Second Night Out in Thailand

I hit the other side of the bar scene today: Bangkok Bar.  A real college style pub with loud music and dancing.  A couple of points stick out:

  • The Thailand standard seems to be to order a bottle of hard liquor and mineral waters and cokes to mix your own drinks at the table.
  • No dance floor is no problem.  Stand at your table and dance with your friends on either side of you.
  • When the king appears on the TV, many people stop drinking and dancing and face the television a little awkwardly.  "It doesn’t feel right – it’s like he’s watching me.  It’s not right to drink in front of him," they say.  The king is truly revered here, and I can’t say I blame people – he is truly a rennaisance Buddhist who does everything for his people.  Did you know he was the first Jazz DJ in Thailand?
  • It was disconcerting to me that two of the hottest girls in the club were guys – but what is cool is that they were hanging out with their group of buddies and nothing seemed strange to anyone.
  • Hungry?  Run around the corner to pick up a plastic baggie filled with chili-roasted octopus.  Yes, please!  Delicious.  Squishy.  Squishlicious.

I like the little differences from country to country.  Just when I was starting to think that I had seen it all, I see Lithuania and India in quick succession – two countries that defied all of my conventional wisdom.  I’m lucky to see this stuff while living my life instead of taking a break from my life to "discover myself backpacking through Asia (TM)."  There’s a lot less romance, but then no one ever said I was a romantic.

I like that the Thai’s puke up their noodles in little holes in the street unlike the Japanese method of spewing curry and roasted meat over any convenient flat surface.

I like the mangy, fat dogs that roam the streets like tiny, partially-furry zeppelins on twiggy legs.

I see a lot of shopkeepers who sleep on the floor of their stores.  No door, no shutters, just sleeping there until daybreak when they wake up and stark hawking wares again.  I realized that my current situation is not entirely unlike theirs.

Thanks Chun, Min, Jerry, JS, and Pla – despite my initial misgivings, it was a hell of a night.

A Ketchup-Filled Baggie

Hey I’m no Buddhist, but long-time friends attest that I am loathe to kill even the tinest, most annoying mosquito.  I am wracked with guilt and haunted by the memory of one particular mosquito who is still imprinted in the wallpaper of the KDM hotel in Taipei.

The only thing I hate more than taking the life of pesky vermin is making snap judgements about inhabitants of countries in which I have just arrived.

That said, the two Thai mosquitos I have slapped down in my sleep burst open like overripe cherries, practically squirting my own recently-siphoned gore all over my fine white cotton linen. 

Is there some reason why the guts of Thai mosquitoes should lack the structural integrity of their foreign bretheren?

Bangkok Leisure

Lonliness aside, one has to keep busy.  So far, my social life in Bangkok has revolved around three hours of teaching a day followed by my daily communal Thai dinner with my students.

After that, my associate and I generally find an excuse to escape to our "office," a rooftop, riverside pub overlooking the royal palace and several glowing ancient temples.  The ambiance is that of a Vietnam War movie, with the sounds of light rivercraft under a heavy, transparent fog of humidity.

But tonight, after a week of sticking to the program, I decided to break the mould and head to the other side of the river – "new Bangkok," one of two, evidentally.  It was my good friend Leng and Pop, a new acquaintence who showed me about.  After some discussion (which touched on my "Brokeback Mountain" ensemble – What?  Jeans and a white t-shirt are anything more than generic in these parts?  – I guess I truly am in Asia), they decided to take me to Metropolis Bar which was a hip, trendy and chic bar full of VIP’s and drinks that are "the size of NYC cocktails."

It was cool and otherworldly.  I asked for a bar that was international, but not touristy.  The top of the top.  Pop’s face is his passport, so we managed to bypass the line and the cover charge and get seated in the lounge between a Thai moviestar on my right and a half-jury of international fashion models on my left.  I had a Tomyumtini ("You can only taste this in Thailand") and a gin and tonic before two of our party left for gayer quarters.

I sat with Leng for a while, waiting for a good patch of music to dance to.  When it never arrived, we took a taxi to the nightclub district for some spicy chicken feet soup, pork salad, preserved eggs, and rice soup.

Things are slightly more formal here than in Taiwan – at least they no longer call me "teacher," but rather "big brother."  My students are learning fast due to their dedicated interest in acrobatics, dance, and acting.  I am glad to have been invited to stay for an additional two weeks, but it is unsettling to feel how easily I could adapt to such a change in my life.

"It’s okay," I tell myself, "you are in a slow period."

If all slow periods are set in Thailand, I will have little to complain about.

Loneliness

Lonliness hits you hard and then runs away.  There’s no way to defend against its approach, nor can you chase it down to defeat it mano a mano.

It hit me hard last night, my second in Bangkok.  I woke up in the morning to an industrial-strength migraine that scrambled my vision and put me down for another two hours.  I awoke in the hopes that some pad thai might be able to sate the demons, but ultimately, I was floored again – this time for twelve hours – and awoke at about 1AM Bangkok time.

What an opportunity for introspection!

I might have died in India – the Patravadi Theater is nothing less than heaven on Earth for performing artists.  I understand that there is a lot of money coming from colorful sources, but it’s all in the name of art and we’re living as guests of honor, so I have nothing to complain about.

India forced me into a mindset of baseline survival.  Thailand is a breath of fresh air.  We live in a luxurious environment and work just one minute from where we sleep.  Room and board is provided, and wireless internet in my room means that, for the first time since June, I can sit alone in my apartment, sipping spirits and writing what comes to mind.

