"Pack a bag; it could be a very long day."
The best definition of culture that I have seen is: “the way we do things around here”1 So culture shock, comes, quite simply, from the removal of the familiar2, from not knowing how we or, rather, how they do things. The really exciting part is that this not knowing catches you unawares, even when you think you have started to get a handle on things. A job interview should be a relatively straightforward thing, especially when a lot of the organisations that a farang (“foreigner”, specifically, Caucasian foreigner) in Thailand has interviews with, are themselves populated by foreigners. But nothing in Thailand is ever that simple! When going for an interview with Thai organisations, I know I don’t know how it is done, and I have learned to set aside my preconceptions of what might be expected. I pack all my certificates and copies in triplicate, grab my passport, my bankbook, and some extra photos. I don a shirt with sleeves, a skirt that at least reaches mid knee, stockings, and shoes that close both toe and heel. While this may be more conservative than is required by some places, until you have met them, you don’t know which bits you can safely be more informal about. I wear stockings and a suit to one of my jobs, bare legs, soft skirts and open toed shoes to another. I know of one place that prefers skirts to cover the ankles – I draw the line!
There are some additional basic rules:
Give yourself plenty of time - traffic is impossible to predict - and while you can be pretty certain to get lost at least once, you can’t be certain how long it will take to find yourself again. You also have to take into account the unpredictable traffic stoppages - for the passing of some royal personage, for example - or the instant traffic snarl when the skies open up during downpours in the rainy season. Phone through on the day and reconfirm the time and place. With the vagaries of Thai-English, this becomes even more crucial. There is a story circulating about a woman who showed up a day late for an “expression of interest” interview, only to be surprised that the person she was to meet wasn’t there. Take a notepad or book on the off-chance that you actually arrive early. Take a mobile phone with every conceivable number that might be helpful. It’s useful to be able to ring people when you know you will be unavoidably delayed, or when you have become hopelessly lost. Expect at least one of these to happen, and for both to occur on the same day is not unlikely. Grab a map (for your own comfort; taxi drivers cannot read them) and have taxi directions written in English and in Thai. And take extra money for the unforeseen strandings, or the additional expense of being caught in a taxi that is gridlocked.
Naturally, I have learned these basics the hard way, by violating them, but usually only once. And even when you follow most of the rules, how do you prepare for the completely unpredictable?
One example is an interview where I had to work as a counsellor with a non-government organization. I had met with the co-ordinator on one of my previous trips to the city, but they had changed staff and location since then, and were now operating out of someone’s home. My appointment was set for 1:00 at some obscure location in Bangkok. The person I spoke to on the phone was Dutch. Three times I asked her to spell the name of the street; three times she pronounced the name in full, with a Dutch accent. Perhaps she didn’t understand ‘spell’? So I wrote down what I thought I heard. She told me where to get off the Sky Train and which way to exit the station, and then said I should take a tuk-tuk – I couldn’t miss the street, she said, there was a 7-Eleven on the corner. At that stage, I had been in Bangkok for all of a month or two, and already I knew that there is a 7-Eleven on almost every street corner. In fact, there are so many 7-Eleven’s in Bangkok that my University students assume it is a Thai concept! So I queried this, but she said only that if I had problems, give her a ring, and her husband - who could speak Thai - would give the driver directions.
Of course, no tuk-tuk driver could make head or tail of my directions, and although I rang their phone number repeatedly, no one answered the phone, because, as I found out, when I finally arrived an hour late, they had left it somewhere in the house and no one could hear it! Wandering around the narrow streets of a bustling all-Thai neighbourhood in the middle of its curb-side lunch hour, under the midday sun, in a suit, with a briefcase, is not an experience I would care to repeat.
