Before I left Melbourne to go and live in Thailand I had a little digital camera. It was a Casio Exilim and I loved it because it fitted in my pocket and I took it everywhere with me. Despite the primitive technology back in those days, it took a remarkably good picture (I think it had a massive 1.5 megapixel lens) and so after I arrived in Thailand I took many pictures with it, documenting my new life.
When I was teaching at a Christian school in Phuket, I attended my first ‘Sport Day’, and I used my camera to record all the associated events that took place.
The name ‘Sport Day’, I soon learned, was totally incorrect and misleading, due to the Thai attitude of refusing to use plurals when using English. Not only was there more than one sport, it was spread over three days (with no classes, of course) and so there was plenty to see and ultimately be forced to sit through.
During one of these days of sports I was happily taking photographs of something that was happening when one of my Thai colleagues, a female English teacher from my office, commented on my camera. I think she said something about it being small or something and when I replied to her I made a big mistake, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I told her that it was indeed a very small camera and that it took very good photographs but there was a newer model out, one that had an optical zoom lens and the entire rear of the camera was a display screen. “When will you buy it?” she asked. I laughed and told her that I had no plans to buy one in the immediate future (or words to that effect) but that I would like to buy the new model one day. “What will you do with that one?” she asked me. I told her that I hadn’t thought about that, but I would hopefully trade it in, if I could. She did not speak about the camera for the rest of the day.
The next day, however, she asked me in the office if I had managed to buy my new camera yet. I naturally thought she was joking and naturally I discovered that I was wrong (Thais rarely joke about purchases or money) and so I told her again that I was only thinking about buying the new camera. She then asked me if I would give her my old camera when I bought my new camera. I laughed again because I thought she was joking (I hadn’t learnt about Thais and money yet) and I said, “Maybe.” That was another big mistake.
The next day she asked me again if I had bought my new camera. I remember looking at her and searching for any sign that she was pulling my leg but there was nothing. When it dawned on me that she was serious I felt quite shocked and explained once again that I was only thinking about buying the new model. “You won’t give me the camera?” she asked. My goodness, I thought, she really believes that I’m just going to hand this camera over to her! I looked at her and thought, “What do I have to do to make her understand?” I told her that sorry, no, I would not be giving my camera to her right then. She looked totally crestfallen and left the office.
I sat down feeling shocked, wondering how she could have possibly assumed that I would be giving my camera to her for free and what I had said to make her think that. I went back over our conversations at the ‘Sport Day’ but I couldn’t remember saying anything similar to “I will give you my camera.” I was ‘dazed and confused’ but at least she had got the message before she left the office, which was one good thing.
The next day she again asked me if I had bought my new camera. I didn’t lose my temper but I remember having to calm myself down and telling her, explaining to her, slowly, clearly, that I was not buying a new camera. I was thinking about buying a new camera. She looked at me during this explanation with a completely blank face and I remember thinking, “If you ask me to give my camera to you now, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Thankfully she said nothing and left the office again.
I was working with a terrific, young Scottish teacher at that time and it was such a relief to be able to turn around and speak to him about this ridiculous situation that I found myself in. He had been in Thailand for about the same length of time as me at that stage but he seemed to have a better handle on things. “Oh, they all think we’re filthy rich”, he said. I later learnt that this is totally correct and it’s based on the fact that farang (foreigners) all earn more money than Thai people do and that we all come from first world, wealthy countries. Never mind that we are working for a fraction of the amount that we would be earning in our home countries, that we ride a motor scooter instead of driving a car, that we live in one-room apartments and not condos or villas and that we eat our lunch at the school cafeteria instead of paying 10 baht extra for a meal across the road. We are all stinking rich simply because we are not Thai. Americans, the English, Australians, South Africans, Swedes, all of us are loaded and even though we have one pair of good shoes that we wear to school every day, we do so even though we have hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank.
When the Thai teacher asked me if I could just hand over my camera to her, she was being serious. When I told her that I was thinking about buying the new model Casio Exilim, she believed I was going into town that day and buying it. She expected me to give her my old camera and she probably told everyone she knew about it, too.
During my time in Thailand this concept of every single foreigner being ridiculously rich despite their appearance, job and living conditions came up again and again, to the point where it became totally annoying. Being constantly asked if I was going to visit my family in Australia during the semester break even though the person asking would have no possible idea how much the return airfare from Bangkok to Melbourne was, for example. It’s something that I just had to accept (along with hundreds of others) as being part of Thai culture – that no matter what I did or said, I was rich whether I liked it or not.