Saturday, 9 February 2008

Is This Chapter Unduly Negative?

Since long before I started doing this blog, I've been writing the story of 'my 'Thai girl' and I. It's a blow by blow account of how Cat and I first met and how we came to set up home together in her village in North East Thailand.

I hope it will be published in Thailand in the next few months and I am now working on finalising the text.

Because I feel positive about this country and about living here, I hope the book reflects that, though on the other hand it would be boring and misleading if I were to suggest that all was rosy with palm trees and eternal sunsets and sweet smiling Thais. Sometimes it can be difficult living here and there are thing that make life a struggle at times, so that has to go in the book. The difficulty then is getting the balance right.

A very good friend of mine whose opinion I respect highly has just read the draft manuscript for me and he tells me that I have failed to get the balance right. The tone of the book he says is negative and jaundiced towards Thailand and this worries me very much.

I've therefore been scanning the book to try to find instnces of me moaning and carping about things and I've just found a chapter that could be a culprit. In my defence I do say in the book that it is a feature of being an 'expat' that one tends to let off steam by expatiating at length about the frustrations of living here and this is a running 'joke' through the book. This does not excuse me though if my grumbling goes beyond a joke so I must be careful to cut out anything that is potentially offensive.

The first chapter I'm worried about appears below and I'd like your considered opinion on it. I'm almost decided upon deleting it on grounds that it is not that relevant to the theme of the book, but what do you think? Is it unduly negative and should I delete it?

I'd really appreciate you leaving a comment or if you prefer, email me at Could this be the first example of a book being written by blogger consensus?

If you hve any thoughts on the cover design, that'd be much appreciated too.

Extract from my forthcoming book, 'My Thai Girl and I'

28. Things Fall Apart
I sometimes wonder if it’s a consequence of ‘Thainess’, of the readiness to say mai pen rai, meaning ‘never mind’ or ‘what the hell’, that the folks round here seem to be irredeemable botchers. Everything’s a mess in the countryside, though to be fair, it’s the same with small farmers everywhere. Tiny farms in rural France are a tangle of broken machinery, nettles and brambles because you haven’t time for anything fancy when you work a ten hour day and can hardly make ends meet. Likewise a Thai farmer isn’t too concerned about having the ideal home, but still it bothers me that nothing here ever seems to work properly and nobody is the slightest bit concerned about it.

My old jeep’s in dock yet again and when our second hand motorbike, bought from a dishonest motorbike mechanic, fails to start yet again, I do begin to wonder. With both out of action, we’ve just had to borrow a motorbike to get into Sangkha. On the way Cat begins to slow, shouting to me that something’s wrong. We grind to a halt and as I look down, there’s a ping and a greasy sprocket falls into the dust. I try to pick it up but it’s blazing hot and I burn my fingers.

Having paid for the repair of the motorbike, I tried the bicycle instead. It was securely locked with chain and padlock but then the key broke off in the lock. When I found the hacksaw to cut the chain, that was broken too and as for the bike, it’ll be exactly the same story.

All these experiences leave me feeling a little cynical. I’ll soon be telling you more about the jeep I’ve bought, but the succession of five mechanics I paid to stop its brakes seizing up were either incompetent or hadn’t even touched them before writing out a bill. When we came back from a trip to England the brakes were seizing up yet again, so I got Cat’s cousin to take them apart at the house, while I watched. They were utterly filthy and full of black dust, the slave cylinders were seized and the pads were coming off the shoes.

Sadly a few days later we never made it home from town, the front brakes binding tight and screaming so loudly that people in the street turned to stare. Thankfully, mechanic number five whose garage was nearby seemed competent and he had it fixed the next day. The jeep has modern servo-assisted brakes and the servo that was supposed to be new, was a dud.

For some months the jeep then stopped perfectly, or as well as drum brakes can stop a ton or two of metal, but then the ultimate nightmare occurred. One day, on the way into town I put my foot on the brake pedal and it went straight to the floor. With a rush of adrenaline, I grabbed for the hand brake, forgetting there isn’t one and then resorted to prayer. It was only because I was on a straight road with nothing in front of me that I didn’t have to die. If I’d made it into Sangkha and lost my brakes in the middle of town, the story could have been very different.

At little more than walking pace, I then drove the jeep back to my mechanic and paid him to have another go at getting the brakes right. A rubber seal in the ‘new’ servo had apparently failed. Not long after, exactly the same thing happened again, so the only thing I can now think of is buying an emergency anchor.

My conclusion is that maintenance doesn’t come naturally in this part of the world. To make it worse, most cheap things like door locks and taps are rubbish anyway and people are thoroughly careless fitting and using them, casually trashing everything they touch.

I won’t make any friends by saying this, but in my experience the bush mechanics I’ve encountered in Africa were far, far better than the Thais. In India and Burma they have amazing skills breathing life into old jalopies and I’m told the Vietnamese are fine mechanics. So why can the Thais not keep my jeep on the road as it’s not so very difficult. The engine, gearbox and brakes are modern Japanese transplants, while the rest is as simple as a tractor.

