Thailand vs China: Life, Teaching, and Everything in Between

Posted by Addie Weller on 2/20/18 4:00 AM

In Reflections, China, Teaching, Thailand

"Do you like China or Thailand better?" I get this question from family and friends a lot. It's tough to write an answer fit for a text message. There are pros and cons to both— highs and lows I've felt living in each country. Let's explore some of them here, shall we? 

China and Thailand have both been around for a long time. There are differences between the two countries, but they also share many similarities.

"Same same, but different," as we say in Thailand. 

Teaching English

This is where Thailand and China share a commonality: they both have a high demand for qualified Native English speaking teachers. Their approach to education and their treatment of foreign teachers is quite different though. 

China

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One of my first grade classes at Fangxin Primary School

In China, I taught at a public government primary school in the center of Xi'an. I had 60 students in one class. Yep, 60. Thinking about it now makes me cringe. AND, that wasn't just one class of 60... I saw 20 different classes a week, with 60 students in each class: a whopping total of about 1,200 students each week. Insanity. Thankfully I had a teaching assistant...

This isn't just the norm for public schools in big cities either; this is the norm for schools across China. It's difficult for children to learn in this classroom environment, which is why so many kids spend time after school and during weekends in private language centers or online. Parents want their children to have a good education, and, sadly, they know public school alone can't provide that for them. 

As a foreign English teacher in China, I was expected to focus more on English speaking and listening skills, and less on reading and writing. I had a set curriculum to follow with key vocabulary, target conversations, and even songs/chants, but what I did in class was up to me. I tried to incorporate games or short activities, but with a class full of 60 young students, this proved to be quite challenging. On top of this, I wasn't supposed to give homework and I only gave two tests throughout the year. In other words, my English class was pretty "fluffy." The students were, overall, quite disciplined, but they didn't take my class too seriously. 

As Westerners at the school, Justin and I were treated like models. We'd constantly be pulled out of class for staged photo and video shoots. We even skipped several afternoon classes to practice and perform a tai chi and dance routine with a group of teachers. More often than not, we felt like the school's poster teachers. 

As far as benefits went, we made a tad bit more money than we do in Thailand. We also didn't need to pay for our accommodations— those were covered entirely by our school. We were also given a contract completion bonus and flight reimbursement when we finished our year-long teaching contracts. It was a pretty sweet deal... 

Even though we grew to love the students and the administration at our school, we wanted more of a real teaching experience. After traveling around Thailand for a month on holiday and researching teaching there, we decided to give teaching a go in the "Land of Smiles." 

Thailand

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Some of my sixth graders before their performance of "The Tempest"

Now, in Thailand, I teach at a private school on the outskirts of Korat. I teach grades four to six (ages eight to twelve) and have no more than 20 students in one class. I don't have a teaching assistant here, so classroom management has been difficult. Thailand has a "no fail" policy, so even if a student doesn't do well on my quizzes and tests, I can't fail them. I have to, instead, give them extra work or projects to bring up their grade. Since my students all know they're going to pass, a few of them have a very lackluster attitude in class and don't bother to try. Of course, I have students who want to learn and improve, but the "no fail" policy sure puts a damper on how some students perform in class. 

As a foreign English teacher at this school, I have a set curriculum to follow. I teach a basic English course two times a week, which covers all four skills. Along with each unit, students have to complete their workbook activities, spelling quizzes, and unit tests. In other words, I have a lot more grading to do here than I did in China. 

I also teach an English skills course two times a week. All the students in grades four to six take a test at the beginning of the year that places them in one of four levels based on their English listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. I'm responsible for teaching level three. This class is much more relaxed than my basic English class and it's a lot easier to manage since the students have the same level of English. During the English skills class, I work with students on practice units and tests which will ultimately prepare them for the skills test at the end of the year. Based on their score, the students will either stay in the same level, or move up a level. 

