I was required to report to the school a week before my classes began for an orientation. The day arrived and I waited outside my apartment building for the school van. After waiting 30 minutes however, it never showed.
I called the school. No one answered. I messaged the school online. No one responded. So I set out to the main road, about a 15 minute-walk.
Feeling the heat
I was wearing formal clothes - black trousers, a long dark blue button-down shirt and a black necktie, black wingtips. A pick-up truck full of 10, 11 year-old kids in mocha brown school uniforms passed me. One girl pointed and yelled “farang” and another screamed “fuck you!” his face contorted into a scowl…
The weather, even in morning, was humid and scorching hot; the tropical sun, its blades of heat, bouncing off the asphalt, boiling my bones; my limbs feeling like floppy noodles in a soup of sweat. Walking to the main road, walking anywhere really in Thailand was treacherous. It’s no country for pedestrians.
Most places and residential areas and most roads don’t have sidewalks. Basically everyone drives or rides a motorbike. Trudging down to the main road to catch the public minivan that went by the school was like traversing an obstacle course. I had to dodge motorcycles flying down the street at the speed of sound, pickup trucks, songthaews, all sorts of random motorized contraptions whirring by, some carrying gas canisters, loads of fruit and live animals.
By the time I made it to the main road, I was drenched in perspiration and it was then I understood why no one in Thailand walked (except idiot foreigners like me).
A warm welcome. Not.
When I got to the school, I thought there’d be a sign out front: “Welcome, New Teachers” or signage along those lines. But there was nothing. I went to the room the orientation was supposed to be held in (as per the email I was sent), a spacious hall designed for events and conferences. But the room was empty. Not a soul. Not a sign or anything.
I glanced at the school’s logo emblazoned on the wall behind the stage and looked up at the huge poster of the Pope hanging from the rafters. I took a deep breath. Things were off to a lousy start. I was pouring sweat. The school van hadn’t shown up. No one had answered my calls or texts. No one was in the room for the orientation. I wasn’t sure what to think. Did I mix up the dates? I checked my phone again to confirm that it was the correct day. It was.
I took a few more deep breaths and decided to head to the office to see if maybe anyone was there. Maybe they’d changed the date and not informed me. Something to that effect was seeming likely. I was on “Thai Time,” after all. The administration building was deserted except for a small crew of construction workers who appeared to be Burmese. (One of them couldn’t have been more than 13 and was smoking a cigarette as he worked, tearing apart a wall with a pick-axe.)
The workers were literally tearing apart the building renovating it. The place was a mess. Wires were hanging from the roof, paneling missing. Buckets of grout and chunks of the floor ripped out. There was a heavy industrial stench of paint and indeterminate fumes. A symphony of ear-splitting drilling sounds reverberated through the hallways.
The Indian crew
I navigated the madness, stepping over the debris before finally locating a secretary, who scoffed and flippantly pointed me in the direction of a room towards the end of a corridor lined with tiny offices. Inside a hexagonal room, behind a painting of a bloody, crucified Jesus, were two Indian fellows and one Indian lady.
The older of the men was 30ish, quite tall and heavyset, clean shaven and had the longest spirals of fingernails I’d ever seen on a man. He sat shining in a well-tailored, glossy silver suit and spoke in aphorisms; intermittently he read a tattered paperback book by Hagel. The lady, 20ish, was attractive and petite, wearing a colorful sari. Her raven hair was scrunched into a tight bun, heavy rouge dappled along her high cheekbones.
The other fellow, also in a well-fitted, glossy silver suit, was only 23; he was thin and short, a fresh college grad, doe-eyed and green.
They were affable folks, though I did have some trouble understanding their accents at first. Mostly they spoke amongst themselves in their local, Indian dialect.
One told me indirectly that he’d come to the school on a gap year of sorts to save money so he could pay a bribe to his department head and get a promotion. At his university, without the right relative, that was the only way one could rise through the ranks.
The lady spoke glowingly of how happy she was to be in Thailand working there since she didn’t have to worry for her safety as much. She said in Thailand she didn’t need to worry about getting groped every time she left her house, especially at night.
The fresh college grad was obsessed with America. He’d seen tons of Hollywood movies and had always dreamed of going. He was particularly into Las Vegas. I’d never been to Vegas myself but he couldn’t stop asking me questions about it. That and the WWE. He loved the WWE and said it was extremely popular in his hometown, that there were rowdy WWE fight watching parties all the time in his neighborhood.
A school tour
We waited for nearly an hour for anyone to show up. Eventually a chubby guy came from the IT department. He wore a short sleeve collared dress shirt and a necktie, which was exactly how I’d imagine a person from the IT department to look. His name was Kenny. He was a British fellow of Filipino descent with a thick cockney accent and had been at the school for about 4 years, starting as a teacher and later moving into the IT dept full-time. A likable guy, he gave a well-versed oral introduction to the school and took us out in a creaky old school van and showed us the school’s small campus.
There wasn’t too much to see. A small gym with moldy walls, a few free weights, a couple of treadmills, but no AC. There was a tiny ovoid swimming pool with dirty green water.
There were four teaching buildings, the performance hall, a sparse cafeteria that had a noxious stench in its corner, a tiny library, a couple of rows of decrepit dorms at the far end of the campus. The entirety of the buildings looked as though they’d seen better days. The place sure looked a lot nicer on its website.
The surrounding area was gorgeous though. The school’s campus was carved out of a rice paddy and the adjacent fields were verdant- coconut palms, lush tropical shrubbery crisscrossed by canals branching into the distance of every direction like aquatic veins. Sadly, the wondrous scenery was also dotted with plumes of smoke. In Thailand it’s common to burn off parts of the rice fields and stubble crop with the idea that burning will create higher yields. (The smoke would occasionally reach its tentacles into the school, into the classrooms, the library; garbage, plastic and Styrofoam as well would be burned, often times within mere meters of the school)
A dog was manically barking as our van squeaked and coughed us back to the admin building.
