One of the most confronting things about moving to Thailand, at least for an Aussie (and probably a Kiwi, too*) is the level of service that is provided everywhere. All of this service will be accompanied by much smiling and nodding and a Wai (the folded hands and nod) at the end – always, it seems, just when your hands are too full for you to be able to return it with any grace.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that this kind of service is part of the person’s job and I can handle a certain level of it by reminding myself that I worked my way through much of Uni as a nanny but it’s not quite the same – for one thing, I called my employer ‘Tanya’ not ‘Madame’. I also remind myself that if I have said “Mai Pen Rai” (it’s doesn’t matter, it’s okay) with a smile and insisted on carrying my own shopping to the door of the store, and the shop assistant’s manager then sees me doing so, said shop assistant may get into trouble. So, I am learning to accept a certain elevated level of service while always smiling, returning the Wai as much as I can and using as much Thai as I can. The thing is, I see so many Westerners who have become accustomed to this service, and treat those who provide it as beneath them, or even simply not worth acknowledging at all and I don’t want to become that person. It’s a balancing act.
Sometimes, getting that balance right can be tricky. Take this evening, for example.
For several weeks, I have been looking to buy an easel – a good sturdy one to work on, not just a display easel – and I’ve been back and forth to one of the malls looking at them and finding it very hard to find anyone in that part of the store to help me out. Because I’ve been ill, I’ve been going on the weekend when we need to find over-time for Superman’s driver (finally he calls me Khun Dani instead of “Madame”, or his original “Mrs Boss”** – yay! lol) but today I felt strong so I went out by BTS (Skytrain), ready to order the easel and have it delivered some time in a week or so. Note that the reason I’ve told you this is to emphasise that I had no car at my disposal.
I get to the shopping centre, find the easel and find some help almost immediately, all is going well. The shop assistant takes me to the gift wrap lady who speaks better English and we start discussing delivery. They speak Thai to each other, Gift Wrap lady speaks English to me, asking for address and times and so on. At some point I start to suspect that they are discussing delivery by the shop assistant herself. Obviously I can’t be sure because they are speaking Thai very fast but when the shop assistant gives me her mobile number (her name is An, it seems) and the word “TukTuk” is used I’m pretty sure. You see, often when you ask for something in Thailand, they won’t tell you if it is not available, they will simply try to make it happen – and it seemed that there was no sort of official delivery for this easel. I immediately understood why the girl had looked askance when I’d replied “Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon” when asked for a delivery time – she would be working then!
So, I looked at the easel and assessed it. It’s big but it folds down to about the width of a car and flattish so I asked if I could just take the floor stock and said I would get a taxi. They were fine with my taking the one in stock but did not think it would fit in a taxi, a tuk tuk would be better! We went back and forth and finally I said I’ll try a taxi and if not, I promised An I would try a Tuk Tuk. She seemed satisfied with that. Okay. Guilt gone. Taking it home myself. I try to pick it up and immediately An (who is at least a foot shorter than me) says “No. Madame. One minute” and I realize someone is coming to help. Some big strapping lad, no doubt.
So, the two tiny Thai women take one end each of this easel and say “Pay taxi”, which means “go taxi’”, and I think “Okay, as long as she’s not taking time off work to bring it to me in a tuk tuk, I’ll let them help me to the taxi rank” which wasn’t far from where we were. At least the one I knew wasn’t, but we weren’t going to that one. We weren’t going through the shopping centre, we were going through the car park, then winding our way down the up ramp, stopping and flattening ourselves and the easel against the wall when trucks went by. All the while I’m trying desperately not to have a giggle fit because the two women are having an argument about whether the easel will fit in a taxi or a tuk tuk and the tuk tuk is winning.
When, at last, we reached the road, it was not the road I was expecting, nor was the traffic going in the direction of my building but An had everything under control (she also had the rest of my shopping by now) and motioned for me to stand in place while she flagged down a tuk tuk. Just the thought of me in a tuk tuk, with my easel sticking out the back made me both giggle and want to do it but, before a tuk tuk could be found, the other assistant had flagged down a taxi and was determinedly proving that the easel could, in fact, fit on the back seat lengthways. An looked deflated but shrugged and nodded her defeat. I made preparations to Wai them goodbye but of course, “Madame” must have the front door of the taxi opened for her and the taxi hadn’t pulled all the way over so I obediently got into the car, all of us giggling away. All of us. Giggling. In the car.
All of us.
The two tiny Thai girls had folded themselves into the back with easel. They took out the card I had given them which had my address in Thai and they proceeded to give the taxi driver directions, at which point the driver turned to me and, in perfect English, asked “Is that the building with the Longtable Restaurant?” This brought squeals of “Phuut Phasaat Angkrit!” (he speaks English) and more squeals when I said “Chai dii maak ka” (Yes very well) and the rest of the 30 minutes journey was passed discussing how he had learned his English (just from passengers) and whether the girls should upgrade their iPhones to the Galaxy SII, with the taxi driver translating as necessary.
When we parted ways outside our building, I made sure to give the driver enough money to take them back to their work shift which was still going and I gave them tips which should allow them to have a good meal, you know in case they got fired when they got back.
*I’m sure there are other nationalities who have similar struggles but I don’t have enough experience to make such sweeping statements about them – Aussies and Kiwis, in general, are egalitarian at heart and the borderline (often over it) obsequiousness here can make us uncomfortable.
**Yes that does mean Superman is called Boss on a daily basis