Saturday, February 19, 2011

Look, the Falang is wearing a Red Shirt

I knew I was going to do this at some point.
And I'm also probably going to get yelled at. Oh well.

Walking to the khlong boat stop nearest my apartment with my neighbor, we walked through today's red shirt protest. Somehow I didn't realize it would spread that far out. Let me also mention, we were headed to dress rehearsal (if you're asking for what? you'll have to ask me personally)- wearing red and black as all the actresses are wearing. Oops. I got a bunch of smiles, thumbs up, and of course the usual:
"Where are you from?"
"United States."
"But they don't like red shirts." awkwardly in typical Thai style to diffuse tension - waiting for the traffic to stop so we can cross the other half of the intersection.
"But USA don't like red shirts," he insists several times.
Personally I wonder if he's overheard tourists complaining about red states and misunderstood whose politics were being discussed.
Further awkward smiling on my part and a smiling goodbye on his as we are finally clear to cross.

Even on the khlong boat smiles from Thais in red shirts, thumbs up and nodding and smiling as they try to speak to me in Thai I don't know. Nod, smile, giggle awkwardly, nod, shrug.

After rehearsal we made our way through a gathering I can only presume is for the Buddhist Holiday that began yesterday - careful to let the monks pass without being contaminated by brushing up against women. Then the three of us grabbed pad thai at a stall in Pratunam and caught the khlong boat back home. By now the protest, which tonight seems much more like a street festival, is even more crowded. We get off the boat and I'm getting more attention for my shirt, but not a lot. My Thai American neighbor tells me someone has said "hey look, the falang is wearing a red shirt," in Thai as we passed on the sidewalk. Glad she was able to fill me in.

We're debating about what shortcut to take to get back home through the mess; and we decide to walk straight through. Food stalls, t-shirt vendors, music, dancing, napping, how is this a protest? This seems like a festival. There is live music being broadcast on screens, rock style; people are clapping plastic hand clappers (a man claps his at me, smiling broadly and pointing at my shirt). A monk is offering blessings with what look like incense sticks that he is using to flick water on people. He smiles as I walk by and I get my own splash. Does this make up for the cockroaches of late? In any case I'm happy for an interaction with a monk that wasn't just stepping out of his way on the sidewalk or giving him my bus seat, or the infamous Khao Sarn fakes.
We walk past a t-shirt stall where the t-shirts are decorated with fake bullet wounds, fake blood and an embroidered number of the caliber of the bullet. Reminder.
We walk down a road towards our apartments, past my Thai American colleague's school.
She points out the places people were shot last spring, just in front of her school, and the spot where the Japanese journalist was shot.
It may be a street festival now, before the summer heat has peaked, while the government is only engaged in crowd control. Time will tell which direction things will go. To quote my favorite Bangkok Post Op-Ed writer: it's not as simple as black and white, red and yellow.

Next up: idiotically wandering through a PAD protest in my goldenrod Purdue shirt.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day at a Thai Middle School

Despite my resolve to hold off on posting for awhile, I simply cannot pass up documenting the insanity of Valentine's Day in a Thai Middle School. Let me preface by saying that without photographic evidence I cannot do this scene justice.
There are heart shaped stickers everywhere. Mainly on the school uniforms of my students - boys, girls, orientation, doesn't matter. Several students have about half of the front of their school uniform shirt completely plastered with heart stickers. Photos, huge stuffed animals, candy, flowers - the school is practically having a party in the corridor between classes, and during most of the classes from what I can tell.
It's good the headmistress is preoccupied with interviewing potential students for next year with her general outlook on student relationships; though I noticed not even she has escaped the stickers. I have fourteen heart stickers from students on my shirt right now.
And I am so glad today is over.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thailand True, False and Huh?

Women don’t sit next to monks on the bus. I knew this ahead of time thankfully. Though I was a little taken aback the time a monk boarded the bus I was on, I was sitting in the ‘reserved for monks’ spot, and the bus fare collector grabbed my arm and moved me to another seat proclaiming “you, here.” I guess of the ways that could have gone, that’s not too bad.

“It’s more polite for women to wear skirts,” this is not a suggestion this is required. While not all occupations require women to wear skirts as of the last few years, and possibly not even all schools – mine does. Certain official places also require women to wear skirts – see Throne Room post. Thai culture training even suggested it was necessary to dress as professionally as you do for teaching even for simple grocery shopping in case you meet student’s parents. Uh, no, too bad, I’ll be polite, I’m not wearing a skirt 7 days a week.

The Thais don’t do anger, publicly. This really results in everyone bottling up their true feelings – but anger, in any capacity, literally short circuits Thai culture. It’s the land of smiles – but that doesn’t mean someone isn’t angry with you and keeping a lid on it. This is one area being ‘farang’ doesn’t matter – you can’t be angry. Talk about vicious cycle. And no, I haven't managed to never be angry. In the words of my colleague - "to Thais, there is nothing scarier than an angry farang."

