Making a Difference in Bangkok – Interview with Dwight Turner

It’s easy for a new university graduate to go abroad and spend all their free time partying and socializing. That’s what I did when I first moved abroad. There is so much to see and do in a foreign country that it’s easy to get caught up in an exciting new lifestyle. Then there are people like Dwight Turner, who realize that they have the power to make a meaningful difference in the world. Dwight is the perfect example of what I call a JetSetCitizen. In Bangkok, Dwight ended up creating his own non-profit that helps refugees in Bangkok which he runs in his free-time. He dedicates countless hours of his time with no salary to providing food, housing and education for 13 families who would be other be subject to prison and other depravities in Thailand. We need more Dwight Turners in the world. I hope you get inspired to take action from this interview. It would be great to get some more donations to Dwight’s charity.

Dwight Turner Bangkok

How did you end up in Bangkok?

Basically, I studied intercultural communication at the State University of Sacramento. I really loved it and had great professors. One of them, an associate professor at Bangkok University, started a teacher recruiting program to send students to Thailand as English teachers.

Of course, as soon as I heard about it I was interested. Like a lot of students, I couldn’t afford a traditional study abroad program. So this was an opportunity to work abroad and actually experience see some of the world and have a chance to see some of my coursework become real in my everyday life.

I applied and was one of four students selected. I left for a crazy year teaching English. Hit Bangkok hard; fell in love with the culture, fell in love with Bangkok, and picked up a good amount of the language in the 10 months I was surrounded by it. I was scared I’d forget, so I took a reading and writing Thai language course before heading home, not knowing I’d end up back in Bangkok a year and a half later.

What is Bangkok like?

Bangkok is pretty nuts. It’s a huge city and people always underestimate it’s size. There’s so much going on here, that it’s hard to ever get bored. Because of that, this city facilitates tons of different subcultures and sub-subcultures around music, art, food— just about anything you can think of. You get your feet on the ground and you realize you can dictate the type of lifestyle you want to have here because of those communities and because things like food and transportation are so cheap. If you want to go to a new art show, nightclub, restaurant every day or every week it’s possible here. The other end of that fast paced, anything can happen lifestyle is that if you’re not grounded mentally, socially, and financially, then you’ll burn out here pretty fast. I see that happen to people all the time.

Have you had any major problems in Thailand?

The major problem with Thailand is staying for any length of time. That means you need to have a long-term plan for your visa, because the tourist visa periods are so short. Lately, there’s also a reluctance to keep renewing tourist visas, even if you pay all the fees and jump through all the Thai immigration hoops.
Dwight Turner Sanuk Bangkok

Please tell us about the jobs you’ve had in Thailand?

When I got back to Thailand the second time, the plans I had to teach in a college fell through, so I ended up doing some private tutoring. Then I got asked to interview for  an elementary school position at a school associated with one where I’d previously taught. Basically, my interview ended pretty fast because they told me they wouldn’t hire me because I was black. Normally, the story would have ended there, but because of my ties to the school everything got drawn out and I was hired anyway.

So I worked this miserable teaching job and when the year ended I started looking for other work. A few months later I was hired to do social media for a marketing company who had a few big hotel clients. I was supposed to be hired to lead a team, but it never materialized and the work was pretty demanding. They fired me near the end of the three month probation and never really gave me an acceptable explanation.

A few months later the new school year was beginning and I was sort of desperate to find a job, I took another teaching gig. Did it for a year and when it ended, I swore I’d never teach again. If I was to do any more teaching, I promised myself I’d go home first. But a few months later I hooked up with some guys interested in the social media consulting I was offering and I’ve been here since. All in all, I’ve lived for about five years in Thailand.

How do you earn an income now?

Now I earn a living doing social media consulting. I tried a few other things like freelance writing, but this is what seemed to pick up for me the fastest. Before I stopped my last teaching job, I started consulting with a small hotel to make some extra cash and I’ve tried to slowly build my customer base since. Now I consult semi-fulltime for a small marketing agency and have a few small clients on the side.

