Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Losing Track of the Seasons

A few days ago the seasons turned somewhere, but not in Bangkok. Spring came to the northern hemisphere and a friend sent me a photo of ice breaking up on a stream in Maine. It was the vernal equinox for my former neighbors in California (I saw reports of unseasonable snow on the hills), while Cyprian currently touring in Australia experienced the autumnal equinox, the beginning of fall for the Aussies. Here in Bangkok, it's hot, and school's out for summer.

I've been warned about wearing a hat, and lathering with sun block. Thais cover their heads with handbags, shopping bags or newspapers when the sun beats down without mercy. Visitors like me sweat copiously (I've rarely seen sweat on a Thai) and my shirt changes color. Indoors, the air conditioning is always cranked up to frigid and I take a shawl with me to keep warm when I go to the cinema. The other day I bought a VIP ticket for 250 baht (over twice the usual rate) and found a blanket on my seat along with a complimentary beverage. That's luxury. The movie was "Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun-Li" and it was forgettable. But the coldness was memorable, like a spring breeze to an astronaut on Mars.

It was cooler on the river yesterday when I went to meet Janet Brown for lunch. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across Janet's blog about her love affair with Bangkok, and the very next day I saw, and bought, her book with the same name, Tone Deaf in Bangkok and Other Places. She writes about Thailand in a way that inspires recognition and envy: THIS is what I've felt about the city since I first came here five years ago, and DAMN, I wish I could say it so well. I loaned Janet's book to Molly last week during her visit here and she loved it; on the way to the airport she confessed that she likes Bangkok. My tour and Janet's book did the trick.

Tone Deaf in Bangkok is a love letter to the city. "Like all lifelong relationships, this one has its flaws. It certainly wasn't love at first sight or a whirlwind romance, and I've tried to file divorce papers more than once, but I've always come crawling back." Janet was raised in Alaska and spent most of her life in Seattle where she worked as a bookseller, but after her two sons left home she came to Bangkok fifteen years ago to teach English. She came and went a number of times before deciding last year to return for good, "to remain until the day I die." When people ask her why,
I babble something vague and incoherent about the light, the food, the people, the climate, and the lack of earthquakes, which is a major strong point to someone who has always lived on a fault line. If pressed to go beyond that glib litany, I answer with a mosaic of facts: the beauty and ugliness that co-exist side by side, the warmth and humor behind the omnipresent masks of smiles, the irrepressibly free spirit of the city that is often regulated, but never with any lasting success. Then I get lost, in the scent of jasmine and the stench of garbage, in the shrill piercing of the whistles of security guards as they direct vehicles in and out of their domains, in the blazing colors of temples, in the frustration of being caught once again in the traffic jam of memory that traps me when I think of Bangkok.
So she tells stories about people and experiences she's had living in Thailand, about her neighbors and a handsome Thai language teacher, the wild cats she adopts, the difficulty of finding cotton underpants and clothes that fit, eating on the street, trying to master the difficult tonal language, and traveling to Cambodia to gawk at the Khmer temples and to Lopburi where the monkeys scamper around ancient ruins. And throughout this lovely, slim book, she eloquently explains why "I'm thoroughly besotted with Bangkok."
When I think of the many times I've cursed and complained about this city, it's strange for me to realize that my most enduring and joyful relationship has been with Bangkok, and I only regret it took me so long to find this place that I'm convinced is mine.
I was surprised to find this was Janet's first book. She has spent much of her life selling other's authors' books, and now she represents her publisher, San Francisco-based ThingsAsian Press, in Asia. A few weeks ago she visited Beijing, and soon she will travel to Singapore before returning to the U.S. to attend several major book fairs. Tone Deaf in Bangkok is beautifully designed, with excellent photographs by Nana Chen of scenes typical of the city. Janet is a traveler rather than a tourist, but her book might offer a new glimpse of the city to the short-term visitor.
Bangkok is a city that bulges with small adventures and large kindnesses, which can be found in a heartbeat if you leave your guidebook in your hotel room and avoid the spots where entrepreneurial souls address you in English.
I love that she calls Thonburi across the river where I live "the Brooklyn of Bangkok," a place "that looks far less interesting than it actually is." Whenever I see a farang tourist in the street here, I think they've lost their way. A couple of days ago I went to visit Jerry at his apartment in Sukhumvit to catch up on the news since he returned from visiting his family in Surin. In that part of the city tourists dominate, attracting the "entrepreneurial souls" Janet mentions, who survive or starve off the largesse of visitors fooled into thinking they're seeing the "real" Thailand. It's Thailand, alright, but one largely skewed by selling tourists a selective experience, mediated by luxury hotels, signs in English, bar girls, and Starbucks.

With the hot weather come gorgeous skies colored by varieties of blue and chrome, clouds to die for and the occasional thunder shower. I miss my kids, and teaching the monks. Last week I turned in grades for the term and on Monday I picked up my final salary (an envelope of cash, enough to pay April's rent). The day after Molly left I bought a new mobile phone, choosing a basic Nokia 3110 "Classic" (it's the most popular brand in Thailand) rather than an iPhone since the 3G network is not in operation yet in Thailand and Apple's technotoy is unduly expensive. All weekend I struggled to learn the new commands. I bought a cord to connect the phone to my computer and have managed to dowload songs to hear and photos for most of the friends in my phone book. But I continue to be frusted by the predictive text editor.

