Flotsam and Jetsam
Sometimes as I go about the day I have a few thoughts that don’t justify an entire submission, but are worth a comment or two. In Thailand you are never far from something that makes you blink in surprise or drop your draw in simple amazement. So here are a few random observations on life in The Land of Smiles.
Not Safe Behind Any Wheel!
You don’t have to be in this country long to realize that Thais live in their own fantasy world once they get behind the wheel of their car or on bombing along on their motorcycle. Their reckless disregard for even rudimentary road etiquette results in extraordinary carnage along the highways and byways. But it’s not just on the street that your average Thai is dangerous. They are not safe operators behind any set of wheels…including a shopping cart! (Or trolley if you come from the UK) If you want some real insight into the Thai mindset, take a trip or two to your nearest supermarket and observe these folks in action. First of all they seem to have no “situational awareness”. That is they seem to not know (or care) where they are or who is around them. They could care less who is front of them, behind them or on either side of them. Back in Farangland this sort of lack of awareness is usually exhibited only by the extremely elderly. My own dearly departed mother scared the daylights out of me whenever I was forced to ride in her car. Her entire focus was a narrow field of vision directly in front of her. It is truly a miracle that she never killed anyone. Here in LOS seemingly able bodied people simply are unable (or unwilling) to control a simple shopping cart. They park their carts in the middle of an aisle, preventing anyone from getting by. If I ask them ever so politely to move, they pretend not to hear me. I assure you that my meager Thai vocabulary is up to the task. I wind up having to push the damned thing out of the way so I can squeeze by. They routinely try to run me over. I mean just plow through as if I wasn’t standing there. Many times they succeed. Do they stop, smile and apologize? Not or your life! Like all Thais, behind any set of wheels, they simply refuse to make any eye contact whatsoever. They stop abruptly, without checking if anyone is behind them. This can be especially unnerving at the bottom of a travelator. (I never heard this term before shopping at Big C. A travelator is an escalator in the form of a ramp.) So here are a dozen or so people heading down with fully laden shopping carts on their way out of the store. Invariably (and I swear this has happened to me hundreds of times) some idiot can’t make up his mind whether to turn left or right at the bottom, and simply comes to an abrupt halt. This of course causes a chain reaction up the line with everyone attempting not to crush the person in front of them. Children naturally learn what they see as acceptable behavior from their parents. Is it any wonder then that no driver in this country knows why the manufacturer put mirrors on their car or motorcycle? They might as well save a few hundred baht and not bother to put on the damned things since no one bothers to use them? Once again it’s time to simply shake your head and mutter this useful mantra. “Welcome to Thailand!”
Why oh wai?
The wai is a charming custom that many farangs don’t quite get right. Many a first time visitor feels compelled to wai everyone, including every noodle vendor on the street, clerk at 7-11, and yes, even gogo dancers or massage girls. Thank my lucky stars that of all the faux pas I’ve committed in LOS, I’ve never waied someone trying to sell me her body.
I must admit that the wai is a charming way to show respect, especially if performed by a beautiful young woman. Your casual (yet serious) tourist loves to show that he or she has actually read that battered copy of Lonely Planet on that long, long flight from Farangland. I certainly can’t fault anyone who truly wants to make a good impression when traveling abroad. But for expats, however charming the first few wais are at the beginning of the day, by day’s end they can actually become a minor nuisance.
I once tried counting the number of wais I performed in the course of an average day. I lost count after 200 and quickly just gave up.
Of course I waied my neighbors, but that didn’t account for more than 8-10. Sometimes waiing can be a bit like a children’s game of tag. No one likes to be “it”; that is to say last to do it. If nothing else during my years here, I’ve learned to be “quick on the draw”. Technically I know that the “inferior” wais first to his “superior”. Me, I just do it, add a quick sawadee and I’m on my way. If nothing else, my neighbors can't accuse me of being rude.
I usually encounter at least one monk making his morning rounds through my neighborhood. That calls for a deeper, more respectful wai. But if I’m placing something in his alms bowl, at least I get a blessing in return. Life can be tough, so I’ll take all the blessings I can get!
