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Working With The Locals – Sticking It Out Like A Sore Thumb

  • Written by Anonymous
  • January 5th, 2006
  • 30 min read


Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

By Sleeping Dragon

What’s an introverted, impatient, uncouth, and risk-adverse, sometimes a deranged razor-tongued twat, can’t be bothered individual and most importantly, an anti-social like me, doing and living in a boys’ haven called Bangkok? Well, reliable sources have cited that I’ve shown streaks of “mentalism” and it would have been a good idea to stay put where I was and not torment other people. Maybe I am crazy after all…another testament of my agreeing to the job posting here, though not without a calculated decision. Worse, I don’t know anyone here and assimilation is gonna be tough for such charming attributes that I possess!

Having been born, bred and raised in my native country my entire life in one of the well-reputed (or not to some) home of the Asian Dragons, I practically jumped at the opportunity when I was told that our Thai counterpart is offering me a position in their office. It was unexpected, yet flattering and it’s something I had always wanted to do one day. It came earlier than expected…but Thailand was not exactly my choice of destination. At that point, I didn’t care. I was bored of the work environment at home and I needed a change. A change of environment is always good for the soul, they say. That became the main reason for my move, but not after 4 long months of negotiations. One of the advantages working in an MNC that value their employees (or I hope they do!) — If I didn’t like it, I can always go back after a year’s contract is up and I’m literally only a few flight hours away from home. I am the only foreigner in my office… uhmm…ok. Not really the only one if you include one other foreigner, whom even though physically based in BKK, she’s forever away on business trips and not part of the Thai Office payroll. So, technically, I’m the only one and it has now been 6 months of rubbing shoulders with the Thais on a daily basis …but who’s counting, eh.

I’m thinking, I’m now probably fit for the mental institution…I have been left confused many a time in the office. Makes me wonder, if, the worst of my mental state, has gotten the better of me. I could relate to what Stick mentioned on his weekly postings…no sense of urgency is definitely quite an inherent trait. But this is Thailand – one cannot just scream, shout or throw your temper around. It is just NOT done. If things could have been swept right under the carpet, it would somehow miraculously disappear. I have always thought that the walls in my apartment would not be bare for too long. Soon enough, there’ll be dents on it as I will at some point, have to bang my head on them every day after work to let off steam. I have so far, never seen anyone in the office raised their voices to anyone. My bosses included. Not even on the phone. Who could imagine that the office could have been such a peaceful place where no nasty remarks, loud phone chidings or dressing down in full view of others happened. I must say, gentleness is an inherent trait at the workplace. Apart from the occasional loud but friendly bantering amongst the Thais, there is hardly any chaos. A case in example – this office used to get an electricity black-out on an average of 3x a week. Of course, everything just shuts down when you least expect it…and you haven’t really quite saved your work yet. Any other species of human being would have bullets of profanities coming out of their mouth as soon as that happen. While my natural reaction was bellowing a “holy fuck mother of god” behind my desk (and pretty loudly too), all I heard was just moans & sighs – perhaps a couple of “chip hai lah….” said in a sing-song manner which hardly sounds like a cuss, from 20 other people around. Most will only just be simultaneously shaking their heads, with resigned smiles on their faces. While my natural outburst did perpetrate some laughs from them, I can’t help but felt a little embarrassed. Ooopsy…

There had been times when I felt I could have just internally combusted right there and then, from the lack of respect for timelines. Something which, I’m not quite used to. Deadlines are there for a reason and back in our native office, we worked our ass off to beat deadlines on a daily basis, sometimes working obscene amount of hours – weekends & public holidays included. However, for some reasons, my Thai colleagues always managed to extend the deadline. Now 2 hours is normal, 2 days a luxury, but 2 weeks or even up to 3 months extension? (this is extension after extension) My…am I in heaven or what!

