Readers' Submissions

Like A Fish Out Of Water



It’s been a couple of hectic days, and we’re finally wrapping up things here. The main contractors, subs, consultants, all gentlemen of various nationalities, have finally reached a modicum of agreement, and this is the final meeting. There’s the Japanese bloke; he’s buried in his paperwork, the latest digital camera prominently on the table. I’m still trying to decipher his accented English. There’s also Aussie ‘strine, and the American twang, among others. Gosh, what an earful! No English guys here today, though. Guess they’re busy teaching English somewhere around Sukhumvit….

‘Right, gents. Looks like we’ve got the documentation down right.’ ‘Signatures?’ Ah, OK then, that’s all wrapped up.’ My boss says, ‘It’s a bit early in the day, why don’t we meet up somewhere for lunch?’

It’s agreed on then, as some of them want to go back to their respective hotels first. The hotel where we’re having lunch is a medium-sized one, with a reasonable lunch buffet; there’s a fair mix of neck-tied locals, farangs and Asians (they were not speaking Thai). I arrive early; it’s too much of a hassle to bother with taxis or the trains, and by some fluke of luck the traffic has been kind to me. I check the reservations; yes, would you like to sit down? Not alone, thanks. I wait out in the lobby and grab a copy of the Bangkok Post. Not too long after that I spot some of the group drifting in. I join them, and we settle down at the table to order drinks. Now, because this lunch is business-oriented, I prefer to order soft drinks to go with the meal. I’ll only have a beer if social obligation dictates it. Today I’ll have a beer, as some of our visitors are here for the first time, and have expressed an interest in sampling the local beer…

The last in the group, one of the farangs, finally arrives. He’s now dressed for what appears to be some afternoon shopping, and is the only one who has come for lunch with the object of the previous night’s affection in tow. They find a place to sit just opposite me…

Now, I ask you, the Stickman reader, what would you think of this situation if it happened in your own country, or would it even be a conceivable thought? To be the only one to show up at a business lunch, in the company of a ‘pretty woman’?

Lunch was pleasant enough; with a buffet you keep getting up to refill your plate quite often. A lot of small talk centered on the food and the shopping / sightseeing available. The young lady seated opposite certainly took the situation in her stride; but then again I have yet to meet a Thai with bad table manners. Her companion, while obviously enjoying the food, also made little gestures of affection towards her in his conversation, which she neither acknowledged nor brushed away. The rest of us just pretended not to notice. Her English actually wasn’t too bad; but she’d always say the phrase in Thai first, before repeating it in English.

I’d say she was pretty; but then again beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. She’d definitely stand out on a stage pole somewhere, an object of attention, a cut above the rest. She’d know it, too, and revel in it. Today, she’s conservatively dressed, with hardly any makeup. She’s wearing nice trousers and a decent-looking blouse that has somehow managed to reveal the lower shadows in her cleavage. And when she went to help herself from the buffet, she definitely attracted more than just a casual glance.

The hotel staff treated her just as well as they did any one of us – after all technically she’s a patron of the hotel. Treat your customer right, and maybe next time she’ll bring more business your way.

It was only when the waiter was trying to sort out the after-lunch coffees and had trouble with all the different accents around the table that I spoke Thai to him. The young lady opposite reacted almost instantly. ‘You speak Thai.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘You speak very well.’ ’I’ve been here many years.’ I told her I worked here and stayed with my family. We chatted. She had been with her companion for a couple of days already. They’d been to Pattaya, and were probably headed for Hua Hin the next day. Ah. But today, shopping!

Everyone parted company at the hotel entrance; she waiied me, and I returned the greeting. We went our separate ways.

This incident started me thinking about the different situations we find ourselves in, how well we’re able to cope with it, and how other people may see us through their own eyes.

Take family life. I consider my existence here approximately middle class. We have a decent house in Bangkok. I drive; the car was new when I bought it, and I will drive it until it becomes a nuisance to maintain. Only then will I consider a replacement. We eat out as a family once a week; sometimes either my wife or I will cook, other times food from the roadside food carts is good enough. We do trips to the provinces, and the kids expect at least a three-star hotel – ‘Where’s the pool’ is usually the first question.

At home, the TV is on practically all the time, even if no one is really watching. It’s something that gets on my nerves. My wife says it adds ‘background’; it’s too quiet without it being on. On the other hand, it does tend to drown out the sound of the kids screeching at each other in the next room. Can’t they just communicate at a lower decibel level, instead of trying to do it from the back of the house through two closed doors?

Once on my rounds of Panthip Plaza (a place where a lot of computer stuff is for sale) I spotted a VCD featuring a Thai stand-up comedian called Udom. He’s got an exceptionally prominent nose, and he does feature it in some of his routines.

My wife and kids are laughing and rolling on the floor enough to split their sides. I understand less than half the jokes.

I do sometimes pass through Nana. It’s a place where my wife would feel completely out of place. She acknowledges its existence, but will not venture in. Yes, she’s also aware I sometimes do pass through; we make no bones about it as she knows I typically don’t indulge. It’s usually only when we have visitors in town who are curious. I’ve got my favourite places there; the girls are not beauties, and some are downright fat, but I’ve known them for years and they’re really good company, along with the usual regulars. I know at least one of them has a daughter in the university. Yep, that old. They know I’m not looking for female company in that particular aspect, but still throw the latest offerings in my lap just for the hell of it. They seem to get a kick out of watching her squirm. It’s good for a drink, though.

