Getting to know the tax man

There have been many positives to coming back to my home land and re-introducing myself to the British idiosyncrasies that I had forgotten about.  Believe it or not I find it, literally, refreshing being able to walk home from work every evening with my eldest son Jonah – as we both get excited as the evenings gradually get lighter, although the Irish Sea wind does not get any warmer!  On the flip side though there has been a few aspects of British living that I did not fully comprehend and had never really acquainted myself with, even before I left these shores back in the late 90s.  One of these slight annoyances is the fact that I seem to be spending a lot of my time on the phone trying to pay bills or to set-up direct debits – it is definitely a world of monthly transaction out there – monthly wage in to be slowly eroded by a string of outgoing payments to just survive British routine.  In a perverse kind of way, this is one of the reasons we came back to learn and experience a ‘normal’ life, how to account for and budget for family living.  I never expected to be on the phone so much though, and finding it so hard to get answers to questions.

Challenged with a sense of personal adventure

Challenged with a sense of personal adventure

There is a vast amount of information on the internet but that doesn’t always make life easier or getting things done straight forward. These are just a few of my observations, but I do get the general feeling that large companies and organisations want to make processing information and helping the general public as difficult as possible – why are they so averse to speaking with people on the phone or doing e-mails, how many people do they (or not) employ in their call offices?  Why can’t you just e-mail someone and get a straight forward answer and piece of advice?  Everybody is different and everybody has a different background and circumstance, whether it be; cultural, social, financial, personal and even educational.  Surely these service companies should be providing the best possible customer service to ensure there is no ambiguity or areas of vagueness… a cause of concern or doubt (legally or financially) can really loom over someones head for weeks on end until it has been sorted out.

Being reflective

Being reflective

We all have an impression of the ‘tax man’ in our minds, the perceived baddie of the financial accountability world.  Tax is something you can’t avoid and nobody should.  I believe in taxation and I am proud to be living in a democratic country that has a safe and reliable infrastructure that my family and I can take advantage of on a regular basis. That much makes sense and I have no quibbles over my tax rates and outgoings from my monthly wage. What I do have an issue with is that it is a complete minefield out there and you could spend your entire time trying to negotiate the abyss of the tax world just to make sure you are doing things right and can sleep at night.  This is a perfect example of lack of advice or guidance and keeping things simple, and I am (supposedly) an educated, native English speaker, think what others must be going through.  The website is like a maze of dead-ends and loops that bring you right back to where you started – just give me an e-mail address to get a straight forward answer!  No, you have to ring a certain number at a certain time, listen to a monologue of automated options and make a pot luck guess at which one to choose before being put on hold for half a day!  This is obviously an exaggeration, but it is claimed that average waiting times are around 11 minutes, but this is a lottery and you do actually have to dedicate at least half a day to get this done and hope that your questions are answered, which they are often not and you are then advised to phone someone else, with a different job title at another time.  In fact last week, I was told I needed a technician to answer a certain question and that they would phone me back within 7 days at a time that suited me – I said after 6.00pm would be great.  Walking home from work later that week I checked my answer phone messages and there it was a polite but brief message from the technician saying that they had called me back but I did not answer – that would be because it was midday when they phoned and I was fully engaged in my work, back to square one!

What can you do though?  They have you right where they want you, a captured market. You either have to persist with deadlines looming, the dreaded 31st January – it is like the ‘Day of Judgement’, or pay someone to do your tax forms and write off a substantial amount of well-earned income.  It can be quite depressing and distracts you from your work commitments and home life as I said before – it looms over you.  That is until you get through to Colette.  After negotiating the automated responses and listening to Greensleeves again on loud speaker phone whilst replying to some e-mails for however many minutes I am put on hold and trying not to waste the time, suddenly Colette’s angelic voice like a miracle reaches out to me and says, “Hello, my name is Colette, how can I help you today?”  There is a sudden mass release of frustration as I connect with Collete and say, “Am I glad to hear from you Colette, please don’t go any where – promise (?), I really need your help, this tax business is like a minefield.”  I hear Colette giggle down the phone as she becomes even more human and normal as I picture her helpful persona and sympathetic smile on the other end of the phone.  “Don’t worry Mr. Crouch, tell me what I can help you with and I will talk you through it, are you logged onto your computer?”  “Yes, yes I am Colette, are you really going to help me step-by-step, are you sure you have got the time(?), please don’t go anywhere!”  “It really won’t take that long Mr. Crouch, I am not going anywhere, are you ready?”

