Idiosyncrasies In Thailand – And Elsewhere
I was listening to a cassette recording of a few of those British working-men's club comedians that was given to me by a work friend who lived in Widnes (Halton), on the River Mersey in Lancashire. This little routine, down below, reminds me of what it's like trying to conduct a logical conversation with a Thai. You and I will obviously play the part of The Plumber and guess who will play the part of The Parrot.
From the British TV show, produced for Granada Television, "The Comedians" was shown in the 70s and was also released on DVD. Many Brits will remember this.
It goes like this:
This fellow has this little parrot – and he's teaching it to speak but all it will say is "Who is it?"
Well, the owner goes out to work at 8 o'clock – and at half-past nine there's a knock at the door – and the parrot says "Who is it?" – and this chap says "It's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?"
Then the parrot says "Who is it?" and this chap said, "Uh, it's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?" And then the parrot says "Who is it?" – so, he said, "It's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?" …. and then the parrot said "Who is it?"
Would you believe it – I've forgotten the ending. I know all the characters, like – there's only the two of them – there's the parrot and he's in the cage – and, uh he says "Who is it?" – and there's the plumber – and he says "It's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?"
Uh – oh dear …
Two colored chaps in Birmingham (Alabama) and one says "Hey Rastus – what would you do if you got a letter from the Ku Klux Klan, telling you to leave town?"
"I'd read it on the train".
No, I really haven't forgotten the ending – there's just these two characters. There's the parrot and he says "Who is it?" And – uh – there's this chap outside – and he says right enough "It's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?" <angrily>
Anyhow, this goes on for four hours until the blood pressure gets the better of this chap outside and he collapses with exhaustion onto the front doorstep.
So, at 6 o'clock, the owner comes home and he falls right over this chap lying on the front doorstep – so he looks down and says "Who is it?" – and the parrot said "It's the plumber, I've come to mend your pipes – will you let me in please?"
Does this routine sound familiar? Next time you are asking for directions, or haggling with a Thai, note the similarities in the logic (there is none) – and the frustration.
Talking of travel:
I was visiting with my sister-in law one morning at Silom as she set up her shop display for the day, so I asked her if she would like a cold drink. She said she would, so I went to the 7-11 and bought two drinks and we sat chatting for a while. The conversation turned to Chiang Mai and she said "Do you know that I have lived in Thailand all of my life but I have never been to Chiang Mai?"
I told her she should go and visit there as it was a lot cooler than BKK. Then she started to ask me about Australia – how much air-fares cost and how long it takes to get there. I told her what she wanted to know and then she came out with this: "Could I catch the bus to Australia?" Well, I sprayed the mouthful of drink out about a metre – fortunately there was nobody in front – and then I collapsed, like a sack of shit, falling off the small stool where I had been sitting. I couldn't speak for about a minute – I was laughing so hard that my stomach hurt and I couldn't get my breath. I had this vision of her in this bus travelling along the ocean floor with this bloody-great snorkel sticking up out of the roof of the bus. She couldn't understand what I was laughing at. Thais have no idea of geography – none whatsoever! I was told once that Thais are not taught anything about reading maps or geography because The Government is afraid that, giving them that information, would be a security risk. Now, that would never do for us to have a breach in our strategic protocol – we don't want the world to know the location of our missile silos, uranium enrichment plants and nuclear testing sites. Now, that's all I can say about that subject – the rest is classified.
The first time I tried to find Smile Dental Clinic at Asoke, I really had trouble finding the location of the building, so I went up to this Security Guard, outside of this building on the sidewalk on the eastern side – and asked him if he could please help me – "I am trying to find the Smile Dental Clinic". I showed him the photocopy of the map I had – and he looked at it, then turned it upside-down – took off his cap and scratched his head – then he finally pointed across the road and told me it was next to the 7-11 shop. I thanked him and, perilously, made my way across Asoke/Din Daeng to arrive somewhere near the 7-11. Of course, Smile Dental Clinic was nowhere to be seen, was it? Before I continue, why is it called Asoke/Din Daeng? Either end of that short leg, it is called Ratchadaphisek – so why don't they call that short leg Ratchadaphisek? Another one of Thailand's mysteries that will probably never be revealed. Finding out things in Thailand is a little like trying to pry out the secret mysteries from The Masonic Orders or the Ancient Mystery Schools.
