Sunday, 15 April 2007

Foreign matter (part 1)

Witnessing exchanges between foreigners who are new to this country, and Thai hosts who are inexperienced in dealing with foreigners, can be charming and entertaining, like watching a child coming to grips with a new language, or learning to walk.

The farang has learnt a few Thai ways. He knows how to exchange greetings: 'Sawasdee, krap!' He has learnt how to give a wai, and imitate the various sounds Thais make in everyday chatter when they are impressed, or surprised: Oh, ho! ... the Thai equivalent of 'Wow!'

These sounds are fun to mimic, because like "Wow!' they stand out from the rest of a conversation, and are easy to spot.

The farang who has mastered a few tricks is sure to attract attention, even praise from the Thais, who are flattered that any foreigner has taken an interest in their humble lives (in Thai eyes).

Many Thais automatically accord foreigners high status, before he has even uttered a sound. This observation is not lost on the foreigners, of course. The respect in which they are held appears to endure, no matter how much time they spend getting drunk on backpacker fleshpots such as Khao San Rd.

The foreigner will play up to his Thai audience - and the Thais will laugh and cheer him on. Even when the routine gets tired, or the Thais find some of the foreigner's behaviour or utterances puzzling, they will continue to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Once a Thai starts to learn foreign ways, he becomes less inclined to indulge the foreigner's desire to show off. The charming innocence and naivety of their initial encounters gives way to a wary acceptance that he is among their number, or perhaps a grudging respect.

Sometimes, more effort on the Thai's part to understand foreigners would not be such a bad thing. They could more skilfully learn to distinguish the good ones from the bad, which would help shield them from harm.

On the other hand, that same communication or cultural barrier which a foreigner encounters when he meets Thais with little previous exposure to western ways, can itself act as a form of protection for the Thai.

The foreigner realises he cannot get far in a conversation with them. The nasty barbs which a drunken foreigner can turn on his own kind at a bar are lost on such Thais, who don't know what he is saying, or even if they do know, are not sure how to respond.

In that case, the most likely potential victim of a drunken foreigner getting abusive at a bar is not Thai patrons, but fellow foreigners who happen to be sitting there with him.

They share the same language and culture, and at a base level know each other only too well, even if they have never met.

The foreigner spots another white face at a bar, and assumes the fellow farang will just stand by if he chooses to disgraces himself in front of his Thai hosts. For that's what all foreigners do, right, when they visit this land?

He may not carry on in such a poor manner at home, but in Thailand, no one's watching - and the Thais love him for it!

Last night a young foreigner turned up alone at Mum's shop, after spending two days getting drunk on Khao San Rd. He had managed to get through B14,000 in one day on whisky alone, he said. He had also cut his foot, which was still bleeding when he arrived. He had not been to hospital, but did not care.

Needless to say, he was drunk. Any sense of propriety, self-discipline, or respect for other people's feelings had long deserted him.

Farang R, 26, is a teacher, and has lived here nine months. Judging by what I saw last night, he knows many tricks to keep the children entertained: imitating funny Thai sounds he has heard in conversation, hopping up and down, lunging about madly, chasing people on the street. I am not sure if he carries on that way in class, or just outdoors when he is drunk. He was a one-man travelling circus.

Mum's son and a friend, both aged 12, were hanging around at the shop, and enjoyed watching his show. When he made funny sounds with his mouth and hands, imitating a funky hip hop beat, they recognised it instantly. I told farang R that he was clever with kids.

'How do you teach them?'

'I just get them to repeat everything,' he said.

Mum's younger sister, Isra, kept serving him beer, even when he ran out of money. As a result, his behaviour continued to deteriorate. If she was sensible, she would ignore him, and he would have gone home, as he was fast running out of admirers. But no.

now, see part 2

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