Lonliness.

Travel is uniquely satisfying in that it fills my mind with many memories of parties past.  Thailand is one of those moments when I look around to find my present chillingly solitary and borderline untenable.  I have the best friends in the world, but they are all 12 hours away by plane.

I just turned 29, and I have nearly-realized dreams of financial success through the arts, but on a day like yesterday, I feel like kicking myself in the ass and telling myself to grow up, get a real job, and stop acting like such a damned idealist/narcissist.

Artist friends of mine have had the good sense to get out of the game when they were on top, get married, and leave this behind them.

Some days I feel I am out there fighting the good fight, other days, I feel like there’s no such thing.

Last night I just felt thousands of miles away from the people I love.

What worse is that it was true.

India Part 2: The Rich

Surprise!  Like a five-dimensional manifold, there is yet another side to the whole Indian Experience.  Just as the initial shock of abject poverty has worn off I am hit by the world of Indian affluence.

The workshop went quite well, in a sort of off-the-cuff Indian sort of way.  We asked to have a projection screen set up, and in the morning, that was exactly what we had.  We then asked for a DVD player and a projector so that we would have something to put on that screen, and 30 minutes later, we had that.  Of course, at that point, we needed to ask for speakers so that we would be able to hear what we were projecting.  In hindsight, it is all clear.  Now I know.

Ultimately, the physical part of the workshop started about an hour late, but I was still able to touch on all of the major points I wanted to address – specifically, "Momentum and Weight Transfer."  The funny thing is that this title sounds exactly like a class I might have audited at MIT back in the day.  Anyways, it went well.  Significantly, however, there was a mix of Indian classes in the room, the lowest classes, the middle classes, and the upper classes.  This is a sort of diversity that I had not yet encountered in a workshop environment.  Thank goodness that I was not yet viscerally aware of the depth of class divides by this point.  Because of my ignorance, I was able to conduct the workshop without any difficulties or major alterations, but there were a lot of confusing moments that would be illuminated only after two more days of experience on this subcontinent.

After a post workshop lunch (half the table sitting and eating in silence) JS and I headed to rehearsal at the house of a contact of the festival director.  It was called a house, but "mansion" or "palace" might have been more accurate, complete with maids, butlers, guards, and gardeners.  The cieling, however, was too low for acrobatics, and the patio was too small to do any major choreographic work, so we basically did individual training and I took the opportunity to learn a little of the Kalari martial art that the local artists had studied.

This art is very interesting, and patriotic Indians refer to it as the root of all martial arts in the world.  Whether or not that is true is a matter far beyond my personal expertise, but I can see how it might be interpreted as such.  My legs were sore the next day (unrelated point).

That night, I was to watch a pretty terrible dance performance.  I won’t go into detail except to say that the first group was largely untrained for modern dance and that the second group was very, very academic, but rather uninspired and unengaging from a performance standpoint.  I understood where each was coming from but it left my unsatisfied as a fellow artists and as an audience member.

I will jump past the show and the debauchery of the aftermath just to get to my birthday celebrations of this evening.  Today, I woke up to the birthday emails of my dearest friends and family from around the world and it made me feel utterly at home here on the other side of the world from all of them.  I was taking it easy after a crazy night, so I ventured out only to see a pretty great show of English traditional music and for my birthday party.

We called one of the participans from the workshop to ask if he wanted to invite some of the other participants to a birthday night out.  Before the show he presented me with some charming presents and explained that we were going to a chic bar afterwards.  We talked a lot about India and about Chennai as they compare to the rest of the nation, and my perception of the country as a multi-layered yet transparent entity continues to grow.

  • Conservitism.
  • Guilt of being a "bad Indian."
  • The phenomenon of Indians returning from abroad.
  • The money and the affluence of the upper class.
  • Art as a pasttime for the rich.
  • The cultural disunity of the nation.
  • Poverty-themed vacation packages for the children of the Indian middle class.
  • Narrative in art.
  • Performance in tribal settings.
  • NYC as a shrine to all things Western and its foreignness to an young Indian woman going abroad for the first time.
  • Dating in Indian culture.

The bar was a bubble of Westernness – the first I had seen since arriving here a week ago.  It was the first time that I had seen more than 5 young Indian women together in the same room.  Not a sari to be seen.  Western clothes seemed to define the dress code, which is spelled out officially as:

Gentlemen:
Sleeved shirts, full pants and closes shoes.
Ladies:
Suitable attire.

I loved talking with our four Indian friends, and was both surprised and not surprised to learn, for example, that dancing and photography was forbidden in this hyper-modern Western-style establishment.

I was not surprised either when one of our friends offered to have his chauffer drive us home in his Mercedes.

Nor was I surprised at the reticence of our friends to leave us off in the slum where our hotel is located, "Where are you going from here?" they ask.

It’s a whole different system here.  Poverty takes on a different form when it is right there on your front steps.  All of the culture shock, all of the strangeness that I am experiencing is dealt with quite simply by those Indians who have the opportunity to see it every day:

"We just don’t think about it that much."

I’m not damning anyone.  That is the same response I think I would have to adapt were I to settle here for the long term.  I think that it is the same philosophy that everyone who lives in a first-world country adapts towards the state of the world in general.  Here, though, we are just so close to the people that we are not thinking about.  You would do the same.  Otherwise, no one would have given a shit about Mother Theresa.

I had a great 29th birthday with no pictures, but plenty of memories and food for thought.