Sunday, April 19, 2009


So, it turns out that this Thai naming thing just get's weirder. After doing some research (something I probably should have done before writing the previous post), I discovered the reason Thai names are so gosh-darn long and gee-golly hard to pronounce is because each one is unique. Not only that, but each one is required by law to be unique. Sort of. It's like this: Thais generally didn't have last names until the early 20th century, when legislation was passed requiring them. For some reason, at that point it was decided that every family had to have a different surname (I suppose to circumvent the disastrous effect that multiple unrelated people having the same last name has had upon Western civilization over the last thousand years). So in theory, the first people who signed up for surnames had the option of very simple ones whereas the Johnny-come-latelys had to keep adding more and more sounds to the names in order to make them unique, right?

Not quite. Thai names are actually the result of a painstaking process: a Buddhist monk must pore over various astrological charts and tables before deciding on an appropriate, auspicious (and unique) name for a family or individual. Since last names are peculiar to a family, two people with the same one are by definition related. But doesn't this mean that as time goes on, people with the same last name are going to become (on average) less and less related, as family trees expand? And since Thai surnames are sort of like hereditary titles in that they can only be carried on by a male heir, names must be going the way of the triceratops all the time. And here's where it gets really weird; doesn't this mean that eventually everyone in Thailand will have the same last name? I mean sure, it'll take millenia. I'm just saying is all.

Also: first names are likewise incredibly varied--according to Wikipedia (I mean honestly, where did you think I was getting my information from?), 35% of Thai first names are unique, which is pretty high when you think about it--one in every three people you meet has a name you've never heard before (that is, if you're Thai). And come to think of it, in three months in Thailand I can't think of any two people I've met that have the same first name, the notable exception being two different guys named Bandit (no joke). For obvious reasons, they both prefer this to their far less badass nicknames. This further explains the necessity of the nickname system; it's usually harder to remember a person's name if you've never heard it before or if it's uncommon (unless it's memorably weird, but I can't imagine what a memorably weird Thai name would be); the point is, when every name in your society is either unusual or unique, names have sort of defeated their own purpose, except for that of repelling evils spirits, curses, and other bad shit.

I have a hard enough times remembering dumb American names. Don't be alarmed if I don't remember yours.

Also, I think I just used two semicolons in a single sentence somewhere back there. I must apologize to the rolling-in-his-grave corpse of Kurt Vonnegut. Sorry!

Friday, April 10, 2009


Just to let y'all know, I've decided to start writing more, possibly shorter pieces for GBB. For whatever reason, I have avoided making this blog an online journal. I've tried to make each post have a thesis or speak to some deep sociopolitical/sociological shit, and I feel like this has stopped me from writing as often as I'd like. Sometimes there just isn't a larger argument to make, you know? So, in the interest of getting me to actually WRITE more, I've decided to just post about whatever I feel like, no matter how trivial or banal. Instead of being a collection of mini-essays (my original goal with this thing) this will now be more of an all around chronicle of my time here in Bangkok. From here on out, I hope to write at least once a week, and more if I can. This one here is about Thai nicknames. Enjoy!

Just about ever Thai person has a nickname. Many Americans have nicknames--as do many Italians and Eskimos and Angolans--but not quite like this. In English speaking countries someone might reduce their given name to a monosyllable for the sake of brevity (or perhaps levity) or acquire an affectionate hypocristic from friends or family. A grown man might even request that his friends start refering to him as T-Bone or Spike, against his better judgment. But Thai nicknames are somewhat different. For one thing, they are given at birth rather than acquired. To understand why this is, let's look at the conventions of Thai naming.

First and foremost, Thai names (both given names and surnames) tend to be long. For the sake of example, here are some recent additions to my facebook friends list: Waranya Tieammuang, Saran Mahasupap, Natthawinee Thannin, Atchara Saigaew--you get the idea. Even when they're not all that long, they're often difficult to pronounce, so children are given nicknames which in effect become their main appelations in all but the most official or formal of circumstances. Much of the time these nicknames are simply Thai words, and tend to be rather mundane or even slightly negative (someone told me this has something to do with warding off evil spirits or somesuch)--Kung (prawn), Lek (small), and Get (raisin) are common examples. Like I said, some are rather negative, like Uan (fat) or Moo (pig).

