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Cunning Linguists…

The arrest of John Karr for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey has raised questions about the types of expatriates working in Thailand’s education system.

Harry Nicolaides, a Melbourne-born teacher who has taught English in Thailand, reveals that he sometimes felt he was sharing an office with Hannibal Lector.

What do a disgraced former US state senator, an octogenarian Nazi sympathizer and an Arizona highway patrol officer have in common? They are all teaching English in Thailand of course. The profession of teaching English in Asia attracts the strangest people. The flotsam and jetsam of the West, many of these ne’er-do-wells wash up on the shoreline of the Third World looking to reinvent themselves like the Count of Monte Cristo or to champion a cause celebre like Lawrence of Arabia. Some are undischarged bankrupts fleeing creditors, fugitives from justice, disgraced or convicted malcontents, religious missionaries, errant husbands, asylum-seekers (and those recently discharged from asylums), crusaders and occasionally teachers – with fake university degrees, of course. This is the state of the industry throughout Thailand. And sometimes, you can find yourself sharing an office with Hannibal Lector.

The process of screening applicants for teaching appointments in Thailand has always been open to abuse, exploitation and identity fraud. While most educational institutions employ foreign nationals from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US without checking the bona fides of academic credentials, going overseas to work has also been a convenient way to escape the indiscretions and convictions of a former life in the West. As English is the new lingua franca of a global world there is a burgeoning demand for native English speakers to teach English in educational institutions at all levels across Thailand. The interview and selection process is perfunctory and typically is the responsibility of non-native speakers and so anyone who looks like a teacher in what is largely a presentation culture is assured of employment. While it is well known that thousands of reproduction artworks of European masters are created annually in Thailand, fake university and college degrees may also be bought in Kao Sarn Road Bangkok.

In the past century when Christendom was carried like a torch to enlighten the dark continents, missionaries and teachers were discovered looting national treasures, excavating and smuggling archaeological artifacts, exploiting the indigenous population or establishing private kingdoms with themselves as the self-appointed monarchs. During times of military conflict some teachers were even commissioned as intelligence operatives or became correspondents from besieged cities or nations erupting in civil unrest. Today, with an absence of such interesting opportunities, English language teachers abroad have turned to waging their own war against professional colleagues, exerting their own petty tyrannies on students, exploring a malignant neuroses, indulging a private obsession or simply experiencing the full dress rehearsal of a sordid sexual fetish.

Just like the former, US state senator who was repeatedly caught and convicted for drunk driving and beating his girlfriend. When he carried a loaded revolver into the state legislature he was finally expelled from office. At the height of his power, white racist supremacist and militia members rallied at his demagogic speeches against minorities and welfare recipients but most recently found himself teaching English at university in Thailand. He was also responsible for pushing through a US state senate a highly controversial bill to introduce and maintain a public database of previously convicted sex offenders. I met him in a notorious go-go bar in Phuket. It was the quip about the human race being a plague on the earth and that only through a systematic program of racial purification would we survive as a species that made me realise he was not on a mercy mission in the Third World. He was last seen teaching a transsexual prostitute to sing the Star Spangled Banner in an area notorious for homosexual encounters with young men who had had a sex change operation in Bangkok.

Then there was the teacher at a prominent language school in Phuket who was recently exposed as a confidante to Adolf Hitler’s personal radiologist. At 85, he was old enough to have been around during the Third Reich and his imperious gait was chillingly resonant of high rank. He spoke German, Greek, Italian, Thai, French and English fluently but his speciality was to craft letters for bar girls consisting of lies and half-truths to beguile mostly male Caucasian tourists out of their money. I was once privy to a meeting he thought was private and observed him perform the customary Nazi military salute when he greeted a German friend. At first, I thought it was moment of historical parody but then observed both men deliver the same Nazi salute to each other with triumphant, choreographed precision at their farewell. He still teaches English today helping young bar girls conjugate irregular verbs and writes letters while receiving an aged pension from the Italian government.

There was another teacher – an American, former Arizona patrol officer who while working in Thailand started to exhibit repressed aggression towards his students. His violent outbursts and confrontations involved minor infractions of university regulations. He became obsessed with thwarting students from gaining unfair advantage by cheating and spent hundreds of hours devising examinations that would challenge the ingenuity of students to anticipate the content of examination papers. When a small cluster of student papers were found to have similar results he launched a major investigation into the unlikely correlation. He conducted a statistical analysis of the results involving averages, probability and distribution graphs. Remarking all 250-exam papers, he concluded that a group of students must have stolen an exam paper prior to the exam day. He insisted, against the judgment of other teachers, to hold the exam again. The results in the second examination were the same. The students cheated again.

As a final indictment of the susceptibility of the Thai education system to fraud consider the following experience. A friend from Australia was visiting Thailand as a tourist. I managed to convince him to assume my identity for the first lecture I was to deliver to 120 students in a course of social psychology at the university where I was working. The exercise was designed to show students how vulnerable people are to appearance and presentation especially so-called experts with impressive credentials. We had my friend’s imposing 6’4 physique clothed in a fine suit and tie beautifully fashioned in the finest bespoke tradition of Bangkok’s 24-hour tailors. We gave him an impressive resume – PhD Cambridge University, Chairman of research committee at Oxford University, author of two definitive textbooks in the field – all of which loomed large behind him on a massive cinema-sized screen in a PowerPoint format while Garry spoke authoritatively about nothing for some time. The students paid meticulous attention and wrote copious lecture notes on the rambling dissertation. After an hour when I arrived dressed casually in shorts and t-shirt and introduced myself as the real course lecturer, the students dismissed me as a loony intruder. After all, I did not look like a teacher. That is what matters in Thailand – the appearance of truth, created by a tailor’s scissors, an artist’s brushstroke or a surgeon’s knife.

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