Saturday, September 26, 2009

Same-same, but Different

If you've ever been to Thailand or Laos, you will be familiar with the phrase that is this blog post's title.  Emblazoned on t-shirts that sell for about 100 baht (roughly three bucks, American), it comes from a very common phrase used in both languages to indicate that while two things might be similar, they are in fact quite distinct.  For example:
  • the Thai and Lao languages--same-same, but different
  • rugby and American football--same-same, but different
  • Ben Stiller and Tom Cruise--same-same, but oh-so-very different
We have been in Thailand a few days shy of two months now.  One of the early themes of our experience here is how things are similar, but different from our previous life.  We very quickly decided that the differences are usually neither good nor bad, better nor worse, they are just different.

What follows is the second written series of Mali's observations of life in Thailand, taken from an e-mail and built upon the foundation that life here is, in fact, same-same, but different.

I sure miss grocery shopping in the States.  The movers packed maybe four cans of Wegmans cream soda with our HHE (household effects--the big shipment of most of our stuff that came two weeks ago).  We were so happy to drink the soda and it made me totally miss Wegmans!  In my pantry I have cans and packages from WalMart, ALDI, Wegmans, and Costco, and every time I go in there to get cream of chicken or whatever, it makes me kinda sad that I will be without many of these items for two years when I run out.  We are savoring and saving Wegmans' mac and cheese for special occasions.  We can get mac and cheese here, but it's really expensive and not always on the shelves.  So, the next time you make mac and cheese, think of the Soderborgs in Bangkok and how lucky you are to eat mac and cheese and only have to pay $0.50  per box instead of $ 1.75!  Perfect example of same-same but different, right?  Brent says that from now on we're eating mac and cheese on the good china.

They have several familiar fast food restaurants here--McDonalds, KFC, Subway, and even Pizza Hut.  They are all very definitely same-same, but different.  You can get the usual staples at each place, but then there are uniquely Thai aspects.  For example, have you ever had a McShrimp value meal?  How about fried rice instead of mashed potatoes with your Extra Crispy wing-and-thigh combo?  And spicy KFC is the rule, not the exception (we like it!).  All of these places deliver, right to your front door!  The delivery guy uses a motorcycle with one of those big thermal bags strapped to the seat.  The Thais also have this fascination with sweet corn.  You can get a vanilla ice cream sundae swirled with corn at KFC.  Burger King offers a taro-and-corn dessert pie.  Last, but certainly not least, it seems that just about every pizza in Thailand comes with corn, standard (you probably can't see it in the picture, but trust me, it's there).

Thank goodness for awesome friends who are willing to make a WalMart run for essentials like cupcake liners and crunchy chow mein noodles.  Who would've guessed that you just can't find crunchy chow mein noodles in Thailand?  My mom has offered to do trips to Costco for me, too, so I will be OK.  I just have to accept that I cannot just run to the store and get what I need or want. Waiting 2 weeks for packages will be my biggest challenge here in Bangkok!

There are some great places to shop, and some of them appear to be modeled on American stores.  Instead of WalMart or Target, the catch-all store here is Carrefour.  It's French-owned, but distinctly Thai.  They have an escalator--same-same--but without steps and designed to get shopping carts between floors--different!  Right next to Carrefour is HomePro--same orange color theme as Home Depot, but not quite the same.  Brent says his favorite item for sale at HomePro is the American Standard brand squat toilet.

Instead of Costco, we have a bulk-foods place called Makro.  Same-same, but different.  Costco has lots of meat, but do you ever have to sift through the piles of chicken pieces on a table and bag them yourself?  I didn't think so!  I will say that one advantage of living here is that a lot of the produce is much cheaper than the States--except grapes.  Grapes are disgustingly expensive.  Brent says that we'll eat grapes with mac and cheese and serve it to our most honored guests only.  On our finest china, of course.

We got our minivan from Japan on Friday.  The car finally arrived almost 1.5  months after we ordered it, and boy we are so happy to have a car.  We have been using taxis and bumming rides from different  friends from church.  They have been so understanding and gracious.  We spoke in church two weeks ago and I told them how much I dreaded arranging rides for seven people--we had to split up the family just to make it to church!

