On Balancing Peas on Forks, Tea Time and Time-Telling

 | Tue 19 Aug 2014 23:00 ICT

CityNews – This is the story of what happened a few years ago. I was 18 at the time and a recent high school graduate, equipped with paranoia and an existential crisis (for which I still blame the amazingly terrifying International Baccalaureate programme I went through).
Napassorn Soontracharn (left) with her friend Kam at the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street, London.

I had spent most of the past decade at an international school here in Chiang Mai (and I am grateful for this – thank you, Mum and Dad). The point is, the tiny community was all there was for me to harvest my life experience from, and I lived in a small world. So, accomplishment-wise, I had my diploma and little else. As all clichéd life stories go, I didn’t know where life was headed, what I wanted to do, or where I would fit in.

Of one thing I was certain, however: I wanted to go to the UK. Okay, fine, I wanted to go to Hogwarts, but the UK would have to do…

Since I’d already made it in one English-speaking community, I assumed that fitting into my new life in England wouldn’t be too difficult, surely. It was with this hubris that my journey as a cultural misfit began. If only I had heard Sweeney Todd snickering at me all the way from Fleet Street right then, then perhaps I would have been more wary of what I was getting myself into. Because despite my eagerness to try humbugs, I knew little of the world and just about a teaspoon-full about Britain itself!

I knew people spoke differently there, I knew the accent was nowhere close to the American-ish-gone-international twang that I was used to, but what I did not know (and even if I did, I doubt I would have been able to prepare for) was that some of the words that were ‘okay’ to use in the international community here were strictly NOT okay to use there. Yes, old news, but how the bloody hell else was I supposed to call an oil change for a vehicle?

This led to many encounters – both embarrassing and hilarious – with the unsuspecting English folks, who were nothing short of horrified by my vernacular. What I had meant to say to a classmate on the first day of our meeting was yes, I had an eraser he could borrow, but it was in my trouser pocket, and as I was helping a friend with her work at the time I would retrieve it for him shortly. However, what came out was: “Yeah, got a rubber in my pants. Sorry, giving a hand, wait a sec.”

I couldn’t top that even if I tried.

A change in lingo wasn’t the only thing I struggled with. I lived in Norfolk, the far-from-cosmopolitan farming county of England, so my nasal Californian accent (paired with my traditional Thai looks) did nothing whatsoever to facilitate my communication with the general population there. During the first half of my time in England, I would have to either spend ten minutes in a taxi trying to communicate to the driver where my dorm was, or spend ten minutes walking back to my dorm after a night out because he had dropped me off elsewhere.

“Number 24 Colman, please,” I’d say.

“Ninety-four Tombland Street?”

“Er…yeah, that’s the one.”

Apparently what I heard was not what he said either.

“Right, on our way there, Miss!”

It still surprises me that I managed to get home at all.

However, being the food-lover that I am, I had focused my pre-arrival research on all things cuisine. I subscribed to some British YouTubers before I left Thailand, to study British food culture. I learnt that nosh means food, crisps are chips, and that ‘real’ chips should never be eaten with ketchup because, for God’s sake, they’re not fries! Fries could only be found at McDonald’s, eggplants are aubergines, and tea time is at four o’clock, but tea isn’t always for drinking. Tea’s also a meal, so you eat tea too. I thought I had it down, I really did.

Then I asked for a biscuit, and got a cookie.

The other thing I did some research on prior to moving was table etiquette. This is not to say that I had, until then, been impolite at meals but as I said, I was part of an international community and I was taught to do things in more than one way. However, being the dimwit that I was, I was practicing a strange hybrid between Continental and American-style table etiquette. So when I had to decide on one, I whined. I did not see the point of making my life any more difficult than it already was, but Mum was not having any of it.

“Stick to one style,” she said, “And given where you’re going, I suggest Continental.”

“What? Why?”

“Fork, upside down.”


“It’s ‘Mum’, get your facts right before going to Britain.”

Thanks to her, however, I had peas-eating down to a science, having spent a number of meals precariously balancing my peas on the slippery slope that was the back of a fork. And of course, when I arrived, I found out that nobody else ate bloody peas like that anymore. I was at a university, not Mr Darcy’s Pemberley. Well, too late for that now. Mum has never lived in England herself, so I suppose the vision she has of the country comes mostly from some old tomes we have in the house and the period dramas she sometimes watches, plus a trip to London.

Then there was tea. What goes into the cup first, the milk or the tea? And what is the cultural significance behind that? When do I pick up the saucer, and when do I not? Don’t be ridiculous! Warm up the teapot first before you put anything in it, and are you mental or do you actually plan on serving straight from that kettle?

After a series of mental wars with myself, I ended up dunking a teabag into a mug of water and then microwaving the whole bloody thing.

There were many more things that bewildered me no end when I was trying to get used to English culture, and right at the top of that list were time-telling and floor-labelling. Yes, I realised what my politics professor meant by “quarter past nine”, and “quarter to eleven”. Of course I knew what “half past” was, but what in the world was “half seven”? Half an hour to seven o’clock? Half an hour past it? Or seven divided by two, meaning half past three? How should I ask for clarifications without being vexing? Was time really a big ball of wibbly-wobbly unspecified and unregulated words? Surely one needs to be exact – and clear – for such an important function. Should I arrive three hours before seven just in case?

I did.

Concerning floors: I was not in the habit of looking at signs when walking up or down the stairs. I counted, and hence ended up looking for the non-existent room 3.14 on the second floor, and arrived late to a seminar. Apparently the ground floor was not the first floor, there were even negative floors, and the ‘real’ ground floor went by about three different names. How was my little Thai brain expected to cope?

Over the years I gradually learned how things were conducted, and managed to navigate around society with relative ease. At the end of my stay in England, I had succeeded in learning to say ‘trousers’ correctly, pronouncing my address, telling the time, knowing which floor was which, and managing to order what I wanted to eat. So, to be fair, I do think I deserve to be ridiculously proud of myself, even if I still fail miserably at Thursdays’ pub quizzes.