Passive tense


Passive tense

The phrase just popped into my head one day, and it suddenly seemed to explain everything about Thai culture that I just couldn’t get my head round. I just couldn’t work out how with all that smiling and niceness that people just didn’t go mad and explode with rage. Well maybe they do and it’s classic passive aggressive behaviour.
First of all, what is passive-aggressive behaviour? It’s when you aren’t able to tell someone that you are not happy with a situation, but instead, suppress your feelings and use indirect behaviour to express them. It is often a result of oppression or of lacking in the social skills to assert yourself. Examples of passive-aggressive indirect behaviour are sulking, making excuses (e.g. finding another reason why you can’t do something you don’t want to do), blaming (my girlfriend wants me to go home, when really the boyfriend wants to) and delaying so that you miss or are late to an event you don’t want to attend. We all do this to some extent to avoid hurting people’s feelings, but genuine passive-aggressiveness is when it is done persistently, over and over again.
Most people would agree that Thai culture, like many other Asian cultures, has a strong element of ‘holding things in’. The concept of ‘face’ – avoiding conflict, not embarrassing or blaming others.If someone does something wrong, the correct response from the ‘victim’ of the wrongdoing is ‘mai pen rai’ – it doesn’t matter. The idea of ‘kreng jai’ (hard to explain briefly but ‘not causing discomfort’ pretty much sums it up) – if someone does something that you don’t like, you hope that they will not do it again rather than complaining. Are Thai people psychic??!!
Wow, it would have helped to know this when I met my husband! It took me years to work out why he would never say sorry – he just didn’t feel at fault when he did things that annoyed me and just didn’t have that automatic response of ‘sorry’ for every little thing that displeased me. And got annoyed when I got angry with him about things he’d done wrong.
Obviously there are lots of passive-aggressive people in the west, and in the UK we are known for repressing our feelings and not being direct but the repression of feelings here in Thailand makes us look positively open. And in modern British culture at least, we accept that it exists but it is not considered a mature way of behaving. Our response to problems is to communicate openly and try to come to a compromise. To accept that sometimes we won’t get our way but sometimes we will. Here in Thailand it seems that the same people get their own way all the time – the elders, the superiors, the men – whereas those sometimes great ideas and suggestions of the young, the subordinates, the women – are ignored simply because of who suggested them.
An aunt keeps borrowing money from her family and doesn’t always pay it back…instead of sitting down and talking about how they can help her (not just by lending money but maybe be helping her budget or set up a business) the family decides to send some bitchy texts around to literally everyone but her…of course she sees them and goes mad. Eventually she forgives them, they lend her money and so the story goes on. Does anything get resolved? No. But I’m sure they’re still seething underneath as they hand over the cash. A situation of (female) infidelity results in the friends of the guy she cheated on getting a gun and planning to threaten the guy she cheated with. T telling his family that I want to go home early, when actually he wants to so he can go out with his mates (his family must seriously think I’m unsociable!). The girlfriend who sits alone, not speaking to anyone all night (thank goodness someone invented smartphones – who knows what they did before!) waiting for her boyfriend to finish drinking and chatting with his mates. Personally, if I go out with T, I expect to have a good time, enjoy myself and chat to people and if I don’t feel like doing that I just go home early or don’t come out, rather than sitting there miserably, willing every whisky and soda to be the last.
I guess all this ‘face-saving’ is what leads to the gossiping and bitchiness (again I know it happens everywhere but the amount here is unbelievable and is considered more ‘normal’ and less offensive than it is at home). People can’t say what they think to someone in public but they can vent their thoughts and feelings in private (though of course it doesn’t remain private and spreads like wildfire!). The moment I got here I heard how X was so rude and Y was so lazy and A was so tight and B was so bad with money. So it wasn’t a surprise that I would be the topic of conversation on many occasions, especially with my ‘different’ ways. More on that story another day…
