Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Back to Living in Airconland

Ahh... I listen to the whir of the air conditioner behind me, every now and then feeling wafts of cool air slowly buffeting my feet.  It is so nice.  I'm comfortable.  I've been running the 'aircon' one hour of every two this evening, saving money on my electric bill, but I haven't felt this good in weeks. It also helps that my back is feeling a whole lot better and I am capable of sitting at a desk chair for an hour or two. 

I am able to run the aircon half-time because I have become acclimated to being without.  I've gone 21 of the last 23 days living here in Bangkok with a broken air conditioner.  Now, I need to explain in detail what a hardship this has been.  Very few truly understand what I'm talking about here, unless you've live in BKK.  For this latter group, some of you live without aircon by choice.  Good on you.  I know now what that is like, and if I chose to do that to save money on rent or electric bills, I know I could do it.  It's a lot easier to accept being without the cool breeze of climate control when it isn't an option.  Some of you can't really understand what I'm talking about because you haven't lived in the tropics.  Maybe you've had a couple of days, weeks or years in Florida, Hawaii or Houston in August. That is what Bangkok is like all the time.  

I sweat.  Just sitting or lying there, doing nothing, without aircon, I'll just spontaneously drip sweat.  If I was DOING something involving physical activity, I'd understand this phenomenon.  That is what sweat is for!  Its to cool you down when you're moving about.  Lying on a vinyl couch watching TV and sweating buckets is unpleasant, to say the least.  When I sweat, I stink. Three showers a day has been my average these last three weeks. 

By this point, you may be thinking, "my, Joko is being all whiny and complaining today," and you'd be right.  Fine.  This lack of aircon combined with my back injury convalescense have been the defining aspects of my existence these last 2+ weeks.  See, there is a compounding factor to all this.  Even with the enveloping heat of tropical, humid BKK, I wouldn't have had devoted so much psychic energy to being without aircon since mid-September without one frustrating fact creating it's own frustrations: my battle to get the damn thing fixed.  

The machine broke 3 weeks ago. I went a few days living with it while slowly, due to back pain, cleaning up the apartment.  Then I wrote the landlord about getting it fixed.  See, my landlord lives in China, so I can't exactly call him on a whim. He responded in a timely manner and gave me the number of the building's maintenance man who had, earlier this year, fixed the same problem as the one I was experiencing .  He got a warrantee for the work, so there shouldn't be any payment issues over this repair.

And there weren't.  Maintenance Man (MM) showed up the day after I had my Thai friend call him and explain the situation.  Mind you, our appointment was for 10 AM and he showed up at 2:30 PM.  He 'fixed' the problem.

36 hours later, the machine broke again in the same way.

I called MM, who speaks not any English, and tried to explain.  I know enough Thai to be able to say "I have no aircon", and then to follow, "I am at home".  I sorta expected him to show up.  He said a bunch of stuff back at me in Thai that I didn't understand, but I went the first few days after the second breakdown calling MM directly.  It didn't work.  MM never showed up.

As any American would, I started to get a little pissed off by this guy's nonchalant dismissiveness. No, I don't speak Thai, but I knew from the tone of his responses that he understood that he needed to come to my condo and work on the aircon.  Every day that passed with him not coming, with me stewing in my sweat and discomfort, was like a personal affront.

I wrote my absentee landlord, the Chinese Canadian.  He empathized and suggested I have a Thai friend (by this point, I was home and not going to work due to my back and had no contact with my Thai friends) or the people down at the condo's office call MM to compel him to knock on my door and work more on this aircon problem. 

This is what I did.  Unfortunately, they don't speak any English down at the condo complex administrative office either, but I came up with a solution. I wrote up the situation in as simple English as I could, and set Google Translate to work to put it into Thai.

The 'Administrative Person' (the English translation for the title of the lady who works in the Condo office) has always struck me as a no-nonsense, straightforward administrator who has the demeanor of getting people to do things.  The perfect woman to talk to the slacker MM to get him to do his job.  I gave her the note in Thai that I had produced via Google Translate.  She didn't read it, instead just asking "Aircon mai yen?" (air conditioning not cold?).

She immediately got on the phone to MM.

Right on! A hardass on my side!  This is exactly what I though I needed.  It went to MM's voicemail. 

Then, my hardass Admin Person demonstrated herself as being Thai, here in the land of never wanting to offend anyone for calling them out for anything that might make them 'lose face'.  Her voice totally changed. She became all sweet and deferential, asking MM to please call her back, if he could, when he had the time...

