Monday, July 26, 2010

Pints of Tiger, Rivers of Whiskey, part 2

Back at the table another round has arrived. The jukebox blares Pearl Jam. I am thinking about sleep, about my bed and joints and TV when Clarissa asks if I want to go to a concert tonight. Ska, she says, a bar called Saxophone. They’re meeting at someone called Andy’s, a room in my building at 7 o’clock. I say yes, and it’s six already so I say goodbye, see them soon, and go downstairs to pay my bill. The owner, a large Australian man who’s always on his computer downstairs, watches the Thai girls tally my tab. I pay four hundred baht for four beers and open the door. The warm, salty welcome of the hot air is more like an invitation to sleep than a wake-up call, and it makes me smile, lazy, soft and wet. I stutter forward on rubbery legs, walking home drunk, happy, and hopeful.

At home I take a quick, desperately-needed shower. The school I was at today didn’t have air-con (as the English call it) or soap in the bathroom. When I got back to the office and washed my hands the sink turned black with grime, the detritus of dozens of dirty hands clutching mine. It feels so good to be clean.

Deciding it’s too hot for the dryer, I toss my wet hair into a braid. CNN plays in the background as I dress, something about the U.S. torturing Iraqi prisoners. Great. But the story switches quick enough, so that I don’t have to change the channel. The speakers on my age-old computer don’t have much range, so this rubbish is the best background noise I have. And it makes me hate America.

My pink corduroy skirt from Anthropology doesn’t fit quite right and makes my hips look bit, but I wear it anyway, hoping a skin-tight Jack Daniels tee will make up for it. Really, though, I’m too buzzed to care. I hurry to get ready because Clarissa should be calling at any moment, but my room phone sits silent. I don’t have a cell yet, but the girls told me that you can call by room number to any apartment in Cham Chan. It’s a little single woman community over here. Dressed, I wait, perched on the end of my bed, sneering at the news, at the President, hating the President. I wait for the phone to ring but nothing happens. Fifteen minutes later, I wander into the hall, leaving the door open behind me.

My bare feet pad down the tiled, open-air hallway until I see a door cracked, hear girls’ voices speaking English inside. I knock and wait, considering the possibility that my new friends deliberately neglected to call me. Seems more likely they forgot and anyway I don’t really care. I’m not going to sit alone in my room on my first Friday night in Bangkok. I’m drunk now, and I’m stubborn. I’ve been promised a night out and a night out I will have.

A tall white girl with long brown hair, a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, opens the door wide. “Heya. How yeh going, mate?” I think is what she says, but her Australian accent is so thick I’m not sure.

“Uhhh, good,” I mumble. “Is Andy here?”

“She sure is, mate!” the girl bellows good-naturedly. “I’m she. She’s me! Ah, whatever the fuck. Come in!”

The studio apartment is exactly the same as mine except she has a blue refrigerator, instead of green. It seems like everyone is smoking. Everywhere large green bottles of Chang are lifted in white hands. Laura, the black English girl, is on the balcony with a cigarette, and Carolyn, Edmond’s girlfriend mixes a vodka drink on the dressing table. Clarissa sits on the back of the bed with her back propped against the headboard. Two other girls introduce themselves as Amanda, from Louisiana and Sharee, from Alabama. Andy pours some Chang into a glass from the bottle in her hand and offers it to me. I’ve been told she’s the only person anyone knows who’s been fired from Fun English. Supposedly this is because she was a “real” teacher back home and wouldn’t conform to the “Fun” method. Now she has a better, more lucrative job here, though I can’t imagine how this is possible since I need a translator to understand her. She stands barefoot, smoking, in the middle of her bedroom with a wide smile and a hand on her hip and she talks to each person in the room individually, though they are all having different conversations. She seems to thinks she’s keeping up with all the streams of discussion, though that can’t be possible. Perhaps she’s just pleased to be here, in her room with drinks and fags and all these girls. Judging by everyone’s friendliness (and drunkenness) they didn’t mean to not call me.

We drink for a while in Andy’s room and a little while later leave the building, walking towards the temple and Seven-Eleven, past mangy stray dogs, wild Thai men on motorbikes, women and children carrying clear plastic bags of food. In front of the temple vendors sell pots of food, frogs and squid roasted on sticks, huge plastic trays of deep fried insects. My new friends are raucous and confident and in their midst I feel strangely small and unexciting.

We stop at a bar just past the temple with an outdoor patio, share a few big beers between us. More people join and I’m so drunk. I know I should have water, it’s so hot, but then we’re off again, piling into a taxi, four girls in the back and a funny Englishman called Knotty, who we met at the bar, craning his neck at us from the front seat.

Saxophone is famous, red, wood, dimly lit and full of people, farang and Thai. The band does not play ska, but blues. We sit at long wooden tables. The walls have velvet pictures on them, landscapes, music notes, beer posters. The waitresses wear tiny black dresses with Johnny Walker logos in white. I make more new friends – Americans, Russians, Canadians – I remember countries but not names. We buy a bottle of Johnny Walker to share and we talk and drink, clink ice from a bucket on the table into our glasses with tongs, and the music is nice and the singer is crooning and the whiskey tastes so good and all is well and good until it is gone, until I am gone, until it all goes blank.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Pints of Tiger, Rivers of Whiskey, part 1

Every afternoon when we arrive back in the office, it’s the same - “You coming to the Woodstock?” someone, or many someones, ask me, prompting me to ask myself -Why shouldn’t I? I meant to read, or swim, or write, or look for a yoga studio, but all of that can wait. Those activities will always be there but if I don’t go to the pub maybe these friends will not. I’ll get serious later; it’s only my first week.

Friday afternoon begins in what I’ve already come to regard as traditional fashion. First, Woodstock. The pub across the street from Fun English appears nearly empty upon first entering, but if you keep going, to the back of the bar and up the stairs, you’ll find at least a table or two full of red-shirted farangs like me. The bar is nothing special but it’s clean and cool and there’s a pool table and a juke box you can play for free. The beers are standard price, and the food is expensive. Three hundred baht is a lot of money, even for a pesto chicken sandwich and fries, when you could get a full meal for 25 on the street, but you can’t get decent Western food cheap anywhere, and now and then a farang wants some cheese.

Farang doesn’t mean “foreigner,” as I thought; it means “white.” Of course, as a racial slur, it’s not a particularly friendly term, but it is convenient. With one exception, the foreign teachers at Fun English are white, whether they come from America, England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, South Africa, or Russia. The one black girl, Laura, is English. Rumor has it that Fun English has had a bad time since hiring her. Even though she speaks fluent English (it’s her native and only language), many schools refuse to let her teach because they don’t believe she’s not African and therefore not fulfilling Fun English’s promise of “native” teachers. Sue, from South Africa, whose first language is Afrikaans, on the other hand, hasn’t had a problem. That’s because her skin is as white as the inside of a green fruit the Thai call a farang. In Thailand, and maybe everywhere, it’s easier to be white than any other color. I use farang because everyone else does, and I use it for the same reason Thai people do – to remind myself that I’m different, that I don’t fit in here and I don’t belong, no matter how at home I feel.

Together in the air conditioned comfort of the Woodstock’s brown leather booths, it’s easy to get comfortable. My fellow teachers and I form a happy little family, sharing our day, our cigarettes, even our baht. We can discuss anything – sex, drugs, politics. We’re all bisexual, even some of the boys. We all drink, smoke, screw. We all speak our minds; no one hides their feelings, no matter how ignorant or controversial, and everyone’s up for the argument.

Everyone, that is, except the Thai teachers who, by and large, do not join us at the Woodstock. By now I know that the Thai teachers sit in the big room with the fans at the front of the office, and the foreign teachers sit in the back, with the air-conditioning. I’ve been trying to figure this out by observation but now, after a few pints, I give it up and ask around. Why don’t they come drinking with us? I’ve heard people invite them.

“They’re tired of us,” someone says. Chris, the English one with the mouth. “Thai people can’t hold their liquor.” He laughs and puffs a menthol cigarette with one side of his thick red lips.

“They might have more work to do,” Clarissa, a pretty blonde from Australia, posits, between dainty drags of her Marlboro Red. “They have to get a lot of stuff ready for next week. They do a lot more work than we do. Too bad they get paid less too.” She shakes her head and takes a swig of her pint.

