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.

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.

Indian Workday

I have learned not to shake hands with Indian women.  I have also learned that making a show with new artists is more about making friends, learning, and teaching than about actually making a show.  I woke at 9, ate breakfast (spicy special masala) at the local vegetarian restaurant (still healthy, but I found a restaurant that keeps me that way and I’m sticking with it til after the performance on the fourth).  I had a bit of indigestion, but I was too afraid to try some dairy products (if i get sick, I get sick, but please not two days before a show!) and then tried to walk around the ville, but gave up due to heat and general spaciness and came back to the hotel to read the newspaper and nap.  Wow.  Quel aventure, monsieur Livingston!

guess what – things that bother the rest of the world don;t even make it to page two of India’s international newspaper.  No mention of any Hollywood celebrities or any note of US policy towards anybody.  That is an international first for me.  I have decided that India is not actually another world; India is the world.

After rehearsal today, I feel at home in India.  Strangely presumtive to say such a thing, isn’t it?  I don;t mean that India is my home, but I do mean that left to my own defenses, I would survive here for as long as is necessary.  I might mean that I have grown a little callous or it might mean that I have slightly adapted to local norms.  There is a certain moral and ethical ambiguity in India, but at least it is there, on the surface, dying on the street right in front of you.  You are presented with the opportunity to safe the sick, impoverished, disable, and dying on a daily basis, but you are forced to make the decision up front that you can not help them, all willing aside.  In the West we are sequestered enough to make that decision by default.  I’m no better off having directly enabled an old man’s death on the street – am I the worse for it?  Am I?

Rehearsal today:  three artists in a shed in a well-off (by local Indian standards) part of town.  We are working with three local acrobats and martial artists, Palani, Udra, and Vasal, to make a 40-minute show by Monday.  That is three days of rehearsal to create a five person, no technician, circus event – and I’m not worried.

The music is nice, of course, the benefits of working with a musician as director, and the acrobatic vocabulary that I am woprking with is both exotic to my tastes and quite rich.  The question is simply how to change the context enough to mess with everyone’s preconceptions.  We are fusing Kung Fu, Circus, Yoga, Capoeira, Dance, Physical Acting and Live Music with a budget of 0 Rp (0$) and no technical resources whatsoever.  After our paralyzingly huge success in Taiwan, it is a relief to get back to creating a show on the most human and honest scale there is.

30 minutes?  No problem.  It is the last 10 that make for a bit of a problem.  That is tomorrow’s challenge, in addition to the two hour workshop that I must write, starting now.

4:00AM Wake-Up Call

I wake up in the middle of the night to our neighboring mosque’s call to worship.  Ubiquitous horn beeps sporatically punctuate the call – a change from their continuous daytime symphony.  I am starting to feel at easy here.  I traced my initial culture shock to a fundamental unknowing.  There familiar gestures and facial archetypes abound in the West and in the Far East.  Here, I was experiencing an entirely new set.  Silly, but being able to spontaneously pigeonhole people – a curmudgeouny drunk, a dirty hippie, a macho college boy, a preppie high school girl, a bebooted skinhead, an efeminate Kabuki-cho host, a cos-play-juku goth – has a lot to do with feeling at ease in your environment.  We don’t know these people and yet we know them.  We can assign predictable behaviors to them.  At the same time, walking down sidewalks, riding commuter trains, sipping coffee in an international franchise – these are all little daily rituals with expected behaviors that orient us.  None of these cultural markers, personalities or rituals, exist here in Chennai.  There are just as many archetypes and rituals, but I needed to experience them enough to predict behavior on that basis.

I went to the first theatrical event of the festival yesterday and I observed for the first time that surreal inequity that I wrote about yesterday.  While the people I see on the streets in downtown Chennai seem absolutely poverty-stricken, the clientele and organizers of the festival seem like their polar opposited.  Obviously educated, fluent in English, cultured and affluent, the divide presents itself for the first time. 

It was the show, a fusion of Northern and Southern Indian legend and folklore put to operatic dance, that made me realize how little I know about everything Indian.  It is not about studying a new culture so much as having to learn a new world of norms and politics.  Asking for a simple explaination would be as complicated as going up to some Belgian and asking him to explain the West to me.

I made the exact same error last night that I made at the Indian pavillion in 2005 – shaking the hand of a Chennite dancer whom I had just met.  The Westernized organizers obviously had no problem with the gesture and she took the hand of her male friend with whom I am creating our show, but her shocked expression and reluctant acceptance of my offered hand painfully reminded me that I don’t know shit about India.