BREAKING THE BANK LINES
By Andrew Biggs
This is the sign, prominent and loud, that pounced on me as I strolled past Bangkok Bank this week.
“PLEASE GET A LINE,” it announced, stuck to a glass window, behind which a bank teller, as sullen as he was youthful, sat with a face like thunder.
My right hand twitched, wanting to reach for my top pocket where a whiteboard marker nestled, so that it could change the N in LINE to an F. Because that’s the kinda guy I am.
The sign both worried and comforted me.
Worried, because what is it about putting the English more prominently than the Tagalog and Thai? Are we westerners bigger line-jumpers than those two?
This was not Silom or Soi Cowboy. This was near the Khlong Toey slum on Rama 4 Road, a tract of Bangkok not overly frequented by native English speakers except, of course, for hotel managers and embassy staff visiting their dealers. So why was the English more prominent than the Thai? As for the Tagalog, I can’t imagine the friendly Filipinos being line-jumpers.
Nevertheless the surly young man was making a point. For goodness sake, foreigners, form a line will you? That in itself is a good sign for it shows banks are at least making an effort.
When people ask me what big changes I have seen in Thailand over the past two decades, one of them has to be at the banks.
You should have been around here 20 years ago.
Those were the bad old days when there was an 18-month wait to get a telephone line installed, and going to the bank was like pulling out your own toenail with oversized tweezers, something I do regularly just to remind myself of how awful an experience it used to be.
Twenty years ago, going to the bank required a bankbook, a pen, and a copy of Crime And Punishment.
To make a transaction you filled out forms in triplicate, placed them in your bankbook and took it up to the counter, behind which sat dusty middle-aged men and women tellers in faded light brown shirts and nylon slacks.
You put your bankbook in an old rusty wire basket, already full of other bankbooks, and stood back. And waited. And waited.
There was no central basket. If there were four dusty tellers there would be four rusty baskets, and you had to take your pick.
You never knew if the bankbook under yours was a simple withdrawal of 400 Baht to pay the Burmese maid’s monthly wages, or some businessman wanting to close his account and open another one. The former was a five-minute job; the latter required a tent and tinned food and War And Peace (if you were more than half-way through Crime And Punishment).
Now and again, one of the tellers would pick up the basket and flip it over.
Slowly he would go through the pile of bankbooks, calling out your name when he got to you.
What a nightmare. You couldn’t even duck out for a few minutes for an ice-cream lest your name be called and, upon not replying, your bankbook was jettisoned to the very top of the new basket that had yet to be flipped over.
It was hot and there was no air–conditioning. Heaven help you if you’d eaten a bad hoi tod the night before. That happened to me once. I remember using all the will power I could remember from my Uri Geller phase to control myself as waves of nauseating spasms engulfed my body. The bank bathrooms were in sight but what happened if I ran out there and my name was called?
When the dusty man finally did call your name you’d crawl over to the teller on your knees, like an impoverished upcountry maid does as she approaches her fabulously wealthy khunying boss in Thai soap operas. That’s how it felt, anyway.
The teller worked with all the speed of an ailing snail. Now and again he would get up and disappear from his desk. Attending to critical bank business? A cigarette break more like it.
Another thing that retarded things even further was line jumpers … men who never crawled up to the counter. Rather, they marched in with their shoulders back and smelling of Brylcreem.
They slammed down wads of bankbooks and chatted openly with the tellers. Nobody dared say anything for fear they were somebody with a good surname or carrying a gun. But they made the wait longer, and to this day the smell of Brylcreem makes me want to reach for Dostoyevsky.
In the mid-to-late 1990s banks started to toy with the idea of making people stand in line. I remember wanting to dance the Macarena, big at the time, when I first saw one in a bank. We can thank the tom yam kung economic crash for that, after which foreign banks were allowed in and – gasp – the locals were exposed to strange never-before-seen things like ubiquitous ATMS, teller efficiency and standing in line.
No more rusty baskets. But like public restrooms in this country, the idea of a single line for all tellers was way off. Instead we had four lines for four tellers.
I would choose teller number three and sure enough, Murphy’s Law, I was right behind the Yaowarat grandfather depositing his sack of one-baht coins that required counting.
So things are much, much better when it comes to banks. The tellers aren’t as dusty as they used to be, while finally we take numbers and are called forth, not by curmudgeons, but a friendly, slightly erotic-sounding female computer voice.
As for the sign with the wrong English I saw this week … that story has a happy ending.
I returned to the sign the next day to take a photo of it, and the same youthful teller was sitting there.
Upon seeing me, he ran up to me with a big smile. It turns out he wasn’t such a surly young man after all. On the contrary, he was keen to know what was wrong with the words and how the sign could be improved.
I suggested “Please form a line”. He asked about “Please get in line” but I said that might be okay for the Thai Military Bank but not for the more touchy-feely Bangkok Bank. He got me to write the correct English down for him, and even waiied me as thanks.
“And what about the Tagalog … is it correct?” he then asked, to which I replied I had limited knowledge of that language.
“Shame,” he said. “That’s the language out of all of them I really need to get right.”
Oh … really??
On that note he and I parted, both with new-found knowledge; his in the form of a new English sign, and mine in the comforting fact that Filipinos are even worse queue-jumpers than we westerners. Who would have thought?