Sunday, November 28, 2010

Exiles in the Mansion

When I returned to my room in Chungking Mansions on my first afternoon there, I walked into a smell that was a lot like soggy bread and when I sat on my bed, the blanket felt damp. At first I thought that when Hari or Jun cleaned my bathroom, which was only inches from where I slept, perhaps they’d inadvertently sprayed the outer room with water. Then I realized that in my zipped suitcase, out of cleaning range, my clothes were damp too.

I opened my window but the air that came in from the enclosed space between buildings smelled like garbage and mildew. No wonder, I realized. Earlier in the day I’d used my camera’s puny little zoom feature to augment my myopic view of the airconditioner in a window across from me. The white objects that covered it in a small mound were bags and boxes and less identifiable debris and outside my window were pigeons cleaning up food that someone had dumped from above me.

The imposing glass and steel building across from me on Nathan Road smelled unmistakably of wet mops when I had gone there for coffee that morning and on the streets the air was still. Throwing open the window I had pleaded to have was an act of simple-minded optimism, the instinctive act of someone who lived in a Bangkok neighborhood filled with the scent of jasmine and fried chili.

Thailand had turned me into a woman who lived through her senses. Deprived of all but the most rudimentary language skills in that country, I depended on sight and smell to interpret the world around me. In Kowloon, my view was of diseased concrete and trash-covered air conditioners and what I smelled made me feel as though I were living at the bottom of a deep and polluted river. I thought of the trees covered with small and fragrant blossoms on my Bangkok street and struggled to keep from whimpering.

I was going to spend a month in Chungking Mansions and although I didn’t mind living in a room that was perhaps the world’s cleanest shower stall, there were changes I needed to make. Fortunately it was a very small room; it wouldn’t take the efforts of a Martha Stewart to transform it.

In Bangkok my bedroom was a scented orchard every morning, thanks to Boots, the British shop that sold lime and coconut and orange fragrance in the form of soap and shampoo and lotion. Although Hong Kong had been shaped by Great Britain, Boots wasn’t one of the blessings of colonialism and the local version, Watson’s, wasn’t the same olfactory paradise when it came to bathing. But, I remembered, with a burst of relief, there was at least one branch of Lush—I’d smelled it when I left the Hong Kong subway station on my way home hours before.

Lush is so cute that I usually avoid it with enthusiasm. Its salesgirls would head toward me in charming little clouds if I even seemed to inhale when walking past one of their Seattle shops and it merchandises soap as though it’s food, which nauseates me. But when it came down to living with the odor of wet bread or watching adorable little girls slice bars of soap as though they were serving cheese at a cocktail party, my choice was obvious.

I wince every time that I think of how much money I spent on aromatherapy that afternoon but it was worth it. Lemongrass, jasmine, lime blossoms pervaded my little portion of Chungking Mansions every morning and lingered through the rest of the day.

I handed over the bedding from my narrow little cot and replaced it with the muted earthy colors of vanilla and dark green, punctuated with a bright magenta cushion, and lined my tiny windowsill with a pot of azalea and one of jasmine that I found at the flower market on the edge of my new neighborhood.

“You’ve made a little home,” Hari said when he came to take away the unwanted bedlinen. His smile didn’t reach his eyes, and both of us for a second were caught in the memory of other places we had loved.

He had told me once about fishing in Nepali mountain streams and as he spoke, it was the only time I saw the sadness leave his eyes. I felt my own heart brighten as I remembered the sound of water flowing over rocks in an Alaskan valley and for a second felt a wave of nostalgia for the world I once lived in.

A few days later I found a magazine with photographs of Nepal and gave it to Hari as he sat at the reception desk alone.

“So beautiful,” I said and his response was immediate and bitter. “Yes so beautiful, my country—so many trees. Trees, only trees, no jobs.”

But later as I walked through the reception area, his head was bent over the magazine. He didn’t look up as I passed and fleetingly I could feel the trees and rivers of Alaska and Nepal, palpable in a small corner of Kowloon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Traveling with Ma Thanegi

Of course it wasn’t Ma Thanegi’s fault that I found myself risking my life trudging beside a busy highway on the outskirts of Penang’s suburbs. Just because I was reading her latest book Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy when I overshot my bus stop, so immersed in her longing to play the drums at a Kachin festival that I was half-way to the airport before I looked up and realized my error, I have no reason to blame that on her. God knows I’d been eager enough to rush downtown to get her book and bring it home—and it was my greedy curiosity that made me rip the package open before I even left the post office.

