After the first two weeks living in Surat Thani, I had to attend a conference in Bangkok. My classes were scheduled to start the following week and everything was prepared; I was looking forward to seeing a little more of the country before starting work.
Early Thursday morning, I walked to the bus station and caught a bus to the airport. The Surat Thani Airport is very small. It has four gates, two for national and two for international flights. These are separated by a tinted glass partition. Waiting at the gate, you notice figures darkly moving around a mirror-image of your own situation. Its something like a glimpse into an alternate reality: everything is clear for you, the desk, the seats, the path to the bathroom, but for the patrons of the other gate, everything looks obscured and vague. The people seem to wander around aimlessly and the seats and desk are not clear. You have the impression everyone is walking around in there, knocking their shins against errant chairs and asking each other if they have seen the desk. This is amusing until you realize that your gate must look the same way to them, dark and inscrutable from the other side of the glass.
After waiting an hour in the sealed, heavily air-conditioned world, it was a relief to be led out to the tarmac to board the plane. The Surat airport has no jetways, so all boarding and deboarding is done this way. When a line formed to the plane, everyone stopped and waited under the shadow of the building rather than risk standing in the sun for a few minutes; people here do try to avoid the sun as much as possible. Being from a tropical country, to them, the sun is no vacation novelty, but a powerful force. Growing up seeing the sun dry laundry in a matter of minutes and watching dead geckos become thoroughly desiccated by its heat in an afternoon, I can understand why people from tropical places would come to see the sun this way. But, for us northerners, even with our much higher risk for skin cancers, we bask like the sun’s healing have been long denied us. Perhaps we are too well aware that we will eventually leave and return to the perpetually clouded skies which we only glance at from our cars and office windows. We want the memory of warmth and light to be clear. We want to look back on the vacation and see nothing but the blinding rays of direct sunlight.
The plane landed in Bangkok a little over an hour later; Thais, I notice, don’t clap when the plane lands, either—like westerners—they have become accustomed to flying, or their religion allows them to transcend worries about whether the plane will reach its destination. In western Asia and most of the former Soviet Union, people still give the captain an ovation after a safe landing, an homage that I find to be the most human thing in the dehumanized world of modern aviation. I was bummed to find they don’t do it here. It’s no so much the appreciation for a job well-done I like, but rather the feeling you get when clapping together, like choral singing, it helps you to recognize you are part of a greater whole; after the plane lands, everyone has their own destination, but while you are in the air, you share the same experience. As much as we may want to act like we are still in our little world, we are subject to the same laws as everyone else on the plane. Our personal world is limited to thoughts; while we are all crammed together in the fuselage rocketing through the sky, we share our physical world with the other passengers, even our emotional worlds begin to overlap, as we begin to anticipate our landing. Clapping at the end of the flight seems to thank not only the captain, but those who whom you have shared the experience. Its as if you were to line up and shake everyone’s hand before deboarding.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disinterested in a new city. Maybe I’m just tired of cities and the way they’re all starting to look the same. Even Bangkok, so unique with its dildos and Valium on sale along the sidewalks of Sukhumvit and Buddhas reclining, like models posing for the shutters of photographers. Venture far enough out into the suburbs, I’m sure there are parts of Old Bangkok left, but from the skytrain into the city, all I saw was the same reflective glass high-rise building repeating itself like a pop-up ad blocking my view of the actual city.
I got off the train where all the hotels are, checked into my room and went out to find a place to eat.
The Pier 22 Mall was just down the road and while normally I wouldn’t have bothered with such a place; they were supposed to have a stall selling cheap vegetarian food, but things change quickly in a mall of that size and almost upon entering, I knew the place wouldn’t be there anymore, still, I looked. I saw a Baskin Robbins or something on the basement level and assumed the food was down there. I looked around at the various eateries, Indo-French, pasta, Chinese, donuts, tacos for shit’s sake, but couldn’t find the one I was looking for. I would’ve left if I hadn’t seen the sign proclaiming the mall’s food court to be on the 5th and 6th floors. “How,” I wondered. “Could this place where I’m standing, surrounded by various eateries, not be the food court?” I was just hungry enough to climb up six escalated flights to find out.
