Letter from America

by Kenneth Champeon, May 12, 2005 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

Sawatdee Khun Daeng!

Well, I have been back in the Benighted States for a few months. There is much to tell, though much cannot be told because Thailand and America are in some ways incommensurable; you have to live in both to really understand how different they are. An American friend of mine who has spent several years in Thailand recently returned to the states; he was greatly relieved to meet with one of our mutual friends from over there because "he gets it". Most Americans don't. Indeed most Americans would probably confuse Thailand and Taiwan. They may ask what language Thais speak, and when you say that it's Thai we all have a big laugh over the annoying complexity of a multilingual world.

As a result of my conviction that the automobile has ruined America and that the oil will soon vanish, I have been without a car or a driver's license, which is to say that I have been a freak. In Thailand, of course, we all rode motorcycles or mopeds; or took tuk-tuks or tsong-taews or taxis; and we also did a fair amount of walking because most Thai cities worth mentioning were built for foot, elephant and boat traffic. But walking in America can be terrifying and exhausting; everything is so distant and the cars drive at threatening speeds. If the oil were to suddenly to vanish for some reason, America would be wholly dysfunctional and sad, which is why....

Forget geopolitics for now. How are you? Last I saw you, you were lamenting how yahk mahk it is for even the brightest and most ambitious Thais to get to America. Supposing they would want to, and I suspect that many would not. Thailand is a relatively homogenous country ethnically speaking, more like a family. But America feels like a big laboratory devoted to determining whether the people of the whole world can get along. And because they generally do, America can be an intoxicatingly optimistic place. A can-do place. Thailand in contrast can sometimes seem stagnant - pleasantly so, for the most part, but to an American the Thai sense of resignation, of can't-do and never mind, can be oppressive.

But if in America the streets are paved with gold, there are also an alarming number of people roaming those streets in search of spare change, cigarettes, gum, the current time (watches are expensive, apparently), the use of my cell phone, jobs, homes, love. If you fall through the cracks here, you're basically fucked. But in Thailand one gets the sense that if your family somehow fails you, the monasteries won't. And they will teach you that staying alive requires very little after all.

Which brings me to the next difference and it's a big one. I'm not sure how to put this without causing offense. In fact I can't. So here goes: America has laws about everything and they are rigorously enforced. To an American this statement is so obvious that Americans think the whole world works this way. It doesn't. In Thailand the law, in one's rare encounters with it, can be circumvented if one has enough money to bribe the police, or enough chutzpah or connections to challenge their authority. And in any case the police are so busy with the big fish - traffickers in drugs or humans, say - that more minor offenses are often overlooked. Here I have to be fingerprinted to teach, and I must produce identification to drink Coke. Coke in a bar, yes. But constantly having to affirm that you are indeed old enough to partake of the few risks life affords does take some getting used to when you have been living in a country where teenagers regularly ride motorbikes and openly sell their bodies. Indeed part of your difficulty in getting to this country is that you are probably perplexed by all the paperwork required. It's not like Thailand, where if you are a Westerner you can kind of just show up, and live more or less normally while only rarely coming under official scrutiny.

Thailand is built for tourism, on which the country's very economy depends, so it's very easy to have no permanent residence there. You can rent an apartment, no questions asked, if you've got the cash, and not much is needed. The last place I rented cost about $75 per month. In America the opposite is true. Moving around is incredibly inconvenient, rents are perhaps 5 to 6 times what they are in Thailand, and every state has its own laws. So, for example, if you are a teacher certified in Oregon you may not be certified anywhere else, and the whole system tends to assume that you stay in one state and indeed in America. A rental agreement showing past rental history may not have a space for "COUNTRY" or room for an international phone number; and a passport may irritate a cigarette vendor seeking ID. It's not exactly xenophobia; it's just that Americans travel abroad so rarely that sometimes you can't resist the feeling that once you're here you're kind of stuck, an indispensable automobile your undesirable anchor.

The sheer expense of things here is a great limitation upon one's freedom. The cost of health care is a national scandal, and I don't think Americans are as ashamed or outraged as they should be that their countrymen are flying to Thailand for world-class medical or dental treatment because it is cheaper, plane ticket and all. Forced to reflect upon why I would live in Thailand for four consecutive years, I eventually realized that I had outsourced myself. It was a rational course of action, but it accustomed me to a lifestyle, one essentially of economic omnipotence, that has been extremely hard to relinquish.

