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Thai Girl Tattle: Truly, Madly, Mega-Frustrating!

...Thai culture and its version of Buddhism suggests that as everything’s impermanent and unsatisfactory, you should give up striving for worldly ends. ‘Mai pen rai’ thus expresses the national philosophy, meaning 'never mind', 'to hell with it', or 'why bother'...

Buying a newspaper in rural Thailand can be mega-frustrating, as Andrew Hicks reveals.

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I was recently interviewed as author of my novel, “Thai Girl” for an article http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=369729&rel_no=1 Strangely the article made it into the ten most visited sites for that week, mainly I think for its sharp line in questions, one of which asked what I found frustrating about living in a small rice growing village in Thailand.

Yes, of course there are frustrations living here, but it was extraordinarily difficult to say exactly what they are and to give an answer in a nutshell. The one I came up with was that Thai culture and its version of Buddhism suggests that as everything’s impermanent and unsatisfactory, you should give up striving for worldly ends. ‘Mai pen rai’ thus expresses the national philosophy, meaning 'never mind', 'to hell with it', or 'why bother'.

This could explain the beguiling, laidback attitude of the Thais but also why nothing much ever gets done around here. Add to this the fact that it’s unacceptable to question or confront anybody, especially those in authority, and the result is a low standard of accountability and competence in just about everything they do. At least that’s what I sometimes think in one of my more grouchy moods.

For me the problem’s made worse too by my crazy western expectation that things you pay for should actually work. Secondly, because my Thai is limited, I have to get Cat to do the complaining for me and of course she’s always reluctant to be my battering ram. Thus Thailand, The Land of Charming Cock-Ups can sometimes be truly, madly, mega-frustrating.

I found it hard to explain this briefly in the interview so gave an example instead. When I had my TOT IP Star satellite internet installed at home, it simply didn’t work. Brutally I made Cat do the phoning as for me this was life or death stuff. We also spent four or five hours on the road visiting various offices where people smiled but didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. Eventually somebody sent out a technician to look at it and he of course said it was fine and that we’d have no more problems.

Over a period of months, this happened four times more, including the frustration that, though we always asked them to phone before they came, they never ever did so invariably they’d arrive when I was out. Once we were staying with friends an hour away and when Mama called to say they’d arrived, we aborted our overnight visit to come back to talk it through. When we got back home at high speed to see them as agreed, they’d already gone and the connection was still dead. Was this frustrating or what?

Meanwhile, whenever they visited, Cat treated them as royalty, providing iced water and soft drinks, cut fruit and biscuits neatly arranged across the plate, none of which they ever ate.

‘You can’t keep calling us out,' one guy said. 'We’re busy you know.'

And could I persuade TOT that I shouldn't have to pay the subscription while the wretched thing was down? Oh no. It’s rude to complain, you see, and I should be grateful it works at all. Tonight it’s totally dead which is why I’m writing this on Word instead.

Now of course my tortoise internet is a lifeline which does sometimes work and our marriage has just about survived the strain. But yes, it’s been frustrating, I’ll say.

Today I’ve just had another experience that wasn’t as bad but was a consequence of a similar cultural quirk. It was also similar because it concerned my need, given that I'm isolated here from contact with my culture and language, for some sort of link to the outside world.

I have no television or radio that I can understand and cannot of course read Thai newspapers. My internet is so sluggish and usually crashes if faced with thetimesonline, that I’ve been desperate to order an English language newspaper. The Bangkok Post and The Nation are both reasonably good, with an adequate coverage of Thai news and with syndicated articles from all over the world, but the nearest copies on news stands are in Surin an hour away.

In the past I've succeeded in ordering a paper but when I went away for seven weeks to England, I cancelled my order. But no problem, the sweet Chinese lady at the concrete provisions shop in the new market by the bus station told me. I could re-order when I came back. They’re a delightful couple, all smiles whenever I picked up my Bangkok Post, so of course I went back to see them as soon as I returned a month ago.

They said to come in the next day to pick it up and they’ve been saying that to me every time I go in ever since. Still the paper hasn’t come and I’ve been adrift on an ocean of ignorance while the world's kept turning without me. I don’t think I’ve ever been exiled from reality for so long and I’ve hated it.

Of course, seeing how important the paper is to me, whenever I ask for it, how could they possibly refuse me? How could they give me the answer I don’t want to hear, so of course they again promise it'll come tomorrow.

They can see that I’m near suicidal whenever I go in, though I try not to let it show. Cat sometimes comes in with me to intercede, though she too thinks me a bit mad. Basically they say they’re worried for me and very much want to sell me the newspaper… and they’ve called the distributor who always says it’s coming tomorrow. But it never ever comes.

Weeks ago I told Cat that if they really can’t get the paper for me, we’d better tell them to give up and go to the mini-mart where I ordered it last year. It’s much nearer anyway. But no says Cat, we can’t do that because while they’re still trying to get it for me, we have to wait.

‘Graing jai,’ she says. Be considerate, think of their feelings, their loss of face if after all that work, you just storm off and don’t appreciate what they’ve done for you. This stalemate has now lasted a very long and barren month.

Finally I had it out with Cat to tell them just to forget it, with a face saving promise that a friend can buy us a copy in Surin and send it back on the minibus every day, thus not offering the contract to a competing local business.

So today anxiously I went into RK Mart, the 24 hour mini-mart and asked to order the Bangkok Post.

‘Can, can,' said the boy. 'No problem.’

‘When’ll it come?’ I ask.

‘Tomorrow, for sure. Around three o’clock,’ he said.

It was a bit like the moment I won the Nobel Prize for Literature for writing “Thai Girl”, made it to the top of Everest in a summer frock and landed on Bognor beach having swum the Atlantic. I think people in the shop were a little surprised when I leaped across the counter, took the boy in my arms and embraced him in floods of tears.

When I got home, I told Cat the whole story not without a little bitterness and frustration.

‘I’ve waited nearly four weeks while that woman fiddled about and didn’t get me the paper… I could have gone into RK Mart any time and just ordered it on the spot.’

Cat thinks I’m completely deranged.

‘Why you angry me?! I help you talk to the lady… and now you’ve got the newspaper you should be pleased! Anyway, it’s only a newspaper! You not have newspaper two weeks and you die already? It so bad, why you not die?!’

Momentarily I think of smashing the television and denying her any som tam for a month just to see how she likes it! But no I won’t, not really.

The nice man in the shop has just told me I’ll have my paper tomorrow, so everything's hunky dory. I’m really looking forward to some evenings sitting on my upstairs verandah, surveying my estate with a Sang Som and coke to hand and, luxury of luxuries, reading the Bangkok Post.

But an awful thought has just occurred to me. I haven't got the paper yet and I’m thinking back over the whole episode and hell’s teeth… that’s exactly what the nice lady always told us too.

‘Bangkok Post coming tomorrow… no problem,’ she’d always say with the sweetest of sweet Thai smiles.

Bangkok Post Script

The first day the paper did actually arrive but since then it's failed to arrive as often as it comes. One day I got two copies. That was the day the nice Chinese lady phoned Cat to tell us triumphantly that at last my Bangkok Post had arrived!


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