Bangkok Journal Chapter 6 - Becoming Siamese

Run, don’t walk

We are standing on an otherwise outstanding summery, warm and sunny, clear-skied morning, in the visibly black 7:30 a.m. exhaust fumes street-side on Soi Ramkhamhaeng, about a mile up the road from our side street near a big intersection. We’ve been standing here for a half-hour already, waiting for our ride, who is stuck in traffic. We are standing on the sidewalk where it becomes a cement bridge that crosses a small canal. The canal is black, oily, full of trash (there’s a metal gate/filter to prevent it from floating further downstream) and smells like you would if someone fed you boiled eggs, beans and cheese washed down with cheap beer before locking you in a hot and stuffy, closet-sized room with no windows or ventilation for 48 hours. Don’t strike a match – there or here!

My mouth is numb and gritty from the dirt and fumes; my nose is half-plugged, my eye seared and blurry. If I were to cough into a tissue right now – or blow my nose – the tissue would come away with a substance resembling hot, gooey roof tar (and would probably smell as strong, too!) Noraseth flashes me a worried, feeble grin. We weren’t planning to have to stand and wait so long, but that’s how things go here, especially plans involving rides and traffic.

Noraseth has advised against carrying or wearing surgical masks for such moments (even though others, but not many others, do wear them). He swears they don’t work and, well, hey, you can’t escape the pollution anyway and you have to get used to it, don’t you? Somehow I’m not convinced. I suspect there’s more of a diva fashion statement behind his resistance to face masks than he’s admitting. The smog may be turning his nose-hairs brown, but his hair and clothes are perfect so why spoil that with the inconvenience of the wrong accessory – even if it is an accessory that might someday prolong your life for at least another five minutes.

The cell phone rings, he answers and then shoots off running – running! – through the smog, cars, buses and motorcycles (all loaded up with dads taking their uniformed kids to school. One helmet-less, cute little thing – she’s about seven – is wedged between her father, who’s navigating around and alongside the slow moving cars, and her sister, who is sitting behind. She’s not even holding on, the little one. She’s sound asleep, arms slack at her side, he face crushed up against her father’s back. Now that takes talent – and guts!)

I try to follow Noraseth. Running through the fumes isn’t too bad. It’s better than standing still in them (I at least have the feeling I’m trying to escape them) and I am already somewhat used to them. And we don’t, after all, spend all day in them, just a portion. I’d been dramatizing my displeasure as we stood near the canal. To make a point. I don’t have any idea what my point was, and I’m sure I didn’t make it anyway, but I knew it would be better to at least attempt to make it by rolling my eyes and appearing as if any moment I’d stomp my foot.

No, it’s not the gasses slowing me down, it’s this damn leg problem I brought with me from Germany. Some kind of tendonitis or ligamentosis or joggingismus. I think it’s somehow related to running. Not the running I’m doing at the moment, but the jogging that I so loved to do in Germany or wherever else I’ve lived in my life. I really should get it checked (if for no other reason, simply then to get a journal entry on what it’s like to visit a doctor in my new setting). Once they fix me up, I can start jogging again – indoors or out. I assumed I would not be able to jog outdoors here, but people do. I’ve seen them at the outdoor track at Nori’s university. As long as you’re not on a main street, the air is bearable.

So I’m limping along and I’m wondering: why are we running? Wasn’t there a pre-arranged meeting point at the intersection? Why were waiting in the smoky spot by the aromatherapy canal if it wasn’t the correct spot? Noraseth must have crossed his signals. Again. Since he’s received his Ph.D., Nori seems to have become the absent minded professor. No, wait – he’s always been that way. It just seems that the crazy chaos that surrounds us here brings it out even more. Yesterday he was halfway down the street before he realized the reason his shoes were too tight and hurting his feet was because they weren’t his shoes at all. He’d put mine on by mistake. (We often turn around and go back home two or three times before we actually make it all the way to Soi Ramkhamhaeng.)

So he’s running and I’m limping and finally we reach the car and I can’t help but wish we’d been waiting in this spot all along since the smog is less (yes, even a block can make a big difference). I know this car, I think, as I approach it. Ah yes, it belongs to Praphawadee, she of the smelly jogging shoes (see Chapter 3). As we dive into the air-conditioned chill of her dusty, silver Toyota, I wonder if the shoes are waiting for me in the back seat like an unwashed lover smoking a cigarette and expecting a second tumble before the shower. To my relief, I see that the shoes have abandoned me – perhaps they are in the trunk – but their scent lingers (like the scent of spoiled fruit on the street, road kill or that damn canal that I thought we’d left behind us). Praphawadee giggles and sprays a shot of canned jasmine deodorizer. We all giggle about the traffic and Noraseth’s crossed signals (what else can you do). (Turns out, Noraseth told me later, that it wasn’t the shoes after all that left the smell in the car. A month ago the car took on water during a flash flood – it is the rainy season, after all – and the entire interior up to the console became wet and now has to be removed and repaired. Damn! The shoes made a better story, doncha think?)

