I was having a solitary lunch last Tuesday with my dear friend Evil Neil when a phone call came out of the blue. A phone call on my cellphone, that is. Regular readers are cognizant of Neil, a helpless victim of corporate cellular phone advertising who changes his phone as often as we eat somtam, and who, with every new device, plasters Superglue between it and his ear so that it's permanently stuck to his head - hence my "solitary" lunch with him last Tuesday.
PHOTO: PORNPROM SARTTARBHAYA, ILLUSTRATION: NATTAYA SRISAWANG
Anyway, it was a surprise to see my phone spring to life, and an even bigger surprise to hear the voice on the other end.
"Andrew! Are you remember my sound? It's me! Kritchai!"
Kritchai! Oh my goodness. For the first time that Tuesday my mood changed for the better. One of my very first friends in Thailand, inseparable for the first year. We were both 26 at the time and he had just left the monkhood after 15 years. - imagine spending your adolescent years celibate and, worse, perpetually in saffron when black was all the rage. Kritchai had disappeared off the face of the earth for 10 years but resurfaced back in 2005; he was married now with two teenage children, but this phone call last Tuesday was the first in a long time.
"I want to see you!" he said in his ever-cheerful voice. Then he dropped the clanger.
"And I want to sell insurance to you!" he chortled.
At that moment whatever house of cards situated in my general vicinity shuddered, caved in and collapsed. Oh Kritchai, Kritchai. That one little sentence that tumbled from your smiling mouth said it all. I was no longer Kritchai's old friend. I was his potential customer.
I have had a litany of friends-turned-salesmen here in Thailand, and being a man of few friends, it's disturbing when I have to cast one off simply because of some corporate sales training that has told him or her it's okay to fleece your friends in the name of profits. Do you detect a slightly bitter and twisted tone in my voice? Pardon me if it's slight. It should be resounding.
Kritchai is friend #7 who resurfaces after being submerged for ages in order to (1) tell me how much he's missed me, (2) ask me what I have been doing lately, (3) ask about one particular mutual friend, then (4) explain if I don't purchase this 20-year life insurance plan off them I am solely responsible for his bankruptcy and the failure of his children to secure an education. It's the reason I have four or five thoroughly useless life insurance policies I continue to pay annually before I became wise to it. It's not about warm friendship. It's all about commission, because the moment I have paid up (5) long-lost friend returns to long-lost land as quickly as he appeared.
Ten years ago I had two dear friends - I wrote about them in this column once - called Pornphen and Pornphen. I lost one of them tragically. To disease, perhaps? To an horrific car accident on Bangkok's streets? Worse - to Amway.
"I've signed up to Amway," one of the Pornphens announced one lunch date as the three of us sat down to a medium-rare plate of khor moo yang. She plonked down a brochure. "From now on you don't have to waste time going to the supermarket. You can order everything from me."
"But I like going to the supermarket," I tried to explain. How else could I end up with secret stashes of Snickers and Lay's Sour Cream and Onion chips in the drawer beside my bed? Pornphen rolled her eyes and dived into an explanation of the products I had the privilege of purchasing off her and her only. In no time lunches with the Pornphens changed; from ascerbic gossip sessions to short demonstrations of the wonders of Amway's toothpaste or its incredible dishwashing liquid.
Oh, she was a clever one, that Pornphen. "This is a gift for you," she said sweetly one time, pushing a tube of toothpaste across the table. Whatever happened to a box of chocolates as a gift, Pornphen? I thanked her and tried to steer the conversation away from corporate sales to something fun, like Thai politics or the inanity of Robinson Department Store clothes sellers, but oh no. We were fully entrenched in the wonders of Amway products. A week later Pornphen was calling me. "Is the toothpaste finished? Would you like to order some now? How many tubes? And what about some detergent?"
There was an added problem.
My work colleague Wipa had also signed up to Amway, as did my other work colleague Porntip, and my friend Lek's wife Gift as well. Soon I was being bombarded with phone calls and visits from Thai women with irresistible smiles clutching Amway brochures ... and by God heaven forbid if I chose one product from Wipa and the news got out to Porntip or Gift! I'd have a gaggle of Amway sellers pouting, shouting then flouting order forms demanding I order something from them "because it's not fair you ordered from her and not me"!
The straw that broke the camel's back came when close friend Jira called. To supplement his teaching income, he was now selling chicken from a co-op that, like Amway, was demanding he attend monthly pep-up sessions in inner city Bangkok hotels where they held hands, sang hymns and gave thanks to those lordly agents who had surpassed some insurmountable sales target. And all in the name of the slaughter of chickens.
Soon our conversations stopped being full of dirty jokes and news analysis in favour of chicken?
"Did you know you can get 70% of your daily protein from just a small portion of chicken?" he asked me once. I reeled in shock at Jira's instant foray into the Red Zone of the Boring Metre, somewhere he'd never ventured before, as he paraphrased Pornphen: "So how much would you like to order?"
At the time I was writing a weekly column in Thai, and I wrote that I wanted to catch a plane to Amway's headquarters in Ada, Michigan, bang on the door of the president's office and scream: "Give me back my friends!" This elicited a huge response from Thais who felt similarly depressed by the loss of friends to selling schemes. Not long after I instigated a new way of greeting any call from the likes of Jira or Pornphen: "Are you calling me in my capacity as your friend or as your customer? Coz I'm hanging up if it's the latter."
Jira's love affair with all things chicken lasted not a year. Pornphen's went on much longer, but the level of frenetic hard sell by friends who succumbed to such schemes has died down of late. Or perhaps I just don't have as many friends as I used to. As for Kritchai, I knew there would be no catch-up dinner with my dear old friend like I so very much anticipated. Holding four or five insurance policies is cute - holding six is bordering on ludicrous.
"Who was that?" Evil Neil asked me as I hung up from Kritchai, in the few brief seconds he had between phone calls during my solitary lunch.
"Oh nobody," I said. "Just some insurance salesman."