A Real Thai Soap Opera
When commenting on Thai society there is a danger to over generalize, and yet I don’t hesitate to say that there is one eternal truth when it comes to marrying a Thai: When you marry a Thai woman, you marry her family too! A few weeks ago, my darling wife and I were discussing the latest family brouhaha down in Buriram. When I shook my head in disbelief over the latest chapter in this unending soap opera, my wife turned to me and said, “Now you know why I never told you very much about my family before we were married. If you had known then what you know now, you never would have wanted to get married!” Well I honestly say that I would still have wanted to marry her. But I would also have kept a more discrete distance from her family! Over the past eight years I’ve come to realize how extraordinary my wife is, to have grown up in the family she did, and still turn out to be a lovely human being. There is not a single person I know, either Thai or Farang who does not adore this woman. She is sincere, caring, intelligent, and most of all, mercifully free from the family gene that expresses itself as greed, duplicity and a hundred other undesirable human traits.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to the cast of this little human circus. Let’s start with my father-in law. This guy pretty much typifies every stereotype of a Thai man that you’ve ever heard of. He is a handsome devil, even in his sixties. He must have been a real lady killer in his glory days. Apparently he still hasn’t sown all his wild oats, since my wife says he’s still known to have a mia noi or two around town. She says that he actually left home just after she was born to hook up with one his paramours for a year or so, until this lady threw him out, and he came slinking back down the soi. Now of course this fine gentleman has always been a hard working, tea-totaling, family provider, who would never even dream of squandering the meager family resources gambling. He has never raised his hand in anger to his wife or children, in fact his one burning desire would be to make certain that his children had a rich, nurturing environment, and would insist that they all have the finest education possible. Oh, did I leave out the word “NOT” along the way, because this scoundrel embodied none of the above mentioned virtues. How in the world his wife has not thrown this guy out on his ass years ago truly amazes me. Actually my wife says she has begged her mother to do just that many times over the years.
My long-suffering mother-in-law is quite a different character than her husband. She is one hard working lady. In fact she has worked like a dog for decades trying to put food on the table for her six children. She is of course completely uneducated, but so what? What she lacks in book learning she has made up in spades in the “school of hard knocks”. Not being able to ride a motorcycle, for years she rose in the pre-dawn darkness and trudged many kilometers out to the family farm, children in tow (sometimes on her back) to work the family’s rice fields. After the equally long trudge back to their home, an extremely modest structure I should say, she would cook, clean, mend until it was time to sleep. In her spare time she would prepare food to sell at the local market. Naturally her husband spent much of the day drinking, and gossiping with his buddies. My wife remembers one day when her father, angry because his dinner hadn’t yet been prepared, threw the rice pot against the wall. Her sole joy in life it seemed was in her children.
As I once mentioned in “How it All Began” it took a while for my mother-in-law to “bond”. But after she realized my intentions towards her youngest daughter were honorable and not lecherous, she and I grew to be quite affectionate. She was pleased to know that not only did I adore her daughter, but would work hard for her happiness and well being.
My wife and I have always felt that her mother worked way too hard, and definitely deserved a break or two. About 5 years ago we financed the conversion of their home into a convenience store. It was definitely nicer than the ubiquitous neighborhood shop you see on every soi in town. It was larger and carried more “stuff”, including produce and prepared food made by my mother-in-law. If you like real Isaan food, she’s definitely your gal. Even the locals have bestowed on her the reputation of being a “good cook”. From the beginning, the little shop was a big success. So much so that she rarely had to work on the farm. The only fly in the ointment was my father-in-law. He was of course ever helpful around the shop. What that meant was he enjoyed “helping himself” and his friends to plenty of booze and snacks during the Saturday Muay Thai matches. It was dangerous to leave the man alone. You never knew if there would even be a shop there when you returned! This is what happened when my mother-in-law came for an extended visit to America. During this six month period, my wife and I took her mother everywhere. We took her to concerts, dance recitals, amusement parks, zoos, county fairs, lakes, mountains, shopping malls, and everything that was part of our life in the U.S. She had a ball. She had a well deserved rest. She also had a major headache when she returned to Nongki. My father-in-law had not lifted a finger to maintain the shop, and instead had basically gutted it of everything while restocking nothing! Naturally it was moi who had to pump the money in to revive the business.
