Are You the Best Version of Yourself?

hamill_tabloidcity_custom While lying in a massage parlor a few blocks from home, letting someone with strong forearms unknead the knots in my back muscles, I listened to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with author Pete Hamill.  A journalist and columnist starting back in the 1960s, Hamill also wrote novels.  He was on the show speaking about his most recent book, Tabloid City, a thriller that takes place in an old-school tabloid newsroom that is struggling to deal with the digital era.

During the discussion, interviewer Dave Davies asked Hamill about a previous book he wrote, A Drinking Life, and his own struggles with drinking, which he eventually gave up cold turkey.  It was Hamill’s response to the question, “What did your drinking take away from you?” that caught my attention and got me thinking.

Here’s his answer with my own added emphasis:

I was [a] very prolific journalist because I could always squeeze enough from my talent to get a newspaper piece done.  What it took away from me was the courage to test the extent of whatever my talent was.

… From a professional and personal standpoint a lot of it was about trying to find out what was there as a writer.  Because my ambition was not to be better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that.  It was to be the best version of myself that I could conceivably be.

This resonates with me because my own upbringing was very much along these lines.  Both sides of my family, but particularly my mother’s side, really emphasized the idea that each of us has a responsibility to live up to our fullest potential in life.

Unlike many of my friends, whose parents expected them to follow a specific career – doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc., my parents emphasized success by pushing me to be the very best I could be, regardless of what field I chose.

To this day, when I look at my own performance I can be very critical of myself in areas where I recognize I’m not being the absolute best version of myself I could be.  And, likewise, I can be very critical of others when I see that they are not making full use of their potential.

What about you?  What does it mean to you, to be the best version of yourself that you could conceivably be?

 

Around the City

Saturday morning so I’ll wrap up the week with some bits from around the town:

Several of our friends here work for the UN, various non-government organizations (NGOs), or are attached to various embassies.  They find themselves attending any number of conferences that seem to exist for no purpose other than to keep all these governmental and non-governmental actors busy.  Here’s the title sign for a meeting one friend recently found himself in:

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The International Orientation Conference on UN and ASEAN Mechanisms and Conditions for a National Plan on Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Co-hosted by the Ministry of Defence, Kingdom of Thailand and German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance (CPG). 

Whew!  Pause for a deep breath after saying that.  I’m just curious how the German-Southeast Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance managed to have only “CPG” for its initials.  Shouldn’t it be GSCEPPGG?

Needless to say, I have great sympathy for my friends and should probably buy them Starbucks gift cards for their upcoming birthdays.

. . .

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With a population of somewhere around 7 million, Bangkok has a fair number of parks and playgrounds.  The city does a decent job of this, although many of them are under flyovers and in the center of cloverleafs (cloverleaves?), which exposes them to pollution from passing vehicles.  This one is located at the intersection of Petchaburi (on the right) and Ekkamai (the high ground on which I’m standing) Roads, as Ekkamai flies over Petchaburi.  It contains several basketball, football, and takraw courts.

This particular playground has been adopted by Muang Thai Life Assurance, what in the US we would call an “insurance” company.  This is all well and good, but sadly their company color is a shade of pink that reminds me of nothing more than pepto bismol.  And they painted all the walls, benches, planters, and fences in this shade.

. . .

7-11 Trivia time: The three countries with the most 7-11 stores are the Thailand, the United States, and Japan, but not in that order.  What is the correct order?  Scroll down to find out.  

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Finally, I spotted this sign while driving in the Silom-Surawongse area.  The Bangrak district government (districts being a subset of the larger city of Bangkok) has partnered with the ubiquitous 7-11 stores and you can now lodge comments and complaints directly at the 7-11 stores.  While the sign is unclear in both Thai and English, I would assume that the poor cashiers at 7-11 stores are only trained to handle complaints related to the civic governance of the district.  They will not be dispensing relationship advice, handling landlord-tennant conflicts, or doing the work that police through be doing.

As for the 7-11s themselves, there are approximately 13,000 stores in Japan, 8,200 stores in the United States, and 5,800 in Thailand.  One Thai friend recounted to us after his first trip to the US his surprise at discovering that there are 7-11s in the United States, too.  We didn’t have the heart to tell him that 7-11 is not a Thai company.

Have a wonderful weekend.

 

Thoughts on My 40th Birthday

Since the day my nieces, now ages 4 and 7, were born, I have been writing them letters. These letters are being collected in a box for them to open when they turn 18. The letters are a combination of funny anecdotes about their childhoods, memories of my life, snapshots of daily activity, and also my reflections on issues, events, or subjects that I think would be worthwhile for them to read when they are young adults.

Normally, I don’t share these letters. But in light of today’s milestone, I thought I would share the letter I wrote to them today.  If you’re keen to watch the video version of me reading it, it is embedded below.  Otherwise you can just read it.


