To Insure Domestic Tranquility
One thing I like about my girlfriend is that she doesn’t nag.
She’ll say something once, and leave it to me whether I do it or not. For example, I have been going to Thailand for business for more years than I can remember, but in the last ten years I have been going there about 15 times a year, usually for anywhere from 2 – 5 days at a time. I always stay in a serviced flat, with living room, dining room and kitchen (in addition to the bedroom). About four years ago my girlfriend said to me “Why don’t you buy a condo? Cheaper than paying for a hotel.”
At the time, I wasn’t interested and the subject was never broached again. But recently I had been thinking that it wasn’t such a bad idea, and when the lease on my girlfriend’s rental came up I thought the timing was perfect. I mentioned it to her and got The Look.
I don’t want to generalize about an entire culture simply from my interactions with one person, but in my experience Thais tend to be less verbal than westerners, and communicate more with looks and gestures than with words. Thais are also taught to respect elders, and with my being a foreigner, older than my girlfriend, and a male, and also given her very proper upbringing, she tends to keep her mouth shut with me while with others she is normally quite verbal.
Hence, The Look.
The Look can be interpreted many ways. In the instance of my suggesting I buy a condo four years after she proposed it, The Look clearly meant “Why are you asking me four years after I suggested it whether I think it is a good idea?”
I set up an appointment with an agent and we looked at a series of 2-bedroom flats around the Sukhumvit / Ploen Chit / Chit Lom area. We both agreed on one: a brand new, luxurious but not over the top, 137-square meter place close enough to Sukhumvit to be able to access restaurants and shopping but set back enough to be quiet and as restful as possible in downtown Bangkok.
I went to negotiate the price but found the agent unmovable. Then it dawned on me that she got paid a commission on the sale price, and it hurt her pocketbook to try to get the seller to reduce the price. So I said to her, look, I’ll pay the asking price. But I want the owner to pay the stamp duty (they had wanted me to pay), the first year's monthly charges, the sinking fund charge, and furnish the place fully. The next day we signed the paperwork and moved in shortly after that.
Before when I used to come to Bangkok and we stayed at the serviced flat, I would spend the day working and my girlfriend would be either at University or later after she graduated, at her job. She would come from her place with a bag of clothes for the 3 – 4 days she would spend with me, and during that time we would go out to dinner every night. If we didn’t feel like going out, we would pop out to the Villa supermarket next door and buy some microwaveable meals. My girlfriend never cooked or cleaned for me during those six years.
The world changed after we started sharing the condo. Every night when I got back from work she would have prepared something for dinner, Thai style. Usually a soup, a chicken or a pork dish, some seafood: a fish or prawns, vegetables, and rice. The food wasn’t bad at all, always filling, tasty and relatively nutritious. Also, a lot cheaper than going out.
Dinner is eaten in front of the TV in the living room, with the dishes placed on a low table and we all sit on the floor (I should mention that since my girlfriend got sick and had to quit her job, her older sister also quit her job and now looks after my girlfriend, so there are actually three of us in the apartment). We have a perfectly good dining room table but the girls aren’t comfortable unless they are watching TV while they eat.
I also notice that 1) they never (or rarely) use napkins while they eat, although there is always a box of tissues for spills. And 2) they never drink anything (even water) during the meal. Seems strange to me.
Grocery shopping is an experience. They prefer the Big C on Rama IV. When they enter, my girl makes a beeline for the promotional counter, where she stocks up on anything that is discounted or “buy 2 get one free”. We have more toilet paper, cooking oil, shampoo and bar soap than you could ever use, but it is all “good price” so we have to buy it. Huge overstocks get shipped back to Isaan where the family of 6 living in the village can always use something.
My job is to walk around, and pay at the end (I can’t even push the trolley as that is for older sister). The girls know exactly what they want to buy and any suggestion on my part gets treated with The Look.
The Look in this case I interpret to mean “I am a Thai woman and you are a foreign man; I know what I am doing so kindly leave me alone”. If I happen to find something that is a better price than what they had bought, I have learned not to say anything but simply to point at the product. The girls will chatter away comparing it to what is already in the trolley. If they replace their selection with my suggestion then I get The Look which means “OK you were right this time but don’t let it go to your head” to which I respond with A Look of my own to say “Yes well sometimes foreigners aren’t so stupid” but I don’t add that I’ve been shopping since before she was born but simply walk on down the aisle content to know that I have scored one small point for foreigners of the male persuasion.
(I get a different Look if my suggestion is rejected. If the decision was close than The Look means “Not bad, you were close this time, you can make another suggestion later”) but if my suggestion was (in their minds) really stupid then I get The Look which means “Go take a hike and meet us at check out”).
They will buy all kinds of weird foods that I never see again but suppose they end up in my dinner. The first time we went shopping my girlfriend put into the trolley 15 containers of fabric softener, the big sachets that you use to refill the bottles. I didn’t say a thing but inwardly wondered what the hell they would do with all that fabric softener.
