Living in Bangkok is such a dichotomous existence. On one hand, your street smarts, social acumen, and moral judgement get tested and honed to such a razor’s edge that any existence you had back home seems soft and closeted in comparison. But on the other hand, parts of your life become black holes as certain skills get pushed so far into the background that you wake up one day and realize that you don’t know how to do simple tasks anymore. I was thinking of this the other day as I sat in the back of a taxi when the realization hit me: “I have no idea where I am.”
I’ll use this as an example, but let me back up a bit. I like to think I know Bangkok pretty well, and can ferry myself around the city with a goodly amount of accuracy – but only by using public transport and taxis. When it comes to actually driving somewhere or navigating the highways and tollways, I’m useless, because I don’t have a car. So when I was sitting in the taxi the other night and realized that the driver had either taken a new way or was fleecing me for some extra baht, I was pretty helpless. I knew roughly where I was, of course, but as for giving precise road directions to my destination – not a clue. As it was, I just reaffirmed with him where I was going, he said, “Yes, yes, that’s where we’re going,” and I resigned myself to just paying whatever the meter was. What else was I going to do?
This is a perfect example of the helplessness you can sometimes find yourself in in Bangkok – I was totally at his mercy. I can ride the motorcycles, boats, trains and buses like a star, but when it comes to actually navigating the big-boy roads, I’m a stranger in a strange land.
Another area where this feeling comes up is dealing with paperwork. My embarrassment at my crappy level of spoken Thai is well-documented, but I don’t feel so bad about my sad reading/writing skills, as only the most learned of students ever get fluent. Naturally, dealing with Thai-language paperwork renders you completely helpless. I won’t go into details – mainly because they’re too numerous to pick only one – but it really is a humbling experience when you’re following someone around like a lost puppy while they do all the work, speaking only when spoken to and signing on dotted lines when you’re told to.
There are plenty of other areas where you find yourself utilizing elaborate sign language and half-Thai: telling your maid where to clean (how do you say ‘door jamb’ in Thai?), explaining the details of your international transactions to a bank clerk, walking into a hardware store and trying to find the missing screw off of that one thing that’s probably holding your refrigerator together…and more. Granted, many of these places have staff who speak enough English that you can get it done eventually, but often the results are…mixed.
Of course, I don’t expect everyone to speak English – this is Thailand and I should speak Thai, and if I’m in a difficult situation where I can’t communicate properly, that’s my own damn fault. But still…there’s nothing like one of these stories to remind you how lost you can sometimes be outside your comfort zone.