Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Nobody Ever Told Me

The past year was one of the most exciting in my life, as I finished writing my first book and preparing it for publication. The day that I received a check for what I'd done was one of the best highs I'd ever felt, while working with a copyeditor was the equivalent of several years worth of formal training. And then--thud.
I was never a woman who suffered, or could even understand, post-partum depression. How anyone could feel dismal about having an uncomfortable lump in their body transformed into a miniscule human being was incomprehensible to me, until now.
Now that Tone Deaf in Bangkok is completed, and belongs to my publisher rather than to me, I feel desperately bereft and in a state of mild panic. (That this state of mind has descended upon me during the season of deepest darkness and formalized festivities is the maraschino cherry that tops the hot fudge sundae.)
When I finally hold the printed book in my hands, my feelings may change, but who knows? At that point it will have become the creation of a designer, a photographer and a copyeditor--no longer those pieces of paper that were mine all mine. It's like giving birth and having your child grow up and away from you in a matter of months.
And then of course there's the challenge that comes with finishing a first book--can I do it again? Now I understand those women who had stair-step children--they did it because they could--and now it's time to see if I can. Nothing will make me happier than the process of falling in love with an idea, thinking it over, and turning out many, many sheets of white paper covered in print. The rest, as Raymond Carver said, is gravy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

follic symbols

Okay, I promise not to be the sort of dreary old broad who bemoans the aging process. My philosophy truly will be if it's that bad, shut up and make enough money to get plastic surgery. However, today for the first time in my life, I looked in the mirror and wished I were a man.
From a physical point of view, I've always felt sorry for men, and the first time that I read about phallus envy, I was honestly confused. Why anybody would want to have such an obviously vulnerable and inconvenient appendage was well beyond my thrteen-year-old comprehension. When I grew older and my level of sexual knowledge became higher, it was still blazingly obvious that when it came to reproductive equipment, women had every advantage, except of course for cramps.
Men also have to wear ugly colors, can't accentuate their better features with make-up, and are discouraged from bursting into tears when they're enraged. They lack the shopping gene, and are often in situations where they have to watch football games. Although I enjoy them, I never wanted to be one of them, until today.
This morning, when I looked in the mirror and saw tiny lines that are beginning to emerge above my upper lip, and the distinct signs of a sagging chin, I realized that these were things that would be impossible to hide--unless I were a man. If I were male and saw these unmistakable signs of age, I would be able to shrug, put my shaver in a dark corner of my closet, and begin to grow a lovely crop of facial hair that would completely obscure my problem areas.
So there we are--men grow beards and moustaches, women either sag or get chin tucks. And for the first time in my life, faced with this indisputable truth, I'm suffering genuine envy of the other gender.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Learning to Love Violet

Birthdays take on a whole other hue as more of them accumulate, going from the festive strawberry pink of childhood to a decidedly deeper, if not mournful, shade of violet--that l'heure bleu color that is pensive, melancholy and presages nightfall. When I entered the last year of my fifth decade a week or so ago, I found a different tinge to the darkness that a winter birthday carries, a brightening that isn't just a trick of the light.
There are terrible sorrows that come with increasing years. One of my brothers-in-law, a man of such vibrancy that often you wished that he came equipped with volume control, died this week at fifty-one. My mother is slipping into a haze of nightmares that give her sleep without rest and turn her waking hours into a half-life. When she dies, I will be the oldest in the family I was born into and the family I married into--and never divorced, even when a judge pronounced my marriage irretrievably broken.
But with the sadness comes a joyful freedom that I never had in my pre-wrinkled years. My sons are men who are delightful, funny and smart, whose company I love. My book, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, will be published by ThingsAsian Press within the coming year, and the money that I was given for it will take me back home to Bangkok next summer. These are all things that I could only dream of, and hope for, when I was young.
A friend, who is older than I by a whisper of time, recently returned from a year of volunteering her skills as a nurse in Africa and India. When she came to my door recently, I was stunned by her transformation. Always a striking woman, she has become beautiful--slender, sparkling, with life glowing in her eyes. This is what happens, I realize, when we refuse to falter, when we trade the gleaming pink of a sunrise for the violet depth of twilight without retreating to the safety of pulling the covers over our heads, when we step out into what appears to be darkness and find that it is illuminated by our own internal light.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Special Place in Hell

