Monday, September 24, 2007

The Big Questions

Why are you in Bangkok? What do you want?

These questions have been asked of me lately by a variety of friends, old and new. I can't answer them easily. But I know I must make a stab at it. So today, on yellow Monday, when the street vendors take a day off and the sidewalks are unusually clear, I will sit in Starbucks while my apartment at Siam Court is being cleaned and see what comes up.

I am living in Southeast Asia, the mysterious Far East, because it is different and unusual. "Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore!" I have lived in the United States for more than sixty years, and it was time for a change. Though I love the land, and the soul of the people, the fraudulent government in Washington is not to my liking, and I did not see things getting better. Many Americans are spoiled by success and the country is ripe for a fascist takeover. Perhaps it is underway. A rude awakening is coming, an economic crash, the slow bleeding of another generation from the wars abroad, maybe another natural disaster with which the authorities cannot cope. My leaving is a statement of noncooperation.

I have returned to Thailand because I once tasted the sweet fruit of romance on the island of Koh Samui and I want that feeling again. In the United States people my age are invisible to anyone younger. Here, it seems (and appearances can be deceiving), my age and physique do not count against me. Love always involves negotiation, and I have no illusions that I am a Brad Pitt or even Sean Connery. Because I can afford to travel here, I am wealthy by Asian standards. Old men have jai dee, I have been told again and again, a "good heart." The Thai women I have met are looking for a foreigner with white skin to take care of them, their children and their extended family. Many have suffered from broken hearts. "Thai men gamble and drink too much," they say to me. "They are butterflies, they go with many women." Old men are perceived to be stable and faithful. Unlike their young counterparts, old men are seen as less sexually demanding, more willing to offer security in a Thai economy with vast disparities in wealth. Another reason for marrying an older farang, I recently learned, was because "they die soon." That certainly is part of the equation. In exchange, these tiny long-haired beauties, who dislike their own dark skin, offer western men care and comfort not unlike the Total Woman ideal promised by conservative American wives in the distant past.

I am not unaware of the strings attached. Love between farang men and Thai women is a minefield. I have heard about the casualties first hand from my friend Marcus whose Thai wife left him within weeks after the birth of their son, and refuses to grant visitation rights. The internet forums are full of horror stories. Love here means marriage, and the husband must pay the girl's family a bride price, or reverse dowry, which can amount to thousands of dollars, higher of course for western men who are often seen as walking ATM machines. Sometimes it is just for show, to keep up appearances, and the full or partial amount is returned to the couple. Jerry is just back from Surin where his wife's son is to be married, and they have agreed to pay 150,000 baht, a third of that in gold. This means Lamyai will not get the truck she has wanted. But helping her son is more important. I find it a curious and unacceptable custom, but when in Rome...

Romance is not all I am seeking. I want to deepen my understanding of Buddhism and I would like to learn the Thai alphabet, enough to be able to understand some of the street signs (a modest goal, I think). I would also like to see more of the country and the region, and my trip to Laos next week will further that curiosity. Holly encouraged me to think again about teaching and I may look into it as something I could do when I return from India in January. It would certainly solve the long-stay visa problem.

Still, I see that these answers, which have been evolving, do not say enough. Hell, I want to be happy, just like anyone else. I don't want to grow old in a rocking chair, and I sure as hell don't want to end my life drooling into a pillow in a nursing home somewhere. Live fast and die free. Was that someone's motto? I know it's not enough to dedicate my life to taking photographs in foreign countries and writing wordy blogs about my travels, but for now it seems to be sufficient. The universe has yet to give me a more complete answer.

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