Legal for Another Year

As of Tuesday, November 3, 2015, I’m officially legal in Thailand for another year. Sounds like no big deal, right? I mean, I jumped through all the hoops last year—don’t I just jump through the same ones this time, too? Not exactly. Not in Thailand, anyway.

Thailand is just weird about foreigners. Just this past weekend, the “prime minister” of Thailand said that if there’s no peace and order, he must stay on as prime minister and “close the country”. Despite his deputy’s insistence that it doesn’t mean what it sounds like (and in good Thai order insists we shouldn’t “think too much”), the PM’s gaffe is hard to dismiss as anything less than a Freudian slip—a momentary lapse of the façade that conceals the strident xenophobia of the Thais.

Add to this the recent distrust of foreigners fueled by the Bangkok bomb and all of its allegations, and there’s mass paranoia at the heart of Thailand’s immigration. And unlike the United States’s fear of Arabs shortly after 9/11, Thailand’s paranoia is universal.

Then there are the actual foreign scabs. Some guys actually do come to this country escaping a troubled past in their homeland, and forge university diplomas and transcripts to gain legal working status. So Thailand’s paranoia often gets affirmed.

What’s that all got to do with me?

In the weeks leading up to my own visa expiration date, colleagues of mine were getting cockblocked at immigration. They were being told that their diplomas needed to be certified at their embassies. For British citizens, this involves nothing more than the nuisance of making an appointment and getting a stamp from the embassy verifying that the degree is valid. For the Philippines, same. For Europeans, same.

For U.S. citizens…hold on. It turns out the U.S. Embassy very explicitly does not verify degrees obtained from American universities—probably the result of some lawsuit 30 years ago.

So how does it work? When I first looked into it, I found this long annoying process detailed in a post I wrote at the time. In order to facilitate the annoying game of pinball my diploma needed to undergo in order for it to be usable in Thailand, I had to involve my gracious mother, who was at the ready with USPS express mail envelopes and money orders in the exact amounts required by each office the document had to bounce off.

Step one: mail a photocopy of my diploma to my mother, along with a notary request form for my university. (As it happens, Berkeley only processes requests for original diplomas at the end of each term, after which there’s a 5 – 6 week turnaround.) My first mistake was trusting the Thailand Post’s EMS service. I tracked the document to the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, and then static. My document disappeared into the ether. Upon notifying my mother of this mishap, she coolly replied, “Why don’t you scan the documents and email them to me?” FACEPALM. Why didn’t I think of that?

So she received digital copies of the documents, printed them, and mailed them with return envelopes and money to Berkeley.

Then one of my colleagues points me to an online forum where an American expat in Thailand describes the process of using an affidavit as a stand-in for legalizing his diploma. Essentially, you can just write a sworn testimony that your diploma is true and valid, sign it in front of an employee at the U.S. Embassy, and they’ll put the official State Department seal on it.

So off I ran to Bangkok. I planned an entire day of cover lessons to make up for my absence at school. I took a bus to the airport, then took the Skytrain to the Embassy. Then I waited. And waited. One thing America is good at shipping abroad is DMV-style bureaucracy. I found out the wording on my affidavit wasn’t quite right. Luckily, they had little slips of paper prepared “For obtaining a Thai visa” to help me out.

Next day, I went to Thai Immigration. I had the giant stack of papers that my employer furbished for me, and slipped inside was my newly minted affidavit, along with a photocopy and original of my university diploma. I took a number, then grabbed a seat.

I sat there waiting through an entire extended family of Vietnamese immigrants processing visas at the sole immigration officer who checks them. My feet shivered in anticipation. My palms were sweaty. I chewed the inside of my lip. Inside, I churned over my plan B: if the affidavit isn’t sufficient, it’s ok, I told myself. Mom’s still processing the legalization of my diploma. I’ll just ask for an extension to buy more time.

Time crawled as I watched one Vietnamese immigrant after another bow politely at the immigration officer’s irritated instructions to get photocopies of this or that. All the while, the red digital number above her desk read 644. My ticket was 645. Was I ever going to test my affidavit?

Ding! “Now serving number 6-4-5 at window number…6.”

I calmly approached the officer with my novel manuscript in hand, bound together with a paperclip bent completely out of shape from the packet’s unruly thickness. I shyly handed her my number and stood in front of her awkwardly. “Sit!” she shouted.

I placed the visa paperwork, along with my passport and work permit, onto the desk. She thumbed through the packet, verifying all my documents. She pointed to a copy of my diploma: “Original?”

I’d forgotten to hand her my new savior—the affidavit! I handed it to her.

She waved her hand frantically and pointed more emphatically at the diploma: “Original! Original!”

Ah, original!

I pulled out the original copy of my Berkeley degree. It’s quite a work of art, I must say. On crème-coloured, off-white card stock, there are etched in sweeping, majestic calligraphy the details of my academic achievement: my name, degree earned, major area of study, graduation date, and even a note of my honors status. Then, larger calligraphy letters proudly boasting “University of California, Berkeley.” And below that in the center, an embroidered golden stamp bearing the official Berkeley seal, accompanied by official signatures from various chiefs of bureaucracy.

I handed my shining relic to the officer, feeling proud of all the prowess and prestige it represented. But despite the magical feelings my diploma evoked within me, I also realistically expected that surely she’d now need my affidavit. After all, she can’t possibly read the hieroglyphics of calligraphy, can she?

She glanced at it, and handed it back to me. I tried to hand her the affidavit. Again with the hand waving. “Not need,” she said.

That was it? I didn’t need to go to Bangkok? I didn’t need to play document pinball stateside? All I needed was the original?

My theory: she was looking for an official U.S. State Department seal. It would have been embroidered with a golden stamp as well. It would have looked very much like an apostille; if Thailand was a Hague Convention nation, it would have needed to be an apostille. But alas, ignorance is bliss in this country. She saw the goldenness of the stamp, the dimples of the embroidery, and the austere authority of the seal, and thought to herself, “Damned if that don’t look like a State Department blessing.”

A flick of the pen and a pounding of stamp, and I’m good for another 365.

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