Even after living here for so many years, certain aspects of Thai culture still continue to fascinate me. For today's cultural topic, I've chosen the Thai inability to throw things away, to have a good sort out, to put old and unwanted items in the dustbin. Frankly, I've never seen a people who are such serial hoarders of junk.
My mother-in-law (God bless her, she's a fine lady) is a prime example. Walk into her living room and there are old newspapers piled from floor to ceiling. There are shoe-racks with footwear that hasn't been worn by the owner since they left home twenty years ago. And at the last count there were three television sets - one of which is working (albeit with a grainy picture) and two that have been broken and in need of repair since The Ayutthaya Period.
One day I dared to ask why she felt the need to stockpile so many old newspapers. "I use them to clean the windows" she replied. If that was the case, and taking into account the number of windows, then I reckon she had a fifty-year supply sitting right there in the living room.
Oh, the clutter!
One of my favourite things is to walk down local sois on some of the nearby housing estates and just gaze in awe at the clutter in people's front yards. There is barely an inch of floor space not covered with oily motorcycle spares, broken water pumps, old refrigerators and air-conditioners, children's toys, empty rabbit hutches and of course the ubiquitous fifty pairs of unwanted footwear now festering in an ungainly pile.
I suppose for a Thai, I'm the very worst kind of farang to marry - and I take my hat off to my wife, who has had much to put up with, it must be said.
I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to keeping things orderly. My pursuit of tidiness borders on OCD. I rearrange food tins in the cupboard so the labels are all facing the same way. And go on, take a quick peek in the fridge. I guarantee that you'll never see a tidier vegetable drawer or salad crisper.
I just can't tolerate mess. And I can't tolerate hoarding junk for the sake of it either.
Rummaging through closets
Nowhere is the contrast between our lifestyles more emphasized than in our wardrobes. Open my closet and you'll see an orderly line of t-shirts, dress shirts and polos, all arranged on wooden hangers and with the same regulation space between each garment to allow them to ‘breathe' (I might get carted off to the funny farm for writing this)
Open my wife's closet and your immediate reaction is to clasp your head in both hands like Munch's ‘Scream' and say ‘how can you possibly live like this?' Jackets hanging sloppily on out-of-shape plastic hangers fight for space with blouses and t-shirts. Most of her clothes just get stuffed into tight-fitting drawers. And don't get me started on handbags.
About twice a year, I'll make an audacious suggestion that we have a ‘good old sort-out' and donate our unwanted items to charity. There is a shop in the nearby Paradise Park Shopping Mall that takes in your old goods and sells them on with all the proceeds going to a Bangkok orphanage. It's a worthy cause that we always like to support as best we can.
I welcome these opportunities to ‘de-clutter' my life. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than having less stuff to worry about - and we all have far too much ‘stuff' don't we?
My brother in England is also a fanatical ‘de-clutterer'. He has an interesting and ruthless approach when it comes to deciding whether an article of clothing is ‘a keeper' or ‘a chucker'. He always says that if you haven't worn something for a whole 12 months, then it's unlikely you'll ever wear it again. So into the big plastic bin-bag it goes.
I doubted this approach for a long time but I've slowly realized it makes perfect sense. If you haven't worn an item of clothing for 12 months, then there's a perfectly good reason why you don't like it. Perhaps, you just won't admit it to yourself.
The last time we made a trip to the orphanage charity shop, I had the purge to end all purges. I filled three large garbage bags with books that I know I will never read again. Yes, I know books look nice in a bookcase (all arranged in order of size of course) but I have a Kindle with about a hundred titles that I'm either half-way through or haven't even started reading yet. I don't even have enough years left on the planet to finish them.
Ditto DVDs. I started going through my extensive collection of DVD movies. When was the last time I sat down and watched my Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry box set? 10 years ago? Maybe longer. I've got 150 downloaded movies on an external hard-drive that I never seem to get an opportunity to watch. What chance has the Dirty Harry box set got?
No, I came to the conclusion that the movies and books were just gathering dust and taking up valuable house-room. To the charity shop they went.
Piles of stuff
My wife doesn't find letting go of stuff quite so easy. She'll sort clothes into three piles - 1) don't want, 2) possibly keep and 3) definitely keep. Pile number one starts off as easily the smallest. All I can see in my mind are the sad faces of orphans. By the time she's finished, all of pile number two (the possibles) have joined pile number three (the definite keepers) and the charity pile has somehow become even smaller.
Any attempts on my part to assist her with the sorting process are futile. I'll hold up a handbag that she last carried when she was a girl guide and say something stupid like "surely you don't want this anymore?" I'm just trying to be helpful. I know how attached the female of the species get to shoes and handbags. Alas, my wife sees any intrusion as an invasion of her personal space and I'm usually rewarded with a kick up the arse before being shoved out of the door.
But I don't care. I know I've done my bit for charity and I can breathe a sigh of contentment that comes with knowing that I've got less of that useless clutter in my life. Plus, if I ever need to buff up the window-panes, I know where there's an inexhaustible supply of old newspapers and somewhere in Bangkok, there are orphans walking around fixing each other with a fierce scowl and saying "Go on punk. Make my day"