 baht fine was more than half of my monthly salary and I was staggered that the Director just assumed that (a) I had that amount ‘free’ and (b) that I would willingly just hand it over. I told him that the school should be liable for the penalty but he shook his head emphatically and said that the administrator could not be held accountable for simply trying to do her job. I immediately decided on two courses of action: (1) I told the Director that I would be seeking legal assistance and (2) I decided I would no longer be working at that school.

 

I managed to contact a legal representative in Bangkok (who spoke excellent English) and was told that, as a foreigner, I really didn’t have a leg to stand on. I was in the country illegally and my visa is solely my responsibility and there was nothing the school were legally required to do, even though they caused the whole problem. I thanked the nice lady for her time and sat in my office for quite a while thinking about what I could do. I eventually got up and marched into the Director’s office.

 

I did not knock (as I usually did, even when going to collect my salary) and stood over him as I told him that I had been speaking to a lawyer firm in Bangkok for the past hour, who told me that I had a very strong case for a worker discrimination case and that I could take the school to court and definitely win. The colour from the Director’s face disappeared and I sat down and told him that I didn’t want to take the school to court and for this story to make its way to the newspapers, etc. Before he could stammer out an answer I offered to split the fine 50/50 and he readily agreed. The bluff had worked beautifully.

 

The Director gave me 6,800 baht in cash, I went to the bank and withdrew the other half and I eventually had my work permit. I returned to show the Director my new blue booklet and added as I left, “By the way. I won’t be coming back next year.” The lessons I learnt from this debacle was that Thai authorities and administrators don’t necessarily understand the importance of visas as much as we do (most would be unaware of the fines or their worth) and just because someone processes something for you, you can’t assume that they know what they’re doing. My administrator obviously had no clue and this is what worries me most about the recent changes to the visa rules in Thailand. There will be thousands of inexperienced administrators in Thai schools suddenly entrusted with the whole work permit process and they will need to carry it out quickly and accurately, with no mistakes and within the visa time frame. To all the foreign teachers in Thailand putting their trust in these people to process their work permits, I have two words to say to you: GOOD LUCK.

 

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Thailand Memories – All farang are rich

Before I left Melbourne to go and live in Thailand I had a little digital camera. It was a Casio Exilim and I loved it because it fitted in my pocket and I took it everywhere with me. Despite the primitive technology back in those days, it took a remarkably good picture (I think it had a massive 1.5 megapixel lens) and so after I arrived in Thailand I took many pictures with it, documenting my new life.

When I was teaching at a Christian school in Phuket, I attended my first ‘Sport Day’, and I used my camera to record all the associated events that took place.

The name ‘Sport Day’, I soon learned, was totally incorrect and misleading, due to the Thai attitude of refusing to use plurals when using English. Not only was there more than one sport, it was spread over three days (with no classes, of course) and so there was plenty to see and ultimately be forced to sit through.

During one of these days of sports I was happily taking photographs of something that was happening when one of my Thai colleagues, a female English teacher from my office, commented on my camera. I think she said something about it being small or something and when I replied to her I made a big mistake, but I didn’t know it at the time.

I told her that it was indeed a very small camera and that it took very good photographs but there was a newer model out, one that had an optical zoom lens and the entire rear of the camera was a display screen. “When will you buy it?” she asked. I laughed and told her that I had no plans to buy one in the immediate future (or words to that effect) but that I would like to buy the new model one day. “What will you do with that one?” she asked me. I told her that I hadn’t thought about that, but I would hopefully trade it in, if I could. She did not speak about the camera for the rest of the day.

The next day, however, she asked me in the office if I had managed to buy my new camera yet. I naturally thought she was joking and naturally I discovered that I was wrong (Thais rarely joke about purchases or money) and so I told her again that I was only thinking about buying the new camera. She then asked me if I would give her my old camera when I bought my new camera. I laughed again because I thought she was joking (I hadn’t learnt about Thais and money yet) and I said, “Maybe.” That was another big mistake.

The next day she asked me again if I had bought my new camera. I remember looking at her and searching for any sign that she was pulling my leg but there was nothing. When it dawned on me that she was serious I felt quite shocked and explained once again that I was only thinking about buying the new model. “You won’t give me the camera?” she asked. My goodness, I thought, she really believes that I’m just going to hand this camera over to her! I looked at her and thought, “What do I have to do to make her understand?” I told her that sorry, no, I would not be giving my camera to her right then. She looked totally crestfallen and left the office.

