Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Office

Today was my first full day in Mahachai. Ahn the driver came to get me at 9am, as we agreed last night. He doesn’t speak any English, like about half the people in my office. But I like to remind myself of my own unique status as the only person in the office that doesn’t speak Thai.

The office is equipped as any well-funded NGO should be: AC, computers, printers and wireless internet. Of course, we are talking about Asian people so no one turns on the AC. They just run about eight fans all day long, partly for the heat and partly for the mosquitoes. Like in Bangkok, we take off our shoes at the door, which means mosquitoes bite me on the bottom of my feet. I HATE THOSE BUGGERS.

Our office is in a complex that looks like a strip shopping center. There are other organizations renting the other spaces, including an NGO called the Labour Rights Protection Network, and some seafood companies. There is also, I’m told, a pool nearby! I am planning to join, assuming it’s longer than the 20-yard joker at the campus gym back in New York.

Like almost every building I’ve seen here, ours is four stories high. Each organization's office occupies all four floors, with a stairway leading up to the other floors. In our office, the first two floors are where everyone sits. My desk is upstairs on the second floor, and I have access to a printer, photocopier, fax machine, etc. We have a conference room and some important person’s office on the third floor, and the fourth floor appears to be used for storage.

As expected, there’s nearly a full kitchen in the office. The only thing missing is a stove. But we have a rice cooker, an Asian hot water heater thing, a fridge and freezer, microwave, electric crock pot, a sink, dishes, silverware, cups, instant coffee and tea. And of course someone brings food to share nearly every day.

Ahn, Oay and Muu took me to visit a few of the drop-in centers. We went to Tha Chalom, a neighborhood across the river from the office, which has a child development center on the ground floor. It's managed by Noreen, the Burmese nurse who I met at the conference in Bangkok. The kids are really energetic, and the floor is a bit sandy with all the youthful hyperactivity. One of the teachers is a Thai guy who is always barking at the kids with his high-pitched voice. Maybe this is considered educational.

We also stopped by Talad Kung, an area of town aptly named for having perhaps the largest shrimp market in Thailand. There is another drop-in clinic here, where Dr. Khin works. She provides basic health care services in Burmese, and refers clients to the local government hospital for more complicated issues or for lab tests. There's brochures and posters in Burmese about HIV and STIs, pregnancy, family planning, dengue fever and other health information, and plenty of condoms and birth control pills. My favorite is this display with samples of unsafe "condoms." The sign is in English, Thai and Burmese.

So far the people who speak the best English are the Burmese staff – Noreen and Dr. Khin. They’ve both been in Thailand for years – Dr. Khin has been here for ten years and both her kids were born here – but their Thai is not very fluent. Like in Thailand, Burmese students study English beginning in fifth grade. I’m told that the Burmese language isn’t related to much else, including Thai. So Noreen and Dr. Khin can both speak it conversationally, but they can’t really read or write it. Migrants from Cambodia generally have an easier time learning Thai because it’s related to Khmer.

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