Tuesday, December 3, 2013

National Anthem

My moto was stopped as we crossed the barracks that lent the Sanam Pao ("target range") BTS station its name. As the national anthem began to play, my driver, like everyone else in plein-air, immediately stopped. Three soldiers stood at attention, rifles at their sides, facing an arrangement of flags-- that of the king, that of the queen, that of the nation, before the rising eastern sun.

Like many other expatriates in Bangkok, I've come to bristle at the playing of the national anthem, a product of 1930s fascism in both its origins and spirit, with lyrics referring to blood and soil that very much fit the ethos of Field Marshal Phibun's tinpot tropical reich.

The bells that precede the anthem's play-- 8 AM and 6 PM sharp, another remnant of the Phibun era-- are Pavlovian at this point. I want nothing more than to run away and hide to someplace where I don't have to stand at attention, to prostrate myself as a gesture towards the nationalism I have always hated.

Of course, lots of foreigners in Bangkok maintain a principled contempt for the Thai national anthem, the hollow rituals that accompany it, the militant veneration of nationalist ideology, and the various flavors of gloomy propaganda pushed by Ministry of Culture bureaucrats. I certainly sympathize.

But, when so many of these Westerners are interrogated, they seem to be under the delusion that this ideology is essential and unchanging, and that an undefined "culture" prevents the citizens of the nation from actually possessing the capacity for critical thought. It's the same perspective found among British colonialists in pre-partition India (it's all caste, don't you see, if we leave there won't be a virgin left between Calcutta and Karachi) and Halliburton functionaries in the America-damaged sections of the Middle East (Islam makes them think this way, the Arab mind hates democracy). Though to be fair, what I find especially galling about the local version of this sort of intellectual imperialism is simply that I have to deal with it on a near-daily basis, so it pisses me off more, natch.

Now, there are also Westerners whose practice goes in the opposite direction, who are at pains to adopt Thai ways, and decry modernization and urbanization as a loss of "Thainess." These are the same Westerners who wai obsequiously at every turn, who are at near-constant pains to show off their (lousy) Thai language skills, and who attempt, with starry-eyed naivete, to adopt Buddhist practice.

Both of these approaches reflect fundamentally orientalist understandings. Yet both can speak to higher virtues on one level-- of iconoclasm, and of cross-cultural understanding, respectively-- but are bogged down as their practitioners let their unbending convictions obfuscate the messy complexities of human existence.

And, fundamentally, both are seen through the lens of the Western expatriate's single-minded pursuit of pleasure. What you hear being bitched about in Sukhumvit Road pubs by expats of both persuasions are the most superficial goddamn things: excessive fees imposed upon foreigners, the Asiatic obsession with fair skin. You don't hear those expats bitching so much about, say, the virtual enslavement of Burmese migrant workers, the Charoen Pokphand Group's near-criminal push towards American-style industrial agriculture, or the prawn farms that are destroying miles of the Gulf of Thailand coast. No, they get rankled by the incidentals that deny them the gloss of white privilege that they cling onto as their claimed birthright, much like the dispossessed aristocrats in interwar-period England trying to maintain their gentility.

I don't mean to tar every Westerner in Thailand with the same brush. Some of them are, even, ostensibly, close friends of mine. And these are the ones who haven't chosen either of the two above paths. They tend to be pragmatic, thoughtful, and cosmopolitan. Much like the people I try to surround myself with wherever I go.

But it is one of the central questions of living overseas. You are forced to ask yourself who you are, what your beliefs are, what your assumptions are, how to balance personal integrity with larger-scale respect.

And those questions are drawn into even sharper relief when the streets of your city are filled with marching demonstrators waving national flags and chanting slogans, when the people you knew as your florist, as your noodle vendor are out with colored armbands. When government buildings are being stormed, when students are being shot, when dismal demagogues like the red-clad Jatuporn Prompan and the yellow-clad Suthep Thaugsuban attempt to commandeer the national media outlets, when all the talk is of a "people's council" (a phrase that summons up the sound of boots in synchronized march on dusty boulevards, of slit throats and dumped bodies in the mangroves).

And those questions make me nervous about even writing this, about my position as an outsider-- after all, it wasn't long ago that an esteemed member of parliament from Chumphon Province led a crowd to assault a German photographer for being too nosy. I'm a bit anxious, but I know I'll be far more anxious if I simply remain in silence, or restrict myself to grumbling in the pub with the other Westerners.

So I write something, in order to palliate my doubts, in order to make peace with the place I've chosen to inhabit.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

American Airplanes

The American airplanes that once flew over this part of the world have long since departed. Once they filled the sky in olive-green flocks, but now we only have remnants.

A concrete strip is cut into an island in the South China Sea. Chemical plumes lace the groundwater of Manila, Saigon, and Khorat. Horizontal concrete hotels stand in Southeast Asian cities, their bars paneled in wood with potted palms and velvet drapes, Jim Beam and Bacardi blended into tropical drinks for lieutenant's wives.

And of course the strips of bars with names like "Oriental Nights" where girls in pink fishnet stockings and go-go boots have been catcalling for decades, the sorts of places where Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken pointed guns at their heads, in towns where dislocated children with hazel eyes are born into uncertainty.

Sometimes the American airplanes were applauded. Other times they got spat on. And on the coraline islands of Vanuatu, they inspired the holy devotion of Melanesian fisherfolk.

Some of the Americans stayed. Others left and came back. You see the old men who live in concrete houses with local wives in old air-base towns like Nakhon Phanom and Udon Thani, or laughing over a seven-and-seven in the secret military bar on Sathon Tai in Bangkok.

Or you see them in sadder places, in sleazy pink-lit bars on Sukhumvit 22, eyes fixed in the middle distance, a Tiger beer in one hand and a slowly burning Marlboro in the other, and maybe they've got a greasy, thin burger made with gristly local beef on a chipped plate, cold fries going limp in a pool of ketchup. You see them leering in sleazy nightclubs where they listen to a band play covers of contemporary pop songs they can't stand.

And when they've reached their end you see them at the embassy in crooked sunglasses and a baseball cap that says U.S.S. NEW JERSEY, pushed around in a wheelchair by a Thai or Filipina wife who hates them, American children who pity them, signing their will.

Do you know what you're signing? the embassy official says.

The American airplanes came to Asia at a time when America was at its blindly optimistic industrial peak, when you could call Detroit "the Arsenal of Democracy" without smirking. The photos of the pilots are as bright-eyed and apple-cheeked as the Waltons.

They left Cambodia and Laos as UXO-riddled kingdoms of ghosts, Vietnam as a by-word for disaster, a legacy of hundreds of thousands of midnight murders in Indonesia, full-hearted support for the corrupt thugs running Thailand and the Philippines.

The lazy analogy is to call the Americans "cowboys"-- it's inapplicable, and yet somehow legions of clueless French and Germans still buy it-- but to be a cowboy implies self-sufficiency and a ruggedly individual spirit.

On the contrary, the American military machine in Asia in the mid-20th Century was just that, a machine, scientific in its approach, with lessons learned from cybernetics and systems engineering. War was laid out by men like the accountant Robert McNamara and the policy man Henry Kissinger, men in nerdish glasses, applying Taylorist principles of management to destruction and violent death.

And the ruins are accordingly mechanical: sulfur and phosphorus, carbon steel and vulcanized rubber. Even the food of Fordist America remains in the Carnation condensed milk poured into the coffee cups of Vientiane, in the Spam pressed into rice in Guam, in the slashed hot dogs on skewers offered as a street snack in Phuket.

But for me, the young American, it is now an antique society, existing in the same amber haze of history that cloaks belle-époque Paris and Dust Bowl Oklahoma. Things that, to a generation previous, were part of childhood TV broadcasts are now as horses and buggies.

And so, perhaps one day, I'll have nieces and nephews writing about the waning days of the imperial American urge. About their conversations with a Kurdish taxi driver, or their visit to a Pakistani town destroyed by drones. Atrocity is immediate. The process of history lets the act of killing unfold into a million subtleties.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Gunman in New Jersey

I am at work. I periodically click on things between assignments, and I find myself on Reddit. There's a shooting going on right now at the Garden State Plaza, a large shopping mall in North Jersey.

Click. He's shooting outside the Nordstrom.

Click. I switch to a music video. I check my-email and take a sip of my coffee.

Click. The area is being evacuated.

"Real time." What an odd idea. As we follow the events in what we consider to be real time, the chances are probably higher that we don't know anything that's happening. A photo here. Some video of a distraught witness there. But, despite the zoom lens that we have on the events as-they-are, we interpret them like the Twitter feed of a B-list celebrity, with about the same degree of passion.

Garden State Plaza. Paramus, New Jersey. Is that where the Seinfeld episode takes place where Jerry gets caught taking a piss in the stairwell?

The ads tell me that the stream of updates is sponsored by the NFL Network. TOGETHER WE MAKE FOOTBALL. White font, black background.

He's stopped shooting. Or has he? What's he wearing? Is he still in the mall? Accuracy takes second place to speculation. The speculation, after all, drives traffic and therefore revenue.

The next banner tells me there is "1 FOOD THAT KILLS," next to a rubicund man with a sow-pink paunch. "1 FOOD THAT KILLS. Top doctors admit that this popular food puts deadly fat into your belly, thighs, and internal organs. Never eat this food."

