Making friends the ex-pat way

One of the questions people always ask me is how easy is it to make friends in Bangkok. I work in recruitment and it is not dissimilar to trying to find the perfect candidate for a job. The reality is that whilst meeting people is easy, finding those of the right calibre is tough. I have met a fair few people out here, but finding those who have the same interests and who you can bear to spend time with (yes, some of them are unbearable) is a challenge. I believe in quality over quantity in all parts of life apart from when it comes to the consumption of sugary snacks, and I am lucky enough to have a small group of great friends that I have met through events, on-line and through work.

My work colleagues are wonderful. They have brilliant English and they help me to navigate those difficult Thai situations like the company director’s mother’s funeral and what colour to wear on certain days of the week. There is however a invisible barrier linked to position in the company and social status. Whilst it is not impossible to get over this, it is sometimes hard to know if they are being friends with you because they are being polite or because they like you. Making Thai friends is worth it though, they will tell you where all the good restaurants are they aren’t mentioned in Lonely Planet, you can practice your terrible Thai on them (in my case) and they are some of the most generous people I have ever met.

There are hundreds of different clubs and societies here in Bangkok. I have experienced just a few and it’s been a mixed bunch. You would have thought that I would have had enough of group sports at school but for some reason this time last year I joined a netball team. I thought it would be a great way to make friends and actually do some physical exercise. Turns out that the cliques that existed in the playground are still alive and well on the courts of Bangkok. I was never part of the in crowd in school and I have no desire to put up with the ice cold stares now I am no longer forced into ‘Games’. I did half a season and gave up. I have recently taken up Thai lessons again, I want to write more on this in a separate post but it is another great way to meet people.

Some of my best and worst experiences has definitely been on-line friending. I met one of my closest pals by sending her a message via the website Expat Blog. It felt like a date, I thought about what to wear, was worried about what we would talk about. Because this experience was so positive I felt confident enough to make contact with another Expat Blog member. This time it was not so successful. We had arranged to meet at Central World and she ended up not only standing me up, but also not actually getting in touch for around four days to apologise. I know that it’s stupid but it felt like a rejection so I decided to avoid any high risk friend finding on the Internet.

Making good friends here isn’t easy but it isn’t impossible either. Some of them are so lovely that I hope to keep in touch with them after I have left Thailand!

Working with Thai People

When I landed here I had never visited Thailand. It was a complete assault on the senses. I came here to work and they kindly gave me less than twenty four hours to recover before expecting me at my desk. Stumbling around Asoke junction past the morning food stalls when your body thinks it is 3am is not the greatest first Bangkok experience but it was the smell that really sticks in my mind. It’s a mixture of fried chicken, sweat and incense. Sometimes now when I walk past a food stall I am transported back to those dazed few days when I was too scared to do anything but scuttle in between the office and our hotel.

Moving to Thailand was obviously a huge decision but I hadn’t really imagined how hard it would be for those first few months. In London I had been pretty city savvy and I always felt completely in the know. Before I arrived everyone told me how hot the hot season was, and how rainy the rainy season was. They did not tell me that people here never seem to rush. I had read this in the guide book and I have to say there is most probably a correlation between their movements and the weather, as just the other day I tried to sprint to the MRT (the underground) and almost expired so I can understand wanting to take your time and keep cool. I didn’t realise I would be going from full speed ahead to one notch above stationary.

However, as someone who used to tackle King Cross during rush hour, I get frustrated when I see someone not standing to the right on an escalator. Worse than this, there seem to be many people who are actually afraid of them. They can’t just walk straight up, but have to pause for half a minute before stepping on. This means I tend to crash into old women and young mothers with babies. Add mobile phones into my Bangkok commute and it’s not surprising that I am always late for work. People have a tendency to stop when they receive a call or message, even if it is in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. This led to daily collisions and one frustrated farrang.

They say that in the UK we are adept at queuing but I will never cease to be impressed by the orderly queues I see at the MRT and BTS. Sometimes I wish I was carrying a camera so I could take a picture. Obviously not everyone commutes at a leisurely pace, but on the whole they squeeze as many people on the trains as they do in London and it still seems much more relaxed than London. I also get the added pleasure of trying to decipher bizarre Thai advertisements that are shown in every carriage. When I arrived this was a Tourism of Thailand video with a delightful boy band-style soundtrack) but my current favourite is for what I hope is an intimate body wash. A young girl makes her way through a crowd of men sitting at crotch level, swishing her dress in their faces.

