Face or Friendship
I live in a small ‘moo baan’ on the edge of Bangkok. A ‘moo baan’ for the uninitiated is like a small village. There are about three hundred houses in ours. To enter our moo baan, you turn off the main road and pass a little
guardhouse. We have two or three security guards on duty at any one time protecting us from those who would do us harm. I have a little sticker on my windscreen that denotes my resident status. When I drive in the guard recognises my sticker,
salutes, clicks his heels and lifts the barrier. I have been living there for five years but should I come home by taxi for any reason, none of the security guards ever recognise me. Odd that, because I am one of only two farangs living in our
moo baan and we both drive in and out at least twice a day.
Peter is the other farang and he has been living in Thailand for the best part of twenty five years. He is about seventy years old now and his wife classically, is about half his age. Her name is Noi. They have a son named Dean who is thirteen.
Peter and I used to be friends. My wife and his wife used to be friends. Now we are not. The reason we are not friends any more is that good ole Asian concept of face.
Living in our moo baan is a collection of relatively well off Thais. They are owners of their own businesses. Some own their own factories. One, who is now retired, was a very senior executive with one of Thailand’s biggest companies. They are basically a well heeled lot and this causes a fair amount of problems. Deciding who is higher up the social pecking order is really the heart of the problem and is oh so important to the Thais.
Everyone is overly concerned about everyone else’s affairs. How much money they make? How many people do they employ? How much money have they got in the bank? What car is Khun Somchai driving? Is Khun Chanut’s house really bigger than mine?
How one treats a neighbour or is treated by a neighbour in our moo baan is directly related to the answers to the aforementioned questions. Of course, it is most unlikely that anyone knows with any accuracy how much Khun Vichaya or Khun Neung has in the bank so then it becomes a matter of perception. If one appears to be wealthier than a neighbour, the seemingly wealthier person is afforded greater respect (face). Age plays a part here also but for a dumb farang like me, this is the point the whole face thing just gets too difficult. Personally, I treat all my neighbours with equal politeness. If any consider me to be unworthy of their acquaintance they have my permission to go to hell, with no malicious intent.
Certainly, I accept that social rivalry exists in Farangland as well. We used to call it keeping up with the Joneses but when it’s all said and done, keeping up with the Joneses was never this complicated.
So, back to my spat with Peter over ‘face’.
My first contention is that since we are both farangs we should be exempt from the face issue but sadly, Peter has gone native in many respects including this one. He owns a modest factory where he employs a couple of hundred people. He owns three cars and has a picture in his office of himself receiving an award from the Prime Minister (not Squarehead but the one before him). Having lived in Thailand for so long, and being senior in years, Peter has got used to the locals bowing and scraping and generally sucking up to him. His wife has taken this on board big time and is a dreadful snob. She is originally from Mukdahan but now due to her status as Peter’s wife, she is the self appointed queen bee in our little village.
She has brought her boy up to believe that he is a superior being, too. He is incredibly arrogant for a thirteen year old and one of the rudest youths I have ever met. Noi seems to think that these are admirable qualities and encourages him to disrespect their maid, the security guards and anyone else she considers to be of lower social standing. If he were my son, he would have learned a few lessons in humility by now but that’s another subject.
A few months ago, the wife and I went to Australia for two weeks and my wife committed the social faux pas that cost us our friendship with Peter and Noi. The week before we were due to leave, my wife asked Noi if her maid wouldn’t mind turning the sprinkler on in our garden for ten minutes, a couple of times a week while we were away. My wife offered to tip the maid a few hundred baht for her trouble.
We considered this to be a small thing to ask, especially as Peter’s maid walks past our gate twice a day on her way to and from Peter’s house. She doesn’t live in.
This simple request for what we considered to be a small favour brought our friendship to end.
Peter called me at work to tell me that although he wanted to be a good neighbour, he couldn’t allow his maid to perform this duty because she was too busy. He offered no alternative.
I was surprised and a little disappointed.
At the time I considered how I would have reacted to such a request had the roles been reversed. Of course I would have let the maid water the garden. If this had really been a problem I would have dispatched my useless thirteen year old son to perform the task for my friend. If he had been unable to pry himself away from the Super Mario Brothers or whatever kids do with computers these days, I would have walked over and watered the plants myself.
My wife was very upset and could not understand why such a simple matter was such a problem.
My take on this is as follows. Noi, Peter’s wife, now occupies a position in her own mind where she is of superior social standing to us. This status thing prevented her from doing a simple favour for her friend and neighbour. To her, status and face are most important, much more important than a useless friendship.
My wife, of course, should have been in tune with this with her being Thai but even she didn’t see this one coming. In my opinion, this is a classic example of why it is just not possible to have lifelong friends who are Thai. At some point, the face issue will crop up and will take precedence over friendship. It just ain’t worth the effort.
This is a rather sad story and that a Westerner allowed this to happen is rather damning. I thought that people would be well set in their ways by middle age, but clearly this guy has changed a lot…