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Interview with Marcia – A South African expat living in Thailand

Updated 1 Oct 2019

Marcia is a multidisciplinary artist, working with dance, writing, and performance art. A lot of her work examines the lived experiences of women of colour, performing the self, and performance as a form of disobedience and social transformation. She currently finds herself in Thailand working as an ESL teacher. Learn more about her life as a performer on her YouTube channel.

Read more about expat life in Thailand in our Expat Arrivals Thailand country guide.

About MarciaMarcia_Thailand_0.jpg

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I'm originally from South Africa.

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I am living in Ayutthaya, Thailand. I also spend quite a bit of my time in Bangkok.

Q: When did you move here?
A: My move to Ayutthaya happened in May this year.

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: No, I previously lived in South Korea for two and a half years. I also lived in a province called Ratchaburi (also in Thailand) previously. 

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved here alone. 

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: South Korea allowed me to grow in an immense way. After two and a half years of living there, I wanted to continue my travels and challenge myself. It’s difficult to explain why I chose Thailand. I’d visited Thailand twice before, so it must have sparked something in my soul. I’ve been teaching English as a second language for almost four years now, and I am currently teaching Grade 1 and 2 students in Ayutthaya. I spend my weekends in Bangkok, training in aerial arts, and dancing and developing my dance practice with Project C: Collaborative Happening for Arts Society.

Living in Thailand

Q: What do you enjoy most about Ayutthaya and Bangkok? How would you rate the quality of life compared to your home country?
A: Ayutthaya is about an hour and a half (or less depending on traffic) from Bangkok. It’s a quiet area which makes it a good place to live. There are a number of temples here which add to a much calmer vibe. During the weekends I enjoy the frantic energy of Bangkok. It always feels as though there’s something to do. I also enjoy that I have access to a lot of physical activities (such as dance, aerial arts, and parkour), exhibitions, and artists. 

It’s been difficult to adjust to air quality here. Bangkok will often experience high levels of air pollution. I’ve also had to get used to living in smaller spaces. I miss the wide open spaces in South Africa, as well as the food. I’ve had to make sacrifices in terms of finances. The busyness of Bangkok can also sometimes be a lot to deal with. My concerns are largely health-based.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: I experienced racism while going through the process of looking for work in Thailand. This is frustrating because I was an educator prior to moving overseas, and I am highly educated. I’m proud of my professional accomplishments, and being reduced to my racial differences is ridiculous. I have experienced racism in South Africa, but the older I get the more I focus on being recognised for my achievements and capabilities.
I have four young nephews and it can be hard to be away as they grow. I miss the diversity, spaciousness, our unique humour, and surfing in Durban. I find the longer I am away, the more I appreciate my Africaness, and my ability to love my country in a critical, but hopeful way. Even with the negative experiences, I am in the right place for my personal development.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: South Korea was the first foreign country I travelled to. The transport system is convenient, and I had the privilege of earning a salary that allowed me to travel outside of the country. I’ve had to adjust to a change in the salary I earn, a more casual transport system (although Bangkok does have a rapid transport system), and less travel. Like most South Africans, I am quite passionate, with strong opinions. It’s important to be aware that there are differences in expression, and in the way conflict is dealt with. I can be quite colourful in the way I dress and I think people here are quite fascinated by this. In my work environment I do offer my colour in small doses through the earrings I wear. I get great compliments on them and my students love to examine them. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Thailand?
A: A foreign tourist may see a trip to Thailand as being quite affordable. I however earn Thai Baht (possibly close to what I earned in South Africa). I’m not able to save much money, but I am able to afford doing all of the activities which are important for my personal growth. Most teaching jobs here do not have healthcare or free housing, and you will have to spend quite a bit of money on the visa process (which is quite long). I’m anaemic and lead an active lifestyle, so I also have to spend quite bit of money on the right type of food for my body.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Thailand? What is your most memorable experience of using your city’s transport system?
A: In Ayutthaya, most people own motorcycles or use motorcycle taxis. While it’s convenient and quite exhilarating, it can be frightening when driving in a city like Bangkok. For three days of the week (as a teacher) I must wear a dress or skirt. I’ve now perfected sitting sideways (on the back of a motorcycle taxi) while being able to hold onto my laptop and two bags. I never imagined being confident enough to do that. In Bangkok, I enjoy using the BTS (the Skytrain system) which connects me to most parts of the city. 

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Thailand? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I’ve had mostly good experiences. I’ve been fortunate in not needing serious hospitalisation. When in Thailand, the best thing to do would be to get onto an expat group for your city and ask others for advice on where to go. Online advice is not a substitute for needing a medical diagnosis, but other expats can offer advice on which healthcare professionals/ hospitals to go to.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Thailand? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Road safety is a major issue as there are many fatalities on the road. If you’re going to drive a motorcycle, you should always wear a helmet and avoid overtaking trucks as you may not be in their line of sight. I know that this is an issue in Bangkok. You also need to be extremely aware when crossing the road. There are also a large number of street dogs that move in packs, and do show aggression. I try not be make eye contact to avoid posing a threat. If you see a street dog with some kind of affliction on the body, I think it would be best to contact an animal shelter/ charity that could attend to the dog.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Thailand? What different options are available for expats?
A: I haven’t gotten the best idea of general accommodation here in Ayutthaya. If you’re looking for something affordable (especially on a teacher’s salary), most accommodation will have a wet shower (shower and toilet in the same space), an air conditioner, bar fridge and bed. Most of these types of accommodation will not have a kitchen or sink. Many teachers stay in what is really like a "homestay" or hotel. You can however also find a small house to live in, and you would probably be able to get a kitchen in a small house. There are condos in Bangkok that also don’t have kitchen spaces. The more you desire in terms of aesthetic and resources, the more you’ll have to shell out in price.

Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: In Bangkok, many expats seem to settle in areas such as Sukhumvit, Silom, Ploenchit, and Rama 9. These areas are popular because of their proximity to the rapid transport system, beautiful condos, and restaurants and bars that create a great social setting. In Ayutthaya, I’m not entirely sure. 

Q: What are your favourite attractions and activities in the city?
A: In Bangkok, there’s a place called The Movement Playground. It’s a sports and fitness centre that offers training in parkour, obstacles courses, and circuit training. Their courses include ninja training for children as young as four. The environment there encourages parents to participate with their children.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Ayutthaya or Bangkok?
A: I would say that I’ve had mostly positive experiences. I have made sure to be respectful of cultural norms here. My students responded positively to me and make mention of a lot of pop cultural references. I think it’s becoming quite normal for them to be around foreigners. From adults I’ve experienced microaggressions and a few instances of naivety. I think the perception of a traveller often revolves around white or Chinese tourists as the default. So seeing a brown or black woman of colour can be a curious thing. Both sides must be negotiating how to deal with this.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I immediately entered spaces in which I was doing things that interested me. I tend to spend more time in Bangkok for this reason. Ayutthaya is a fairly quiet space for me and I do know a few teachers here. Most of the people involved in artistic endeavours that I know are based in Bangkok. The events I attend or perform in also give me the chance to meet people interested in the same things. I generally offer myself in small doses so being in these spaces helps me to connect to people. 

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals? 
A: I’ve connected with expats and the local people. It safer to just mix with the teachers, but it's far more interesting to put yourself out there. Many of the artistic activities in Bangkok focus a lot on community engagement, so you will always find foreign artists mixing with locals. I think you need to be mindful of cultural norms here and navigating around them. Leave any thought of a saviour-like attitude behind and get to know what interests people here have. It humanises both you and them. 

Working in Thailand

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I have to be honest in saying that it’s a long process in Thailand. If you’re not from the US or UK it can be further complicated as you have to be physically present when submitting paperwork (even if you have an agent). Many teachers will come to Thailand looking for work. Even if you’ve secured a job before coming to Thailand, the visa process is still a long one. If you’re coming in as a teacher, you’ll need to go through the visa process and send in paperwork to the teachers' council. In Thailand, South Africans are not accepted as native English speakers. We are required to complete a TOIEC exam (which proves proficiency in English). In addition to having your qualifications legalised, and having a police clearance done at home, you’ll need to do both of these again in Thailand. This means you’ll need to have enough money for all of these processes which can take up to three months. I have an agent and they are responsible for assisting me through the entire process. 

Q: What is the economic climate in Thailand? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: I’m constantly trying to find ways to save money. This includes filling up my water bottles at school as opposed to buying bottles of water. If you don’t work in an international school, you’ll earn less and need to be smart about how you spend your money. In terms of job hunting, there are many job posts that appear online. You also have Facebook groups and sites such as that make job posts. I chose to apply through an agency because it gave me a sense of security. There are a number of agencies you can apply to (although having an agent also means they will receive a cut of your pay), or simply go online to look through job posts. The ideal time for employment in Thailand is in April and October. Keep in mind as well that during the holiday period, many foreign teachers will not receive a salary as you’re not teaching in this time. So for the October holidays I will be unpaid and will then have to wait until the end of November for my next salary. Financially speaking, as an ESL teacher you should carefully consider which country you choose to work in and whether it aligns with long-term goals. 

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: I worked in education in South Africa, and I feel that we vocalise our frustrations or need for assistance. There are also certain processes in the workplace that are logical to us. In Thailand (and South Korea) there is a culture of being non-confrontational. This was something I had to negotiate with, as I’m someone who believes in getting things done and in keeping employees informed. I generally like to have a clear idea of what is expected of me, and have had to often just “go with the flow”. You may not always be informed of events or changes in the schedule, so you’ll need to ease up on expectations around that. I can’t speak to other lines of work except education.

Q: What are the schools like. Any advice for prospective teachers?
A: I’ve worked in an English programme, and now I work in a private school setting. In the English programme I taught Matayom 1-6 students. These are lower and upper secondary students. I was required to see each level or grade three times a week. Keep in mind that each grade may then be broken up into a number of groups. I now teach primary school and also have many classes and lesson plans to do. I’m not sure of a regular public school setting but in the context of the work I’ve done, I’ve put a lot of effort into my teaching. I try to appeal to the different modalities students might have, and this can be quite tiring especially with young students. 

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Thailand?
A: Most expats travel here to work as teachers. I would suggest that you learn to manage your time well, especially in terms of work prep. You could often find yourself taking work home. This often happens if you work in an English programme or private school. It’s important, I think, to find activities that will help you in your personal growth. I think this makes it easier to find groups of people who match your interests or who will make your life interesting. For foreign people of colour there are also online groups that will cater to your specific needs such as haircare, and even how to adjust in a different setting. 

– Interviewed October 2019

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