'Hey you're that farang who teaches English, right?" The voice comes from just to my right and it kind of startles me. I turn around to see a Thai woman of indeterminate age, though no more than 60 and hopefully not less than 45. One hand is on her hip and the other is clutching a mop. Her hair is tied back in a bun and she has a weather-beaten look, as if working with a mop is more palatable than anything she's ever done in a rice paddy.
PHOTO: PORNPROM SATRABHAYA RETOUCHING: NATTAYA SRISAWANG
"You know, the big bald one who speaks Thai."
Yes lady, I am aware that I am big, and bald, and fluent in Thai (unless it's the morning after an intimate night with Mr Smirnoff). You don't need to remind me who I am, though I would have preferred a more generous description, such as "the trendy, vivacious one" or "the ethereal, philanthropic one", but such adjectives are as absent from a cleaning lady's vocabulary as they are from any description of me.
Still she continues, like I'm an amnesiac.
"You're on TV early in the morning. I see you every day. You teach English to kids."
I smile back. In my heart I want to tell her that actually I haven't done morning TV for three years. There are lots of things I want to tell her, probably starting with "hello" and "thank you". But I feel awkward saying anything. You see, dear reader, we are in the men's toilet of a shopping mall, and I am standing at the urinal.
Today's column is chiefly a man's domain, but if you are a woman please feel free to read on. You will gain an interesting insight into the frailty of the male psyche. This column also addresses one of the true mysteries of Thai culture, or rather, a prime example of western culture crashing head-on with Thai sensibility, with the Thai side emerging unscathed, and the western male wondering if indeed there is no place sacrosanct in this country, devoid of harried cleaning ladies with a penchant for mops and chats.
Back in my home country - and don't you just hate any sentence that starts like that? - male toilets are the last bastions of solace for Australian men. Decades of politically correct laws have rendered Aussie males helplessly, hopelessly on the same level as women. You can't advertise for male staff, you can't be a member of all-male clubs, and even our prime minister is a woman.
(It works both ways. Back in the 1990s a man in my home state of Queensland challenged the country's gender-equality laws by entering the Miss Queensland beauty pageant quest - and won it! Alas, he lost out in the national competition, probably because like most Queenslanders he didn't look good in a bikini.)
So you can understand when I say Aussie males yearn for the good old days when they could get together in peace, rip open tinnies and carry on about castrating sheep and State of Origin matches far away from the glaring eyes of the sheilas. Luckily there is one last bastion of maledom where even gender equality laws have failed to infiltrate - women are still barred from the men's restrooms.
It's probably fairer to say "what woman in her right mind would want to enter the men's restrooms", but that's the way it is. We Aussie men value a place where we can stand rubbing shoulder to shoulder, relieving ourselves without the prying eyes of the opposite sex. And I guess the Americans, Brits, Euros and any other genitally-correct country in the world would agree.
Sigh ... but here we are in Thailand, where the comfort of a male restroom is often interrupted by the swish-swish-swish of a mop, or in my case last week, the ask-ask-ask of a cleaning lady. What possesses Thais to think it's okay for a middle-aged woman to go cleaning around you as you go about your personal business? The Lonely Planet tells me Thais are modest people who don't like public displays of affection towards the opposite sex. I guess that explains all the kissing and groping on Silom Soi 4, but I digress, albeit interestingly.
The Lonely Planet is true, for once. Thais are exceptionally modest, stripping off in front of no one, not even their significant others, except for in some rare hurried occasions their house pets.
If Thais are so keen to protect their private parts, what's with the middle-aged ladies preening and polishing the porcelain around them in the bathrooms? And the biggest question of them all - since cleaning ladies are so prevalent in men's toilets, are there male cleaning staff in the women's? Imagine the commotion if that were to happen! Just another reminder that despite everything you may hear, women are indeed the dominant sex in this country and control what's going on, right down to who goes in the men's toilets - which is just about anybody except that damned house pet.
Once, on an anthropological trip to Soi Nana, I met an American who was morbidly obsessed with the restroom doors in Thailand.
"Why are they always open?" he asked on his swivel chair. "Are Thais perverts? Do they want to look inside the men's toilets to see what's going on?" I had to explain to the gentleman that no, Thais on the whole are not perverts, and that the doors are open for the convenience of the cleaning staff, who open them themselves, thus enabling speedy entry and exit. It didn't matter they are restrooms, where people want to rest in private. If the cleaning staff need convenience, then those damned doors are gonna be open all the time!
Clearly the American hadn't been here long enough to know an even worse truth that I dared not reveal; that cleaning ladies go about their duties while he stands at the urinal. I dared not tell him too about the cleaning lady who once shouted out to me: "Are you going to be finished in there soon?" I was in the last of four cubicles in a men's bathroom and she'd cleaned the first three. The fact I was using the last one was an unpalatable blip in her quest to clean them all. I, of course, being a well-bred gentleman, refused to answer, though the stress of being asked a question rendered my stay in that cubicle even longer, and the cleaning lady gave up in disgust, uttering some indecipherable North-Eastern profanities before moving onto whoever was standing at the urinal.
Oh well. It's something we visitors to Thailand just have to accept. The whole of Thailand's bathrooms are controlled by primary-school-educated upcountry women who splay open the doors for everybody passing by to see inside, who then go about their mopping oblivious to the males standing deep inside the porcelain urinals fitful a member of the opposite sex may look at them.
I say it's time for Thai men to rise up - metaphorically - and put a stop to this. Let's make Thailand a hub for closed bathroom doors, and let's escort the cleaning crows out every time they dare set foot in our domain. They'll catch on soon enough.
Is this a good idea? No. It's ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as I feel carrying on a conversation with a middle-aged woman as I stand peeing at the urinals. But hey, look on the bright side. During the entire course of our conversation, she had the decency not to look down once.
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