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Katun, Popcorn and other lost in translation misunderstandings

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Sometimes, things are not what they seem to be, and sometimes things are not what you seem to hear…

One thing about Thailand that’s really different and exotic is something as basic as… communication.

To put things into context first, I see many expats taking it for granted that all Thai should speak and understand English…

Maybe it is because I am not a native English speaker but I do NOT assume that by default anyone should master Shakespeare’ language.  For example, I see many times on expats forums the exasperation of occidental fellows talking about bad language skills of staff  in a shop, taxi drivers etc..     or that “lousy” customer service that ” can’t even speak proper English” well, people, helloooo? Do customer services in your countries speak Thai? I guess not..  And actually I wish I will eventually speak Thai as clear as a lot of Thai speak English.

Which leads me to my second point, we are guests in a foreign country and  yes we live, work here and pay taxes,  but out of respect for our hosts we should make it a duty to integrate.

Integrating means being able to communicate, communicating means assuming that it’s up to YOU to make the effort to make yourself understood, and not the opposite. (and you will find many people actually putting in a lot of efforts in trying to understand you)

Oh it’s easily said and far less easily done,  I sometimes get frustrated like anyone else.

When you order something and end up with something totally different it’s fun, but in an emergency situation it can be far more critical.

I  guess the fact that our languages but also our cultures are very far apart and with no common root makes it quite complicated for us to learn it,  just as for them to learn English.

Occidentals are very complicated, after a year here I came to that conclusion. Cynicism, sarcasm and irony are a few things we love to use but that do not work here at all, or should I say do get lost in translation as Thai do not lack humor, quite the opposite actually. (Either that or Thai see us as so rigid and self-important that they assume we are incapable of having any sense of humor so take all we say literally ahah!)

Metaphor does not work that well either, same as allusions.. Sometimes we are afraid to offend so take some detour to express or request something.  Although Thai culture is all about subtlety and you are sometimes expected to understand the unspoken,  when you go for it, it doesn’t work.

It’s like with men you see   (sorry guys): when you want something speak up straight to the point and don’t get lost in meandrous and obscure hints hoping for the other to understand.. That can lead to very awkward situations.

A good example I have of this is at work where we have a very noisy coffee machine, and the pantry room door tends to stay open quite often.

Someone posted a very nice note in English above the coffee machine, explaining how many decibels were a baby crying,  a plane taking off, traffic etc. then concluding with something like “and how many decibels do you think the coffee machine is, have you closed the door yet?”

One of my Thai colleagues once told me  she did not understand this note at all, and after I explained to her she then said “Oh, but why don’t they simply say that the machine is noisy, please close the door?” – Well probably because the idea was to be super nice about it and not to offend anyone by posting a note that could have come across as  a bit directive maybe?  Analogy + English simply did not work here, and this helped me understand to get rid of useless decorated babble and go straight to the point when I want something.

Since then my life is much easier.

We learn Thai, (we try) it can be funny at times (we suck so far) but the effort is always very much appreciated. As said before, we have no language roots in common, so we develop our own mnemonic method: for Kop Kun Francois hears Katun ( a roller coaster in Mirabilandia, Italy) where Louise used to hear Cancun, and  in “Proooni pop kan” (see you tomorrow) I happily hear popcorn…

In the end, it’s all a matter of references 🙂

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Farang Happy!

Farang, it’s us! It’s a Thai word to designate us. Us occidental foreigners (Asians foreign to Thailand are NOT farangs) but even more so maybe us French, as some say it comes from the word “farang-set” (Francais, French)   but some others that it was first used in the middle east . It is pronnonced “Fa-lang”.

And Monday, we were 4 farangs to live our first Songkran.

Songkran is the Thai New Year, yet celebrated throughout South East Asia, and the tradition at Songkran is to pour water on people, some kind of purification ritual to start the new year free of all sins. Sometimes, the water is mixed with chalk which is used by the monks to mark blessings.

Traditionally then, people just pour water on your hand and face , sometime mixed with chalk. But that was before. Now, it appears that the gentle water pouring has become this gigantic water fight and the whole city of Bangkok turns into a very wet chaos for three days. That may be why a lot of the Thai we know or Farangs who have been here a while are out of town.

We’ve read, and heard, many different things, including that it could be not that safe, but we decide anyhow, my three Farang-say friends and I, to head towards Silom road. Silom is a very nice area of Bangkok, business district but the area also has a very busy nightlife.

Leaving the house we encounter some trucks with full jars of water on the back, around the jars are men and women grinning and laughing, they give it a try with us but miss us as a taxi pulls over.

We arrive by foot from Lumpini Park, and immediately we are swallowed by a huge crowd.

