Readers' Submissions

If You Want To Help, Here’s An Idea

Tough times in Thailand now.  If you are an expat, and you want to offer some help, here’s one  idea: bring meals to poor people.  I did that today.  It was very much appreciated.

The overall goal was to offer help in a way that is suitable in Thai culture.  Sharing food, especially food that is freshly prepared and ready to eat (rather than packages from a store) is very common among neighbors in Thailand.  It is a friendly gesture, with no stigma attached as there might be with other kinds of  “charity”.

Plus, it can be done right away, right now, today.  No need to wait for government to do anything.  No depending on some charity group or even a local temple to get organized.  You can do this yourself, as an individual.  I did.

In writing this submission, I also hope to encourage other Stickmanites to write about what they’ve been doing to help here.

So, bringing hot meals to poor people is a good idea, yes?  But for a foreigner here, not exactly simple to do.  In this submission I will explain in detail exactly what I did and how it worked out, so you can just follow the steps.  (If something is not clear, you are welcome to contact me by email and I’ll explain more.)

The idea:

Right now, some people here still have work, just less of it, for example, taxi drivers.  Other people have no work at all.  And many people depend on others for their daily food: elderly parents, young children, the sick, the crippled.  And there are plenty of people who have no one to depend on.  How they get by, I don’t know.  I can’t help everyone, but I want to offer help to some.

Near my condo building is a little slum community: some old, run-down stores and houses and many little shacks made from scraps of wood, tin, and canvas.  Not a dangerous place, just very poor.  I never go in there, but from my balcony I can look out and see some of that area.  What might a farang expat do to help the people who live there?

The advice:

Before doing anything, I discussed this plan with two Thai friends. The question was, “I want to help.  I don’t know anyone who lives there.  Should I offer money or food or what?”

One said, “Money is best.  Then they can use it for whatever they decide they need.”  The other said, “No, not money.  If you give money, then the word will get around about the farang who lives in the condo and hands out money.  Food is better.”

The plan:

The decision was made by the “head” of that community.  Usually a “headman”, but in this case, a “head-woman.“  She said, “Bring food, okay.  Bring rice or even toothpaste, okay.  But don’t bring money.  Money will make a problem.”   That settled that.

Action – the first step:

My goal was to stay out of the picture.  I wanted to provide some help, but not put myself in the spotlight.  So I enlisted a neighbor lady to assist me.  A middle-age lady, working class status, not hi-so.  Explained everything to her and she thought it was a very nice thing to do.  She agreed to help me for a couple of hours.

First, we went to the area and to talk to the head of the community.  Some expats may not be familiar with local, community structure here.  So I will “detour” to talk about who and what goes on in such places as these.

The local structure is the same, but the words are different, depending on whether we are looking at a rural area or in a city.  In rural areas in Thailand the small villages are called, “moo-bahn”.  The head of the village is the “Poo-Yai-Bahn”, which means “village headman”.  In a city, the equivalent is called a “community”.  In Thai that is “Chuum-Chone”.  The person in charge is the “Hua-Nah-Chuum-Chone,” which means the “head of the community”.  Depending on your location, you’ll be asking for either the “Poo-Yai-Bahn” or the “Hua-Nah-Chuum-Chone”.  To use the wrong words in the wrong location will only result in confusion.

In each village/community there will be a village “center”.  That’s where the headman spends most of his time.  In small villages up-country that center might just be the front yard of the headman’s house.  In the urban community near my condo, the community center is a specific building.  Now what comes next is useful if you’ve never been into that village or community before.  You can find the community center because it will have a Thai flag out front.  That’s how you’ll know where to go.  If you are invited to go somewhere that doesn’t have the Thai flag out front, be very suspicious.

At the community center talk to the headman.  Everything must be approved by him.  If you go in, but the headman is not there, stop, don’t continue.  Come back another time or another day.  Don’t try to make arrangements with anyone else, no matter how eager they are to help.  Sure, state your business, briefly and clearly, so they know why a stranger has entered their community center, but say you’ll be back another time when the headman is there.  Trying to arrange something like this through some “helper” will only cause confusion and bring doubt on your motives.