Funnily enough I am actually a pretty passive-aggressive person. I’ve never been that confident about asking for what I want in case the answer is ‘no’ – I’ve always sought the approval of others and don’t trust in the fact that they will like me as I am. But my passive-aggressiveness seems to manifest itself in a different way to Thai passive-aggressiveness so it doesn’t really help. Plus the fact that it’s something about myself that I want to and am trying to improve. And how do we improve things? In the west we tend to use open communication: telling each other how we feel and what we want (of course we use little white lies so as not to hurt people too but on the whole we are open). This works about 50% of the time for T and me, which, I guess, is a bit of a result! Half the time we end up with a bit of a revelation and a greater understanding of each other. The other half of the time it descends into a shouting, screaming , slanging match resulting in tears and sulking. We’re working on it and we both enjoy the feeling after we have gained a new understanding of each other.
T told me recently that he hates ‘giving bad news’ – a good example is telling me he’s going to be back late when he’s out drinking with his friends. It’s not unusual for Thai people to sit up drinking all night until the sun comes up – it’s a hot country and until the invention of aircon that was the coolest place to be. As a western woman I want to have an idea what time my husband is going to be back. When we had a chat about it he said he hated saying he didn’t know when he’d be back or that he’d be out for another 3-4 hours, so he’d say something like ‘one more glass’. Of course that one more glass turned into two more, then three more then probably ten more! In the meantime I’d be texting him every hour to say ‘are you coming back soon?’ or ‘it’s 5am, when are you coming?’. He’d then send another text saying ‘I’m leaving in 10 mins’ which of course didn’t mean that at all but was just another delaying tactic. So I’d be at home getting worked up and unable to sleep and thinking ‘why does he keep breaking his promises’ and he’d be out with his mates thinking ‘why does she keep bugging me’ and when he realised I was starting to get mad he’d just stop replying to texts and on the rare occasion I’d call him, he wouldn’t answer. We’d both spiral into a rage, frustrated that we couldn’t express out true feelings – him because it was just not something he did in his culture, and me because it usually ended up in an argument because we just didn’t have a mutually acceptable way of talking things through. When we finally did manage to sit down and chat he said that when he was out late, it seemed better to say he was coming back soon, even if it wasn’t true, than to give me ‘bad news’ i.e. that he was going to be out for a long time! I explained that for me, that was worse, and I’d rather hear the truth, however bad it was – not that I wouldn’t get annoyed still but at least I’d feel he was being honest. I am learning to accept that if he goes out with his mates, he might not be back until the morning. And he is learning to be honest about this and keep the lines of communication open.
During the same little chat, he also told me that he feels ‘oppressed’ because I don’t want him to go out and have fun but at the same time he feels guilty that I can’t go out and have fun. I guess he’s right in a way – I do feel resentful – but at the same time I do understand the reasons he feels like he does, and also I feel that the fact that I can’t go out and enjoy myself doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t either. He was surprised to hear this and I think he appreciated the openness and communication – again he just hadn’t wanted to tell me because it was ‘bad news’ for me – that he wanted to spend time with his friends and not with me. His ‘Thai way’ seemed to be to just go ahead and go out with his mates anyway, knowing I didn’t like it, rather than facing up to things and saying to me ‘I know you won’t like this but I want to see my mates tonight”. Burying his head and hoping it would just go away or would get better by itself. He had no concept of ‘working on things’.
As always, I find myself asking ‘what’s the answer?’ – how can we combine the Thai culture and the British culture in our relationship? Unoriginally, the answer lies in taking the best of both worlds – I like the openness, communication and ‘facing up to your problems’ of my culture but maybe it should be restricted to the big problems and issues in life, not every little thing that I’m not happy about. “Choose your battles” as they say. And at the same time, a little less complaining (you don’t have to be honest ALL of the time!) and a little more sweetness wouldn’t do any harm. To use another old favourite: “you catch more with sugar than with vinegar”.

