Stickman's Weekly Column December 18th, 2005

Working With The Locals, A Few Thoughts



I always knew that working in Thailand would be different to working in Farangland, but I never knew quite how different it would be.

Inevitably farangs make up small numbers of employees in Thai organisations but the salary and benefits that we get are usually far better than what the locals get and so with this comes something of a celebrity status. Everyone knows who you are and everyone is watching you! So one of the first things you need to get around your head is that you cannot just sit in the shadows, quietly going about your job or otherwise, somewhat anonymously. By very definition of the fact that you are a farang working in Thailand, you were hired for a specific reason, for the specific skills that you are perceived to have, so do not expect an easy ride – even though that is what you might ultimately get!

To say that the average Thai workplace is a cushy number is something of an understatement. The expectations on staff in terms of output are generally very low. In fact like so many things in Thailand, success doesn't seem to be so much goal driven, but more about maintaining harmony with everyone!

Sometimes I feel like I have a bunch of mothers at work. If I so much as cough, any of a number of the Thai women are over in a second, checking that I'm ok, and recommending a mixture of lotions and potions or multi-coloured pills. The solution is not always ideal, but their intentions are. Generally speaking, Thai staff are very helpful to their farang colleagues and unless you get offside with them, I have found Thais to be very helpful when it comes to any difficulties, questions or problems you may have, be they work related or otherwise.

The ability to not just speak Thai, but actually using it frequently, makes a HUGE difference. Notwithstanding that most of the Thai staff a farang typically works with would usually speak English to some degree, speaking Thai goes down extremely well and endears you with the locals quickly. Barriers are immediately broken. At my place of work it seems to be those who regularly engage the Thais in conversation in their lingo who seem to have the best relationship with them. The workplace is one environment where speaking Thai really does come in handy to maintain positive relationships – even if it is not required for the job as such.

Banter between workmates in Thai offices frequently borders on the sort of thing that would have the PC police in the West horrified. Just this week I was called over to a computer terminal by a female member of staff who wanted my opinion on whether a particular bikini clad Thai supermodel was hot or not!

The whole idea of sanuk is alive and well and even if the task at hand is mundane, the banter will be light and most members of staff will make every effort to raise the spirits of their colleagues. Working in Thailand is fun for the average farang. The lack of pressure, the generally laid back lifestyle and the fun nature of it all make it more attractive than the goal-driven pressure that many face on a daily basis in the West.

As with many other situations and interactions in Thailand, farangs working with Thais sort of fall outside the norms and rules. It's a cushy number but the obvious downside is that other than their pay packet they might not get much out of the experiences. This is but one of many downsides to working in Thailand…

It would be total denial to say that the average Thai workplace is anywhere near as efficient as a comparable work environment in the West. It sounds harsh, but things do not move at nearly the same pace in Thai workplaces as they do in the West. There is generally a lack of urgency and many staff seem unable or unwilling to see the big picture and just how their area of responsibility relates to that. The inability to prioritize tasks and manage time is a big problem with the local workers.

Cultural issues are inextricably linked to so much of what happens. The classic one is that bosses tend to be chosen by age. If they're older than their subordinates, they must be a good manager, right?!

There are often clashes between foreigners and locals. Westerners tend to be hired for specific skills but when they start to use those skills and try to work in the very way that they were hired to do, they may face resistance from locals who are not used to things being done that way. It is crazy really that we are hired for the very reason that we are different and then once we start they want us to work like them!

There does seem to be a mentality amongst many of the local staff that "this is the way we do things and rightly or wrongly, we are going to continue doing it that way, even if you can prove to us that there are better or more efficient ways of doing it!" Once again, the idea of harmony seems to be more important than actually getting things done. When contemporary management theory and Thai culture clash head on, local culture wins and business productivity loses.

The lack of productivity is not always due to working at a slow pace, but often due to being busy doing something else. I cannot imagine any of my past and present colleagues in a workplace with computers where the internet is banned. MSN Messenger is a curse for Thai employers and I am surprised that more workplaces don't block it. It seems that just about every employee uses it.

The mai pen rai attitude manifests itself in many ways. No real attempt is made to meet deadlines and the general lack of urgency regarding work related matters is startling. The only time I see urgency is when it comes to food.

At midday virtually every office in the country shuts down for an hour and everyone makes a rush to the local food vendor or restaurant. When it comes to food, Thais show that they can move as quickly as anyone else! Food plays a big part in the office and much of the morning is consumed with banter about what will be eaten at lunch time! Whenever someone goes upcountry, they will bring back food for their department, or perhaps even the whole office, from the place they went. In larger offices, every Monday morning can be something of a sampling session with regional delights being passed around for everyone to enjoy. It'd be nice to know what we're actually trying though. You can only call so many things "mystery meat"!