Community partnerships

Community partnerships

For the next 20 – 25 minutes Colette guided me and reassured me as I over-dramatically (not wanting her to disappear) plugged in what I needed to submit.  She was just herself and very personable but most of all she laughed and was supportive of the difficulties this process may create for some people.  She didn’t rush the conversation or sound frustrated at all, no mention of referring back to the website.  I don’t know if the time and guidance Colette dedicated to me was above and beyond her job description, I don’t know if this is profitable for her organisation to commit that amount of time per individual call, I don’t know if others had to wait even longer as Colette was dealing with me.  What I do know though is that in 2 months of trying to get this done she was the only person to actually take the time to engage with me and treat me as a normal person who just wants to do the right thing.  I hope they did record our conversation for training purposes and use Colette as a shining example at their next training day (picture that!), I would also like to put forward Colette for employee of the month and give her a pay rise for going above and beyond – which is surely what working in the service industry is all about.  If not then I would like to put Colette forward for Global Citizen of the week, thank you Colette.

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Setting targets to achieve identities

Thailand

Post contributed by Eline Postma

Target: To be fluent in at least two languages.

Growing up, I was lucky enough to be exposed to three different languages: Dutch, English and Thai. It is difficult to pinpoint which language would be considered my mother language, because it all depends on what definition is given to the concept of ‘mother language’. If it entails the first language that was spoken, it might even be Laotian because I lived with my Thai grandparents for a while, who live in the North of Thailand and speak with a Laotian dialect.

Speaking more than one language

Speaking more than one language

During my time at The Regent’s School Pattaya (2000-2006), I became fluent in English. This caused my knowledge of the Dutch language to diminish, because I never practiced speaking it. As a result, I had to spend a summer reading Dutch children’s books before I returned to a Dutch secondary school at the age of 16. Going back to a Dutch school before university has helped me tremendously, since most of the lectures were given in Dutch. At present, I am proud to claim that I can speak and write both Dutch and English at an academic level.

I want to enrol in an online course to learn how to read and write Thai. I think this will be beneficial for my career, since I want to work with marine conservation NGOs in the Southeast Asia region.

family

Target: To complete a bachelor’s degree at university

In October 2013, I received my bachelor’s diploma in Marine Biology from the University of Groningen. There have been points, especially in the first year, that I doubted my abilities to participate at such a high academic level. At first, I feared that I wasn’t good enough, but later on, I realised I had to change my ways of taking notes in class as well as adjusting my study methods. I also learnt that it made a huge difference whether I had an affinity with the subject; I preferred ecology over bio-medical subjects and received higher grades in the former.

Academic achievement

Academic achievement

I am currently working on completing my two-in-one Master’s degree. What I mean by this, is that I am actually completing two degrees, but at the end I will have one diploma. This means I will have a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences, with a track in Limnology & Oceanography, and a major in Science Communication. I hope I haven’t lost you there! To complete my first year of Limnology & Oceanography, I still have to hand in my research paper, which I’ve been procrastinating on, because I’ve stopped believing in the project. In short, I researched the nutrient uptake dynamics in a particular species of seaweed, but because my lab results weren’t very good, I’ve lost all my motivation to complete my internship. My goal is to finish it before the end of the year and work with what I have!

