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  1. 1 point
    CULTURAL CAROUSEL By Andrew Biggs The phone call came early Saturday evening. “Khun Andrew,” came the familiar voice of my accountant. “We need to have a meeting. An urgent meeting. With you, the general manager and me. We’d like to meet with you.” “What – right now?” I asked. This was Songkran Saturday night. Who holds business meetings on Songkran Saturday night? I was wandering down a dark Ekamai soi carrying four bags of ice and a vodka bottle to a dinner party. No need to be judgmental, dear reader – surely I’m allowed a drink or two one night of the year! “It sounds like you’re busy,” she said apologetically. Well of course I am! Even we hermit types get invited out on Songkran Saturday, though it appears accountants do not enjoy the same fate. “How about Monday?” she persisted. “Monday’s a holiday.” “I see. So you can’t make it Monday.” It wasn’t a matter of not being able to make it. This has been a busy year for me. I needed a break, especially from meetings. Everything I have written so far is the lead up to what transpires next. Pay careful attention to the dialogue that ensues, dear reader, because I will be asking questions about it later. “So … what’s the meeting about?” “The company.” “What exactly about the company?” “Lots of issues.” “For example?” “The company.” “Yes, I understand it’s the company. But what exactly?” “Lots of issues.” The bags of ice were getting colder, and wetter, against my sides. The vodka was getting heavier too. “Can you just tell me what … it … is … you … want … to … meet … about.” There was a silence. “Lots of issues,” came the reply. I love my accountant. She’s an amazing lady. She is ruthless with budgets and merciless with customers who don’t pay their bills. When she isn’t noting every single baht I spend during office hours, at home she tends to ten stray dogs. What an angel. How lucky I am to have her as my accountant, and how lucky I am not to be her neighbor when I require a good night’s sleep. In short – her relationship with money is precise and tight-fisted. If only the same could be said of her imparting information of a non-fiscal nature. Like meeting agendas. “Listen, it’s really not a good time for me to talk,” I finally said. “I’m carrying four bags of ice and a bottle of – er, orange juice and I’m about to go to a dinner party. Is it really necessary we meet?” “Well yes,” said my accountant. “It’s important.” What the heck. Throw it out again, Andrew. “What do you want to talk about?” “Lots of things.” This is truly a bizarre aspect of Thai custom and culture I have yet gain full access to. As a westerner, it is like downloading the Thai Culture app, only to find a smattering of shallow features. The free ones. To understand the rest, I have to invest time and patience. I am convinced my accountant’s behavior is an offshoot — or bastard child — of kreng jai, that elusive Thai feeling that permeates so much of Thai culture. Kreng jai is consideration for others … not wanting to upset or put someone out. Its interpretation extends beyond how one behaves. It also includes how one doesn’t behave, because part of the dark side of kreng jai is fear of taking a stand — the consequences of making a decision. Clearly my accountant has some kind of problem at work that requires my attention. It could very well be serious though I suspect not life-threatening. She doesn’t want to tell me over the phone. By telling me face to face, it is going to upset me, and she does not want to be the one to upset me right now, on a Saturday night of the Songkran water festival. Hence the merry-go-round of a conversation on the way to the dinner party. One of the most vivid examples of this aspect of Thai culture happened to me seven years ago. My beloved dog was killed outside my house. He ran out onto the road and somebody drove past, knocking him to the side of the road, killing him instantly. The driver didn’t stop. But my dog did let out a yelp loud enough to evoke a reaction from my artist, who was downstairs doing some work for me. I was upstairs in my bedroom. I heard nothing. Perhaps I had music on loudly. In the end there was a knock on my bedroom door. My artist stood at the door. “You need to come downstairs,” he said. “Why?” “You need to come downstairs.” he repeated as the carousel, once again, slowly lurched into gear and increased momentum, spinning around and around, just as my accountant had done last Saturday night. “Just tell me why,” I said. “Well, if you come downstairs you will see,” he said. “Give me a hint,” I said. “It’s your dog.” “What about my dog?” “Its tongue is hanging out of its mouth.” Normally I would have come back with a rejoinder to the tune of: “And what dog’s tongue doesn’t hang out of its mouth you idiot?” But I could see an element of shock on his face. Still I had no idea the dog was dead. Upon going downstairs, there was my beautiful little dog, lifeless on my lawn, bleeding from the mouth and yes, its tongue was hanging out, slowly turning blue. I think that incident explains so much of my business life in Thailand, and I’m not being facetious. It was just too heartbreaking for my artist to blurt out: “Your dog’s dead.” Even “Something’s happened to your dog” would evoke sudden feelings of anxiety and dread within me. He didn’t want to subject me to that. It