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Thai Girl Tattle: Two Men Went to Mow!

...There is thus much cultural self-denial for me living out here, though in spite of that the one thing I do insist on is having a lawn.

Itís a strong cultural thing that Englishmen do generally love their garden and over the last few years I have duly tended the grass around the house, constantly pulling out weeds and cutting it weekly until I have what looks now just like an English lawn. Mow the grass and the place looks crisp and wonderful. Neglect to do it and it looks just awful...

Andrew Hicks returns from a long holiday in Europe to find that the lawn of his home in rural Thailand has turned into a "jungle''.

Do please visit Andrew's Web sites

Do I still suffer culture shock when returning from a trip abroad to our home, a small rice growing village in the North East of Thailand?

After a couple of months away, this time visiting friends and family in England, Sweden and France, getting back to our house in the village has taken a little adjusting to. Having lived in my wife Catís, Isaan village for several years itís not culture shock exactly but on giving up all that London and the South East of England offers, I realize I do lose something by living here.

Not only that, but once here in rural Thailand, I again face the challenges of getting things done across an ocean of linguistic and cultural hang-ups. Apart from the fact the spiders and mildew have taken over, as always much in the house is brokenÖ the upstairs shower and tap hardly flow, the roof is leaking again, light bulbs are broken and not replaced, switches not working, the gutters blocked and overflowing and as always when I go away the lawn mower is tragically injured and in a serious condition.

By living here I am of course excluded from my own language and culture, I have no newspaper, no television, no foreign friends nearby, nobody except Cat I can talk to (even the English teachers in the school who I know well have never uttered a word of English to me), and I have no farang food to speak of. I could happily get by on Thai food but here itís invariably Lao and Suai food which are viciously hot and bitter. So Iím now really missing the fine foods of France, the cheese, the red wine, the confit de canard that Cat and I so recently indulged in.

Big C in Surin, our nearest proper shop, does have bacon and a few small packets of cheddar cheese (when not sold out), but itís half a dayís expedition to go there and for the few pale imitations of western foods on offer itís really not worth the effort. Better that I do without the pizza full of sugar and chilli, the cake whose icing is so greasy you could pack a bearing with it and the sweet pastry thatís surprisingly filled with pork. Quite rightly itís all aimed at Thai tastes and so Iíd better forget about my own cuisine and get by without any.

There is thus much cultural self-denial for me living out here, though in spite of that the one thing I do insist on is having a lawn.

Itís a strong cultural thing that Englishmen do generally love their garden and over the last few years I have duly tended the grass around the house, constantly pulling out weeds and cutting it weekly until I have what looks now just like an English lawn. Mow the grass and the place looks crisp and wonderful. Neglect to do it and it looks just awful.

Trouble is whenever we go away itís impossible to get anyone to cut the grass properly as itís just not important and when we got back, once again itís long and overgrown and the Ďgardení is in a total mess. Theyíve cut it a few times while we were away, but just as I asked them not to, theyíve let it get far too long which doubles the work and itís now more than my small suburban mower can reasonably cope with to cut it back again.

As always happens whenever weíre away the grass at the back is only half cut (yes, the petrol ran out) and the mowerís a basket case, and Iím the one whoís going to have to sort it all out.

But Ďmai pen raií says Catís brother Saniam whoíd promised to keep it cut while we were away, heíll now get it cut for me in no time.

He owes me one does Saniam as itís not so long ago I paid heavily for his Ďget-out-of-jailí card when they slung him inside for three months for being drunk in charge of a Honda Dream. Though I know Iíll still have to pay him for whatever work he now does and that Iíll be clearing up everyoneís mess around the house for the next few weeks anyway. But yes, heís dug this hole by not keeping the grass short so why shouldnít he sort it out.

First thing is to get Saniam to cut some of the longer grass with a sickle as the mowerís simply not going to cope with it that long. I ask him to do this but he goes and does something else instead. He spends half a day cutting the undergrowth on the vegetable patch and he looks shifty each time I ask him to spend an hour or two to make it possible to run the mower over the Ďlawní.