Just because I was still thinking about the stones she had found at the beginning of the Ayeyarwaddy River, which she had someone polish into smooth, cool beads and string into necklaces and bracelets, and was feeling blessed that she had given one of each to me, and wondered what they had looked like when Thanegi found them and crammed her pockets full—this was no reason to mentally castigate her while I walked cautiously along a little grassy strip as cars whizzed past me.

I tried hard not to let my mind wander to the prospectors who dredge one of the rivers that becomes part of the Ayeyarwaddy, looking for gold, wondering how similar they were to Alaskan gold panners, and forced myself not to think about the woman with the baby strapped to her back whom Thanegi talked to, the one who dreamed of finding lumps of gold as big as peanuts in the round wooden tray that served as her gold pan.

But as I realized my trek was taking me into the territory of a freeway and retraced my steps to find a less hazardous route, I began to think about the quiet villages and rock-strewn roads and the ice-cold, clear water that began Ma Thanegi’s 1300-mile trip down the Ayeyarwaddy river and felt envious. I roamed past squat, ugly, cement “link houses” with a strong pang of gratitude that I didn’t live in one of them and wondered why some women find themselves wandering in search of a bus stop while others boat-hop their way down one of the world’s great rivers.

When I found a bus that would take me home, I refused to allow myself to go any further with Ma Thanegi until I had entered my apartment. After all, it’s not as though I hadn’t read it before, I scolded myself, I’d edited it, for God’s sake. But even though at one point a year or so ago, I practically knew every page of this book by heart, I couldn’t wait to plop down on my couch and keep reading.

A whole day shot to hell, I thought happily as I sank back into Thanegi’s verbal company. Drat the woman, I echoed her long-suffering pal, Ko Sunny, here we go again…

Ma Thanegi is my friend; I am her editor at ThingsAsian Press. I can’t review this book. But I can lose myself in it, I can get lost while reading it, and I can tell everyone I know that if they want to meet one of my favorite people in the world, take a trip with her down the Ayeyarwaddy. Just don’t begin your journey while you’re still on a bus.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Little Night Music

A week ago I went to a fancy little expat café to have a pre-birthday lunch. I ordered a glass of Merlot and spent the next thirty minutes holding the bowl of the glass in my palms trying to warm the wine to a drinkable temperature. It hadn’t been chilled; it had been iced. But it eventually released a little bit of aroma and flavor—I can live with that.

Since I arrived, I’ve tried desperately to find the sort of cute, cheap shoes and handbags that are on every Bangkok street corner. No luck— but Thailand is right over the border—I can live with that.

There was something very dubious in my fried rice today. As long as I can convince myself that it was only the size and shape of a rodent turd and not the thing itself, it’s okay. There are other places to eat—I can live with that.

Somebody above me seems to be fond of chopping vegetables on the floor for an hour or two in the early morning but it’s not every day—I can live with that.

I’ve lived here for almost six weeks now and except for the week of Deepavali, every night at 8 pm, pop singers who will never be at the top of anyone’s charts—least of all mine—sing and whoop and make little speeches until midnight, over sound systems that wouldn’t disgrace the biggest clubs in Vegas, on outdoor stages. For four hours almost every night, I’ve heard music that makes me yearn to be stone deaf.

Penang has a regulation that says noise must stop at midnight—and it does. But because it is regulated, it seems to be the god-given right that anyone with an amplifier can turn it up full-blast every night they choose and keep the noise going until midnight. And we are talking noise that comes blaring into my apartment even when I have all the windows closed and earplugs crammed in my ears. By the time it ends, my delicate little nerves are so jangled that I’m usually awake until after 2 a.m. Bad music does that to me; I can fall sleep listening to Chinese opera but not to this bilge.

“Penang is famous for this,” a woman told me in the elevator the other night—and it’s absolutely true that I live in a complex called Symphony Park with Harmony View right next door. But I didn’t think that would mean that I would end up in Cacophony Acres—and you know? I’m not at all sure I can live with that.