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People there are mainly Thai, we can spot a few farang faces but we are not that many. By that time, we started already getting shot with water, but that was just the beginning, we are getting hosed down by powerful guns, fire hoses, buckets, pans of water thrown on our backs, to our face, on the sides everywhere. Within a few minutes we are totally drenched. The worst is still to come. There are big containers on the side of the street “refill stations” for the guns and those contain… ice. The fisrt ice water I’m getting is the content of a frozen bottle poured down my neckline, and then it starts coming from everywhere. A woman gently marks my face with chalk. I’m wet and white, but I’m having fun!

A bit further there are DJs, loud music, dancing people. Looks like a rave party where people are high on water! In one of the places, a huge bucket in the air that is overturned over the crow below, while a guy happily waters the bouncing crowd with a fire hose while the guys next door use Karcher like pressure washers. This is just crazy.

But at the same time, everybody looks happy, and seems to be having a good time, there is no aggressiveness whatsoever into this gentle, good- natured rowdiness. None of us like crowds but strangely enough none of us felt oppressed at anytime.

After a few hours, we end up soaking wet, and yes, nearly cold.

Walking back to Lumpini to meet my friend Donna who is joining us for dinner. Donna is Thai, she laughs when she sees us and asks us how we found the experience. We loved it we tell her as we walk hoping to dry fast, it looks like she almost can’t believe that we had such a good time. Donna speaks both English and French, and she giggles: it’ good “farangs happy” , “Farangs happy”! For sure, Farang Happy! I wouldn’t do that every day but it was much more fun than what I thought it would be!

Driving Miss Delphine …

Where we live, we need some type of transportation to reach the Skytrain. Walking there is always a possibility but it takes something like 40 minutes, and 40 minutes under 40 degrees with nearly 100% humidity, well, feasible on week ends but definitely not to go to work.

An option would be to get a car, but honestly driving across Bangkok and back every day would take a very, very long time and would probably end up being more expensive than getting a taxi.

Taxis are everywhere, they are green and yellow, Barbie pink, white and pink, blue, sometimes full yellow or full green, in all cases there are very easy to identify.

And they’re very cheap. The initial charge is of 35 baht, then 5.50 baht /km for the next 10 kilometres, then 6.50 baht/km for 10th to 20th kilometres, etc. if stuck in a middle of a traffic jam the meter goes up 2 bahts per minutes.

Basically going to the BTS from our house can cost anything from 50 to 120 baht depending on the traffic.

So every day, to go to work, I need to call a taxi, and back grab one outside the BTS.

This operation takes more or less time so the ideal situation would definitely be to find someone who drives me to the BTS everyday.

And so it happened that over a couple of weeks, the same taxi picked me up three times in the morning. All used to mines and creative communication, I tried to asked him if he lived around here and he said something about his wife, then I asked if it would be possible that he picks me up every day.

This sounds easy, it was not. I think we understood each other but at the same time we weren’t too sure.. Ultimately he told me “Thai friend, call”so I saif yes, good idea, I’ll have a thai friend call you, please give me your number. And so he gets this paper out that has not one but TWO numbers. Which one do I call? Did I ask.. OK ok he responded, and gave me another paper with another TWO numbers. Which one? Ok ok call, call yes. Wtf..

So here I am with 4 telephone numbers, not having a clue what they correspond to (maybe we didn’t understand each other at all after all), but soon I noticed that two were the same. So I figured that was the one to call, and asked one of my colleagues for help.

It worked out well, in fact we had perfectly understood each other, it turned out he drops off his wife nearby every day and so W. started to come pick me up after dropping off his wife. Thanks to him I greatly improved my Thai, I had to learn how to say I am not working tomorrow, the days of the week, is it possible to drive my daughter at the airport at 6AM and things like that. He’s met Francois, Melissa & Yvain and Louise, asks me sometimes about them. He shows me picture of his 4 years old daughter, he is a really nice guy.

I pay him well too, we did not agree on this but every day I give him the same thing regardless if there is a lot of traffic or not, and he’s stopped turning the meter on.

W.’s taxi is pink and white, every day starts with the dogs greeting him at the gate.

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Then he drops me off and I climb the stairs to the BTS, more or less crowed depending on the days.

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There is a BTS every two minutes at the most so it’s fairly quick. Once arrived, I have a few minutes walk along a nice and green avenue and I’m at work!

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It takes me between 35 and 40 minutes door to door on a standard day . It can happen there is a traffic problem then it’s a bit longer.

Going back is pretty much the same except that I do not have a regular taxi, but there are usually plenty waiting outside the BTS. Except a couple of day ago. I returned home earlier than usual because I had a work call with france to attend that was going to last until late evening, and getting out of the BTS there was this large queue and no taxi. Traffic was horrid. I got in the queue waiting patiently for my turn, when suddenly, this taxi (who has just loaded someone) gets near me and opens the front door shouting something in Thai. I barely pay attention but people around me look so surprised that I give another look, and there is W. gesturing me to hop in!