was better he led me on the path to my ultimate misery downstairs by alluding to something as innocuous as a dangling tongue. In a similar vein, my accountant has something she needs to let me know about that will, no doubt, lead me on a path to ultimate misery. Temporary misery, I am guessing, for she assented to my request for a meeting on Wednesday, the day we all returned to work, so whatever emergency she was alluding to clearly could wait. I was very proud of myself in my reaction. I didn’t fly off the handle. I didn’t rant and rave like I may have done ten years ago, demanding she tell me outright what was happening or else. I went with the flow. I was like the Pho tree under which the Buddha meditated during a storm; I bent, but I did not break. All would be revealed to me on Wednesday. I do understand it can be so maddening to work in the same office as staff who won’t give you straight answers. But look on the bright side. It’s not all of them. Millennial Thais are getting far better at telling it to me straight. As for the ones who can’t — the carousel people like my accountant an artist — they may not be able to spit out the bad news like I want them too … but they are also diligent, reliable, trustworthy and loyal. That’s good enough for me. /Andrew
  2. 1 point
    HEALTHY CONUNDRUM By Andrew Biggs “Khun Andrew, please give me some words of support. I applied for a job and wasn’t accepted. I’m soooooo upset.” This plaintive tweet arrived last Tuesday. Had it been a few short years ago it would have been an email. A few short years before that the student would have put it on paper, stuck it in an envelope, and took it to the post office to buy a stamp. Ah but my age is showing. The tweet came from a student, Suchada, and the above quote is my own translation from the original Thai. Suchada is a 22-year-old Bangkok girl who just graduated from a good university and applied for a job at a bank. She got knocked back. Her despondency was understandable; I remember when I was 17 being rejected for a job at McDonald’s Sunnybank. “We just don’t think you’d fit into the McDonald’s family,” the pimple-faced manager told me with a jowly smile. In retrospect he was right. I can’t imagine what emotional scars I’d be wearing today had I agreed to join a family where the father figure was a clown looking like something straight out of Stephen King’s It. I’d have kept the bathroom door locked, that’s for sure. But back to Suchada. Having worked in the youth media in Thailand for two decades, I have received similar letters, emails and tweets before. I am normally very sympathetic to this recurring theme but firm in my reply: “Give yourself a day to get over your disappointment, then pick yourself up and apply all over again at some other bank. And come back and see me after you’ve been rejected ten times.” I always thought that was good advice. Diligence and enthusiasm will always win out when it comes to job hunting. I believed that up until very recently, that is, but now I’m not so sure. My turnaround is all due to my friend Nut, whose predicament came to a head this week as I discovered 24 hours before Suchada’s tweet. Like anywhere in the world, finding a job in Thailand can be difficult and takes a lot of perseverance. There are actually a lot of jobs out there in Thai offices and factories for bachelor degree holders. The pay isn’t fantastic, but at least it’s work. My friend Nut has a bachelor’s degree. He worked in administration for a large factory in Lad Krabang. He’s quiet and diligent and gets the job done, as evidenced by the fact he stayed at his job for eight years. As he reached his late-thirties he decided he needed more money and applied for a new job and got it. He quit his old job on a Friday and started work at the new factory in Lardphrao on Monday. By Friday he was sacked. The reason? Nut is HIV positive. And in Thailand, that means you cannot get a job. It’s not like you could tell he has HIV. He runs mini marathons and works out every day. He visits his doctor every three months for his blood count and takes his medicine; his CD4 count is very high. In Thailand you are almost always required to get a medical check-up before starting a new job, and this includes an HIV test. The new company asked Nut to get his medical test on Wednesday. Nut came up HIV positive; he was jobless by the weekend. At this point things were grim for Nut – much more than Suchada’s self-imagined quagmire – but Nut can be a pretty determined kinda guy. Within two weeks he had found a new administration job at a factory in Silom. Silom Road is the center of every sexually communicable disease known to man, and you would think a factory situated there would turn a blind eye to such things, but no. In the second week of his work he was informed by HR he would need a medical. The usual two-step shuffle ensued – Nut went to hospital. Nut was shown the door. Five times. This has now happened to Nut five times in the space of four months. One job he was even “flavor of the month” except that he didn’t last a month. He was actually “flavor of the three weeks”. It was a big toy factory here (patrolled by Rottweilers!) out in Samut Prakan and Nut was in charge of counting stock. The last person who did the job was slovenly and stole stuff on the side, and Nut did neither of these things. This was a family company