Monday, November 30, 2009

Confessions of a Absent Pater Familias

For many years, our family celebrated Thanksgiving with the extended family of my good friend Peter and that day was always a joyous chaos of kids and conversation, food and indigestion. After my immediate family fell apart, I went annually to my oldest son's home in Sonoma where his wife, with the assist of her sister-in-law, always prepared a feast that would make Martha Stewart proud. Last week, stuck in my apartment in Bangkok with bronchitis and laryngitis, I was able to see photos of this year's celebration posted instantly on Facebook from my son's iPhone. And my extended family gathered this year at the home of Peter's son (he's moved back into the house where he grew up) and he, too, posted a photo on Facebook, of a plate filled with turkey and all the trimmings. The matriarch of this clan, my friend and former landlady, sent me lots of details about who brought what to the Thanksgiving table. "Of course we missed you'" she wrote, "but I am getting used to not having you around."

It's hard for an American expat not to get sentimental; the myth of togetherness between the first colonists and the Indians they soon would drive out of New England (those they didn't kill) is drilled deep into our bones. And who can quarrel with the virtue of giving thanks, even if many of the 18th and 19th century Thanksgivings in the U.S. were celebrations of victory in battle? The overriding narrative is that Thanksgiving is a time for family and friends to gather for a celebratory meal and to count their blessings. It's a wonderful vision. I had intended to take Nan to meet Jerry and Eric at Bully's Pub on Sukhumvit, a bar owned by an American where Jerry and I had enjoyed a sumptuous repast of traditional turkey et al last year. But ill health forced me to cancel. So I stayed home on the couch, hacking and wheezing, and watched lots of movies (highly recommend: "Goodbye Solo," "District 9" and "The Private Lives of Pippa Lee"; Unfortunately the demise of torrent giant Mininova may make it more difficult to stock my film library).

It's not easy to write about the absence of family without sounding maudlin. I was once the most sentimental of pater familias. Hallmark card commercials would make me weep. I wanted so much to achieve the Norman Rockwell version of the Thanksgiving-Christmas season that failure was inevitable. My digestion system rebelled after days of turkey and leftovers. I found I could no longer shop for presents since nothing I found was good enough for those I loved. The reverse side of an obsession with holiday traditions is "bah humbug!"

My youngest son sent me a Thanksgiving email greeting the day after. The two middle children remained silent. All I had for consolation from Sonoma were a few online photos. Out of sight, out of mind, is trite but true. And of course I have no one to blame for the absence of family now but myself. I chose to cut my ties with America over two years ago to live permanently in Thailand. There were many different reasons to leave, but one was the failure of our family to stay together. While still living in proximity to past memories, I was unable to let go of might-have-beens. The new friends and adopted families I found did not make up for the two broken families (the first marriage ended 30 years ago) I had left behind in my wake. Only by redefining who I was, by starting life over in another place, did it seem I could put the shambles of a past behind me. Since all seemed to be doing fine without me, I could think of no reason not to leave.

When my marriage ended, I was told it would take me half the time we had been together to get over it. Another six years to go. I wonder if the same formula applies to expats. How long will it take for me to no longer think of myself as an America? Jerry has been here for 15 years and he reacts with disgust at the implied identification. I read the New York Times online and rant about the failures of Obama as an interested observer. Why do I care about Tiger Woods or Sarah Palin? It's difficult for me to abandon fahrenheit for celsius, pounds for kilos, and dollars for baht. I maintain a U.S. address at my son's house and bank accounts in California, while "true" expats have their Social Security checks sent directly here. Since coming to Thailand I've made as well as lost friends, met a fascinating array of international residents and visitors, and have been welcomed by several communities of expats, like the National Museum Volunteers and the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. I'll never become fluent in the language and will always remain an outsider, but the rewards of living in the "Land of Smiles" continue to outweigh the disadvantages.

Chief among them is my relationship with Nan. She is the joy of my life now. An attentive reader will know that I have long been looking for love in Thailand, since my visit to Ko Samui nearly three years ago when I had a "girlfriend experience" with a bar girl there. A large number of foreigners come to Thailand looking for sex, an easily obtained commodity. I soon determined that this was not enough for me, and looked online for what I described as "the last love of my life." It's not easy being a cliché, an older farang who dates women young enough to be his daughter. Did I want their youth to rub off on me? I met some lovely women who had different reasons for wanting to take care of an old man, and one I lived with for ten months before she decided the age difference was too much for her. Six months ago I met Nan after an email exchange and took her to dinner at Sizzler (she wanted farang food). Improbable as it may sound, this young woman from a small village in Phayao in the north of Thailand and I fell in love with each other. We've been living together now for almost three months, and are building a family together. I met her mother, half-brother and cousin in Chiang Rai in September, and last weekend her sister Ann came to visit with her boyfriend Surin. At the end of the year Nan and I will take a luxurious six-day vacation on Ko Samui where my longing for love began.