One of the younger ones I remember, Nit, I’ve known her almost five years, is now twenty-four. Every time I come in, she’s got this wonderful smile on her face. It’s the second bar for her; the first place she was at was a couple of doors down. ‘When’s your brother coming?’ is usually the first question. She had an American boyfriend for a while, and so disappeared from the scene for a period of time. I guess that didn’t work out, so she’s back doing what she knows best. About a year ago, she says ‘I want bigger tits, mine are too small.’ I thought they looked nice and said so. Trouble was, she wouldn’t let me examine them in detail. ‘They do them over at Yanhee hospital’ I was told. I later found out that this is also where full katoeys are engineered. I told her she could lose all sensation in her tits if she wasn’t careful, and left it at that.

Next time I was in, my brother is with me. She’s absolutely delighted; my brother has a soft spot for her, and will book her out for a night or two. ‘What about you wanting bigger tits?’ I ask. She laughs and says, ‘I don’t need them any more, I’m getting fat, and they’ve filled out’. Then she looks at me, and says, ‘I want to marry your brother.’ We both laugh. Tonight or tomorrow? But she sounds more serious these days. ‘I was younger then, quite immature. I’ve changed.’ Yes, she has. But what future is there in it? She’ll probably go on to be a good bar manageress one day; she’s got a good head on her shoulders, but I feel she will not be able to work anywhere outside this environment. And we’ll still remain friends.

I’m out in the boonies somewhere out in Chonburi. Lek has rubber saplings already planted on her property; she’s now looking to build a house on it. ‘Just a small one’ she says. ‘My son is not very interested in his studies; he can still make a good living tapping rubber once the trees mature.’ She and her husband will transfer the property to his name in the next year or so.

When I see her, she was waiting for the guy who was supposed to fell the coconut trees that would be cut into lumber for the house. ‘He’s late. Can you send me to his house?’ Okay. She and her son climb in, and I drive a little bit further up the road. ‘Stop! Stop! Over there!’ It’s an open-air structure opposite the district officer’s house, and there’s a guy making cement urns there. Lek gets out to enquire as to that person’s whereabouts; I‘m intrigued, so I park the car and stroll over.

Apparently the equipment to make the urns is provided by the district office; there’s the ‘Mae Pim’ or mould; the guy makes cement sections on this, and they’re later cemented together. He then smoothens out the cement with a long, flexible trowel about a meter long. His wife helped to sweep up the dust.

They get paid a hundred and thirty baht for each completed urn; he can do up to four by early afternoon. Even the factory workers don’t make that much in a day.

They spot the guy coming down the road and give him a shout. He turns his motorcycle and joins in the conversation. There’s a bundle strapped on the back; is that what I think it is? I ask him, and yes it’s a chainsaw. You can’t buy them anymore, and those that remain are registered.

I see him at work later; it’s just eyesight and a steady hand. He charges by the length he cuts. Two days from now, Lek will give him almost four thousand baht for his work.

Later, she shows me the relative’s place where she’s temporarily staying. Unlike the area where she’s having her house built, they’re much further in, and there’s no electricity or municipal water supply. As with most of the structures around, it has a plain cemented floor, the walls are (unpainted) cement blocks, and the roof is made with corrugated pressed cement sheets. There is no ceiling. They use candles at night, but, as they say, we sleep early, so not having electricity isn’t really a problem. I spot a large truck battery with an inverter and fluorescent light arrangement over in another corner.

Except for the kids, they’re not there many nights anyway, as they are out tapping rubber and only get back when it’s light.

The motorcycle sitting outside the house was just a frame, motor and threadbare tires. Even the fuel tank was missing, but in its place was a plastic Coke bottle with a little fuel in it and a small plastic siphon tube performing the same function. ‘We use it to get around the estate’ was the comment.

There’s some hammering going on a fair distance towards the back of the plantation. I ask what they’re doing. ‘Oh, we’re building a small hut for the new workers.’ I find out that they’ve just come from Cambodia, and stepped off the back of a truck just three days ago. They paid three hundred baht each to get across the border, and another four hundred to a place that offers employment. Communication is still in sign language, and if they work out (couples are preferred) they will register them with the labour department. Until then, they’ve been told to stay on the property and keep out of sight. A thousand baht per month with food and basic lodging is still better than what they get in their own country, so they seem happy.

Lek also mentions in the passing that there was a farang at the shop near her property having some beers a couple of days before. He’d bought some property for his girlfriend. ‘She comes from a very poor family, and met him when she went to work at the bars in Pattaya. He comes from Canada’ is all that she said, and would not elaborate any more. Hmmm.

I guess in many ways I’m quite lucky. I’ve had the opportunity to see many things and meet many people from different walks of life, talk with them, experience their lifestyle. The general population are quite forgiving of little indiscretions, but make a serious mistake and you can be in deep trouble. Most times, you’ll be warned first. It’s only when you persist that you’re in over your head.

I’m comfortable with the decision I made to settle here. While many people may think the place chaotic, it has its’ orderliness as well. A nurse looks like a nurse, and is.. a nurse! A policeman looks like a policeman, as does the bus driver… even the teachers have uniforms. The guy at the watch shop who repaired my cuckoo clock two years ago still smiles at me when I pass by. A doctor at the hospital I usually go to asks if I’m still working in the old place he remembers me telling him about. The receptionist at the dental clinic is now married with two children. The two guys in the parcel department of the post office recollect me coming in there some eight years previously…

Yes, Thailand has grown on me. It’s where my family is at. As Union Hill says, it’s not for everyone. I, too, would find it extremely difficult after sixteen years here to adjust to living anywhere else. Though at times I do feel like a stranger in my own home … Udom, anyone?

Stickman's thoughts:

Nice submission. Despite all that the average farang complains about, in many ways we still have it better than the vast majority of the locals.