Monday, August 24, 2015

Man on the Bridge



 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. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tom Yum Goong, Anyone?


 From an essay collection that I'm working on right now--

One morning in Bangkok, when I was still half asleep, I put my coffee cup down on top of a twenty baht bill that was resting on one of my books—I’d singled it out the night before as fare for the pick-up ride that I later decided not to take. When I saw it I immediately thought oh there’s money for food, because at another time in Bangkok, that’s what a twenty baht bill meant and it was deeply precious. It ensured that I could have a meal, one that I usually shared with friends. At that time in Thailand, twenty baht was worth not much more than a U.S. quarter. Even today it’s only worth around sixty cents, but I still view that bank note with respect. At one time in my life, it kept me alive.

Satang are seldom used nowadays but not too long ago, I hoarded those little gold coins, and the even smaller copper-colored half-satang ones, to use for my pick-up truck fare. The drivers weren’t upset when I handed them over, even though they were the smallest of small change. We all lived in the same community and we were all hungry. We all valued satang.

It had happened so rapidly. One week I was able to spend my holidays on the beach with friends and then suddenly I was unable to pay a full month’s rent unless I did it on an installment plan. It’s a time I look back on with a full measure of horror, and with a lot of gratitude for my kind and understanding landlady.

This happened almost twenty years ago. Now it’s called the Tom Yum Goong financial crisis, an ironic name for a period when a lot of people couldn’t afford to eat Thailand’s legendary hot and sour soup very often. It’s ancient history. People in their twenties are as far removed from that time as I am from the Great Depression, and it’s all as unreal to them as apple-sellers on the streets of Manhattan are to me.

When I was a child, I used to feel a hazy sort of regret for my father when he told me how he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of fourteen to work with my grandfather in the family bakery, but what I felt was an abstract form of sorrow. That disaster was like something I’d read in a novel by Charles Dickens. In the world I lived in, it was unimaginable, in the same way that Bangkok teenagers today can’t imagine a time when eating at a McDonald’s was a luxury, too expensive for many families in Thailand’s capital.

I’ve never been hungry in my own country. Here in the U.S. a quarter for me is just twenty-five cents, useless by itself, laundry money when combined with five more of its kind. Sometimes I dimly remember how many pieces of penny candy that coin bought for me when I was a little girl, but then I recall how tedious it had always been to hear stories like that from my parents, and I keep those memories to myself.

In Thailand the economy began its slow recovery after about a year. I still remember the day Rod and I went to lunch and I devoured a plate heaped with fried rice in three minutes flat. “Would you like another?” Rod asked me. For the first time in my life, I said yes and for the first time in almost a year, I left the table feeling as though at last I’d had enough to eat.

The financial crisis of 1997 was like watching a toddler blow out candles on a birthday cake for the very first time. Slowly, one after another, a flame was extinguished, then another, beginning with Thailand, moving to Indonesia, then Japan. Half of the world rocked on its axis, and it was a long time before the region regained economic stability.

When the U.S. went into its recession ten years after Tom Yum Goong, I lay awake all night in a Bangkok hotel room. When the Chinese stock market tumbled recently, I went into hyperventilation. When the Thai baht weakens, I start to think of what expenses I can cut back on, feeling a very real sense of fear. And Greece curdles my blood, with its xenophobic yearning to abandon the euro and bring back the drachma.

I don’t save string or empty glass bottles, as survivors of the Depression are reputed to have done. I’m not even particularly careful with my money, even when I’m bumping into memories of Thailand’s hungry time. Sometimes I tell stories—the time I traveled across the kingdom alone one New Year’s Eve with a grand total of fifteen dollars to spend on food and lodging, the time a former co-worker in Seattle sent a card with a twenty dollar bill tucked inside that kept me going for two weeks, the time I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that my breasts had gone completely flat. But these aren’t stories I like to think about very much.

What has stayed with me from those days is I always read the financial pages of whatever newspaper might be available, wherever I happen to be in the world. Forget the revolutions, the kidnappings, the ebb and flow of democracy around the globe. The events that change history and turn lives into turmoil rest within stock market reports and currency evaluations. Offshore trading can create financial chaos in a heartbeat. This is the news I monitor, remembering how lightly I overlooked the baht’s fall when it first began to lose half of its value. This is the news that can ruin lives and turn hope into hunger.

