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.