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.

Thais Don’t Have ‘Nose Bleed’ When They Speak English Imperfectly

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Because why would they? Nose bleed is what happens when a person gets punched in the nose, or when the brain is too stressed beyond human capacity, so blood can’t help but ooze out. It’s what happens when you’re Carrie and teenage girls are mean to you. Nose bleed happens in other instances that have nothing to do with speaking a certain language imperfectly. Thais don’t have the jokey nose bleed the way Filipinos do when they are suddenly made aware that upon speaking to someone who speaks English beautifully, they, native Tagalog or Filipino speakers, fail to match the proficiency and the beauty of the proficient English speaker, which is such a Filipino thing to do and feel.

I have to say, though, that there is nothing wrong with feeling inadequate with one’s unspectacular English-speaking skills, which compels one to make a nose bleed joke. I’m saying this because I’m a coward who feels the need to make a disclaimer, and also because I really think there is nothing wrong with coping with a perceived deficiency. That coping mechanism happens to be cracking a nose bleed joke which I’m not sure if people are still doing. I sure heard a lot of it in my former office when certain native English-speaking (sometimes, non-native speaking) executives pay us a visit for the sole purpose of hearing us speak English beautifully. Of course, they couldn’t care less about how we speak (or maybe they do which should explain the visitations), but that joke got cracked a lot (eg, ‘I have to take Katarchina to dinner tonight. Nose bleeeeed!’ etc.).

I’ve thought about it, deeply, and realized that being good English communicators does great wonders for the country and its people. If it weren’t for our relatively stellar English proficiency, we would probably be less adaptable as a people who feel the need to grace all corners of the earth with our presence. We probably wouldn’t be one of the most human resource-exporty country in the world, which we are. More importantly, I probably wouldn’t be here in Bangkok doing what I’m doing and loving the shit out of not being in the Philippines where things can be sometimes not so great.

It’s frightening to imagine Filipinos not being such good English speakers because if we didn’t have that, we would have much less, but maybe we would have something else. All that would be left would be our world-class resiliency and singing voice. Horrific. We would just be hospitable islanders who make laughable signages that other excellent English-speaking people would ridicule us for. Since we are such great communicators, we do this to ourselves. If we weren’t the occasionally vicious grammar Nazis that we often are, we would probably find alternative ways to be cruel to each other. The nose bleed joke is therefore essential in perpetuating our strong English communication culture.

I sometimes fantasize about a Philippines that is peopled with Pinoys who would speak Tagalog at least 95% of the time, the way Thais, and presumably other Asian nations, do. I just wish we were less obnoxious about this proficiency.

But who am I kidding? I used to find hilarity in those emails passed around containing jpegs of atrociously worded signs in China or any other country that doesn’t revere English the way we do. But I have changed and my humor leans towards other brands of jokes now. I still find hilarity in playing with open and closed vowel sounds and that might never fade. I used to sing LFO’s Summertime for this very reason (‘New keeds on the black had a banch of heets, Chinese food makes me seek. And I think it’s fly when the girls stop by for the sammer, for the sammer.’).

Thais, and presumably other nationalities who don’t give much thought (ie., give zero fucks) about their English proficiency, don’t have nose bleeds of the variety that is caused by English-speaking deficiency. In place of petty nose bleeds, they have hypertension when some foreigner has the nerve to engage them in conversations that would require more than yes or no answers which, in the absence of English language knowledge, they opt to answer with a nod or a shrug. This is wise as it keeps them healthy and free of nasal blood flow.

In truth, non-native English speakers (eg., Thais) might only be slightly peeved, or some of them might actually feel like this lack of superb English communication skills poses a major barrier to achieving potential greatness. I once asked a Thai if non-excellence in English is something that can get you ridiculed in Thai society, a reason to have your Facebook post screencapped and showcased to ridiculer’s own feed to be liked because shittily-worded compositions in Facebook are hilarious. I forgot his exact words but the meat of what his answer was that Thais ridicule fellow Thais for other reasons. And even though he was just one person, I believed him even though he was attractive and probably doesn’t get ridiculed for much so embarrassment is probably not something he experiences regularly.

Some Pinoys, on the other hand, make cracks about lost apostrophes and misplaced commas. Sometimes it’s well deserved such as in instances where the grammar crime is committed by someone with heinous thoughts. Sometimes, you can’t help but be on the side of the grammar criminal. It’s strange but an understandable phenomenon. Think about it: If little notes about turning off the faucet in our public bathrooms were heinously worded, where would we be?

Why Did You Move Here?