But the best Thai nicknames tend to be English words. Golf seems to be one of the more common ones, particularly for girls (it was explained to me matter of factly that, "Well, a lot of peoples' fathers like golf." Fair enough. Other funny ones include Pink (or Pinky), Oat, Note, Dookie (a Green Day reference I drunkenly made after meeting a girl named Dookie was met only with blank stares), Champ, Top, Pop, Mook, Pez, Air, and Oil. I have a lesson group at Berlitz with two kids named Fame and Boss in it--if only Champ were also in that class. Again, many are mundane: children are often nicknamed Ay, Bee, and See to denote their birth order, or named after letters of the alphabet (Oh, Pee, et cetera). Anyway, since I am no longer bound by any sort of rhetorical regulations, I think I'm going to eschew conclusions from now on too! Peace!


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are You Not Edutained?

I work in a mall. Yep, that's right, a shopping mall. Floor 4A, Siam Paragon. For those not familiar with Bangkok, Paragon is a (mostly) upscale mall here in Bangkok. This place is nuts. The combined value of the merchandise on one floor of Paragon trumps any mall or shopping complex I've seen anywhere else. Really. There's a huge pan-Asia food court, all the expected American fast food joints (some with multiple locations within the mall), a bunch of fast food places I've never seen before (Mos Burger, anyone? Or how about Auntie Anne's, the fast food pretzel shop?), lots of more upscale chain dining establishments, at least two Starbucks, a bowling alley, a karaoke center, and of course the requisite multiplex. One of the floors seems restricted to clothing and accessory stores with Italian names. The biggest aquarium in Southeast Asia occupies the mall's basement, and there's a fancy car showroom on the fourth floor. We're talking fancy cars here (see picture). You have to wonder what Thai can afford this shit, especially with the 100% automobile import tax??? Paragon calls itself the "Pride of Bangkok" and it's a monument to capitalism and the consumer society that one would expect to find in Dubai or some other artificial, climate-controlled city of the future, not dirty, sweaty, ramshackle Bangkok. And it is surrounded by four or five other malls and shopping complexes, each catering to a different demographic. Even in a city of 8 million people, where is the market for all of this? This is supposed to be a developing country, after all.

As I said I work on floor 4A, which is sort of a Being John Malkovitch-esque half-floor buried deep in the anterior of the Paragon complex, and only accessible via certain elevators (no one ever really takes the stairs in Thailand. You just don't.). 4A has been dubbed the Explorium, an "Edutainment Center" catering to kids or, more accurately, to their moneyed parents. This portmanteau-happy realm includes a kids' gym, a miniature indoor tennis court for children's lessons, some sort of dojo, a music school and several language centers, including my own. There's also a place I haven't quite figured out yet, the grammatically questionable Babies Genius, which I don't believe has any affiliation with the similarly named 1999 motion picture. Seriously, Babies Genius? Is that possessive? Or did they just put the plural S in the wrong place, perhaps for copyright reasons? Regardless, I don't know what they do in there, and I hope never to find out.

Also great about Paragon is the muzak; some of it is what would be expected: J- and K-pop, instrumental versions of timeless pop hits, and the like. But the lion's share of the piped in music easily goes to Nouvelle Vague(the band not the film movement)-esque sort of bossa-nova-lite versions of timeless pop hits. Seriously, there's gotta be hundreds of them. Some are kinda redundant--do we really need the Carpenters to sound even more like elevator music than they already do?--and some are just weird: one of my favorites so far is "November Rain." Stripped of all the ass-rock bombast and histerionics of of the original, and lacking Slash's memorable wank session, it reveals itself to be one of those songs that could be done convincingly in any style; so much so that I didn't recognize the it for what it was until almost the very end, the vaguely Romance language-accented female voice and unobtrusively polyrhythmic percussion soothed me so. I'm not kidding. Best track of 2k9. Strike that. Best track of any year.