Many Thais do not know what to make of us Westerners. Senior Thai staff, particularly those who weren't educated abroad, lack confidence telling Western members of staff what to do or worse, actually disciplining a foreign member of staff. A number of times I've seen a Thai manager yell and scream at a member of staff who did something wrong but then just ignore a farang staff member who did the same thing.

Foreign staff who don't pull their weight or have problems with absenteeism (the "Heineken hangover" seems the major reason) all cause a major headache for Thai managers and it is often dealt with indirectly. Nothing will be said at the time and the foreign member of staff will simply find that their contract isn't renewed at the end of the year. Confrontation is avoided, and the problem is ultimately dealt with.

The grapevine is not just a means of gossip, but is something of a legitimate means of communication in the Thai workplace. Despite a relatively small office area and an excellent email system, a number of issues ranging from important meetings to general policies are distributed on the grapevine at my place of work.

All of the same difficulties Western men tend to have with Thai women in relationships are prevalent in the workplace in Thailand. The big one is the issue of face and what I would term extreme sensitivity. If you cause your girlfriend to lose face, she has a release valve that may involve your belongings flying from one side of your apartment to the other, but in the workplace, such release valves do not exist. One has to tread very carefully, for if you cause a colleague to lose face, it might be something which can never be fixed, meaning you'll never be able to work closely with them again. It is not unusual for them to just blank a Western member of staff who caused them to lose face. Blank them forever, and pretend that they do not exist!

I'm still undecided about working with the Thais but I guess that overall I would have to say that I have enjoyed it in terms of the relaxed nature of everything and the general lack of pressure. Us farangs are largely left to our own devices. We are given automatic respect simply based on the colour of our skin, and the size of our nose, even when it might not be deserved. The locals essentially say that "we'll give you respect, and it is up to you to lose it." And if you smile enough and don't upset them, you'll never lose it, irrespective of whether you are competent at your job or not.


WHERE IS THIS PICTURE Competition?

It was Sukhumvit Soi 5.

Lovely curves…

Last week's pic was of Sukhumvit 5, taken from the even numbered soi side of Sukhumvit Road. I was surprised how many people got it wrong, I thought it was too easy but in the end only around 20 people got it right. We have more prizes! This week's first prize is a 500 baht credit at Tony's Bar in Soi Cowboy. Second and third prizes are a 500 baht dinner voucher at the outstanding Sin in Sukhumvit Soi 4. The prizes are available to people in Thailand now – either resident or tourist. So, we are back up to three prizes a week. Yippee!

FROM STICKMAN'S EMAIL INBOX

Before, during and after.

I wonder if anybody has yet considered that if the sin sot notionally or actually is an insurance for the wife against the husband abandoning his innocent wife then does that suggest there is no divorce settlement traditionally? Would a divorcing Thai wife of a farang husband expect a divorce settlement as per Western legal system AS WELL as sin sot? Would she expect a settlement if her husband was Thai? In some other countries the family of the bride pays the husband for taking the daughter off their hands! Does a certain kind of Thai woman expect money BEFORE (getting "to know" one another), DURING (marriage, sin sot, look after wife and her family) and AFTER (divorce, sharing assets of the marriage which may or may not be disproportionately shared in favour of the wife). That's a lot of money. Why do we farang men even consider marrying beautiful young Thai women? Is it because we like being screwed?!

Avoid the control freaks!

Sometimes these women need to suck it up and say no to parental interferences. Life is after all not a dress rehearsal, there are no second chances at living it. If a woman has been university educated and has not cheated her way through school then she should have at least learned a bit about reasoning and logic. This problem is not exclusive to Thai culture alone, it exists in the United States too, all be it on a much smaller scale. When I got married my mother in law was a control freak. I told her that I married her daughter and not her, so stay out of my business and out of my road. It worked out great. Now many years after the divorce the ex-mother in law as well as her entire family with the exception of the ex-wife still consider me as part of the family. We get along very well. In Thailand I chose my girlfriend carefully. Because of this issue I cut short several relationships where the mother controlled the daughter. That is one battle I chose not to fight.

Peer pressure.

I thought that your comments on Thai women and the family pressures to conform, were spot on. The only thing I would add, is to never underestimate the peer pressures. I think this is especially true with the younger ladies. How sad that some very nice ladies are having to face bleak futures. This isn't confined to Thailand and could still be said of Asia as a whole.

A not uncommon complaint – always check when exchanging money!

