Good Guys In, Bad Guys Out: Adventures from Immigration Offices Around the World

 

“Good Guys In, Bad Guys Out” was the banner heading on my visit to the Thai Immigration Office last week. That in a very blunt way is what every immigration office in the world is about, I guess. In this case, quote was attributed to a Police Lieutenant General whose whole job is to sort us foreigners out. They get to figure out who the good and bad guys are, and the bad guys. I was there to let them figure out what category I fit into. (No, the privilege is not reciprocal–I don’t get to figure out if they are good or bad guys.  It really doesn’t matter to them what I think–but it really matters to me what they think!)

I have been in Thailand about three months now, and that date means something special to the Immigration Office. It means that my initial non-immigrant “Teacher” visa was done, and I would need to go into the local immigration office early in the morning to get a number, and appointment, and then be inspected for my goodness. Or badness.

Armed with the usual accoutrements of bureaucratic goodness, including a letter from my employer, 1.5 inch photos, passport, former visa from the Thai Embassy in Washington, 1,900 Baht for my wife and, and certification from the US Consul General that I had signed a paper saying we were married, my wife and I went in. Funny thing was that the US Consulate charged the same thing ($50) for this notarized statement about our signature, that the whole thing would cost us.  But that’s a different problem!

Anyway, we got there at about 6 a.m., and were about twentieth in a line of nervous and tired people, all preparing to convince someone of their goodness. The people in front of us (and behind us) all had the same mission in mind: Prove their goodness as a teacher, spouse, volunteer, student, or other measure of goodness that would give them legal status in Thailand, because they were indeed a good guy.

The wait in the line was done by seven when we were given a queue number, and told to come back at 1 p.m. So far so good! Only an hour or two early in the morning spent waiting and queuing.

We actually got back early for the appointment, about 12:30, in the hope that we would be sped through the process because I had a Thai class at three. No go. We still had a queue to wait in. The wait wasn’t too bad—only about an hour, during which time we tried to guess the nationality of others waiting. Seems like there was lots of Chinese, a French, Italian, and a couple of Americans. The waiting room was probably running half Asian, and half European.

Finally we were called into a back desk where there was a cheery immigration officer; after all they get to be cheery, because after all, I’m not judging them!! He had under the glass on his desk souvenirs bills from many country of the world—appropriate for an immigration officer I guess. He thumbed through our paperwork smiling, signing, and stamping. There was even a random question or two—the content of which I forget. Five minutes later, we were told to wait again for our photos. So we waited some more, and were finally called by the photographer. Who would take our photos, presumably because the two 1.5” photos we had brought with us were no good.  So it goes. And then wait some more. We still didn’t know if we were good guys (in) or bad guys (next plane out) yet. A half hour later, I sauntered up to the counter to ask the woman there where were are in the cue. In a deep voice she instructed us to take our pictures. Cool. That done we were instructed small price to pay the 1900 Baht for officially being good guys.  This status will remain assuming that we report every thirty days to the immigration office.   Good guys pay, after all.  They also wait.

At one point, I wanted to have a Socratic dialog with the immigration officer about the meaning of “good guy,” which at least in the world’s immigration offices seems to revolve around getting the picture sizes right, having paperwork in order, and collecting fees.  I was going to ask whether I could be a good guy if I save babies, rescued people, or had a sterling character typically associated with “goodness.” But I thought the better of it. And so I willingly wandered back into the real world where the only good foreigner is a documented foreigner, irrespective of anything intrinsic, much less philosophical.

Surprises in Thailand II: Utility Prices!

We have rented a small two bedroom apartment for our time in Chiangmai, Thailand. Now the utility bills have started to roll in. Here are some samples

Two months use on my cell phone for calls and text: 200 Baht (about $5.75)

Internet service: about $21 per month

Water bill for one month about $4.00 per month

Electricity for February (not much air conditioning) about $12.00. (I’m told that this could quadrulple or quintuple now that the hot season is upon us!)

Drinking water bottles delivered to the door: $1.80 per crate of 20 reusable one liter bottles.

This is all a LOT cheaper than what I am used to in the United States! And I’m not enough of an economist to understand why this is so. Utilities are not labor intensive, so delivery of services like water, telephone, and internet should be similar—but they are not. I’m told that there are government subsidies on electricity and water, but I’m not sure how this works into the economics of things.

As for that other great utility, gasoline, it is selling for about 25 Baht per liter (US $0.75 per liter, i.e. $2.64 per US gallon, i.e. about the same price per gallon as in California now—which is more expensive typically than other US states. It runs me about $20 to fill the tank of my 1997 Mitsubishi Sedan every two weeks or so.

