What’s it like being a Jamaican living in Thailand?

In this episode of “Jamaicans to the World”, Jamaicans.com founder Xavier Murphy speaks with Maxine Clarke. She is a Jamaican living in Thailand.

Xavier: What is it like being a Jamaican in Thailand? I am Xavier Murphy, the founder of Jamaicans.com. Today in Jamaicans to the World we talked to Maxine Clarke, a Jamaican living in Thailand. Welcome Maxine, How are you?

Maxine: Thank you, I’m fine. How are you?

Xavier: I’m doing good. I’m doing well. I’m so looking forward to this conversation because Thailand is a place that I’d love to visit at some point in my life. I tried to stick it in a visit to China, but it just didn’t work out. But Hey, another time we’ll see. So, my first question is which paat (part) a (of) Jamaica yuh (you) cum (come) fram (from)?

Maxine: Okay. I’m from this small city called Spaldings and it sits right on the border of Manchester and Clarendon. I, however, tell people I’m from Manchester, for two reasons. For one, I prefer Mandeville to May Pen. And for two, I was born in the Percy Junor Hospital, which is in the Manchester side of the parish. I’m from Manchester.

Xavier: Okay. This is interesting because you must know where Tweet side is if yuh (you were) born in Spalding.

Maxine: I do.

Xavier: Okay, because that’s where my mother is from. My mother is from that side.

Maxine: Which means you have to come to the big city of Spaldings to buy lots of things, right?

Xavier: Yes. Yeah. Spaldings is one of the closest cities to us?

Maxine: Cities, I got you to say it.

Xavier: Which school are you representing today?

Maxine: I represent one of the best schools, not one of the best, the best school in the country. It’s Knox College, the citadel built on rocks.

Xavier: The Knoxes man, The Knoxes.

Maxine: And, let me say for all the Knoxites who are going to listen to this. I’m from the great house of Forbes Dennis, Forby house.

Xavier: Bwoy (boy) you fully representing here. You’re representing the school and representing your house. You want to tell us what the house was to?

Maxine: Green.

Xavier: Alright. Tell us about your journey getting to Thailand. Tell us the story of how you ended up in Thailand?

Thailand river

Maxine: Okay. After I finished graduate studies in the UK, I went back home, I applied for jobs and none in Jamaica. I started teaching at college proprietors schools in the United States. And as you know, the H1B visas last for 6 years. So I could go back to Jamaica for a year and then go back to the states, but this job came up at the British International School. The Shrewsbury International School for a director of their critical thinking program. I applied, I got it, I like it, and the rest is history.

Xavier: Okay. And how long have you been in Thailand?

Maxine: This is my 7th year. I can’t even believe that.

Xavier: Man, you’re a veteran there.

Maxine: Yes

Xavier: Before I jump into Thailand, you and I were talking before and you said you studied in Russia because we talked about the previous interview I’ve done awhile back with Russia.

Maxine: Right.

Xavier: How many years were you in Russia?

Maxine: I studied in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic for six years, at the Moscow State University. I studied in the History Faculty, a minor in world and European history and a major in American History. Yes, I studied American history in Russia.

Xavier: Did you learn Russian before you got to Russia?

Maxine: No, I learned one word in Jamaica. It was the year when the soviets shut down the Korean airlines. I remember the Gleaner had a cartoon that said ‘niet’, which means no, and that’s the only word I knew. But we all spent a year in the Proprietary Faculty and there learned the language. And then afterwards for 3 years in the university we learnt it and had the option to learn it right to the end of our course, which I did.

Xavier: Man. Well-traveled, well-traveled there, Russia.

Maxine: We had to study in the language, in the Russian language.

Xavier: Alright. Let’s pivot back now to current location, to Thailand. Tell us a little bit about the people there. What are the people in Thailand like?

