Shivering…. a status symbol?

I’m a relative newcomer to Thai culture and the Thai way of life, so, as I have observed my own reactions and opinions, I don’t dare to be outspoken and critical yet. Maybe I am mistaken, maybe I haven’t grasped enough of a certain aspect of a different lifestyle, maybe my impressions are misleading – I’d better just keep an open eye (or two). So often I just read others’ writings and opinions, and try to form my views. There are quite a few things that I would have the same opinion about, but I just don’t feel “qualified” to venture that far….

There is one topic though that I think I know a lot about: Asian air conditioning 🙂 Being the rare farang who can survive the scorching tropical hot season without the constant thermal manipulation of my body, I have grown rather cynical about the issue…. Even if I just have to go to a 7-Eleven store for a few minutes, I feel vapour is precipitating in my lungs both when entering and when leaving, and I start coughing heavily: my asthma just goes crazy. I have never had aircon in my apartment or guesthouse room, I prefer lukewarm showers and plenty of icecream for the purpose of cooling down a bit. And I thanked all the gods when using aircon in schools was prohibited during the SARS epidemics in Taiwan – incidentally, the hottest recorded summer ever in the country.

I can clearly recall my first encounter with the Asian fascination with shivering: the hellish experience (uhm, isn’t hell expected to be HOT, though?) of an overnight coach ride to the south, and those two days spent recovering in Ko Phi Phi, coughing, with a runny nose, sore throat and all the trimmings…. I had been caught completely off-guard (as we have absolutely no aircon buses or public transport over here), in my light trousers and t-shirt, not quite understanding why the steward was handing out blankets – what, blankets in August?! You guys must be joking! And as the hours passed, inexperienced farangs lined up for extra blankets, while Thais were sleeping happily, covered in blankets from head to toe, wearing pullovers and socks, yet visibly cold…. and when they woke up, they enjoyed their cokes with an iceberg, while the farangs were dying for a cup of hot tea. I learnt the lesson thoroughly: now I don’t travel anywhere without warm trousers, a pair of socks, a pullover, a bandanna (to minimise the effect of the freezing tornado on my ears), AND an extra blanket or sleeping bag of my own…. but often not even all this can save me from having a sore throat. My mother was laughing at me when we were first travelling together and I boarded a night coach with all that arctic equipment…. but now she has learnt too, after two days of intense coughing in Chiang Mai….

A Thai friend of mine, an architect, shed some light on the issue a few years ago. She has no aircon at her home in Prachachuen, way to expensive to pay the bills, she says, so she sleeps sweating in 35-40 degrees, under a fan…. and as the opposite extreme, she has to endure constant 18-degree temperatures during the day in the office near Siam square. It is automatic, can’t be adjusted, and is considered elegant: she says the company wouldn’t be taken seriously by potential upper-class customers if they didn’t have nice cold offices, and employees enjoy being cold anyway, after being so hot at home all the time. What the…. ?! I mean, over here, where offices sometimes have aircon, the standard temperature would be nice and pleasant 23-25 degrees – same as with the heating during the winter. People don’t like to be cold here. Thais seem to enjoy shivering, at least “mentally” if not physically – it seems to give them a sense of status: “I don’t have to be hot any more, now I can work in a nice cold office, wow!” The colder, the more elegant, simply put. My Thai boyfriend, brought up in small village in Loei, commented that he doesn’t like cold, although he thought he should. He was kind of ashamed of not being able to put up with freezing temperatures, as it was a sign of his simple, poor background. Is this healthy? Is this normal? And…. isn’t this crazy?!

I was quite proud of myself when I figured out a way to survive my days at school: aircon can be a discipline method. I know this is not taiwan-blogs, but I guess it would work with Thai kids as well if you happen to have an aircon classroom. The trick is simple: I have NEVER seen kids (especially those aged 6-10) shut up and listen attentively as quickly and nicely as when I threatened to switch off the aircon in the classroom, the pretext being that it was way too noisy to manage a bunch of messy, noisy, naughty children. They could not possibly imagine a harsher punishment. Of course it can’t be overdone, but it works miracles, they would do everything for the right to shiver. It was amazing to see their aircon lives: jumping from a cold apartment to a cold car or schoolbus, into a cold classroom, cold shopping mall, cold fastfood restaurant – and as a result, at the age of six or seven, sweating and complaining if it was above 30, and they had to be forced to go out to the playground and have some fresh air between two lessons of reading and writing. Urban Thailand is heading this way…. it seems to be a waste of money, by the way. About two years ago I read about a Thai government initiative to allow officials to take off their jackets at work and have slightly higher temperatures in the offices: I have no idea how it went down with the public, if anybody has taken up the issue of the huge electricity bills for excessive cold. And somehow it feels dangerous to me if a generation or social class is increasingly brought up not to be able to withstand weather as it is, living their lives at a constant artificial 20 degrees…. Parallel with white skin, shivering seems to become a status symbol, to break completely with the lives of previous generations and other social classes still toiling on the rice paddies, hot and tanned.

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