In Thailand Someone Is Always Watching You
Newcomers don't see this, not in the beginning.
And that's exactly the way the Thais want it.
The Thais want to know a lot about us, without us ever learning much about them.
But stay here more than a few months, and it will become clear to you.
No matter where you go, no matter what you do, someone will notice, and will remember where you were and what you did there.
Even new-comers know this situation:
You go into a restaurant here for the first time.
You order, say, a club sandwich; eat, pay, and leave.
Some weeks later you find yourself near that same restaurant, so you go in, sit down, and look over the menu.
The waitress comes to your table and asks, "You wan' club san-witch again?"
Happens here all the time.
I propose to look at that phenomenon more closely.
To see what it can teach us about Thai culture.
As expats, we need to understand the foreign culture around us.
In Thailand, that's not easy, because Thais are masters of deception and subtlety.
Example #1: The waitress changed jobs.
Last night I went for supper at Sizzler.
For those who don't know, Sizzler is a franchise.
It is a busy restaurant with dozens of tables and hundreds of customers every day.
In one year in Chiang Mai I've only been in to Sizzler five times.
I'm not a remarkable customer in any way, just another elderly expat coming in for an early supper.
After she took my order, the waitress asked, "Now, do you stay at hotel again?"
Then she said, "Last time you ordered dim-sum in restaurant."
I had to re-wind my memory tapes.
She was right, I had stayed at a hotel across the street, but that was a year and a half ago!
I stayed only two nights.
I ate in the restaurant inside the hotel only once, and, yes, I had ordered dim-sum.
But now, a year and a half later, in a different restaurant, she remembered!
The waitress had changed jobs.
Old Asia hands know this already, but new-comers take this as a warning.
The Thais watch everyone and everything — even when they seem like they are not interested — and they do remember.
Example #2: What are you doing in this part of the city?
Some years ago, while living in Bangkok, I read a review in the newspaper of the restaurant at the Shangri-La hotel.
It was a long ways from where I was living, but sounded very nice, so I got in a taxi and went there for my supper.
After eating, I decided to walk the few hundred meters to the skytrain station to go back home.
Along the way, I noticed a young woman coming toward me, staring intently at me.
I didn't acknowledge her, but looked straight ahead as I walked.
As she came up to me, she stopped right in front of me.
With a cheerful smile she asked, "Khun Oneman, what are you doing in this part of Bangkok? You live in soi 99.
"Why do you come so far away?"
I stared and stared, but it was not a face I recognized.
I couldn't figure out who she was or where I'd ever seen her.
But she sure knew me, and she knew where I lived.
I mumbled something about going to visit a friend staying at the Shangri-La Hotel, and then continued on my way.
A few days later, I went into a small foot massage shop around the corner from where I lived in soi 99.
I was a regular customer in that shop, and I knew all the girls who worked there.
During the hour of the foot massage, one of the girls came over to me, and asked, "Your friend, where he come from?"
Huh? What friend? Who are you talking about?
She patiently explained, "Your friend he stay Shangri-La Hotel."
From the other side of Bangkok, she had heard the news that I had been seen in that part of the city.
New-comers, I hope you are listening and making mental notes.
Example #3: Did you spot the ladyboy?
Once or twice a month I go for a foot massage at the little shop just down street.
The massage ladies are older and unattractive, but they are cheerful and pleasant and always give me a warm welcome.
They all know me and I know them.
But one day there was a new face in that shop.
A younger girl — twenty-something — petite and adorable.
She was not in line to do my massage, but she came over anyway, to talk and get acquainted.
She flirted a lot, and I smiled and enjoyed.
Her English was exceptionally good, but she spoke only in a whisper.
I kept asking her to speak louder, but she wouldn't or couldn't.
A few days later, my maid came in for her weekly cleaning of my condo.
We chat in Thai about many things; she helps me improve my language.
In the course of that day's chatting, she asked, "Do you go foot massage?"
Odd question, but, yes, I had.
"Do you know shop have ladyboy working now?"
No, I didn't know.
End of conversation, but it puzzled me a little bit.
Well, I forgot about it.
A few weeks later, I went in for another foot massage.
This time, that new girl was next in line so she pulled up herlittle stool and started to work on my feet.
And, oh boy!, did she turn on the charm with me.
Thai girls can flirt, but this one was a master at it.
Okay, I'm vulnerable: I handed her my mobile phone, and, without any prompting, she punched in her phone number.
She whispered her name, "Nok".
But I didn't call right away.
Later in the week, my maid came in, as usual, along with our usual chatting in Thai.
In the course of that day's topics, she asked, "Do you go foot massage?"
Odd question, once again, but, yes, I had.
"Do you know shop have ladyboy working now?"
Yes, she told me that a few weeks ago, but I have zero interest in ladyboys.
So why is she telling me again?
"Do you know who is ladyboy?," she asked.
No, I didn't see any ladyboy.
"Ladyboy name 'Nok', I think you see her, get her mobile number."
The light snapped on. I had not recognized the new, young, "girl", with the whispering voice, as a lady boy. But the other women on the staff had noticed the flirting, and certainly had noticed the phone number entry. How could they warn me, without causing loss of face for their ladyboy co-worker?
One of them called my maid, who then gave me the alert. How did the old women in the massage shop know who to call? In Thailand somebody is always watching you. The massage shop women knew my maid, and my maid knew them. Among themselves they were warning me about the ladyboy.
(Side note: Why the whispering voice, I asked my maid. "Because ladyboy sound like man. She not want you to hear.")
Those are only three examples. In Thailand there are countless more. In Thailand … someone is always watching you.
Excellent. This is a very succinct piece about a phenomenon you don't often hear talked about – but which very much is the case. There are no secrets in Thailand – or at least, there are very few!