Living in Thailand taught me more than a few lessons, but above all, it was there that I learned how intertwined the fortunes of the world are and how one country’s stumble can lead to disaster for damn near all of us. Although I put no faith in currency that can turn to toilet paper overnight, I make sure that I always have a generous supply of rice on hand, Thai rice, of course.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Name Calling


Yesterday I finally viewed the photos of Caitlyn Jenner—a 65-year-old bionic what? We have no word for her in our country except transgender. She claims she is a woman and her outer features are female and beyond the dreams of almost any other 65-year-old woman in the world. She sports the best body that money could buy and a life of pure athleticism could have developed. Everything has been transformed into the most beautiful appurtenances available, bought with a physical and psychological pain that perhaps rivals the growing pains of the typical adolescence. Anatomy isn’t destiny, nor is it physical identity. Caitlyn is, she says, a woman with a penis.

In Thailand she wouldn’t call herself a woman. She’d be one of the third gender, and culturally acknowledged to be that. In the West she has to choose one of two or use “trans” to define herself. In Thailand she would be katoey. How narrow and how revealing our English vocabulary is.

The same criticisms that Nora Ephron laid against James/Jan Morris are cropping up against Bruce/Caitlyn, who seems to look at the state of being female as a perpetual slumber party with the girls and the life-long right to wear nail polish. Morris became a gushing, twee version of Miss Marple in her early interviews but snapped out of it to become a respected writer once again. Maybe it’s the barrage of hormones that turns newly-minted femmes into teenage girls, blithering about hair, make-up, guys? God knows we all go through that stage, even if some of us are smart enough to keep it to ourselves.

And exactly what does Caitlyn mean when she claims her brain is much more female than male? As one of the world’s leading athletic competitors, does she believe that urge to compete and excel is part of her female brain or is that a compensating physical trait developed because she was denied the joys of shopping? I hope she explains because a lot of her fellow-females would like to know about that brain concept, as Elinor Burkett trenchantly inquired in last week’s Sunday NYT.

Burkett seems most annoyed that men are now co-opting the reality of being a woman. “Their truth is not my truth. Their female identities are not my female identity.” Well, no, it isn’t and they aren’t. But they are another sort of female, who in our narrow culture have endured the indignities of being scorned as “effeminate,” “faggot,” and “sick” if they let their female identities slip into the open. That’s a rough road to travel by yourself, as katoey in the West do.

Why can’t we acknowledge that there are more than two forms of gender? And that if brains are shaped by environmental experience, that the experiences of a katoey sculpt a brain that is different, separate but equal, to that of a female and male who grew up in the same culture?

“I was born in the wrong body” isn’t a cop-out, as Birkett suggests. Amy Bloom’s small and insightful book on gender, Normal, proves that. For some, being “born female or male” is the result of a rapid decision made by a doctor who, faced with an infant’s ambiguous genitals, wasn’t really sure. Where are hormones produced and when do they first begin to manifest themselves in a growing body? Children in Thai villages often announce their gender when they are far too young to know about Nong Toom, the katoey boxer, or other social influences. How do they come to that knowledge?

The rage Birkett displays against the vocabulary—of transgenders rejecting the term vagina or even woman—is absurd. “Binary views of male and female” haven’t been smashed at all by Birkett and others as long as society continues to define people solely as male and female. “Gender neutrality” isn’t what’s needed here—gender expansion is. Two is obviously not enough.




Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Standing in Place


Meadow, sky, bluffs, water, and forest—534 acres of it—are only an hour away from me, I learned yesterday. In all of the years that I’ve lived in Seattle, I think I’ve only been to Discovery Park three times, and yesterday was the first time I ever have been there alone.

I didn’t even know which bus to take, although it turns out that I can catch one just down the street that takes me there on a meandering route through Magnolia and then brings me back home—or onto Georgetown, if I still want to wander. It dropped me off at the gates of the park and was there when I left a few hours later.

I entered into grassland, open and wind-rippled, and soon was at the bluffs, a dazzling configuration of sky and water in front of them. A long and winding path took me through the woods and down to the water, a lighthouse, and a house that I wish were mine. A curtain moved at one of its broken windows, making me wonder if it were really vacant, in spite of its boarded-up door.

