By Dave McCracken

“My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen.”

Dave Mack


I was doing all right with dinner. This was my first occasion to eat Thai food in Bangkok, but I have sat through a lot of similar dinner meetings in other Asian countries. I knew the routine from past experience. Eat a little bit first. Then, taste-test before taking a big bite!

This time, however, we had more than just a few drinks before dinner. This was a first-time meeting with new clients who had asked me to evaluate some potential gold dredging properties in Madagascar. Initial meetings are always a little tense for me. First impressions mean a lot all around. I always want to get an idea who I am working for. The clients want to know who they are paying, how good a job I am likely to do for them and how much they can depend upon me. So these first meetings are pretty important. I want to do my “best” to get through the initial discomfort of unfamiliarity, while not extending into the relationship too quickly. This process is a “touchy-feely” sort of thing. I definitely want to impress the clients and instill confidence.

In this case, we started with drinks, jokes, stories and discussions of the latest movies. I had to listen to the discussions about the movies. By the way, it never ceases to amaze me that my acquaintances in other countries have always seen the latest movies before I have. They know every American actor, and every movie each actor participated in. They also know every American sports star. No doubt about it, America’s biggest influence upon the rest of the world is the medium of entertainment! Our entertainment, for better or worse, is seriously affecting the rest of the world. By the way, you might also be interested to know that in every single other country that I have visited during the past few years, Americans are held in the highest regard. Contrary to what our own news media would have us believe, we are very well liked and respected in many foreign countries.

This initial meeting was going pretty well. Clearly, the clients were extending very warm, informal hospitality toward me. I was feeling quite comfortable. There were seven Thais and one American in this meeting with me. The American helped balance things for me, as the Thais kept shifting back and forth between English and their native language. This is very common in these types of meetings. The clients speak together in their own language, and then address questions or comments to me in English. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to be the only one in the meeting not knowing what the others are discussing, especially when it becomes clear that at least parts of the discussion are about me. Over the years, I have evolved a method of dealing with this that centers on an emotional faith that “the clients trust and respect me.” Otherwise, I would not be asked to meet with them in the first place. I generally just try to “go with the flow.” If there is a joke or a comment that involves laughter (sometimes directed at me), I take it in good humor, and go along with it. I know that if they are comfortable enough to joke around at my expense, I have already made it a step closer in establishing a trusting relationship with the clients. Most of the time, I don’t know what is being said in the other language or what the laughter is about.

So it was, on this evening in Bangkok. We did not discuss business at all that night. It was clear that this was just a “social meeting,” a time set aside for all of us to get acquainted. I was feeling very good by the time we sat down to dinner. The food was “so-o-o” good! I was enjoying it so much that I guess I stopped paying attention to what I was eating. All I remember now is that the chili on my plate looked like a green bean. So, into my mouth it went, along with a spoonful of other things off my plate. By the way, the Thais eat with both a fork and a big spoon together, using the spoon as the primary implement. The spoon is used to shovel food into your mouth. It is much more effective than just using a fork as we traditionally do in the west. It’s quite easy. I picked up a knack for it right away! “Hey, I can shovel down food with the best of them!”

As soon as I took the first bite of that spoonful, I knew I had made a serious mistake. It was like biting into red-hot boiling oil. The question was what to do about it? I vividly remember the calculated solutions. There were only three possibilities: First of all, however, I did not know where the bathroom was in this restaurant, nor was I going to try asking directions with a burning mouthful of food. Secondly, I could spit the food out on my plate at the dinner table of my clients, but this would have been unforgivable behavior, a real social faux pas. Finally, I could chew the food up, swallow it, and then quickly ask where the bathroom was located, or, I could just swallow the food without chewing it up any further.

Since chewing was clearly making matters worse with every bite, I chose the final option. I swallowed, simultaneously drinking the full glass of water in front of me. Then I swallowed several ice cubes, and placed one ice cube in my mouth in an attempt to cool my mouth off a bit. This was not working. My mouth was truly on fire! I could not even feel the coolness of the ice cubes in my mouth!

