Bangkok Journal Chapter 5 - Rainy Day People

Dedicated to Lady T and to MJK, in response

“Have you found that a lot of people speak English or German there?” - Lady T.

“sooo, here is a question. Thai culture. Noraseth is the only Thai person I have been around (except in restaurants …) and he is so sweet, quiet, intense, very rich, etc…” - MJK

Distracted Diva Detour

Obviously MJK has never seen Noraseth have one of his infamous diva crises, during which he turns into the evil and impossible creature I call “Mariah Whitney”. Let’s take a diva-detour, shall we, into one of those very episodes, which happened just this past Monday and involved two things quite common in Bangkok at the moment – umbrellas and rain.

Every year, from about July until November (the same time as hurricane season in the Caribbean) is the rainy season – influenced by the monsoons just a little south of here. It’s humid during the day, very humid, extremely humid, intensely humid. And then it pours. And remains humid, very humid, extremely humid, intensely humid. Usually, like in Florida during the summer, the rain happens in the late afternoon or early evening. It can pour for hours – and it can happen earlier some days. Noraseth always carries a small umbrella in his bag. I always forget mine at home (in Kassel I was famous for leaving umbrellas in the tram and all around town).

It’s been raining in this manner almost every day since we’ve arrived. It rained on Monday, after my interview at Chulalongkorn University (still waiting to hear from them and losing hope by the minute) and before Noraseth’s German seminar there. We went to lunch at a mall nearby. Noraseth wanted to eat in the student cafeteria, but we’d had breakfast there and I was interested in a little variety. So we walked over to Paragon, one of the more touristy and, therefore, expensive malls. We found a restaurant, ate and got some take out to take back to one of Noraseth’s friends at Chula (the woman with the smelly jogging shoes in her car – see Chapter 3). And, after searching for an hour, we bought a second umbrella since I’d left mine at home (true to form). We knew it would be raining later. Well, it was raining as we walked out of the mall, so we popped both umbrellas open and one of the spokes on the new one was broken so the entire thing wouldn’t work. This was, by chance, the umbrella Noraseth was holding. “Shit,” he said, in English, which he speaks very well, especially in moments of rainy stress. Then he cried out, in German, that he’d already thrown away the receipt. Suddenly he turned towards me with a pre-diva scowl (remember those campfire ghost stories that began “slowly he turned, step by step, inch by inch…” It was kind of like that – and doubly dramatic with the thunder and lightning sparking the grey sky.) I knew I was in for it now.

“This is YOUR fault!” he exclaimed (and nothing sounds as intense as being blamed for something in grammatically perfect, loud German). “But you threw away the receipt,” I said. “But YOU,” he informed me pointing a finger, “wanted to leave the university to eat lunch even after I warned you it looked like it was going to rain AND you were rushing me when I bought the umbrella so I didn’t open it to see if it worked.” (Sounds like one of my arguments, I have to admit, so I could relate.) He then went on to curse the quality of cheap Thai umbrellas and the factories that manufacture them and respectfully cited the quality standards of German engineering and products as the ideal that this particular umbrella failed to meet (at least it was cute – pink with little flowers. Normally we wouldn’t buy a small, pink umbrella, but, in a true Murphy’s Law moment, it had taken us about an hour in the mall to simply find an umbrella and the only ones they had were for little girls.)

“Here,” I said, as he first beat the new-yet-not-working umbrella repeatedly against a street light post before throwing it on the ground and stomping on it several times, “why don’t we share this one.” And I offered him the other, rather small umbrella that he’d been carrying in his bag all morning. (It’s important to note that we were still standing on the mall veranda, under an overhang and were not getting wet yet.) His eyes squinted into furious slits and he snatched the umbrella out of my hand, raised it above his head while spinning around on his heels without saying a word (the “Mariah” stage) and began walking off into the rain without me. I caught up quick and grabbed onto the umbrella handle with him, whispering calm and reassuring words into his ear, things like “next time we’ll keep the receipt and remember to open the umbrella first in the store.” He just turned his head away from me and stuck his nose in the air (the “Whitney” stage).

Halfway between the mall and the university we stopped at a bus stop. We would, I supposed, try to wait out the remainder of the storm, but this one looked to have no end in site. “Look,” he said showing me the short shirt sleeve on the side of his arm that had been exposed the elements, “my sleeve is wet!” “So is mine,” I told him, showing him the now dark-blue arm of my normally light-blue dress shirt, “but it’s okay.”

“And my SHOES!” he went on, now pointing down at the hush-puppy low soled moccasins he’d bought in Kassel, which I’d told him at the time looked unsuitable for heavy rain and the deep puddles and lakes of water that he described happened in Bangkok in such circumstance (I didn’t mention that now, though. Not yet, anyway).

