Alarm Clock: a tool invented by humans for self-enslavement.
The sound of metal striking metal five times rushes out of a little alley through the darkness toward my ear at a speed of 1100 feet per second, as loud as the false crowing of the rooster-shaped alarm clock that jerks me from the land of dreams, dreams ruthlessly broken into bits and scraps and scattered about—with the sky outside still sunk in shadow. Crazy rooster! Your pushy crowing, just like the real thing, sounds off even before the cries of the actual chickens at the slaughterhouse down the street!
Headache Medicine: A synthetic chemical substance used to cure headaches, toothaches, menstrual cramps, and various other sorts of conditions. Painkillers have been around for a long time, more than a hundred years. The science of finding the right pain medicine, though, is not nearly as difficult as finding the right selling points for these medicines in advertisements . . .
Leftover bits of dreams still clinging to the inside of my skull, about work, about the kids, about all the money I owe . . . Stop! Don’t even start thinking about that now! I’m talking to myself in the mirror. Look, the clock’s just striking five, still a full fourteen hours, or as much as 50,400 seconds, that you have to face it. With difficulty I shake off the drowsiness. I’ve gotten up at five a.m. every Monday through Saturday for years now and haven’t gotten the least bit used to it yet. Before this started I used to get up at six, then that changed to five-thirty, and finally five a.m.. Having a little headache, I cram a couple of headache medicine tablets into my mouth, flush them down with some water, wait a sec, then my right hand grabs the remote control and points it at the radio . . .
Radio: A box that can make sounds. In dictatorships it’s used as a tool for propaganda alternating with entertainment; in freedom-loving capitalist countries it’s used for entertainment alternating with propaganda:
“Good Morrrrrning all you fans out there! You’re tuned in to ‘A Morning In Bang kaawwwk’ Wednesday Octoberrrrrr 12th!
(I’ve heard that this young Thai DJ named Dang hasn’t been out of the country his whole life long . . .)
“Coming up on two minutes past five a.m. all bright and early in the morning today,
‘Tem-purr-a-churr starttting’ at eighteen degrees ‘Celciusssssssss!’
(But his pronunciation of English has only the slightest trace of a Thai accent . . .)
“And . . . ‘Sheeeiiiiit!!’
Along with the rain that just keeps drizzling down, down, down, you early risers are probably getting ready for work—I’ll be hanging out keeping you company till eight a.m. This program is sponsored by Saesarin, the top working woman’s tampon! Saesarin, mopping up every sopping nook and cranny!”
Bangkok: (There are no words that can define this one)
If Bangkok were a book, it would be a thick one, filled with ten million characters, with stories of all sorts of confused flavors mixed up in it, like the Thai movies they stopped making twenty years ago.
If Bangkok were a woman, she’d probably be the honky-tonk kind, pleasuring herself with the cheap sides of Western culture. She’d be the kind to paint her mouth and pretty up her face thick and sloppy with synthetic cosmetics, trying to hide the disrepair.
If Bangkok were a drink, it ought to be mixed like this: 10% natural sweetener, 40% synthetic sweetener, 30% lead, 20% dirty sediment.
Robot: A person who leads a repetitive life: you’ll see this a lot around the capital city.
I’d like to introduce you to our first robot: me.
-Sawang Rongsawat, forty-two, member of the Bangkok middle class (something like the Vaisya caste in India).
-Education: bachelor’s degree (it wasn’t too hard to get that—the guy who hires himself out ferrying folks with a motorcycle on the street where I live also has a bachelor’s degree).
-Occupation: assistant manager for an export company. Twenty years on the job.
-Has a wife and kids.
-Is a man whose life basically repeats itself every day, same as for many millions of other robots in Bangkok.
Bathing: One of the ten healthy commandments, which we all should do two times a day if we get up early enough, if we have enough bathrooms in the house, if the other residents don’t run the water pump too long and use up the water, if . . .
“Finished with the shower?” my wife’s voice cuts through the plastic doorframe. (We like plastic a lot because it lasts a long time, never rots.) Her voice carries a lot of weight, sounds like a creditor pressing a debtor.
“I haven’t been in here two minutes yet,” I answer, wanting to add, “I’m not even done taking a dump!” but shutting my mouth in time. I don’t want her to catch me being crude, which I am.