Girls in Isaan (Part 1)

Bang Maid by Criptionary
Bang Maid, a photo by Criptionary on Flickr.

“When men first come here they are victims of the Western feminazis. They are amazed at the totally different interaction between men and women in Thailand. Of course, this is what unhinges so many of us too. I can’t deny it. I went through it just like you, so don’t feel too bad. The truth is, when we get here we are like kids in a sweet shop. So many to choose from and so easy! ”The Feminist Ideal in Thailand By Marc Holt
Let me start by saying that I am not a man-basher. Most men and most women are lovely and just get on with their lives, happily interacting with the opposite sex and they have every right to do that in whatever way suits them. But being a woman in Thailand it’s hard to ignore the ‘women’s issues’ all around you – from the reminiscing of your male friends about the sex shows they’ve seen to the bitter rantings about western ‘feminazis’ from the western men (funny how they soon move to bitter rantings about Thai women) to the role of women in society here. It’s hard to know how to start putting pen to paper when there are a thousand and one jumbled thoughts in your head.
So this quote seems like a good starting point as it basically trashes both western and Thai women in one paragraph, not to mention Thai men, who don’t get a look in when the irresistable western guys are about. For the western woman it’s a bit of a shock to get here and realise that all these western men came here to escape ‘feminazis’ like herself. She didn’t realise she was one for a start – back at home she was just a normal woman who got an education, got a job and got on with her life and if there was a good guy on the scene, great, if not then fine. Slowly she realizes that the guys here are not a cross-section of western society but several specific groups of guys who have their own idiosyncrasies. Some of them lived through the demise of the old regime when women gained some power and rights and were no longer financially dependent on men, and were therefore a bit more choosy about who they married (if indeed they did get married) and what they were prepared to put up with. They didn’t like this – they were used to having the power to tell their wives what to do, to expect every whim and desire to be catered to, to control the finances and the property.
Don’t get me wrong – every couple has the right to choose their roles in the relationship as suits them – if the husband works all day and his wife doesn’t then it’s not anti-feminist for her to do the supermarket shop or cook his dinner or make him a cup of tea. No problem. If he wants to wash the car and put the bins out while she does the washing and ironing, fine. The issue is when there is no discussion or debate allowed or the woman is out working just as long and just as hard but expected to do all the housework when she gets back. And it works both ways – a guy shouldn’t have to put up with his wife spending her days having lunches with friends and blowing his hard earned cash on shopping while he’s hard at work – unless he wants to. The key is BOTH partners being happy with their situation and having choices.
Anyway back to the bitter guys – they were no longer able to throw their weight around in their own country so they realised that the only way that they could do this was to go and live in a country (a) where women hadn’t yet got their full rights so it was still acceptable to ‘take charge’ and (b) that was poorer than their home country so they could increase their power to a level beyond that which they had in their home country. We didn’t even notice they had gone.
“A man of the sort I have described finds himself in Thailand or the Philippines and it doesn’t take long to be struck by the enormous differences with regard to how women behave, the legal rights they have, their exposure to feminism and attitudes toward men in general; and the man’s access to women.”
Farang Men Don’t Hate Farang Women By Korski 10/09/2012 
It’s a bit like the people who like places like Thailand because they can be openly racist and it’s not PC like their home countries. Or that they can make more money by starting a company here because they don’t need to follow those silly health and safety laws and they can pay people as much for a day’s work as they spend on lunch. What happened to progress, or being proud of developments your country has made and that many Thai people dream of? Again, just to clarify, it’s not that I think that any western country has got it completely right, and of course some of our laws are over the top and restrictive, but at least you know that if someone constantly abuses you at work there is a good chance that something will get done about it. Or if you have a nasty accident in the factory that you work in, you’ll be treated for free and if your company was at fault you may get compensation and they may have to make improvements. So we western women are just enjoying our right to get out of a relationship (through improved independence) if we are unhappy, to escape physical abuse or to get financial help when the father of our children decides to trade us in for a younger model. While some western men are enjoying the fact that many women here DON’T have these rights.
And at the same time, these kind of guys are trashing Thai women as well – they’re all suppliant and subservient and like doing what they are told. Really? Not the Thai women I know. Those with genuine opportunities are just as strong as any western woman I know and are free to make choices. Yes there are clearly some cultural differences in behaviour – women are expected to be more ladylike (not arguing, swearing, getting drunk, showing off their cleavage/g-strings than in the west) but on the whole, women’s subservience here, and in many other countries, is mainly due to their lack of power and opportunities. Anti-feminist? Not the Thai women I know – they are aware of women’s rights in other countries and they are keen to improve their opportunities in life. That’s not to say that Thailand should copy the west’s idea of equality – I would be very happy if Thailand found its own version and improved on our imperfect systems. But it’s both naïve and condescending to think that they don’t want to move on as well.
It’s impossible to point the finger and blame anyone here – is it the power crazed old retiree who wants to buy a trophy Thai bride, or the gold digging conniving Thai bar girl with her Thai boyfriend and family siphoning the money off on the side, or the stupid sweet old man who thought she really loved him or the young, poor, country girl, robbed of her innocence and independence by her family’s demands that she finds a rich western husband. Or is it best to ignore the stereotypes and look at the many good relationships going on here, between people who have just happened to fall in love with someone from another very different country. But in the end, in love as in business or politics, the one with money and power is ultimately the one who is ALWAYS in control, despite what we or anyone else may think. It’ll be interesting to see what happens to the pulling power of the western man as Thai women gain financial independence and Thai men get richer and can compete on more equal terms. Which country will you head for then?

You get what you pay for

Thailand - Customer Service by
Thailand – Customer Service, a photo by on Flickr.