Tonight I saw that the stage across the road from me had been taken down but before I could feel exultant, I saw a sign for another ‘concert” right beside my building. It’s going to happen next week on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. If I had the money, I’d leave town—as it is, I have absolutely no idea of how I’m going to live with that.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

…Crazy for Crying and Crazy for Loving You—

My new life is filled with colors and trees and old architecture and water. It is, I’ve been told, against the law to cut down any of the trees that shade generous portions of the Penang streets and road ways; even in my somewhat lackluster neighborhood, small green groves punctuate the rooftops below my balcony and leafy plumes lend grace to the ugly thoroughfares.

Only a few miles from where I live, in the hills that range at the edge of the suburban sprawl, is jungle and terraced hillsides where crops are being grown and gigantic, mysterious boulders that are the size of small houses. Small clear streams make audible sounds—it is that quiet—and the air smells moist and cool. An unpaved road holds a handmade sign at its beginning—“the art of living” it says and an arrow points invitingly down the lane. Someday soon I’ll go back there just to see where that art can be found.

The street where Sun Yatsen lived for a while still looks as it might have when he walked along it one hundred years ago, if you ignore the little Euro cafes and galleries and boutiques that fill the buildings that were probably much more utilitarian when Dr. Sun plotted revolution in their midst. A Western woman passed by me as I gaped my way along Armenia Street; she held the leash of a large German Shepherd and together they entered one of the old, refurbished houses. I longed for her life, her house, her dog—but only for a moment.

I moved to Penang because I needed time to step away from Bangkok’s jangling turmoil. Seduced by color and greenery and the promise of natural beauty, I signed away a year of my life to live here, in a small city that isn’t prey to the cognitive dissonance that characterizes Bangkok for me.

In Bangkok, I was whisked from downtown to my neighborhood in minutes on a glacially cold subway—and then climbed into the back of a pickup truck and sat until the driver decided he had enough passengers to make it worthwhile to start his vehicle and drive us all home. For the first six months of my return back to my Thai neighborhood, I thought this was charming and then I began to feel homicidal, especially when the humidity was around 110% and it was raining so the driver had put up his Visqueen walls to keep his passengers dry.

There are no pickup truck transport options in Penang, and no motorcycle taxis. Once you leave the downtown area of Georgetown with its taxis and trishaws, you take a bus. It’s clean and airconditioned and just a tiny bit boring. But on the other hand, I don’t conclude a foray into the larger world with thoughts of murdering a fellow-human—or by racing down a highway sitting side-saddle behind a man whom I pray hasn’t had one too many Red Bulls. Oh wait—that was the good part of living in Bangkok, and I realize now I didn’t do it often enough.

In my new home, I get on a bus and I go to the one place I’ve found that has really good coffee beans and I go to another place where I’ve found I can buy the International Herald Tribune and sometimes I go to the spot near the seawall where I can sit at a plastic table and watch the water as I eat something that is very good indeed. I come home to a place that is bright and pleasant and triple the space of any apartment I’ve had in Bangkok for what I would pay for a studio in Thailand’s capital. There are no mosquitoes and no cockroaches and no rooftops to block out the setting sun or the SE Asian l’heure bleu that I love so much.

And there are no bookstores to tempt me into spending my last cent, and no wonderful eccentric opinionated writers and booksellers for me to drink too much beer with as we chat for hours and hours, and there are no riverboats to call me away from my work. And damn it, when I think about it, I’m a lucky old broad. So why am I crying? Beats the hell out of me…

The sky outside my balcony is golden and pink and dark grey with flashes of heat lightning. A curtain of rain rolls toward me and I remember a student years ago in Bangkok asking me “Can you see the shadow of the rain?” Those kinds of memories have informed my life in Thailand and gave it depth. I look down at the houses below me now in Penang and know I will never have the glimmer of understanding about them that I was lucky to have been given in Thailand—and oh god, at this moment how much I miss all that I was so eager to leave behind,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Illusion of Borders

Acres of chicklit and the male equivalent, shrines to James Patterson and Jody Picoult, books I might read but only if there were no cereal boxes lying around to keep me company—this is what I found in Penang’s presiding bookstores. I came away with nothing I yearned for—a map, a book on Bahasa Malay, the conclusion of Anchee Min’s life of the Empress Tsu-zi.