Constructive paranoia

a convoy of cousins

a convoy of cousins

During my time in Vietnam and meeting new family I have been thinking a lot about a term that I read recently in a book by Jared Diamond.  The book is:  The World Until Yesterday, and is all about what we can learn from traditional societies.  The term he used was constructive paranoia and he used it often to describe a cautious approach that people living in traditional societies adopt to avoid danger or potential death even though to us it may seem an extremely low risk or even paranoid.  An example Diamond used was when he (frequently) stayed with communities in New Guinea and that they never slept under old trees at night for the fear that they may fall down and crush them.  Although the likelihood is small on a particular night, if you were to sleep under trees every night as many Guineans do then the chances of an old tree eventually falling down and crushing you increases, therefore the most constructive long-term approach is to avoid them altogether as sleeping shelters.

easy riders

easy riders

If you had asked me before our visit to Vietnam if I would allow my kids to ride on motorbikes in a country where there seems to be little regulation on the roads I (and especially my wife) would have said no way!  Nothing paranoid about that, just a total agreement that motorbikes are to be avoided if possible in countries like Vietnam and Thailand where the accidents involving motorbike accidents are high.  It is difficult though when you arrive in a situation that is totally new to you and you suddenly find yourself in the hands of your hosts who so happen to be family.  Things happen fast and people are speaking in a language that you don’t understand but you can start to gather an idea from the body language, gestures and the accumulation of motorbikes around you and triple the amount of helmets needed per motorbike!

walking in the river to the sand dunes

walking in the river to the sand dunes

Of course you think fast and make eye contact with your wife (and mother of your children) to quickly reassess the situation.  The cousins are all excited though and so enthusiastic to see you and show you around – they really want to take their new family guests to the beach.  The kids are all excited as well, the chance to ride a motorbike is a complete novelty to them and they of course believe they are indestructible.  Your heart says go with the flow but your brain is telling you that this is not a good idea and to think it through a bit more.  There is also the culture factor – do you stand your ground based on a mental risk assessment and possibly offend people that you have just met and are putting you up in their home.  Or do you shift your perspective and realise this is how people commute in Vietnam, everyone does it – you are placed on a motorbike days after birth!  Are we going to just sit in the house and feel safe and walk everywhere?

a flying sand dune in Mui Ne

a flying sand dune in Mui Ne

I know my wife’s feelings about motorbikes and what surprised me most was that she understood that this was an important time to go with the flow and to enjoy the cultural experience.  This doesn’t mean we should be neglectful of risk, still be risk aware – paranoid enough to be constructive but not averse to the opportunity.  We made sure that everyone is wearing helmets the right size and that the most experienced motorcyclists were in control of the bikes.  The cousins soon got the message that we were happy with the situation but alert to the potential risks in a subtle way.  They drove at a good speed and we always felt very safe without us having to say anything to them.

Mui Ne

Mui Ne

We ended up using the motorbikes everyday while we were in Phan Theit and Mui Ne and the family were over generous in their desire to transport us around and to spend time with us – telling us what time they would meet us and pick us up each day.  We could of course taken taxis but this would have been less sociable and not as an authentic way to see the country, plus the kids really loved their motorbike experience and each one had their favorite cousin to ride with – often sandwiched in between Oanh or myself!  If we had opted not to embrace this opportunity we would definitely have missed out on three amazing days visiting; the Flying Sand Dunes of Mui Ne, eating fresh crab on the beach, shallow river walking through a sandstone gorge, a sunset over Mui Ne bay and most importantly of all making close and honest bonds with special family members.

 

 

Getting to know your family

old photos

old photos

I met Oanh almost 15 years ago in Thailand where we were both working as teachers. Over 35 years ago she left Vietnam as a small child with her father, mother, three siblings and members of her mother’s family in a small boat seeking refugee in a new country following the war that ravaged Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s. Many thousands of ‘boat people’ didn’t make the treacherous journey into the South China Sea and were sadly lost to storms and piracy.  Oanh and her family were picked up out at sea by a Thai shipping vessel and were taken to Thailand where they were granted asylum and stayed in a refugee camp for a number of months before being flown to Australia and welcomed as new citizens to that country.  Oanh’s father tells me that his family were the first Vietnamese to settle in the New South Wales city of Newcastle and they have lived there ever since. His wife’s family moved to Queensland in Australia and his family remained in post war Vietnam and he has not seen them since they left that dark night in the small boat.