A small, rocky point showed that the lighthouse wasn’t there for decorative purposes and I immediately thought of coming back during a storm, although the wooden steps and dirt path could be treacherous terrain in a heavy rain. But there are other trails and acres more of the park to wander through, which is a gift and a promise.

I have short-changed this part of the world, I think, wishing it were more urban, more New York, more Los Angeles, without exploring its very true strengths. There are buses that lead to ferries and ferries that go to towns I’ve never bothered to visit. 

This could be the spot I’ve always wanted, where I can have small adventures in place—at least for a few years, until I’ve seen it all. And without a car, fat chance of that ever happening.

But without a car, the adventures expand a little. The direct route is seldom a journey I want to take, and our cumbersome transit system guarantees that direct will never be an option.  And since water is a large component of any excursion I want to make, any weather is good for me. I may not make it to the “real ocean” for a while but there are other forms of beauty and yesterday I found what I really needed—the sight of tall grass bending in the wind and silver driftwood logs tossed up onto rocks.

Seattle has more of what I search for in other countries than I’ve ever found in Hong Kong or Thailand when it comes to seascapes. The waves I saw yesterday were small but pronounced, even on a day as sun-filled and placid as yesterday was, and the rocky beach was studded with the balloon-seaweed of my childhood. People had built little shelters from driftwood, looking like the Garth Williams pictures in The Sailor Dog, and nobody there was wearing a bikini, unlike Golden Gardens’ or Alki’s Gidget girls. This small beach felt wild, which was exactly the gift I needed—and will return to.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Fire This Time


Someday I will learn never to join a Facebook discussion in which anything important is being tossed around. But yesterday was not that day.

When I saw this conversation (abbreviated for sanity’s sake), I felt as though another point of view might not go amiss. 

A friend of my friend had remarked, “We live in an entitlement society where even the poorest amongst us feel it is a necessity to have a smart phone, HDTV, premium footware or designer coffee.” To this my friend had responded, “This country has lost any notion of moral authority a long time ago. I'm talking about a country where a person who has a high school diploma, could actually work in dignity and have a wage that could support a family, a home and some semblance of mobility. If we can just work for that small goal, things will change for the better. It will be gradual, but all good things take time.”

There were two red flags here, the first being a true canard, as well as a cliché, and the second being “all good things take time.”

Since I’ve known the man who initiated the discussion for years, it didn’t feel intrusive for me to express my opinion. 

I responded when no doubt I should have just moved on. 

I think many of us feel we don't have time. It's not the smartphones, HDTV, and dinners out that we feel the lack of. It's affordable rent, grocery prices that don't soar into the stratosphere, and serviceable public transit that is escaping the grasp of many of us and getting more unobtainable every year. We are the working poor, doing our damndest to keep a toehold on a life that isn't on the streets, in one of the richest countries in the world. Behold--the American Dream curdling and think of Langston Hughes' question, "What happens to a dream deferred?" America is beginning to find out—“

The friend of the friend then had this to say, “The collective eyes are on the wrong targets with so much easy credit and flashy, shiny stuff to be had and the "requirement" of 24/7 electronic information/communications. EVERYTHING now has an access fee, a use tax, a convenience fee and a late penalty attached to it... and unless you have a web browser and a credit card to process the transaction with, then your life is made to be a frustrating hell in the extreme. No wonder things like getting lights to stay on and water to drink has become something that only the "haves" can afford.”

“Oh I see--it's not the rise in the cost of living that's the problem for many of us. It's "the flashy, shiny stuff to be had" that keeps poor people from paying our rent and getting lights to stay on. Thanks for making it all so clear to me.”

And here is the response to that. “I don't know you nor what your life circumstances are but clearly you are of means enough to comment on Facebook and sensitive enough to have an opinion on this issue, which is good.”

The friend of a friend went on to say that although he had been out of work for years and had been forced at times to live with friends, he was not “poor.” I hope someday someone explains to him that “poor” is an economic condition, not an epithet. And that Facebook is not a means-based activity, and that an opinion that is not of his mindset is not expressed to gain his approval--or condescension. 

If this man’s mindset is indicative of the majority in this country, then I say burn it to the ground and start over. Hurry up please, it’s time.




Friday, April 24, 2015

Leaping to Extremes--Postcards

Every year when I go to Hong Kong, I always stay here. It is ugly but it is interesting.


