Sunday, June 29, 2014

Farang Can't Understand Thainess

When I first came to Thailand, nobody said this to me. They were too busy explaining Thainess to me--that his Majesty was loved by all, that Thai people cared about freedom, that family was an overriding concern for parents and children alike, that Thailand was a country where people took care of each other. I taught English to well-educated adults and they all used my language to teach me about their country. And I believed what they told me.

It was easy to believe them in that halcyon period between 1995 and 2001, even when the baht went straight to hell and we were all wondering just how low the economy was going to go. I was gone for several years when Thaksin rose and fell. I read about the crimes committed by his government, which were very bad, but I read about them in a free press. Yes, even during the extra-judicial killings of people accused of drug-selling, the protesters who died of suffocation at Tak Bai, and the hefty tax evasion of the PM himself, Bangkok newspapers were free to report these events. Free--that has always been the hallmark of Thailand for me--that's what I was taught.

Then this year along came the coup that was not a coup and then it was. People have been arrested for reading 1984 in public, for wearing the wrong t-shirt, for brandishing three fingers in the air, for handing out sandwiches. Cash rewards amounting to around 16 USD have been promised to people who snitch on others for denigrating the current powers-in-charge. Detention centers wait for people who need to be taught to be "happy." Government spokesmen say it matters not at all what foreign nations think of recent events in Thailand. On the other hand, officials warn against negative news in the media because it presents "the wrong image" to foreigners.

Online news reports from the Bangkok Post and the Nation are heavy on stories about the World Cup. Social media, in English at any rate, has gone silent. A prominent op-ed columnist who has provided insightful political commentary for years has been "let go" from the Bangkok Post.

I'm a foreigner, I do not understand. I don't understand why political turmoil was allowed to become so complete that the only solution seemed to be a complete shutdown of free speech, free press, free thought. Unless of course that was the plan to begin with--to allow license that was called freedom and let it escalate to the point that repression became a welcome alternative. But what do I know? I'm farang. I can never understand Thainess.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Getting What You Need, Learning What You Want

I have, in my opinion, a nice, cozy little apartment. It has light and color and a bedroom and two bathrooms--one for me and one for the cat. And yes, it allows cats.

I've lived in it for a year now, if you ignore the months that I was in SE Asia, and it is just about the way that I want it.

Except I want it to be a house.

Not a big one, mind you--it could be the exact, same size, in the exact same neighborhood-- I'm not yearning for an upscale living experience. All I want is nobody above me, beside me, or below me--or sharing an entrance or hallway with me. It could be an old railway car or a shipping container with windows cut into it. It could be an abandoned jet plane  or a geodesic dome--I'm not fussy.

Light and Silence is the name of my next book--it's also the minimum daily requirement of my life. I have CDs that I rarely listen to, an iPod that I only use when I travel, Edith Piaf downloaded on my iPad that I've listened to once. It would be easy for me to become a Trappist monk, just so long  as I could see the sky,

Almost every day I go to Craigslist and look at little houses that I could afford to rent. None of them are in the area where I live now. And it occurs to me that in addition to my basic requirements, I need creative, eccentric, delightful people in my life--whom I have now. I know from experience that they aren't easy to find and that I starve a little without them. Although I'm certain they exist in Arizona and other corners of the Southwest, I have a whole family of them here, given both by blood and by choice. And that's worth a lot.

So the thumps and pounding overhead at 2 a.m. and the loud conversations in the hallway in the middle of the night are things I may just have to suck up. But still dreaming on Craigslist continues to be my favorite indoor sport.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Light and Silence

Grief is as personal as a fingerprint. Witness the different books that come out of that experience--The Year of Magical Thinking, Wild, Men We Reaped, and Wave. Each writer suddenly was forced into another way of looking at the world that came without warning. Even if a death is expected, nobody knows where the removal of someone they love is going to take them.

When my brother died, he was twenty-four and I was thirty-two. His absence was so immense for me that I couldn't look at it. I had no tears, I couldn't look at the sky. I wouldn't talk about him after his funeral. I don't think I've ever admitted to myself that he is really dead. His death was random; it made no sense. It was also horribly normal in the Alaskan town where I grew up. The small graveyard in Anchor Point is filled with markers for men who died young, boys who played with my brother when they were all small. Even thinking about that place makes my hands go numb and my jaw clench.

A little over a year ago, my mother died. She wanted to; she was eighty-six and tired. It was a death I had time to prepare for. I didn't expect what followed it, even though I had once told her, "I won't know how I'm going to feel about your death until after you've died.".

