TRIALS OF A THAI TWENTY-YEAR-OLD
By Andrew Biggs
If Hollywood sitcom writers ever feel hard up for new ideas, they may like to pop over to my house for inspiration.
I am sharing my leafy mansion with my 20-year-old Thai niece. Let’s call her Gift, since she would be mortified if I used her real name, though that would require her reading this column, something the average 20-year-old Thai apparently doesn’t care to do on a Sunday.
Gift is living with me now, since my home is situated not too far from her university.
What a breath of fresh air it is to have a youngster in the house. It makes a change from the usual visitors — that is, nobody. Gift has taken over the spare bedroom and looks like she is here to stay for the duration of her degree.
We get along famously. She is bubbly and full of life, which one friend cruelly observed to be perhaps an example of opposites attract.
Some early mornings, as she flits about making mountains of toast and Nutella (you can eat that sort of thing when you’re 20) and as I reach for coffee and Tiffy, I wonder if we could be the basis for a hilarious sitcom. You know … follow the wacky antics of a trendy 20-year-old uni student who shares a house with a moribund but fabulously wealthy B-list celebrity!
So what have I learned from living with youth? It is my observation that young Thais no longer live their lives. Instead, they document them.
For the first time in my life I know what I have eaten for dinner every night for the past few months. Gift feels a need to photograph every meal we make together.
Not just photographs either.
“Khun Andrew, what are you making tonight?” she asked me one night.
I turned around to answer and there she was, holding up her smart phone, recording me at the stove. Which then turned into a video clip, which then got uploaded. Repeat. Repeat.
Gone are the days of a casual sentence or two on Facebook about how we’re feeling. In fact according to my niece, Facebook is no longer the place to go for the younger crowd. “It’s kind of for old people,” she revealed to me one night, and my heart visibly sank, so she quickly added: “Except for you, Khun Andrew. I don’t mean you.” Digging a hole, Gift.
These days it’s Instagram, where you can post a video and it hangs around for a day.
Gift is constantly uploading.
“Khun Andrew, what are we buying today?” she suddenly shouts at me in the aisles of Foodland. I spin around and yes, I’m being filmed.
I am required to come up with some witty repartee so that Gift can post it to all her friends who can see what a funny clever uncle she has. What happened to the good old days when I could push a trolley through fruit and vegetables with a scowl on my face?
Every day Gift posts a video with topics such as “Shopping with Khun Andrew is fun!” or “What’s he cooking tonight?” Soon will I have to peer around the corner before I raid the liquor cabinet, for fear of a gaggle of Thai uni students finding out the terrible truth about my half-and-half vodka tonics?
And that is the crux of the matter. Somewhere out there in cyberspace are 1,083 young people whose phones make a little beeping noise, whereupon they look down and see Gift and me shopping at Foodland. That’s how many Instagram followers Gift has. It’s not as though we are skiing down the Swiss Alps. We’re grocery shopping. Have I become the Kim Kardashian of Samut Prakarn?
In the meantime Gift, by stealth, has taken control of the music in my house.
I am a man of eclectic musical taste although I do avoid the shallow factory-pop of the likes of Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and those guys from One Direction.
Yes, you guessed it. Gift is obsessed with Shawn Mendes, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and every friggin’ one of those One Direction guys.
For this reason I know that the biggest hit in Thailand right now is “Panama” by a tattooed balding Italian hipster named Matteo. I hear it every morning. I would make a disparaging comment about it but when I open my mouth to do so, a little neon light spelling out “curmudgeon” starts to blink on my forehead.
I’d also forgotten how life is a constant drama at that age.
“Khun Andrew, I need to talk to you about something,” Gift recently said upon approaching me as I sat on the sofa, tonic in hand, in the middle of Stranger Things 2. Her face was so unsettled I even put down my tonic, something I only ever do in emergencies or unexpected visits from monks. “I have a terrible problem, and I need to ask you what I should do.”
Now she had my attention.
Young people are up against all sorts of pressures. Suicide rates, not to mention schizophrenia and road fatalities, are at their highest in her age bracket. Technology and innovation move forward in leaps and bounds, but they also carry with them ease of access to one’s obscenity of choice.
There are temptations of new and powerful synthetic drugs, too, that have flooded night clubs. Luckily Gift eschews all drugs, even alcohol. Her idea of a night out is meeting up with friends, swapping Instagram pics and chugging down pitchers of “bubble-milk tea”. Not exactly my drink of choice (unless you added a generous dose of Kahlua) but at least she finds drink and drugs abhorrent. I’ve even lectured her on the perils of such addictions, carefully eyeing the skies in case I needed to dodge an errant lightning bolt or two.
And what was her terrible problem?
“I may have to drop one of my university subjects,” she said. “Please don’t be upset with me. It’s just … it’s so difficult, and if I continue, I may get an F, and that would spoil my chances of first-class honors!”
Was that my cue to gasp in horror?
I know, I know. Everything in perspective. Gift is a straight-A student and the possibility of a B was bad enough; failing is akin to abortion or teenage pregnancy in someone else’s world. Still, she is studying accountancy, so I explained that a talent for shifting figures about and shunting ill-gotten revenue to offshore tax havens were skills far more attractive than first-class honors in the eyes of employers. It wasn’t such a big deal.
It didn’t help. For two weeks she was stressed out about it.
Just tonight I sat down with Gift for a little talk over dinner. We bought bammee noodles and pork, so there was no need for a photograph.
We decided she would drop that subject, something I pretended to look concerned about. It didn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. I also slipped in my distaste for Justin Bieber in my house, and how life would be a little easier without so many of those One Direction guys wailing at me — at least in the morning.
What I also wanted to explain was my discomfort about being involved in an ongoing reality show. But as I opened my mouth to say that, blink blink blink went the little neon sign. I held my tongue.
No doubt there will be other dramas in Gift’s life that I will hear about. It’s all grist for a sitcom. And what’s weird is this entire column reads like a Seinfeld episode. I swear it was inadvertent.