It’s more important to look like a teacher than to have experience, credentials, etc. (You could always just buy some credentials on Khao Sarn). If you smell, wear the wrong shoes, or don’t fit the image, you could be fired for that. You probably will be fired for that. Thailand is working to be more strict about getting good teachers – but it’s still very much about what you look like. Look ‘too young’ to teach? Also going to cause problems. Look like a teacher but don't have the credentials? If they like you, they'll work around that. If they decide they don't like you, watch out. I have met some African American teachers finally – it is possible.

You don’t need sweaters in Thailand, it’s a tropical country. FALSE. Residents of Central Thailand enjoy aircon so much that they keep it set low enough for everyone to wear their favorite sweaters, scarfs made in handicrafts class, etc. No, I won’t get any sympathy from anyone reading this back home. But, you do need sweaters if you are working in Bangkok.

Thailand is so cheap. Half/half. Many things in Thailand are cheap. Other things are really, really expensive. Bedsheets, for example, are considered a luxury and subject to the luxury tax – and you only get a fitted sheet and pillow cases – Thailand doesn’t do top sheets. Plus if you’re foreign, you’re almost always going to pay more. The baht is strong compared to the dollar right now and you’re going to pay more than you expect for almost everything. Yes, western teachers get paid more than Thai teachers, which helps with farang overcharge. Out and about people will assume you have an expat bank manager’s salary. Learn to haggle like a pro, shop with a Thai that can haggle like a pro or avoid it altogether.

~Lactose-infused soy milk, brand name Lactasoy.
~Soy-infused Rice milk. This is the best I've managed so far.
~The day my boss asked me, “why don’t you drink milk like the other Americans, to keep your skin so white?”
~The Thai proverb, paraphrased: “better to strive to be average, than to embarrass your neighbor by being better than him.”
~The Thai superstition that, "if you expect something to go wrong, it will go wrong." This is used as justification for hardly anyone wearing seatbelts, etc. We were also told of the driver who quit his driving job - and explained "my American boss always made me wear my seatbelt - and I was afraid something bad was going to happen to me because of it."

The above two are the 'my brain is fried, cognitive dissonance' proverbs I alluded to from Thai culture training. I will not be going native enough to skip a seatbelt (when there is one) or merely strive to be average as to not embarrass someone. I'm working on holding my temper.

Other tidbits: that store with all the photos of celebrities? Yeah it's a wax museum. Duh.
Banking Abroad - difficult. HSBC is global that's a great plan - if you have 15,000 USD to open an account you can have a local currency account. D'oh. Moving USD to Thailand - ok. Using a US credit card when in a jam, fees but ok. Withdrawing baht in Thailand, lots of daily withdrawal limits but ok overall. Moving baht to the States to then pay US card down - Good Luck. Since the 1997 Asian Market Crash, Thailand has clamped down on money moving out of the country as much as possible. It's not impossible, but exceedingly difficult. My British colleague moves money via Paypal, which can be a cheaper option for moving small amounts of cash than bank transfer. And don't get me started on the racket that is Western Union, not doing that. Apparently Thai banks (mine at least) and US banking institutions (Paypal at least) haven't come to an agreement to play nice. Paypal account frozen, flagged as fraudulent by Bangkok Bank - what a mess. This one will take awhile, and I'll be happy if I can simply take my Thai bank off of Paypal and restore my American Paypal account to functional. Possible? We'll see.
I'm also looking into opening a different Thai bank account, I have to bank with Bangkok Bank as required for my University to pay me, but there's no reason I can't open another account now that I have a work permit. This would be better for actually saving any way, since in Thailand your account is debit and savings all in one - there are not separate accounts for individuals and checking doesn't exist if you are not a corporation. I've also read on various forums that the bank I'm considering is slightly more foreigner/transfer money home friendly. As for moving money home, I'll figure it out. It's just going to take multiple phone calls to Paypal and multiple trips to the main bank branch on weekdays between very specific hours. And don't try to go on Chinese New Year's Eve; talk about traffic jam.
Though Thailand is paranoid about money leaving the country causing the country to have another market crash, there is one thing they understand about sending money home. Supporting family. All Thais, even the most poor - send money home to support their family. So when I do decide I have the patience to smile my way through this conundrum, the key phrase is: "I need to send money home to support my family." These magic words might actually allow money to go through. Maybe.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Immigration 3, Culture Shock, Seminar, Hospital

