Our first Thai manager was a complete idiot who wouldn’t have made it as a janitor in the United States, but I didn’t realize just how empty headed he was until I came down to his office and asked him to pull up the Quickbooks accounting system which I had loaded onto his computer two months earlier. After seeing he didn’t have one iota of condo business on it, I absolutely could not believe the man had been so derelict of his duties. I had been training our condo secretary how to run the accounting system I had been setting up, and I had told both her and our manager that it was critical for them both to back up their computers daily. I had even driven my motorbike six miles one way to purchase two USB devices–one for each of them. And I had shown both of them how to both back up and restore the Quickbooks file. What he had was no more than a bare bones prototype of what the secretary and I had wound up with to handle all our condo’s business. But I suppose it was too much for him to ask the secretary for the accounting file so he could recreate it on his computer. He didn’t have the password the secretary and I had decided on, and he must have felt he would have lost too much face by even asking. Well, he lost his face all right, all of what little he had left in my eyes. But by then he probably didn’t even care, not after that little face losing episode I put him through after the infamous condo garden incident.
I’m going to refer to the little man as Peanut which is what General Stilwell called Chiang Kai Shek while commanding the American presence in Burma during World War II. Peanut had the skinny little face of a ferret without the lithe animal’s strength so I’d have to describe our Thai manager’s face as a chipmunk’s but skinnier. Stilwell’s Peanut was ineffectual beyond description, having allowed the Japanese to occupy much of China during the war while hardly putting up a fight. He preferred saving his troops to fight the Communists after allowing the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and India to fight all the battles. Ole Peanut head never even minded that millions of Chinese civilians had been murdered in countless ways from burial alive to being used for bayonet practice. The man even had the audacity to threaten a separate peace with Japan so that he could bilk even more money from the United States to add to his private war chest. The man had no pride and no love for his people whatsoever. Our Thai manager was just as avaricious as Stilwell’s Peanut and every bit as corrupt. He just didn’t have the gold plated opportunity Chiang had.
On the bottom floor of our condo facing the street there are five shops. Between the street and the shops there is a strip of landscaping that is roughly seven by thirty meters. The builder had five or six small trees planted in this area, most of them palm trees, with a few shrubs thrown in and a ground cover of various short plants that had grown thickly together enough to drown out any emerging weeds. As I remember it the landscaping had only been there a few months when Peanut called to ask me if I could meet with him the following Monday to discuss a few plants with him and someone who I understood to be the owner or manager of a landscaping company. Peanut’s English was not so hot, but it was clear to me that he would be there. I confirmed that I’d be at the condo all day and would discuss with him the progress we had been making on our Quickbooks accounting system. What was not so clear was why should we be replacing any plants in the first place. From what I could tell the landscaping was doing just fine and most of the plants had seemed quite healthy.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a landscaping expert. That being said, I spent 23 years farming, had been successful at raising corn and soybeans, and I had not only planted over 200 trees in my yard, I had also planted by hand over an acre of over fifty vanities of old Illinois Prairie plant seeds and this project had also been a complete success. I had been the kind of guy who would walk around my yard every day to observe the progress of my cherished trees and other plants. And I had not changed since moving to Thailand. I concluded that peanut felt we had a few shrubs or other small plants that had not done well and therefore needed to be replaced.
By 1 p.m. I had not received one call from Peanut. Then I noticed from my balcony several Thai workmen digging up our garden area with shovels and other small tools. I immediately went down stairs and walked outside to see what was going on. Our condo maintenance man was there talking with the work crew but our manager was nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long to find out that Peanut had taken the day off to drive to Bangkok which is over two hours away. I had been stood up, and I was furious.
Back then I was one of a three person committee the condo owners had elected to supervise our little peanut. But our committee chairman had made it clear to everyone that committee members were not supposed to be giving orders to our condo staff or to directly manage condo affairs in any way. The chairman of the committee, who also happened to be the German builder we had bought our condos from had warned that too many misunderstanding would arise and that it was best to let Thais deal with the Thais. So all I did was to watch the workers start to destroy the entire landscaping in front of our building. By the time they’d get done only the trees would remain. I tried to get our committee chairman on the phone but he didn’t answer. Then I got on my motorbike and drove to the law office down in Central Pattaya where our third member of the committee worked for a Thai law firm. I found the woman sitting at her desk and immediately got down to showing her pictures I still had in my digital camera of our condo garden being raped and pillaged.
