Tuesday, 21 October 2008
Nan's Dayglo Cake
Food enough for an army but it all goes.
Lighting the cake.
I remember not so long ago asking Cat how old Nan is now and she said she was thirteen. A few days ago it was her birthday and I asked Cat again.
‘She’s thirteen,’ said Cat.
‘But she can’t be,’ I said. ‘She was thirteen last month.’
Then I remembered. While in the West we only add a year after the birthday itself, Thais quite sensibly round it up a year a few months beforehand.
This may be confusing but what’s more difficult is that if you ask a child her age, she probably doesn’t know. It’s okay if she says she doesn’t know but all too often she’ll pick a number out of the air because that’s what you want to hear. Next time you ask, it’ll be different.
Age and birthdays doesn’t seem to be too important in Thailand which suits me quite well now that I’m fast approaching middle age.
Funny things do seem to happen though. According to her identity card Cat's Mama is only two years older than her eldest son, Mungorn, while Cat’s ID says that she’s only six months older than her sister.
How they got Mama’s age wrong I’ve no idea but in Cat’s case, as the family was living out in the middle of nowhere, it took them almost two years to register the birth.
Nonetheless the idea of birthdays is fast catching on and so we had a little celebration and a cake for Nan. Marking a birthday is not a part of Thai tradition but with aggressive commercialism finding any excuse for a party, they’re catching on in a big way, along with dubious western festivals like Valentine’s Day and Halloween.
Some friends came round to our house for a small party, Cat cooked enough for an army and Nan had her cake and ate it.
Lighting the candles in anticipation does have a certain magic, though Thai cakes are a mixed blessing. As usual this one glowed in the dark, vivid in coloured icing. The sponge is usually light with no texture but the icing is a horror. It’s hardly even sweet and is more like lard or grease than a conventional icing. You could use it to lubricate a bearing or as an underseal for your car but eating it isn’t so good an idea.
Cat tells me that as a child, they knew about birthday celebrations so used to find a candle and stick it in a dry buffalo pat. After it had been blown out the kids then threw the bits of the ‘cake’ at each other which was probably every bit as fun.
Then came the day for her first real cake. It had taken some time to save the money and very excited she went into town on a friend’s motorbike. They’d collected it from the shop and as they were driving away, the door of a parked car flew open. They swerved to avoid it and the cake fell into the road and was squashed by a following truck.
I bet they laughed in true Thai style but I’ll bet it hurt too. The sight of a child standing bawling her eyes out, her ice cream fallen in the dust I find strangely poignant, perhaps a reflection of life itself.
Small bakery shops are appearing in many towns in Thailand and the trays of bread and cakes look bright and interesting, though don’t try putting them in your mouth. The bread is sweet and the pastries revert to flour in your mouth. Somehow Thai versions of farang foods subtly subvert the original and really are new creations to suit local tastes.
The slice of so-called pizza I recently bought in the mini-mart rather than starve was soggy and sweet and left a strong afterburn of chilli. Never again!
Even so Nan and the kids seem to have enjoyed the ritual with their cake, though it was the event and not the eating that mattered most.
All of which makes me wonder what it’s like being a thirteen year old Thai girl in this part of the country. Nan is growing up and carries it off with style, going into her big school in Sangkha every day on a pickup truck loaded with students.
She says she likes the school but I wonder how she’s doing and what her future will bring. You hear of jobs in the public sector receiving literally thousands of applications and the outcome must be inevitable. Family contacts or money can get you a job for life and you’re out of luck if you don’t have them.
Thailand is a hierarchical society and not a meritocracy which in my view is the chief source of so many of its problems.
This is why so many people chance their arm by starting a small business. There’s so much competition though and as everywhere most business fail to make a profit.
It’s not a misfortune to be born a Thai but it’s tough if you really want to get ahead.
'Mai pen rai' they'll all say though, what the hell... and smile sweetly.
That's just the way it has to be.