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.