It's a peculiar little room that we all have created in the very darkest corner of our minds. Mine is accessorized with mildew and car alarms that only go off in the dead of night and the scent of cheap cologne and lots of chartreuse. The lighting is very bright and very bad and the roof leaks. It's a cold, ugly basement room with tiny windows. It's my personal vision of hell and it's where I enjoy mentally putting people who annoy me.
They of course change depending on what I'm doing and where I live. When I lived in Alaska they were women who felt that being seen in public wearing down parkas, caps made from handspun malemute hair, and moon boots was acceptable behavior. When I was in Bangkok they were security guards whose grip on life apparently depended upon constantly blowing their little tin whistles. As a bookseller, I sent to my little private hell everyone who told me, "But I can get it cheaper from Amazon."
But none of these people occupy my special place in hell anymore. They can't. There's no room for them there. That space is crowded with a new breed of transgressor, and I am one of them (although I'm trying hard to change.)
My hideous little private hell is now reserved for everybody who reads another person's blog post without commenting on it. There are few things worse than going to statcounter.com, discovering all of the new people on the map that have come to your blog, and then discovering that you'll never know what they thought or who they were because they didn't leave a comment.
It doesn't matter, I've discovered, what you say. I'd be grateful for "You suck" or "What the hell? I was trying to find out where to buy Glenn Close sunglasses." (For those who were searching for the movie about being deaf in Bangkok--it's the Pang Brothers' Bangkok Dangerous--great movie and I hope you can rent it from Netflix.) But now that I know how little it takes to make a blogger happy, I'm leaving comments all over the place. I have to. I need to
make room in my special place in hell for all of you who fail to leave comments on mine. I hope that you enjoy mildew and chartreuse.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Get Over It

Colds usually mean nothing more serious than spending more money than I would like on Kleenex, but every once in a while, one of them hits me with the force of a John Deere tractor and turns my life into the week of the living dead. Faced with the conventional wisdom of "Get lots of sleep, drink lots of water," I buy lemon grass, lime leaves, Thai chilis, a jar of chili paste and make soup, spicy-hot enough to make me hiccup, slather my skin with Tiger Balm and do my best to burn the virus out.
In Bangkok, I did exactly the opposite. When a monster cold laid me flat, my friend Rod would come over with Alka-Seltzer for colds (unpurchasable in Thailand, brought from the States, and hoarded for emergency use only) and a bowl of Campbell's chicken noodle soup, bland, salty, and completely comforting.
Maybe these momentary health lapses of mine are simply exaggerated attacks of homesickness for one of my two homes, and are cured only by edible memories of whichever place I happen to be away from. It's something to keep in mind when I'm packing to return to Bangkok next year--make room for the Campbell soup cans and boxes of Alka-Seltzer.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Globalization of Levis

"The whole world is becoming one homogenized mass, with everybody eating at MacDonald's and wearing Levis," is a complaint I frequently hear from people who wouldn't be caught dead eating a Big Mac or wearing jeans that cost under two hundred dollars. When I'm presented with this dire assessment of exotic cultures crushed by capitalistic juggernauts, I do my best to look sympathetic, stop listening, and remember my friend, Somsak.
A Bangkok boy born and bred, Somsak has style that James Dean would have envied--highly polished motorcycle boots, teeshirt, sideburns, carelessly held cigarette, and the best-fitting Levis that I have ever seen on any human being.
"Where do you buy your jeans?" I asked him, after many weeks of envying their perfection.
"Every year when I go to Paris, I buy a pair of Levis. They fit me, but you know, they're never quite right. So when I come back to Bangkok, I take them to my tailor, and he copies them. He makes me six pairs of Levis, just like the ones that I bought in Paris but better, because they're made just for me. Every year I have new Levis made when I return from France, and I put the ones from last year away for my sons, so they'll have them when they grow up."
"But your jeans even have the leather Levis label, and the little red tag. How does your tailor make those?"
At that point Somsak looked at me with the benign pity that only a Thai person can convey properly, and that never fails to make me feel as though I should go away to drool quietly in a corner. "Oh, Janet," he said gently, "those things are very easy to buy in Bangkok."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Living Without Limes