The waitress, a young Thai girl with a blinding smile, comes by. “Emily, ka,” she says. “Tiger pint?” I smile and nod back at her, watch her write a slash next to my name on a notepad. I watch her move around the table in her tight black pants and blue polo shirt, laughing and smiling at everyone, taking our orders while we continue to talk about wage discrimination. The Thai teachers, my new colleagues tell me, make about eight thousand baht a month. Right now I get a little less than twenty , but when I pass probation, my salary should increase to thirty.

The waitress returns so quickly with another beer, golden and cold, and I take a swig to soothe my tar-streaked throat. “That is so fucking unfair!” I say.

“Kun Budsaba is a cold-hearted bitch,” Justine says. She drinks vodka and soda with extra limes – manow, in Thai, I know now. “All she cares about is baht.” Justine doesn’t smoke cigarettes. I’ll have to bum one from someone else.

We shake our heads and lament and I get a smoke from Jill to calm myself. I’m worried that my salary won’t be enough to live on, but I’m no longer surprised that the Thai teachers don’t come out for beers. How many have I had now? Three? Four? I feel good, high, happy, exhausted.

I go to the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror. My face is greasy and ruddy, my cheeks pink, my hair dark with sweat, loose pieces falling into my eyes. My red shirt hangs loose and my black pants sag, making my butt look square. My closed-toe shoes stink when I move my feet out for air even a tiny bit. I try to remember when the last time I ate was. I wonder what I’m going to do with the rest of my night. I wonder doesn’t anyone here have any weed? But I’m too afraid to ask.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Clowns, Rats, and Kao Mon Gai

Fun English does not operate on an intuitive kind of system. At least not any I can figure. It works like this: the company makes contracts with schools around the city, selling our special “fun” English classes and guaranteeing “native” instructors, plus a Thai teacher for each class. Each morning all teachers, Thai and “native,” meet at the office to get their things and a cab (or in this case an office van), and travel together to their school for the day. Every day is different. You might have the same school every Monday and Wednesday, and the same one every Tuesday and Thursday, but no one goes to the same school every day. The Thai teachers make the commute possible, handling taxi money and directions, and they serve as liaisons between Fun English and the school. It sounds like they have more work to do than me, but I’m sure they’re paid accordingly.

I follow Ed and Arm, who is literally about as big around as my bicep, into the grounds of the school. Arm’s hair is short like a boy’s and her snaggle-teeth beg to be braced. She doesn’t seem to notice, smiles with all her teeth, her round, wire-rimmed glasses making the light dance. She introduces herself to me as we enter the building and once inside our classroom begins setting up, emptying the box of toys onto a table and placing dry erase markers next to the board. Ed, too, makes preparations. I ask if there’s anything I can do to help but they say no, why don’t I find a seat, anywhere is fine.

My polo shirt scratches my skin as I pull it down around my neck, tugging at the thick fabric, grateful for the air-conditioning unit in the corner working hard. I look around and find my seating choices rather limited; there are no chairs in the room, no desks - nothing but the white board and the one table up front. Edmond catches me looking and smiles. His brilliant white teeth even the score against Arm’s.

A steamy stream of air gushes into the room along with what seems like a million children. The Prathom (elementary) 2 children - 2nd grade, more or less – loud, animated, downright ecstatic, it seems, to be here. They scream and giggle and shriek and point at me and laugh, running around the room like animals. Ed fiddles with piles of white laminated flashcards, while Arm shouts as loud as her little voice can, apparently urging everyone to sit in five even rows on the floor. They sit and scream then until finally Arm shouts, “Ah ManOw!” Then the children’s backs straighten, their hands flap into their laps, their eyes close and their cheeks puff out. Like magic, the room is suddenly silent. When I ask her later, Arm tells me that what she said in Thai was “Put a lemon in your mouth.” I don’t get it, but file it away anyway to use as an incantation later, when I get my own class.

Now I sit in the back, near the corner, curling my legs under me, “Indian style,” as we used to say in America but don’t anymore. I cross my legs because I know the taboos in Thailand, too, and one is to never point your feet. Thai people consider it extremely disrespectful to have feet extended in their direction. They also think it quite bad manners to touch someone else’s head. The guidebook says this is because of Thai Buddhism, within which feet are the most degraded part of the body, the head the most sacred. Seeing the state of my own feet after a day of walking around the city in flip flops, I think the feet part, at least, makes pretty good sense.

Edmond tests the children with a rapid-fire review of flashcard vocabulary before starting in on his lesson about prepositions. He uses the lines they’ve already made for a Pictionary relay race. The student at the front gets a whiteboard marker, and at “Teacher Ed’s” signal they run up to the board and draw whatever he commands. “The ball is in the tree!” he shouts in his blue-blooded accent. “The dog is behind the chair!” The children scribble desperately, then spin around and repeat the sentence back to him or Arm three times – “Dog in ta-ree!” “Dog is ta-ree!” - before running back to their lines and handing off the marker to the next student.

They play other games and the class goes on more or less this way for fifty minutes. Everyone screams and runs and plays happily until a fat, old Thai teacher from the school comes in. I can’t exactly tell but it seems like the lesson has been interrupted earlier than Ed and Arm expected. Everyone seems surprised, but Arm and the teacher talk and finally the children, just as happy as ever, file out of the room.

“They have sports day,” Arm explains when the room is empty.

“Bloody sports days!” Ed says. “You’d think Thailand would have some really amazing Olympic teams considering how often they cancel class to play sports… but they don’t.” While we wait for the next class he explains to me that Thais have trouble pronouncing two consonants next to each other, so they almost always insert a vowel where there isn’t one in English – thus tree becomes ta-ree, snake = sa-nake, cream = ca-ream, etc. “They’re a lot easier to understand if you know that,” he says and I nod, my eyes absorbed by the next horde of children flooding through the door.

Their English and their concentration abilities leave something to be desired, but the children are pure pleasure to look at. All the girls wear plaid skirts and tan blouses. Long black braids swing down each little girl’s back and the boys’ knees brown, knobby knees poke out of navy blue shorts. The clear buttons on their light blue shirts are done up to their smooth, skinny necks. The only less than perfect physical aspect of the children, as far as I can tell, is their teeth. No one doesn’t have at least one black and rotted through, and many mouths are full of jagged choppers, eaten away from the bottom up. But it’s easy to overlook, since other than that they are so perfectly sweet and beautiful it’s almost painful. All I want to do is kidnap a few to take home.

We Fun English teachers, on the other hand, aren’t quite as picturesque. Actually, we look more like clowns than teachers, and from what I’m seeing that title might be more apt. Edmond prances around, his golden curls glistening, his flashcards tucked under one arm, tiny droplets of sweat flying from his forehead, and I wonder how I’m going to act like that and still take myself seriously. “Oops!” goes the beautiful man, over and over again, whip out flashcards and pulling his long body into a straight-legged soldier pose, making me marvel that someone so good-looking coudl be stripped of his dignity so easily.

Still, I try to keep an open mind. What he’s doing does seem to be working - the children do what he commands; they know the answers and they listen, for the most part, as long as he keeps them moving. I guess the important thing is that they’re learning - whatever it takes to make that happen. Besides, I have so many other things to consider that I can’t dwell on anything too long. For example, there are the names. All the children wear nametags, which Arm and Ed distributed to them at the beginning of class. That isn’t weird in itself but the names - Earth, Nut, Oat, Power, Love, Cream, Spaghetti, Beer, Golf, Porn - are. What kind of person would name their child Gin? Or Porn! But surely Porn must mean something different in Thai; I’ve met four today.

After three hours of observation any sustenance provided by my Seven-Eleven pastry is long gone and I’m paying even less attention than the children. Finally, Ed and Arm dismiss the last class and we leave for lunch. I take the opportunity of the walk to ask about the names.Just nicknames, according to Ed. Everyone has a regular name too, like Natanicha and Pornprawee and Paweena and Thanakorn, he says. The nicknames aren’t just for Fun English; it’s not like my being called “Emilia” in Spanish class. Here, parents give children nicknames along with their regular name in order to protect them from evil spirits. If a demon wants to find Thitiwat, the thinking goes, he won’t be able to because everyone else is calling him Noom. Sneaky people, these Thais, but with such unscrupulous spirits to contend with you can’t really blame them.