Maxine: Let me start with my students, kind, smart and accepting. I remember my 3rd day meeting the students and they came back with some gifts for me. It was some sweets with a little trick in there because some of their sweets are very peppery. They gave me a peppery set of sweets too. And then they said to me “you’re awesome, we want to be in your class.” And that is only the 3rd day. And I work with them right until they graduated, still keep in touch. I should say I only teach in the 6th form. But I interact with students all through.

Xavier: Okay. And, you would say the people are very friendly?

Maxine: Yes, accommodating, you can see it in many ways, for example, Bangkok has a very bad traffic problem. It’s like bumper to bumper, but the patience in which they sit in that traffic, I don’t think many Jamaicans could manage it. And the sharing, I don’t know if you know, but despite their development over the past 10 years, they have the largest wealth gap in the world. But the sharing, like the outside shops is full of street vendors. And it’s so peaceful, they are allowed to be there and everybody gets a piece, well, not really a piece of the pie but everybody do their own thing.

Xavier: I see. And what’s the language?

Maxine: Thai.

Xavier: And have you learned Thai?

Maxine: I started, but when you’re learning a foreign language, you need to study the vocabulary or else you won’t know it. I know a few words, like ‘Chı̀ Chı̀’ which means ‘yes’. They tend to repeat things, even English, if they’re telling you it’s the same, they say same same, or I know, ‘Sabai, sabai’, which means relaxed. But, I’m gonna (going to) learn it.

Xavier: All right. And when people learn that you are Jamaican, what is typically the response from them?

Maxine: Okay. That’s a nice story and not only in Thailand, but all over Asia. For instance, one day I decided when I was introducing myself to my newest of students, instead of telling them where I’m from, I decided to ask them where do they think I’m from? Student said, “I don’t know the name of the country, but all I know is that Usain Bolt is from the same country.” I started laughing so much and she said, “no, no, everybody tells me you’re from the same country as Usain Bolt, everybody tells me.” And it just dawned on me that there were all around the school, “she’s from the same country as Usain Bolt.” But for the most part, I will tell another sort of a joke. I was coming in Laos with two of my Jamaican friends who had US passports. So they go into privilege, US line and I had to go elsewhere and they were testing for different things, “oh, yellow fever, yellow fever” or wat ave you (things like that). And he looked on the list of Africa, looking for Jamaica. I felt sorry for him, so I said “Jamaica is not in Africa” And then I started to explain and he said, “Oh, Peru, they have yellow fever too.” So I allowed him to look in Peru or wherever. And when he did not see it, he shouted in Thai something to another immigration officer. The immigration officer replied in English, “Jamaica, Jamaica, we don’t test Jamaicans. It’s Usain Bolt’s country. We don’t test Jamaicans here. Let her go.” And then I got all these selfies. But overall people think Jamaica is in Africa. Two of the best ones I’ve heard when I was in Hong Kong, somebody said, “Oh, Jamaica, in Iceland” And I’m like, “oh dear”

Xavier: Iceland?

Maxine: Mhm, or when I was in Malaysia and this tour guide said to me, “oh, I know Jamaica. Jamaica is in England.” So I said no, Jamaica is not in England.” “No, no, Jamaica is In England.” And I said, “no” “Do you know John Barnes?” and I said, yeah. “John Barnes play for England, Right” I said, “Yeah, I know.” “See, I tell you Jamaican is in England” What could I say? So Jamaica is officially in Africa and we are very hot. Hotter than hot Bangkok, okay. But there are some interesting things from mostly the local population. Other people actually know Jamaica. The staff at my school are 99% UK, they know us.

Xavier: Are there any local customs that you found among the Thai people that you’d say, “Man, this is very, very interesting” in terms of, you know, customs.

Maxine: Well, I remember, maybe in my first year, someone introduced me to a student, a young man. And I put out my hand to shake his hand and he did not respond. And I thought, “Wow, he shy.” And then at the end of the year when we had our prize-giving, I noticed the students. Their names are called, they walk on the platforms, stopped at a certain point and do the ‘wai’ as they call it; and then move to the principal, take their certificate and go. In other words, it came home to me that shaking hands is not a part of their culture. They do something else. And I find it very sweet and convenient now. They stop a little bit before, inches away from the principal, do the wai and then walk up to him, take the certificate and move on.