Dear Emily,

Today is my 40th birthday. In honor of the occasion, I want to take a few minutes to collect my thoughts at this milestone birthday and share them with you. Most people seem to dread each passing year and milestone birthdays depress them. Quite the opposite to this, I have found that each passing year gets better. I learn more about life, make new friends, have new experiences, and perhaps gain a little wisdom. To that end, if any of the wisdom I attempt to dispense in this letter turns out to be incorrect, I’ll still have my 50th birthday on which to correct myself before you are old enough to read these letters.

There are myriad lessons on life that are worth learning. Some that strike me as the most useful:

Live to your fullest potential. Your life is an empty vessel that will be filled with experience, activity, relationships, and accomplishments. How full will your life be? So few people are born with the advantages you enjoy. Honor that privilege by making the most of it.

Most people go through life not paying attention. Especially in a world in which communication is happening more quickly and the volume of information we wade through gets greater by the day. By not paying attention, people miss out on a lot of the beauty, a lot of the details, a lot of the important things, and a lot of the opportunities that come along.

The beauty brings joy, the devil truly is in the details, the important things can easily get lost in the chaff, and the opportunities can end knocking on an unanswered door.

Opportunities tend to present themselves more clearly than you would expect. Not only do you have to be paying enough attention so as to recognize them, you also have to be willing to take advantage of them.

Be willing to take risks, explore, push your boundaries, and test your limits. This doesn’t mean that you should do foolish things – although a little foolishness can be a good thing – but rarely will you grow if you only stay within your comfort zone. Try things that you think you couldn’t possibly do and you will be surprised by how things end up just being the baby steps to even greater accomplishments.

Exercise. Not only should you test your limits in terms of experience but you should also push yourself physically. Modern life is increasingly sedentary, a lifestyle for which our bodies are ill-suited. Make movement a part of each day. This doesn’t mean you have to be an athlete, nor do you need to suffer from worry and self-consciousness about your body. Just be active. You will have a greater appreciation for your body and will be healthier for it.

Eat well but don’t fret about food. Americans (and, increasingly, other cultures) have come to obsess about food in an unhealthy way. Enjoy food, but enjoy good food. Too often we mistake an overabundance of additives and preservatives that trick the chemistry of our tongue and brain for truly enjoyable and satisfying food. Eat a wide variety of foods, both for your good health as well as for the enjoyment of trying new things. Practice moderation in all things, including moderation.

Human beings are social creatures. Cultivate relationships by giving unconditionally, without the expectation of getting anything in return. Be caring and compassionate. Give to others, be charitable, be generous.

Assume the best of others. Be quick to forgive, quick to assume you have misunderstood, quick to let go of anger or grudges. They are seeds that bear only bitter fruit.

Things do not buy you happiness. There is nothing you will buy in this life that you will be able to take with you, so don’t accumulate unnecessary things. When you do spend your hard-earned money on things, wait before buying. Compare quality and buy the best quality you can afford, for it is better to have a few good things that last years than an abundance of things that break or wear out quickly.

Be thankful for the things you have – not the physical things – but the blessing of your life. Even when you are facing suffering and difficulties, it is all but certain that there are millions of people whose lives are much worse off than your own. While that may seem cold comfort at that moment, if you can focus your attention on the blessings you do have, it will make you appreciate the situation more.

Finally, cultivate happiness in the present. There is nothing you can do about the days that have passed. There is nothing to be gained by worrying about the days that are to come. There is only one moment that exists, and that is “now”. So be fully present in the now, enjoy it, and make the most of it.

Those are my words of wisdom to you on my 40th birthday. We’ll see how well they hold up when you read them in another eleven years. By then, I may have revised them significantly. But I suspect that while I will learn more lessons in life, these fundamentals won’t change all that much.

Love,

Uncle Chris

What about you?  What lessons have you learned over your years?  What advice would you want to share with someone who is becoming an adult?

Happiness Flow Chart

Last week, Chris up in Toronto posted a happiness decision-making flow chart that I thought beautifully encapsulated life’s main lesson.  I thought I would share it with you here.

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I’ve been in meetings this week.  My boss, her boss, and one of my colleagues flew into KC to meet with me.  I’m flattered that they consider my rare visits to the US important enough to fly to meet me.  I’ll be in meetings through Thursday and then will have the weekend off for the family reunion.

In the meantime, the nieces wish I would stay home with them.  As she left for daycare this morning, Ava looked up at me and asked, “How many minutes do you have to work for today?”  Precious.

 

Free Ride on a Fruit Cart

Nearly everywhere I go in this city, I keep a camera handy.  That’s one reason I don’t have an SLR and instead go with a smaller point and shoot camera: I need to be ready to take a picture the moment one presents itself.

