Friday, 24 July 2009

Two Men Went to Mow!

Our 'garden' in a mess when the house had just been built.

Looking better when the soil had been laid a second time after the rains.

And looking at its best with the lawn resplendent some time ago. I can't even bring myself to photograph it again for this blog as it now looks so dreadful and neglected. Here's the story!

Two Men Went to Mow!

Do I still suffer culture shock when returning from a trip abroad to our home, a small rice growing village in the North East of Thailand?

After a couple of months away, this time visiting friends and family in England, Sweden and France, getting back to our house in the village has taken a little adjusting to. Having lived in my wife, Cat’s, Isaan village for several years it’s not culture shock exactly but on giving up all that London and the South East of England offers, I realize I do lose something by living here.

Not only that, but once here in rural Thailand, I again face the challenges of getting things done across an ocean of linguistic and cultural hang-ups. Apart from the fact the spiders and mildew have taken over, as always much in the house is broken… the upstairs shower and tap hardly flow, the roof is leaking again, light bulbs are broken and not replaced, switches not working, the gutters blocked and overflowing and as always when I go away the lawn mower is tragically injured and in a serious condition.

By living here I am of course excluded from my own language and culture, I have no newspaper, no television, no foreign friends nearby, nobody except Cat I can talk to (even the English teachers in the school who I know well have never uttered a word of English to me), and I have no farang food to speak of. I could happily get by on Thai food but here it’s invariably Lao and Suai food which are viciously hot and bitter. So I’m now really missing the fine foods of France, the cheese, the red wine, the confit de canard that Cat and I so recently indulged in.

Big C in Surin, our nearest proper shop, does have bacon and a few small packets of cheddar cheese (when not sold out), but it’s half a day’s expedition to go there and for the few pale imitations of western foods on offer it’s really not worth the effort. Better that I do without the pizza full of sugar and chilli, the cake whose icing is so greasy you could pack a bearing with it and the sweet pastry that’s surprisingly filled with pork. Quite rightly it’s all aimed at Thai tastes and so I’d better forget about my own cuisine and get by without any.

There is thus much cultural self-denial for me living out here, though in spite of that the one thing I do insist on is having a lawn.

It’s a strong cultural thing that Englishmen do generally love their garden and over the last few years I have duly tended the grass around the house, constantly pulling out weeds and cutting it weekly until I have what looks now just like an English lawn. Mow the grass and the place looks crisp and wonderful. Neglect to do it and it looks just awful.

Trouble is whenever we go away it’s impossible to get anyone to cut the grass properly as it’s just not important and when we got back, once again it’s long and overgrown and the ‘garden’ is in a total mess. They’ve cut it a few times while we were away, but just as I asked them not to, they’ve let it get far too long which doubles the work and it’s now more than my small suburban mower can reasonably cope with to cut it back again.

As always happens whenever we’re away the grass at the back is only half cut (yes, the petrol ran out) and the mower’s a basket case, and I’m the one who’s going to have to sort it all out.

But ‘mai pen rai’ says Cat’s brother Saniam who’d promised to keep it cut while we were away, he’ll now get it cut for me in no time.

He owes me one does Saniam as it’s not so long ago I paid heavily for his ‘get-out-of-jail’ card when they slung him inside for three months for being drunk in charge of a Honda Dream. Though I know I’ll still have to pay him for whatever work he now does and that I’ll be clearing up everyone’s mess around the house for the next few weeks anyway. But yes, he’s dug this hole by not keeping the grass short so why shouldn’t he sort it out.

First thing is to get Saniam to cut some of the longer grass with a sickle as the mower’s simply not going to cope with it that long. I ask him to do this but he goes and does something else instead. He spends half a day cutting the undergrowth on the vegetable patch and he looks shifty each time I ask him to spend an hour or two to make it possible to run the mower over the ‘lawn’.

Next day old uncle appears and on about my tenth request he and Saniam cut back the longest grass which uncle puts in sacks for his buffalo. Then unbidden, Saniam starts clearing all the cut vegetation from the veggie patch and spreading it across the lawn where I know from bitter experience it will stay indefinitely. Even an unused veggie patch is more important than a lawn which has no utility at all.

Confronting this issue, I ask him to clear all his mess of cuttings off the lawn so we can make a start mowing the whole area but he goes and does something else instead.

This stand-off lasts overnight until, realising that the dry weather is about to break, I become more insistent and again ask him to clear the lawn of the mess he’s made.