I live in a country with so few flavors that at times I feel as though I’m wandering through a landscape that is made up solely of primary colors. Imagine a place where everything is red, yellow or blue, and you’ll know how I feel about having my tongue enveloped only by sweet, salty, hot, and sour, with a dash of garlic. It’s like eating baby food with the taste kicked up a couple of notches, completely unsatisfying, which is what probably accounts for the vast obesity epidemic in America.
While I’m in exile from the food that I love best, I spend a lot of time eating in Thai restaurants, and slaving over Southeast Asian cookbooks, with lackluster results. As anyone who has lived in Thailand will tell you, eating Thai food in the U.S. is like eating with a condom on your tongue.
Americans eat the way that they have sex, with safety taking precedence over sensation. The dubious benefit is that any poverty-stricken peasant living on a dollar a day in the third world eats better, and probably has better sex, than anybody who lives in the U.S.
I recently saw a picture of a woman in Yangon, sitting near a road, selling limes, and I wanted to cry. She had what I cannot buy, a green orb with bumpy skin that is smaller than a ping pong ball. When it is cut open and squeezed over a plate of food, the lime emits a lovely fragrance and a flavor that is a mixture of sour, and a fresh, tangy sweetness. For me, living without this is like living without salt, in a culinary world gone flat, and I hunger in the land of plenty.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Myanmar on Our Minds

Donald Gilliland is a writer, photographer and Bangkok bookshop owner who has spent a lot of time in Myanmar, with his last visit a week before the protests began. His weblog http://BangkokDazed.com is where I have gone every day for information and background about this beautiful and misunderstood country, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for people who want to go beyond the newsflash. Donald's photographs are worth thousands of words of political analysis in showing the heart of a city that he loves, and his stories about the people he has met and made friends with are both affirming and heartwrenching. For a glimpse of the people behind the politics, there is no better guide than the talented and generous Mr. Gilliland--go and see for yourself.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I Feel Bad About Nora Ephron

It's a sad fact of life that when you're a young adult, glistening with skin, hair and attitude that are all fresh and new, there are a thousand voices telling you exactly how to dress, how to behave, and how to be attractive. When you become an old adult, who cares? You are completely and irrevocably on your own, at a time when you'd welcome a friendly bit of advice on how to nurture that small and ever-dwindling portion of personal attractiveness that still belongs to you.
Magazines are no help at all. "How to look great at any age" the covers promise and then offer the real-life, down-to-earth examples of women like Susan Sarandon or Glenn Close, which makes real-life, down-to-earth women like me begin to search for a nice, sharp razor blade and the closest available artery. Then we have Nora Ephron, who after years of being a smart, incisive dissector of social idiocies and inequities, has decided that the most appropriate response to growing old is to feel bad about her neck.
Go ahead. Embrace the philosophy that age is only a number and that you're only as old as you feel, and you feel pretty good. Go shopping and try on clothes that appeal to you, are fashionable, and that fit. Take them home and come to the deeply shocking revelation that, although they fit, they really don't fit you. Oldfashioned terms like "mutton dressed as lamb" come cruelly to mind and you make some twenty-something of your acquaintance very happy when you give your latest purchases to her.
You realize, as you scrutinize contemporaries on the street, that you have limited choices in the eyes of the world. You can be dowdy or you can be ludicrous. Or you can be Susan Sarandon or Glenn Close.
It's a disheartening realization, especially when you couple it with the knowledge that you can spend every bit of your disposable income on having your hair colored, or buying the latest miracle cream, or having "work done" and the reaction will not be "My god that woman is hot," but "Doesn't she look good for her age?" And then you think of women like Louise Nevelson and Georgia O'Keefe, and you begin to feel just a tiny bit pissed off.
At this point, if you've done any traveling at all, or if you've just spent time looking at copies of the National Geographic, you begin to do a little bit of cross-cultural comparison. and you wonder why the same face that is picturesque and beautiful in Thailand or Mexico is completely without honor here. I don't know about you, but my wrinkles have been acquired along with my experiences. I've traveled, I've worked, I've raised two children, I've loved, and that is all to be seen in my face. I've earned my wrinkles and I'm trying my damndest not to be ashamed of them.
Then I remember the old women whom I met in Bangkok, not the high society khunying-clones with lots of gold and helmet hair, but the ones who were happy little bricks, shapeless in their cheerfully colored tunic blouses or tee shirts worn over unexceptional skirts or slacks, smiles eclipsing their wrinkles, who received the respect that came with their years from everyone who encountered them. I feel sad that in this country that phase of our lives is denied or tucked away or pushed aside and I know that it's time for a change.
"Forever Young" or "To Everything There is a Season"--the choice is ours. Let's bring aging in the U.S. up to the same standard of acceptance and honor that can be found all over the world--it's about time.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

