Saturday, June 28, 2008

Observations from a Bangkok bar

An email and a story to my daughter in the U.S.

Hi My Dear,

I really enjoyed awakening to your long email this morning. It is about 7 am here in Bangkok and yesterday I spent the whole afternoon and much of the evening in a bar. Sounds rather unwholesome, I know, but I was catching up with a friend who used to work in Singapore and has been in China for the last three years. When he went to China we didn’t see each other very much, but we occasionally exchanged emails or phone calls. He is a senior VP of engineering and works for a large U.S. company. He was visiting his company’s facility in a town about two hours from Bangkok.

If you don’t mind this little side story I’ll go ahead and explain:

For a start, I was really pissed off at this guy. Originally our plan was to get together for dinner Friday night. He told me he planned an early get away from work and would drive to Bangkok to arrive in the early evening. Well, Friday evening arrived and I sent him an SMS to ask what time he would be into town. He wrote back simply “9pm” which was about four hours past the time he originally told me. So I wrote back simply “OK, just sms me when you get here”. To which he wrote back that he was going to be in a conference call with the company’s people in the U.S.and that Saturday would be better. (Which obviously meant his last sms noting 9pm was out of the question to begin with. Long story short, he wasn’t going to make it to town because a quick calculation told me that it was only 6 am in Minnesota when he wrote that. I was pissed off because he hadn’t been candid with me and because he hadn't let me know sooner that we wouldn’t be able to meet up that evening. In fact, I was so pissed off I mentioned in an email to Veronica what a “dick” the guy was. In any case, I simply replied to him to just let me know by sms if he made it to town and I would try to catch up with him.

So Saturday rolls in and about 1 pm I get an sms from him that he is in a bar down the street from our apartment here in BK. I was just finishing up some work so I wrote back that I would join him when I could. I got there about an hour later and there he sat, in a crowded and noisy bar, on the edge facing the street on a hot muggy Saturday afternoon, drinking beer and watching that special circus parade of Bangkok people in a bar area on a weekend. I can tell you that it is not a bad sport. The array of people that go by is as rich as it can get, almost better then people watching in an airport. It includes all of tourists, the beggars, and the street hawkers selling everything from woven baskets, handmade brooms, tourist trinkets and novelties, to locally sewn cheap clothes, and roasted insects sold as the local delicacy (which you have already experienced in Phuket). The street hawkers are pursuing the tourists and local trade that crowd the streets. By “local trade” I refer to the hookers that are everywhere. These include the sometimes garish, but often gorgeous kathoeys (transgenders). In many of the bars there are more members of the local trade then there are potential customers in this off-season time.

Interestingly the tourists are no longer mostly westerners. There are many Chinese couples, whole families of middle easterners and Africans,and groups of Japanese girls escaping the drudgery of their lives at home. They seek out the trinket traders, food sellers, and cheap massage places with an ernest equal to the purveyors so that all come together in this big celebration of commerce that only an Asian city can display with such fervor.

This parade of humanity also includes the localized expatriates. Many of them are business types like me. But in Bangkok there are also crowds of men who have settled here, often they are pensioners, attracted to the cheap living, the girls, the anonymity, or the worn out idea that this all somehow equates to adventure. Some of them are alcoholics who are living out there days in a shabby (but visually rich) existence. They often walk around hand-in-hand with their miia naawys (literally means wife/minor or lesser), who simultaneously assume the roles of care giver, lover, maid, confessor, and companion. They are seemingly happy to do so, as it is often a step up in their situation. I think these expats console themselves with the notion that they have true lovers and friends (many of whom are transient and/or on the hustle) and a life. They gather in bars to feed their habits and greet each other in boisterous ways that seem more boyish then mature. When I observe them I often wonder what they have left behind.

My curiosity about people draws me to watch this parade, but I affect a detachment out of an irrational fear that I could somehow become one of them. I am also mindful that to anyone else who might be watching, I would be regarded as just part of the parade, so I make no judgements about what I am observing. I easily fit in to the scene, wearing an old beat up cowboy hat, khakis, and sandals, nursing a beer at midday, and looking as derelict as the next derelict.