But for a claustrophobe, it's a challenging place to stay. I can almost stretch my arms from one side of my room to another.


And because I always stay for a month, I usually redecorate.


The view often leaves something to be desired.


By the end of the thirtieth day, I'm usually awash in nausea.

This year, things will be different. I will be here.


My room will be Spartan but I will have coffee in the morning, looking on this view.


It is Hong Kong--but in the New Territories.


And I truly cannot wait to stay in the middle of green silence.



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Comfort Levels


For the last two mornings, I've had my feet on the floor seconds after waking up, gulped down my coffee, showered and dressed as though the building was on fire, and made my way to a windowless room filled with chairs. There I was surrounded by silent people, almost all of them staring at pieces of plastic, and all of us waiting for our names to be called.

This morning I woke up slowly, made coffee, and am still drinking it almost an hour later. There's sunlight pouring into my apartment and the day stretches out like an adventure. This is my usual way of beginning a morning, and as a routine, it can't be beat.

I admit, I live in a bubble. There are days when I never leave Chinatown--or even my apartment. When I do, it's usually to meet a friend for a meal and a visit, or to go to my favorite bookstore. Once a year, I leave the country. My schedule, such as it is, is one of my own making and I like it that way.

As a prospective juror, my hackles rose from the second I lined up at the courthouse door to go through a security check. When I reached the assembly room and found that I'd rushed through waking up just so I could sit for hours waiting for a list of names to be called, I could feel my blood pressure begin to rise just a trifle. And although I don't begrudge the pittance I gave, I think it's unconscionable that a childcare center for offspring of people who have to go to court is financed entirely through the contributions of the jury pool.

Each time I was released, mercifully early, I stopped on my way home for lunch as a tiny reward for my discomfort. Each time I was served something that sounded good but was borderline disgusting. (Reminder to self: American cheese is actually closely related to Velveeta and "hazelnut and sea salt" means a mealy version of peanut butter.)

If the sunlight holds, I want to be near the water today, which will take me out of my bubble. If it fades into clouds, I'll stay in my neighborhood, running errands, seeing friends, and eating something that won't make me feel victimized. It's a good life and I needed that jolt of realization--which is why I will always answer that call to jury duty.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

White Out


When I'm sick, I become obsessive-compulsive, which is so far from my usual behavior that it always comes as a shock to me when I fall into it. A week ago, still feeling miserable but ambulatory, I went to a supermarket for provisions and came home with a copy of Vogue.

This is also far from my usual behavior and I blame it on Serena Williams, fierce, strong, beautiful, and black, gazing at me from the cover. How often do you see a woman with real shoulders on the cover of Vogue? Or more importantly, how often do you see a woman who is truly dark taking that pride of place? (If she's the First Lady, I don't think that counts.)

So because I was suffering from a virus that carried OCD, I began to count how many non-white faces I saw in this particular issue of Vogue. At first glance, there seemed to be quite a few but I wanted to nail down the exact number.

The editorial pages featured women of color but when I began to count, fifty faces were not white, or were of more than one race. And yes I included the Australian singer whose bloodline includes Maori. The remaining eighty-eight faces were pale and Euro-based.

The faces in the advertising pages? Twenty-two were of women of color. Ninety-two were white, very, very white.

So who is buying clothes anyway? Only white women? And of those white women, only those under the age of thirty with milk skin? The reason for the imbalance has to be economic, because Vogue's editorial pages clearly show that beauty comes in all colors. (Only Dolce and Gabbana dared to suggest that it might come in all ages, with their trio of short, stout, old women dressed in black and holding bejeweled handbags.)

A week later, feeling better but not up to full speed, I bought a copy of Vanity Fair. But my point of view was still altered by Vogue. As I flipped through the pages, I realized almost every ad had a white face, very, very white. (None of those faces were the triumvirate pictured by Dolce and Gabbana.)

As an olive-skinned woman, I began to look for anyone who might look like me. I found ten faces that were not pale white, not ten pages--ten faces that were my color or darker. Of those faces, three were African American, and one of those faces was Kerry Washington. Even the damned high-tech sex dolls that were spotlit in one of the articles were all pale white, making me wonder if white is the new fetish.

A buxom Columbian beauty showed quite a bit of her fair skin on Vanity Fair's cover, which is so dominated by cut-lines that the image is no more than wallpaper. But in very small type near the woman's left arm are the words, "If you haven't got it, you can't show it. If you have got it, you can't hide it." In even smaller type is the name of the woman who made that observation--Zora Neale Hurston.