Over the next few hours I ask him perhaps another five times, each time varying the request as if it were for the first time. Finally I gather up the bulk of the cuttings myself and put them in a pile on the overgrown vegetable patch where they can happily remain or be burned.

I then miraculously find the rake (my tools are usually scattered and hanging hidden in trees) and finally clean up the lawn and suggest to Saniam that it’s time to start the mower.

I smell something sharp on his breath and as he pulls the starter, comically he topples and falls over onto his back. The Briggs and Stratton engine starts first pull for me and I try a run through the grass but all is not well. Pushing the machine in front of me it’s impossible not to notice that the exhaust system is rattling all over the place and is about to fall off. One of the two fixing bolts has shaken loose and disappeared while the remaining one is about to do the same.

Which is exactly what happened last year with the petrol tank. This is likewise secured by two fixings and one of these had come loose and had fallen off so that the tank was rattling around and as a result had split along its top. I replaced the missing screw and someone had now wedged a stick tightly under the broken tank to support it.

But why do they let bolts fall off like this… a turn of the screw, as they say, saves nine. But no, it seems normal around these parts to watch a machine as it disintegrates, to wait until the bolt falls off into the long grass, to allow it to self-destruct and then shove it away in a corner to moulder. Why tighten anything up or do anything if it’s still running?

In my book, “My Thai Girl and I”, on the advice of a friend, I removed a cynical chapter about the incompatibility of man and machine in my village. In fact I published the chapter on this blog (see Is This Chapter Unduly Negative? 9 Feb 2008) and asked you for our opinion on it. Despite almost all the twenty or so opinions that reached me being positive about it, I nonetheless decided to omit the chapter as I didn’t want to take any risks.

Instead I included a section called, “Mai Pen Rai and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” about how motorbikes are unmaintained and lethal and only get attention when they stop… and these recent experiences with the mower now bring all my cynicism flooding back.

Anyway, back with the story… the exhaust is now fixed and I give the mower a quick run but it’s cutting very poorly. The height settings on all each wheel are set at different heights, far too low, but soon this is fixed. So the problem must be the blade itself.

To get underneath the mower, Saniam tips it up the wrong way and black oil pours out of the sump. I then show him to tip it spark plug side up and I gaze in horror at the blade. It’s battered and bent, bowed upwards like the prop of a crashed Spitfire and even worse it’s been fitted the wrong way round.

Six months ago I’d had it serviced in Surin at a place apparently specialising in mowers. He’d managed to change the oil but failed as asked to sharpen the rotary blade, to clean the filter and plugs and replace two of the bolts holding the engine to the chassis that my helpers had watched fall off into the grass. And he’d then told me the blade was on the wrong way round and said he’d correct it.

The net result is that it’s now fitted wrongly, spinning round upside down with the blunt side cutting or not cutting the grass and the sharp side doing nothing as the trailing edge. No wonder it’s not cutting properly.

Saniam gets my tools to take the blade off but unfortunately its retaining nut is seized pretty tight. Using the wrong spanner and breathing fumes (which makes me relieved there’s no spark), he soon has the shoulders of the nut stripped smooth and useless and still it’s flatly refusing to turn. I realize it’s time to call for help and I also realize that the sump’s totally dry, the oil hardly registering on the dipstick so we’ll need some more oil.

Eventually the mower comes back to us from across the road, reputedly in working order and I ask Saniam to get it started. But no, he says he’s going to take the pile of cuttings from the vegetable jungle round to the front of the house and dump it all across the road instead.

It’s not for me to tell him what to do as I’m not his father, I’m only paying him, but I tentatively suggest he uses the big barrow that’s standing beside us to carry the cuttings and stuff out of the garden. But no, he says, he’s going to carry it all by hand. This he does, ostentatiously doing it in as few runs as possible, the massive armfuls hugged to his chest meaning he can’t see where he’s going.

Because he’s now carrying far too much, only a small percentage of the grass and foliage actually reaches the front gate. Most of it’s now spread in a swathe across the grass we’re supposed to be about to cut and across the front lawn and entrance drive. Though the barrow would have delivered it quickly and cleanly, it’ll be at least half an hour’s work to clear it all up again.

There’s no use though asking him to rake any of it up so we can start the mowing, even though the main idea’s to give him a bit of work and some cash in his pocket, so I pick up the rake to do it myself and the handle promptly breaks.

In the fullness of time Saniam fires up the mower and does a few runs into the jungle of my beloved ‘lawn’ before the petrol tank finally gives up the ghost when the lug for the securing bolt finally and terminally sheers off. It’s now totally impossible to cobble it together, so a new tank will have to be ordered from Milwaukee.