At this private school, the students and the administration are very accustomed to foreign teachers. Currently, we have a few teachers from America, a few from South Africa, one from Brazil, and a group from the Philippines. We're all treated as "real" teachers too— no more class cancellations for photo shoots here. I have quite a bit more responsibility than I did in China, but I like that I'm able to get to know my students and work with them closely. 

Benefits in Thailand aren't as plentiful as they were in China. We're making a bit less here, and we have to pay for our own accommodations. It's comparable with the cost of living, though, as most everything in Thailand is crazy cheap. It's also fairly easy to pick up supplemental income through tutoring, private classes, or even within the expat community. 

Daily Life 

China 

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Apartment views in Xi'an

Maybe if we didn't live in a city of nine million, life would be a little more laid-back. But, then again, "laid-back" isn't a word I would use to describe China. City life in Xi'an was fast paced and loud. From early morning until late evening, horns would be blaring, streets would be crowded, and street vendors would be setting up their carts, ready to start cooking for the day. There was surely no shortage of liveliness in China. 

During the weeks, we wouldn't do much— teaching classes of 60 students proved to be terribly exhausting. Most nights, we'd cook dinner and relax in our apartment (on the 28th floor, might I add). On the weekends, friends from nearby cities would usually come into Xi'an, so we would get together with them for a meal or two. There were always museums to wander through, cultural sites to explore, and new food to try. Getting to and from places was easy and cheap— we'd either walk, hop on the metro for less than $1, or take a taxi across the city for less than $5.

In the big Chinese cities, air quality, particularly in the winter months, was hazardous. The government even shut down our school for a couple weeks because of the record-high pollution levels. We'd be trapped inside, avoiding stepping out on the hazy streets. This surely put a damper on things. 

Aside from the smog, we could really feel the Chinese culture shine through. We learned how deeply the culture is tied to family traditionsIt’s common for families to live in the same general area, or often with one another. More often than not, I'd see a toddler holding hands with his or her grandparent on an afternoon stroll, rather than their parent. Children have great respect for their elders because of this. When a national holiday rolls around, such as the Chinese New Year or the Mid-Autumn Festival, the entire country celebrates their family and history with tradition and food. It's wonderfully heartwarming to be a part of. 

While there was always something new and interesting to see in China, city life just wasn't for us. We couldn't get used to the concrete jungle; we craved the real jungle. Cue Thailand. 

Thailand

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A temple near Korat

Thailand, on the other hand, could definitely be described as "laid-back." In fact, one of the most common phrases in Thai, mai pen rai, roughly translates to "it's okay / don't worry / no problem." It's a perfect way to describe the way of life here. 

Justin and I live in Korat, which is the northeastern hub of the Isaan province of Thailand. While the majority of Thailand's population lives here, it's nowhere near as crowded as China. People still drive like madmen, but we rarely hear horns. Instead, we hear dogs howling and pigeons cooing. Ah, nature...

Here, we live in a small one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a four-story apartment building. Unlike in China, our kitchen consists of a microwave, a hot plate, and a kettle, so we don't do much cooking. Sometimes we feel ambitious and cook a tasty pasta meal (or Annie's mac and cheese, of course), but usually, we buy food out. Eating out at street carts or Thai restaurants is cheaper (and easier) than cooking in or eating at a "Western" food joint. Our favorite "noodle soup lady" is just down the street from us. We can get a huge bowl of broth, handmade noodles, veggies, shrimp dumplings, and thin-sliced pork for about $1. It doesn't get much better than that. 

During the week, we'll keep it low key— relaxing in our apartment, working on writing, and doing a little schoolwork. During the weekends, we'll get together with friends or maybe travel to a nearby city to explore. The bus system in Thailand is easy, reliable, and cheap, so for longer journeys, that's our go-to. If we're just driving around Korat, we'll use our motorbike, or grab a tuk tuk (a small motorbike taxi). Korat has quite a close-knit expat community— we always find ourselves meeting new people and finding new activities to do around the city with them. 

Because of a majority of the country's people are Buddhist, religion plays a huge a role in daily life. There are many Thai customs that stem from Buddhism, and we encounter them every day.