just for the sake of argument

A Field Guide to Foreign Dreamers

“There I was,” a male acquaintance told me one day over lunch, “in England, divorced, almost forty, and couldn’t get a date. What’s wrong with me, I wondered, am I looking at the world with fuck-me eyes? Then a friend of mine said, Come with me to Thailand; I’ll fix you up. On my first night in Bangkok, there was a knock on my hotel room door and when I opened it there were six girls, all wearing raincoats and when they took them off all they had on were bikinis. Well, I tell you, I felt about this big, in every sense of the word. If we were in England, I couldn’t even have asked them to dance with me—they were that beautiful.”
I looked at Harry and tried not to gag on my mouthful of noodles. From the smug expression on his face, it was evident that from his point of view this story ended well, and from his general behavior he seemed to believe that this happy ending was due to his exceptional masculine charms. A former actor, Harry had told us that he had been in the first Star Wars movie but was hazy about which X-wing pilot he had played in the Death Star destruction scene. This lack of memory about what must have been his career pinnacle, coupled with his lack of height, led me to speculate that he had probably been cast as R2D2’s body double. He was one of the least attractive, and most sexually optimistic, men I had ever met, but he was only the first of his kind that I was to find as I encountered other foreigners.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the Western man’s sexual experiences in Thailand, and I have no wish to add to the canon. Let it be enough to say that if you’ve seen one sign for the Lewinsky Lounge, Clinton Plaza, or “Pussy Show with Razors” you’ve seen them all. The men who flock to Patpong, Nana Plaza , Soi Cowboy and other testosterone-laden fantasylands are no different from any other foreigner in Bangkok. They’ve come to make a dream come true, quickly, easily, and without major effort or expense, which is the reason why every foreigner comes to the Kingdom of Thailand.
Not all dreams are as notorious as those of the unattractive, middle-aged, pink and puffy man who seeks the physical attentions of a bona-fide, bought for a night beauty. Most receive far less scrutiny and many are much more benign. Some dreams are easily satisfied in a week or two; some are the work of a lifetime. We are all pursuing a fantasy, we farang in the Kingdom, whether we are tourists or expats.
The lives of foreigners in Bangkok are gigantic Rorschach tests that reveal dreams, aspirations, and delusions at a glance. Street markets are thronged with purchasers of dirt-cheap Rolex watches, Vuitton-emblazoned handbags, Ralph Lauren polo shirts, Versace sunglasses, all snatching up armloads of stuff that’s designed to impress the folks back home at least once before falling to bits. Tourists leave Bangkok well fed, well rested, well tanned, and bristling with bogus brand names, a happier and poorer bunch than they were when they arrived.
Those of us who become residents are less visible, but equally amusing to observe. Stand outside the grounds of any international school that educates the children of expatriates. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the blonde and well-groomed mothers, rushing away from her car and driver for a parent-teacher consultation. This is a woman who lives in a compound with other Westerners, in an immaculate house and yard that is maintained by a resident maid. Her husband has a job that provides a high standard of comfort, leaving her to plan shopping trips to Hong Kong, to pursue artistic or charitable interests, and to make sure that the ironing is done according to her exacting standards. If pressed, she admits to speaking “maid Thai” and says she has only a few Thai acquaintances, all business associates of her husband. This is a woman who is in the classic double-bind tragedy that was found in the days of the British Raj, trapped in a country that she doesn’t care for by a standard of living that she cannot live without. Fortunately for her, Botox is cheap and cosmetic surgery is an art form in Bangkok, her children are absorbing the essential elements of global snobbery, and her husband has learned how to wear custom-made clothing with aplomb, so they all make a fine impression during their annual visits home.
The flip side of farang femininity is seen when examining a teacher at one of the international schools or any other educational institution in Bangkok. This woman (whom I know far more intimately than I care to admit) would rather be shot than live in a Western compound, and practices total cultural immersion in an apartment building where she takes pride in being one of the few foreign occupants. She’s easy to spot—just look for the woman who’s weighted down with a bulging briefcase and earnestly negotiating a fare with a group of highly amused motorcycle taxi drivers. Her hair color is obviously self-inflicted but her clothes fit well because she’s discovered a local seamstress who can whip up an outfit in a week or less. She hasn’t cooked or washed her own clothes since she arrived in Thailand, and is well known to every cheap food vendor in her neighborhood. She speaks a limited amount of Thai badly but with great enthusiasm, although never with her English-speaking Thai boyfriend, she’s a fixture at a downtown heavy-metal nightclub, and her life, she will tell anyone who asks, is an adventure. Her Thai friends raise their eyebrows at this, without a word, and other foreigners usually turn their backs politely before they begin to snicker.
Her male counterpart is also afflicted with bulging briefcase syndrome, wears cheap clothing with knife-edge creases, and shoes that gleam with the patina of fine plastic. He’s young, attractive, and has absorbed the lesson that appearances will cover up any amount of social disasters. This is a fine thing, because although he looks good, he behaves badly. Cheap beer is his primary food group, and his nightly binges are only exceeded by his daily hangovers. There are stories about the girl who he took up to his room, who had to leave by jumping off the balcony when she found that he’d locked the door, and of the morning that he was late for his first class and was found passed out near the gates of the elementary school where he worked. When he ends up in the Immigration Detention Center because he has overstayed his visa and can’t pay the fine, there are few who care.
There are certain bars in Bangkok where every man is a journalist, and one or two of them even get paid for it. As a group, they’re a dashing lot, hard-drinking, authoritative men with an informed opinion on everything from foreign policy to the world’s best beers. Dismiss the men with good haircuts and well-cut clothes as novices and look for the guy in the wrinkled slacks and polo shirt, the one with the carefully nourished beer belly and the carefully combed strands of hair. He’s the one who’s lived here long enough to break the rules of good grooming and still get a byline. With his wife and family tucked away in an upcountry village, he has the freedom to roam the city, where he knows everyone at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and beyond. He’s a true man of letters, happily taking his place among Conrad, Maugham and Theroux, as the author of several books about the Bangkok bargirl scene that have been locally published. He can be found cheerfully hawking them at every expat fair and festival, quoting some of his better passages to make conversational points with those who may not have encountered him in print. He’s a survivor, one helluva guy, and in the brave new world of the Internet, he and his kind will probably become extinct, since he’s not photogenic enough to make any kind of splash on My Space.
The foreigners who are virtually undetectable are the few who work to become part of their new home, learn how to live there without being obtrusive, and make contributions where they may be needed. Their dream is to give what they can, while living in a place that they love. The rest of us can only do our best to find them and offer a little something to help them along their way. Their dreams are the ones that make up for the absurdity of our own. They give a possibility of hope and light to a place in the world that’s often overburdened with the pretentious selfishness of other fulfilled wishes that probably should never have been uttered, let alone granted.

