Readers' Submissions

Don’t Ask / Don’t Tell

Don’t worry folks; this is not about gays in the military! I suppose in passing though I should state for the record that in my humble opinion, anyone who is willing to put his (or her) ass on the line to serve in their country’s armed forces is a hell of a lot braver than I am!

I am not a cultural anthropologist, although I did consider that field of study when I was in college. I am intensely however, curious about the genetic, environmental and cultural factors take make each and everyone of us who we are.

Anyone who has spent some time in The Land of Smiles will probably ask themselves questions like: “Did I just really see this guy/gal…?” “What the hell were he/she/they thinking?” “Why do Thais insist on doing…?” My personal list of WTF questions has grown pretty damned long over the years. These questions remain mostly rhetorical for the simple fact that I’ve learned to Keep My Big Fat Farang Mouth Shut!

It’s not that I’ve suffered a stroke and have lost the use of that part of the brain which is the source of curiosity. No, it’s that I’ve finally realized that here in Thailand, as back in Farangland, it’s usually better to not ask questions you don’t really want the answer to, and not tell anyone your opinions to people who really don’t want to hear about them!

I’m sure that anyone who had been married, or has been in a long term relationship will relate to this little scenario. Your wife/girlfriend is getting dressed and asks you a seemingly simple question: “How do I look in this?” or “Does this make me look fat?” She might as well have tossed you a live grenade, because you are probably doomed no matter what you say. Can you even contemplate saying, “Yes dear, that really makes you look chubby!” Yes we know that would go over well! “But dear, why did you ask me a question, if you weren’t prepared to hear the answer?” This means of course an answer you didn’t like!

And by the way, don’t think you’re off the hook if you answer, “No, that dress makes you look as slender as a willow reed?” or “You look beautiful in that dress! I love it!” It's damned good odds that she will then promptly take that dress off and put something else on instead. Apparently your “valued opinion” wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit! It’s often better to slink off quietly into the shadows that render an unwanted commentary.

Don’t ask. Don’t tell. This might be true the wide world over, but here in Thailand this sage advice takes on a distinctly Siamese twist. The truth is that Thais are often reluctant to offer an opinion if there is even a small chance of losing face. It is often more acceptable to see a disaster unfold in front of their faces, one that is completely preventable, rather than questioning someone in authority.

Let’s say Somchai is driving himself and his boss to an important meeting. Somchai is a junior employee. His boss is a big VIP. His boss tells him to turn left at a traffic light. Somchai knows that they should be turning right. If he obeys his boss and turns left, they will be late for the meeting. (Note: Let’s forget the fact that in Thailand, no one is ever on time!) If he tells his boss that they are going in the wrong direction, Somchai will embarrass the boss. Better to just keep on driving the wrong way.

The situation is compounded a thousand times when we are talking about us Farangs. Our unsolicited Farang opinions are often unwelcome. The same is true about asking potentially embarrassing questions. It is often better to say nothing. It may go against our nature to simply “dummy up”, but doing so makes life in Thailand flow much more smoothly.

Did you know that Thailand…at least according to many Thais, is superior to just about any place on the planet? Marching forward with blinders on, Thais pretend a whole list of preposterous things, such as:

1. Thailand is a thriving democracy. Now let me see, I seem to have lost track of how many military coups there have been in the last 50 years…and we see how well the Yellow and Red factions get along with each other!

2. The Thai education system is working brilliantly…so brilliantly in fact that over 80% of Thai teacher failed last year to pass exams in their own subjects! Thai students, do very poorly on international tests, compared to students in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. Hell, even the Philippines, which is dirt poor has a better education system!

3. Thailand is an extraordinarily moral country. Forget the fact that Pattaya is the Sex Capitol of the World. Forget the fact that the vast majority of prostitution is not connected to Farangs, but to Thai men in every hamlet, village, town and city in Thailand. Forget the fact that apparently child pornography is easily obtainable in Bangkok. Forget the high murder rate, the alcohol and drug abuse rates. And above all forget the corruption which permeates every aspect of life here.

Life sure is swell here. Well it actually is, compared to many other places in the world where poverty, disease, famine and war are the norm. If I were Thai, I would probably be damned happy I wasn’t living in Myanmar.

Still, many Thais, especially those with some education, seem inordinately smug about it.

