Part 2: The Japanese Refrigerator Incident
by Timothy Hoare
Timothy Hoare is Professor of Humanities and Religions at Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, KS (a suburb of Kansas City). While all of his previous published writing has been academic in nature, these essay selections represent his first published creative non-fiction work. They also represent his ongoing love affair with the Kingdom of Thailand, which has been the focus of his personal and professional life for twenty-five years.
It is embarrassing to commit social blunders in cultural contexts with which one is unfamiliar. Indeed, even after twenty years of experience with this glorious mystery that is Thailand, I am still reminded every now and then that I am from a different place with a different set of assumptions. And this is in fact the way it should be.
There are, however, various facets of human knowledge that transcend cultural consciousness and national borders. Regardless of where one is from or how one was raised, there are certain truths that are universally accepted as so. These include the following:
- Do not use a wire coat hanger to check if a wall outlet is working or not.
- If you see some green food in the refrigerator, ask the following questions:
- Is it a vegetable?
- Is it a fruit?
- Is it Jello
- If it is not broken, there is really no valid reason for attempting to fix it.
- Do not force something to happen faster if it is going to happen of its own accord anyway.
It is through the lens of this final truth that we shall consider the Japanese Refrigerator Incident.
The Japanese Refrigerator Incident centers on the little Japanese refrigerator that is in my campus apartment at Mae Fah Luang University. It is an admirable appliance; a cheerful sky-blue in color, and little more than four feet in height, it keeps my food cool and my ice frozen. It is not, however, a frost-free refrigerator. And so, when I found that I could no longer remove the ice cube trays from the freezer without the aid of a car and a towing rope, I took this is as an indication that it was time to defrost. Having performed this bit of household maintenance in years past, I proceeded to turn the dial down to the defrost level, and to keep an eye on the reservoir that collected the water from the melting ice.
It is to be regretted that, in this age of the world-wide-web, instant messaging, and speed-of-light computers, we feel the need to apply that same obsessive standard of instant gratification to everything else as well, both natural and human-made. Included within this spectrum of dissatisfaction is the rate at which ice melts in defrosting refrigerators. After two hours of defrosting, there was little visual evidence that nature was taking its course. It appeared more as if nature was taking a break. Well, enough of this, I thought. Let's do something to move this process along.
"Let's do something to move this process along…" In retrospect, I imagine that these words have served as an ill-fated prelude to any number of catastrophic events in human history.
Knife in hand (yes, a knife), I began chopping away at the encrusted walls of the freezer. As glacier-sized expanses of ice began to fall away, my faith in the perseverance of the human spirit increased exponentially. Now we are getting somewhere, I declared. Now if I can just loosen this last…
And then it happened.
As the compressed refrigerant liquid spewed forth from the pin-sized hole made by my overzealous knife stroke, I could only sit there watching and think, "What if…"
What if Abraham Lincoln had surmised, "You know, I’m really not in a theatre mood tonight—let's stay in and rent a DVD." What if—speaking of ice—Capt. Edward Smith of the R.M.S. Titanic had reasoned, "You know, it is my last voyage before I retire; let's just back off the throttle a bit and enjoy the trip." What if I had just left the damn knife on the shelf?
After several minutes of this philosophical meandering, I went to see Khun Ging Gaew of the Office of International Affairs, my contact and general coordinator of my visit here. Of Northern Thai Hmong hill tribe descent, Ging Gaew is graceful, thoughtfully detached, and calm-spirited. I suspect that she is an enlightened being, perhaps even the bodhisattva Guan Yin in disguise. After I told her what I had done, she laughed quietly and said, "Ajahn (Professor) Tim…such things occasionally befall each of us in this life. Not every mango is sweet."
"Now of course I intend to pay for this. If it cannot be repaired, how much will a new refrigerator cost? More than a mango, yes?"
"Ajahn Tim…such things occasionally befall each of us in this life. So figure on about five thousand baht."
"Five thousand baht; OK, that's around $175. Painful, but I can live with that."
"Ajahn Tim…do not worry. I will take care of everything. I will contact the technician tomorrow, and he will come to your house to examine the refrigerator."
As I walked back to my apartment, I could only say to myself, "Ajahn Tim…such things occasionally befall each of us in this life. So let us hope that your karmic energy is good, you silly %!&* farahng (i.e., Westerner)!"
In the meantime, I thought that it would be to my advantage to do some preliminary research on Japanese refrigerators. After some diligent searching on the internet, I found the website for the particular Japanese appliance company. They don't make this particular model anymore, but for a current model of that cubic size, Khun Ging Gaew's estimate was quite accurate—between five and six thousand baht. Bodhisattvas know these things.
One of the best ways to increase one's fluency in a foreign language is to take advantage of any situation in which knowledge of a particular jargon may prove to be helpful. Therefore, in preparation for the visit of the technician, I made the effort to consult my Thai lexicon in order to become familiar with certain technical terms, such as น้ำยาทำความเย็น nahm yah tahm kwahm yen, or "refrigeration coolant." In so doing, I tried to see this as an opportunity, not a problem; after all, when will I ever have another chance to discuss nahm yah tahm kwahm yen in future Thai conversation? Probably never.
The next afternoon, the technician arrived and surveyed the damage. I showed him the pinpoint hole that I had made and, as a combination of heartfelt prayer and good karma would have it, he concluded that the hole could indeed be repaired, and that the cooling system could be recharged with a new dose of nahm yah tahm kwahm yen. And the cost? Between one thousand and fifteen hundred baht.
Of course, I was relieved beyond words; but somehow I also knew: only in Thailand. Thais are the most practical and resourceful people I have ever known. In a developing country, if you do not have a lot to eat, you learn to eat a lot of different things. If you have some pieces left over after you finish making something, you save them in order to make something else. If you break something, you do not simply throw it away; you figure out how to fix it. Wouldn't it be wonderful if so-called "developed" nations could still remember how to think and behave with "developmental" ethics?
Later that day, two smiling young men arrived to pick up the refrigerator. "We will bring it back tomorrow morning," they said. I watched from my window as they carried it out into the parking lot. But there was no truck to be seen. They placed the appliance in a small two-wheeled trailer, perhaps three-feet square, and tied it into place. Then, to my amazement, they wheeled it to the rear of a small motorbike. They both straddled onto the bike, the boy in the rear sitting on the pull-handle of the trailer, and off they went. Only in Thailand.
As promised, the refrigerator was returned the next morning, completely repaired and recharged. With a beaming smile, the boy showed me the epoxy patch that covered the hole. And the bill? Nine hundred baht (about thirty dollars). Now baht are baht and dollars are dollars, so it does not really make sense to make direct comparisons. But I nevertheless could not help but think that this would not be possible in the US: the very suggestion of repair would most likely not be an option.
I called Khun Ging Gaew to give her the good news, and to thank her for her help.
"Ajahn Tim…I am so happy to hear that the mangos are sweet again."
"Yes, they are, Khun Ging, yes, they are; and from now on, I promise to use my knife not for chopping hard ice but for cutting sweet mangos."
Continue with Part 3: The Patawngo Connection (A Fantasy)
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