By Andrew Biggs
Late Thursday afternoon the silhouette of my driver appeared in the doorway to my office.
“Do you need to be driven anywhere special tomorrow?” he asked.
What kind of question is that? I’m perfectly capable of driving myself anywhere special I care to go. I have a valid Thai driver’s license, which I got after a difficult written test— not because of the information required, but because the translation was so abysmal.
In the past you had to sit a 20-question multiple-choice exam to get a Thai license, which was thoughtfully translated into English for foreign residents.
“Thoughtfully” may not be the best word to describe it. There had been very little thought put into translating that document, as the English was indecipherable.
It was so bad I wanted to ask for a copy of the original Thai test and do that one. The only thing stopping me was the scowling government official supervising the test, who made a point of telling us, with an expression that hovered between Hitler and constipation, that there would be absolutely no talking during the exam. I figured his reaction to my going up and asking for the Thai version would be akin to him turning into a Venus fly trap. I instead drew on one of my major life talents — winging it — and sailed through … until I got to question number 18.
How does one choose A, B, C or D when one doesn’t even understand the question? Clutching the test paper in my two hands, I bravely stood up and walked slowly down the aisle toward the cruel overseer; Oliver Twist clutching his bowl going up and asking for more.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” I stuttered, “but … well I can’t really understand the English in question 18. I was wondering if you could tell me what the question is in Thai and I could –”
“C,” he answered.
I was thrown for a second.
“C,” he repeated. “Choice C.”
That’s when I realized he was giving me the correct answer.
I thanked him and rushed back to my desk before Stockholm Syndrome could rear its ugly head. And I passed.
But back to my driver. The answer is yes, young man, I could drive myself anywhere I liked tomorrow, thanks to a very savvy reverse park and a benevolent cruel overseer 20 years ago. However your job is to ferry me around town as work dictates and indeed, I had a work-related appointment at 9 am the next day.
My driver fell silent.
“I see,” he said. “I was wondering if I could take tomorrow off.”
“What – and drive myself around?” I asked. Of course it was a frivolous remark, made only to make the poor kid feel as though he was a vital cog in the organization, which he isn’t, but then that’s pretty funny coming from the CEO. Like so many organizations, you can take the driver and the CEO out of mine in a single barrage of gunfire and the organization would still run itself smoothly.
He nodded. “Okay,” he said. Pause. “Then I won’t take the day off.”
“Is there something you have to do?”
“Not really.” Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “No.”
“So why do you want the day off?”
“I need to go to my uncle. He’s asked me for help.”
“To do what?”
“To help him.”
This type of vague talking in circles does get maddening. Some people have trouble creating a logical thought process. My driver is one of them. It’s like when I ask in an English class: “What’s your favorite food?” “Somtam!” “Why?” “Because I like it.” Or this: “What is your favorite type of music?” “All music!” “What is your favorite sport?” “I like all sport!” For heaven’s sake, take a stand will you!
My driver is an offshoot of an education system that spits out under-stimulated graduates. It was time to wrap up this meaningless circular conversation.
“Okay then. So you’re not taking the day off.”
“If you say so.”
“Can you help your uncle tonight? I don’t need to be picked up until 9 am tomorrow.”
“He lives in Ayutthaya. I can only help him in the afternoon.”
“Are you helping him move house?”
“No. I need to help him rough somebody up.”
“My uncle needs to punch somebody tomorrow. At his work. He asked me to help him.”
“Your uncle needs to attack somebody at his workplace?”
“He attacked him first. The other guy. He hit him. They work together in the same glass-cutting factory. They had an argument and the other guy hit him. So now my uncle is going to hit him back.”
“Isn’t there a foreman who might have a different view?”
“The foreman is arranging it.”
>>“The foreman is arranging an act of violence in the factory?”<<
My driver nodded. “He says the other guy deserves to be punished, so he’s going to get the guy in a room, lock the door, then send in my uncle to punch him a few times. He needs some help, so he’s asked me to go along too.”
You know that internet click-bait stuff that says things like: “Ten amazing feats of nature! My jaw dropped at number four!” And then you click on it and there’s nothing jaw-dropping about it? Well that wasn’t me. My jaw dropped at that moment and I didn’t need to click on a single damned thing.
“You’re kidding me,” I said. “You’re going to help your uncle punch out another Thai guy because of some petty argument?”
“It’s okay. He’s not Thai. He’s Burmese.”
This is supposed to make me feel better? It reminded me of the guy I saw selling carved ivory products in a mall in Bangna. I told him I was unhappy about him selling this stuff because it was illegal and endangered elephants. “It’s okay,” he replied. “They ivory’s from Burmese elephants.”
“Sounds to me the Thais are ganging up on the Burmese guy,” I said.
“The foreman is Burmese, too. He says the other guy deserves it.”
“So let me get this straight. You want to take a day off work so you can drive up to Ayutthaya to help your uncle attack a Burmese co-worker? And the factory is complicit?”
I admire my driver’s loyalty to his family. I also appreciate his honesty in letting me know what he is doing, if not his ability to discern the difference between justified leave and thuggery.
“What if this factory worker is a descendant of a Burmese warrior?” I asked. “It wouldn’t be good for my image to be ferried around by a driver with a black eye and swollen lip next Monday.”
My driver put his shoulders back. “You don’t have to worry about that. The foreman says he’ll get some guys to hold him down.”
It is moments like these I wonder when, oh when, I am going to understand the psyche of my Thai staff. Will I ever delve deep enough into this culture to fully understand it? Who would have thought that, out of left field on a Thursday afternoon, my borderline-docile driver would ask to take personal leave to help some relative thrash the living daylights out of a Burmese migrant worker being held down in a glass-cutting factory?
The next day he turned up and picked me up as usual. Later in the afternoon, after a refreshing lull in mind-numbing in-car conversation, I asked about his uncle.
“He’s okay. I told him I didn’t think it was the right thing to do on a working day.”
“Good to see you are taking my advice.”
“He’s postponed it to the weekend when I have my day off.”