The Reddit update is filled with phrases like:

• Not sure of the validity of it.
• Unconfirmed.
• Take it with a grain of salt.

We think we see something when we absolutely don't.

It's New Jersey. For me, it's the other side of the planet. I don't know if I know anyone in New Jersey. I probably don't.

But I'm first-world enough to never be too far from the 24-hour news cycle. We are endowed with a certain omnipresence. Time and space have, as David Harvey said, compressed.

These things tend to follow a pattern. Eventually, facts are established, guilty parties named, the fog will clear and bathos will set in. Melodrama supplants empathy. Guilty parties are named and shamed. Genuine analysis is smothered under the desire for a morality play.

Meanwhile, down the street, protesters are marching through Sala Daeng, Uruphong, Ratchadamnoen. I see a photo, and even though I see the same intersection where I bought my breakfast, it feels just as mediated and distant.

Christopher Isherwood, living in interesting times, could say that he was a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. My camera is shut. I am only thinking, recording nothing at all.

At the end of the day, as I'm at home with my whiskey-and-soda, the poor bastard has shot himself in a dark corner. Another unstable person, another regrettable decision. The main story is finished, and now the bottom-feeders in the comment threads will take over.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Notes on a Conspiracy

I recently watched the excellent documentary-- well, excellent story, and serviceable as a documentary-- Resurrect Dead, about the hunt for the creator of the Toynbee tiles, the odd messages that mysteriously appear embedded in streets, primarily in and around Philadelphia. The story eventually focuses on one person, suspected of communicating through the most indirect of possible means: messages in the street, pseudonymous letters, short-wave radio, intercepted late-night television broadcasts.

Which leads to my own conspiracy obsession of late, the so-called Cicada 3301 sequence of events.

An apology before I further elaborate. Embedded citations are a symptom of an attention-deficit society, and I'm normally loathe to use them, but this seems to be one of the few cases where my writing really does call for them. I recognize that most, normal people aren't especially bothered, but I do feel a certain need to apologize to myself.

We, the public, know next to nothing about Cicada 3301, the big who behind it, or even the what of its existence. Certain leaked documents have suggested it to be a group of hacktivists, or a self-identified "think tank." Obviously, these documents are of questionable authenticity, but that's about all I have to work from. But I can say, with relative certainty, that if it's a lark or a prank or a viral marketing scheme, it is perhaps the most sophisticated in human history-- suggesting it actually is an organized, directed effort of global scope.

On January 4th, 2012, an image of white sans-serif text on a black background with a dark-gray watermark of a cicada appeared on 4Chan, saying that an organization was "looking for highly intelligent individuals." Hidden in the background, a steganographic message revealed to a Caesar cipher, which in turn led to an Imgur-hosted JPEG. Later puzzles involved mysterious phone number, encrypted Twitter feeds, haunting guitar music, and flyers pasted up in cities in seven countries. The full story has been told in detail and with greater journalistic flair in an article on Mental Floss, so I won't elaborate further here.

I spent some time looking at the specific puzzles, without taking up any of the challenges myself. I discovered Cicada well after both their 2012 and 2013 puzzle series. Furthermore, I rather doubt I'd be able to complete most of them. When I go through the technical details of each puzzle, I can summon forth some understanding, but I lack both the cryptographic skill set and the computer experience to really examine such problems lucidly.

So mostly I run into dead ends. A wiki, Uncovering Cicada, covers the Cicada mystery as it is known (which is to say almost exclusively through its puzzles that were solved by devoted Internet users), but a great many of the webpages that relate to Cicada seem to be dead links. The usernames of those who took part in the Cicada puzzles reportedly disappeared from the Internet after each month-long series. And as of a week ago, on October 6th, the Wikipedia page pertaining to Cicada was unceremoniously deleted.

This near-complete lack of documentary evidence seems perfectly in-line with the nature of the modern Internet. Rumor abounds, and the activities of Cicada take place almost entirely in the non-searchable, so-called "deep" web, a vast space orders of magnitude larger than the web we see every day. IRC users claim to have heard Cicada winners talk about activities, but these are obviously unreliable. And 4Chan and Pastebin, where much discussion has taken place, are specifically designed for high turnover of content.

One leak intrigued me. It seems to have been written by a native Korean speaker-- the author refers to the game of go as "baduk" and the letter's most glaring syntactical error places the verb at the end of the sentence, indicating a writer who is used to communicating in subject-object-verb word order, a characteristic of the Korean language-- but, dealing with this much opaque information, one begins to think that these are deliberately placed decoys to make the author's identity. There is something oddly compelling about it, though, with its paranoid evangelical-Christian jargon referring to "Jesuit thinking" and the "left-hand path." And while the ideas that the writer links to Cicada are presented as shocking, they frankly seem like rather normal quasi-anarchist thinking, suggesting the writer as one of those right-wingers who can't go to bed at night without checking under the bed for atheists.
After hours of reading and searching, and hours and hours of failed attempts at finding meaning, I have to wonder why I care so much.

Most people use the Internet for purposes ranging from the mundane to the imbecilic. We plug ourselves into the emotionally hollow world of social media, shopping socially, reading socially, thinking socially, our thoughts expressed in the devolved forms of the hashtag and the selfie. We are steamrolled by the major idiocies of the present zeitgeist: mushy confessionalism, a mass genuflection to the masters of marketing and advertising, a submission to the surveillance state in exchange for a false sense of security.

The appeal of the Cicada concept lies in its negation of all of these three, at least in its outward appearance. Instead of being confessional, it is terse. Rather than marketing itself, it hides. It has been speculated that it is in fact an espionage organization, but if so, like all espionage, it largely functions in a world that, for most entities that operate there, is shrouded in mystery. It emphasizes all that is cryptic and tenebrous within the web, and it emphasizes the hermetic, the baroque, the irreal, the cavernous, and the sublime in an Internet landscape that by and large emphasizes the opposite.

And for that, I'm waiting for something from them to surface again.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Find Me at the End of the World

There is a reverie I keep having, one that I can trace to the memory of a summer day, the spin of a dust-covered and yellowed fan, a scuffed wooden floor, and myself as a boy with a globe and a well-worn atlas, afternoon light streaming in through the twelve-paned windows, highlighting neatly typed Italic fonts next to impossibly small islands scattered, like unnamed constellations, across what seemed to be the uniform, turquoise plane of the world's oceans.

The names alone were an endless source of fascination-- Tristan da Cunha and Diego Garcia, Howland and Jarvis, Palmyra and Clipperton. There were, of course, better-known places-- Easter Island, the Galapagos-- whose names have become bywords for remoteness and exotic lifeforms and bizarre histories, and which have become havens for adventure tourists. At this point, they are part of the media-driven myth of the desert island, a place where us "civilized" people can escape from the angst of modern existence. But these tiny islands, along with the icy granite massifs of the polar regions, fascinated me because they didn't conform to this fantasy. They were null spots, uninhabited or inhabited by only a few hundred people, claimed by incidental nearest nations-- Chile, Mauritius, Colombia-- or by the remnants of the French, American, and British empires.

And so many of them carry the scars of those imperial endeavors. There are the islands pocked with the remnants of phosphate mining. Ghost towns with Yankee and Aussie names haunt the atolls of the Pacific, rusted railway tracks running down to decrepit harbors, gravel airstrips overgrown, fresh water fouled and root-colored.

And there are the islands that bear the remnants of war, rusted fuselage and unexploded ordnance littering the idyllic beaches. A great many continued to have remote naval operations through the Cold War, and some do even today. Others were used for secretive negotiations. Yet others had the misfortune to be targets for bombing missions, nuclear and conventional, now transformed through imperial whim into red zones of shattered hillsides, uranium-laced soil, and malformed chromosomes.

After economic disaster and military conflict, the few remaining residents of the world's remoter islands have largely been displaced. Some are native. Others are the descendants of old colonials. And others, huge numbers, are the descendants of the slave- and coolie-labor forces that carried out the imperialist project, Africans and Chinese and Indians. As the smaller islands of the world slowly depopulate, the only people left are the military personnel that maintain the islands' connections to the metropole, and the scientific personnel that chart the motions of waves, magma tubes, schools of cuttlefish.

For the human story is only one of the many of each island. There are the odd flora and fauna that have emerged in geographic separation from the mainland, there are the underwater jungles of coral, there are the nesting sites and the seabirds' routes that cut invisible lines in the noonday sky.

My sights these days, are set especially on Kingman Reef, adrift in the Pacific, a few degrees above the equator. It's technically an American territory, although it barely rises from the surface of the water, a calcitic gravel boomerang as low in profile as an abandoned railway grade in a small town.The life all lies underneath. A single coconut palm sapling attempts, with absolute futility, to rise. It is a beach without a land, a single point where the whorl of the Pacific Ocean gives up. And I see myself on the end of that strip, looking out at the endless and unforgiving vastness that extends all the way to Hawaii, a full thousand miles to the north.

As climate change claims more and more of the world, these last isolated freeholds will, in all likelihood be snuffed out, along with the cormorants' nests, the travelers' trees, and the ruins of churches and lighthouses.