This unrushed nature also continues in the office. I work for a predominantly British corporation. My fellow expat colleagues and I try and try again to explain how things work in head office. Having started our careers surrounded by equally hungry graduates determined to make their mark and claw their way to the top we know what our bosses expect of us. Work hard, meet targets and deadlines and you keep your job. Work harder than anyone else, do over time and there is a small chance that someone with the power to promote may notice you. In our Bangkok office the local staff have a completely different attitude. They work as a unit, supporting each other with all their tasks and being more flexible in their approach to completing tasks and meeting deadlines. To come from an environment where you feel that saying no may cost you your career to this has initially led me to believe that my Thai counterparts were simply less productive than I was.

After months of trying to get them to think like me, I have now come round to thinking that they might have something on their burnt out western colleagues. It’s not that things don’t get done, my colleagues are delightful and they will stay late if we are approaching a deadline. They just don’t stress trying to get everything done. I’ve found that by adopting this attitude and telling people that I need to delay a submission rather than staying up till midnight sobbing over my laptop is much healthier. Unless you are working in the emergency services it’s rare that anything is the life and death drama you feel it is. I may not be the next CEO with this attitude, but I am certainly happier! People also respect that I am upfront about my workload.

Slowing down takes time to get used to but in Thailand and even in a large city like Bangkok you just have to relax and go with the flow. If you are not on the same page as people who live here you tend to spend most of your time constantly irritated and angry about being amongst them. Adopting this slower pace makes all those tricky things about living abroad just a little easier to navigate.

Evacuation Bangkok 2011

I am back in Bangkok and my flat and work are still dry. The water is still creeping into the city, I just spoke to a friend who lives four stops away on the underground and she is now an inch under water. They are also evacuating the Chatuchak area (where the large weekend market is). The water is now in districts of Bangkok that I have heard of, and many of my colleagues are now flooded. Our HR manager turned up in a very bright pair of pink short shorts as she had to wade to work!

Below is a picture of the sandcastle I made with my boss’ kids during my evacuation weekend.

We are now just waiting to see if the water will come any further. I am keeping my fingers crossed as we are moving into a new flat this weekend, one that is closer to the canals and the river!

Cockroach Season

Last month was very traumatic when it came to bugs in my house. We had already battled with ants climbing through the small gaps in the windows (they have returned this week, and I am poisoning them) but one evening Dan and I returned to a cockroach scuttling round the kitchen floor.

I cannot express how horrifying it was. I screamed and Dan played roach hockey, batting it out into the corridor and spraying it till it stopped moving. They move so fast, and can fit through the smallest of gaps, it’s very impressive and very disturbing.

Getting to sleep that night was very hard, I had nightmares of them climbing the walls and perhaps even into my mouth. Just before moving to Thailand I read The Metamorphosis by Kafka. Never have I been more haunted by a book and it only fuelled my disgust. It is not the novella to read before you move to Cockroach Land.

When I returned home the next night Dan was battling more cockroaches. Having spent every waking minute on the Internet reading about these bugs we had ascertained:

  • That they were attracted by the leaky sink and were obviously having a pool party under the kitchen units
  • That if you see one then there are many more close by. No one else lives on our floor so they were probably relaxing in the flat next door and just coming to feed at ours
  • They can live for months without food but not so long without water
  • There are people in this world who keep them AS PETS!
  • They eat glue from books
  • In Thai cockroach is Maleng Saab
  • They are pretty much going to rule the world one day

I also read that if you squish one with your shoe the egg sack can get caught on it and then it hatches. Turns out this was just an urban myth to make me even more scared.

After the second night of war Dan and I were so jumpy that I cried when a tomato ketchup sachet accidentally fell out of the pizza box and Dan twitched every time I touched him.

Thankfully the cockroach killer was coming round the next day to spray the apartment. Despite our fears that the whole of the kitchen cupboard was teaming with them we haven’t seen any live ones in the flat for over a month. We do occasionally find dead ones which is great fun for everyone.

Although I am still completely scared of the roaches, I can now battle them myself (if they are alone). I have pretty good aim with a flip flop. Locals seem very unfazed by these bugs, but I don’t think I will ever get used to them!

