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What I Learned By Living in Bangkok

As some of you may know, I lived in Asia for a while right after getting my Bachelor’s in psychology. I spent two hellish months in Seoul, then a year and a half languishing in South East Asia’s seediest capital. Much of what I learned informs my current cynicism. (Please note: I am not intending to crucify other cultures. What I will discuss is endemic to life in the US as well. However, these are the moments that crystallized my awareness.) Ready to ride aboard the Sunshine Train? Grab your ticket and hop on.

  • Reason is not native to the human species. Fuck Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics: the simple fact is that we, Homo Sapien, do not inherently use reason or logic to inform our opinions. Because Western civilization is a descendant of the Hellenic intellectual tradition, we deify reason and rationality. E.g. Don’t let your emotions get in the way; “just the facts, ma’am.” We’ve our fair share of caveats, too, about trusting your gut or following your heart. But when it comes to big decisions (again, exceptions abound, as Republican Boehner is excited to point out), we understand that there’s value in taking an emotional step back. How I learned this: by walking. Reason would indicate to me that if I’m going to point to something, I should not stretch my arm across someone who walks in the opposite direction and inadvertently hit that poor, unsuspecting individual in the nuts with the purse on my arm. That I should not walk quickly and come to an abrupt stop while in a crowded stream of people. That I should not throw my hands up while talking and hit that same unsuspecting individual from earlier who’s passing from behind me in the nose.
  • People only care about themselves. We’d like to think that we’re looking out for the greater good, even if the people on the other side of the aisle don’t see our grand motives. Or that the powers of democracy will ensure that, well, at least slightly more than half of us will make it out of here alive. But we’d be wrong. How I learned this: Thai politics. Rural Thais voted for a notoriously corrupt prime minister because he paid to have cable TV pipelined into the Thai countryside. He personally rented the cable boxes for all of them. If he were to be voted out of power, those voters would lose their cable or be forced to pay for it themselves.
  • If you say it enough, somebody will believe you. It’s like half of the old adage, “You can convince some of the people all of the time.” All you have to do is say it loudly and consistently enough and people will believe it. Especially if there’s no good alternative to which they are exposed. How I learned this: Thai commercial censorship. When networks broadcast commercials that were purchased via an American ad buy, those products end up on the video feed in Asia (like a commercial for Chevy trucks on NBC). The Thai censors, for some reason or another, don’t like this so they block the commercials with a “SUN OUTAGE” message. It goes along the lines of, “The sun is currently disrupting the transmission of this broadcast. Please stay tuned.” And wouldn’t you know, those outages always end as soon as the next act begins.
  • Sex tourism is gross. Yes, yes, for obvious reasons, but more. It completely disrupts your self-perception. How I learned this: by being asked, “How many me?” in a club. In Thai, there’s no distinction between “how many” and “how much.” So the question being asked by the cute girl, who told me she sold t-shirts in one of the touristy areas and with whom I was dancing and had bought a couple drinks, was, “[How much] (for) me?” I realized that to her I wasn’t necessarily a cute guy with whom she was having a good time. I was simply a potential client she was working over. Bonus points: After having lived there for a year, I began to notice that not only was Bangkok a popular haven for Western sex tourists, but also for Japanese ones. When I met Japanese business people, I was forced to ask in my head what most people were probably asking of me: “Are you here for what I think you’re here for?”
  • We fetishize the exotic. It’s a lot like Economics 101: if the availability of hamburgers goes down, the price we’re willing to pay goes up. So too is it with our culture’s sexual triggers. Is it evolutionary, and do we understand on some cellular level that the offspring of genetically diverse parents are less likely to encounter double-recessive chromosomal disorders? Or is it just that, “Well, I can get A all the time, but what I haven’t tried yet is B.” How I learned it: By having my hirsute nature loved. The first time I had my hair cut, I had to undo a couple buttons on my collared shirt. The stylist saw my hairy chest and ran her nails through it. “I love hairy men.” Most of the women I dated there shared that sentiment. I accept that the evidence I use in this bullet point might be undermined by the previous bullet point, so I present to you a non-sexy example: my Taiwanese girlfriend had a nephew who was three or four. Once, when I was sitting at a table, he came up to me and started petting my arm hair. He, still petting, looked up at me with the biggest and most adorable smile I had ever seen.
  • Compassion can make things worse. I am not saying that compassion in and of itself is bad. But it can inadvertently make a situation worse, despite one’s best intentions. How I learned it: by being begged. Most of the beggars in touristy areas of Bangkok are plants by organized crime syndicates. They literally truck in different people at different times of day and work them in shifts. What makes it worse is that they “employ” children in their ranks. The more money people are willing to give children, the more get shipped in from the country side to make money.
  • I’m an asshole. I used to be a cultural relativist. Like many, I thought that every single facet of a culture was unique and worth preserving. That something could be beyond criticism by sheer virtue of the fact that it belonged to a group. I don’t believe that way any more. How I learned it: by saving face. The Thais practice a system of criticism different than ours. For Thais, it’s acceptable to critique someone’s appearance, but to disparage someone’s work ethic is a social no-no. So when someone in your office doesn’t complete something on time, or loses your paperwork, or forgets to renew your visa, there’s nothing you can say about it. You just cross your fingers and pray someone’s paying attention. I’m an asshole because I believe this is an outdated form of social interaction which has caused more damage to the Thai people and their economy than it’s worth. Bad, bad social more.