Part of me, the part of me that's been reading a lot of Rosa Luxemburg lately, wants to deem this to be the logical end result of capitalist expansion-- discover, enslave, exploit, vacate, destroy-- but most of me knows that I'm imposing a fairly tenuous narrative on something far subtler, more complex, more difficult to pin down, less attributable to any one social or environmental force.

But I know, more or less for certain, that I will never go to those little black dots on the atlas page that I used to dream about before the sun sets on them one last time and they disappear beneath the tides.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


We all have the books we've never read that lurk around our house. They sit on their shelves, ignored but for an occasional dusting, cursing us. But when so many readers use devices of one kind or another to mediate their reading, the books we've never read hide from us in unopened folders.

So I decided to take a look through the vault, and found a set of PDFs I'd downloaded nearly four years previous. I had a lot more free time back then, and was still quite dedicated to that big project of cultural studies, the "postmodern" dissection of human knowledge. And I wonder why, four years on, do so many of them remain unopened?

My first introduction to this project, so often known with a wonderful smugness simply as "theory," began a little less than a decade ago. I arrived at my little liberal arts campus, a gawky 17 year old with a boxful of my high school idols. Ferlinghetti. Kierkegaard. Camus. And god did they look fantastic on the bookshelf of my dorm room, next to the posters of R. Crumb comics, the Interpol LP sleeves, and the giant beneficent head of Jack Kerouac with that quote about the mad ones and the burn burn burning.

But these were adolescent heroes. At smoke-hazed house parties, in my English classes, I was suddenly surrounded by a whole new raft of predominantly French surnames. I knew that these writers, or at least a passing awareness of them, seemed to go hand-in-hand with any number of other things that I felt were worth my time: various psychedelia, whole bottles of red wine, noise rock, sex with arty girls.

And as a freshman, my attempts at theory-- much like my attempts with the psychedelia and the red wine and the noise rock and the arty girls-- were stabbing and met with mixed success.

But looking back, I don't think my embrace of theory was in any way insincere. The avenues of thought offered by European celebrity intellectuals suggested that whatever progress I thought I'd made was illusory, that I needed to revise my worldview. That struck me as a challenge, and off I went with a thick stack of reading material-- glossy new Verso editions, classic texts re-bound in plain, primary-colored card, LOC catalog numbers stamped on the spine in white ink. The opacity of French academic prose didn't faze me-- if anything, it emboldened me. This was not writing for weak minds, and I fully believed that it was only in the France at the height of the evènements de mai '68 that academics had the courage to fire such volleys at the system.

And, for some time, I swore by the power of theory to change lives. Each text I read seemed to swing a hammer at some bias, some invidious way in which the logic of late-capitalist society had penetrated my psyche. Reading became a giant Whac-a-Mole game, and I smashed away at orientalism, at phallocentrism, at the spatial fetish, at scientism.

But at some point, I began to read less and less theory. Slowly, I started checking out fewer and fewer library books by Gilles Deleuze and Herbert Marcuse, and instead opted for William James and Primo Levi. It happened so imperceptibly slowly that, looking back, I have to wonder why it happened.

The story of the postmodernist apostate returning to the humanist fold has, in the past decade or so, become something of an intellectual cliche. Any number of center-left magazines abound with the narratives of onetime theory fanatics recanting their heresies. These stories have a few common themes: a citation of some of the sillier claims made by big-name theorists (Jacques Lacan being a particularly egregious offender), a misty-eyed recollection of a foolish and idealistic youth, and a return to soberer thought-- typically the world of cognitive science and its unfalsifiable handmaiden, evolutionary psychology.

But that seems like bullshit too. Because a lot of theory does have value. As Terry Eagleton pointed out, we-- society as a whole, and especially those of us who like to think about things and write about what we think about things-- cannot return to a pre-theory age of innocence. The conversation has changed.

I still read theory from time to time. And not only because a lot of it is dense and interesting in the same way good poetry is-- Jean Améry, Theodor Adorno, and Roland Barthes were perhaps better stylists than philosophers-- but because a good metaphor can provoke us out of an intellectual slumber. In earlier eras, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein refused to systematize their philosophies, and no one doubts their importance and influence.

But the problem lies in the fact that it is just a set of provocative metaphors. The more I read, the emptier I felt. When you boil the world down to nothing but contradiction and a truth that might not even be intersubjective, you're left with a sickly feeling of inability.

Which of course allows for neoliberal capitalism, in all its ruthless, mechanical efficiency, to completely logroll any attempt at liberation. After I graduated from college, I spent the wet Seattle winter of 2008-09 in a rat's-nest apartment, with unemployment spiraling upwards, with working class black and Latino homeowners waking up to find the properties they'd invested their life savings in valueless. Somehow, all of the metaphor systems that suggested the predominance of the virtual, the evil of late capitalism lying essentially in its dullness, and the suggestion that the welfare state is in many ways as evil as the 19th Century liberal-capitalist state due to its totalizing quality-- ideas I can pin to Baudrillard, Debord, and Marcuse, respectively-- turned to dust when I was faced with a dwindling bank account, an empty e-mail inbox, and the marginal, insecure position I held in the much-vaunted "creative economy" when I finally found employment. All that was solid had, as Marx had put it, melted into air.

Yet whole swaths of the left still seemed entrapped in the mode of Baudrillard and Debord and Marcuse and their disciples, most of them operating under the baleful influences of orthodox Freudianism or the dark seductions of late-period Nietzsche.

A perfunctory look at any number of anarchist and left-wing blogs or the cultural studies shelf at an academically inclined bookshop or any of the manifestos issued by the erstwhile leaders of the Occupy movement-- oh how my hopes were dashed there-- will reveal a certain writing style. This cant is characterized by delirious cold opens, a sense of deathly ennui, and a poetic airiness without admitting its essentially literary character. It's been imitated enough to be commonly parodied, it doesn't sound nearly as good in English as in French, and it's something I self-consciously try to steer away from when I edit my own writing. And I hope to the god I've never believed in that anyone who reads what I write doesn't class me with those assholes.

Then what comes post-postmodernism? Being the sort of person who loses sleep over things like the correspondence theory of truth, I sort of flail about. I pick up book after book, whether it's science or philosophy or sociology or whatever. I read them with the same enthusiasm and for the same reasons my countrymen devour books by simpering self-help gurus.

So all I can say, without answers or solutions, is that I will continue to sit under my pile of books, no matter how futile it might be. Read and read and read, and do your best to ignore the abyss that keeps threatening to swallow you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Saturday, Late Afternoon, Middle Sukhumvit

It's late afternoon on a strip of Middle Sukhumvit. I'm out for a day of shopping-- looking through discount paperbacks at a used bookshop and glossy coffee table books I can't afford at Kinokuniya, idling over a cup of tea, ogling the expensive liquor selection at Villa.

The solitary walker in Bangkok will occasionally encounter sections of utter loveliness-- there are the rotting old canalside neighborhoods near near the river, the procession of white bridges with spilling bougainvilleas over the Khlong Prem Prachakon, the broad, tree-lined plaisances of Ratchadamnoen Nok and Phaya Thai, the old hyper-specific neighborhoods-- districts of luthiers and tanners, flower markets and Afghan jewellers, that dot the more antique sections of the city.

But there are also countless neighborhoods that make your skin crawl. A neighborhood like that around the Phrom Phong metro stop seems fine in the evening-- the shop windows are brightly lit, the bars and restaurants are just starting to fill up, and you might be a bit drunk yourself, you might be on your way to meet friends, you might have a date.

It's in late afternoon, during the smoggy, saffron-colored stage an hour or two before sunset, that it is at both its most horrifying and its most pathetic. The sois are exhaust-choked canyons lined with '60s shophouses, some of them left to rot, carrying the scars of typhoons, car crashes, smashed windows. Others bear garish renovations-- there is nothing more uniquely atrocious and tasteless than plaster Corinthian columns framing blue tinted-glass windows. Tourist restaurants-- the sign says THAIFOOD WESTERN FOOD VERY CHEAP-- serve up watery curries and thin, limp cheeseburgers with wilted lettuce. And above all else, there is the omnipresence of the sexualized industries-- whether as direct as strip clubs, or as indirect as sports bars with waitresses in skin-tight dresses advertising Beer Chang. And for the clannish Japanese businessmen that make their homes in this neighborhood, cracked signs indicate karaoke bars where Thai girls in bunny ears and schoolgirl outfits get felt up by Johnny Walker-soaked keiretsu functionaries.

The architecture and the commerce of the area are mirrored by the denizens. A sickly red wet-season twilight sets in. Stringy backpackers with serious suntans and filthy t-shirts cross the intersection in swift-moving twos and threes. A small group of heavily made-up young women in lacy white dresses have just finished doing a promotion for a brand of skin cream and they sit down, exhausted from having spent the day standing and smiling in four-inch heels. Toadlike white men, sweating through their shirts and their buzz cuts, mill about, led on invisible leashes by squat, flat-nosed Northeastern Thai wives with rusted complexions and knockoff Gucci bags. The beggars go out of their way to degrade themselves for extra pity. Aiming squarely for the tourist market, the legless drag themselves on their bellies across the rough pavement, and the armless wave their stumps like flags at a parade.

