Bangkok Phil

From the planet Xerox

All hail to the mighty photocopier

Nothing stirs emotions in the teacher's room and causes friction between teaching and Thai office staff quite like the humble photocopier. We can all manage fairly happily when there's no more coffee powder in the jar or the school is down to its last three sheets of toilet paper, but I've seen teachers sink to their knees and weep at the sight of the dreaded 'out of order' sign, hastily scribbled on a piece of A4 and stuck to the rogue machine by some heartless admin department pen-pusher.

My love-hate affair with all things photocopied began way back in the early 90s when I joined the Sukhumwit branch of a well-known language school. One or two of the teachers started to get ideas above their station and thought it might be a good idea to spice up their lessons with a few photocopied handouts. Noises were made in the direction of the school director - a Japanese gentleman whose iron-clad grip on the school purse-strings was legendary - and under the weight of teacher pressure, he reluctantly agreed to go out a buy a photocopier.

Armed with 10,000 baht and an understandable loyalty towards Japanese brands, he came back with the tackiest-looking photocopier that money could buy and about 7,000 baht in change. He ordered the teachers to gather around for a demonstration and we all made approving noises as the machine coughed and spluttered and spewed out five copies in the amount of time it takes to get married and raise a couple of kids. "It's the cheaper end of the market but it'll do the job" he announced triumphantly. He was no salesman but he sure got the first part right.

With any school photocopier, you have to have a system. Otherwise, heaven forbid, you would have every teacher wanting to make photocopies and injecting new levels of interest into their lesson plans. The Japanese director came up with a system of allowing teachers to make just twenty photocopies on any given day. That's not twenty copies each - but twenty copies for the total number of staff combined. It worked out at something like 1.74 copies per day per teacher. Call me a visionary but I could see that the system was flawed from the start. One or two of the teachers put on a brave face and utilized the machine, while most of us just drifted away and carried on with business as usual. In the end it didn't matter - the photocopier conked out after several months and the manager was too tight to get a replacement.

Just as bad as the schools who dabble in the lower end of the photocopier market are the institutes who insist on keeping the same machine year after year - even when the repairmen are drawing lots and praying they're not the ones to get your call-out. I worked for a school in the mid 90's that had the XYZ-3480-ABC Fujitsu Xerox machine. This was a machine right on the cutting edge of photocopier technology - at least it was in 1974 when it was originally purchased from the maker's catalogue and had the physical dimensions of Dr Who's tardis. For those of you who don't know the TV series Dr Who, then the tardis was similar in size to a public telephone box.

And this school, rather than splash out 80,000 baht on a new modern machine, would call out an endless stream of technicians who stood around scratching their heads while the machine puffed out smoke at twenty second intervals. In the five years I worked there, I saw the machine kicked, punched and swore at (by the teachers not the technicians) I saw paper jam, doors fall off and drawers fail to open. It drank toner fluid like Guinness on St Patrick's Day and when Sandra Fairfax had finished photocopying fifty mock TOEFL tests, it folded its arms, went into a strop and 'said bollocks to the lot of ya'. When it had had enough, no amount of fist-banging and cursing could coax it around to ten more faded copies of exercise six from Betty Azar's Fundamentals of English Grammar.

If a member of the administration department was ever feeling a little downtrodden or undervalued, then the photocopier provided an ideal way for her to get even.


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