And as for labor, the minimum wage is currently 300 baht per day, which is just under $9.00. A plate of rice in a street side restaurant is about 35 Baht, which is $1.00. I eat a lot of this type of food, albeit I will often indulge, and spend something extra (often $0.30 or so) to dress up the rice or noodles!

Getting used to alternative pricing is part of the expatriate life. After two months here, I am still in the bad habit of converting from Baht into US$. This too will pass!

 

Surprises in Thailand I. Why do Chinese People Come to Thailand to Learn English?

 

This is the first in what might become a series. The series is called surprises in Thailand, and includes things that are just surprising. I don’t have any explanations, just musing.

One of the surprises though is the fact that Chiangmai in Thailand has over the last five or six years become a mecca for Chinese visitors. They seem to come for many reasons. The woman in the apartment across from us married a Thai, and moved here. The streets of Chiangmai are clogged with Chinese tourists, particularly during Chinese holidays. They are here to shop, take selfies, and go on tours. To help them along, the Thai vendors have conveniently erected many Chinese language advertisements to attract business, and you occasionally see blue and white license plates from cars which have taken the long drive from southern China down here.

You can of course here the complaints from locals about the differences of the tourists. They complain about their driving habits, walking habits, and loudness. (With respect to westerners, there are of course other complaints, but that is for another blog).

But one of the most interesting phenomenon I have been hearing about is the interest of Chinese to come to Thailand for longer periods to study. Thus the irony of English schools in Chiangmai filling with Chinese students. And Thai schools. Thailand as a place to study English is not intuitive—Thais themselves complain that the English-speaking capacity of Thai children does not match that of the other countries of the 11-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). How could Thai-speaking Thailand be a place to study English? Part of the answer seems to be that Thailand has cheap English lessons, many of which are taught by a small army of western teachers who accept a relatively low wage in low expense Thailand where they also get a long-term visa.

But isn’t this is like going to the United States to learn Japanese. Why not go to Japan instead? Well yes it is. But at the beginning, I warned you that this blog is about stuff that doesn’t yet make sense to me, so here we are. But there is no question, industrious middle class Chinese show up in Thailand in fairly large numbers, then sign up for Thai classes in order that they can study English.

One of the most interesting conversations I had with this was with a Christian pastor from Taiwan who had a PhD in Electrical Engineering degree from the University of Michigan.   After some years as a missionary in The Philippines, he came to Thailand to run a school where potential Chinese missionaries could go to learn Thai and English. Where would they be missionaries? Answer: Southeast Asia and back in China, perhaps. Back in China of course Christianity enjoys a peculiar place relative to the government—with some of it banned, and some of it not. As for Thailand, it is largely a Buddhist country, which has long hosted Christian missionaries (and also has a Buddhist-Muslim insurgency in the south, which is another story…). Anyway, so somewhere near Chiangmai, there is a school for potential Chinese missionaries where they learn speak Thai and English, and also spread the Gospel. Like I said, mysteries abound!

And for my next “Surprises in Thailand” blog, I think I will write about utility prices. They cheap, cheap, cheap. And good!

Playground Fights

One of the most impressive things I noticed once I started teaching junior high in a rural poverty school was the number of playground fights that took place. Just about every recess several boys stopped playing, started yelling, then cursing, then challenged each other to fight. A crowd of other boys and girls immediately ran towards them and usually encircled them chanting, “fight, fight, fight…” This made it very difficult to back out so normally someone ended up with a bloody nose or black eye. These injuries were cured in the office with a bag of ice and possibly a suspension from school for a day or two so that each pugilist could cool off. The sneakier boys would sometimes wait until a teacher was standing between him and the other kid, and then throw a ‘sucker punch.’ This meant the punch was unexpected. The kid who was hit with the ‘sucker punch’ didn’t have a chance to punch back because the teacher was standing there. It was a kind of cheating in the world of junior high kids and cause for another fight to be scheduled at another time.

One day in October a friendly psychologist, Gregg, from the county schools office dropped by to observe a special education student. At recess I invited Gregg to have a cup of coffee, enjoy the Fall air, and walk around the playground with me. Almost on cue a fight broke out among a couple of boys in the middle of a basketball game. Since I wasn’t on recess duty, another teacher took care of the issue and I continued to walk and watch with Gregg. He noted that the fighting represented a big difference between my school and another school in the county that served kids of much higher socio-economic status. At the higher SES school, kids could get a playground ball, choose up sides and play a game of any kind without actually fighting. They knew how to play and negotiate differences in ways that allowed the game to go on. If a child took offense to something, he would normally allow the offense to pass for his enjoyment of the continuation of the game. Or the offending kid would simply say ‘sorry’ and the game went on. At my school, no small offense was given without an outsized response. There were a number of kids who just looked for ways to be offended. We talked about how to address this issue school-wide. When I became principal, I learned about programs such as student led conflict managers but at the time I was simply amazed at the pattern and at the apparent endless re-cycling of the same violent responses to the same issues.