Family lunch

Family lunch

To be able to come to Vietnam and to meet my wife and children’s family and to get to know them has been a huge privilege and I am thankful and excited that they will have such welcoming and caring family to connect with in this part of the world for the rest of their lives.  Oanh and I keep suggesting to Jonah that he has the ideal base for a ‘gap year’ when he has finished school – but I don’t think he realises the value of this quite yet.

I have taken a back seat during our visit and left Oanh to get on with all the conversation and catching up.  They definitely have plenty to talk about!  It has been great for myself and the children to see her in full Vietnamese flow and using her native language.  It has encouraged the kids and I to also learn more Vietnamese and to use it with the family.  Jonah especially has made a good go of it and has been improving his Vietnamese numbers on a daily basis.  I have loads of questions to ask about each uncle, aunty and cousin but need to bide my time and I am enjoying just trying to make the connections and map the intricate network of families through my own observations.

Coconuts are a good way to break the ice

Coconuts are a good way to break the ice

Food is such a central focus of Vietnamese (and other countries in SE Asia) culture and social cohesion. Whenever we return to Australia to see Oanh’s parents we are always treated to a Vietnamese culinary delight, it has been the same here in Vietnam staying with her family. Oanh explains that it is the way in which they show love and affection. In fact Oanh’s mum says the secret to cooking good food is to think of the person who you are cooking it for, as it helps ‘flavour’ the food!  My children especially like the coconuts that Aunty Tam brings out for them mid-morning for a snack.  I wonder if they have brought them specially for our visit and are treating them?  They probably are.   Their love of children and family are obvious.

cousins on the beach

cousins on the beach

It has been good watching our children interact and gain in confidence with their relatives.  They have grown affectionately close to a number of the older cousins and there have been plenty of hugs going around.  Some of the cousins have their own children of similar age to ours and it didn’t take long for them all to start playing together and causing chaos around the house – language (or lack thereof) is not a barrier as it seems to me that you only need to learn a first name and then everything else is universal.

Jonah with chu Hat

Jonah with Chu Hat

We have been staying with one of Oanh’s aunts, BaTam, her husband Chu Hat and a couple of their daughters ( I think they have eight children in total – I know one daughter is a nun in Italy and the youngest two are twins who are studying in Saigon).  It has been great staying there and getting to know them and we have really appreciated their hospitality and kindness.  Chu Hat works especially hard for a construction company and has already left for work when we wake up in the morning and doesn’t finish at the end of the day until late.  He does pop home for lunch though and is always smiley and chatty (he speaks some English) and has a beer with me!  The two daughters that we have met are a great credit to them and it has been lovely getting to know both Thien and Nhung, I hope we see them again soon in the near future.

Zoe getting her hair done (again!) this time with Yung and Jonah

Zoe getting her hair done (again!) this time with Nhung and Jonah

It is hard not to reflect and to think about the ‘what ifs’ when learning about the past and the present in such an authentic way. I am looking forward to asking Oanh all the questions I have stored up over the last few days as we head back to Thailand.  I am sure she has done much reflecting herself and I will be keen to discover how her memories and perceptions have changed since her first return visit.  I wonder if one day we could or should live and work in Vietnam or if my children will ever consider the possibility when they are older?

Phan Thiet Beach and the Pacific Ocean

35 years years ago on Phan Thiet Beach my future father in-law made the courageous but decision to leave his country, his home and his family and took those he could out into the Pacific Ocean to seek refuge.  The fates of many lives were certainly held in the balance during that one night. I am certainly grateful that despite Oanh’s father’s paralysing fears of death and the responsibility he felt for so many lives that night, and the deep sadness for leaving the country of his birth that the quest for searching for a better future for his children over-rode those fears.  Life would have been very different if he had not done so, not only for Oanh and her family but also for me as I wonder if I would have ever met Oanh if they had not left?  As Jonah realised, “So I would not have been born if Ong had not left Vietnam?”