So much for Ma and Pa. Let me introduce you to the rest of the clan. First there is older brother # 1. He is actually the hardest member working member of the family. He and his wife, starting with a single plot of farmland, worked like a dog, scrimped and saved until now he is a major land owner. It used to be that he raised rice, but for the past few years, sugarcane has been the more profitable crop. His wife, who is a dear, has a small restaurant outside of the local municipal office. Their home is nothing fancy, but is as clean as a whistle. There is not a single scrap of litter to be found in their home or yard. That’s amazing considering that the yard of every other member of the family resembles a refuse heap. His two children are well scrubbed, quiet, polite, and attend a private school where they receive excellent grades. Obviously this guy took one look at the way his father lived, and vowed never to be like him! We’ve gotten along very well over the years. My wife usually turns to him to sort out the latest family crisis. Even though he is a nice guy, we did have one uneasy moment a few years ago.
We were already living in Lampang. I was recovering from a heart attack, and we were building our home. We didn’t have a whole lot of money to spare. One day my wife said that her brother had just called to borrow 300,000 baht to purchase some new land. You have to understand that here in The Land of Smiles, the word “borrow” is used quite loosely. In point of fact, it often means an outright gift. My wife insisted that this would definitely not be the case here. Her brother only needed the money for 30 days, until the local sugar association could provide a loan. Reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, I gave in, but not until I read her the riot act and told her what I would do if the money was not repaid on time! There was much head nodding and reassuring hugs. Hey, my wife knows how every baht we have is spent, and she is kinyow-mak (tight to the max)! Loving sweetheart that she is, she also didn’t want me to have another coronary! Fast forward 31 days. I asked my wife, “so where’s our money?”
“Oh, it’s coming” she said. So 30 days turned to 40, 50 and then 60 days. Still no money. My anxiety was rising, along with my blood pressure. I finally told my wife, “get us our god damned money! If you have to, get on a bus, go to Nongki, plant yourself on your brother’s doorstep, and don’t come home without our money!” In the end, mere constant badgering did the trick. In the end we got our 300,000 baht back, but from that point on, I can’t help but feel that her brother resented the fact that his “rich” farang brother-in-law actually expected him to repay us. Oh well, that’s water over the dam. In the end, we still have a cordial relationship…Thai style.
If older brother # 1 turned his back on his father’s way of doing things, older brother # 2 not only took a page or two from the old man’s playbook, but has raised the bar for sleaziness to unprecedented new heights! I hardly know where to begin in describing this guy, but he is real piece of work! Like his father, he is a handsome man, with a ready smile. Of course anyone who’s spent some time in the Land of Smiles knows how many varieties of smiles there really are here. This joker’s smile says, I will say anything, promise anything, but in the end I will f*** you over big time…and will still be smiling as I do it! My wife and I are amazed that he hasn’t been found in a ditch with his throat slit, or a bullet in his head. He has lied and cheated so many people in his area that I don’t know how he dares to show his face in broad daylight. Apparently he is an unknowing disciple of P.T. Barnam, because he really and truly believes that there is a “sucker born every minute!” He certainly spends enough time and energy looking for somebody, anybody to swindle. My wife is under strict orders not to give him even 1 baht!
Even worse than his lying and cheating is the way he has abandoned his two children. These two kids wander around the streets, not knowing where their father is, not knowing where they will eat or what they will eat. His “wife” ran away years ago, but his silver tongue still manages him to find available women. The rest of the family takes turn caring for the two boys. Someone once proposed that my wife and I take them in. I quickly nixed that idea! My wife was expecting our first child. We didn’t need the responsibility of taking in two other children. Besides, we already had my wife’s youngest brother living with us. I’ll get to that story later. Anyway, brother-in-law # 2 is on my permanent shit list.