Next day old uncle appears and on about my tenth request he and Saniam cut back the longest grass which uncle puts in sacks for his buffalo. Then unbidden, Saniam starts clearing all the cut vegetation from the veggie patch and spreading it across the lawn where I know from bitter experience it will stay indefinitely. Even an unused veggie patch is more important than a lawn which has no utility at all.

Confronting this issue, I ask him to clear all his mess of cuttings off the lawn so we can make a start mowing the whole area but he goes and does something else instead.

This stand-off lasts overnight until, realising that the dry weather is about to break, I become more insistent and again ask him to clear the lawn of the mess heís made.

Over the next few hours I ask him perhaps another five times, each time varying the request as if it were for the first time. Finally I gather up the bulk of the cuttings myself and put them in a pile on the overgrown vegetable patch where they can happily remain or be burned.

I then miraculously find the rake (my tools are usually scattered and hanging hidden in trees) and finally clean up the lawn and suggest to Saniam that itís time to start the mower.

I smell something sharp on his breath and as he pulls the starter, comically he topples and falls over onto his back. The Briggs and Stratton engine starts first pull for me and I try a run through the grass but all is not well. Pushing the machine in front of me itís impossible not to notice that the exhaust system is rattling all over the place and is about to fall off. One of the two fixing bolts has shaken loose and disappeared while the remaining one is about to do the same.

Which is exactly what happened last year with the petrol tank. This is likewise secured by two fixings and one of these had come loose and had fallen off so that the tank was rattling around and as a result had split along its top. I replaced the missing screw and someone had now wedged a stick tightly under the broken tank to support it.

But why do they let bolts fall off like thisÖ a turn of the screw, as they say, saves nine. But no, it seems normal around these parts to watch a machine as it disintegrates, to wait until the bolt falls off into the long grass, to allow it to self-destruct and then shove it away in a corner to moulder. Why tighten anything up or do anything if itís still running?

In my book, ďMy Thai Girl and IĒ, on the advice of a friend, I removed a cynical chapter about the incompatibility of man and machine in my village. In fact I published the chapter on my blog (see Is This Chapter Unduly Negative? 9 Feb 2008) and asked you for our opinion on it. Despite almost all the twenty or so opinions that reached me being positive about it, I nonetheless decided to omit the chapter as I didnít want to take any risks.

Instead I included a section called, ďMai Pen Rai and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceĒ about how motorbikes are unmaintained and lethal and only get attention when they stopÖ and these recent experiences with the mower now bring all my cynicism flooding back.

Anyway, back with the storyÖ the exhaust is now fixed and I give the mower a quick run but itís cutting very poorly. The height settings on all each wheel are set at different heights, far too low, but soon this is fixed. So the problem must be the blade itself.

To get underneath the mower, Saniam tips it up the wrong way and black oil pours out of the sump. I then show him to tip it spark plug side up and I gaze in horror at the blade. Itís battered and bent, bowed upwards like the prop of a crashed Spitfire and even worse itís been fitted the wrong way round.

Six months ago Iíd had it serviced in Surin at a place apparently specialising in mowers. Heíd managed to change the oil but failed as asked to sharpen the rotary blade, to clean the filter and plugs and replace two of the bolts holding the engine to the chassis that my helpers had watched fall off into the grass. And heíd then told me the blade was on the wrong way round and said heíd correct it.

The net result is that itís now fitted wrongly, spinning round upside down with the blunt side cutting or not cutting the grass and the sharp side doing nothing as the trailing edge. No wonder itís not cutting properly.

Saniam gets my tools to take the blade off but unfortunately its retaining nut is seized pretty tight. Using the wrong spanner and breathing fumes (which makes me relieved thereís no spark), he soon has the shoulders of the nut stripped smooth and useless and still itís flatly refusing to turn. I realize itís time to call for help and I also realize that the sumpís totally dry, the oil hardly registering on the dipstick so weíll need some more oil.

Eventually the mower comes back to us from across the road, reputedly in working order and I ask Saniam to get it started. But no, he says heís going to take the pile of cuttings from the vegetable jungle round to the front of the house and dump it all across the road instead.

Itís not for me to tell him what to do as Iím not his father, Iím only paying him, but I tentatively suggest he uses the big barrow thatís standing beside us to carry the cuttings and stuff out of the garden. But no, he says, heís going to carry it all by hand. This he does, ostentatiously doing it in as few runs as possible, the massive armfuls hugged to his chest meaning he canít see where heís going.

