Friday, September 05, 2008

The Disquiet of Thailand

The word I've been using to describe it is creepy.

I've been thinking a lot about Thailand while here in Indonesia. Specifically, I've been considering, as best I can, my discomfort with the place. Not reconsidering, mind you--I am not uncomfortable with my discomfort. Indeed, I think it's entirely valid; it's my response to that discomfort that I am, in two words, unsure of.

Let me explain: my cousin Justin and I were in a Kaow Soi place, as I recall, and I was telling Justin about my visit to the Dakshinkali temple in Nepal, in the Kathmandu Valley the most important site of worship of the Hindu goddess Kali and the site of numerous, open animal sacrifices.

"I don't believe in hiding from things that you find uncomfortable," I told Justin, justifying watching the butcher's back-and-forth sawing of a black goat's neck while its owner held its hind legs, justifying hearing and seeing the methodical, mechanical chop-chop-chop of chickens decapitated and their blood drained into the holy gutter.

Near as I can tell, Justin is happy in Thailand; but it's not my place, and I've struggled to explain why in ways that are socially suitable. There are particulars-to-me, like the extreme care I have to take in eating in Thailand, being allergic to shellfish; and the shock of the "cheap" country being significantly pricier than Nepal, to the extent that I could more easily survive cheaply in San Francisco, home and full of my social resources, than in Bangkok.

And more general complaints: That Bangkok's Khao San Road is full of American sorority-types and Euros looking for exactly the ooomph-ooomph-ooomph club scene they left at home; that everywhere you go someone will lie and say the monument is closed, that it's a special Buddhist holiday, that the Queen died so it's really best to just get this tuk-tuk that's just pulled up. 10 baht—10 baht—10 baht!

All these things are part and parcel of a place. Moreover, they are part and parcel of being a member of the Privileged World, those of us who can work a garbage temp job and save enough to jet off to places where an employer can give lots of festival days off and provide a cool, relaxed place to make little bags for fancy Italian jewelry and pay 1200 Rupees—$18 U.S.—per month, and the employees will be grateful and feel lucky. While I am not perfectly content with my place—and my obligations, which I am likely skirting—in this World, I have learned to operate in it, have learned that I am often simultaneously a wealthy foreigner and a symbol of this exotic, easy life that is only otherwise accessible through movies and television. I am, in those moments, proof that that other life exists; proof of a people who don't know how good we have it.

None of this—not Dakshinkali, not Khao San Road, not my own privilege—is particularly creepy. Discomforting is better; or perhaps disquieting. That border between disquiet and creepiness is interesting, I think; and most relevant to myself, most relevant to my relation to Thailand.

The greater umbra of sex-for-sale pervades Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Not only the casual and easy that Thailand is infamous for--which is abundant: in Bangkok between Hua Lamphong Station and Chinatown I had my arm pulled, and hard, by a woman trying to bring me into a storefront with only a bed, while making lollypop pantomimes; and I hadn't noticed her, chubby-cheeked, before she grabbed me--nor the anything-goes reputations of Pattaya and Khoi Samui, and the sex shows that are equally notorious; but also the soft prostitution of sex-for-presents that happens everywhere.

The aura in Bangkok and Chiang Mai is discomforting; to walk down the street is to be catcalled, to be offered a certain price for a certain act, to be groped1. It is impossible, often, to walk with your head up without being harassed, without looking like you are looking for something. The calls are constant, even from across the street, even from across the old moat that protect the historical center of Chiang Mai, in the cool and pleasant Thai nights most of all.

Normalcy is older men from the White World—Europe, North America—holding hands with young Thai girls.

My response to all this, I found, was to disengage, was not to look at all at the bars where posed girls sit outside with numbers on them, to walk in the middle of the streets far from the bar girls, to not acknowledge the mamasans and ladyboys whatsoever. It was not to pretend not to know, but to pretend not to see; to be deaf and blind, that is, but not dumb.

And yet. "I don't believe in hiding from things that make you uncomfortable," I had said, and meant it. But a stooped gait and ears that won't hear are indeed ways of hiding in public, are ways of shrinking into the lowest, least desirable, smallest body that physics can allow. Is there a substantive difference between refusing to engage and refusing to see for yourself something that you know exists?

Justin's Thai friend Pon, after I left, apparently said, "Where's your friend? I wanted take care of his bamboo!"

Even if not for money, or not for explicit money, the exchange would have been for status, which is just as bad.


1 I have—in regards to this general subject—a particularly blasé friend who likes to say, half-jokingly, "Now you know what it's like to be a woman sometimes." I might submit in response to her that commonness does not imply propriety, does not imply the rectitude of an act.


Delia said...

This was really interesting to read, if only because that phenomenon is one of the few sources of my discomfort in foreign cultures that I've been willing to confront (and I am very quick to turn my eyes and ears away from animal slaughter). But then, I'm only really confronting the behavior of the Westerners involved in the sex trade, with whom it is easier for me to talk/identify, than that of the Thais -- and of course, I'm not a direct target of any of this behavior, so I suppose it's easier for me.

I'm not sure I can see the sensation as comparable to 'what it feels like to be a woman' at all though.

Hope you're doing well.

Mario Bruzzone said...

Part of the discomfort of the situation is also that sex is one of the few things in our own society that defies an easy analogue for capitalism—even buying drinks is more about demonstrating kindness and charity than it is buying favors. It's not that way in Thailand: it's typically the explicit job of the bar girls to have Farang men buy them drinks. That point—about capitalism—didn't make it into the essay because it felt too delicate a point to make from a stuffy, cubicled internet cafe in Jogja, but that was perhaps a misjudgement.

It was this sense, this feeling of being a commodity, that (I believe) my friend directed her somewhat-facetious comment at. The more mundane experiences I mentioned—being hollered at, being grabbed and so on—are part of that commodification of a person, and while I perhaps hope in that dim room that they could serve as metonyms for that process of commodification, sometimes what I think I've said and what someone else understands are very, very different. Good to consider, for sure.

Mario Bruzzone said...

Oh, and sorry to take so long to get back to you; I'm only sporadically actually on the internet here in Indonesia, despite the auto-posted daily pictures and the like...but thanks for reading!