Let’s move on to older sister-in-law # 1. She is an extremely attractive woman with a good sense of humor. She has two smart, attractive children. Her husband is a taxi driver down in Bangkok. While not rich, by any stretch of the imagination, her life is a comparative “rags to riches’ story. While dear papa was “busy”, she was forced to drop out of school at the end of Pratom 5 (fifth grade) and go to work to help support the family. I’ve seen photographs of her at that age, and can hardly believe that this tiny girl was forced to do heavy construction at that tender age. And yet, that’s precisely what she did: digging holes, hauling buckets of cement and piles of bricks like a donkey, just to help put food on the table. It’s no wonder then that she became obsessed with money, and how to earn it. Because she is so attractive, it is amazing that she didn’t hop on a bus bound for Bangkok to earn money the way so many Isaan girls wind up doing. No she earned her money the old fashioned way, through hard work and determination. Today she prepares pieces of garments that are put together in Bangkok. She employs a number of village women in her shop, and has managed to build a nice Thai-style house, and is currently saving to buy a truck. She is the one woman I know who is even tighter with a baht than my wife. We’ve gotten along fairly well, but she too secretly thinks of me as an ATM, and is “disappointed” that I have not showered her with cash. Hey, I have been very generous with her family. When we were living in the U.S and coming over for yearly visits, I always was delighted to play Santa for her family and all of her sibling’s families as well. I’ve had all of the nieces and nephews up for extended visits, where they can sit on the sofa watching UBC while stuffing themselves with junk food. Some months ago I even agreed to take in their 13 year old daughter, to “straighten her out”, so to speak. It turns out that she was skipping school and hanging out with, gasp, a lesbian! In the end sister-in-law # 1 just decided to keep her daughter under her thumb for a while at home. Good luck trying to “cure” her daughter if it turns out she is gay.
What can I say about sister-in-law number #2? Like all my wife’s siblings, she is quite attractive. She is also a very nice person. We hit it off from the very beginning, and continue to do so to this day. She has two very nice children. Her husband, while not a bum, is chronically unemployed. That of course puts a real burden on her to provide for her family. Like her sister, she had to drop out of school at an early age. She wound up working on the family farm. I don’t know how many of you have ever visited a Thai farm, but let me tell you, working on one is no pastoral picnic. It is grueling, back breaking labor. Needless to say, my wife and I really wanted to help her find an easier life. That happened some years ago when my wife and I took a Thai massage course at Wat Po. My sister-in-law had been studying Thai massage with an experienced local woman, but wanted to take some real formal training. We decided to take her with us, not just to take the 5 day course we would be taking, but to stay and take a professional course. We not only paid for the course, but for her accommodations and meals. When she returned to Nongki, she was able to get a full time job at the local hospital doing massage therapy for patients. While hardly getting rich, it was steady work, in pleasant conditions. She continues to this day at the hospital. It was certainly worth a modest expense on our part to help at least one family member become self sufficient.
Last but not least is my wife’s younger brother. Like the rest of her brothers and sisters, he never made it beyond the elementary school level. In this case it was not that he had to leave school, but simply that he didn’t have the slightest interest in it. At one point I thought he would become a monk, but after a few months in the Wat, it became evident that this wasn’t his cup of tea either. He did show some mechanical aptitude, and so my wife and I took him in and enrolled him in a vocational course in Lampang. After a year’s study he graduated as a fledgling motorcycle mechanic. Now back in Nongki, he is not the most ambitious person on the planet, but at least he has the skills needed to make it. The choice is up to him.
Well, that’s the cast of characters in this real life soap opera. If you were to present their lives to a TV producer looking for a new project, he would either reject this story as too fantastic…or alternatively as being all too familiar. Hardly a week goes by that after calling home, my wife doesn’t regal me with the latest “crisis”. Some are humorous, some are amazing, and some are just downright scary. We are personally involved in two of them.