“So hurry it up a little, OK? When it rains in the morning like this, the traffic jams are a sight to see.”
Wife: Director of the true-life movie “People of Bangkok.”
I’d like to introduce you to my wife: Urai, female (has definitely got to be female, because I’m not gay), thirty-two (age and waist measurement), a skilled and intelligent office girl (in the morning she takes less time looking at her compact mirror than women generally do), soft-spoken (if she wants help from you) and sharp (if you come out of the bathroom three minutes too late in the morning), lovable mother of her children, and a wife who . . .
“Everybody ready? Toy [our son, our oldest], you can go get your book bag now, and bring your lunch box off the table, too. Ui [our daughter, the second child], don’t go bothering little Lek [our youngest], she’s still sleeping . . . As for you [now she’s addressing me]: you can go start the car.”
Car: A means of conveyance, a necessity of the fifth order for middle-class people, equipment for carrying many millions of robots into Bangkok for work and school.
Bangkok of the 90s era, where folks have to get up at five a.m. to go to work, with oh so many cars (except when streets are empty, because the numbers change every day) and new models pour out at the rate of several hundred a day (makes me think of a mother pig’s fecund offspring creating offspring), the price jumping from a few tens of thousand baht to a few thousands of ten-thousand baht.
“Hurry up, now, it’ll be six a.m. pretty quick now, we’ll get stuck in traffic!” (voice of The Director).
Traffic Jam: A free gift that comes with the purchase of every car.
Bangkok, in the era when cars are driven on its streets and highways, is quickly becoming as slow as a salt boat plying the Chao Phraya. It has a population of around ten million. It has a city map more tangled than three fifteen-baht plates of noodles tossed together. A mass transit train system is still just a plan, and having a telephone in every house is still a long-standing dream . . .
“See? We leave just five minutes late and traffic is at a dead stop, here, all the way out at Ram Inthra. We won’t get to Silom until . . . Oh! Quick! Get past that car right there—pass it!”
Passing: A type of artistry in driving a car; it helps save a lot of time (for the one doing it) on the road. All you snooker players may take note of the fact that driving a car in Bangkok is quite a bit like playing snooker: balls are smashing into each other all the time.
Per the command of my wife, I sweep the car in to hit the “ball,” entering an empty space where there’s not as much as three feet between those two cars, in terror and within a hair of being reduced to the condition of crushed squid.
“He’s gonna start screaming at me,” I said.
“Forget it! If you don’t keep switching lanes and passing, you’ll never get there!”
This thought was itself passed by the words “Ai Hia (You damned lizard)!!!” heard clearly from the car behind us—with an intensity that couldn’t have been less than ninety decibels.
Lizard: The most pitiable animal in the world.
“What was the guy in that car shouting? I couldn’t catch it.”
“I didn’t hear it too clearly myself,” I cut in. “I’m hungry all of a sudden. Do we have anything to eat? But please don’t tell me breakfast this morning is a sandwich.”
“It’s a sandwich.”
Breakfast: First meal of the day, usually eaten in the morning. The custom now is to eat it in a car on the way to school or work, as that’s one way of saving time.
My right foot hit the gas, then the brake, my right hand gripped the steering wheel, my left hand was holding the sandwich. My right molars chewed breakfast.
“It’s a little bland,” I suggested.
“Just swallow it down, don’t complain. This is a car, not home,” my wife answered back. So I shut my mouth. Really, now, I don’t know why I was complaining, when ever so many Bangkok people are going through life this way.
I’ve thought about selling the house and moving into the heart of the city to cut back the time spent on the road, but what I could get for it would only pay for a hundred-square-foot condo (underscore foot), so things like eating, sleeping, playing, would have to be done in the same room.
“Toy, here’s your school. Watch out crossing the street!”
School: A place for training and instruction in knowledge and morality where they overwhelm you with tuition fees. A good school is one where the parents merrily rush off to change the legal registration of their child so as to be in the right district.
(farewell dialogue between many a mother and child in front of the school every morning)
I’ve timed these good-byes in front of the school. They take about fifteen seconds per mother-child combination. If each car is twelve feet long, and there are just ten cars in front waiting for school, figure the rule of three by the number of schools in Bangkok, about sixteen hundred, multiply and you get a line about forty miles long.
