Close

A slap in the face for hopes of an egalitarian society

Waiter's apology to his high-ranking attacker underscores the Thai principle of knowing your place.

My heart goes out to Anusawn Chirapongse, the high-ranking government official who inflicted grievous bodily harm on a Greyhound Cafe waiter. "Grievous bodily harm" may be a little over the top. After summoning the waiter, Mr Anusawn slapped him after he gave a deferential wai, bent down and said: "Yes, Pa?"

"Don't call me that!" Mr Anusawn snapped back.

Anger is a short madness, and we are all guilty of it. Only this week I, too, snapped at Khun Noi, the maid, after the internet connection at my school dropped out, right at a critical moment during a League of Legends stand-off, causing me to lose the game.

Khun Noi had "refaced" the internet, as she does from time to time, but normally she announces the fact beforehand so that we can take precautionary steps. Only this time she didn't. How I wanted to reface Khun Noi. I would have if she had been standing a little closer.

(And I have taught her already that, in English we "reset" the internet, but she seems to have forgotten that. My maid is constantly picking up new English words, and for that I am impressed, though her pronunciation can be a little off. This is the same woman who, just prior to refacing, told me a student needed to "pot-porn" her class. Well, at least she didn't "can-cern".)

So letting off steam to me is not a capital offence. But there is a curious aspect to this story that should interest non-Thais, for we must examine that terrible word the waiter uttered to his customer. Just what did it mean?

I have had staff call me Pa for more than two decades. Before this incident I never thought to ask anybody what it meant, for I naturally assumed it was an abbreviation of "Papa" or father, which is in the Thai language as well. Surely Pa, while denoting a person of older age, also displayed a level of intimacy or familiarity that was not undesirable.

I admit that when staff started calling me this 20 years ago, I was a little perturbed about the age part. Was I truly old enough to be called a father by staff members not five or 10 years younger than myself? That self-delusion has long since dissipated. Now I find it kind of nice that my staff can call me Pa without it being dependent on an end-of-year bonus.

So what on earth is this government official doing slapping a waiter who would call him this?

We foreigners know khun as a way of addressing another person in Thai, but the terrible truth is there are dozens of other words that can be used in its place. Knowing how and when to use them in the right settings and scenarios is an art that takes great time and practice. Not knowing how to use them properly can earn you a slap.

From my experience there are the Big Three ways of addressing an older person in Thai, all of which take into account a certain degree of familiarity.

The first one is sia (pronounced like "seer"), a Chinese word that refers to an older man with power and wealth. This can have both positive and negative connotations. The meaning can also extend to a wealthy man who keeps young girls as mistresses, or a sugar daddy, though not in every situation.

The second is hia (pronounced like "here") and it is of Chinese origin as well. It means "older brother" or phi chai in Thai. This extends to a boss and is considered polite and OK to use. The problem for non-native Thai speakers is that hia, when pronounced using the wrong tone, becomes an insulting Thai term that would not so much earn you a slap as it would a bullet to the temple. Such is the complexity of the language; you intend to politely call the attention of that older man and you end up calling him a dirty lizard.

And finally there is Pa. This is the least offensive of the three, used for an older man who is generous or friendly. It even extends to a fashionable older man and yes, it does come from "Papa". Here in Thailand children refer to their fathers using this word.

Does it have a negative connotation? A news agency unfairly reported that the waiter had referred to the official as a "sugar daddy". That is stretching the bounds of accuracy. Yes, Pa can mean a sugar daddy but it is not its primary definition, and certainly not in a restaurant. A waiter who comes over and calls you Pa is not expecting you to put him up in a Phra Khanong apartment and send him to hairdressing school.

So what was the problem over at Greyhound Cafe? The official, who apparently knows the waiter, was possibly unhappy with the familiarity of the moniker. Khun Anusawn is a member of the 200-strong National Reform Steering Assembly, set up in October 2015, which oversees the formulation of new laws during this crossover period. The NRSA was the body that last year announced it was pushing the death penalty for officials convicted of corruption (but not restaurant assault, clearly). More recently it has promoted a bill regulating the media, or "gagging" it as the media claims it to be.

Being a member of such an esteemed body requires others to treat you with respect and, if you are of the lower classes, extreme deference. A waiter calling you Pa is not displaying enough humble submission … and thus deserves a slap.

Is this true in this case?

Mr Anusawn was quoted as saying he would have preferred to be called pee (big brother) or loong (uncle) -- titles used for men much younger than a Pa. A little over a month ago, Mr Anusawn celebrated his 60th birthday. This might not be a case of familiarity breeding contempt; it may be about a man coming to terms with his mortality.

As I write this column, an NRSA ethics committee is meeting to discuss this incident. The deputy speaker of the NRSA issued this statement: "Society does not need to worry; an offender, no matter what his standing may be, must face the justice system." Feel free to press the canned laughter button at your leisure, dear reader.

This incident is a storm in a teacup, but it does give us a glimpse into the machinations of Thai society, where deference is golden. Like I said, I understand where Mr Anusawn stands. He is not a bad person. Perhaps he just had a difficult day. But we are responsible for our actions, and when one slaps, one must pay the consequences.

Well, sort of. The waiter did file charges and our official was charged with assault. But it was reported in the Bangkok Post that the waiter later realised Mr Anusawn did not have bad intentions.

"I would like to apologise to him if I addressed him impolitely," the waiter said.

And that is where we must leave this little storm, with a bruised waiter apologising to his attacker. In Thailand one must know not just how to control one's temper; one must also know one's place.

RECOMMENDED STORIES

Back to top