Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog July 23rd, 2011

How Red is Your Tape?

An acrobatic mindset is a requirement of teaching ESL in Thailand. That’s because of all the hoops set up by government poobahs which you are expected to leap through in order to keep your visa extended and hold on to your work permit.

You may hear elderly dodos going on about how it was so easy to come and stay in Thailand Back In The Day. You just showed up, latched on to a drink and a girl, and the authorities treated you like the King of Norway.

Balderdash.

It’s always been hard to shred the red tape without getting shredded yourself over here.

When I first arrived here in the early 70’s as a religious instructor I got used to taking the train to Malaysia once a month with my fellow white-shirted zealots, spending a listless afternoon in Butterworth while our passports were pawed over by smarmy officials. I can still smell the roasted cashews the vendors shoved at us through the train window at every stop. And I can tell you that, in 1974, there were exactly 7,983 coconut palms in Butterworth, Malaysia; I had plenty of time to count every one of them.

There were nearly one-hundred of us in Thailand at the time, and we had an office full of people who did nothing but process paperwork for these monthly excursions. They were uniformly pale and quickly developed enough twitches to resemble a balletic corps of St. Vitus’ Dance sufferers.

Fast forward a quarter century when I began my ESL career in earnest here in Thailand, and the rigmarole was still as coiled as a pretzel made by a drunken baker. My passport quickly grew to resemble an autograph album of border crossing officials, as I went by bus and train to neighboring countries looking for that elusive “extension” that would keep me stationary for a few blessed months. Touts in Bangkok promised quick and long-lasting results, but after trimming me unmercifully I never could manage to get more than a 30-day stay of execution.

Finally I was hired by a school that knew how to handle visas and work permits. I made one last sentimental journey to Vientiane, Laos, to the Thai consulate, smirking as I stood in line with a hundred sweltering farangs, knowing this would be my Last Hurrah in this rat race.

Since then, for the most part, I have worked for schools that took care of the paperwork and procured the necessary bona fides for me at no cost and little trouble to myself.

So now, this supposedly being a blog chockfull of helpful tips on the teaching profession in Thailand, I am supposed to share with you my secrets for discovering those schools that can deliver the goods when it comes to visas and work permits.

Like the old tuna fish commercial used to say: “Sorry, Charlie.”

I have no idea how or why some schools can blithely arrange my status in the Kingdom, while other establishments haven’t the ability of Mortimer Snerd when it comes to getting their valuable farang employee the right papers.

When I asked my Thai fiancé Joom about this conundrum, she simply rubbed her thumb against her index and ring fingers, indicating that such things were arranged by cash on the barrelhead and no questions asked.

I find that hard to swallow, mostly because the schools where I had the best visa and work permit experiences also had the cheapest, tightest, cheapskates for administrators this side of Ebenezer Scrooge. They could squeeze a one-baht coin until it dripped satang. In my wildest flights of fancy I cannot imagine them ponying up a bribe.

Another explanation that I have heard, and don’t endorse, is that if you know the right people, or ARE the right people, the red carpet is extended and all obstacles dissolve in a glorious haze of good-breeding and demi-royalty.

I don’t buy that because some of the school administrators I had to do with were so well-connected that they could call a prime minister for a game of golf, and yet these same potentates were unable to spare me the hassle of frequent border crossings.

And, to top it all off, I’ve got friends who came over here to work, and not even as ESL teachers, and they don’t know what a border or work permit looks like. I’m not sure they even have passports. Yet they live and work and sport on the beaches of Pattaya without the least worry. And no, they are not Russian mafia. Or government staff.

My best guess is that there are several, interchangeable, sets of bureaucrats at Immigration. You might get the grumpy set and be told to leave the Kingdom immediately. You might get the apathetic set and be fobbed off with a one month extension. Or you might get the happy, helpful staff who can magically make your passport good for the next one-hundred years.

No one knows ahead of time which set will be on duty at what particular time.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m behind schedule for my visa run into Cambodia . . .