Thailand’s cheap? No England’s cheap!! Before we came, T was always telling me how Thailand is so cheap, even for most Thai people. Food’s cheap – you can eat out all the time! You can go to a beauty spa every week to do your hair and nails and get a massage! You can get your laundry done cheaply – who do you know that can do that in London. We got here! It’s not cheap. A lot of things here are more expensive than in the UK or the same price as the UK so they are expensive for Thai people in relation to their income. For example electrical goods, cars, the iphones and ipads that we see everywhere (and most people don’t have phone contracts here so pay for their phones up front). Some things are a little less, some as low as half the price – so on a par with the UK price by the time you take into account income. And finally there are the things that are a lot cheaper – food in the market, eating out, most services, for example beauty or massage or repairs/labour costs.
Let’s start with the bargains – think positive! Massage is much cheaper than the UK. A basic 1-hour massage starts at 120baht, less than £3. A massage in London costs about £40 per hour. So it’s a lot cheaper here. But we’re talking a massage on the street or in a basic shop – not a clean, relaxing spa environment. A spa here equivalent to a UK spa is more like 400baht (£8) for a Thai massage (up to 1000 (£20) for a western oil massage) so we are getting closer. And I have never really looked into cheaper massages in the UK but I’m sure you must be able to get one in someone’s house for more like £20 an hour – it’s just not so common in the UK as massage is considered more of a luxury than a weekly expense. It’s a cultural issue. The same with eating out – it’s a big part of life here so of course it is cheaper. Until recently in the UK, eating out was reserved for special occasions such as birthdays. It’s only in the last 10 years or so that people have started to eat out more, the number of restaurants has increased and they have become more affordable and less of a treat. By the time you factor in the higher levels of VAT and income tax in the UK (both what is due and what is actually declared and paid!), the higher levels of health and safety with their associated costs, and the higher staff costs (despite the fact that the UK catering industry is famous for its appalling wages and working conditions!) it is not surprising that food is more expensive in the UK. Even though we rely heavily on imports, food itself in the UK is relatively cheap (even compared with other European countries) and we are famous for our low spend per head on food. It’s just not important for many people. Not something to be proud of!
There are also a load of products that are a bit cheaper or a similar price to the UK – and those who have been living in Thailand for a long time are often not aware of how much prices have come down – you can buy a t-shirt for £3 (150baht) or a pair of shorts for £5 (250baht) in the supermarket or cheap stores such as Primark and Matalan (plus there are great sales and bulk buy offers too). There is a lot of cheap stuff here but I have found that the quality is actually worse and the cheap stuff at home lasts better – it makes sense because you can return things in the UK if they break or stop working. 100baht t-shirts here in Thailand (£2) are terrible after a few washes – lots of clothes go bobbly straight away or tear at the seams. Cheap products e.g. watches or furniture just falls to bits.
And finally there’s the stuff that’s more expensive – it either costs the same as or more than in the UK. Electrical/mechanical goods are the biggest group here – cars, phones, computers, washing machines, fridges, DVD players – all a similar price to their UK equivalents. And let’s not forget that spending £200 on a fridge in Thailand hurts the wallet a lot more than spending the same in the UK.
A big factor in the lower price in Thailand is the low to non-existent minimum wage and low taxes with a massive under declaration. Is it really so great to be living somewhere that the reason we can afford to pay someone else to do all the things we don’t want to do is because there are so many ‘real’ poor people here who don’t get paid enough to live on, who have no rights and no protection at work. Companies are complaining about the planned increase in the minimum wage from 220baht a day (£4.50) to 300baht a day (about £6) – admittedly it is a big jump but at the same time it’s a pittance here. In comparison the minimum wage in the UK is about £6 per hour for an 8 hour day which is £48 a day. Still not a fortune but things here do not cost 8 times what they do in Thailand. I have heard the complaint that Thai staff are lazy and just sit around all day eating, gossiping and playing with their phones which is true to some extent but I would argue that this is a product of a low wage and if employers want them to work harder they will have to pay them more and THEN make sure that they are working. In the past it may have been possible to survive on this kind of low wage – lots of people in a household so the accommodation costs are low, lots of them working so the total household income is sufficient to live on, lower standards of living and expectations. But Thailand is just like anywhere else in the world – people want nice cars, nice houses, nice food and nice clothes – with this comes a need for a greater income. It’s hard to imagine wages staying low with this rise in the standard of living so I think we will see a jump in the next 5-10 years – it’ll be interesting to see how this will impact on the rest of the economy.
How do I do my cost of living comparisons? I’ve made these calculations myself so am completely open to any feedback on them! Bear in mind that we are in a bit city in Isaan so these are not Bangkok salaries and prices but also not country ones. A Thai teacher’s salary starts at 10,000 per month here (£200) – in the UK it would be about £20,000 per year i.e about £1,700 a month). A decent salary is considered to be 20,000 a month (£400). A junior bank employee may be on 7-8000 a month here (£140-160) whereas in the UK that may be around £15,000 (£1,100 a month). So I was looking at a multiplier of at least 5 times more for an equivalent job in the UK. But when we got here it was clear immediately that the cost of living here was not 20% of that in the UK. So what’s going on? Well there are some big cultural differences – mainly the living in old houses with family – so most people have no living costs, though that is changing as people’s expectations increase. Compare that to the massive mortgages many people have back home where having your own house is the norm. And Thai people have a ‘live for today’ attitude – meaning that if they have money, they tend so spend it. They are less likely to contribute towards pensions/insurance/savings – their families will look after them if they are sick or elderly. There is also a huge ‘underground’ economy – e.g. most teachers supplement their salary by teaching after-school classes to their students (it is said that they have a vested interest in not teaching everything during school hours for this reason) and that is certainly what I have been told by the Thai teachers I know here! Also many people are self-employed here – the family noodle bar/hair salon/mobile phone shop – I think we can safely assume that there is a massive underpayment of any VAT/income tax here (again anecdotal evidence from family backs this up). Our local noodle shop owner has a son at our son’s school – the most expensive in the city – so he is doing something right and it is not his tax returns!
So what’s my conclusion? Well I guess it is simply that if you are happy with basic food, accommodation and lifestyle you can probably live cheaply anywhere, it’s certainly easy here in Thailand. But if you want a car, air conditioning, an iphone and ipad, nice clothes and to eat out all the time it’s going to cost you, wherever you are. As I said, you get what you pay for.

