Smile and the World Smiles with You…Some of the Time!
Well here I am once again responding to a submission by John Daysh, and once again I sure do hope I don’t sound like a sour puss, because I heartily agree that wearing a smile here in Thailand will probably make you more friends than if you are constantly scowling. Thailand is the purported, and much advertised Land of Smiles. I sometimes wonder what person in the Thailand Tourist Authority dreamed up that gem of a phrase.
Ah, the Land of Smiles! Images bloom forth like a field of exotic flowers. Said flowered field sparkles under sunny skies, not too hot and not too cold, with gentle breezes redolent with the fragrance of Jasmine wafting sweetly to delight you. A special celebration is taking place here, with you dear reader the honored guest. As you recline on soft cushions, beautiful women and handsome men, clad in colorful silk wai respectfully, smiling as they welcome you to Thailand. They sincerely hope that your stay here will be a joyous one, and implore you to let them know if the anything is amiss, because it would be their humble pleasure to correct the slightest problem!
Sounds great to me! Where do I sign up? Oh, unfortunately that vision of Thailand is an idle dream, and you have as much chance of finding it as you do encountering a unicorn in your back yard. If paradise exists on this Earthly plane, please let me know, because I’d be happy to take up residence there. The reality is that no place on the planet is perfect…at least where human beings reside. Homo sapiens seem to have the supreme knack of f#$%ing things up given the chance.
I recall reading a guide book before visiting Thailand for the first time, which went into some detail about the many kinds of smiles Thais employ in the course of their lives. One of course is simply a straightforward expression of happiness. Others may be used to cover up embarrassment, or nervousness. Visitors to Thailand are cautioned to never take a smile at face value, as many subtle sociological factors may be at play.
Whoa! That frankly is way too subtle for me to wrap my head around! I also must note that a large number of the ways Thais use a smile seems to have been left out of my guide book.
Arriving in Thailand there is the smile that the taxi driver gives you as he proceeds to overcharge charge you for the ride into town. There is the smile that the tout on the street gives you as he attempts to entice you into buy some counterfeit “designer” watch, buy a counterfeit porn DVD, or a three-piece suit (with two extra shirts and an extra pair of trousers) at an absurdly low price…but for today only! Our old friend the taxi driver puts in another smiling appearance, as he attempts to take you not to the soapy massage emporium you specified, but to one of his own choosing, where he will happily wait in the lobby for you. If your visit here is strictly a family holiday, he may smile as he regrettably informs you and your family that the Grand Palace is closed today, but he would happily take you instead on a whole day’s excursion to such delightful places as the crocodile farm, or shopping. Perhaps for some gemstones, where he guarantees the lowest prices. Someone may have noticed by now that I evidently forgot to mention the smiling Thai Immigration official who smiles as he welcomes you to his country. Actually I didn’t forget. He, like the unicorn in your backyard, is a myth.
Okay, you get the idea. For tourists, LOS might as easily stand for the Land of Scams as the Land of Smiles. Oh wait, I just have to mention the smiling folks at King Power who in collusion with the police, accuse you of shoplifting as you get ready to depart, and still smiling, “hold you hostage” until you agree to pay a large “ransom”, whereupon you will be allowed to depart for your corner of Farangland. Okay, just one more! Many of you out there may have personally experienced the heartbreakingly sincere smile from the bar girl who passionately declares her love for you, as she writes down the bank details of where to send the 30,000+ baht each month, so that she won’t have to sell her body any more.
Wow, with all those “false smiles”, it’s a wonder why anyone would want to travel here at all. The fact is, that despite all these phony smiles…and a whole lot of other ones I don’t have the time to mention, there are many, many genuine, warm affectionate smiles around almost every corner in the kingdom. I am happy to say I am the welcome recipient of hundreds of smiles each and every day.
For me at least, it helps to be living here in Lampang, and not in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket or deep in the heart of Buriram. <I reckon you'd get more genuine smiles in Buriram than Lampang! – Stick> While no more “real” or “authentic” than anywhere else in Thailand, Lampang represents for me a kind of “Goldilocks” place to call home. It’s not too big. It’s not too small. It is neither a high-so bastion of conspicuous consumption, nor a down at the heels poverty stricken wasteland.
While I occasionally enjoy visiting for a day or two to do some shopping or catching up with a few good friends, I have never enjoyed living in a large city. In addition to being overcrowded, noisy and dirty, I find that when you pack people together in such large numbers, they tend to smile less and be more irritable.