Xavier: Interesting.

Maxine: There’s no shake hand or anything, but it’s very nice if you’re in the dining room, for example, and I give wai to a student. It’s really nice how they respond and when you see they teach the little 2 years olds “Do the wai for her.” So I liked that about them. At first I couldn’t understand it, but I’ve come to appreciate before virus, every time they have a cold they wear a mask. That’s before the virus. We never did, foreigners. So now I appreciate it more.

Xavier: I see.

Maxine: And it also protects you because, if you’re a teacher in a school you get cold very often. So that means if they are in the classroom and they are coughing, they have on their mask. And therefore you feel more secure with that.

Xavier: What would you say you like the most about Thailand?

Maxine: I’ve thought about it. Before I ever knew I was coming here, I had a colleague who came here for holidays, my former colleague. And when he came back he said, “I love that place. I want to go there and work. I want to live there.” And quite a few people I’ve heard said it. And when I came, there was this comfort that I felt, and I couldn’t understand why. I was also with my colleague who came the same time with me from the United States. And she said the same thing. And I tried to decipher why. And then I came to my own conclusion. Apart from the fact that the weather is good, the food is good, holidaying is good, traveling from here is relatively easy. I’ve come to the conclusion that it reminds me of Jamaica in one way, in that, a part of it is dilapidated and the other part is beautiful. So there’s something in common that makes you feel comfortable. That’s the only answer I can give, but we feel okay here that all the teachers we say, “This is not a bad place to get stuck.” Because we have not traveled since 2019.

Xavier: I see. So what do you say you like the least?

Maxine: The heat, pollution.

Xavier: Okay.

Maxine: When the AQI reaches a certain number, the kids have to stay inside, fortunately it is not that often. And when it even reached a higher number, then the government close the school. It can be difficult, even though we are lucky in that our school is right beside the apartments where we live. We literally leave an a/c apartment to go to an a/c school. So we don’t get to feel the effect of the heat as such.

Xavier: Speaking and the love of nature, and you talked about food a little bit. Do you see all the fruits you would see in Jamaica there?

Maxine: Oh Yeah. My favorite fruits when I go, apart from their fruits which sometimes I don’t get the chance to sample their fruits. But they have lime, naseberry, sweetsop, of course banana and different types of oranges. Especially during the Chinese New Year, you see a million and one types of oranges that you have never seen. Pineapple, just the same thing. Melon is one of the more common fruits here. So yeah.

Xavier: What about your mangoes?

Maxine: They have the little one that called plum, and I’m like “No, you’re mango, you’re not plump.” but they have mangoes. The only thing I find is that Is that, I probably see two or three types, not like Jamaica that has a thousand types.

Xavier: Right? What’s the food like? You said the food, you like the food there? Let me back up a bit. What’s the food like and if there is one Thai food that you would recommend, what would it be? So two parts to it.

Maxine: Right. So, a lot of Jamaicans say to me when they find out that I’m here, “Oh, Thai food is my favorite.” and I kind of feel bad. So first of all, I am a creature of habits. Because they have similar things to us in many ways, I eat Jamaican, because chicken is chicken, rice is rice and vegetables are vegetables. One of the things I don’t like about the food here, which many Jamaicans would like, is the pepper. Yeah. It’s peppery. When I see the little kids in the dining room just eating up, I’m like “wow! You have to be born into this.” but I like their seafood, especially Sea bass in different ways, in which the Pad Thai salad is very famous among foreigners. I don’t go for it mainly because they have a way, they put sugar in almost everything and I can’t understand why you put sugar in a salad, so I don’t have it. But there’s a wide choice. And also, even though the food is so popular here, it’s not just Thai food. You can have Chinese, Mediterranean, Japanese, Korean, you have a wide choice of food here. And it’s also very foodie country. Like almost everybody eats out. When you go to the malls in the evenings, it’s just ram-pack, people eats their supper there,

Xavier: Right

Maxine: Because food is so cheap too and good. And that is why their street food is such that it’s very unlikely that you’ll get food poisoning because usually done and also, it’s very well fried, so you know how that goes. Still have not brought myself to do much of that.

