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Screeching Numbers

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SCREECHING NUMBERS

By Andrew Biggs

The phone number was not one I knew, but still I took the call.

“This is Immigration Police … we’d like to make a time to see you.”

Would such a phone call initially have given you a chill down your spine as it did with me? I may live a life as chaste as Mother Teresa but I still feel a sudden surge of guilt.

It’s a bit like getting a phone call from the Revenue Department, or the Supreme Court, or the Narcotics Bureau. A shrill voice from the back of my brain immediately screams: “I didn’t do it!” before the voice of reason slaps that shrill voice down.

I do not have much to do with Immigration Police other than my annual trek to Chaengwattana for my re-entry stamp in my passport.

It is not an unpleasant task. There’s always a great OTOP market in the central part of the building and I make it a point to get there early in the day with the latest New York Times bestseller tucked under my arm. The service is streamlined and I’m out within an hour or two. I have no complaints.

Bar one.

There is an automated voice service that permeates the atmosphere of Thai Immigration. This is the female voice that announces whose visa applicant’s number is up, and to which counter the applicant should make his or her way.

Only this woman doesn’t announce. She barks.

She spits out numbers the same way I spit out fermented fish when I accidentally eat it . “Number … NINETY-THREE … at counter number … EIGHT.” That NINETY-THREE and subsequent EIGHT are laced with anger and betrayal. It is the voice of a woman who has just discovered her boyfriend has been messing around with her best friend. She’s livid. And she wants revenge.

If she is indeed human, then she needs therapy and she needs it now before she even thinks of issuing any further recordings for public broadcast.

And it is not the kind of voice one wants to hear when processing an application. Seriously. We need to hear Sade or the Brandenburg Concertos or — and I never thought I would ever publically state this — Kenny G’s Greatest Hits.

Instead it’s Scorned She-Devil. It’s almost as if Immigration wants a foreboding atmosphere. What new terror awaits ticket number ninety-three at counter number eight? A monster?

Worse, her voice ricochets across that vast Immigration waiting room since there are speakers strategically set up so that sometimes she can be heard somewhere to the left. Then to the right. Then ahead.

Then behind. It’s Dawn Of The Dead when the zombies surround the house; inescapable, trapped and terrifying.

In the 1970s there was a spate of disaster movies such as the Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. I was but a child and yet fascinated with them — what child wouldn’t love the thought of a ocean liner flipping upside down or a skyscraper on fire?

Then came Earthquake, a movie starring Charlton Heston in which the city of Los Angeles was reduced to rubble.

Well that movie came with a theatre gimmick called “Sensurround”, which in hindsight was just the bass turned right up. The entire cinema would rumble and shake as if you were right in the middle of a real earthquake.

That was 40 years ago … so why would Sensurround suddenly pop back into my head after four decades, sitting at Immigration at Chaengwattana with my Zadie Smith? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it … this woman’s voice is just like Sensurround. It permeates every nook and cranny of the place. It is designed to shake and cajole.

I know nothing about the woman who makes these announcements, although I have a feeling I know her older sister.

From 2006 to about 2010, when Suvarnabhumi airport first opened, there was a woman’s voice that could be heard every time you took one of those people movers.

As you approached the end of it, the woman’s voice would say in Thai: “Rawang sinsut tang leuan.” Be careful stepping off the people mover. It was a soft Thai voice, clear and polite.

Then she would say it again in English: “End of the walk!”

She didn’t just say it. She blurted it out as if you, the passenger, had tied her up and forced her to watch as you murdered her parents in cold blood with a Chatuchak hacksaw. “End of … the walk!” she screamed at you, the word “walk” revealing she was possessed by the devil incarnate.

Why did this pleasant Thai voice have to become so intimidating and insidious when shouting at foreigners? And which high-ranking Airports of Thailand official signed off on it? “Hmmm, I think this one sounds the best,” an AOT executive in a badly-fitting Robinson department store workshirt said, nodding to others at a meeting back in 2006 before the airport opened.

Do you see the common thread here? Immigration … Suvarnabhumi … foreign tourists to Thailand may be increasing in number, but who knows how long that will last whilst we are barked at and subliminally vilified at every mandatory checkpoint in the country.

You know who I feel sorry for the most? The Thai Immigration officers. They must sit at their desks from 8.30 am to 4 pm every day listening to her.

Does it ever go away? A friend who lives near the airport says he doesn’t hear the planes any longer. Could an Immigration officer work efficiently with that screeching going on, relentlessly, throughout civil service hours?

Two years ago, I ran into an acquaintance who worked at Immigration. She asked me how I felt about the service and whether there was room for improvement.

I told her everything was good except for that hideous voice.

There was an ever-so-slight roll of the eyes, suggesting she too was tired of the voice. She explained that the voice was Chinese since it came with the purchased announcement program.

“What you need,” I explained, “Is a softer voice. One that’s a little more polished around the edges. You know, friendly and inviting and yet at the same time very clear. A voice that reassures people that everything is fine, and that isn’t too grating to the ear. And preferably a native English speaker.”

Like my own, I heard myself say.

That was two years ago.

Well today, dear reader, you are in for a surprise.

Say your final farewell to the voice of that avenging female. Off with your head, Cersei Lannister of Chaengwattana! Begone, oh grievous voice that summoneth foreigners to numbered counters! Your services are no longer required.

That’s because a new voice is here; a voice whose tone is as calming as it is dulcet. Soft and yet strong, it is a voice that could send babies to bed, and it’s male. With a twinge of Antipodean.

And … it’s me.

Yes, dear reader, that was the reason for the phone call from Immigration. I had done nothing wrong; and last Thursday, I entered a Sutthisarn recording studio and laid down some tracks, as we say in the business, which entailed counting from one to 900 and telling people to visit counters with numbers.

So next time you’re at Immigration and find yourself in Australian Sensurround, don’t be too harsh in your condemnation. Remember the alternative.

/Andrew

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