Where do I belong?

Farang Connection by antwerpenR
Farang Connection, a photo by antwerpenR on Flickr.

As much as we hate to admit it, we all want a blueprint before we go anywhere – in the past it was all about the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet, nowadays the first thing we do when we want to go somewhere is to google it to find the online guides and blogs. We want to know what to expect when we get there. It makes sense: although one of the joys of living abroad is discovering things for yourself (and you generally have more time than someone who is on holiday), sometimes it’s nice to just be able to google where the nearest internet café is rather than spend half a day looking for it. Yes I’ve done that and loved the random wandering and the unexpected paths it can lead you down, but there are times when you just want to find that café and get online.
Coming to Thailand as a woman has another aspect that I never considered when I moved to Italy. In Italy, with my dark hair, although I’m sure I sometimes looked like an outsider when I was wandering round the tourist sites aimlessly, once I had a job and a sense of purpose and knew my way around a bit, no-one gave me a second look. Here in Thailand it’s very different. We’ve been here 6 months now and I know where I’m going and I have purpose – when I go out I’m going shopping or running or teaching or meeting people. I’m just getting on with my mundane daily life!! But I’m unusual, I’m a white woman – I stand out. I’ll never blend in here – even if I stay for 10 years or my Thai is perfect.
It’s a bit different for the white guys – I guess people don’t stare at them any more, though I’m sure 10 years ago they did. Like most cities in Isaan, this isn’t a tourist city – they’re either here to work or because their Thai wife/girlfriend is from here – but there are so many of them here that they don’t stand out any more. They still look ‘different’ of course but they’re part of the scenery here.
So I came here with no blueprint, no guide – a blank canvas. I’m not a single, white female teacher, here to enjoy the cheap massages and street food for a few years before heading back home. I’m a married woman with a kid. You can count the number of settled, white women here on one hand. You really can – we asked at the immigration office.
I had a quick look online when we got here but the local forums are all about middle-aged men who are here with their Thai wives, or single guys who are here for a few years of teaching and f**king. You never know, I might find I had things in common with some of them but I have only met one of two western guys here. I don’t hang out in the western bars plus for obvious reasons it’s not that easy to go up to a guy in a bar (married or not) and start chatting to them. Plus I need some girlie friends – who want to chat about where to get my hair done or where to buy the shampoo I like or the latest celebrity gossip. But the number of women here is so small that the chance of me meeting anyone I have anything in common with is close to zero. Luckily there’s a German mum, E, at B’s school – being the only two white women there it was easy to strike up a conversation. Although we aren’t even the same nationality and her English is basic so we can’t have an in-depth conversation – it’s nice to know someone who is going through similar things. Her life is very different to mine though – her husband has been sent here by his company for a few years and has a great salary and nice house so she doesn’t have to work. She doesn’t have to adapt as much as her family (husband and a son and a daughter) is all German so within their house they can live their own way, whereas because T is Thai and B is half Thai I have more of an obligation (and desire) to fit in and adapt to the local way of living. They are brave to come here – I can’t imagine being here without a Thai to help me – but they can also shelter themselves from the outside world when they need to. It makes me realise how much I have learnt about Thailand, even living with T in the UK, because a lot of the things that E finds surprising here, I am used to already.
So where do I belong?? The answer is that I still don’t know – I’m not unique in this city but I certainly have to forge my own path and create my own lifestyle. I’m not sure if there will ever be a significant number of western women here – I’m sure it can still be hard sometimes for western women in Bangkok or the tourist cities, even with a lot more other women around but here it’s hard to see that number of western women being here in the foreseeable future. Plus I know I’m not going to be here forever so there’s less impetus to be a trailblazer and set up a women’s network or organise women’s events. Maybe I’m a bit of a chicken – how amazing to have a blank canvas and the opportunity to be the first to do these things!! But the truth is I’m just getting on with my life and my husband and my son. Maybe I don’t need a blueprint after all.

