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The Frog in the Well

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • May 5th, 2007
  • 10 min read


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The story of the frog in the well has been told in many different ways throughout the centuries, on many different continents, and in many different languages. Yet, the meaning of the lesson is still as pertinent and useful today as it’s always been and definitely worth going over yet one more time. I’m going to tell you the story and the meaning and then draw some common comparisons we see not only among the Thai citizens, but also in a huge way among the expat community. The story goes something like this:

A frog lives in a well. From the bottom of the well he can see the well sides, the water, the rock in the middle of the water, and a small part of the sky looking upwards. This frog has lived his entire life in the well and is comfortable enough with his surroundings to think he knows the world very well indeed. The sides, the water, the rock, and a small patch of sky above.

One day much to the frog in the well's surprise another frog comes falling down from above splashing into the water and wearily pulls himself up on the rock, cleans the water from his eyes with a flick of his long tongue, and takes a look around the well. With a sigh he sees he’s trapped in a small well with no apparent way out, and to his surprise he sees the resident frog sitting at the side of the water watching him. “Hello” says the intruding frog. “Hello yourself” says the resident frog.

The intruding frog looks around and seeing he’s trapped in the well, maybe forever, looks at the resident frog and says “Crikey Mate, what do you call this place?” The resident frog looks hard at the intruding frog and responds “My good frog, this is ‘the well’ and it is everything, it is my world.” Looking around one more time the intruding frog sighs loudly and says “this well is far from being ‘everything’ or the world, there doesn’t seem to be much here at all mate.” The resident frog blinks a few times and stutters “Bloody hell you say! This is indeed the world, you do not know of which you speak, most likely because of your inferior education!” The intruding frog replies “You pommy bodgy frog, the world is much bigger than you can imagine!” The resident frog can’t believe what he’s hearing, his world as he knows it is being questioned and he starts to feel uncomfortable and barely manages to croak out “Blimey, but you must have some huge goolies, tell me about your world and I’ll decide if your world is real or not!”

The intruding frog replies “What a dill! Ok then, I’ll tell you about my world. To start it is very big.” The resident frog looking around his well with pride fills up his chest with air and croaks “it cannot be much bigger than this fine well!” Intruding frog replies “Oh yes, it is much bigger.” Resident frog “Bollucks! How much bigger can it be, is it bigger than say from where I’m standing to the edge of the water? Intruding frog replies “Much bigger.” Resident frog looking a bit uncomfortable “Ok then, bigger from where I stand to that rock you’re sitting on?” Intruding frog not wanting to hurt the resident frogs feelings or make him feel limited responds carefully “Yes much further than to this rock I’m sitting on.”

Resident frog’s eyes bulge far from his face and says “ Surely this is lost in translation, your world cannot be further than from where I stand to the wall across the water?” The intruder frog sighs deeply now realizing he will never be able to fully convey just how large HIS world is to this frog who has been but a resident of a very small well so he responds “Pull up a chair son, we have some material to cover…” And so goes the story of the frog in the well who only knew his world and couldn’t allow his mind to wrap around the idea of a bigger world outside his own experiences.

This mindset can be excused among the lesser educated rural Thais, but it’s often not the case. If you visit almost any small Thai country village the residents will know just enough about the world to know that you come from a grand land and probably have many stories to share, so after buying enough Thai whisky for everyone they’ll allow you to tell them all about your world and as long as the whisky keeps coming they don’t even need to understand your Bangkok Thai. Bangkok Thais on the other hand are mostly aware the world is big and there are many things they don’t know, and it may surprise you to learn they don’t really care. Their only concern is that you do things the way they’re done in the LOS from the ancient bargaining for sin sod when you wish to marry, to not being able to return the item you just purchased three minutes ago, even if your feet have never moved from the register, you haven’t yet had the item put in your hand, and you want to exchange it for a more expensive item! The only thing they’re concerned with at this point is that you know in their world that once you hand over your baht, the transaction is FINAL and completely separate from your satisfaction with the product or any warranty claims. In fact, anyone who’s ever purchased a electronic item in Thailand such as a radio or vacuum cleaner, knows that the salesperson will remove the item from the box and power it up to show you it works before you pay for it. If it doesn’t work when you get home 20 minutes later there will be no refund or exchange, though they’ll gladly direct you to the nearest repair centre. There are many other examples of the small well of Thailand, and I assure you they know many things are done differently elsewhere, but they don’t care. The Thai way or the highway.