At a blue plastic table in an open-faced “restaurant” on the side of a busy road we sit down to eat and I find myself thinking of Rob and Anne, the Intercontinental Hotel, high tea, the famous Thai art of cutting fruits and vegetables into flowers. The red-headed Brooklyn girl swaggers over to us and sits beside me with a hefty sigh as Ed tells me that he’s going to order, “Kao mon gai without the blood.”

“Chicken and rice,” the Brooklyn girl says in answer to my pleading, pathetic eyes. “With sauce. It’s good. Don’t worry; I’ll do it for you. It’s all you can get here anyway.”

The waitress comes and the others – Ed, Arm, Justine, and Justine’s TT (Thai Teacher) - order while my stomach aches and cars race past. My hands are fat and dirty and I don’t know where to put them. “Diet Coke,” I say, as the waitress turns to go, and the Brooklyn girl tells her, “Pepsi song, ka,” and to me, “No Coke here.” I nod and smile, agreeable, hopeful, easy-going, that’s me.

Finally I get the red-headed girl’s name – Justine. “Where in Brooklyn?” she asks and I tell her my address in Park Slope and we talk about the neighborhood and her place in Brooklyn Heights and I am happy to talk about home but worried too, because Justine seems angsty and harried, like she is clinging to New York, to Cali, to America, like she hasn’t left a bit of it behind. She’s come to Thailand with her boyfriend, Jake, and Ed is here with his girlfriend, Carolyn. As we talk I begin to understand that almost everyone at Fun English is part of a couple. Why didn’t anyone send me the memo? Will I have to do my traveling alone? Will I always be the third, fifth, seventeenth wheel? Have I made a terrible mistake?

I look up. No. The blue sky beams upon my white face. The sun, the air, hot and wet, embrace my skin. I see no computers anywhere, only pleasant people, idyllic children, busy streets, temples, orchids. My soda arrives and I suck at its sugary, syrupy goodness. I never drink soda and have no idea why I’m craving one now but it tastes wonderful. My heart beat slows. The pace of the world settles.

Justine is complaining about P Noon at the office, about someone named Mai Mint and Kun Duang Cha, the boss. “Are they having you teach this week?” she asks me.

“No, I’m observing today. Tomorrow we’re supposed to do training, I think. It wasn’t all that clear.”

Justine laughs. “It never is,” she says. “I bet money they have you teaching by the end of the week.”

“No,” I say. “We do the training first. It’s in the contract.”

Justine laughs harder now and the waitress brings our food and we all sit back to let her place the faintly yellow sticky rice and mound of soft boiled chicken, gelatinous skin hanging off the side, in front of us. Sliced cucumbers add color to the plate, as do three chunks of brown dotted with tiny holes.

“Arm!” Ed says, “I told you no blood!”

Arm grins and pokes her fork at his plate, skewering one of the brown squares. “For me, ka,” she says, giggling as she pushes the blood jello between her crooked teeth. Justine shakes her head.

“I wouldn’t think you’d mind it,” I say to Edmond, “Don’t the English eat blood pudding?”

He looks terrifically, comically sad as he shakes his head. “Some do,” he says. “I do not.”

We eat, everything but the blood, and it’s delicious. The chicken is super tender and the gingery-spicy sauce and small bowl of buttery broth with parsley and a single piece of some kind of white vegetable floating in it, like a white cucumber, compliment it perfectly. My body comes back to life and my senses awaken and then I look down, at my purse, to make sure it’s still there and under the table, next to my feet, darts a wet, greasy, half-drowned rat.

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” I scream, jump up, clutch my neck and send my cheap fork clattering towards my feet. A hand, strong and dark, pulls me back to sitting. My companions stare at me over the table and the many eyes of the restaurant merely glance, no face registering expression, unless a deliberate lack of emotion can be deemed expression in itself.

“Be quiet,” Justine’s Thai Teacher tells me, her voice tight and hard and as small as the sea-wrecked rodent.

“But there’s a rat under the table!” I say, loud American through and through.


Ed and Justine shrug. “Lovely country, isn’t it?” Ed says. “Here, Arm, have the rest of my blood.”

Justine pats my arm. “It’s fucking disgusting, I know,” she says. I look across the table at her TT but she’s eating silently, avoiding my gaze. “This restaurant is a bad example for your first shop-house,” Justine reassures me. “They’re usually much cleaner. I wouldn’t eat here but it’s the only half decent place around. Welcome to Thailand, honey. I tried to warn ya.”

Everyone but me finishes eating, no one acknowledging the rat that just ran over their toes. I try to eat too, picking at my chicken and rice, sorry to waste it but unable to move on.

“You not leave rice,” the horrible TT says, still not looking at me.

“Huh?” I ask, but she just shakes her head. She calls the waitress over and pays, leaves without another word.

“What’s her deal?” I ask when she’s gone. “Does no one care about the rat? What’s it to her if I eat my food or not? I’m the one who’s paying for it.”

“She’s a bitch,” Justine says. “That’s her deal.” She turns to Arm and squeezes her shoulders. “Why couldn’t I have a nice TT like Army? Huh? Do I have bad karma or something?”

“You can’t have her,” Ed jokes back. “And regarding the rat - it just isn’t Thai to mention it. You can’t make a fuss like that, about anything. It won’t get you anywhere here.”

“Jai yen yen,” Arm says, nodding and smiling sweetly, if not quite apologetically, at me.

I ask about the rice comment again and they say the girl, whose name, they tell me, is Joy, was probably referring to the Thai taboo against leaving rice on your plate. It’s disrespectful to the rice farmers, they say, and Arm fills me in that Thailand is the biggest exporter of rice in the world. The word for “eat” in Thai is gin kao – literally, “eat rice.” Fine, so now I have an excuse to always eat everything on my plate, especially if it is sticky rice, which I now know is fantastic. Next time. Next time when I don’t look down.

We pay the bill and my meal plus the soda is thirty baht – less than a dollar. Maybe that’s why I don’t have the right to complain about a rat.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

First day on the job

I rise at 6 am, after the sun is already up and burning in the bright blue sky. It sneaks in under my curtains and into my eyes when they open at the sound of Rich waking me up again with the ringing of Skype. I grab my glasses, my headphones, say hello in my gravely morning voice and walk barefoot across the tiled floor to open the curtains onto this glorious day. My first day of work at my new job.

Rich’s voice matches the weather, bright and effervescent. I like it; I’m smiling, but warily. I look down at the chipped red polish on my toes and listen to this man’s voice in my ear, desperate and distant, his attempt to pump artificial sunlight into my veins ill-conceived and unnecessary. The purple building, the blue skyscraper like a gleaming spaceship, the golden spire of the wat, the tinkling shell wind chimes of my apartment neighbors. This brightness is real, literal. “How are you baby?” Rich says. “Did you sleep well? I miss you. I’m thinking of you, sweetie. I’m thinking of you all the time.” I tell him I’m thinking of him too, because it’s true, but I don’t say “all the time.” I’m not a liar. I don’t know whether he is or not. His arms around me felt good. They felt great. They felt better than any arms ever have ever. But they are not here. The sun is here. Work is here. I am here and I need to get dressed.

I put on black pants, a little too big for me, a plain red t-shirt and close-toed sporty Mary Janes. The Fun English uniform is black pants and a polo shirt, which I’m supposed to get at the office. Today I am in training, observing someone, somewhere, teaching English. All I know is I have to be there at 7 and, since I don’t know any other way to get there that’s as cheap, I’m going to walk. I say goodbye to Rich and put on my mascara. I say goodbye to the computer, to Skype, to New York. I take the elevator down to the ground floor, to Bangkok, to Thailand, to the new me.

