Saturday, January 27, 2007

Christmas update and The Visa Saga

We've had an interesting month, so forgive the long post!

First, a quick update on our trip home at Christmas:

It was great! Even with the horrendously long flight, and the reappearance of my "morning sickness," and the jet lag, and a nice stomach virus my family passed around, it was great. It was wonderful to see our families, and we got to visit John's grandma, who is just amazing. Best of all, my brother got married to a woman he's completely in love with, and that means everyone in my family is happily married. I know being married isn't necessary to be happy, but a good marriage is such a wonderful thing, it makes me happy to see all of my siblings happy. And even though we tease my brothers about having married above themselves, I think my sisters-in-law are pretty lucky women. My brothers-in-law too!

Trea was actually really really good on the flights. Take a look at this travel schedule:

Khon Kaen to Bangkok: 55 minute flight
Bangkok: hour and a half layover
Bangkok to Taipei: three hours and 20 minutes
Taipei: roughly 2 hour layover
Taipei to LA: 10 and a half hours flight
LA: stayed overnight
LA to Salt Lake: one hour and 25 minutes

And on the way back, it was LONGER, since we didn't overnight anywhere and the headwinds make the flight from Salt Lake to LA 2 hours, and the flight from LA to Taipei FOURTEEN hours. With a toddler and a pregnant woman. Are we insane or what? We got to immigration in Thailand and a nice immigration official pulled us out of line and stamped our passports himself. I was SO grateful.

Now the only bad part about the trip - other than the flight - was the little glitch we had leaving Thailand. We had thought we had a reentry left on our visas. Turns out we didn't. Oops. It's totally our oversight - we should have double-checked - but in our defense, those last couple weeks before break were crazy, and if you've ever tried to read Thai immigration law it's basically clear as mud. But we thought we'd figured it out. By the time we found out that in fact, we DID need re-entry permits in order to not invalidate our visas, we didn't have the time to get them. So, we came back in on visas-on-arrival, which gave us 30 days. We contacted the school while we were still in the States and they said, it's not really a big deal, you just have to go to Laos and get new non-immigrant visas. Ok, fine. We'd wanted to see Laos anyway.

The first weekend we're home we head up to Laos. It's only a 2 1/2 hour drive to the border. We parked the car, got on a bus, and 15 minutes later we're across the Mekong and in Laos. Of course Trea attracts even more attention there than she does in Khon Kaen. The taxi driver who took us into Vientiane even bought her a snack and carried her into the hotel for us, while we got our luggage. We got there on a Sunday afternoon, so we just walked around and had some dinner (French influence is alive and well in Vientiane, since Laos was a French colony, and we really enjoyed the bread and cheese that were available). The city is quite beautiful too, wide open streets, French colonial architecture - it was a good city for walking in.

Monday morning we headed to the Thai embassy, where we turned in our applications for visas. About half an hour later, John is called up to the window and told to go talk to the agent he turned in his paperwork to. This man informs him that he needs a letter from the school, addressed to the embassy, explaining why he needs the visa. We go back to the hotel, and John heads out to find a phone to make an international call. Long story short, the school contacts the embassy to find out what exactly is needed, and it turns out that it's not a letter at all, but a criminal background check. This was a bit frustrating, since we had heard there was a new rule requiring background checks and had specifically asked if John needed one. We were told no. But, since they were asking for it now, we didn't have much choice. We applied for 60-day tourist visas and headed back for Thailand.

Now, after checking with our embassy, there are a couple different kinds of background checks. You can get a state background check, but some states require that you apply for that in person. You can also get an FBI check. According to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, you go to the embassy, get the fingerprint cards, and then go to Thai Immigration to be fingerprinted. Then the prints are sent to the U.S., where it takes 8-10 weeks plus mailing time to get a response. Best part of all this is, if you have no record, they simply stamp the back of the fingerprint card with "No record found" and send it back. That's going to look really official to the Thais!

In any case, after many calls to the Thai embassy in Vientiane and Thai Immigration, and not getting any answer at all, we decide we'd better apply for a criminal record check from Utah and the FBI check as well. John went to Bangkok Thursday night on an overnight bus and arrived early Friday morning (it's about six hours by bus). Turns out the embassy is closed that day. He went to Thai immigration anyway, with a fingerprint card he'd printed out from the FBI's website, only to be told, "We don't do fingerprints. But we'll give you your visa if you have all your paperwork from the school."

Huh?

They proceed to tell him that he doesn't need a criminal background check, just the papers from the school (there's a zillion things they need - letters explaining why the school is employing him, his salary and duties, how many other farangs are employed at the school, copies of each page of his passport, etc., plus it all has to be stamped with the school stamp and signed).

Of course John didn't have all that with him, because he'd thought there was absolutely no way he was getting a visa this trip, and they wouldn't let us fax the paperwork because then the school stamp wouldn't be in blue ink.

Right.

So, right now the plan is for John to go back to Bangkok next week, paperwork in hand, and see if in fact he can get a visa. We're fully prepared for them to tell him he needs a criminal background check first, but it's worth a shot. At least then he can ask WHICH check they want. We can extend our visas for 30 days without leaving the country, which is good since the baby is due four days before the visas expire! Worst case scenario, we'll go home in April. If we can possibly fix this we'd like to stay, but it wouldn't be the end of the world to go home. We never planned on settling here permanently.

It will be interesting to see how this affects teachers in Thailand in general, though. There are already a lot of teachers working illegally because so many schools are unwilling to go through the process of helping their teachers get work permits, teacher's licenses and visas. The Thai government is instituting a lot of rules limiting the number of tourist visas you can have, though, and that will make it harder for many farangs to stay in-country (a lot of farangs just do "border hops" every month and get a new tourist visa, or they do a visa run every 90 days and get a new 60-day tourist visa and then extend for 30 days). Apparently the U.S. is one of the more time-consuming countries from which to obtain a criminal background check, but I've heard it's difficult for Brits and Australians if they can't apply for it in person. If Thailand begins requiring recent background checks for visa renewals - and there's rumors to that effect - the teaching industry here will really take a hit.

I'm just glad we weren't dead set on staying - there are teachers here who are married to Thai women but can't get visas just based on that, and they need their teaching jobs and non-immigrant visas to stay with their wives. We'll be fine either way. I'm a believer in God's hand in all things - if we're meant to stay it will work out. If not, I believe it's because there's a reason for us to go home at this time. We really enjoy being here but we have great families back in the States and we miss them a lot, too.

We'll keep everyone updated!