Where I Was When the King Died

Photographers, spectators and mourners at the Grand Palace
Photographers, spectators and mourners at the Grand Palace

I was at a newly opened chichi Italian-French restaurant called La Casa Nostra when the official announcement was made. On my way there, people on the MRT were noticeably extra-attentive to their phones. That has always been how people behave in Bangkok trains, ie, glued to their phone, but on that afternoon the air was thick with worry, anticipation and grief.

La Casa Nostra is one of those restaurants that are annoyingly dim. The lighting is so minimal that you would have to squint your eyes to read the menu, and when the food arrives you’ll have to use your phone’s backlight to see if your food is as you ordered it. The restaurant’s design calls attention to its classiness and for a brief moment, I considered roaming around as there were only a few customers. That night, though, it was impossible to think about anything other than what Twitter already knew at least 3-4 hours in advance.

The staff were wearing all black but it could have been their normal uniform. I was halfway through my meal when Richard Barrow tweeted the inevitable. I was ready to be ushered out of the restaurant and be told to go home and respect the people’s mourning. I had expected a lot of unrealistic scenarios upon the announcement. I expected most of the staff to break into tears and kindly show the customers out, but even more people came in. The photographer who was taking photos of the neatly lined wine glasses on the bar counter seemed unmoved – a true professional. Despite the room’s dimness, we saw a waitress break into tears. Customers were not asked to leave but were left alone with their meal.

The king’s death reminded me of Cory Aquino’s death. I remember the collective sadness that swept the Philippines when she died. That was before the country was divided into ‘yellows’ and ‘rainbows’ (hindi yellow), which let the observance of her burial be peaceful and free from the ugly taint of politics. But that couldn’t possibly be the same as what just happened to the people of Thailand. They have just lost a king, the only one they’ve ever known and revered in their lifetime.

As foreigners, we are expected to behave in a strictly respectful manner during this period when the country is experiencing its greatest sorrow. That means refraining from engaging in any festive activities. Smiling in public might even be frowned upon. Black shirts should probably not contain any unsavory graphic.

It’s not uncommon to see expats expressing their sympathies online, although there are those that can’t be bothered. And because people want to know things, they are probably asking themselves and others like themselves these questions: Am I supposed to demonstrate full-on commiseration or should I take it easy with the sympathies? When going to Tesco, should I wear black or should I save those for the malls and office?

The last thing an expat would want to be seen as is unsympathetic, although it must be said, failure to show an aura of being deep in sorrow won’t likely to get one in trouble as long as the line between nonchalant and disrespectful isn’t crossed. It wouldn’t be outrageous to think that some expats are feeling the need to be extra-sympathetic and may be compelled to overdo it. They are in a very safe place. At a time like this, one never knows of one is in the company of a mourner who would look down on your refusal or inability to wear black. Some might not be too concerned about what color garment you wear, but some might be too concerned.

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