“My FEET are WET!” “You warned me that this would happen in Thailand,” I said, in my best reasonable-but-not-whiney voice. “You told me we’d get wet in the rainy season and that that’s just part of life here and that I’d have to accept it. I accept it. I’m wet, it’s okay. I’ll be dry again later. Isn’t that how it works?”

Never try to remind a diva about rational advice they’ve given you for the same situation you’re in when they are being irrational. This caused a high-gear shift into full-blown diva mode and, able to leap over tall sound stages in a single bound, Mariah Whitney ran dramatically away from the bus stop, into the rain, because, well, we’re wet now and it’s the end of the fucking world so why not? Of course, I followed, trying to keep the umbrella over the whirling dervish in front of me. MW, of course, kept swatting the umbrella away as if it were a pest or dodging from side to side so he could continue to get wet and blame it on me. Any moment I expected him to stop and step up to a microphone, resigned and world-weary, to offer a medley of hits beginning with “Nobody knows the trouble I seen”. But he kept on moving and we made it back to the university veranda. The rain, of course – in the second perfect Murphy’s Law moment of the day, stopped the moment we arrived there. And the crisis was over. He even gave me a little kiss there, in public (Public displays of affection in Thailand, even among straights, are rare, so this was really something) before trudging damply off to his seminar. Later, he even gave his permission for the story to be used in this journal. What is a diva, after all, without publicity?

Cul-cha (Culture) for MJK

Noraseth may be Thai, but I don’t think most Thais behave the way I described above. Probably living with me has something to do with influencing his moods, but who knows? He does confirm that some Thais, like him, will hold things inside until they blow up. And then they won’t want to talk to you. Honestly, I don’t know the Thais well enough to make good enough observations of what is and isn’t typical. I can only tell what I’ve noticed in the first week of being here.

Thais are friendly and polite (Thailand isn’t called “The Land of Smiles” for nothing). Especially in the shops, people are friendly and service oriented. They even wai (hands folded together as if in prayer, brought to the front of the face, just below the nose – an extremely polite form of greeting) after handing you your purchase.

Sometimes Noraseth says this politeness, the need to agree or say “yes”, can be misleading. He told me the friendliness and politeness that I notice everywhere is superficial. People will promise something they can’t or won’t do in order to appear to be polite. We waited most of the morning yesterday for the maintenance guy to come and put up a rod for a shower curtain in the bathroom. He promised to come at 8.30 and never showed. Noraseth saw him downstairs when he went to put some wash in the machine (there’s a small Laundromat) and he kept smiling and saying he still intended to come with the rod soon. But the manager overheard the conversation and pulled Noraseth aside later to tell him that the man doesn’t have a rod – that’s something we have to buy for ourselves – and that he won’t ever be by to bring and hang one. Nori described that to me as “typical” here.

I have noticed a certain tendency to get distracted or easily pulled off course – or to take longer to do something that the time originally planned (a lot of that is in relation to the traffic. For instance, Noraseth’s sister, Mod, as I think I mentioned in earlier entries, seems a little distracted or unreliable in her free time, but is focused when she’s at work (we met her at her office before dinner last night, so I got to see her in action). Noraseth can be also very distracted at times (but not when he’s writing. How else would he have ever finished his dissertation?) Plans get changed when other things come up and you have to be flexible and “go with the flow” in your free time. But how much of that is influenced by the traffic and environment (or is it the other way around – does the culture make the traffic and environment the way it is). It’s both, according to Noraseth (who agrees that in general here, and not just with he and Mod, people are focused at work and flexible in free time). Sometimes Thais have the reputation of being “lazy.” Believe me, after dealing with work – in my case just interviews – not to mention the crazy heat and chaos of commuting – I’m lazy and distracted and going with the flow this weekend too. I’ve lost all sense of time. (Hope I keep that feeling in my free time after I start working and having a regular routine.)

Work hours, though, are long and people are quite motivated and productive when on the job from what I’ve seen. RMIT English School is open and has classes up until 9 p.m. Shops are open until 10 or 11 p.m. Mod and Pa were in the shop until 7 p.m. the day we went to meet them (but I don’t know what time they started). I get the feeling no one watches the clock here and that the business day begins when you get up (and/or get through the traffic) and ends late in the evening before dinner.

The guys at RMIT also told me that a lot of the students there have schedules planned (or over planned) by their parents, and that they are respectful of their parents and the plans the parents have made for them. They indicated to me that this was typical of the Thai culture. Many Thais live at home until they get married (which can happen as late as thirty. Mod is 35, unmarried and lives at home with the family, often takes care of dad. Noraseth’s brother, on the other hand, also lives at home but he’s odd and doesn’t help out with anything or anyone. But he has opinions on how everyone should be doing the things he isn’t! I think – I hope – he’s untypical!)