Each floor of the Pier 22 Mall has a different city theme. One floor is Rome, another is Istanbul and the food court, both floors of it, was San Francisco-themed. Somehow, seeing reproductions of the Via del Corso or Hagia Sophia in a mall didn’t seem overly strange to me; I recognize that these things have become so iconic they’ve shed their reality and become legion, likewise, and possibly even more so, the Golden Gate Bridge, a bridge I’ve driven over countless times, a bridge I used to be able to see from the end of my block in the Richmond. I’ve gotten used to seeing this bridge everywhere, not as a link between the Presidio and Marin, spanning the foggy inlet of the Bay, but rather just as a bridge, floating in the unreal miasma of iconography. So, I could handle the massive reproduction of the Golden Gate stretching between decks of the mall. Even the Pier 39 logo reproductions which read ‘Pier 22’ for the name of the mall, were tolerable. But when the smaller icons of North Beach, such as the sign for Big Al’s on Broadway swam into view, I started to feel a little disoriented. Hungry as I was, the faux scenery seemed to incandescence in a livid but jumbled reproduction of San Francisco and I started to feel overwhelmed by memories. The passivity of the shoppers started to bother me. I felt like a penitent whose Hagia Sophia has become a tourist attraction. I wanted to destroy the abomination and at once clear the unappreciative shoppers from the area. “Don’t you see?” I wanted to shout. “Don’t you see, that this is my happiest memory? My last home? You’ve made it into a joke!” But I didn’t say that, or anything else. I only took a few pictures and walked out.
I ended up eating at a Subway in abject desperation. It wasn’t until I ordered and sat down that I noticed the walls are covered with the old station map of the NYC Subway. San Francisco to New York in less than a block while in the middle of Bangkok. Such a thing makes me glad for the hermetic Paraguays and Turkmenistans of the world, or it would, but I know its only some greater income indication in these places that keep the chain businesses with their American reproductions out. If Paraguay struck oil, there’d be a Subway in Concepcion the next day.
But one American reproduction I am always glad to see and when I finished my lettuce sandwich, I set out, board in hand to find one or Thailand’s two skateparks, this one in a little plaza in Benjasiri Park—the other is on Koh Samui, both of them are minescule and seem only partially completed.
Malls are a poor export to me because they represent the worst of American gluttony and avarice; self-contained air-conditioned worlds that offer nothing more than products and anonimity. I don’t think I’ve ever had an occasion to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a mall, the structure of the place disallows, even prohibits it. The skatepark, conversely, brings likeminded people together to commune. When one person lands an impressive trick, everyone feels the elation. Nods and handshakes are freely given out. Impressively for such a place, judgment of ability is usually eschewed for appreciation of attempt. Even in the case of the bungling farang.
The incident I mentioned at the market earlier when everyone stood completely still, turns out to be a daily thing. Every day at six o’clock, the king’s anthem is played and, while it plays, everyone stands still. I don’t think cars on the roads stop and I don’t think anyone in their homes pays any attention, but everyone out in a public place must stop what they’re doing and stand still for the duration of the song. I’d read something about this, but somehow the first evening I was at the skatepark, it’d slipped my mind. I had my headphones on and was trying to 50-50 this box someone had set up at the top of a slight incline. With the music going, I was skating to this box with single-minded purpose when suddenly, the park emptied out; everyone, abruptly stopped skating. Despite many prior warnings, I just assumed this was a coincidence and went steadily toward my target. I didn’t land the trick, but I grabbed my board and kept going, back the other way. Turning in this direction, I was able to see the crowd and their curiously blank faces and suddenly, I knew. I pulled one ear piece out and sure enough, over the loud speakers, the anthem was playing boldly. I probably should’ve just stopped, but I had to make some kind of concession. I stopped, threw up my hands in desperation, as if at my own stupidity and made a characteristic wai to everyone as the only way I knew to express my regret. Everyone near the skatepark at least, had big smiles on their faces. I knew these smiles were inscrutable, but in the moment, it was better than seeing frowns. When the music stopped and everyone started skating again, I stood there for a moment sheepishly and then tried the box again. I didn’t land the trick then either. I’m sure this won’t be the last time this sort of thing happens to me.
