A Cultural Sensitivity Lesson
Recently I have messed up on paperwork reasonably required of me by the Thai authorities; demonstrated that I've been too lazy to learn Thai; used Thailand's public transport effectively (thank you); baulked at being singled out so that I could be helped as a foreigner, and mocked the very process that enables me to easily get around in my host country. I’ve done all this whilst trying to renew my Thai driving licence. Not my proudest moment.
In brief, once armed with the correct paperwork I participated in a fairly seamless process of guided activity and thus gained my renewal licence. I respond to this by poking fun at the idiosyncrasies and bureaucratic procedures.
This is how I recounted what had happened:
Today armed with original passport, work permit, medical certificate, Embassy letter validating my address, old passport, photocopies of all and 600 baht tucked in my pocket, I ventured out braving taxi, sky-train and motorbike taxi to renew my Thai driving licence. It was my third try and on this visit to the Department of Land Transportation in Bangkok I was feeling confident. Previous hours of wasted, bustling elbow-shoving queues, exacerbated sighs from 'I'm going to slam the paperwork down and turn you into a quivering wreck' staff, and hair-raising motorbike taxi rides, sky-train squashed like sardine journeys, ready to be faced again.
The mission has not been without hiccough. On the first trip I took an interpreter with me. She was bossy to the point of offensiveness, snapping my paperwork from me, ramming me into hard backed seats to wait and shouting her distress when my application failed. The second time I decided to go it alone. I had by now acquired the documents the bossy translator had said I needed. Sadly, the lack of address on my work permit was a sticking point and a formal stamped letter from a very large respected International school was not going to cut the mustard as an official validation of my address, Back home I went, tail between my legs; feeling in turn terrified and exhilarated on the back of the motorbike taxi dodging Bangkok traffic jams.
There was a lag between the second and third visit, whilst I mustered the necessary reserves of energy to try again. I had failed in my search, both in my Bangkok and UK homes, (had nipped home to England for Christmas) for the required embassy letter of validation of address. I knew I had actually recently purchased one for 2500 baht, but eventually accepting defeat, I started the process again, buying a new letter after a lengthy process of appointment making, appointment meeting, form filling, oath swearing that I was indeed who I said I was and so on. I'll by-pass the small eleventh hour hitch when I learned I needed a medical certificate, through reading an online post of a previous driving licence applicant survivor. Hardly worth recounting as it only caused a one day delay whilst I bought the aforementioned certificate from a local hospital. (Apparently you can buy one much cheaper from a shop down the road from the test centre, but I had had my blood pressure checked for my 650 baht worth, so all good.)
I was ready to go and on the third visit, after a fairly humiliating queuing process outside, I was bustled into a queue and stared at by bored and possibly sympathetic Thais whilst we waited for the transportation offices to open. (The early bird catches the worm.) We got started.
My physical test included putting my nose on an eye test stand (after taking my glasses off and thus making vision difficult) and stating red, green and yellow to colours lighting up in my peripheral vision. I wasn’t very good at this, but passed anyway. The tester, perhaps embarrassed by having a middle aged foreign lady seemingly not knowing her colours. This was followed by lining up of two small poles, within a homemade looking box, with a joy stick. The final test was braking on a small wooden platform when a green light turned to red. This was in a small crowded room full of other hopefuls waiting for their turn, laughing and loudly talking about the 'farang'. Culturally, after all these years it still doesn't feel fun to be pointed at as the foreigner in the room.
The next step was watching an hour long video about procuring good driving manners. Mr Smart, Miss Sweet, and Mr Bad Big Brother were the video stars and had been tasked with entertaining the viewers with a slapstick approach of do's and don'ts on the road. I am guessing that the aim of the video was to make the development of good road etiquette a fun learning experience. It worked and I heard myself chuckle at the over-the-top acting. The examples of poor driving were taken from Indian footage, not Thai. I don't know why, but interspersed with various 'Oh my God' exclamations from Miss Sweet they reminded us to follow, or more significantly, have rules on the road to follow. The stereotypes, I thought, would have my youngest daughter ranting to the roof and back, but I could put that aside as there were subtitles meaning I could join in the enjoyment of the movie. I was taught that I should brake when "Emergency situation incurred such as our car fails to brake and wheels blow up." I suspect that something like google-translate had been used to write the subtitles. An opportunity for some freelance work passing my by!