Xavier: you said there are things that tastes like Jamaican food. Is there a Jamaican restaurant there?

Maxine: Well, I heard about one.

Xavier: Okay.

Maxine: And when I went there, he told me that he was Thai-Egyptian, who used to live in New York and he liked Jamaican food in New York, so he brought it here. When I went to collect it too the guy who cooks it was Nepalese. So you got the picture, right? It came close, but yuh (you) know these food usually come close. A colleague of mine, from the UK whose father is Jamaican of English descent, so he knows about Jamaican food. He bought for me last week, jerk chicken and rice and peas.

Xavier: Okay.

Maxine: The taste was there, but if you got the rice and peas you’d have said “Wait, did they stay in Chiang Mai and put the peas?” Then I realize no, rice and beans, you need lots of peas. But it has a good taste. I liked it. A friend sent me a note some weeks ago that said, in April they’ll be opening a Jamaican restaurant. So I’ll sample that and tell you.

Xavier: Alright. Looking forward to hearing about that

Maxine: Oh, one more. In Christmas, I went up to this mountainous town called Pai, really nice and cool. And only when we came back we realized that there was a Jamaican restaurant way up in that mountain. For those of us listening who knows Chiang mai it’s miles away from Chiang Mai. So it’s distance from Bangkok. So there’s a Jamaican restaurant there, I looked it up. They sell jerk chicken and all of that, but I missed it.

Xavier: You have to go back?

Maxine: Yeah, maybe.

Xavier: You’re located in Bangkok?

Maxine: Yeah.

Xavier: So being there in Thailand, I’m always hearing and I think you partially mentioned it. I think you have mentioned that you could travel around. When you could travel, what was it like? Did you travel to China? Did you travel to Korea? What nearby places have you traveled to or planned to?

Maxine: It’s funny how you started with the two countries that I’ve never been to yet. I must say, first of all, since I’ve been here, the amount of places that we can go in Asia without a visa have increased. So that’s good. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been to Hong Kong, Laos, Bali, Malaysia, Singapore, just a few countries around the region. I’ve been to Singapore three times because it’s literally an hour down the road, Malaysia twice and Laos is amazing. Oh, Vietnam. Wow. You would love Vietnam. When you go there you wonder “Was this really where Vietnamese war was?” So peaceful and nice. I got introduced to oxtail soup in Vietnam.

Xavier: And how was it?

Maxine: Great. I had it almost every day. I’ve never had it in Jamaica. Have you?

Xavier: I have never had oxtail soup. I had one experience where I was in Spain, and I ordered oxtail. It was an excursion and it was kind of up in the hills. And I was amazed at the taste of the oxtail, because you know, we as Jamaicans think our oxtail is, The Oxtail.

Maxine: Well actually here I had it also tin an Italian restaurant because they apparently cook it often, the Italians and it was good. It seem as if oxtail is just good. Right. We just popularize it but it’s good.

Xavier: Exactly. Exactly. So, in terms of adjustment, when you first got there. What would you say has been the biggest thing that you had to adjust to when you got to Thailand?

Maxine: I’m not sure, I adjusted to anything. I’m not sure why maybe because as I told you before, I lived for six years in Moscow. And while I was in Moscow, I traveled many places, I went to Finland. Just about a lot of different places in Europe. After Moscow, I studied in the UK. I lived in Moscow first and then in the UK for about 10 years. I went to the United States, then I came here. So, I don’t know. I think there’s something in us that as we grow older, it comes out without we know. And if you see from the people you interviewed, I listened to a lot of them. You have to be a certain way to travel to many countries, appreciate it and live there. So I can’t think of any adjustments to be honest, not even language. Because initially you have people in the school who do things for you, the things that you need to do. Whether it’s your bank work, you have a mass doing that in school. Whether it’s at the hospital, international hospitals they have here, they speak English. So, I’m not sure. Oh, there must be an adjustment right? Using boat as my transport. We use a boat, like 5 minutes from here to the next station. It’s 15 minutes’ walk and if you take a taxi, depending on the traffic, it could even be 30 minutes. Its 5 minutes in the boat. Yeah, that was kind of ‘Oh my God” but I got used to taking the boat and other places where I take the boat to go. Yeah, that was an adjustment.

