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Stickman Readers' Submissions February 7th, 2008

Dancing At A Thai Funeral

I went to another funeral last night. Seem to have gone to more funerals in the past five years than all my previous fifty years outside of Thailand put together. Perhaps Thai people die more often?

He Clinic Bangkok

The old girl was the mother of my best Thai mate. Eighty-three years old, but she didn’t go quietly. Two days before the big push, she woke up from unconsciousness and told her son, let’s call him F, that she needed 10 million baht to distribute between her nieces before she died.

He replied with a Thai version of WTF are you talking about?

She played a very high risk game, if you ask me. Thing is, F is footing the hospital bills and his hand lies gently on the switches of all those beeping machines attached to her body. It didn’t seem like a good strategy to p$ss him off with requests for money at this point in time.

I told him the old girl was probably delirious from the drugs and didn’t know what she was saying. F disagreed; he knew his mother well-enough to know that she was serious. It was the old face thing. Even with death’s door ajar she still needed to pass on through with her family thinking the very best of her.

Tuesday night and F informs me she will be gone the next morning, yet I hardly believe it. We’ve had a few false alarms in the past couple of months and the old girl always pulled back from the brink at the last. One moment the machines would begin flat-lining and we’d all rush to her bedside, and when we got there she’d be sitting up in bed perkily eating ice cream and strawberries.

I told my wife the tale of the little boy who cried wolf; and if she isn’t careful the old gal will be dying alone, a serious loss of face. Wife thought this time was the real deal and went off to the florists to order a wreath. I said, don’t you think it’s more respectful to wait until the lady has croaked it, but wife says, no she needs to gain big face by ordering a specially created, top-of-the-range wreath that requires a minimum two days pre-booking. Ah yes, the face thing, I keep forgetting about that. And if the old girl doesn’t croak, what do we we do with an unused wreath? No reply.

As predicted, F phones me the next day to say the power supply had been switched off; her carbon footprint conforming to Kyoto norms for the first time in decades. Wifey, is delirious with excitement as the funeral rites are going to be a big occasion for showing off. These are her words, not mine. She needed more shoes. Her words, not mine. I needed a haircut. Her words.

That evening I was banned from the first night’s ceremony because our flowers were not ready and we couldn’t go as a family without them. It didn’t stop the missus getting out the top drawer jewelry and zooming off to the temple in the middle of the afternoon, three hours before the ceremony was due to start. So much more time for gossip, as she put it.

Then yesterday the florist phones to say our wreath is ready to be picked up, which meant according to the rules of social etiquette I have the green light to attend. She who is always to be obeyed instructs me to skip off work at lunchtime to get ready for some serious face-making.

F is waiting at the temple when we arrive and grabs our wreath to put it in the front row next to his mother’s coffin. Wife is dead chuffed. But then his wife vetoes the move. Too much face being shown to us, so we get shuffled down the pecking order to a spot above the air-conditioning unit of the sala.

Now my missus and F’s wife are old adversaries in the face game. As she puts it, my better half remembers when F and his wife would come around and sit cross-legged on our floor, before their business took off. In the ten short years since then, F has become an extremely wealthy man and his wife now rich enough to chase after minor royalty. That’s big face. Still, my wife remembers when…blah, blah, blah. Yep, I am reminded every time that we are still the salaried middle-class of yesteryear, with a house and a car as our prize in the forty year scramble for baubles.

As I sit in the sala before the ceremony, more wreaths are arriving. There’s no more space inside the building, all the floor and wall space is covered in a riot of colour that would do Chelsea Flower Show proud. There’s only room to hang them on the outside walls and in the courtyard. And for each new wreath, the donor is noted so that a senior hi-so gets pride of place and all the other wreaths have to be shuffled down the rankings to make room at the top. There’s lots of organising going on to get the protocol right.

Idling my time, I count the number in sight and multiple by the amount my wife (no make that I) have spent. There’s some serious money wilting in the heat.

The motorcycle taxi gang that operates at the top of the soi of one of F’s businesses have chipped in to buy a simple floral wreath, and it’s delivered as you might expect, on the back of a motocy. F takes one look at the donor label and consigns it at the back by the garbage cans. He actually uses those words to steer the helpers to the right location. Is it a face thing? It’s a mean thing whatever it is.