Today I went to Immigration for the third time. Best skirt, dress shirt and makeup I spent a fair amount of time applying. I skipped penciling on wrinkles. It didn't even take all day this time, and before lunch hour for the Immigration officers I had not only my one year extended stay permission on my visa but my multiple re-entry permit. I will still be researching to make sure the re-entry permit is correct (multiple and not single)- it's a stamp about half the size of a passport page and some of it is not inked very clearly. Without also having the proper re-entry paperwork; my visa is void upon leaving the country and must be remade - for any reason. Apparently you should also be sure you are stamped in correctly upon return to Thailand - stamp errors are common enough to have their own queue for fixing them at the Immigration office. It's been said to me Immigration is the worst part of Thailand. I'm happy to agree with that statement until proven otherwise, and I see no reason to hope to find worse - Immigration can keep the bottom spot. I'll refrain from getting on my soap box about United States Immigration - except to say for any country, this has got to be one of the most frustrating things about trying to move between countries.

My situation with visa and work permit is not uncommon - it is a rather run of the mill story as far as Thai Immigration goes, and I actually obtained legal status. Many just go without or are in a perpetual state of border running. The rare situation is not having trouble with this in some way. I also received my January salary properly. I'm finally in the system and not stepping on someone's toes to get my pay. Even my attempts at trying to go about this within cultural bounds still enlivened intra-school rivalries I wasn't aware of through the way things were subsequently handled. Lovely. Advice that I've heard now, of course, is bring several months worth of income to support yourself (if you can) while all these glitches occur. No really, several, not just a couple. I'm grateful to the co-worker who loaned me money last month, and reminded me she started off just the same - on a shoestring, borrowing and dealing with confusing school interactions that aren't sorted out easily.
I'm grateful for Ming, one of our resident alley cats for coming to visit on nights when it's most needed, even if she does insist on being let back out at 5 am sharp. I'm sure she prefers the corner of the bed to her options outside.

So about culture shock. There are many things about it, obviously. Awhile back I was asked, "well what are you having culture shock about?" And I'm really not entirely sure how to answer that question. Saying "everything," is overkill. Saying "nothing," is fooling oneself. But categorizing each daily interaction into the binary of yes, culture shock or no, not culture shock - doesn't take into account any of the other factors of daily life. It's frustrating trying to explain culture shock to someone that hasn't experienced it. It's frustrating when you realize you're having a culture moment (or worse yet, finally realize one from awhile back) - but still don't know where to turn to move forward; or at least, not in a positive way forward. And it's most frustrating when you perceive you are receiving the criticism of 'you should know that already,' or 'why didn't you find that out already?' in some shape or form. Right. I'll continue asking 'Ajarn Google' and hope I find something. Ajarn = teacher/college professor. I'm directly quoting foreign teacher Thai culture training by saying - "ask Ajarn Google."

This past Friday, Saturday and Sunday I attended a 'foreign teacher Thai culture' seminar - 8 hours a day. I'm not sure how recently this was made a requirement for foreign teachers, but it's within the last three years. While it sounds alright in theory, and some parts were alright - it's rather new, and like many newly implemented things has a lot of bugs to be worked out. I was the youngest in the room, one of my colleagues who was also required to attend the next youngest - most attendees were older western men. I think the most I got out of Thai culture training was a clearer picture of the gender/age makeup of foreign English teachers in Thailand. And some Thai proverbs so full of cognitive dissonance I'm simply going to pretend I didn't hear them for now. Apparently that's how to survive in Thailand any way. Oil. Water. Brain is fried by that statement. Nod. Smile.

On Friday after the first seminar day, I embarked on my first visit to a Thai hospital to obtain a chest x-ray. I did this on my own to be sure I did not have pneumonia. Half the school has whatever this is - several students have been hospitalized (though I'm told they do precautionary hospitalization much more here). I filled out an intake form and got through triage by pointing to words in my Thai English dictionary. The doctor spoke English well enough. I went to a public hospital, not a private hospital. Bit more language barrier, but otherwise no reason not to go to the closest place for a non-emergency. Chest x-ray: 170 baht. No pneumonia, just bronchitis. I took a ziplock bag of all the medications I was taking or could possibly take to be sure (as best as I could) there would be no medication interaction for anything prescribed. The look of puzzlement on the doctor's face was priceless - you have all this medicine I don't know what else to give you! Well how about something to get this cough to stop, not just placate it? Believe it or not my main intention was not obtaining pills. She then proceeded to show me about each drug she prescribed via Google - the language barrier was a little shaky for that part. Thanks Ajarn Google. My total visit took less than two hours, I had very little waiting - and it cost me around 26 US dollars including four medications, chest x-ray and doctor's fee. Granted, my U.S. Passport and cash were my passes through. I think the most valuable part of that trip is the inhaler that is now keeping my lungs from running away to the countryside. I'll try to get to the park this weekend and out of the smog for a bit. Yes, we do have a few of those in the city still.