There was an incident during the first few initial months when we had a new business pitch and deadline was extended by 2 weeks already. I was determined not to piss-off the foreign client who has decided to meet us in Bangkok by extending the deadline again, so I told my colleague that we needed to deliver no matter what. Always smiling and saying, “I’m busy…but I’m doing” every time I asked for status, who at the same time was surfing some gay websites when I walked over, he never actually got round to it. And this even after I asked him at least once in every 2 days for 2 weeks! The day before the big meeting, I realized there were so many things I entrusted him with, which hasn’t even been contemplated on. When I asked again, “cannot be done” and smiles were delivered to me instead. We were running outta time and no solutions were offered. By now, I was seething through my teeth and had smokes literally coming outta my ears. But I managed to keep my cool, gritted my teeth and smiled (which was REAL hard by the way) and asked him the reasons why and offered to help. In the end, I did a chunk of his work and worked through the night…sigh! I realized later (and a few more “helps” that my other colleagues uttered), that by “helping”, they also presumed that you are doing the work for them and leave everything in your hands. I’ve gotten smarter with that now. After a few more encounters with this particular person, I believed he didn’t like me very much – he avoids me as much as he can, avoids eye contact and ignores me whenever possible, even though he knows he has to work closely with me. I’m not sure what I had done to offend him…but I believe he didn’t like me questioning too much. Or the idea that since he’s older than me, he has to listen to me and have me “guide” him even when I’m considered more senior in position than him. I have since let him work independently and only get cc mails once in a while. No – I didn’t tell on him.

In fact, I had stopped counting with my fingers how many times my boss told me, “Don’t spend too much time…Don’t need to stress…Take it easy…Don’t think too much…Mai pen rai…mai mi phan ha…” Hmmmmm. All right boss…but I still have a job to do and I wanna do it well.

I did get a warning from my boss when he took me on regarding Thai work attitude. He admitted that it is very hard to change attitudes of the staff as they only want to do what they know since some have been around for a long time. It’s hard for them to change, and he’s hoping I can help. He has a “slowly but surely mentality”. I can only say I’ll try. Coming from a Thai superior, I take that into consideration when “guiding” the Thais. At the same time, I can’t help but think there may be an underlying meaning somewhere…or I’m again over-analyzing (occupational hazard)

With lack of urgency, one really does not have to wonder very hard about efficiency. Don’t get me wrong. Thais do work very hard…at least the ones in my office do. Sometimes I feel guilty about leaving early (6.30 pm) and there are dozens still around. 6.30 pm may not actually seem early to some, but in my case, to be able to leave the office at such a time is a luxury! In all my years in the industry, it’s not unheard of to work till after mid-night (or obscene hours as I have called it earlier) on an almost daily basis. It was fast-paced and total madness but a lot of things DO get done. You can even get a “high” from it sometimes! Here, there seems to be no stress and pretty laid back, yet these people are still working till 10 pm and coming back over the weekends. Something is not right. They come in early too – earliest being 7.30 am, perhaps to beat the traffic jam). But still, it boggles the mind that with such long hours they put in everyday, things are still not getting done as much or as fast as they should. MSN does get priority in the office amongst staff, by the way, which further impedes on productivity – I am guilty of that as well, only when I’m not busy. But, what’s even mind-boggling is that each and every employee does have a structured job-scope and they try to do as little as possible, sticking to their defined job definition, but doing something else with their time. Go figure. So why the long hours? I can only think of inefficiency and the inability to prioritize.

Most, if not all of my Thai colleagues are pretty well-educated and graduated from the top universities in Thailand. A handful actually majored in English and some are armed with an overseas degree from reputable universities in Australia and UK. Unfortunately, it seemed to have just ended there. It’s only a well-prized paper and those who had an overseas education, seemed like they have never even left Thailand. Most do speak decent English but, Thai-ism is well and strongly embraced by each and every individual.

