Readers' Submissions

Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes Part 60

  • Written by Dana
  • September 4th, 2004
  • 10 min read


Thai Thoughts And Anecdotes 60


FUNERAL FARANGS

Recently while email chatting with one of the regular contributors to Stick's site I was reminded of something I had heard a while ago in the breakfast room of the Nana hotel in Bangkok. This particular Stick site contributor writes at length detailing the wonders and pleasures of rural life in Thailand. We hear about sunrises and sunsets, chatting with the locals, trips with family to near and far places to purchase things, fishing adventures, etc. The picture painted is lyrical, the writing is wonderful, the dream seems seamless. If you ignore sharing the bathroom with snakes and spiders, always having locals staring at you as if you have two heads, no civil rights, pretty much constant incomprehension of what is going on around you, and being treated as a retarded baboon because you can't say the same word with five different inflections (how many beers did it take to invent this language?)–the rural life sounds interesting and fun and relaxing. It also sounds like the Thai experience that all of the out-of-date guide books still prattle on about but most people haven't got an ice cubes chance in Hell of participating in. In my case I have to prioritize on my short dinky little vacations to Thailand so I end up spending my time as a sex tourist. Not much time to travel to out of the way places and stare at a sacred tree. So if I just had more time and could successfully reconfigure my mind there is a whole other wonderful Thailand that I could get to know. The real Thailand. The Thailand of the locals. Building a retirement house in a far away place amidst the real Thais would allow me to cycle down at the end of my life and reconnect with the better or best parts of me that the competitive Western world of my adult years had suppressed. Hopefully, if I behaved myself and took an interest in what went on around me and developed a reputation as a dependable honorable human being who always could be depended upon to buy ice cream cones for the locals children I would be able to live a quiet life of dignity and repose and tranquility. What could go wrong? Well. . .

I am sitting at a big round communal breakfast table in the Nana hotel restaurant one morning and sitting to the right of me and opposite me are two gentlemen in their seventies. They have been friends for life and have both successfully retired to Thailand and both live in separate rural towns. And between the two of them in a very short period of time they have been to over 70 funerals. I have been eavesdropping and when I hear this whopper I can't resist speaking up. I know a big fat lie when I hear one and now I am going to have some fun in the guise of a questioning third party observer. "Gee", I say–"That's about 35 funerals apiece in about a year and a half! How is that possible? (You big liars)" Then I get an education. It turns out that in each of the towns that they live in they are the only farangs. Both gentleman live alone in their communities. No wives. No children. No girlfriends. No farang relatives or friends to insulate them from local society. No alliances. To the hyper-social Thais they must seem like fathomless wandering asteroids–curiosities–oddities–freaks–"Hey, Let's invite the farang to the funeral."

Because they have behaved in a respectable way for a long period of time and have earned the respect of the locals; they are now invited to EVERY funeral. They are given to understand that being invited to these funerals of the local people is a gesture of community and individual respect. OK, so far so good. Fine. But people are always dying and as soon as you go to one funeral you have to go to all other funerals from now into the future without a break otherwise someone will get his feelings hurt. The small communities of rural Thailand and the immediate surrounds of these gentleman are populated incestuously by individuals and families and power groups of the most Byzantine connections and to not attend a funeral would be like throwing a pebble into a pond. Ever expanding social ripples would travel and reaching outward as they traveled have social repercussions beyond the average farang's understanding. To go to one person's family funeral but to later not go to a relative of that family's funeral would attract the wrong sort of attention and comment. In for a penny, in for a pound.

So these lone farangs living the fishbowl life of the lone farang in a small rural Thai community are now tied into a social requirement beyond their ability to refuse. The funerals are often long, sometimes incomprehensible, nearly always concerning someone they didn't know and have no reasonable emotional feeling for, sometimes involve extreme or unappealing emotional behavior from the immediate family, and often involve public drunkenness and or other public behavior that can escalate not in favor of the odd man out at the ceremony–the lone farang. And surprise, surprise–they are expected to make a donation. So it turns out that for both of these gentleman their retirement memories are peppered with the social obigatories (can you say social extortion) of attending strangers funerals. There is always a fly in the soup!

To quote an email friend of mine: "Being the lone farang in a village, you seem to be something of a celebrity. A minor big shot and seen as the ‘rich' guy. Being the rich guy they all want you to come to their funerals, weddings, parties, and holiday celebrations; mostly because I think they think you'll splurge and add some money and booze to the party, and because you ARE a minor celebrity and they want to show they have ‘connections' or something." So, everyone wants to have a farang (curiosity–freak–figure of fun–bragging point) at their funeral.