I had began writing about my mother before she died. something she had always wanted me to do. Long after her cremation, I kept putting stories about her into words. They became a book, one that is difficult for me to reread, but when I do, I discover again and again the woman who shaped me.

For a year after she died, I ate ice cream. That was something Mother rarely allowed herself, and as I made my way through a pint of ginger or pistachio, I felt as I was eating for two. I also had almost a year of excruciating back pain, so persistent that I thought I would always live with it. It went away almost a full year from the time that my mother began to die.

Each of my mother's daughters faced her absence without the usual ceremony that would have brought them together. The one who had chosen the responsibility of Mother's care by taking possession of her long before she became infirm threw herself back into an unencumbered life. When we spoke on the phone, she talked about trips, losing a hundred pounds, a new house--rarely about our mother.

Her mourning was deeply private, the way her mother would want it to be. Mine has taken on the form of a book, which was also what my mother wanted. The greatest gift I ever received was reading her some of the stories, the last time I saw her, and watching her eyes glow as the memories were floating between us.

There have been other deaths, but this one is the absence that pervades my life every damned day. My mother and I shared a sensibility that I have with nobody else except my sons. Because I was her child, I could bring her almost everything. Because she was human, she didn't always respond in the way I wished--but in the end, that didn't matter. I know that, now that I live without my touchstone.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Another Country

I did not grow up in the United States. Alaska was a territory when I was taken there as a baby and it didn't join the Union until I was ten. Even after it became the 50th state, the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite was beamed into Alaskan living rooms a day after the rest of the country had seen it. Alaska was six hours behind New York City then (no Daylight Savings Time for us in those days) and many of us lived a full century behind midtown Manhattan.

Twenty years or so after statehood, I moved with my husband and children to Seattle, a city that had always seemed a part of Alaska. Its flowering came into being because of the Klondike gold rush and its economy depended heavily on Alaskan fishing. It was a scant three hours away by plane and the Alaskan Marine Highway System ended at a downtown pier. It was a city that always felt as though it was our colony, instead of the other way around--Alaskans used it to transfer to another plane to another place or for shopping. With no internet, the only way to buy good books or fashionable clothing was to head for Seattle, stock up, and go back home.

So I was truly shocked to discover how foreign Seattle felt to me when we came to live here. Shopping malls and fast food outlets, beer and wine sold in drugstores, roses blooming in front yards in December--these were only the beginning. In Alaska I'd worked valiantly to keep up by subscribing to the NYT city edition--not the national version--but it arrived three to five days late. When I began to read the local city papers in my new home, suddenly the news was immediate and threatening. Without that barrier of space that Canada provides between Alaska and the lower 48, every disaster, everywhere, was on my doorstep.

Since then, I've traveled very little in the United States--New York, San Francisco, brief moments in Los Angeles, Oregon of course, Montana as a hiccup, and Tucson. Except for NYC, all of my US travel has been in the West. Until last month when I went to South Carolina.

By American standards, the South is Old Country and I spent a week in a southern landscape that is still largely unchanged from centuries past. Farmland on gentle, rolling hills, forest as thick as any jungle, houses that date far back into history, towns that truly have a Main Street, and wide spots in the road that have a cafe, a church, a vegetable stand. People have good manners there; even small children say "Excuse me" as they walk past. Speech is colorful; one man in a diner beside the Pumpkinville Highway described an acquaintance as being "as bipolar as yesterday." And no, I didn't understand that at all.

In the small town of Pickens, the only reading material for sale was in the Walmart and the supermarkets--and then all that was for sale was People magazine and its equivalents. When I learned that a book I'd edited had been reviewed in the New York Review of Books, I had to go to Greenville to find a place that carried--or had even heard of--the NYRB, and then I ended up having to go to a Barnes & Noble.

For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were completely white. I saw one black face, doing cleanup at a Walmart. In Greenville, a few Latinos were waiting tables at a "Mexican" restaurant. Otherwise everyone, in the shops, in the libraries, in the supermarkets, were white--friendly white people with good manners and stultifying conversation.

I came back to Seattle with a newfound and profound appreciation for the creativity, eccentricity, and diversity that characterizes this city. Yesterday I walked with two young children through a multi-racial neighborhood, through a Vietnamese enclave, into Chinatown and on to the heart of the city--two or three miles of layers--wonderful layers of excitement and discovery. And I realized that if I am going to stay in this country, probably no place in it suits me and delights me as much as my home in Seattle.