Saturday, October 16, 2010

Teacher Go Porice Station: My First Job

I know, I know -- I said it would only be a week of re-runs about Thailand. But the last entry was 70 percent new material, and in honor of the current visa mess in Russia and all the strict laws that now exist in Asia for working visas, here's a look at old-school visa problems.

Bangkok, Thailand : May, 1995

It was my day off, but I was going in at 6:00 in the evening to make up a class for another teacher who’d been delayed while going to Malaysia to get another tourist visa. This was about three weeks after I’d started.

Working had turned out to be not nearly as bad as I expected. The staff, about 6 guys from England, and a South African , were generally a nice enough bunch, united in their love of Thai woman (or Thai men, in one case) and in alcohol. I was the youngest at 25.

However, the manager was a bit of an asshole – he hated Thailand and he hated Thai people, but he’d married a Thai woman and had a daughter. He sat around playing “Minesweeper” all day while only doing a class himself if it was absolutely unavoidable. He dealt with the secretaries by screaming at them – he spoke no Thai -- and he constantly sent angry memos to the owner about their incompetence. His experience had been as an engineer; he was not blessed with people skills. He dealt with his students in a similar way – he refused to let anyone into the class after ten minutes. He was crabby and sarcastic with the teachers – I was the only one inexperienced enough to be intimidated by him though. A natural choice for manager. His days were numbered, of course.

My classes seemed harmless enough at the outset. I just went through the book with them, occasionally drawing some cartoons on the board to illustrate something or playing the only English game I knew in those days: hangman. They smiled a lot so I assumed everything was just fine. In fact I kind of liked it, despite the fact I had no idea what I was doing. The students certainly didn’t seem to care. They smiled no matter what you did. The only complaints that ever got back to us were that the students expected you to talk more and “be funny”.

The schedule was somewhat unpleasant. I worked weekends – a solid block from 9:00am to 4:00pm, with a one-hour lunch break. I had one day off – Thursday. During the week, I worked from 10:30am to 12:30pm, and then again from 6:00 pm to 8:00pm. This left five hours to kill – fortunately the school was located in a large shopping mall, which meant your shopping never need suffer.

The teachers filled those five hours in many ways. First they tried playing cards, but the owner came down on that hard on one of his infrequent visits. It didn’t look professional. Then we tried playing on the computers (the school also had computer classes.) That was nixed too. Not professional. We then tried going into an empty classroom and watching videos on the school’s one TV/VCR. It worked well enough until the owner found out about it and took the TV away, some months later.

He didn’t mind if we slept somewhere though. That was normal in Thailand. Any Thai office around noon would see half the staff asleep. I took wonderful afternoon naps in the well-insulated sound lab – I’ve never slept so well before or since.

Things were different back in 1995 in many ways. Despite having decent classrooms with whiteboards, there was only one cassette player on the premises. It was jealously fought over. We were expected to purchase our own white-board markers. Almost no one had a work permit – everyone just went to Malaysia every three months for a new tourist visa. Still the salary – 20,000 bhat, which at that time was $800—though we complained about it a lot then, seems incredibly generous by today’s standards.

One guy had taken an EFL course, and another was a former school teacher, but the rest had no training and no university degrees. I never saw anyone preparing for a lesson, and I certainly never did. There was no photocopier and nothing in the way of “resources.” We didn’t miss them because we never knew they were an option. We were even expected to buy our own copies of the books we used. There were some teachers’ books, but not enough to go around. Remember, this was the largest chain language school in Bangkok, at that time.

Of course we had to wear a shirt and tie every day. No one minded much except one former paratrooper from Liverpool. “I ain’t wearin no rag around my neck!” They needed teachers desperately though. We couldn’t fill all the clasess. Any white person that could stand upright could get a job there. And many did that couldn’t stand upright for very long.

So I remember it was raining really hard – like always during the end of April in Thailand -- and I walked into the chilled consumer comforts of the mall, my tattered umbrella poking out of the filthy old army surplus bag I carried my odds and ends in.

I went upstairs to the school and found it completely deserted.

Strange. The Flying Dutchman English School.

I went down to the office on a lower floor of the mall where the school had a desk full of secretaries to sign up new students. None of the secretaries spoke much English, and I certainly spoke no Thai, but I inquired about what had happened.

“Teacher go porice station.”

Ah. The police station. I asked for more details – no one could express them.

I thought about it. There had been an incident with the paratrooper a few days before – we’d all been forced to go to some gala benefit that the school was sponsoring, at a huge glitzy disco. Loads of Thai pop singers, and we’d swiped a bottle of Johnny Walker from the V.I.P area. It hadn’t turned out so badly – we’d gone to some go-go bars afterwards. Good innocent debauchery.

The paratrooper hadn’t been invited because he refused to dress up. Yet his wife had gone. He arrived at school the next day in a jealous rage that another teacher might have fucked his wife. He threatened another teacher. I’d been in class when I heard the screaming start. I walked outside as the manger proved to be effective in at least that situation, escorting the paratrooper out of the building and demanding that he not return.

In the staffroom, the threatened teacher was smoking a cigarette and nursing his hangover. “Cheers. Why would he think anyone would want to fuck that ugly cow? She looks like a kratoey.” A transvestite. In truth she wasn’t nearly as pretty as most transvestites.

Now of course my first thought was that the paratrooper had come back and started a fight. He was well known for dipping into unbelievably powerful “diet pills” that were available at any pharmacy without a prescription. Maybe he’d killed somebody. He was also know to frequent the little stands outside the mall that sold fried rice, chicken, fruit, brass knuckles, butterfly knives and air pistols.

Worriedly I returned to my guest house.

The next day I got the full story. Everyone was laughing about it.

The entire school had been arrested for not having work permits. Even the two who did have work permits.

“I was doing my class and I saw this bloke outside with a video camera. Of course I waved to him. I thought he was from the news,” one teacher told me. But alas the man was from immigration, and he had some friends with him. The teachers had spent about six or seven hours detained at the immigration office.

Later in the day two sleazy bastards from the head office came over and explained what had happened. They were both English guys with educated accents that made me think of bad guys from American action films.

They told us that though the school paid off immigration regularly, the commander had gone on holiday. One of his lieutenants had decided to make some extra money by shaking down the school. It had all been sorted out, of course. According to them.

I drew on the board a cartoon of a guy with a tie in a jail cell and the caption “WANTED: TEACHERS OF ENGLISH”. Another teacher offered a list of the conjugation of the passive form of “arrest”: I was arrested, we were arrested. . .

The big fat sleazy guy assured us that it was no problem. “Corruption and connections are so commonplace in Thailand that they are a perfectly normal, expected part of doing business.” Having no work permits should not be considered a problem, they explained, but it might be best if we tried to get some.

To that end, they told us, we should start working on making fake university diplomas. They offered some suggestions as to how to do so. I was the only one who actually had one in a related field, so it saw a lot of action in photocopy machines that month.

I heard later the big fat guy from head office liked to have muscular young men crap on him. Or so one of his friends told me.

The other one was well known to like pre-teen boys.

Let’s hope he’s died horribly, hmm?

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