Now it’s shortly before the service is due to start and the sala is filling up nicely. And just as the wreaths have been shuffled around, so indeed are the attendees. A hi-so family arrives from the pages of a glossy magazine and is led to the comfy settee at the front. But two minutes later, a former cabinet minister, currently on a five-year sabbatical, and his charming wife appears. So hi-so are shuffled back one row and Taksin’s pal takes the front row seats. Of course, this means that everybody is shuffled backwards one row, and the people right at the back are thrown out of the air-conditioned sala and have to rough it under a fan in the open air. Yet funnily enough everybody seems to accept this with much grace and laughter.

My wife is nowhere to be seen, she is off somewhere organising the food station and pointing out to anybody that cares that the delicious cup cakes are provided by her, and why or why did F order noodles because nobody eats noodles when they’re wearing their most expensive black outfits and sporting their best ‘furniture’.

I realise that I am watching a dance. So many broad smiles, good humour, bobbing heads and gracious wais. The wai-ing thing just cannot be avoided. Normally, I follow the old buffalo’s lead in these matters as she knows exactly the right protocol, but as I say, she’s dumped me. Anyhow, I understand the older-senior person/younger-junior thing right, that’s fairly easy to figure out, and get my wais in. But how about total strangers, am I supposed to wai them? The worst of it is that there are so many people here that I only occasionally run into that I vaguely recognise them. Damn if I didn’t wai F’s oldest sister, but she wai’d me first, big loss of face for me, but then I hadn’t seen her for a couple of years and several beers ago. Then I’m sitting here and this pretty young girl is walking towards me. She’s so cure I don’t notice that she’s wai-ing in my direction. Shoot, could she be wai-ing me? I want to take a quick look to my left and right to see if there’s someone else there, but there’s not enough time. I take a chance and go for the quick return wai, just as she drops her hands. Damn, another fine social cock-up. I didn’t get up in time, which is probably worse than wai-ing a youngster who wasn’t wai-ing you to begin with. After we exchange smiles, I look around and guess it was me she was wai-ing, after all. I can tell you that this is getting very stressful. It also begs the question, who is this cutie and how does she know me? And just when I think some investigation is in order, the wife is by my side and she’s whispering some of the latest juicy gossip in my ear. She’s testing my reaction. For her this is just a dry run before she is able to get on the phone to her sisters for a full-on yack.

I enjoy the monotone chanting of the monks. It is supposed to take one onto a higher plan of insightfulness, but my mind wanders off to developing a stand up comedy routine based on funerals. I like black humour. When my dear Dad departed from this world three years ago, I flew back home and went to pay my respects as he was laid out in his coffin. On seeing him, the first thought that came into my head was, my he doesn’t look too well. Fortunately, I was able to bite my lip to prevent this little quip reaching the light of day and the ears of my bereaving family. Back here in the sticky, hot sala, where my too tight collar and neck tie begin to chafe and the sweat rolls down my back because the old buffalo insists I wear a suit. I try to think of some funny funeral one-liners. The coffin sits up high on its pedestal and I think there has to be something in giving a boxed set as a funeral gift but the heat was becoming unbearable and I couldn’t concentrate on working out the joke.

Then I spy at the back of the sala, a row pretty nurses from the hospital on Suk Soi 1, home to the old girl for the past three months. I had a WTF moment. Surely they’d think twice about showing their face in here of all places, after failing to save the old lady’s life. My minds tries to figure out the punchy quip.

But gaining good face is the name of the game and just because I’m not very good at the dance steps, perhaps it is a bit surly of me to poke fun at the experts? The Thais know their social etiquette so well. They know when to take a step back and when to proceed with grace and nobility. They learn the intricacies of the wai from such a young age that doing it correctly comes across as instinctive, making the efforts of the hapless farang seem clumsy and asinine. They can pare the bitter peel off a lime with a sweet mouth, while the honest words that fall off my tongue are like hard rocks battering their ears

Still, Grandma gets her big face-making send off, F and his wife get to rub shoulders with some Big Wigs, my missus gets some great gossip and reminded me for the umpteenth time that she can remember when F and his wife sat cross-legged on her floor…blah, blah, blah…and I get some noodles which I slurp down my one-and-only white shirt and black necktie. And to think, we have go to through this all again tonight.

Stickman's thoughts:

I loathe funerals as much as the next guy but you have beautifully captured the spirit of what is going on in the background at a Thai funeral!