Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Knowing the Future

Much needless stress would be avoided if only we could foretell the future.  Fortune tellers at these tables in front of Wat Hua Lampong in Bangkok provide the answers for many worried Thais.  Unfortunately, I'm not a believer in precognition, however useful it might be.  My future as an expat in Thailand depends on annually renewing a visa, and, if I want to continue teaching (as I do), a yearly renewal of my work permit.  These renewal applications require an encounter with two different bureaucracies and each holds my fate in their hand.  Worrying about whether I'll pass the documents test ramps up the aging process and I have little time to waste.  This year I was saved not once but twice by my brilliant wife, Nan.

Getting a non-immigrant "B" visa and a work permit took over four months of bureaucratic hassle the first year I lived in Thailand.  But renewals, I was told, were easier.  And they were, until this year.  The problem was caused by the move of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University from Bangkok to its large new campus in Wangnoi, Ayutthaya province, an hour's commute away from my condominium in the Pinklao section of Bangkok where I had also moved from one apartment to another a year ago.   Last year I was told I must file a change of address with the Ministry of Labour.  Thinking this could be done at the Autthaya MOL office I went with Dr. Subodh, my colleague from India whose permit expires at the same time as mine.  After our documents were carefully scrutinized, we were told a renewal could not be done in less than seven days, and we only had six.  So the next day I went with Nan as my translator to the Bangkok MOL office and everything went fine until they asked me to draw a map of Ayutthaya and the new MCU campus.  Without a pause, she asked me how many buildings there were.  I said eight, and she quickly roughed out a totally fictitious map which miraculously satisfied the clerk.

From there we took a taxi to the Immigration office in the cavernous Government Building B in Chiang Wattana to get the visa renewed.  After a three-hour wait that included lunch when all offices in the huge structure shut down so the hundreds of clerks can eat, I went into the cubicle with Nan to get what I thought would be an easy stamp in my passport.  Unfortunately, I'd given two copies of my work permit to the MOL and was unable to provide the necessary original for immigration.  We were told to come back with it.  A few days later, after picking up my renewed work permit with its changes of address, we returned to Chiang Wattana and sat before an unsmiling immigration clerk.  "This can't be done here because you live in Ayutthaya," she told Nan in Thai.   The MOL had changed both my work and residence addresses to the campus address.  Nan quietly and diplomatically convinced the clerk that we still lived in Bangkok.  After being told we must return to the MOL to correct the mistake before next year, I was given the renewed visa.  Total cost for all renewals and changes:  about $200 (and I'll probably have to pay $28 to correct the mistake), plus another $30 in transportation costs.

My anguish over the renewal process was assuaged somewhat by the purchase of a new MacBook Pro laptop to add to my family of Apple products.  My old Macbook was over four years old and showing signs of age.  For the third time the battery had begun to swell up; the first replacement was covered by AppleCare but the second was about $125 out of pocket. I'd never repaired the screen when I had the chance after a thin blue vertical line appeared a half inch in from the right.  The only practical reason I can give for this purchase was: it's time.  And, thinking it will be the last I ever buy, I bought the best.  The trackpad is a little tricky and I've gotten upset at accidental misdirection, but I think there's a learning curve.  I had to buy a new cord for the TV to make use of Thunderbolt and the MiniDisplayPort, but since my Philips flatscreen lacks an HDMI plug, I'm using a VGA connection which offers an acceptable picture (but without sound since I can't find the correct audio inputs).  I should also be able to use my laptop at school with the office projector to show PowerPoint lessons and YouTube videos to my students.

After saving my life, twice, Nan flew to Chiang Rai to visit her family in the small remote village in the province of Phayao where they farm corn.  She took with her my old MacBook to give to her brother Nok who is studying electricity at a vocational college.  He plays guitar and I thought he would particularly like GarageBand.  I bought Nan a Sony point-and click and she brought back photos of where we might someday live.  This is her rice field which is fallow this season, and when she graduates in a year or so, after working for a couple of years we might relocate north.  It depends partly on my health.  If I can't get around easily, living in a tiny village nearly an hour's drive from the nearest store (and three hours from the mall in Chiang Rai) will not be such a problem (unless a hospital is needed).  A house, built by Nan's aunt, Ban Yen, is waiting for us next door to her mother.  It looks very comfortable, though we'll need to add a bedroom for her young nephew Edward who will live with us.  There's a European toilet, a hot-water heater for the shower, and Nan bought her mother a washing machine which will live in our house.  Mobile phone reception is hit-or-miss, and I'm hoping for advances in technology that will allow me to keep plugged in to the internet with my growing family of devices (Nan has put her foot down on the idea of an iPhone but I haven't given up yet).

