Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Falling in Love Again

Long ago I began to understand how climate affects the personalities of people who submit to it. Alaska’s short summers and unending winters breed a sense of urgency and the need for patience; Seattle’s grey gloom with bursts of glorious sunshine results in a city of mild depressives with brief manic episodes; Thailand’s perpetual light and heat breeds a joyful languor. And Beijing? Beijing is like New York, with four vivid seasons, ranging from extreme beauty to extreme cold to extreme heat and then back to beauty again. And like New York, it’s a city of crackling energy, vibrant emotions, and borderline anarchy.

Bilingual signs in Mandarin and English were everywhere, telling people what they couldn’t do—and usually within eyeshot were a group of people happily doing whatever was prohibited. Cutting into line wasn’t just accepted behavior, it was encouraged, and pedestrians seemed to regard red lights as challenges, not commands. People smoked where they wished, ate and drank where they wished, and on the lane where I stayed, it was common to see a small child walking past with a large bottle of beer, being useful.

Perhaps because living spaces are often crowded, public spaces were scenes of intimacy. Girls gave their boyfriends fierce hell, couples made out with abandon, loud cursing seemed to be a favorite outdoor sport, and little children urinated in place, wherever they happened to be. Once on a boat trip from the zoo to the Summer Palace, a puddle appeared at the feet of a small boy, becoming a pool, then a river.

“This would never happen in London!” a young woman exclaimed, looking at her own feet with dismay. “This,” her blonde, blue-eyed companion said in the calm tones of an experienced expat, “isn’t London.”

Beijing seemed to be a city with self-assurance, which delighted me because Bangkok was one of the most self-conscious places I had ever lived in. I had grown up learning about China’s oppression but what I saw in the country’s capital was a deep-rooted form of libertarianism laced with a generous amount of humor and friendliness.

Perhaps people are kind to me because I’m an old foreign woman traveling alone, I thought after Nana had moved on. But then I met Odette, a young woman from Mexico who had come to live in Beijing with her husband, a British journalist. She was a serious student of Mandarin, had given birth to her beautiful little girl in one of the city’s hospitals, and delighted people by introducing the child as a Beijing girl. She lived next to the walls of my guesthouse, in a traditional courtyard home where each room was its own little house with a yard in the middle, enclosed by a high wall. Her kitchen was modern, there was a washing machine next to the Western-style toilet in her bathroom, she shopped in the street market outside her gate and asked William’s wife in Mandarin how to cook the things she had purchased. Odette was firmly part of the world she lived in, but then she worked at it. Beijing seemed to expect no less.

In Bangkok, years slip past and expats who have been there for decades say things like, “No I don’t speak Thai—just never got around to it.” In Beijing I commented on a middle-aged woman’s Mandarin as she spoke to a bookstore clerk, envying her facility. “Why, don’t you have a tutor?” she demanded in shocked tones. The Bookworm’s author events were often bilingual and the predominately Western audience often laughed at Mandarin sentences that were obviously jokes. As a traveler, I could get by with saying hello and thank you and pointing at my bilingual city map and smiling frequently. If I lived here, I’d need a lot more than that, I realized as I struggled to remember how to say “This food is delicious.”

Old men would frequently test my linguistic prowess by addressing me in languages other than Mandarin or English. One elderly gentleman and I had a chat in French; his was much better than mine. Another asked me if I spoke Spanish. Not wanting to place my hillbilly Puerto Rican vocabulary against his undoubtedly pure Castilian, I in a cowardly fashion said no.

William’s mother-in-law gave me stern scoldings on how to dress for winter without one word of English, pulling at the leg of my slacks to see how many layers I wore beneath them and showing me what lay beneath her own pant leg. The most I ever counted was seven and the best I ever managed was four.

I began to realize that the extraordinary kindness I found in my neighborhood was pervasive. Beijing is supposed to be the size of Connecticut and has a subway system that links its farflung corners; I used it often, especially when I searched futilely for the Botanical Gardens that nestled against the hills that bordered the city.

There was a particular bus I needed once I got to the subway’s end, and I was damned if I could figure out which one it was. I found a farm community that was a lot like the outskirts of Bangkok—ramshackle street stalls, no sidewalks, sleepy dogs—and a number of impressive parks, but not the one I wanted.

On my third morning, I was almost ready to say the hell with it. I had shown off my map to a large number of people in a neighborhood beside a freeway, with no luck at all. Trudging down an empty sidewalk, I passed a teenage boy who carried a school bag and felt a flare of optimism. Perhaps, I thought, he’s learning English; I pulled out my rumpled map.

He was very young, with the troubled skin of early adolescence. He looked a trifle alarmed by being accosted by an old foreigner, but he looked at my map for a long time and silently pointed straight ahead. I thanked him and walked off, more than ready to abandon my search.

Then I heard the sound of footsteps behind me and there was the boy. He led me to the nearest bus stop, pointed out the number of the bus I needed, waited with me until it arrived, and told the conductress where I wanted to go.

The gardens were beautiful but what has stayed with me is the kindness of a young man with acne and a big heart.

On one of my last nights in Beijing, Odette took me to one of the lakes, along a back street route I would never have found on my own. We walked down a narrow, quiet alley way; low, curving walls protected small windows of light that emerged from many little houses. For one absurd moment, I was sure we had traveled through time and were back in the middle ages. Then we were at the shore of the lake, where the darkness was filled with the low voices of old men, fishing.

It would have been a postcard moment, except Odette had Mandarin. As I watched her in conversation, laughing and bantering and briefly entering another world, I wanted nothing more than to live in this city and learn to speak its language.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Gift of Bookstores

It's the holiday madness time but I'm enjoying my shopping adventures--every week I go off to my neighborhood bookstore and choose a few more books for people I love. It's a big, bright, light-filled space filled with things I want to read and not filled with Christmas cultch--no fat men booming hohoho or plastic trees laden with gaudy baubles, emitting a vaguely toxic scent.

I buy a cup of good coffee from a cafe that isn't a chain inches away from bookshelves and talk to friends and wander through a building devoted to the printed word. I leave feeling relaxed and happy and knowing that soon I'll do it again. This is what gift-giving ought to be.

I'm old-fashioned, I admit. Many people have found more high-tech and speedy ways to dispatch their shopping efficiently. An hour or two on a computer and packages go out to their recipients, all gift-wrapped and pretty; I can't do that. It lacks the element of surprise, not for the people I'm buying gifts for, but for me.

