By Andrew Biggs
My chicken parmesan was an unexpected hit. Everybody at the table commented on how delicious it was.
Four hours later I am in the bathroom with a terrible case of the runs.
The next morning I discover one other at the table was also afflicted; the other two were okay, although one claims to be feeling “a little off” but he’s always been a bit of a sycophant and is only copying the two of us who fell victim to my vain attempt at cooking.
I relate this to my accountant, who immediately needs to know how many times I went to the bathroom (three), whether I am back to normal now (kind of), whether I took any medicine (no), and whether I knew I should only drink warm tea today (I did).
Then the questions begin.
I will not repeat those questions here, suffice to say it was a thorough investigation into the size and shape and consistency of that which left my body overnight, proving two things; how concerned my accountant is, and how utterly assimilated I am into Thai culture now.
It was only a few years ago I was witness to the most extraordinary conversation, and it all started when my sales staff Wanphen was away from work for a day.
She returned the next morning looking pale. “Sorry I was absent,” she announced to the other girls in the office. She grimaced and patted her stomach. “Tong sia!”
I can’t imagine walking into an Australian workplace and announcing — yes, announcing — that I had diarrhea to all and sundry, and then getting a reaction not unlike if I’d won the lottery. But that is what happened in my office. Their collective interest was piqued.
“Was it something you ate?” the accountant asked.
“Fried oysters at the market,” said Wanphen. “It was raining at the time. I shouldn’t have eaten them but they smelled so good!”
“Gotta be careful with fried oysters,” chimed in Noi the maid. She’d been cleaning up but that was on hold now..
“Fried oysters … they can have you on the toilet all day and night,” said my accountant.
“I know,” said Wanpen. “It started at about four in the morning. Then I had to go again at seven and again at nine.”
There was a collective “Oh-hoe” from all the girls. It’s a Thai exclamation of healthy surprise; the “oh” is high and short, while the ensuing “hoe” rides a rollercoaster up and down for a few bumps before coming to a stop.
“I couldn’t eat anything. As soon as I did, I’d have to run to the bathroom again!”
That should have been the end of it, but like the TV series Homeland she went on just a little too long. “In the end my feces were just water!” she said.
The women were fascinated.
The only odd one out was me, sitting not three metres away in an adjoining office, mortified by the watery details. I looked down at my morning coffee and was no longer keen to sip it.
“Things got a lot better by the afternoon,” Wanpen said. “Then I got another attack at three.”
“Watery?” asked Noi.
“No, it had firmed up by then.”
Straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Enough already!” I shouted from my office.
“Sorry, Khun Andrew!” my accountant said. “Are we being too loud?”
That was the piece de resistance; the women were apologizing for their volume, not their content.
In this country they shouldn’t be apologizing at all; she is doing nothing wrong other than prodding at my Western disdain for public talk about personal hygiene.
When people ask me the difference between Thai and western culture, I often tell those people to look no further than their nether regions.
Perhaps it is because Wanphen’s condition is more prevalent in this part of the world than mine. Perhaps it is because Thais are far more relaxed about bodily functions than me, a white Australian with traces of Elizabethan era nucleotides in my DNA.
It’s healthy, I know, to be open about bodily functions but surely not in the workplace! And such conversations usually come out of the blue and strike me when I least expect it — like tong sia itself.
“I cannot come to work today,” one employee called in one morning. “I am sick.”
“Oh that’s no good,” I said.
She wasn’t finished. “I have … the menses!”
The way she said it was like she had won the lottery. Her enthusiasm was not for the “menses”, but for remembering the correct vocabulary.
How I wanted to tell her that besides not having to be so explicit, it wasn’t the popular way to say she was menstruating. What stopped me was the inevitable question that would follow: “So what is the right way, Khun Andrew?” I have Elizabethan DNA, remember.
“The problem is not how loud you are,” I said to Wanphen and the others.
I explained how in my first year in Thailand I was struck down with an affliction not dissimilar to Wanphen’s. I fled to a drug store for relief.
The woman behind the counter was a Chinese Thai lady with a permanent frown and wearing a blouse probably re-gifted from a maiden aunt ten years previous.
There was one other customer as I entered. Two more came in behind me and waited.
“What do you want?” the woman asked me as the first customer was examining some drugs. (Ow arai? in Thai.)
“I have a bad stomach,” I said.
“What kind of bad stomach?”
“A bad stomach,” I said, a little lost for words.
“What are you passing?”
Blood spurted into my cheeks before I had time to tell it not to. “Well, I’m visiting the bathroom every couple of hours and –“
“Is it firm? Liquid? Somewhere in between?” Her voice was a little terse but that wasn’t what was bugging me. It was her decibel level.
“What color was it? Yellowy? Grey-brown? Were there pustules in your stools?”
I was too mortified to answer. Sweat broke out on my brow and I glanced furtively to the other customers. Were they chuckling? Making smelly faces?
None of the above. They couldn’t have been less interested. They were probably thinking what they would eat for their next meal.
That scene could never have happened where I grew up. I’d have paid a visit to the local doctor who would have asked such questions in the privacy of his practice. In roundabout sentences I would have explained my condition, after which the doctor would quietly write me a prescription – god, remember those? - and tell me to get some rest.
Juxtapose that with downtown Bangkok, where questions about my symptoms are broadcast to all within a radius of 100 metres from my standpoint at the Sukhumvit drug store.
When my accountant brought me my hot tea this week, she started asking more questions about my bad stomach. I answered without the slightest embarrassment.
“Thai food is very spicy,” said Ladda, who is still working for me all these years, though Wanphen has gone. “We all get tong sia regularly.”
“Chicken does it for me,” says my accountant.
“Shrimp for me,” says Ladda.
“Tom yam kung,” announced Noi the maid, also still here.
Listen to them all.
I know they’re deeply vindicated by the incident. Though nobody says it outright, I know they are all thrilled it wasn’t a bad somtam or nam prik platuu or hoi tod that gave me the runs. It was one thoroughly-western chicken parmesan dinner made by yours truly. Thai culture is spared the ignomy of blame.