Saturday, March 20, 2010

When quaint becomes annoying

Once in a while idiosynchracies so deeply woven in a culture's behavior become too frustrating for even the most even-keeled visitor to handle. One thing that rarely works when trying to resolve a conflict in Thailand is logic. In traditional Thai culture, once someone higher in any organizational hierarchy makes a decision, it is not questioned: Saving face is mandatory. While this is beginning to change--evidenced by recent street demonstrations against the government--in everyday protocols, one does not call into question a decision made by an administrator, even if it doesn't make sense. Those readers who are western probably can imagine how maddening this can be. My school is currently going through a transition in which the board, made up entirely of Thais, has handed down illogical dictates concerning salaries and benefits without asking for input from teachers, most of whom are from western countries. The resulting storm of protest has taken the board by surprise. Members seem genuinely shocked that they have been questioned.

Likewise, the mountain of paperwork that seems to be required for every financial transaction in the country by western standards seems to be a huge waste of time and effort. To sit with a banker for 30 minutes in order to transfer money to a U.S. bank (having done this numerous times) certainly tries o
ne's patience, even in the land of "jai yen" (cool heart). One cannot ask for a reason for all of this: Thais smile and shrug, saying that's just the way it is.

Many expats have been able to roll with the punches; they accept it as a quirk of Thai culture, and I generally am able to do that. My most recent bout of exasperation came in the airport where I had a bottle of shampoo that was in a bottle too big to be allowed on board.
"Why can't I take it on?"
"It's too big, sir. 100 milliliters is the limit. This is 125."
"OK, what if I pour out half, and only leave 62 and a half milliliters in, would that be OK?"
"No, sir."
"Why not?"
"Because the bottle is over 100 milliliters."
"What if I pour it all out, could I take the empty bottle on?"
"Yes, sir, if it was empty."
"But not half?"
"No sir, the bottle is too big."
I understand that she was just doing her job, but it did annoy me, but not too much, because like nearly all Thais, she was so damned polite about it. It's easier to get really nasty with a jerk, which is hard to find in Thailand. Perhaps it was because I was really annoyed with myself, having just bought the bottle at an airport shop, and should have known better.

Despite these persistent problems, Thailand is just too great for the inconveniences to weigh that heavily. We love the people, the life style, the landscape, the wonderful exotic scenes one sees every day. As an expat friend (British-German) who has been here 30 years said, "There are a thousand reasons to leave Thailand, but two thousand for staying."

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