Serendipity is a word that has almost disappeared--it's the art of finding something you want when looking for something else, and bookstores (and record stores and video stores) are centers of serendipity. I may enter with a list and leave with something I didn't know existed until a minute or two before. For me, if shopping doesn't contain the potential for discovery, it's no fun at all.

And not just during the season of gifts--I feel that way all the time. I realized last night that I need to know more about maintaining a healthy heart. Yes, I know all the information known to mankind is on the internet but I don't have the time or patience to wallow through it all, separating nonsense from useful knowledge. For me, this is time better spent in a good bookstore, looking at titles, reading a page or two, asking the person who takes care of the health section for their recommendations--and today that's exactly where I'll be. It's the difference between a living, breathing community and pixels coming together on a piece of plastic, between the world of the senses and a flat-line life that strains the eyes and the wrists.

My city is a literate one that embraces all forms of literacy, and that's a good thing. People reading on an e-reader are still reading. And I know there will always be books in a physical, tangible form for people like me--I only hope there will also always be stores where I can choose them, surrounded by a community of readers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Beijing Fever

Watching HBO, eating a cheeseburger and drinking a beer while the lights of a metropolis gleamed through the window of my nineteenth floor hotel room, this was a normal scene in any business hotel, but I was in Beijing, feeling as though I were an extra in Lost in Translation.

I was a victim of the latest form of Orientalism. For several years before I’d been a judge for a literary prize given to nonfiction books about Asia; I’d read countless memoirs of Chinese who’d suffered during the Cultural Revolution and academic tomes about the rural migrants who left home to work in factories where conditions were Dickensian at best. I’d expected Spartan conditions in a dark and gloomy city, a hard pallet in a cold room and a squat toilet in the bathroom with a city-wide blackout after dark. I had seen photos of soaring and imaginative buildings in Vanity Fair but somehow felt they were an isolated phenomenon, a Potemkin village segment of a grim and shabby city where everyone looked dour, wore subdued clothing and rode about earnestly on bicycles.

Instead here I was, in semi-palatial comfort, in a hotel room where the bathroom alone was almost the size of my Bangkok apartment, the kitchen held a refrigerator that was taller than I, a sparkling white cotton bathrobe waited for me in the closet, and the sofa was so elegant that I yearned to take it home with me. There was a bar downstairs that served seventy different beers and the room service menu was in English. It was out of sheer curiosity that I’d ordered my cheeseburger; it was great.

A list of hotel amenities included a few prohibitions that included "lecherous acts" and the plaintive request "We kindly ask you not to walk out of the room with bare feet."

The next morning, slipped under my door, was a business card with Chinese characters, a phone number, and a picture of a young, willowy, and scantily clad woman, poised on a bed with a come-hither gaze. Her feet were bare.

A year later I stood with Nana in a narrow street lined with small shops and cottage-like houses and food stalls, listening to two women shriek at each other. We weren’t the only spectators. People came out of their stores and restaurants and homes to watch; it was better than reality TV. Nana turned to me in complete delight. “I can understand them!”

“What are they saying?”

“The bigger woman just told the other one to go fuck her mother’s cunt.”

I looked nervously at the other members of the audience; certainly one of them would call the Beijing version of 911 before there was blood in the street. But there, listening intently to every shout of obscenity, were old ladies holding the hands of tiny, uniformed school children, matronly women with shopping bags, trendy boys with hair like foxpelts dyed in brilliant shades of green, purple, or orange standing in the open doors of small beauty shops. None of them seemed ready to put a stop to the afternoon’s entertainment, Nana and I walked on, and a couple of blocks later made way for a bicycle bell behind us. It was a good thing too, because as it passed by, we saw a familiar and still belligerent face of a very angry woman.

I never knew what to expect when I went out to explore Beijing; its capacity to surprise me was inexhaustible. One minute I was in a neighborhood where old men sat outside together, drinking beer at ten in the morning, and then I was having an espresso in the audience at the Beijing Bookworm, listening to a Bengali novelist from Manhattan explain about the special, globalized vocabulary used on 19th century clipper ships. On my first visit to the city, March was sunny and balmy; at the same time next year I plowed my way through several heavy snowfalls. One night on my way to the subway I heard music and soon found a whole parking lot full of people, ballroom dancing. In a park of ancient imperial splendor, people came with bags of table scraps to feed a community of cats that had taken up residence in a wooded corner of the landscape.

Living in Bangkok had accustomed me to contrasts, but Beijing was beyond any easy pigeonholing of ancient traditions/modern luxury. It was a place that took everything that had happened within its walls for three thousand years and jammed it all together to make a hybrid city, huge and impossible to duplicate anywhere else.

After my first visit, I babbled to my employer about it for close to an hour over the phone. When I finally stopped to take a breath, he laughed. “You have China Fever. It usually only happens to guys.”

I still have no idea if he was right. Other people have assured me that Beijing is not China and I’ve read strong arguments that the city is actually part of Mongolia. For me, it exists alone, within its own context, and from the moment that it first surprised me, I loved Beijing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks

Yesterday a tall slender young woman who was probably from Somalia, dressed head-to-toe in form-fitting turquoise shot with silver and holding a brilliantly yellow umbrella, walked down the hill outside my window like a spot of summer in Seattle's winter darkness. This morning the elderly Chinese gentleman who puffs his way back and forth, up and down, that same street with the reassuring regularity of a cuckoo clock, showed up in his usual sweater, scarf and sweatpants. Soon after, three young girls wearing down jackets in green, magenta, bright blue sauntered past, a small moving garden of blossoms.

Yesterday I stopped to talk to the young African-American guy who stands on my corner every day holding a sign for the gold shop on the next block. "I'm leaving next week," he told me, "I got a job on a fishing boat out of Dutch Harbor." He has been one of my heroes since I moved back and I will miss him.

The day before I sat and had tea with a couple from North Vietnam, on the Chinese border. Their baby woke up and watched me talk to him, moving his mouth in imitation, grinning at me when I applauded his efforts to speak. I love my neighborhood; I'm grateful to have found a place in it once more.

Today I'll leave it for a different part of the city, where I'll be with my family on the last Thursday of November for the first time in three years. Such happiness, such gratitude, so many, many thanks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Inventing Home

Every foreigner who stays in Bangkok lives in their own version of the city, partly because of the far-flung nature of Thailand’s capital, partly because of its malleability.

