The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 2)

The Customer Comes First…after this show finish, ok?

Here’s a common experience: I wake up on a Saturday and I really want Tom Yum soup. I know there’s a place just down the road that serves it tasty and quite cheap. So I get up, get showered and dressed, hop on my motorbike, and head over to the restaurant that will most assuredly satisfy my craving. After all, if I craved something in the U.S., it was just a matter of getting out the door, and within the hour my craving would be quelled.

Not so easy in Thailand. As I approach the restaurant, it becomes visibly obvious that they’re closed. They’re usually open at this time, but, for whatever reason, not today. Sometimes they have a sign indicating (in Thai) that they’ve gone back to their hometown for the week and they’ll be back on such-and-such date. Sometimes they don’t leave any information at all.

Such is a symptom of a low work ethic in Thailand. In some respects it’s admirable. It’s exactly why I, and many other foreigners, came here—the laid-back, tropical life. But in other respects it’s not only frustrating, but also economically suicidal. I almost always forget about such restaurants for weeks on end. My girlfriend and I volley back and forth the classic, “Where do you want to eat?” – “I don’t know. Where do you want to eat?” But we fail to remember the place that recently dissed us with their arbitrary closing.

Eating in Thailand is often achieved on impulse. If you want that tasty coconut ice cream over sweet sticky rice, you have to grab it when you happen to pass by the vendor. If you want some Panang curry, you’ll have to keep your eyes ever watchful for its cameo in the random restaurant’s menu.

Once you get into the restaurant you like, it’s not always a pleasant experience. One thing the Thais are pretty bad at is customer service. Whether it’s table service, hotel reception, call centers, travel bookings, or any other segment of the service industry, they just don’t have high standards. Foreigners often note the irony of the nickname “Land of Smiles,” given the lack thereof on the faces of customer service reps in a myriad of businesses.

It isn’t just a language barrier, either—though that’s a huge part of it. It’s also just a lack of attentiveness to the customer. Employees sit around talking, texting, checking Facebook, and watching Thai dramas or movies (with Thai subtitles) while almost completely ignoring their customers. Unlike in the U.S., where servers are almost obnoxiously ever-present, here you’ve got to wave your arms and shout, “Nong krap!” (Boy!/Girl!) to get any kind of service. But once you get their attention, there is the hint of a smile, along with the usual Thai-style friendliness—that deferential courtesy upon which their culture is built. And that’s a pleasant, charming touch.

fig01

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Wai: the act of placing one’s palms together in a prayer-like fashion, and bowing slightly.

Why do the Thais wai? It’s a show of respect. Sure it’s a way of indicating social position—a gesture recognizing that one is addressing a person of a higher status. The higher the hands, the more superior the addressee. Everything egalitarian in me should resist such blatant deference to decorum. But, goddamnit, I just love the wai.

The level of common respect in society is a charming and wonderful thing, even if it’s simply a formality—maybe even a copout at times. When foreigners receive a wai, I cannot help but wonder if it’s merely a show, a gilded gloss to impress visitors with a unique and flattering culture. But I also couldn’t care less if such were the case. It’s just plain nice, and I like it.

I particularly like it as a teacher. After hearing so many horror stories of how horrid American and European students can be toward their teachers, it certainly seems a luxury to be greeted with propriety and politesse.

I don’t get so much of it from my current students in the international school, where even the Thai students have learned the blundering insolence of their Western peers. But even in a school that would embarrass Thailand for it’s lack of etiquette, my students are compliant, charming, and reverent. Contrast this with my experience in a fully Thai private school, and it’s almost unbelievable. Students would kneel before me, barely bold enough to lift their eyes to meet mine. They called me “master,” and would wai profusely, nearly apologizing verbally for their impudent interruption. I almost hated it. Almost. Too bad the average teacher’s pay in Thailand doesn’t reflect this level of regard.

Respect and politeness are ingrained even in the Thai language. For starters, there’s this whole other language for royal situations. But even at a practical level, a respectful Thai places a polite particle—krap* for men and ka for women—at the end of every sentence or question. We’re such dickheads in the U.S., we use the most polite aspects of the English language to ridicule people, and call it “sarcasm.” So again, I like the wais, and I like saying krap at the end of every thing. Sometimes I just say krap as an ellipsis for what I mean to say, because I can’t remember the actual phrase. It usually works.

*For those of you at the kiddie table that are humored by the word krap, it’s pronounced more like “cup.”

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