Speak My Lingo
• Donghu Hotel
• Equatorial Hotel Shanghai
• Four Seasons Hotel Shanghai
• Jin Jiang Hotel Shanghai
My dear friend K. Vilai was going back to Thailand for a few weeks and she suggested I join her; she would show me around. After a quick review of my bank accounts I agreed, I would have gone even if my limits were nearly max-ed. There is something about
her home country that fascinates me.
It isn’t the bar girls / massage girls; you can find them in large numbers in any major city of the world. They have realised that the Sois are crowded with hustlers just like themselves and the more enterprising girls have moved closer to their target markets. If this is your objective, save the air ticket and look around closer to home.
It’s interesting that the Thai girls in my hometown who were calling out ‘hello hunsum’ from their beer bars only a few weeks earlier seem to change after arriving. Here they seem less downcast and more interested in interacting with people other than potential customers. Have you ever noticed a bar girl talking to anyone in Bangkok? Shop assistants practically ignore them and taxi drivers would rather talk to the steering wheel than look at the little farm girl telling him where to go. It seems as if they have a neon sign on their backs flashing ‘whore’, but only other Thais can see this – it’s plainly obvious, except to the farang who thinks he has just met his next wife.
This was going to be my fourth trip. Each visit has left me with certain puzzles: Do the Thai people actually dislike westerners, do they really have such a low opinion of their fellow countrymen and what’s the deal with this word ‘farang’?
Lai never uses the word and when I asked her about it she became a little embarrassed and said it can mean many things. I understand the translations of farang, but the intent and underlying racism bugs me.
To me it sounds like darkie, gook or gringo. None of these are flattering terms and I wouldn’t use them. It says to me that the Thai people couldn’t care less if I come from Italy, Australia or Brazil – all foreigners are the same. A lurid pink taxi has a sticker on the passenger window; it says ‘I speak farang’. Really? Hey, Mr. Cab Driver, do you speak all the major European languages and English? <Actually, it says "I love farang. …. We can speak English" as pictured here – Stick>
To see how a disregard for someone’s national or cultural origins might cause offence, try this experiment next time you are in Hamburg. Go into a docklands-type bar and start a conversation. Ask your new German friend where he comes from. He may even cheer up and go into a detailed description of his hometown. Now reply that you think Poles, Germans and even Russians are all the same. At this point a massive, hairy fist the size of a mule’s head will crash into your surprised face.
We all know that a single test does not prove a theory so, please, try it again – this time in Glasgow and say that Poms, Scots and Welsh are all the same. The only variation in the outcome is you will notice (a split second before you see stars) the hairs on that thundering fist have a reddish tinge.
Back to my trip with Lai.
We arrive at her house north of the airport. It has been closed up for months so we set about making the place livable. Within a few minutes a car pulls up and two women get out. I am introduced to her cousins; Nit and Pit are going to stay with us. I am tired after flying for 14 hours but my brain is sufficiently conscious to tell me that something is wrong. Lai had become distant after landing. As we were walking though the airport it felt as though she had disowned me and now her cousins / chaperones were part of the picture.
To explain my intentions, I was not involved with Lai (although I had thought about it). I was travelling with her to see Thailand away from the well-worn tourist trails. I also harboured the hope of meeting a new girlfriend who isn’t, and hasn’t been, a hooker.
The following morning we try to awaken her Camry – even the battery booster fails to spin the engine. So she calls a garage and twenty minutes later a mechanic arrives. I am impressed by the efficiency but I am amazed that the mechanic is an attractive woman who looks more like a hotel receptionist. She greets Lai then looks at me.
She is wearing a neatly ironed cotton shirt. I can’t help it, I notice that the buttons in her cleavage are straining and the shirt gapes a little. I have an instant and irrepressible image of her in my head. She is unbuttoning that shirt and talking bar girl trash to me. It’s the standard script every guy has heard: ‘You like long-time, darling? I so horny for you now’.
We talk for a few minutes. I get it together by staring at the dusty film covering the car. She puts on some grubby gloves and digs into the engine compartment.
Yes, this is my bigotry lit in blazing lights. I know not every Thai woman is a rent girl and away from the red lights very few earn a living this way. But this is how I instinctively reacted to her. We were about 20 km away from Sukhumvit and she was here to start a car – talk about the inaccuracies of racial stereotyping and I was wrong. I need to check my prejudices at the airport and leave them there.
“My name is Oil. I hope you are well, Khun Steep” (this is the usual pronunciation of Steve), she says smiling. I want to burst out laughing, but she is making a sincere effort to introduce herself in good English.
These are the things that draw me so strongly to Thailand. A friendly lady mechanic called Oil and the cousins who welcome me without any reservations show genuine warmth that I have never found in the west. These Thai characteristics can be found in many different interactions and I have had similar experiences in Chiang Mai.