“On your lunch break do you think you could please run out and buy a fountain pen for my mom? She needs it to practice her handwriting. I’m sure you can get one someplace around your office.”
“Today I’m supposed to have lunch with Buen. I’ll stop off and pick one up this evening on my way to get you, OK?”
“OK, see you later, bye!”
Workplace: A place where you have to show your face Monday through Friday so as to fill your body up with stress (many scientists believe that stress is good for the body).
Back when I was a kid I used to envy Bangkok people. In those days the favorite slogan of the government was “Money is work, work is money: a formula for happiness.” And, sure, that may well have been a formula for happiness in the days when the denizens of our capital city could get up at eight, eat breakfast, go for a walk till the rice dropped its seeds, and still have plenty of time to stroll to work.
Stress: A feeling that hits you the second you set foot in the office.
“Mr. Somsak called you yesterday evening, left a note for you to call back. Mr. Sathit informed us that there’s a problem with the order we sent out—he was making a really big stink about it. At three p.m. you have a meeting at the factory. Widila is out sick today, her kid has the measles. Somchai’s coming in a half day late, because he has to go to a funeral, somebody died of cancer—oh! The air conditioning in your office just went out, I’ve already called maintenance, they’ll fix it tomorrow, today we just have to live with the heat . . . ”
Lunch: Relief bell—round one.
I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine: Wibuen. He was born five days after me—but he’s five times richer than me. What kind of work does he do? Whatever makes for rich, from selling insurance and speculating on real estate to trading stocks, whatever that wheeling-dealing mind of his can come up with. I’ve often thought he must have a dollar sign branded into his brain.
“‘Long tye no see . . .’” he jars me with a Western tongue, “How’s work?”
“Like always, boring as usual. Can you ask me something else, Buen? About anything but work.”
“How are the kids?”
“Better you should ask me about work.”
Kids: Children, people who are so young they can’t help themselves, but who already use money. If you have one, he or she is really lovable. Two are fun. Three or four, it’s a real struggle. Five kids, well . . . is that nuts, or what? In these times, who’d have five?
“I heard you have another kid, is that right?”
If this question were a weapon, I’d be full of holes. I really hear this a lot, ever since my wife gave birth a couple of months ago.
“So, old buddy, how’d that happen?”
“It just happened.”
“Ha! You dog! Why weren’t two kids enough?”
“It was an accident,” I answer.
Accident: Something that happens because you didn’t watch out (pay attention to the condom, the manufacturer’s guarantee).
“So you don’t use protection anymore?”
“Sure I do, but my rubber sprang a leak.”
“Bud-dha!” he chortled, in a voice I’d like to kick.
Condom: A type of birth-control equipment. A good condom has to have the letters “Aw Yaw” on it and has to have passed a test on an electronic machine. Some kinds are coated with the chemical nonoxynol to kill the sperm, providing double protection.
“So sue the company that made it!”
“Don’t make me tireder than I already am—taking care of twins wears me out in a bad way.”
“Ha! You’ve got twins??!”
Multiple Birth: More than one certificate originating from a union of sperm with egg. This is liable to happen among poor people and those who don’t want to have children.
“Twins are nice, huh? Cute and lovable.” He was trying to comfort me.
“Actually, it’s triplets,” I answered curtly, ruing the climax that caused all that.
“O Buddha,” he rumbled for the third time.
“So now I have, all together, five children in a house of a thousand square feet. Anybody can see we’re crowded. I wonder if I can make an insurance claim just for living there.”
Insurance: A kind of gambling, based on the risk of danger. This is a business which still has plenty of room for growth. I’ve noticed that the big insurance companies also have big buildings for themselves.
“Does your insurance policy mention anything about an incidence of triplets?”
“No, but this incidence is the result of an accident . . . .”
“There you go. Don’t waste your time, it’s easier to ask for money from God.”
“I think so.”
“Did they raise your salary this year?”
Salary: Reward for waking up at five a.m., eating breakfast in the car, and . . . (go back and read it again).
“A little bit.”
“When you have this many kids, don’t they give you a tax break?”
Cost of Living Tax Break: The most generous endowment for workers (that I’ve run into or seen, anyhow) in the governmental system.