Freezing In Seattle

It's an odd thing to be an exile in the country that you were born in, but I know I'm not the only one.who feels this way. My parents certainly did and moved to Alaska long before it became the 49th state. Taken from Manhattan at an age when I was not yet able to voice my objections, I was always resentful of that and was positive that New York City was my true home, until I moved to Bangkok.

Anybody can move to Bangkok without any form of preparation. I've done it. As a result, I've also learned that it's possible to live on two dollars a day while maintaining a heavy nicotine addiction, and that becoming thin can be quite easy when you make your living teaching English. Anybody who wants to know how not to move to another country can find out by reading my forthcoming book of essays, Tone Deaf in Bangkok.

Now, as I prepare for a more grounded adoption process of the city that I plan to live in forever, I'm shivering and sunstarved in the Pacific Northwest, feeling like a stranger in a country that seems to have no conception of what it really wants and needs. (Don't believe me? Spend an hour in your local supermarket and try to find ten grocery items that are fresh and have flavor. Or try going to a doctor when you have no health insurance. For real fun, look for an apartment when you make the minimum wage that your state deems sufficient for survival.)

It's sometimes difficult for me to make sense of what I see every day in this most livable of American cities, Seattle, now that I have a different perspective from another corner of the world. As I write about where I am and where I want to be, I hope to have a continuing conversation with people who read this blog and leave their comments. Let's talk.





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