If you liked this post you may also like: Tale of my mum

The Transition into University

Brittany on graduation day

Brittany on graduation day

Contributed by Brittany Tang

After taking the IB exams and graduating from high school, I was left with a lot of valuable time on my hands. This past summer has really given me the opportunity to reflect on the past few years, on my accomplishments and my failures and has also given me the insight needed to create a trajectory for my future.

What a great idea for university - a quilt made of all your old t-shirts!

What a great idea for university – a quilt made of all your old t-shirts!

I will be attending the University of Michigan this fall and will be studying at the college of Literature, Arts and Sciences. To keep with my childhood dream of becoming a doctor, I applied to be part of the Health Science Scholars (HSSP) living and learning community. To me, attending the University of Michigan is a huge change from attending other smaller international schools in the past. I am prepared to be outgoing, confident and diligent in my studies. I will be participating in psychology research as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). In addition to this, my classes consist of organic chemistry, calculus, 2nd year French and a health science seminar. I think that it is really important to get involved in extracurricular activities as well as seek out leadership positions during your first year of university. For me, keeping my mind busy with school work, service and intramural sports is integral in making a smooth transition into university.

I am very excited to start class, to be a part of open discussion sessions and to take detailed notes during lectures. Although the rigor of the school work is intimidating, I do believe that persistence and commitment can help one achieve ambitious goals!

Thanks for your post Brittany and good luck at university, we look forward to hearing all about it.  To see more posts by Brittany please click here.

Pom and Kong – future leaders of Thailand

Pom

Pom

Kong

Kong

How long have you studied at the Mechai Patana School for?

– Kong has been at the MPS for fives years and remembers Goldfish PLC, a Regent’s School business and social enterprise group that visited the school a few years back.

– Pom has been at the school for two years.  They are both in Grade 11.

The natural environment

The natural environment

Why did you come to MPS?

Pom – My mother told me about the school and when I came to visit I liked the natural feel to the school and how the students were learning.

Kong – I liked the school environment and the fact that the school focused on project based learning and gave the students many different experiences to learn from.

Mechai Patana students who have studied at Regents over the last three years

Mechai Patana students who have studied at Regents over the last three years

What is your favourite thing about MPS?

Kong – opportunities, e.g. the one term exchange with Regents School in Pattaya.

Pom – Learning to play the ukulele and having a ukulele band at the school, I like to learn about music and love playing it.

What do you want to study at university and what career would you like to follow in the future?

Pom – I would like to study languages and work as a guide, possibly have my own business for travellers.

Kong – I would like to be a linguist and have my own translation business.

Another one of those messages

Another one of those messages

How does the MPS help the students become global citizens?

Pom – The school focuses a lot on business and social enterprise and we learn how to give back to our communities.  We are also expected to be tour guides to visitors who come to the school and to think outside the box.

Kong – The school has taught me to be sharing and caring.

A future MPS student and global citizen?

A future MPS student and global citizen?

If you were a teacher what would you say is the most important thing about teaching young people?

Pom – It is important to teach young people how to help themselves and how to help others.  Most teachers in Thailand only teach about the subject.  At MPS we learn how to help ourselves and especially how to help others.

Kong – To teach the young people how to be a good person and how to share with each other and to care for each other.

Khop khun krup Pom and Kong.

 

Just Can’t Get Enough of the Thai Tims?

The Thai Tims

The Thai Tims

The Thai Tims are a group of enthusiastic and inspirational young Thai students that attend a very special school in Chantaburi, in the east of Thailand.  This is the only Thai school that takes in children who have down-syndrome and allows them to have an inclusive and normal education, just like every other child.   The Thai Tims are made up of children who attend the school and they learn English through fun games, activities, sports and mostly through learning Celtic themed songs taught by Pun and Paul Lennon, the founders of the Thai Tims and the Good Child Foundation.  The idea being that the support the Thai Tims receive locally and internationally (and there is a lot of it!) allows the school to provide the necessary resources to take in Thai children with down-syndrome.

Pun Lennon with the Thai Tims at their school

Pun Lennon with the Thai Tims at their school

Watch this video if you Just can’t get enough of the Thai Tims!