Thai Lessons in Bangkok

Jentana and Associates have temporarily moved to a new building, so our lessons are slightly further along Sukhumvit on Soi 39. We are now over halfway through our ten introductory lessons, and it’s going… well quite slowly!

We are very good at the numbers and have now added days of the week, and some adjectives and verbs to our very short list of Thai that we recognise. And really we only recognise it when our teacher is saying it really slowly and repeats the question about five times!

I have been attempting to use my Thai words when out and about, but so far with very limited success. Most Thais speak much better English than I speak Thai, so even when I attempt a few words, they generally reply in English.

However, I did manage to use one of my favourite sentence’s in the bank on Friday. I was trying to do a transfer, but I confused the assistant and kept filling in the wrong boxes and signing in the wrong places (they love to get you to sign everything!). She kept apologising and I was able to reply ‘mai pen rai’, which means something along the lines of  ‘it doesn’t matter’. Our conversation was cut short by my limitations, but it made me keen to keep learning!

The phrase ‘mai pen rai’ is very reflective of the way Thais approach everything. They never get angry or frustrated, and losing your cool makes you look like a fool in their eyes. They understand the need to be flexible and that life isn’t always all about you. Something many people don’t seem to understand!

Here are some more useful words that I have used this week:

arroi: Delicious (every time I eat yummy food, which is every day!)
nit noi: a little (when telling the nice security guard I speak three words of Thai)
mai mii: Don’t have (I often get this when asking for yummy mini pancakes downstairs at work, they only seem to have them about once a month, but they are my favourite!)
bawrisat: Company, as in I work for bawrisat Mott MacDonald (again trying to tell the nice security guard where I am going every morning, as he seems to think Dan and I just shop constantly)

Not much really, but I am hoping that we will be able to learn more and use it more.

On the plus side Thai language lacks past and future tenses. You can use “last week” or “tomorrow night”, but verbs have only the present tense.

Thai also lacks articles and plurals.

More examples of making life simpler in Thai:

The verb “to be” is dropped in simple descriptive sentences.

The dress is pink becomes simply (remember, articles are also not used): Dress Pink

The subject of a sentence, especially if it’s you, is dropped when it is clear from context.
I want a cold cocoa (my morning drink cocoa yen!) = Want cocoa.

All this should make things a little easier, but I am still struggling with tones (Dan is great with tones) and remembering words under pressure.

We have invested (by stealing from work) in some purple post its which I am sticking around the flat to help us remember things. I was hoping Usborne would do a Thai book with pictures of that duck to find in every image, but sadly not!

Thai Lessons in Bangkok: Beginners

After three months of being here we have finally started our Thai lessons! We are going twice a week and each lesson lasts 90 minutes.

We had our first lesson on Monday and it was very hard. I have no idea about tones, of which there are four, and when learning new things I tend to go up at the end of new words in a questioning way, which is totally wrong.

Our first lesson covered numbers, and we can just about count to ten. Dan is a million times better than me, I basically whispered like a fool for an hour and a half.

The strangest thing is that the teacher just laughs when you make a mistake (don’t get me wrong my Thai is pretty hilarious!). Whilst it first comes across as very rude, you quickly get the idea that this is an important part of culture, and smiling and laughing expresses more than just happiness. I am hoping that it is sympathetic laughter, with a hint of you will get better at speaking soon!

In fact there are many different kinds of smiles, here is just a short list (they even have names!):

Yim thang nam taa: “I’m so happy I’m crying.”Yim thak thaai: “I do not know you, but I will be polite to you.”Yim cheun chom: “I admire you.”Fuen yim: “I should laugh at the joke though it’s not funny.”Yim me lessanai: The smile that masks something wicked in your mind.Yim yae-yae: “I know things look pretty bad, but there’s no point in crying.”Yim yaw: “I told you so.”Yim haeng: “I know I owe you the money, but I don’t have it.”Yim sao: The sad smile.Yim thak thaan: “You can go ahead and propose it, but your idea is no good.”Yim cheua-cheuan: “I am the winner.”Yim soo: ” I am smiling in the face of an impossible struggle.”Yim mai awk: “I’m trying to smile but can’t.”

Tonight we have lesson number two in which I think we will learn how to ask for prices (I haven’t done my homework yet!)

On the same street as our language school we have also discovered the best pizza place ever! Is it bad to have pizza twice a week?!