Monday, August 24, 2015

Man on the Bridge



 When I first came to Bangkok from Seattle, I was surprised and delighted by the personal safety that I found in that sprawling city. In my introductory months the streets of Thailand’s capital looked grim and squalid, dominated by concrete shops with their jumble of goods spilling from fronts that were open to the street, dogs with virulent, repulsive skin diseases, and unrestrained piles of garbage. Only in the areas near the luxurious hotels and shopping malls was there a semblance of what I regarded as a city, augmented with the exotic touch of litter cans. Once I left those parts of town, I could walk for miles, clutching an empty soda can or a bag that held only a few crumbled bits of fried bananas, before I finally found a receptacle where I could toss these things away.

But from the very beginning of my Thai time, when almost everything that surrounded me looked incomprehensible, from the Sanskrit-based alphabet to the squiggly wormlike objects that floated in jars of pink, green, or black liquid on food carts, friends told me that I could walk anywhere in Bangkok, at any time of day or night, without fear. Even the dogs who looked so menacing in their feral clusters would leave me alone. As my confidence grew and I expanded my explorations of the city, I learned that this was true.

Only once did I ever feel threatened, in broad daylight, when a dog in my neighborhood barked with a note of authority that verged on outright attack and refused to back down when I told him to go. I picked up a rock and we were both stunned when it hit him hard on the flank. He never bothered me again.

Friends assured me that any crime I might encounter would involve stealth, not bodily harm. Danger lurked, not on the streets, but on crowded escalators in the malls where thieves would cut into the purses of shoppers and make off with whatever valuables they might find. One particularly vile woman did this to mourners as they stood in line to pay their final respects to the revered mother of the king, an act heinous enough to make it to the pages of the Bangkok Post.

One of my students told me that a British girl who was traveling on her own in one of the outlying provinces had recently been attacked by a motorcycle taxi driver, “But,” he said reassuringly, “you’re old. You don’t have to worry.”

His sad assessment was quite accurate. There was little distinction at that time between middle age and old age in Thailand. Once the first wrinkle sprouted, senility was right around the corner. When I finally began to go out at night to listen to rock and roll at a downtown club, I was the only woman over the age of forty in the place. And when I left after midnight to walk to the nearest bus stop, I moved through the dark streets without any need for caution, other than keeping a close lookout for holes in the sidewalk.

Once in a while, glimmers of danger peeked from beneath the envelope of safety that surrounded me. A stateside friend who now made her home in Saigon came to visit and told Rod and me that every foreigner in that city was under such tight surveillance that if one of them disappeared, the police would swiftly find them. “That’s not true here,” Rodney told me later. “If a Thai person wanted you to disappear, nobody would ever find you. It happens to Thai people all the time.”

There were stories in the Bangkok Post of dismembered torsos found in abandoned suitcases, but these were usually attributed to underworld business transactions that had gone wrong. An Englishman who loved to go to the Thai boxing matches told me of the night that he ate at a nearby restaurant after the fights. “Suddenly I heard pop-pop-pop, and when I looked out into the street, I saw a man lying across the front of a Mercedes with a hole in his head and two in his chest. He’d lost a lot of money betting on a fighter and he didn’t pay up.” The more seasoned residents of Bangkok who heard this story with me all agreed that for a welsher, this was an appropriate fate.

Closer to home, a fellow-teacher told me that he had come home drunk one night and was attacked while he was walking down a street near our apartment building. “Three guys with a knife,” he said, “One of them cut my arm but when I began to bleed, they all freaked out and ran away without my wallet.” This story prompted me to take taxis when I returned home late at night for a while, until I realized that the blessings of age and the fact that I came home sober were enough to keep me from being mugged.

But truly what kept me safe was an elaborate hierarchical social system derived from Confucianism, in which age trumped youth and rich superseded poor. When I walked down one of my neighborhood’s narrow streets, if any sort of vehicle approached, I was the one to give way. If a pick-up truck approached an automobile, the truck pulled over, and a motorcycle would give that same ground to a truck.

The perception of wealth was as important as wealth itself in Bangkok’s neighborhoods. Gold shops were everywhere and our reluctant housekeeper wasn’t the only laborer who put most of her salary into gold jewelry. Gold was safer than money in the bank, friends told me, and it provided an irrefutable status indicator when it was worn in public.

Pale skin was prized because those who had it were obviously not farmers or manual laborers. By extension, for a long time even the poorest of foreigners were given automatic status by virtue of their complexions.

When people of similar social status came together, the hierarchy became based upon longevity. “How old are you?” was a question that wasn’t considered rude; it was one of practicality. The younger deferred to the older, in a way that I, often the oldest when with my Thai friends, found intensely embarrassing. Still my age gave me a protective shield, along with my slightly paler skin color, and I traveled alone throughout the country without a flicker of apprehension.