Well folks, I sure don’t intend to be the one to burst their bubble. My opinions are most definitely unwelcome. If any Thai ever asks me, “What do you think about Thailand?” I simply say that I am very happy to be living here…which of course is the truth. My life here is pretty damned good. Why would I want to piss people off by pointing out things which they clearly would not enjoy hearing?

You don’t have to smack me over the head with a 2 x 4 more than once to teach me that particular lesson! Anyone who has read my submissions has probably read about my attempts to influence the Thai education system when it comes to teaching the English language. Despite my positive, non-critical, and easily to implement suggestions, I have been utterly ignored. Despite the fact that even a limited trial would quickly yield demonstrable results, it is obvious that suggestions from even well qualified Farangs will never be listened to seriously. “You don’t understand Thai culture” is a mantra I’ve grown sick and tired of. That phrase is an automatic response to questioning poor performance in education, business, politics…etc.

In a submission I wrote a few months ago, I talked in some detail about a new English program that was being implemented at my school. It was immediately apparent that the children were not capable of learning even a small fraction of the material being presented. Last term I taught two units from this book, My English Companion. Predictably the students did quite poorly. My department head asked me to write a critique of the program, along with suggestions on how to improve it. I won’t bore you with details of my paper. Suffice it to say that it has well reasoned, and went point by point in a manner guaranteed not to offend delicate Thai “sensibilities”. So, how were my suggestions received? I think you know the answer. They were ignored…and to make maters worse, this term I am required to teach four units! I use the word “teach” here as the Thais view the word. At the end of the term, every page of four units will be stamped and signed, while ignoring the fact that the children didn’t learn a thing! Moral of the story? Just keep my Big Fat Farang Mouth Shut, collect my pay at the end of each month, and keep from blowing a fuse!

I frequently talk about Thai social issues with my wife, who by the way is even more critical than I am. But aside from her…and of course all of you, I never, ever ask a question I know the Thais would be embarrassed to answer, or to say anything the least bit controversial. I sure as hell don’t start mouthing off or doing obviously crazy things like that small bunch of Farangs did during the Red’s demonstrations! What the hell were these guys smoking to think of injecting themselves into that?

Still in the privacy of my own mind, I can’t help posing and answering questions, and mentally at least, offering opinions about life in Thailand.

“Where are you going?” my wife asks me each and every time I reach for the car keys.

“Out” I say, heading out the door. “I’ll be back soon.”

This is never good enough for my or any Thai wife it seems. They need to know specifically where you are bound. I’m going to Big C. I’m going to 7-11. I’m going to get a cup of coffee. I’m not going to a bar, and I’m not running away. I’ll be back soon! I will never of course say, “I’m going out for a few minutes of peace and quiet!” When my wife has a gaggle of Thai women over to yak and eat, a guy just has to get away for a while!

“Why do you always need to go to Bangkok?”

“Always” means two, or on rare occasions, three times a year, and never for more than a couple of days.

My answer is short and sweet. I want to have a few nice dinners. Maybe a steak, maybe some Indian food, but definitely something not Thai and that costs more than 25 baht! The rest of the year I never go out to dinner. I want to do a little shopping, mostly buying some books. I want to spend some time chatting with Stick. She actually knows Stick from the time he came to visit us. It’s difficult for her to comprehend that it’s nice to have a few intellectual conversations about subjects with someone who shares a western world view. I always ask her if she would like to come along. She always declines, since she hates the thought of spending money.

On my last visit to Bangkok a few weeks ago, I had an experience where I would have loved to have asked a question, but wisely held my tongue. Stick and I were having dinner at the Londoner, where I have enjoyed some excellent meals in the past. Their bitter ale is beyond reproach, and usually, so is the quality of their steaks. Expensive, yes, but tasty, and I never have the opportunity of having a decent piece of beef in Lampang. On this occasion I ordered the Beef Bonanza, which is described here right from their menu.

