Richard Constable

Strange encounters of the Thai kind

Strange things that have happened to me over the last few weeks


There was I at the front desk of a well-known salad bar restaurant, experiencing the joys of other people's children unruly slapping each other while they ran-a-muck about, me whilst presumedly, a parent of theirs squared up a bill.

Then it was my turn, I knew it was going to be a problem as a young girl had been given the honour of working the desk by herself and therefore was feeling a great sense of her self-importance. When I told her in Thai, that I wanted "A salad to go' she didn't reply, still, she looked about herself doing a few 180-degree turns.

Of course, I know this one like 'The front of my mobile phone'. She didn't know how to respond in English and she sure as hell wasn't going to reply in her language, as it would amount to a huge loss of face for someone as important as herself. And as dear old Scotty has long since departed to explore the heavens above, there was zero chance of me being beamed up. That is, in these insane circumstances I generally just walk away as they are 'no win!'

Nevertheless, my youngest daughter had asked me to get her a take-out salad, so I elected to use another ploy, 'shout'. 'KOR TORT NA KRUB POM SALAT GLAB BARN'. She jumped, grabbed the salad tray, soup carton and sauce containers in one swoop, and placed them on the counter, without saying a single word.

Here's what she might have said if she had been doing her job ' Thank you, sir, the salad bar is over there, help yourself and please use the plastic gloves.'

Moreover, I hadn't been to one of these establishments for months, not since when you could no longer serve yourself at the bar but had to order by ticking boxes on an order form. Therein, a staff member would go and get it, then bring a minute portion of each food that you had selected. Which amounted to a long term and laborious form of starvation.

Thus, I was there scooping some mushroom soup, when this young waiter came over to me and showed me his hands clad in dark blue Marigold gloves. Truthfully, I was at a loss to know what he meant, 'Sui mark' I exclaimed, believing him to be a proud owner. Then he said something along-the-lines of 'Pla stick glu', it was at this point with his face in mine, that I realised he wasn't wearing a mask.

I replied 'mia koa jai' why, because, here is what he might have said, 'Excuse me sir, but you have to wear plastic gloves now when serving yourself at the salad bar' also because he wasn't wearing a mask.

At that precise moment, this old guy hobbled over and said 'Him say, plas tick glu' and nor was he wearing a mask. Am I missing something here, or is it like this. When you are in a restaurant you don't need to wear a mask, but you need to wear a plastic glove. However, when you leave the restaurant and go back into the mall, then you can take off your glove but you have to put your mask back on. 

Is this the same logic that maskless people possess when there are as many as four of them, that attempt to join me in the small lift (elevator) at the condominium where I live, (Having worn their masks outside in public and having now removed them on their return home.)

Why I penned this

This recent experience caused me to share with you some of the relatively strange things that have happened to me here over the past few weeks. These might well have happened anywhere else in the world for that matter. On the other hand, things that may well not have happened anywhere else in the world, other than Thailand.

Painstakingly, I narrowed them down to a further five instances, so for those of you that can relate.

At a restaurant

Over the last 4-day weekend, I pounded the path across the road from where I live to the Central Plaza, in expectation of a fine Thai food meal at what has been for some time now, my favourite restaurant.

Being early and alone, I informed the young waitress in Thai that two more people were on their way, at this, she set my table for 3. Then she came over to me holding a pen to a small notepad. Of course, I wasn't about to order for myself before my wife and daughter arrived, nor was I going to order for them. So, I said 'bab neung krub' (Give me a minute), but she didn't appear to understand. Whereas, she looked confused, which of course confused me as this is a standard phrase that she must hear ten times a day. Persevering, I then said 'ha na tee krub pom' (Five minutes), to which she walked straight off.

Soo, my seventeen-year-old daughter arrived and sat down at our table. Thereupon, an older waitress with the same young waitress in tow, approached my daughter and asked her in Thai, 'Does he want his coconut milk in a glass or in a shell?'

This was apparently what the young waitress had inferred from what I had said to her. Mmm, I have played 'kor krathi' I would like coconut milk in Thai on my phone a good many times, and I still haven't managed to make a connection.

While travelling on a bus

One evening standing in the crowded aisle of a 129 bus, while travelling back from Ladprao to Bang Na.

There, I looked over my shoulder to see who must have been the largest female bus conductress in Metropolitan Bangkok. And she was weaving her way towards me as passengers manoeuvred their bodies like limbo dances, on the pretext of giving her the space to pass by. 

When my turn came, I took hold of a  headrest with my right hand, paid with my left hand and positioned my body in a squat facing the window. All was going well until I felt some force from either her arm or hand, and was instantly thrust forward onto a monk who was seated in front of me.

Seconds later, with the conductress having past by, I quickly half-straighten myself up and gave the monk a big wai and humbly apologised Kor tort na krub pom.'

(Excuse me, sir!) At this, I saw an expression of anger come over his face, whereupon he reached out and gave me a well-placed jab, just beneath my left rib cage.

Slightly winded, what choice did I have but to stand there fuming whilst acting as nothing had happened.

A short taxi ride

It was just beginning to belt it down when I spied a welcome sight, a red light at the screen of a green taxi cab. A minute or so later I was sitting sound and secure in the back while the storm upped its anti. Now being asked the standard BS questions by the driver and as I was so pleased to have been spared a drenching, I was happily answering them.

For sure, I think we all know these questions, starting with which country are you from, if English, what football team do you like, then how long have you stayed, next what is your job, followed by do you have a Thai partner and if so, is she from Issan. Consolation question maybe, do you have a baby.

Generally speaking, you could now relax because even if you were travelling from Narathiwat to Chiang Rai, he probably wouldn't say another word to you before he reached your destination.