I often tell my friends in more northerly climes that the character of Thailand is rather Mediterranean-- Vespas and great food, coups and messily parked cars, ancient civilizations and primary colors, guitarists and prizefighters. But in the humid, sighing, late afternoon around here, Bangkok reminds me more of Weimar-era Berlin-- likewise a decadent society in perennial economic and political chaos, a furious nightlife catering to those rich enough to be insulated from this chaos, its streets filled with disfigured panhandlers and cackling streetwalkers.

And for this very reason, I've felt powerfully drawn, lately, to the expressionists and their fellow travelers.

The leering faces make up the carnival masks of James Ensor.

Half the amphetamine-riddled faces I see on the street could be in Egon Schiele paintings.

And the slum children, the old ladies, the hunchbacks, inhabit the woodcuts of Käthe Kollwitz.

It should be said that this sense of decadence and decrepitude is by no means unique to Bangkok-- plenty of places from Rome to New Orleans to Prague to Shanghai to Buenos Aires have similar reputations. But I've rarely been any place that has the same sense of innate rot, a flagging ferroconcrete sigh of a place sinking into the salt marshes.

I sometimes find the proximity of horror in Bangkok to have a certain comforting quality-- stare the devil in the face every day and blow him a raspberry. I can claim that I'm living comfortably in a contradiction, willing to confront the miseries that define the lives of vast numbers of working people haunted by the specter of capitalism, living without first-world blinders. I can maintain my world-weary edge, and posit myself as not one of those foreigners in Thailand, the mindless horde who refuse to face themselves or their place in the world. And while there is at least a grain of truth in these stances, they are also postures of self-deception. I construct a narrative for myself in an attempt to justify my own uncertainties, insecurities, and instabilities.

All of which leads me to something of a dead end. Now, I'm sitting here in front of a coffee, feeling glum. The sun has finally fallen behind the rain clouds, leaving only a smudge of light on the far horizon.

This neighborhood at night seems jet-black at times. Certain roads are lined with brightly lit white towers, while others project a rather jankety but homey street carnival mood with their food stalls and machinists' shops. But this stretch of Sukhumvit right now is only empty restaurants and dirty signage, the steely glare of emptied office buildings and an architecture that, after sunset, absorbs the blackness of night into its steel and masonry armature.

But some stories, I'm afraid, have no resolution in real life. No matter what stories I try to weave about where I am and where I am going and why I am here, I'm left with more questions than answers. The city yields nothing. No theme, no plot, and no real sense of character, but the streetlights do line up to form an ellipsis in the soft rain.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Night Out

I spend the week in solitude, and after work, I come home to my little apartment, to eat dinner alone in front of my computer screen, to read a book on my balcony, my place marked with a Burmese 50 kyat note, to scan the city at sunset, the wispy clouds that hang over the western horizon and the first glow of the parade of skyscrapers that marches from Ratchayothin to Siam Square.

So on a Friday, I wound up at a Thong Lo nightclub, located like everything in certain trendy sections of Southeast Bangkok, in something not terribly unlike a strip mall, a planning aesthetic borrowed from the sun-kissed suburbs of Los Angeles, with the same glass-box sushi bars and gelaterias, the same boutiques with pictures of the same Slavic models, the same palm trees waving in light breeze on the median strips and along the margins of the parking lot, and it's the sort of club where the DJ is some hot hi-so girl with dyed auburn hair but who isn't bad, and we have our little circular table like everyone else and like everyone else it has its ice bucket and its central bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label or Finlandia, and we stand at our table and dance and drink whole fields of distilled grain, it's far, far better than most other options, the women I'm dancing with aren't sex workers, I'll leave that to the faded nightclubs in hotel basements and grim industrial suburbs, frequented by the older expats, the lurkers, the sex addicts who have the tucked-in polo shirts and the glasses and the bad haircuts of Nebraskan engineers, the young tourists with their backpacks back at the hostel, the Arab and Indian men that you see in uncomfortable looking quartets around the Nana metro stop, the technical school kids who shoot at each other on grim concrete back alleyways.

Instead we dance with wasp-waisted girls who wrap themselves in flowing fabric, faces made ever more sylphlike by assaultive batteries of whitening cream, exotic skin treatments, and plastic surgeries, floating on the dancefloor wreathed in mentholated cigarette smoke, their car keys dusted with stepped-on Asian coke, they take a sip of their vodka tonic and chase it with a neat yellow pill of one kind or another, which is of course the habit of rich kids from a not so rich country, most of them 3rd or 4th generation Thai-Chinese whose surnames are freight trains of auspicious nouns strung together, children of a somebody in a silk tie who owns the largest aluminum extrusion factory in Southeast Asia, employing a few hundred people who left their rice fields in Nakhon Sawan or Chaiyaphum and whose labor funded the European childhood and the airport codes-- LAX, CDG-- that dangle from the suitcases of the same girls whose closed eyes are now blinking open, two generations after their snaggletoothed grandfathers sailed out of Hainan and Amoy on angular junks towards the port of Bangkok in a day when the turbid brown river that bisects the city was cluttered with a thousand boats of bamboo and wood and the city was shielded from the sea by impossibly thick mangroves.

And at the end of the night, I'm probably not going to sleep with anyone, and I step out into a side street, under a starless sky, lined with walls of dense green foliage, punctuated by hibiscus in full bloom, I flag down a taxi, and try to keep my eyes open as I try to give my driver directions to my obscure little street, my headphones in, volume turned up, drowned in distortion, but we're going along some viaduct over Phetchaburi or Rama IV, where I can see the glitter of countless red beacons flickering atop buildings and the endless giant glowing signs for Toyota and Deutsche Bank and Samsung, until we get off on my street and I tell the driver to stop outside my building, next to the smashed glass left over from the shirtless and tattooed younger guys who spent the evening drinking on the side of the street, but they're gone now, and the security guard to my building is nowhere to be found, I walk across the empty parking lot to the cold, fluorescent-lit elevator lobby and go up eight floors, a CCTV camera staring at me unblinking, and I wonder who is watching me, if anyone, and what they're thinking, if they're thinking, if they give a shit.

I step into my apartment. I drink a glass of water in the kitchen. I probably ate a bag of chips in the taxi, and brush the crumbs off my shirt. The air conditioner hums. When I brush my teeth, I look into the mirror, deep into my irises. I lie my head down on my single pillow and wait for sleep to come.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Windows

It's 10:30 AM on a Sunday, and I look out from the window of my 8th floor apartment-- an elderly woman in a housecoat tends to the birds-of-paradise in her garden, a procession of Filipinos and Vietnamese approach the Catholic church, a sex worker, still wearing the lacy dress she wore last night, steps out of a rust-streaked concrete love motel and hails a taxi home.

But my eyes are always drawn away from what's going on, upward, toward the skyline, toward the hazy sunsets. And before that, to the other apartment towers that line the narrow side streets of this neighborhood in Central Bangkok.

It's one of those less spoken joys of city life, to look out at everyone else going about their daily lives, one household atop the other. An old man is sleeping below a woman tapping at a computer keyboard next to a young, shirtless guy frying rice for dinner above a Russian drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette on his balcony. You never see people having sex-- they've lived long enough in this high rise panopticon to practice a measure of discretion.

It's an odd sort of entertainment, looking in on the lives of others. That being said, I would dare anyone to say that when walking around a quiet and unfamiliar residential neighborhood at night, that their eyes aren't drawn towards the brightly lit windows. We are attracted to the hidden dramas unfolding in immaculate, white-carpeted living rooms and parquet-floor kitchens, We all have this desire to pry in, to see the sins and transgressions that supposedly lurk behind every suburban curtain.

However, it's also hard not to say that this practice doesn't indicate some measure of alienation. There is the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, spying on his neighbors to alleviate the boredom and loneliness and isolation brought on by his own disability. And there is Holden Caulfield in his decrepit Manhattan hotel room, alone, adrift, and vaguely suicidal as he stares out at crossdressers and alcoholics.

But I'm not drawn, especially, to the crimes and vices that go on in the apartments of my city, nor the judgment of other people's lives and lifestyles, and voyeurism leaves me cold. Rather, I'm enthralled by the plainness of everyone's life, what they eat, how they wash their dishes, the way they sit when they watch TV. Because people's lives are far less ordinary then we would like to think. Safe within our own homes, we shed our polished demeanors, we talk to ourselves, inanely tap our legs, twiddle our thumbs.

When we're alone in our own realms, we stop looking like presentable humans, and start looking like the grotesque self-portraits of Egon Schiele, almost deliberately disheveled.

Which of course means that I must be doing the same thing, looking just as roughly drawn in my own apartment.

And I'm forced to confront my own aloneness, in a tumbledown state, in my boxers and a t-shirt, some music coming from my computer speakers, a book lying open-faced on my bed, scanning the cityscape for any sign of life. Yet I don't think I'm trying to fill any kind of inner void.

