Saturday, October 30, 2010

Lao of the day

The fall is definitely here. It's sunny and dry and it gets almost properly cold at night. I'd only sit outside in a jacket and scarf. The days are warm but just short of sweat-inducing. The mountains and rivers somehow create happiness.

Last night was a good night at the bar, a nice, easy, thirsty little crowd. We had a Romanian, a Hungarian, a Czech, and a German (Eastern Europe was well represented that night) and we all made paper airplanes out of fake hundred dollar bill and flew them in an international competition. I think Germany won. Then some drunk but civilized Aussies came in and bought Negronis for the whole crowd and rang up a huge (for LP) tab, which they couldn't cover with the bits of kip, baht, and dollars they had, so Lisa took one out on her motorbike at midnight or so to get more cash out of his hotel room. The German wants me to come live with him in Oman, or in his medieval tower in Nuremburg. I think he should contract the writing of his novel to me.
Good times.

Pasa Lao
I: khoi (a short o sound and a guttural, almost arabic sounding "kh")
you: chow/jow
go: by

au ngien boa: what would you like?
kalunaa: please
ohai: give

New drink: Negroni. I'm set for winter.

My hands are going to smell of fish sauce permanently soon.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Lao of the day:

check please: kit ngun
hot: hon (sounds like hone, falling tone)
cold: iyen

my name is: khai suh Michelle
what's your name: chow suh nien

Coming back to an exotic place--it's charming and beautiful and inscrutable, still, mostly, but it's not new. Newness is exciting and inspiring; familiarity, I'm finding, really does breed something. Not contempt, but complaceny, maybe. Being fully apart, passing through, you can flock with the other passers through, take your pictures, buy your souveniers, consult your guidebooks about the next place to go. And if I was invested here, settling, staying, I suppose I'd be fixing up my house or my business. But I'm in between--not a tourist, but not yet part of the community. It's a strange, suspended feeling. It really is like being in a bubble.

Yesterday, looking for cheap, looking for "real", I wandered until I found a soup table with Lao customers but no menu. I ordered my soup--all in Lao, which give me a bit of a boost except that it's so much like Thai that I really ought to be able to speak it better--and sat and ate and let the Lao conversation wash over me. Lao, by the way, is such a sing song, stretchy language--notes are pulled as far as they possibly can be; you can hear them going white and warped in the middle, like elastic bands.

Anyway, sitting. Eating soup. The lady is cooking, another woman next to me is feeding her daughter noodles, some others are gossiping or complaining. And I listened, and didn't comprehend. Was there any point to me being there, I started to wonder. Did those people really wish I would just go stay with the other foreigners? Was I ridiculous there, after authenticity and a meal that I thought would be somehow more uncompromisingly Lao? Maybe it really is better to stick with my kind, to eat in the restaurants provided for us and to forget about trying to see any more than anyone else. Forget about trying to understand.

I hate writing in questions--it seems cheap and cowardly. And of course, reading "stick to my kind", I know the answer is no, that that isn't the way to go. Soup lady and co. didn't begrudge me my seat or my bowl of soup. I may go back tomorrow to practice vocabulary; maybe we'll be friendly. Or maybe nobody really likes Snow Whites. Maybe there's a perverse kind of respect shown by not trying to learn too much, too fast.

Oh dear. All of this is wrong. This is just my gloomy head talking. I tell you, sticking out--it's a good thing to learn. I'd forgotten how disconcerting it is, back home in the country where I am the majority.

Monday, October 25, 2010

I'm pretty sure I've never invested in a pin, hat, or signal flare that says 'mad old Englishmen, come to me with your complaints about America.' In fact, if there exists some kind of repellent, I'd be first in line.

I just want to eat my green curry. I just want to eat my vegetarian green curry at the plastic table by myself--I've got no taste for alcohol at the moment and I just want to eat my way through my few last hours in Bangkok. There's a likely looking fellow at the end of said plastic table--long experience has made me sensitive to potential danger--but the curry was too tempting. I parked myself as far as I possibly could from the hunched, shirtless, wispily-white haired gent sitting and staring off into space near the street, got out my book as a tasliman, and hunched over myself. Trying to take up less space. Didn't work.

"What kind of prayer would you say, then? Buddhist, Christian, or Jewish?" Oh god, please don't be a rabid Western monk.
"All three?" Wan smile. No eye contact. I earn myself a few more minutes of peace as he looks off down the street. Still white, quite square, and very, very naked from the waist up, naked in that slightly frightening, slightly sad old man way. It makes me uncomfortable, like I've just walked in on my grandfather in the bathroom.

"Ever had dengue fever?"
Oh for pete's sake. "No. Sounds bad."
He latches on. "It is bad. It just hurts. Went down to Phuket and got it. No cure for it...out of antivirals" blah blah blah. Please, please don't ask me for money. Or do, and then go away. Book hovering between open and shut. I'm bad at outright rudeness, particularly if it means I might get yelled at and have to eat my curry standing somewhere in the street, away from him.

And then it begins. Where are you from? The USA. America! Then, because I have some idiotic travelling pride, I scramble to point out that I used to live here, I was in Taiwan for a while, I'm on my way to Laos, I'm not some large, lonely American girl eating curry by herself in the Khao San cesspool.

"Taiwan? Only thing I hear from Taiwan is dictatorships and corruption." Well, it's a bit different now. "Been to China?" No. "Ah, China..."

And from then I was treated to world affairs, religion, and, oddly, movie reviews.

