Aside from the fact that Pim and I almost broke up the night before, the move on Saturday to a new apartment on the other side of Bangkok went well. Early this morning, after Pim got on the bus to go to work at the post office in Banglamphu, I went looking for a Bangkok Post and came up empty handed. Boromratchonnanee Road is a busy urban thoroughfare with an expressway overhead. There are three major shopping malls with supermarkets, bowling, movies, an infinite variety of consumer items, and fast food restaurants galore, but farang are few and far between. So I suppose English language newspapers would just draw dust. This is the Bangkok tourist rarely visit.
I've been packing for the move for over a week. In the 11 months that I've lived in Thailand, I've accumulated books, clothes, cooking and cleaning supplies, six pepper plants, a briefcase full of tools for teaching English, a new printer/fax/copier, and a roommate. While the new apartment is not a lot bigger than the old one, it's more efficiently designed and everything fit with a little room to spare. The bedroom and kitchen, small though they may be, are separate spaces. The bathroom, which will not quite accommodate two, is well appointed, and the living room feels spacious, with a couch, easy chair, coffee table and another table for dinning. Though the cable is not yet hooked up, the large TV gets all the local channels (I still need CNN and BBC, as well as the movie channels). Roger, the Brit from Nottingham who owns this place with his wife Katsuda, a stewardess for Quantas Airlines, loaned me his wireless router and the internet line from TOT, the government provider, is quite speedy. All the comforts of a modern home.
We paid two security guards from Siam Court to get a pickup truck and move us to Lumpini Place in the Pin Klao district on the west side of Bangkok. Traffic was light in the early morning and it was a beautiful day. There were complications when we arrived, which I didn't quite understand but which Pim soon untangled, and not long after we were unpacking in our new home. There is nothing like the feeling of infatuation with a new environment. After emptying the moving boxes, we walked the short distance across up the street and across the pedestrian overpass to Tesco Lotus, the newest of the neighborhood malls. There we found pillows, sheets, forks and spoons, a pan for cooking stir fries and omelets, and some food supplies. Pim bought the makings for sukiyaki and cooked for me for the first time a delicious meal for lunch. The sheet was too small for Roger's custom-made bed and in the evening I bought a larger one, along with glasses and two small rugs for wet feet. I tried to find cheese for an omelet but the selection was minuscule and expensive. That was the only item lacking on my list. Thai stores seem to stock an infinite variety of goods (except, surprisingly, knives to go with the forks and spoons), far greater than any outlet I ever saw in America. Pim commented, "you always seem happy when you're shopping," and I felt incredibly guilty.
All is not perfect in this Eden. The air conditioning unit on the balcony growls and vibrates, making it difficult to sleep when it is on. The bathroom door sticks and the shower head won't stay attached to the wall. The refrigerator slides forward when you open it and the door is on an inconvenient side for the small room. The expressway nearby is noisy. Our bedroom window and balcony face west which means we get the hot afternoon sun. To get a cooling cross breeze, we must open the front door a sliver. The TV has an annoying purple cloud on one side of the screen. There are two shops doing laundry on the ground floor of the building but both seem to charge rates in excess of the expensive Soi 4 laundry I used in Sukhumvit. There are also coin machines and Pim says she will try them before we paid a thousand baht a month. But the building also has some perks. This morning I handed over two small photos for a card to admit me to the pool and gym.
The night before the move, Pim stayed out late with a friend from Kalasin who had recently married a Belgian and who will soon move to Europe. She'd found something important to do away from home every night that week and it felt like we'd spent little time together. Saturday was our night to watch Academy Fantasia 5, the Thai talent extravaganza on TV, and it seemed like I'd done all the work for the move while she had been playing with friends. What kind of relationship is this? I wondered. I grew lonely and morose. So on the eve of the move, I went up to Nana, got drunk on several beers, and watched bored half-naked ladies dance for the sex tourists. She was watching TV when I returned and I gave her the silent treatment (I'm very good at passive aggressive), going to sleep on the far side of the bed.
The next morning before the move we talked, or rather I talked and Pim cried. I said I felt she was with me for my money and the comforts of my apartment, and that I wanted to be with someone who loved me, not what I could give them. I said I thought she was ashamed to be living with an older man (but first I had to explain the concept of shame). Finally she admitted I was right. She said that her friends and co-workers think she is good and smart, and (though she didn't say why) somehow being with an old man violated their standard of "good." She tried to tell me of how hard it is to live a double life. "They think I am free and can do anything I want," said said, "and they do not understand when I tell them I have to go home early." If they knew about us, she said, "I would lose face." Her childhood friend who just married the Belgian thinks she lives in an apartment with a woman friend, and others believe she is still living in a women's dormitory. Only her mother, sister and her best friend Boy, a gay man, know about me. And that, she explained, is because she is closest to them and finds it harder to lie (though she did for many months).