That’s me, that’s right, I’m making it happen, I talk to myself as I walk outside my building, into the parking garage. The doorman bows low to me and grins and laughs out loud, as though seeing me walking by on this fine morning is the loveliest thing that’s happened to him so far today. “Sawat di, kap! Sabai di mai, kap?” he says, and I know he’s saying hello and how am I but I can’t remember what to say back so I smile and nod and wave and say “Si!” like an idiot, and my happy self-talk falters as I come to the edge of the garage and stand looking out, not knowing which way to turn. I go by my gut and make a decision, realize halfway down the block that I chose right, and my inner chatter brightens again. I pass a tailor’s shop where beautiful manikins wear silk dresses of every color and a rainbow of fabrics line the white paneled walls in the back. I know by instinct that I will never be able to afford to have a dress made here, and that is okay. That’s okay and it’s who I am. I make my own luck and my own money and I can dress myself and take myself to Asia. I am doing just fine and I don’t have anywhere to wear a fancy silk dress anyway.

All the way to work I am happy, walking, sweating buckets. I buy myself breakfast at Seven-Eleven and sip my cold green tea through a short red straw. In about twenty minutes I arrive at Fun English. A walk in the sunshine beats a forty-five minute subway commute with the stinky, angry, tired people of New York any day. I’m damp and sticky and possibly smell, but I feel energized, awake, light on my feet. I know I’m near the building when I see taxis lining up at the curb and young people in black pants and red polo shirts toting hefty plastic baskets. Some sit on the curb smoking, others shovel steaming noodles into their mouths, the ones who laugh and joke the loudest seem to be English, their jokes at the expense of the Thais, who smile and flirt back easily. Unintimidated, I walk up to the fray and ask which way to the office. An extremely tall white man with a massive lower lip and a thick cockney accent directs me to the elevator, welcoming me heartily and shaking my hand without mentioning his name.

It is seven on the dot when I arrive and the large outer room that flanks the “office” part of the office is already teeming with teachers. Mostly Thai teachers sit around a large table, eating breakfast or grading worksheets or sleeping on their folded arms while several oscillating fans cool their lean brown bodies. I don’t get a chance to make it all the way through the office, to where the farang teachers sit, because I am intercepted by a short Thai lady who grabs my shoulders and turns me around saying, “Emily, ka? You go to Sitabutr, observe teacher Edmond. Your van leave now.”

She pushes me out the glass door back into the big room with the fans where I practically bounce right into a tall white boy with luxurious curls in his golden blond hair. I’m mesmerized immediately by his beauty, his hair like a halo around his head. I stand blinking for a moment at this pink-faced, lightly freckled, smiling angel. The Thai woman who holds my arm with her tight, tiny grip laughs and I can see her rows of silver fillings in her teeth when I look back to see what’s so funny.

“Edmond!” she says, pointing at the boy, who grins back at both of us. “Lor, na?” she says and I smile, embarrassed, feel myself blushing, sure she’s commenting on my reaction to his looks, sure he understand her.

“P Noon, is this Emily?” the boy says in an accent so perfect he might have been raised in a castle with a moat, and gardens, and a butler with whom he got on extremely well.

“Chaiiiii,” P Noon says, drawing the word out so it’s long and windy like an Iowa back-country road, but far more whiney. It means “yes.” I learned that in a podcast.

“Emily, ka! She go Sitabutr with you today, she observe you, Edmond.” She laughs some more and I sort of start to get the impression that perhaps Thai people just laugh a lot. It seems a little odd though, since I don’t see anything funny.

Edmond doesn’t laugh but smiles big, says hello to me and tells P Noon that he will take over, for which she seems very grateful, bowing and backing away slowly, laughing until she is behind my back and then gone in a flash. Edmond tells me to wait, disappears, then returns with a red polo shirt over his arm, identical to the one he’s wearing. “Here’s your costume,” he says.

“Cheers,” I reply, rolling my eyes good-naturedly. The shirts are fire-engine red and have “Fun English” stitched above the right hand corner pocket in threads of every color, equally as bright. Tiny polka dots like confetti or sprinkles dot the pocket area as though a party were about to explode from it. I carry the shirt, will wait until the last minute to put it on. I may not dry my hair all the time or wear a lot of makeup or buy fancy clothes, but I have some standards, after all.

I follow Ed to the van, which is full entirely except for the two seats left for he and I. No one speaks and, aside from the rumbling of the running motor and a pop radio station turned on low, the van is completely silent. After we climb in Edmond says, “Ready then,” to the driver and without another word we begin careening through the tunnel exit of the parking garage as though on an amusement park ride. Everyone slips and slides into each other but they just grab the door handles or the ceiling and remain mute.

Edmond sits in front of me and since no one else speaks, I say very little to him, asking only where we are going and how far away it is, where he is from and whether or not he likes living in Thailand. He tells me the same school name I heard from the Thai woman, and that it is an okay school with good kids and air conditioning, but lousy choices for lunch, and that we should be there in about forty minutes, depending on the traffic. He comes from Oxford, he says, has been in Thailand about six months, and likes it very much. I give my own answers to these questions and when I say “Brooklyn” someone in front starts to holler. It’s a female voice but she makes it deep and loud, bellowing “Brook-LYN!” like a rapper. I laugh and immediately want to hug her. Where is she? But I can’t tell for sure, all I can make out is a spray of dark red hair between the slats of several heads.

“Represent!” I say, feeling ridiculous and whiter maybe than I ever have, except that I’m blushing so much I’m sure I’m as red as the shirt still in my lap. I wish we talked more and also I don’t, and we all fall back seamlessly into the silence of the van, unfortunately still listening to the very bad radio station. I put in my headphones and turn up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to block out the noise of Pink singing about her parent’s divorce.

The traffic is bad. I have a book in my bag but prefer to stare out the window and take things in. Traffic, Seven-Elevens, food carts, babies without helmets clutching the handles of motorbikes, shacks with tin roofs under bridges, dirty canals, gleaming skyscrapers, massive billboards featuring models so white they’re practically European, some that definitely are. We turn onto smaller and smaller streets until we’re eventually so far inside the traffic matrix that we sit still for five or more minutes at a time, and I fall asleep with my sunglasses on and my mouth open to the blaze outside the window.

I wake to the sound of the van door sliding open. I jump out with everyone else and start to walk away from the van when someone grabs my arm. I look up from the tiny white hand with its purple-manicured nails to the face of a female teacher with holes like gaping chasms in her earlobes with fat black disks pushed in. She wears a long-sleaved white T under her Fun English polo, and her tight black pants show off a generous booty. This has got to be the Brooklyn girl. She puts a finger to her lips and rolls her eyes. All around, everyone else is also stopped stock still on the sidewalk. Inside the gates of the school, just in front of us, children are lined up on a concrete playground, their mouths open wide, singing. The music comes from them but also a loudspeaker somewhere. It lasts about two minutes and then everyone moves on, as though they were paused on a video cassette and some demon in the sky just pushed the play button again.

“What the hell was that?” I ask the girl.

“National anthem,” she says, walking to the back of the van and heaving her bulging pink plastic basket from it. “They do it every morning at 8 and every night at 6. It’s great. Fucking fantastic. Enforced patriotism.” And she sings the song loudly, making a mock salute with her free hand. “You’ll get used to it.”

I’d like to talk to her more, to express my confused and concerned feelings about this unfamiliar ritual which does, as she points out, smack of compulsory allegiance, but Edmond is there with his basket and his Thai teacher, Arm, and we are heading in to the grounds and up to the school and the girl from Brooklyn is gone and I’ve no time to consider or analyze. I have to go teach English.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rob and Anne part 2

To cross the street in Bangkok you have to go over it. Rob leads the way and Anne gestures me forward, bringing up the rear so that I’m flanked on either side, bumpered from Bangkok by two international Mid Westerners. We climb the winding concrete staircase in the sun, the day beading down our necks and thrumming in our ears – cars honking, motorbikes buzzing, people talking on their cell phones in this completely foreign language, something tinkling like metal, almost like a wind chime. A man in a ripped navy blue tank top sits at the top of the stairs on his stump of a body, a pair of white cotton shorts tied together in a knot where his legs should be. His lanky black hair hangs in his eyes and he squints as he looks up at our white faces in the sun, shaking a paper cup half full of coins in our general direction. He moans and drags himself after us like a dog or a zombie from a horror film as we shake our heads and continue walking. My heart chatters in my chest and my mind swoops into my purse, my wallet, the crisp creases of 100 baht notes. I only have 100 baht notes. 100 baht is only about $3 but I have a limited supply. I left my job and I don’t know when this one will pay me and I know it isn’t much. On the other end of the overpass an old woman’s wrinkles deepen further into her eyes and forehead as she, too, wields a paper cup and murmurs softly on her knees, gesturing towards a bundle of dirty blankets beside here where a little brown baby lays, its new face illuminated by the midday sun. We pass so quickly I don’t have time to worry about these people, about the world we live in that allows for such a situation, because Rob is talking, telling me some history about this part of the city, and we are going down the steps on the other side, and moments later we are entering the soft, sweet interior of the Intercontinental Hotel.

