A high-pitched squeal stabs at my eardrum, followed by the sound of urgent footsteps pacing down the stairs. I look up and see my girlfriend’s mother standing over me with my girlfriend joining her, out of breath, by her side.
"Put it down," my girlfriend shouts. I step back and comply. The look on both her and her mother’s face means they don’t want to be messed with.
I stutter an apology and move out of the room. The women stand together, arms folded. "Never come in here again" is the message.
All I had in my hand was a laundry basket. I only wanted to wash my own clothes. But this is Thailand, and they do things differently here.
I met my Thai girlfriend two years ago in London, when she was studying for a master’s degree at one of our universities. After a year of dating we moved in together. Towards the end of the validity of her visa we discussed moving to Bangkok.
"You can stay with my family," suggested my girlfriend. "You will have your own bedroom and I will sleep with my mom."
That’s a little strange, I thought, but as Thailand is a conservative nation it wasn’t unexpected. So, I quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and family and in October I packed my bags and came with her.
What did I have to lose?
Nothing much. Apart from a dwindling sense of independence.
My girlfriend’s mother, like so many Thais, cannot do enough to help. Not only can I not wash my own clothes - I cannot make my own food. I cannot do any cleaning. I cannot do much at all. I try my best, I really do want to help, but all I have managed to do is occasionally take my dishes to the sink. Even this involves incredible use of stealth, as I have to do it when she has her back turned. I can’t do anything else, or my girlfriend and her mother would wrestle me to the ground.
It is even difficult to get my own breakfast, as every day I am offered moo ping (grilled pork kebabs) and sticky rice, which every day I smile and refuse stating that I am happy with cereal and coffee. This ritual, just like brushing my teeth, has become ingrained in my morning routine.
In the living room there is a plush leather chair and three rock-hard mattresses where the rest of the family sleep. When I walk in, my girlfriend’s mother gets up out of the good chair and offers it to me. This woman is in her early sixties, I am 36. I refuse the offer. A stand-off persist, both of us smiling, nodding and pointing to the seat. Both of us not fully understanding what the other means. It is like a drawn-out game of musical chairs. Eventually my girlfriend intervenes and mother gets her way. I am told to sit down on the leather chair.
When I sit in the living room on my own reading quietly, it seldom stays that way. In comes my girlfriend’s mother, on goes the TV and the volume up so high that I cannot only watch Top Gear – a programme that I hate but she seems to think I like – I can listen to it from within a mile radius of the house.
Other than this strange living situation, there are a few other things that I have found bizarre.
An early trip to the cinema was a taste of things to come. In the car, on the way to see a romantic movie with my girlfriend, I waved goodbye to her mother and she waved back. Seconds later I had a shock to see her open the back door and join us in the car – directing operations from the back seat. When we got to the cinema, out she came to join us for the movie – an unlikely triple date.
One night, I spent a couple of hours with my girlfriend sorting the details of a scenic train trip from Bangkok that takes you through different neighbourhoods. Just before I went to bed I got told that her mother was coming too. I wasn’t surprised, but as it didn’t affect matters I didn’t really care. The next day, however, I was told we were going by car because my girlfriend’s mother thought it would save time reaching our destination. My protests that this would defeat the purpose of the trip went unheard.
On Chulalongkorn Day, one of the 16 public holidays that Thailand has, we joined several thousand Thais in visiting the Royal Palace to show our respects to the current King’s grandfather. The enormous crowd caused our taxi to be stuck in traffic for over an hour, moving less than 100 metres.
"Can we get out and walk?" I asked. "No. My mom says its too far," my girlfriend replied. Yet 15 minutes later, having gone no further, we were outside the taxi, walking. Five minutes after that we were at the Palace. I couldn’t see the logic of waiting so long, but there is one: Thai people, particularly my girlfriend’s mom, don’t like walking.
Despite the constant mollycoddling and strange incidents, I have grown very fond of my girlfriend’s mother and decided that the old maxim "if you can’t beat them, join them" is worth adopting. I am now in the process of teaching her the fine art of making a cup of tea while I am watching the football – some pandering I am happy to put up with.