LiBeL Column

Graduation Day 2 – The Nation

Columns from The Nation newspaper

It’s time to buy flowers again

30th April 2002

Around a year ago I wrote a column about a graduation ceremony at Chula that I was privileged enough to be dragged out of bed at some unearthly hour of the morning for.

This year is was time to witness events at a cut price commercial college backslapping a.k.a graduation ceremony. The amount shelled out for the occasion by parents, spouses and significant others was well down on the Chula affair. Degrees were dished out by a well connected mate of the college owner rather than a top royal. Graduation gowns were cavernous ‘one size fits no-one’ affairs and all appeared to have been recycled burkhas, courtesy of the Palace of Polyester (branches in Kabul & Bangkok) – none of the tailored, gold trimmed, perspiration resistant affairs seen a year ago.

However, one thing remained constant – the ridiculously early wake up time. A 5 am start wasn’t required, this time round 3.30am wake up calls were the order of the day. The reason for this was that all preparation has to be done as a group activity. This starts with everyone calling each other to ensure that they’ve woken up – this takes around 30 minutes to ascertain and is then followed by a generic chat about how exciting the day will be, what make-up to wear etc. The main time consuming early morning activity was the group trip to the beauty parlour. They all had to be permed, beautified in general and then coated in some form of waterproof glaze to prevent the caked make-up from peeling and thereby revealing the humanoid features hidden below.

The soon to be graduate and her mates were a bit shocked to discover that the cost of a 4.30 am pampering was 750 baht/head. It took an outsider to point out that this was an actual case of supply and demand – the sort of thing they should have learnt, but probably wrote off as being boring and therefore inconsequential, during their Bachelors Degree Marketing course. After 10 am in the morning the customer is king, before 5 am the customer is a cash cow ready to be milked.

By 7 am a penguin colony of nondescript rent-a-gown students was shuffling aimlessly outside the main hall of the Thai Cultural Centre. It was also time for the second communal breakfast of the day and a few pre-graduation photos. I guess for some kind of weird before and after comparison. A few hours crammed in a hall must be a life changing experience for some, fair enough, although I doubt that the results will show on a badly lit 4″ x 6″ print.

Once everyone had been reminded to turn their mobiles off and had trooped into the hall I remembered my instructions. “Go where you like but be back here for 12pm, make sue you’ve got some flowers – nice ones, take photos of me coming down the steps.” Not feeling the urge for a third breakfast, offered by family members of another one of the ‘group’ – I went over to Fortune Town to kill a few hours. It’s amazing how interesting looking for discounts in Tops supermarket is when you’ve read both the Nation and Bangkok Post cover to cover and are afraid to splash out on a double decaf moccachino; as that self-indulgence might not leave me with enough money for an oversize bouquet.

11.30am finally arrived and it was time to go flower shopping. In my absence the carpark had been transformed into a flower market with dozens of stalls selling displays of real, unreal and surreal blooms. As token farang I now stood out as being the main potential customer for all the sellers. Their interest seemed to wane when it was clear that I wasn’t in the mood for the jovial haggling banter that was expected during this shopping experience. “How much?”, “150 baht.”, “100 OK?” “No, cannot” – I had this conversation four times until someone said “Yes” and I settled on a dozen white roses & assorted foliage, wrapped in shiny purple plastic.

Time to head into the hall to see how things were progressing from the safety of the public viewing area. Seems a few people were enjoying watching the never ending parade of graduates all carry out the same ‘ Enter stage right… Step 1,2,3…bow/curtsey 1,2,3… extend hand 1,2,3… clasp degree 1,2,3…reverse 1,2,3…bow/curtsey 1,2,3…reverse and exit stage left.’ drill whilst trying in vain to identify ‘their’ graduate. Not an easy task at the best of times, but when you’re 50 metres away and trying to identify someone from the back it requires a sniper’s eye for detail. This was more effort than most up in the rafters were willing to make. The majority were sleeping, picnicking, chatting on the phone or generally ignoring the proceedings below.

The ceremony did eventually end. I was there ready to thrust flowers into my beloved’s hands and take photos. Her flowers were better than her friends (goes without saying) – two of whom had been given identical displays by husbands who seemed to be blissfully ignorant of the faux pas they had committed and the abject humiliation being suffered by their spouses. There was only one thing that could calm the situation – a group photo or more accurately 19 group photos all of which were, unsurprisingly, virtually identical to each other.

My requests for a bit of variety were rejected out of hand. “You don’t have to have the same background in every shot. Stand in front of the sala.”, “Smile”, “Let’s go crazy – this time hold your flowers in your left hand and degree in your right.”, ” Wipe your face, you look like you’re melting.”

And so after a couple of lunches it was time for the gowns to be returned and to head to the nearest Kodak lab to order half a dozen prints of some of the most boring photos on the planet. Another real life episode of Survivor was over. I lost. As usual.