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Cultural Carousel

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CULTURAL CAROUSEL

By Andrew Biggs

The phone call came early Saturday evening.

“Khun Andrew,” came the familiar voice of my accountant. “We need to have a meeting. An urgent meeting. With you, the general manager and me. We’d like to meet with you.”

“What – right now?” I asked.

This was Songkran Saturday night. Who holds business meetings on Songkran Saturday night? I was wandering down a dark Ekamai soi carrying four bags of ice and a vodka bottle to a dinner party. No need to be judgmental, dear reader – surely I’m allowed a drink or two one night of the year!

“It sounds like you’re busy,” she said apologetically. Well of course I am! Even we hermit types get invited out on Songkran Saturday, though it appears accountants do not enjoy the same fate.  

“How about Monday?” she persisted.

“Monday’s a holiday.”

“I see. So you can’t make it Monday.”

It wasn’t a matter of not being able to make it. This has been a busy year for me. I needed a break, especially from meetings.

Everything I have written so far is the lead up to what transpires next. Pay careful attention to the dialogue that ensues, dear reader, because I will be asking questions about it later.

“So … what’s the meeting about?”

“The company.”

“What exactly about the company?”

“Lots of issues.”

“For example?”

“The company.”

“Yes, I understand it’s the company. But what exactly?”

“Lots of issues.”

The bags of ice were getting colder, and wetter, against my sides. The vodka was getting heavier too. “Can you just tell me what … it … is … you … want … to … meet … about.”

There was a silence. “Lots of issues,” came the reply.

I love my accountant. She’s an amazing lady. She is ruthless with budgets and merciless with customers who don’t pay their bills. When she isn’t noting every single baht I spend during office hours, at home she tends to ten stray dogs. What an angel. How lucky I am to have her as my accountant, and how lucky I am not to be her neighbor when I require a good night’s sleep.

In short – her relationship with money is precise and tight-fisted. If only the same could be said of her imparting information of a non-fiscal nature.

Like meeting agendas.

“Listen, it’s really not a good time for me to talk,” I finally said. “I’m carrying four bags of ice and a bottle of – er, orange juice and I’m about to go to a dinner party. Is it really necessary we meet?”

“Well yes,” said my accountant.  “It’s important.”

What the heck. Throw it out again, Andrew. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Lots of things.”

This is truly a bizarre aspect of Thai custom and culture I have yet gain full access to. As a westerner, it is like downloading the Thai Culture app, only to find a smattering of shallow features. The free ones. To understand the rest, I have to invest time and patience.

I am convinced my accountant’s behavior is an offshoot — or bastard child — of kreng jai, that elusive Thai feeling that permeates so much of Thai culture. Kreng jai is consideration for others … not wanting to upset or put someone out. Its interpretation extends beyond how one behaves. It also includes how one doesn’t behave, because part of the dark side of kreng jai is fear of taking a stand — the consequences of making a decision.

Clearly my accountant has some kind of problem at work that requires my attention. It could very well be serious though I suspect not life-threatening. She doesn’t want to tell me over the phone. By telling me face to face, it is going to upset me, and she does not want to be the one to upset me right now, on a Saturday night of the Songkran water festival. Hence the merry-go-round of a conversation on the way to the dinner party.

One of the most vivid examples of this aspect of Thai culture happened to me seven years ago.

My beloved dog was killed outside my house. He ran out onto the road and somebody drove past, knocking him to the side of the road, killing him instantly. The driver didn’t stop.

But my dog did let out a yelp loud enough to evoke a reaction from my artist, who was downstairs doing some work for me.

I was upstairs in my bedroom. I heard nothing. Perhaps I had music on loudly. In the end there was a knock on my bedroom door.

My artist stood at the door.

“You need to come downstairs,” he said.

“Why?”

“You need to come downstairs.” he repeated as the carousel, once again, slowly lurched into gear and increased momentum, spinning around and around, just as my accountant had done last Saturday night.

“Just tell me why,” I said.

“Well, if you come downstairs you will see,” he said.

“Give me a hint,” I said.

“It’s your dog.”

“What about my dog?”

“Its tongue is hanging out of its mouth.”

Normally I would have come back with a rejoinder to the tune of: “And what dog’s tongue doesn’t hang out of its mouth you idiot?” But I could see an element of shock on his face. Still I had no idea the dog was dead.

Upon going downstairs, there was my beautiful little dog, lifeless on my lawn, bleeding from the mouth and yes, its tongue was hanging out, slowly turning blue.

I think that incident explains so much of my business life in Thailand, and I’m not being facetious. It was just too heartbreaking for my artist to blurt out: “Your dog’s dead.” Even “Something’s happened to your dog” would evoke sudden feelings of anxiety and dread within me. He didn’t want to subject me to that. It was better he led me on the path to my ultimate misery downstairs by alluding to something as innocuous as a dangling tongue.

In a similar vein, my accountant has something she needs to let me know about that will, no doubt, lead me on a path to ultimate misery. Temporary misery, I am guessing, for she assented to my request for a meeting on Wednesday, the day we all returned to work, so whatever emergency she was alluding to clearly could wait.

I was very proud of myself in my reaction. I didn’t fly off the handle. I didn’t rant and rave like I may have done ten years ago, demanding she tell me outright what was happening or else. I went with the flow. I was like the Pho tree under which the Buddha meditated during a storm; I bent, but I did not break. All would be revealed to me on Wednesday.

I do understand it can be so maddening to work in the same office as staff who won’t give you straight answers. But look on the bright side. It’s not all of them. Millennial Thais are getting far better at telling it to me straight. As for the ones who can’t — the carousel people like my accountant an artist — they may not be able to spit out the bad news like I want them too … but they are also diligent, reliable, trustworthy and loyal. That’s good enough for me.

/Andrew



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I have experienced just such in my marriage to a Thai national.  She always keeps me so well informed and up to date on everything, like, no she does not.  Instead, I get some last minute notification, and depending on what it is, I may or may not be quite upset.  Her daughter, my step-daughter, tends to be more straight forward about things and we seem to have a better understanding of each other.  I almost compare it to the stock analyst attending a conference call who has watched a little too much sporting events and in trying to draw management into filling him on details of events even management is not sure of, asks, "in regards to this item could you give a little more color to that."  It is same, but not exactly.  Mostly she tries her best to keep me in dark as much as possible.

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