The first involves a land dispute. Some years before we decided to move to Thailand, we purchased a piece of farmland near my wife’s family farm. Hey, you can take the farm girl off of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the farm girl! Anyway, my wife insisted that this would be a good investment, since the soil was good and the price of sugar cane was consistently high. We could expect to earn over 100,000 baht a year, which would give us at least some steady income. Unfortunately from day 1, various members of her family kept “begging” for the right to use the land. And so my soft hearted wife has given in, year after year. Our investment soon became a subsidy for her family. This year, my wife, despite my strong objections, promised brother-in-law # 2 (aka the “bum”) the use of the land. Well this guy didn’t disappoint me. Too lazy to do the actually work himself, he “hired” some guys to do it for him. After they did all the toiling, he ran off with all the money, which he quickly blew, without paying them! That was the last straw for me. The sugar cane express is now under my control. From now on, we are the people who are going to profit from our investment. So now I am the “selfish farang”. But I don’t really give a rat’s ass.
The second crisis involves a new home that my wife’s parents just built. I have no idea why my mother-in-law insisted on building it. We have begged her to come and live with us. She could relax, play with her grandson, and keep as busy as a bee with any projects she wanted to do. If she wanted to have a stall in the market with Isaan food, we would set it all up for her. But no, she needed to have her new home, despite the fact that the husband she intended to live in it with her had recently threatened her with violence. Oh well that’s her decision I suppose. Anyway since we had recently built a home, my mother-in-law asked my wife to have our architect draw up a house plan for a modest little structure. Apparently her family was going to cut the cost by doing a lot of the labor themselves and using a lot of recycled material. Still, I wondered how in the world they were going to pay for everything. After some arm twisting, I agreed to put up a portion of the money. In a quid pro quo deal, I got to spend a week in Cambodia, touring the temples of Angkor Wat.
This past December we went down for the house blessing ceremony. The house looked pretty good, at least by local standards. We had added a room just for us, with A/C and screens in the window. Now we had a clean place to sleep on future visits. I was somewhat distressed to see the preparations for a blow out party that I knew they couldn’t afford. I wasn’t going to pay for it, that’s for sure. In typical Thai style, dozens of invited guests ate, drank, sang and danced their way into oblivion. I contented myself with a beer or two. Everybody was happy, and all was right with the world…until last month when my in-law’s chickens came home to roost. It turned out that they had overspent what they could afford building their home. They owed building supply stores hundreds of thousands of baht. What was to be done? I made clear to my wife, and she actually agreed with me, that WE were NOT going to bail them out of this mess. Our financial situation is not all that great, and I was about fed up with being taken for granted. Here’s where the true dysfunctional nature of this family came to light. First of all everyone decided that my wife was to blame because it was she that gave them the architect’s plan! Apparently they didn’t stop to calculate what it was going to cost to build the house? And it’s her fault? Give me a break! Now while my wife’s brothers and sisters are hardly rich, between the whole lot of them, they could have come up with at least part of the money. Not one baht was forthcoming. My wife asked brother-in-law # 1 to sell a small piece of land, or at least borrow some money against it. That didn’t happen. As it stands now, my mother-in-law is working around the clock to try to raise what she can, while her lazy husband continues to sit on his ass. Her children, who she gave the best years of her life to raise and support, won’t lift a finger to help. What will happen? Who knows? Unlike a TV soap opera, no miracle solutions are likely after a short commercial break. But stay tuned to this channel to find out how it all turns out.
This is a real insight into what I think it would be to term a typical rural family. These money issues and the constant requests for money must really be burdensome. What can you do? While one does not want to be dishonest with their partner, I think the only way such a situation can be managed is to give your Mrs the impression that you have much less than she thinks. Hardly ideal, I know, but if they know – or even believe – that you have money, then the requests will keep coming.