Let’s see, what else. How about the Asian stereotype of inscrutableness – you never know what’s behind the “poker face.” Specifically regarding “reading” the Thais, let me share a short story about Noraseth’s father.

I met Noraseth’s father and Mod on my first visit a few years ago. The four of us took a five day trip to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai – the north of Thailand – together. We got along very well. They seemed to like me. Noraseth’s dad doesn’t say much (and I couldn’t/can’t chat with him even if he were a chatter) but seems like a content kind of guy. Of course, on this trip the exact nature of my relationship with Noraseth wasn’t explicitly defined. Noraseth took care of that explanation when he was here in April doing prep work for our move. According to Noraseth, only his brother has a problem with us being together (which is why we’re not staying with the family during this transition). His father simply said “Noraseth is old enough to make his own decisions.”

In spite of that, I was a bit nervous when we finally all met up at the airport last Saturday. We’d been waiting for them for a few hours (traffic jam) and I came walking back from the rest room and realized I was staring right at Noraseth’s father. (Nori and Mod were behind him and I couldn’t see them at first.) I realized he didn’t recognize me, but I wai’ed and said hello in Thai (“Sawadee Krab”). He frowned – until Mod turned around and said, I think (it was in Thai) “Hey, that’s Scott.” Then he smiled and returned the greeting. We went out to dinner on the way to our new apartment (Mod had made the arrangements for us – she’s a great travel and lodging resource). Papa (that’s what they call him) didn’t say much and he never looked at me. I was convinced, now that he knew he “truth”, that he hated me.

A few days later Noraseth had to go with Papa and Mod to the hospital for some lung tests for Papa. I stayed home to prepare for the Chulalongkorn interview the next day. When Noraseth returned, he said “My father asked about you. He wanted to know if you were okay and why you didn’t come with.” You mean he likes me? Of course he likes you, Noraseth said. I would have never been able to tell from his “poker” face! (And I was happy to hear this news – made me feel welcomed and included.) So, I guess it’s going to take me some time to figure out how to “read” the Thais, if I ever learn to do so at all!

Back to the streets: I observe a lot in traffic, since being in traffic is a large part of daily life in Bangkok. I’ve noticed Thais move as part of a co-operative group in both pedestrian and vehicular traffic (see Chapter 4). There’s not a big need to express individuality in public, especially when moving around in public, and it would actually be a hindrance, so why bother. You can, of course, see wonderfully individual styles when you’re not out navigating the sidewalks and streets. A visit to the mall will confirm that, in any culture, it’s the place to seen and be seen. All the latest trends are on display – tattoos, piercings, wild hair colourings – but not in the vast amounts I’ve seen in Germany or New York. And there’s not the suggestive, almost slutty clothes style here (i.e. no boxers or thongs sticking out of the back of pants of either sex). Thais wear a lot of shorts and tee-shirts (it’s hot here!) but never seem to be showing as much skin as the tourists. Perhaps it’s the style of shorts and shirts – or maybe the discretion is in their attitude, but that’s my impression (remember, though, I’ve never been to any of the bar or red light districts here – straight or gay – and I have no intention of going. The sex trade is big business here, but most normal Thais shun it. They tolerate sexuality – even homosexuality (the lady boys are everywhere and no one blinks an eye at them) – but it’s to be kept discreet.

Speaking of malls, there are a lot of them here. Thais love to shop (at least in Bangkok). It’s a passion, like in the U.S.A. I haven’t observed yet whether this is done more in general on a credit basis (also like in America) or in a more thrifty way like in Germany (i.e. spending extra money rather than going into deep debt). Noraseth tells me that credit card abuse and the related problems are becoming more and more an issue here, so the shopping thing (and the way it’s done) seems to be more from American influence rather than European.

Other than those impressions, which are extremely general and probably somewhat uninformed, I don’t know if I can accurately describe anything else about Thai culture. (for Theravadic Buddhist influence in Thai culture – Thailand is 95% Theravada Buddhist – check out the book Phra Farang – An English Monk in Thailand by Phra Peter Pannapadipo. Lesley in Vancouver has a copy.)