One example of this is the wai, the customary greeting in Thailand. When you wai, you’re not only greeting someone; you're also showing respect to them. It's most important to wai to colleagues, elders, and monks. To wai, with hands pressed together in prayer, you bring your thumbs to various points of your body—depending on who you’re greeting—and bow. For example, your thumbs are pressed between your eyebrows to wai to a monk; your thumbs touch the tip of your nose to wai to an elder or a superior; your thumbs touch the tip of your chin if when you wai to someone the same age or social status. I think it’s a beautifully humble way to show respect to everyone I encounter, and it lets me know that I’m respected in return.  

Another common custom is involves taking off your shoes. In Thai culture, it’s considered disrespectful to wear your shoes inside a home, a business, a temple, and even a classroom. This is because Thai people believe the feet are the furthest removed physically and spiritually from the most sacred part of the body: the top of the head. In other words, feet are dirty, but shoes are dirtier—that’s why they’re taken off before stepping inside a home, a classroom, a business, or a place of worship.

These are just some of the many interesting cultural aspects to Thailand that make the country so unique and beautiful. Between the relaxed, smiley people and the low cost of living, it's a great place to live and teach. 

Food

China

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Hotpot in China — a delicious meal anytime of day or night

Food in China was an adventure in itself. In America, we think of Chinese food as fried noodles and crab rangoons, but in China, their food is much more than that. In fact, each province in China has their own staple cuisine. In Xi'an, where Justin and I lived, Chinese hamburgers (roujiamo), bread and mutton stew (yangrou paomo), and soup dumplings (tangbao) were just a few of the most well-known dishes of the region. We loved them all. 

The downside of Chinese cooking was a lot of oil and a lot of rice and/or noodles. This led me to feel pretty blah and bloated eight months into living in China. I decided to give the Whole30 Challenge a go, which you can read more about here

On the other hand, the upside of Chinese cooking was the communal aspect of eating, as well as the symbolism behind the food itself. In China, meals out or in the home are almost always communal. There are typically a variety of dishes in the center of the table that everyone eats from. This makes for a much more pleasant dining experience, as everyone takes their time, chats with one another, and enjoys the same food together. Foods are also very symbolic. Rice brings fertility; noodles are thought to ensure a long life; whole fish represent luck and prosperity; sweet sticky rice cakes symbolize a rich, sweet life. Simply put, food is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. 

Thailand

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Grilled salted fish and fresh veggies — a common dish in Korat

Thailand boasts some of the best food in the world. Sweet, salty, spicy, and extra-spicy... there's something here for every palate. Between soups, curries, salads, noodles, and rice, it's difficult to narrow down a favorite dish. 

I've come to really love the coconut curry soups and Thai salads. One of my favorite soups is tom kah gai: a coconut milk broth simmered with galangal root, lemongrass, mushrooms, and tomatoes, served with chicken. It's deliciously aromatic and flavorful.

Cold salads, on the other hand, are fresh, and perfect for the tropical weather here. Som tam is a popular dish everywhere in Thailand, and even originated in our area. It's made with thin-sliced unripened green papaya mixed in a clay mortar and pestle with cucumbers, tomatoes, green beans, and Thai basil. The dressing is simple: lime juice, garlic, chilies, fish sauce, and a little palm sugar. The salad is also usually topped with peanuts, but since that's a no-no with my allergy, it's easily made without them, or with cashew nuts. Yum! 

Similar to China, sharing dishes out is a common past-time. At pretty much any hour of the day, you'll see a group of Thai people gathered around a table, sharing several different dishes, smiling, and laughing with one another. Here, like anywhere in the world, food brings people together. 

TL;DR

Too long; didn't read...

When people ask if I like China or Thailand better, I really can't answer the question definitively. There are positives and negatives to both places, but at the end of the day, they're simply different. There's no right or wrong way to live; I'm just thankful I get to live in in these beautiful places, meet wonderful people, and share cultural experiences together. 

Same same, but different. 


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