I don't expect to become a pater familias (a term for the head of a Roman household) in the traditional sense. I cannot have any more children and Nan says she's fine with that. She feels as if Edward, the 7-year-0ld son of an aunt who died of cancer, and whom she helped raise, is her child. She knows that village life has little appeal for me, and that I believe my savings is insufficient to cover the "bride price" necessary for a Thai country wedding. My Social Security income and teacher's salary, however, is more than enough for a comfortable life in Bangkok. Surin, a retired bank official, is looking for a house in which to invest, one large enough for us with visits from Ann on weekends (she's still at university). Next year Nan will go back to school herself to finish the last two years of her bachelor's degree. I warn Nan that I may have no more than ten good years left, and she says that's enough for her (but jokes that she may die before me, you never know). We hold hands while walking on the street every day and snuggle on the couch in the evenings to watch a Korean historical soap dubbed in Thai ("The Painter of the Wind" with the ultra-cute Moon Geun-young playing a male artist). Yesterday she talked me into going to the hospital to see a doctor for my bronchitis and laryngitis where she translated for me, and now she makes sure I take the medication along with a honey-lemon concoction she made. I don't know what I've done to deserve this, but I accept it with gratitude.

Last week I went to the new Immigration Division office in the huge new Government Center on Chaeng Wattana near the old Don Muang Airport. Foreign residents have to report in person every 90 days from the date of their last entry into the Kingdom and my time was up. It's far to the north of the city proper and I took two buses and a special shuttle (a two-hour journey) to the facility which from the outside looks like a spaceship and inside resembles an artificial world. The old office on Suan Phlu was closer but was often as crowded as a cattle car. It only took 15 minutes to process my paperwork and afterward I explored the subterranean city of shops, cafes and banks. There were few people about and I expect many of the government offices have not yet been filled. Bangkok's notorious traffic and the threat from submersion by sea water because of global warming no doubt necessitate the move inland. The northern suburbs are a mass of construction with major university campuses and megamalls setting up shop. My return trip by taxi, Skytrain and bus was a half hour shorter if a bit more expensive. But it's a journey to which an expat must become accustomed.

I joined the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) a couple of months ago but have not visited their penthouse facilities very often since then. A week ago I attended new members night where quite a few old hands as well as newcomers were given a tour of the media offices that share space in the Penthouse with the FCCT. The BBC's new Asian correspondent, Alistair Leithead, let visitors pretend they were telecasting from the balcony studio with a real night skyline backdrop. Karen Percy, Southeast Asia correspondent for the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, took us around her offices down the hall which included a fake skyline backdrop. At AsiaWorks we were shown a full compliment of broadcasting services that are used by such clients as CBS, Al Jazeera and the Discovery Channel. CNN has an office in the building but it was not part of the tour. The FCCT bar is quite popular and one fiftyish Brit told me he comes frequently to get away from his Thai wife and two-year-old twins. The food is excellent and a trio was playing jazz tunes while overheard monitors showed scenes from a dozen TV networks.

Thankfully, I missed Black Friday back in the U.S. (or as I prefer to think of it, Buy Nothing Day), but it's impossible to escape the cheezy decorations in every major store here in Bangkok. Farang are few and far between in Pinklao, my neighborhood, but there is this monster fake tree rising several floors in the Central Mall and numerous models of Santa Claus on display at Tesco Lotus. The decorations, however, are relentlessly secular. I have yet to see a creche. Here, I don't feel obliged to buy presents. But I do have my eye on a new camera, my first SLR. It's a Canon 500D, and I've found a Japanese version that is nearly $200 cheaper. Yesterday I spied a small fiberglass tree on sale next to a selection of tinsel, ornaments and lights. I'm tempted to get it for our apartment so Nan can experience a little of the Christmas spirit. Last year I went for mulled wine and mince pies at the Anglican church and I heard a performance of Handel's Messiah at a Catholic church. I've even thought about taking her to a Christmas eve midnight mass, although it will probably be in Thai. This will be my third Christmas in Thailand and the old programming is fading away. Or maybe it's only hiding.

1 comment:

Janet Brown said...

Will, I am thankful for the honesty that you shine upon the world we both live in and the thoughts you bring to me as I read your poste--thank you!