What level am I on?

This morning I walked to Ble’s shop to pick up some light fixtures and ask a few questions about the final stages of the condo remodel.  His shop is only two sois over, about a ten-minute walk.  The weather was cool and the sun not too strong, so it was a pleasant walk.

On the way I stopped at the post office to mail some letters and buy some stamps.  Our neighborhood branch is a small affair, four counter positions and room for about twenty waiting customers, seated in a cozy configuration.  Off to the side is an old metal office desk, 70s style, and at it sits a young looking man.  I’ve never been sure what his job is, though sometimes I seem him helping people with envelopes or packaging, taping up boxes, etc.

I grabbed my number and was waiting, when the young man called over to me and asked what I needed.  I explained that I had a domestic letter and two international ones and wanted to buy some stamps as well.  He explained that the envelope I had for the domestic letter couldn’t be used: it was a Postal Service envelope used for selling stamps.  (I was recycling an envelope in which I had carried home a previous stamp purchase.)

As he explained all this, he was sitting in his chair behind the desk and I was standing in front of it.  Finding the difference in our heights awkward, I squatted down in front of the desk so we would be eye-to-eye.  As I did this, I realized that I’d better think carefully about that: Thai culture is foremost a hierarchical one and where you stand (literally) in relation to others is an important matter.

Had I been insulting by standing over him?  Was I embarrassing him (or myself) by squatting down to his level?  Was anyone in the room watching me and shaking their head, sighing to themselves at the poor manners of these farang?

All this played as a commentary track in my mind as I proceeded with the transaction. 

He saw the envelope I had was addressed in Thai and after he gave me another envelope, I started to write the address in Thai.  “You write Thai?” he asked.  “Yes,” I confirmed, “and read it, too.”

“Wow.  You write Thai…” and his voice trailed off in amazement.

As we spoke, I realized that the young man was developmentally challenged.  His job at the post office was possibly part of some government scheme to integrate the disabled community into the workforce.  The reason I was never clear what he was doing there was because he probably rarely has much to do.  He’s there because some puu yai (“big” person – someone higher up the pecking order) said he was supposed to be.

After addressing the envelope, he took my letters to a counter, butted in front of another customer, weighed them and returned to me to report that with the purchase price of the envelope, my total was 61 baht.  I gave him a 100-baht note and he opened his drawer, revealing a modest change fund.   He asked if I had a one-baht coin.  “Sorry,” I replied.

He then made change in a most interesting fashion: he made two piles on his desk.  One pile was 61 baht: three twenties and a single, shiny coin.  The other pile was the remaining 39 baht.  He gave the second pile to me and then carried the first pile and the letters back to the counter.

I followed along to see about my stamps.

I explained that I wanted 40 ten-baht stamps and either some one- or two-baht stamps.  He wrote this down on the back of a piece of note paper I was carrying that he grabbed from me.  Then he asked each cashier, one by one, to see who had stamps.

The ten-baht stamps caused only a little confusion.  Purchasers of these are perhaps infrequent at this branch.  The small denomination stamps caused an absolute riot, however.  “We don’t have one-baht stamps” said one clerk to the another, who then repeated it to the young man.  He turned to me and said with utmost sincerity, “We don’t have one-baht stamps.”

“Do you have two-baht stamps?” I asked, trying to direct my question both to the young man as well as the clerk who was one step further along the communication chain.

A skeptical pause.

“How many?” she asked.

“Do you have forty of them?” I asked, figuring I had best get whatever I could.  Her gasp surprised me; surely it was not de classe to purchase that many stamps?

She rifled through her stamp book, the young man looking on, desperately willing her with his eyes to… find… the… stamps.

All she could come up with was twenty, so I bought out her entire supply.  Who would have imagined that buying stamps at a post office could be such a big deal?

The transaction completed, the young man smiled and thanked me.  Khap khun maak khrap! 


That was my post office adventure, an encapsulation of Thai culture in all its charming idiosyncracies.  And I do say that with utmost sincerity.



Above: This evening I took Brian out for dinner for his birthday.  Somehow, through people being out of town, his having a extremely inconsiderate and self-centered quasi-boyfriend, and his originally planning on being out of town on business for his birthday, he was going to be all alone on the evening of his birthday.  Tawn had to go out to the airport to pick up his parents, so I met Brian at All Seasons Place and we went to Coffee Bean by Dao for dinner.