Xavier: Not a major one, but because of your travels and your different experiences, you’re well adjusted. Because you had to think for a little bit to find something. And so I’m finding that a lot of people are adjusted. Yuh put us anywhere and wi just gwine mek di best out of it. (Put us anywhere and we’ll make the best of it.)

Maxine: I think it’s the personality in us though. Some people come and “Bwoy mi cyaan stay yah because…” (man I can’t stay here…) you know that type of thing, when not everything is perfect, but you live with it. Just like in the states. It was different, I was teaching in boarding schools and so on, but there were adjustments that you had to make there too. And also, once you decide to do something, then there’s less adjustment to be made. I got job offers in Taiwan and Korea, but for some strange reason, I just never felt it, so I rejected the offers. But for this one, for some reason I felt it. I was going to explain more about the job and why I actually took this over the other one.

Xavier: Well, by all means. And one of the questions I was going to ask you, because earlier you talked about when they did, and I don’t remember the name of this when they do this (action of the wai). Right. For the most part, you’ll hear the rest of the east, teachers are well respected. So, go ahead and tell us why this job and why they have kept you there. But I would love to hear a little bit about the respect.

Maxine: Right? The day is for teachers, but for the Thai people, your teacher is not just the person teaching in the classroom. First and foremost, it’s their kin especially the previous one who died. He is their number one teacher. And then it’s their parents and their older siblings, those to them are teachers. So we have this honor at school where they made special flowers that have special meaning and give it to us. And then we look at them and say, may you all be successful. And even though this happens every year, the way their eyes light up when you say it to them, it means something to them. It’s really a very special occasion where they honor their teachers. How did I choose this? First of all, the job is to be the director of their critical thinking program. Something that I’m very passionate about as a historian, on how we think, especially in a time like this. But one of the things that got me here, apart from the fact that when I taught at boarding school in the United States, I also taught students from Thailand. So there’s some familiarity there. I had a good relationship with them. And they teach it a special way here. The type of teaching that I do is called Harkness teaching. This is something that I learned from teaching in the two boarding schools where I taught in the USA. Harkness really, it means student centered, discussion base. In my classrooms, you have big oval tables and the kids sit around it with you. They have to read articles, annotate, create questions and we have a discussion rather than me at the top telling them the answers. I should mention that it’s a sort of pre-university just like when I taught in the states and that’s why I took this type of job too. Because I know I could use up my skills that I got, not just in Moscow, but in Cambridge doing a PhD, you use those skills to teach the kids, to teach them writing. I was pretty impressed that they had the Harkness System here and the Harkness table because my first ever job at the Phillips Exeter Academy in the United States was a Harkness school, only Harkness they taught. My second job at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey was a Harkness school, only Harkness they use. And then I came here. I’m just lucky, let’s put it that way. Just very, very lucky because it’s not that common. So that really enticed me to come here.

Xavier: Okay. Well, I appreciate you spending some time with us Maxine and telling us all about your journey to Thailand. My last question is this, I have two more, but here’s one before the last one. You get off the plane, you land in Jamaica. What is the first, well, before that, how could I forget this. I forgot one question. I’m going to back up a little bit. The question is, if I was to visit Thailand, what is the one thing, either it could be an attraction, an experience, an event, it could be a location. You’d say “Xavier, if you come to Thailand, you have to experience this, visit this, or do this. What would that be?