Perhaps this is a survival mechanism, because cities always attract their share of criminals, grifters, con-artists, psychopaths, and other assorted groups of people whose mission in life is to apparently make everyone else’s lives miserable. I know that when walking around the lower end of Sukhumvit, I naturally go into no-eye-contact mode. My silly but effective means of avoiding getting hassled, hustled, or scammed is to simply act as though most of the folks I walk by do not exist. I ignore the call of “hey mister”, “hello sir” and other invitations to engage in a conversation. With my wallet securely stowed away, I walk briskly and purposefully towards my destination without much aggravation. Many of the residents of Bangkok seem equally happy to zone out, so casual smiling is the exception rather than the rule. Walk down the street with a big goofy grin on your face and people will tend to avoid you like the plague.
In contrast, when I’ve walked through the streets of my wife’s tiny village, folks unabashedly stare at me as if I had just fallen off a flying saucer. If anyone smiles at me, it is as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?” Even after being married to my wife for over ten years, I still get the feeling that my presence is not exactly welcome. Hmmmm, I suppose the word was out long ago that this particular Farang is not inclined to enrich each and every one of my wife’s dozens of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews…not to mention her brothers and sisters. I’m also not likely to invite a few hundred neighbors (perfect strangers to me) over for a big dinner/beer blast. Being seen as the “cheap Farang” hasn’t made me Mr. Popularity, which is perfectly fine with me. I know that some of you are fortunate to live in small villages where you’re quite happy, and have made friends with the local Thai populace. Congratulations! Not everywhere is like Nong Ki.
Over the past six years I’ve managed to feel at home right where I am. I suppose I should say mostly at home, because no matter how long I live here, and how good a person I am, my status, like all other ex-pats in Thailand will always be that of Farang. We all live here at the whim of Thai Immigration, and at any moment the rules might suddenly change, and then it will be, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out”! Short of actually becoming Thai (excuse me while my hysterical laughter subsides!), none of us will ever be allowed to simply live here with our Thai wives and our children.
Still, as I mentioned, I get plenty of smiles in the course of an average day, and that goes a long way to making this place feel like home. My morning pre-school “duty” is to help make sure students make it safely from the vehicle that brought them here to the courtyard where Anuban is. While many children arrive via van and songtaew, most are dropped off by one or more of their families.
I personally greet every child and every parent with a warm “Good Morning” and a big smile. The smiles I receive in turn are warm and genuine. The kids think of Old Sawadee as a jolly old soul, who gleefully gives them all a rock and roll twirl that sends them into paroxysms of giggles.
The parents look at me with respect, knowing not only that I will do my best to teach their little darlings English, but that I actually care about the well being of their boys and girls. Their children are like the grandchildren I don’t have.
I get a warm smile from all of my fellow teachers. They know that I am ready to assist them in every way possible. It’s a pretty nice work environment all in all. There’s no back stabbing, or office politics at work. Most mornings I’m happy to wake up, get out of bed, and put in a full day. I won’t count the mornings when my health is not that good and it’s a struggle just to make it into the shower.
After school and on the weekends I’m out and about in town, shopping and doing errands. While my Thai language skills will never be great, 99.9% of the smiles I get from vendors at the market, shopkeepers, clerks etc. are the real deal. As I am generally in a good mood myself and usually am wearing a smile out in the world, I do my best to better my environment. Just today while at Big C I had two brief encounters that resulted in me sharing smiles. As I was walking by S & P, I saw a young woman drop a handful of change on the floor. Coins were rolling everywhere. I naturally stopped, and helped her collect her coins. As I handed them over, we both smiled as we nodded at each other, and then we were on our separate ways. Not one minute later, two pretty girls stopped when they realized I was trying to exit with my shopping cart. Not being in a hurry, I motioned for them to go ahead. More smiles as everyone went on with their day.
The point here was that simple courtesy doesn’t have to be a big deal…as long as everyone agrees to participate in the program. For Thais, membership in the common courtesy club is unfortunately considered too much of a bother. That is why of course Somchai and his many relatives never blink an eye as they routinely run that red light or cut you off in traffic.