The most wais I ever had to perform were at a former school where to be honest everyone around me was obsessed with waiing everyone else. And one wai per person wasn’t enough. You had to do it every time you crossed paths: Walking to the office to check in. Standing at the parade grounds for the morning flag ceremony. Walking between classes. Walking to the cafeteria, while in the cafeteria, and leaving the cafeteria. Going to and from the staff room…and on and on. Just taking into account the teachers alone added up to several hundred per day. The of course there were the students. These were all conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to wai every teacher. I became conditioned to wai back. After a few months of doing this day in and out I swear I was starting to develop Repetitive Motion Syndrome. Some years ago I tore my right rotator cuff carrying my oldest son’s keyboard amplifier from a 4th floor dormitory room to my SUV. All this waiing was not helping one bit. In fact my shoulder was throbbing. But when it comes to etiquette, sometimes you just have to suck it in and shoulder on.
Luckily I’ve since moved on to a private school where wais are as rare as a bargirl’s virtue. I can go through a day here with no more than a handful. I’ve even had days without performing a single one. I have no idea why it’s not a common practice at this school. In any case I’m happy to have a break.
Did you ever get a song from way back pop into your head and just take hold? I have enough problems remembering people’s names, especially Thai names, but song lyrics from decades ago are burned forever into my cerebral cortex. Last week, out of the clear blue sky came Paul Simon’s Kodachrome. The refrain was bouncing around my head like a pinball machine on steroids all day long.
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away”
Well if nothing else, the song got me thinking about the colors of my life here in Thailand. I’m a bit of a slow learner, but I’ve finally color-coordinated my shirts for my work week.
Monday of course is a no-brainer. God forbid you should show up at work, especially as a farang without wearing the obligatory yellow shirt. No disrespect to HRM (May He Live for a Hundred Years), but yellow, at least canary yellow, is my least favorite color. Even worse than my shirt are some of the absolutely hideous jackets that newscasters sport on Mondays. Talk about a fashion nightmare! Oh well, when in LOS do as the masses do…or else.
Tuesday is pink, which I actually like. Pink is a soothing color. I guess that’s why the cells in some American penitentiaries are painted the color of flamingos. My shirt is actually more of a raspberry color, but it's close enough I figure. I’ve painted our son Sam’s room a similar shade. I like it, although I don’t know if it permanently damaged Stick’s retinas when he stayed in it during a recent visit. <Nice room, no complaints! – Stick> Did you know that up until fairly recently pink was not associated with girls but with boys? It’s true. Why is pink the de facto color of choice on Tuesdays? Pink represents the Buddha’s passage into Nirvana which was said to have taken place on a Tuesday.
Wednesday’s color de jour is green, which according to Thai astrology has to do with the division of night and day. Luckily I have several green shirts. Bright lime green ones! Sunglasses should be worn when looking directly at me on Tuesdays. One of these shirts bears the royal symbol on it which I suppose is fine.
Thursday is definitely an orange day. I like orange, and have a few orange shirts. The color’s symbolism is pretty straightforward since that is the color of a monk’s robes.
I’ve heard several explanations why Friday’s color is blue. One is that Friday was the day of the week that HM Queen Sirikit was born, and that is her color. I’ve also heard that blue represents the Buddha thinking about how to spread his message. At a school I formerly taught at, I was told that wearing blue honors farmers. Every teacher at that school wore denim “peasant shirts” on Friday; everyone of course except me. I don’t enjoy wearing “costumes” except at Halloween. At my present school, Friday is “Lanna” day, with teachers wearing traditional northern Thai dress. Once again I politely decline and just wear a simple blue shirt. No one has complained, and actually I’m sure that they are happy to be spared the spectacle of a farang “dressing up”. I do have a few nice silk shirts that one of my sister-in-laws made for me, but frankly that are much too heavy to wear except during the “cool season”. Come that all too brief, (yet not cool enough for me) season, I may just come to school wearing them.
Since the weekend is mine to wear whatever damned color I want, I don’t always follow fashion. But if you’re dying to know, Saturday’s colors are black or purple and Sunday’s is red. Luckily I’m covered if for some reason I do choose to be PC. Just call me a man of many colors.
I must be a REALLY slow learner because I never did catch on with the colours!