The other evening, walking with my Thai tutor back towards the Asoke Skytrain station, I watched as a fruit vendor rolled past us in the street, his son sitting on the shelf under the cart.  “Oh, he’s selling children and fruit!” my tutor exclaimed.

Allusions to child trafficking aside, it was a pretty funny image.  When he stopped to sell some pineapple to a tourist, I snapped a photo.

The young man hitching a free ride didn’t seem amused.  I wouldn’t be if I was riding around in the bottom of a fruit card, either.  But not a bad deal, if you think about it.  With ice in the display cases, it was cooler than being out on the street, and with dad doing the pushing, you could just enjoy what little breeze there was.

Still, it reminds me that I was fortunate to grow up in better circumstances than this.  I hope the young man finished his studies and has the chance to go to university.

What’s it Like to Live in Thailand?

In the past year using Facebook, reconnecting with old friends, colleagues and classmates, several people have asked me upon learning that I live in Thailand, “What’s it like living there?” I’ve given short, snappy answers (“Well, the Thai food is amazing!”) in lieu of anything more thoughtful. This morning I took a stab at coming up with a better, more substantive answer to that question. What is it like living here?

Part of the reason for not coming up with a better answer in the first place, is that it is difficult to succinctly explain what life is like anywhere – especially when it is very different from life in the questioners’ hometowns. I get up, eat breakfast, work, watch movies, etc. It is the same and, yet, very much not the same.

On Language

The most overriding feature of living in Thailand is the different language. I’ve been here three-and-a-half years and have studied Thai all except two months of that time. It is hard to explain just how big an effect operating in a different language environment can have.

In my home (I work from home) I am immersed in a language in which I’m hyper-fluent. I look at a page of English text and meaning jumps out at me. Comprehension requires no effort.

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Above: the Thai consonant chart. Each consonant is related to a specific word, similar to “A-Apple, B-Boy” except the word is used consistently with that consonant.

When I step out of my home, I am immersed in a world that is as inaccessible as my English world is accessible. I see the printed Thai script but unless I specifically make the effort to find the words and their meaning, it is just a collection of now-familiar characters: 44 consonants representing 21 sounds, 18 vowels, four tone marks.

The best analogy: playing one of those hidden-word games where words are buried in a grid of letters. That’s how it is when I see Thai: When I look, I see a bunch of Thai characters. I have to look much closer to find the words. Finding the meaning requires yet another step, as I’m at the stage in building my vocabulary where I recognize that I’ve seen a word before, but am uncertain of its meaning.

It is much the same with conversation. If someone is speaking to me and I know what subject we’re talking about, then I am generally okay. I won’t know all the vocabulary, but I can follow along and even contribute a bit. If it is a random conversation into which I stumble, I’ll likely be lost, recognizing some words as they pass by but as unable to grasp onto them as I am unable to board a rapidly-moving train.

That’s the first and most significant aspect of my life in Thailand. I realize, upon rereading what I’ve written so far, that it may sound like a complaint. It isn’t. In truth, Tawn or any other Thai is likely very impressed with my progress. I’m well ahead of 95% of the expats who live here. But I’m also well behind the top 1-2% who are truly fluent in Thai.

Mai Pben Rai

The second notable answer to the question has to do with understanding the Thai mentality – heavily rooted in Buddhism – and the Thai way of looking at the world. Some illustrations:

Mai pben rai – literally, “it’s nothing”. This phrase is constantly invoked by Thais to indicate a “no worries” approach to life. You’re running late for class? Mai pben rai. Stuck on a flooded street? Mai pben rai. You forgot to run an errand? Mai pben rai. Not interested in completing the job as promised? Yes, you guessed it: Mai pben rai.

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Above: Flooded street leaves you stranded for hours? Mai pben rai!

At first, this can be infuriating. In many (especially Western) cultures, we make a big deal out of things such as being on time, doing what you promise, following up on details, etc.

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But Thais subscribe to the belief that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. And, it seems, nearly everything is small stuff.

The upside to this is that you learn to be much more sanguine about the world, much more accepting about the truth that our sense of control over most aspects of life is largely an illusion. Stuck in a traffic jam? Mai pben rai – don’t worry, you can’t control the traffic. Unable to watch a film you badly wanted to see? Mai pben rai – maybe it will be available on DVD soon. Caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella? Mai pben rai – just duck into a restaurant for a snack.

Thai culture’s Buddhist roots, with its emphasis on the impermanence of all things, is seen everywhere. From the lack of city planning to the way that most plants are potted rather than being planted into the ground to the quality of sidewalk construction, Thais are wired for short-term thinking.

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The Land of Smiles

The Tourism Authority bills Thailand as “The Land of Smiles”. Try telling that to a load of commuters on the un-air conditioned number 38 bus line in Bangkok.