In spite of its stunningly up-to-date downtown core, Bangkok is made up of thousands of urban villages, every last one of them its own little community. There were—and I hope there still are—roads not too far from downtown where oxen stopped traffic as they lumbered slowly to the grass on the other side. Canal boats still whisk people back in time to riverine enclaves where mailboxes jut out over paths of water. And it's difficult to find a Bangkok neighborhood where local roosters don't issue wake-up calls.

My own neighborhood was far from pastoral and the advent of the subway meant it was bordered by more and more high-rise buildings that seemed to sprout up after every heavy rainstorm. But at the end of the road, near the subway entrances, where the pickup trucks waited for their next load of passengers, there was a tree. And one day as I walked past, it sparkled and glittered and glistened in the sunlight, festooned with silver that wavered and flickered in the morning breeze. The pickup truck drivers had brought their old CDs and tied them to every branch of this tree that stood alone and was knocked down to make way for a new condo-housing building within the following month.

When I visited with friends, other foreigners who made this city their home, they told similar stories about their neighborhoods, but the stories were never identical Bangkok was a gigantic Rohrschach test for the strangers in its midst; even Rodney and I, who lived in the same small community, saw different editions of it when we left the common ground of our house.

Most of my friends seemed to feel that when I returned to Chokchai Ruammit, I stepped out of the subway station and then fell right off the rim of the world. In a way they were right. When I came home, I emerged from a world that moved at a dashing pace of appointments punctually kept and a whoosh of constant motion into stop time, where I climbed into the back of a pickup truck and waited for the driver to finish his conversation or his cigarette or his nap. My journey home continued when he felt it was time to go and not before; then, when I had fully left the urbanity of downtown, I was allowed to re-enter my home turf.

I often envied Nana, who lived in a neighborhood that was served by motorcycles, not pickup trucks. Motorcycle taxis were fast and immediate; the drivers left when the passenger wanted, not when they chose to, and riding on the back of a motorcycle had infinitely more panache than huddling in the back of a pickup truck. And I was deeply jealous of my friend Will, who lived close to the banks of the Chao Phraya river and had a choice of motorcycle taxis or express boats when he went out into the world. But in Bangkok, you are where you eat, and long ago I had chosen to eat on Chokchai Ruammit. I knew its story to the same limited degree that it knew mine and we had accepted each other’s limitations. Without the pickup trucks, I would never have seen the silvered glory of a doomed tree.

The friend whom I privately called the AlphaDude was nourished by neon in the neighborhood where he had lived for almost twenty years. “I have everything I need here,” he told me, “Supermarkets, department stores, good restaurants, street food, the best hospital in the country, bookstores, bars, a population that comes from all over the world, and nightlife like nowhere else.” He lived within walking distance of Nana Plaza, an entertainment complex that employed enough people to populate a small city, a multi-leveled rabbit warren of rooms that blazed into life after dark. It was a place he roamed through regularly, making friends, collecting stories, having fun, entering its community on a level that many of its visitors didn’t care to explore.

Lee came from Seattle twice a year to stay in the same neighborhood, in a hotel he had found more than a decade earlier and never deviated from. He had become part of the staff’s family; they taught him Thai, brought him food, showed him how to live in his Bangkok neighborhood. All of them had come from somewhere else in the Kingdom and had learned the city inch by inch, just as he was. For Lee, the neon glories of lower Sukhumvit Road had become the surroundings for a village homestay; his hotel was a spot where he was always welcomed, a place where he could settle in and relax.

On the streets of their neighborhoods, every foreigner has two identities, the one they construct for themselves and the one the local residents have pieced together, which is usually accompanied by a local nickname. Few people on Chokchai Ruammit asked me what my name was and I had spent too much time there to be addressed by Mahdahm, the common appellation for foreign females. When I walked past street vendors I could hear the words that announced my approach and they were telling ones. Although I was sure I had found a home, within that home my nickname translated into “Vacation.”

If ever I yearned for a less publicly monitored existence with immersion that was far from total, I could snap myself out of it by remembering the morning I met a woman at a Starbucks in an affluent expat area. I got there first and as I went to order my latte from the counterstaff, a room full of women stretched their necks to see if I were someone they knew. When my companion breezed in a few minutes later, it took her five minutes to reach my table. “I love coming here,” she told me, “There are always so many other expats here in the morning and we’ve all become friends. I’m sorry I’m late but when I walked past Le Bon Pain, there was a group from the American Women’s Club and I had to stop to say hi because I’m president this year.”

My mornings rarely encompassed another foreign face unless Rodney was at home. I smiled and picked at my scone without enthusiasm. Silently I counted the minutes until I could go back to my neighborhood street and buy crisp little pancakes, placed together in a sandwich the size of a silver dollar and filled with molten hot coconut cream that had been sprinkled with fresh chives. Although there were days I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted, I was positive that the alternative would never be a room full of expats at Starbucks.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thai Crime, Thai Smile

Newspapers are where I turn for clues to the world around me and in Bangkok I received most of my enlightenment from stories about political turmoil and true crime. These were two areas that frequently overlapped, but I was happiest when I found the stories where they did not. Sons of politicians getting in bar brawls, brandishing firearms, and demanding “Do you know who my father is?” Boring. Bank robbers who successfully loaded their bags with cash after closing hours, then decided to take a nap and were found asleep when the bank opened the next day? Delightful.

I had become a connoisseur of Bangkok’s true crime journalism and would stare wistfully at all of the newspapers I was unable to read with their Thai script and their garish front page photos of blood and body parts. The Bangkok Post and The Nation were far too sedate for that; their model was the London Times, not the New York Post. But buried in their genteel reportage were stories of crimes that baffled and enchanted me; I hated those days when I missed a paper because I knew it held cultural insights that now I would never know.

In the mid-90s travel guides offered shrill warnings about strangers on Thai trains or buses who would offer tourists a snack or a bottle of water and then strip them of everything they had on their persons when the drug-laced gift put them to sleep. I was sure these stories were apocryphal until the days of the airport occupation when tourists were turning to any form of transportation that would let them continue their trip. A group of stranded travelers happily climbed on a bus that would take them out of Chiang Mai one night, enjoyed their complimentary snack, fell fast asleep and awoke in the middle of nowhere on a stranded vehicle with no driver, no conductor, no luggage and no money. There was a dash and style to that caper that I admired; it was imaginative, it took planning, it was nonviolent, and like the criminal mishaps that I treasured most, it was funny.

