So, I’ve been spending a few quiet days in Bangkok taking care of little stuff before heading out on the Grand Tour…two weeks Cambodia, two weeks Vietnam, two weeks Laos, two weeks on the Burmese border working with at-risk hilltribe daughters, then to Chiang Mai and back down to Bangkok, thence to India. At least, that’s the plan…
I’ve been reading a book written by a Cambodian survivor of the Khmer Rouge, a woman my age named Loung Ung. It’s titled _First They Killed My Father_, ISBN 0-0609-3138-8, and is about her family’s attempts to survive through the five years of the Khmer Rouge. (She’s now in America, working for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World.)
What’s striking to me about the book is the ordinariness of it: starving is matter-of-fact, a piece of daily life. There’s one passage where she talks about how rations gradually decrease, until the rice gruel becomes rice soup. She is seven or eight, and she eats the broth a little at a time throughout the day, starting with the watery stuff at the top, hoarding the grains of rice at the bottom to eat last, knowing there will be no more food the rest of the day. She helps her mother in the shrimp farm; one day her mother calls her over and quickly, surreptitiously, hands her a small handful of mud, weeds, and live baby shrimp. She crams the handful–mud, raw wriggling shrimp, and all–into her mouth quickly, before anyone notices, then stands watch as her mother does the same. This isn’t abnormal; this is how life is. She remembers when it was different, and she hates the Khmer Rouge, but today, it’s how life is.
It reminds me of some of my talks with survivors of domestic violence. I used to wonder how people survived ten or twenty years (or even a few weeks) of abuse–but the answer is, it’s not ten years; it’s a week, a day, an hour. It’s ordinary. At any given time, you do what you can to make your life better, given the choices you have. Sometimes the choices are awful–many battered women, for example, know they’ll be beaten sometime over the weekend. So they deliberately provoke violence on Friday night–because that gives them the entire weekend for the bruises to heal, so they have a better chance of hiding them come Monday. Others return to their abusers because between losing their children (they can’t support them on a single wage) and being battered, being battered is better. Logical choices; crazy situation.
So anyway, what strikes me about this book is that it’s the same thing: it’s how even atrocity becomes ordinary. The Khmer Rouge soldiers come, take away fathers and entire families, and kill them. Those left behind don’t talk about it, and don’t show their grief, or they’ll be taken too. It’s ordinary. It’s survival. It’s perfectly normal people, trying to survive in a perfectly insane world.
This is also part of the whole third world travel theme–not in as terrible a way, of course, but the poverty here hasn’t bothered me as much as I thought it would. I think it’s because it’s not poverty, exactly–it’s “normal”. So there are street beggars, people with all their ribs showing lying in the dirty aisles of the marketplace, or with their skin rotting away from leprosy (I passed one last night in Patpong), or more prosaically women begging with their babies at the train stops. But, to the passersby, it’s normal, no more horrifying than (say) a homeless guy in Palo Alto. People in rural areas often live in corrugated tin shacks, but it’s not horrifying poverty–it’s simply how life is. It’s a different way of living. (Makes you think seriously about just exactly what “normal” and “good” are–does luxury really make that much difference, or is it just a slightly more comfortable way of re-ordering the social hierarchy? Relationships between rich and poor seem much the same throughout the world, regardless of whether “rich” means $200K/year and a Mercedes, or a tile roof rather than corrugated tin.)
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To make up for the depressing reading, I’ve spent the last two days bar-hopping. (Hey, last chance before going to Cambodia…!) Two nights ago I went to see Calypso, the famous transvestite cabaret. Forget classical dance–you have not lived until you’ve seen Thai transvestite Marilyn Monroes (three of them!) dancing onstage with Michael Jacksons (also in triplicate) and a triple Tina Turner–all Thai transvestite professional dancers. It will seriously blow your mind.
They did a 1.5-hour number covering virtually every tourist culture–one Chinese piece, one Japanese, one Korean, a couple of American (Britney Spears, believe it or not 😉 ), and even a French version of “Vive L’amour” at the end. The “girls” are serious about being girls–most of them have had breast implants, and except for the overly slim hips, you’d never know they were male. They’re also pretty darn good professional dancers. I had some photos taken with them–will post once I get a chance.
Anyway, Calypso was two nights ago. I spent last night in the Barbican, an expat bar in Patpong (one of the two major red-light districts in Bangkok). The Barbican is located on Soi Taniya, which is largely Japanese sex clubs–a crowded alley of neon signs, with pretty Asian women lounging around in evening gowns and skimpy lingerie, beckoning to passersby, and a well-dressed man standing beside every door, holding a battered piece of posterboard with forty or fifty female photos on it. Luxury cars with darkened windows pull up and disgorge fat, happy Japanese businessmen, who vanish into the clubs; if you aren’t Japanese, or escorted by one, you won’t be allowed in. The Barbican is one of the few non-Japanese places on the street, and is very popular with Western professional expats.
