Here is the continuation of the story of my foolish efforts to stop our neighbour, Aunty Face, burning plastic. If you want to know the background to this story, read it here.
As I approach Aunty Face’s shop cum restaurant cum beauty salon cum shack, she is nowhere to be seen. Her niece calls her in from the riverbank where she is tending her makeshift garden of papaya and beans.
Her surprise at seeing me in her house is evident, and also written across her face is a flash of anxiety – it’s possible she thinks I’ve heard about the chocolate incident and in a bull-headed farang fashion have come to reprimand her.
Actually, I have come in a bull-headed farang attempt to control another individual’s behaviour, something you never do unless you are more powerful than them, no matter how much it impacts your life.
In my faltering, halting Thai I clumsily explain the problem with the plastic, lots of pointing, miming of fire, choking and plenty of “excuse me” and “sorrys” on my part. I see her thought pattern clearly, the offense she tries to hide at my cheek, which she quickly covers up, pretending to be acquiescing and apologizing.
I think she blames her husband. I am used to this sweet, can’t do enough for you Thai face, it conceals the other infinitely more pissed off one which this culture never permits you show.
As I leave, I feel awkwardness that I have caused her offense, anxiety about how she will deal with it, and resolve to make amends. But on balance I think it was worth the asking, versus years of inhaling burning plastic. As I cross the precarious wooden plank to the main bridge she points at her barbeque and asks if it’s ok. I don’t think she’s being sarcastic.
I don’t know it yet, but that’s the last time she will speak to me for two years. We will pass each other daily in the street and she will look straight through me and pretend I don’t exist for two straight years for the misdemeanour of asking her to stop burning plastic, until eventually one day she just miraculously starts talking to me again.
Shrimp says it’s because by offering to combine our rubbish I have tried to lord it over her and show off that I am so rich I can pay for her rubbish. This means I have made her lose face by saying she is poor, and probably dirty too.
Quite a remarkable sequence of events when viewed with western logic. But not when you understand fully (which I don’t) the concept of face in Thailand. Face affects every aspect of Thai culture and is the most important defining social concept.
Losing face is a terrible thing to happen to anyone, resulting in a loss of status, humiliation, and embarrassment. Retaliation from those who have lost face is a dangerous and in some cases lethal sight to behold. And so everybody tries to maintain the outer illusion that everything is perfect.
Nobody criticises or questions anyone else, what they do or why. Doing so might cause them offense, and if they were doing something wrong, loss of face, which could then be dangerous for everybody. This partially explains why kids in Thailand don’t ask questions.
When they are told something in school to question the teacher, or even to say they didn’t understand would infer they were saying the teacher was inferior and result in he or she losing face. The child would then be responsible and probably punished accordingly for the teacher’s loss of face.
This also explains why things that blatantly make no sense, laws that are unfair, programs that don’t work, building projects, political systems and business that are failing, all stay in place. To say anything is wrong, would infer blame on someone who would then lose face and that would be dangerous.
Better to pretend everything is always okay and working, even if it’s flagrantly not. This is one of the hardest concepts for farang to grasp in Thailand, coming as we do from a culture which exists on constant analysis and assessments, where efficiency and streamlining are the ultimate gods.
In Thailand maintaining face is the ultimate collective aim which goes a long way to explain why Thais are so unfailingly polite and the country is indeed the land of smiles. It also goes a long way to explain why Thailand can be an incredibly frustrating place to live and work for the farang desensitised to the subtle nuances of face by western culture.
And it also means that when the lid comes off this carefully maintained facade, when those long harboured slights and petty indiscretions are exposed, fireworks ensue. As the statistics showing out of all the countries in the world, this peaceful Buddhist nation is ranked first in the world for percentage of its annual deaths being by gun, and has the third highest number of gun deaths per capita in the world, behind only South Africa and Colombia, attest to. Face, in Thailand is an issue to live, and die, by.
Today there are more black bin bags piled up in the old tree trunk Aunty Face uses to burn her rubbish – so that was a successful operation then. I will have to resort to plan B, complete evacuation of the area or a bank of fans on Clear Sky as she sleeps.
It is one of the great contradictions of moving to paradise; the outdoor lifestyle, palm trees, and sun are counterbalanced by a continuous struggle for clean air, water and food.