Banditry on a smaller scale took place on a Thai train when an armed man divested the passengers of the things they carried and then dove out an open window. One of the victims had the presence of mind to slam the window shut as the thief made his escape, closing it with such force that it severed some of the robber’s toes. The miscreant fled but the police had no worries about apprehending him. They knew somewhere in one of the nearby villages, at the end of a blood trail, limped a man with fewer toes than the ones he had been born with.

Rural criminals were the most brazen; not for them the random bag snatching while whizzing past on a motorcycle or the frenzied apologies of a working pickpocket who has just bumped into an affluent tourist on a crowded city street. Robbers in the countryside are after bigger game, like the men who drove into a village, took down the community’s water tanks which they claimed needed repair, and carried their haul off to sell to a scrap metal dealer. With chutzpah like that, I felt sure these thieves had to be using the gains from this heist to jumpstart their political careers.

Crime in Bangkok was usually more grisly than amusing, which is why the prize of my collection is the Squat Toilet Caper. A man entered a toilet cubicle to relieve himself but being more prudent than most, he removed his trousers, carefully folded them and draped them over the door of the stall, placing them so the contents of his pockets wouldn’t fall to the floor. While he was in no position to argue, he watched in horror as an invisible passerby pulled down his pants and walked away with them. Clad in his beautifully ironed white shirt, a tie, shoes, socks and underwear, the victim, who no longer possessed a wallet or a cellphone, was forced to commit an act of public indecency in order to find a policeman and another pair of trousers.

I was a crime victim only once. Walking down a dark soi in the heart of downtown Bangkok after having dinner, I heard a motorcycle slow down behind me and then there was a hard tug on what I had clutched in one hand. I kept my purse, my assailant got away with a shopping bag. His take was a pair of very old shoes that I was going to have repaired, a paperback in English and a copy of the daily paper. Luckily for me, and perhaps for him, I had already finished reading the newspaper.

Other people I knew or read about weren't so lucky, and in no way am I trivializing the really bad things that happen to good people all over the world, even in Thailand.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fed by Art

Pale sunlight turned into real heat that blazed into my Bangkok windows well before noon every day. I began to remember how difficult it was to read a newspaper under the gale force of a floor fan and if I wasn’t up by seven, I awoke in a tiny pool of sweat.

Life took on the languid quality of a fever dream; I moved slowly and any urgency I felt was only because I had invented it. Days slid into each other and I stood up a dinner appointment because I was still stuck in the day before.

I had just returned from Vientianne where I felt as though I’d wandered in to a deluxe Crayola box, the one with 64 crayons. The small Mekong city was drenched in color; temple ceilings replicated sunsets with shades of pink, pale blue, turquoise and buttery yellow, houses were painted in soft sherbet shades of pistachio or cantaloupe or lavender, and the traditional paisin skirts that almost every woman wore, whether she worked in a market or an air conditioned office, gave the dusty streets a brilliant vibrancy.

I usually lived in the basic Crayola box of eight colors. It amazed me that Thailand with its soaring imaginative use of flavors and textures in its food was so rigid and limited in feeding the eyes of the people who lived there. Buildings were grey, temples were white, red, and gold with touches of blue, scarlet flame trees and bushes of magenta bougainvillea lined murky canals, and for centuries the colors people wore each day were codified. It was still common even now to see yellow shirts worn by every age and gender on Monday and pink on Tuesday, oceans and oceans of yellow or pink every week on the same day. Red was the color chosen by supporters of the former prime minister in exile; otherwise it was worn only by the oldest and most beautiful princess—but then she was the rebellious one who ran off to marry an American.

I was starving for color, but when I found the vibrant shades I loved, my Thai female friends would smile and murmur “So bright,” leaving me with the feeling that I was a walking neon billboard. Although there was no longer a scheduled color for every day of the week, colors had an etiquette all their own and the older a woman became, the less she called attention to herself with the hues of her wardrobe.

I loved Bangkok’s Indian section, where fabric stores were filled with joyous riots of color for saris and the tunic and trouser outfits of the salwar kameez. Pinks and parrot greens, bright orange and crimson and turquoise and blazing yellows, glorious and gaudy and unrestrained, the textiles found in that part of the city observed no rules and I wandered through it more often than I ever did any of Bangkok’s art galleries. There was an anarchy in those colors that fed my spirit, as much as they nourished my eyesight.

The neighborhoods that I went to when I left my own were old ones. I walked and stared at decrepit wooden buildings with graceful Palladian windows that had been built by Chinese immigrants, at the brilliant white British grandeur of the house that became the city’s English library, at the road sandwiched between the fiery glow of a temple and a park’s cool greenery where men stood in the backs of trucks and tossed off big paper-wrapped bunches of roses as though they were handling bundles of cordwood.

I began to appreciate Thai food for what it was, an unconstrained art form; there were at least four places in my neighborhood that served chicken rice, and each one had their own sauce with its own flavors. Another place gave the customary condiment of chile and fish sauce a salsa-like quality by filling the sauce with fine slivers of ginger along with the incendiary specks of red and green. Every corner had a noodle soup place and the broth in each spot had its own distinctive taste.

Everything that grew in Thailand ended up in someone’s mouth. Mrs. Nupa put the small midnight blue blossoms of the butterfly pea into omelets because they looked so pretty; other people turned them into a bottled juice that was a deep navy-blue and had a fresh almost medicinal taste that cut through thirst on a hot day better than an ice-cold beer. A woman on my street handed me a leaf she had plucked from a nearby bush; when I put it in my mouth, I was surprised by a strong taste of zingy citrus. Even in the city, women squatted by roadsides, picking greenery that they would use in a meal later.

On the outskirts of Bangkok, I saw men hurl fishing nets into neighborhood waterways and once when I was walking along the banks of a city canal, a man’s grinning face emerged from the dark water, holding a large, squirming fish in his bare hands. The same sort of fish hit the street in my neighborhood at dinnertime, grilled in a thick crust of rock salt and stuffed with herbs.

There was an abandon to cooking and eating that was absent in much of daily life in Bangkok, an artistic license that belonged to everyone no matter much or how little they made. A common sight that had become a photographic cliché was the neighborhood street stall with customers who pulled up to it in their Mercedes. Bangkok’s world of food was creative, irreverent and democratic; it was no wonder that it was a city of passionate eaters who took to the streets every day.

