BANGKOK — The girls bunked three-deep in a run-down Best Value Inn room, each of them far from home and earning minimum wage at the McDonald’s franchise inside Pittsburgh International Airport.
Jiratchaya Intarakhumwong and her friends — law, English and business students at some of Thailand’s most elite universities — had adopted an immigrant’s life.
Jiratchaya would wake before the first light, don her McDonald’s uniform in cramped quarters and catch a shuttle bus to the airport. The morning shift began at 6 a.m.
The days were long, the work was repetitive and customers sometimes grew impatient with her sparse English. But after her tour was over, she arrived back in Bangkok with a highly sought after bullet point on her resume: foreign work experience.
This summer, thousands of young Thais will replicate Jiratchaya’s experience in America, piling into cheap hotels and apartments to work jobs often left to poor Americans and immigrants with few options.
The Thai students, however, will actually pay for the privilege of frying burgers and bagging fries.
This phenomenon is known as “work trah-VUHL” in Thai. It’s fueled by Bangkok’s upper-middle class families, who pay work travel agencies upwards of $3,000 — a small fortune in Thai currency — to arrange fast food jobs in America. And it’s a testament to Thai employers’ high regard for American work experience, even if that experience consists of ringing up Big Macs.
“Most of us actually chose to work at McDonald’s,” said Jiratchaya, now a 22-year-old service representative at the deluxe Sofitel Hotel. “Employers will at least see that I could make it in America … and that I’ve got some language skills.”
Most students take a financial loss and earn back only half — or less — of the cash they pay agencies. Agents set up work visas, job placements and sometimes plane tickets, but rarely rent or expenses.
Still, Thai students often describe their fast food tours of duty in romantic terms, as a rite of passage and a rare opportunity to work and live among Americans. Bookstores devote whole shelves to “work travel” guides, which explain visa procedures and present images of young, happy Thais posing in their McDonald’s uniforms.
The Thai-language book "Go Work, Go Study, Go Vacation in America: Don’t Think You Can’t" is part how-to guide, part memoir about a Bangkok college student’s stints at McDonald’s and Whattaburger franchises in the Florida panhandle.
The author, known only as “Baeya,” explains in detail the concept of a “drive-thru,” her no-nonsense manager named “Diamond” and the persistent customers who tried to woo her.
“We were all very excited,” she wrote of her first day at McDonald’s. “I tried to tell myself and all my friends that we don’t have to worry. Even if they scold us, we won’t understand anyway.”
According to U.S. State Department figures, about 150,000 foreign students came to America in 2007 under J-1 visas, the signature visa “work travel” agencies must secure for their student clients. If foreign students can prove their enrollment in a university and a passable command of English, they’re given four months to work in America.
McDonald’s headquarters isn’t aware of the chain’s popularity among Thai students, said Danya Proud, the company's senior manager of U.S. media relations. And the fast food behemoth doesn’t keep stats on foreign students since independent franchises do the hiring.
In the highly competitive post-college job circuit, a stint abroad shows initiative. Even former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra once worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in the U.S.
“When I was interviewed for my current job, my boss saw that I’m an active person,” said Wiphawee Phansiriphat, who spent the summer of 2007 at a McDonald’s in Mobile, Ala., before graduating from Bangkok’s Kasetsart University. She now handles guest relations at Bangkok’s four-star Amari Hotel.
But not all Thai work travelers arrive in the U.S. they imagined. Many gravitate towards states offering the lower costs of living, far from the neon-lit America portrayed by Hollywood.
“I chose Alabama because I heard it was cheap,” said Wiphawee, who paid an agency more than $3,300 for her plane ticket and McDonald’s placement. “But when I arrived, I saw Mobile and I thought, wow, maybe I was wrong about this.”
Like Jiratchaya, she lived with three other roommates. Each day, she would leave her apartment to walk more than a mile in the Alabama heat to her McDonald’s branch. There, she ran the drive-thru and often struggled to decipher deep-south accents. (Their pronunciation of “syrup” was particularly daunting.)
“At first, it was kind of exciting because I’d never been around so many ‘farangs,’” she said, using the Thai word for white-skinned foreigners. “But there was nothing to do in Mobile. Nowhere to go.”
But neither Wiphawee nor Jiratchaya regret their work travel experience. Nor do many of their peers, who regard the American fast food crucible as a badge of honor — and a means of setting themselves apart in the post-college job search.
“Honestly?” Jiratchaya said. “If I had money, I’d go back.”
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