Monday, June 15, 2009

Life on a Roller Coaster

The Vortex is no ordinary roller coaster, as this video from YouTube illustrates. What was I thinking? The Big Dipper in Santa Cruz, perhaps. There's one of these death-defying machines at Great America in Santa Clara. There's also one at Six Flags (which just filed for bankruptcy, fun being no longer affordable). That we were securely strapped in as if taking off to the moon should have been a clue. I teased my friend when she threatened to close her eyes. We began to move and slowly climbed to the top. The rest is a blur. I was barely able to open my eyes, much less see anything. I screamed, we all screamed. "I thought I die," Nan said afterward. I nearly tossed my cookies.

And that's how life is, right? A slow climb, then a jerky and heart-racing middle passage with many strange and scary twists and turns, followed by a gradual slowdown as your car nears the end of the track. A neat metaphor, but it doesn't seem to apply to me as I race down the track in Thailand. I should be listening to a slow tune on the merry-go-round now that I've reached the sunset years, my efforts to grab the brass ring over and done with. I suppose the big impending seven-oh colors everything. A shrink would say that my association with young Thai ladies is a blatant attempt to hold onto my youth. Other seniors hit the treadmill or the tanning salon. I went with my new sweetie to Siam Park on Saturday, Bangkok's answer to Disneyland, and rode the Vortex and other assorted amusements for thrill seekers (she refused to get on the Boomerang).

Siam Park wasn't exactly a disappointment, but it's day had clearly passed. I expected big crowds on a weekend, but you could hardly gather a quorum on the rides. We rode in an enclosed revolving platform up to the top of a 100-meter Si-Am Tower for a magnificent view that included the skyscrapers of Bangkok in the distance, and we spun around in the Condor's bird-shaped cars at a height of 50 meters. We plummeted from a height of 75 meters in Giant Drop (I was asked if I had heart problems) which took our breath away. And we stumbled in the dark through Big Double Shock as mouth-eaten and dusty cadavers tried to scare us. There were fountains and giant statues of cute animals and Asian warriors and numerous snack stands without customers. Several new rides were under construction including a Log Flume ride that reminded me of the Boardwalk back in California. Groups of teenagers and families with kids strolled the nearly empty lanes. Where were the people? Located on the eastern outskirts of the city, Suan Siam (the Thai name) would be easy to reach by private car. But our journey by bus was a different matter. We took one bus to Victory Monument and then discovered that the bus we wanted to take to the park had been replaced by numerous buses going to Ramkhanhaeng University for Saturday classes. Finally one arrived that would get us to the park, but the entire trip took nearly two and a half hours. Life as a journey to an amusement park?

After a few hot and sweaty rides, we headed toward "Asia's largest water park," a collection of pools and slides that occupied the biggest slice of land in Siam Park. Yes, that's me by the Speed Slide, obviously in need of Kramer's notorious invention. This one and the Super Spiral were loads of fun, and there was no waiting in line for the downhill plunge. The largest body of water featured a machine-generated wave and a wall of waterfalls surrounded the kiddie pond. Sling-back chairs were everywhere, some occupied by picnicking families, and the air was filled with happy screams and shouts (we were too far from the Vortex passengers to hear their cries for help). Canals with rivers of flowing water meandered between the islands where the old people ate and slept. Fat gray rain clouds drifted overhead but the only water I experienced came in the pools and down the slides. Even though we missed Jurassic Adventure and African Adventure, Siam Park was a delightful place to pass a Saturday afternoon.

My son observes that "your recent blogs have been less personal." Sometimes one has to be oblique. Today I wrote to a new woman friend in my age bracket on Facebook who lives in Bangkok that I was "the typical older farang with a young Thai girlfriend." Truth in advertising. That same son does not support me in "dating women so young." Imagine, he suggests, "your father being with a woman so different from your mother," and I confess the image boggles my mind. My father always seemed old. He would come home smelling of booze and fall asleep in his chair before the TV. Maybe a younger woman would have done him some good. My son wants me to "find someone to grow old with, rather than someone to take care of you and be of service." I tried to grow old with his mother but she wasn't having any of it. So I've come to Thailand in hopes of finding someone who would care for me and that I could love until I die. But I will grow old -- am indeed already old -- well before the women I have loved here in Thailand.