And it was no surprise that when the revolution poured into central Bangkok, it was fueled by chili-laden papaya salad and grilled pork dipped into liquid fire. After all, the people in the country had already conquered the capital with their food. Now the relatives of the women who served som tam and larb moo and gai yang every day to middle class Bangkokians arrived in force to shove something less palatable down the city’s throat—the truth that their votes were not to be disposed of.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Scent of a Lime

Two days ago I was given a fresh, brilliantly green kaffir lime by one of the owners of my favorite neighborhood spot, Thai Curry Simple. I rubbed it between the palms of my hands for a few seconds, raised it to my nostrils, smelled the bright, clear, sharp scent that this fruit is known for and for a second I was back in the market at Huay Kwang, buying a bag of these so their fragrance would fill my room.

It's losing its color and its smell but still when I hold it close to my nose, I'm back in Bangkok. Then I close my eyes and I see the river that Viphawadee Rangsit Road has turned into during the past two weeks. I think of people whom I care about who have had to leave their homes without knowing what will be waiting for them when they go back. I see boats where cars and buses used to be.

I take a deep sniff at the fading odor of my lime and I'm on Chokchai Ruammit. I open my eyes and begin to think of how I could go back there for a week or so, the way I would long to visit a friend in the hospital, with no illusions of making a difference, because I need to, not because I'm needed.

I've always known scent is the most powerful drug there is. A man and a woman come together because of the odor of pheromones. Without the sense of smell, all that we would be able to taste would be dust in our mouths. And a fragrance can wipe away time and space, placing a person firmly in a memory for a moment.

Lime stings my nostrils, leaves its perfume on my fingers , and calls me back to a city that will always, forever, be my other home. "Come, see my new rivers, tell my new stories, I'm waiting. You've never seen me this way before."

My apartment lies near a flight path, my daily routines are punctuated by the sound of jets, and at night I look out my window at moving stars. I raise my empty hands and I smell the city I have known. I think of floods and swamps and the offerings that people make each November, little boats made of flowers and incense and candles placed carefully in rivers and canals.

Loy Krathong comes in five more days; this year Bangkok will be covered with lighted prayers, moving through the water, swept along with pieces of houses, garbage, dead animals. Only a crazy person would choose to be there if she didn't have to be; only a crazy person would continue to sniff at a lime whose scent is beginning to hold faint traces of rot. And, crazy with longing, I watch the planes soar past my window and wonder if one of them may have a seat for me.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Tale of Two Airports

For years when I came to Bangkok, I had arrived at an airport where I could smell Thailand as soon as I got off the plane, that steamy, musty odor that I loved, that carried hints of garlic and chili from whatever meal the cleaning staff had just finished eating. Long, dark hallways led to a big open space with currency exchanges and limousine services, and just beyond that the city began.

I always loved that first couple of minutes when I went outside and was slapped by a giant envelope of warm, moist air and the noise and color of buses and taxis and motorcycles and the immediate knowledge that I had come home. At the front of the airport was my road, Viphawadee Rangsit, shooting arrow-straight to my neighborhood. Across that road were food stalls that looked as though they catered to the Seven Horsemen of the Apocalypse and cooked meals that were fragrant and succulent and satisfying, with a never-ending supply of cold beer. After dark, neighborhood dogs came to sleep near the airport’s entrances, lulled by the blasts of air conditioning that escaped into the night as travelers came and went.

For decades politicians had talked about moving the airport from Don Muang to a spot that was known as Cobra Swamp. Don Muang was too small, they said, it was an island stranded in an ocean of traffic jams, and most damning of all, it wasn’t beautiful. Taipei, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur all had sleek architectural confections studded with shops and restaurants for air travelers; Don Muang had ashtrays in the arrival area and sleeping dogs as sentries.

A year or so before Suwannaphum, The Golden City, emerged in Cobra Swamp, my friend Rodney missed a freeway exit and for many minutes we sped down an elevated expressway that was curving and new and almost completely empty. “It goes to the new airport,” he told me and I began to mourn the loss of Don Muang from that moment on.

Suwannaphum could be anywhere in the world. A mammoth shopping mall housed in soaring glass and steel that leaks in heavy rainstorms, it boasts miles of duty-free shops that sell the usual liquor and kitsch and nicotine, a long series of moving walkways where a robot voice issues incomprehensible warnings in maddening repetition, and food that’s franchised in airports from Hoboken to Harare. The only thing that ever feels at all Thai in that place are the brightly colored plastic buckets that sprout up during monsoon season, strategically placed to catch the rainfall that drips through cracks in the very beautiful roof.

At Don Muang there had been a footbridge that led across the highway to a hotel with a comfortable, shabby lobby. At Suwannaphum in the bowels of the building there are airport trains that whisk travelers to the Skytrain stations in the heart of Bangkok. With a little luck and good management, it’s quite possible to fly into Thailand’s capital, go to a downtown hotel, spend a weekend there shopping and dining and luxuriating in spas, and then fly away without ever breathing the air of the city for more than a few minutes.

Suwannaphum had the ability to make me miss Bangkok before I even cleared customs.

On the way to my hotel, longing for a place to collapse before I began my apartment search, I stared numbly at miles and miles of concrete buildings planted in flat empty spaces. As the city skyline came into view, the cabdriver gathered his courage and his English vocabulary and spoke.

“Madam,” he glanced back at my bedraggled body clothed in what in another universe I’d chosen as an appropriate travel outfit, austere yet definitive black and crisp white. “Are you a Sister?”

I shook my head in silent exhaustion and misery, wondering what clothing in Bangkok I would find that would fit me while proclaiming to the world at large that I was neither a missionary nor a cloistered nun.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knowing Home

One of my first memories of home is watching it burn to the ground. Everything after that seemed temporary. Even the big, two and a half storey house that my father built, a place that caught the wind and rocked like a ship when there were storms, its precisely placed windows framing a range of dormant volcanoes and a thin grey ribbon of saltwater—that was always more of a retreat than a home. I can’t remember ever living in it for more than a year at a time.

Alaska was still the Last Frontier and the life of my family reflected that. We moved to wherever my father found work and set up camp in temporary housing. The place on the hill often stood empty, waiting for us, while we made ourselves at home in places we knew we would leave.

My parents had carried the seeds of their immigrant forbears with them when they came to Alaska. Their dream was to make a home in one spot that would house generations; they had claimed enough land for a whole village of their tribe. But while they talked about home, I talked about leaving it.

Everyone carries lessons from their childhood; what I carry with me like a scar is that I can quickly feel at home almost anywhere but home is a word I’ve never learned to understand.