“Sure, but their tax relief doesn’t even cover the monthly cost of powdered milk for the babies.”
“So milk really costs that much?”
“You haven’t had kids, you have no idea.”
Powdered Milk: A food that gives children the necessary nutrients, like protein, calcium, carbohydrates, etc.; it’s extracted from cow’s milk and the parents’ monthly salaries.
Have you ever looked at the display shelves for powdered milk at the supermarket? There are no fewer than thirty brands of the stuff (some kinds are supposed to make you really strong). A kilogram of it lasts only a week. Used to nourish all the offspring, from our own to the dog’s.
“All of a sudden you’ve got three more kids, that’s tough. Your mortgage paid off yet?”
Mortgage: A system of buying a house which teaches how being a debtor confers status. The higher your payments to the bank, the higher the credit rating you get.
Bangkok has stopped being a place where you can buy an eight hundred-square-foot house anywhere in the suburbs for a million baht. Commerce depends on this system.
“The house will be paid off in another three years. I have another eight months of car payments to go. Now the wife wants to put a microwave on the card.”
“So are you making enough or not?”
Responsibility: Something intangible that can be measured as if tangible by the number of white hairs on one’s head.
“I can manage. A month’s pay minus house payment, car payment, the kids’ tuition, gas for the car, and there’s still maybe enough for booze and cigarettes.”
“But you look kind of stressed.”
“So why don’t you take a vacation, go to Pattaya or Rayong?”
“I don’t feel like it.”
Ocean: A huge reservoir of salt water: its customary use is as a place to take vacations. Here you are not likely to escape the long arm of what is called “prosperity” (see “prosperity,” below).
Why boring? I picture the ocean—think about driving two or three hours just to get out of Bangkok, then to encounter a beachside disco bar. The people that go “to relax” are often a group of sensitive people who can’t get along without music. They’ll carry a boom box down to the beach, turn it up, and let it throb. This makes me think of a poetic phrase I saw some time ago: “Surrounded by nature, but out of touch with nature.” For people my age, not young anymore, who experienced Pattaya and Rayong while they were still unspoiled, it feels as though those places are being violated by a dirty hand, oppressed by the uncouth bellowing of music painful to the eardrums, raped by a litter of plastic bags and the garbage of science.
Prosperity: A thing that happens as a result of the nation’s development. It may be seen in pictures of concrete highways, in skyscrapers, lead, and plastic garbage, so that, generally, prosperity could be considered the ratio of that stuff to the part of the country that is colored green.
Wibuen looked at me pityingly.
“Don’t carry the world on your shoulders or put other people’s problems into your head. That’s it, enough stress, now . . . oh, just a second, there’s somebody calling my cell phone, let me take it for a minute.”
Cell Phone: A telephone without a cord, shaped like a dildo. You can’t get rid of it, it’s clearly become a necessity, a new “must-have” item for every family, along with the credit card, pop, fast food, and the compact disc.
“You interested in a cell phone?” Ai Lek showed me one the other day that he’s selling. “Really cheap, I think you should pick another one up for your wife.”
“Not me,” I shook my head.
“It’s only a little more than ten grand, series 900, price like the good old days, we’re one of the NICs, it’s not cool not to have a cell phone.”
NICs: (Western acronym: “Newly Industrializing Countries”) The new pride of the Thai people. The form of prosperity which has come in to take the basic place of agriculture.
“I don’t want it. Not because I don’t see how it can be useful, but I’m just sick of a high-tech vibrator like this becoming the thing everybody’s just got to have, when it’s not something you really need. Please don’t be upset now, Buen . . . Ha! I go shopping, got to carry the cell phone; go to a movie, got to carry the cell phone; break bread, got to carry the cell phone; have sex, I’ve got to carry the cell phone. It would drive me totally nuts! What kind of business is it to strangle people like that?”
“Don’t wer! Don’t wer! Not everybody with a cell phone has to be like that!”
“Then why do I see so much of it?”
Wer: (Western word) Short for the word “over.” It’s part of the evolution of the Thai language, bringing conversational dialogue up-to-date with the coming age.
“Feel like playing the market?” Mr. Wibuen changes the subject—he probably is getting tired of my carping at him. If it had been somebody besides Buen, I probably would have gotten kicked already. “I have a bunch of good offerings.”