Business as usual

I’ve just had a crash course in business in Thailand. To add a bit of background to this story, having your own business in Thailand is much more common than in England. There is a lot less regulation so people just have an idea, set up shop and start trading. OK, as I have now seen it’s not as quick as that sounds! But it doesn’t involve months of research and financial planning like it does back at home. Owning a business was one of the reasons T wanted to come back to Thailand – he tried in the UK and it was so hard – as well as he found it hard to adapt to the English style of running a business (a serious venture and not a fun experiment which might result in a great business), he struggled with the red tape and the costs involved in the start-up and day-to-day running. Having seen what he went through, I too was excited to see the entrepreneurial spirit of Thailand in action!
Anyway, T had been speaking to his cousin M about setting up a business since we made the decision to move. I personally would have started drawing up a rough business plan but appreciate that things work a bit differently in Thailand, a lot more is done face-to-face. And even for me it would be difficult to plan much without any information at all on costs etc. So as soon as we got to Thailand, T and I met up with M to start planning the business.
After a few initial chats they decided to go ahead and one weekend we spent the day driving around the city looking for shops to rent. We still didn’t have anywhere near the level of planning in place that I would have liked, but “when in Rome” I thought – just let them do things how they like to do them. And we had plenty of time on our hands so could just treat this like a bit of research. 2 hours later we had pretty much rented an empty shop on a busy road on the outskirts of the city!! Fine, I told myself, it’s in a good location and not too expensive so it’ll be good whatever business we end up with, even if this one doesn’t work out, burying the feelings of panic rushing through me at the speed of the decision. We were due to return the next day to pay the deposit and sign the contract. Later that evening, T and I were celebrating our first success in starting up our new business when he got a call from M. She explained how even though she had some money to invest, her parents had advised her not to. Yes, she’s in her mid-30s, has a pretty good job and lives in Bangkok, but no she isn’t able to make that decision by herself! It’s hard to get behind the façade, even for T, and discover the real reason she doesn’t want to get involved – maybe she doesn’t think it’s a good idea, or she really likes her job or she was never that serious in the first place. It feels like you never get to hear the truth – people just don’t like saying ‘no’ here and always seem to have to use someone or something else as an excuse (more on that in a later post – I didn’t realise it at the time but this was the first hint of a characteristic I later discovered was ingrained into the Thai psyche!).
Despite the change in plans, T and I decided to go ahead with the business ourselves and we went back the next day and paid the deposit and signed the contract. The landlord explained that they were going to lay a new floor, which was great for us – it had been painted fairly recently and would look great when it was finished. We cracked on with sourcing shop fittings and signage, at the same time chasing the builders to do the floor. Of course it started late and took longer than planned but to be honest it probably wasn’t THAT much slower than back at home.
Eventually the building was finished and ready – we moved into the top floor where there is a small apartment. Next step – the business…. It’s still not off the ground, even now, several months later!! The first idea didn’t work out so T has been chatting with various other cousins about other business ideas. There’s a lot of business talk in Thailand. A lot of ‘I want to do this’ and ‘ I want to do that’. But not much action. Occasionally we get hints about borrowing money (we’ve been living in London so of course we have lots of spare money – if only they knew the truth!). I’ve seen it countless times with family members – an aunt wants to set up a noodle shop, an uncle wants to set up a bar. Business ideas become forgotten as new ones come along. I keep fighting the urge to say ‘If you want to do it, why don’t you write a plan and work out (a) if it will make money and (b) if you can afford to set it up. If the answers to both are yes then go ahead, otherwise forget about it and move on. In fact I do say this to T (about family members), frequently and to be fair he does agree and see the logic in it. Sometimes a business gets started, but stops a few months later as it’s not working out (lack of research, or investment, or effort). To be fair, I like this entrepreneurial spirit where the idea of starting a business is creative and not the serious financial chore that it is in the UK but I can’t help thinking that the best success would come from a hybrid of the two – a ‘best of both worlds’ where you have the creativity and spontaneity (and cheap labour) of Thailand with the research and financial planning and marketing of the UK. You would think that being a Thai/English couple we would be able to benefit from the best of these worlds. Not yet, I’m afraid!!
So now I am just sitting back and getting on with my own thing – helping T where he needs it and giving him the odd reminder to do this or that about starting a business. In the back of my mind I think either we’ll have a successful business and the life we dreamed of, or we’ll go back sooner and start again. So it’s a win-win for me really.


