Making A Deal With The Devil
If any of you out there were harboring some notion that your humble scribe is a candidate for sainthood, well, forget it. My moral compass ain’t pointing to north anymore. Nope, I know this will shock you all, but old Sawadee has sold out. All long held moral principles have been chucked out the door, and led me to adapt to the way things are routinely done here in The Land of Smiles.
Corruption as many of you know from personal experience is endemic in Thailand. Whether it’s one of the Boys in Brown turning a blind eye to child pornography being openly sold in the streets of Pattaya, or allowing a bar to stay open past a certain time, money talks. It not only talks, but does a dance slick enough to win Dancing with the Stars. An envelope of cash discreetly transferred into the right pocket, will open up just about any door. In some cases, especially if you are a westerner who has committed a crime (or often enough simply accused of a crime) that envelope may have to be a very thick one.
Recently my wife mentioned that my neighbor from hell, who you may remember from Of Course You Know This Means War has been making noises once again. Our flourishing fruit trees continue to offend his Thai sensibilities. My neighborhood’s poo-yai-bahn came around to check things out for herself. Technically, our trees are growing on land which belongs to the municipality of Lampang. It’s not only us though who are growing things in this strip of overgrown land along this small water canal. This being Thailand, where possession is 99% of the law, everyone and their sister’s cousin’s great aunt is happily doing the same. My arch nemesis, Somchai, who is stirring this whole thing up, doesn’t find any contradiction in the fact that he has his own trees growing on the opposite side of the canal! Because the Farang is always wrong, it’s me who finds himself with a problem. How to solve said problem? Well, not with the argument that I took a tangled patch of thorn bushes and created something lovely. Likewise, forget mentioning that we share our bounty of fruit with our Thai neighbors…including Somchai’s long suffering wife! When sweet reason fails to turn the tide, it’s time to take a page from the Thai playbook for settling disputes. And exactly which page is this you may be asking yourself?
Okay my young apprentices; please open this pirated copy of An Insider’s Guide to How Thai People Can Get through Life without Losing Face and Still Manage to Circumvent the Law. Now turn to page number 999 and scan paragraph 3 B. “When guilty of a technical violation of the land usage laws of your municipality, by means of growing fruit trees on public land (trees not to number more than 50), a fee of suitable size shall be paid to the local official in charge of your neighborhood. This fee, which should be not less than 500 baht, shall be placed in a fresh white envelope and given discretely to the aforementioned official in a manner commensurate with someone sorry to have created an inconvenience for their municipality. It goes without saying that a large bottle of imported whiskey (no Thai whiskey please!) will go a long way help to soothe the disposition of the Thai official to whom you are paying the fee.”
I should mention that this book is written in Lao, so knowing Thai won’t be of any advantage. Being married to someone from Issan will!
“Oh come on Sawadee! Don’t tell us that you are actually willing to offer a bribe, just to protect your precious fruit trees?” My friends, the term “bribe” is so loaded with negative connotations. I prefer to simply call to this as a “miscellaneous expense” needed to be paid from time to time here in The Land of Smiles. Think of it as a “social lubricant”…or think of it as an irritating fact of life in Thailand. However you want to refer to it, the giving of “tea money” as a way of life is so ingrained into the consciousness of most Thai people, that they just accept it as they accept the law of gravity. It’s there, and you ignore it at your peril.
Irritating as this practice is, it’s a mere trifle to the all too frequent ritual of being shaken down by the police for an offense you didn’t even commit. Once when driving from Lampang to Buriram I went through a police checkpoint. Upon seeing a Farang behind the wheel, one of Thailand’s finest motioned me to pull over. “You are speeding”, he stated as an undisputable fact. The “genuine” fact was that I was not speeding. I was going exactly 85 km/h, which is 5 kilometers below the maximum highway speed limit, unless posted otherwise. In any case, even if I had been speeding, how would he know? There were at least 50 cars stopped at the checkpoint, and there was no one employing radar. “You are speeding” Somchai continued briskly. “You must pay 400 baht now!” Okay I thought to myself, the fix is in. There was no way this idiot was going to let me go without siphoning off some easy cash. I gave Somchai 400 baht. What Somchai did not give me was a written citation. Every motor vehicle violation in Thailand is always written up…except when of course there has been no violation! Somchai simply stuffed his ill gotten gain into his shirt pocket and motioned me to get the hell on my way. Yes, welcome once again to Thailand!
There now sits a crisp 500 baht note in an equally crisp white envelope sitting on a kitchen shelf. If or more likely, when it becomes necessary, it will be handed over ceremoniously, and life will continue to operate on a steady keel.
