Saturday, 1 March 2008
Ja, ich bin ein Buffel!
Tomorrow I’m off to Bangkok to start the design work on my new book, MY THAI GIRL AND I which is very exciting. (Scan down a blog or three to read the debate about the book.)
From our village in the north east of Thailand by bus it’ll be nine hours door to door before I reach The Atlanta, my favourite hotel in Sukhumvit. It’s a civilised though eccentric place that specifically claims to be a haven for writers with a big sign outside saying, ‘Sex Tourists Not Welcome’ and a smaller one on the desk saying, ‘Complaints Not Allowed – Not at the Prices We Charge!’. I love it!
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the discussion about the book on this blog, all in response to Jerry the Farang’s comment that it comes across as a constant grumble about the problems of living in Thailand. Feedback is the breath of life for me as an author though and it’s especially valuable when the book has not yet gone to press. This is my last chance to tweak and refine it.
I very much like your quote from Kipling, Niel, which appears in your Comment below. Strangely I too quote Kipling twice in the book as I feel he often has so much to say. He’s a major figure who, apart from Disney, is right out of fashion, and I’m sure he’s due for a reappraisal. In England last year I saw a set of his complete works for sale at an antiquarian bookshop and it was outside on the pavement in the bin for penny giveaways.
Going back to Jerry, I fully understood the point he was making and while he'd had the whole book to read, I could not of course post the whole book on my blog. I thus posted a particular chapter I was most bothered about. It was then reassuring that most of you said it should be included but even so, I think I should delete it.
Ultimately some readers of the book will accept my grumbles as an honest description of how things happened to me, some will see that I’m trying to make a joke of my own ineptitude while others will just think I’m what Americans call an ‘ass hole’! That’s the peril of being so forward as to write a book about myself!
I much like Jerry’s quote from the travel writer, Pico Iyer pointing out that the distinction between a tourist and a traveller lies between those who leave their assumptions at home and those who don’t. The tourist constantly grumbles that nothing here is the way it is at home. I really hope that after twenty years in tropical countries I don't do that!
Iyer went to Harvard as I remember, but he was also educated at Eton and Oxford so he should suffer no irony defecit. In fact he sometimes strains too hard to amuse with a heavy dose of paradox and the epigram ironical. Curiously my comment in my new book, that striving too hard to be funny can distort what one is trying to say was directly aimed at him.
Nonetheless the point about leaving one’s assumptions behind is an interesting one and I’ve been thinking about it, asking myself if I’m a mere tourist. When in the book I grumble that I have no food to eat, find sleeping on hard boards with no pillow a little difficult, regret being totally out of touch with my kids in England and have no idea if and when World War Three has begun, an I being ‘assumptionally retentive’?
My conclusion is that you cannot leave your cultural assumptions and conditioning entirely behind you. What is important is to be fully aware what your assumptions are, to recognise when local assumptions are different and not to judge other people by your own assumptions.
One cultural assumption I have and cannot rid myself of is how one defines ‘dirt’. I remember the farmhouse of some Breton friends in France. If you swept the kitchen floor you’d collect at least a bucket full of dirt, walked in from the muddy farm yard. I would not though call them dirty people though; rural standards are simply different. In an urban society we spend an excessive amount of time obsessively cleaning and even here in Thailand I still feel the need to keep my house clean. I do not though condemn my neighbours in the village as dirty because they live on earth floors.
I suggested to Jerry that he had not realised that some of my grumbles in the book where intended to be ironic, by which I mean funny. His response was that I should say just exactly what I mean rather than the opposite; perhaps like Pico Iyer I've been guilty of distorting my comments by trying too hard to be funny.
When I referred to some of my stuff as being ironic what I really meant was, to use an Americanism, that I was just ‘taking the piss’. While the book should not be a white wash, at least I could try to describe my bad moments in a way that was humorous.
I also wondered if, dare I say it, there are some Americans who tend to suffer an irony deficit.
Nonetheless, some of my best friends are American. There’s Jerry of course and Terry, and Bill and Bill, and Don and Don and Don. They’re a self-selecting group of course and most of them certainly DO irony.
One of them doesn’t though and his Thai wife has just dumped him because he talks too much. He never knows when I’m taking the piss and he sees everything through the prism of his American upbringing. He has brought all his assumptions with him to Asia and is supremely confident that they are the only way to see the ‘outside’ world.
Jerry on the other hand is a great and witty writer, an old hand with sensitive antennae for every nuance. At first I was worried that he said I came across in my book as a tourist but then I’m pretty sure he was only being ironic!
One last thing. Trawling around the site meter on my blog I came across a remarkable thing. My blog was there on the screen but it was in German. Can anyone tell me how this can be?
Who translated it? Was it a German? And what’s the reputation of Germans for humour and irony? Would it be a good translation?
Or could it have been done automatically by a machine?
How would a German translating machine cope with all my irony, I wonder. Then of course it’s as likely it’s all down to Microsoft, so it must be American.
Oh well, you can’t win them all!
Bangkok tomorrow and soon the book will be in the book shops. Then I’ll really find out what people thing of me.