Small motorbikes regularly break down too, so maybe the problem’s a failure to do simple maintenance. Neglect can be expensive but Thais just don’t do maintenance, or so it seems to me. I often wonder why this is as the Thais are highly materialistic and sometimes strive hard to get the shiny baubles they’ve seen on the telly. I think of Prasert who, with his wife, spends his life stirring noodles to keep up the payments on his now ageing pick-up. I think of the girl in the bar who told me she’ll be hard at it until she’s bought the new car she can’t live without. So why is it that once they’ve got the object of their desire, they often seem to neglect it?

Is it a Buddhist thing? Could it be that material things are illusory and impermanent and if you can’t expect them to stay gorgeous and new, why bother to look after them at all. But no, I’m sure that’s not the explanation and I don’t know what it is.

Asians generally like everything to be brand spanking new and often can’t be bothered with the old. The Chinese for example like new houses because old ones are full of spirits from the past and as Bangkok is largely an immigrant Chinese city, many of the buildings there are un-maintained and falling into ruin. Apart from a few old areas that deserve restoration, half the city needs to be knocked down and rebuilt.

Attitudes are so very different in the West. We farang actually like old things for their hand-made feel and for the patina they’ve acquired from decades of human contact and use. For all these reasons we lavish enormous care on old buildings and I adore my thirty year old MGB which runs beautifully despite its age.

In Thailand it seems acceptable that nothing much ever works. The ATM at the bank often has no ink so withdrawal receipts come out blank, it’s run out of paper and even of money. Copy shops give you appalling photocopies and in the internet shop the letters on the keys have worn away to nothing and are illegible. My TOT IP Star satellite internet, a recent acquisition, rarely works, the maintenance men are quite shocked at being called out and I’m expected to pay for a sub-standard service.

It’s boring to trot out more examples and I’d better stop moaning because maybe they’re right… it doesn’t matter anyway! It’s my farang attitude that’s out of line, though sometimes it really does drive me mad.

Recently when taking Cat’s sister to the Bangkok bus, I spent two baht to have a pee at the Sangkha bus station. Twenty four hours a day somebody sits outside the toilet collecting the money, but do they ever clean the filthy urinals I’ve just paid to use? Not apparently. They’re yellow and stinking and broken and it’s hard to believe Thailand has just hosted the World Toilet Expo in Bangkok which promotes high standards of sanitation. The Thais are very particular about personal hygiene, so why do they tolerate these appalling public latrines?

Since then, the bus station toilet’s been closed and it says ‘sia’ on the door (‘spoiled’), so perhaps something positive’s about to happen. Trouble is, now there’s nowhere to go for a leak before you face an eight hour bus ride to the capital.


Lloyd said...

What would I feel if I read this in a book?

I would laugh at the antics in the jeep some more emotion would have done it justice, you could make a good laugh ot of the motorbike servicing but I feel that the rest was a rant aimed at nobody in general, least of all the reader. Going from comparing Thai and French farmers to Bangkok urinals in a few paragraphs was just a stretch to far.

The cover looks OK but the title!

Anonymous said...

If you want to write a book that is completely one sided...take it out. If you want to be honest with your reader..leave it in. I enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with lloyd that it does come across as a rant without much positive to provide a balance. Of course this is a chapter taken out of context and maybe the surrounding chapters even things out; you could therefore play with the balance slightly rather than remove it. The key aspect that could be expanded on is your comment that it's your farang attitude that's out of line. What is the Thai view on your problems? What is the view of the Thai mechanics? Are they happy in their work? Do they greet you cheerfully and agree that they will cure your problems?
I vote for keep it in! (2-1 from comments so far)

Newt said...

Thanks for giving us a preview of your next book.

I enjoyed the episodes with the jeep and the borrowed motorbike. They are funny (even though you surely didn’t intend them to be), a bit exotic, and yet you obviously prevailed in the end. Likewise, your writing on maintenance and “new-versus-old” are in the same vein—ironic and humorous.

The rest of your extract comes at something of a rush for me. You cover many different topics in a rapid-fire sequence, but the recurring theme seems to be that Thais frequently take a “mai pen rai” attitude when things, or outcomes, actually do matter. I don’t read this as unduly negative, because most of the items you mention certainly would matter to your English-speaking audience. More important in my view is what have you concluded? Your passage ends with the sign on the Sangkha bus station…maybe repairs are forthcoming, but what to do in the meanwhile? So, as I read it, your chapter ends in a hopeful or reflective way. I wouldn’t say that this is a negative ending, and—within this context—I wouldn’t gauge the buildup as overly pessimistic.

I vote for retaining the passage.

Oh, and I also like the cover art—it’s quite distinctive.

Ken, San Diego, CA, USA

steve said...

I think you should leave it in its the truth and that is that. English man living 5yrs in petburi. look forward to reading the book.

Anonymous said...