“I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath”

Shortly after swallowing, the severe burning sensation extended down my throat and into my stomach. It felt like I had swallowed boiling acid! What to do? I sat there trying to appear normal. The Thais were discussing something in their language, not paying much attention to me. I decided that there was no other course of action at the moment except to wait it out and see if things would improve. However; the situation quickly grew worse. My eyes started watering out of control, while simultaneously the extreme burning in my throat and gut worsened. Sweat started pouring down my face. Then my throat began constricting in such a manner that it was becoming difficult to breathe.

I quietly wiped the tears from my eyes with my napkin, trying to appear normal. That was when one of the Thais first took notice that there was something wrong with me. “Is everything all right, Dave?” he asked. I could see the growing concern on his face. I tried to answer that I had eaten something very “hot,” but the words would not come out. My voice had completely shut down. I was having great difficulty breathing. My entire throat and upper chest were out of control. Convulsions were beginning to erupt throughout my throat, as if my throat, completely on its own, was trying to expel the source of the heat. This was making it almost impossible to get a breath of air. I was strangling!

The man who had addressed me quickly broke into the group discussion. Suddenly all the attention was now on me. It was too late to do any further “damage control” to avoid embarrassment. I could not even swallow the spit in my mouth, which was flowing like water, probably a reaction to the intense heat. I was choking on my own saliva! This situation had become critical!

The man who had first addressed me jumped to his feet, quickly came around the table, and escorted me to the bathroom. We spared no time. All of the others followed. Clearly, everyone was extremely alarmed. We went right to the toilet. The man told me it was crucial to “toss it up as quickly as possible, and to make sure I got all of it out. This was not difficult. By this time, the convulsions had extended all the way down into my stomach. The chili was even hotter the second time it passed through my already burning throat!

I remember seriously wondering if I would ever get another breath. My first breath was so shallow, it seemed almost insignificant in satisfying my need for oxygen. I had been in this situation several times before, almost drowning once. Another time, when I was a kid, I sucked in a full breath of gasoline while trying to siphon gas from my mother’s car for use in my boat. It takes enormous self-control to gradually recover and regain one’s breath after an experience like this. First, you must take the smallest breath possible, just to get the respiratory system functioning again. Then, a little more each time, as the spasms will allow. All the Thais stood behind me while I recovered. One person stood with his hand on my back, speaking words of encouragement during the course of only a few minutes. I remember, all the while, wondering how I was ever going to recover from this embarrassment.

Afterwards, back at the dinner table, my hosts wanted an explanation as to what had occurred. First, I needed to recover myself a bit and regain a steady voice. Next, I drank lots of ice water. Eventually, I was ready to eat again. I guess I mainly wanted to show my hosts that I was all right, and that I could accept their hospitality — without it killing me!

After a while, I told them the whole truth of it: My not wanting to spit food out at their table; and trying to act normal, while almost strangling to death. I went through all the motions several times. I acted out the burning and gagging sensations (while trying to act normal) — kind of like a scene from “I Love Lucy.” They howled with laughter, which was probably an emotional reaction to the stressful experience for all of us. This made us very good friends. Now I could spit out anything I want on their table, if I wanted to. In fact, I ought to do it sometime just to see their reaction! Every time we get together we laugh about the experience — once again! They probably laugh about it a lot even when I am not around. Indeed, this experience created a bond between us.

There are a few valuable lessons to be learned in every bad experience. From this situation, I learned that it is better to be human than perfect. People are quicker to accept you when you are not afraid to show some vulnerability. When you freely allow others to laugh at your expense — without taking offense, you also make it easer for them to trust you and show kindness. I learned that you have to let your guard down to allow others to get inside of you. It is from that “inside ” inner core-of-being that meaningful relationships are formed.