I sat down feeling shocked, wondering how she could have possibly assumed that I would be giving my camera to her for free and what I had said to make her think that. I went back over our conversations at the ‘Sport Day’ but I couldn’t remember saying anything similar to “I will give you my camera.” I was ‘dazed and confused’ but at least she had got the message before she left the office, which was one good thing.

The next day she again asked me if I had bought my new camera. I didn’t lose my temper but I remember having to calm myself down and telling her, explaining to her, slowly, clearly, that I was not buying a new camera. I was thinking about buying a new camera. She looked at me during this explanation with a completely blank face and I remember thinking, “If you ask me to give my camera to you now, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Thankfully she said nothing and left the office again.

I was working with a terrific, young Scottish teacher at that time and it was such a relief to be able to turn around and speak to him about this ridiculous situation that I found myself in. He had been in Thailand for about the same length of time as me at that stage but he seemed to have a better handle on things. “Oh, they all think we’re filthy rich”, he said. I later learnt that this is totally correct and it’s based on the fact that farang (foreigners) all earn more money than Thai people do and that we all come from first world, wealthy countries. Never mind that we are working for a fraction of the amount that we would be earning in our home countries, that we ride a motor scooter instead of driving a car, that we live in one-room apartments and not condos or villas and that we eat our lunch at the school cafeteria instead of paying 10 baht extra for a meal across the road. We are all stinking rich simply because we are not Thai. Americans, the English, Australians, South Africans, Swedes, all of us are loaded and even though we have one pair of good shoes that we wear to school every day, we do so even though we have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank.

When the Thai teacher asked me if I could just hand over my camera to her, she was being serious. When I told her that I was thinking about buying the new model Casio Exilim, she believed I was going into town that day and buying it. She expected me to give her my old camera and she probably told everyone she knew about it, too.

During my time in Thailand this concept of every single foreigner being ridiculously rich despite their appearance, job and living conditions came up again and again, to the point where it became totally annoying. Being constantly asked if I was going to visit my family in Australia during the semester break even though the person asking would have no possible idea how much the return airfare from Bangkok to Melbourne was, for example. It’s something that I just had to accept (along with hundreds of others) as being part of Thai culture – that no matter what I did or said, I was rich whether I liked it or not.

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It’s time to pull up stumps

When Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke was advised by a group of his colleagues to stand down they apparently used the phrase, “Pull out digger, the dingoes are pissing on your swag.” I won’t go into a detailed translation of that sentence here (Australian readers will know exactly what it means) but I will say that it precisely sums up how I feel about living in Thailand right now and that I have reached the decision to finally leave this country once-and-for-all.

To ‘pull up stumps’ is an expression used in the sport of cricket and signals the end of a match, meaning that the game is over and everything gets packed up and taken away. That’s what I have decided to do and so I will be returning to my homeland, Australia, for the first time since 2006. The reason is because the dingoes are pissing on my swag. In other words, I’ve been trying hard to simply go about my life here but the outside forces (and in this case, the authorities) have been making things very difficult and unpleasant for me, forcing me to question why I have bothered to stay here for the past three years and wondering why I didn’t return home sooner.

In order to live in Thailand I needed to work and in order to work I should have acquired a work permit. I had one for one of my teaching jobs (I won’t explain the process of acquiring a work permit but it is a ridiculously long-winded, convoluted and antiquated procedure) and when I changed jobs my employer did not ‘provide’ me with one because my contract was only for six months and would have expired long before the work permit was ready – that’s how long the process takes. Therefore I was working illegally and I had to leave the country every three months to renew my tourist visa (at my own expense) so that I could remain in Thailand and continue working. I didn’t like doing it but I understood my employer’s reluctance at not processing a work permit for me. Also, thousands of other foreign teachers were in the same boat as me and were completing ‘visa runs’ every three months or so and the authorities seemed to turn a blind eye to it. I was still not enjoying my work but at least I was living in Thailand and enjoying the weather, the freedom, the friendly people, the food, etc.