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Is a question I should have prepared for but didn’t. I’ve always had an idea of a typical Thai as aloof to the idea of a foreigner. I’ve always thought of them as unlike most Pinoys whose hearts melt when asking foreigners about their estimation of the Philippines and upon hearing something that vaguely sounds like affection for the country, pass out from a wave of tremendous patriotic pride. I think that when a Thai asks me that, it is really just out of plain, unobtrusive curiosity. But then of course, Thais would be unlike most Pinoys in that regard because in the first place, there really is no one in the world quite like Pinoys.

There is nothing wrong with Pinoy Pride, I know it, but I’ve always been unable to relate to this raging nationalistic fervor. It’s fine, though, because I can just feel that the Philippines also doesn’t care about my lack of love for it, and maybe my indifference towards it may not be intense enough as to seriously wound the quite fragile Filipino Pride.

Maybe I never bothered to think about the answer to that because the question ought to be Why did you leave the Philippines? because that is really what I did. Maybe I would have had better responses to that question had it been phrased differently, say, ‘Why did you decide to get away from all the horrendousness brought about by a Manila existence?’ or ‘Why did you think it was smart to leave Metro Manila, shitty Metropolis?’

But Thais are not like that. They’re so great and kind and so they would only ever ask about moving and not about the leaving.

Had the questions been phrased differently, I would have had to prepare a pageanty answer because as much as I would love to point out the positives first (ie, ‘Because I simply love Thailand!’ etc.) I wouldn’t want to be perceived as a shit-talker of his own country and of shitty things, in general. Talking behind the Philippines’s back, even though it sometimes deserves it, does not feel good, knowing that not all people who migrate feel the same way as I do. Also, it would feel very silly and embarrassing if I talk ill of a country I know I would have to go back to sooner or later. If it’s any consolation I have Palawan Pride. I think Palawan makes all other beaches look like swamps.

That is maybe why I never bothered to devote an hour or so of my life to list the plentiful reasons why I decided to move to Bangkok, Thailand — because the question needs to be rephrased. But every time I get asked that, I am tempted to give the following stock answers:

1. Because there’s nothing in this world I would rather be than here.

2. Because the trains here are so great. So great that I would never shut up about their greatness, ever.

3. Because I love spicy food and it feels so great to be eating them here instead of some ‘Authentic Thai Food’ restaurant in Rockwell, Makati.

4. Because you can mall-hop abandonedly thanks to the wonderful, great trains.

5. Because I’ve read in some tourist brochure or magazine that Bangkok is a city where ‘culture meets commerce’ or something and I wanted to soak up that culture-commerce atmosphere aura.

6. Because I hate our trains and 80% of our roads.

In short, I moved here because it’s so great being here, which I know tells the interrogator nothing. Noticeably, however, hate will have a major role behind the reasons.

It’s not an easy question to answer. If I say something about ‘loving the culture’ and be asked to be specific, I wouldn’t be able to articulate the *culture love* because my idea of culture is hazy and will always involve thoughts of the DVDs being sold at Lido Theater. Great variety of DVD titles would always mean, for me, an act of culture fortification, because making available to the masses these wide variety of movies, not anymore accessible in the Philippines, could only mean that the ministry of culture, specifically the DVD-importing and printing department, cares to have its people have access to these cinematic (and musical) treasures. The DVD and CD selection in a lot of Bangkok stores are truly remarkable and, like the rest of Thai culture, so great.

But I know that that is not what makes a city so highly cultural.

In some faint way, I could say that this is a city that wouldn’t make you feel as if you’re only doing these cultural things as a duty but because there’s actually so much culture to take. And because the trains, those great, great trains, and the boats, let you hop from one place to another without feeling contemptuous of the sickness that is the modern day transportation.

You go to museums because they’re pretty, they’re very accessible, and the restrooms are gleaming works of architectural marvel. You don’t go to Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre because you feel like your Instagram needs to have its periodic culturification because in the last few days all you’ve had are pictures of your photogenic meals and you feel like the commerce-culture balance must be achieved.

I could say that I love the people, but which people exactly? I could support the *people love* claim by saying that the people who make this city so thoroughly livable deserve all the love it can get and so I am professing and freely giving my love to those people.

I could tell them that I love not being impelled to treat the whole office to lunch when it is my birthday, resignation day or baptismal day which is what sometimes happens back home. But deep down I would know that that’s not really it.

Maybe, Why did you move here is a question asked by anyone who has encountered a Pinoy anywhere in the world and it is in fact one of the most common questions ever asked. Maybe there is an idea of a Philippines, especially from those who have never been in it, that is filled with images of fun if over-crowded, party beaches and bountiful coconut trees, and smiling, charming locals, that the idea of someone moving away from all that could only mean insanity. I go to work every day not having poisonous feelings about life, ie, with a song in my heart, but when I dig deeper, I find ‘great trains’ as not being a very compelling reason for loving where I’m now living.

Next time I get asked that, maybe I’ll just say, Because the internet is fast, which I think could perfectly capture the essence of my real answer which is ‘I’m not sure’.