In the two-story lobby, we climb another set of stairs to the area made up for high tea. We rest our swollen legs in sleek teak chairs upholstered in creamy suede and look admiringly out the floor to ceiling windows. Perfect stems of white orchids adorn the table and a smiling Thai woman in a purple silk dress bows to us in a charming, friendly way, asking what we would like to drink.

“Emily, they have such fabulous tea,” Anne says. “Not every hotel has that great of tea even if they have lovely food, but here it is really nice.” She nods and giggles with the waitress, whose smile stretches wide, strawberry glossed lips over crooked, pearly white teeth.

“It comes from London,” the waitress says.

“Fabulous,” I say, and order Earl Gray, my favorite ever since I spent time in London myself, though I never frequented anywhere like this, unless you count the time a friend and I went to Harrods and tried on dresses that cost half a semester’s tuition. They asked us to leave because we took pictures of ourselves in the dresses.

A couple of young white men in the corner of the room begin to play jazz – one on a sleek grand piano and the other a tall wooden bass. Both wear black suits with white shirts and no ties. They tap their toes and look at their feet or up at the ceiling. The room is fairly empty; only a few other groups are having tea – a Thai businessman in a black suit and pastel blue tie, an older, distinguished-looking white man in jeans and a leather jacket with a young Thai woman wearing a short skirt and a yellow polo shirt with the strange, psychedelic symbol for Thailand over the left breast, and an Asian family with two young children stoically drinking chocolate milk with ice.

“Are you hungry?” Rob asks, rising from the sofa. “No need to wait.”

“They’ll just leave our tea if we’re not here,” Anne assures me, as if I need it. I trail after them, conscious of appearing over eager, but I can hardly contain my thrill at being able to take whatever I like from the silver platters and not have to worry about paying for it. I load my plate with a sampling of everything - sushi, sandwiches, dim sum, gyoza, soup, satay, every kind of cake, tart, and cookie you can imagine, four tiered trays of truffles and, to top it all off, a chocolate fountain surrounded by piles of fresh papaya, kiwi, strawberries, lychees, dragonfruit, oranges, and other fruits so exotic I don’t know their names. I have always had a good appetite, and it does not fail me now.

I can’t keep the grin off my face upon returning to the table to find Rob and Ann munching away and three perfect ceramic pots of tea steaming in front of them. With someone else I might feel naïve and unsophisticated displaying such enthusiasm, but Rob and Anne seem to enjoy everything just as much as I do and so, aside from what I have come to regard as my unfortunately frumpy outfit (all the Thai girls I’ve seen today were wearing the shortest shirt-dresses and low, slip-on heels) I feel like I belong here just as much as anyone else. Anne asks me why I decided to come to Thailand and I tell her everything – my soulless job, the breakup, my need for adventure. She and Rob nod as though all my answers are the most natural, sensible explanations in the world. The afternoon burns slowly on outside the windows while we eat and talk and sip our tea. I know this won’t be what my whole life in Bangkok is like, but an outing with Rob and Anne every now and then is definitely something I could get used to.

Finally we eat our fill and agree to call it a day, but not before we make plans for dinner next week at Cabbages & Condoms, according to my hosts, one of the best Thai restaurants in town. (They tell me about Mechai, an activist whose organization promotes sustainable farming and family planning. The Cabbages & Condoms restaurant is just one of many ways the group funds its projects. In college I lived in a feminist house and throughout my two years of having a real job I have given regularly to Planned Parenthood; this restaurant, these people, could not be more suited to my tastes). Outside the hotel Rob and Anne give me a last hug. We are close to their apartment so they will walk home while I take a cab. Rob slips me a 50 baht note and I thank them both profusely while they hail a blue taxi on my behalf.

“Tong lor soi yee sip,” Anne whispers in my ear.

“Tong lor soi yee sip?” I reply. “What is that?”

“Your address,” Anne says, patting me on the back while I walk to the cab. She nods in the direction of the cab driver. “Tell him.”

Rob holds the door open for me and I slide in to the cool grey interior, trying out my new words on the driver. “Tong lor soi yee sip, ka,” I say hesitantly. The driver nods sharply, looking straight ahead at the flowing highway.

“Kapoom,” he says. Rob nods and shuts the door and he and Anne wave as I drive away, on my own again in the big, bad city of Bangkok.

As soon as Rob and Anne are out of sight I realize I’m too wound up to go home. It doesn’t take long at all to get back on Tong Lor, and when I see that we are nearing a pub I noticed this afternoon, I ask the driver to stop. He doesn’t understand my English and so it’s not until a few blocks and a little bit of shouting later that he finally pulls over. I pay, collect my change, and walk back to the bar. The neighborhood isn’t too busy on Sunday afternoon but a few people are walking about and traffic trickles by steadily. Across the street a couple vendors are set up outside 711 and lazy-looking folks sit about on plastic tables eating noodles slowly, talking or reading the newspaper. Despite being lined with palm trees the street is still bright and sunny, and I notice for the first time that almost every tree has an orchid tied to its trunk. Stepping over large cracks in the pavement, I stop to take a closer look. I don’t know if the orchids grow that way naturally or if the community hires someone to put them there; either way it’s magical. I live in a city where orchids grow on every tree… I can’t imagine what to do with this information except have a beer to celebrate.

Big and cavernous, the Witch’s Tavern is a traditional English pub with gleaming gold poles over the central bar and stools all around it. The place is empty aside from a couple fondling the jukebox in the corner, but I don’t mind. I order a pint and open my notebook. There is so much to record, so much to capture.

The jukebox couple comes back to the bar and sits down a few stools away from me. I can’t help but notice that the young man with stretched earlobes, baggy jean shorts has extreme, painful looking scars all the way up one of his arms, the skin smoothly rippled like pink water. Tattoos of blue flames engulf his other arm. It is the scarred arm that he wraps around the young, pretty, girl with him. She’s like a picture of a heroine from a gothic romance, all pale skin and black clothes, a black plastic choker around her neck. I try not to stare but notice that their eyes, too, are taking me in.

The girl lights a cigarette and orders two more pints of cider. They speak to each other in English accents and something about their unhurried, comfortable demeanor makes me think that they’re not tourists. I want to talk, and their stolen glances suggest that they do too, but still, I play it safe.

“Hey, mind if I bum a smoke?” I say.

“Course,” the boy says. His teeth are like Chiclets and the bit of a goatee on his chin is patchy. “We were wonderin what you was doing in here by yourself. You on holiday?”

The girl smiles at me and hands me a cigarette. I light it with her lighter, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke out before speaking.

“No, not a tourist,” I say. “Just moved here a few days ago. I’m going to be a teacher.”

“Jill,” says the boy. “Did you hear that? She’s going to be a teacher!”

“Thank you, Sandy,” she says. “I’m not deaf.”

The boy laughs and asks me my name. Jill winks at me from behind his back, blows smoke towards the vaulted ceiling. I can’t help but wonder what a pretty girl like her is doing with this mousey cockney, genial as he may be.

“Emily,” the girl says, and I like the way it trickles off her tongue. “Did you go through the Thailand experience as well? That’s what we did. We did our TEOFL in Phuket, but we’ve come to Bangkok to work. Where are you working then?”

“Some place called Fun English,” I shrug. “I didn’t do a TEOFL, I just found it online…” but Sandy and Jill are grinning so big and starting to laugh now so I stop. “What?” I say.

“We’re teaching at Fun Language too,” Sandy says.

“We start tomorrow.”

“Me too!” I say. “Damn! I knew there was a good reason to come into this bar. That’s so crazy!”

My new co-workers agree that the whole thing is pretty insane, or “wicked,” as Jill says. We chat a bit and I finish my cigarette and, a while later, my beer.

