By Andrew Biggs
“Boss, I need to take four days off in the middle of March,” my driver said to me a month ago, breaking a silence I’d been enjoying in the car.
My driver taking four days off is not a catatonic-inducing event. Just between you and me, I relish the solitude of driving myself around for a few days. I get to crank the speaker up loud, and for a short time I’m relieved of having to emit non-committal grunts in acknowledgment of his observations of nearby vehicles.
Still, I had to know why.
“I’m getting married,” he replied.
Well that was a bolt out of the blue.
I was aware my driver shared a room with his girlfriend, who works in the fruit and vegetables section of my local Big C.
I was also aware of the daily arguments my driver has with her, which sometimes seep into drive time. He is forever confiding in my personal assistant about her dim view of his alcohol consumption and suspected philandering, after which my personal assistant passes on a precis to me during coffee break.
“Is this the same girl you wished death upon recently?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. My driver just laughed. And nodded.
“You fight every day with her. Shouldn’t you sort out your differences before you get married?”
“She’s such a nag … always complaining about my drinking. Two beers and she screams at me. And she’s worried I’m going to go off with some other girl.”
“And do you?” I asked.
“No! Not that often!”
There is a forlorn-looking face in the rear vision mirror. “I’m doing it for her parents,” he said.
“No, nothing like that. I just have to do the right thing by her parents.”
This is very confusing.
In such situations I make a beeline for my accountant. She is an older Thai lady who takes care of 14 dogs in her townhouse, so she’s an expert on mating rights. Why was my driver going to marry a girl he didn’t like for the sake of keeping her parents happy?
“It’s called >>pook-khaen<<,” my accountant explained. “It’s a way of showing the village elders that two people are a couple. It’s often the case with the poorer class, since they may not be able to afford a full-on wedding.”
“So it’s a wedding?”
“Not really,” she said. “It’s a ceremony where the elders tie string around the wrists of the two young people, and then it’s settled. There is no shame or anything. They are a couple.”
I am forced to accept that my driver is engaging in a ceremony set in the Twilight Zone, in a place between engagement and betrothal, not for his own sake, or his girlfriend’s, but for the sake of the elders.
“Where is this ceremony taking place?” I asked him later that day.
“There isn’t any ceremony,” he said. “We’re going to her hometown in Surin, and her parents will tie strings around our wrists. That’s all. No registration. No ceremony.”
“And then you’re a couple?”
“But you complain, every day, to my personal assistant that you don’t want to be a couple.” I made a note to remind my personal secretary that I’d snitched on him.
Silence from my driver.
“Answer that question,” I say. “You fight with her every day. Now you’re going to marry her in a ceremony that isn’t a marriage. And this is to make her parents happy.”
“Boss, you are a farang. Maybe you don’t understand how Thais do things.”
So now even my driver is playing his “you don’t understand” card.
But that’s only the half of it. Things go downhill swiftly.
“I need time off next week,” said another one of my male staff two weeks ago.
“Don’t tell me you’re getting married,” I said.
“I’ve got my college graduation ceremony this Sunday.”
This young man has been studying at a college every weekend for the past two years. I knew he was nearing the end of his studies.
Graduation is a big deal in Thailand, much bigger than it is in the West. This is because for many institutions, members of the Royal Family hand out the certificates.
Even where this isn’t the case, such as with my staff’s college, graduation is still a big deal. The school director is dishing out the certificates this Sunday, but that doesn’t stop them having to rehearse.
There is a rehearsal in the morning. He needs to be at a Pattaya hotel at 7 am for that, and it takes three hours. The 400 students then have lunch, and in the afternoon, the ceremony begins. It seems like an awful amount of time for handing out pieces of paper.
Female graduates often pay a make-up lady and hair stylist to come and doll them up, usually at around 4 am. My staff member is required to shave off his straggly beard and moustache, and dispense with all earrings and other pieces of jewelry. They are forbidden in the ceremony.
It’s also compulsory to attend, but you haven’t heard the worst of it, dear reader. Like my driver’s wedding, this is a ceremony that doesn’t exist.
You see, it’s not even the end of the final semester. That’s another month away.
“I still have a report to finish,” said my staff member. “And I have to take my final exams.”
“Wait … you’re graduating ahead of time? How can they give you your graduation certificate? I mean, why not just take the certificate and not do the exams?”
“There’s nothing inside,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing inside the casing the director presents to us. It’s just the outer casing of the degree, but there’s no degree itself. They’ll send that to us in another two or three months. After we graduate.”
“But you’re graduating this Sunday.”
“No I’m not. I’m having the ceremony.”
Okay. So call me stupid. Call me an ignorant farang who doesn’t understand the mysterious ways of the ancient Siamese culture. But why is this college having their graduation ceremony mid-March, when the semester doesn’t end until the end of April and scores won’t come out until July? And … why the need for a rehearsal for a ceremony that basically hands over nothing to the students?
My staff member knows the answer: “The hotel didn’t have any free days available for graduation after July. This weekend was the only one. So the college was kind of forced to have it then.”
Well of course. How stupid of me. A hotel ballroom’s availability should be the mitigating factor in staging any graduation ceremony, right? After all, hotels are hard to find in Pattaya.
That has been my week. I have signed off on personal leave for two of my staff to get married and to graduate, neither of which happened, and yet required one to make a round trip journey of 1,000 km, and the other a day trip to Pattaya and a loss of facial hair.
Last Sunday has been and gone. I quietly snooped on both staff’s Facebook pages and there they are — one celebrating wedding bliss, and the other looking very clean-shaven in his graduation gown, clutching flowers and a teddy bear and wearing a “Congratulations” sash.
I’m not saying anything. After all this is Thailand, and when a tree doesn’t fall in the forest, it clearly makes a sound.