I do, he says something to the old guy in the back seat who seems happy about whatever that was about (probably something like, do you mind if I take her along) and off we go.

Indeed he dropped off the man on the way, I thin k he told him he was not charging him but the old man insisted and pushed a bill in his hand. “Nice man” W. told me.

When we arrived home, I paid him the usual that I pay in the morning, and to my surprise, he offered me back the bill from the old man.

I refused, (after all he had saved me from a horrible traffic and probably a long, long wait), but I was really glad he did. I am always a little afraid of being taken for walking wallet, and the apparent kindness of the people being motivated only by interest.

In some cases it’s not a big deal, but in others, as with P. & W. I like to think kindness is sincere. And this small gesture makes me think towards that direction, that W. is a great guy!

My life is a game!

It’s been ages since I last wrote.

I’ve been here almost three months and although I still do not feel “at home” (which is why I miss François) I do feel good, and in a familiar and caring environment.

Thailand is a good experience so far. Oh yes there are challenges, but people are nice so it compensates. Well, I think people are nice but in the end I do not know!

The main actors in my life outside of work so far are P. and W.

P.is the young woman we hired to take care of dogs, W. is the morning taxi driver.

I love P, dogs worship her, and I like to think she likes me too. I hope to teach her some English and to learn Thai so we can communicate better.

Finding her was not easy: I wanted  someone who actually  loves dogs. Many of the people I interviewed were “OK” with the dogs, but to me, “OK” is not enough.
I found P. through an agency, and we had an interview via Skype.

Oh I forgot to mention, the agency said she spoke little English, they were not lying, Hello and Goodbye are “a little English,” right?
P. is from Myanmar, and I was told she speaks a very clear Thai. It’s nice, I don’t 😉 (well not yet) and the truth is that she does not speak English at all.
In fact, I don’t care what she speaks as long she takes good care of the dogs, and a little bit of the house too.

During our skype interview, I liked her, her smile, and her response to my question about the dogs (translated by the lady of the agency who was sitting with her).
It is said that nonverbal communication is very important, that body language accounts for 55 % of communication, and tone for 38%. It becomes even truer when you do not speak the same language to start with.
To me that was enough. “But you do not have questions?” Asked the lady of the agency  surprised.
No, I don’t. All good for me.

So the next day, P came to the house, and moved in two days later.

When she moved, the dogs were not there and there were no furniture in the house. Everything I owned at the time was a suitcase, a bedroom suite and a washing machine, all brand new and installed a day before my move.
I must admit that at first it was weird having a stranger in my privacy. In addition I quickly realized that she was a real tornado and everything would be tidy and washed before I have time to even think about it.

Besides, communicating is really not easy, I have to be creative, use images, mimes, google translate (which, with Thai language, is not always the best), drawings, and a mix of all of the above. In my previous life, we organized games parties with mimes and Pictionary, now it’s my daily life which has become a game!

The only pity is that our exchanges are for the moment reduced to basic needs. No further than the second level of the Maslow pyramid. I tried to ask her questions about her life, her past, and even with the telephone intervention of her friend it did not work.
Example: “Would you like to return to live in Myanmar later in your life? “Answer,” yes  at Christmas “- Me ” Really? ” Her (slightly worried)” yeah Can I take vacation at Christmas? ” And despite my best efforts, I never managed to pass the concept of “later in life”,”someday”

The first week of our life together, I did not want her to do my laundry so I hid it. Yes HID.  Hid MY clothes in MY house. In a plastic bag,  in a drawer.
And on Sunday when she left for the day, I put it all in the washing machine and laid my stuff to dry in the sun.

When P came back that day she scolded me! At least I think so, yes, the feeling of being a little girl who did something wrong. Made me chuckle.
And the week after she found my secret laundry place.
I gave up and bought  a laundry basket.

Then, the first dogs arrived, and I was able to verify that she didn’t lie. The dogs are spoiled! She plays with them, cuddles them, bathes them (wash freak 😉 ),  keeps them in her room when I travel, and removes their anti bark collars as soon as I put them on when I look the other way.

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After the furniture arrived,  I was able to verify that we all do not think equal when it comes to tidiness. I left some unopened boxes? Never mind, hop hop hop emptied and all put away. Ah yes, but put away WHERE? My life had already come quite entertaining with the mimes and all, now it added up to a permanent treasure hunt!

Be warned, if you come on vacation, any abandoned cloth will soon end up in the washing machine, any object lying around will disappear from your sight and we will need to brainstorm or team up to find them!