Sanook at work is quite a big part of the office culture. They like to have fun in everything they do…but this does not necessary mean solving complex issue. It’s doing simple things and having fun at the same time. Take for example, preparing a document, a lot of time is being spent on the layout and animation of the document rather than the content itself. I must admit, they sometimes do look impressive and that’s about it. If only they spend half as much time thinking ABOUT THE CONTENT of the documents… why A+B = C and what happens to D and E if B is not in the picture…figuratively speaking. The thing is Thais do not really like to think so much. It’s all about simplicity of the mind and finding the easiest way to do things. I could actually see the contortions on their faces if I pointed out something that needs a little bit more thought on it or why certain things don’t make sense…it looks like their brains are about to explode right before my eyes! The deal is, they tend to be more of an instruction taker – you have to actually show them step-by-step on what needs to be done, how it can be done. If you ask for A, B & C, that’s what you get, and most certainly nothing more. Sometimes either one of those is missing as well; and you have to wait for a couple more days to see the missing ones get done. That is, IF you are lucky…otherwise, reasons of “cannot be done…it is really difficult” will come your way almost certainly. Forget about telling them why it should be done…they hardly ever asked. If they do, I’m almost certain that they will talk you into NOT doing it, since it requires extra effort and may feel that it’s beyond their job scope. You might as well just do it yourself and save the trouble of haggling in broken English. My point here is – teaching people how to think is already a tough skill in itself; and here in Thailand, it gets even more challenging. How do you “teach” people how to think?

There are, however, the more inquisitive ones around and are eager to impress. I must say that I’m fortunate to have a couple of earnest eager-beavers who are willing to learn and go the extra mile. Maybe only one extra mile…but that’s a mile alright. They are great to work with and do have passion in what they do. Their English may not be excellent, but decent enough to get by. Conversing to me in (broken) English, and me in super-broken Thai to get by, has become quite natural for them. Sometimes I forget that their vocabulary is quite limited and they’ll stare at me blankly before reminding me to, “Pe-lease se-peak se-lowly’

Inadvertently, I have become the un-official English editor around here when it comes to documents leaving the office. Not that I mind…but it is really such a chore trying to figure out what they actually mean and re-writing the whole damn thing again, when what they wrote wasn’t exactly what they intended to say. There were days when all I did for the whole day was just editing documents written for a presentation, sometimes not a presentation I have to attend. That being said though, I have to really give them credit for even attempting to write proper English. I really do! One of the reasons why they take double the time (or more) to do their work, I guess. It can get really difficult for them to translate Thai to English word for word – it doesn’t come as naturally as for most of us who were brought up with English as the 1st language. A funny incident had me burst into laughter, just a couple of days ago: Someone was telling me that the word in English he was referring to is “ear-brind”. After wondering for a bit and not getting what he meant, he gestured to his ear and said “cannot hear”. He actually meant to translate it to “deaf” and it came out “ear-brind (blind)”.

For one, I noticed Thais do take time to chit-chat with their colleagues over snacking time, which can happen throughout the day. They do to make time to interact with one another. Even during a meeting, at least 10-mins is spent casually bantering about nothing and talking about other things BUT the meeting at hand. Of course, there’ll always be food around to talk about. All in Thai and they will sometimes translate it back to me what they are talking about. I will by then, be “smiling” away, twiddling my thumb thinking I just wasted precious 20 minutes. That was another work-culture shock for me. But life goes on.

Relationships in the office are generally platonic – me vs. other Thais. People are always so nice and helpful and there’s always someone who will ensure that you don’t go lunch alone. (Gasp! It’s almost a crime to be alone!) . However, Thais do tend to be a little cliquish and there are quite a number of cliques to be found. There’s the gay clique, the vain-female clique, the mother clique, the lesbian clique, the macho-boys clique, the child-like clique…aplenty! They are impenetratable…you are either in or out…and you will go lunch with almost always the same group. I don’t like cliques generally, but I guess I can’t help it here. At least, I’m with the fun bunch; a group of four boys whom I work very closely with. Enthusiastic workers when it comes to work, always willing to learn and ask questions…though sometimes, do get a little laid-back and would rather take a short-cut. Most of the time, I do get lost in translation, as I have yet to pick up Thai. I believe their jokes are mostly at my expense. I’ve learnt to live and let die…and smile.