We’re not without our own faults, my fellow Americans – just you wait till I write a scathing, mind-blowing expose on LA. But until that happens, you’ll have to rest content with the knowledge that the Danes know how to live.

They Used to Let Kids Play in Caves

Profound silence; silence so deep that even their breathings were conspicuous in the hush. Tom shouted. The call went echoing down the empty aisles and died out in the distance in a faint sound that resembled a ripple of mocking laughter.

“Oh, don’t do it again, Tom, it is too horrid,” said Becky.

“It is horrid, but I better, Becky; they might hear us, you know,” and he shouted again.

The “might” was even a chillier horror than the ghostly laughter, it so confessed a perishing hope. The children stood still and listened; but there was no result. Tom turned upon the back track at once, and hurried his steps. It was but a little while before a certain indecision in his manner revealed another fearful fact to Becky— he could not find his way back!

– Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

A comment by SusanBAwesome on an open thread, about visiting Carlsbad Caverns, reminded me of one of my best memories of childhood. See, as a kid my local Boy Scout troop would make an annual “caving” trip. I always looked forward to this trip. It was the highlight of the year.

We didn’t go to a place like Luray Caverns. Where we went, there were no handrails, or electric lights and there sure as shit was no gift shop. There was a hole….  in the side of a hill…. somewhere in central Pennsylvania. It was far from anything else. I remember we camped the night before in a field next to a cow pasture.

To access the cave, we parked our cars on the side of the road and climbed up the side of the hill. My high-tech spelunking equipment consisted of:

  • 1 Philadelphia Phillies souvenir plastic batting helmet
  • 1 K-Mart brand flashlight that my dad wired to a 6-volt lantern battery. (Do they even make those any more? Probably not.)
  • Duct tape. For attaching the flashlight to the helmet, natch.
  • Extra candles. Just in case.
  • Matches. Just in case.
  • 1 waterproof match case
  • 1 souvenir Philly Phanatic fanny pack, to carry my battery, candles and matches

When I think back, this sounds ridiculously crazy but at the time it made total sense. The souvenir helmet would protect my head, the big battery would last longer than D-cells. I was set!

So we got to the cave, and we went in. Now, when people think of caves, they think of giant caverns and passageways you can easily walk through. That is horseshit! Most real caves are nothing like that. These caves were tighter than a nun’s birth canal. Even us 12-year-old boys had to suck in our stomachs to fit through some of the spaces. Oh, and there was standing water everywhere. I’ll never forget the time we were crawling through a section on all fours and I looked up and there was a baby bat just hangin’ out six inches from my head. He was surprisingly cool with having a bunch of hellions tearing up his cave.

And tear it up we did. I don’t think you can really cause that much ecological damage to a cave just by crawling through it, but we were allowed to run wild. I still remember walking into a room and seeing one of the kids squatting in the corner. Apparently last night’s dinner wouldn’t wait. (When word got back to the dads about the cave-pooping…. there was hell to pay.)

But for the most part, the dads let us just wander off to explore the passageways. At least it seemed like it at the time. Maybe they were keeping an eye on us… but I doubt it.

Now that I think back to those cave trips, I wonder if they’d still let kids do that today. Would parents let their children wander through caves without adults holding their hands? And this was the early 90s. That’s not even a long time ago! Are we really changing that fast?

As an adult I think back to how my great-grandfather had worked around the mines all his life. He was an Italian immigrant who became a blacksmith for a mining company in West Virginia. His trade spared him from a life spent underground, but the world of mining was all around him (actually, he apparently was an organizer for the UMW). Kids not much older than us little Boy Scouts were actually working the mines back in the bad old days.

And now that I’m older, I think I am at least a slightly better person for having gotten a little taste of what it’s like to spend time under the Earth. I’m glad I never had to work in a mine, but I’m also glad that my parents and the other adults around us as kids didn’t take away our ability to explore the world in the name of keeping us always safe.