When we get to the checkout my girl unfurls as many coupons as she was able to get from our last visit and she intently studies the cash register to make sure we get every satang back that we should. She then collects the stamps and places them neatly in her book so that she may get a knife or cooking pot or luggage or whatever freebies they are giving out that month when you have one hundred stamps.
When we got back to the condo that first time she neatly placed the fabric softener sachets in each closet, explaining how they would deodorize our clothes. She gave me The Look which meant “I know you were wondering why I bought all those sachets and I am glad you didn’t ask me or challenge me and aren’t I a clever girl?” to which I gave her A Look which I hoped said “I never doubted you for a minute”.
Dinner always manages to appear around 7 or 7:30 depending on when she ate lunch. Afterwards she and her sister get up to clean the table and wash the dishes. I am expressively forbidden (by The Look) to appear in the kitchen, and while they don’t complain if I get up to clear the table, they obviously think of it as some strange western custom they will never be able to understand.
Time for some moralizing. Until the 1950’s and 1960’s, there was a fairly clear division of labor in the West. Men were expected to bring home the bacon. Women’s roles were to cook, clean, take of the children, and provide sex on an as needed basis. These roles were captured in the age old dictum “A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”
Sometime in the ‘60’s, a movement began underpinned by the philosophy that a woman deserved equal rights to a man and they, if they so desired, should be able to work as men and receive the same pay as men. I am not going to debate the pros or cons of this, but simply note that, in my opinion, everyone on this planet has the right to do things as they wish (as long as they don’t hurt others), and if a woman prefers to work rather than stay at home that is her decision. It is, of course, every man’s decision whether to have a relationship with this type of woman or not.
Personally, I like strong women, and am perfectly content to have a woman of mine work if that is her preference. My wife worked for many years before we moved overseas and she was unable to get work permits, and my girlfriend worked before she got sick.
While I know many Thai women in the workforce (and in my opinion Thai women work harder and better than Thai men) it is also true that many Thai women, especially those from Isaan, prefer not to work but to stay home and perform the classic roles of cook, housewife, nanny, babysitter and sex provider. Many western men, perhaps tired of or unable to cope with “liberated” women, also prefer the traditional role a Thai woman is often happy to perform.
But a clear division of roles also indicates a clear division of responsibilities. My girl is quite happy to cook, shop and clean for me (and does not need nor want my involvement in these activities (although I am allowed to participate when she provides sex)) but my clear responsibility is to take care of her financially (and that also means her sister and family). Of course, that also puts another responsibility on her…not to waste my money.
I have no problem at all with this arrangement, and was aware of the requirements before we set up shop together. To make sure there isn’t a bottomless pit of financial requests, we agreed together a monthly budget, I give her the money and she has to allocate it, including how much to give to her family.
Back to domestic life…the other aspect is the laundry. Thais tend to be very sensitive to odors, and my girl is constantly cleaning the house. Even when she buys new clothes, they get washed before she wears them for the first time. I wake up in the morning and go to shower and shave, and when I come out of the bathroom the bed is made and she is in the kitchen preparing breakfast. (I use the word breakfast in the sense of the morning meal, most Thais don’t seem to eat different things at different times of day the way we do, and breakfast is usually whatever is left over from the night before’s dinner.)
My clothes are washed regularly, which sometimes causes a problem as I return home from a week's trip in Bangkok and my wife and my maid are curious to know why my clothes are all clean. While we have a perfectly good dryer in Bangkok my girlfriend prefers to air dry the clothes, and there are drying racks all over the apartment for that purpose. The bed sheets are dried on the dining room table which, since it is never used for eating, is as good a use for it as anything else.
The Preamble to the US Constitution sets out six reasons why the document was being written:
• to form a more perfect Union
• establish Justice
• insure domestic Tranquility
• provide for the common defence,
• promote the general Welfare,
• secure the Blessings of Liberty
I believe that everyone’s definition of “domestic tranquility” differs and I am sure there are those who will find the preceding description of my life as incredibly boring. For my part, it suits me fine, and if I want to go out for a night and raise a bit of hell at Cowboy or Nana I simply announce that I am doing so and off I go. One of the benefits of being the guy who writes the checks is the ability to be in charge of those sorts of things. I don’t even think my girlfriend minds when I go out for a night, as she knows I’m coming home.
Al least, never once when I announced my intentions have I ever gotten The Look.
While your girlfriend makes you happy, do I get the feeling however that she is basically doing what she wants and what she feels is right for you, whether you agree or not? It seems that is the way things often are in relationships in Thailand with a Thai woman from a poor background and a Western man. I personally couldn't live that way but you seem happy enough so good on you.
One of my concerns with Thais is their almost complete reluctance to listen to other ideas and alternative ways of doing things. They can be very closed-minded in this respect and even if you are able to demonstrate that there may be a better way to do something or you would prefer something a different way (e.g. eating cereal for breakfast as opposed to last night's leftovers), they dismiss it as not Thai – and as such not right!