“Have another?” Sandy asks, ordering one for himself, but I decline. This incident seems to me to be yet another example of my good luck lasting, and I don’t want to push it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

8) Rob and Anne

Rob Marshall is from my home town of Maine, Iowa. His sister and her husband are old friends of the family; they live across the street from the house I grew up in. My sister and I played Barbies and “figure-skating” on rollerblades in the unfinished baement with their three daughters. As if all of that does not make us close enough, Rob and his sister were raised in the very same house that I was; he and I have the same childhood bedroom.

I’ve heard about Rob now and then over the years - how he was in Jakarta or Nairobi or Cairo, always working for the U.S. Embassy in some capacity - but I never met him nor thought about him except in a wistful kind of way as a child whenever I heard of him – working for the embassy in Cairo… Magnificent but completely impossible. A story, beautiful novel I read in bed, nestled in blankets, hearing nothing outside my own window but the sound of wind like waves through leaves, a car door shutting, the neighbor tsking tsking ther dog from the porch.

As soon as I announced my decision to move to Bangkok my mother in turn began announcing it to everyone in town. When she told Rob’s sister she learned that he and his wife, Anne, were accepting a second assignment in Bangkok (they had been there years before on another post; they would arrive in the city a month before I did. By some grace of God they went to Iowa first, and my mom was able to meet and question them to her heart’s content. Hearing their answers - Street food is safe, Western grocery stores available, and Everything is warm and beautiful - put me more at ease too. In fact, without even knowing them their presence in Bangkok made me feel good. I emailed them before I left, introducing myself as his sister had instructed, and they emailed back right away saying they’d love to show me around as soon as I arrived. All I have to do is pick up the phone.


Rob and Anne could not have possibly been nicer. When I called, they sounded as homespun as strawberry-rhubarb pie, each getting on a separate extension so they could talk to me at the same time. And yet, they itinerary they laid out for our afternoon together is pleasantly sophisticated. I dress in something silly, having no idea what the fashion is in Bangkok. I only feel half-pretty in a green silk wrap-around skirt and crinkled brown camisole because of the wooden beaded necklace a boyfriend picked up on a trip he took without me.

I stand outside my apartment building in the bright sun, perspiring. I fiddle with my purse, pace back and forth, waiting for their taxi, wondering what color it will be. I look around at all the colors – purple apartment building, orange coffee shop in which a long-haired, slender, shirtless Thai man mixes something in a tiny plastic cup, pink bouganvillae over the white wall, orange marigolds in gold pots and rainbow-colored puffy garlands of ribbon around an alabaster miniature house. I think this is a spirit house with offerings, but I don’t really know why or for what spirit or anything. I make a mental note to find out.

Maybe Rob and Anne will know. They said they will take me on a tour of a part of Bangkok, around Sukhumvit Road. We will got o the mall, they said, just a few malls, not really to shop, then tea and cake, then something else and something else and eventually dinner, that’s all I know. I also know without question that they will pay for everything and I try to settle into that notion and get comfortable. I smile at the grinning doorman who watches me and bows whenever I look at him. I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight. I feel wet and pink. I realize that possibly the doorman thinks I’m rich, and I try to think of myself like that too.

A blue taxi.

Rob and Anne are tall and thin and white and look as Mid Western as anyone possibly could. She is wearing a straw hat with a pink ribbon around it and he is in khaki shorts and a light blue Hawaiian shirt. Calm but quick, they seem to simmer with information. I know they don’t have any children and I immediately feel a wealth of love and care emanating from them that has not been given sufficient outlet – until now. I step right into their open and outstretched arms. We embrace quickly and pop back in the cab.

The taxi turns around in my garage and we speed back the way they came, down my soi, around the corner, and out to Tong Lor. “Yeah, this is a great neighborhood,” Rob says, turning and grinning at me and Anne in the back. “There’s the Great Palace,” he says, pointing at a graceful white building at a polite remove from the street. “Chinese restaurant, supposed to be really good. And there’s the most famous wedding studio. Lots of those on soi fifty-five. Yeah, our friends used to live down here so we’ve been around a bit. We like it, good to get a change, little quieter.” His face is youthful for a man past middle-age, and his blue eyes shine with excitement. His thin lips turn in a little when he smiles and I find it simple, charming. I don’t know what he does at the embassy, but with such guileless, easy manners, he can’t possibly be a spy.

The taxi drops us off at the end of the soi, where Tong Lor meets with Sukhumvit, a ride of about five minutes; Rob warns it would take a lot longer with traffic. He pays the driver and we hop out, take the escalator up to the entrance of the sky train, where my first lesson of the day begins. Information comes rapidly, Rob and Anne’s voices cutting in and out, carrying on one another’s sentences. I’m listening keenly but relaxed now, enjoying the gentle volley of their words. There are only two trains, they tell me, the Sukhumvit line and the Silom line. The only place to change between them is at Siam. On the wall there is a very simple map. They point out my stop, Tong Lor, and theirs, Chit Lom, big green dots connected by black lines on a white background. They show me how to buy a single ride fare, then purchase a reusable card for me and top it up with 100 baht worth of rides. I have to take in my surroundings almost surreptitiously while attending to their advice. The station hangs in the air over a busy road, open air on all sides. It’s busy but not crowded. Thai pop music plays over loudspeakers and kiosk vendors sell mini pizzas topped with corn and pineapple, freshly squeezed juice, and intoxicatingly good-smelling almond waffles.

As we approach the turnstile, Anne touches me lightly on the shoulder. “Oh Emily,” she says, hear her sweet, easy smile audible in her voice. Looking up at her I see how it stretches wide across her milk-white face as she leans her long body down to talk to me. I like the incongruity of her young, excited expression and her lined neck and thinning hair. “I have to warn you about the gate. Watch out for the yellow triangles!” she says, and demonstrates by quickly scooting her hips through the opening, only moments before the heavy plastic turnstile snaps shut again with a puff of air.

We ride another escalator to the train platform, where a uniformed guard with a whistle polices the yellow line in front of the platform edge. I want to look down the track and see if the train is coming, take in the view, but as soon as I touch the yellow line with my foot a frantic whistle resounds from the other end of the platform. I pull toward it, at the police officer, indignant. “Jeez, dude,” I mutter to Rob and Anne, not at all chagrined. Depending on the MTA of New York City for my transportation needs has inspired my open contempt for transit workers. Though I can’t say I ever saw an MTA employee looking so spiffy in his uniform.

“Oh yeah,” Rob grins. “They’ll do that.”

The train arrives long and smooth as a bullet, its outside completely covered, as though wrapped, in advertisements. Getting up closer I can see that they are all done with a kind of pointillism, so that from inside the train you can still see perfectly out the window.

It’s freezing inside, a shock to the system that starts out refreshing but quickly becomes too much. TVs near every other door blare advertisements in Thai. The chairs and poles are all bright yellow plastic and people both sit and stand, leaving a few open seats here and there. Everything looks shiny and new; Anne tells me that’s because you’re not allowed to bring food or drink on the sky train, or BTS, as it’s really called, and obviously there are people to enforce that. So far it seems far superior to me than the NYC subway, at least aside from the obnoxious TVs. We swish through the dazzling blue sky passing glass skyscrapers and rooftops, the slow, humid street clogged with traffic directly below.

After a couple of stops we get off again and Rob and Anne tell me this is the stop for their apartment but we’re not going there. Instead they’re going to take me through a few of the many massive, shiny shopping malls that cover this part of Sukhumvit. I didn’t exactly come to Bangkok to go to the mall, but I can already see that what Rob and Anne show me here and what I’ll discover on my own will be vastly different, and that that’s good. Above all I want to learn as much as possible here, to start to see it all, from everybody’s points of view. So, to the mall.

A glimmering, sparkling black glass, architectural feat of a mall, the Paragon shopping center is all green jungle foliage in white marble and waterfalls dripping down black granite. But aside from the extravagant entryway it’s like an upscale American mall only louder, brighter, and coutury-er. Chanel, Gucci, Fendi, Hermes – socialites want for nothing here but not a single shop do I see where I could actually buy anything. It’s okay though because we are just walking through and soon we pass through glass corridors in the sky, the busy streets visible again beneath us, into another mall, and then again to another. We pass the movie theater where Harry Potter and the Simpson’s movie are playing, just as they were in New York.

