Thursday, November 1, 2012

Switching Universes

Today is Thursday but it doesn't feel like it. I'm still stuck in Sunday and I'm on Bangkok time. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday have been one long, unending, hallucinatory day and I'm ready for it to be over any time now.

On Sunday morning, unable to eat and fighting tears, I left Bangkok. I can't count how many times I've done that but it's still never easy. Even though I know I'll be back, it's always difficult to get in that taxi and drive away from my neighborhood.

And I always return to that neighborhood. It isn't really mine, but I belong to it. People there are used to seeing me pop up and then go away again. They know why I do and they all approve my decision to live near my family. Anything else to them is pure insanity.

The guy who makes the best chicken rice in the world is assisted in his shop by his adult daughter. The woman who sells more fruit than magazines than she used to frequently is given a day off by her son and daughter. The ladies who make morning noodles and fresh orange juice every day have their granddaughter with them as they work. (She used to be in a playpen, then she began to walk around and assess the sociability of the customers, these days she drops in when she's not in school--she's a young coed of three and a half.) My dearly beloved newspaper lady, now in her seventies, is occasionally replaced by her middle-aged son so that she can go upstairs to the shophouse behind her sidewalk table and take a nap. If he doesn't show up, she naps at the table, and laughs about it later.

Family is integral to Thai culture. People who leave home to make a living elsewhere return when they can. A woman I know who is in her late thirties  will soon move to the US to be with her American husband; she's worried about living so far from the mother with whom she has conducted shrieking battles for decades. One of the most modern families I know in Bangkok still come together frequently in the apartment building that they own. When I lived among Thai people without my children--or at least a husband--I was an inexplicable anomaly. Living in that country made me understand why a cloudy, chilly corner of the US has become my real home.

And yet when I go to Bangkok, it always provides a strange feeling. Within two weeks, I was ready to come home. At the end of four, "home" was becoming a kind of dream state. I slowly enter the looking glass when I am in Bangkok. I enter another life, a different kind of time that shimmers and bounces like jello, an alternate behavior system in which I move more slowly and speak with deliberation, whether in English or (bad) Thai. My life at home, although I frequently and passionately miss it, becomes shadowy; my daily routines there seem almost fictional.

This doesn't happen in Hong Kong. That city has a Western pace and overlay that makes it less of a jolting change to come there from the States--plus I speak no Cantonese at all. "When you learn another language, you become another person," Haruki Murakami said. And it's true that in my highly imperfect Thai, and in the English I speak in Bangkok, I am a different facet of the person I am--more polite, more thoughtful, more accepting. It's a change that is surprising and profound, no matter how often it happens.

Home now, I'm still living through the unending day that jetlag provides, awake and hungry by 3 am, still feeling that ghostly vertigo that comes with motion sickness, amazed and delighted by things that were taken for granted six weeks ago. I wish I knew why I have to leave so thoroughly to be able to appreciate what I have--but I did and I do. And I probably will do it again.