Friday, April 20, 2012

Thailand: The Five Senses

What shocked me most when arriving at Suvarnabhumi International Airport was that there was no shock. It was as if the previous two years, two years so fraught with their own human dramas, had simply ceased to be.

With the culture extremely familiar, what remained was to rediscover things. The ideologies and attitudes of the people seemed logical and comfortable. Yet the sheer sense-data of the built environment had the capability to jar me. Stepping off the plane, I was confronted with a completely different aesthetic experience. My understanding of the Thai weltanschauung is ultimately going to be mediated by this experience. Beliefs and assumptions express themselves in painted doors and wreaths of jasmine smoke.

Seattle is blue and gray and green. Restful tones for hushed people. The swampy outskirts of Bangkok are technicolor, red clay-tile roofs and grids of sun-kissed alleys separated by bottle-green canals. Moving into the heart of the city, I enter a maze without pattern or form. I walk down Rama IV Road, lined with steel and glass skyscrapers and the concrete walls that surround embassies and corporate headquarters. But then I turn down a side alley, and I am in a rural village, with children lackadaisically pedaling bicycles and old women sitting cross-legged on bamboo mats. Bangkok is a city without shape or form, but this doesn't make it monotone. It is like Borges' Aleph, every potential place swirled into a single point.

Bangkok, like all cities, has an entirely different sonic existence up in the air and on the ground. From high atop a skyscraper, or even on a sixth floor balcony, it's difficult to separate the city's sounds from those of any other. In the aerial city, you hear jackhammers, police sirens, the rumble of traffic, bird songs. There will be variations on this theme; the tone of the police siren and the species of bird will vary from country to country. But ultimately, it is a difficult thing to discern; even the maw lam beat of upcountry Thai music is hard to separate from the reggaeton blasted out of car windows in every city in the Americas. It is on the ground that the city sounds exotic to American ears. The frying of foods, the buzzing of tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis, and the rapid polytonal patter of Thai conversation fill the streets. Locality and terroir emerge as one descends from the concrete towers.

Every country has a unique olfactory profile. Indians and Mexicans often describe the nostalgia they feel when they are suddenly struck by the smell of Delhi or Guadalajara on American city streets. Thailand is diesel, cockroachy sewer gas, and grilling meats-- the ubiquitous sticks of chicken and pork that roast on smoky fires on every street corner, tended by dark-skinned Isan women in straw hats and floral-print shirts. This is the background odor, punctuated by the odd top or base note: the raw alkaline smell of a fish market, the burning of joss sticks outside a Chinese temple, the rotten smell of curries in steam trays that have been sitting in the afternoon sun, and the eerie frigid scentlessness of the city's office towers and multistory shopping centers.

Newly arrived at Suvarnabhumi, I don't feel the city around me. Instead I feel the air conditioner, the same cool, dry 22 degrees Celsius that graces every international airport and shopping mall on every continent. As I step into the outdoor heat of Bangkok in the hot season, the heat drapes itself over me like a cloak. For the past week, I've carried this thin, sticky layer on my arms. Even in an air conditioned office, no sensation can occur without the heat, at least as a reference point. After a soft summer rain, the heat has waned somewhat, but now it pulses with the fetid smells of sewage that has been washed out and rearranged. The heat is not decreased, merely transformed.

The flavors of Thai food are linked with memories of the first time I had each dish, and with the dishes that I consider to be the best and worst examples of a dish. As I try to sample all my old standards-- khanom jeen gaeng khiao wan (green curry over cold rice noodles), khao man gai (chicken and rice with ginger sauce), hoi thawt (mussels fried with eggs)-- I am trying to fix these plates in front of me within the continuum of memory. Reacquainting myself with Thai food, I am not just eating, but corresponding my experience to memories of other plates of food and to something like the ideal form of the dish in front of me.

When I first came to Thailand three years ago, I was overwhelmed with sensation from every angle. Slowly, over the course of a year, I eventually located the critical points of what semioticians call the umwelt, the underlying network of signs that are omnipresent in human society. Coming back here, I am immersed in it, and it's like seeing an old friend at a cafe and finding that, while he might have a different haircut or a new job, is still his old self.