Seriously, though, two features of life here are illustrated by the concepts of suphap (“polite”) and sanuk (“fun”). Thais believe that, regardless of how they think or feel on the inside, the exterior should be polite and pleasant. Why should everyone else suffer just because you are feeling down? Keep a smile on your face and be pleasant to others.

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Above: Friendly and polite locals wave as we pass by in a boat.

At first a foreigner might mistake those smiles for happiness, agreement, being pleased, etc. Eventually, most learn that Thai smiles have a hundred meanings, only some of which are positive. .

Upon learning this, some foreigners disdain this outward veneer of pleasantness as being artificial. It is hard to explain adequately but perhaps it helps to see the Thai perspective on things:

A Thai walks into a store in Los Angeles and the cashier smiles broadly, asks how her day is going, asks where she’s from and how she likes the weather. The Thai is used to walking into a store in the other City of Angels and being greeted with a pleasantly soft “Sawatdii kha” and the prayer-like wai in which the palms of the hands are placed together in the center of the chest. To an Angelino, the Los Angeles cashier seems very friendly. To the Thai, that same cashier is being over-familiar.

But here’s the contradiction: in the west, if you walk up to someone on the street to ask for directions, their initial reaction will likely be apprehensive and guarded. Especially in an urban environment, they may well wonder if they’re being taken advantage of.

Here in Thailand, when we stop a person on the street and ask a question – “Hey, uncle, do you know where I can find that famous noodle shop with the tom yum broth?” – we get a friendly smile and helpful directions.

I’ve observed this among Thais, so it isn’t just a Thai-foreigner thing.

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The Food

Even though my original snappy answer to the question was that Thai food is really good here, it actually is one of the true answers: Thai food really is better here.

When I lived in the US, I thought Thai food was good no matter which restaurant you went to. “Bad Thai food?” I thought, “Surely there is no such thing.” Of course, once I moved here, I realized that there are few Thai restaurants in the US worth eating at unless it is a case of severe gaeng kiaw waan withdrawal.

But beyond that, Thailand has much more healthy, fresh, inexpensive food readily at hand than in the US (and maybe many other places in the west). You’re in the US, it is 3:00 pm and you want a snack. What are your options? Donuts, burgers, fries, tacos, ice cream? None of which are good for you nor really that satisfying.

In Thailand, a bowl of noodle soup, a plate of spicy green papaya salad, a stick of grilled fish balls in sweet chili sauce, or a bag of fresh fruit are readily available on most any street corner, are relatively healthy and are very inexpensive.

Sure, Starbucks’ venti mocha frappaccino with extra whipped cream and McDonald’s hamburgers are available here (and the growing incidence of childhood obesity testifies to that fact) but there are so many readily available, healthier options, options that I miss when I’m back in the west.

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Beauty and the Good Life

The French have their joie de vivre, the Italians their la dolce vita. Thais, too, are all about ease, comfort and enjoyment of life. Even with some of the world’s worst traffic, Bangkok residents make enjoying life a priority. There is always something fun happening, things are festively decorated, and thinking too much about your cares and worries is discouraged.

People interact more with each other and their surroundings here than in the west. People are more playful, too, but not in the sarcastic or mean-spirited way you see in the west.

There is great beauty. Thai temples and Brahmanist spirit houses are elaborately and colorfully decorated. Fairy lights – what North Americans call Christmas lights – are used to dress up the landscape for no reason other than the sheer fun of having little twinkling lights strung up in the trees.

Flowers are very inexpensive, very beautiful and very bountiful here. Every market and many street vendors sell beautiful blossoms and fragrant jasmine garlands. Again, in line with the Buddhist belief in impermanence, potted plants decorate sidewalks and balconies, rearranged endlessly and replaced when they die.

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Thais take great care to keep things (including themselves) looking neat and clean even in the midst of the city’s chaos and pollution. Even from the working class houses lining the murky Saen Saeb canal, carefully-groomed residents emerge on their way to work, shirts neatly pressed and great thought given to what handbag (probably a knock-off sold at a discount mall) to carry.

The Social Ladder

Thailand has a very hierarchical society: When two Thais meet, they try to determine who is higher than whom on the social order. This ranking has great effect on all aspects of their subsequent relationship: how to address each other, who serves whom at the table, who pays the bills, who walks out the door first, etc.

This chafes western egalitarianism and takes a long time for foreigners to get used to and understand. It is hard to overestimate how important it is for Thais to understand where they are on this hierarchy.

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Above: Students behave appropriately, approaching the monk on their knees then crawling past him. Females are especially careful to avoid coming into direct contact with him.

The ways in which this impacts foreigners are numerous and subtle. One expat incorrectly explained to me that foreigners, being guests, always rank highly, just below politicians, royalty and monks. He couldn’t have been much more wrong.

Foreigners are in their own category, separate and measured by another standard, namely, the extent to which you understand and play by the Thai rules.