My goal was to be known, but not to be seen.  I wanted the local people to know that a farang was bringing in meals, but I didn’t want to appear in person.  I didn’t want any “glory” and did not want my picture taken for Facebook.  You might think differently about that.

So instead of going myself to talk to the headman, I stayed outside in the car, and only my helper went in.  She said something like this, “My neighbor is farang.  He want offer meals to some people in your community.  If he send 30 meals for lunch today, will that be useful to you?”

Accomplished so far:

What has been accomplished so far is how to locate the community center or headman’s house (Thai flag out front), and to meet directly with the headman (or head-woman) to ask permission before doing anything.  Thai society works on hierarchy.  To do anything requires agreement from the top.

Next step – the actual food:

We must keep in mind that Thailand is a low-trust society.  Even with the best intentions, food prepared by a stranger would be suspect; not desirable at all.  Much better to get food from a public food stall in a nearby market: common, everyday food, made to local tastes, and delivered in Styrofoam boxes and plastic bags.  No suspicions that way.

So my helper and I went to the nearest local market.  Ordered 10 meals from one food stall, 10 from another, and 10 from a third.  Thirty meals in all.  That helped those market vendors, too.  Each was pleased to get a big order for 10 meals.

I selected prepared food with substantial meat: chicken with rice and pork liver noodles were today’s menu.  I did not select lighter fare like noodle soup or snacks like grilled pork on a stick.  Best, I thought, to bring in real meals.

Another thing I learned today:  Two of the vendors I selected were obviously popular and busy.  They appreciated the large order, sure, but it was not that special to them.  But the third vendor was the proverbial little old lady.  Her cart was very old and very worn.  So was she.  When my helper ordered ten meals, the little, old lady was suddenly very, very, happy.  Next time I will seek out other vendors like that, on the margins of the market, who are probably just scraping by even in the best of times.

Final step – delivery:

Driving back to the community, we knew exactly where to go: the community center.  There was no welcoming committee, no big ceremony, nothing special.  But the head-lady was waiting inside, along with several other people of the type that always seem to be at such community centers.

I stayed in the car, out of sight, with the tinted window up.  Could not see my face from the outside.  But still attracted lots of attention, because the make and year of car was very much out of place there.  Next time, I’ll use an ordinary taxi-meter.

My local helper is about the same age as the community head: mid- to late-40’s.   Having similar age like that seemed to work out well.  I would not select a helper who is younger than that, especially not some very young “girl”.  Nor would I select anyone with even a hint of “hi-so” or even “middle-so” to go into a poor community.  Social classes in Thailand do not mix.

When the food was delivered, I could see inside the big smiles of surprise on many faces.  I am sure that when my helper lady appeared the first time, and explained my intentions, nobody quite believed it would happen.

The bonus – lots of “face”:

Those of us who have been in Thailand awhile know that Thai society runs on “face”.  Whenever I deal with Thais, I always try to think about their “face”.  So how did that work out in today’s adventure?

The community is near my condo, but it’s not near anything important.  It is not a famous slum district that some tourists visit for “sightseeing”.  Nor is it a well-traveled historical district of the city.  It is just a little group of old and poor houses and shacks on the outskirts of Bangkok.   So the fact that some foreigner selected their little community today will give a little bit of “face” to all of the residents there – whether they got a meal or not.

In addition, the head of the community will gain some face, too.  She didn’t do anything special, but just the fact that her community attracted some attention and some actual assistance gives her a bit of extra respect.

My neighbor, the middle-aged lady who helped me, gets “bragging rights” with her friends.  In addition, since I know that she supports two, school-age children and her mother ‘up country”, I offered her 500 baht, which was much appreciated and also adds to her face.  Likely she’ll be happy to help next time, too.

And even the little-old lady in the market, who sold 10 meals at one time, when some days she might not even sell 10 meals all day, will gain face with other vendors around her.

All in all, a good day during no-so-good times.  I’ll certainly do it again.  And for any other expats who want to offer some help, this is one possible way to do that.

The author of this submission welcomes contact by email at: [email protected]