For most of my life, my home has been the body that carries me through the world, blood and bones, muscles and neurons. The romantic fantasies of my adolescence that I pinned to the walls of my room were a narrow, curving Parisian street, the spired domes of Montmartre, and Che Guevara. I stared at these images and wondered where in the world my home might be.

Then in mid-life, I knew I had found it. Bangkok was my place. It puzzled me, infuriated me, delighted me, and engaged me as no other place had before. Its damp heat settled around me like a blanket; its multi-toned language with its sinuous and enigmatic alphabet awoke a primal curiosity I’d left behind in childhood. Here was a place I could live in forever, asking what and why.

So when I was sixty, I packed two suitcases and came home, to a place I knew I’d remain for the rest of my life.

By the time I moved to Bangkok, I believed I knew it rather well. I’d been rigorously schooled in Thai behavior codes, I had a rudimentary, badly pronounced vocabulary, I had a neighborhood I had spent years in during my earlier forays into the city, I’d written a slender little book as a thank you note to the city. I knew I had much more to learn; what I didn’t know was how much I would have to relearn.

I had left Bangkok in 2001; I came back to stay in 2008. The world as we knew it in the past century had tilted viciously in the new millennium; what we were all about to learn was our planet was in the process of turning upside down. Nobody, anywhere, in spite or because of Homeland Security, would know the safety and protection of being home ever again. All over the globe, people were redefining what home is, as opposed to what they had been taught that it was.

Before I unpacked my suitcases, still locked in jetlag, I turned on the television in my hotel room and heard the measured tones of a BBC announcer proclaim that the United States had economically collapsed. At four in the morning, I listened to a panel of Englishmen calmly discuss which nation would be the next leader of the world and I began to hyperventilate. I’d lived in Thailand when the baht fell and the economic repercussions had businessmen leaping from high-rise windows in Tokyo. Switching off the television, I stared into the darkness, feeling molecules whirl about me with no fixed place to rest.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Sense of Place

For the past three years, if I were to wake up in darkness, I had to rouse myself by five in the morning. Even then, gleams of a paler shade of black shone at the edge of my eastern view and then lavish streaks of gold and pink--and then the sun, already in full blaze by six. If I slept much past eight, I awoke in a little pool of sweat.

Where I live now, the dark sky doesn't brighten until after seven, turns an opalescent grey and then a bright eggshell with a barely visible, tentative back-layer of faded pale blue. The spruce trees that edge the freeway are black cut-outs beyond the squares of dark brick and the headlights that never stop moving. Slowly the seagulls move in to see what the garbage trucks might have dropped the night before.

Even though daylight savings means that dawn and twilight will both come an hour earlier in a few days, this ridiculous manipulation of time matters very little in the Northwest. Soon we'll all get up in darkness and face nightfall before five in the afternoon and then after Christmas watch our daylight increase by a few minutes every day. Until that light begins to count, happy hour is a city-wide ritual in Seattle.

For people who live in one geographic area all of their lives, the end of the day holds no sense of wonder. In Bangkok, nighttime is when the air cools, the food carts hit the streets, meals take on a leisurely pace at the end of a workday; every sunset begins a new little festival. In Alaska, being out at night for much of the year could well mean death; home was an essential retreat where heat and light were weapons against what lay in wait outside. In Seattle, the difference between the gloom of day and night is often miniscule; winter is flatline time when heavy drinkers perfect their skills and the rest of the city stays home. For each of these parts of the world, this is the way it's always been; this is the way to live.

In Bangkok, I sometimes wish for a storm to sweep in and turn the air into the fresh crispness of an autumn apple. In Seattle, I want the night sky torn into rapid flashes of light, dancing like snakes and x-ray beams and blankets of fire. In Alaska, the darkness sends me as quickly as possible to the nearest airport.

Eight am in Seattle and the light is ashen; on the other side of the planet, Bangkok at ten pm is still eating. My day begins at a time when only three months ago it was winding down. Schizoid with the weird gift of having lived in more than one place, I yearn for both, now, for the ability to toggle between one and the other like windows on a computer screen.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Dazed and Confused to the Max

I usually write to try to make sense of things. When I'm feeling confused I begin to put down what puzzles me into words and flounder my way through what I think and feel to find a small point of clarity. As that last sentence clearly illustrates, clarity eludes me now.

In the three years I was away from the U.S. my country lost stature in the eyes of the rest of the world in almost every way you care to name. And nobody--not our President, not our elected representatives, not the majority of our citizens--seems to acknowledge this, or even care. The country that owns most our debt, the People's Republic of China, is excoriated for not reducing the value of the yuan by a country whose own currency would be valueless were the Chinese not holding our paper.

I'm in a US city that has been less hard hit by what nobody will call a depression than most of its counterparts. In true Pacific Northwest fashion, income isn't a topic of discussion and results from the 2010 census aren't yet available online.However, some things are obvious to a newly returned former expat.

There are a lot of very poor people on Seattle's streets. There are a lot of people who are just getting by, at least in my Chinatown neighborhood. Although I myself make about as much as I did when I left to live in Thailand at the end of 2008, it's no longer enough in 2011 Seattle. And I'm not at what my country considers poverty level ($11, 344 per year for a single person). However, by the time I pay my rent, phone, internet and electrical bills, there's very little left over to cover more than food. My big monthly splurge has become a copy of Vanity Fair and I use the library almost daily, with deep gratitude.

Every week I pick up Seattle's two free weekly papers and look at what's available for fun in this metropolis. Movie theaters abound here, but at 10-11 dollars a ticket. I haven't gone to one yet. Music at a club? 10-18 dollars to get in. A reading at Town Hall costs 13 dollars, the cheapest theater tickets are 12 dollars. It didn't take long for me to understand that to have a social life, I would need a credit card--and we're not even beginning to discuss buying clothes, shoes, an occasional 9 dollar sandwich at a downmarket delicatessen, or a cocktail from one of the newly-fashionable artisan bartenders.

I would make a bet that many of the people who do have a social life in Seattle are heavily in debt--and that's nothing new. I certainly was in the '90s when I tried to juggle rent and food and going out on a bookseller's salary. But we're in an economic downturn now, right? Shouldn't prices reflect that somehow? I foolishly thought so, before I returned to the US.

What is wrong with the picture I see here? People are walking away from houses they can no longer afford, 8.7% of the population in the Seattle-Tacoma area is unemployed, 12% of the population of Washington state is said to be using food stamps: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/pacificnw/2011906512_pacificpfoodhunt30.html?cmpid=2628 and a friend who is lucky enough to qualify for low-income dental work has to put his share of the bill on a credit card to afford emergency tooth repair.