Until now, I’ve really loved lawns and mowing. It’s really close to my heart and something I should be able to enjoy in Thailand. My Thai family think I’m a little deranged making such a fuss about the grass but it’s the one thing culturally that I’ve tried to cling onto here. I can do without food and English language media and things if I have to, but a tidy lawn round the house should be so easy, so possible, so satisfying.

In England I had a mower with a Briggs and Stratton engine and it was still pegging along after twenty years hard use when I left home to mow eastern lawns, but only a week or two seems enough to destroy them here. It’s not the mower’s fault, though would it be rude to say they’re not entirely ‘foolproof’?

When I’m in the village I do of course do all the mowing myself and I don’t let anyone touch the mower if I can help it, but perhaps I’m asking too much for even trying to have something distinctly my own out here.

But why’s it so difficult to get people to complete so simple a task for a few weeks without wrecking the machinery?

When paying someone for a day’s work is it offensive to tell them what you want done? Should I just let them do whatever they feel’s most important in the garden? Have I been unduly pushy or made unreasonable demands?

I’m really not sure why I get into these intense psychological games with Saniam in which he tries so hard to do the opposite of what I want him to do. Of course it’s partly that he hits the bottle too early in the morning, but the situation’s far from unique… I remember I had a very similar problem with a pleasant guy called Boat who’s a cousin of Cat’s.

I’d got him to paint the wall at the front of the house. From upstairs I could see that the top of the wall had never been painted and so I’d been to some trouble to take a hose and ladder and scrub it clean for painting. I therefore wanted Boat to paint the top so I took the ladder and asked him to do it.

Throughout the day I noticed that he hadn’t yet done it and I gently reminded him a couple of times. Later in the day I saw that he’d put the ladder away and I asked him if he’d done the top and he said he had.

But no, he hadn’t painted the top of the wall and it still remains unpainted today!

Perhaps I should give up trying even in small things, and as Kipling famously said, “A fool lies there who tries to hussle the East”.

Such are the setbacks every time I return to the village when once again I face the realities of living in a culture where I definitely do not call the shots.

Or am I over-reacting to my own frustration? Is my portrayal of the people around me unduly cynical or unfair, like the chapter in the book I was persuaded to remove. In living here should I instead give in on absolutely everything and, as I postulate in the book, take a Buddhist stance, stop striving and ‘go with the flow’?

Having myself lived in West Africa far too long ago, I very much enjoyed reading a series of novels about the colonial era by Joyce Carey. One was called, ‘Mister Johnson’ and was about the fraught relationship between a colonial District Officer and his eponymous clerk in Northern Nigeria. The books were hysterically funny but the big controversy about them is whether they fairly depict the predicament of a D O trying to cope with his cultural entanglements (Carey himself had been one) or whether the novels are a racist diatribe that mocks the stupidity and cussedness of their African characters.

Now writing about living in a small village in Thailand, I face the same dilemma. I want my stories be funny and to evoke the frustration that’s sometimes felt, I think, by many expats when trying to get things done here. To balance any possible negativity though, I have to exploit the humour of the situation to create an affectionate portrait of my life in the village.

I wonder therefore how my book, ‘My Thai Girl and I’ and this story about the miseries of mowing now come across to you, my reader.

Do you have any thoughts or Comments about this or on your own experiences in Thailand? I’d love to hear from you.

(For info about the book, see

Andrew Hicks The ‘Thai Girl’ Blog July 2009


Anonymous said...

You are welcome to come and mow our lawn again with a very nice Honda lawn mower, serviced last summer by the team at Hillers! The hedge bank is remaining weed free (with a bit of top up picking). A.

Lloyd said...

If you are not being treated as you wish and that if you feel you are not "calling the shots" then it is your own fault.

I am lucky in that my wifes family have been great and always done what is expected, but I pay them well for the work they do and let it be known exactly what I want done. If my wifes family ask to borrow money I do not expect them to work for free to pay it off, if I need something done they work as normal, get paid and then pay back what they can, simple.

"A man's home is his castle", act like a king and have the balls to make it clear to your wife and her family that you are not happy with the status quo (not that crappy English band either). They have taken advantage of you and your generousity for too long, I doubt it will take long for you to find others to do the work you require and exactly as you wish, especially given the current financial climate.

Catherine said...

I stopped smiling a quarter of the way down.

So forgive me if you've come to some sort of amazingly cute resolution before I bailed.

You are not in middle America.