A surprising revelation was to learn that Thais are rather home-bodies, contrary to what I used to believe. No one from the office goes out for after-work drinks/dinner/coffee together. They all would shuttle back home as soon as they are done, no matter what time it is. This was something that I wasn’t used to…it got a little depressing for the 1st two months here. Ok, I know I may not be the most likeable person on earth and that I mentioned being an anti-social. I am indeed happy to spend time alone. But in a place where you know no one else, but your colleagues in the initial stages, you need some company, sometimes too, right! After all, I know some of my Thai colleagues from before, prior to my move here when we had to talk about work on a weekly basis and even had a couple of face-to-face meetings before. It is hard to believe that they don’t hang out after work just to unwind. I’m not talking about a big bunch of people going out together, but rather, a couple of close colleagues-turn after-work friends sort of thing. Unless there are some after-hours mandatory office parties, you won’t see them around much later. It was tough not having familiar friends just to sit around, and talk shit over drinks or coffee. Initially, I did ask a couple of whom I thought are “close” colleagues to go for after-work drinks (hey! that’s’ what we do at home, right!), but either I was politely refused, or one of them will buy some beer from 7-11 downstairs. We’ll then have 5 people drinking beer in the office, chatting for a bit, probably joked at my expense and everyone will disappear behind their desks with beer on their table. Ho hum….

Just recently, I had the interesting opportunity of holidaying with the Thais as part of our annual incentive trip. All 60-something of them in numbers and I am the only non-Thai. A cold-climate country, 6-7 flight hours away was decided for a 3D3N trip. Reason: They wanna see snow! I was very apprehensive about the destination, but thought it would be interesting to see how Thais would react. Personally, I don’t like the cold climate…I would avoid it if I could…especially if it’s a guided tour! Yep…THAT kinda group tour in big tour buses and a guide where everyone just follows like a gaggle of geese. But it will be rude to decline and besides getting another free stamp on my passport, who knows I might just bond with a Thai and get myself a real Thai friend, right…Right-O!

Truth be told, it was pretty interesting to see my Thai colleagues enjoying the average temperature of minus 10-15 degrees Celsius. As it turned out, most of them didn’t quite actually prepare enough warm clothing and there were loads of moaning about the cold weather. (DUH!). They have been warned. Those who did don different coloured outer coat every day…and even different scarves, hats, gloves and ear-muffs to go along with it. One of them had the tackiest ear-muffs I have seen in my entire life – picture a pink, furry, heart-shaped ear muffs! To them, it’s cute of course. There was even one chic who wore a 3-inch stiletto! Girls do make an effort every single time they get on the bus from the outdoors to touch-up their make up for at least 5 minutes with their compact mirrors. Every single time – without fail. All these and not even close to sufficient layers of warm clothing that are appropriate for sub-zero temperature. Go on, roll your eyeballs – I know I did! 😉

Did I forget to mention pictures? Gosh! They really do love their pictures being taken and I doubt that they will go anywhere without their cameras. At every single destination, monument, rocks, snowfall, artifacts, you see them posing for pics…it has to be with a group of people or just alone. I reckon we must have over 20,000 pictures from that holiday collectively. A few of my colleagues commented that I’m hardly in any of the photos…but what do u mean hardly, I think I appeared in at least 15 including group photographs. That’s already a lot! I commented that we should nominate someone to count and nominate a person for being in the most photographs. It should be sanook to do that, right! 😉 Now they have their own pics on as a screensaver – almost every single one of them!

Back to the holiday – I imagine that Thais must be one of the easiest people to take care of on a group tour and that tour agencies wouldn’t mind servicing them. I remember when we had a group tour with my native office-folks on our incentive trip a couple of years ago. Hell was created when we were told what time we have to be back at the bus, when we can eat, what to eat, what time we have to wake-up etc – the works of a group tour…you get my drift. We were less than obedient and forever bargaining on time and place. With the Thais, there was simply no hassle, no confrontations, no unhappiness or questions. They take it as it comes, good or bad. Very well-behaved.