It's been estimated that to buy a 1980 US dollar would take $2.75 cents in today's currency. To those who fume about China's currency, I'd say they have a severe problem of their own at home. Why isn't it being addressed in a meaningful way? Why hasn't the IMF stepped in? They certainly are quick with solutions for other countries, many of which are painful and stringent.

I'd say off hand that we can't afford the wars we're fighting, that our defense budget is killing us, and that equal taxation for all income levels needs to happen now. But I'm no expert--just a returned US citizen who becomes more and more confused every day.






Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Preoccupied

"I went down to the demonstration, to get my fair share of abuse"--You Can't Always Get What You Want

I stood on a street corner with twenty other people on Monday afternoon, holding my cardboard sign so that drivers and bus riders could see--what? That I was dissatisfied? That the country is being dominated by corporate interests? That attention needed to be paid to the Wall Street occupation? Nobody seemed to know exactly why we were there; the most consensus I heard was that "Fuck the Banks" was the sign that everyone but me liked best.

"We need more laborers," one woman remarked as a passing garbage truck driver honked his horn in approval. "Laborers are working," I replied and she said, "I left work early." I swallowed any response that I might have to that, while thinking that was easily one of the more elitist comments I've heard at a rally.

An Australian I know recently remarked that protest in America is a ham-strung activity, allowed only so the US can say, "See--we allow dissent." After my foray into protest politics, I know he's correct. Policemen stood on the steps of the Federal Building; "You can't stand here," one of them politely informed me, "This is federal property." We also can't march without a permit or do anything more than stand on a sidewalk, holding our signs and preserving the peace.

"We need signs that are confrontational," one Occupier said in a gmail, "so we can get media attention." Apparently the revolution may not be televised but the protest has to be.

Confrontational signs aren't going to make a difference in public support, however, and there are people who may question the sentiment of "Fuck the banks." What about "Make them pay"? Now there's a sentiment that most struggling citizens would support, regardless of political orientation, but that doesn't seem to be the point. I'm not sure of what the point is--except while people are being ignored on the streets, the Senate has staved off a government shut-down with a temporary stop-gap measure.

The Occupations are keeping people preoccupied--more bread, more circuses, reactive, not active, much sound, little fury--and even less focus. Unfortunately more Americans are concerned with Facebook changes than with amorphous, polite and ineffective token protests. Maybe social networking is the new protest ground--it certainly draws more attention than do signs on a street corner.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sitting on a Computer Monitor

In an entryway to the terracotta building across from me someone last week put an ancient computer monitor with a sign taped to it saying "Free." It's still there and on this drizzly morning a man has used it as a chair for the past two hours. The monitor is sheltered and dry, and as he sits on it, so is he. He smokes and stares, gets up to drop his cigarette butt in the street, goes back to his seat and lights another one.

I watch him from the luxury of an apartment, realizing the very tentative and fragile separation between us. It's a cliche that most Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless and the gap between this man and me is much smaller than the distance provided by the street that lies between us.

For the past month I've done my best to make one hundred dollars last for thirty days. My rent and telephone bill are paid, I have--thanks to a good friend--a bucket of dried catfood in my closet. I have rice in my kitchen, both jasmine and glutinous. I have fish sauce and tea and the water that comes from my kitchen faucet is potable. A store across the street sells pork and chicken in two-dollar packages. I have so much more than so many people in the world-- or in this city.

I think of how long one hundred dollars--three thousand baht--would keep me going in Bangkok. My conclusion surprises me--not as long as it does here. In my other home, my rent and internet and utilities were well under half of what I pay for an equivalent space in Seattle. But I paid thirty dollars a month for bottled drinking water, fifteen dollars a month for the pickup trucks that took me to the end of my street where most of the shops were, sixty dollars a month for food--at this point I'm already at one hundred and five. That doesn't include catfood, catlitter, coffee beans, Skytrain and Underground transportation, coins for the washing machine in my building, a meal in a place with airconditioning, a riverboat ride, or a bottle of beer at night at home. Barebones living for this farang in Bangkok cost at least two hundred dollars a month; it wasn't fun but it was functional. And the Thai people who surrounded me would have been appalled to know that a farang lived that way.

I have to confess that I usually didn't. There were things that nourished me in Bangkok--meals with friends outside of my neighborhood every two weeks or so, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic magazines, the Bangkok Post every day, the International Herald Tribune once in a while, a carefully chosen book from Dasa Book Cafe or Kinokuniya, shoes which never seemed to last more than a month, haircuts when necessary, and the essential trips out of the country to keep my visa going. My Bangkok life was far less luxurious than that of many of my friends--farang or Thai--but it took every baht I made to maintain it.

I came back to the U.S. with no idea of how much my daily life would cost me--I was deeply relieved to find an affordable apartment and get my internet access within it. But deposits and installation charges dug deeply into my financial resources and now I find that my dabblings into barebones living in Bangkok are helping me to move on in the U.S.

Next month will bring another paycheck--or so I hope with every fiber of my heart and soul. Meanwhile I feel true gratitude every time I get drinking water from my faucet and books to read from my public library and a movie to watch at the end of a day from hula.com. And I offer a quiet little thanks that I really enjoy rice and fish sauce.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Looking Back, Looking Forward

A month ago, I left a mammoth stack of belongings for the Burmese family that kept our apartment building clean, viewed my neighborhood through a taxi window, and got on a plane to Seattle, feeling numb. I thought I'd be jubilant, excited, sad, all at the same time.

I felt nothing at all.

There was too much to feel on that day. I was leaving a city that had dominated my heart and mind since 1995. I was returning to a country that held my family and most of my personal history. I had been gone for three years and had given away almost every possession I had when I left for Bangkok. The thought of rebuilding a life in Seattle--finding an apartment and furnishing it with the most basic essentials, towels, plates, cookware--was no longer one that excited me. I had done it too often. I refused to think about it and when it did flit across my mind, I felt very, very tired.

The magic of flight has turned into a weird state of suspended animation for me; I was frozen in place and began to thaw only when I lurched toward the spot where my oldest son waited for me. I had forgotten how many different skin tones and faces and languages lived together in Seattle and the sight of them was exhilarating. And that exhilaration has persisted throughout the thirty days I've been back.