Praphawadee is a colleague of Noraseth’s in the German department at his university. She’s got a Schlager CD playing on the car stereo (Americans: think country and western music more like Hee Haw in the 1970s and less like CMT in the 90s). Stepping into Praphawadee’s car (except for the occasional funky odor) is like stepping into one of those snowy Alpen scenes in German television where they’re wearing dirndl and lederhosen and lip-syncing German pop Lieder while strolling along the mountain side or milking goats. Makes me want to rush right out and buy an accordion and sign up for lessons. I’m serious, though, it really is nice to be reminded of Germany. There’s plenty of reminders here of America (there may be 9 million bicycles in Beijing, but there’s 9 million shopping malls in Bangkok – complete with Sizzler, McDonald’s and KFC), but not of Germany. So it’s nice to have the German spirit alive here in the clogged traffic. (And if the German music isn’t enough, the goal of our journey is Goethe Institute, the international German cultural centre, where both Praphawadee and Noraseth have work-related appointments and seminars to attend or attend to. I plan to wait in the lobby reading and writing – in English, but with the hum of the satellite television tuned to Deutsche Welle.)

I sink back into the seat and breathe in the filtered, Freon scented air. I recover a bit from the earlier exhaust fumes and think: Noraseth is right. I just have to accept and get used to the fumes, especially when we’re travelling. To a point, I already have. There are many other things I have to get used to also in order to fit into society here. And that’s the focus of this chapter: fitting in (Ricky, if he’s even reading this, which he probably isn’t, was certainly wondering when I’d get to the topic. He thinks these journal chapters are “too long”. Write him – – and tells him he’s wrong. And visit the wacky world of Luna Parc while you’re there.)

Big City Boy

Although I’m in a new culture, I am also in a big city – which is like a culture unto itself – and I’d like to think I’m already used to that culture already, having lived quite some time in places like San Diego and Brooklyn. Although I enjoyed the cool, leafy, college campus-like quality of Kassel (population about 200,000), I did miss living in a larger town like the one I’d left to move to Kassel: New York (population about 11 million). Bangkok has 11 or 12 million people (all of which are in taxis, cars or buses or on motorcycles or otherwise out on Soi Ramkhanhaeng this morning), so I feel right at home just by that fact alone. Many of my Kassel friends, small town folk their entire lives, were worried about the amount of people I’d encounter here in Bangkok. Are you sure you can deal with that, Scott. After NYC I was sure, yes, and looking forward to once again being among the large crowds. I’ve not been disappointed. Just being in a big city again feels like home to me.

And I’ve been here a whole two weeks! So I must be completely adjusted, right? Hard to say. I do feel entirely at home but I’m sure the observations I’m now going to make about what I’m used to and what I have to get used to will change daily. After a year who knows what a similar list, or journal entry, will look like.

I’m used to the food. But, then, I loved Thai food to begin with and was expecting no problems there. I get a lot of complements from the Thais about my lack of hesitation when it comes to foods that westerners don’t readily eat (like sweet beans and corn in desserts or very spicy – VERY SPICY – sauces). I’m used to eating rice every day, which was another thing my German friends worried about. I love rice and enjoy it at every meal (including breakfast). I don’t expect that to change. I can’t imagine ever getting tired of eating rice. I got tired of eating bread in Germany – and they have a huge variety of wonderful, full-bodied breads there. I think I got tired of eating bread in Germany because I started to become allergic to wheat (a common condition in my family. The solution for my Uncles is to eat only rice and rice products!) So rice at every meal is not a problem. It’s a basic which can be accompanied by a variety of other foods and prepared in a million different ways (sweet sticky rice with raisins for breakfast, for example), so I hardly even notice that it’s always there. But when I do notice, I’m glad. Love the stuff, can’t get enough.

I should mention also that eating rice at every meal is a choice, rather than a requirement. There are western restaurants in every mall here and I can get a steak or pizza or fried chicken with mashed potatoes if I’d like. I can also buy bread, cookies and other western products (even western brands – Pringles potato chips, for instance) in any supermarket if I want. I can even buy products with wheat, should I want to give myself stomach problems (for it is that – and not the spicy Thai food – that gives me the Hershey Squirts.)