How much are your living costs in Bangkok?

For a rough breakdown, I thought it’d be fair to give you my averages for the last three months. For rent and utilities I spend about $500 a month. I spend a ridiculous amount of money on food each month because I socialize and eat out often. I’ve been trying to curtail that, but I average around $300 per month and another $100 or so in groceries. I don’t have a car, but where I live is convenient for public transportation and I spend on average a little less than $100 each month. My other expenses are visa and travel related. I don’t have health insurance and I still have student loans. It’s a bad combo, but makes for good new year’s resolutions. 🙂

Please tell us about your charity work?

I work with people seeking refugee status. For families who come to appeal to the UN in Bangkok and who have been here for a long time, they eventual run out of savings and cannot legally work. I help families in this situation, especially those that aren’t getting help from any other organization. Currently, I support about thirteen families with rent and food stipends. This is the main thing I do and possible the most important thing I’ve ever done.

Can you provide some examples of your charity projects?

I pay rent and give people money for food. Pretty basic, but it means the world to these families. We’ve helped families whose kids were beginning to show signs of malnutrition start eating again on a regular basis. This gives them the security to know they’ll have a meal and won’t have to stress about rent while they’re trying to sort out their UN cases.

I’ve also taken volunteers into slums and taught kids in neighborhood mosques and Buddhist temples. I’ve thrown parties to raise money for orphanages and carbon offsetting. We’ve given poor kids scholarships for drama and private English lessons. Most recently we did a Saturday school program getting high school students to teach the elementary students from poor neighborhoods

When I came back to Thailand, I was pretty bored with what other people were doing basically. I started trying to volunteer at various places. This didn’t work out, but I got to see what a lot of organizations were doing. Then I met Marc Gold of 100 Friends and he pushed me to start my own project and not look for the answer from NGOs. He also talked about all the people who fall between the gaps of the help these organizations provide and by then I had already experienced some of that first hand. He also donated my first $100.

Here’s a video a friend made to explain what I do, please watch:

I started throwing parties while I was teaching full time. That’s where the name ‘In Search of Sanuk‘ came from– sanuk being the Thai word for fun. I sort of set out to prove we could help people and have fun while doing it. When I got burned out on that, I started working in the slums and with refugees. So the way I started was pretty simple. I never thought from the outset that I’d now be responsible for over sixty people, families who would be at risk to exploitation or jail if it wasn’t for the people who support my organization. Of course, we still do some fun events, like Big Bite Bangkok, a food market where the proceeds help give us a fundraising boost a few times a year.

Since 100% of the money goes to people in need, how do you cover operating expenses?

This year about 90% of what was donated will go directly to people in need. The 10% covers those expenses. I expect this cost to raise in the coming year. I just hired an assistant for the charity because my full time work demands so much of my attention. We’ve never had staff before, but I’ve stretched myself too far and devoted too much of my personal finances to some of my projects in the past. I don’t want to put myself on the path to burn out by continuing to go down that route. It’s a relief, but I’m going to still aim to keep our overhead costs pretty low in the coming year.

How can others support your cause?

There’s a few ways. People can sign up to volunteer, there’s a $15 registration fee and a suggested $6 donation each time you join. This fee also helps us keep costs low and even though I don’t think it’s very expensive, it deters a lot of people who probably shouldn’t be volunteering anyway.

Or biggest need, however, isn’t volunteers but regular donations. If you know about running a business it’s pretty hard to plan your operations without knowing how much income you can depend on from your customers. The same is true for this type of humanitarian work. Sure a big donation is great, but someone who commits to donate $10 or $20 a month is really invaluable. If you can get people to donate in small amounts regularly, it really expands what we’re able to plan for– meaning we can help more people, more wisely allocate funds, and even respond to emergencies. In this way, if you give a small donation you really can have a BIG impact.


Make a Small Donation Give because it’s the right thing to do.
InSearchofSanuk – Dwight Turner’s Website
Follow InSearchofSanuk on Twitter 

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

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