Edit: I thought I'd do one of the rest of the places I hope to visit one day.
Saturday, February 18, 2012
Thursday, February 9, 2012
(This is pretty much stream-of-consciousness, so forgive the mess. I just wanted to get everything down before too much time passes.)
Even though I had a hard time in Thailand, I am terribly disappointed that it ended the way that it did. I was finally starting to find my stride there; while it was never easy, it was doable and sometimes even enjoyable during those last weeks. I think that it could have ended up turning into a positive experience, but clearly that was cut short. I feel awful that all I got to experience in Asia was unpleasant because I sincerely believe that there is so much more to the place, even Thailand. I know that one day I'll go back just for fun and finally do the things that I wanted to do all along, and it will be in some small way like going home.
In spite of (or, more likely, because of) my struggles, Thailand gave me a lot. For the first time, I was totally self-sufficient. I can't even describe how huge that is for me. Even if things weren't excellent, it was such a huge relief to be supporting myself, at least up until the emergency flight back to Philly. The road to adulthood has been pretty rocky for me, and I have never had the money to be truly financially independent, but at least in Thailand I had a full time job that could actually support my lifestyle, however humble it may have been. Even better, that job was the one I've wanted my whole life. Teaching in Sadao kicked my ass, but I came away knowing for sure that I want to spend my life teaching, and I can't think of anything better than that.
I keep thinking back to the week in March when, deep in a post-graduation rut, I decided to give myself and break and go back to Charleston for a little while. I was exhausted and working two jobs, one of which I hated and neither of which required the degree I had until recently worked so hard for. I lived in my parents' basement and had no social life. I had sent myself to the edge of a nervous breakdown the previous winter applying for grad schools, and I had already received two rejection letters (including my safety school, so things weren't looking good). If you had asked me on graduation day what my worst-case scenario for the coming year was, I would have pretty much described the reality in which I found myself. Of course, I had a lot to be thankful for even in this situation, but I was so unhappy. I knew I had to do something, and so I went home to Charleston to regroup. I ate and drank, spent much needed time with great friends, went to a couple of lectures, and for the first time in nearly a year, I started to feel like myself again. Not like my college self, either, and I realized that my life was actually moving forward, even if I felt like it had completely stagnated. Then, about halfway through my trip, I got the rejection letter from my first choice school. I was fairly crushed, as most of us are in similar situations, but something kind of broke for me then. I realized that I had in effect been waiting for someone else to make a decision to determine the course of my life, and in doing so, I had pretty much missed out on nearly a year. Later that very day, Bess and Emily came back from class and told me about a TESOL certification course they were planning on taking in Quito...
It didn't all turn out the way that I wanted, clearly. But my job in Thailand brought me to two new continents (I doubt I would have gone to Ecuador without having an ESL position lined up, and frankly, Thailand could have been a lot worse and it would still have been worth it just to have had my experience in South America). I got out of my comfort zone in a huge way, which is pretty impressive considering that my comfort zone already included shady hostels, organ meat, rickety public transport, and no understanding of the local language. It got me out of that rut. There's a part of me that feels like I'm right back where I started last February, back to square one, but I know that's not true. In the past year, in the past six months, my entire life has turned around, largely for the better. I put myself in a situation that would have broken a lot of people down, but I got through it pretty well, and now the world doesn't seem like such an insurmountable obstacle. I did something I am proud of.
Friday, February 3, 2012
Surprise! As most people who read this already know, I am back in the USA, having made a largely involuntary exit from Thailand. Before I get into anything else, the story:
Bess and I were told repeatedly by a number of different people who ought to have known that we were totally in the clear as far as our visas were concerned. Basically, we had gotten work visas before entering the country that were valid for roughly three months; during that time, according to our sources, we each needed to obtain a work permit, a separate document that would effectively function as a visa, allowing us to both stay in Thailand for longer and leave and reenter Thailand. We were concerned about how long it would take to get the work permit, but once we got to Sadao, our supervisor assured us that we were still legally working, and we could get it later. So we did. We actually didn't get our work permits until December, and only then so that Bess could leave for Australia and come back. Upon reentering the country, however, Bess had some issues and was allowed back only with a tourist visa. Fast forward a few days, we were told by a co-worker that with our work visas/permits, we were not actually allowed to leave the country without special dispensation, and because she had left the country, Bess's work permit had been cancelled.This meant that she was allowed to be in Thailand, but she was not allowed to work. At this point, I only had a week until my original visa expired, which would void my permit as well, and I would no longer even be in Thailand legally.
