Wednesday, September 28, 2011


"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 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."