What’s the practical effect of this? On the Skytrain, for example, I move out of the way for those above me on the social ladder – elders, for example – but not for teenagers.

When I walk past puu yai – literally “big person” or “adults” – who are having a conversation, I duck my head ever so slightly, showing my respect by not towering over them.

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Above: Even the leaders of the September 2006 coup were careful to visually emphasize that they knew their place – still below the monarchy.

Remember the scene in the musical “The King and I” (banned in the Kingdom of Thailand) in which Anna Leowens and the King of Siam debate over how high she should hold her head in comparison to the king? It is the same thing – your head you should be lower (or, at least, bowed a little in respect) as you pass by or sit with someone who is of a higher rank than you.

When speaking with monks, I should hold my hands in a wai at my chest. When hanging out with peers in my age group, I can relax and not be so concerned as we’re equals. When teaching at the school and helping a student with his work, he offers me his seat and then kneels next to me as I explain the assignment. Everyone has his or her place in the hierarchy and that place is relative to the people with whom you are interacting.

Small things? Maybe, but ones that show that you know your place in the order of things.

At the very top of the order are the religion and the monarchy. Pictures of His Majesty King Rama IX adorn nearly every house and place of business.

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Above: Street decorations celebrating the 60th anniversary of the King’s reign.

At the start of movies and concerts, the audience stands for the royal anthem. If a royal motorcade passes, people stand quietly and respectfully at the side of the road and, if it is the king or queen passing, bow at the waist as their car goes by.

One important facet of this respect for the monarchy is that you don’t – don’t – discuss the affairs of royalty. You don’t ask Thais what they think of the Crown Prince or Crown Princess. You don’t speculate as to who will succeed the King. You don’t debate the merits of a constitutional monarchy or the appropriateness of still having (and enforcing) lese majesty laws.

Even with a Thai with whom you think you’re close, you are best advised to leave this topic alone.

My Final Answer

The final answer to the question of what it is like to live here lies in an additional Thai concept: samruam. Roughly translated, “restrained”. It is related to the previously-mentioned concept of suphap – “polite”.

The thing that keeps this culture going is the emphasis on external appearances, most significantly, keeping up a polite and appropriate appearance and being restrained in your behavior.

For example, Thais believe that the feet – the lowest part of your body – are the dirtiest and least polite part, too. Resting your feet (especially with shoes on) on furniture or the wall, pointing your feet towards someone or an image of the King or the Buddha, or touching someone, moving something or gesturing with your foot, are all hugely mai suphap – impolite.

In fact, the slang term for “foot” is muu farang – foreigner’s hand. That’s because westerners are more inclined to push, gesture and touch with their feet – actions the Thais associate with being coarse and unrefined. In other words, being a foreigner.

You see this in the way people sit in public: feet flat on the floor or, if a woman crosses her legs (not very suphap), it is done with legs tightly together and the foot pointed down. On the Skytrain last week, I observed a foreigner sitting with his legs stretched out across the aisle, pointed towards a lady on the other side of the car. Had he not been absorbed in the pictures on his phone, he might have noticed the dirty looks other passengers were giving him.

Samruam – restraint – is related to suphap. Thai culture is about moderation in behavior, voice, feelings, etc. Thais are fun-loving people but rarely boorish, loud or obnoxious. Thais get upset but rarely do you see public bursts of anger.

The recent prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, caused quite the stir because of his famous outbursts. When questioned by a female reporter once, he avoided answering by accusing her of not having enough sex. In general, prime ministers aside, losing your temper diminishes your public standing. To berate someone publicly is an invitation to revenge.

Thais dress modestly. When a foreigner is sitting at a restaurant on a sunny day and takes off his shirt to enjoy the sun, Thais are taken aback. (I’ve witnessed this. I wanted to say something but restrained myself – confrontation is seen as even worse than being not samruam.) Women in spaghetti strap tops are assumed to be bar girls or sex workers. If they are foreigners, the fact that their foreigners (again, course and unrefined) is their excuse.

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Above: Even at the Erawan Waterfall, Thais are dressed with relative modesty. Only foreigners and young children show bare shoulders.

On the surface, this may sound prudish. But to really understand it, you have to remember that in Thai culture, it is important to keep up appearances. Loud, obnoxious, revealing and unrestrained clothing/behavior/manners don’t keep proper, considerate appearances up. They make life less pleasant for everyone else.

And that’s an important part of life here. That’s why, despite the heat and humidity, I rarely wear shorts (even cargo shorts) out of the house. And when I do, it is only for Saturday morning errands in the neighborhood, never out for dinner.

Conclusion

So what is life like here? Living in the environment of a different language makes it very challenging but opens worlds of understanding. The mai pben rai attitude is more relaxed, less worried, and occasionally frustrating when you want to get something done.