Just wanted to let you know that when I was in Pattaya on 30 October this year I went to change some Australian dollars at the what looks like official currency exchange on the beach front road, not far from the Hard Rock. It was in the middle of the day. Now maybe my experience is repeated many times with others, but it did happen to me and was somewhat unexpected, particularly as it looked like an official money exchange. The man in the booth took my Australian currency that I had counted – A$2,000 in A$100 bills. I was chatting with my Thai friend and waiting for him to change money. He held up calculator to show amount, it read $1600, I was not concentrating particularly and nodded, but in an instant realised that it was very wrong. I said no, it is wrong, and took money back to count – it was $1800. I was sure I had given him $2,000. So I took the exchange for the $1800. I was sure that somehow he had slipped $200 away very quickly and then had tried it on for another $200. I will be much more careful in the future, and I shudder to think how many relaxed, drunk or hung-over people he has ripped off. Maybe a sting should be set up somehow for this guy?

Another disturbing trend.

I arrived in Bangkok at 1:00 AM, checked into a hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 19, went out and had a couple of beers. I ended up with 2 ladies I think, and woke up drugged about 18 hours later in my room. Wallet, camera and cash missing. This hotel does not require to have ID checks. I had spread my cash into different locations and they did not clean me out. I was too embarrassed to report it to the hotel and did not think the tourist police could do much without IDs. I am now home and did manage to stop the credit cards before too much damage was done, I did not realise that my ATM card could be used without the pin, well try about $US5,000 worth! I will get that taken care of. I am in the process of getting identity protection as they got all my info. Ok, I am not going to make any excuses for my total stupidity. I should have known better. I trust people too much. The beer they drugged me with only had maybe one drink out of it. Whatever they used wiped out almost all recollection of the event and players. I went to the hospital the next afternoon for a couple of pre-arranged tests and was knocked out at how high my blood pressure, a side effect of the drug. They had me come back some hours later for another check and it had come down to a much better level. It took a couple days to feel normal again.

Love blinds.

Sin sot creates more problems than it solves. It is also where you can see the real greed of a family. But, you can only normally see this as an outsider and not someone who is in love with the girl and really believes it is about him and not his money. This is the real tragedy, not the money but the denial by the men. And this can set up a continual pattern of abuse. The man not only marries the Thai family but the Thai girl also marries his family although you would never know that because this is never mentioned and the Thai family including the new Thai bride could really give a shit about his family in his country (at least 90 percent of the time).

Christmas has brought some very bad news for one bar owner down at the Pong who has been told that the rent for the space occupied by his bar is not just going to increase next month, it is going to absolutely soar and in the case of this particular bar, it will now take a cool 10,000 baht a day for rent just to open the doors everyday! The management of this bar fully expects other bars to get the same bad news when their lease comes up. A gentleman from this bar is tearing his hair out and doesn't know how much longer he will be able to stay in business. One can only guess that there will soon be massive increases in prices down at Patpong and if this eventuates, Patpong will once again be the most expensive bar area in Bangkok. Alternatively, look for lots of bars to come up for sale in the near future and be replaced by shops selling copied bags and clothes, the big growth area at Patpong over the last few years, and the type of venue that could easily finance these sort of rental rates.

A very nasty fight broke out in the Nana Hotel car park on Monday night and eye witness reports have it that a farang had the crap beaten out of him by a Thai. He was hit a few times and fell to the ground where he was pounded until unconscious. Medical help was sought and he was hauled into an ambulance and rushed away for treatment. But the story does not end there and the usual story of perpetrator just disappear away into the crowd was not to be… The thug ran across the road, and misjudging his getaway was hit by a car! And in what turned out to be poetic justice, he was hurt so badly that he couldn't get up! The boys in brown were soon on the scene and the thug was duly arrested and taken away to the local cop shop where he had a lot of explaining to do. The motorbike boys on the corner of soi 4, themselves a hard bunch, were shaking their heads at what this guy had done, saying that he went way too far. The rumour mill has it that the farang died, but this is something I have been unable to confirm at this stage.

Catz in Pattaya has picked up and the owners are delighted as they didn't expect to be doing this level of business just yet with many punters unaware of the existence of the complex. They started shows last Saturday, commencing at 9.30 and thereon after on the hour and half hour is a 8-10 minute show (they then revert to normal dancing). The shows are a little different to the normal Pattaya fare and they plan to add two more at the end of this month – but these require more training / practice hence the delay. For the first time ever on Tuesday night, they had to turn customers away as there was simply no way they could squeeze anybody else in there! A bar owner's dream and long may it continue.