Or in the uber UK.

(neither are what they used to be)

You are deep in a country where your world does not exist.

You can either be charmed by it.

Or you can find other ways to deal.

Stephen Leather said...

I agree with Lloyd, Andrew. It would be a very funny story if it was a work of fiction, but as an accurate reflection of your life I found it very, very sad. You have to ask yourself why they feel that they can get away with treating you and your possessions like this. Considering all you do for them you deserve a lot better. It is only with my tongue slightly in my cheek that I suggest it's time to consider a mia noy! ;-)

Thai Girl said...

Thanks folks!

I didn't think you'd take it so seriously...what I planned was a funny story about working with an alcoholic brother-in-law, plus a few insights into the frustrations of living in a machine wrecking culture.

Lloyd, I guess you've got balls then, have you? So I suppose in future I'd better kick ass too, though the only trouble is I have to live here. If it gets around that I'm not jai dee, then I'm finished.

As for a mia noi or two. Mightn't this multiply the hole you think I'm already in?

As for finding a way to deal with all this, I guess I already have. My way is to write a book about it and to grumble to my blog!


Buakham said...

Your wife and family have no respect for you and not care about you. if they have respect they no go drunk to your home and not let other family go drunk make family look bad. You not jai Dee you stupid farang they take from and not care about you.

Dagnabbit said...

Some pretty fierce comments there. I do agree about the respect issue. I know there is a huge cultural divide, but that cannot explain why they are so indifferent to your wishes. I suggest that you find someone in the village that will work for you, and do things as you want them done, and hire them. (maybe this is not even possible, but surely there is someone that understands the concept) When the relatives complain, explain the situation to them and why you did what they did. Then you have the option of rehiring them under a different set of rules. In other words, when you are the boss, it's your way or the highway.

Dagnabbit said...

I forgot to include in my comment that I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for the time you take to write it.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, Thank you for your blog and the effort to produce it.

You should approach the resolution of this type of problem in a Thai way, not evident in your text or the comments offered, and not directly. Cat should be the "go between" to produce the results you want and be allowed to do it in her way and time. It will work if she must use her influence in the family as your wife to change family behaviors. Tell her what you want, and let her figure out how.
It usually works -- some other suggestions reflect a lack of understanding or typical Western approaches.
Also you are just back and adjusting - again.

Lloyd said...

Yes I do have the balls to stand up to rude and disrespectful behaviour, especially from family members.

Having read your books as well as your blog for more than a year and reading the same complaints manifest themselves in so many of your words over and over again one does wonder why you tolerate it, but with the attitude from your response I guess you have got the life you chose to live with.

Thai Girl said...

Thanks again for your further thoughts.

What I was writing about was one incident with one family member, a brother-in-law who I really like when he's sober but who has a real problem with alcoholism. Accordingly his behaviour is erratic but you cannot extraolate that to other members of the family who in my book have aways behaved impeccably. Okay, they're not good with machines or modern accoutrements but that's just the way it goes.

Saniam has a Downs Syndrome child and really does need help.

My way is to try to give him some work, but it isn't always easy. Nevertheless, since the incidents I described he has been working doggedly in the vegetable garden and as this is not my scene, he can get on with it without any intervetion from me.

He's also been very good attending Mama overnight while she's so sick. (He's at the hospital with her now.)

As for Cat being an intermediary for me, well of course she is... and in everything I try to do here. My Thai is not too bad but I soon get lost without her. But I have to hold back or I'd drive her mad.

When we two men went to mow, had I called Cat every time I needed her she would have come out to instruct Saniam every five minutes. She has had to tolerate an alcoholic brother for twenty years, and nice though he is, that's pretty trying for her. My patience with him should be greater than hers.

Of course it's frustrating negotiating life in an Isaan village sometimes but it's bound to be that way when my upbringing and expectations are so very different. Laying down the law and setting 'rules' for people here doesn't work and I dont entirely blame them. If you get on top of them casual workers, they just don't come back.

I know a number of expats who tell me you have to 'be strong' and not let their Thai family get away with things... you must tell them like it is. True to a degree, but those who take it too far are strongly disliked (though everyone smiles) and they wonder why nobody will come and do work for them.

Basically you cannot single handed change the local culture. Certainly here are a few battles you have to fight (cleanliness, hygiene etc) but otherwise, as I say in the book, much of the time you just have to go with the flow.

As one of you said, this isn't the West and those expats who try to make it such have a pretty hard time. They generally are the unhappy ones, not me.

