the Isaan, Thailand
ACCEPTED BY THE ISAAN COMMUNITY – A REAL-LIFE TALE FROM THAILAND’S HINTERLAND
ISAAN, THAILAND’S POOREST AREA, IN THE NORTH EAST, “EMBRACES” ME
One of the most noticeable things in the Isaan is how they accept you, look at you, and talk to you. You will have only just arrived but you will already be aware that you have stepped off the spaceship and into another world – the world of the Isaan.
That world comprises being part of your partner’s family (if you have a partner), being part of news spreading fast, being said “hello” to a lot, being asked where you are going, nodded at, requested to divulge personal information, centre-of-attention atted, just lots of things which don’t often happen in Pattaya, and certainly not in Bangkok. As for the less rural areas of the world like New York and London, well, just forget you are you. You won’t be seen, smiled at, talked to. You might just as well not exist. That’s how equal you are to everybody else around and about you.
Even being a criminal or an alcoholic in the Isaan is acceptable as long as you don’t step on other people’s toes whereas in those first-world areas you can only really get away with alcoholism or Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikovianism* by hiding or skulking…but in the Isaan, why you are well known for your disasters and accepted despite. Of course, if you are a real part of the family, well, you’re given carte blanche for just about everything, good, bad, and jammed somewhere inbetween those two, too.
The strange world of the Isaan was brought home to me in a formidable and spectacular fashion when I looked at a stray dog in the village where Na, my Thai partner, hails from. The stray cur got nervous and lolloped away from me, then turned as semi-wild dogs do and looked at his / her looker. I moved a bit and tried to outstare doggy. He or she lolloped more, turned and stared back at me. Man and dog were doing a bit of staring on a late, hot afternoon in the Isaan, and for me, anyway, it was sanuk (fun). I pretended to lose interest in the dog, then “treacherously” rounded on him / her, and got back to intensifying the game by staring even harder and making the creature even less at ease. Boy was I having fun – Homo sapiens in his element giving a third-world dog a hard time. When I later reflected on my game, it became even more apparent that I was exerting power over the creature and exploiting vulnerability, being insensitive and superior into the bargain. However, these reflections were certainly not the guy’s reflections on the motorbike as he pulled up to cross-examine me. At least, if I am not being a condescending prig, I think they were not his.
Anyway, to get back to my story. My fun ended abruptly. An Isaan guy on a motorbike stopped and asked me why I was looking at the dog. “I don’t really know,” I mumbled. He didn’t drive off but just looked at me. I noticed the cur smiling in a doggy way.
“Well?” my interrogator interrogated.
“I suppose,” I mumbled, summoning up my formidable grasp of Thai, “chawp…**” (That transliteration looks OK but I need to tell you as fast as I can that it’s said with a falling tone – and hence becomes next to impossible to pronounce for a guy like me from a barbaric nut o’th’world named England.) The man grunted, looked at me again, looked at the dog again, sized up the situation as best it could be sized up, decided to accept my explanation (I suppose), and rode off.
I went on my way, cogitating.
Now where else in the world except the Isaan would an unknown guy on his motorbike stop to ask me why I was looking at a dog?
*”Crime and Punishment”’s central character
**chawp – like
N.B. A likely explanation for the event I relate is that the said dog was his, that guy's on the motorbike, but it was lolloping wild and free across white, yellow and brown hillocks of dumb grass and thorny scrub in the middle of jungly Isaan.