Crowded Nostril? Go ahead and take your pick
When it comes to nasal excavation, Thais have no problem going in knuckle deep on the dig and are baffled at the Western revulsion for this _ so long as the offender isn't conducting a showy post-meal teeth cleaning at the time
He is a wizened man, sitting on his haunches next to the ATM in this country town.
And he is hard at work.
Gouging, kneading, exploring, penetrating _ the man is on a mission.
He does not acknowledge me. Why should he? His thoughts are elsewhere as his face writhes and contorts while continuing the task in hand _ dredging his nose.
I reach the ATM and slip my card into it. From the corner of my eye he is still at work as I check my pathetic balance and press that needless step that confirms I am not transferring money to Nigerian scammers.
By the time I have received my money and make my way back to my upmarket hire car, I can see he has completed step one of the task and has now entered step two.
Uncle Wizened's face is now deep in thoughtful scrutiny of something being rolled about on his fingers. I know what it is. For the sake of my inner peace it is time for me to concentrate on the road.
I guess two things trouble me about this scenario: the brazenness of the public act, and the fact I never existed in this man's universe despite hovering around his space for so long. Remember Carl Sagan's pale blue dot? That old man just reduced me to that.
We humans may all be the same but we are definitely separated by culture and tradition.
''Our culture goes back many hundreds of years,'' my friend Gift tells me with a knowing nod, as if, living in Thailand for 24 years, I haven't stumbled across that realisation yet.
Gift is married to Thanin and I've known them both since my first year in Thailand. I love them both, but I wish to hell Thanin would stop picking his nose in public.
Educated, creative Thanin picks his nose whenever he feels the urge. And when he does, I can't help looking at him.
Such is my obsession it has gone way past being able to say anything about it. If only I'd slapped his knee in a non-threatening heterosexual manner the first time I'd seen him do it, saying with joviality: ''Thanin! You can't do that in public!''
But, actually, he can. That's the thing.
I grew up in semi-rural, semi-urban but totally-neurotic Sunnybank in Queensland, Australia, in the '70s.
We were never allowed to pick our nose in public. It was disgusting and dirty even by semi-rural Queensland standards. Even clipping your nails was something, like free-basing, you did in the privacy of your bathroom.
Then I came to Thailand.
My first few months here were an assault on my senses: the dazzling temples, the petrol-garlic smell of Bangkok food markets, the Thai dancing, the unique architecture and ubiquitous nose picking.
In those early days I took buses everywhere before deciding this impoverished backpacker persona I'd assumed was a little twee, not to mention uncomfortable.
On almost every bus journey I spotted somebody picking his or her nose. Nail clipping was also ubiquitous but somehow not quite as intriguing as a person meticulously relieving a build-up of nasal gunk in slow motion.
And it was a three-step process. Step one was the actual gouging. And step two?
Once before in this column I related the story of my journey into a 7-Eleven. Now in those convenience stores, hapless employees are required (upon threat of termination, and I don't mean employment) to shout out in joyful voice: ''Sawat-dee khaaaaaa! as if you are a long-lost relative from Mukdahan making your annual visit to the big smoke.
Having to exclaim ''Sawat-dee khaaaa/khraaaaap'' every time that 1980's-sounding electric doorbell goes off must be soul-destroying.
On that day I pushed open the door. There was a lanky acne-faced young man leaning against the wall of cigarettes behind the counter, looking down intently.
In that split second I saw his hand moving away from his nose. His skinny thumb and ring finger were rolling something pliable around and around.
And as he stared intently at this little ball of gunk, he announced:
''So are you greeting the snot, or are you greeting me?'' I shot back.
And step three? Upon ending step two's careful scrutiny, not to mention what amounts to a microcosmic Thai massage, one flicks the ball away and continues with the task of whatever was being done beforehand, which more often than not means nothing, like Uncle Wizened.
I am not writing this to vent my disgust (although I did once quietly dispose of my whiskey after Thanin kindly added some ice to my glass using his fingers immediately after he _ well, you know).
Rather, it is intriguing how culture really does make a difference. What we find acceptable and/or disgusting really does change with visa stamps.
Look at a Thai at the end of a meal. When toothpicks are required, the demure Thais reach for a toothpick, while cupping the other hand across the mouth to deny you the unsightly vision of gouging food from between the teeth.
We never did that in Sunnybank. Once the meat pies and cream buns were finished, if we even bothered to pick up a toothpick, we used it as brazenly as a Thai with an itchy nose on Silom Road at peak hour.
Thais could never do that. They are a modest people. Removing food remnants from between one's teeth is an intensely personal process and not one for prying eyes.
And yet shift the camera angle not five centimetres north and the same Thai is brazenly shoving his finger up his nose any minute of the day, with the exception of 8am and 6pm, of course.
Back in my live TV days I had a cameraman who did this. Do you have any idea how off-putting it is to stare knowledgeably into a camera, pretending to be a mine of information without the aid of an autocue, while a man has his right pinky violently ferreting around his left nostril?
I did take the man aside and explain the predicament. He was genuinely sorry and apologised and stopped for an entire week.
Nobody is fazed about picking one's nose. Gift certainly isn't, and she is married to a man who does it all the time.
And speaking of love, I once witnessed two soul mates on the bus between Victory Monument and Huai Khwang.
A mousey young woman sat in front of me, her head down, intent on some activity in her lap. It certainly wasn't picking her nose; both her hands had been away from her nostrils far too long.
To my surprise, there was a human being down there on her lap! It was the mousey bus conductor, but he had lowered his head onto her lap, right ear down, left ear facing up.
She sat there with a small set of tweezers, slowly pulling hairs out of his ear, one by one. The precision was artisan.
Both performed the act in silence; she in intense concentration, he in the bliss only afforded to a mind devoid of any thought.
Talk about true love.
''We are a culture many hundreds of years old,'' Gift told me when I explained this tableau to her. Thanin sat not far away, gouging his nose. ''Thais will do anything for you if they love you.''
She paused, then swatted my hand away from my mouth.
''Don't bite your fingernails like that, Andrew,'' she said with a frown. ''It looks bad.''
About the author
- Writer: Andrew Biggs