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.


Kristianne said...

Oh, Janet! I so crave one of those little silver dollar pancakes right now. I love the relationship with the neighborhood: "I knew its story to the same limited degree that it knew mine and we had accepted each other’s limitations."

janet brown said...

Maybe Thai Curry Simple does kanom krok--I'll ask them.

AHBoyce said...

Your writing never fails to wrap around me. Reading your words allows me to hear your voice and become part of your story. I'll be first in line to buy the book.

Dr. Will said...

What a burst of creative activity! I love these stories. Don't stop, keep them coming! Home must be more than where the heart is. Perhaps it's where the words are.