I also noticed that the school board in this district engaged in some of the most rancorous and contentious arguments I had ever seen, similar to but actually much worse than the fights on the playground. Boards were supposed to work on policy matters and allow the professionals to apply their judgment to implement the policies. But the hidden curriculum of this school board was fairly clear. They loved a good, nasty fight. Their arguments were usually based in petty differences that meant nothing to the education of the children, except as a kind of cultural policy, perhaps a shadow policy of rancor acted out in reflection of poverty culture.

A few years later at my first evaluation meeting with the board as a teaching- principal I ran into the conflict orientation again. In closed session, one of the members reamed me out because a kid from my school had flipped her off during the Christmas Program. Another member disagreed with this board member and told her she was too stupid to know a good Christmas Program from a bad one. Never mind the fact that I had just explained a significant improvement in the Math curriculum. These folks knew how to pick a fight with each other and with anyone else.

By the end of that school year, the board had decided to fire the superintendent. So they did. And they loved it. After summer, the new school year started. The county superintendent sent an interim person and after a month, they fired him too. Next, they promoted the only other principal, a more experienced one, to the job of superintendent. This fellow understood the culture of continuous offense-taking. His response was to be a highly visible brown-noser whose entire professional life was engaged in trying to determine, as a colleague described it, “whose asshole he should stick his head up next.” By the end of February, this board had found a new superintendent, hired him, (returned the brown-noser to his principal job) and then arbitrarily reduced the promised salary of the new guy. The new superintendent took the board to court and got an immediate settlement for more than he was promised in the first place and was also taken back to his former job by his former school district.

Around this time, one of the board members decided to bring a lawsuit against the rest of the entire board for defamation of character. He had bragged around the school community that he enjoyed ‘chasing skirt’ at conferences for board members and this offended other board members. One wrote a letter of complaint to him and he responded by suing the entire bunch.

At the next board meeting I distinguished myself as a young hero and didn’t get fired at the same time. The school board was discussing their options to hire another superintendent when one of them suggested they call the school attorney for advice.

I stood up and said, “I expect that would cost about $100 per hour. Why don’t you buy my school a new microscope instead?”

The teachers and staff in the audience cheered. This really pissed the board off. They adjourned into closed session and called me to come into the room with them. They told me I ‘serve at the pleasure of the board’ which meant I could be fired any time they felt like it. So I had better shut up.

The next day, I received a bouquet of roses from the teachers and a nicely written letter from the board president reminding me again that I ‘serve at the pleasure of the board’ and warning me to shut up, in so many words.

The punch line to this piece is that I stopped attending so many board meetings in order to insure that I didn’t say anything untoward and get fired. This was a good idea since that particular school board managed to distinguish itself by hiring and firing ten superintendents in one school year. I think this is a world record.

To my surprise, I noticed that no matter what antics occurred at the meetings, nothing actually changed at school. The kids came, the teachers taught, the secretary answered the phone, free breakfast and lunch were served, the janitors cleaned, the naïve heroic principal worked and wondered, the old Machiavellian brown-noser principal worked and schemed, and I was a whole lot calmer when I didn’t go to a board meeting. This phenomenon has been described by important scholars such as Max Weber who talks about the bureaucracy enduring no matter what kind of chaos seems to be taking place elsewhere in society. Also Larry Cuban is famous for his metaphor of a calm, undisturbed environment, almost impervious to change within classrooms during continuous reform efforts. This stability is like the calm of the ocean just a few feet below the stormy surface. Similarly, school districts are robust bureaucratic organizations and it takes a good deal of effort to improve or worsen their operation.

Just imagine how difficult it would be for school boards such as the one I have described, reflections of local culture, to change their focus to policies around the quality of classrooms, teaching and teachers, methods and materials and the condition of the children. For all I have railed against the Orwellian nightmarish aspects of test-based accountability, one positive outcome was to force school boards such as the one I have described to look at something far beyond their ken, some kind of indicator of the learning of the students.