The Windmill Club in Soi Diamond is improving after an initial shortage of girls with considerably more comely ladies now employed. Draft beer can be had at happy hour for just 35 baht and all night at 50 baht, the same price as some house whiskey, vodka and rum. Girls now change table every song and the interior has been improved. Perhaps most interestingly, this bar is soon to open from 2:00 in the afternoon, right through to late.

The Bus Stop in Sukhumvit Soi 4 is coming along well and the building will be ready well before they plan to move in, in early April, just before Songkran, on an auspicious day chosen by monks.

The Ball In Hand's new branch in Times Square is now open featuring 9 Brunswick tables as seen in the World Championship 2005. They are available by the hour or challenge. There is a complete pro shop providing equipment sales and repairs. The whole place is all very nice and there is a large centre bar.

I was very surprised to see that Spice Girls, Deja Vu and Midnite Bar, all of which can be found at Soi Cowboy, had notices up looking for staff, all around Nana Plaza! I can't remember ever seeing this before and it won't win the already unpopular owner of the three aforementioned bars any friends at Nana. Perhaps what is even more surprising is the apathy in allowing these ads to remain up. I thought Nana's management would have pulled them down the movement they laid eyes on them?

With lots of new neon up, Nana looks better than it ever has. In fact you can you could say the whole place is lit up like a Christmas tree with a number of don Christmases to be found. Down at Soi Cowboy it is much the same, in fact every bar down there seems to have several Xmas trees erected outside.

But the Christmas spirit is not being entered into by everyone and despite it being the holiday season, you'll be shown the door in Nana bars at 1:00 AM sharp. Don't blame the bar owners mind you, they'd love to serve you drinks much later than that.

There has been a re-modelling of the exterior of Casanova Bar in Nana Plaza and there are now these Roman-like statuettes outside, keeping an eye over the proceedings. Is there such a thing as katoey statuettes?

Playskool collected 47,100 baht at the recent dance contest they hosted. Peter personally doubled that amount and the kids at the charity the money is destined for will get 94,200 baht for Christmas. Not bad at all and high hopes are held for the next two dance contests on January 15 and the final on February 26.

Racism has once again reared its ugly head in Soi Cowboy. Two of the biggest name bars this week refused entry to a gentleman of Indian ethnicity who had previously been in each of the bars numerous times with some of his local workmates, most of whom are white. He managed to enter one of the two bars by saying he had mates inside waiting for him, white mates that is. Complaints like this pop up from time to time with Rainbow 2 the most well-known establishment for saying that it is a membership only place if someone of Indian or Middle Eastern descent tries to enter. I wonder if the day will come when whites are turned away en masse from Nana or Cowboy bars?

Just as punter numbers in Pattaya bars had dropped off last week from the first week of December, so too does Nana Plaza appear to have eased off in customer numbers just a little. Things are still busy, but they're not quite peaking yet. The busiest bars remain Rainbows 1, 2 and 4, along with Angelwitch, G Spot and the dark horse, Pretty Lady.

They're saying that what looks to be Pattaya's biggest gogo bar should open before the end of the year. Angelwitch Pattaya, which promises so much, should be open some time in the next two weeks with owner Matt extremely keen to get things rolling at what should be the peak of the high season.

What's the deal with driving in Thailand while talking on a mobile? Is it allowed? I asked one of my police contacts and he said "no problem for you". What does that mean?! Nothing pisses me off more than when I am sitting in a cab and the driver engages in sweet talk with his Mrs. in the barn nok.

I notice more and more open wi-fi connections in not just Bangkok, but rural Thailand. There I was last weekend at the mother in law's place when I thought I'd flick on the wi-fi switch and see what happened. Well, what do you know, there's an ultra-fast open signal right there in suburban Korat.

A mate from Kiwiland was in town this week. We were enjoying a drink in a Soi 33 bar when he said two words I dread hearing, "hospital, fast". Into a taxi and Thailand's very own version of Michael Schumacher rushed him to the nearest big, international standard hospital. He was promptly seen to, administered some pain killers and muscle relaxants and started feeling a bit better. As he was explaining to me the nature of the pain, I hypothesized that it could be a kidney stone and when he went to give a urine sample just 10 minutes later, a stone came out! He showed this to the doctor who filed it away, waited for the results of the blood and urine and then pronounced that no, it was not a kidney stone and that pissing stones out is quite normal! Shocked at such a comment from a health professional in one of the supposedly best hospitals in Bangkok (I'm not naming it but if you know Bangkok, you'll quickly work out where I took him), we decided that he was better off at my preferred hospital so we jumped in another cab and went to BNH. At BNH further tests were conducted and a kidney stone as well as a kidney infection were diagnosed. Yet another thumbs up for BNH.