Market by andrewmalone
Market, a photo by andrewmalone on Flickr.

I couldn’t find a photo that showed exactly what I wanted – all the photos of markets that I found were those pretty, shiny, clean ones with masses of multi-coloured fruit and veg in a rainbow formation. I wanted to show the grubby, smelly side of street markets – the dirty floors, the rubbish, the stench of the meat and fish and rotting vegetables on a hot day. Anyway this photo came the closest – a peek behind the scenes.
So back to the title – what’s that all about? Well, back in my twenties I lived in Puglia for a year (teaching English of course) and as I have got to know Thailand and Thai culture, a connection has formed in my mind between Italy and Thailand. Yes, it sounds crazy but bear with me and it might start to make some sense!
I’m not talking about the Italy of Milan and designer clothes and expensive restaurants (especially as I’ve never been there so don’t even know if this myth is true) but the Italy of the sun-baked south….of Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campagnia and Sicilia.
The food culture permeating every aspect of daily life: I remember chatting to a group of older Italian guys – they were roughly in their 50s – and they started speaking about their versions of their favourite recipes : “You need a little sugar in the sauce”…”No! I never put sugar in!”…”I like to use veal”…”I mix veal and pork”. I can’t imagine my dad and his mates speaking like this but here they were, just a normal part of everyday life, unashamedly discussing the minute details of every kind of food or drink. The respect given to each meal: taking time to hunt down the right ingredient and to make the dish in the correct way. Not like me (and I love my food): swapping an ingredient because I can’t be bothered to go to another shop or cutting corners in a recipe to save time because I’m starving after work. The availability of great, cheap, fresh, fast food: Street food as it is now called in London, as it’s the latest trend, not a built-in part of the culture. It won’t be there in 10 years’ time! Arancini (stuffed rice balls), slices of pizza, home-made ice creams and fresh fruit granite (cross between a sorbet and a slush!). Easy to forget how hard it is to find a freshly made sandwich in the UK, let alone a decent hot snack (Greggs pasty anyone?). The family life: Big families, meeting up all the time, cooking and eating, laughing and joking, fighting and crying. The rough with the smooth. Not the ‘once every three months, formal sit-down dinner’, organised months in advance because everyone’s so busy and because it’s so stressful for the host to produce the perfect home and meal – no flaws allowed or mucking in to help out and make it easier. La bella figura: the importance of not just looking good from both a physical point of view but also from an image point of view: how you behave and act. The rituals and the ceremonies, the pecking order, knowing how to dress and behave according to the circumstances. Not making a show of yourself in public. Yes, my beloved England, that means not falling around drunk in the street with your knickers showing! The acceptance of corruption: the little backhanders to make things happen. The big backhanders to make things happen. The tax evasion (big and little). The nepotism and connections and favouritism to get that job or to get that application accepted. Yes it happens in the UK as well but it’s not so publicly demonstrated and tolerated (privately, maybe). The sexism: the underlying belief that women are the fairer sex and are there to do the cleaning and cooking and look after the kids. And the men are there to work and drink and watch football. You think British TV presenters and actresses have it bad – try being one in Italy or Thailand. The non-functioning: things just don’t work. You complain to your friends then you get on with it. You don’t try to make things better as that would mean fighting the system. And no-one in charge wants to spend their time or effort making things work better. The parochialism: they’re already looked down on by the rest of their country for being the poor, ignorant region. It’s not all their fault. They’re just getting on with minding their own business in their own country when these funny foreign people turn up. They’re suspicious. They whisper. They stare. They prejudge. Like it or not it’s human nature, but you can’t help wishing they could experience the world outside their little corner of the country. And last but not least, the heat: OK Italy with its drier heat and seasons is not the same as Thailand with its tropical humidity, but in the European summer, Italy takes on that slow, languid, character that you see in Thailand.
Read the following sentence, taken from an online Telegraph article, and you could be reading about either country “The country’s dismally low growth is a consequence of corruption, a bloated bureaucracy, an overpaid and cosseted political class, stifling bureaucracy, low productivity and a third-rate educational system”. (It’s about Italy, by the way, the full article is at 10th Nov 2011).
I’ll admit I have taken some poetic license and ignored some of the differences between the two countries but I was just surprised when I sat down and thought about all the things they have in common. I love both countries and their attitudes as much as I hate them. You have to take the rough with the smooth. You can’t just have the sunshine and street culture and tasty food without having the smells and the shadows. There aren’t many Italians here in Isaan and there certainly aren’t many Thai people in southern Italy. I would love to be a fly on the wall when the people of the Mezzogiorno get together round a table with the people of Isaan, chatting about food whilst nibbling on tasty snacks over an ice cold beer.