My friend is plopped in the middle of all this awaiting my arrival. He is something of an egotistical, artificially rough talking (favorite word starts with F) guy, and affects the mannerisms of a cowboy (he used to rodeo according to him) or a biker (he used to ride Harley’s according to him), or a bar bouncer (he used to be a weight lifting body builder – a fact I can attest to because I have worked out with him some years ago when we both were into using the gym. He is, himself, a colorful and interesting character. For all his bravado, he is perhaps the most brilliant engineer I have ever known. I sometimes think that his outward manner is an affectation he uses to hide his intelligence, which he is embarrassed by. Long ago I cracked this crusty exterior and while he can still be socially challenging, he talks plain and straight when we chat. The truth is, each and every time we get together I learn much from him. He literally thinks with extreme clarity and logic and in ways that the writing of Stephen Hawkings or Carl Sagan comes to mind. He is younger then I and seeks advice from me often. I am flattered by this partially because of his brilliance, partially because he doesn’t listen to advise from very many people, and partially because he would not hold me in this regard if it were not for the fact that a mutual friend, one that we both respected and admired, had introduced us and he was advised by him to listen to me. The two of them are among a small handful of minds I have met that think in ways that transcend common logic.

His queries in this regard are usually about office politics, the market for his products, organizational issues (he has a huge one - something that he doesn't feel all that comfortable with), or his personal relationships. He bounces technology &manufacturing ideas off of me that come in a blur of creativity. I frequently have to ask him to repeat himself but not because he spoke too fast for me to recognize his words, but because he spoke them too fast for me to string the logic of those words together. I need to stall to think them through. Sometimes the logic eludes me entirely, and I have to ask questions. In a display of one of his social handicaps, he is impatient with this, and shows it, but I ignore that. I knew long ago that he thinks faster then most of the people on this planet and I feel no shame at all in asking for him to explain more.

So I spent the afternoon listening to him and occasionally responding to his questions. I nursed beer slowly, which means that in this hot climate you end up drinking warm beer by default. The parade kept rolling by, offering occasional diversion, from heady subjects. He brought up the subject of whether there was anything meaningful in helping a big company make more money. (My view was that there was meaning in it as long as you got your share of the money and that money gave you an opportunity to do what you wanted to do.) We talked about his new relationship with a Chinese lady, something I recognized as new in his life because he had been a confirmed bachelor and serial girl chaser for as long as I had known him before. Sure enough, the girls in the bar seemed to hold less importance to him then in times past. I recognized his comments about his new relationship and his concerns about finding meaning in life as evidence of his maturing and a growing sense of urgency that affect all men of reasonable sensibilities. This is the trouble with great minds who think beyond the borders of their every day existence and yet are trapped in those boundaries by their earthly needs or a lack of confidence. The afternoon progressed into evening with a thunderstorm demarcating the two periods of the day. It was great entertainment to watch the circus parade scramble for cover. I watched a man on the street who was baking rice cakes on a charcoal fire dutifully holding an umbrella over his works while he got soaked. After the rain there was a brief period of cool air that was as welcome as any air I had ever felt. It was transient however and within what seemed like minutes, the hot afternoon had become a steamy night. I, having long ago switched to bottled water, realized that the beer finally caught up with my friend and he brought up an idea of food. That was a very welcome idea to me, not only because I was hungry, but I was ready to make a move, any of that bar stool.

We ate “dinner” at a burger stand nearby. The whole shop consisted of a rolling cart on which had been mounted a propane fired flat grill and an iced compartment built in below. The fat lady proprietor of the operation flipped burgers in rapid fire succession. After making our way through the line of and collecting our burgers, we stood on the crowded sidewalk and wolfed them down. At that moment I wouldn’t have traded that burger for the best steak in town. It was a miracle explosion of flavor. All the while I ate it I hoped it wouldn’t give me a case of food poisoning.

We parted company there, eating, saying goodbye, then going separate ways. I returned to our apartment and washed away the days grit in a long hot shower. I started a movie on television and fell asleep in my chair within minutes.

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