The underpinning of Thailand’s stability was based upon the relationship of phi/nong, older sibling/younger sibling; those who were nong lived under the guidance of their phi’s greater experience and superior wisdom. When wealth came into play, this skewed the equation somewhat, but even so, a wealthy young person would show respect to the advanced years of someone older and poorer. The king and queen, regardless of how young they might be when they ascended to the throne, were regarded as the parents of the entire country, and their birthdays were celebrated as Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.

On the surface, Thailand was just one big happy family. Below that façade was a stew of disquiet that led to violent protests and military coups on a semi-regular basis. I had arrived several years after soldiers had killed student demonstrators in the streets of Bangkok. Only the king’s intervention had restored peace to his kingdom, or so I was told.

Few people talked about this tragedy in any sort of detail. One of my students said he had watched a close friend die as they both marched near Democracy Monument, so now he avoided politics. An older businessman who had been part of what he called the Mobile Mob, the affluent protestors who carried mobile phones (which were rare in the early ‘90s), told me that all politicians were “dirty” and only the king was worthy of the country’s respect. It was as though this and the other lethal political clashes of the past two decades had been vicious sibling squabbles that weren’t to be discussed with people outside of the family circle, now that the conflicts had been smoothed over.

I was traveling outside of the country when once again political differences threatened to tear Thailand apart, and new distinctions became part of the common vocabulary, ones that were class-based, rather than the benign labels of phi/nong. People took pride in being phrai or peasants, disdained the salim who were middle class, and hated the amart, the wealthy and powerful. To naïve foreigners like me, these divisions were shocking, as though the Brady Bunch were suddenly revealed to be a hideously dysfunctional family.

Although surface tranquility was restored by the military, peace this time around was obviously only a stop-gap. “Things have changed,” a Thai friend said, “People are different now. I don’t feel as though I’m in Bangkok anymore.”

Neither did I. The first time that I saw a Westerner begging on the street was soon after the recent social upheaval and my reaction was not one of compassion. He assailed the safe status quo that I had benefited from for years, he and the others who joined him as mendicants, and when I saw them, I felt an unexpected surge of contempt and fear.

But they were downtown, not in the area that I lived in and loved. Outside of the central business district that had grown as rapidly as a malignant tumor over the past decade, Bangkok seemed unchanged. At least it looked that way to me, a resident whose language comprehension was that of a bright three-year-old child. I couldn’t read the Thai newspapers nor could I have understood a political discussion in Thai if I were only two inches away from one. Although I was smart enough to know that smiles in Thailand covered a multitude of different emotions, I was relieved to see those smiles on the streets that I walked through.

The area I claimed as my own was wide-ranging, and although my understanding of it was superficial, I felt I had a working knowledge of my territory. Part of it was a neighborhood quite distinct from the one I lived in; its streets were seedier, studded with down-at-the-heel hotels, small and smoky bars, and a flourishing population of local drug-users. In spite of its rough edges, I’d always felt comfortable there, skimming its surface, eating in its street stalls, and having dinner once in a while at a restaurant that was as foreign as I was.

Abu Ibrahim was one of the few places on my turf where I could eat food that wasn’t Thai and where the people who welcomed me weren’t either. Early on in my Bangkok life I’d come to this place to revel in its differences from what surrounded me every day and over the years the Indian owner and I had found a sort of unspoken kinship. Although we both lived in Thailand, neither of us would ever be Thai.

I was on my way there one late afternoon to meet a friend and began to make my way across a gigantic metal footbridge. It was an imposing structure that towered above the intersection of two busy streets and extended for what would be almost half a block in a U.S city. Since it was well before the evening rush hour, I was the only person on the bridge, or so I thought. But as I began to walk across it, I saw a man huddled at the other end.

I have no idea what made me stop and turn back toward the staircase that would take me down to the sidewalk. I didn’t feel afraid but there was a ripple of disquiet that unsettled me. Something wasn’t right and I suddenly wanted to be back among the moving tide of pedestrians on the ground.

As I walked slowly but deliberately toward the stairs, I felt the touch of a hand and turned to see a man standing beside me. He was middle-aged, wearing worn clothing, and he was dirty. In a country where cleanliness is a religion, this was a big warning sign.

“I’m hungry,” he said, “please give me twenty baht,” and as I attempted to shrug his hand away from my arm, his grip tightened.

“No,” I said and tried to move away. His other hand came up to grab the strap of my shoulder bag and time became paralyzed into an eerie stillness.

We were standing next to the railing of the footbridge that came up only as high as my waist and I was in the grip of a man who was surprisingly stronger than he looked. I realized that it wouldn’t be difficult for him to push me over the rail into the street but that he would only do that after he had taken possession of my bag. I clutched its strap like a lifeline.

At the other end of the bridge a figure appeared at the head of the stairs. My assailant had his back turned and didn’t see that we were no longer alone; his struggles continued as a well-dressed older man approached us at a leisurely pace.

“Help me,” I begged in Thai as the new arrival drew near. Without slowing his steps or changing the expression on his face, he said only a few words to the man who held me in place, in a tone of voice that I would use in reprimand to a disobedient dog. Suddenly I was free to move away toward the stairs, while my erstwhile attacker returned to his end of the bridge.