Now that I know I can teach for another year, I'm able to relax and enjoy my classes.  The commute is not bad (lots of time to listen to podcasts), although now my teaching day is 12 hours rather than the 7 when I taught at Wat Srisudaram which is closer to my house.  The Faculty of Humanity office is in the lower right of the MCU classroom building pictured here and my room is on the second floor above the Sound Lab which is, unfortunately, not working (trying to find out why has so far been fruitless).  I've decided to benefit from my origins and am using the American Headway 2 textbook.  I collected songs about America for a weekly fill-in-the-blanks exercise and began with Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful," continued last week with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and have prepared "America" by Simon and Garfunkel for this week's class.  I'm not sure yet about exposing the monks to "American F*k Yeah" by Team America or "American Idiot" by Green Day.  I told them that I love much about America, the land and the people, but I am profoundly unhappy about politics in the country of my birth.  Also teaching down the hall from me on Wednesdays is Elsa, a middle-aged lady from the Philippines, whose challenge is to teach pronunciation to 3rd year English majors.  At least I think that's her job, since I cannot understand her English very well.  She told me that she's an evangelical Baptist and was sad that I turned down her invitation to attend her church.  I told her I was a Buddhist now that I lived in Thailand, and she promised to pray for me.

A week ago Nan and I celebrated the second anniversary of our first meeting at a coffee shop near her office followed by dinner at Sizzler's with a celebratory meal at the same restaurant followed by a visit to the scenic bar on the 64th floor of the State Tower above the five-star Labua Hotel.  It's called the Distil, and the couches were more comfortable than the standing-room-only Sirocco bar on the other side of the roof where scenes from "Hangover 2" were filmed last year.  The views of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River below were incredible and the high price of cocktails was offset by problems they had with the credit card machine which resulted in our drinks being made complimentary.  Sometimes malfunctions can be beneficial!

The night of Nan's return, we met her friend Aui (pronounced "we") for dinner at our favorite Rimnam barbecue joint on the Chao Phraya not far from our house.  Aui went to school with Nan in Phayao for two years and now is a caregiver for an old man in Bangkok.  She doesn't get out much and after eating she wanted to find a karaoke place, get drunk and sing songs.  We got a taxi driver to find a few for us and entered the most promising one by climbing up the stairs to wake up the proprietor and convince her to start up her machine.  She brought us towels to wash our hands, and Aui picked out songs she wanted to sing from the karaoke menu.  The women drank wine coolers and I had a beer (with ice, of course) and the service was terrific.  The only other customer was a heavyset Thai man who sat in the corner with a hostess on his lap.  Nan's cousin Bo worked in one of these places and she was more than a waitress.  Aui sang well and even Nan tried out her voice.  I sang the one song that came up with English lyrics but I had to make up the tune since I'd never heard it before.  Not half bad.  When it came time to leave, the proprietor presented us with an outlandish bill of over 500 baht ($16.50).  She charged 20 baht each for the towels, 100 baht for a plate of potato chips (not even a full bag's worth), and over 100 baht for each of the drinks.  I paid without a quibble and Aui gave me her share.  That's one karaoke place that won't get our business again!

My son Nicky sent me an IM on Facebook this morning.  He was writing it on his iPhone in the pool at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas.  What a life!  He's playing drums with Hanni El Khatib and they've begun a two-month tour that will take them to Bonnaroo on Friday, followed by a string of dates with Florence and the Machine, as well as shows with Bass Drum of Death in the midwest, east and Canada.  I only got a taste of that intensity during my travels in the 1970s with Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Bad Company, Elton John and Led Zeppelin.  I think being a musician in that scene is infinitely better than being a PR man.  He and Hanni were recently on Fuel TV and a commercial they did for Nike's "Just Do It" campaign is currently being aired.  Nicky has little time to write now and I look forward some day to hearing about his adventures.

It's the monsoon season in Thailand and I'm enjoying the daily deluge, almost always accompanied by thunder and lightning.  The views from my window are spectacular.


Sam said...

If there's one country where you never know what's going to happen next, it must be Thailand. Yet they've got all these fortune tellers. And 9 times out of 10 it seems that it's young women who are being ripped off.

Anonymous said...

Seems so true Sam.