The scanner system
After our brief tour around the school, we returned to the same hexagonal room in the back of the clanking, rattling office and were told to wait for someone who’d take our fingerprints for the scanner.
The school had implemented a system where all staff, teachers, secretaries, cleaners, cooks, everyone (except the deans, HR dept and president) was required to sign in and out every workday via scanning their fingerprint (an index or thumbprint) into a 2.4 inch optical screen on the wall-mounted machine. (The employee checking-in recorder machine looking sort of like a corded phone you’d see in an office- but with a neon green optical screen instead of a receiver).
The scanner hung to the left of the secretaries’ L-shaped desk at the mouth of the admins’ office, and ominously blinked red dots from a skinny oblong button on its top rightmost corner.
Failure to sign in the morning via fingerprint scan before 8:00 am, even if you didn’t have class until late morning, afternoon or at all that day, meant that you were marked late and fined. Failure to sign out via fingerprint scan after 5:00 pm meant that you left early without permission and you’d have half a day’s salary deducted.
If you missed a Friday or Monday, didn’t sign in and out on either of those days, the school would deduct 3 days’ pay to deter anyone from taking a long weekend.
The info about attendance and the fingerprint scanner wasn’t covered in the contract or during the interview. It was told to us quickly by Kenny, who looked embarrassed for having to disclose it, straining to make eye contact as he spoke.
We waited for nearly two hours for whomever to show and take our fingerprints. By this time, it was nearing 1pm and I was hungry, having not eaten since breakfast, so I got up and went for lunch, by myself. I didn’t enjoy my time being wasted being made to wait so long. If this was more “Thai Time,” it was a lot more tolerable when I was on vacation. And I didn’t appreciate the scanner or attendance policies, not imagining a college would force its teachers to scan in and out via fingerprint, and annoyed they’d deduct pay and force you to be there even if you didn’t have class. I couldn’t figure out why that would be necessary for teachers as it’s pretty easy to know whether or not a person is showing up to his/her classes.
In Thailand it’s frowned upon to lose one’s temper. One should always maintain the “jai yen,” which can be loosely translated as keeping one’s cool, i.e. not freaking out. Though I wanted to freak out, I kept cool and after eating a tasty Pad Thai noodle dish, my mood lifted a touch.
When I got back, we waited another hour and a half and eventually another IT guy - a shifty-eyed, nervous young Thai fellow in ripped blue jeans and a pink polo shirt - came to take our fingerprints and log our info into the scanner. Altogether, including the half hour I’d spent eating lunch, we’d been waiting for 4 hours. Not sure what that amounts to in “Thai Time…”
Disagreeable school policies
After our fingerprints were collected, we waited another hour and a stressed-out looking, square-jawed, frizzy-haired, 30ish HR lady with crooked eyeglasses, came in to talk to us about school policy.
She began talking about “leave.” In reading the contract, there was time in between the terms, about two months total, when we wouldn’t be teaching. Most schools and colleges allow teachers and students to leave the school during such time between terms. But here, staff were required to report to the school even when classes weren’t in session (except weekends and select state holidays).
I was dumbfounded by this. I couldn’t comprehend how a school would work like that. Didn’t they understand how tough teaching is? How much energy it takes out of a person? It’s far more tiring than a desk job. Anyone who has ever taught, at least diligently, can certainly affirm this. As a teacher you’re a performer. You’re on stage, you’re speaking loudly, interacting with crowds of students. You’re hyper-focused on your lesson plan and your students’ progress. You’re planning courses, grading papers, attending meetings, doing paperwork. For any effective teacher, for every hour spent teaching, there’s another hour or two spent in preparation, grading, or other functions.
20 hours teaching a week, 20 to 40 hours of prep, etc. There’s a reason why under the most optimal circumstances, even teachers burn out at a high rate.
Vacation time, summer breaks, a winter break, is part of the bargain in teaching, part of the trade-off one might make to earn less money, have more time off, time to spend with his/her kids, recuperate, do part-time or other work, do whatever. When reading the contract, I’d figured “leave” pertained to taking time off during the term. Not in-between terms. There was simply no logical reason to have us there if we weren’t teaching or partaking in any school functions.
Altogether, the school’s allotted leave was two weeks per year and not guaranteed. It had to be approved in writing by 3 different departments, two months in advance.
I’d noticed a couple of Thai teachers sitting around the office or sleeping at their desks. I couldn’t figure out why they were there with this being a break between terms. Now I knew.
However, it got worse.
For the summer session or summer school, a condensed term having 25 teaching hours per week, the English department was forced to work for no extra pay. Generally, schools pay stipends for overtime and working during the summers. But not this school.
Again this wasn’t spelled out in the contract and wasn’t something I’d anticipated. Hearing the crooked glasses lady tell us this in a monotone voice, I wanted to run out the door. But I’d signed the contract. I’d committed to teach there. And that meant something to me. My word was my bond.
Should I have asked about the summer? The vacation? Perhaps. Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken it as a given. It was ironically a teachable moment, and a mistake I wouldn’t make again.
It was however simply a one-year contract. A one-year contract. That’s a beautiful thing about temp work, that it’s temporary. While you don’t have stability, you do have freedom to move elsewhere soon enough.
Only one year I thought. I’ll knock it out and move on. No vacation, no summer break, scanning in and out via fingerprint, but hey, just one lousy year. How bad otherwise could it be?