Another blunder I committed that night was one that Gina nearly did herself in Koh Tao, but having more tact and grace than I, she managed to avoid it.
About half an hour after the king’s anthem, a wobbly kid on his skateboard comes careening toward me. I step out of his way just before he would’ve slammed into my legs and then, to let him know we’re pals and he can run into me all he wants, I reach out to tap him on the helmet. Just as my fingers are grazing the top of the plastic casing, I realize what I am doing and pull my hand back, as if burnt. I can only hope the kid’s parents haven’t just seen what probably looked like my sincere attempt to put a hex on their child, or at least screw with his chakras or something.
In my defense, a lot of “rules” seemed to be entirely disregarded here. In the airport, there are plenty of signs begging the wouldbe tourist to be respectful of the Buddha. The signs point out that tattoos or any product, such as a lawn ornament or—and it actually shows a picture of this—a doggy bed, depicting the Buddha fall under this category. Despite this injunction, nearly every tattoo shop I have passed in tourist areas display flash of buddhas and buddha heads and pictures of the satisfied customers sporting Siddhartha on their arms or backs. Statues of the Buddha also seem to widely available. The whole thing reminds me of the Chinese restaurants which have on their signs a ‘Chinese’ caricature, looking like some evil propaganda from the Chinese Exclusion Act: the conical bamboo hat, the long pigtail, the buck teeth, the flowing sleeves are all there, but the establishment is Chinese-owned. Some could argue that this is an act of reappropriation, but I can’t help but to think that people putting these images on their signs just don’t care what other people think. Perhaps the Buddha thing is like this, too. If you want to tattoo the Buddha on your calf, go ahead, it’s all just suffering anyway.
So, after my fingers grazed the kid’s helmet and I noticed that there were no parents giving me the evil eye, I assumed maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. Looking it up, I can’t help but to notice that the websites which beg tourists not to do this are all posted by other tourists. I’ve noticed over the years, that tourists have a tendency to be hyper-critical of each other. If westerners see other westerners doing something that seems inappropriate, they talk about it for days. I understand that we all want to have a good image abroad, but c’mon, in Bangkok they’re selling dildos and Valium on the street. Someone must be buying these things. We’ve been acting like louts for the last few hundred years and, frankly, I think most nations (especially those with good beaches) still expect us to behave like louts. Try to do what you can to be a good person, but keep in mind someone’s probably going to come in and undo all your work the moment you leave. Accidentally touching a kid’s head probably still isn’t as bad as barfing in front of some guy’s store or passing out on the sidewalk where people are trying to walk in the morning and these are the things westerners are still doing all the time in Bangkok.
Back in Surat Thani things were more peaceful. I started my classes and four days a week, I take the song tao (as the tuk-tuk-like thing turns out to be called) to class. One afternoon, coming home, I noticed a kid sitting with his head down, like he wasn’t feeling well. He was about 13 and accompanied by two friends about the same age. One of his friends was incredibly solicitous. He took a sweatshirt out of his bag and placed it under the head of his sick friend. He seemed to think about this for a minute before finding the action insufficient. He placed his bird-like hands on his friend’s shoulders and began to massage his back. He kneaded and prodded at his friend’s back, hopeful, like each touch could bring him out of his illness. His friend stayed slumped ahead, however, and the boy eventually stopped massaging, still, he allowed one hand to linger on his friend’s shoulders, tapping every so often, like we do for someone who is vomiting. Watching this behavior, I couldn’t help but to envy the culture which permits such a thing. The boy wasn’t awkward or embarrassed. His friend wasn’t well, so he did what was in his power to make him feel better. I don’t think his action would’ve been well-received among the society of 13 year-old boys in the west, however. In the US, a 13 year-old is already totally deprived of touch. When his mother tries to hug him, he must push her away or risk being laughed at. Even his closest male friends can’t touch him other than to push him down or slap him on the back. The American 13 year-old dreams of girls; the only way he is permitted to be touched. I remember how amazing it was just to touch a girl’s hand at that age. The immediate feeling of comfort was so pervasive. There could’ve been no doubt that there was some kind of incredible affection associated with the act. No one else would’ve tolerated such an intimacy and to be sitting there in the dark of the movie theater, hands clasped, I felt like I was going to be loved forever.
