BETTER LATE THAN AUSTRALIAN
By Andrew Biggs
On my recent trip home to Australia, my mother took me aside on the last day.
“I can really see Thai culture has had an effect on you,” she said as we ate our last meal together. “In three ways.”
I waited, quiche perched mid-air on fork, for the impending triad.
“First, you are so much more relaxed and even-tempered. Gone is the hot-headed Andrew from before.
“Second, you smile so much more. That’s got to be a direct result from living in Thailand.”
“And third?” I asked.
“You are never, ever on time.”
I knew there’d be a sucker punch. But it really did come out of the blue and I praise my mother for her perfect timing and delivery. I know where I inherited my wit, as well as unrelenting sarcasm.
It was nice of her to mention the first two. I suspect anybody, when compared to their persona of three decades ago, is a little more relaxed and even-tempered. The smiling bit is nice, and I attribute it directly to rubbing shoulders with Thais. As for the last one?
My mother was reacting to two mornings in a row where I said I’d drop in “around 10” and arrived sometime around 11. This is so normal for me now that I forget it’s a no-no in the west. What’s an hour among friends and relatives? And anyway, isn’t time a man-made concept?
I was never like this before. I used to be a journalist, having done my journalism cadetship in my homestate of Queensland on a newspaper that absolutely held to deadlines. You missed a deadline in filing a story and you were smitten from the newsroom. Either that or put on horse-racing results for three months, not dissimilar to law-breaking Thai government officers who get shuffled off to inactive posts instead of jail. In short, back then there was absolutely no thought of >>not<< missing a deadline.
I also did a stint reading radio news and that was even more precise. A 5 pm news bulletin meant starting exactly one second after 4.59.59, primarily because sister stations were taking the feed.
I may have been less relaxed and less level-headed back then, but I sure knew how to do things on time.
When I first came to Thailand I got a job at a newspaper. A big difference between the Aussie newsroom and the Thai one soon became clear: A deadline of 5 pm in Australia meant 5 pm on the dot. In Thailand, a deadline of 5 pm meant 5 pm on the dot … or a little after 5 … maybe even 5.30 but it would be good to have it sent to the editors by, say, 6 pm.
It took a long time to wrap my head around that concept. One would think it would be a relief not to be so tied to deadlines, but as any procrastinator knows, the only thing ensuring you get that essay, short story, test paper or in my case news story sent off on time is a deadline.
It was the same in radio here. My last regular live radio gig was at a news talk station, on a show starting at 8.30 pm. It never started at that time. TV stations are the same. Look at TV schedules here and be amused by the prime-time shows that start at 8.40 pm or 9.10 pm. They really go on air at 8.43 and 9.17.
I have emceed big events here in the Land of Smiles. Some of them are run by organizers who thrust time schedules into my hand saying “We must run exactly to schedule.” They have entries such as “8.17: Emcee welcome guests. 8.21 Emcee invites Minister on stage for opening address. 8.31: Video plays.”
I read this every time and nod earnestly at the organizers. Inside I’m promising to run naked down Silom Road if the real event even vaguely follows this time sheet because it never, ever does.
(And the most common variable that mucks it up is the Minister himself. VIP guests, particularly government ones, are never on time. My favorite was the permanent secretary who arrived one hour and five minutes late for the closing ceremony of a seminar with a red face. It wasn’t for feeling embarrassed; he’d come straight from the traditional Thai massage parlor in the hotel basement. The 300 educators waiting for him all that time didn’t find it the happiest of seminar endings.)
Thai culture has chipped away at my inherent Germanic approach to time, to the point where yes, mother, I am not a person who comes on time. Sometimes I make an effort, such as my weekly office meeting which is supposed to start at 1 pm, but invariably starts at 2 pm. Getting 10 people to meet in a room at a designated time in Thailand is about as feasible as a national election next February. It just ain’t gonna happen.
This week the most curious of events occurred and it rose like a beacon shining in a sea of tardiness.
It was at Fight Night, the annual charity event at the Marriot Marquis Hotel, featuring four boxing bouts by expat amateur pugilists. It raises funds for Operation Smile, which provides free operations to Thai kids suffering from cleft palates.
Your favorite columnist was emcee for the night. It’s run by expat A-lister Therese Beauvais, her husband Kevin and an amazing team with so much dedication and vitality they make me exhausted just watching them.
But get this: Fight Night’s timing is down to the >>second<<. As in, I am required to make an announcement at 7.15, 7.30, 7.45 and we start at 8 pm. No, not 8.15 or even 8.03. Eight pm on the dot.
“Okay let’s go,” I said at 7.59 pm.
“No, wait!” cried Don the light and sound guy. “You’ve got another 48 seconds.”
I had to catch myself. Another 48 seconds? What is this — Greenwich?
It did indeed run like clockwork. I felt exhilarated after the event, and not just because of the fighting. How wonderful to be part of a team like that, working in precision and to a schedule.
My mother would have been proud.
Sitting on the plane home to Bangkok, I did think a lot about what my mother had said.
I’m not on time like I used to be but you know what? I kind of like it that way. I like the way time is more fluid in this part of the world.
This can be maddening to newly-arrived expats who, upon coming face to face with the tardiness of Thais, may just want to assume the pugilist role like that of the Fight Night boxers and slam a few heads.
But who says being on time is so great? Look at the traffic out there, people. Look at our frenetic lifestyle. To be so precise about time that one cannot be a minute late is not my idea of a happy life. If being a little lackadaisical time-wise goes hand-in-hand with smiling more and being a more level-headed person, then I say be late and be damned.
Even that crack team of precision-time keepers on Fight Night is prone to the realities of life. We followed a schedule that ran like clockwork — until, in the third bout, there was an unexpected TKO in the first round.
That didn’t just send the other boxer reeling; so too, did it send the time schedule.
“We’re ten minutes ahead of schedule,” Dyan, one of the organizers, fretted after it. Who’d have thought you’d ever hear that line in Thailand?