The Thai Tims have quickly established a cult following, especially on social media and among football fans that traditionally follow Celtic Football Club and anything linked to their history and tradition.  Celtic Football Club and their fans have been a huge supporter of the Thai Tims and continue to have a strong community partnership.

Pun teaching the Thai Tims one of their Celtic themed songs

Pun teaching the Thai Tims one of their Celtic themed songs

Pun and Paul have a remarkable story to tell about the Thai Tims and a book will soon be available, written by Paul, that recounts their own personal story and the success and achievements of the Thai Tims.  You can find out more by visiting the Good Child Foundation website or the Thai Tims Facebook, both are below:

Good Child Foundation

Follow the Thai Tims on Facebook.

Gappies with some of the children supported by the Thai Tims

Gappies with some of the children supported by the Thai Tims

The Thai Tims are full of energy – just check out their YouTube clips there are plenty of them.  They also do a lot of travelling not just in Thailand but also overseas.  They have recently visited Scotland to meet the Celtic football team and to also sing before a Scottish Premiership game.  They also love swimming and always enjoy visiting the Regents International School Pattaya and staying overnight which includes a long session of night-swimming!  It has always added an extra cultural and inspiring dimension when events such as International Day, Clean-up the World and Picnic in the Park have involved the Thai Tims as special guests.  I would like to thank Karen Partyka for making the initial connection and believing that the two school groups could work and learn together.

Below is a short article written by Conor Hannigan about his visit to the Thai Tims in 2013, a previous gappie and passionate Celtic FC fan:

Visiting the Thai Tims

On Monday, June 24th, a group of Gap Staff accompanied Mr. Crouch, Khun Da, and Mr. Jones on a visit to the Triamsuksa School in Chantaburi province; home of The Good Child Foundation and the Thai Tims. Khun Da and Mr. Jones were on a mission to set up a possible Outdoor Education activity with the kids from the school, while Mr. Crouch wanted to touch base and strengthen bonds with an already closely knit community partner. For us Gap Staff, it was an opportunity to visit a community partner in rural Thailand and hear the incredibly inspiring story behind the Thai Tims.

Triamsuksa School is one of the only in Thailand which allows children with down syndrome to integrate into a mainstream education system. Normally they are sent to an institution or essentially exiled from Thai education, and from parts of society.

When Mr. Lennon’s first son, Berni, was born with down syndrome, he and his wife Pun worried for Berni’s education. They offered to teach English for free at Triamsuksa School if Berni was offered a place, under the condition that they were allowed to teach the kids football songs.

As a result of these songs, the Thai Tims have a deep connection with Glasgow Celtic Football Club. Mr. Lennon is a Celtic fan, and he has written dozens, perhaps hundreds of songs about the club and its players that the kids sing together to help raise funds for The Good Child Foundation. They are a very famous group of kids, not just among Celtic fans in Scotland and Thailand, but around the world.

Conor with Pun at the Thai Tims

Conor with Pun at the Thai Tims

Throughout the day we were able to look inside the newly constructed Reamonn Gormley Memorial Hall; the strikingly bold centerpiece of the school’s buildings. We also met Nuey and Nook, two of the younger children in the school with down syndrome and Mr. Crouch enjoyed a lovely tea party with them. We were told about the recent trip to Scotland where 47 kids from the school were taken to meet the Celtic players, and sing at one of the games. Mr. Lennon explained that the criterion for selection for this trip was based upon an act of bravery which seemed fitting, as bravery appeared to be a quality which resonated through every aspect of the school.

It was incredible to see the passion emanating from Mr. Lennon as he talked about children with down syndrome and the Thai Tims, and it was clear that Pun’s same passion, as well as her reassurance and support of her husband was just as strong.

After visiting a few classrooms and hearing the kids sing some of their Celtic songs, Mr. Crouch, Khun Da, and Mr. Jones did some final planning with regards to activities for next year between Regent’s and the Thai Tims. We left for Regent’s in the afternoon, feeling inspired, impressed and lucky to have gotten a glimpse of all the things the Lennon family has done for Triamsuksa School, and for down syndrome children in Thailand.