Anyway, Brent drove the van home from the embassy and I was so nervous for him--we live about 25 kilometers away (that's about 16 miles, for those of you who are allergic to the metric system).  The car is same-same (four wheels, engine, headlights) but different (steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car, the mini-van is even more mini than in the US).  But he made it home in one piece, despite the rain and Bangkok traffic.  The traffic is definitely NOT same-same, it is very different, and that's not just because they drive on the left.  Brent says that in just a couple of hours of driving he's already completely forgotten how to use turn signals, and lane markers are, to quote Captain Jack Sparrow, more like guidelines.

For any of you who might have thought that we lived in primitive surroundings, think again.  We have all the amenities of life in the United States.  We have electricity 24/7, but--you guessed it--same-same, but different.  Thailand runs on 220 volts, and we've been pleasantly surprised to find out how many of our things can safely run on 220 volts.  A couple of weeks ago I was making something and I briefly plugged my hand-mixer directly into the wall.  It worked, but because it is designed for use in the US, it got hot in a hurry.  Brent's hair clippers sound like a chainsaw, even though he runs them through a transformer when he uses them.  Because of this difference, Brent bought some red tape and wrapped it around the cord of every electrical item in the house that is built to run only on 110 volts to remind us that some things just can't be plugged directly into the outlets here.

We sure miss you all.  Every single one of you.  But we are having fun.  Swing by our neck of the jungle,  we love to play host!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Where did you pick up your tie?"

This was the question posed to me by the gentleman sitting to my right this morning on the shuttle to work.  This was an interesting question for two reasons.

A) I got on the shuttle at 5:55 a.m.  It was still dark outside, and even darker inside the van.

2) I was wearing a tie that I bought 13 years ago when Mali and I had the opportunity to attend lunch at BYU with the Lao ambassador to the United States.  It's not like it has cartoons on it or anything, it's just a nondescript necktie.

My response: "Uh, well, I've had this tie for so long I can't remember where I bought it."

Imagine the hilarity that ensued when the questioner said, "I meant where did you learn to speak Thai..."

For the record, the gentleman sitting to my left interpreted the question the same as I had.  The actual question is one that I've heard a lot in our short time here, and it always gives me a chance to talk about my mission and lay down the marker that, yes, I'm LDS/Mormon (as if the BYU lanyard or oval "Y" patch I sewed onto the flap of my messenger bag weren't clue enough).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

That was NOT a Gecko

Living in Thailand causes one to accept a fact of life - critters will get into your house, whether you like it or not.  Case in point: earlier tonight I just about squished a gecko while turning on the light to the dining room.

Second case in point: a couple of weeks ago we had friends visiting us from Hong Kong, and after putting the kids to bed we were sitting in our front room chatting about this that and the other when our friend said, "Hey, is that a gecko over there?"  He was pointing into the living room.  I got up and went "over there" to check it out.  (UPDATE: check here to see our friend's version of the story.  He tells it with the unvarnished truth, whereas I try and make myself out to be the on.)

Imagine my surprise to see a spider with a legspan of at least three inches, possibly even four.  Imagine also the sound emitted upon seeing this monstrous arachnid scuttling about my home:

Actually, I'm not sure that was a spider.  I think a spider mated with a king crab and the offspring of that affair is what found its way into our living room.  And I have I ever mentioned that I am terrified of spiders?  Mali usually has spider-killing duty, but as soon as I said, "Oh my gosh, that's a spider!" she jumped up onto the coffee table and screamed.  The jury is still out over who had the more feminine scream, but I'm pretty sure it was mine.

None of the four adults were anxious to take on this spider, because not only was it big, it was frighteningly fast.  Upon my approach it scrambled underneath the end table where it must have known it could not be batted with a rolled up newspaper, flyswatter, or shoe.  I was watching it with a flashlight, hoping and praying that it didn't decide to take the initiative and attack, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a angel.  An angel in the form of a gecko.

Now you can see that this gecko wasn't much bigger than the spider.  Still, my money was on the gecko.  When the spider decided to make a move, the gecko moved, too, but I think our less-than-subtle response to the movement spooked the gecko.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  Ultimately the gecko, I think, did not appreciate the audience.  I want to believe that had we turned off the flashlight the gecko would have gone on to take care of the eight-legged intruder, but there was no way I was going to take my eyes off that beast.  The spider, not the gecko.

In the end it took two full-grown men to corner the spider and whack the snot out of it with a flyswatter.  It took several swats to finish the job, and even after that Mali had me pick the carcass up with a paper towel and deposit it in the trash outside, just to be absolutely certain.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Run Forrest, run!