Then there was the interview I sat through soaking wet with my shoes full of water, and my long (wet) hair slicked back into a make-shift French roll - thank heavens for the bobby pins in the bottom of my well-stocked handbag – this time only half an hour late. Once again, I had got lost, but this time during a downpour that no umbrella could defend against. I was so glad that the suit fabric hadn’t changed colour or form from the drenching, so my status as a drowned rat was not obvious to the interviewer. It did take several cups of hot coffee afterwards before I recovered from the chill.
Recently I had an interview for theThai branch of an American University located 3 hours away from Bangkok. They were obviously keen to talk to me; after changing the day of the interview at the last minute, they offered me overnight accommodation and dinner as a form of compensation for the change. So I assumed the trip would be pretty smooth and uneventful.
Surreal was a better way to describe it. Following the advice of the Administrative Officer of the University I was to visit, I had booked a seat on the “Dusit van”, which runs daily between Bangkok and the seaside branches of this luxury hotel. As my taxi pulled into the Bangkok Dusit, porters dressed in long white socks, purple pantaloons, and gold-trimmed hats with ear flaps immediately rushed to open the door and relieve me of my bag, even though I told them I wasn’t staying there, I was merely using their transport service to Hua Hin. The service was punctual – they wanted me in the van five minutes early – no time to finish my rich, over-priced coffee. The “van” turned out to be a huge 10+ seater Mercedes, complete with Audio Visual system, and the biggest surprise: seatbelts which actually worked! There was already a very elegant-looking Asian lady seated in a second-row seat, so I sat in the first row just behind the driver and tried to avoid pressing my nose to the window like a five-year-old as we hurtled and hummed across the river away from the city, through the bustling suburbs with their myriad garden plant and ornament shops, then out into the countyside, with the late morning sun glinting into my eyes from the too-bright sky and the reflecting flooded rice fields. An hour and a half later, impossibly angled, densely- foliaged mountain cliffs rose straight out of nowhere. Black and grey granite gashes showed themselves where the mountainside had slid away, collapsed under the weight of its own tropical greenery. Lower down, rich red soil showed in the fissures. Hmm, yes, I could work around here.
Thailand is a land of contrasts and extremes and, not long after the magnificent mountain, we were passing blocks and blocks of derelict two- and three-story apartment buildings; built but unoccupied because of the ‘burst bubble’ of 1997. Then, for yet another total change, shortly after we passed massive, larger than life, photographic portraits of the king and queen, we pulled into the Dusit Polo Resort. This resort obviously takes its mission seriously, and the ornate spirit house at the front of the grounds was crowded full of miniature horses, presumably modelled on polo ponies. Again, the porters were quick to assist – Yes, Madam, Certainly Madam, Of course, Madam. I told them I was not staying there, payed my van fare, confirmed the booking for my return the next day and asked how I could organise a taxi to my actual accommodation. Yes, Madam, Certainly Madam, Of course, Madam – they were happy to drive me, no extra charge.
Too good to be true? Absolutely correct! Once away from the resort, I am flung headlong into foreign territory. The entrance to the place I am booking into is atop an impossibly steep driveway; I instinctively take a deep inhalation to help the van up the rise. Although the garishly multi-coloured signage around the swimming-pool blue collection of buildings is in English, as well as Thai, it is soon evident that no one speaks it well. While it is true that their command of English is marginally better than my fledgling Thai, the relatively simple task of establishing that a room has been booked for me takes quite some time. No notes from the University greet me, and its location is not shown on any local maps. There is no indication that I will be met or collected, and no information on how I am to get to there, so, after managing to establish that the campus is about 20 minutes away, I book a taxi for an appointed time to take me out there.
At least, I think I do. Knowing by now never to leave things to chance, I go down to the desk early to find – what a surprise! - that no cab is waiting, and none is expected. The piece of paper I have watched the desk clerk write is missing, as is the clerk, whom I would be hard pressed to describe (young female, of Thai appearance). Never mind – mai pen rai – order another one. They quote me a price which would get me across Bangkok twice, but I don’t know the rules here, so what am I going to say? Obviously, metered taxis have not made it to these parts; we are, after all, 200km away from the Big Mango and, too late, I remember our experience in Phuket, another ‘resort town’, where we wandered the streets one evening, just after dark, looking for a taxi. After some time, we finally went into a large hotel lobby, and got the one moderate-English-speaker to order us a car and driver. We waited half an hour while the newly-awoken driver showered and dressed before collecting the haplessly stranded tourists.