and the owner warmed to him for his accuracy and diligence. When the results of his medical came in, however, the same owner went ballistic. He shouted about him being HIV positive in front of other staff. “I don’t want you infecting anybody else! Get out of here or I’ll set the dogs on you!” the owner barked at Nut, who gathered his belongings and quickly left. I called my friend Lek this week, a mover and shaker in the HR world in Bangkok, and asked him about Nut’s situation. Surprise surprise … what those companies did was illegal. You cannot sack a person because he or she is HIV positive. In fact, once an employee starts work there is no requirement for a medical check-up either. That has to be carried out before, since the act of starting work means the two parties have entered into a contract already. In the real world things are different, and such labor laws are as valid as the ones that, say, outlaw prostitution in Thailand. Nut’s only recourse is to take the company to the Labor Court, where the company will tell the judge Nut was sacked owing to laziness, or inability to carry out duties, etc. Anything but that virus coursing through his veins. Nut may have HIV, but he also has perseverance. He applied for a new job at a small paint factory and got it. The pay is good. Even better; there is no company regulation that requires a medical examination. He started work last Monday. As for Suchada, what timing to be complaining about one job rejection when my friend Nut has had five in the time Suchada took to do her finals, graduate, and go celebrating with friends down in Pattaya. I’m going to officially change my stock answer, too. No more “come back and see me after ten rejections”. Instead, it’s going to be: “Come to think of it, don’t come back and see me at all. Stop wallowing in your setbacks and get on with life.” These are words I cannot use with Nut, who despite everything refuses to give up. And as his friend I must be a pillar of support. Especially now. Last Tuesday, on day two of his work, the thinner smell in the paint factory was so bad Nut fainted. He is jobless once more. /Andrew
  3. 1 point
    BLOOD AND WATER By Andrew Biggs At my office, we are gearing up for a major new business venture starting May 20. It’s consumed all our time for the past six months. Luckily I have a core team that’s been diligent and dedicated. At last Monday’s meeting I made it clear — we were in the final stretch. This was the exciting part. Nobody could take any time off before May 20. Let’s start this project and get it up and running. Everybody nodded their heads, including my two key staff, Jasmine and San, and my artist, Song. Jasmine was the first to come in to my office. “Khun Andrew, I have to … I must … I think I have to go to Samut Sakhon with my family,” she said. “What for?” “My parents want me to help them run their business but my older brother says I can’t do it.” “That sentence made no sense to me,” I said. “I must go with my family to Samut Songkhram for a family meeting. You know, all the relatives.” “No I don’t know,” I said. Jasmine was not making herself clear. So she burst into tears. “My brother says I can’t run the business, and he is pressuring me. And my parents say I can run the business.” “What business are you talking about?” She looked up at me, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Fish sauce.” It’s been a busy day for me. If Jasmine needs to take the afternoon off to go down to Samut Songkhram with her family, then that’s fine. But can’t she just explain it to me in plain English? “My parents have a fish sauce factory in Samut Songkhram,” she said. Despite working so closely with Jasmine, this is news to me. I am not surprised —where else would a fish sauce factory be located? Have you ever driven down to Hua Hin, dear reader? You pass the seaside province of Samut Songkhram. It’s famous for two things – the birthplace of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng, and home to at least a hundred fish sauce factories lining the highway. You probably eat something made with Samut Songkhram fish sauce every day of your Thai experience. A pit stop in Samut Songkhram smells a bit like wandering through a cemetery of rotting fish. “And when do you intend making this trip?” I asked. “May 15,” she said. “Five days before our new project begins! And for how long?” “A week,” she said. This is a curveball out of nowhere that absolutely hits me for six and yes, that’s a baseball and cricket analogy in a single sentence. “Do you parents know that we’re launching this new project in May?” I asked, and she said yes, they did. “Are you aware I can’t have you away at anytime in the near future?” Another nod. “So what do you intend to do?” Jasmine didn’t answer. “Well you think about that,” I said, “And give me an answer tomorrow.” Jasmine left my office. Later that day I saw her deep in a conversation with Song the artist. The next day she came back to my office. At least this time she was lucid. “My parents want me to run the family business,” she said. You know what? As shocking as that information may be, at least she explained it in a simple sentence. I daresay that’s what she was trying to tell me yesterday in her own Thai way — that is, indecipherable. The timing couldn’t be any worse. She had to finish up by the end of May. “But … you’ve been doing