Faithful readers of the Soderblogger, if you do not already know it, I like to run. Running is the yin to the yang of my unabashed admiration for hamburgers. They do not exist independent of one another. I run so that I can enjoy eating a good hamburger. A good hamburger is fantastic fuel for a long run. I experimented with this in Virginia and found that a delicious Five Guys burger two to three hours before a 8-11 mile run was fine, as long as I didn't overdo it on the french fries.

I also believe that the personal enjoyment I derive from running is karmic payback for all those times growing up when my father and I would see someone out running and we would say, voices dripping with sarcasm, "Look at that person out having fun." Most people do NOT look like they are really having a good time when they are running, and I might well be one of them, but I do know that I get a lot of satisfaction from running. Plus it's my "alone time" and when I think big thoughts. You know, thoughts like, "Should I grow my hair out or buzz it all off again."

Anyway, last Monday I decided for the first time since arriving in Thailand that I would venture outside the comfortable and predictable confines of our sheltered planned expatriate community. The risk in this plan is twofold. First is the quality of sidewalks in Bangkok and its surrounding environs, if there is a sidewalk at all. A lot of the walkways are made out of bricks, and the bricks aren't laid in any cement or mortar, so they aren't the most level and/or stable things. I think this is actually some sort of jobs program to keep people gainfully employed, because as soon as they finished the sidewalk in our neighborhood they went down to the other end of the street and started pulling up bricks to "fix" the sidewalk down there. You really have to watch where you step, and it ain't just because of "gifts" left by neighborhood pooches.

Speaking of canines, the second risk is the soi dogs. A “soi” is basically a side street. Soi dogs are basically strays, wild dogs, scavengers, whatever you want to call them, and some of them are rabid, scrawny, and mangy—I mean they really have mange, they aren’t just ugly and ratty looking, they are seriously in bad shape. These downtrodden mongrels like to harass runners. No problems with people walking, nor with bicycles, motorcycles, or motor vehicles. But anyone running magically appears appetizing to these mutts, and when a runner comes trotting by a lot of them quickly give chase.

By the way, as pathetic as some of them are, these dogs are a fantastic examples of Darwinian survival; the dumb ones get run over by cars. I was amazed to see some of them sleeping like cats on top of those concrete jersey barricades. One of these days I'll actually get a picture of it.

So last Monday I decided that I had had quite enough of running multiple loops around the lake here that nobody can swim, boat, or fish in. It is a nice lake to walk around, but it’s only about a mile in circumference. Running loops around the same route drives me nuts. In the ranked terms, running for me goes something like this:

  1. Running outside on meandering routes
  2. Running outside, making one circuit and then running that circuit in reverse
  3. Running down a dream
  4. Running on empty
  5. Running with scissors
  6. Running around a track (although I will grudgingly concede there are benefits to speed training at a track)
  7. Running fingernails down a chalkboard
  8. Running man
  9. Running barefoot on broken glass
  10. Running on a treadmill

But I digress. I headed out the back gate and I felt perfectly comfortable trotting through that neighborhood. Granted, a farang (generic Thai word for Westerners) running around is guaranteed to draw some very curious looks in most of Thailand, but this area is pretty nice and has very few dogs, which was quite lovely. I was only in that neighborhood for about a mile or so before I hit the main drag to loop around and come back into our area through the front gate.

The problem is that the street from which one turns to hit the front entrance is a very busy street. And by busy I’m not just referring to vehicular traffic, although the number of cars, motorcycles, and trucks is significant. There are tons of shops, with seemingly a million signs. Given that I have only approached the front gate from that route maybe three times in the month we’ve been here, it was only natural that I would run right past the sign that indicates the turn into our area.

Up until this point most of the dogs I had seen were laying in the shade, and the few that even bothered to crack open and eye and see what the commotion was had a look that seemed to say, "Are you kidding me? It's like 95 degrees and 90 percent humidity, crazy American!" Being dogs, however, it sounded more like a half-hearted "woof."

Naturally it wasn't until I passed the turn to get back into our area that the only soi dog in all of Nonthaburi with any ambition decided to get some exercise and run after me. And this wasn't the garden-variety soi dog, this was the kind of dog I never thought I'd see on the streets in Thailand. This was a big dog and it had long, curly, dingy white hair. The dingy part I expected, but the long, curly part, that threw me for a loop--that has to be really hot. Anyway, as soon as it started running after me I slowed to a walk, and that pretty much killed the dog's desire to give chase.

