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Cultural flab

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by Andrew Biggs

I have the best neighbors on all four sides of my home in leafy Samut Prakan.

Truly I do. It’s the primary reason I refuse to move to the inner city — that along with the small issue of a mortgage.

My neighbors are polite, friendly and watchful. They call me at work when my dog jumps the fence. We exchange gifts over New Year. And, like so many Thais, they are brutally honest. Like early this morning, which in my world was exactly ten minutes ago.

“Good morning,” chirped Khun Adisak, as he waited outside his home with a tray of food for the monks. “Are you getting fatter?”

Do not be alarmed, dear reader. This is a legitimate form of greeting in Thailand, the Land of Smiles and People Who Constantly Remind You Of Your Growing Waistline.

Khun Adisak is not being malicious. Nor is he speaking out of concern for my health. He has made an observation about me, and, being close, can happily and freely report on my physical state to my face.

It is a small part of Thai cultural mores that differs vastly from those of the West. In the ten minutes since our meeting, I’ve trying to put our conversation into a western context.

This is difficult; bare-footed monks in saffron robes didn’t roam the streets of Sunnybank, Brisbane, where I grew up. You were more likely to see feral cats or Mr Russo the milkman, hungover in his beat-up combie van.

But just say I wandered out onto the Sunnybank streets, as I did here this morning, to get the morning paper. There was Adam, my friendly next door neighbor, sitting quietly outside smoking a cigarette. He smiles, waves, looks up and says with a broad grin: “You’re looking fat.”

Unacceptable behavior, unless Adam is a sociopath. It’s one thing to say something nasty to a neighbour; to smile while saying it is downright Silence Of The Lambs.

Even more interesting is the context in which Khun Adisak’s comment can be found. Here is the short conversation, one hundred per cent small talk, after we waied each other outside our respective homes.

Me: “I can’t see the monks anywhere.”

Khun Adisak: “They’re doing the rounds of the village. They’re not up to our soi yet.”

“They’re usually here by now, though, aren’t they?”

“Yes. They’re a little late. Are you getting fatter?”

You see, dear reader? No context whatsoever. No quiet build up to the verbal sucker punch that resulted in the reflexive tensing of my stomach muscles inward. And yet in the Thai context it was perfectly acceptable. Khun Adisak had shifted the small talk from tardy monks to my physical state.

It is hard for foreigners to wrap our heads around the notion that here in Thailand, commenting on somebody’s descent into adipose hell is a societal norm. It’s okay in this part of the world for a third party to bring to one’s attention one’s packing on the pounds. Not only is it normal; it is rife.

Even more shocking: in most situations there is no malice intended either.

Khun Adisak has never displayed malice. There are times I feel agitated when chatting to him but this is purely neurotic behavior on my part. I am generally a good neighbour — generally — but as I chat I am in constant fear he is going to bring up the issue of my dog suddenly barking at 2 am for no reason, or Kate Bush cranked up to full volume for a song or two, or clandestine cigarette smoke near the back fence. No, my neighbor never brings up such glaring inadequacies in me. He chooses, instead, to comment on my impending obesity.

In the West we are told that when engaging in small talk we should avoid the “big three”, namely, politics, religion and sex. This is especially true in this modern world of Donald Trump and pedophile Catholic priests.

Instead we are taught to comment on the weather, or last night’s soap opera, or the stock market. Here in Thailand, add one more topic to the list; the one Khun Adisak brought up.

There are numerous words for “fat” in Thai. There is the ubiquitous oo-an, by far the most common.

Oo-an is not only an adjective to describe a bulky person. It’s also a common nickname, by god! Think about that, dear reader. Imagining going through life not just being fat, but being named it as well. “Hi Fat, how are you doing?” “Hey Fat, what are your plans this weekend?” “Pass the ketchup, Fat. And shouldn’t you be laying off those french fries?”

Another common nickname is Nui. I bet you have met a Nui or two in your life. Just this week I ran into my former staff member, Nui, a respected producer of children’s television programs.

What do you think Nui means, dear reader? Go look it up on Google Translate and you’ll find three very clear definitions: “fat, plump, chubby.”

Nui is rake thin. People with such names as Oo-an and Nui often are. They get their moniker from their physical state at birth. The puppy fat may melt away, but there is no escaping the name. My TV producer has a name that constantly reminds him of his plumpness as a kid.

This is unthinkable in the West. It’s like me having a daughter named Skye, but choosing to call her Chubs in every social situation for her entire life. Hi, my name is Philip, but please call me Flabby. It just doesn’t work, does it?

So where does it come from? How can it be that my wonderful neighbor can casually throw into an unrelated conversation about monks the fact I’m allegedly becoming a blimp?

The answer probably lies in the fact that oo-an doesn’t sound as nasty and cold-hearted as the English word “fat”. “Fat” carries so much more baggage, whereas oo-an feels a little lighter and more airy.

Plus there is the traditional belief here, probably of Chinese origin, that being fat is a sign of prosperity.

This theory is supported by another Thai word for fat — that is somboon and yes, it’s yet another popular Thai name! “You’re looking somboon these days” is a common observation of friends who haven’t seen each other for a while. Western civilization translation: “My, you’ve clearly fallen off the Jenny Craig wagon, haven’t you?”

But wait. There is another more popular translation of the word somboon. It is an adjective that means “complete, perfect, valid.” Out of this all-encompassing translation of completeness, the Thais have managed to create a sub-definition of “fat”. Bless their hearts.

This absence of malice is hard for the West to fathom, and despite all my years in this country, I still feel my hackles — no doubt ensconced somewhere in fatty tissue — rise when I am tormented by the oo-an word. You can take the boy out of the western country, I guess.

And it did result in my dragging out the bathroom scales from the very back of the linen cupboard and weighing myself for the first time since my hospital flu visit two weeks ago.

And look. I’ve dropped nearly two kilograms! I feel like shouting this news over to my next door neighbor, but the monks have been and gone and so has Khun Adisak.




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