A cultural curveball
Just when you think you know most things about Thai culture
Having lived in Thailand more than twenty years, one likes to think themselves as au fait with most aspects of Thai culture, and then some innocuous situation develops and you're left wondering if you truly know the first thing about Thai culture at all.
The incident in question revolved around our maid. At least my wife refers to as the maid. I think the term ‘cleaning lady' would probably be more accurate. Add comes to the house once a week to clean and mop and get through ridiculous quantities of my expensive furniture polish; in addition, she waters the garden every morning - a task for which I'm extremely grateful if only because it saves me a precious thirty minutes a day and means I don't get eaten alive by mosquitoes and fire ants. Add has been coming to us for about a year now. She's very polite and works hard. I like her. And so does my wife.
Add is the quintessential 'poor-as-a-church-mouse' Bangkok Thai. She's about 50 but looks 70. She's hardly got a tooth in her head. A whole life of hardship is etched on her face. Her husband pissed off for a younger model and left her with two teenage sons who now spend most of their time sniffing illegal substances, racing stolen motorbikes and bunking off school. And home to all three of them is a corrugated iron lean-to adjacent to a foul-smelling canal. It's hard to imagine a woman who has a larger burden on such painfully bony shoulders.
Anyway, a few weeks ago, I went downstairs while Add was polishing a large chest of drawers. I could instantly see that she had opened the bottom drawer where we keep all our photo albums. The drawers are made out of sturdy stuff. There was no way one would have accidentally slid open to reveal its secrets and it takes a fair amount of force to open that bottom drawer, especially as it's weighted down with a dozen or so albums.
So there was Add, lost in her own little world, looking at a collection of photos we took in England over 10 years ago. I presume she had already been through the wedding photo albums as well.
When I walked in and disturbed her, Add tried desperately to force the albums quickly back into the drawer. I could sense she was embarrassed. But to make light of the situation - because I really didn't see any harm in it - I joked that I looked a lot thinner ten years ago and just laughed the whole situation off. But there was no concealing her embarrassment.
In the evening I casually mentioned the event to my wife. I genuinely thought it nothing more than a slightly amusing anecdote. I certainly didn't anticipate the reaction I got from her. My wife went ballistic and immediately phoned her mother. Her mother went ballistic and then some. Add had clearly crossed a line. I just wasn't sure what the line was.
I begged both my wife and mother-in-law not to say anything to Add because it would make me out to be a snitch. And that is not what I wanted. Surely I was a guy with better things to do than filing daily reports on the cleaning lady. The whole situation felt too trivial to even merit a conversation. Sneaking a look at a photo album is perfectly OK with me. No one dies in the process. But my wife and mother-in-law were adamant - the cleaner had to be reminded that she was there to clean and to do nothing else unless instructed otherwise.
Always at the back of my mind is the fact that in Thailand, these cleaners, maids or 'service people' if I can call them that, can be incredibly difficult to find and replace if you dismiss them. It's something I felt my wife and mother-in-law would only consider after the event. You would think that in a relatively poor country like Thailand, people would be queuing up to do a few hours of casual work for cash in hand but in reality, I've found the opposite to be true. Trustworthy and reliable cleaners are very hard to find.
In fact, we lost our last cleaner to a local shoe factory. She worked for us for over six months but was obviously always on the lookout for something better - or rather better paid.
If you pay a Thai cleaner let's say 300 baht for a three-hour morning shift and a local factory owner comes in with an offer of 350 baht for a 12 hour shift on a conveyor belt, standing knee-deep in shit, then an extra 50 baht more is all the incentive that your loyal and trustworthy employee needs to put down her mop and floor-shine and walk out of your life forever.
For these reasons, I like to look after Add. I don't want to lose her or I'm back outside with the hose-pipe, fighting a losing battle with the fire ants. At Christmas I gave Add a card that I got my wife to write in and thank her for all the hard work she'd put in over the past 12 months - and I put 3,000 baht in it, a considerable amount of cash for someone like Add, for whom every ten baht counts. My wife even moaned at that saying I was being far too generous. But once again, it's just me being smart and making sure that Add doesn't run off to the shoe factory.
I don't just give Add a chunk of cash at the end of each year. I donate clothes to her two teenage boys so they can at least good when they are trying to dodge the cops on stolen motorcycles, and I make sure I bring her a little souvenir from our vacations abroad. It's after all the thought that counts.
I posted this ‘cultural dilemma' on the ajarn discussion forum and was pleased to see it sparked some lively debate. But the forum members were very divided in their opinions. There was obviously no easy solution. On one side you had the people who agreed with me and said my wife and mother-in-law should put up and shut up. And in the blue corner, there were people who felt the maid had certainly done wrong and who knows what might happen if I left money lying around or she found the key to the showcase containing my wife's jewel-encrusted scepter and small collection of diamond tiaras. The message was plain and clear - the cleaning lady can no longer be trusted.
