Teacher Tim's TEFL International Blog August 6th, 2011

I Never Met A Deadline I Didn’t Ignore

Deadlines are a necessary evil; at least that’s what we imbibe with our mother’s milk in the West. The ticking clock and the circled calendar date (and nowadays the text message and/or Tweet) are imperatives that we are hard-wired to obey. If something must be done by the end of the month, then come hell or high water it shall be done, no matter how many bones we break or whose blood we shed. As they lower us into the cold grave, at least they will say “He met his deadline.”

The Thais have other ideas.

To them a deadline is as flexible as a splinter of bamboo.

In fact, the whole concept of “deadline” is just another crazy farang fantasy that the Thais think of as a bedtime story to entertain children. What, a definite time, a scheduled end, to a project? What is this, Rapunzel?

When I first came to Thailand to take my TESOL certification course at TEFL International I was, of course, a brain-washed little farang, eager to complete all assignments on time, if not early. Once I arrived at my first teaching assignment up in Bangkok I was determined to shine as an outstanding example of efficiency when it came to things like deadlines. No better way to impress my new boss, I thought to myself, than to turn in attendance sheets and quarterly reports, not to mention attending parent-teacher conferences, in a timely and professional manner.”

Thus I labored far into the night completing the numerous forms that the Thai educational system foists on teachers. I then complacently placed them in the basket of the school principal’s office, feeling that smug glow of satisfaction that all pen pushers and bean counters experience when their ink-stained fingers are finally released from bondage.

It didn’t take long for me to notice that my reports were the only ones in the basket, and that they were piling up at an alarmingly unread rate.

I finally got up enough nerve to ask my principal if she had found my reports satisfactory. She gave me a wide smile as she asked “What reports?”

“Uh, weekly attendance and, uh, the other reports you told me needed to be in on time” I replied, a dull sense of futility settling around my soul like a soggy roti.

“Oh yes, of course” she replied instantly. “Good work. Very fine. Most commendable.”

She never did read them (I think they eventually wound up as mulch in her garden at home.)

And I stopped worrying about getting them in on time. After quizzing the other teachers at the school I discovered that when the reports had to be in for inspection by the Thai MOE, the principal would simply tell all the teachers to have everything ready to go in an hour or two – and that the teachers would then scribble like mad, making most of it up as they went along.

I couldn’t bring myself to be quite so casual about it, but I did loosen up and could whip out a report before you could say “may pen rai” when necessity demanded.

I religiously set appointments for parent-teacher conferences, only to find, nine times out of ten, that the parents would eventually get to the school, perhaps not at the hour scheduled, or even in the same week, but they would show up at some time, and then expect me to drop whatever I was doing to sit and chat with them over cups of weak ginger tea. Rather than let this drive me starkers, I began emulating the Thai’s belief system when it came to appointments and deadlines: If it was meant to be, it would happen – otherwise, no big deal.

Of course, there were always a few hard-charging administrators, mostly trained in England, and parents, mostly Sino-Thai (with emphasis on Sino) who actually expected deadlines and appointments to be honored fastidiously. But they were very much the exception, and not the rule.

I got into the habit of making lunch dates with colleagues and then forgetting about them until a few hours after the agreed time; I would still show up and often found my colleagues just showing up as well. And if they didn’t show up, I had a very good lunch all by myself (and didn’t get stuck paying the bill for the rest of them.) I was never once asked “What the devil happened to you yesterday?”

It’s a relaxing way of life, no doubt about it. Thais get about as many stress-related ulcers as they do chilblains.

Of course, I forgot all about the Thai way with deadlines when I first asked my Thai fiancé Joom to pick me up after work, at 4pm.

“Sharp!” I reminded her sternly. She smiled and assured me she would be there with the Thai equivalent of bells on.

4pm came and went, and no Joom. I stood on the curb, under a broiling sun, doing some broiling myself until she finally showed up at quarter to five.

“Where in blue blazes have you been?” I thundered at her.

“I needed to gas up the truck and then stopped to get some somtum and sticky rice” she replied sweetly, holding out the goodies to show me.

I quickly regained my composure. How could I not, when somtum and sticky rice were involved?

After that it turned into a game.

“Four O’clock, sharp, right?” I would say as I stepped out of her truck.

“On the dot” she would reply, in flawless English.

And then we would both laugh uproariously.

When I knocked off work at 4 I would wander around the soi, looking in at the fish store to see if they had any cheap turtles I could buy and release in my fish pond and then amble over to the man who sold fried bananas for a twenty-baht bag. One day I even had time for a foot massage before Joom showed up. Most refreshing.

And don’t tell me that the Thais all have cell phones so why don’t they call when they know they’re running late. That is not what a cell phone is for in Thailand. In Thailand a cell phone is for gossip and finding out what the winning lottery numbers are going to be, based on a friend’s dream or a license plate fortuitously spotted.

Naturally there is much more I could write on this subject, but since my deadline for submitting this blog was actually a week ago I think I’ll let it go at that. Besides, I told Joom to meet me at the fish market so we could pick out something good for dinner tonight; she was supposed to meet me there two hours ago and still hasn’t shown up, so I think I’ll go get another foot massage and see if I can find the guy that sells the good coconut ice cream, served in coconut shells.

By the time Joom shows up all the good fish will be gone, I’m thinking, so we’ll just go down to the noodle shop anyway . . .

Missing deadlines can sure save a guy money around here!