Friday evening has arrived. A planned dinner party to celebrate Ja’s birthday was cancelled because of some odd breakdown in communication. Tawn made all of the basic arrangements with friends but had to confirm details today. Since his friends couldn’t get hold of him on Thursday (busy day for Tawn) they panicked and decided they’d best cancel the dinner.
Not sure I really understand why a group of college-educated people were unable to organize making a reservation at a restaurant, but perhaps there is more to it than that.
I’ve been meaning to share this story for a few weeks:
The back-story is that with significant restrictions imposed on Teak wood logging operations in the past few years because of over-logging, literally tens of thousands of Thai elephants have been put out of work. Their kwanchang (literally, “elephant guide”) who are their lifelong companions, cannot afford the expense of feeding them but of course you can’t just flush an elephant down the toilet like an unwanted goldfish.
So the kwanchang bring their elephants to the big city, looking for any way to earn a baht. On a weekend down at Siam Square, it is not unusual to see a few elephants, with tourists posing for pictures and paying a hundred baht for the opportunity. While I don’t have any elephant pictures, they are amazing creatures, and I really respect the kwanchang for their dedication to their pachyderm companions.
Anyhow, one evening shortly after returning from the United States, we were driving north on Soi Asoke, stuck in traffic, and I noticed a pair of elephants walking down the sidewalk into town. There was a mother and her calf, who couldn’t have been more than a meter and a half high.
As the elephants passed us, I noticed one of those Velcro strap-on flashing red lights that bicyclists use strapped to the tail of the mother elephant. Now, it isn’t unusual for the kwanchang to tie a string of compact discs hanging from the back of the elephant to serve as defacto reflectors, but this was the first time I have ever seen a literal tail light!
Shocking cross-cultural news that may shock and offend some readers of this blog. As Thai language classes have continued, I’ve come to know two of my Japanese classmates better:
Yoichi is one month younger than me and as he’s studied Thai a bit before, he’s been at the head of the class for the whole time we’ve been studying at Union Language School. The curve is leveling a bit, though. He’s a nice guy, funny sense of humor, and into Kickboxing, Judo, and other martial arts. He’s fairly fluent in English, but we use a lot Thai to communicate.
Chihiro is a few years younger than me and comes across as your typically shy, demure Japanese woman. She wears colorful “ethnic” skirts, Birkenstock-type sandals, and large necklaces made of polished stones. Her reticence is probably more a perception on my part because she does not speak much English, so our communication is cobbled together using Thai, English, Japanese and Gesture.
Chihiro’s boyfriend, whom she met while working in Japan, is Thai. And as we’ve talked, we’ve discovered that we have that in common. Yoichi, on the other hand, is a bit of an enigma. He’s developed the reputation in class as a heavy drinker, one that may not be accurate but when constructing sentences we’ll say thing like “What did Khun Yoichi do last night? Khun Yoichi drank sake mak-mak (a lot)!” to practice our Thai. Out of classroom conversation, we know that he doesn’t have a faan, the gender-neutral word used to describe a non-married significant other.
Anyhow, on Tuesday after class, Chihiro, Yoichi and I were walking from school to the SkyTrain station. Along the way, Chihiro asked me (in English), “Your faan, is she from Bangkok?”
I confirmed that my faan is from Bangkok, but is a he, not a she. This didn’t seem to phase her and we chatted a bit. Yoichi made some comment about mai mee faan (I don’t have a faan) and so Chihiro asked him – in Thai – whether he liked boys or girls.
Shocking! While in the US this would be seen as a pretty forward question, when you look at it in the context of Japanese society, the idea of a woman asking a man whom she has only known as a classmate for a few weeks a question like this is just about unbelievable.
Yoichi’s joking response – a pretty quick comeback, considering it was in Thai – was that he likes khatoey (Thai lady-boys). Assuming that he was joking, the question remains unanswered. Running the scenario by Masakazu, a Japanese friend who lives with his partner here in BKK, he theorizes that if Yoichi were straight, he would have had every incentive to say so and little incentive not to.
Does it matter? Not at all. But it is interesting to watch how cultural norms dissolve when they’re placed in a different environment.
I’ve been experimenting with Skype, the voice over internet phone service, and so far I’m quite happy with it. Only about another half-dozen friends are currently on it (that I know of – let me know if you’re on it, too!) but I’ve found it useful for dialing out. Some key features:
- Software is free to download and works like any other IM service. You need a headset with microphone to talk – these plug into your computer.
- Voice calls from one Skype user to another are free. Calls outside the Skype network are charged at various rates generally competitive with local calls. For example, when I call a number in the US, I’m paying about 1.7 cents a minute. Very reasonable.
- I’ve set up a local number in the US (in the Kansas City area code since most of my family is there) that people can dial and the call connects to me online through Skype. If I’m online I can answer. It not, the call goes to voicemail. This service costs about $12 a year.
- The quality is quite good, especially compared to direct dialing into/out of Thailand. When Tawn and I were calling twice a day during the 14 months we were apart, prices were closer to 20 cents a minute and calls regularly got dropped or suffered from static. I’ve had less of a problem with Skype. Although some evenings when internet traffic is heavy, I’ve had a few calls get dropped.
Anyhow, that’s my testimonial. All of you need to get on Skype. It’s the wave of the future.