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Fifth graders across Asia can do math that I didn’t see during my BA. Yet when they need to calculate a 10% discount, they reach for the calculator.
I have spent the last month exploring this, and many other mysteries that you face when you are living in Asia.
A Thai friend named Kem Dang offered to help me understand Thai culture better by explaining how Thai people thought. She knew I often got frustrated with things taking longer or needing more steps to get half the job done. So she wanted to help me get over the hump.
The hump, I discovered, was a grave marker which read, “Here lays the man who tried to rush Asia.”
She was talking about Thailand, but much of what she said could be related to Asia in general. The whole interview will be published in book form next year. But here is a piece I think anyone who has ever worked and lived in Asia will appreciate.
After five days of me dutifully recording and typing up her thoughts on the Thai mindset, she asked me, “Do you have any specific questions, something you encountered in your life in Thailand”
“Yes, why can’t they make change?” I asked. “And it’s not sometimes. It’s every time. At the internet shop it costs 30 Baht per hour. I do three hours, and the employee needs calculator, and a computer, and needs to call three friends. I get so frustrated. I start shouting, “It’s 90 baht. It’s 90 baht. Three times thirty is ninety. It’s 90 Baht.”
“You know what’s ironic? The only subject in Thai school which is better than American primary school is math. They do higher level math in junior high school than what I had in college, but they can’t make change.”
“To them, math is just a school subject. In their mind, you cannot apply it to real life,” Explained Kem Dang.
“Even English class is like this,” I pointed out. “They can get perfect marks in school and have a large vocabulary, but not be able to communicate or use the English language in any meaningful way.”
Once again, Kem Dang’s answer was simple. “In school, they just make a mark and get a grade. And that’s it. They don’t think about applying school subjects to something outside of the classroom.”
I had been in Thai classrooms. In fact, it was during the one semester I spent teaching in Bangkok that my next anecdote came from.
When I was teaching in Bangkok, I asked my students how many kilometers from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. They didn’t know,” I said. “It was a room full of twenty-five college students. And they didn’t know how far from the capital to the second largest city. The distance is 696 kilometers. If they had said, 650 or 700 I would have been fine with that. But not knowing at all really bothered me. If I was asking the distance from New York to Chicago and they didn’t know, I would say, OK, it’s not relevant to their lives. But to not know in your own country is quite sad. Anyway, after I told them it was 696 kilometers, I asked them how many meters was that. They understood the question but it took a group consensus, and about twenty minutes of tedious calculations for them to come up with the wrong answer.
“In America, we don’t even use the metric system, and yet in second and fourth grade we were taught to convert kilometers to meters. You don’t actually have to do any math, you just move the decimal. But they couldn’t do that.”
Kem has two hill tribe girls living in her home, whom has guardianship over and whom she struggles to educate. She has seen the inside of the Thai school system, first as a child, when she was a student, and again later, through the eyes of her adopted daughters.
“My oldest girl learns a lot of science and math in school. She comes home, and we talk around the table, but she has no idea about that. But at school, she is the one with the highest scores. It’s about application. School subjects are not real to them. She doesn’t think it’s real. She cannot connect what she learns in school with her daily life. When she comes home, I have to teach her starting from the beginning, not from high school level. I have to start all the way from the beginning.”
“She will say, ‘I don’t understand. I don’t remember.’ It is about critical thinking and about connecting the past and the future. Her thinking is only about now.”
“The employee who can’t make change for you, he makes change a hundred times a day. Tomorrow, he will have problems again. Because after they make change, they forget about it. They only know what is in front of them right now.”
“When you are done with this person’s change it becomes the past. When the next person needs change, this is the future. So you do what you know how to do, call friends to help you,” Kem Dang finished.
I had ten years of Asian anecdotes to finally unburden on someone who could help me unravel the psychotic, dream-like twilight which my life in Asia often is. Eight years ago, before I knew Thai language and culture, I went in a restaurant and the waiter brought me an English menu. I pointed at the menu items and said, “I want this one and that one.” He took my order and disappeared into the kitchen. I waited and twenty minutes later, my food still hadn’t come. I got angry and started shouting. Eventually the manager came and asked, “What would you like to eat?”
I said, “I want the food I ordered thirty minuets ago.”
After a long back and forth, and dancing around the truth, finally the manger said, “That waiter doesn’t speak English.”