Rather, it's like going to a the movies. My eyes are focused on the flickering images in front of me-- the golden, star-like glow of an elevator going up, a child running down a hallway, the Burmese maid shutting off fluorescent ceiling lights as she vacuums the floors of an empty office, silhouetted passengers waiting for a train at a distant metro stop. And like a good movie, it entrances, but it forces me to examine my place in the world. I may be by myself, but I'm at the center of a vast whirl, and it's as if I'm standing at the center of a freeway in late afternoon sun, traffic rushing by in both directions.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Americans

I recently said a goodbye to my friends outside a little bar on Thanon Rangnam in North Central Bangkok. I'd seen them off before, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle, before they moved to Southeast Asia, on a rain-wet late winter afternoon some two years previous.

They were going back to America, a country that is undoubtedly my own, but when I see it on television, looks foreign-- not unfamiliar, simply foreign, the same way an American might perceive England or Australia, with strong linguistic and cultural ties, but unquestionably different.

But occasionally I see glimpses of America in Thailand, and it's not as if I'm seeing a foreign country, but seeing my own country immediately revealed. A bleak strip of Charan Sanit Wong near the Sirindhorn intersection-- all gritty diagonal boulevards, forlorn shop fronts, smokestacks and steeples perceived through a tangle of electrical wire-- could almost be Chicago. The dusty side streets and vacant lots and concrete plants of Bang Khen are something similar enough to Des Moines. A beloved coffee shop on a rainy afternoon near Siam Square is a miniature Seattle. And a martini bar on Thong Lo with throbbing music and women with 30,000 baht tits is Los Angeles.

My daily life obeys the rhythms of Bangkok, and my language coalesces into a non-specific English, generically North American in accent, imparted with the slang of Newcastle and Cape Town.

Which, perhaps, is why I've become so enamored of Robert Frank's photo series The Americans. It's not that they represent an America I know or remember. On the contrary, I love them because they convey an idea of America. Were I to look at the sorts of places I actually remember-- forlorn gas stations late at night, dark Seattle bars, frozen rivers-- I might feel something. But when I look at Frank's photos, they're pointing more towards a meta-image of America that pierces through my memories of the real America and lets in the dreams and strange forms that lay underneath.

Since they were taken 30 years before I was born, I automatically view them as relics, as documentary evidence of an era before mine. And it was an era that we think of, nowadays, as something of an age of innocence, a picket-fence suburban postwar fantasy that existed far more in the public imagination than in material reality. No Malcolm X or Jim Morrison, minimal levels of postmodernism. The primary terror came from a far-off and peculiarly imagined USSR.

But Frank's subjects aren't this dull fantasy that has since been shoved down Americans' throats-- by what we retroactively and moronically refer to as "golden age" television, by the American Enterprise Institute and other vipers' dens of paranoid reactionaries-- but what lurks around the margins. We have nudists and drugstore cowboys, a hormonally charged teenage couple getting a Reno marriage.

Or a young girl with a candy cigarette adopting the studied pose of her mother.

Or a hallucinatory shot of the reflection of a cinema marquee in a car window.

Of course, lots of other Europeans have tried to present an outsider's view of the United States. There was Tocqueville in the early years of the 19th Century, there was Dickens writing his American Notes, and so on. And since then, there have been any number of writers who claimed that America could only be viewed by a foreigner-- among them, giggling sociological onanist Jean Baudrillard and impeccably dressed imperial apologist Bernard-Henri Lévy, both of whom wrote almost cartoonishly hyper-Français prose about their superficial tours of the Lower 48 as Francophone star academics, ensconced in various ivory towers and accompanied by legations of fawning Yanks.

But whereas so many travelers-- photographers, travel writers, and just plain visitors-- adopt the tourist's gaze, what I admire about Frank is that he doesn't. He grants everyone he photographs their own subjectivity, rather than trying to impose some master narrative onto their actions. Like all artists, he has motifs that he returns to again and again-- racial tension, odd placements of the American flag-- but ultimately it is vérité. Frank's camera, off-kilter, shooting at odd angles, slices America open.

And I think that's the America I remember, staring out taxi windows on long, equatorial afternoons, the America I still re-visit in my dreams. There is no cohesive structure. I'm assailed with a jumble of memories, images of memories, meta-memories that shift about in kaleidoscopic patterns.

Thoughts overlay themselves onto daily life like superimposed frames in a silent film. I look at the photo, and look up, at the gritty street outside: rush hour on Din Daeng Road, a boarded-up brothel, fried chicken stands, dessicated palm trees backlit against a fiery sunset. It's all here, memory on top of memory: Thailand in front of my face, the America I remember, the mythic America in the photograph, the general myth of America, anything, everything. I see it all, a sudden unity of the signs for a moment, before returning to whatever ordinary thing I was doing before.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Tea That Strikes the Dust, Part 2

As we traipsed across Myanmar, we entered into another era of travel, one before ATMs and the Internet. The unpaved roads that criss-cross the country go over remote brooks, where the traffic is slowed by parades of white bulls, their horns garlanded with jasmine and chrysanthemums, a procession of the town's virgins carrying golden vases. It wasn't so much that the technology was more primitive-- this was something I'd anticipated-- it's how obviously entrenched each town was in its local culture, in its rituals and traditions, its superstitions and conventions. And when we entered into a remote town, we could count on a cup of green tea.

The tourists are slowly trickling in. You see the kids with backpacks checked into cheap guesthouses on 25th Street in Mandalay, on Mahabandoola Road in Yangon, in little towns like Kalaw, Hsipaw, and Nyaung Oo that are starting to develop a reputation for mellow vibes and cheap beer.

If you believe the press, the country in a "state of transition." Sanctions are being lifted and political prisoners released. The Tatmadaw, the military government that deposed U Nu in 1962, things that resemble what the international community thinks of as elections are being conducted.

But the people's trepidation remains. "The generals have just changed their uniforms," a Shan princess told me in the parlor of her decaying palace. "In my country, no reason, no democracy," a boozy Tamil-Catholic surveyor told me at a restaurant in the frigid hills of Pyin U Lwin.

A video plays for us on the bus, repeated Buddhist prayers in sung Burmese and whispered English, 30 minutes of a dharma talk filmed on a Camcorder, an anti-drug use anthem, followed by a military parade down Sule Paya Road in Yangon: stultifying religious dogma followed by something that looks cribbed from every Americans' elementary school don't-cave-to-peer-pressure-and-do-drugs seminar, washed down with a healthy dose of paranoid fascism.

And in Mandalay, the old royal capital memorialized by that great imperial apologist Rudyard Kipling (who never visited the city), you see the traces of the profoundly anti-democratic: boulevards that can accommodate tanks, Orwellian concrete nightmare buildings falling to pieces in the oppressive heat, bronze statues of generals smeared with pigeon shit, and the surviving banners: TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION!

And beyond the central state, there are the multiple civil wars on the fringes, the many flavors of ethnic strife that occur when groups with long, bitter histories-- Mon and Wa, Rohingya and Rakhine, Chin and Kachin, Kayin and Kayah-- together have to deal with finite resources. It occurs in waves, with the current horror being the purges of Burmese Muslims.

Visual media have made the image of violence universal and distant. But then, as I pass through the burned down remnants of what was once the Muslim Quarter of the town of Meiktila, and see a girl staring out from a charred doorway, all of that universality and all of that distance collapses into immediate delirium and nausea.


Yet the persistent violence only existed on the peripheries of my trip, making itself known through palimpsests. And in my personal interactions, it all melted away, and I was greeted by a consistently kind-hearted and generous populace.

I spent much of my time reading Patrick Leigh Fermor on buses and trains, and it felt a little like we were in the old Europe of inscrutable tradition and generous curiosity towards the few travelers who passed through. And, as with Fermor along the Rhine, there were the constant small gifts en route. We were given plates of chicken and rice at a Yunnanese temple, a cup of coffee from an old man, preserved plums from a group of schoolgirls, jellied candies from a shopkeeper, the bowls of rice wine offered to us by Shan villagers, a tube of epoxy to fix a broken shoe. And, after a day of hiking, we were offered a ride back from a waterfall outside the little village of Anisakan.

Up around that part of Myanmar, it gets quite chilly at night, even in the sweat-drenched depths of the hot season. And in the back of the truck, with the wind sweeping our faces, I sheltered myself behind a canvas flap.

On one side of the road, a bright vermilion sun sank into the haze of the burning rice fields in the valleys far below. And on the other side, an equally vermilion full moon rose from above the pines.


There will always be that next valley, that next river, that next point on the map-- a town with an inscrutable name, the triangular symbol representing a mountain, the slightly different shade indicating a new province where the people's palms are tattooed with mandalas and compass points, or where they eat oxtails simmered in a thick turmeric sauce, or where the laurel trees sway in the high winds at the base of a snow-capped mountain.

For the map isn't just a diagram, it is a web of possibilities, a reminder of the million pathways that spiderweb out from the point at which you stand.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Tea That Strikes the Dust, Part 1

This is how it went every morning. In little shops, selling samosas and noodles and instant coffee, the waiters, often no more than ten years old, went through the same ritual. A few drops of green tea are poured from the carafe into white porcelain cups, swirled around to remove the stray grit and dead insects, and then tossed out into the street, slightly wetting the red dust that blows about.

What can I tell about a trip I took? To put it all in chronological order would make it plodding and false, to merely snatch impressions here and there would betray the material reality of the route I took. My traveling partner, Ms. H., captured photographs of temples and lizards, whereas I stuck to my notebook, and hoped that, somehow, I'd be able to convey to my friends back in Bangkok, America, wherever, what I felt about the benighted country wedged between Thailand and India.

