Five Things Your Counterpart is Doing… Instead of Working with You
Talking to People
Given any medium, Thai people LOVE to talk to each other. With the liberal usage with the concept of time, most Thais see no reason to wrap up a conversation despite school/class starting, they were supposed to pick you up an hour ago, they’re late for a meeting… or anything really, you get the picture. I see this on a daily basis after morning announcements, teachers stay and chat with each other for periods of time of usually around ten minutes, sometimes thirty if an activity is going on or about to. This is part of the ‘relationship building’ part of Thai culture, asking small questions about the other’s life before delving into other things, like work. Sometimes though, this gets people stuck listening to long, over told stories and they greng-jai the other person by listening. And no, the concept of ‘walk and talk’ does not exist here.
Ah phone étiquette. Or lack thereof. I was raised in a family that if the phone rang during dinner, you let the machine pick it up. If I avert my eyes for more than sixty seconds to send a text during a meal with my Mom, I’ll get such a bad stink eye from her, the smell could be picked up in a different room. She also makes fun of people that have their phones on vibrate during meetings and they buzz during it. She’ll be in for quite the surprise when she visits*.
Not only is it perfectly acceptable to answer your phone while teaching, in a meeting, in a meal, or giving a speech (you read that right, I can’t tell you how many times that’s happened at event things), I’ve seen people on tv (being interviewed) answer a call. Not that they both didn’t answer their phones, but one of my old coteachers would talk on the phone on a consistent basis throughout ‘our’ entire lesson. That was frustrating. I think it’s safe to say the phrase ‘is this a good time?’ doesn’t really get uttered that often in this country.
If I kept count of how many times I was late for my after lunch class period over this past year, I think I might be mildly horrified. As in many places, food and eating together is very important in Thai culture. Sharing food, then talking about its deliciousness and covering all the topics they didn’t in the morning conversation. Or re-covering them. And eating alone? Ha! Rare is the time you’ll find a Thai person eating alone doing work like I often used to do in college. Well, that is unless it’s work that’s been due for a few days already. If you get Thainapped for a food outing, know that you won’t likely return for several hours.
I remember when I was in high school and trying to make it through volleyball preseason, I would see teachers milling around for the weeklong meetings they had in preparation for the school year. Please note that this would happen BEFORE school started. In Thailand, the first week of school is spent in meetings, cleaning (the students that is), and other assorted Thai things (like eating and talking). And friends, this doesn’t stop throughout the school year. One of my schools had their bi-weekly meetings during my fourth grade class.
Not that I ever see that much getting accomplished during these things. It’s like there is a pre and post party attached to each meeting. People straying in early to eat and talk. Then the principal gives long-winded talks about how xyz is important for education while the token few pay attention, the rest either talking, eating, or on facebook. And then afterwards, people talk about what happened in the meeting or what they’re going to have for dinner.
My favorite story is from another Volunteer who participated in a meeting with her school where the teachers were discussing why the students’ scores were so weak. She suggested that perhaps they should try to have fewer meetings during the school day to give a less disrupted school/ learning schedule. They stared at her blankly. And these are just normal days, if there is an event coming up (and there are a lot of them), forget it. Between the meetings and the practicing and the errands being run, the likelihood of finding your counterpart ready to teach with you is about the same as finding a Tickle Me Elmo on Christmas Eve 1997. This also goes along with…
Twice now, our English education office has called me along as a wing(wo)man for my coteacher to participate in their sponsored ONET English camp. We’re not allowed to say no. Between the meetings to prepare for the camp and then the actual event, we missed a week and a half of school (twice, in one year). One of my old coteachers was the head of the library, so of course had to attend the weeklong conference in which I’m sure there were lots of meetings. And eating. Many times though, work is shifted over from someone older or higher up on the social ladder, in the case of school, this means the principal.
Last December, one of my schools participated in an academic competition for music and fruit carving (yes, I’m serious, but to be honest, it was awesome). I thought this was it, but really, when is it ever just what you think it is in this country? Turns out, there was a ‘principal competition’ as well. I had to restrain an eyeroll when I found that out. Mostly because in preparation for this ‘who is the best school administrator’ contest, 1.) the teachers did all the work for the presentation and accompanying display and 2.) two weeks were dedicated to this (meaning all the teachers were working on this while students not participating in the competition (over 95% of the population) had nothing to do during this period of time). This stops being a surprise to Volunteers though, so when my new coteacher cringes slightly when she tells me she has to go here or there for this or that, I give her the smile she wants as a Thai person and play games with my kids instead.
*I’d like to give a shout out to my Mom who has since gotten a SMART PHONE since I’ve been in Thailand. Holy cow. This is the same woman who resisted getting a cell phone for over ten years of my life and lets not forget that stink eye. Seriously, go Mom.