Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thai Conservation Incentives

We got our water bill today, and as it has been since my arrival in Thailand, we owe nothing. In order to encourage conservation, the Thai government waives any monthly fee for use that is under a certain amount. Other government incentives include the recent implementation of a policy under which all Thai citizens may ride any train throughout the country free for a year. Unfortunately, that is not extended to foreigners, even tax-paying residents. Occasionally, subway or skytrain routes are operated free to encourage more eventual customers, and last fall, the standard non-air conditioned buses were free for several weeks. This is the upside of government-run utilities, the opposite of what one might expect a monopoly to do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Corporate Incompetence

Living halfway around the world from the American scene does not guarantee immunity from frustrations resulting from the staggering incompetence of corporations based in the home country. Two exemplary examples of corporate idiocy recently experienced by expats living in Thailand are Verizon and Bank of America. I sincerely wonder if corporate protocols for hiring of persons working in customer service are intended to recruit morons whose sole "raison d’etre" is to offer nonsensical replies to inquiries that are being made at the cost of overseas calls.

For several months I attempted to correspond with Verizon due to their decision to stop allowing me to pay a bill online. The decision was never explained, so I reverted to sending a check after receiving the bill each month. I noticed that when the bill arrived, it was always after the due date, which of course incurred a late fee tacked onto the next invoice. To correct the error-laden address that they were using, including the omission of the name of the destination country, I sent the correct information, accompanied by personal letters along with the monthly payments. The address was never changed, and yet the invoices miraculously arrived at my house in “Bakgnonk” (Remember, no country) about three weeks after being posted. I credit the delivery to clever postal employees in both countries who are likely as intelligent as the Verizon representatives are dim. After several months of dealing with the pride of Verizon, I sent a cancellation payment with an explanation. To date, I still receive invoices, sent to the apparently unchangeable address that they have chosen to enter permanently into their database.

The experience with Bank of America is similar, but these geniuses have chosen the “Let me transfer you” method of dealing with a customer’s problem, which they have not been properly trained to solve. Last night, as we tried to explain why the address in their database needed to be changed, we were transferred no less than nine times, and this was after the new information had been entered. Apparently, the standard three-line address space was insufficient for entering overseas information. What they absolutely could not understand how to do was look up the information associated with an overseas resident American citizen holding a U.S. credit card, and connect it to their rewards program. All we wanted was information about how to use the rewards! After a full half hour of being put on hold and transferred between representatives, there was the sudden and aggravating click of a disconnected line: The ultimate problem-solving pass-the-buck technique, exhibited so well by B of A. I could imagine the representatives at corporate headquarters staring dumbly at their screens, unable to process the information, before sending the hapless customer on to another zombie.

It is little wonder that huge corporations cannot solve the small problems. The front lines are manned by bottom-line fodder who are good at clicking on established links, but have little or no problem-solving skills. It is after experiences like these that one better understands why so many corporations fail. What is amazing is that they can exist at all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Walk Through a Thai Flower Market

While on our way to Chinatown's fabric bazaar, we happened upon the famous Bangkok flower market, which lasts all weekend long, each night well into the wee hours of the morning. It is absolutely mind-blowing to walk through the narrow lanes surrounded by explosions of color and the fragrances that lie in layers, the scents lingering in the air and briefly clinging before being left in your wake, giving way to completely new sensations that wait for your passing. I find it difficult to imagine that each of the hundreds of flower merchants are able to profit, but then Thailand is a land of flowers: They are wanted daily by hotels, shops, department stores, temples, and restaurants. So enchanted were we by the flowers that we didn't make it to the bazaar before it closed.

Four dozen roses: $1.15

Trying to describe the mile-long market is rather like trying to paint a picture of a sunset; so difficult, as it is the shifting of hues that makes the experience memorable. Click on the video below, and walk with us for a few minutes through this incredible market. Better yet, come see it for yourself!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

End of School Year

I sit in my classroom surrounded by relative peace and quiet; the only sounds come from the twittering birds outside the window, and the ubiquitous hum of the air conditioner. With the exhausting scramble of finals week and exam marking behind me, I reflect on another school year's completion. I am surprised by how swiftly it has passed. Now ensconced in my own classroom, I still worry about the mental state of the incoming science faculty member who has been tabbed as next year's "floater." It appears that there may be a silver lining, a result of my "diplomatic aggressiveness" in advocating for an end to such unprofessional practice: Talk is that rooms have been secured for the incoming teachers who would otherwise have arrived full of hope and excitement before being blindsided by what others have gone through for many years. We'll see.

So, what have I learned this past year? Well, the thought that comes immediately to mind is how fabulous the students here are. They are cheerful, bright, creative, and for the most part, mature. They work hard to complete assignments, and think nothing of giving up weekends to study for tests, despite my pleas to enjoy themselves. I now know that I never have to worry about students being prepared for our discussions or presentations; with few exceptions, they are often better prepared than I am. The faculty is, as in most international schools, a delightfully diverse group of talented educators. I am continuously impressed with the quality of education that students receive here. Oh, sure, there are those who are here for other reasons, but that is true everywhere. I enjoy the banter and intellectual discussions, as well as the ongoing clever practical jokes that they play on one another. More intimately, the science department is wonderful. A mix of educators from four countries (five next year), my colleagues are collaborative and supportive. It is by far the most colleagial group of teachers I've had the pleasure to work with, much like my recent consulting job. My biggest regret is that in an international school, each year a fairly large proportion move on to other places around the globe. Of course, that means that an interesting batch of "newbies" arrives, all with a unique story to tell.

The staff are incredible. Anything that needs doing they lend a hand, and with a smile. Always a smile. I am not surprised, as I have come to embrace the Thais as some of the friendliest people on the planet. I am often amazed at how a person working in another building will greet me by name. I feel fortunate to be working here, despite the relatively traditional approach to education. Although concerned about falling behind ongoing research into best practice, I am supported by the high school administration to implement those practices that support student learning effectively. One can stand in a boat without rocking it, if care is taken.

Finally, I have to say that I love not spending half the year trying to keep warm. I don't mind the snowy climes one bit, but I'd rather take them in smaller chunks. Although many people here complain about the heat and humidity (frequently the young Thais), when I consider the alternative, sweat isn't all that bad.

So now I ease into the mindset of rest, of reflection and preparation for next semester. It is sometimes difficult not feeling guilty on a weekday, or feel that I just have to DO something instead of read a book or take a walk. I know that I need to decompress and refresh. I don't mind having a job that pays me for only ten months out of the year. It is unfortunate that others do not have that option. Of course, I couldn't just let it go. I have to stop now: My summer school class begins in a few minutes.