I promised Mot when we separated that I would look for someone much older than her to take care of me. I had been seeing Mot for several months and our feelings for each other were deep and mutual. But she made it very clear the first night we went home together that she could not be my girlfriend. She lives on the other side of the city with her sister who is studying law at Ramkhamhaeng and she teaches English six days a week. Besides the logistical problems, Mot felt her mother in Roi Et could never accept such an old man into their family. So our affair was doomed, Romeo and Juliet for the 21st century. During my first date with Nan I discovered that most of what she had published in her online profile was false. Even the photo was of someone else. While younger than Mot, Nan told me that her mother in Phayao had taught her to be independent. She had her nose pierced when she was younger and wore multiple earrings in one ear. And she lived openly with with her boyfriend during college. But he got another girl at the factory where they worked pregnant. "I hate factory girls," she told me yesterday. When she moved to Bangkok to work in an office a year ago, she decided she wanted to meet an older farang. I fit the bill.

Now we are getting to know each other, and a rocky road (or a jerky roller coaster) it is proving to be. I've discovered that it's very easy to talk about myself. Of course we converse in English. But I know less about her. Yesterday she told me rather abruptly that she had to go back to her room to see her younger sister. Ann is a college student with a Thai boyfriend not all that much younger than me. Nan took her belongings and left, saying she would come back in the evening. I began to think she had other plans, even a date with another man, and angrily sent her an SMS telling her not to return. Then I wrote her an email detailing my worries and upset. A few hours later she sent me a long email (her ability to write in English is vastly superior to that of others I've met), explaining that her sister and boyfriend were fighting over the sister's visit to a disco last night and she had to mediate between them. But she had been unable to explain the complexity of it to me in English. In the evening we talked on the phone. She laughingly called me "Mr. Upset Man," not the first time that label has been applied to this temperamental farang.

Speaking of age differences, I've been doing some research into the lives of Anna Leonowens and King Mongut of Siam, also known as Rama IV. In the spirit of intellectual inquiry, I downloaded and watched all three films based on their encounter in the 1860s. The first, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison, came out in 1946, and the last, with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat, was released in 1999. The best known film was "The King and I" starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, which was released in 1956. All three were based on the diaries of Anna, the governess to King Mongut's many children, including Prince Chulalongkorn, and the novel based on the diaries by Margaret Landon. According to Wikipedia, the King was born in 1804 and Anna in 1831, which makes their age difference 27 years, and the King was 58 and Anna 31 when they met. But their movie counterparts are closer in age. Dunne was 10 years older than Harrison, and Brynner a year older than Kerr. Foster was 7 years young than Chow Yun-Fat. After seeing all three films, I sympathize with the Thai decision to ban the film and the books from which they were created. The King in all of them is a bit of a buffoon (less so in the more recent film) and Anna is portrayed as a beacon of western civilization, come to bring culture and knowledge to the Asian barbarians. It's a clear case of "orientalism" (as Edward Said has explained it), an attempted colonization of the culture. The equivalent would be a film with Abraham Lincoln tap dancing with Suzie Wong.

Last week I played "America" by Simon & Garfunkel for my class of monks. The theme of our unit was "The Way We Live" with a focus on America. I explained that Simon was writing about a couple traveling across America by bus and told them the meaning of "turnpike," "Michigan,""hitchhike" and "scenery." This week there is a section on James Bond and I'm going to play them Lulu's version of "The Man With the Golden Gun." Finding songs to play for my students is a kick, and I'm glad I've got a selection of over 11,000 on my iPod to choose from. Their suggestions are from the English pop library that young Thais seem to prefer, Britney, Robbie Williams, Maroon 5 and Mariah Carey. Last week I asked them to talk about what they missed from home. Most of my students come from countries bordering Thailand -- Cambodia, Laos and Shan State, Myanmar. Even those from within Thailand come from distant villages. Typically, they missed their family and friends, and perhaps the local cuisine (Isan food is distinct, and I learned about the tastiness of Shan noodles). When I asked if they missed their language, many of them got the connection. Some of them, particularly from Burma, had to learn three languages just to be able to study English as a fourth. They are extremely versatile.

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