“These offerings—are they stocks, or girls?”
“Oh, me! O Fate! Ha, ha! Stocks, hey, stocks! Guaranteed profit!”
“I don’t know how to play the market.”
“It’s not hard to play if you’ve got the right system. The day before the index goes high, I sell half of what I’ve got. I pick up a hundred thou, no problem.”
Stock Market: Hotbed of profit-guessing, a lot like casino hi-ball, but there appears to be more technique involved: it’s good for people with a lot of money and a wide field of vision. You shouldn’t borrow money to play unless you want to die of a heart attack before your time.
I stuffed a cigarette in my mouth. “Me, with this salt-and-pepper hair of mine? You won’t catch me playing the market: I do, and for sure my whole head will turn white.” I drew in deeply on the cigarette. Mr. Wibuen fixed his eyes on me with the expression of a teacher who’s caught one of his students copying test answers off a classmate.
“You still haven’t stopped smoking?”
Cigarettes: scraps of paper rolled around tobacco leaves; they contribute to the happiness of some (those who smoke them), along with the irritation of others (those who don’t). There are a number of price levels, from brands produced domestically to the ones our great and good friend America goes to the trouble of sending us (Please, America, don’t stop!) to smoke.
“I’ve stopped unsuccessfully eight times already,” I answered.
“Have you gone to see the doctor yet?”
“I go every month. As soon as we’re done with lunch, I’m going to see the doctor.”
“So you’re going now? Save your money: lunch is on me this time—I’ll put it on my card.”
Credit Card: (half-Thai, half-Western word) a necessity of the sixth order, right next to having a car. How much of a necessity? You may forget to put on your pants before you go out of the house, but you’re not liable to leave without the card.
“When you use a card you have to pay three percent more, sir,” said the waiter respectfully.
“Oi! Why is that?”
“I don’t know, sir. It’s just the rule, sir.”
“So, then, how come they call it a credit card? You aren’t giving credit here.”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“So what DO you know?” Mr. Wibuen started getting angry.
“I know that’s the rule, sir.”
Doctor: The judge of when you should stop drinking booze, leaving you no right of appeal.
I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Awijakhok, forty-one, friend and the regular doctor for my whole family, rich (but I’m not jealous, because in his occupation he doesn’t get to see beautiful things). We’re not very close, but close enough that I can kick him (if the numbers on the bill are too high).
“It looks as though you, sir, have been going downhill,” commented Dr. Awijakhok. (He’s the one friend of mine who doesn’t use the familiar form of address with me.)
“If I hadn’t been going downhill, I probably wouldn’t be coming in to see the doctor.”
“How do you feel?”
“Terrible. I have to take headache medicine starting early in the day.”
“So you’re going to bed late?”
“No. I think it’s stress.”
“Are you still drinking liquor?”
“You really shouldn’t ask.”
Liquor: a remedy that can bring stress way down and change a person’s disposition. There are a lot of degrees of strength to choose from, according to the amount of money in your pocket. There are a lot of varieties, from whisky (a sharp-tasting drink made from rice), brandy (fragrant, smooth, and comforting, insistent on the tip of the tongue like the kiss of a beloved maiden), vodka (fermented to a high, hot taste), gin (liquor with an herbal flavor, bristling yet sweet), rum (an intoxicating drink with a presumptuous lilt, of a varied and exceptional composition), liqui (a tonic which is gently aged, soothing and pampering, like the hand of a lover), champagne (an inebriant distilled from grapes, whose wiles conceal its true spirit), Rx (ambrosia with an urgent Asiatic charm), wine (distilled from fruit, gentle and gracious as a teenage girl), all the way up to those spirits originating from the scions of the Thai fields, which words cannot describe . . .
“Now, Mr. Sawang. If you still aren’t going to agree to quit drinking, you are being incredibly stupid, heading for ruin in a despicable and slovenly way.” Doctor intoned his words as if speaking to someone at the gate of exile. “The sugar level in your blood has risen above normal: you’re about to get diabetes. And your blood pressure is high . . . .”
Blood Pressure: Bad behavior of blood in the body. It causes the national cost of hospital care to skyrocket.
“I’d really like to kick you. Wow . . . You like telling other people to quit drinking, but you yourself . . . .”
