(please note that the names of the school and the identities of any staff members have been changed)
I spent the first couple days in Bangkok at a cheap hotel and received a phone call from the school asking when I would come there. We arranged a day and time. I was impressed they called. (At this point, my expectations, the proverbial “bar” had been lowering further and further downwards like a limbo contest)
I thought they might send a car to get me but no offer was made nor did they provide a car when I asked, so I had to book a taxi out there and pay and find my own way. The school was a good hour and a half from downtown Bangkok. I knew this going in but it wasn’t a problem. I’d been in an industrial area in Korea that had air pollution issues and I’d been looking forward to being in a cleaner, bucolic surrounding - at least that’s what the pictures, Google maps and the website of the school had led me to believe.
I thought I’d head into Bangkok once or twice a month and on weekends on holidays for fun, but mostly I was happy to be living out in the Thai countryside and was wishing to explore the nearby national park via motorbike, as I had done in the north of Thailand, traversing Esan and the Laotian border on a previous journey to Thailand.
But as the taxi approached the school, the uglier the outskirts of Bangkok became. Decrepit buildings, bumper to bumper traffic, even an hour outside the city, though I did see the occasional gorgeous temple or decent looking school and half-built or unsold condo. The more we got closer to the school, the more it looked like I had expected. Sprawling green rice fields, canals, egrets soaring by, even the hovels lining the canals had a rustic charm to them.
The cab driver had trouble finding the school because it was so remote so I had to call the HR lady to help give him directions. Fortunately she picked up her phone and helped. When we finally got there though, no one greeted us at the school, at the gate or at the door - and the HR lady didn’t answer her phone!
A frosty reception
Stepping into the administration building, which sat at the head of the small campus, I noticed immediately that the building was in shabbier shape than it had appeared in photos. It was dark inside, with paint chipping off the walls and there was a damp, moldy smell. I plopped my bags in the hallway and wandered around until I found the office responsible for foreign teachers. Immediately upon entering the office, I could tell something was amiss. The office didn’t seem like a happy place. There was a palpable tension that I sensed just stepping foot inside. Something ugly in the air. Something suffocating.
The secretary, contrary to most Thais who smile upon greeting a stranger (they were supposed to be aware of my arrival and I was dressed in a suit and tie) had a stone cold, unpleasant and exasperated face She asked simply if she could help me. Her words broke off like icicles. I smiled and told her I was a new teacher and was here to meet with HR to provide and receive documents for my visa.
She begrudgingly asked me to sit down. I waited for around 20 minutes, flipping around on my phone, but largely taking in the disturbing vibe I was absorbing from the place. Panning my gaze, scanning the office with analytical eyes, I could tell that everyone there seemed generally miserable. No one was smiling. There was no jocund chatter or laughing. Everyone looked solemn and downtrodden. This was not sanuk.
A good word for no one
Eventually the head of HR received me. She was half-foreign, half-Thai and 100% mean. Her bird-like face made her appear sort of like the Grinch. The Grinch, in true Grinch fashion, herself had no smile.
I sat down in her cramped, messy office that she shared with two other bureaucrats. Two towering mountains of bureaucracy sprung up like fangs from opposite sides of her desk; the assorted stacks of papers, manila folders flanked and framed the Grinch, forming a gorge, an aperture to her sharp face.
She launched into a tirade about the poor behavior of foreign teachers at the school, how awful so many of them were. She mentioned current teachers by name, saying how one was “okay,” but another was “difficult,” one was “rude with no people skills,” two others had “terrible” classes and she’d had to coach them to improve. She mentioned a Russian lady there, teaching English, as having handwriting so atrocious it was too difficult for students to read. Then she went into a rant about a teacher who’d recently left. A girl from Australia, who’d been unhappy with everything, especially the school’s accommodation, and the Grinch mocked and scathingly rehashed the Aussie’s complaints. The grievances had obviously bothered her deeply.
I made a mental note not to complain much about my accommodation. I also made a mental note to avoid interaction with this lady as much as possible. Her bitterness was upsetting. It was as if she was embalmed in malcontent.
And I’d never, not once, had an HR person complain to me about her employees, especially calling people out by name, badmouthing them to me, when I’d just walked in the door.
After using me as an emotional toilet, emptying her mental bowels, her diarrhea of disdain for her employees, she did speak of her teaching at the school and a couple of accomplishments, students she was proud of.
Although she was a Grinch, for a moment she struck me as a caring, dedicated teacher.
While perhaps a good teacher, the Grinch seemed to have genuine issues with foreigners, which could have stemmed from negative past experiences with foreign coworkers, employees. (Buddha knows many a feckless farang has [dis]graced Thai classrooms.) Or maybe she had daddy issues related to her farang father, or maybe it had to do with experiences she’d had studying in America. Who knows. But I knew to steer clear of this lady as much as I could.
The vice president
After that encounter, I was brought to see the vice president in a tiny office which she had to herself. The office was freezing cold and as dark as a tomb, with no windows and flickering, weak fluorescent overhead lights, and as opposed to the other bureaucrats, the office had no decorations, postings on the wall or pictures of family members. Its desk was entirely empty.
The vice president was another administrator who most definitely made a memorable first impression on me,
She was far older than the Grinch and spoke in a quiet, soft-spoken voice, almost syrupy susurrations, finishing most every sentence with the Thai polite particle “na.”
During our first (of what would be many) meetings, she rambled on, also badmouthing a couple of the current teachers by name and asking questions and immediately answering her own questions about school policy, referring to the students as “children” and that we could “call their parents” if we needed to and that if a girl came to my class wearing too short a skirt, I should demand her to leave and go change into a longer one.
At my past college, although many of my Korean students acted immature (a consequence of only studying throughout high school and not doing much socially, which left their emotional development stunted) the school treated the students as adults and so her monologue was unexpected.
I guess being a Catholic school, I should have expected it but she wasn’t a nun. I’d have been more comfortable with an old nun having this sort of soliloquy for some reason, possibly because it’s what I’d expect from a nun, not what I’d expect from a Thai corpse.
Following those two meetings, my last meeting was with a very 'un-Thai Thai'. A HR hench(wo)man in charge of visa procedures and paperwork. Maybe the person I should have emailed with long, long ago.
The vice-president did at least force a smile as she spoke. This henchlady didn’t. She was gruff, laconic, phlegmatic and didn’t smile once. She offered no pleasantries whatsoever. She greeted me coolly with a copy of my bachelor’s degree to sign for the visa paperwork. I asked her if I also needed to sign a copy of my MBA. She then asked me if I had an MBA. The HR person in charge of handling my visa paperwork didn’t know or have my correct degree. She’d probably not seen my CV. Or didn’t care.
Things weren’t off to a great start. I left that office with a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. What the hell had I gotten myself into? Red flags were everywhere. This place was becoming Tiananmen Square.
But hey, it was only a one-year contract…