Think about that for a moment. When was the last time you saw a popular professional bar in the red-light district of any city in the U.S.? But in Thailand prostitution isn’t like that…in fact “prostitution” isn’t the right translation at all, since in English it carries connotations of criminal sleaziness that aren’t quite right for Thailand. It’s not that prostitution is respectable–it decidedly isn’t–but it’s not treated as criminal/dangerous either, as it is in the U.S. (I think this is because the idea of sin and retribution aren’t linked in Buddhist philosophy, as it is in Christian theology; sin and crime are considered a karmic matter, i.e. carrying its own punishment, not something that needs to be judged/punished from outside.)
At any rate, Patpong, girlie bars and all, is one of the major tourist areas of Bangkok, with little old European ladies and tourist couples shopping in the night market, five and six year olds along, right next to the girlie and expat bars, street beggars, etc.. Designer ripoffs, beautiful women, begging lepers, neon signs, street vendors, trendy bars, dance clubs, and sleazy brothels all crammed into narrow sois (alleys). While I’m not sure I’d support the girlie bars (the sex trade is worth an entire essay in itself), it is certainly a unique experience, unlike anything else you’ll find in Bangkok–definitely worth a stop.
At any rate, Kaew (a Thai friend, female, I met early in my sojourn in Thailand) and I went off to the Barbican together, to hang out and maybe meet up with Ben and some other folks.
I met some very interesting expats in the Barbican–which is a little too loud for good conversation, but passable with efort. Probably of no interest to any of you, but some very interesting conversation re national identity, being a foreigner in Thailand, Thai business culture, etc.–may write a bit about it later, if I have time. it is certainly making me rethink my perspective on integration; looking at the Westerner enclaves, I think I have a better understanding of why some Chinese immigrants choose to live in Chinatown and not integrate into American society (something I had never really understood, as my parents chose to integrate).
At any rate, in Thailand, if you’re Caucasian, you are farang (foreign) whether or not you were born there–much, much more so than Asians are considered alien in the U.S.. So cultural identity for Western expats is a complex thing; they may consider Thailand home, but they’re expats, not immigrants, and retain their Western identification. This is encouraged/enforced by Thai, who welcome them as residents/guests–but never Thai, not part of Thailand even if they’ve lived there for decades. My “feel” is that European cultures are like that too, though to a lesser degree; the U.S. is unusual in emphasizing ideology/culture so heavily over race and national origin. (One of the cultural things I have noticed here–in the U.S. kinship is ideological, which is to say that if you share the same values, you are family; in Asia, kinship is by blood–one doesn’t worry about ideology, it’s all about relationships.) I do feel somewhat alienated as an Asian in America, but not nearly as alienated as Caucasians in Thailand must feel.
After Barbican’s (where I left Kaew trying to pick up a cute Swedish expat–have to call her to see if she succeeded 😉 ), I stopped briefly through a girlie bar called “King’s Castle III”. This had been recommended as being populated primarily by transsexual women. (Apparently most of the tourist customers don’t know this–my contact thought that particularly amusing, so do I.) I think she must have been referring to the show dancers, not the regular workers–either that, or they’re better than I thought, since I couldn’t tell the difference. Anyway, it was a pretty standard girlie bar, which is to say both boring and depressing–a bunch of bored-looking women standing on a stage in black bikinis, waiting for men to pick them out, with loud blaring music and a lot of equally-bored-looking men sitting around the edges of the room. (Why do people go to these places, anyway?) I sat down and was immediately accosted by two or three women wanting me to buy them drinks.
The one who finally sat down by me (I did buy her a drink, mostly to fend off the others) chattered incessantly–unfortunately, between the loud music and the heavy accent, I couldn’t make out more than one word in five. I rather wish I could have had a longer conversation with her, as she was quite friendly and spoke pretty good English (from the words I could make out), but I wouldn’t have been able to understand her unless we went someplace quieter. This, however, would have required “renting” her for the evening–which would have led to a whole other set of probable misunderstandings (and politics) which I didn’t want to touch.
I do remember that she was happy because (for some reason i couldn’t make out) she was finally able to quit after three years–she was only planning to work for two more weeks–and was apparently engaged, though they hadn’t set a wedding date yet. (This is part of what I meant in Thailand, about prostitution not being respectable but not criminally unrespectable either–it’s perfectly possible for women to “work” and still have families afterwards, although generally CSWs aren’t married while “working”. The exception is bar boys, some of whom are supporting wives/children.) I may swing back through Patpong on my way back through Bangkok, in search of a quieter place where I can actually talk to someone.
off to run errands–tomorrow I leave for Cambodia.