The Paper Chase
It seems so obvious once you’ve spent some time here in Thailand. Farangs are entitled to precisely… nothing, zip, nada, bubkis. Phrase it however you like, the fact remains that we exist here at the whim of the “Powers That Be”, that is to say Thai Immigration. (Note: The term “whim” is not inappropriate when referring to an organization that makes up the rules as it goes along!) You may have lived here quietly for many years without disturbing a single soul. You may in fact be an upright pillar of the Thai community, helping little old ladies cross the street and donating to every Thai charity that exists. You may have worked here and paid taxes (lots of taxes) here. You may be married to a Thai citizen and have children who are listed on their birth certificates as being Thai. You may have built a house here…an expensive one…on land that you aren’t permitted to own. In the end though, despite all of the above, you just might wake up one fine morning and find that you are no longer welcome in the land of Smiles. “…and don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”
I’ve been inordinately lucky so far. Maybe that’s because I’ve done my best to fit in. I stand when the national or royal anthems are being played. I smile a lot (although my eyes may sometimes be vacantly staring off into space), dress well, never raise my voice, and spend lots and lots of money locally. Oh, Thai Immigration has hit me with an unexpected left jab from time to time, but somehow I have managed to maintain my equilibrium. Still, it has still been axiomatic that as a foreigner, I am entitled to none of the programs or services that your average Thai is. Well, last month, to my complete astonishment, I found myself actual qualifying for something quite significant. What follows is an epic tale of running around chasing various bits of paper.
ชผค… It was all about this innocuous little Thai word. Actually ชผค isn’t a little word at all. It is in fact an abbreviation for a really loooooooong Thai word that is the equivalent of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. What does it mean? To be honest I still don’t exactly know. I have been unable to have anyone tell me, but for the sake of this piece, let’s call the Thai Teachers Life Insurance Organization or TTLFO. Exciting eh? Let me tell you, the idea of life insurance was definitely of interest to my darling Thai wife!
This whole episode began not that long ago after one of our friend’s husband passed away. My wife became concerned (I would say obsessed) with life insurance, that is to say my lack of it. “How would I ever pay for a funeral” she moaned. To be honest, I had never given any thought to what was going to happen to my moral remains. I had told my wife to just place my ashes in a deep hole and plant a nice fruit tree there…and don’t settle for some 100 baht twig! Apparently, even a modest funeral can be expensive. “Look” I said, “don’t go overboard on some grand spectacle. I will be gone. You need to conserve money for you and Sam.” This did little to assuage her concerns. Suddenly a thought popped into her mind. I was a teacher. Teachers can be part of TTLFO. Why wasn’t I? “Because” I said, “I am a Farang and Farangs can’t be part of any Thai program!” My wife was not convinced. She stopped by my school’s office and spoke with Miss R. who handles all sorts of paperwork for me, such as my work permit. Unfortunately, said Miss R., foreign teachers could not participate in TTLFO. Did my wife take that to be the last word? Ha! You don’t know my wife. She is as tenacious as a blood hound on a scent. She decided to go to the TTLFO office and find out for herself. The person she spoke to told her that yes, I certainly could be part of the program…but there were a lot of forms to be filled out. So begins the paper chase. First, I got myself dragged to some unknown government clinic to have a physical exam. This was similar to the exam I had when I got my Thai driver’s license. It was actually a non-exam. Money was handed over, a piece of paper was stamped, and we were out the door, without anyone checking to see if I indeed was alive and functioning. Next, we had to race up to Chiang Mai Immigration and obtain an official paper that said I resided at the address listed on my 90 day reporting document. Immigration was crowded that day and it took hours to get this paper, although at 500 baht it was a relative bargain when it comes to official papers.
I should at this point explain why we were “racing” all over creation. Signing up for TTLFO is only possible for those under 60 years old. I was going to turn 60 in six months…but I had join by December 31. I had only ten days to go! So…we race back to the TTLFO office, only to be told by someone that I could not join because my name was not on the household register…and I needed paperwork from my school, which had said that I wasn’t eligible! Did this slow down my darling wife? Not on your life! She was on the phone to Miss R. to have her recheck the situation. Oh, said Miss R., it turns out she was mistaken. I could join, and she would immediately prepare the necessary paperwork.
But what about the household register? It had always been my belief that a foreigner’s name could not be listed in this blue book. My wife thought the same, and no one at Immigration ever mentioned anything to the contrary during my yearly visa interviews. Believe me, if there is any document that they can dream off that you simply must have (in duplicate) they will require you to produce it! Little did we suspect that there existed a yellow book, which is exclusively for foreigners! <Drop an email to Mr. Rahiri who can tell you more about this – Stick> Now with the clock ticking, we raced to a municipal office to see if we could get ourselves this little yellow book. Lampang, I should note, has dozens and dozens (and dozens) of government office buildings. There are local government offices, provincial government offices and national government offices. All are inconveniently located with little or no parking. There seems to be an unwritten rule in Thailand that no piece of paper shall exist that doesn’t require the signature or stamp of less than 3-4 officials. Each of these officials must have their offices as far away from each other as humanly possible, and they shall rarely be in these during normal working hours. Why have only one functionary handle a piece of paper, when you can have lots and lots of them in on the fun? Hmmm, that explains much about the Thai postal service.
So…once more into the trenches! Once more I should say into an uncomfortable plastic chair in a stuffy room with a pitifully inadequate fan. There were three officials who needed to process my paperwork. The first woman was quite pleasant, and the initial work was done in only an hour. Now it was time to sit down with the mid-level supervisor for an interview. She was also pleasant, and was tolerant of my less than perfect Thai. This woman also required our pu-yai-bahn to come in for an interview. For most of you whom have no idea of what a pu-yai-bahn is, he or she is a neighborhood “leader” who serves some of the functions of a city councilor. We have always had a good relationship with our pu-yai-bahn, so she happily agreed to take the time on our behalf. Now all that was needed was the signature of the Big Boss and we would have completed our mission. Unfortunately, this guy, like many Big Bosses in Thailand was never, ever around. Undoubtedly he was up to his elbows in “important work”…like a long, long lunch. If this guy didn’t show up soon and sign on the dotted line, everything we had done would have been for nothing. He didn’t have to fill anything out. His subordinates had done the work. All he had to do was sign his name. Was this too much to ask? I know you are all on the edge of your seats right now, so I’ll end the suspense. Mr. Big finally showed up and did 15 seconds of work, and we walked away with our sought after yellow book. The last piece of the puzzle was apparently in place, but I’ve learned never to take anything for granted in Thailand. It was back to the TTLFO office, where miraculously, every ‘I’ was dotted and ‘T’ crossed. I’m speaking metaphorically of course since everything except my name was in Thai.
So, after all this running around I’m part of TTLFO, and will be getting a membership card soon. What exactly does all of this do for me? For a few hundred baht a month, I get life insurance that will pay my wife 500,000 baht upon my demise. I can also borrow money against that future pay out, although I can’t imagine ever doing that. I joked with my wife that I was now worth more dead than alive. She failed to see the humor. She wants me alive and well it seems which I find gratifying. Now that I’m a member, she is planning to take advantage of the chance to take out a family related membership, just to provide something for Sam. Hopefully I will be alive for many more years, but hey, you never know what’s around the corner. For once I can say that while there is still no such thing as a free lunch in The Land of Smiles, at least finally allowed to join the queue for the buffet.
That's really good that you managed to get signed up for that. Here's hoping your demise is not for many years to come but at least when you do decide to check out, the Mrs. will be looked after for a period.