Lek is generally regarded as a dek dee or a “good child” in her village in Thailand. She just graduated from university (for which her parents threw a big party inviting the entire village) and thanks to some connections in the civil service, she was able to land a job that required little more than typing a few documents and getting signatures in the amphur office. Staying in the city, her salary left her with just enough spare cash for an ice cream at Swensen’s and movies on weekends after deducting living and transport expenses. She had to cut down on those if she wanted to send any money home.
When Lek went home over one weekend, she saw her mother all tearful and silent. When she probed, the woman opened up, wailing at the top of her voice, telling her daughter how she had been hurt watching HDTVs and new washing machines being carried into the neighbour’s home. Their neighbour’s daughter, Noi, was a plain Jane who merely completed her M3 or lower secondary education. She found a job as a waitress in an upmarket restaurant in the city and according to Noi, some of the regular customers were so impressed with her service that they bought her TV sets and washing machines. No wonder Lek’s mother was so upset.
Even though we’re not Thais, those of us who can dispense with political correctness can guess what Noi had to do to earn that washing machine and HDTV. Lek’s mother probably knew as well, but the sight of her neighbour getting ahead with nifty gadgets, bragging rights and derisive smiles made her go beserk. The things that took place behind the scenes were unknown, unseen and unacknowledged. Thankfully, out of the thousands of Thai women in Lek’s position, only some have quit their jobs to work at restaurants where the customers tip big.
Teleport to Singapore and the within a community with two Thai families, the same culture and moo ban mentality of mistaking the superficial for the deep can lead to sticky situations. The Noi here is an 18-year-old girl who is still in school. She’s a mediocre student, but her Thai mother often bragged about her daughter was such a dek dee who worked hard and was able to relieve the financial burden at home. Mae Noi was so proud that her daughter was working as a waitress in an upmarket restaurant at Orchard Road after school. In Thailand, she would have thrown a party to celebrate it. Of course, the young lady didn’t bring home any HDTVs and washing machines, but in contrast, her neighbour whom we shall call Lek, was a lazy girl who had to be goaded to do her homework. She would then watch movies on YouTube and chat with friends online. These were all very normal things that teenagers do, but Lek’s mother was exasperated.
“Look at Pi Noi upstairs. She’s just a couple of years your senior and she’s such a dek dee.” cried Mae Lek (mother of Lek).
But unknown, unseen and unacknowledged by Mae Lek, Noi the dek dee was quite a sight to behold. I almost failed to recognise her with her heavy makeup and spectacular hairdo. The simple little girl had become a sophisticated young lady, thanks to all the catchy, eye-opening influence outside the school environment. Once, I saw a young taxi driver drive her home, parked his taxi and smoked with her. On several occasions after that, I saw her smoking with boys and girls of the same feather at the void deck of my block. All this while, Lek was being being besieged by his mother’s nagging about what a dek dee Noi was. Luckily, Lek did not relent.
Noi was getting married. I don’t know the details, but I guess there’s no need for details here. Suffice to say that we as parents must not be superficial when we recommend role models for our children. Nobody is perfect and parents must make sure they themselves are not susceptible to blinkers and charming facades when they urge their kids to follow Pi Noi.
© Chan Joon Yee