Myanmar is a country of dust and iron-- it is embodied in the clatter of horses' hooves on a dirt road, black exhaust clouds from World War II-era Willys Jeeps, the intricately patterned ground sandalwood that graces the cheeks of the children, the disfigured chassis of old trucks cut down to chassis on wheels and dragged by men in wifebeaters and longyi, the red-brick pagodas that jut from the plain, their teak Buddhas too dried out to rot, pressed with gold leaf by the faithful, and the cast aside pieces of bamboo and crushed sugarcane. Its color profile is olive and gold and beige: sunlight and statuary, cacti and woven rattan, tea leaves and cigar butts,  the thin layers of spice-colored oil that float on top of the food in the steam trays.

The visitor is left dehydrated, urine turning into a gamboge thickness, mouth drying out with every breath. Your only respite is in the tea shops, where strong black tea is served viscous and sweet with condensed milk. Even the drinks seem somehow deprived of water, like the last fruits of summer withering on the vine.

Amid this, the local religious doctrine makes absolute sense: all life is suffering and decay, and the only way to escape the endless cycle of samsara is to release attachments. It is embodied in a wooden folk-art statue on Mandalay Hill, the faces having the sort of misshapen harshness you see in Grünewald's famous altarpiece. Inside a dusty cubicle, is an old man, a sick man, a sadhu, and a corpse, vultures devouring its flesh, maggots writhing in its eyes. All is watched over by the young prince Siddhartha Gautama, who, sad-faced, has to leave the idyllic palace grounds of his youth.

Yangon, the previous capital, since replaced by Naypyidaw-- a sort of military-Buddhist Brasilia of pagoda rooflines and empty condos, opened at an astrologically auspicious time-- lies at the junction of the Yangon and Bago Rivers, a city dug deep into the muddy delta of the Ayeyarwaddy, a tropically Gothic place of broken spires and caved-in porticoes, clock towers that haven't told the correct time in 40 years.

And above all else, it is a city of secrets, its narrow streets lined with six- and seven-story colonial apartment buildings, steel grates on shopfronts half-shut, dark faces puffing cheroots and staring out at you, hot, late-afternoon sunlight alternating with remarkably cool shadows. In every building, a steep, unlit staircase leads upstairs to quiet, darkened hallways, open at one end, crows nesting in mildew-darkened Victorian moldings. There is the infinite tangle of pagodas and mirrored tiles at the Shwe Dagon, the gilded hallways shaped as an eight-pointed star inside the hollow stupa of the Botataung. As night sets, the handful of streetlights turn on, but mostly it remains dark, groups of men sitting in the shadows, smoking Ruby Red cigarettes and drinking tea, a sole candle flickering at the shop where a woman in a sari wraps betel nut and loose tobacco into pungent, loose quids. The power goes out, and hers is the only light.


We cross the vast chaparral of Lower Burma to the town of Kyaiktiyo, and climb the trail that goes to the top of the mountain in the Tenasserim Hills. We cross tumbling, rock-strewn streams, water jars for weary pilgrims, shops offering cold drinks and rich Burmese curries, shrines with blocks of sandalwood, flayed snake skins, preserved giant centipedes, and the complete heads of Himalayan deer, perched atop bamboo baskets like the heads of French aristocrats.

And at the top, there are the men with folded hands praying to the stupa that sits atop a massive golden boulder perched on the first emergence of real topography after the ironed-flat lowlands. Balanced, in legend, by a hair of the Buddha, it is, as the structuralists would say, a microcosm, a metaphor for all sacred space in the form of a vertical structure, balanced and swirling around the idea of the Buddha-- represented by an object and emphatically not an image-- on the rupture point of the mountains and the plains.

The pilgrim-tourists are camping out on bamboo mats on the massive marble floor for the night, scooping rice from massive pots and unpacking tiffins of fish soup and tea-leaf salad.

You smell the food cooking, see the smoke rising from the little charcoal braziers and the palm oil burbling in cast-iron woks, and imagine yourself reclining in one of the canvas deck chairs on a high mountain aerie, the taste of a cold bottle of Mandalay Beer almost touching your lips, and think about how, at some point, you could stay here for a very long time, stretching your weary limbs, staring out over the soot-clouded sunset, under a sky filled with emerging equatorial constellations, over the chanting of the monks, the birdlike songs and laughter of the Burmese girls that giggle as you walk by.


As we moved up and down the country, we charted our course by moving from remnant to remnant, leapfrogging back and forth across centuries.

In a town once called Maymyo-- "May's Hill," for the English colonel who founded it-- we drank plum wine at a lakeside restaurant, looked at the dried butterflies in an Edwardian botanical garden where the men wore pith helmets and the women wore broad-brimmed straw hats with silk daffodils. As we walked to the center of the town, we passed red brick churches and half-timbered summer lodges and horse-drawn white coaches, before arriving at the tidy clock tower, the bells of which still play Anglican hymns.

At Bagan, we cycled through the desert from decrepit temple to decrepit temple built during the reigns of-- and eventually bankrupting the empire of-- Kings Anawrahta and Kyanzittha. Despite the intermediary years of war and strife, they have survived, many complete with whitewashed walls and graceful paintings of war elephants and charging buffalo, sky nymphs and angels blowing trumpets, monks gathered around a radiant Buddha, his head surrounded by nested halos in the colors of the rainbow.

And we went to the old city of Inwa, adrift on an island in the broad Ayeyarwaddy, one of the last capitals of the Burmese Empire before its final capitulation to the British Raj. Tourists are taken to see the damaged palace tower that leans perilously to one side and the teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung. But outside further ruins lurk, unmarked and seemingly forgotten. This place was burned and captured, re-burned and re-captured, by the Shan, the Bamar, the Brits, all leaving their traces. Who built these? From what dynasty, what era? Someone more knowledgeable could comment on lintels and ogive arches, but I am left with nothing. Among the piles of brick, I mumble the words softly under my breath.

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Rooms of My Life

It's one of those nights when I can't fall asleep, which occur with a dismal regularity these days. I turn a light on and think maybe I should try to read myself to sleep.

But somehow I can't. I pick up a notebook or a glass, and it's transformed, as if it is a simulacrum of the original object. There is something there, something in the way the lamplight casts across the room, something in the angles of the shadows that come in off the street, something in the dull reflection off the cheap leatherette sofa that came with the apartment. I don't know where I am. Suddenly I am transported. On one hand, I know I'm in my room, those are undoubtedly my books on the shelf, that's my handwriting on the grocery list on the counter. But something else has slipped in, and I'm seeing my room as through a veil.

I've been here before. I know it. Maybe you could call it déjà vu, but it's more complex than that. I could tell you everything about this place: the stacks of worn-down cardboard boxes mouldering under the stairs, the cerulean-colored industrial carpeting, the walls of exposed cinder block painted semi-gloss off-white, the 1970s encyclopedias with faux-gilt-edged pages. the rows of books on dark metal shelves, cloth-bound in bright colors with codes of letters and numbers tamped on their spines in white ink. And somewhere, on the other side of a cool, shadowed room, is a plate glass window that faces a little sculpture garden on a vast lawn that runs down to a wide road with traffic shuttling back and forth. Even on a muggy tropical night, its cool, dry climate control chills my arms.

But I don't know whether or not it is a real place. What I know is that inside my head, this room exists, an imaginary library made up of countless other libraries, countless other rooms that I may have once set foot in. The memories have coalesced into a cogent place that I call the library. It needs no further definition.

And it is one of countless spaces that lie embedded in my mind. There is the library. There is the museum, and the billiard room with red wallpaper, the basement, the cabin in mid-winter, the white room and the black room that sit next to each other on a darkened hallway, the sunny terrace by the sea, and so on. These are the spaces I revisit again and again, as familiar as my childhood home. I know them in my earliest memories, in my dreams, on long walks, and on fitful nights when I'm in an odd mood and can't sleep and have nothing else to do but to cycle through the vaguer parts of conscious thought.

Someone like Freud or Jung might try to ascribe meaning to these places, to connect them to specific memories, to complexes, to a mythology of archetypes, to the structure of id, ego, and superego. But I'm not so sure how valid those ideas are.

And there are the various schools of cognitive science that suggest that we have certain evolved capacities that lead to certain aesthetic sensibilities, or at the very least, that our brains have evolved to process information is fairly specific ways. And I find these ideas just as groundless and speculative as those of the analysts.

So I am left with a set of lonely rooms, with their variations in color and light and shadow, inscrutable and omnipresent. I don't know where they come from, but I see their manifestations everywhere, in a fanlight, in a chess set.

Consequently, when I wander around the city, I am also wandering around in my own psyche. Even when I walk down a completely new street, it's already all silted up with nostalgia.

Our lives are couched in an invisible network of signs and cryptic meanings. The curvilinear font of a street sign, the gingerbread on the eaves of an old house, the angle of a roofline, a cluster of casuarina trees, each of them is imbued with a million narratives.

And, every once in a while, the vague, flickering images we carry in our minds harmonize with the stories of our built environment. We look up, and we are, for a few seconds, transported.