In choosing to do things the Thai way, did I, with eyes wide open make a deal with the devil? I think probably not. Once having paid my fee, I most likely will never hear another word about my trees from the municipality. Will Somchai continue to fume? Undoubtedly he will, but unless he is willing to “outbid me”, my 500 baht trumps his bluster. I should add that come New Year’s Day; our poo-yai-bahn will also be enjoying a large bottle of 100 Pipers, courtesy of yours truly. Somchai is waaaay too stingy to give her anything. In the end money, specifically a certain crisp 500 baht note will be singing out a merry Sawadee Pee Mai!
Okay, now that I’ve gotten a rather long 1000 + word introduction out of the way, I can move on to what I planned to write about in the first place. Oh, I’m still on the topic of “bribery”, but this time I’m not talking about money in crisp white envelopes being handed out to government officials. Instead I’m talking about handing out something a bit more colorful to my little darlings at school. In short, I’m talking about….stickers!
Big surprise eh? We are definitely changing gears here folks. Anyone who is bored by my Tales from the Classroom might as well click his way back to the main menu. Perhaps something of a more prurient nature can be found there.
Perhaps I’m dating myself, but can anyone else out there remember back to their elementary school days? If so, do you recall the little gummed stars your teacher would hand out if you had done well on something? I do. She (virtually every elementary school teacher, if fact maybe every last one of them in the 1950’s was a woman) would take out a small flat box out of her desk drawer that was filled with glittering metallic stars. They were gold, blue, red and green. I can still vividly recall the taste of the glue on the back of them. They weren’t self sticking. You had to lick ‘em before you could stick ‘em. Young Sawadee, being a model student (I really was a nice boy) garnered plenty of stars, but still, I never got tired of receiving more, because…well they were just “pretty”. I wonder if they still make them.
Anyway, teachers handing out small rewards for work well done are nothing new. I suppose the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle passed around a jug of honey wine if their disciples gave a particularly cogent answer.
In the latter part of the 20th century, handing out stickers was all the rage. They are still just as popular now in the 21st. Students still enjoy getting a sticky picture of just about anything. This is just as true in Thailand as it is in Farangland. Students who were just one minute before staring mindlessly into space will almost magically pay attention, at least for a short time, at the prospect of the teacher handing out a silly sticker.
I’m not just talking about young children either. When I taught Mathiyom (high school), these guys and gals when told that Sawadee might be handing out stickers, acted pretty much the way Pavlov’s dogs did when shown a biscuit. They wanted one in the worst way, and were actually willing to modify their behavior to receive one. This is not to say that they would suddenly become studious. Hell, these were only stickers, not free mobile phones or gold jewelry. Still, even the dullest of the lot might devote a few meager percent of their grey matter to listening to what I was saying…for a few minutes! I had bought a big pad of stickers that I had picked up at a bargain store in the U.S, and went through the lot by the end of that school year.
The next year I moved over to Anuban (kindergarten), and was so busy preparing so much new material that I completely forgot about handing out stickers. What I wound up doing is stamping a happy face with the rubber stamp I used to for their workbooks. I wanted to stamp a small piece of paper. The kids wanted me to stamp their hands. At this tender age, they already wanted “tats”! I shudder to think that some of them, especially the girls, will end up with some permanent body age someday.
I should add for the record that Sawadee has a tattoo on his left forearm. Because I wear a short-sleeved dress shirt to work, it is highly visible. Children, including my own little Sam are always curious about it. Luckily, the Powers That Be who hired me, didn’t seem to mind…or at least have never mentioned it. As tattoos go, it could be worse. No grinning skulls or devils. Nothing obscene or insulting…and certainly not an ex-girlfriend’s name!
The story of how I ended up with a tattoo takes us back to 1971. I had hitch hiked across the USA from Massachusetts to California, on my way to Humbolt State University to take a couple summer courses. Back then, you could actually hitchhike without falling victim to a psychopath…at least if you were lucky. Girls of course are always in danger! Back then young Sawadee was just another long-haired wanderer, and there was a kind of Brotherhood of the Road that existed. Getting a ride, and a toke, and possibly a little romance, wasn’t all that hard.
One morning in San Francisco, I had a few hours to kill before taking a bus up north to Arcata, so I decided to go for a walk. Hmmm, “I decided to go for a walk” probably serves as an opening line for a few tales that many of you could spin! Anyway, I ended up outside the studio of Lyle Tuttle, one of the most famous tattoo artists of that era, including rock stars like Janis Joplin. You can check out some of his work here.
What made me, a 21-year old kid who had never in his short life even considered getting a tattoo; walk through that shop door of my own volition, sit down and go “under the needle”? All I can say is that I was fascinated by the exquisite art work I saw displayed. Having had a toke or two earlier that day also seemed to put me in the frame of mind where all kinds of new experiences seemed like a good idea. This kind readers, shows how big an idiot I was at the time! Not everything is a good idea, no matter how much you are tempted at the time!
Here in the Land of Smiles, sitting in a bar, under the influence of too much alcohol, and in the company of lovely women wearing very little clothing, those are not bad words to remember from time to time!
