In one of my classes I asked the students a series of questions and had them write down their answers. One of the questions was, “please tell me three things that you did this morning before you came to school.” I really leaned on the “did,” and the, “came (to school).” I was looking for answers in the past tense. One answer in particular made me laugh so hard that I almost swallowed my gum.
It was a good answer, given in the simple past. That put him leagues ahead of most of them, but I thought that he included a word that he did not adequately understand. “This morning,” he wrote, “I got up, ate breakfast, suddenly I read a book, next time, I went to school.” I read this sentence as an example to my M.6 classes (high school seniors). I jumped dramatically into the “suddenly!” part with a look of panic on my face. “Be careful with your new words,” I told them, “you cannot suddenly read a book.” An elephant can suddenly crash into your house, but you cannot suddenly read a book.
The whole thing got me thinking though. Thailand can be a funny place that way, many things come at you from odd angles, suddenly, when you don’t expect anything of the kind. One night my friend and I were about to eat our dinner, ready-to-eat stuff from the local night market, when the phone rang. It was actually a little late for a Thai dinner hour. On the phone was my friend’s niece, who I’m told has a very good job in Vientiane, the capitol of nearby Lao. (These days, in case you haven’t heard, calling the place “Laos” marks you as a running dog of the cultural imperialists.) A good job, I thought, in Lao? If it were true she would probably have the only good job for a South East Asian girl in the whole city. Vientiane makes due with about forty-five old Peugeots and a couple of hundred ancient motorcycles; they’re still satisfied using the buildings that the French built long ago.
“I want to take you to a restaurant!” she enthused, “Ban Fai restaurant!” That’s one of the best restaurants in town, pretty expensive, I’d have to guess. I really don’t know because although I have eaten there many times I have never paid, never even seen a bill, or a menu for that matter. For most of my time here I was a Peace Corps volunteer and no one had the nerve to ask me to chip in for anything. I’m happy to go, I thought, but it’s awfully short notice. Maybe she’s in town for a short visit and “suddenly” remembered that she’d like to see her aunt. We said great and she said, “I’ll pick you up.”
Five minutes later she was in our driveway honking her horn. At the restaurant we were met by a management woman who seemed very glad to see us. She ushered us to one of the large, private Karaoke rooms, where we were greeted by my friend’s entire family: three younger sisters, a couple of husbands, some adult children with friends in tow, and me, the Farang friend. I am a long time friend of the entire family; I am officially “uncle” Fred. I was very glad that I was kind of dressed up because everyone else was kind of dressed up, but then again I like to be kind of dressed up even to go outside to get the paper in the morning, so I cannot chalk it up to foresight.
Thais have a certain disinclination to plan ahead and many things go from conception to execution with great speed. So maybe the kid did suddenly read a book, as in, “I was about to have a simple dinner at home when suddenly! I was invited to a fancy dinner party at an upscale restaurant.”
The dinner was delicious and we all had a great time. I increased my streak of eating at Ban Fai without paying. I sang a few songs that I really hate, songs that Thais for some reason love, songs which often are the only songs in English on the Karaoke machine, songs like “Sealed With a Kiss,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and of course, the dreaded, “Country Road.” I no longer gag when I sing these songs; I put my heart into them in spite of myself. Then it was time to go home and salvage what was left of a good night’s sleep. “Suddenly! my alarm went off.”