But it's only for a brief moment. I am in my library, my museum, my sunny terrace by the sea for only five seconds, and then it dissipates. Maybe it comes to me in waves, but each wave is only momentary, before they subside entirely, and I am again alone on a quiet street.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Idea of East

The idea strikes me at odd moments. It hits me now, as a pale shaft of morning light casts across the floor, to an old wooden double door with an unpainted latch leading to a crawlspace in a tiny Muslim school. Its shape, its state of decrepitude, its rough-cut and hand-adzed quality, its position beneath an eight-paned transom window of pebbled glass: all of them seem to exemplify that idea of the Asiatic.

And when I try to figure out where this idea came from, it seems to be something I had a very early acquaintance with. Some sources are obvious-- the vast, reconstructed Chinese temple at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City comes to mind, a vast and hollow space lined with immense murals, accompanied by display cases with nephrite Buddhas, lacquered plates, celadon cups, cricket cages.

But others are more intimate and in many ways less direct-- a certain wooden drawer, an embroidered piece of silk, the opium weight shaped like a metallic rooster my parents used to put their bills under. The memories of a bourgeois childhood seem to be made up of all these tiny little marginalia, arranged in my mind so neatly, like a Joseph Cornell box.

And more mysteriously, there were whole classes of gastronomy, of music, of aroma, of image that seemed to fall under the rubric of the Oriental. As a child, the whole world seems to consist of these wholly irrational and vaguely defined gestalts, tendencies without clear origins-- a mode of thinking we can immediately revert to with the assistance of a little psilocybin, but still seeps into our adult lives. All I need to hear is a certain scale on a song playing on a distant radio, or taste the bitter, ferric flavor of water chestnuts directly out of the can, and I can trigger the gestalt of the "Eastern."

And it was a gestalt I was powerfully attracted to. On the map and on the news: Borneo and Makassar, Rangoon and Vientiane, Dien Bien Phu and Irian Jaya-- whole names that evoked a sun rising slowly over a turbid, brown river, egrets in palm trees, the morning processions of wizened monks, silhouetted against a vermilion dawn.

But of course this perception has little to do with the reality of life in Asia. And of course it holds little currency beyond childhood. Areas of Bangkok are more Californian than California, the new skyscrapers of China and the Persian Gulf states are designed by London and New York firms. Singapore, Dubai, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong now embody the excesses of American-style capitalism. Which of course is nothing new. There are the Greek statues being dug up in the old Buddhist kingdoms of Pakistan, and the Portuguese-inspired desserts sold on the streets of Bangkok.

True, huge numbers of adults-- distressingly, a huge number of them in Asian, European, and North American governments-- still cling to the notions of "East" and "West," but this distinction has been thoroughly and successfully demolished by any number of big-name intellectuals. We can decode the sign systems that connote "Easternness" in society and media, and demonstrate how they're crassly used to market consumer goods and politics to an unwitting public. We can chart the history of the idea of the "Oriental" and see how it was used as a pretext for racism and colonialism. Simply put, there is no East there. But the phenomenon of East is out there, even if it's unhealthy to ascribe a material truth-value to it.

It haunts me. As much as I want to move beyond the idea of East, to base my perceptions on materiality and evidence, it's hard to escape the daydreams of my seven year old self. And that's a form of dishonesty that especially annoys me, when people claim their own nostalgias to be the basis for impersonal truth.

So I try to simply be aware of the phenomenon, to recognize its existence as a phantom image, one of the narratives and myths-- some benign, some invidious-- we tell ourselves in a clawing effort to make sense of the world.

And now that I live in Asia, I can start to build a new narrative, a new story that I actually can ground in my day-to-day life, in the ordinary lives of the millions of people around me, their habits and quirks and beliefs and dreams. The veil is falling off, and I can start anew. I start with something simple and beguiling: the street outside, filled with fallen bougainvillea blossoms.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Weight of Signs

On hungover Sunday mornings, I've taken to going on long walks through the shopping malls of Bangkok. One can find secret passageways, down long, white hallways, across hot asphalt alleyways, between littered chicken bones and smashed mangoes. Somehow the world becomes less pressing-- the things you regret from last night, the noonday sun-- when you're in an air-conditioned bubble with so much sensory stimulus that you don't have to choose any one thing. Simply turn your brain off, listen to your headphones and get lost in the white noise.

Which is how I wound up at Center One, one of the handful of cheap, chaotic shopping centers clustered around the Victory Monument. In a city where the large-scale malls inspire the same degree of devotion as the golden temples of the old city, this is but a minor shrine-- a few chain restaurants, mobile phone shops, and cosmetic counters, all fitting its location next to a large technical school. But far more than anything else, there are the countless tiny vendor stalls with their piles of women's clothes.

Each shop has its name written in balloon-shaped Roman script, and each is a testament to the truly awful taste of petit-bourgeois Thai teenagers. In every stall, you see the same merchandise-- giant Minnie Mouse bows, knock-offs of dresses worn by K-pop stars, gaudy costume jewelry, gathered together in cluttered racks and particle-board discount bins.

What I find repulsive about these isn't the cheap fabric and general ugliness-- I'll leave those critiques to more fashionable people than myself-- but the sort of transcendental image that they're trying to project. A lot of this is an import from Northeast Asia. Within the Japanese sphere of economic influence, Tokyo necessarily expanded its aesthetic values to the then underdeveloped states of Southeast Asia in the years around the Second World War. And this sort of kawaii or proto-kawaii attitude has permeated international pop culture in Thailand since then, from Japanese enka singers back during the '40s and '50s to the modern hallyu-- the Korean wave of pop stars, fashion, and soap opera.

And in that mall basement, it strikes me as especially garish. The women are giggling schoolgirls-- eternal virgins wrapped in ribbon. They pair perfectly with the men-- passive, kittenish, heavily made-up male teen idols with perfectly coiffed hair and plastic surgery to give them occidental features. Combined, it is a pop culture idiom that blends the moronic adolescent consumerism of my own country with the bitterly hierarchical Confucianism practiced on the shores of the East China Sea.

I want to sit down, and wind up at a chain restaurant, with a strawberry smoothie with more refined sugar than strawberries in it.

And I have to realize that despite my own opinions, despite my attempts to learn a language, to be a part of another country, I remain so explicitly an outsider, not only through the color of my skin and hair, but through my own sense of otherness. When I'm in an American shopping mall, I can scoff all I want, but I can comfortably read the semiotics of it. But here, I barely know what I'm looking at. Not only am I alienated from consumer society as a whole, but from the form that consumer society has taken in a culture on the far side of the planet.

I'd like to think that my response is one of good taste versus bad taste... that not only am I responding viscerally, but that I'm pursuing a line of thought in the tradition of Adorno's critique of the culture industry, the Marxist and Gramscian critique of the commodity fetish, and Veblen's studies of the leisure class. These are claims that I can make with far greater confidence back in the States. But especially when I'm less aware of the sign systems being processed, I start to think that my political readings of the aesthetic are simply an intellectual smokescreen. Rather than making a lucid analysis, I'm terrified that I'm simply deeming my own bias and ennui to be an absolute truth.

This is the trap into which I fall. Everything is shaded thusly. Depression becomes reasonable acceptance of life in a late-capitalist society. Happiness becomes collaboration with the invidious forces of primitive accumulation. Loneliness is our natural state in an atomized modernity.

Of course there are countless antidotes to such a way of thinking-- religious people take faith in the idea of otherworldly salvation, capitalist enthusiasts make dubious claims about the equally otherworldly "free market," bohemian types choose to simply to inhabit a bubble, and certain types of postmodernist try to celebrate the hybrid and the liminal-- all of which seem equally lonely and/or defeatist.

I sit in my corner, hide out with my book a little bit. And then when I leave the mall I walk out into the late afternoon in Santiphap Park. Old couples picnic by the little pond, a few workmen tearing down the old love motel on Rangnam take a smoke break on the far soi. And stepping out into fresh air, the signs rearrange themselves into something more cogent. And I am here, in a port city of 15 million people, and like the countless others who pass through here I'm trying to make sense of it, trying to extract some kind of meaning.

A light rain starts to fall, and this is one of those moments, when the whole city opens up like a flower at sunrise, and it, for 30 seconds, is just as lovely.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Ruins of the Contemporary World

At least a couple times a week, I find myself on the highway that extends north from the Din Daeng area of Bangkok towards Don Mueang Airport, through a set of dismal, sprawling nowhere suburbs, past minor government ministries, bottling plants, overgrown cane fields, and gravel lots filled with abandoned buses. And immediately to the west, it is impossibly not to notice the concrete arches and columns that flank the railroad tracks. Most people assume at first that they are a project under construction-- a new highway, or a new metro line.

At first, they seem to be blank, geometric abstractions, their purpose uncertain. But as their function faded over the years, their form took precedence. One has a stencil at its base, another bristles with rusted, cement-daubed rebar. Like the terra cotta soldiers at Xi'an, their seemingly identical profiles reveal their personalities on close inspection, and you see the individual features of each pillar.