I’m used to eating with a large tablespoon and fork, using the fork to push food onto the spoon rather than the other way around. I’m used to not seeing knives on the table or using them (most ingredients in dishes, including meats, are in pieces small enough to never need cutting. Anything larger can be pulled apart with spoon and fork). But, then, that’s how we ate at home in Kassel (I have, now that I think of it, been living with a Thai for over three years, even in Europe). And I’ve always known how to use chopsticks, which we need here for noodles and some Japanese or Chinese dishes.

I’m used to being the only white guy in some of the more out of the way native Thai places I go with Noraseth and his father and sister. Noraseth tells me that I’m probably the only white guy that’s ever been in some of these restaurants – or one of the very, very few. I’m not used to not ordering for myself, though, and I’ve never been to any of these places unescorted, so here’s the first big difference. Even once I know the language and can use it in restaurants, I’ll still always be a foreigner in such a native Thai environment. Gordon, a colleague in Kassel who’s worked in China, tells me that’s how it is for westerners in Asia. No matter how long we’re here, we’re always foreigners and, even if we can speak the language, we’re often excluded from the more intimate aspects of the culture.

I’m not used to being escorted everywhere I go or not being able to communicate easily. I’m starting to get out a bit on my own to go to jobs and come back home. Sooner or later I won’t need so much supervision. I feel a little odd alone in a taxi, wondering if the driver understood the few words of Thai I used to tell him to take me to the subway station (they’re not on every corner here). Once I get to the station, though, I’m very confident of what to do and where to go (I just press the “English” button on the ticket machine and read the English part of all the signs. This works at the bank ATMs also!). I practice little learning devices to remember names and directions. Some of them are easy: to get back to the apartment after working at RMIT, I take the train in the direction Bang Sue. I just remember that “after work it’s time to go home to Bang Sue.” Logical, don’t you think? I also have no problem, on the Siam line, to follow the signs for “On Nut.”

I guess the biggest thing I’m not used to, at least in these first few weeks of being here, is working part-time while my visa status is so ambiguous. I’ve got plenty of temporary classes at RMIT and another interview at Chulalongkorn University next week (during which I have to teach a “demo” lesson for the teachers in the English Department). No one I’ve spoken to in interviews seems to think my visa issues are abnormal. I have weekend and evening work through mid-October at RMIT – but my visa expires in two weeks on 23 September. When I mention this to Jim, who seems to call daily with the offer of another class, he says, oh yes, no problem. Technically you shouldn’t work on a tourist visa without a work permit but at the beginning everyone (i.e. the government) expects that you will. That’s how it’s done here. What you can’t do is to overstay the tourist visa. You have to leave the country when your time is up.

According to the advice of the other RMIT teachers, I will take a two or three day trip a few days before my automatic one-month tourist visa expires to visit a Thai consulate in another country where I’ll be able to easily secure a two-month extension. They’ve all done it, it’s normal. The big tip is that I must visit a consulate rather than just have my passport stamped at the airport. Just getting a stamp out and back in at the airport only results in an extra two weeks. If you want months, and we all do, then you must visit a consulate. The cheap trip is a 15 hour one-way bus ride to Laos with an overnight in a local hotel while waiting for the paperwork to be finished. This trip is so common that there are package tours direct to the Thai consulate. The description of this trip and the consulate (a “shack”) make it sound like a Wild West adventure. The more civil – and certain – trip is to fly to Singapore, which, I’ve been told, is like being in an American city like San Francisco. I’m beginning to see what Gordon means about being a foreigner in Asia! But even he tells me to “have faith” and I do. The other teachers here don’t bat an eyelash about these visa runs. Some of them have done these trips more than once.

I’ve decided, though, that Chulalongkorn will be so impressed with the demo class next week that they’ll move quickly to employ me – which means they can write a letter to the government that will allow me to stay in the country while I begin the process for visa and work permit. Cross your fingers (oder auf Deutsch: druck mir fest die Daumen).

I haven’t been losing any sleep over any of this. I find it all fascinating and I do have faith. For some of you who know me well, you probably think I’m kidding when I say that I have no big worries other than what tasty dish to mix with my rice at the next meal. But it’s true. I do my footwork and my homework and then take each day as it comes. After all, what’s the worst that could happen? I’d have to leave Bangkok and return to the United States. (NOW I’m worried!)

If you know the customs, then you’re a customer, right?