this for so long. Your heart has been in this. How can you give it all up?” I asked. “Also, it would be great for your resume if you follow through on this. It’s a great career move.” As opposed to running your family’s fish sauce business, I wanted to add, but held my tongue. One hour later – no exaggeration – and it is San’s turn. “Khun Andrew, I have to go home for a while,” he said. Jasmine might be a central plains gal, but San is an Isan boy through and through. San’s home is Sri Sa Ket, a province famous for its pickled garlic. For a split second I wonder if San is about to tell me he has to go run the family picked garlic factory, but I remember his mother – married to a elderly Swede – runs a rice farm just out of the provincial town. “My step father needs an operation, and he must do it in Sweden,” explains San. “My mother must go with him.” That leaves his 93-year-old grandfather and 8-year-old kid brother alone on the farm. “My mother wants me to look after the farm while she’s gone.” “And how long must you be there for?” I imagined his mother leaving Friday night from Suvarnabhumi, spending the weekend in Stockholm then catching the red-eye back to Thailand Monday morning. Three days? Four? “Three months,” he said. “Three months!?” I screamed. Nobody needs to be Florence Nightingale for that long! What did she think she could do in Stockholm for three months? There are only so many times one can visit the Abba museum before Dancing Queen fatigue sets in. “What about your extended family?” I asked. I travelled to Si Sa Ket three years ago for San’s ordination. I swear, his whole village had his last name — God knows how they procreate while avoiding incest charges. The only non-relatives were the hired luk-thong singers on that rickety stage the night before he donned his saffron ones, and even they had suspiciously-similar cranial features. But seriously … wasn’t there some maiden aunt in the throes of middle age who could look after the farm for that long? Or a dead-beat distant uncle who sat on a mat all day drinking lao khao plotting the murder of his sister’s farang husband? Apparently not. “When is this operation taking place?” I asked sheepishly. “May 18,” he said. I clenched my fists under the table. I made a mental note to burn all my Abba vinyl. Did that Swede time the operation to coincide with our launch? “You can’t leave on that date.” “I have to.” “How can you leave five days before our launch?” “It’s my family.” Later that day I spotted San having lunch with Song the artist. They were speaking to each other earnestly. San and Jasmine are millennials, tech-savvy and in tune with the modern world. And yet all it takes is an order from Mum and Dad, and they must race home. I only hear the convoluted story, such as Jasmine’s cryptic tale of a family business and a pushy brother, or San’s sudden requirement to run a farm in Buriram. There could very well be something else going on. Did Jasmine lose face to another member of the core team? Has San fallen in love with the daughter of a local pickled garlic establishment? Having been here so long, I no longer jump up and down, demanding to know the exact reason behind abstract tales of fish sauce and overseas operations. I do know this: As a boss I can throw money at my staff. I can throw them nice-sounding positions to put on their name cards. I can throw them love and affection and justice and mediation. I can give them special privileges. I can shovel all these things onto them as a way of thanks for all their hard work … but it all gets trumped by family. This morning Song was lurking outside my office. “Don’t even think of it,” I said. /Andrew
  4. 1 point
    CHEEK SNIFFERS By Andrew Biggs Here we are in Thailand wedged between Christmas and New Year in the season of goodwill, generous in our hugs and kisses and sniffing cheeks, regardless of race and religion. Stop right there … did I just write sniffing cheeks? Yes I did. Thailand may be the Land of Smiles but we are also the Land of Sniffs. We are perhaps the only country in the world where we sniff cheeks to show affection. The western world loves to nudge and wink and make disparaging remarks about Bangkok being the sex capital of the world. If only they knew the truth. Just this week, in a three-star hotel room in a remote B-list province up North, I had grown tired of counting those bright white cockroach eggs in the bathroom and, in an effort to suppress the sound of overpriced Singha beer cans screaming out “Drink me! Drink me!” in the mini-bar fridge, I flicked on the cable TV. There was some American sitcom, so hilarious it required canned laughter to remind us when it was funny. One of the characters expressed some outlandish point of view and her sidekick did a double take. “You want me to believe that?,” he shot back sarcastically, hands on hips, sneer in first gear. “Next thing you’ll tell me, everybody goes to Bangkok for the food.” Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha! This kind of stereotyping is as unfair as it is unfunny. Thai society is extremely conservative. Take general displays of affection. It is a common sight in this country to see western men walking blissfully down the street, hand-in-hand with his new-found Thai girlfriend. He may be blissfully walking, but he is also blissfully unaware that his girl is squirming under the harsh, pince-nez glare of Thai society around her. That’s because couples can’t show displays of affection in public. Guys and guys can hold hands, since that’s not sexual unless you’re dancing to Bronski Beat on DJ Station’s retro night. Girls and girls are also very touchy-feely for similar reasons. But a guy and a girl holding hands suggests sexual attraction, and that is as frowned upon in public here as it is necessary to perpetuate that very same society. If holding hands is considered a little too intrusive by Thai standards, then what about kissing? I wasn’t aware of the total absence of kissing on the streets until one morning, about 15 years ago, as I crept along in my car at snail’s pace on Srinakharin Road. My eyes casually glanced at a young Thai couple, probably about 18 years old, standing at the bus stop … kissing. I nearly rear-ended the pick-up in front of me. No, I was not being prudish nor voyeuristic; I realized that after ten years in Thailand, that was the first time I’d spotted anybody kissing in public. It’s a cultural thing. In Australian culture we too have some things we are not meant to do in public. Picking your nose, for example. Kissing, though, is okay. Here in Thailand it’s the opposite. I once watched a man sitting with his wife on a bus as he picked his nose, carefully examined the contents on his fingers, then flicked it out into the crowded street. The three-step process took a good minute to complete. His wife didn’t flinch. Nobody did, except for me of course. Now imagine if he spent that one minute kissing his wife instead. The entire bus would be up in arms, with the exception of the bus driver one would hope – who would steer? This is also apparent in Thai TV dramas. They can manipulate, murder, scream, slap, double-cross and speak in shrill voices – but kiss? (Strangely, when we farangs perform the heinous act, be it in a Hollywood movie or HBO series shown on local TV, it is not pixelated. We swinging westerners are morally depraved anyway. Stopping us is a lost cause.) Not being able to kiss, let alone have sex, on TV dramas must cause all sorts of headaches for producers, since Thai soapies revolve around sex-hungry men and nymph-like women willing to sleep their ways to the top, then to the bottom, then to the top again. How do they get around that? The ever-resourceful Thais have invented another way of showing affection in place of the kiss. They sniff the other person’s cheek. It’s called horm gaem in Thai, and the literal translation is “sniff the cheek.” It is seen as a little more delicate, a little less up close and personal than the interlocking of lips. To show affection, you bring your nose close up to the cheek of the person in question – and sniff. Now how nice is that? Not a drop of saliva or – worse – tongue is required. Last week I watched a scene on a local soap where the starlet, playing the role of a university student, was cornered by three evil thugs with lily-white skin and Korean-style haircuts. Being a thug requires some acting ability so the producers decked these guys out in tattoos and silver chains to save them the ordeal of having to emote. One of the thugs started to attack the girl. Grabbing her arms and pinning her down, he brought his head to hers and … … sniffed her cheek. So even a sex-crazed thug remains polite in his crime. In his critical moment of unbridled passion, he went for the sniff. No doubt he performed a traditional Thai wai after he zipped up his fly. And by the way, if a kiss is bad, why is it okay to show such wanton acts of violence? Thai soap operas are full of bloody shoot-outs by tattooed thugs with weapons way bigger than their acting talents. In other words; a man cannot kiss his wife, but it’s okay for him to pull out a gun and shoot her point blank. Camera lingers on blood and grey matter on the wall. Cut to commercials – lots of ‘em. I admire the Thai ingenuity in making up an alternative to kissing. It’s just that I don’t find cheek-sniffing that arousing. You can’t slip the tongue in for a start. What if the cheeks are pock-marked? What about people with hideous dimples? Do you sniff around those? I think it’s lovely when Thai children greet or farewell their parents with a sniff of the cheek. That warms the cockles of my heart. But my cockles remain frigid in situations where sniffing the cheek is supposed to take on a sexy nature. Go to any Thai wedding and you’ll see what I mean. In Australia we have that all-important announcement: “You may kiss the bride.” Invariably a table of the groom’s best drunken mates starts shouting “SLIP THE TONGUE IN!” This is hilarious if you have already exceeded the drink-driving limit; otherwise it merely belies our convict origins. Well surprise surprise; Thailand has the same thing. At any Thai reception, as the bride and groom stand on stage, there are usually a few groom’s friends who too have overstepped the Mekhong whiskey mark. They don’t want to get off on a tongue, though. What do they wanna see? “SNIFF HER CHEEK! SNIFF HER CHEEK!” they scream lustily across the rented hotel ballroom, comments met with as much laughter as there is chagrin. Oh, do what you like, dear reader. Find yourself a cheek to sniff. If you want to sniff mine then go ahead, for when it comes to cockles, the warmer the better. /Andrew
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