I just know that you are all waiting with bated breath to find out what piece of skin art Sawadee walked away with…at least those of you who are not snoozing away at this point. What I did receive was done by the late Mr. Tuttle himself. Since I have no intention of photographing my own arm, you will have to settle for a description. Picture a yin-yang symbol, with compass points surrounding it. Under it you will see the words Sat Nam. What does that mean you ask? Hey, if you’re so curious, go right ahead and Google away! I’ll just say that at that time I was into all kinds of eastern meditation.
Freshly engraved into my arm, the colors were brilliant. Forty years later they have faded considerably. If I could snap my fingers and work some magic, would I make it go away? Probably I would, although it does serves as a constant reminder not to do anything else in this life that is irrevocable.
Okay, that’s enough of a digression. Let’s get back to the story. My rubber stamp smiley face wasn’t good enough. I needed something that lasted longer and wasn’t so messy. I started out by printing a page of small pictures on card stock. These I cut with a pair of scissors. They looked good, but the kids, thinking they were stickers, kept trying to peel the backs off! The obvious solution was to print actual stickers.
So, it was off to the Double A stationary store to pick up a package of A4 labels. A pack of fifty sheets cost 100 baht. Like teachers all over the world, I often pay for school classroom supplies out of my own pocket. Now it was time to find some pictures that the kids would like. What follows are some images that I reduced in size and copied on to the label sheets. I started off with this smiley heart. Not very exciting, but even the boys liked it.
Next I tried something a little “sweeter”.
That went over well, so in that vain I made these sugary ones up
On a more nutritious note, I included a series of fruit stickers.
I made every Disney character I could think of, including Mickey, Donald, Goofy etc. I thought this Mickey Mouse watch was a bit nostalgic.
I ran through a whole zoo’s worth of animals. Here is a zebra and a penguin…and Curious George!
I’ve had super heroes like Spiderman and Batman. I’ve had a popular Japanese cartoon character named Doraemon who you’ve probably never heard of.
Can you guess the most popular sticker, at least for girls? It is of course Hello Kitty. I’ve done up all kinds of Kitty stickers. Believe it or not, at this age, when boys haven’t yet learned that Kitty is “for girls”, they seem to enjoy this pink confections as well.
Thais, although they don’t celebrate Christmas as a holiday, love all the images associated with the season. It seemed natural to have Santa put in an appearance.
Some of you may be wondering what affect all these stickers have had on performance in the classroom. The possibility of earning a small reward has certainly perked up the children’s attention. When Sawadee walks in carry his small candy tin full of stickers, well, that is a Big Deal! It also means that when called on to answer a question, they do have to open their little mouths and speak clearly.
For example, if I ask a girl to come up to the board, and say “Show me a picture of a giraffe, she has to do the following: Point to the correct picture among a group of eight or ten and then come over to me and answer the question, “What is this?” So, after identifying the picture of a giraffe among the animal pictures, and telling me, “This is a giraffe!” she can reach into the tin and select a sticker. If she pointed to the wrong picture, that’s it…no guessing allowed. It is back to her seat and someone else has a go at it. If anyone answers incorrectly, or mumbles incoherently, no sticker is forthcoming. Only a correct answer, spoken clearly earns a sticker. Nothing like a little positive reinforcement to sharpen young minds!
Anuban, in case you are interested has three levels: K-1, which is equivalent to pre-school, K-2 which is more advanced, and K-3, which is much more intensive. Ages range from 3 to 6 years old. Sam, who is 4, has not surprisingly, the best English skills out of the 250 students in K-1. Unlike most of his classmates, he is not shy to speak. When I started working with them at the beginning of last term, they were much too frightened to even open their mouths, let alone say anything. Progress was slow, but eventually through a combination of smiles and encouragement, they began to speak a little. It was after I introduced stickers into the routine that they really became eager to step up and talk with me. They were so eager in fact that their teachers had a job making them come up one at a time. All reticence evaporated like fog a warm summer’s morning when the chance to score a Hello Kitty sticker came along!
And what do all my little darlings do with these treasures? Do they have a special book to stick them in? Actually one mother says that her daughter does just that, and has quite a nice collection of them. As for the other 99.999% of the children…the
stickers are immediately applied as tattoos! Am I subliminally making them predisposed to getting a real tattoo some day? Nah! These are kids doing what kids like to do. I must admit that I get a hell of a kick from their innocent delight. The
only problem is that now that I have started this particular ball rolling, I am under the gun to keep it up. When you make a deal with the devil, you’ve got to be prepared to pay the price. All things considered, spending a hundred baht
here and there is worth it for me. I for one can never get too many smiles, and if nothing else it keeps me busy looking for the “next big sticker”!
Whatever it takes to get the message through to the kids is worth doing!