This time I didn’t have to wait so long, and within twenty minutes I was following a driver, who spoke no English, out of the lobby to an old white pick-up truck. Pick-up truck? Hmmm. I hopped in the front, my bag under my feet, and discovered that my seatbelt would not latch. Hmmm. We hurtled off, and I pressed myself back as far as the seat, which seemed to be stuck in a forward position, would allow - worried that any sudden move would pitch me through the windshield. We turned off the highway, away from the coast, onto a narrow winding tarmac with patches, potholes and no shoulders. Sugar cane, coconut palms and tamarind trees blurred past. Another jungle-covered mountain loomed through the windscreen. We passed water-filled paddocks and herds of placid-looking pale grey cows with shoulder humps and soft droopy ears like goats. No cars, only old bikes pulling carts over-laden with grasses, and the odd ancient tractor. Not a single sign in English. Where on earth was I? After 20 minutes with no end to this lonely road in sight, I could feel the panic rising. “It’s ok,” I told myself, “the hotel knows I’m here.” “He’s legit,” I reassured myself, “he’s wearing a name badge.” I took irrational comfort from that name tag, even though I know that anyone can buy a plastic badge. I couldn’t help but remember the time I was robbed in Bali, by smiling, helpful, transport-providers. After what seemed like an eternity, we turned onto a highway, which looked, to my naive eye, exactly like the one we had left over half an hour before. I am seriously directionally-challenged at the best of times, and although this road was four lanes and obviously recently paved, there were no signs, even in Thai, to give me comfort. Thailand is a relatively safe place, but I do get travel advisories from the embassy, and random incidents can happen anywhere in the world.
Finally, a sign - in English and Thai - for the University. I felt somewhat foolish for the anxiety I had been feeling and started breathing again. But, of course, the damage was done; as hard as I tried to centre myself, and breathe ‘low and slow’, I was jittery.
On the campus, I manage to find the reception where they looked at me as though I was from outer space. No one had been alerted as to my arrival, so I was sent to sit while the only person for whom I had a name was tracked down to come and rescue me.
With the usual accident of timing, I had arrived a little early and several members of the ‘committee’ who were interviewing me were running late. Eventually, we all sat around a huge meeting table: just me and a panel of six. It couldn’t have been more intimidating if the table had been made of mahogany and in a stuffy boardroom somewhere.
When they had run out of questions, I politely enquired if I might ask some. For example: what do they see the job entailing, have they got a job description in mind, what are the lines of responsibility and, as this was a new ‘trial’ position, how would they define success? “Hmmm, good question,” they replied, nodding thoughtfully. Clearly, they had not thought this through! One of the panel even asked me why I was assuming the position was two days a week. My turn to look puzzled: “Because that is what it said in the ad.”
In the true Thai-style of eternal contrasts, once the stuffy formality of the trial-by-panel was finished, five of us, plus driver, piled into a five-seater car to head off for a lovely dinner, overlooking the Gulf. Then everyone piled back into the car to be dropped off at the hotel, where no one actually checked to make sure my room was in order before heading their respective directions…
No one said when or how I would likely receive a response - and it seemed rude to ask. So, now I practiced another Thai virtue: waiting, without seeming to wait. By Western standards, I’m getting good at it.
1O’Sullivan, Kerry (1994). Understanding ways: communicating between cultures. Alexandria: Hale and Iremonger.
2Brick, Jean. (1991). China: a handbook in intercultural communication. Macquarie University, Sydney: National Centre for English Language Teaching and Research.