You won’t find these things in a gogo. It always amazes me that guys are outraged by the shallowness, drunkenness / drugs, fake smiles, lies and scams. These are the embedded characteristics of the sex industry – it’s the same all over the world and with hookers of any nationality. <This is so true. Prostitution is prostitution the world over – Stick>
If only Thailand could be an unqualified heaven-on-earth. But, Lai’s behaviour worries me, the farang thing grates on me.
Aside from my specific experiences the general feeling of Thai openness seems to be diminishing of late (especially when you arrive at the airport). I have the sense that most Thais have very little interest in the whole globalisation thing. They are still struggling with integrating fellow Asians. As for the Westerners we are tolerated but Africans are almost turned back at Immigration. If the current military government prohibited farangs from moving outside of certain areas, there would probably be widespread cheering.
My fears are confirmed later in the morning. Lai insists that I drive; she would give me directions. The cousins join us. I could not figure why she would want me to drive so far. The heavy traffic on Lat Phrao Road was making me feel as tense as a rat on a high voltage cable.
Eventually I park the car and we start re-stocking the house. Two teenage schoolgirls wearing their uniforms look at Lai, the cousins and then at me. Suddenly I could see exactly what they were thinking – so is his what prostitutes and their customers look like, and they are in our neighbourhood – that is what the girls were thinking and they looked a little disgusted / dismayed.
‘But that isn’t Lai and it isn’t me,’ I wanted to say. Too late, the moment was gone and we were condemned. After a while my dear friend moves a little closer to me. She seems to know what I am thinking.
“It’s a big problem. Before, bargirls stayed in some places with their customers. Now, they are everywhere so any Thai lady with a white guy is a bad girl,” a corner of her mouth turned down in an expression of resignation. “I invited Nit and Pit so it might seem to be different.”
I think many more middle class girls would look at western guys if the stigma issue were not so dominant. There is an additional level to this. Thais, like people everywhere, are concerned with social standing. Hookers occupy the very lowest levels so a white boyfriend results in a social downgrade.
Sitting in the supermarket’s coffee shop, we were quietly wondering what had become of us. Nit and Pit were looking at cell phones. I was lost in a mixture of jetlag and feelings of guilt towards Lai – my presence had turned a hard working woman who has houses and businesses in two countries into a no-status whore.
“Please, please…” A child-like voice lifted the fog in my brain. I was still very tired.
It was our judge and jury: the schoolgirls. They were clutching writing pads and old-fashioned cassette tape recorders.
“You speak English?” She was nervous. “We see before, I say English and she say not. I have work for school, please.”
They were simply completing a project that required talking to English speakers. My hang-ups were doing the rest. Lai started talking to the girls, they sit down with us; beaming smiles turning to gentle laughter all round – LOS found and it’s 100% genuine. I order nam som for the girls. I could not have been happier at that moment.
We go home and I sleep until 1 the next morning when I wake up to the sound of an earnest discussion taking place in another room. I understand some Thai but struggle when the words blur into each other. It’s the cousins and they are talking about Lai’s mother’s request to meet me.
They seem to be worried about the consequences of this meeting. Nit worries that I will take Lai away and they will never see her again. Pit seems to think it’s a done deal and she wants to talk about the party.
I’m lying in the dark wondering how things have progressed so far without any input from my side.
I also realise that this form of communal living will be a culture shock for me. I’ve never had my life-changing decisions discussed by distant relatives – in fact we seldom even talk about each other and I’m not even sure what some of them look like. Aside from my father my relatives are scattered around the world.
I live alone and this amazes Lai. Often she asks if I’m not lonely and why don’t I live with my father. I answer that I am quite happy and I enjoy the independence. She doesn’t understand because a few weeks later she asks the same questions. Usually she ends this discussion by saying ‘you can live like this, but for Thai people it is not possible; we have to live together’.
Then I hear Lai’s voice. She tells them I can understand. Instead of an embarrassed, guilty silence they laugh. Lai taps on my door and comes in. “Well, now you know,” she tilts her head back and scrutinises my reaction.
“You want me to meet your mother?” I’m not really sure if this is a harmless meeting, an interview ahead of an engagement or something else, but I want to find out.
The cousins are standing behind her. They are covering their mouths with their hands. This is a curious and endearing mannerism – it’s as if they are hiding their smiles, but I can see from their eyes that they are grinning from ear to ear.
Lai maintains her neutral evaluation. But I am very happy and now she smiles and I suggest that we all eat and have a drink.
I’m going to find out for myself just how wide this cultural divide is, and I’ll have to deal with the farang issue: if only the waiters would stop ignoring me when they ask Lai if the ‘farang’ can eat spicy.
And what happened next?