Of course, I’m not used to all the small customs and traditions here. Or used to which ones I should or shouldn’t observe since I am a foreigner. When do I wai (when the greeting or meeting is a little more formal) or not wai (back at the salesperson after they hand you your purchase. In this situation, they wai thanking you for your purchase but you don’t need to wai back). When do I wai at a Buddhist altar? Should I? I’m not Buddhist but I am a wannabee (more on Buddhism in a later chapter) and even if I weren’t, I want to just show proper respect. Noraseth says it’s fine for me to wai an altar (and they are everywhere, including most street corners.) So I started watching him. He wais sometimes and sometimes not. So I asked him what the rules are. Well, he says, sometimes I wai and sometimes I don’t. How do you decide? He just shrugs. So I’ve adopted that policy – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If I’m walking close enough to an altar to really notice it and if my hands are free, I pause briefly, press the palms of my hands together in front of me and bring them up to my slightly bowed forehead, then lower them and move on. No one has given me any funny looks when I do that, so I suppose it’s okay. I don’t do it just to go through the motion (it’s not mandatory, after all), but because I do want to explore Buddhist teachings and this seems a good place to start. Best rule of thumb – never wai with your hands full.

I’ve found the best way to approach customs or traditions that I’m not sure of is to ask, even if I think I’m asking about something small, trivial or silly. It seems it’s always the small things that can get you in the biggest trouble anyway. I found this out on my first trip here at the end of 2003. I was helping Noraseth clean the family kitchen. I was sweeping when I noticed cobwebs on an altar which was sitting on a shelf above the door. I was wiping them away with the raised broom when Noraseth, on his hands and knees in front of a floor cabinet he was cleaning out, turned and cried out in horror. What, I said. It’s an altar, shouldn’t it be kept clean? Yes, he told me, but it’s only cleaned one day a year on a special day in a special ceremony. I cringed. How bad is it, I asked. Now the evil ghosts can get into the house. Uh oh! Turns out he could fix it. But it took a lot of explaining to the family before they stopped looking at me as if I’d seriously endangered our lives.

Better to ask then about even the small things, I thought one bright, shiny morning as I saw a two baht coin on the sidewalk. “Hey, Noraseth,” I said, “you pick up coins when you see them on the street here? For luck?” Yes, he said, but to really receive the luck you have to do the right thing. Which is? “Remember the next time you see a donation box somewhere on a counter or in a temple to make a donation equal to the amount of money you found.” That’s not too difficult. I picked up the baht and gave it to him. A few days later we were in a mall and we saw a large Plexiglas box full of coins and bills next to a sign asking for support of a good cause. I poked Noraseth and said “two baht.” He smiled and nodded. “Very good,” he said. He didn’t call me “Grasshopper”. Not only is he too young to remember David Carradine and Kung Fu, but he’s also never seen the show in reruns here in Asia or in Germany. (So I explained it to him: North American in the 1800s learns eastern teachings in Asia. Returns to America and applies those teachings in the setting of the wild, Wild West. His blind, old white haired sensei used to always call him “Grasshopper”. Noraseth laughed. He thinks it’s funny how we romanticize the east in the west.)

A few days later I was making my first taxi trip alone. I had used the Thai phrase Noraseth taught me to say (telling where I wanted to go) and I had been understood. (Okay, so we added an English word here and there, but it all worked and I got to where I was supposed to be.) The driver was very nice and, as we pulled up to the destination, I was very grateful that the first trip alone had been a success. I looked forward to paying him and to giving him a tip. The fare came to 84 baht. I handed him a 500 baht note. He gave me a sorrowful look and shook his head: he couldn’t make change (which, I thought – correctly – was unusual. Guess he was just a bit short that day.) I looked through my wallet. I had four 20 baht notes and three 500 baht notes. Nothing else. I showed him. He took the 80 baht – the four 20 baht notes – and seemed quite satisfied. But now it was my turn to wear the sorrowful look. I had not only wanted to give him the entire 84 baht, but to also tip him. And here he was being even more helpful and generous (imagine this scene in NYC) by taking four baht less, which I’m sure he could ill afford. I left him sadly and walked down into the subway station to continue the next part of my journey.

In the station, as I bought my ticket with a 500 baht note, I received my change in 10 baht coins. Now I’ve got the money, I thought ironically. As I rode the subway into the city centre, I couldn’t get the taxi driver out of my mind. It really bugged me that I’d shorted him. I’d convinced myself that he had a wife and twenty kids to feed and that they’d all have to go hungry because I didn’t have change (actually because HE hadn’t had change, which was why he was happy to give me a four baht discount, Noraseth said later, but that wasn’t how I was thinking of it at the time. I felt bad). When I came up out of the station I saw a blind and dusty crippled street musician sitting on the sidewalk playing his Asian instrument somewhat uncertainly (he needed a bit more practice – think of those bagpipe players on the NYC subway.) I took a 10 baht coin out of my wallet – the four baht plus tip I should have given the taxi driver – and put it in his cup. He nodded and kept on playing.

I told Noraseth about it later when I got home. He smiled and nodded and said: “You did well, Grasshopper, you’re learning."

Bangkok, 9 September 2007