I could see how Pim is torn between her desire to be with me (which brings her comfort, security, my loving her and the things money can provide) and the appearances she feels she must keep up to conform to the rules of Thai culture. It's OK to be with a farang, even an older one, but the gap in our ages pushes the envelope even here. I know now that Pim and I will never be married (recently she has been dropping hints that she wants me to marry her mother!). No matter how permanent this feels, it is temporary. At some point she will realize that she needs a more acceptable mate, one who can give her children. If I were stronger, I would push her away for her own good. But I too am seduced by the comfort of having her by my side. She told me the other day that when we met, "I thought you were no upset man. But now..." People that don't get upset (like Pim), have a jai yen, or cool heart. I have a jai ran, an abundance of impatience. "But I get over upsets very quickly," I told her. "I don't," she replied.
It is a decidedly unequal relationship. In Thai culture, couples agree to take care of one another in whatever way they can. As a farang, who makes five times Pim's monthly salary, I am expected to pay. Her contributions are domestic, cleaning the apartment, washing clothes, and providing affection (which I am convinced is mutual). But now Pim has asked me to contribute 5,000 baht a month for her mother's upkeep (she was recently divorced and has no visible means of support). If I do not do this, Pim will have to take a second job, and that will kill her social life as well as our relationship. In addition, she has run out of money the last week of the past two months and asked me for financial help. From a western viewpoint, this feels very lopsided. My pattern seems to be to find women who take the bulk of my earnings and keep theirs. I'm sure there is some heavy karma involved. Jerry said that in exchange for his support of Lamyai and her extended family, they will take care of him when he is old and even if he is no longer bringing in money. I cannot expect Pim to care for me when I am frail and senile (perish the thought, as my mom would say). So there is no quid pro quo here.
Pim and I, then, are roommates now more than we are lovers or betrothed. I've told her to feel free in her social affairs, and that I would likewise consider myself unencumbered. That might even involve me seeing other women, I suggested to stony silence. We could consider an "open relationship," I said, and tried to explain what that was all about. This is not what I want, but I have to accept that I am as addicted as she by our affair. We both know it is wrong but we can't let go. Our six months living together have opened up parts of my heart I thought forever stuck shut. I want to be with her totally. But the knowledge that I am a guilty pleasure, confined to only half of her life, makes that impossible.
For the moment, however, we will continue as before. But this brief respite in our relationship will force me to reexamine the trajectory of my life. I'm comfortable in this new apartment, and in my rediscovered vocation as a teacher. I now have fifty students who look to me for advice and guidance. Quite a few of the books in my expanding collection need reading, and now that I have a comfortable chair, all that is lacking is a good reading lamp. I'll go looking for that today. Pim and I must exercise our independence. It will not be an easy transition.
I have had a busy social calendar lately. Dr. Holly and I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last week to hear historian Chris Baker and Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University, talk on the role of the military in Thai politics. The military here is relatively independent of the checks and balances of civilian government, largely due to the power it was given by huge amounts of U.S. aid during the Vietnam War. There are over 15,000 "golf generals" who have little to do. And after a period of falling esteem and support, the military is stronger than over since its 2006 coup. On another afternoon, Holly, Pandit and I went to an exhibit of paintings by Little Bang Sangha member Sarah Sutro at the Neilson Hays Library where I had an excellent lunch of "steak chille." Sarah's "Palms and Landscape" water colors on display in the café and Rotunda of the 100-year-old building were simple and striking. And finally, the sangha had its third movie discussion event last Saturday. After a sumptuous brunch at the Taipan Hotel, two dozen of us repaired to an upstairs room to watch Jane Campion's film "Holy Smoke," with Kate Winslet as a guru's groupie and Harvey Keitel as the deprogrammer who attempts to set her straight. Pandit presented the interesting perspective of both characters being two sides of a single seeking individual. This helped to make sense of the transference of identities, with each in control at different points of the film. I suggested that "be kind" was the message of the film (and which Keitel wrote in reverse lettering on Winslet's forehead in one scene). After demolishing the deprogrammer's macho certainties, Winslet turns to show him compassion. My only problem with the film was the jarring clash of genres. At one moment it's a comedic farce, at the other a spiritual lesson. In the end, everyone is wiser and happier. But maybe that's the way it should be?
The picture below was taken at Wat Yannawa. Pandit, Holly and I visited a display of Buddhist relics and this is one of several shrines. I expected to see bones and teeth supposedly from The Buddha but instead found what looked like mostly small stones inside of gold and silver holders. Pandit explained that the objects were manifested by the Buddha and true adepts can tell the real from the fraudulent. There were also globes and petrified portions of nagas (sea serpents), and some of the people held their arms out to receive vibrations. We all tried and Holly said she felt something. In this photo I found the rocket shaped lava lamps particularly interesting.