Friday, April 3, 2015

Lady Lazurus Leaves L.A.




My Seattle neighborhood is loaded with grocery stores of all sizes that sell ingredients from all over Asia. China and Japan are well represented, with Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines crowding close behind them, and cameo appearances by India and Korea. I felt as though I'd seen it all until my friend the L.A. Resident introduced me to her friend the L.A. Native Daughter, who is the author of a comprehensive guide to restaurants in Koreatown. (Korean Restaurant Guide Los Angeles published by the Good Overseas Korean Restaurant Recommendation project).

The L.A. Native Daughter is tiny and elegant and one of the most knowledgeable eaters I've ever met. A food journalist, she embraces every aspect of the art of eating, from gardens to supermarkets to wineries--and of course restaurants. I had wanted to get a glimpse of Koreatown and I was lucky to have her as my guide, since this is her culinary backyard.



She began with a shopping mall that could well have been in Bangkok, except for the different alphabet. Sparkling and spacious with small shops and a profusion of daylight, its ground floor was dominated by a supermarket, which had me holding my breath with surprise and delight from the minute I walked in.

The produce section alone, with its huge section of different varieties of chile peppers, was enough to make me love this place, but as we went on through the aisles, I realized it was a culinary education. At the back of it was a very small food court with several tables and I knew my next trip would involve days within this supermarket, taking notes and eating whatever was being cooked that day.

Our next foray was into a bakery where the orange juice was fresher than any I'd had since Thailand and the pastries looked like jewelry from Tiffany's. We ended our tour at a busy restaurant that served its dishes in earthenware bowls the size of small washbasins, along with a tableful of savory snacks--I'm still haunted by the flavor of their kimchee, which pierced through my cold-drenched tastebuds and made me feel alive again.



The best way to end a trip is to find, on my last day, a spot I long to see more of; that's what the L.A. Resident and the L.A. Native Daughter gave me. I know there's so much more to their city than I saw this time around, but the places they showed me are ones that I could spend the rest of my life exploring.


Five days in another country that's less than three hours away by air is a lot like having every wish I've ever had come true. The city I visited is like no other I've ever seen--and I cannot wait to see more of it. Thank you, L.A.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mapping on Foot



I never feel that I've visited a place until I've walked it, which of course makes Los Angeles a challenge. However I was staying in what might one of the city's most walkable neighborhoods and I spent a large portion of my first day there on foot with a camera.

I'm easily delighted by small things like old tile on worn steps or an unexpected sign on a building. Graffiti framed in a doorway on a busy street always brings me to a halt and I am a sucker for deep, sharp shadows. My walks in undiscovered territory take me a very long time, which is why I always take them alone.


I saw so much in such a small area on my first day: art deco buildings studded with enigmatic names (Rock Etiquette?), a wonderfully anachronistic newsstand, a high school that looked palatial with a hangout called the Detention Room across the street, a Russian bakery that hit me with the smells from my childhood moments in NYC the minute I walked inside and the neighboring Arbat Deli, both seconds away from a gigantic Whole Foods, jolts of street art.


With so much to feed my eyes, I forgot to eat and by the time I reached the place where I was staying, I knew that had been a big mistake. Although Los Angeles was much less heat-filled than I'd expected, the clarity and brilliance of its light was making me dizzy and I needed to be somewhere with no stimulation at all. A few blocks away was the place where I'd had my morning banana and coffee and I'd spent enough time there earlier that it no longer felt anything but familiar. By the time I got there, I felt pale and shaky. Sinking into a chair in a cool room was all I really wanted, but I ordered a small smoothie and sipped it as slowly as I could.


Suddenly there was nothing to see, nothing to record. Gradually my shaking went away and when I looked outside, the light seemed less stabbing than it had been an hour ago. When I left the cafe, my steps were slow and purposeful and as I walked toward food and a friend, I forced myself not to lapse into amazement. Not an easy achievement in Los Angeles, but sometimes you simply have to down tools.



Later that evening, a strong, hot wind came out of the hills and slapped carefully planted trees and bushes with its rush of blown sand. Blinking my scratched eyes as I walked, I felt grateful for this momentary lapse of vision.