When I first came to Bangkok from Seattle, I was surprised and delighted by the personal safety that I found in that sprawling city. In my introductory months the streets of Thailand’s capital looked grim and squalid, dominated by concrete shops with their jumble of goods spilling from fronts that were open to the street, dogs with virulent, repulsive skin diseases, and unrestrained piles of garbage. Only in the areas near the luxurious hotels and shopping malls was there a semblance of what I regarded as a city, augmented with the exotic touch of litter cans. Once I left those parts of town, I could walk for miles, clutching an empty soda can or a bag that held only a few crumbled bits of fried bananas, before I finally found a receptacle where I could toss these things away.
But from the very beginning of my Thai time, when almost everything that surrounded me looked incomprehensible, from the Sanskrit-based alphabet to the squiggly wormlike objects that floated in jars of pink, green, or black liquid on food carts, friends told me that I could walk anywhere in Bangkok, at any time of day or night, without fear. Even the dogs who looked so menacing in their feral clusters would leave me alone. As my confidence grew and I expanded my explorations of the city, I learned that this was true.
Only once did I ever feel threatened, in broad daylight, when a dog in my neighborhood barked with a note of authority that verged on outright attack and refused to back down when I told him to go. I picked up a rock and we were both stunned when it hit him hard on the flank. He never bothered me again.
Friends assured me that any crime I might encounter would involve stealth, not bodily harm. Danger lurked, not on the streets, but on crowded escalators in the malls where thieves would cut into the purses of shoppers and make off with whatever valuables they might find. One particularly vile woman did this to mourners as they stood in line to pay their final respects to the revered mother of the king, an act heinous enough to make it to the pages of the Bangkok Post.
One of my students told me that a British girl who was traveling on her own in one of the outlying provinces had recently been attacked by a motorcycle taxi driver, “But,” he said reassuringly, “you’re old. You don’t have to worry.”
His sad assessment was quite accurate. There was little distinction at that time between middle age and old age in Thailand. Once the first wrinkle sprouted, senility was right around the corner. When I finally began to go out at night to listen to rock and roll at a downtown club, I was the only woman over the age of forty in the place. And when I left after midnight to walk to the nearest bus stop, I moved through the dark streets without any need for caution, other than keeping a close lookout for holes in the sidewalk.
Once in a while, glimmers of danger peeked from beneath the envelope of safety that surrounded me. A stateside friend who now made her home in Saigon came to visit and told Rod and me that every foreigner in that city was under such tight surveillance that if one of them disappeared, the police would swiftly find them. “That’s not true here,” Rodney told me later. “If a Thai person wanted you to disappear, nobody would ever find you. It happens to Thai people all the time.”
There were stories in the Bangkok Post of dismembered torsos found in abandoned suitcases, but these were usually attributed to underworld business transactions that had gone wrong. An Englishman who loved to go to the Thai boxing matches told me of the night that he ate at a nearby restaurant after the fights. “Suddenly I heard pop-pop-pop, and when I looked out into the street, I saw a man lying across the front of a Mercedes with a hole in his head and two in his chest. He’d lost a lot of money betting on a fighter and he didn’t pay up.” The more seasoned residents of Bangkok who heard this story with me all agreed that for a welsher, this was an appropriate fate.
Closer to home, a fellow-teacher told me that he had come home drunk one night and was attacked while he was walking down a street near our apartment building. “Three guys with a knife,” he said, “One of them cut my arm but when I began to bleed, they all freaked out and ran away without my wallet.” This story prompted me to take taxis when I returned home late at night for a while, until I realized that the blessings of age and the fact that I came home sober were enough to keep me from being mugged.
But truly what kept me safe was an elaborate hierarchical social system derived from Confucianism, in which age trumped youth and rich superseded poor. When I walked down one of my neighborhood’s narrow streets, if any sort of vehicle approached, I was the one to give way. If a pick-up truck approached an automobile, the truck pulled over, and a motorcycle would give that same ground to a truck.
The perception of wealth was as important as wealth itself in Bangkok’s neighborhoods. Gold shops were everywhere and our reluctant housekeeper wasn’t the only laborer who put most of her salary into gold jewelry. Gold was safer than money in the bank, friends told me, and it provided an irrefutable status indicator when it was worn in public.
Pale skin was prized because those who had it were obviously not farmers or manual laborers. By extension, for a long time even the poorest of foreigners were given automatic status by virtue of their complexions.
When people of similar social status came together, the hierarchy became based upon longevity. “How old are you?” was a question that wasn’t considered rude; it was one of practicality. The younger deferred to the older, in a way that I, often the oldest when with my Thai friends, found intensely embarrassing. Still my age gave me a protective shield, along with my slightly paler skin color, and I traveled alone throughout the country without a flicker of apprehension.
The underpinning of Thailand’s stability was based upon the relationship of phi/nong, older sibling/younger sibling; those who were nong lived under the guidance of their phi’s greater experience and superior wisdom. When wealth came into play, this skewed the equation somewhat, but even so, a wealthy young person would show respect to the advanced years of someone older and poorer. The king and queen, regardless of how young they might be when they ascended to the throne, were regarded as the parents of the entire country, and their birthdays were celebrated as Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.
