Monday, July 7, 2008

The First Day

I’m still rusty at this blogging thing. Apologies for yesterday’s play-by-play drivel.

I reported for “work” today. But first, I was up at seven looking for breakfast in the neighborhood, and feeling inexplicably apprehensive about it. I found a couple of stands with steam coming from them in an alley, so I bought some barbecued chicken-on-a-stick and some rice. Everyone snickered about my inability to speak Thai, which is probably the last time I’ll find it amusing.

I went back to my hotel room and inhaled my lovely savory breakfast. I made a mental note to ask someone what people normally eat for breakfast here. Chicken and rice for breakfast is delicious, but a bit odd, even for someone who grew up eating leftover Domino’s Pizza for breakfast.

Just before I came to Thailand, I combed the aisles at DSW for several hours agonizing about what kind of shoes would be appropriate for working here. Flip flops were obviously out, but what about open-toe or slip-on sandals? I didn’t want to wear closed shoes without socks in the world’s hottest country, or closed shoes with socks for that matter.

It turns out that people take off their shoes before they enter the office. Barefoot is the proper footwear here. People also take off their shoes anytime they enter a temple or someone’s house, or if you go upstairs in many buildings, like at a hotel. (However, this was not true at The Palace. I guess if you pay that much money, you get to keep your shoes on.)

I met with the Director of HR, my project director, my on-site director, and the executive director of my organization. We had a meeting where half the attendees spent the first ten minutes giggling because they couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Thai. It is rather odd, I think, that the organization has agreed to take on an intern that can’t speak the local language. Would this ever happen in the States? Highly doubtful.

My organization has implemented five drop-in centers around Mahachai, just one town where an ambitious HIV prevention program for migrant workers is being implemented around Thailand, with a primary focus on laborers in the fishing industry.

The drop-in centers are basically a safe place where migrant workers can go to get culturally-appropriate information in their native language, as well as basic health care and condoms. They’re staffed by Thai and Burmese employees and volunteers who provide health services, referrals, legal advice and other information to help migrant workers understand and assert their rights, whether or not they’re registered to work legally in Thailand.

Even though Thai laws restrict illegal migrants from accessing basic services like health care and schooling, international human rights instruments protect migrants from abusive situations. This doesn’t stop employers from exploiting them, but through the outreach and education provided by drop-in center staff, migrants learn what recourse is available to them when they need it.

Four of the drop-in sites in Mahachai also have child development centers, which are basically day care centers for the children of migrants. The centers give kids a place to socialize and develop life skills among Burmese children their own age. They also attempt to prepare kids with language and cultural knowledge so that they can eventually enter Thai schools.

From what I can gather, I’ll be documenting the child development centers, including activities, best practices and lessons learned. That's a lot of nice buzzwords that make my project sound important, but so far it seems like my supervisors are much more skilled at NGO-speak than at communicating exactly what they mean by those things.

The HR director, Khun P, took me to lunch because everyone else in the office had ordered food and eaten already. We walked down the block – wearing shoes - to a small restaurant where he ordered tom yum soup, fried fish and vegetables. He also taught me one of my first Thai words ever: pet. It means spicy, and will probably be one of the more useful words I learn.

Khun P also gave me the lowdown on tipping in Thailand. It’s not expected, he says, although at “finer” establishments, especially those that serve a lot of wazungu, they give you your bill on a tray, which means “it’s okay to tip and place it in the tray.” Also, you don’t tip 15 percent of the bill. You just leave an extra 10 or 20 baht – which is often more than 15 percent. This is true at restaurants, hotels, in taxis, nearly everywhere.

I told him about the Malaysian restaurant in New York that I went to last week where the wait staff completely ignored us except to run after us as we left because we didn’t leave a tip. We hadn’t intended to stiff them; we had simply counted the money wrong. But the service was so bad that we really shouldn’t have tipped, except that tipping isn’t about rewarding good service anymore; it’s about avoiding finding your waiter’s loogie in your food.

“I hear that’s how it is in the States,” he said. “But not here. You won’t be chased for not leaving a tip. It’s just appreciated.”

Thailand is supposed to be less developed than the US?

No comments: