“You Don’t Understand Our Culture!”
I heard this annoying phrase for the first time when I was teaching at Lampang K********e high school. I was explaining my frustration to one of the two male Thai teachers in the English department, about my inability to get a particularly naughty class of students to behave. Neither cajoling nor punishment seemed to deter them. To them, I was a mere Farang teacher. I didn’t have to be shown even a modicum of respect. When I asked for advice on how I should handle the situation, I was told by this pompous ass of an “educator” that “There are no naughty students, only incompetent teachers! The problem is that you don’t understand our culture!” Once again I had fallen down the rabbit hole. I was the problem! Give me a break! I may not know much, but I know a bunch of yoo-wa-nak-laeng (juvenile delinquents) when I see them. At the beginning of the school term on Teacher Appreciation Day, these cretins might do a full prostrating bow at my feet, but back in the classroom, they were merely biding their time for a few years before picking up a shovel! Now this Thai nit-wit is telling me I don’t understand his culture. So, what exactly, am I not understanding?
Thais tend to throw that phrase in the face of any Farang who dares to even suggest that all ain’t strawberries and cream in the Land of Smiles. Now I readily admit that not having been born and raised in Thailand that there are many things I don’t understand. In fact, part of the delight in living here is that there are so many new and fascinating things to learn. But I am sick to death of being accused of ignorance for occasionally pointing out the obvious.
In a previous submission I talked about the fact that apathy, “excessive concern for face” and corruption, were part and parcel of Thai society. Just because I’ve only been here for a few years doesn’t mean that I’ve spent this time in a daze. Believe me, I’ve had my eyes wide open, observing, experiencing, and analyzing the panorama of life here in LOS. After seeing patterns of behavior repeated again and again, it is possible to draw a conclusion or two about Thai society. Don’t tell me that I don’t understand your culture!
Here are a few things in Thailand that make you wonder what planet you’re living on. Some are amusing, some are bewildering and some are downright scary! All of them make you shake your head and say “Welcome to Thailand!”
1. “You are what you eat.” One’s man’s treasure is another man’s trash, especially when it comes to food. No one can agree on what is delicious, and what is nauseating. In every society, people like what they’ve grown up eating, even if others detest the very same dishes. The first time I saw a man pushing a cart of insects through the market, I couldn’t believe my eyes! And Thais were lined up ready to enjoy these little snacks. Yuck! But then again that is a cultural bias on my part. I love lobsters and shrimp, and let’s face it these are pretty much aquatic versions of what this guy was selling. While I continue to decline these delicacies myself, I can appreciate the fact that others enjoy them. It’s funny though that Thais, who put nam pla (fish sauce) on everything, run away in disgust from the tantalizing aroma of Indian food!
2. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness!” Anyone who’s walked through a store like Big C can find a vast selection of soap. (I’m partial to Palmolive lavender aroma therapy gel myself.) So why the hell is it almost impossible to find soap at a public rest room? I think most of us from the West were indoctrinated as children to wash our hands after using the toilet. If somehow we didn’t learn that from our parents, we learned it in Kindergarten.
When you consider that most public toilets don’t have toilet paper, (I take it everywhere I go!) the need for a through hand washing is quite apparent. Not to get too graphic, but let’s face it, but after using a toilet, your hands are not just dirty, they are covered in some rather nasty bacteria. To go out of a restroom without a real washing is irresponsible. “But you don’t understand our culture! Well I certainly understand if the woman who just took a dump without washing her hands is now preparing my lunch, there’s a good chance that I’ll be running for the toilet before the day is done! And speaking of toilets, why in God’s name are Thai public restrooms so unspeakably filthy! I’m paying 3 baht to use the damn things, so is it too much to ask for a reasonably clean toilet! Once in the Bangkok train station I almost turned around and walked out, but when I considered what was awaiting me for a toilet on the train, I steeled myself, held my breath, and just did what I had to do. You would think that since so many foreign visitors use the train and bus stations that Thais would try to create a positive impression by having a sanitary restroom, but apparently they don’t understand our culture!
I admit that I am slightly (but only slightly) obsessed with cleanliness. I’m much more of a Felix than an Oscar. My stint at the CIA (no not that CIA, the Culinary Institute of America ) only reinforced that tendency. The course I took in sanitation made a lasting impression on me. It’s nice to know how to avoid making your customers ill! It’s a potentially toxic mine field out there, and important to avoid stepping on something that will “cramp” your night out!
Warning!!! Science content ahead!!! The world around us is swarming with little critters that enjoy eating the same things we enjoy eating. Unfortunately they are not very polite guests once we ingest them, and they can make us very sick. This bacterial “rouges gallery” includes:
Staphyloccus aureus (They especially like moist foods high in protein.) In 2 – 4 hours they will give you vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and cramps!
Salmonella (They like protein also, especially in warmed over food with eggs.) They will give you all of the above in 6 – 48 hours.
Bacillus cereus (They especially like grain such as rice) They will give you all of the above in 8 – 16 hours.
Trichinella spiralis (You’ll find these guys in pork of dubious pedigree, of which there is plenty of in LOS!) In 4 – 28 they will give you all of the above, plus fever.
There are many more, but let’s not forget our old friend Hepatitis virus A! The prime source of these devils is human feces. In 10 – 50 days they will give you jaundice, fever, cramps and nausea.
So with all these horrible creatures out there, why aren’t we all constantly sick? The answer is that most Western societies practice basic sanitation. There are a few easy rules to follow that guarantee a pleasant dining experience. Ignore them at your peril!
a). Wash your hands…often, especially after using the toilet and handling raw meat and poultry.
b). Keep meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products refrigerated until ready to use.
c). Don’t cut your vegetables and fruit (or anything else) on a cutting board that has had raw meat on it, especially chicken!
d). Don’t keep things like soups and curries simmering all day and night! Warm temperatures are the ideal environment for all the bacteria I’ve mentioned. My darling Thai wife is always getting sick after eating these kinds of things she got in the market. I always warn her, but she always forgets! I tend to stick to foods prepared to order, like pad thai. I always visit my favorite gai yang vendor when the chicken is just coming off the grill. Guess what? I never get sick from eating street food!
It wouldn’t be difficult for Thai food to be safe for everyone. Keep the meat on some ice! Cover it with some plastic mesh to keep the f*****g flies off of it! Waving a stick with a plastic bag at the end is not very effective!
Wash your f*****g hands! Often!
Keep big pots of curry etc. on ice and heat it up as needed. The less time cooked food is sitting around, the less chance of bacteria chowing down on it!
Now I understand that many food vendors don’t have a lot of money on fancy solutions, but what are we talking about here? Soap and water, a little ice, and some netting! Those three things alone would drastically reduce food related illness. Of course if you point this out to a Thai you’ll only hear that old refrain, “But you don’t understand our culture! Well I do understand one thing, these illnesses can and do kill, right here in LOS. It happened right here in my neighborhood a few months ago. The father of our poo-yai-ban (a neighborhood representative), along with some other folks, ate some infected pork a local noodle shop. They all became extremely ill. The father died. The result? The noodle shop continues as before, until the next outbreak.
3. “I don’t have a drinking problem. I drink. I fall down. No problem!” Why are Thais so schizophrenic when it comes to drinking? Is because maybe the Buddha wouldn’t approve? Thailand is a Buddhist society. If you were to ask 100 Thais at random if they were devout, chance at least 99 would say yes. I forget which one of the eight tenets of Buddhism it is, but one of them clearly states NO ALCOHOL! Yet a fair percentage of Thais not only consume alcohol on a regular basis, but get totally zonked! If I were walking in their shoes, I would probably do the same. Most Thais work damned hard, often doing backbreaking labor in the hot sun, for very little money for their entire lives. So who can blame then for wanting a little relief from their troubles at the end of the day? I certainly don’t. What puzzles me is the government’s attitude towards alcohol consumption. Do they really believe that by eliminating beer advertising at sports events that they are affecting anyone’s drinking habits? Hell, its man’s God given right to consume beer while watching sports! Are they trying to cut down on underage drinking? Right now, all over Thailand, a kid can go into a store and any hour of the day and night and buy booze! The few exceptions are places like Big C where no one can buy alcohol until after 11:00 AM. Again, I doubt that’s had any effect on consumption. If the government is so concerned about the effects of alcohol, why don’t they do something to get the damned drunks off the road! Thailand is certainly not he only country with a drunk driver problem. Each year in the U.S. they kill thousands of innocent people. But Thailand doesn’t make the slightest effort to address the issue. (And I’m not talking about a few token road blocks during Songkran!) I’ve seen many obviously inebriated people driving all around town, right under the noses of the police, but I’ve yet to see one drunk driver pulled over. Everyone join in the chorus; “ But you don’t understand our culture! Right!
