By Andrew Biggs
Here we are in Thailand wedged between Christmas and New Year in the season of goodwill, generous in our hugs and kisses and sniffing cheeks, regardless of race and religion.
Stop right there … did I just write sniffing cheeks?
Yes I did. Thailand may be the Land of Smiles but we are also the Land of Sniffs. We are perhaps the only country in the world where we sniff cheeks to show affection.
The western world loves to nudge and wink and make disparaging remarks about Bangkok being the sex capital of the world. If only they knew the truth.
Just this week, in a three-star hotel room in a remote B-list province up North, I had grown tired of counting those bright white cockroach eggs in the bathroom and, in an effort to suppress the sound of overpriced Singha beer cans screaming out “Drink me! Drink me!” in the mini-bar fridge, I flicked on the cable TV.
There was some American sitcom, so hilarious it required canned laughter to remind us when it was funny. One of the characters expressed some outlandish point of view and her sidekick did a double take.
“You want me to believe that?,” he shot back sarcastically, hands on hips, sneer in first gear. “Next thing you’ll tell me, everybody goes to Bangkok for the food.” Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!
This kind of stereotyping is as unfair as it is unfunny. Thai society is extremely conservative.
Take general displays of affection. It is a common sight in this country to see western men walking blissfully down the street, hand-in-hand with his new-found Thai girlfriend. He may be blissfully walking, but he is also blissfully unaware that his girl is squirming under the harsh, pince-nez glare of Thai society around her.
That’s because couples can’t show displays of affection in public. Guys and guys can hold hands, since that’s not sexual unless you’re dancing to Bronski Beat on DJ Station’s retro night. Girls and girls are also very touchy-feely for similar reasons.
But a guy and a girl holding hands suggests sexual attraction, and that is as frowned upon in public here as it is necessary to perpetuate that very same society.
If holding hands is considered a little too intrusive by Thai standards, then what about kissing?
I wasn’t aware of the total absence of kissing on the streets until one morning, about 15 years ago, as I crept along in my car at snail’s pace on Srinakharin Road. My eyes casually glanced at a young Thai couple, probably about 18 years old, standing at the bus stop … kissing.
I nearly rear-ended the pick-up in front of me. No, I was not being prudish nor voyeuristic; I realized that after ten years in Thailand, that was the first time I’d spotted anybody kissing in public.
It’s a cultural thing. In Australian culture we too have some things we are not meant to do in public. Picking your nose, for example. Kissing, though, is okay.
Here in Thailand it’s the opposite.
I once watched a man sitting with his wife on a bus as he picked his nose, carefully examined the contents on his fingers, then flicked it out into the crowded street. The three-step process took a good minute to complete.
His wife didn’t flinch. Nobody did, except for me of course.
Now imagine if he spent that one minute kissing his wife instead. The entire bus would be up in arms, with the exception of the bus driver one would hope – who would steer?
This is also apparent in Thai TV dramas. They can manipulate, murder, scream, slap, double-cross and speak in shrill voices – but kiss?
(Strangely, when we farangs perform the heinous act, be it in a Hollywood movie or HBO series shown on local TV, it is not pixelated. We swinging westerners are morally depraved anyway. Stopping us is a lost cause.)
Not being able to kiss, let alone have sex, on TV dramas must cause all sorts of headaches for producers, since Thai soapies revolve around sex-hungry men and nymph-like women willing to sleep their ways to the top, then to the bottom, then to the top again.
How do they get around that? The ever-resourceful Thais have invented another way of showing affection in place of the kiss.
They sniff the other person’s cheek.
It’s called horm gaem in Thai, and the literal translation is “sniff the cheek.” It is seen as a little more delicate, a little less up close and personal than the interlocking of lips.
To show affection, you bring your nose close up to the cheek of the person in question – and sniff.
Now how nice is that? Not a drop of saliva or – worse – tongue is required.
Last week I watched a scene on a local soap where the starlet, playing the role of a university student, was cornered by three evil thugs with lily-white skin and Korean-style haircuts. Being a thug requires some acting ability so the producers decked these guys out in tattoos and silver chains to save them the ordeal of having to emote.
One of the thugs started to attack the girl. Grabbing her arms and pinning her down, he brought his head to hers and …
… sniffed her cheek.
So even a sex-crazed thug remains polite in his crime. In his critical moment of unbridled passion, he went for the sniff. No doubt he performed a traditional Thai wai after he zipped up his fly.
And by the way, if a kiss is bad, why is it okay to show such wanton acts of violence? Thai soap operas are full of bloody shoot-outs by tattooed thugs with weapons way bigger than their acting talents.
In other words; a man cannot kiss his wife, but it’s okay for him to pull out a gun and shoot her point blank. Camera lingers on blood and grey matter on the wall. Cut to commercials – lots of ‘em.
I admire the Thai ingenuity in making up an alternative to kissing. It’s just that I don’t find cheek-sniffing that arousing.
You can’t slip the tongue in for a start. What if the cheeks are pock-marked? What about people with hideous dimples? Do you sniff around those?
I think it’s lovely when Thai children greet or farewell their parents with a sniff of the cheek. That warms the cockles of my heart.
But my cockles remain frigid in situations where sniffing the cheek is supposed to take on a sexy nature.
Go to any Thai wedding and you’ll see what I mean. In Australia we have that all-important announcement: “You may kiss the bride.” Invariably a table of the groom’s best drunken mates starts shouting “SLIP THE TONGUE IN!” This is hilarious if you have already exceeded the drink-driving limit; otherwise it merely belies our convict origins.
Well surprise surprise; Thailand has the same thing. At any Thai reception, as the bride and groom stand on stage, there are usually a few groom’s friends who too have overstepped the Mekhong whiskey mark.
They don’t want to get off on a tongue, though. What do they wanna see?
“SNIFF HER CHEEK! SNIFF HER CHEEK!” they scream lustily across the rented hotel ballroom, comments met with as much laughter as there is chagrin.
Oh, do what you like, dear reader. Find yourself a cheek to sniff. If you want to sniff mine then go ahead, for when it comes to cockles, the warmer the better.