“This is a nice theater,” Rob says, pointing his thumb back at the marquee and pausing for a moment next to a wall full of movie posters. “They have this thing called the ‘King’ special where they have these Lazy Boy chairs and you get your own waitress for snacks or drinks or whatever. They have blankets, slippers probably.” He laughs. “The whole works.”

“Wow, I’ll have to check that out sometime,” I say, thinking that I certainly will never be able to afford that on my Fun English salary.

We leave the mall through an open concrete sidewalk in the sky now and I walk along between Rob and Anne. The sky train is above and the street below. The air smells of car fumes, meat burning, dog shit, oranges, incense. Clouds of smoke rise above an intersection in the distance and on sidewalk below there seems to be an even larger flurry of activity than everywhere else. This must be the Erawan shrine.

In the midst of designer malls and five-star hotels, behind a white iron fence opening up onto the street, a golden statue of the Hindu four-faced Brahma glitters under the adamant sun. Every inch of the god’s temple is covered in garlands of marigolds, stems of orchids and lotuses, hand-written notes, food, fruit, drinks, and burning candles and incense. Behind the statue, under a low roof, men tap padded mallets on wooden xylophones while women in traditional dress slowly bend their long, thin hands this way and that. Rob and Anne tell me that the shrine is a tourist attraction, but I see few other white faces in the bustling enclosure, and I am the only one holding a camera. Everyone else appears to be Thai, Chinese, or both, and I get the feeling that the shrine is not a special destination for them, but a place to stop for a break from shopping or work, to make an offering or a wish.

We walk up to the entrance of the shrine past lottery ticket vendors and wicker boxes full of small birds that you can buy to then set free. Rob explains to me that this is just one of the many things you can do to “make merit” in Thai Buddhism. You can also leave offerings to Buddha – the flowers, food, and drinks placed before a statue – or put any of the above into a monk’s alms bowl. It sounds to me like the outdated Catholic practice of buying indulgences, basically paying for good karma. “But who is Erawan?” I ask Rob, and he explains that Erawan is the Thai name for Arivata, the three-headed elephant known in Hinduism for carrying the god, Indra. There’s also a four-faced golden statue of Brahma. People light incense and kneel before the statues, burning sticks smoking between their praying palms, lips moving silently as they bow again and again. I’m confused because I thought Thailand was a Buddhist country but Rob explains that the form of Buddhism here is special. The Thais are adept at absorbing the influence of other cultures while retaining their own, Rob says, so plenty of Hinduism and Animism has gotten mixed up into their Buddhism. They are more superstitious than anything, he says, so anything that they think might possibly bring them luck will be welcome.

“This is pretty much just a big spirit house,” Rob says. Anne is wandering somewhere else by herself, reading inscriptions, watching people. “I saw you have a spirit house outside of your apartment building. They’re so the spirits of the dead ancestors or whoever else don’t feel the need to come into the home and bother the living. You’ve got to give them a place to stay and food to eat if you expect to leave them alone. That’s what’s going on here. They had some trouble with building this hotel and so they put up the shrine. I guess it went better the next time around.” Rob grins. I am grateful to have a guide of such an intellectual caliber. He tells me that people surmise that perhaps this flexible sensibility that explains in part why Thailand is the only South East Asian country to have never been occupied by an outside power. “That is, technically,” he says.

“So no religious violence?” I ask, disbelieving.

“A little,” he says. “Down South, against Muslims. Probably not the best place to travel at the moment.”

I think about this as Anne and I pick flaked pieces of gold leaf from the ground and press them carefully into the elephants’ foreheads, another way of making merit. She shows me a font of water which can be prayed or wished over, then patted on head, hands, and face as extra good luck - like holy water, but more accessible. I make no offerings other than to reapply the gold leaf. After asking all my questions I smile shyly at Rob and Anne, too unsure yet to attempt anything spiritual in their presence, too unversed in the ways of Buddhism, and especially Hinduism, to feel comfortable making any offering to anyone. I don’t know if Rob and Anne are religious, but I would guess probably not based on his family, who as far as I know don’t belong to any church. I wonder what it’s like not to wonder to the point of worry about the nature of reality.

“I know that we were supposed to go to the Erawan tea room for our snack, Rob, but what if we went to the Intercon for High Tea instead?” Anne asks. “If we head over now I think we can just make it. Oh, it’s so lovely Emily. They have these adorable little sandwiches and dim sum and the best, just the best chocolate fountain.”

“Sure, yeah. Sign me up!” I say, my mouth watering instantly at her description. I’ve always wanted to go to a High Tea. “I’m game if Rob is.”

“Why not?” he says. “It’s only across the street. We can cross over through Amarin Plaza.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

7) Mansion House

I left things open with Rich. He’s a catch, it’s true - good-looking, smart, generous, well endowed and great in the sack… But still. A year is a long time and I’m so over the long-distance thing. That’s what ruined my ex and I. Either that or it’s what didn’t ruin us soon enough. Either way I don’t want to do it again.

Before I left Rich helped me move some things to a generous friends’ basement in Queens where she had offered to store them. After the job was done the two of us nestled together on her couch, pawing each other as my friend served us fruit with freshly whipped cream. Luckily, my happily married friend found this adorable and was as sad as we were to see us board a subway back to Manhattan where we would have to finally part. Standing face to face in the center of the crowded train I noted again how perfectly proportionate Rich and I were; my head rested comfortably on his shoulder and his chin tucked down protectively over my forehead. His arms felt safe and sweetly greedy folded around my back.

“Ahh,” Rich sighed as the train lurched to a stop and we fell closer together. “I could do this forever.” A woman beside us rolled her eyes and I smiled at her sweetly, softly. I was already kinder, I thought.

“You’ll have to wait at least a year,” I told him. “Go ahead and get a girlfriend, but make sure she knows I’m coming back. If she doesn’t acquiesce to me then I’ll probably have to kick her ass.” I believed everything I was saying in the yellow-grey light of the subway car, amidst the many-colored people and their varying expressions of amusement, disgust, anxiety, and despair. Rich didn’t look convinced but he said he hoped I would do just that. We reached his station and he got off the train and I waved and as the train pulled away he stood there on the platform, following me with his green eyes until I was gone. I haven’t talked to him since.

Tonight, before I go to bed, we chat online. It is midnight in Thailand, noon in New York, and I think I’m finally worn out enough to sleep in this sweltering room. Rich wants to know what time the driver from Fun English picks me up tomorrow. “Can I call you again in the morning?” he asks. “I just like to hear your voice before I go to bed.”

What’s wrong with this guy? I wonder. He’s in New York, the capital of the world for hot, desperate girls; what does he want with me? I’m not buying what he’s selling but since I don’t have a cell phone here, and thus no alarm clock, I do need someone to wake me up in the morning by calling me on Skype. Also, damn it, I can’t help but like the attention.

“Okay,” I say, fake-reluctant. “You can be my wake up call.”

And he’s as good as the real thing – not a moment late. I open my eyes to the sun bleeding through the gauzy curtains and pull my laptop into bed with me, slip on my headphones to hear Rich’s all-American voice tell me that he’s outside of a bar uptown. He’s a little drunk, he says; he says he wishes I was there. It’s good, I think, that he’s at a bar and drunk and still remembers to call me. He must really like me, I guess. Maybe it really is more than just amazing sex. My body is hot, sticky, covered in sweat but I feel light in it. Someone nice likes me and I am in a foreign country and I will get an apartment today. I thank Rich and send him back to the bar, back to the New York night life. I am so good at not clinging, I think. I am practically a Buddha already.

Out I go, looking for breakfast. Though I’m fairly well-versed in Thai cuisine, I’m still surprised to walk down the street this morning and find everyone eating the same kind of food they had for dinner last night. All the street carts and shop houses sell curry, noodles, rice, and meat. A woman chops chicken heads on the sidewalk and gelatinous tripe hangs from hooks in portable glass cases through which the sun burns. People shuffle along the cracked pavement slowly in flip flops and I, worried about being late, rush around them flapping my wings and revving my engine while everyone else idles. Where is the food? Where is my egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel? Where is the deli? A green and black Starbucks looks cool and clean and familiar, feeling slightly desperate I pop my head in to look at the prices. Two hundred baht for a cup of coffee = almost $6! I shake my head in disgust and leave, holding the door open for a skinny white man who does not seem to notice me as he enters the building, talking loudly on his cell phone in an English accent.