“For that you’ll have to quit drinking. You don’t, and you won’t have the strength to kick me!”
“Listen, I’m really stressed.”
“If you’re stressed, find another way of dealing with it besides booze.”
“So what would that be?”
“Well, try pop! Play some easy-listening music. Or go sing some karaoke before going home.”
“I’m never in the mood.”
Pop: (Western word) An important new way of reviving the spirit, an item of popular culture (see entries for cell phone, credit card, and compact disc).
Karaoke: (Japanese word) One more form of aggression from Japan, in addition to Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Honda, Diatsu, Subaru, Aiwa, Nakamishi, Sanyo, Hitachi, Fuji . . . .
“What the heck! Listening to music isn’t like sex, that you have to be in the mood!”
“These days, I can’t get it up for anything, even sex.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s been two weeks now the lovebird hasn’t cooed.”
Doctor smiled. “That’s from stress, too?”
Lovebird: Index that points you to having sex in a hurry, measured by the kind of cooing it does.
“That’s a big problem. There’s only one way to cure it, and that is to practice relaxing, don’t think too much, listen to soft music.”
“I listen to music every night at home already.”
“No matter! Make some kind of change in the atmosphere. You have to do that if you stay at home every day and night.”
“I’m not a yuppie! I don’t have that kind of time.”
“So why do you have to be a yuppie to enjoy pop?”
Yuppie: (Western word) A class of free people who love themselves so much that they scoop up money to buy themselves happiness. The yuppie ethic is “Little old me is so valuable that I should be getting only good things.” (Whoa!)
“Doctor knows that every evening I have to pick up my wife, pick up my boy, and go back home.”
“Listen up! Quit drinking and smoking, get some exercise, and it’ll get better by itself,” the doctor, tired of all this, quickly summarized.
Quitting Time: The relief bell at the end of round fifteen. You notice that it’s only about a half-hour till you can leave work.
4:20 p.m.—the office girls start lining up to use the bathroom.
4:35—they take out their makeup
4:45—they’ve finished putting on their faces
4:55—their purses are ready to go
5 p.m.— . . .
“Bye! See you tomorrow!”
“Where do you think you’re hurrying off to? It’s raining big-time outside.”
Falling Rain: Innumerable drops of water that come down from the clouds, a gift for agriculture, but likely to fall amid the grumbles of the capital-city folk.
In the Bangkok of the latter nineties you can’t collect rainwater for drinking. Nobody feels like enjoying the falling rain, because it means traffic jams and getting home later than usual.
“Ha! It can’t wait till the middle of the night to fall, naturally comes at five p.m., when traffic’s at its absolute nastiest,” I curse, though this observation would have been useless even had it simultaneously fallen from the lips of two million, eight hundred seventy-six thousand, five hundred Bangkokians.
“I have a terrible feeling I won’t get home till nine this evening.”
“There you go. And I have to pick up my wife and son.”
The car crawled ahead like a squashed worm. The sky was still dumping water down, madly pounding the car windows. The windshield wipers flopped up and down with the rhythm of an exhausted old man. The sound of the raindrops endlessly pounding on the roof got me thinking about myself as a kid, out in the fields playing naked in the rain. Strange that with traffic stopped in the middle of the rain like this I should be feeling so completely free—free of work, free of family obligations.
I turned the wipers off for a bit and watched the rain pour in torrents down the windows on all sides. When I was a boy and Bangkok was a pure young maiden, my greatest happiness was in the rainy season, lying under a soft blanket, listening to raindrops endlessly slamming on a tin roof punctuated by the song of bullfrogs humming in the paddies. Raindrops, drawn down by the dragging pull of the world to plop percussively on sheets of corrugated metal, make a more beautiful sound than any music anywhere in the world, because this is a natural orchestra: ordinary frogs, toads, and those bullfrogs as musicians, the gusting wind as conductor—if Beethoven or Mozart had heard the sound of falling rain mingled in with the bullfrogs, the world would probably have received yet another musical piece of the highest order. It probably would have been called “The Bullfrog Symphony.”
“That’s right . . . keep listening to music, you’ll get there before you know it. This Saturday Ladda is getting married. Do you want to go?”
“No,” I answered without thinking.
“Why not? She’s a close friend of mine, too. And there’s another thing—there’ll be eight hundred in each envelope. We don’t go, we lose money!”
