In the 1980s my wife and I were good friends with Elaine and Suthi Assarat of Bangkok, Thailand. Of Chinese extraction, Suthi’s family had lived in Thailand for generations and his family had taken Thai names. Suthi’s father owned a bank in Bangkok and because he was the only son, he was more and more assuming control of the business. He and Elaine lived in the family compound which took up most of a city block downtown Bangkok. The compound was quartered with the father and mother living in the back left, the two sisters with their families living on the right and Suthi and family in the left front quadrant.
As a young man Suthi did graduate work at Yale University where he had met Elaine, a Chinese-American undergraduate at Vassar. He proposed marriage before finishing his Yale studies and Elaine accompanied him back to Bangkok as his bride.
A son was born within their first few years of marriage, but because of problems in delivery, it soon became obvious that the son was deaf. He could hear heavy footfalls, but no hearing aid could make the noise of the outside world understandable.
Elaine and Suthi faced an enormous decision on how to raise the boy. They lived in a tri-lingual world of English, Thai and Chinese. Since hearing aids were not an option, they considered first teaching him sign language in English, which was spoken around the house, and eventually how to sign in Thai and Chinese.
But Elaine thought that would restrict him to a life time associated primarily with deaf people and she wanted an expanded horizon for his future. So starting at a very young age, he was taught how to read lips in English. And Chinese. And Thai. Forcing him to deal with life as much as if he had normal hearing. He received enormous love from his very well-to-do parents, but there was no captioned TV, no full time hearing-helper, and no deaf-child allowance at the dinner table. In addition to chess he had to learn to play tennis, and to drive in the crazy Bangkok traffic. It was only when he was taking advanced placement course in the American School in Bangkok and could not understand what was being said when the teachers had their backs to him, that his parents allowed him to buy a tape recorder and hired someone later to listen to the tapes and repeat what he had heard from the tape recorder.
As he was finishing high school he applied to and was accepted to the University of Michigan. We met him once when he was home for the holidays. His mother, Elaine, was so proud of him and had talked about him at such lengths that we expected someone of major proportions. And the boy did not disappoint. His greeting was straight forward, his handshake firm. His diction, though guttural, was very understandable and grammatically correct. When we returned his greetings he looked at our lips as we spoke and launched into a short discussion about his recent travel back to Bangkok from the states, about seeing his friends once he got here and what he expected to do in the next few days.
Elaine and Suthi stood off to the side, but were clearly proud of their intelligent, sociable son, who had overcome his disability. Deaf but fully engaged in everyday life.
We often went to the Assarat’s for dinner and bridge and sometime during the evening Suthi and I walked off the veranda onto grass and lush tropical backyard… the surrounding Bangkok skyscrapers blocking out the night. He smoked a pipe and would use the stem to punctuate his remarks.
I was having problems once with an official government contact in the country in which I worked and was telling Suthi about my plans to brow-beat him into following through on a promise he had made on a bilateral project.
Suthi asked a few questions and then said he knew the occidental and the oriental minds as well as anyone alive and knew with complete certainty that my plan had no chance of success.
He said you cannot embarrass an Asian into action. That concept was strictly a product of the American Christian guilt. We American men he said followed the straight and narrow because if we strayed, to cheat on our wives for instance, or to neglect our children, or to be dishonest with our co-workers, then our guilt kicked in and we felt bad and would come back to that straight and narrow course to feel better about ourselves.
The Asian man, he countered, when he cheated on his wife felt no guilt, nor did he feel any primal remorse when he was being dishonest with neighbors or friends. No, what kept him on the straight and narrow was fear of losing face. It was fear of being exposed that made him mindful of his social and cultural manners.
I would not be successful with my professional liaison contact by reminding him behind closed doors that he had an obligation to do this or that, hoping that his sense of guilt would bend him to my will. No, I had to devise a way to make him believe I could make his inaction come to the attention of his superiors, and only then would he comply – and not feel vindictive the way an American might.
That was, he said, “The Asian way to get things done.”
During the time we knew and socialized with them, Elaine was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and towards the end of our bridge playing days she was having problems holding her cards. She reached a point soon after we left Bangkok when she could not manage the house and because of the ridiculous price of land in the area, Suthi, his parents and his sisters decided to sell the compound.
For Suthi it would allow him to get accommodations more suited to Elaine’s wheelchair condition. So as a banker he negotiated with several developers and finally made the sale to one that offered to build penthouse suites for the whole Assarat family on the very top of what was proposed to be a block square shopping/office/residence center. A proposed complex-jewel set in the trendiest area of downtown Bangkok.
A pretty good deal, especially for the Assarat family. Very big bucks were involved to make the deal.
However, as things were coming to a close a Thai citizen of Indian extraction appeared on the scene with recorded rights to access all quadrants of the Assarat property to pick up the trash. To get the business years before, he had paid for those rights that legally guaranteed uninterrupted access throughout the property in perpetuity. And since he had paid for those rights, he was willing to sell them, for something like 10 million dollars.
“Ah,” I said when Suthi explained the problem during a later Bangkok visit, “The Asian way.”
As I remember, he didn’t laugh. And he didn’t tell me how he handled the “rights of access” problem.
Certainly though, even with a Yale education, Suthi would have handled it in an “Asian way,” without guilt or remorse.
P.S. The last time I talked with Suthi he was in the United States to attend his youngest son’s graduation from Yale. Given the opportunity, he did not mention Elaine. He did say that as results of the economic meltdown in Bangkok in the late 1990s he lost “his shirt.” The family penthouses on top of the new shopping/residential “Sathorn Unique” complex never happened. I suspect the Thai citizen of Indian extraction who owned access rights to the property actually made the most of the deal, if he lived.