smiles and resignation

สวัสดี from Bangkok,

A former student of mine, from a privileged background, once opined in a Business Management class that workers smile because they enjoy their job, and that they therefore were satisfied with their lot. It was an arresting statement for someone from an egalitarian bent like me.

There was an easy answer. They smile because they are making do with a bad lot. You waste a third of your life performing mundane, meaningless tasks, you make the most of it, don’t you? It dawned on me at that moment that we have to ourselves have been in such a position before we realise the fact. It’s all the more reason for us to develop a labour market in which everyone – on their way up – gets to see it from that point of view.

Here is a paraphrased text of the rhetorical questions which made up my response.

Do you seriously think the camaraderie of the shoeshine boys in Ethiopia means their existence is all jolly? Do you believe the smile on the rickshaw wallah’s face is never exchanged with a grimace? Do you really believe that retail workers in McDonald’s are enjoying the experience? And, do you really want to confuse the badinage of Cambodian street vendors with happiness and fulfillment?

I think the point was taken. Visiting Bangkok this week, I’m going to add another category: the women on Soi Cowboy. At night, the street is lined with scantily-clad nubile women inviting punters into peep shows and the like. They might look happy but I don’t think they are.

My Thai friend Ly expresses an opinion on this, too. She says, “100 per cent they do it for money”. Compare this with the overheard opinion of a touring American (a frequent visitor to the flesh pots of Bangkok): “They’re born to it”. I think the local opinion might trump the foreigner’s on this one.

No, workers who smile and laugh are making the best of a bad lot. Let us not confuse their resignation for happiness.

ลาก่อน from Bangkok


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