I can’t help but to wonder how this affects Thai teenagers and other societies where men are allowed to show affection for each other.
In the evening, we went walking down Donnok Rd., down to the stadium, which is small and slightly mildewed-looking. Surrounding the stadium, there is a track where people come to run in circles and a number of other tumble-down athletic buildings, one of which has a boxing ring and is usually crowded with people practicing Muai Thai, their fists and feet slapping against pads in an off-time tattoo. Several people wear running shirts with the words “Run for the King” printed on them in English and below that “if you can walk, you can run.” Gina and I walked on the outside, away from the runners, although occasionally, we still got in their way as they wove through the crowd.
It’s probably the humidity, but my feet hurt in every new country. Even after walking just a few blocks, I feel like the concrete is pushing back against my soles with each step, like it reveals an extra hardness, in contrast to the soft jungle earth it covers. So automatically, my feet seek out the softest places to walk. We walked through the stadium area out to King Rama IX Park. It’s all paved walking trails out there, too, but merely the suggestion of soft earth on either side of the walk seems to ease my insoles. We walked past the banana groves and the marshes which were surprisingly empty of mosquitoes. The sky was still turbid with the storms that have been stirring up the clouds since we’ve arrived. The duration of rain fall is the shortest I’ve even seen, a few seconds maybe and it stops. It doesn’t even get very heavy outside the rainy season, like a weak shower-head one is forever crowding against in attempts to get better coverage.
A walkway passes through the park, and although it runs parallel to a road, we are still passed by a man on a motorbike, which is inevitable. In all the world, there are no laws governing the movements of these cacophonous things. From Thailand to Mumbai to Alexandria to Rome to Antofagasta, motorbikes spin a noisy helix around the world, tearing at the earth, awaiting the paving of the oceans.
We stepped out of the way and the man passed. He stopped just ahead, under a grove of wilted-looking pines and began kicking a wicker ball around in a circle of men. We didn’t stop, but watched the men as they kicked the wicker ball to each other in parabolas increasingly high. A light wind blew through the damp green world. I could smell the coy pond on the breath of the trees, like overripe and noisome fruit. We left the path and walked to the water’s edge. A spindly white bird tiptoed through the water and poked among the reeds breaking the surface. The gray skies were reflected in the dark water with the intense silver of mercury and it hurt my eyes to look directly into it. We paused for a moment on a bench in a pavilion; the whole thing seemed to have been constructed out of bathroom tile. I slid back and forth on the blue-tiled bench, watching the white bird and its convulsive movements. Against the silver of the water, the white reflection of the bird was smeared almost to the opposite shore, like it was gradually dissolving, giving its whiteness to the waters. We walked around the pond and came to a small bridge arched like an angry cat over the water. Below us, something broke the surface of the water. We stopped on the apex of the bridge to watch the dead movements of the saurian coy snapping at surface bugs, lolling up slowly like a gas bubble, taking a big gulp of insect water and then tumbling back down to the bottom as if struck insensate by their food.