The political turmoil that resulted in yet another military coup a few months ago did not really upset me, even when martial law was announced. Life went on as usual except occasionally there were soldiers standing around idly with large, automatic weapons at strategic locations (I assume). At almost the same time I found new work as a corporate trainer teaching adults about English, how to write e-mails and how to give presentations. I felt that my life had changed for the better and that I now had a wonderful opportunity to remain in Thailand and perform a job that I really enjoyed doing. Training staff at companies takes place after hours and so it is a part-time, contract position and work permit is not part of the deal. In Thailand there appears to be no provision for contact foreign workers to obtain any form of permit that allows them to remain in the country and work for an hourly rate. Full-time salaried workers can obtain a work permit and those who work contract usually do so on top of their normal teaching job, using their full-time work permit to stay in the country. I had decided to never again set foot inside a Thai government school, so all my corporate training was done using my tourist visa, which is against the law.

Then, just after I obtained my wonderful, new job, the new military junta changed the visa rules and made repeated visa runs to renew tourist visas illegal. If I wanted to continue living and working in Thailand I needed to find a full-time job at a Thai government school (forget it!) or, as some other people have done, sign up for Thai language lessons at a language school and obtain an Education Visa, which allows the holder to remain in the country for twelve months (as long as they attend a couple of classes). I didn’t like the sound of that at all and I expect the junta (eventually) to put a stop to this practise as well. So where did that leave me?

I now knew that it was not practical for me to remain in Thailand. I was not prepared to put myself through the demoralising ordeal of working in a Thai government school ever again and there was no way my current employer was going to go through the expensive and time-consuming process of providing a work permit for me. My tourist visa was about to expire and I needed to make a decision. I briefly entertained the thought of teaching in another country again, perhaps Russia or Vietnam, but I felt jaded, frustrated and fed up with the thought of going through the whole process again once I set foot in another land. Returning to Australia would involve none of that.

During the brief time I spent looking for available work in other countries it also became obvious to me that teaching English is now thought of as a young person’s job. A quick look at the websites of any large language school in any country will show you pictures of young, good-looking, happy teachers standing in front of young, good-looking, happy students. While I am not in the pensioner category just yet, I do feel that I am now too old to employ and that has also featured very heavily in my decision to return home. In fact, I was told by one employer recently that the government school I was teaching at had decided not to renew their contract because they were looking for younger teachers. This seems to be a trend in Thailand and just highlights the fact that foreign language teaching here is not taken seriously at all.

So that’s the way it is. I plan to return to Australia this week. I have no idea what I will do but I feel relieved and I do know that I will never need to worry about visas, work permits, visa runs, leaving the country, documents, photographs, signatures, stamps, fees or anything like that again. I will certainly miss Thailand but my swag is now saturated with dingo piss, the players are in the pavilion  and the heavy roller is being applied to the pitch.

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Playing Games – Too Much Monkey Business?

  

In 2006 I applied for a job in Phuket as a full-time English teacher of the staff of a very well-known hotel. I prepared diligently for my demonstration lesson (it was about plurals, if I remember correctly) and it went as smooth as silk. I had a great rapport with the adult students who attended and they really responded well to everything. The manager in charge of training was a fellow-Australian and as we walked back to his office after the conclusion of the lesson I was expecting him to simply say, “When can you start?”

 

We sat back down at his desk and he began by telling me how great my lesson had been and how it was exactly how he thought a teacher of my experience would have given (I had taught at a few other hotels before). “But why,” he asked, “were there no games?” I distinctly remember looking at his face for any signs that he was joking but unfortunately I saw none. I replied that I did not think that it was appropriate to play games with adults in a hotel environment and that it was better to spend time concentrating on improving their English skills instead. “Oh, but Thai people love playing games!” was his reply. He then gave me a lecture on all the ways that I could have made my lesson more fun by playing games with the adults.

 

I had taught adults before in the language centre that I worked at but had never played games with them, nor had I felt it necessary to do so. And none of my students had ever complained to anyone that my lessons were dull. By this stage I wanted to leave as quickly as possible and considered for the first time in my life to walk out of an interview. Instead, I sat there poker-faced until the manager had quite finished and waited for the mandatory handshake and the “I’ll be in touch” before leaving. I never heard from him again.

