Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Far Shore

The other day, I got a ride with a cab driver who spoke a decent amount of English. Her husband, it turned out, was a fellow American.

The story unfolded; they'd been together for over a decade now, and he'd been living visa-free and under the radar for most of that time. "The police, they don't care about what white people do," she told me.

His son, my own age, was living in Thailand as well, teaching without a university degree in a bleak Bangkok suburb, a nightmare zone of industrial estates and boxy white houses and swampy, overgrown abandoned cane fields out beyond Phra Khanong.

In these corners of Asia, squalor can be covered up by superficial respectability. The outcasts, the failures, the desperados of the Western world wash up here. European skin is the mask they can use to conceal their manifold scars.

I've been asking myself a lot lately, as all those who have chosen to live far from their place of origin do, why, exactly I am here. I came here with a vague idea of what I wanted to do, I had my brief honeymoon, and now I have to ask myself a hard question: how long can I stay here now that the briefly flickering candle of novelty has gone out?

Expatriates in Bangkok have a tendency to go through a second adolescence. Liberated from the expectations of their native society, they indulge in whatever vice floats their way, be it sex, alcohol, drugs, or some combination thereof, all readily available at bargain prices. You see them in various states of inebriation, their eyes fixed forward, stumbling down Sukhumvit Road.

They come in all types, but are predominantly men. Some are the stereotypical red-faced lechers. Others are younger sybarites, with close-cropped hair and designer T-shirts. There are the eternal travelers for whom expatriation in a newly industrialized state has become another way to save money. And yet others are the losers running, half-heartedly, from their own responsibilities and failures back in their home countries, faceless and shapeless. I do sometimes meet those farangs who came to Bangkok for highly specific reasons, but for most, they came to Thailand through a strange alchemy of dissatisfaction, fear, lust, alienation, loneliness, curiosity, and international currency exchange rates.

This isn't a new thing. George Orwell was writing about the same scene in Burmese Days. The hateful white people are still here. Merely replace the overgrown maidan and gin-soaked billiard room with a happy hour in Asok. Instead of teak merchants and colonial officers, we have the precise equivalents of Flory and Lackersteen and Veraswami in the era of global capitalism.

I've gotten used to this world: the parties and faux-English pubs; the detritus of empty Sangsom whiskey bottles and crushed up blue packs of L&Ms littering whitewashed balconies; the bitter conversations about life in Thailand; the endless string of men who seem to hate nothing more than the Thai people who stand in the way of their mindless pursuit of the pleasure principle, and their utter contempt for the Siamese nubiles that they persuade to suck their dicks.

We've gone through the massive process of decolonization and globalization, of the fall of old empires, of the incipient rise of new ones. And yet the same brutal, sneering colonial attitude remains.

Which of course begs the question in my own mind, where do I fit into all of this? Is there a better way for one to live on a far shore?

I don't know. I can't know. Lying in bed at night, my mind oscillates between narrative and counter-narrative. It's as if I'm on a perennial trans-Pacific flight, jet-lagged but unwilling to sleep, half-dozing, half-wide awake, vaguely looking at the flickering LED light and listening to the warm hum of the engine, not sure which side of the ocean is Here and which side is There.

So I try to fix my mind on the things that embed me in this place at this time. I step off the train into a rainy dusk near Lumphini Park. The street vendors are grilling strips of meat rubbed with fresh herbs. The lights of the offices are turning off and the lights of the apartments are turning on. A flock of birds flies upward, flies out over the canals, moving in formation towards an unknown point.