This changes as you observe the expat community. A common comment you’ll hear among expats is “I’ve never met an ex-military man in the LOS who didn’t claim to be a super spy or special forces or something very special!” This isn’t always the case, but it is common. Next time when sitting in a bar doing your best to watch the chrome pole dancers and some sloppy drunk sitting next to you loudly insists he has a 00 designator, consider that either he’s making the entire thing up, OR.. perhaps Bangkok is the sort of place that attracts the sort of ex-military/spy who was not only adventurous enough to be a Airborne Ranger and set himself apart from all the regular infantry, but is also the sort adventurous enough to vacation in the bars of Patpong vs. a nice tour of Hoover Dam.

The expat community in Thailand is large and full of interesting characters who have led some very interesting lives. Many expats not only have 00 designators and know how to kill a man 77 different ways, but have been tops in their field at one time, or have achieved a high level of education, or maybe did well enough in their career to retire early and well. Sure, many are blowing smoke and there is no shortage of posers, but don’t discount the experience and knowledge you’ll find amongst our expat community. From actual retired special force operators, to top web designers, to Wall Street brokers, we have done and seen all in their fields.

The pattern the Thais exhibit is also apparent in the expat community. The lesser educated / accomplished might not believe how big your world is, but they’ll smile and listen to you until the whiskey runs out. The more educated / accomplished want to believe their way is the only way, mostly because they’re accomplished and how could anyone else know better or have done more than they? I see the same pattern among the expats. There are those who smile and listen, and those who will hotly contest anything outside their realm of experience.

Let’s try this one on for size and test out the concept I’ve been speaking of. For the sake of the exercise I’m going to tell you of an experience and you the reader get to cry BS or not. As I tell you of this experience pay attention to how much you start comparing it to your own experiences as a sort of filter, how it makes you feel, and if it’s something you feel the need to react to in any way:

A good friend of mine is the son of a head of state in the Middle East. I saved his family while in the special forces while working undercover as a spy during a war by helping them escape to a neighboring country, this is how I met my friend and ever since we’ve stayed in contact and been part of each other's lives. His duties for some time now have been as the ambassador of his people and as such he attends many high level social functions with other heads of state, senators, cabinet members, and as his friend I’m sometimes invited along and have also spent many evenings dining with his family while sitting around the table discussing if the ongoing war is going to allow the new government to take hold, or if things will deteriorate into a civil war.

Is the frog in the well syndrome preventing you from seriously considering if this is true and the urge to cry BS is over powering you? Or do you just doubt it, but consider that it ‘could’ be true because it’s a big world out there? I suppose either response would be considered normal. An abnormal response would probably be to believe what I just said without question. A more abnormal response would be to make it your mission in life to discover the truth, even if it involved making a general pest of yourself in some pretty serious ways.

Me personally? I’d ask myself if it was fun to read or not, perhaps compare it to the person's history and / or file it away to compare to their future writings, and not lose any sleep over it either way. I suppose it could be true, but from most peoples experience sets it probably sounds outrageous. So what?

Yet, I’ve lived long enough in SE Asia where not much surprises me anymore. I try to keep all possibilities open so when I stop by my tailor's to pick up a new tux and see George Bush senior there being measured I don’t assume it’s an impersonator from SNL with a gaggle of secret service agents for effect. Or when sitting at an outdoor beer garden having a drink and Jean Claude Van Damme asks to sit next to me because no other seats in front of the big screen are empty I don’t pull at his nose to see if it’s glued on. A certain amount of skepticism is healthy, while unrestrained obsession is probably a sure sign of mental illness. The frog in the well is indeed limited, while the frog who fell in the well has just enough experience to know the world is probably bigger than his own.. What kind of frog are you?

Until next time..

Stickman's thoughts:

Interesting. It is true that all sorts of interesting people end up in Bangkok….but what I find most interesting is that they generally end up here beyond their peak. When they're doing really well, Bangkok is not necessarily on the itinerary…