4. “Half-assed is better than no ass at all!” In LOS, if things look fine on the surface (or maybe just barely okay) that’s good enough for most folks. There’s no innate desire to strive for perfection. Here’s an example of what I mean. The street in front of my housing development is in very sad condition. There were ruts everywhere, and some craters rivaling Chicxulub! So I was pleased to see a large road crew show up one day to repair it. Unfortunately the preferred Thai repair technique is of the “sweep it under the carpet and no one will know the dirt is still there school of thought”. Instead of what any sensible person would do, that is dig up the broken structure and prepare the roadbed for repaving, they just dumped a whole lot of asphalt down and started rolling it out. When they were done the road looked perfect! Less than six months later it had reverted to its previous condition! None the less, in some government office a box had been checked off; road repaired! “But you don’t understand our culture!
5. “Burn, baby burn!” Will someone please tell me why Thais insist on burning everything? Isn’t the air quality bad enough without filling the sky with black smoke? Why do they burn not only rice and sugar cane fields, but common variety lawn grass, leaves, garbage, or anything else that can be set ablaze? In my home town in Massachusetts, I had to go to the local fire department to get a burning permit each Spring to dispose of branches that that had fallen in the Winter. This permit was only valid under certain wind conditions, and required me to be present at all times. Here in LOS you can start a fire anywhere, at the driest time of the year, with a gale force wind blowing, and just walk away! And why do Thai parents allow their young children to play with fire? I once saw some of my wife’s nephews playing with a fire they had started. Some of them were not much more of toddlers. They were extremely miffed when I chased them away and put their fire out. When I expressed my concern to their parents, I only received stares of incomprehension at my distress! One of those children could easily have been seriously burned, but no one cared! “But you don’t understand our culture!” Apparently not I’m afraid to say.
6. “Anything you can do I can do better….”
One of the great mysteries to me is why the Thais seem so damn smug about everything. Now certainly compared to Burma, Laos, and Cambodia Thailand is the Land of Milk and Honey. While poverty does exist here, even most the poor have enough to eat, a roof over their head and access to basic health care. And while the country is currently lived by a military government, no one is in danger of being whisked away in the middle of the night. There is a large middle class. All around there are heaps of luxury goods. Every kid I see seems to have plenty of cash to spend on arcade games and junk food, no to mention the ubiquitous cell phone. (Some of them pretty pricey!)
Your average Thai, if he shuts his eyes and ignores much of what is happening around him might actually believe that things are “alright” here in LOS. It’s when some “educated” Thai starts lecturing me on subjects he clearly does not understand that I start to take umbrage. Let’s forget the fact that: A.) His knowledge of the world is based entirely on what he’s “learned” in school and from the Thai media, B.) He has probably never read more than a book or two in his entire life (if he’s read anything other than a comic book!), and C.) He has rarely if ever traveled outside the borders of Thailand, and so has no first hand experience about the rest of the world. None the less he knows more than you on virtually any subject! Suddenly he is a foreign policy expert, an economic genius, a philosopher and an art critic….not to mention a social commentator extraordinaire! Now they’re all deep thinkers. If you’ve ever been invited to a social event where one of these guys is present, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of being button-holed by one of these know-it-alls. They all remind me of that pompous commentator on Channel 3, you know the one I mean; the guy with the slick backed hair. He’s always up there pontificating while his female co-anchor nods in agreement. Every time I hear him droning on, I want to launch a brick through the TV!
Since attempting to correct the misinformation they are spouting with such authority is a waste of time, I usually just smile, nod my head and walk away. Usually.
Once in a while I simply cannot resist bursting their bubble. Once on a trip to Burriram to visit my wife’s family, we paid a call on one of her high school teachers. Suddenly my wife is waiing up a storm, and prostrating herself at his woman’s feet, as if she were some kind of saint. After some small talk, this woman started lecturing me what she perceived as the “failure of American society” American she said, were all selfish, uncultured yahoos, and bullies. Yada, yada, yada. For a while I sat there with a typical Thai-like smile on my face. I didn’t want to create a scene, and I would be leaving in a few minutes, never to see this blow-hard ever again. However when she started in on the U.S. military, and actually had the gall to call our brave guys and gals “no better than murderers”, it was apparent that this ignorant bitch needed an immediate attitude adjustment, and I was just the one to administer it. With a smile still on my face, and my voice as sweet as honey, I told her that she didn’t know her ass from her elbow ( I actually used this phrase) During World War II my father fought in the South Pacific, along with thousands of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and others to defeat the Japanese. Many of them never returned home. If it wasn’t for the bravery and sacrifice of these soldiers that you call with scorn “Farangs”, YOU would be speaking Japanese right now, and your pretty little grand daughter would probably be a whore! The look on this bitch’s face was priceless! Then I got up, waied, said goodbye and walked out! At that moment I had no need to be told, “But you don’t understand our culture!” I still don’t!
Very nice indeed!