Tiny Fishes (part i) – Nong and Pee

Beer Smile

Day 32. Thailand. I have been teaching for a few weeks. Terry invites me to dinner. The man who takes our order has a long, equine face and an overbite that looks like he has difficulty closing his mouth. We order steak and french fries. And beer.

Terry is in his mid fifties. He is thin, almost too thin. He has something of a predilection for colorful socks. Bright pinks. Bright yellows. Stripes of cerulean blue. His glasses frequently slide down to the end of his nose.

His real name is Robert. The first thing he did when he got here was change his name. He didn’t want to walk around all the time having people call him “Lobet”. He doesn’t seem to mind the fact that the local accent never fails to pronounce his new name as “Telly”.

We are at the floating restaurant. The name (Terry’s creation) sounds impressive, but it is really just a deck over a shallow pond next to the side of the road. Some crude sprinklers allow the pond water to cool the tin roof, giving minor relief from the heat and humidity. The man with the equine face, who acts as cook, waiter, and sole employee, brings us a bucket of ice and two Changs.

“Thailand is all about the big H,” Terry says, the burr of a Scottish accent just barely poking through the crust of an upper class education. A few days before, we had attended the Wai Khru ceremony at school. We were put on a stage in the auditorium. Some words were spoken. Some drums were banged. Five hundred students filed past, gave us flowers, got down on their knees, bowed at our feet and wai-ed to us. It was meant to show respect. I just felt awkward.

I ask Terry what the big H is. He smiles. “Hypocrisy. Think about it, my boy. All that bowing, and wai-ing and the flowers on your lap,” I fill my glass with ice. He fills it with beer. “They put on this big show then they arrive late to class, they never stop talking, and they won’t stop copying and cheating off each other,” he pauses for breath. “Have you ever encountered one student at the Rajabaht that could apply knowledge or think critically?” I tell him I haven’t been around long enough to make a judgment. “Well, trust me, I have been here nearly a decade, you won’t.”

He finishes his beer and motions to the man with the equine face. He points to his bottle, holds up two fingers and says, “Beer Chang. Sorng.” The beer is named after the Thai word for elephant, pronounced “chahng”. Even after ten years, he still pronounces it with a long A, “Chayng”.

“They are all Buddhists and they say they aren’t into material things, yet look at all the corruption. It is everywhere. And old Square-Face robbed the country blind when he took off a few years back.” The man with the equine face comes back with our food. What we are served is a thin slice of meat that would never be called a steak in America. It’s not half bad, though. And the fries are pretty good, too.

Terry continues. “They are into harmony and karma yet they have no problem exploiting anyone and everyone who isn’t Thai. I have never seen anything like it.” I point out that things like corruption and racism are problems in every developing country. That even in the First World, such things are common. “Not like here,” he says. I try to ignore the colonial condescension in his voice.

“The minimum wage in the UK is six pounds. That is about 300 baht an hour. Do you know how much they pay the Burmese who work here?” he pauses as our empty bottles are taken away and replaced with full ones. “200 baht. A day. It’s shameful.”

I do not know if his facts and figures are accurate but I am happy that there is no one around to listen to our conversation. And that the man with the equine face looks as if he does not understand English.

I ask him why he stays if he has such a low opinion of the culture and government. “I love it here,” he says, wiping a small spot of ketchup off his mouth. “The work is easy. You can travel everywhere. And the sun shines almost every day of the year. Much better than Scotland.” He pokes around in the ice bucket, looking for the few cubes that have not melted. “I was a soldier. I was a politician. But after my accident, I was lost. I had just learned to walk again when a friend suggested I come to Thailand.” He takes out a handkerchief and mops a few beads of sweat from his forehead. “You can be anything you want here.”

I ask him what he wants to be. “A happy bunny,” he says delicately folding the handkerchief.

The sun is setting. The ice in our bucket has completed its transformation into cold water. My head is swimming from the alcohol. I notice a large bumblebee buzzing lazily around.

“Have you been to Hua Hin yet?” he asks. I tell him I was there briefly getting my visa stamped. “You should go. There are plenty of bars. Plenty of beer. Good place to get spome boom-boom, too. Actually, it’s better to get that down there than around here. Less chance of running into students. It’s a good time.”

There is a pause in our conversation. I watch the bumblebee land on a table. The tablecloth is covered with pictures of fruit.

“Do you want to get a few more beers?” Terry asks looking over his glasses. I look at my watch. It is still early. I am about to motion to the man with the equine face. “Not here. In Hua Hin.”

Hua Hin is about an hour south of our current location. It seems like a bit of a drive. And neither of us should really be driving at this point. Terry takes out a piece of paper. He carefully unfolds it. “This is the train schedule,” he says. “You see, here,” he points to one of the squares on the grid, “there is a train leaving Hua Hin tomorrow at 14:10. It never runs on time, so it will probably leave at 2:30 or 2:45. If we catch it we should be back here by about 4.”

I don’t know Terry all that well. I don’t know this place all that well. My natural inclination would be to decline the offer. I am really not all that adventurous. But then I remind myself where I am. I can be whatever I want here, right? Maybe I want to be a happy bunny?

I ask him when we leave. “We leave now.” He motions to the man with the equine face. “Check-bin kop.”

Click to read (part ii)


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