This not being The Realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, I do on occasion get a less then welcoming smile. A few days ago I encountered a group of teenage boys, who upon seeing me, hailed me with a broad shit-eating grin and a shouted “hello”. While what they said may have been spelled H-E-L-LO, the unmistakable meaning was F-U-C-K Y-O-U. Apparently the mere sight of an old Farang walking down the street wearing a dress shirt and tie was offended their Thai “sensibilities” and demanded a sarcastic gesture of some sort. I naturally didn’t respond, but couldn’t help thinking as I walked along, “Laugh away laddie boys. You may think I’m a just a stupid old Farang, but please note that this stupid Farang has seen and done countless things you’ll never see or do in a million years…and, even now, with my meager salary I am probably earning more money than you ever will. Think about that someday when you’re standing behind the counter at KFC asking me, “and would you like fries with that”?
I should also mention that in this day and age, rude behavior by teenagers is pretty much a worldwide phenomenon. When my wife and I were living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, she always dreaded walking by the local high school. I could hardly blame her, as the so-called students were dressed like Goths, gang-bangers and sluts. They were a pretty scary bunch for a girl from rural Issan. Hell, they were a pretty scary bunch for me! Lordy, it's times like this when I feel positively ancient. At least the Thai students look better in their uniforms than their American counterparts, and are as a group, barring a few bad apples, more polite.
When recalling smiles that are as false as they come, nothing can top the ones my wife and I received from The Monkey. If you don’t know who (or what) in the world I am referring to, you need to look through the archives here for the ten part epic, which was my first submission. In How it all Began, I chronicled, among other things, the long and winding road to building a home here in Lampang. In my tale I introduced the single most devious, unscrupulous Thai I have ever had the sad misfortune to make the acquaintance of. When we bought a plot of land from this guy, and were working on an agreement to have him build our home, we thought he was a real prince of guy. Man this fellow could shuck and jive, belt out every Elvis song with gusto, all the while smiling like the Cheshire Cat. He wanted nothing more than to be your best buddy. Just trust him and everything would be a cakewalk. He found us a place to rent. He took us out to dinner. The drinks flowed freely when we stopped by to work on our plans. The smiles continued unabated. Apparently it was our lucky day when our paths crossed.
It turns out The Monkey had many good reasons to be smiling. Your average house in Lampang rents for about 3,000 baht per month. With his “help”, we began paying 9,000! Hell, converted to dollars at that time when the dollar got you 40 baht, it seemed, based on what rentals cost in the U.S. pretty cheap. Oh, we were such naïve trusting lambs. We not only knew nothing, but had no way to find anything out. We had to reinvent the stinking wheel for everything. With additional “help” from our best new friend, the estimates for our modest house kept going higher and higher. Luckily we found out pretty quickly that he was attempting to rip us off big time. He was making sure that every brick was marked up an additional 30%, which was going to go right into his pocket. We found out later that the contractor was supposed to fork over a cool million. The Monkey thought that had truly found the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, and was going gut that bird to the bone. Having gotten out from under this Svengali’s spell, we went on to build a lovely home at a fraction of the price we would have paid…and learned a valuable lesson. DO NOT assume that a smile from someone you hardly know is anything other than a ruse to cheat you! There is nothing like escaping a near disaster like this to make you recalibrate your bull-shit detector, that’s for sure! Five years later, The Monkey quickly scurries out of sight when he sees me walking down the street. Thanks to my “help” in spreading the word, not a single one of the over 30 homes in our moo-bahn was built by him. Whenever I saw someone buying a building lot, I made damned certain to invite them over to our house for a drink while I regaled them with my little tale. Every last one of these folks “politely declined” The Monkey’s offers of “help”!
All over Thailand you will find relatives of The Monkey, so anyone thinking of relocating here had best keep on the lookout for them. Beware the too eager smile!
Still, despite the legions of scam artists, I maintain that there are plenty of genuinely good, kind people, who if you are lucky, can make living here a very nice place indeed. My motto continues to be, keep your head in clouds if you will, but also keep your two planted on terra firma.
I may be much more guarded than I was when I first arrived here, but I continue to choose to be an optimist. I may keep my hand firmly on my wallet while strolling through Bangkok. I may continue to decline the unwanted attention of the touts, I may continue
to shrug off proclamations of undying friendship from total strangers…but I also refuse to live in a fortified bubble, suspicious of the smile, the coffee lady gives me as she prepares my iced mocha. When I start thinking that way my friends,
it will be time to back up and head back to Farangland. Hmm, but when I start thinking about the unfriendly glare that U.S. Immigration is likely to offer me, and the outrageous rip off a taxi ride is from JFK into Manhattan, the more I think
that I’ll stay right where I am. Time to start smiling and head out and see what’s going on down the road.
The smiles in the tourist areas might betray what the average Westerner sees in a smile, but in much of the country the smiles are genuine.