Chollada didn’t know anything about it. And since I certainly didn’t, this left at least two out of three committee members who Peanut decided to simply run roughshod over. By the time I finally caught up with the ferret faced Thai manager with a chipmunk’s smile, what had been a carpet of weed smothering plants had been reduced to bare earth. It would be at least another month before Peanut’s improved plant varieties made their appearance. Most of the replacement plants were to be nothing more than a weak looking variety of grass that would die out in the first six months.
The next time I saw Peanut, which was about two days later, I asked him, “How much are you spending on your little project? He gave me a figure which started at roughly $400.00, but when I asked him what the number was a few days later it had already escalated. The final number was 25,000 baht which was approximately $800. Now that might not seem like much but by Thai standards it is because I doubt if anyone who had been working on digging out our plants was making more than $200 a month.
By this time I had a page of our condo bylaws with me which I angrily shoved in front of Peanut’s nose. Then I pointed out to the man, “Do you see here where it says you, the condo manager, are not authorized to spend more than 5000 baht ($125.00) while acting alone. For you to be able to spend 25000 baht you have to have permission from at least one member of our committee.”
It was all there in black and white and I remembered how we had discussed all of this in a committee meeting so our manager could have no excuse that he didn’t know better. And do you know what his reply was? It was—–“I can do it because I am authorized to do whatever I feel is necessary.”
Now just imagine the audacity of the man. What he was saying to me was, “I can overrule any time I like what you and your committee decide because I am Thai and you are (with the exception of Chollada) falang (Westerner). I replied: “No. You are wrong and out of line. You must obey your committee and you have taken money from our owners without permission. The result of my outburst was the little weasel stalked back to his office and every time I would go back in to discuss how he and the secretary were doing with the accounting system, he’d simply stonewall me. The matter was not resolved until we had our next committee meeting. Our chairman pointed out that we were both wrong. The manager had been wrong to have exceeded his authority whereas I was wrong because I had lost my temper with the man and that there are better ways of handling such disagreements. Our chairman then announced that he would pay the 25,000 baht over expenditure out of his own pocket to spare our condo owners from having to pay for such an unjustified expense.
There is no question in my mind that Peanut had made a nice commission off his little garden project. I suspected it then and later on when I had another debacle with him over which insurance company was going to handle our building insurance for the next year, I was certain that he, and most managers like him expect a cut simply because they are managers. He would not win this time but had he gotten his way he would have gotten a 15,000 baht cut out of a total insurance premium of 80,000. Through all of this I learned a lot about the Thai concept of face. Because I had told Peanut exactly what I thought of him he would have nothing to do with the new accounting system and because of that our secretary failed to get started on it until well into February instead of January 1 of the new year. Meanwhile I had been assuming that the secretary and the manager had been following my instructions and had started to log all new business into Quickbooks. Whenever I’d ask the manager how he was getting along with implementing the new system he’d lie to me and tell me everything was going just fine. I was getting “the treatment Thai style which is to ignore all instructions from Westerners, and then to later on pretend not to have understood the necessity for action.
I really think what I learned while on our condo committee and afterwards, even now, has impacted even the way I view U.S. foreign policy. In the case of condo management in Thailand it is against the law for Westerners to be condo managers. By law one has to have a Thai. That is a mistake because for the most part Thai managers are incompetent and dishonest. Certainly this is the case with condo managers in our neck of the woods. The chairman of our committee made a huge mistake by not backing me on the garden incident. He should have done exactly what I had done which was to let Peanut have it. We should have fired him on the spot. And then, I don’t care if we’d have to interview thirty people to hopefully get the right one. I would have advised our telling each candidate: “We fired the last one and this is why. Around here it’s not up to you. It’s our way or the highway.” And the more I read about how the United States has handled so many countries I feel we have been making the same mistake over and over. The mistake is for us to assume that we can get a group of individuals representing a country whose values are almost totally different from ours to work with us effectively while respecting the fact that it’s we who are footing the bill as well as much of the bloodshed being spilled on their behalf. We then assume that they are like Americans and that they will do their utmost to help us get the job done to make their country a better place for most of the people who have to live there. Most of these people in these power elites are a bunch of self serving canine who have no interest in serving their fellow countrymen whatsoever.