That happened in the morning, and despite waiting all day (convalescing) without a knock on the door, I still had faith in my hardcore Administrative Person.  I saw her later that evening, and she seemed genuinely shocked that MM had neither called nor showed up.  She'd call again, she said.  Now the hammer was going to come down, I thought.  

Nope.  Nothing happened. When I saw the Admin Person a few days later, she told me I should call my landlord.  Grrrr....  I wrote the Chinese landlord again, and he gave me the number of his agent here in BKK who might be able to help.  I called her, and she made noises about how she would 'take care of it', but nothing got taken care of and I never even got a call back.  I was pulling my hair out at this point wondering how the Hell I was going to get my aircon working again.  Rent Day came along, and I payed my $135 monthly rent and wrote the landlord saying, 'I need you to get this taken care of. Period.'

His last note back was disappointing from a business relationship sense, in that he put it back on me, but explained something about the way things are done here that I didn't understand before. What I needed to do, he told me, was to go find MM (whose around somewhere most of the time) and ask him if he could come right now and fix my aircon. 

Forget about appointments, obligations or customer service. You have to get face-to-face, get someone to commit to something and put their word on the line in person. MM never told me  in person that he would come and refix the problem until today.  Sure enough, after I found him in the parking lot this morning on my way out do some errands, and after memorizing the words "Aircon not cold.  You come to my house today?"  he showed up.

Mind you, he fixed this same problem before and it gave out after a day and a half.  Today, he pulled a part out of the machine, left the condo and I assume he scrubbed the connections or something, because after 5 minutes,  he came back, put it back in and fired up the aircon.

Nothing happened.  Still broken. 

Huh. See, I kinda suspected that part of the reason he hadn't shown up for two weeks might be because he really didn't know how to fix the problem.  This failure confirmed my suspicions. He just kind of stared at the machine for a few minutes, perplexed.  

As a man, I can empathize how frustrating it can be to try and fix something mechanical, to do your best to screw, unscrew, clean, replace, tighten, etc., in full confidence that your tinkering will yield results, only to have the machine stubbornly refuse to be fixed. 

Suddenly, vvvWWHhhhiirMMMMM, the outside aircon piece miraculously started up several minutes after it was supposed to. 

Ahhhh... "Roht," MM said. 

"Roht!" he told me, somewhat condescendingly this time.  Now, I know the word 'rot'.  It means 'automobile'.  What the heck was he talking about?

"Roht," he said again.  Listening to it a second time, I realized the vowel sound was a descending tone, not the ascending or short tone for the word 'car'.  Difficult language, Thai, but by the context, I figured out 'roht' must mean 'wait'.  I have since confirmed that translation.

He said roht a couple more times, smiling. In my mind, he was kinda taking the whole two week saga of multiple parties calling him asking him to come to my place to fix the AC and putting it back on me. This impatient farang person just wasn't giving his aircon enough time to turn on before declaring it broken. Total bullshit, but I had neither the language skills nor inclination to express the fact that I had, on numerous occasions, let the AC run for hours on end without the outside machine turning on.  

Still, he got it working and I now can sit here and feel the cool air brush up against my feet. 

I said I learned something about Thai culture, but I'm still confused. 

Early on in this saga, I tried calling MM directly to get this done and got no results.  Then, I went through other parties, some nominally even his boss, and still was stuck in sweltering sweatiness.  See, after my initial direct approach failed, the latter indirect approach, avoiding the possibility of personal confrontation, would work,  It didn't.  What finally got it done was person-to-person communication, not by phone. 

So here is what I've learned, and I will take the liberty of extrapolating my experience to apply towards getting any difficult thing done in Thailand: phone conversations don't work. Things said on the phone, if broken, mai pen rai (don't worry).  Second, don't use 3rd parties who are Thai. Although I'm sure there are exceptions to this, they're likely more interested in avoiding confrontation and just getting through it than getting what they should do as your agent.

Lastly, put them on the spot.  Get your MM to say to your face (not on the phone, not in an e-mail) that he or she will be here or there, and they will, even if they have no idea whether or not what you're asking them to do will work. If you're lucky, like I was today, the mechanical or otherwise obstacles will resolves themselves even if it makes you look like you can't roht.
Well, I am off to my first night of sleep without waking up after a few hours drenched in sweat. 


  1. Lessons learned. Understanding other cultures is a whole lot of work. But hopefully you had a wonderfully cool night and got some great sleep.

  2. Living without being able to communicate seems very stressful to say the least.

  3. Thailand has a warm and tropical climate. If you're not used to a warm place, having a broken AC is torture. I do hope your aircon is already fixed. If you think repairs won't be enough, it's time for you to invest in a new one. You might spend more but it's for your convenience. :)

    George Ellsworth @


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