My daughter turned eleven this month. We had a special barbecue dinner with my sister’s family. But we could not eat the cake because we forgot the candles! We ate some of it two days later.
The Thai letters on the cake mean “Happy Birthday”.
It wasn’t easy finding out about Ui’s upcoming birthday. The language barrier between us makes it hard to communicate even basic information and it took a few tries of her repeating her age and the date for me to understand. But once I’d finally gotten things figured out — and confirmed she had no plans — I invited her out for dinner on her special day.
Though the last time I was involved with a Thai woman’s birthday had not quite worked out, I was confident that this time around — with me in charge — things would go smoothly. Given Ui’s occupation as a streetwalker, it seemed to me she might appreciate going out on an honest-to-goodness date. It would be a charming, romantic dinner followed by red wine and a DVD movie back at my apartment. At least that was the plan.
We met in front of one of the ubiquitous 7Elevens that dot Soi 4 and began walking up the street until we came to one of the fancier restaurants. One with pleasant music and outdoor seating underneath colorful (though slightly grimy) illuminated globes. The kind of place where one can find middle-aged Western men anxiously talking to their bored-looking Thai dates, the women surreptitiously glancing at their smartphones. Studying the worn menu book out front (Thai cuisine of course), Ui signaled her approval and we got a table.
We decided to order three simple dishes to share between us. Waiting for the food to arrive, I presented my dinner companion with a dark green birthday card that seemed to surprise her — perhaps Thais are not into the Hallmark scene. I also attempted to brighten the mood by taking a few pictures. These didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. Ui is not a bad looking woman for her age, but I was not able to capture that and after showing her my amateur results, she requested I stop shooting.
It was an awkward meal, further hampered by our inability to converse to any degree. While this did not seem to upset the birthday girl — Ui isn’t complaining type — neither was she bubbling over with happiness. Nor did the evening improve once we went to my apartment where I quickly poured her a glass of the red wine. After only a couple of swallows, she didn’t want any more and after sampling it I understood why: the opened bottle had been in my fridge for too long and had turned sour.
As a final attempt to salvage the occasion, I popped in a promising sci-fi/horror DVD I’d recently purchased. But this turned out to be so crappy I ended up tossing it into the trash. In the meantime, my date had fallen asleep (we were watching the movie while lying on the bed). She briefly roused herself for the start of the second feature — An American Werewolf in London — but soon had returned to slumberland. Ether she was very tired or very bored. Having exhausted all my attempts to make her 40th birthday an enchanted one, I let her rest.
Ui ended up leaving shortly after 3 a.m, explaining that her mother was coming into town that morning, possibly a made-up excuse to escape the clutches of her birthday “celebration”. Not that I blamed her; I had bumbled the affair every step of the way. In fact, I now suspect Ui agreed to the evening more to please me in my attempt to do something special for her than from any great desire to commemorate turning forty.
The lesson from all this is to be wary of what I’ve come to recognize as “the arrogance of good intentions”. I had assumed I knew how to make Ui genuinely happy, a notion that in hindsight was rather presumptuous. In the future I’ll try to be more realistic — and not use last month’s wine.
At least the birthday card was a good idea.
Nicky, a mid-thirties, attractive Thai woman, runs a local travel service / internet cafe. I have gotten to know her over the years and have used her to provide translation help whenever I have to do any serious business at my Thai bank. Nicky can explain what mysterious hoops the teller is requiring me to jump through and double-checks any paperwork, which of course is written in Thai. She does an excellent job and I always make sure to compensate her — though I often have to talk her into accepting the money.
When I heard last month that there was going to be a birthday party for Nicky, I made sure to mark it on my calendar. I had already attended a couple of these shindigs, which take place out in front of the cafe, and have always had an agreeable time. Nicky and her staff are good people; when they look at me there aren’t dollar signs in their eyes, which makes it easier to share an evening with them.
During the week leading up to the big night, I twice came by the cafe to try and confirm the party details, such as the starting time and what the girls’ drinking preferences are. (I didn’t want to show up empty-handed and contributing to the booze stockpile would be nice gesture.) Nicky however seemed almost embarrassed by my attempts to pin things down. Maybe she didn’t want to be reminded of getting a year older.
Because the festivities started sometime around seven, I decided to make my appearance at eight o’clock and hang around until ten. These affairs always run into the late hours and at a certain point I start to sag underneath the table.
There turned out to be no problem at all escaping at a reasonable hour. When I arrived at my planned time (toting four bottles of sweet Breezer wine cooler), there was nobody around. The store had been closed and the outdoor chairs leaned against the table. I was dumbfounded. There wasn’t any way I could have mistaken the day — Nicky’s birthday is the same as my mother’s. Plus, I’d made a point of confirming it.
Now in the U.S., when connections are somehow missed, the involved parties usually get in touch to figure out what happened. But this kind of analysis, with its implications of someone having screwed up, would not play well in this country where people are concerned about saving face. I certainly could not barge into the cafe the following day demanding what the hell went wrong. Probably would not get an honest answer, especially if they thought it might hurt my feelings.
Since this is by no means a life-or-death matter, I believe I’m going to simply let things slide. Maybe wait a few weeks before I go back to the cafe. Sometimes, attempting to untangle what appears to be a simple misunderstanding between people from different cultures only escalates into a larger disagreement. I don’t want to risk that. Besides, there’s always next year!