And once you start attending funerals there is no going back. You can't just throw a couple of hundred baht into the tambon envelope when it comes around the village and skip a ceremony. Just won't do. Remember, they floated a fly on the water with the first invite to the first funeral. You rose to the bait. Now the hook is in your mouth. And of course attending these funerals is not done with a snap of the fingers and a magic carpet. Each event involves issues of communication (miscommunication), scheduling, transportation, cash and or gift donations, as well as less tangible issues like ‘face' and diplomacy issues. And of course, everyone knows you are going so. . . "Could you give us a ride?" Add chauffeur and freight delivery to your retirement resume. One of the quietly galling things about all of this is that they seemed to have acquired second careers. They were now full time professional farang funeral attendees requiring all of the professional behavior and scheduling expertise and sales / diplomacy skills of their prior careers. One of the attractions of the siren song of retiring to Thailand was the delicious notion of leaving all of the unremitting professional minutia of careers behind. And now they were doing it all over again. With nary a moment to themselves, they were now full time professional attendees of Thai funerals. Funeral Farangs! Sometimes they just wanted to scream. It seemed now that almost every social interaction had something to do with someone's death. Every ringing phone in their home, every note slipped under the door, every social stop on the street, every passing wave from another Thai in car or truck or on motorbike or motorcycle. Everyone wanted to play. Everyone wanted to be included. "Hey, let's go tell the farang about the death in Lop Buri or Phang Khon or Phrae; I'm sure he'll be interested. Maybe we can all go. And we can get him to carry the speakers and the tables and the food. He'll buy whiskey. All the farangs do!"

Being affable, friendly, outgoing, socially anxious-to-please guys; the first time they were asked to attend a local funeral they said "Yes". They were pleased to attend and charmed to be included and gratified at their climb up the local social respect ladder. Then they were invited to another funeral. Then another funeral. Then another. . . and another! Eventually, they started to get invited to funerals completely out of even the most remote conception of their local geographic area. They started to meet each other at funerals so far away from home that sometimes it was just easier to stay overnight rather than make the long tired drive back home. Two elderly white skinned foreigners bumping into each other in improbable places for improbable reasons. Now this part of their bucolic social Thai retirement years has become a giant pain in the butt. Depending on your point-of-view; the whole Funeral Farang issue has grown like a yeast or like a cancer. Both gentlemen are now privately wondering if they are known in their provinces for anything else other than their attendance at funerals.

Forget about the time and the interest they spent making
1. Donations to the local hospital and clinic.
2. Help spent on a blistering hot day digging a trench for the new well.
3. Driving locals around in the truck so that they can shop and visit friends and relatives.
4. Tutoring and teaching at the local schools.
5. Use of their freezer for locals fish, roadkill, and other food items.
6. Lending tools that are never returned.
7. Cash donations to every reasonable supplicant and cause.
8. Participation and interest in local affairs regarding zoning and self governance issues.
9. Babysitting local (and not so local) children.
10. Helping locals with issues of banking and documents and faxing and phone calls and computer contracts and travel agencies, etc.
11. Coaching friends and neighbors on job interview techniques.
12. Etc's too numerous to mention.

They probably aren't going to be remembered for any of these good deeds or good thoughts or good actions. Just the funerals (and the weddings and the parties and the holiday celebrations). Reinforcing the boring life lesson once again that whatever you do that includes others must come from the heart–the notion that you are going to be remembered the way that you would like to be remembered is Slim and None–and Slim just left town! Funeral Farangs. . .

So, do I really want to retire to Thailand? Do I really want to dodge snakes and spiders when my pants are down, be stared at all the time as if I am a two-headed baboon, and have all of my good intentions and good deeds converted to invites to funerals where I will be expected to act like a dancing clown at a rich child's birthday party? I'm not sure. I think this matter deserves a little more thought and mature reflection. And the ideal place for mature thought and reflection is across the street at the Rainbow bar. There surrounded by music, lights, laughter, and smiling women I can examine this potential lifestyle change in the cold bright light of logic and rational thinking. Yessirree, nothing aids logic and rational thinking like alcohol and almost naked women. Maybe I'll just put this whole rural Thailand retirement idea on hold. . . for now.

Stickman's thoughts:

Great stuff! Yep, if one wants to live with the Thais, there are certain, almost inevitable, expectations.