Although, in contrast, this guy was irregular in that he carried on chatting until giving the game away by making eye-contact with me via the mirror and saying most sincerely 'khun angrit jai dee'.English people have good hearts. (In other words, the pressure is now on you to give a generous tip to me ). What a creep!

Peering out a side window, I was imaging him using the same line on any number of other foreigners. Filipinos, Australians, Canadians, Irish, Iranians,  you name it - of course, he wouldn't be wasting his breath on the French.

Thinking back I once had a teaching colleague who when a taxi driver told him that he knew he was an American because he was so friendly, whereupon the teacher allowed him to relieve him of a substantial amount of change.

That wasn't going to be me, so when I paid the 70 baht fare I put a 5 baht coin on top of a fifty and a twenty baht note. He glanced at it, took it, copped it in the box near the gear stick and neither spoke nor looked back.

The old Red Hand Gang's philosophy was that 'A nice guy always thanks you, even without a tip!'

In a department store

Rummaging through some reasonably priced, linen blended, classic style, white, beige and burnt orange, men's shirts that I had taken a fancy to. Then cheerlessly I discovered to my frustration that they didn't have L on the rack and this being a British store is my size.

The so-called assistant had been doing her best to make like she hadn't seen me while folding and refolding some clothes across the shop floor. Standing there and feeling abandoned, I elected to shout 'HEY!' she didn't even flinch so I had no choice but to walk over to her. Taking the piss a little bit  'kor tort na krub pom, kor saura si koa L mee mai'.(Excuse me madam, have you got an L size in white). Her response was identical to every other store assistant I have asked this question to over the past 19 years or so. Where in, she walked straight over to the rack where I had been searching and searched it again and then said 'No!'.

Persevering once again, I suggested that she check the stock room (in Thai) as I am 'old school'. Tentatively she walked over to the store's till and presumably checked in a modern way. After which, she swung her left hand frantically from side to side, as if she were cleaning a window whilst saying 'No have!' 'No have!'

If only she could have spoken in her language, she could have easily have spared herself from looking like - something that had gone wrong.

In the classroom

Firstly, I wouldn't bother to pretend that I was anything but an impoverished ELF teacher. However, I do have a great job in respect of the day school that I teach at. Though it is only a middle-of-the-road private school, it does produce some wonderful students. Foremost, fine, well brought up young ladies that are a credit to their race, and I doubt whether a nicer group of girls could be found anywhere else on earth.

Although, as they are Thai lineage they are not without their eccentricities. For example, the other day not unusually 3 members of a class of 15; sixteen-year-old to seventeen-year-old students, managed to tell me that they loved me during a 50-minute lesson.

The first, did so as I entered the classroom while jumping up and down, and flapping her arms like a bird. 'How lovely', I said as this was followed by a hail of 'We miss you!' from various students in the class.

(Well, they hadn't seen me for 4 whole days, so of course, I could understand their excitement.)

Wherein, another student approached me at the whiteboard 'I love you too, teacher' she informed me as if it was a revelation 'How wonderful!' I remarked. Then she turned to the rest of the class and repeated 'How wonderful!' as if to say, what do you think of that!

Before the end of the lesson, a third learner came to my desk where I was seated, and while kneeling as I pointlessly checked her immaculate written work, confided in me ' I love you teacher! ' paused and added with curiosity and a little insecurity in her voice 'Do you love me too?' I replied without looking up or batting an eyelid 'Yes, of course, I do.' 

Whilst the old things I used to ask myself about 'What planet is this one? ' or 'Am I really in purgatory?' are merely just distant memories. There are still days that pass from the sublime to the ridiculous with considerable ease and certainty.

Though actually, I do, in a logical and sensical Thai way - love each and every one of my students.




Comments

This is such a great article! 55555, as they say. I have actually had the opposite experience in many cases when I try to speak Thai. My Thai skills are definitely very limited, but I can read & write a little bit, in addition to speaking simple sentences. If I say something like "ha natee krap", people will frequently reply "Wow! You speak Thai very good!", then proceed to speak rapidly in Thai. I can't hold a conversation in Thai, so they'll switch to English. I don't think I have ever experienced a Thai person who did not want to speak their language for face-saving purposes. I don't doubt that it happens, though.

I also teach amazing girls, mostly in the 18-25 age bracket. They flirt with me a lot, which is fine by me (many of the boys do it too)! When I get a new class, the first thing I do is write 'ชื่อ - Ian', on the board. A few times, the entire class has gotten up from their seats and rewarded my extremely miniscule Thai writing proficiency with a standing ovation!

When random people ask me where I'm from, I'll sometimes answer with some off-the-wall country, like Uzbekistan or something. I was actually born in New York City, but I've lived in many places and my life story is kinda complicated and a pain in the butt to repeatedly explain in casual conversation. Same thing when I used to travel a lot and stay in hostels. I'm not "on 'oliday" and anyway, New York is boring, overpriced and stressful, and I haven't lived there since I was 14 years old.

I started teaching English in Poland, to professional adults. I can't stand teaching little kids - when I do cover a Tesseban class for another teacher, I have to wear earplugs to avoid a throbbing headache. I've been a semi-pro rock n' roll musician most of my life, so I'm no stranger to loud sounds - but my goodness, there's a huge difference between plugging into a cranked Marshall amp and just walking into a room where 3rd graders essentially scream at you continuously for a full day! I measured the noise level with a sound pressure meter and it got as high as 88db. For reference, a library is about 50db, the legal limit for most arena concerts is usually 100-120db. 88db is like sticking your head inside an old Mazda engine while somebody slams on the gas pedal.

I've never been punched by a monk...

By Ian, The Playboy Mansion (3rd March 2021)

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