 

I remember riding back to my apartment wondering if there was something wrong with me but I was determined not to change my principles just because I came up against a bloke who had a different attitude towards Thai learners than I did. I firmly believed then (and still do now) that games definitely have their place in an English language classroom but only under specific conditions and for certain students. Simply because we are English teachers does not, I believe, mean that we immediately become entertainers or clowns when we work in Thailand merely because Thai language learners “love playing games”. A more cynical argument could be that Thai students also love sleeping in class, so should we get them all to do that as well? Are science and maths teachers expected to play games when they teach? Why is it so necessary for English teachers to do so? Is it simply because we are able to and English classes lend themselves to playing games or because we are thought of as somehow less qualified to teach compared to our maths and science counterparts?

 

I do play games in my Muttayom classes but only under certain circumstances. I would much rather devote precious time in class teaching or showing students something new that they don’t know or are not in a position to wonder about, such as why there is British English and American English or why there are so many French words in the English language. To me, playing games just because Thai people are fun loving (and there’s nothing wrong with that) is simply accepting the Thai way of teaching, which seems to be to prevent the students from thinking at all costs and to extinguish any curiosity in the process. But, as I said, I do sometimes play games.

 

I have had success with “20 questions” (because it forces the students to ask questions, for one thing) and it is useful for reinforcing ‘do/does’ and ‘is’  questions, which students very rarely think about. It’s also interesting to find a student who knows someone famous other than Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs! I also play “Hangman” using my laptop with the projector, which has animations and sound. I do not allow the students to call out letters but put the letter in a sentence, such as “D as in Food”, where they must use correct pronunciation or I pretend not to understand them. These are two examples.

 

I don’t have a problem playing games in class but I draw the line at using them in order to keep the students happy and smiling and awake. If I have already earned their respect they should be alert and wanting to learn and I like to think that I can do this in an interesting way without having to treat them like little children (which already happens in so many of their other classes) by playing games. Games can reinforce what has been taught earlier in a lesson and can be used as a filler or as a reward for good work. But to expect foreign English teachers to spend the majority of their time entertaining students, especially adults, is, to me, just not right.

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Getting a Tattoo

Tattoo

Why I decided to get a tattoo

Following my encounter with the Tsunami of 2004, I wanted to have a tattoo for identification purposes but it needed to meet three criteria before I would have it done: (1) it needed to be reasonably unique and easily distinguished, (2) it should be tasteful and not outlandish and (3) it should be large enough to be easily seen.

I spent a fair amount of time looking at tattoos but usually they were on foreign bodies and they were of either skulls, snakes, dragons or celtic symbols. The Thai-style tattoos appealed to me very much but they seemed very intricate and possibly expensive. It was not until 2008 that I finally saw a design that I immediately took a liking to that happened to be on the upper back of a young Thai lady I saw one night at a live music venue. She allowed me to take a photograph of it and I showed it to a nearby tattooist and before I knew it I had it on my back.

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Why the U.S. is silent on Bahrain

Currently monitoring the situation from outside Bahrain and following the brutality and injustice of the Khalifa regime I have been continually perplexed as to why Bahrain’s main western ally, the U.S., has been so quiet about what has taken place there over the past 20 months.
I am no expert on international diplomacy but I would have expected the U.S. to have done more about the deteriorating situation in Bahrain than merely issue a few “deeply concerned” messages in the international media. I fully expected the U.S. to be deeply embarrassed by the actions of their good friends the Khalifa regime (the use of teargas as a toxic weapon, the uninvestigated shotgun murders of unarmed protesters, the jailing and torture of human rights defenders and other innocent civillians, the refusal to allow observers into the country, etc, etc) and that there would have been words spoken by some U.S. officials (the ambassador in Bahrain, the Secretary of State or even the President himself) reminding the Khalifas of their relationship and their position and that their behaviour would reflect badly on their powerful allies. Because of this I truly expected the brutality and the injustice in Bahrain, where an incredible 70% of the population are oppressed by the leaders and their faithful supporters, to at least be curtailed or to have hopefully ended. Instead, the terror campaign, especially by the Khalifas own personal militia, the Security Force Command, has intensified with an unimaginable amount of teargas being fired in villages each night and even at mourners at funerals who bury their dead, killed by the same mercinaries.
So for well over a year, since I was advised to leave the country, I have never been able to work out why the Khalifas have been able to do whatever they liked to ensure that the democracy-seeking protesters are silenced and oppressed without their main western friend and ally even uttering a single word of condemnation. That is, until now.
You see, I have only recently discovered the awful truth behind something called petrodollars. I had heard the term many times before and thought I knew what it meant. I thought that it simply referred to the income a country earned from selling oil. Wrong. It is, in fact, much more than that and it explains exactly why the U.S. has remained virtually silent about what is happening in Bahrain and why the Khalifa regime is being allowed and encouraged to oppress the Bahraini citizens.