Politeness, appropriateness and fun are values that influence all aspects of life and behavior, generally making social interaction smoother and more pleasant. Knowing your place in the hierarchy of society makes you more considerate of others and, in return, you receive more respect from others, too.

Finally, from food to flowers to music, life here has a lot of good things to offer, even when they aren’t expensive or are surrounded by a chaotic environment.

I hope that I’ve given you a bit of an answer to what life is like here. As you can probably see, it is hard to describe it succinctly. The only short answer I can think of is:

“Requires different operating instructions.”

Chris the Handyperson

P1130703

P1130702 A few Sunday mornings ago, I was sitting at the computer working on something, when all of the sudden a large crash! came from the kitchen.  I looked over and saw nothing amiss.

It wasn’t until I opened a cabinet later in the morning to get my oatmeal pan that I saw the problem: the top anchor of the shelves had detached from the wall, right. 

Under the weight of the pots and pans, the shelves were leaning away from the wall and stressing to the bottom anchor, too.  I quickly removed everything from the shelves and placed it on the counter, eliciting quite a shocked look from Tawn when he woke up later in the morning and sauntered, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen.

“What happened?” he asked.  “Are you cooking something?”

When our handyman installed the the Haeffle wire swing-out shelves, he behaved in the manner most familiar to Thai handymen: pure improvisation.  The corner of the cabinet to which the anchors attach isn’t truly 90 degrees.  Instead, it has a lip.  As a result, one side of the anchors does not have a flush surface into which the screws can go.

P1130698 I noticed this during the original installation, but the handyman assured me it wasn’t a problem and shooed me away.  That was back in the days when I still trusted a Thai handyman’s words.  No more.

His solution was to create a small piece of wood to fill the gap, gluing together several layers of the veneer used on the cabinet until they were thick enough to fill the gap. 

He then screwed the anchor into that glued veneer.  But the layers of veneer were never actually attached to the structure of the cabinet – just sort of clamped to the lip of the cabinet!

Left, the top anchor of the shelf, still screwed into the layers of veneer that are glued together.  Notice that the holes on the left have been stripped out by the heads of the screws, as the shelf pulled away from the wall.

This left me with a bit of a dilemma: how to repair this problem?  Calling the handyman back didn’t seem a very good idea, but the essence of his fix – finding something to fill the gap created by the cabinet frame’s lip – was sound.  I just had to figure out what to put in there and where to find it.

Unlike life in the United States, Canada and other western nations, Thailand doesn’t have any Home Depot, Lowe’s, Orchard Supply Hardware or even Ace Hardware stores.  With the exception of some completely useless “Home Pro” stores that sell lightbulbs and sinks, all of our hardware is sold from small mom-and-pop (mostly pop) stores.

The first thing I needed was some wood.  Again, no obvious place to go if you need a few small lengths of wood.  But I recalled that in the old city, the area surround the Golden Mount temple is a woodworking district, handcrafting teak doors.  We headed there after brunch with friends.

It was already mid-afternoon.  Many of the shops were closed and the few open ones looked to be closing soon.  At the first shop, a grizzled old Chinese-Thai man listened as Tawn explained the problem and looked around his shop.  He wanted to sell us a length of teak wood – about 3 meters long (10 feet) – when all we needed was about 15 cm ( 6 inches).

We walked down the soi to a shop where they were still out on the sidewalk, sanding a beautiful teak door.  The trio of men listened as we explained the problem and one started rummaging around the shop, wonderfully crowded with pieces of wood of all sizes, and found a few small scraps.  We tried them out and found a width that was a close fit, then he cut it down to the desired length, leaving us with two 15-cm pieces.

“How much?” Tawn asked the owner.  He laughed with a half-toothless smile.  “If I wanted to sell it, I would sell it for 10,000 baht (US$285).  But I’ll just give it to you.”

We thanked him profusely and walked away with our two pieces of wood that, given the difficulty we were expecting to encounter in finding a solution, we would probably have gladly paid 10,000 baht for.

Returning to our neighborhood by canal taxi just a few minutes before 5:00, we rushed to a hardware store around the corner, just as they were pulling their wares inside from the sidewalk.  We explained what we were looking for – longer screws with larger heads and maybe some washers, too – and the owner browsed the shelves lined with tattered paperboard boxes of various sized hardware until he found eight of each item we were looking for.

Back at home, I pulled out the power drill and started the fix.  First, screw the piece of wood to the cabinet lip, creating a flat surface and ensuring that there is something solid for the shelf anchor to mount to.

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This was a little difficult as I couldn’t face the work area head-on but had to hold the drill from the side.  Not so good for my neck.

Next, with Tawn holding the anchor and the shelves in place, I screwed the anchor to the cabinet, starting with the side that had the new piece of wood.  This processes worked pretty well, and although the wood split near the bottom screw, it seems to have a firm hold as the screws I used for the anchor actually sank through the stop-gap piece of wood and into the cabinet frame itself.

