By Andrew Biggs
Chai grew up on a small plot of farmland 30 km outside of the town of Kalasin.
His childhood was that of waking up, planting rice and vegetables, going to school, coming home, planting rice and vegetables again. Rinse and repeat.
It was a circle. That’s how Chai himself described it, drawing one with his hands.
“A circle every day,” he said. “The circle made me really tired. I wanted to leave.”
He said this circle happened from birth up until the age of 16. When it was off-season for rice harvesting his parents left Chai with his grandmother and went to Bangkok looking for itinerant work. One year, when he was 10, they didn’t come back for three years. What little money they made from selling rice and vegetables went to paying off debts incurred by his absent parents to local loan sharks.
I know all this from one afternoon, when Chai sat with me as I corrected 200 test papers. He worked with us for two weeks, a friend of a full-time staffer. Chai came to my attention when I told him to go to the coffee stand and get me a cup of tea. He came back with a mug of hot coffee with a tea bag in it.
“What are your goals in life?” I asked him, more to alleviate the tedium of correcting test paper number ninety-seven than a curiosity as to what kind of dreams a young man would have from such a background (particularly one who doesn’t understand what constitutes a cup of tea).
“I want to go to Korea,” he shot back. “It’s been my dream since I was a child. I don’t know how it will happen, but that is my dream.”
Why travel so far? One can escape mundane rural life by moving to a city like, say, Bangkok.
“No,” he said. “I want to live in Korea.”
Chai, like so many Thai millennials, grew up with Korean soap operas and mini-series on Thai TV.
The country is in the iron grip of a 15-year Korean fad. I have been here long enough to see Thailand go through many such phases.
When I first arrived in 1989 it was in its farang craze, that is, loving all thing western. This morphed into the luk-khreung craze, where all the models and movie stars were half Thai and half-something else.
This was a cultural about-face since before that, half-Thais were looked down upon. They were lower class; the unwanted children of north-eastern prostitutes and American soldiers. Boy did that perception turn around quickly, until they were eclipsed by the Japanese craze of the 1990s and early noughties. Then Korea stepped in.
Korean soap operas are produced with a much higher budget and quality than local soapies. They are often period pieces set in ancient palaces with all the associated scandals amid regal splendor.
The very first Korean TV series that captured the heart of the nation was the story of Dae Jum Geung, a woman in a Korean palace of a few hundred years ago. It was on Channel 3 every night at 6 pm and the whole nation was glued to it.
That had to be around 2005 because I was doing a morning TV show at the time. It went to air at 6 am on Channel 3. I remember going to give a speech at a school where the teacher had teased the kids the day before saying at morning assembly: “Tomorrow we are going to have a visitor whom you all know, because this person appears on Channel 3 every day at 6 o’clock.” The children were frenzied with excitement upon hearing this — until I turned up. They thought they were getting the actress who played Dae Jung Keung, who went to air at the “other” 6 o’clock.
Chai remembers that series very well. “It made me fall in love with Korea. And now I want to live there,” he said.
“What do you want to do there?”
That threw him a little. “Work.”
“But what work do you want to do?”
“You need to learn a trade,” I said, wise older person that I was. “Then you can find work over there.”
Chai smiled. “Not necessary. I will just Robin Hood.”
That sentence may confuse non-Thais, but in fact everybody in Thailand knows what it means. No, it’s not the guy who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. In Thailand, “Robin Hood” is a verb. It means “to go to another country on a holiday visa but upon getting there find work and stay for as long as you possibly can without getting caught by authorities.”
There are Robin-Hooding Thais in America who have been there for decades. “Robin Hood” also explains why Thais get what they perceive to be a rough deal by immigration authorities in countries such as the United States … and Korea. Chai’s decision to “Robin Hood” to Korea may be grammatically abhorrent, but it’s a very common behavior.
Two weeks after our conversation Chai collected his pay and left us. He kept in contact via his friend who was my staff member for a while. He got a job at a call center in Huai Khwang. A month later he was waiting tables at a Central World restaurant. Three weeks later he was at a car sales office in Ramkhamhaeng.
Six months passed, as did Chai from my life.
It was exactly one week ago that I was sitting with my staff when I asked: “Whatever happened to your friend Chai?”
“He’s living in Korea,” he said.
“How on earth did he manage that?” I asked.
My staff member rolled his eyes. “He says he saved up the money himself,” he said. “But I know the truth. He got his mother to sell a plot of land in Kalasin for 100,000 baht.”
It was clear my staff member wasn’t happy with Chai’s decision.
“No need to be jealous,” I said. “He is living his dream, and you should admire him for that.”
“Admire him?” My staffer was incredulous.
“Yes, admire him. Let me tell you something. In this life, you have to follow your dreams. Chai had a dream to leave the toil and suffering of his life in Kalasin, and that’s what he did.”
My staff shot me a “that’s what you think” look, and brought out his smart phone.
He showed me Chai’s Facebook page. He flicked through selfies of his arrival at Suvarnabhumi, checking in, going through security, sitting on the plane. How young people can think such pictures are of any interest to others is beyond me.
There was a Facebook Live video of his arrival at Seoul airport. It went for 35 long minutes.
“And now, look at this,” said my staffer.
The most recent post is Chai wearing a balaclava and clutching a hoe. He stands in a field of cabbages along with a raggedly bunch of other workers.
The caption reads: “Freezing here! Going to work in the fields at nearly zero degrees! I don’t know if I’m going to make it. How about giving me some encouragement?”
Chai has fulfilled his dream. He broke the circle just as he wished.
He replaced back-breaking tedious farmwork in the stifling heat of Kalasin with back-breaking tedious farmwork in the freezing cold of Korea. Chai didn’t break the circle … he completed it.