Kinokuniya in Bangkok had kept me alive as a reader, along with Orchid Books’ history selection and the wonderful grab-bag of perpetual surprises of well-chosen used books at Dasa Book Café. What in the merry hell was I going to do for books in Georgetown, I wondered gloomily. A used bookstore yielded a volume of Agnes Smedley’s wartime years in China and I read it slowly, trying to make it last.

And then I rode past yet another mall, which is where bookstores live in this part of the world, and a sign emblazoned on it announced that it held a branch of Borders Books and Music. As someone who resolutely avoided Borders and Barnes & Noble in the States, I didn’t get off my bus, but the damage was done.

A day later I set off to investigate what a Malaysian version of a big-box category-killer might have to offer. I walked into a gigantic brightly lit room with a Starbucks off to one side; I almost walked out but there were display tables…

And on them were multiple copies of Dan Brown’s latest and good old James and Jody and many, many vampire novels. Nothing leaped out at me in the fiction section as I wandered past its shelves and I kept on going. There was a separate space for music, half of the room I was in held really ugly children’s books and stationary supplies with the rest of it a confused jumble of haphazardly placed books in the usual sections. But not all the usual bookstore sections were visible, to me at least.

I roamed around and finally gave up. At the information desk was an earnest-looking boy who responded, “We don’t have a biography section.”

I tried to keep my voice level as I repeated his statement. I tried to smile but I knew it was a grimace as he explained that if I wanted a biography of a writer, I should look on the fiction shelves.

I did. I also looked for the short stories of Somerset Maugham and any of Joseph Conrad’s Asia-based novels and finally just one book that I might want to read. I came away with a thirty-year old novel by Alison Lurie and the knowledge that I would never, ever return to this hellish parody of places that have nourished me and brought me great joy.

But the truly terrible part of my abortive shopping expedition is that if this place had the vaguest idea of how to be a bookstore, I would have returned. And somewhere in my most hidden portion of my heart, I wish it had been well-stocked and well-run and you know what? If you were here, you would wish the very same thing…every last one of you bibliophiles and independent booksellers, because like me, you are an addict and will take what you need wherever you can get it. Be grateful you aren’t in my position and be sure to support what you are lucky to have, junkies.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing without Thought

My postcard post was written with the same degree of carelessness that I use to scrawl a message on an actual postcard. I think that's fair for a blog entry but it isn't a true representation of my deepest thoughts and feelings about Bangkok.

Certainly, like any spot in the world, it has flaws. It also has been extraordinarily generous to me, and many people whom I love I would never know if Bangkok hadn't presented them to me.

When I returned two years ago and rented an apartment at RTS Condotel, I had no idea I would meet a family there who have become my friends. Mrs. Nupa, Mr. Prateep and their two sons have brightened my Bangkok life with their intelligence and warmth and radiant kindness. I'm lucky that we are still in touch on facebook, I hope they will come to visit me here in the year to come, and I desperately miss the conversations that I would often pop in to have with them and hope to continue to have throughout our lives.

My friend Usa and I have struck a sort of generation gap that had never come between us before. She is a vibrant, beautiful woman in her 30s and I am a 60-year-old who has slowed down a lot. But I love her dearly and know that in another few years, that energy gap will narrow and once again we'll spend hours chatting and eating and having a good time, whether it's here, there or someplace in the middle. And if we're lucky, her evil brother Eddy will be with us.

A friend of more recent vintage is the irrepressible Jessica C--I met her in person in Bangkok soon after she returned from a long meditative stay in Chiang Mai so I was ready to bask in her spiritual wisdom. "Let's go somewhere where we can have a bottle of wine with dinner," she suggested--which was a challenge for me because it was a Buddhist holiday and alcohol was off the menu in most restaurants. We ended up eating terrific food and drinking a very nice merlot in a hotel restaurant near Patpong--an evening that cemented our friendship, for me at least.

As for my relationship with Bangkok? I'm examining it from a distance in a trial separation--not for the first time since I first fell in love with it fifteen years ago. It's the place where I found my voice, where I learned to live in a way that made sense to me, it might be the place where I grew up. I love it still, always and forever.