On the surface, Thailand was just one big happy family. Below that façade was a stew of disquiet that led to violent protests and military coups on a semi-regular basis. I had arrived several years after soldiers had killed student demonstrators in the streets of Bangkok. Only the king’s intervention had restored peace to his kingdom, or so I was told.
Few people talked about this tragedy in any sort of detail. One of my students said he had watched a close friend die as they both marched near Democracy Monument, so now he avoided politics. An older businessman who had been part of what he called the Mobile Mob, the affluent protestors who carried mobile phones (which were rare in the early ‘90s), told me that all politicians were “dirty” and only the king was worthy of the country’s respect. It was as though this and the other lethal political clashes of the past two decades had been vicious sibling squabbles that weren’t to be discussed with people outside of the family circle, now that the conflicts had been smoothed over.
I was traveling outside of the country when once again political differences threatened to tear Thailand apart, and new distinctions became part of the common vocabulary, ones that were class-based, rather than the benign labels of phi/nong. People took pride in being phrai or peasants, disdained the salim who were middle class, and hated the amart, the wealthy and powerful. To naïve foreigners like me, these divisions were shocking, as though the Brady Bunch were suddenly revealed to be a hideously dysfunctional family.
Although surface tranquility was restored by the military, peace this time around was obviously only a stop-gap. “Things have changed,” a Thai friend said, “People are different now. I don’t feel as though I’m in Bangkok anymore.”
Neither did I. The first time that I saw a Westerner begging on the street was soon after the recent social upheaval and my reaction was not one of compassion. He assailed the safe status quo that I had benefited from for years, he and the others who joined him as mendicants, and when I saw them, I felt an unexpected surge of contempt and fear.
But they were downtown, not in the area that I lived in and loved. Outside of the central business district that had grown as rapidly as a malignant tumor over the past decade, Bangkok seemed unchanged. At least it looked that way to me, a resident whose language comprehension was that of a bright three-year-old child. I couldn’t read the Thai newspapers nor could I have understood a political discussion in Thai if I were only two inches away from one. Although I was smart enough to know that smiles in Thailand covered a multitude of different emotions, I was relieved to see those smiles on the streets that I walked through.
The area I claimed as my own was wide-ranging, and although my understanding of it was superficial, I felt I had a working knowledge of my territory. Part of it was a neighborhood quite distinct from the one I lived in; its streets were seedier, studded with down-at-the-heel hotels, small and smoky bars, and a flourishing population of local drug-users. In spite of its rough edges, I’d always felt comfortable there, skimming its surface, eating in its street stalls, and having dinner once in a while at a restaurant that was as foreign as I was.
Abu Ibrahim was one of the few places on my turf where I could eat food that wasn’t Thai and where the people who welcomed me weren’t either. Early on in my Bangkok life I’d come to this place to revel in its differences from what surrounded me every day and over the years the Indian owner and I had found a sort of unspoken kinship. Although we both lived in Thailand, neither of us would ever be Thai.
I was on my way there one late afternoon to meet a friend and began to make my way across a gigantic metal footbridge. It was an imposing structure that towered above the intersection of two busy streets and extended for what would be almost half a block in a U.S city. Since it was well before the evening rush hour, I was the only person on the bridge, or so I thought. But as I began to walk across it, I saw a man huddled at the other end.
I have no idea what made me stop and turn back toward the staircase that would take me down to the sidewalk. I didn’t feel afraid but there was a ripple of disquiet that unsettled me. Something wasn’t right and I suddenly wanted to be back among the moving tide of pedestrians on the ground.
As I walked slowly but deliberately toward the stairs, I felt the touch of a hand and turned to see a man standing beside me. He was middle-aged, wearing worn clothing, and he was dirty. In a country where cleanliness is a religion, this was a big warning sign.
“I’m hungry,” he said, “please give me twenty baht,” and as I attempted to shrug his hand away from my arm, his grip tightened.
“No,” I said and tried to move away. His other hand came up to grab the strap of my shoulder bag and time became paralyzed into an eerie stillness.
We were standing next to the railing of the footbridge that came up only as high as my waist and I was in the grip of a man who was surprisingly stronger than he looked. I realized that it wouldn’t be difficult for him to push me over the rail into the street but that he would only do that after he had taken possession of my bag. I clutched its strap like a lifeline.
At the other end of the bridge a figure appeared at the head of the stairs. My assailant had his back turned and didn’t see that we were no longer alone; his struggles continued as a well-dressed older man approached us at a leisurely pace.
“Help me,” I begged in Thai as the new arrival drew near. Without slowing his steps or changing the expression on his face, he said only a few words to the man who held me in place, in a tone of voice that I would use in reprimand to a disobedient dog. Suddenly I was free to move away toward the stairs, while my erstwhile attacker returned to his end of the bridge.
It had only took a few minutes for my Bangkok bubble to pop and dissolve into a distant memory. I walked with the feeling of insistent fingers burned into my arm, realizing what I owed to the continuing power of phi/nong. Although other protective shields seemed to have faded into an almost mythical past in this new century of social revolution, somehow the hierarchy of siblings was firmly in place, at least for now.