 

 

Oxymorons and Tweeting

Let it be heard first on Ethnography.com! 60 years of social science research on the measure is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Ok, that’s and exaggeration, but my wife and I think that the term Socio-economic Status is a bit of an oxy-moron, at least in Max Weber’s world. How can you mix a term which is related to honor (that’s the status part), with a measure of the marketplace (that’s the economics part). Thuse the oxy-moron. Our article about this just came out at Palgrave Communications, too! Please click http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms20162 to read it in the wonderful world of Open Source publication.

You will also be doing us a great favor if you tweet the link to all your friends and fans. This apparently is the new metric which counts in the all-important rankings. By tweeting this article you are contributing to the oxy-moron which assumes that the quality of an article is associated with manipulable metrics. Ok, irrespective of all that, I do appreciate a great deal people reading what we wrote.

How the principal learned about what was important in a rural school secretary, Part 2

Part 2

The children and many parents loved Joleen. She listened well and garnered the trust of everyone with her practical responses to various problems and warm understanding of parental concerns. Children would find excuses to go to the office during recess just to see Joleen. Early on in her secretarial career, I had to set limits on the number of children who could come.

As a result many kids feigned mild injury or the ever-present elementary school bellyache just to be able to get a hug from Joleen. She also had a refrigerator in the office and kept it stocked with ice cubes. Wrapped in a plastic bag, these ice cubes healed many scrapes, injuries and hurt feelings. She called parents if the scrapes were deserving of more attention and used language everyone appreciated such as, “Jerry done got stove up on the playground today so I gived him some ice. He’d like to talk to his momma.”

The mother on the other end of the phone knew just what to say and Jerry would no longer be ‘stove up’ and able to return to school activities. Joleen was part of the miracle cure.

And it was in response to this role, as ice cube dispenser that she made an improvement through a parent’s donation of left over athletic team ‘cold paks’. These plastic bags represented the miracle of modern sports medicine. They were filled with mysterious blue pellets that turned cold once you punched them. No more leaky plastic bags full of ice! Kids would just get a ‘cold pak’ and turn it back in when they went back to class or the playground, healed or restored.

With Joleen in the office and capable teacher aides on the playground, I was able to have lunch with the other teachers and learn more about them. I felt I was different from them in many ways but we were getting along well. It was on just such a day that my well-run school went to hell in a hand basket. Joleen rushed into the teachers’ room where were eating our brown bag sandwiches and cried out breathlessly, “Theydoneetitallup! Theydoneetitallup! “

“What are you saying?” I asked. “ I can’t understand a word.”

“Theydoneetitallup!!” Joleen yelled at me. Then more slowly she said, “They done et it all up!”

Another teacher translated for me. “She is saying, ‘They have eaten it all up.”

“Who has eaten what up?” I asked.

“They et up the blue bags,” Jolene screamed. I started to ask, “What blue bags?” when I realized it was the blue ‘cold paks’.

“What happened? I said thinking I was being calm as I stood up and headed out the door to the office. Joleen followed me and started to explain.

“I done give 6 bags to 6 kids. They done broke ‘em and then et the blue stuff!”

Now I was really starting to get scared. By the time I reached the office the 6 kids were standing outside looking scared too. Joleen had yelled at them and that never happened. Since it was a hot day, they broke open the bags and ate the blue liquid like an icy. I grabbed a phone book, looked up the number of the clinic that was about 10 miles away and dialed. When I told the nurse what happened she ordered me to get the kids there as soon as possible. They would give the kids ipecac so they would throw up all the blue stuff. She also told me to bring one with me so they could check it for the degree of poisoning the kids had experienced in case the ipecac wasn’t enough.

I ordered Joleen to call parents and tell them where I was with their child, and what happened. I asked her to get the emergency cards for each kid out of the red box, but then decided I’d just take the box with me instead of relying on Joleen’s alphabetizing and spelling skills at this point. She could use the attendance files to get parent information.

We didn’t have any kind of car handy that would take all six kids, so I grabbed the keys to the 1949 International Harvester Carry All while Joleen, now calmed down started to call parents. She was able to give them the upsetting story, let them know where to go to get their child and deliver a calm sense of confidence at the same time.

Meanwhile, I was out in front with the International and the six scared kids. The beast was great for hauling kids around in 1950 or so but had a real problem with the starter at this late juncture in its life. Luckily for me, I got the kids into the Carry All and with just a little grinding and panting, the thing started up. In no time at all we were sitting outside the clinic and I happily watched all six kids puke their guts out as the clinic nurse got off the phone with poison control and gave me the good news that we got there in time. Parents picked up their kids at the clinic after I made the phone calls there and they were actually happy that everything turned out ok. Instead of being the idiot who let the secretary pass out poison ‘cold paks’ to kids, I was the hero who saved them as evidenced by the fact that they were alive at the clinic.