Maxine: Okay. Xavier. If you come to Thailand, you have to visit these places. I can’t give you one. I have to give you a few. The Grand Palace, It’s awesome. The historic size, like, they’re old Capitol, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. And then I know you don’t just want to be educated. So they’re sky bars. I’ve just been there once, but I know you would like it. This the sky bars and then the islands, Koh Samui and all those, the beaches. Like now when there are no tourists, except us teachers, I remember last summer, many of our teachers just took a car and went down the coast of the islands. They stop at this island and moved onto the next, then the next. Very beautiful, lots of beauty you will enjoy. That’s more than one, right?

Xavier: Yes. That’s more than one. So, let’s talk about those islands now. So you’re saying you went along the coast and what you do? Tek (take) a boat ova (over) to these smaller islands that’s off the coast?.

Maxine: Yes. At some point. Like I went to Koh Samui once. I drive and then, oh my gosh. I’m not sure I liked it because you walk in the water and then you go in to boats. Small islands nice. Not all of them are very small, actually. Koh Tachai I went to, it could be a little country by itself. So it appears to me anyway. There are waterfalls. I love waterfalls. There’s a lot of waterfalls and jump over to Laos. Yeah. I won’t give you anymore.

Xavier: Alright, back to my other question. You land in Jamaica, what’s the first thing you’re doing when you get off the plane? It could be visits, food. What will you be doing?

Maxine: Right. After of course the immigration and the customs looked at me and said, “You live in Thailand?” “Yes I do.” And the next part I usually like is when they look at me and say, “Welcome home.” It’s the sweetest feeling. When they look, “you live in Thailand. Oh my God. How do you like it? Welcome home.” You have no idea how that feels. Normally I said to my friends, if my friends picked me up, “let’s stop at the first coconut water.” Wait, do we say coconut juice or coconut water?

Xavier: No wi seh (we say) coconut wata (water).

Maxine: Right? Because here’s juice. And by the way, here, it tastes different. I just had to get use to it.

Xavier: Right.

Maxine: Oh, I went to Cambodia I never list that. Indonesia and Cambodia’s coconut water tastes like Jamaica’s. The others tastes different.

Xavier: How different can Coconut water tastes from one place to the other, its coconut.

Maxine: Okay. When the Thai people decided to let in you Americans, come on over and I’ll show you. They are letting you in now, by the way. So you can come on over. Yeah and then the food. Sometimes I purposely go to Knutsford court, and even when you stay at Knutsford Court, their so-called free breakfast. You know how that goes how free it is. Anybody would love that free breakfast. You know the continental, the egg, croissant bread, everything. No, I paid to get my banana, dumpling and then either ackee and salt fish, ackee and corn pork, calaloo or mackerel. And they give me like only one banana. Like, can I pay for an extra 3? Like I miss eating green banana. And I always go with my very good friend. I should give her a shout out, Professor Shepherd. We always go for brunch in Courtly. I love it. The last time I was there, my friends drove me all the way to the Blue Mountains, they have this blue cafe. The food was so good that I took a picture of it and it’s framed in my dining room. So yes, I just walk around and eat all the food I can.

Thailand landscape

Xavier: Well Again, thank you for spending some time with us. Telling us about your experience there in Thailand. So here’s how I typically close out. I know you don’t know the language fully, but I’m sure yuh pick (you picked) up and you must know this one. Okay. I know I’m putting you on the spot here. How do they say bye-bye informally in Thai?

Maxine: Well, okay. The way they say bye-bye is also, I think the way they say hello. Like, Sawasdee Ka. Now you hear me say ‘Ka’ at the end, it’s a form of friendliness, politeness it’s really Sawasdee and then ka. And if you want to say thank you, Khob khun ka. I watched someone talking one day on the phone and they said to the person “Khob khun ka Sawasdee Ka”. So you’re saying thank you at the same time and goodbye. And it’s really sweet. So yeah.

Xavier: All I remember is the Sawasdee Ka.

Maxine: That Sawasdee Ka, yeah.

Xavier: Alright. So, Maxine, Sawasdee Ka.

Maxine: Khob khun ka

Photos  – Deposit Photos