One problem I have in dealing with things is that I'm British. I come from a culture where service people and handymen, if not quite treated like members of the family, are certainly treated well. To me it's just plain common sense. The better you look after someone, the better the job they do for you - at least in theory.
Right from when I was a small boy, I can remember plumbers, carpenters and builders coming to our home and the first thing my Mom or Dad would do is offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit. Then there would be a lengthy chat about the weather, the current state of the plumbing trade and Arsenal's changes in next week's FA Cup Final. It's the very British way of doing things and it becomes a part of your character. It's nigh on impossible to shake off. Eventually a little bit of plumbing work might get done - as long as you kept the plumbers happy with mugs of 'milky tea and eight sugars'. And that's the kind of culture that many of us grew up in. Treating handymen and service people well is just second nature to us.
It's the complete opposite in Thailand I've noticed. When handymen come to our Bangkok home, they are lucky to get half a glass of tepid tap-water, and that's only if it's a hot day and my mother-in-law takes pity on them. If it was left to my wife, they'd get sod all. I used to be the one fussing around like a tart offering visitors glasses of Pepsi or orange juice and the refreshing tinkle of ice-cubes. But my wife would shoo me away and say "no need, no need"
On the rare occasion I've been allowed to offer an ice-cold glass of Coke to a Thai tradesman, I can never fathom what their reaction really indicates. Surprise? Shock? Gratitude? Embarrassment? I've never worked it out. But it's certainly something they don't expect or get at any other household they call on.
Thai service people seem to operate under some kind of ‘invisible contract'. No one has drawn it up but the points are clear. You are here to do a job. You will be paid an agreed fee for that job. And once you have finished you will leave promptly until the next time I require your services. Pleasantries are optional. I may surprise a few people here but I think when it comes to treating your fellow countrymen like shit, the Thais have very few equals.
Oh, if you've read this far, you're probably wondering what the outcome of the maid story was? Well, Add did get a ticking off for going through the drawers (I'm not sure how severe that ticking off was) but she's still working for us and that's what really matters. We haven't lost her to the shoe factory just yet.
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Thanks for the most interesting blog. I was brought up the same way as you. I am not going to change.
It is the right thing to do. The better you look after someone, the better the job they do for you - at least in theory.
By Robert, South Africa (25th July 2011)
Nice story Phil!
Like they say, "there's nowt as queer as folk!"
By Tom Tuohy, Riyadh (30th May 2011)
Phil, are your family members 'Chinese Thai'? My wife's family are Lanna Thai and they always offer water or something to eat to people who come to our place.
I am not sure "not being polite" is "Thai"...more that it's "Chinese Thai". People always say "Thai culture" as though it applies to all of them. A Lanna Thai is very different from a Chinese Thai, who is different in turn to an Esarn Thai, who is different in turn to a deep southern Thai.
By Johnny, Chiang Mai (4th May 2011)
Farang change the rules when dealing with Thais and adopt a softer approach - perhaps because they don't want to rock the boat, given its not their country and all, and maybe they have read all the books about what smiley gentle people the Thais are (usually written by Thais). This conflict avoidance behaviour then becomes normal over time. What if you had come home to your house in the UK and found your plumber, a nice man approaching retirement, going through your drawers? Different reaction?
On the money side, my wife never tries to negotiate here in the UK but when we are back in Thailand she will argue for 10 minutes that the tuktuk ride should be 50 baht not 80. Invariably she gets it for 60 baht and is pleased with herself. Me on the other hand can't quite see the point in trying to save the extra 30p - which I always tip the driver at least that anyway despite my wife's disapproving glare.
By David Fahey, UK (4th May 2011)
Well just when I'm pretty down, I can always look forward to you Phil or ajarn dot com in general to put a smile on my face. By the way I am a collector of fine jewel-encrusted scepter and small collection of diamond tiaras. What did you say your address was? I forgot! Well I must agree with you as this is probably no surprise. However I do know exactly where you and your better half are coming from due to my 10-years with my Thai wife. I had a few stories of my own but they weren't word for word or action for action like yours, but the stories involved some Thai helpers. It is 100% a culture thing and there is nothing we can do or say to ever make any sense to a Thai spouse. I will take this one step further because something bad happened to me that was done by a drunk family member of my spouse. Well guess what the rules do change when it involves a Thai family member. No injuries were reported but still a crime had taken place against me by a family member of my spouse. I demanded some sort of action be taken like an apology for which I would have accepted or something like that. Forget it. I never got it and that was considered too harsh. The exact same crime repeated itself 2-days later by the same drunk member of my spouse's family and the same action happened. No action - different rules = Thai culture!!!
By Donald Patnaude, Bangkok, Thailand (30th April 2011)