Thai Life and the Art of Not Losing Face
We hop in the Toyota van and I glance at the driver … on the opposite side of the car than what I’m used to. I relish in the sheer novelty of this difference between my western world and my new SE Asian world, cherishing it because soon I know it will become common to me.
I’m missing my large suitcase and it’s a mixed blessing. Good, because it’s a whopping 70 pounds of vacuum-packed life. Bad, because it’s my vacuum-packed life, namely all of my clothing. But, it’s out of my control as the airline scrambles to figure out how on earth the suitcase was scanned as “arrived” to Beijing before the wheels even touched down, and now? Well, it’s somewhere between China and Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
I’ve been going for nearly two days now, thanks to the never-ending flights and connections which started at Dulles, took me to San Francisco, across the world to Beijing and then to Bangkok where I slept on the floor of the airport (hey, I did the whole budget backpack thing for seven months when I was younger, I can hang) before the sun finally rose over the Land of Smiles and I boarded my final flight to my new home.
“We take you to your apartment first,” Yam informs me. I’m not sure whether or not that’s her Thai name or her Western one. I discover in the course of the next few months that most Thai people have their traditional name — ones most westerners become tongue-tied over — and their Western names like Apple. Or Ice. Or other random names which must make sense in Thai culture, but definitely come out on the more interesting side in mine.
The van navigates the road from the airport, crowded with tuk tuks, songthaews, motor bikes and cars, all jockeying for position. It’s a controlled chaos that I would make me fear for my life if behind the wheel, but our driver weaves in and out, no problem.
It’s definitely not like the apartment buildings I’m used to, but whatever.
Yam walks in with me as I struggle with my two suitcases (thank goodness the third, massive one is somewhere other than here) and speaks in Thai to the apartment manager who produces a single key, attached to an Eiffel Tower keychain.
We walk up three flights of steps, approaching the third winded and dripping with sweat. I turn the key in the door and it creaks open.
I blink a couple of times.
It’s a room. A dirty room. A fan is screwed into the wall. The bed, stained. The bathroom layered with dust and dirt.
“This is wonderful,” I report to Yam, even though in the back of my mind, I’m crying big tears. This is where I’m living? I feel like an entitled brat as I stare at the room, cringing as discreetly as possible.
How am I going to get out of this?
Later in the day, I meet a friend of mine for Thai tea and soup.
“My apartment is terrible,” I lament.
“Come live in my building,” he suggests. My eyes widen.
We walk the few minutes across the moat, crossing from Old Chiang Mai to the rest of the city, and to his residence. Sparkling tile floors, a little restaurant and a convenience store greet me as I approach the reception area.
“My friend is interested in renting a room,” he tells the man at the desk.
“Yes, we have some rooms,” the man responds, taking a key and walking out from behind the desk. We follow.
He opens the door and I feel calm once again come over me. It’s essentially a hotel room, but I come to learn that this is the norm as far as apartments go in Chiang Mai for the digital nomad/teacher/young expats on a budget variety.
A king bed, microwave, little fridge and a small balcony which provides breathtaking views of the setting sun.
“I’ll take it. Immediately,” I announce, smiling.
It’s all done pretty quickly. I head to an ATM and return with a stack of Thai baht to cover my security deposit and first month’s rent (which runs about $200 a month and includes access to the small gym and rooftop plunge pool).
Then, it’s time to figure out how to handle the apartment work acquired for me. Delicately.
“D, you need to be careful,” my Dad informs me via Skype later that day. “You can’t insult them.”
I nod, even though he can’t see.
Before I relocated to Thailand, I did my homework regarding the cultural differences between my old world and the new one. One of the most important things in Thai culture is to make sure a person doesn’t lose face.
This means there are no confrontations. You keep your opinions which may embarrass others to yourself. And, you definitely don’t check out of the apartment someone found for you because you found something better.
I get anxiety immediately. How do I tell the manager that I moved?
“Blame being spoiled on the relocation,” Dad suggests.
So, I do just that the next morning. I take extra precautions as I arrive to the office, ducking down a soi so I enter in the door closest to the old apartment, versus the door closer to the new.
I suck the air through my teeth and approach the manager, key sweaty in my hand.
“I am so grateful you found me an apartment,” I begin. “I really need working internet and air-conditioning while I adjust to my new life though. So, I decided to rent an apartment that is more western. Let me know what the cost for rent in the apartment is and I will go get money for you right now.”
“Dianaaaaa, no problem,” she says, smiling.
I walk home that night following the moat. It’s got a different smell than the general air. A mix of sewage and wet you’d have to smell to understand. As the sun sets, locals and tourists gather at Chiang Mai Gate where street food carts unpack and begin to cook. The chilis being prepared make my eyes water.
I continue across the moat and down what is now my street, lined with a few tiny restaurants serving Indian, Italian and Thai food. Outside, picnic benches are filled with graying men and young women giggling as they sip Chang and Sangsom, the Thai whisky.
Motorbikes whir by as I climb the stairs — still wearing the same clothes I’ve had on since America two days earlier (thanks, United) — and grab a seat at the little convenience store, which doubles as the watering hole for residents and friends, at the base of the apartment building.
The sky now black, I crack open a cold Leo and sit on the blistering red vinyl bench, looking out into the night.