As we watched the pond burp out coy, something to my right caught my eye, a movement. I looked into a cage set against the base of the bridge and saw two river otters curled up into each other. Sensing my attention, one of them stood up and looked at me inquisitively, however, not with the first-order inquisitiveness of a wild animal which asks “will you be the one to let me out?” but the duller, second order, when the animal has given up on ever getting out again and only waits for food—the long day’s sole distraction. I hate seeing animals caged up so we can take a look at them, worse yet, I hate seeing naturally playful animals caged up, animals which are intelligent enough to want to test the limits of their world. Such a thing seems an abomination to me. We stood looking at the otters for a while, cooing sympathetic noises, checking to make sure the locks to make sure they couldn’t be sprung and then walked away, trying not to think about it. On the way back to the gate, a group of stray dogs came up to us, wagging their tails hard enough to move their back ends, forcing their hind feet to continually find new purchase on the ground. We scratched these smelly hounds for a minute, but their excitement was too great for scratching and they ran off, leaving our hands waxy with dog oil, which we tried over the course of the walk home to wipe off on our pants, unsuccessfully.
Fortunately, all this moving around over the last few years has had one lasting benefit; I’ve committed so many faux pas in different countries that I’m becoming somewhat immune to embarrassment. Trying to speak different languages and adapt to different cultures, puts one in a child-like position. The words that come out of your mouth make you sound like a baby and your actions often only support this assumption.
The first few times I went lived abroad, I had a hard time dealing with this perception; my pride was wounded when people accompanied their words with obvious gestures or when they labored to explain the simplest things like pointing to water that had just been boiling on the stove and saying “water hot! No touch!” Initially, I rolled my eyes at such admonitions and repeatedly said “I know” in a harassed way, but gradually, I began to realize the people telling me not to burn myself were only looking out for me and as I didn’t speak their language very well, they had no way of really assessing my knowledge. I used to long for opportunities to dazzle the people close to me with a brilliant display of knowledge, so they could see that beneath this awkward foreign exterior, I did know something. But those moments were far between and gradually I learned a sort of patience for those around me and now when they tell me not to touch something obvious, I just nod and smile.
Accepting this cloak of humility has allowed me to escape embarrassment a few times. When you don’t try to downplay the ignorant foreigner role, it can occasionally work in your favor. Last week I started my classes at the university in Surat Thani. For the first week, I concentrated on learning who my 176 students were. In each class, they’ve picked out nicknames—a common thing in Thailand—to be called in class. The different alphabets and sounds of our languages have made translation a difficult thing. For example I had a student write her nickname as ‘Num’ when I pronounced this as any American would with perhaps a slightly more nasalized northern pronunciation, the class erupted in laughter. When they quieted down, I asked how she pronounced her nickname. “Nam,” she replied, with a long ‘A’ sound, like in ‘Pam’ or ‘Damn’ as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that one would say the letter ‘U’ this way.
In another class, I made the mistake of trying to talk about gender. The students have to wear uniforms. The girls all have long skirts and the boys all wear black ties. In my last class of the week, only one tie stood out from the group. In an awkward show of solidarity, I called out “hey, are you the only guy in this whole class?” At once about three people called out, in unison “She’s not a ‘guy.’” The person in the tie was frowning at me like I’d just confused Thailand for Vietnam or something equally inane. “Sorry,” I responded, “it’s just that you’re wearing a tie.” Without batting an eye, the person with the tie said “it’s just part of my uniform.” You’d think that would’ve been enough for me, but it was the end of the week and I was exhausted after not teaching for over a year. At the end of the class, we were doing a group activity when the person with the tie stepped out to use the bathroom. I called on the group the person was in to present their work to the class and they informed me that they couldn’t because the person with the tie was still in the bathroom. Without thinking, I blurted out “he’s not back yet? Can someone go get him?” I didn’t use italics, but I said it, not once, but twice. Those students must think I’m either incredibly dense or just from some really intolerant place. I didn’t let it embarrass me though. In a new place, among new people, I’ve come to learn it’s impossible not to embarrass yourself at least once, often quite lavishly. I’m sure if there had been a pot of boiling water somewhere in the classroom, my students would’ve warned me not to touch it.