Apparently, China's combination of Buddhism and Maoism is what the world needs. (I protested weakly that Confusionism and saving face are crap; was ignored.) There's no democracy in Taiwan; there's no democracy in America or in the world. Americans are a "naive" people who believe everything the mass media tells them. OK, not a lot of argument from me, I've got to say. But when I asked what people weren't naive, we were upgraded to a nation of "psychotics," "whores," "prostitutes who spread our legs for a buck." "It all began with bounty hunting in the Civil War." Really? Wait, tell me more about that. But no, "it all began with the American Revolution." Ah. Not a controversial statement, that. But again, no follow up. "Everyone in America should leave and spend six months abroad for deprogramming." Not a bad idea, really. Possibly to Israel, which 1) has no nukes, 2) does awful military business with the USA but "transcends" our military-industrial mindset, and 3) "ought to divorce America before it goes down." Just weird.

Canada's better, of course. Had I heard that Randy Quaid and his wife are trying to escape to Canada to find some peace? I had. Not unlike the soldiers who fled to avoid the draft. Sure. Except that Randy Quaid (who I love; hi Randy!) are escaping "Hollywood murderers" who have "bumped off" several of their friends in mysterious and sinister fashion. (Reading internet gossip finally pays off!)

Canada's too cold, I say. And I eat my curry and look sadly at my open book. But there's no respite.

What's good about America, incongruously, is James Cameron. James Cameron, I repeat. Avatar, my friend says, represents the last beautiful streaking spark of a dying America. Cameron "broke every rule" and inserted twelve "subliminal" scenes into the movie, which is why you have to watch it several times to really get it. Cameron shows how we have fucked our mother and how Americans are "the biggest motherfuckers of them all" (not to be defensive, but China's getting a big old pass here. Guess those Yangze dolphins don't count. But I, for once, digress.)

So, Cameron good. Thought I guess Sigourney Weaver was just spreading her legs for a buck. Tarantino, on the other hand, is the horsemen of our apocalypse. Kill Bill represents the psychosis of the nation perfectly, while Inglourious Basterds was just offensive, utter shit. "How can you turn Adolf Hitler into fantasy?" Well..."No, it's like learning that your mother has cancer and then making a movie out of it." Ah. OK.
But enough about film. Religion: Most Buddhists are professional beggars. Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Anyone who knows what Buddha said before he died is a real Buddhist; the rest are just beggars in robes. (I guess this guy was around back then.) I should stop trying to do something with my life and half "half a dozen kids and fulfill my biological imperative." Which, he hastened to say, is a male imperative too.

And they, they, they, they, they. They, Americans, every single one, it always came back to us, not the US goverment, not the monied fist of multinational corporations, but us. The pluribus. This sick (have I mentioned half-naked?) mad old man--I didn't necessarily disagree with him on a lot of things. But it's hard to have a conversation with someone who repeatedly refers to one's entire population as insane at best, but mostly craven, where we lack the boldness to be fully evil. Americans are essentially the army of the living dead, he insists, ready to eat their own in the name of national security and profit. "And when a good one comes along, they bump him off. Like John Lennon."

I think, "But Lennon wasn't...."

But really. What would have been the point?

I've met people who engage these folks fully. I can't quite manage it. It is a fearsome thing to see, though, as you toss them a reaction like a piece of meat for them to clamp onto and shake violently, like a dog, until any possible reason or meaning has been shredded and chewed. I suppose it was more interesting than my book; spicier than curry without bile. He saw me off quite cheerfully. I wished him a speedy recovery. As I said, we didn't disagree on all that much.

And now I've a bus to catch.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

here, there

Maybe I brought too much of USA Michelle to Taiwan. I guess the strange splitting effect of having two homes had faded some back home--getting to Taiwan again caused another round of slowly sliding apart at the seams.

There are the obvious physical signs: soft USA Michelle itches when mozzies sting, sweats more than she remembers, starts wheezing almost instantly. But more unsettling is sitting at a round table with old friends, drinking tall sweaty beers, and floating up around my own head, wondering if we had talked about this stuff before, what I might have thought about it, would I have agreed or said it was all shit. Is this guy still the genius I thought he was? Is this other an asshole? Am I the same? Am I a better person out here, or just deluded and isolated?

Some this is a scary American arrogance that I didn't know I had. I'm coming back from the land of hard work, of practicality and if-you-can't-beat-'em, join-'em, and I'm back on the island of (mostly) self-professed misfits, idealists, feral, system-hating drug-addled intellectuals--and I'm wondering if I can still take them seriously. This is true, this is how I really feel; it's so embarassing. I wonder if my immersion in America, with all my friends with posh jobs and good salaries, is going to reveal my old friends to be deluded tyros. You can take the girl out of the country, I suppose, but you can't take the whole "We're number one" thing out of the girl all that easily. Even this one.

The good news, I suppose, is that my friends are the same. Equally bright, equally dim, equally cautious or foolhardy, equally fucking loving and welcoming and appreciative and I can't believe I flew in to see them with a scale and an appraising red white and blue eye. And I, in my self-absorbtion and overthinking and vanity, don't seem to have changed a bit either. And there's the bad news. Funny.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Today I saw a feather get picked up off of U street by the wind. It flew straight up, swooped sideways, and made an almost complete circle around the head of a man walking through the crosswalk, talking on his cell phone, before landing again, this time on Vermont Avenue. How funny, to see the feather flying without the bird. And how strange for the feather to have stopped again on the wet ground.

These things happen and they don't mean anything. Or they mean road, wind, and angle of dead feather. No one is telling us to watch, but really, what else is there to do?

Saturday, October 2, 2010