Stickman Readers' Submissions December 16th, 2005

Karaoke And A Battle Of Wits With My Doorman

By Jai Yen John

Karaoke. A word that drives fear and loathing into the heart of any right-thinking man. I hate the concept, I hate the music, I hate being trapped in a room with the concept and the music. I hate that. It's the worst atrocity that the Japanese have
inflicted on the world since the kamikaze.

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Now, on the opposite side of the world, people have opposite views. The Thais love Karaoke. Asians love Karaoke. Kids love it, grandmas love it. Everyone loves it. Except me.

Now telling someone you don't like Karaoke in Thailand elicits the same response as if you were to say something like, "You know, I really don't like puppies all that much." Most people think you can't mean what you
say. Often, there is no way to say no to an evening of Karaoke. Try it. I did, it doesn't matter. Strangely enough this insistence on making you do something that you hate doing, is in the interest of courtesy. So even the most passionate
despiser of the alcohol induced crooner, such as myself, has found himself in the Karaoke parlour on more than one occasion. And let me tell you from sad experience: there is no way: no way, that you are going to get away without singing something.

Now I've been in Karaoke bars that could have come out of a Beverly Hills boutique, and I've been in Karaoke bars that have been little more than a corrugated tin roof over a machine that sat on a dirt floor. It is my duty to inform
you, that from glittering, downtown Bangkok to the most remote corners of the back jungle, the Karaoke machine will have exactly two songs in English. These two will be, without exception: "My Way" by Frank Sinatra, and "Hotel California"
by The Eagles. If you are planning a trip to Asia, you must learn these two songs. You WILL be expected to sing them. No Thai will ever pass up a chance to hear an English song sung by a real live westerner. Despite the fact that I tell them I
can't sing. Despite the fact that I demonstrate my lack of singing ability to all, by belting out a version of "My Way" that, if he were not already dead, would have killed Sinatra instantly. They still want to hear "Hotel
California". Mercifully, once those two songs are out of the way, there are only Thai songs left, and you are off the hook.

I live in dread of the day that they add another western song to that infernal machine.


Having a doorman is a new and somewhat unnerving experience for me. It speaks of elitism, it speaks of class distinction, it speaks of everything that American egalitarianism is against. Now, after finding a great apartment in the city, I find that it also came with a doorman. Little did I know at the time, but he was to become my nemesis.

The futility of the doorman in my case rapidly became clear. Essentially people would drive up to the building in their cars, honk the horn, and the doorman would open the gate and allow them inside. That way they didn't have to get out of the car, which is all well and good, but I don't have a car. Which means I walk up to the gate, and have to wait for the doorman to come from all the way on the other side of the garage to open it.

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I quickly came to the conclusion that it would be much better for everyone involved if I opened the gate myself. I wouldn't have to wait for the doorman, he wouldn't have to get up, and I certainly don't mind opening my own doors. I thought to myself that this bold Americanized reversal of the traditional status structure would be a breath of fresh air for my doorman. I was wrong. I am coming quickly to the conclusion that any time an American thinks "ahh this will be a breath of fresh air for him", he only succeeds in annoying someone.

Thus started an epic struggle. It all started the first time I walked home from work. I boldly strode up to the gate, and as the doorman rose from his desk across the way, I reached through the grate, pulled the latch and opened the door. The doorman froze in his tracks. I calmly closed the gate behind me, and said "mai-pen rai" which roughly transfers into don't bother, or it doesn't matter. I got on the elevator and went on my way up.

Over the next few days I could see that he was becoming a little uncomfortable with the situation. He gave me strange looks as I came through, and lost his normal cheerfulness. You know that feeling you get on the back of your neck when you've done something embarrassing but can't quite put your finger on it? I got that feeling.

One day I arrived home from work and found him standing at the gate, he opened it and I walked in. A happy coincidence I thought, but several days of my arriving and finding him waiting for me made me curious. It's not like I get off at the same time every day. My arrival back home can vary by about four hours. Then, one day I looked at his eyes. They seemed to say, Aha! I've outsmarted the stupid farang, he had a look of triumph! Something about that bugged me.

Now, in hindsight, I should have left it there. Let him have his petty victory, take the high road and be secure that I was the better man. Go on with my life. I did not do this. The first thing I needed to do was to figure out how he knew I was coming, then foil him. Why I needed to do this I still don't know, but it seemed very necessary at the time.

One night I got home very late from a bar. The night doorman was on duty. The night doorman and I have no problems, he was a young kid, a bit lazy, and as a result held the same high opinion of my self-door opening plan as I did. I walked over to pick up my mail off of the desk, and indulged in our usual attempt at conversation in completely different languages. As I was pantomiming something about drinking beer, I noticed that from this vantage point, you could clearly see the road from which I walk along, through a break in the top of the wall. This was how he did it! I believe that I went to bed actually chuckling.

The next day, as I came home from work, I deftly walked around the OTHER side of the building, up to the gate, opened it MYSELF, and walked to the elevator past an astonished and somewhat upset doorman. As I rode up the elevator, I felt that the triumph was strangely hollow. Still, I kept walking around the other side of the building, and opening my own door.

Not too long after this, my doorman and I hit a détente. He started calling the elevator for me. I would walk up and open the gate, and he would walk over to the elevator and push the call button. In my opinion, someone pushing a button for me was even more ridiculous than someone opening my door. It bugged me to no end, but there was nothing I could do. There was no way I could get to the elevator before him, and there was no way he could get to the gate before me. Stalemate.

This went on for a while, and I brought the matter up to one of my Thai friends as a matter of conversation. It was here that I found out what I thought was a harmless eccentricity, was in fact, a pretty grave insult on my part. You see every person in Thai society has a status. Some people are higher status than you, some people are lower, but no one is ever an equal. This is how Thais relate as a community and function socially. They can't seem to operate outside this framework, and thus strange as it sounds to me, any Thai would much rather be lower status, than have the ambiguity of no status. So much for American egalitarianism.

This would have been bad enough, but because he saw himself as lower status than me, he thought that I was tormenting him like a bully, rather than playing a game of wits with an equal (which is what I thought). I effectively cast derision on his status by doing his job for him (i.e. opening my own door), implying that what he did, (and by extension himself) was of no importance.

An interesting lesson, and as a result I now wait patiently outside the gate for him to open it. Since then we've settled into a comfortable routine. The war is over. But I can tell I'm still under suspicion.

Stickman's thoughts:

Enjoyable stories and a nice summary on the second.

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