About a mile beyond the turnoff for our place I decided it was probably time to turn around and find the correct entrance.It meant that I had to run past that same shaggy beast, but by that time we had reached a detente and it barely even gave me a second look. I did manage to make the correct turn, and I was relieved to get back into our own neighborhood. The detour wasn’t really a big deal, to be honest, because I got my first run over 40 minutes since we arrived in Thailand, and that felt great.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Excuse me, my wife is NOT Chinese

We've only been here for a month, and I already need two hands to count the number of times Thais have expressed their surprise that Mali is, in fact, not Chinese. I'm thinking of having a t-shirt made for her that says:

ขอโทษค่ะ ดิฉันไม่ใช่คนจีนค่ะ
[Translation: Excuse me, I am not Chinese]

This isn't the first time this has happened. Waaaaaaaaaaaay back in 1996, when Mali and I were newlyweds, we attended the Lao-Thai branch in Murray, Utah (the branch actually met in the building that I grew up going to, but that's another story for another time). My home teaching* companion was a retired Thai police officer who had moved to Utah so his children could attend American universities and interact with more members of the LDS Church. Anyway, one day as we were driving to a home teaching appointment, he said to me, totally out of the blue, "Your wife is Chinese, right?"
*Note for non-Mormons: "home teaching" is a program within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints where men in the church are paired up and asked to regularly visit the members of their congregation.

"No, she's Lao," I assured him.

"Right, she was born in Laos, but her parents, or her grandparents, they came from China, right?"

I responded in my horribly mangled half-Lao/half-Thai. "No, Mali is one-hundred percent pure Lao, through and through, right down to the pa dek (fermented fish sauce--it's a Lao thing) running through her veins."

To this day I don't think he was convinced. The fact remains, however, that Mali is, as best we can tell, 100% pure Lao. Her parents have provided me with all the genealogy they have in a written form, some of it going back as far as five generations, and all of those ancestors hail from what is today geographically, ethnically, linguistically, and any other "callys" you can think of, Lao.

If you have read this far, then you are probably wondering why it would be such a big deal, and I'll boil it down to one word.


A couple of weeks ago Mali went to the open air market near our house with our neighbors. Our neighbors told us that their fourteen year-old daughter always gets better deals on the fresh produce than they get themselves, despite the fact that she speaks no Thai. In fact, she doesn't say anything when she goes to the market. It's probably at this point that I should mention that this girl is one-quarter Japanese, and you can tell that she has Asian genes. She looks easily as Asian than her mother, who is half-Japanese. The Thais absolutely adore the mixed-race look, so this works to her advantage.

Okay, so Mali goes to the market to watch our neighbor's daughter in action, and sure enough, she gets five mangoes for 100 baht. Okay, pretty simple. Mali steps up a few minutes later, and chats with the seller in Lao, there are some questions about Mali's origins ("Uh, are you Chinese?"), and then she sells Mali THREE mangoes for 100 baht.

Okay, maybe it boils down to two words.

Mangoes and bicycles.

One Saturday Mali went out to look for a bicycle for both her and the maid to use for errands that are just out of comfortable walking distance range (for them this means anything more than a five minute walk--I have a really skewed concept of what constitutes a "comfortable walking distance" so I should probably just be quiet about this). So she went to the local bike shop where some other people in our neighborhood said they sold decent bikes for really good prices. Again, the question is asked ("Uh, are you Chinese?") and after the vendor establishes that Mali is from the United States via Laos, the price of the bikes amazingly went higher.

Now let me be very clear: I am not accusing the Thais of being racist. I prefer to think of it as Thai business savvy. Because the price of just about everything is negotiable, you really can't blame them for trying to get the most money possible for their goods. And you have to understand that throughout Southeast Asia in general and Thailand in particular, the Chinese have a reputation for being, well... rich. Most Thais are very aware of who among them is of Chinese descent, and the corporate boards of most--if not all--large, successful Thai businesses are replete with Sino-Thais (as well as former generals and retired politicians).

Essentially, in my mind, it boils down to this: the Thais are looking to maximize their profits. That is entirely rational economic behavior (at least I think it is--it's been over 10 years since I took Econ 110), and in Mali they see a potential Chinese customer. While one might initially suspect her Lao identity might actually score her the local's discount, the fact that she's from America tends to actually hurt her even more, and right where it counts, too--the pocketbook.

The moral of the story? Let the maid do the food shopping. Now all we have to do is get her a bicycle.