The creation of petrodollars goes back to the early 1970’s when the U.S. was in a state of economic crisis and were forced to come up with a plan to ensure that they would, in effect, not become bankrupt. The plan they devised, through Henry Kissinger, was both audacious and brilliant. In fact, it was a piece of sheer genius. The number one commodity in the world at that time (and still today) was oil. Kissinger travelled to the largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia, and made them an offer. With the promise of making the regime there rich beyond their wildest dreams all they had to do was only accept payment for their oil sales in U.S. dollars. In return the U.S. would supply them with aid and arms and promise to never allow their enemy, Israel, to attack them. The offer seemed too good to be true, especially if we note that the cost of extracting oil then was less than $5 per barrel. The Saudis readily agreed and soon the U.S. had signed up most of the rest of the Middle East oil producing countries to only sell their oil in U.S. dollars, too. There was one other little catch: the countries had to agree to invest a percentage of their sales in U.S. bonds, thereby keeping their money in U.S. banks and helping to pay off the enormous U.S. debt.

This ingenius plan probably sounds quite simple and possibly even irrelevant to the situation in Bahrain today but let’s look at an example that I heard about only recently to explain it. Japan, for example, has no oil reserves of its own and so it must buy all of its oil from other countries. Since only U.S. dollars are accepted as payment (as per the agreement), Japan must somehow get its hands on a rather large amount of greenbacks. They could exchange their yen on the international market for U.S. dollars but for such a large amount they would lose too much value through fees and charges. Instead, they manufacture products, such as Hondas and Toyotas and Sony PlayStations and sell them to the U.S. where they are paid in U.S. dollars. Then they can go off and buy their oil. Not only does the U.S. economy benefit from the buying and selling of Japan’s goods, a large percentage of the U.S. dollars that go to Japan return to the U.S. banks from the oil-producing countries! This same procedure occurs for any other country that buys their oil from any of the petrodollar oil-producing countries – Australia, New Zealand, India, whoever. They must have U.S. dollars first in order to pay for it. I told you the plan was ingenius.

One of the countries, you should not be surprised to learn, who agreed to sell their oil in U.S. dollars in exchange for arms and protection from Israel was… Bahrain. Admittedly Bahrain only produces a thimble-full of oil compared to its big sister, Saudi Arabia, but it is a member of OPEC and all the OPEC countries agreed to sign the petrodollar contract with the U.S. So what’s the big deal? How can a tiny country and tiny oil-producer like Bahrain have a hold over the mighty United States of America to the point where the U.S. are afraid of publicly condemning any of their outrageous and cruel acts?

Apart from allowing the U.S. to keep their 5th Fleet of the navy at its island base, if Bahrain (or any one of the oil-producing countries who signed the petrodollar agreement) suddenly decided that they were tired of investing their profits back into the U.S. and wanted to keep the money for themselves or even felt that they could now protect themselves against Israel without the help of the U.S. then the U.S. would be in deep trouble. The U.S. are in trillions of dollars of debt as it continues to spend more than it earns (mainly to support its massive military presence around the world) and relies on their petrodollar friends to help minimise (if that’s the correct word) the size of their debt. The U.S. are really forced to keep these oil-producing countries happy, which explains the “strong links” that former president George Bush (not his son) forged with his good friends in Saudi Arabia.

So it seems that as long as the U.S. depends on the OPEC countries to help prop up their ailing economy, Bahrain will continue to be ignored and the Khalifa regime will carry on brutally oppressing with complete impunity.

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