Leave it in. But worth considering if all your problems are actually due to you being a farang or whether they affect everyone. Having lived here for a decade I'd say the latter. The difference is that the sensible Thais wont take their cars to a cheap but crap repair shop, they'll get the repairs done at a more expensive good shop. 'You pay peanuts,you get monkeys'

There are good reliable mechanics,craftsmen, builders out there - simply ask for recommendations.You see anice old car,ask the owner where he gets it serviced. You see a nice house,ask who the builder was. Your wife wont do these things unless you push her to do it.

So how about adding a bit about how to solve these problems that you & others will face?

( Also, why is she Chinese white on the front cover and more Thai brown skinned on the back cover?)

Pual said...

Thailand About News : Thai Politics, Thai Business, Thai Sports, Thai Entertainment, Thai Technology, Breaking News

Isaan Life said...

First of all I am not familiar with the level of your wife’s education, nor what economic status the family has in the area.
Second I do not know how well you understand and speak Thai, nor am I familiar with the respect you get from the local people.
Those things are of importance in evaluating the service you receive in your area.
In 12 years in Isaan I have found that the things you experienced do not happen to middle-class or educated people.
The poor and uneducated get ripped off and do it quite efficiently to each other, here and around the world.
In the West we would investigate sales people, and repairmen before using their services. Did you do that in the cases you described?
Is the excerpt you presented a reflection on the Thai (Isaan) people or does it provide an insight into the western male and his lack of understanding the environment he is in?

Fabletoo said...

no, it's not unduly negative - I've lived in Thailand for almost 5 years and the same stuff drives me nuts. But it's even the same for new stuff - the hot water kettle I bought the other week at Tesco lasted a month and died on me and, of course, NO RETURNS I was told when I attempted to take it back.

I am not a fan of the US, but I do miss that everything works there. However.....overall, most of the toilets I frequent in Bangkok are much cleaner than their American counterparts. Have you tried the loos at LAX airport? God, and that's before an 18 hour flight to Bangkok!!! :-)

Fabletoo said...

Oh and another quick comment. I think you're a very talented writer and am somewhat disappointed that you've written what is yet another book about a Western man and a Thai girl. The market in Bangkok is saturated with them. Why do you think Bangkok8 was so successful? Because it was different.

Would love to see you attempt something new next time (and no disrespect meant :-) I think you'd do a great job at it.

Thai Girl said...

Thanks, fabletoo for your thoughts.

I have sympathy with your response to another book about a grizzled old bloke and his accomodating 'Thai girl'. Are any of the existing ones worth reading though?

Surely there's loads of books like 'Bangkok 8' too, so it's not really the first is it?. Chris Moore for example has written a whole raft of Bangkok sleuth stories.

'Bangkok 8' sells well partly because it's got a big publisher that really pushes it, but also possibly because, if not the first one, maybe it's the first good one. (No, I'm not knocking Chris Moore though... in fact he's about to get the Hollywood treatment.)

My new book is perhaps the first of it's kind in that it tells not of a relationship with a bar girl that then explodes in flames. It's also a vehicle for my thoughts about things around me, so it's as much about Isaan as it's about us. So I hope it's quite different and has a serious side to it.

And thanks too for your nice comments!


Anonymous said...

I read the book cover to cover. Funny sometimes, but boring most of the time. I dont get what keeps Andrew with Kat? She doesn't show much care for his feelings or wishes or needs. He provides... she takes.
Did I miss something? Can someone enlighten me?

Ricky said...

If you are writing a book about your life in an Isaan village you are doing just that, and you are defeating the object of the exercise if you have to edit certain sections just because a particular person finds them too negative!

In my 23 years of visiting and living in Thailand I have found that most foreigners who go "native" are living in total denial anyway, often having dumped their entire life savings into a property owned by a woman that they have absolutely no cultural or moral affinity with in the first place. The Farang simply has no options left, frequently neglected by his "tilac" and often murdered in the most brutal fashion under pressure from the Thai husband.

The reality is that there are no true smiles in "The Land of Smiles". You should write want YOU want to write and not be influenced by some self-styled critic.

Best of luck with it!

MarkN said...

I am sure no one ever thought the statements by your fictional characters in Thai Girl were too negative, just an aspect of colourful characterisation. The power of fiction eh? Perhaps the moral of the story is that one should not buy second hand jeeps here. Seems like you were keen to take the course "Thai Tolerance 101" with that purchase. I would have started using that old cart from inside your house and used reliable buffalo power instead. My favourite "things fall apart" sight to date was of a bus driver walking up the fringes of the motorway from Pattaya to Bangkok carrying a pink pull-along suitcase. He was retrieving many pieces of luggage that had fallen from a bus whose luggage doors were not shutting properly. Rather than fixing this before driving the bus, surely the problem had been noticeable, they had taken a chance on things not falling apart too badly. Mai chok dee no? As the clouds gathered and the rain started he must have said something other than "mai bpen rai", though, then again maybe not. Footpaths usually make me get the "things fall apart" feeling the most.