It had only took a few minutes for my Bangkok bubble to pop and dissolve into a distant memory. I walked with the feeling of insistent fingers burned into my arm, realizing what I owed to the continuing power of phi/nong. Although other protective shields seemed to have faded into an almost mythical past in this new century of social revolution, somehow the hierarchy of siblings was firmly in place, at least for now. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tom Yum Goong, Anyone?


 From an essay collection that I'm working on right now--

One morning in Bangkok, when I was still half asleep, I put my coffee cup down on top of a twenty baht bill that was resting on one of my books—I’d singled it out the night before as fare for the pick-up ride that I later decided not to take. When I saw it I immediately thought oh there’s money for food, because at another time in Bangkok, that’s what a twenty baht bill meant and it was deeply precious. It ensured that I could have a meal, one that I usually shared with friends. At that time in Thailand, twenty baht was worth not much more than a U.S. quarter. Even today it’s only worth around sixty cents, but I still view that bank note with respect. At one time in my life, it kept me alive.

Satang are seldom used nowadays but not too long ago, I hoarded those little gold coins, and the even smaller copper-colored half-satang ones, to use for my pick-up truck fare. The drivers weren’t upset when I handed them over, even though they were the smallest of small change. We all lived in the same community and we were all hungry. We all valued satang.

It had happened so rapidly. One week I was able to spend my holidays on the beach with friends and then suddenly I was unable to pay a full month’s rent unless I did it on an installment plan. It’s a time I look back on with a full measure of horror, and with a lot of gratitude for my kind and understanding landlady.

This happened almost twenty years ago. Now it’s called the Tom Yum Goong financial crisis, an ironic name for a period when a lot of people couldn’t afford to eat Thailand’s legendary hot and sour soup very often. It’s ancient history. People in their twenties are as far removed from that time as I am from the Great Depression, and it’s all as unreal to them as apple-sellers on the streets of Manhattan are to me.

When I was a child, I used to feel a hazy sort of regret for my father when he told me how he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of fourteen to work with my grandfather in the family bakery, but what I felt was an abstract form of sorrow. That disaster was like something I’d read in a novel by Charles Dickens. In the world I lived in, it was unimaginable, in the same way that Bangkok teenagers today can’t imagine a time when eating at a McDonald’s was a luxury, too expensive for many families in Thailand’s capital.

I’ve never been hungry in my own country. Here in the U.S. a quarter for me is just twenty-five cents, useless by itself, laundry money when combined with five more of its kind. Sometimes I dimly remember how many pieces of penny candy that coin bought for me when I was a little girl, but then I recall how tedious it had always been to hear stories like that from my parents, and I keep those memories to myself.

In Thailand the economy began its slow recovery after about a year. I still remember the day Rod and I went to lunch and I devoured a plate heaped with fried rice in three minutes flat. “Would you like another?” Rod asked me. For the first time in my life, I said yes and for the first time in almost a year, I left the table feeling as though at last I’d had enough to eat.

The financial crisis of 1997 was like watching a toddler blow out candles on a birthday cake for the very first time. Slowly, one after another, a flame was extinguished, then another, beginning with Thailand, moving to Indonesia, then Japan. Half of the world rocked on its axis, and it was a long time before the region regained economic stability.

When the U.S. went into its recession ten years after Tom Yum Goong, I lay awake all night in a Bangkok hotel room. When the Chinese stock market tumbled recently, I went into hyperventilation. When the Thai baht weakens, I start to think of what expenses I can cut back on, feeling a very real sense of fear. And Greece curdles my blood, with its xenophobic yearning to abandon the euro and bring back the drachma.

I don’t save string or empty glass bottles, as survivors of the Depression are reputed to have done. I’m not even particularly careful with my money, even when I’m bumping into memories of Thailand’s hungry time. Sometimes I tell stories—the time I traveled across the kingdom alone one New Year’s Eve with a grand total of fifteen dollars to spend on food and lodging, the time a former co-worker in Seattle sent a card with a twenty dollar bill tucked inside that kept me going for two weeks, the time I looked at myself in the mirror and realized that my breasts had gone completely flat. But these aren’t stories I like to think about very much.

What has stayed with me from those days is I always read the financial pages of whatever newspaper might be available, wherever I happen to be in the world. Forget the revolutions, the kidnappings, the ebb and flow of democracy around the globe. The events that change history and turn lives into turmoil rest within stock market reports and currency evaluations. Offshore trading can create financial chaos in a heartbeat. This is the news I monitor, remembering how lightly I overlooked the baht’s fall when it first began to lose half of its value. This is the news that can ruin lives and turn hope into hunger.

Living in Thailand taught me more than a few lessons, but above all, it was there that I learned how intertwined the fortunes of the world are and how one country’s stumble can lead to disaster for damn near all of us. Although I put no faith in currency that can turn to toilet paper overnight, I make sure that I always have a generous supply of rice on hand, Thai rice, of course.