The next day I met with Joleen to take steps that would get her to improve her secretarial skills, the kind we might need in an emergency again, such as getting out the student emergency cards without making an alphabetizing mistake. Joleen sadly confessed to me that she, “…done tuk all the courses they got at the college.”

At this point, I think I can see that it was more important for Joleen’s effectiveness as a rural small school secretary to relate well to parents than to be able to alphabetize (although that certainly would have helped). Parents trust school secretaries much more than they do principals and especially one who was as different from them as I was. While I believed I was warm and understanding, feedback from the school community continually revealed I was aloof and too distant in the eyes of many parents and teachers. However, the board and new superintendent didn’t really appreciate Joleen’s contribution, except one board member who was also challenged by reading. They discounted her due to her language and promoted me to a full principalship at an elementary school of 500 kids.

 

 

 

 

 

How the principal learned about what was important in a rural school secretary, Part 1

Part 1

Once I had proven myself in the paddling exercise, (see Last Tango in the Superintendent’s Career) the superintendent let me know I would be able to keep the job as teaching-principal and actually have a school secretary. I didn’t know it was a test but apparently it was crucial. The most crucial part might have been keeping my mouth shut about the way an elementary school kid flung the boss through the air a couple of times. But nevertheless, I passed.

For a teaching principal in his first months in a seven-teacher school of about 180 kids, a secretary sounded really good. It had been pretty difficult to teach my own class and answer the phone and deal with any problem children the other teachers sent to me, not to mention parents who dropped in for one reason or another. So a secretary, at last, was a going to be a great step up.

The item the superintendent didn’t mention was the fact that the position was going to be funded by CETA, (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) a special federal program designed to help aspiring workers get off welfare and into the workforce. Qualifications such as skills were not the main criteria for landing the jobs. Need was the main criteria and minor items such as criminal background of which program participants had to have none to work in a school.

My secretary arrived the next day brought right to my classroom by the superintendent. He introduced her to me and said, “This is Joleen Cross, your new secretary.”

“Well, Hi Joleen,” I said excitedly. “I’m so very glad you are here. We need a real secretary!”

Joleen was a parent of two of my students when I taught at the Junior High and I knew her as a quiet and concerned parent who came to every meeting and school event. There was also something in the back of my mind I couldn’t quite remember.

“Thanks,” said Joleen. “I always wanted to be a seketary.”

I thought I might have misheard Joleen but then I instantly remembered what was in the back of my mind. She had a real problem speaking standard English. Her family had come from Oklahoma a few generations in the past to work on the big dam just up the road from the school. When the dam was finished many left for other jobs and some stayed for poorer non-upwardly mobile jobs in the region.

In spite of the local cultural language issue, I thought this deal might not be so bad. I can get Joleen to answer the phone and type up letters and so on. And Joleen was great at answering the phone and talking with parents who could understand her accent. She had a warm heart and was patient with the children who were in trouble or lost or anything else. When she answered the phone, she always said, “Joleen Speakin’ “ and this caused some of the snootier parents and the next Superintendent to simply re-name her from Joleen Cross to Joleen Speakin’.

Joleen would not have made it as a secretary at the episcopal school. You had to speak Standard English and be able to converse with people who were professionals and graduates of all kind of colleges and universities. And you had to be able to write a bit. And this was where my first hopes were dashed. I believed and still do in keeping a strong paper trail following any important communication. And this meant sending clearly written letters typed on school letterhead. For instance, I would write,

“Dear Mrs. Jones,

Thank you for responding so quickly yesterday when I called to let you know Johnny was in a fight at school. As I shared, I looked into the matter, listened to both boys tell their stories and determined an appropriate response. Both boys will pick up trash on the playground during recess for the remainder of the week.

I also want to you to know that I appreciate your agreement with my decision that future fighting will result in a one-day suspension from school per the California Education Code.

Please feel free to contact me at any time here at school.

Yours Sincerely,

Bill Rich

Teaching-Principal”

I tried to dictate such a letter to Joleen but she let me know right away that she couldn’t to that. Then I typed out this sample letter above so she could use it as a model for school discipline letters. She liked this idea but when it came time for her to type a similar letter, she couldn’t get through a paragraph with out unrecognized misspellings or simply the omission of various words. This was very frustrating to me. A new superintendent was hired that year and he advised me to provide an evaluation that required Joleen to take classes at the Community College in English and typing. I did that and she was willing and eager to learn and improve.