Friday, February 3, 2012

Square One Revisited

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.

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