Now with food, I am not a big fan of this cold country’s local cuisine out of personal dislike. I don’t eat pork and I’m not the only one in the group who doesn’t. This country is also known as a place that consumes a lot of beef…strangely, most of the meal consisted of a lot of porky stuff. At one of the dinner sessions, those who didn’t eat pork were given only vegetables and rice. No other meat…and being a true carnivore, I was craving for meat! Hell! I have been deprived of meat for one whole day and it was freezing!! And I thought food was something that had been thought out when this tour was planned. Anyways, I didn’t make any fuss but since I wasn’t that hungry, I didn’t eat – besides, the food didn’t look all that appetizing and I’m not such a big fan of rabbit food. The Thai tour guide came over and asked me why I wasn’t eating. I told him my reasons (including that it’s not very nice and I’m not a big fan of vegetables) and he said, “You know, you should say aroy mak, mak….we Thai people say that, even when not nice”. So I said politely, if he’d like to try instead. He said no and I added, “I’m sorry, but I’m not Thai so I’ll be honest with you…I really can’t eat. I think if I’m hungry later, I can go to McDonalds”. He laughed off, apologized for the food and walked away. Little did I know it wasn’t such an innocent gesture on his part when he laughed and walked away.

Back in the bus right after dinner, he announced to everyone on a microphone that he’s sorry that I did not appreciate the food and that I’ll be looking for food elsewhere. Something to the extent that it’s a shame I cannot appreciate local food (hey! It’s a personal dislike right, everyone is entitled to a personal dislike for food…and rabbit food where everyone else had MEAT too?!). He continued to say that we are now going back to the ski resort and proceeded to ask me if I’m going to go for a 2-hr ski lesson or just ride up the gondola. I mentioned the latter and he immediately asked if I knew how high the gondola is. I said I didn’t. He said its 30-metres and asked if I know what to do once I get up to the top. He then said that I can jump down. If I don’t like the place like I don’t like the food. HOW DARE HE? Talk about Thai’s sense of humour, huh! I thought it was extremely rude for him to say such things, regardless of the situation. I took an offense to that, quite honestly. You have no idea what went thru my mind at that point and what nasty thing could have come out from my mouth, But, I remembered that it’s about face …and it would not look too good on me either if I retaliated. Instead, I gritted my teeth, smiled and looked away. After all, I’m in a bus full of Thais! I basically ignored him through-out the trip. I had to ask myself if he was just trying to play punk or did I really misinterpreted what he said? The other Thais in the bus did not say anything at all about it; neither were they laughing with him. Having kept my cool, I felt like I am on my way to saint-hood…

Apart from the ominous weather at the ski-resort and my unpleasant encounter with the guide on Day- 2, I thought it was strange how we didn’t visit any of the cultural stuff, except for some temples and cultural museum. And oh! Disneyland… We, however, were dropped off at shopping centres (ala MBK and Siam Square as described by the guides and which excited most of the Thais, btw) so that we can shop around during some of the time… I hate shopping, but I can’t complain. No one else did…and it would be rude to say anything. Besides, it was a free trip, yes? And I’m THE foreigner.

Brief encounters and conversations during those tour-guided walks with 60-something of them Thais are mostly just polite, mindless, childish humour and all politically correct. There is really NOTHING else to say or talk about but, how freaking cold it was, or offering cigarettes or chocolates. It was quite mind-numbing and perhaps, the temperature had frozen by brains by then. All Thai-ed out by the 3rd day, I decided that I wanna walk alone along ala Siam Square area and broke away from the group. After strolling for almost half hour, I bumped into a couple of them and they looked at me, aghast and exclaiming in utter-shocked, “YOU ARE ALONE? NO ONE WITH YOU?” I said, no I got lost, but I’m fine and I’m looking for things. Before anything more can be said, I smiled and walked into the nearest shop. It felt like almost a criminal offence to be seen alone (gasps! Shock, shock, horror, horror, shock, shock, horror!). By now, I can’t wait to be back in my own little cave…my brains need to be thawed and the fact that I may need to already amputate my limbs from potential frost bites.

I can’t help but feel that everything is quite superficial and rather pretentious. And maybe, the saddest thing of all is that it is done with so much sincerity, even too earnest. Oxy moron huh! Rubbing shoulders with them everyday, and even getting the rare opportunity as a foreigner to spend a few days with them doesn’t even come close in getting to know them.