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I decided that before loading things back into the now-secure shelf, I should reconsider just how much weight I was putting on it.  This required a complete reorganization of the kitchen cabinets, moving several heavier items (especially dry goods – flour is much heavier than a skillet) to the cabinets above the countertop.

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The resulting arrangement – which is more organized in real life than it appears in the photo above – places heavier pots and pans on the lower shelf and lighter items on the higher shelf, including the backup stash of vodka in the Absolut disco bottle!

Meanwhile, I used this opportunity to tidy up all my other cabinets and complete a labeling project I started when we first moved in.  This is similar to how my maternal grandparents have their cabinets organized – lots of plastic storage containers, each with a printed label.  This sort of anal retentiveness actually appeals to both Tawn and me.  Arranged from left to right as you look at the area above the stove:

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The big white thing in the center cabinet is the overhead vent for the cooking surface.

So there’s another project done by Chris the handyperson.

 

Things I Wish I Had Known When I Started Working

j0426646 A few weeks ago, Kari wrote a very thoughtful entry titled “Things I Wish I Had Known in My 20s“, which I linked to from this blog.  Kenny left a comment on my blog that, as someone in his early twenties just entering the workforce, he had hoped there would be some career advice.

I’ve spent the past few weeks mulling over the lessons I’ve learned in twenty years of working and would like to share these things I wish I had known when I started working.  Of course, I don’t claim that it is comprehensive.  What things do you wish you had known when you started working?

 

Lessons About Myself

I am responsible for my own growth and development.  My manager, the training organization and HR are all resources to help me, but ultimately I am the responsible party.

As such, I should always be learning.  Learn from each situation: ask what went well and what could be done better next time and then apply the lessons. 

Step up and volunteer for things.  Timid and shy people who are afraid of new assignments and more work, are the ones who miss out on the opportunities.

Manage expectations.  “Under-promise and over-deliver”, as they say.  By setting realistic expectations with others, I avoid some of the the stress of trying to meet unrealistic deadlines.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t have tough deadlines to meet, but at least they won’t be tough deadlines of my own making.

 

Lessons About Companies

Yes, it is my job and yes, I am paid to do that.  My job is to help the company succeed and as long as I am not breaking any laws or violating company policies, then I’ll enjoy greater success by doing it, even if the task is outside my normal job description.

“Up” isn’t the only way to get ahead.  Lateral moves and moves into other parts of the organization can sometimes be better for my long-term prospects than standard promotions.  Consider alternate routes to get where I want.

Sometimes it is better to have to wait for a promotion.  Each time I didn’t get a promotion, I took the opportunity to be much better prepared for it when it I did finally get it.  As a result, I always performed very well in my new role.  Had I been promoted before I was really ready, I would have struggled and possibly failed. 

 

Lessons About Customers

Treat customers the way I want to be treated as a customer.  I had a manager who was an expert at empathizing with customers.  No matter how angry the customer, she won them over and made them feel that she was on their side.  She did the by treating them with respect and caring and by truly listening to them.

Related to that, I wish I had known that I can’t “win” an argument with a customer.  While there may be customers I choose not to do business with, feeling any sense of satisfaction after trouncing a customer in an argument is pointless.  What have I won?  I have lost their business and have sullied my company’s reputation.

 

Lessons About Managers

Offer solutions, not problems.  If I notice a problem or opportunity, think of at least one possible solution before approaching my manager.  That way, I am welcomed as someone who brings solutions rather than being someone my manager regrets seeing at her door.

Managing and doing aren’t the same thing.  I was a great widget maker but when I became the manager of the widget makers, I discovered that it required a new set of skills.  Remember this when criticizing a manager or “the big wigs in HQ”.  Remember this also before gunning for a promotion to a management or supervisory position.

Make my manager look good.  Even if my manager isn’t perfect or has major flaws, trying to make him look bad will only reflect poorly on me and my entire team.  My first manager was a tremendous a**hole and I almost quit because of him.  But I decided I wouldn’t leave on his account.  Sure enough, a few months later he had been fired and I went on to enjoy a very good 15 years with the company.

 

Lessons About Coworkers and Vendors

Treat everyone as a customer.  When I respond to people with a “How can I help you?” attitude, I don’t necessarily get any additional work, but I do get the appreciation of coworkers and vendors who feel like I am a nice person and someone who helps them rather than hinders them. 

Related to that, success in business (and maybe life as a whole) is based on good relationships and strong networks.  Treating people well – not bullying, intimidating, yelling, name-calling or back-stabbing them – paves the road to success.  Because, sure enough, at some point in the future that “little person” I treated well will hold the key to a door through which I want to enter.