Londoner Beef Bonanza

A seriously large 500g Australian grain-fed T-Bone steak grilled to your taste, served with spicy chimchurri sauce (don’t ask — just try it), jacket potato & your choice of vegetable or mixed salad

Sounds good to me! My mouth was watering in anticipation of a succulent steak. The quality had on other visits been just fine. This time however, what I was served could more accurately be described as. “A seriously large 500g piece of nasty tasting gristle, fat and bone, which even the chimichurri sauce hasn’t a snowball’s chance of hell of making edible”. You will notice I left out any reference to Australia, or to the supposed diet of the supposed cow from which my dinner had been prepared. This was obviously a sub standard piece of Thai meat. Why it was being served to me at over 700 baht was a damned good question. It was also one I would not dream of asking. Who am I going to complain to? Certainly not the poor server. She wasn’t responsible. Should I have asked to speak to the chef or the manager?

In America I would definitely have insisted that this piece of faux steak be taken back, and a genuine one brought in its place. I think most of you would have done the same thing back in your part of Farangland. Of course in Farangland, generally, at least in a higher end restaurant, the waiter or waitress comes around to inquire how everything is. I have eaten at only one restaurant in Thailand where someone did this. The next time you are in Pattaya, I highly recommend Bordeaux on Soi-Day-Night – 2, which serves delicious food, in a pleasant atmosphere, with first rate service, and absurdly low prices.

What would I have gained by voicing a complaint, even one made gently and with a smile? Not a blessed thing, so why bother and give myself indigestion…or a heart attack! Instead I kept my feelings to myself. Luckily: a.) It was buy one drink and get the second one free night, b.) My warm apple pie with custard sauce was very nice, and c.) Stick had a 50% off coupon for our dinners. My bad steak was hardly a world class problem, but it typifies the futility of asking “why” in Thailand.

My neighbor, a very nice American fellow, recently built a lovely home just down the street. While his house was under construction, he had more than a few opportunities to ask “why”. One day he saw his painter busily painting the walls, and at the same time dripping paint all over the newly finished floors. Why he asked in astonishment wasn’t the painter using a drop cloth, or just some newspaper to keep paint off of the floors. The answer: “Oh, I’ll scrape off all that paint off the floor once it’s dried.” Of course scraping the paint would scratch the hell out of the brand new floor! Welcome my friends to amazing Thailand, where asking “why” will get you some amazing though incredulous answers!

Here are some answers I would dearly love to have the answer to, along with what you would be likely to receive as an answer…if anyone was being honest.

1. # Q. Why did you fail to stop at that red light?

A. “Because I wanted to.”

2. Q. # Why do you pass cars in places where it is clearly dangerous to do so?

A. See answer Q 1.

The impulse to act has no mediating filter to pass though, such as common sense or politeness, before doing something.

I could ask dozens of other related driving questions, and the answer would be the same. Other driving questions require a different answer.

3. # Q. Why aren’t your small children wearing motorcycle helmets? Why do you allow your children to rice in your car/truck without wearing a seat belt?

A. “Because I don’t think or care about the future.”

The same answer could be given to questions such as:

4. # Q. (To a Thai wife or girlfriend) Why did you spend all your money without knowing how you are going to live for the rest of the month?

5. # Q. (To a Thai student) Why don’t you study so that you can do well in school and prepare for the future?

6. # Q. Why did you throw your garbage on the ground and not in the trash can?

A.# 1 “The ground was close” A. #2 “The ground is my trash can!”

Now here is an all purpose answer that is always handy…

A. “Because you are a Farang!” This answer is applicable every day on every occasion, because as we all know, The Farang is Always Wrong!

Q. #7. Khun policeman, Why did you fine me 400 baht for speeding when I was clearly driving under the speed limit?

A. See above…and add, “Because I could!”

Q.# 8 Why do you play your stereo so loudly late at night when everyone else in the neighborhood is trying to sleep?

A. see answer Q # 1 and add, “How dare you ask me to turn down my music!!!

Q. # 9. “Why did you say you fixed my…when you didn’t?

A.# 1 “Because I don’t know what I’m doing but I don’t want to admit it.” A # 2. “Because then I can come and charge you a second time!” A# 3. See answer # Q. 7.

Okay, you get the idea. These are a few examples of questions I would love to have answered…but am not holding my breath in anticipation. I’m sure all of you out there could come up with dozens more. Send me some of your imponderable Q and A’s. I’d love to hear them. In the mean time, practice holding your tongue when the impulse comes to actually ask anyone in Thailand questions that you don’t really want to hear the answer to, and keep your opinions to yourself!!!

Stickman's thoughts:

For sure, in Thailand, when you ask "why" you have to be prepared for a potentially really crazy answer to come back!