The South Vietnamese generals and politicians didn’t help us try to win their war for them when Vietnamese youths were out driving their motorbikes to sell drugs to American soldiers who were doing the lions share of all the fighting that had to be done. And as far as Chiang Kai Shek was concerned the only thing he accomplished against the Japanese and later the Communists who kicked him and his corrupt legions out of China was to steal enough money from his country and the U.S. government that was bank rolling his hopeless cause was to salt enough money away to be able to start all over again on the Island of Taiwan. And as far as the Koreans for whom over 40,000 American servicemen gave their lives for in the Korean War, all I’ve gotta say is this…”There’s Korean only nightclubs here in Pattaya that I cannot gain admittance to because I am of the wrong race.” And how about all those policemen and servicemen on the side of our allies in Afghanistan who are off murdering American soldiers? A lot of good all that nation building in Afghanistan has done. Now I’ll admit that burning all those Korans didn’t help but I really think the Koran was simply a symbol and not the real reason. For one thing our allies were murdering our soldiers before the Koran was ever burned. The bottom line is I’m sure most of our so called allies were thinking, “Who are these square heads anyway to think they can teach us anything or that we want to live our lives the way they live theirs. We will just take their money and when we feel like it we will run away with it.” It’s Chiang Kai Shek all over again, but then again, very few Americans ever read their History.
I say, all this nation building we supposedly have been trying to do is absolutely the wrong way of doing things. It’s expensive, it detracts from the real mission which is to destroy the enemy, and in the long run it does not win us friends. We dropped three times as many bombs on Vietnam as we did during WWII in all theaters and we did a lot of nation building in Thailand while using it for the bulk of our airbases back then. Today, Thailand is going through a Russian invasion where even my own street is starting to look like Little Russia. But isn’t that why we got into Vietnam in the first place…to keep the Russians out?” The restaurant next door to my condo does not even offer a menu in English. I cannot even drink Budweiser beer here even though Anheuser Busch is the largest beer company in the world. I suppose after the Thais shafted the Carlsberg brewery company so badly that it picked up and left Thailand that the chief decision makers at Anheuser Busch decided: “We sure aren’t going to make the same mistake Carlsberg did by setting up a brewery in Thailand.” In Vietnam strangely enough, today, long after the Communists won I haven’t seen any signs in Russian. At all the museums I”ve been to the languages used at the exhibits are Vietnamese, French and English. And I can drink Budweiser there. As far as nation building goes, It no doubt worked well in such countries as Germany after World War II. But there is a huge difference between Germans and say Thais or Chinese or Afghanistani’s. Germans have the same values as Americans. With the other nations I’ve mentioned which I feel are only a small portion of the countries I might include on my list, the cultural differences are so vast that neither side is going to respect the other. So if and when it comes to winning a war, I certainly wouldn’t be expecting any help from those who appear to be my allies. What might have seemed to be the oddball in this entire mix is Japan. Certainly in so many ways its culture might have seemed to be vastly different from the U.S. But when you really think about it ever since Admiral Perry sent his gunboats into a Japanese harbor the Japanese suddenly woke up and wanted to learn everything they could from the West. Even after World War II, the Japanese were willing to learn from the West at a furious pace so among their achievements they allowed General MacArthur to show them the way to Democracy during the U.S. occupation. I absolutely cannot see the same thing happening in a country such as Afghanistan, or Iraq, and in so many other places in the world, and I certainly cannot see it happening in Thailand where the concept of face is so strong and nationalism so deeply entrenched that foreign leadership is despised far too often while anything that is Thai is revered.
We need to learn out lessons well from the Peanuts, both of them.