What I can describe, though, with some accuracy, is how the Thais look physically. Most are short and thin and are brown skinned and black haired (straight Asian hair) with angular, relaxed faces. We saw the exception-proving-the-rule yesterday at the mall. This guy must’ve been six-five (over two metres)! Lean, like a basketball player. But he stood out because of it. Most Thais are tiny. I keep thinking they look like pre-teen or teenage Americans, they are that small. At RMIT, where I’ll be teaching my class Monday, the English and Australian teachers made a big point to show me how to adjust the normally low-set office chairs to a height where my knees wouldn’t poke me in the eyes when I sat down. And some products here reflect that smallness. I normally buy a medium or large shirt, for instance. Here it’s extra large or above. Large here is based on the size of Thais, and their “large” is often too “small” for me. (When I buy underwear, I judge the correct size by whether my voice goes up an octave when I step into a pair of briefs. I’m a sorprano with large, alto with extra-large and XXL brings me back to the normal baritone that I find comfortable).

There are a lot of Chinese-Thais in Thailand. Noraseth is Chinese-Thai. Both sets of his great-grandparents fled China in the 1930s during one of the revolutions. That caused a big influx of Chinese into the area. They are noticeably more round faced and lighter skinned. Therefore, they are a visible minority and were often treated poorly until about the early 1960s. I find that interesting.

Language for Lady T

And, of course, they speak Thai here in Thailand. English is an “official” second language and some people speak it well (like the professors at Chulalongkorn who interviewed me – or Noraseth, although we always speak German together). Some people speak it shyly. At the Japanese restaurant yesterday, where we had great tempura and sushi, one of the waiters whispered to me, conspiritorily, as I was leaving: “Thank you, please come again.” Some of the standard polite phrases have been memorized by hotel and tourist industry workers. Even some cab drivers speak a little English.

I think most people are shy about speaking English, though, because their English is not at the level or of the quality you experience in Europe. In my first attempts at learning Thai, I understand why – the languages are so completely different as to be opposite (the Thai letter for “Th” looks like a capital Latin “N” with a little curlicue). Mod is a perfect example of this hesitancy to speak because of limited ability. She and her boss at the travel agency both speak a broken, imperfect English. Mod is shy about it, Pa – her boss, and a very wild woman – is more daring.

Written English on some of the signs is always interesting. It’s not always accurate, sometimes even in the most professional of settings. I saw a banner on a taxi yesterday that read “Long Live of the King.”

To answer Lady T’s question, I’ve found some of Noraseth’s German colleagues to speak German with (as well as continuing that tradition with him). I speak German with all our Thai friends from Kassel who made the move back to Bangkok before us (you’d be surprised how many of them there are!). I spoke English in my interview at RMIT and in the introductions with fellow teachers there (and I look forward to continuing to do so – they seemed to have a nice, joking banter going on). I “speak” English in these journal entries. And I listen carefully to the Thai spoken around me, trying to absorb and get used to the language. But I don’t talk much – yet – to Thais in public. Can’t wait until I can (in English or Thai) and have a chance to get to know them and the culture even more.

Here’s a little update with a little more experience, namely today’s:
I taught my first class (just one student) at RMIT, the Australian business school. It went well. She was a little shy at first (she's 15) but then she opened up a bit and started speaking more. She's only 15. Her nickname is "Oyl" (like Olive Oyl). Her real name is something long that I wouldn't be able to pronounce anyway (good thing all Thais have short nicknames. Noraseth's is "Man". He tells me that's quite common - like "Bud" would be in English.) No word from the university. Noraseth thinks that could take awhile. But I find the lack of contact from them making me start to lose hope. (Doesn't matter, though, there's plenty of work. But I'll probably have to leave the country after one month and return since I can't get a visa until someone hires me. I'll either take the bus to Laos or fly to Singapore.)

It's been a tiring - but very interesting - first week and few days. Everything is starting to look very normal and I'm starting to know my way around a bit - today I traveled for the first time alone. Nori went the first bit of distance with me, told the old man driver where to let me off, and then got out at his university. But then the driver surprised me by speaking (broken) English all the way to the subway station where he was to let me off. Kind of like "Traffic in Bangkok very confusing. Traffic here bad. Where you come from sir?" When I told him New York (it's easier than saying NJ - everyone knows where NYC is, not many people outside the states know where NJ is - well, even some in the states don't know where NJ is!) he said "oh, tall buildings, very, very sorry", which meant he was offering his sympathy about 9-11. He was the LAST person I expected to be able to speak even a little English, and, even though his English was far from perfect, he was able to always get his point across. Oyl, on the other hand, as an intermediate student was often stopped by her shyness and her lack of confidence in saying even a simple sentence (especially at the beginning of the lesson). She did really well reading out loud, though and knows her grammar rules. For her, it's just the spontaneous speaking that needs work (a lot of work). Guess it's going to be the same for me with Thai!

Bangkok, 1 September 2007