Nonetheless, each of us have to play their cards as they find them and I do not dismiss any of the interesting advice you have given me.

Thanks so much for reading and for commenting.

Andrew Hicks

Ben Shingleton said...

Hey Andrew, nice comeback to some negative remarks. Next time hire some landscaping professionals:

You can crack the whip as you like, we will take it (we take a portion of the money up front :P)

(sorry couldn't resist a plug)

Love the book


tom said...

I think that
1st of all you should learn enough Thai to be able to communicate on your own
2d Respect is earned not demanded.
3rd If after a few years in Thailand your "business manager, translator and general do-it-all" is a relatively poorly educated, untraveled person you are in deep doo-doo

mike said...

Hi Andrew,

Perhaps some commentators have focussed on a few issues, instead of the big picture. My father-in-law takes excellent care of my house, garden and dogs when we are away; he always asks my wife if he has done anything wrong.

He also lets bolts fall out and become lost, and leaves garden tools acattered around the garden - this is a deeply ingrained Isaan trait. But on the whole, to recover and occasionally replace tools, and to keep a stock of spare bolts in various sizes, is a small price to pay for his loving care.

As you stated, you had just returned from Europe - so I quite understand your need to vent a little as part of your re-adjustment - I always go through a couple of fraught days too!

Mike C.

Thai Girl said...

Ben... in "My Thai Girl and I" there's a chapter called, 'Is it a farm or a garden?' I readily accept that it's more a farm than a garden otherwise I'd call you in immediately!

And Tom, my Thai is really quite good but I get a bit lost in the language of satellite internet, electrics, plumbing and medical matters and it's at these times I fall back on Cat... who incidentally has all but finished a degree in Political Science.

Apart from travel in the region, Cat's been to Sweden,twice traveled round France and has seen much of England and Wales on five visits.

And as for being respected,it's not really something I'd even think about. I hope I'm liked though which is a little different.

On the other hand, I do respect the people around me which I think is a pre-requisite to living in a foreign culture, but I also think there's a sure way to be actively disliked, which farang sometimes do manage to achieve.

That's to be overbearing and to tell the Thais they have contact with that it must be done precisely their way... and thus to fail sufficiently 'to go with the flow'.

My neighbours are proud people and rightly so, and causing loss of face in this way is not a forgivable offence.

You therefore have to internalise any consequential frustration which is perhaps why expats need to grumble to each other or even to write books and blogs!

And Mike, thanks for your thoughts. I think you sum up the expat's predicament on returning home very nicely indeed.

Andrew Hicks

MB said...

Hi Andrew,

Can't help with sorting out the alcoholic brother-in-law, although if mine ever got sent to prison, my wife would kill me if I paid to get him out!

However, for technical communication you need this book: "The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English and Thai Dictionary". Even if you don't know the English word, you can look at the pictures in the relevant section, e.g. "Kitchen Utensils and Appliances", "Roof and Boiler Room", and find the Thai word. It cost me THB650 a few years ago and must have saved me ten times that in both money and frustration.

ISBN 974-8900-75-4

Keetla said...

Hi Thai Girl,
I have been living with my Vietnamese wife and her parents in Cu Chi, Vietnam for some time now, 35Km from HCMC (SaiGon). Most people here are farmers, most of them 'Buddhists'. My wife's family is poor.

I have similar experiences with work done by family members. They can't do exactly what you want, even without drinking. (luckily they have some control over their love for alcohol)

I think your wish to have a lawn does not fit in their perspective. Either you do it or you don't. Just don't let them touch the mower.

I am impressed by your perseverence and your ability to answer critisism.

Sorry but I got to go to work for 2 hours now.

ken klein said...

Hello - JA sent me this link - I also live in a rice farming village but in the north and my family is a pleasure. Even after 5 yrs. -

Sounds to me that your issue is quite typical. You are a white sq on a solid red checkerboard. They are ok with you. Sure they don't quite understand why you want to mow a lawn when you could be drinking with them - so, ok, you are weird.

And for you it might get a bit annoying that you will accept them but you also want them to be just a little white too. If you want to make them conscientious & responsible, well, if they could discuss English lit that might be nice too - however, neither will happen & you can bang your head agst the wall or not. Up to you.

I agree w/Stephen, it is too real to be funny - You want funny fictionalize it some & take out the despair.

Anonymous said...

Hi Andrew

Anonymous said...

I am living in thailand as an exchange student. I am 25. Literally everyone i have met is extremely nice and does not try to take advantage.I feel sorry because you have relations with the only ad family in thailand.