 

Lessons About Retirement

Start investing in my 401(k) or other retirement savings from day one.  Even if I can only afford to invest a small amount – even $20 a month – it is better to get into the habit from the very beginning.  The benefits of compound interest and time (forty or more years until retirement) can only accrue if I start saving.  I’ve done well with this, but wish I had started much earlier.

 

Reviewing these, I feel like there are plenty more things I could share, but these are the most critical ones that, had I known them on March 17, 1987 when I entered the workforce, life would have been a whole lot easier and working a whole lot more enjoyable.

What additional advice would you give Kenny?

 

Life in Bangkok Gets Busy

Life in Bangkok gets busy very quickly.  The handyman actually showed up on Sunday and spent several hours installing pipe through the empty space above our ceiling, connecting the bathroom water supply with the balcony outside our bedroom.  He’s to return this morning and finish the job so (and I think I’ve written this before) with any luck we’ll have the ability to wash our own clothes by dinnertime.

Tawn left yesterday afternoon for an overnight business trip to Singapore.  One of his clients, HP, is holding a press conference announcing some new development in the world of technology, and he is chaperoning some Thai and Malaysian journalists to the event.  He asked if I wanted to go along, but it was such a short trip with no down time for him, so there wasn’t much of a point. 

 

Fortunately, I did have an opportunity to have dinner with Masakazu and his partner, Mitsu.  Mitsu is now pretty much fluent with Thai, Masa is learning, and I’m still a beginner.  An early beginner, at that!  We had dinner at a really nice Laotian/Issan (Northeast Thai) style reastaurant in the Silom area called Cafe du Laos.

The restaurant is in a lovely colonial-style 2-story house that is surrounded by skyscrapers.  Service was attentive and the food was really nice.  We had a version of somtum (green papaya salad) made with pomelo, a grapefruit-like fruit.  Mmm… tasty.  Also a beer-marirnated pork with spicy chili sauce.

Speaking of skyscrapers, there are many condominium developments occurring here in the City of Angels.  In the debate of whether or not to purchase a condo in the near future, I’m inclined to wait a bit because I see a lot more housing stock coming on the market in the next 2-3 years, which I would imagine should either drive down prices or at least hold them steady.  The above picture is for a development that is just two blocks down the street from us called Millennium Sukhumvit.  It will be about 500 feet from the Metro station, so the location is spectacular.

There’s another development happening adjacent to our building, but to the north.  The land has been graded and there are occasional bouts of activity, but true construction has yet to begin.  Maybe they’re waiting for more phone lines to be installed!

Well, only two days to go before Thai language classes start at Union Language School.  Mitsu tells me that he has friends who have gone there and that it is quite reputable, but they actually assign homework and give exams, unlike American University Alumni Association, which he attended and Masa currently attends. 

Productive Days in Bangkok

Second entry for the day.  Man, am I productive!  Must be that telecommuting thing.

So it was a beautiful sunrise this morning in Khrungthep.  The picture on the left captures it quite nicely.  I find that I’m waking up without the aid of an alarm by about 6:00, which lets me get an early start on the day.

I can shower, shave, get dressed, and prepare coffee and breakfast before Tawn wakes up.  Then, while he gets ready for work I can start working on the computer, take pictures of the sunrise, etc.

So it was a very productive morning, but since I don’t have DSL yet (and it may still be a long while before it happens – would you believe that they’ve run out of numbers in our area?) I had to go down to the local True Internet coffee shop, conveniently located in the “Metro Mall” – a small stretch of the Metro station that includes four places to get coffee, five snack places including a Dairy Queen (like I never left the Midwest) and a place to get your hair cut in 10 minutes for 100 baht.

Once again I made the mistake of leaving home without an umbrella.  After leaving Tawn at his office after lunch it was starting to rain.  So I went to Central Chit Lom department store to shop for some kitchen cabinet shelves.  They didn’t have any, so I took the Skytrain to Central Silom.  By the time I arrived, it was absolutely pouring.

The wind was also blowing fiercely so that most of the protected, covered areas of the station were still getting soaked.  As people exited the train, instead of heading for the stairs (which were getting dumped on) they huddled around the poles as this seemed to be the only dry area. 

After shopping at Central Silom, which is thankfully connected by a covered walkway to the Skytrain station, I walked to the Metro station which is connected by another covered walkway.  But it is narrom and doesn’t really provide much protection from the elements.  In fact, there’s one spot where it is running underneath the Skytrain tracks and a downspout dumps the all the rain from the tracks directly on the steps from the walkway to the street below.  Really not a genius engineering design.

The Metro station at Si Lom is about four stops away from my station at Sukhumvit and Asoke (Soi 21).  The straight-line distance is maybe two miles, if that.  When I emerged from the station at Sukhumvit, the ground was bone-dry.  Not a drop.  The clouds overhead didn’t even look that threatening.  So my walk home was dry, not the flooded street that often befalls Asoke when there is heavy rain.