The diversity of this city feeds me; without it I would starve. Near the suburban apartment where my son's girlfriend lives is a compound that holds a Tibetan temple and the community that serves it. The musicality of Spanish and Mandarin fills the city buses. In a building on the block adjacent to my own is a storefront with windows covered in butcher paper, embellished only with a small string of Chinese characters on a strip of red paper. It used to be one of the few convenience stores in my neighborhood that sold beer and cigarettes; I thought it was just another empty space until I walked by one warm afternoon. The door was open and inside were tables of old men, playing mahjong and the sound of their tiles took me back to Chengdu in a second.

On the next block is a capoeira school that is open only in the evenings--wide open. A sign invites the neighborhood to stop, watch, and join in if they choose. A bit further is a lovely little branch of the Seattle library where most of the dvds and magazines are not in English. I love going there; it's the living room for my neighborhood, although tax cuts have forced its closure for the past week, along with every other library in the city.

Yesterday I woke up with a copy of the New York Times that I'd bought the day before--from Read All About It in the Public Market, a newsstand in the classical mode (a common sight in Beijing but rapidly disappearing in the US--Seattle has only one). The section for the visual arts was crammed full of things that dazzled me--a restored carousel housed in a "$9 million transparent jewel box" (rides free for children under 3, $2.00 for everybody else), African art in the Brooklyn Museum that includes a portrait mask of Elvis from 1977's Malawi, a gallery at MOMA devoted entirely to Hannah Wilkes' 'feminist video and installation work"--and that's only the first page.There are four more, one dominated by the story of Kyohei Inukai, a Japanese expat painter who was Manhattan society's darling until Pearl Harbor; at 55 his life as a paid artist stopped. He lived for twelve more years.

Yes, that's New York for you, but Seattle has more art than I can reasonably expect to see in a month; while I was in Bangkok, my friend Alan Lau sent me regular monthly listings of what the Asian art community was up to and that act of charity helped to lure me home. It's true that my travel has been truncated by my return to the US, but my visual world has expanded beyond all measure. While much in the States is admittedly mediocre--its national cuisine (responsible for corndogs and macandcheese and Big Gulps ), its movies, and its politics run from bad to abominable--but its artists, be they visual, dramatic, literary, musical, or in motion, are vibrant and exciting and prolific. For me, that's "America" and within that realm, the promise and possibility and diversity goes undimmed, still lifting "its lamp beside the golden door."






Saturday, August 27, 2011

Summer into Autumn

If I could have been granted every wish for my resettling into Seattle, it would have been no different from what I have been welcomed with in the past three weeks. An apartment waited for me not only in my old neighborhood, but in my old building, bigger and brighter than the one I'd lived in before. Sunlight pours through my eastern window in the morning, the western as the days end, and my view is of brick, terracotta and a furl of green trees on a nearby hill.

Summer in Seattle is an intoxicating season which came late this year. I like to think that it was waiting for me. Having warm sunlight strike my skin as I drink my morning coffee is a blessing--and one that had often eluded me in my final months in Bangkok. Here through the buildings that slope toward Puget Sound it's almost always possible to glimpse the water, which glitters and sparkles with sunlight and always stops me cold when I see it. Loveliness.

Although the pain of giving away my horrendous little Bangkok cat was enough to make me feel I wouldn't have another for years, life thought otherwise and an orange kitten and I found each other. I've wanted an orange guy for decades and was always claimed by a different shade of feline, but Mean Mr. Mustard Mulrooney walked in and took over me, my apartment and everything in it without a bit of hesitation. Happiness.

Yesterday I wandered through Seattle looking for presents. My youngest son's birthday is coming soon and for the first time in a long time I'll be able to spend part of that day with him. There is no word to sum up what I feel when I think about that.

Life is very, very good.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Finding Home

In the past three years, as I bounced from Bangkok to Beijing, Hong Kong to Penang, and points in between for briefer moments, I'va always asked myself, "Could I live here?" And except for Penang, with the jangle of noise I heard for hours every night, the answer was yes I can. My way of traveling is to find a neighborhood and settle in for a month, then return and repeat again and again (which I should have done in Penang). I wander and develop small aspects of daily living and learn the city as much as I can. And yes, I did find a way to live in Chungking Mansions and in a hutong tangle off Xinjiekou Street and of course on Chokchai Ruammit. I love all three of those neighborhoods and if I could clone myself, I'd be in all three right this very minute.

But...long ago I made two decisions that changed my life forever. I had children, at a rather young age. I always told myself that when they became adults, I would become a late-life adolescent, roaming the world, having adventures, finding stories--and I did.

What I didn't realize was how much I would enjoy and be nourished by the company of my adult sons, and how shriveled I would feel after I turned sixty without their nearby presence in my life. I'm lucky. They both live in one place, which is where I live now too.

We don't see each other every day or even every week, but for me saying goodbye to them at an end of a visit without fighting off tears is a great and marvelous joy. It has brought me a feeling of tranquility that is almost alien to me; one afternoon as late afternoon light turned the floor of my room to soft gold, I looked up from the book I was reading and felt that the squirrel cage that had been in perpetual motion for almost three years was quiet.

I haven't divorced myself from Asia. I live in Seattle's Chinatown/Nihonmachi/Little Saigon neighborhood where everyone I see every day has made a home far from home. The lady in the dollar store is from Vietnam as is the family who roast whole pigs in huge ovens and serve up pork in various dishes all day long and the lady who makes egg tarts and cakes and banh mi in her bakery/cafe. A Thai man has a little video store on my block and Chinese herb stores are everywhere. Little groceries and two large supermarkets are devoted to food stuff from all over Asia; my first purchase was a ten-pound bag of hom mali from Thailand and the fragrance of steamed rice fills my studio apartment every day.

I'm planning my next visit back and it will be for at least two months when I do. There is so much still to see and to explore, and friends to be with, and stories to find. But I am luxuriating in a sense of happiness and calm that has eluded me during my time in Asia. Is it age that makes this so sweet to me? Or is it the knowledge that I can have the jolt of seeing and learning something new right outside my apartment building?

I know that darkness will be the prevailing quality of my days here all too soon. The clouds will settle over Seattle and they won't go away before next July. But I have people I love to brighten the gloom and books to write and food to cook. I have holidays to celebrate that over the past three years I have done my best to forget.

It's taken a long time to understand that home is where you are able to feel peaceful, and where you are near the ones you love best in the world--and yet that this doesn't preclude wandering and discovering in places on the other side of the globe. I feel blessed to know that in every cell of my body, in every portion of my brain, and best of all, with my whole heart.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011