After the trip, it confirms my suspicion that everything is not like what it seemed it is …it’s a façade and things are pretty much on the surface only. You never really know what they think (assuming they do think) or what to expect – from them or yourself. Things are done out of politeness, usually. My bad that I don’t speak the language … not yet, anyway. My opinion is that, not only the language in itself is already a barrier, but with the Thais, it’s the language AND attitude – it’s a language within a language. It’s hard to decipher them. Their too-cool an exterior could hold a million thoughts and words…perhaps, not for the foreigners to ever understand. It’s hard to hold any meaningful conversations, even if they do speak decent English. It’s even harder to ever have them as personal friends. One thing for sure, they do like to talk about themselves, their kids, nieces and nephews, where they have been, what they have done, what they think you should be doing or what you should spend on. It’s interesting to listen, though, I can’t decide if they are giving their own back a pat, seeking an approval or showing an authoritative stance. Sometimes, it feels like you are just walking on a tight rope and questioning yourself if the right thing was done in the eyes of the Thais. There’s always a certain distance that needs to be kept. But then again, it’s a personal opinion.

Do I stick out like a sore thumb? Physically, no. I’m mistaken for a Thai every so often until I open my mouth, that is. Professionally, perhaps – since I’ve been exposed to a much different and demanding work environment. But, the reason that I’m here is mostly to make them look good…which, in my opinion isn’t a bad thing. I guess my mentality has always been that it’s more necessary to always make your team look great, as you are only as good as your team. I don’t care for credits, but it’s always good to know that you are being appreciated one way or another. Amongst the Thais, there is this big drive to please everybody, be well-liked, gain and maintain a certain respect, and the Thai bosses ensure that. In that sense, as a foreigner, it does seems like your are being taken good care of, and they will often, in my case, take a rain-check to know that I am truly happy working here. While it is true and I do agree with Stick on the fact that a foreigner might not get much out of the experiences when working in Thailand (something my Thai boss re-affirmed, by the way), I’d like to stick it out for a little longer here. If anything there is to learn, it would be more of the soft-skills rather than the hard-skills – the former being a much more difficult professional skills to master. The Thai ways of dealing with people has its complexities and it is exactly for these skills that I hope to acquire from my Thai boss, who, in my opinion is a smart man, has excellent (Thai style) soft-skills, fair and non-discriminating – contrary to what I’ve heard from other people. It’s something which is highly valued, if one is top management. All that and he appreciates his employees and most of the time, values their opinions, striving for improvements. If things have worked so far prior to my move, he must have done something right.

It’s a matter of learning the right things and getting the right perspective from the exposure. Nuances, idiosyncrasies are every where, but it’s not all bad and perhaps just a little bit of inconveniences to bear. If they are willing to give me a chance, it’s only fair to give them the same chance – after all, I’m in their turf. I only need to keep my distance, as they, theirs; play along in the theatrics to keep the harmony, be objective and exercise some judgments. In fact, loads of judgments, since hard facts disappear right under the invisible carpet one way or another. Life is tough enough as it, why make it harder for myself in doing things MY way all the time. It does seems strange that you are employed for the skills you possess to turn things around, but generally, Thais are adverse to change. The change is not impossible but it will be an extremely slow & daunting process. Slowly, but surely. For how long, I don’t know. Thai-ism almost seems like a religion on its own.

Someone who ran an office in a neighbouring country for 10 years told me – “remember, you cannot change them, they will change you”. In my case, it is proving to be true. I cannot remember when I last lost my temper since I moved here. Some opinions, no matter, how tempting to say it out loud at times in front of the Thais, is safer to be kept to yourself. This is by no means easier for an introverted person like me…though I do have days when I have let it ripped with biting sarcasm. Thank god it hasn’t happen here and the walls at home are still dent-less. My patience has and will continue to be duly tested in this country. I believe I have assimilated well so far – my only worry is complacency, mediocrity and losing my drive. Indeed, I am still learning and the day when I do stop learning, I’ll be wishing that I’m already dead.

One of my friends said that I may well be on my way to saint-hood…if it’s true (assuming that I haven’t internally combusted yet), then I’ll see you in Nirvana – along with the other Thais. I am only missing a halo, but for now, it is good for the soul.

– The Sleeping Dragon


Stickman's thoughts:

Yep, I think many of us working here have experienced much the same as you have!