We of course had to do some quick thinking. We rushed down to our supervisor's office (incidentally, she was the one person in our lives there who could function as an interpreter), and immediately tried to get our documents so that we could leave for Hat Yai, the nearest city where we initially were told we could resolve these issues. Beam, our supervisor, was summoned so that she could figure out what we wanted. She, suddenly a wealth of immigration/labor information, told us we would have to leave Thailand, go to Malaysia, and reapply for work visas and work permits, and that Bess wouldn't even be able to go until her 30-day tourist visa was up. She called Hat Yai to double-check, and it was so.
I want to take a moment here. Beam was literally the only person at our school, and one of very few in Sadao, who could speak both English and Thai, and we relied on her throughout the process. She took care of us in a lot of respects, but clearly resented that she had to do so (despite the fact that she was the one who hired us in the first place). We had no job support, and she even had the gall at one point to call a meeting with us to tell us that the other teachers were gossiping about us. She panicked about everything. She flatly lied to us before we got to Thailand, and continued to lie while we were there.
So, on the day in question, we stood in the office, completely panicked ourselves and with no one to ask for help but Beam. She laughed at us. She basically responded with something akin to mocking. She literally told us to "flow with the water" - this from the woman who had had a melt down the week before that I had used some printer paper for the volunteer classes we held for the other teachers in the school. She suggested that we just forget about the work permits and the work visas and just cross the border into Malaysia every two weeks and "lay low," both of which are highly illegal. She told us she didn't think we had to worry about the permits because we hadn't had them for the first two months, and everything had been fine. Meaning that we had been led into working illegally by our employers and without our knowledge for two whole months, even though we asked ad nauseum about the work permits.
At this point, I dropped the panic and just pretended to be completely placated. We got the documents we needed and went home. A little later, we had a serious talk about the possibility of just leaving for good, and even though neither of us wanted to decide on the spot, the ball was rolling. We knew that we didn't want to go to Malaysia and possibly get stuck there. We didn't want to spend even more money, and it would have cost us hundreds of dollars, and that for just a few more weeks of what I call "teaching." We contacted the embassy and some other American teachers in Thailand, and the reaction was unanimous - everyone told us to get out. By Monday, just three days after the day of panic, we had booked our flights home.
We still had two days of work to get through, and we somehow needed to get paid. We decided to keep our decision to leave under our hats .This may seem deceptive, and I still don't feel great about it, but the possibility that we would have been detained and perhaps even taken to court for breach of contract was too high, and ultimately we needed to protect ourselves. We did tell the truth - that we weren't going to go to Malaysia and why, and that instead we would go to the US embassy in Bangkok to try to resolve things. We already knew that things couldn't be resolved, but we still need Beam to call a cab to take us to the airport, otherwise we would have been stuck. Ultimately, we were able to get paid and get out of Sadao without any issues, and we wrapped things up at work and at home as best we could.
We had a short break in Bangkok, where we got to actually do some fun stuff before leaving. On the way out of the country, I did actually get a citation from the Thai police for having an expired visa, but because I was able to explain the situation and provide my work permit, I only had to pay a fine. The flight was long and painful, but everything went smoothly after my run-in with immigration.
I'll get into my feelings about all this in a follow-up post, but I will say that it was definitely a huge disappointment. It was such a hard time overall - the new job, the new country, the isolation - and to end it on such a negative note frankly sucked. I feel like a missed a lot of what Southeast Asia is about, and even though I hope I will make a return visit, it is going to take a while to recover enough to be able to enjoy it.