But there is some truth to the saying that you get what you pay for. Some truth. A restaurant in America charges $1 for a Coke that costs $.30 in Thailand, and that extra $.70 presumably goes toward the waitress's firmly established minimum wage or the various fees and taxes associated with regulations involving building codes, food safety, etc. Such things are rare in Thailand, where a restaurant may be a hole-in-the-wall manned by unpaid children. But a great deal of the expense of America may be attributed to liability issues, which in turn says something about the degree to which Americans fear each other. This is a nation of salesmen; it's not that we're out to screw each other per se but perhaps there is something to Thomas Pynchon's assertion that ultimately one is either a screwer or a screwee. America is not an ideal meritocracy, but it is certainly more so than Thailand, where so much talent is squandered because conformity is valued more than excellence.

Life is fun in Thailand, I suppose; things happen there; one has adventures; it is a very difficult place to leave, and even if you leave physically a piece of your heart remains. But it does harm you in ways that you don't necessarily realize until you have left. From the perspective of the US, the noise and pollution and congestion of Bangkok are beyond belief. And my decision to settle (or tarry) in Portland, Oregon was partly motivated by the sense that several years of tropical sun were quite enough and that I could do with some gray skies. I was also tired of Thai food. Much as I adore it, there were times when I would have given anything for a Mexican-made burrito or a slice of New York-style pizza.

I do, however, miss speaking Thai. Just the other night I was walking by a Thai restaurant and was tempted to launch myself inside and blab my mouth off. But I could imagine the employees thinking, "Oh, no, not another crazy Westerner" and being politely dismissive. So I just thought in Thai for a while instead. I did go to a Thai restaurant. But the waiter, who didn't look particularly Thai anyway, insisted on speaking clipped English as we had the very tiresome discussion about the spiciness of the food. "Gin phet dai, you nitwit," I thought miserably, trying to think of a Thai equivalent for "nitwit". Kon ngo? Please advise.

On a related note, I am still adjusting to the brusque, disarmingly open American manner. I remembered how to strut as I walked down the sidewalk; to stop nodding my head as a way of saying thank you; to engage in all the hey-man-what's-shakin' banter, back-slapping and hand-squeezing that are our version of the softer and more ceremonious greetings of the East. Sometimes I feel like an impostor, a cultural chameleon. Five-plus years in Asia have made me more diplomatic and sophisticated but also perhaps more vague and inauthentic. Before I left Thailand a Thai who knows me well informed me that I had become Thai to the extent that I dealt with emotional turmoil by bottling it up. But I'm glad there is enough American left in me to remember healthier if perhaps more egotistical and exhibitionistic coping mechanisms, this letter for instance.

As for "not getting it", in the sense in which my friend used the words. It's a complicated matter, but let me try. Even in the aftermath of 9/11, I don't think Americans realize how fragile their paradise is, or even that it is (at least in some ways) paradise. Their houses are palaces, their incomes princely, their sheer caloric intake gargantuan. Nevertheless I think the majority of the world's people do not envy Americans as much as Americans think they do. A lot of Asians I know simply regard the US as an excellent place to make money or study but not a particularly attractive place to live. Some become converted; others don't. And as happy as I am here right now I expect that I will become, like Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, bored with the Happy Valley. I will once more hanker after the world where land is scarce, food a question mark, religion more than just a hobby or an empty presidential prerequisite. The real world, if I may. Back to a place where people sing spontaneously, where community is not something you "promote", where culture is not an array of commodities (yet) but a living, breathing but old, old thing.

I think about my friends in Thailand all the time. But just as America seemed far away to the point of being nonexistent when I was in Thailand, now the reverse obtains. When you live in Bangkok, it's easy to feel that the rest of Thailand is irrelevant; when you are in America it is Thailand, and countries of its stature, that seem irrelevant. Sad but true. Americans are in some measure ignorant because they can afford to be - for now, for as long as they can coerce or bribe the less fortunate multitudes to leave them be.

Anyway, I guess that's enough pontificating for one day. I'll probably think of things I should have mentioned. The streets are not crawling with stray dogs. The Buddhists are often hippies and not Asians. And I have witnessed countless instances of nasty, aggressive behavior here, usually by people who think that being rich permits you to be a cretin. But best perhaps to just keep smiling. Be thankful that I have a roof over my head and food in my pantry, and hope that one day I can ride a motorcycle again, poot some Thai with my peu-ans, and eat noodles on the street at 3 in the morning.

Ruk la kit teung,
Khun Kenneth

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