Santa is coming to Bangkok. On December 18 you can put on your Santa suit (or dress in red and white and get the rest from them) and join the Santas on Sunday today for a day and night of Santarchy on the streets of Bangkok. Apparently the Santa convention started in San Francisco in 1994 and spread like a social disease to 22 cities last year, including New York, Tokyo and even McMurdo Station, Antarctica. The meeting time and places are 3 PM at Gulliver's on Khao San Road and 7 PM at O’Reilly’s on the corner of Silom Road and Soi Thaniya.

Following on from the sin sot article, it would seem that some discussion was generated by it amongst hi-so Thais, and from all accounts they are shocked at the amounts of sin sot being asked of foreigners. Feedback from the hi-so set is that some lower and lower-middle class Thais are totally abusing this aspect of Thai culture, distorting it to suit themselves – and the hi-so set are appalled. So there you have it!

This article appeared in the Thai press about the increasingly common issue of dual-pricing, and includes a few quotes from yours truly.

Ask the Sticks

Mrs. Stick is here to answer questions surrounding anything that confuses you in Thailand, particularly issues of the heart. Please note that for general bargirl related questions, Mr. Stick might answer them. It has to be said that Mrs. Stick is not your stereotypical Thai woman. She is not Buddhist and she is not shy to criticise things about her own country and culture, although having said that, she remains proud to be Thai. Mr. Stick will try and answer the questions which Mrs. Stick is not so sure about. Please do try and limit the length of questions to Mrs. Stick to about 100 words. We get many questions that are entire stories of several hundred words which I'm afraid are just too long to run here.

Question 1: On occasions I have seen my girlfriend smiling at men in what I perceive as a provocative smile. I once watched her actions in a mirror unbeknownst to her and a man once verified this as being true. Thai friends tell me all Thai ladies smile and it’s nothing. Farang friends confirm my negative thoughts. When women smiles at me like this I believe the woman has no real love or respect for the man she’s with. I understand the dynamics of sexual attention, the need to feel sexy and have high self-esteem. I used to believe I knew the difference between friendly smiles and provocative smiles. Now I’m confused. Please comment on this issue. I’m about to drop someone where it may in fact be a cultural difference issue. Your thoughts are valued.

Mrs. Stick says: I would say that you need to trust your own feelings on this one. Everyone is different and what is normal for each person is different, but you should know your girlfriend better than anyone. Often there is body language involved too which is something which cannot hide one's feelings so try to look for the classic signs of flirting or attraction. For me, if I did not know a man I would not smile at him because it might encourage him. That is exactly what your girlfriend is doing. But for some people, this is simply their character and you have to factor that in too.

Question 2: How do Thais view engagements? I am planning on getting engaged to my beloved soon, I have a nice diamond ring and before I show it to her I want to talk to her father and ask if I am allowed to marry her. I plan on working offshore for another year to save money then come back to Thailand. I love her and want to show serious commitment and intent, but I don't want to rush into marriage before testing our sincerity and strength with some time and trials. How do you think they would react to a 1 year engagement period?

Mrs. Stick says: The parents should understand this. I see many Thai couples spend much longer than a year engaged, and for the very same reason you state here. Once your girlfriend understands, I do not see any reason why the parents would have a problem with this. If your girlfriend agrees, then really, that is the primary concern.

Question 3: I am married to a Thai woman who refuses to talk about issues between us. If she thinks I have done something wrong, or something that she doesn't like, she did anything from criticise to scream and yell, but if I try and politely raise an issue of something she has done that I do not like, or that is clearly wrong, she gets all emotional about it, sulks and refuses to talk it out. If we do not talk about these issues then they will remain forever and eventually will become too much and destroy the marriage. How can I raise them with her. What strategy would you recommend I use?

Mrs. Stick says: First you have to break the ice gently because Thai people don't like confrontation and really don't like to hear negative things. So first you have to break the ice by saying something like "I know I have some things that you don't like and I am willing to change. Would you be ok if there is something about you which you would be willing to change to make couple life so much better?" Don't come up with a negative thing first as few people will appreciate this, especially Thais. Hopefully by breaking it gently to her she will be more responsive to what follows.


Feedback to the opening piece of the column is always welcome and I am sure there must be some funny stories from people who have spent time working with the locals.

Next week's column falls on Christmas Day. At this stage I am not sure if the column will go online on Christmas Day itself, or the following day. Whatever the case, there will be a column next week, but it might be up to 24 hours late. If it doesn't go up on Sunday, it'll definitely be there on the Monday.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Thanks go out to Bkk Grasshopper, Claymore and Dave The Rave.