The video was abruptly stopped when it was time for the next group of hopeful licence applicants to enter the cramped space and be educated on ‘driving spirit’. I only hoped I hadn't missed anything too important in the final few minutes. Dauntless and hopeful at being so close to gaining my license, I queued again next to a set of crowded uncomfortable looking metal seats, had my photo taken (tried not to mind that I hadn't blow-dried my hair in anticipation of this) and gloried in the glow of being the owner of a proud new licence. Eureka! Success.
Revealing eh! I am an educator. I am supposed to be open-minded, internationally orientated and culturally sensitive; yet it seems I am quick to make fun of a situation rather than accept my own failure in managing it. Reading back my text reveals personal prejudice, ego, vanity and heaven knows what else! Put a lot of people together like me, those who, when they are frustrated take the easy option of blaming and mocking others, and tolerance goes out the window. I'm avoiding big leaps to Brexit, Mexican borders and the like, (there goes my ego again - it's not such a big deal!) but all food for thought... don't you think? And as for more practical take-aways from this, just make sure that you have your paperwork organized and filed safely in the first instance. It saves a lot of time, hassle and stress.
A Review of 'Becoming Michelle Obama'
I guess I'm a bit suspicious about politicians (can't think why!) and I was niggled by Michelle Obama's appearance at the Royal Albert Hall supposedly being out-priced for the wo-man in the street, (also why only speak in London, rather than schedule an evening in the North?), so I approached this text with a fairly negative mindset. I wasn't expecting much honesty, and I was bringing to it my own prejudices, ready to judge her negatively. I wasn't expecting a lot. (And who said 'sisterhood was dead?)
I am pleased to report, though, that I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth, intelligence and humanity that shone through her writing. It was a convincing autobiographical exploration of motherhood, womanhood class, education culture and race.
I chose to listen, rather than read the book in print version, whilst swimming; it kept my interest 95% of the time. I agreed with Michelle's political stance and acknowledged the frustrations revealed in the sub-text. It seemed that Barrack had great ideas, great policies and was always an advocate for a fairer and more just world, but was thwarted at every step, largely out of spite, rather than due to republicans having any real policies of their own, other than to keep protect gun laws at all costs. It seems to me that Michelle sees politics as an extension of the playground, and an arena to avoid like the plague. She is pretty clear at the end of her memoir, where her own political future lies...
The first half of the book explores her childhood in Chicago and outlines where her values stem from. It follows a predictable linear stance, but this works well. The structure of the text, is in fact, one of the strengths of the text. Michelle expresses her thoughts about Barrack's political ambitions and views, and shares her experiences of living and working from Washington DC. She is candid about her marriage and doubts about Barrack standing for election at any political level. She makes it very clear that it was not plain-sailing being 'First Lady'. It is hard not to regard her account of her life during Barrack's presidency, at times, as akin to surviving a jail sentence, albeit in a luxury cell called the White House.
Michelle's keen advocacy of positive change for women and children lead the text. She is assertive and strong in her style, which, for sure, is to be admired. She emulated her values through her strong narrative voice. A bit too much .. the feminist and equal rights believer in me says of course not, the semi-reserved English introvert says.. maybe a bit too much at times!
The memoir ends pretty much with the end of Barrack's presidency. As she narrates the audio version herself, it brings a real immediacy to the text and the reader almost feels like they have been invited to one of Michelle's weekends away with the girlfriends! If Michelle was here for tea, I'd be probing for a bit more. Something like: "Sorry Michelle, I'm not convinced about you buying in ]sharing Barrack with his constituents, and whilst I respect that you were even frank enough to touch upon your marriage counselling and how it helped you take responsibility for your own happiness, I need to know more!" Resentment tremors are never far from the surface, but I guess bearing in mind that she was probably as candid as she could have been, in light of how much she is in in the public eye.
So to sum up, I definitely recommend this book, not to a select group of readers, but to everyone. She needs teasing about her 'royal family' comments as, in my view, she clearly doesn't get that part of English culture, but otherwise a great 'listen' creating plenty of opportunity for reflection.