I worked for one of America’s largest public utilities for fifteen years. And over those fifteen years I learned a lot about natural gas distribution, maintenance, and service. I learned how to deal with irate customers and disgruntled supervisors. I learned how to take pride in and value hard work. But what I learned most was the art of breaking balls. If you’re not familiar with this American idiom, breaking balls is when you joke with a friend or coworker in a heavy-handed way.
I worked on the union side of the company alongside fishermen and ex-boxers, hunters and ex-gang members. Heavy drinkers and smokers and divorcees. For the blue-collared group of misfits — the motley crew I called my second family — breaking each other’s balls made the long work hours move quickly. It made the mundane routines at work, fun.
Being around a group of guys like this either kept you on your toes or knocked you off of them. They’d do things like pour baby powder down the air vents of your work van and crank the knob up to high. Then sit back and watch as you turned on the engine and the force of the air pushed a cloud of powder in your face.
And god forbid you were the new guy. Senior workers put all new employees through a rite of passage. If the new employee wasn’t asked to go fetch the pipe stretcher (a tool that didn’t exist) from the back of the truck, then he was told to go to the storeroom and pick up a few things from the storekeeper, whose one leg was shorter than the other.
The newbie would hand over a list to the storekeeper that read: PIPE CUTTER, 2 INCH PIPE, 2 INCH COUPLINGS, and all the other basics to finish a job. But at the end of the list it would read: A WOODEN SHOE FOR THE PEGLEG.
The limping storekeeper, when he came to the last item on the list, would throw the paper up in the air and start yelling, “Who wrote it? Who wrote this?”
The new guy would stand, frozen in shock, not knowing what happened or what to do. All around the storeroom, the crowd of men who gathered behind the new guy to watch the fiasco would burst into laughter. The new guy was now part of us.
When I started coming to Thailand in 2007 and my coworkers found out, they had a field day with me. “I didn’t know you liked transvestites,” they’d joke. “You get around on rickshaws over there? You like little boys?”
But it was all in good fun. Because I’d have my chance to break their balls as well.
Not even management was safe from the ball breaking. For a few years we had a supervisor at our district who barely passed the five-foot mark. Whenever he got up to speak at a meeting everyone would start yelling, “Stand up, Scotty! Stand up! We can’t see you!” After a few meetings Scott knew what was coming, and he’d hang his head down, shaking it back and forth, laughing along with us.
Another time the vice-president of the company came to visit our district for an all-hands meeting. When he got up in front of all the union guys we booed him. The look on his face was worth more than his salary. At what other company could the vice-president of a Fortune 500 get booed and leave with his tail between his legs?
But that’s how it went around the shop. You had to have skin like an elephant to survive. No one was safe from the ball breaking. And no subject was sacred. But when you got your balls broken, you knew the guys liked you. It was a form of male bonding for us middle-class men.
This was the blue-collared world I once belonged to, and the world I miss so deeply. It was a world so different from the one I now inhabit, a world where ball breaking doesn’t seem to be so ingrained in the Thai workplaces I visit. Even if blue-collared Thai men fill these workplaces.
Maybe Thais are more laid back. Maybe my presence makes them more reserved. Maybe they see me in a shirt and slacks and tie and think I’m Mr. Professional. But if they only knew the antics I was a part of back home. They’d never look at me the same.
I don’t even look at me the same. Because now I’m the lone journeyman. I travel to corporations alone. I work alone. I write lesson plans alone. I have no one to break balls with. And my attempts at breaking my adult students’ balls are often failures. So I’m left laughing at myself.
I wonder if saving face and hierarchy in the Thai workplace makes it difficult to break balls. Back home seniority didn’t matter. If you were a top-level manager or the janitor, you had your balls broken.
My Thai friends tell me Thais break balls just like Americans. Maybe I don’t understand enough of the language yet to get it. Or maybe I don’t know when it’s okay to do so and when it’s not. And even if I did, would I understand the context of the jokes?
Sometimes I’ll text an old friend from work just to break his balls. My text reads: GRAB YOUR BAG. Although it’s an ambiguous statement to outsiders, he knows exactly what I’m alluding to. And we share a laugh.
I don’t want to make my job back in the States seem better than my job now, because it’s not. That’s why I’m in Thailand today. But I miss the guys. I miss the camaraderie. I miss the ball-breaking and tough love that came along with the blue-collared life.
Sometimes I wish, for one more morning, I could get back in that meeting room for a last laugh. For one more ball-breaking session. Even if I’m on the receiving end.