I learned from that experience. The next time I went to a restaurant I chose a menu which had both Thai and English. I read the English, to find what I wanted and I pointed at the Thai to show the waiter. That method worked for a while. Then one day, I hit the same wall, where my food didn’t come, although I had used the Thai writing to order it. I got angry, like before. And eventually, the manager turned up. We danced around, back and forth, with him pretending he didn’t know that I had ordered, or that he was even running a restaurant. His first excuse was that the waiter didn’t speak English. I said, “Yes, but I pointed at the Thai writing on the page”. After more dancing and indirect conversation, he finally said, “That waiter cannot read Thai.”
In both instances, the waiter didn’t tell me that he couldn’t speak English or read Thai. But the second part of the problem is, why was he working in a restaurant that catered to 80% foreign customers?
“They don’t see that as a problem,” explained Kem Dang. “If you are a foreigner, you see that this is a problem. If you were the foreign boss, you would lecture the worker afterwards. But the Thai boss doesn’t see it.”
“How do they not see it?” I asked. “It is so obvious.”
I went on to tell her, “I have had similar situations where the boss, eventually, apologized for the waiter’s lack of knowledge or called the waiter ‘stupid’. In those cases, the boss went and got my food personally. And everything seemed to be taken care of. But when I went back the next day, the same waiter was working, waiting on foreigners and getting orders wrong.”
“They cannot recognize that this is the problem,” said Kem Dang. “The boss may see that the boy had a problem with you. But then you walk out, he can’t predict that the boy will have a problem with the next person.”
Another problem I see a lot is: I am a native speaker of English. I speak English very well. I also speak Thai. And I know how to speak English in such a fashion that Thai people understand me and I know how to interpret the English spoken by Thais.
And yet, I still have these problems. But at least half of the foreign tourists in Thailand are not English native speakers. I see old French and German guys with terrible school English or Arabs or Russians trying to communicate in their horrendous English with Thais in their terrible English. I can’t imagine how much money must be lost every day simply because the workers don’t understand the customers.
I have to use internet cafes a lot when I am traveling, to write and send my articles. Sometimes I am in the shop for six hours at a stretch. And I watch foreigners come in and ask for various services: Can you print? Can I download photos? Or whatever it is, and frequently I see the staff say, “No, sorry. We don’t have that service. But actually they do. They simply didn’t understand. So the customer walks out the door and goes to the next shop and the next, until someone understands him.
Internet costs 20-30 baht per hour. But printing is 5 baht per page. You need to sell a lot of hours of internet to make up for turning away one print customer. Photo downloads can be 10 bah. And transferring data and burning a new disk is two hundred baht. This is huge money they are losing simply because the staff can’t figure out what’s going on.
“How does the boss not see it?” I finally had to ask.
Kem Dang’s explanation seemed a little scary, but accurate. “The boss doesn’t see it because the boss has Thai understanding. He only sees one problem with you, but doesn’t realize it is the same problem with other customers. One day, maybe he will go bankrupt because there isn’t enough money coming in, but he still won’t make the connection.”
Often, I find that the boss is smart, and if I deal with him directly, everything gets done. But if he isn’t in, nothing gets done. Nothing works. The staff don’t know anything. And part of the culture seems to be that the boss is too important and doesn’t actually work in the shop.
She confirmed my suspicions, and went on to shed more light on the condition. “They don’t learn from the past. Each day is a new experience. The boss is too high to work in the shop, so he doesn’t know this problem exists. Printing is five baht. He thinks he lost five baht. He cannot predict the future and know that he lost money in the future or that they will tell their friends not to go there.”
One day, I was sitting in the internet shop and I made a mark on a piece of paper, every time they turned away a customer asking for a service which they actually offered. This was about seven years ago, when flash drives weren’t widely known or maybe they didn’t exist yet. So it was really common that people with digital cameras would want to come in and burn the photos onto a disk to empty their camera. The fee at that time was about 200 baht. And of course every shop had that capability. In fact the shop where I did my internet work would do that for me, as well for the photos I used for my stories. They turned away 5 people while I was sitting there. That is 1,000 Baht. Maybe that was more money than they made from a whole day of every person using the internet.
“Yes,” agreed Kem Dang, “if they loose five customers today, what about tomorrow and a week or a month.”
She went on to say, “But you have to do math to know that. That same symptom as your internet shop exists in travel agencies, restaurants, and in every other aspect of Thai life. They don’t understand the math.”
And now we were back to where we started. Math is the only subject in Thai school which is better than in an American school. But in Kem Dang’s own words, they don’t understand math.