Bangkok Journal Chapter 1 - Arrived Alive
Yesterday, I realized I felt totally at home here in Bangkok although I’ve only been here two days. I rather expected that. I knew I’d be able to live here and enjoy myself after my first visit at the end of 2003/beginning of 2004. Part of that is the “newness” – it’s exciting to be in a new place full of wonderful possibilities (without yet a stressful routine). I remember arriving in Kassel in February 2002 – in cold, brutal February – and passing through Bebelplatz on my way to my first interviews with Joe and Oliver. Bebelplatz, with its combination of old Jugendstile (Art Nouveau) and more modern box style apartment buildings and it’s green, grassy square in the middle where the tram passes through, has always been one of my favourite places in Kassel. Even later, when I noticed all the bums and drunks hanging out there and even after they renovated and gentrified the tram stop and grass, I always found the place to be so typically, quaintly small town Germany. I remember thinking when I first waited for trams at Bebelplatz that I hoped I could have an apartment there (and both of my apartments in Kassel were not too far from it). So it is a heady feeling to arrive in a new place.
I realized yesterday one reason that I’ve felt from first footfall at home here, is that Bangkok is, in many ways, extremely Americanized. In many ways, Bangkok is more Americanized than other cities I’ve lived in or visited in Germany. There are undeveloped areas of Bangkok, to be sure, and the Asian living standards are quite different from those in the US or Europe, but the “style” of and approach to life in Bangkok itself are decidedly American enough to make me feel normal here and not (yet) like an outsider. Now some Germans would say they’re happy that Germany is so different than the U.S. and that each time Germany becomes more and more like the U.S. and adopts certain U.S. economic practices, the German way of life suffers. So, to them, it’s not a good thing to become so “Americanized.” I agree! I must just be more American at heart than I imagine because:
I LOVE it when the stores are open until 10 p.m., even on Saturdays and Sundays, and the salespeople are friendly and extremely eager to help me (although, thank god, not as pushy as American salespeople can be sometimes). I LOVE it that the businesses cater to the customer rather than to the employee. I’m happy to spend my money in such an environment. (Am I so shallow that consumerism is a priority of mine? Perhaps, but if you’ve ever experienced, as I have often – and especially in Kassel – that you are a “threat to the order” in a German business, if you’ve ever had a salesperson be surly (and if that is the norm rather than the exception), you’d really be pleased to be in a store to buy something you want or need and have the people there treat you with a little respect. It does make a difference!
There are a lot of things that aren’t perfect in Bangkok (public transport would be the first example that springs to mind). But people seem optimistic about changing them. They seem eager to embrace change. To me, that also seems to be an American approach to problems and situations that are not working. Yet, Noraseth has told me it can be crazy to try to get things done here, that things can get confusing and chaotic. Or lazy and disorganized. I can see that a little in Noraseth’s sister. We were stranded at the airport for a few hours waiting for her to show up and then, once she did turn up, it took her another hour to remember where she put the car (to be fair, there were two parking garages both with the same row designations and no other identifiers like Garage 1 or 2). Yesterday she planned to take us to the malls after she’s finished her own grocery shopping. When we finally reached her around 5 or 6 pm (long after we’d left for shopping on our own), she was just getting around to her own shopping and would still maybe try to meet us. Noraseth told me that at least three times when he was here in April they wanted to go shopping together only to end up at the store a half-hour before closing (which is actually not that easy to accomplish with the stores open so late). She seems, to me, a bit distracted most of the time. When I asked Noraseth about this, he said she’s a bit of a typical Thai in her relationship to time and plans. She’s not like that when it comes to her job (she’s a travel agent), but, in her free time, she’s quite “live in the moment”, which is, in a Buddhist society, to be expected as the norm. I suppose I’ll learn to be patient here. But I find it easy to be patient – and forgiving – when the people are nice.
Bangkok’s traffic snarls are world famous (add at least an extra hour to whatever trip you’re taking) but there’s surprisingly little horn beeping. That simply amazes me. Try to imagine that in NYC! New Yorkers, and Americans in general, LEAN on their horns when sitting in traffic as if that action will make the traffic magically disappear (like a modern version Moses parting the Dead Sea, if you will, and certainly an appropriate metaphor since Americans self-importantly expect divine intervention anyway).
Well, enough of all that cultural hoo-ha. Let’s talk about basics. I’m a big city boy and I like the strength and vibe of a metropolis. I like the attitude of a big city and the fact that I can disappear in a crowd (even in a crowd of Asians – and, believe me, this was a feeling I DIDN’T have on the edge of the city where Noraseth’s family used to live. In that suburb I felt like I stood out. In the Muslim surburb between that suburb and the main street I felt like I REALLY stood out.) The closer I am to the center of a big city, the more normal I feel and the less I feel I stand out. That’s just me. In a city as small as Kassel, or any small town in the U.S., I feel I stand out in a different way than in how I look. I feel I don’t fit in because, to me, gay men and small towns don’t gel. Even in Germany, a place quite tolerant of different lifestyles, I felt a little out of place in Kassel (before I met Norseth). Kassel’s a great place to be straight and to raise a family. And in small town America, one might really be treated poorly in such an environment if one is gay. In Kassel it was fine to be gay, but it wasn’t very exciting. I’ll never forget arriving and going to Café Suspekt – one of the 3 or 4 gay businesses and certainly the most popular. I asked Karsten, the bartender, where the gay life was in Kassel. His answer: Frankfurt. And he was serious! But I find that to be a small town vs. large city difference rather than a cultural one. It’s like that for me everywhere (I certainly could not imagine living in small town in Thailand!)
Let me now just end this conversation where every conversation at some point ends up: the weather. It’s warm here. Thank god. I thought I loved variety and the changing of seasons I grew up with in New Jersey. I even moved back to New Jersey / New York after years of living in San Diego (wonderful area) and Florida (not) because I wanted to get back to my roots, to the four seasons, to the muse and inspiration and all that goes with (think of Frost stopping by the woods on a snowy evening or stopping by the snowy woods in the evening or whatever the hell it was that he did). I could barely tolerate the cold in the northeast US (living in a large city made it worth it) but living in northern Europe was brutal. I enjoyed life in northern Europe. But the long, long winters, late springs and cold summers (come on – 50 degrees and rainy on most AUGUST days – what is wrong with this picture? Better question: what’s right) wore me down. I found the lack of light in winter – the very short days – also a bit depressing. All I did when I lived in Florida was complain about how boring the endless warmth was (Christmas cards featuring Santa on a surfboard was my example of how abnormal the steady weather was), but it must have somehow got under my skin (the Florida expression is “sand in your shoes”). The expression with skin, though, is appropriate. The cold winters for me meant dry, cracked, pale, flaking skin no matter how much moisturizer I used (Body Shop had profitable years while I was living in Kassel). And the burst of blooming in the spring always meant a horrible two month hay fever season that made it impossible to enjoy the first warm days of the year (in New Jersey. There are no “first” warm days of the year (in the northeast U.S. or in Germany).
Today we’re underway to a civil service agency or some such bureaucracy where Noraseth has to announce that he’s returned. He told me to take a good, big book. Bureaucracies are not fast in any culture. Maybe things are more the same than different when it comes to different cultures. Maybe I’ll find out. For all my bitching (or comparing), I certainly have also enjoyed and learned a lot from every living situation I’ve been in. I have my favourites and my least favourites. Let’s see where Bangkok ends up. And let’s take a long time to reach that conclusion.
Bangkok, 26 August 2007