Anyhow, I decided to take my life into my hands again and cross back to the other side of Ratchadaphisek/Asoke/Din Daeng/Ratchadaphisek (or whatever you want to call it) – and arrived safely with no limbs missing. I turned left and what do you know? Two doors away from where I had asked directions from the Security Guard – there was the front entrance to Smile Dental Clinic. Now look, I'm not the most observant pebble on the beach – but the Security Guard works in that position every day of his life, so wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that he would know where x or y is located, within a reasonable distance from his patch? I asked him in Thai and observed all the normally-expected courtesies – I even showed him the bloody map. Perhaps he was hoping I would end up as a source of amusement by being skittled by a tuk-tuk or a horde of motorcycles. But then, you must remember that foreigners are not worth very much in Thailand, at the best of times. I'm beginning to get the impression thatThais are not very good at reading maps (and neither am I, it would seem).
Ingredients for cooking:
Natalise and I had just come out from a private hospital on Wickham Terrace, in Brisbane, after my having an MRI scan on my L knee. We walked (I limped) across the road to this large park that had a few banana trees growing – and Nat was like an excited puppy as soon as she saw the banana trees – you know how excited puppies "sproing" up and down on all fours – except Nat only has two legs.
"Darling, we take some leaves home for my cooking."
"No Nat – not allowed, cannot – we get arrested by police or Council Inspector for taking leaves off these trees. This is a public park and ripping off leaves or flowers is prohibited and subject to a fine."
It was as if she had suddenly been struck deaf by the hand of God as she began ripping banana leaves off the tree and handing them to me. Of course, I was required to secrete them inside the zipper bag that I was carrying – and it was nowhere near large enough to hide the illicit cargo. Then, there was the fact that I would be the one to end up being arrested, since I had possession of the goods. Imagine having to explain my actions in The Magistrate's Court. What the bloody-hell could I say?
"Sorry, Your Honor, I don't know what came over me!"
As it happened, mercifully, we did not get caught by the police or any Council Inspector.
Our good friend Moo told us about a place where we could dig up our own fresh bamboo shoots – she even took us to the place to show us where the bamboo was located. Moo is married to a "prawn doctor" – and that took quite a bit of explaining to find out that he is really a marine research scientist. Now, I don't know if you have ever experienced the delights to be had in doing this little chore – but I found it considerably less than delightful. The bamboo stands were quite large and located on a rocky bank beside a running stream and I was delegated as the "excavator" and "cutter-off-er". It involved digging down around the base of the bamboo shoot to get as low down as possible and then cutting off the shoot with a hacksaw blade, while tearing pieces of skin off knuckles and any other parts exposed to the sharp stones hidden in the soil. Oh, and did I mention the fine bamboo dust that falls on you during this operation and makes you itch something fierce? After 3 hours of this, you pray that someone would hose you down with a fire hose. But I didn't complain – well, not much anyhow. Halfway through the operation I did suggest that it would be so much easier to go to the Asian supermarket and buy canned bamboo shoots. That suggestion was ignored, of course.
The fear of lèse-majesté:
Have you ever noticed how Thais always whisper when discussing sensitive subjects relating to matters of State? Now, I can fully understand why they do this when in Thailand with the law of lèse-majesté in force – and knowing that the walls can have ears and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that one could end up in a very unpleasant place for a very unpleasant period of time. Really though, don't you think it is taking things to the extreme to carry on this practice of whispering when thousands of kilometres away in a foreign country? They all do it, just the same – as if someone had secreted bugs in all the rooms of the home, specifically designed to monitor conversations that could be incriminating, subversive or mischievious. Some of them won't even discuss anything to do with that subject – they just clam up and ignore the subject had ever been broached.
Talk about idiosyncrasies – one has to wonder if a conversation with my dog would be more informative and productive – certainly less stressful!