The “nice” one about Thai food

I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about my post on junk food – it seems a bit harsh that after 10 years of enjoying Thai food, my first piece of writing on the subject was negative! Anyway here are my other experiences of Thai food which are far more positive…
I had hardly ever eaten Thai food before I met T. I LOVE European food and wasn’t a big fan of spicy food so had just eaten the odd dish when out with friends. Thai food was all about Green curry and Pad Thai, right? Meeting T changed all that. The first dish I remember him cooking was what I now know to be one of the most popular dishes in Thailand – a real everyday staple – pad graprow – meat (always beef or pork for him) stir-fried with Holy Basil and chilli. None of the vegetables that you get in UK Thai restaurants (“they make the sauce too watery”, he said) and the meat minced rather than sliced as you find in in the UK. And – probably the strangest thing of all for me – a fried egg on top of the rice. “Why do you need a greasy fried egg with it?” I said “Yuk”. Now, of course, I complain if he forgets to order a fried egg on top of my pad graprow moo (pork is my favourite).
Another really strong memory from the early days is eating an Isaan dish that is delicious but very time-consuming to make. I’m still not sure of the real name but the pork balls are called nem tord and as I later found out it is based on Vietnamese cooking. You make some rice and pork balls, flavoured with chilli paste and lime leaf, which you then deep fry. But it doesn’t end there – after making these lovely meatballs, you crush them up and serve them with boiled pork and pork skin, wrapped in lettuce with herbs and I think raw chilli and garlic pieces. I was amazed that they went to all the trouble of making these meatballs to then mash them up! It reminded me of the people who bake the sponge cake themselves (rather than buying it) to go in their trifle – a bit Desperate Housewives!! Yet for these guys it was really normal – they loved the dish so it was worth the effort. And I have even fonder memories of our first Valentine’s evening (T worked in a Thai restaurant so didn’t get back till late) when we stayed up until the early hours making the pork and rice balls – wolfing them down at 2am because we were starving by this point!
My first visit to Thailand with T was my ‘initiation’ – I really went for it and tried everything. I was so proud of myself every time a friend or relative showed their admiration by saying how the falang girl could ‘eat spicy’ – I could eat pretty hot food by this point so the local Isaan style som tam was no problem. They were less impressed by the other food I could eat as it had never occurred to them that western people don’t eat chicken feet or duck beaks or insects (anything tastes ok when you deep fry it!). Most parts of Isaan are not tourist areas and there is only a small community of falang men in most big cities so most people had not met any falang people before.
Fast forwards to today – 10 years of Thai food in the UK and on our regular holidays to Thailand later and I no longer feel the need to ‘prove’ myself. I’ve tried most things now (though occasionally ‘new’ things appear) and don’t eat things I don’t like just to show that I can. I eat my food a bit less spicy now and it’s surprising, now that we’re living here, how little spicy food I eat. And how many of T’s relatives, especially the aunts and uncles’ generation, don’t eat very spicy food as it gives them stomach ache. It makes me feel a bit more normal! I like deep fried small crickets but not worms. I like liver, kidney and heart in my noodle soup but not tripe. Our son, B, is great – he eats even more than I do and I never tell him I don’t like something – I always like him to try it for himself. Wherever we end up living, it’s important for me that he can eat the same food (more or less) as T.
I mostly eat Thai food here – I maybe eat about 20% non-Thai food which is mostly pasta or steak (which the three of us love) or toast if I am starving and want a quick snack. There is enough variation in Thai food to prevent me from getting bored. I still hardly ever eat pad thai and have still never eaten a Thai green curry here. Some of my favourite dishes are really boring everyday dishes – I love pork noodle soup with sen yai – the wide rice noodles – and nam tok – the soup is thicker and darker because of added blood. Some minced or sliced pork, a few slices of tender pork liver, a big tray of fresh vegetables and herbs and I’m happy. I love kao mun gai – I probably eat it more now with B as it’s a great dish for kids – boiled chicken served with rice cooked in the chicken stock and a bowl of the chicken stock on the side as well as a little dish of spicy sauce to put on top. A few lumps of boiled blood and a few slices of cucumber and that’s all it needs. Simple but delicious.
So we end up at the picture – another pretty boring every day dish here but at the moment I love it – pad kana moo krob or stir-fried Thai broccoli with crispy pork. The crispy pork is amazing and the flavour matches the kana perfectly – it’s brought together with a rich, gravy-like sauce, which is never thick and gloopy like cheap Chinese takeaways at home. I have it with or without chilli. And with a fried egg on top of course!