The magical effect is that before, I was quite untidy. That was before.
Now if I want to find my stuff without spending 10 minutes searching or imagining where P. may have put it,  I need to put it away myself .
For example I found this morning in an unexpected place a pair of earrings I’ve been looking for for a couple of days. And you? can you see at first sight the golden loops?

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That, added to the fact that out of respect for her I avoid leaving everything in the way, our life in Thailand starts on a tidy (and playful) note and actually, I realise I do like it tidy !

Happy New Life!

That’s it.

D day has arrived and time for me to leave. I’ve spent the three previous days visiting friends, and feel so overwhelmed of how much our friends care. I’m surrounded with warmth and love and it’s a fantastic feeling.

We spend New Year’s Eve packing, now my departure is becoming real and I’m starting to be a bit anxious.

The next morning as soon as I’m ready to go I just can’t stop crying, I suddenly realize I see our house where I’ve been so happy for the last time.

It really is a weird feeling, this is our choice and we’re all excited over it, nevertheless the fact that I leave on my own to begin with makes it harder, I wish we could all stay together. But Francois needs to stay to sell the house and Louise will finish the school year here.

This new life will not fully start until they’re here.

I shed more tears at the airport and I’m off on the plane, bye France for now.

This trip will not be a memorable one. Long haul flight full of kids, unhappy flight attendants, old plane, I can’t really sleep and wait patiently till we land. Bangkok at last, home. Is it?

This first day I spend between the hotel and work, I’m exhausted but want to go to bed as late as possible and sleep late the next morning to really avoid a bad jetlag effect.

Today, I started furniture hunting. It’s complicated, I wasn’t too sure where to go so I ended up roaming the huge malls that are Siam Paragon  and Central World  Just fantastic, disproportionate. Not really the place to buy furniture I think, but I feel like a kid for the first time at Disneyland.

I finish the day in a wine bar with the only regret that Francois is not with me to share this moment.

In fact he is right, using the references that we have, this city is a perfect blend between Bangalore and Tokyo. The mess of Bangalore with the Tokyo modernity. This thought crosses my mind as I walk through the bright lit tunnels between Central world and the Chit- Lom BTS station.

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Tomorrow I finally sign the lease of the house, and I meet with French friends in Chatuchak. They know their way around a little bit, maybe it will be easier than last time!

And that’s the end of my second day in Bangkok, I have not even noticed the holidays with all that moving turmoil, there is yet still time to say Happy New Year, Happy New Life!

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HOME! [Second house-hunting day – and the next ones]

On the second day, our enthusiasm has slightly decreased. We didn’t like much what we saw, and S. was not being very supportive, just telling us over and over again how difficult meeting our requirements would be.

I’ve had contacts with W. through a Thai real estate website, and I picture her like a tiny middle age lady, but she ends up being a tiny and dynamic very young girl who arrives right on time. She looks like a doll, her smile is a real one and she looks really kind. We like her right away

She’s doing the driving and taking us to the only house we have planned to visit with her, in the same moo baan as we were the day before.  We then have the opportunity to realize that we came back at the right place the previous day, the moo baan has actually two gates and we went through the back entrance with S., but the taxi driver had taken us to the right place, but at the main gate!

As soon as we park in front of the gate, we just know: this is THE house.

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The owner meets and greets us, another nice woman. We go around the house trying to somewhat hide our enthusiasm but we are in reality over excited.

The house sits on 1 rai of land (around 1600 sqm) and is a somewhat old thai house with a big living area, a family room, a guest room and a cold water bathroom on the ground floor, 4 rooms, plus a relaxing area, all with a fantastic teak flooring upstairs.

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The moo baan is huge and holds several Thai markets and restaurants, plus shortly a huge pool (currently under refection) and tennis courts (how could anyone want to play tennis with the heat?). The BTS is a short drive away, we could experiment around 20 minutes with heavy traffic on the previous day.

Upon renting a house, Thai are not very demanding, all they want is enough deposit funds where we need in France several salary slips and sometimes an external guarantee of a third party.

Getting the deposit together is a bit of a nightmare as it proves much more complicated than we thought to get fund over from France, (we would never have thought that international banking would be so bad on the XXIst century)  but after a frustrating day of pulling our hair out we finally manage and meet the owner again to sign a pre rental agreement, and that’s it the house is ours at last!!!

On our last day, W. takes us to walk around the house with the owner again, we’re over excited.

We trigger the hilarity of  W. and the owner twice: the first time when we ask if there are  lots of snakes, the second when we are surprised that there is no hot water in the ensuite bathroom to the maid quaters (in Thailand there seem to be individual water heaters in each bathroom). Crazy farangs! I think we have a lot to learn!

But that’s it, our project is becoming real, we now have a home, [our new] life can start!