As I write this, I've been watching President Obama's press conference on CNN. How wonderful to have an articulate chief executive! But it's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff in the news about the global economic meltdown. Something's happening, but I don't know what it is. So I watch the baht/dollar exchange rate, hoping that it tilts in my favor. On the surface, the political scene in Thailand is placid. Prime Minister Abhisit smiles, is articulate like Obama, and fails to impress the opposition (like their counterparts in the GOP). The little people who are hurting are invisible, here as well as in the U.S. (where a questioner at the news conference claimed that 1 in 5 children is homeless). I suspect Thais are more resilient when poverty beckons than Americans and Europeans who look in vain for the expected safety net. The only net here is provided by relatives, and Thai families are usually close and supportive. Abhisit is promising a stimulus package of 2000 baht to selected citizens (which will skip over the poor illegal immigrants) but it's hard to see how that will solve long-term problems like an export economy faced with no buyers.

If only I had Janet Brown's talent for telling stories. Of course my sample is small; most of my Thai friends are younger women eager to learn English from a mature teacher. I am privileged to have a window into their lives. Lek learned that her father had been hospitalized with heart problems and diabetes. He left her mother when she was a little girl and her brother refused to loan her money for the trip to Surin. "He thinks my father ruined my life," she told me, "but he still my father." Lek has health problems caused, the doctor told her, by lifting heavy weights at work. She sent me a message from the hospital: "I am very sad." Mot also lost her father at an early age, from lung trouble. Now she shares a small room with her half-sister, a university student. "She's been in school for five years. I hope she will graduate soon." The sister is ten years younger and Mot subsidizes her expenses but forbids her from having a boyfriend until she graduates. She makes the equivalent of $12 a day teaching English and works six days a week. At 32, she has never had a boyfriend. Jin thought she had one, an Australian doctor she met online a year ago. Earlier this month they finally met in Singapore for a five-day holiday together. She had sex for the first time. It was wonderful, she wrote me, but his silence afterwards was upsetting. Jin sends him emails and text messages professing her love and asking about his future plans for her. He works in a hospital and raises two small kids as a single parent. He responded to Jin's upset with: "Whatever." What does that mean? she asked me.

Some of you have noticed that my blogging has slowed down to an average of four posts a month compared to the 6-10 each month last year. In April I will mark three years on the net, and I'm proud of what I've written and the photographs that I've taken and included. It's easier to write when life changes frequently. Now my existence seems more settled, more routine. The need for a re-entry permit and the bureaucratic red tape that entails has made me think twice about leaving the country, to visit Bali for example. April is a blank slate, and I continue to contemplate a trip to the beaches of Ko Chang, the "elephant island." However, there are new friendships in Bangkok that need cultivation. Also, I was asked to prepare a paper for a conference on global Buddhism in May hosted by my university. I've been researching the contrasts between a Thai Buddhism suffused by ritual and superstition with the generic American Buddhism focused on meditation. There is a wealth of material about the topic on the web, and I love a research project to get the intellectual juices flowing. Of course, I can write on the island as well as at home. Next Sunday my friend Frank from San Francisco will shave his head at the age of 72 and becoming ordained as a Buddhist monk. All of the Little Bang Sangha folks will be there to lend support and enjoy the post-ordination feast. Today I'm going to hear a talk in English by Burmese monk Sayadaw U Jotika. I'm told he's visited Santa Cruz, perhaps to speak at the Burmese temple in Boulder Creek on the road to Big Basin.

Janet was very complimentary about this blog, but I know my talents for writing are different than hers. I recall giving up the ambition to be a novelist after reading Lawrence Durrell's magnificent The Alexandrian Quartet, and relinquishing the desire to be a professional musician after realizing I could never be nearly as good as the people whose work I admired (Bud Shank, for example, who played masterfully the instruments I was learning). Maybe I'll write about Bangkok differently after reading Janet Brown. My hope is to be able to write about desire and aging from the inside in a way that inspires and encourages those who have been damaged by unreal expectations and the chains of culture. The method I choose is one of word jazz, riffing on a theme without pause or rewrite. I think to tell the truth about one's experience, rigorously and with humor and insight, is a worthy goal.


Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

This made me laugh out loud....

"Thai families are close and supportive.......He left her mother when she was a little girl and her brother refused to loan her money for the trip to Surin."

Seriously, I often hear from people about how Thai families are closer-knit than 'western', but my experience proves that, basically, there is very little difference.

As to your writing Will - it is excellent! I can seriously see a book come pout of this blog at some stage. Go for it!

All the best,


Janet Brown said...

Agreed,Marcus! Will, you can run with a provocative insight, let it glitter for a bit, and then pick up another--jazz improv indeed.
Your statement about Thai Buddhism vs US is a fine example--I'd like to read or hear an elaboration of that before I begin to discuss (ie argue)it with you.
And thank you for the chat over Beer Lao and the kind words that you've lavished upon Tone Deaf!