This, in the dizzy years of the Thai Economic Miracle in the late '80s and early '90s, was the first stage of the Hopewell Project, a planned high-speed rail and road route to link the Hua Lamphong Railway Station to what was then Bangkok's primary airport. The project was suspended under the Anand Panyarachun government, but was still considered a viable plan until 1997.

But after the 1997 devaluation of the baht and the accompanying collapse of most East and Southeast Asian economies, the remnants became a stark reminder of overexuberance and its consequences, an ugly precipitate of the business cycle.

But they aren't alone. Bangkok is a city of abandoned spires, of half-completed office towers and unfinished condos, its skyline broken by the gray hulks of stillborn development. And there are the projects abandoned in the earliest stages-- fields littered with concrete stakes, drained marshes with lonely cracked, asphalt roads leading into their depths-- that are as oblique and mysterious as pictographs in the desert.

It reminds me, rather, of California City-- the radically failed attempt at grand-scale modernist urban planning in the Mojave Desert. Or, more contemporarily, to the half-built suburbs that blight the edge of countless Sun Belt cities, my own home nation's equivalents of Bangkok's unfinished ruins. What could be lonelier, more fatalistic than those cul-de-sacs-- the heart of America's white-picket-fence collective fantasy-- falling to pieces amid an arid wasteland?

We don't want to see the vision of the contemporary world-- something so embodied by the image of the modern skyline (and, to a lesser extent, the superhighway and the mega-suburb)-- already going decrepit. It remind us too much of the not-too-distant era in the future when everything we inhabit will be relegated to the history books, or simply forgotten.

But it seems to me that these remnants are almost essential to contemporary life. In a neoliberal economic landscape marked by radical concentrations of wealth, abrupt crashes, and the celebration of massive fiscal risk as a healthy manifestation of the investor's animal spirit, they are in one way not images of our world destroyed, but our world distilled.

A final question: how long will the ruins remain where they are? Built with the latest techniques of concrete reinforcement, they aren't easy to demolish, and some of them remain quite structurally sound. Eventually someone will come along and clear them, no doubt. But part of me-- any pragmatic considerations of economics, safety, local wishes, and urban aesthetics aside-- wants the city to keep them as somber reminders. They are a network of monuments, commemorating this era's desire and greed, and ultimately, its fate.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Museum of Inverse Reality

Every day we walk through the same spaces. We move from the bedroom into the living room, in and out of the front door. There is the same train to work, the same train home. Objects are rearranged, they appear and disappear. The impression changes with weather and light, from morning to evening, and subjectively with our moods, but mostly our relationship to the places we inhabit is one of reiteration, one of appearance repeated again and again until we cease to even recognize their forms.

Which is why, as I stared into the glass-top table of a softly lit cafe, I was so stunned to see a world I'd forgotten about.

Like so many children, I'd spent what seemed like hours looking at the world upside down. Lying, feet up, on a worn armchair, I saw an entirely different room than the one I ran and played in.

Looking into the reflection on the tabletop, I was looking into a portal, a portal on another reality, and a portal on a reality I once held dear. Here were hanging lamps standing as straight as crinoids on the sea floor, fluorescent light fixtures like low-slung Japanese tables, the long white rectangular benches formed by ceiling beams, clocks tapering at a downward facing noon.

The world as I knew it was full of scattered things, stacks of books on coffee tables, dusty lines of ash gathered around the hearth. But the inverse possessed clean lines and spare white corners and immaculate 90 degree angles. Every object accreted into a ceiling, something you only noticed if you looked up. And the inverse was not so much a true inversion as an abstraction. Suddenly, everything was stripped of its conventional meaning and reduced to an inscrutable form with the texture and shape of modern sculpture.

It was a sort of space I only associated with the museum, a chilly and sparse emptiness filled with holy relics. And so when I went into the inverse, I was entering into a very personal museum, the air conditioning turned on too high, filled with the faint, smoky smell of a disused fireplace in summer.

As I grew older-- too tall and ungainly to curl up on a beat up antique chair, too busy to spend my time in a fantasy-- I stopped staring into the inverse. But occasionally I would get a glimpse.

There was Joseph Beuys, with his crude assemblages of felt and rough-hewn pine standing isolated in a white gallery. And that, of course, was my parents' threadbare rug and the stacks of firewood in a tarnished brass carrier.

There was René Magritte, an impeccable composer of steam trains in bourgeois parlors, sunny days by the Côte d'Azur during which pieces of balsa are conjured up in thin air, lonely poplar trees that seem to grow on other planets, their leaves lit by strange moons.

And there was Giorgio De Chirico, with his empty piazzas and cylindrical towers, casting long shadows on an eternal late afternoon in a nameless Italian town.

What binds them all is a sense of the metaphysical. Narrative is absent. In its place is an infinite spiderweb of signifiers and signified, automatic response, hidden meanings, miscommunication, unsolvable mystery, structures as peculiar as the constellations, painted faces as enigmatic as playing card royalty.

Of course our aesthetic sense changes over the course of a lifetime. But there are certain things we can trace to specific initial events. I walk through the halls of museums in London, Saint Louis, Kuala Lumpur, down white passageways, past massive plate glass windows and Barcelona chairs. I stop before paintings and video loops, and I can look at them, appreciate the technical effort of their composition, fix their place in the continuum of art history. But then I stumble upon something. And suddenly, I'm transported to the imaginary museum, and I'm face to face with inverse reality. Once, I used to hide there.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Christmas in the Province of the Million Rice Fields

Chiang Mai is a city within an image. To the outside world, it is a city of mists and golden stupas, nested in the lofty Thongchai Mountains, and encircled by its ancient brick walls and jade-green moat. This romantic vision is propagated within Thailand by countless romance movies and airline promotional packages; internationally, it's propagated by the Lonely Planet guidebook, that comically misinformed and sloppily written vade mecum of the Khaosan set.

I'd visited Chiang Mai a couple of years previous, and remembered it as a sort of Asian parallel to Santa Fe: the same old hippies parked at vegetarian restaurants, the same young hippies riding bikes shirtless, the same cozy used bookstores and mountain views, the same hemp bags and long cotton scarves, the same elderly tribeswomen peddling silver trinkets, and the same galleries selling cloying tourist art.

But as I stepped out into the slightly chill evening air on Christmas Eve, I found the town far more tawdry and knockabout than I'd remembered. The crumbling laterite chedis and teakwood verandahs were overwhelmed by all manner of architectural detritus: boxy insensitivities, commercialized fake deconstructivism, extruded-aluminum imitations of traditional Northern-Thai rooflines. Following an alley just outside the moat, I walked down streets I vaguely recalled from a whiskey-laden Songkran festival. Most of the bars and restaurants I had eaten and drank at were empty, save for the occasional grotesquely fat white man, perhaps accompanied by a troglodytic Thai wife.

Lost in the back alleys, the same storefronts kept recurring: the empty restaurants with solitary, obese Western customers, all of them with high ceilings and lone fluorescent lights, their only decoration a calendar with a picture of the monarch; food stalls with piles of limp cabbages and velvety curtains of tripe hanging inside a refrigerator case, pools of stagnant, stinking water accumulating on the pavement; dimly lit brothels, their windows blacked out, illuminated by rainbow-colored Christmas lights; dark, jungly parkways with uneven sidewalks; bearded European backpackers smoking hand-rolled cigarettes in front of their hostels.

Every street seemed a dejection. Row after row of guesthouses all promoted the same activities. The adrenaline-laced extreme sports they offered seemed to differ from ordinary sports only in their requirement of hundreds of dollars of technology. And the "hill tribe trekking" that is ubiquitously promoted revealed itself to be nothing more than a bunch of privileged, predominantly white youth regarding the indigenous people as safari-park creatures in their native habitat.

The grotesquerie of posters advertising the human zoo was doubled by the sight of impoverished Hmong and Karen, either displaying their wares on blankets or simply panhandling. The Thai bourgeoisie romanticizes their own tribal populace with the same vigor that the American bourgeoisie romanticize theirs, fetishizing their, oh, simplicity and building the occasional school while at the same time turning a cheery blind eye to the crass exploitation of their home regions by corporate entities (Western, other Asian, and local alike), the militant spread of evangelical Christianity through coercive tactics, and the routine export of local women to the fleshpots of Bangkok.

Despondent, I looked for someplace to sit down and maybe get some reading or writing done, have an antisocial drink, watch some band of local hacks play Creedence Clearwater covers, whatever.

Which is how I wound up at a French cafe-bar on a terrace adjacent to the city's night bazaar. The annoyances-- women trying to sell wooden frogs, that asshole Michael Bublé on the TV-- made themselves known, but for the most part, I could just concentrate on the beer in front of me, the marble-top table, the lights strung up in the palms.

And then from behind a fountain, a Thai marching band strikes up into a Christmas carol. All those songs that in America I find to be obnoxious and overdone are suddenly rather sweet when they're played by middle-aged Buddhists below the Tropic of Cancer.

These are the unexpected delights of going someplace else. Of course we expect to see things we haven't seen before, meet new people, eat new foods, walk down unfamiliar streets. But hidden within the unknown is that which is known, suddenly re-imagined. And, what is better, something you found so tired and dull and insipid suddenly given new life. You find traces of another time, another place enveloped in entirely different circumstances, and suddenly everything is brought into slightly sharper relief.