Because heís now carrying far too much, only a small percentage of the grass and foliage actually reaches the front gate. Most of itís now spread in a swathe across the grass weíre supposed to be about to cut and across the front lawn and entrance drive. Though the barrow would have delivered it quickly and cleanly, itíll be at least half an hourís work to clear it all up again.

Thereís no use though asking him to rake any of it up so we can start the mowing, even though the main ideaís to give him a bit of work and some cash in his pocket, so I pick up the rake to do it myself and the handle promptly breaks.

In the fullness of time Saniam fires up the mower and does a few runs into the jungle of my beloved Ďlawní before the petrol tank finally gives up the ghost when the lug for the securing bolt finally and terminally sheers off. Itís now totally impossible to cobble it together, so a new tank will have to be ordered from Milwaukee.

Until now, Iíve really loved lawns and mowing. Itís really close to my heart and something I should be able to enjoy in Thailand. My Thai family think Iím a little deranged making such a fuss about the grass but itís the one thing culturally that Iíve tried to cling onto here. I can do without food and English language media and things if I have to, but a tidy lawn round the house should be so easy, so possible, so satisfying.

In England I had a mower with a Briggs and Stratton engine and it was still pegging along after twenty years hard use when I left home to mow eastern lawns, but only a week or two seems enough to destroy them here. Itís not the mowerís fault, though would it be rude to say theyíre not entirely Ďfoolproofí?

When Iím in the village I do of course do all the mowing myself and I donít let anyone touch the mower if I can help it, but perhaps Iím asking too much for even trying to have something distinctly my own out here.

But whyís it so difficult to get people to complete so simple a task for a few weeks without wrecking the machinery?

When paying someone for a dayís work is it offensive to tell them what you want done? Should I just let them do whatever they feelís most important in the garden? Have I been unduly pushy or made unreasonable demands?

Iím really not sure why I get into these intense psychological games with Saniam in which he tries so hard to do the opposite of what I want him to do. Of course itís partly that he hits the bottle too early in the morning, but the situationís far from uniqueÖ I remember I had a very similar problem with a pleasant guy called Boat whoís a cousin of Catís.

Iíd got him to paint the wall at the front of the house. From upstairs I could see that the top of the wall had never been painted and so Iíd been to some trouble to take a hose and ladder and scrub it clean for painting. I therefore wanted Boat to paint the top so I took the ladder and asked him to do it.

Throughout the day I noticed that he hadnít yet done it and I gently reminded him a couple of times. Later in the day I saw that heíd put the ladder away and I asked him if heíd done the top and he said he had.

But no, he hadnít painted the top of the wall and it still remains unpainted today!

Perhaps I should give up trying even in small things, and as Kipling famously said, ďA fool lies there who tries to hussle the EastĒ.

Such are the setbacks every time I return to the village when once again I face the realities of living in a culture where I definitely do not call the shots.

Or am I over-reacting to my own frustration? Is my portrayal of the people around me unduly cynical or unfair, like the chapter in the book I was persuaded to remove. In living here should I instead give in on absolutely everything and, as I postulate in the book, take a Buddhist stance, stop striving and Ďgo with the flowí?

Having myself lived in West Africa far too long ago, I very much enjoyed reading a series of novels about the colonial era by Joyce Carey. One was called, ĎMister Johnsoní and was about the fraught relationship between a colonial District Officer and his eponymous clerk in Northern Nigeria. The books were hysterically funny but the big controversy about them is whether they fairly depict the predicament of a D O trying to cope with his cultural entanglements (Carey himself had been one) or whether the novels are a racist diatribe that mocks the stupidity and cussedness of their African characters.

Now writing about living in a small village in Thailand, I face the same dilemma. I want my stories be funny and to evoke the frustration thatís sometimes felt, I think, by many expats when trying to get things done here. To balance any possible negativity though, I have to exploit the humour of the situation to create an affectionate portrait of my life in the village.

I wonder therefore how my book, ĎMy Thai Girl and Ií and this story about the miseries of mowing now come across to you, my reader.


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