After a bit more unsuccessful searching I settle for a packaged pastry and bottle of green tea from Seven-Eleven. We don’t have Seven-Eleven so much in New York but when I studied in Copenhagen they were everywhere. The offering here are very different from those in Denmark. There the hot food item was always hot dogs in crescent rolls and here it’s Chinese pork buns. I buy a packaged croissant but there are also sandwiches on crust-less white bread with butter, green pandan, or chocolate filling. Every single bottled drink is sugary, the tea shocking me with a sweet jolt. It’s not what I wanted but I gulp it for the caffeine.

The Fun English driver meets me in the lobby of St. Gabriel’s a few minutes after nine. A thin, moderately attractive middle-aged Thai man, he arrives in a gold sedan. He doesn’t speak a word to me but seems not at all troubled over my identity, perhaps because I am the only one in the lobby yet again. The driver takes a piece of paper from his pocket and I can see that it’s the list of apartments I emailed Fun English that I wanted to check out. The driver talks for a moment with the St. Gabriel’s doorman and then we drive away, speeding through streets humming with traffic. We drive on elevated highways and underground ones, through back alleys and parking lots. As we cruise around in the comfort of our temperature-controlled vehicle, I realize how extremely lucky I am to have a driver. I have no idea how I’d manage all this on my own.

I try to get my bearings but the city is too twisty. I don’t know how far one building is from the next, or where the Fun English office is in relation to any of it. I don’t know how I’ll get to and from work each day. I don’t know if I’ll ever find anything suitable to eat for breakfast, or if I’ll make any friends, or if I’ll figure out how to keep paying my student loans back in the states. I sit quietly in the car while the driver speaks to the managers. I have no idea what they say to each other but I take it all on faith that everyone knows what they’re doing. What choice do I have? Faith, right now, is my only hope. As we zig and zag through the mad city I cling to this faith, and to my past experience like a seatbelt. In my life in New York I’ve developed a trust for cabdrivers that borders on the unconditional, and it is that which I fall back on now, reminding myself that just because I don’t know where I am doesn’t mean the driver doesn’t. And if he doesn’t stop at red lights, that must be okay too, since no one else is either. I wonder about this until we do get stuck at a light and have to wait three minutes for it to change green for a few measly seconds. Then, I understand.

All the apartments I’ve chosen to see are furnished studios. They all consist of a single room, a bed, storage space for clothing, and a small bathroom. None have a kitchen. The first room is small and made tinier still with too much furniture. Bed linens are provided, as is weekly maid service. On the roof there is a new-looking wooden deck and gorgeous swimming pool surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs and huge clay pots of palm trees, frangipani, and orchids. But I think it’s too impersonal, too hotel-like, as well as out of my price range.

The next two rooms are decent but run-down. Neither has a shower stall, only spouts stuck to the wall beside the toilet. One has a pool but no deck. The other boasts plenty of practical wooden shelves, a tea kettle, and an English-speaking landlord, but no pool. In the quaint little room I sweat through my t-shirt and my black cotton skirt sticks to my legs. I clench my wet fists and I promise myself a swimming pool. I’m going to need something to do if I’m not smoking pot, I reason. (Which I’ve promised myself I’m not going to do, mostly because of a certain Claire Danes movie.)

The next apartment is the cheapest, and I can see why. The concrete block of a room has one plastic yellow window with a view of the balconies of the adjoining building, less than five feet away. It’s only 3,000 baht, about $90 a month, and so financially it would be good, if only the heaviness of depression didn’t settle upon my chest immediately upon setting foot in it. No amount of savings is worth the pain that living in this cell would cause. Loneliness and isolation are hard enough in a foreign country without living in an ugly room too. In the car I wash the sadness from my heart by gulping air-conditioned air and watching the scenery fly by as we make our way to the last stop – Chamchan Mansion.

From a small, dilapidated soi we pull into a parking garage under an aged, white concrete building. My buoyant feeling of adventure returns as soon as I see the smiling woman poking her body halfway out the door of a tiny lobby. Her crooked glasses, ugly green shower sandals, ill-fitting jeans and sweet smile give me a sense of well-being. As my driver speaks to her, though his face gives no indication of having made a joke, she begins to laugh and keeps on laughing as he gets back in the car and pulls into a parking spot.

The woman says to me, “Okay, ka. I show you room, ka.” Ka is a polite word, I know, kind of like please except used all the time. Women say ka and men say krap, and you should say these words after nearly every sentence if you want Thai people to think you’re nice. The very polite apartment lady nods and giggles and I follow her into the building. As we make our way up to the fifth floor via a small, fan-cooled elevator, I start to laugh a little too. She says “Okay, ka,” and “Ka,” again and bows her head and leads me to a corner room, opening the door and moving out of the way, so I can enter first.

Room #505 is big and full of light. Big sliding glass doors open onto a generous, triangle-shaped balcony. The full-size bed is pressed against a wooden headboard affixed to the wall. A little wooden night stand sets beside the bed and across from it is a cabinet with a TV and a makeup table and mirror. Four large closets line another wall and though there is no stove or hotplate, a medium-sized, teal green refrigerator, kitchen sink, small counter, and shelf space offer more of a kitchen than any other room I’ve seen. That there is no kitchen is not altogether surprising since I’ve read about this phenomenon, too. People don’t cook at home much in Bangkok; instead they eat at made-to-order shops and carts on the street. Groceries are expensive, and so is air conditioning, and who wants to stand over a hot stove in this heat?

The bathroom, done in teal green tile, has a raised tile ledge and a plastic curtain - clean and new and patterned with pink flowers - separating the shower from the rest of the room. It’s bigger than any of the other bathrooms, clean, and well lit. I feel good in it, despite seeing my white faced blotched with red and streaming sweat in the mirror.

Standing in my flip flops on the white tile balcony I can see into the soi below. In the near distance a purple apartment building brightens the blue sky, and beyond that the city stretches its long arms up and up, as if trying to climb out of itself. Down the soi the golden triangle of a wat (temple) gleams in the sun next to a huge skyscraper of blue glass.

The woman, speaking to me in Thai while continuing to bow, takes me to the second floor where a worn wooden deck, tons of plants, and a few weathered plastic lounge chairs surround a clear blue pool. It is my pool. Exactly right, just what I imagined. I tell the nodding, kaing woman thank you and I return, grinning, to the car. I give the driver a thumbs up and he responds with a weak smile. After he speaks to the woman he drives me just down the street to the Fun English office. I had no idea that it was so close and am struck with gratitude by my own fantastic luck. Can I really have found a beautiful apartment close to my job in only three hours?

Thitiwat makes the deal for me over the phone, then sends me and the driver out again, now to Big C, the Thai version of Wal-Mart, for supplies. I get pillows, hangers, sheets, one bowl, one cup, one set of silverware, and the driver carts me home again. I dole out ten thousand baht to the woman, who puts her hands together and wais to me before taking my money, and then that’s it, I’m done, officially a tenant of Chamchan Mansion. I even have wireless internet.

I sprawl out in the sunshine on my new yellow cotton sheets. My bed is warm and comfortable and I imagine that I’m lying in the gleaming petals of a sunflower. It’s peaceful, though not exactly quiet. On the soi below motorbikes thrum and buzz, flickering in and out like mid-day thunder. I listen and look around at my bare walls and empty pantry, and this with all my bags unpacked. But I like it that way, simple and unfettered. That’s my life now, loose and untied.

So far, everything has fallen into place without a hitch. Such easiness would usually make me nervous, but I’m not worried now. It’s clear that I should be here. Mai pen rai! I say out loud into my empty room. No problem, never mind, don’t sweat it – all the translations of the Thai motto apply. What is there to worry about? My country - its long work days, its taxes and insurance policies, its debts and wars and delusions - can’t reach me here. I don’t know what the gossip is in New York today. I don’t know where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are. I don’t know what offensive thing the president just said and I hardly have a dollar to my name. I feel fabulous. My legs bounce up and down on the hard mattress. They feel limber, ready to walk, anxious for jungles and temples and oceans. But where to go? And with whom? Then I remember a certain phone number.