“I think weddings are a bore.”
Wedding: Definition for a man—the day that all life’s freedom comes to an end; definition for a woman—the day her tenure as warden begins.
I picture myself wearing the dragging suit of death, which must weigh nearly two hundred pounds, braving the city’s traffic jams on the way to the hotel, writing a message of blessing in the book with the gold-striped cover: “May you have happiness as a couple till the sky crumbles down upon the earth,” something of this sort. Going in to sit at our assigned table, listening to the emcee invite the relatives of the couple and/or their bosses to come forward like servant girls to tearfully recount the admirable qualities of the happy pair. Eating dinner, having pictures taken of the two of them at each table. Shouting cheers, pasting on smiles for the videocam, so that they can show it to guests at their house, patiently smiling for the entire wedding.
I remember the last time I went to a friend’s wedding hunt-for-money party. I later heard that time they made a profit of two hundred thousand after expenses—they’d invited everybody they’d ever run into . . .
“Mommy, why did you come so late to pick me up?” My thoughts came to a screeching halt as we pulled up in front of the school.
“Traffic was terrible, sweetie.”
“You say that every day.”
“Did you have fun today at school?”
“I did. We had a play rehearsal. This Saturday the school’s putting on a play. I have to buy a costume, too, Mom. Two hundred, OK, Mom?”
I thought about schools drafting kids not ten years old to put on makeup and put on lipstick like grown-ups, and spend . . .
“Oh! The teacher said that if our parents can’t come, that’s OK, they’re making a video, Mom, we can get one for five hundred.”
Evening Meal: Meal that’s cool already, like the evening itself, if you wait till you get home to eat it.
“Mommy, I’m hungry!”
“Just a second, we’ll stop and eat at the trade center there.”
Trade Center: (a name decided on by the owners of the stores selling stuff there) A new system of free enterprise which makes a bunch of little stores suddenly become a “trade center.”
“We’re eating here again . . . ? Like every day. I’m tired of this place.”
“Don’t be a pill, Toy. We don’t have time. By the time we get back home it’ll be dark, and you’ll still have to do homework. Look, we’ve got coupons . . . go get what you’d like to eat.”
Coupon: (Western word) Paper money in the form of commercial swap notes, in common use today in big restaurants and trade centers everywhere.
“And tell them not to put in any MSG.”
MSG: An excellent powder that it’s customary to put in food because it improves the taste. It’s in the same category as food coloring and borax. There’s a wide consensus among nutritionists that this is the most useless substance the human race has come up with this century.
“Is MSG dangerous, Dad?”
“Not really. But your body can’t use it for anything.”
“So why does the restaurant put it in?”
I resisted the urge to smile, but wasn’t able to answer the question. Everybody hands it around to dump on their food, to the point where I’m led to feel sorry for people in olden times, who had to force themselves for so long to swallow their food without putting this excellent powder on it, way back to the time when we were still monkeys.
“Dad, when we’re done eating can we please rent a video? I want to watch a cartoon when we get home.”
Videotape: (Western word) A motion picture that’s been recorded onto a coiled magnetic tape, a form of entertainment that substitutes for a movie theater. Most of them are called “ghost videos,” made against foreign copyright laws. (Sometimes you may see the sale and purchase of these pictures does harm to diplomatic efforts toward some countries, and everything is . . . like it was before.)
“What title do you want to rent?”
“Dragonball. It’s one of my Japanese cartoons.”
Japanese cartoon: A practice method that makes children love reading and drawing pictures, distributed in the form of pocketbooks and videotapes; the translation industry for these is the biggest in the country.
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when my son showed me a picture he’d drawn in art class at school. He’d gotten an A on it. The subject was “The Life of a Thai Farmer,” and it was a picture of a farmer carrying the Thai flag, standing in front of verdant green fields. His face really looked a whole lot like Nobita. That has to count as a successful merging of cultures. If Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky had published their works in the form of cartoons (Japanese cartoons, that is), by now the whole world would know the old man of the sea, Lenny and George, the Karamazov brothers, even better than they know Nobita or Doremon . . . .
Compact Disc: (Western word) The latest development in sound quality for the human ear, 450 baht per development.
I picked out a CD from the small number I have, and put it in the “minicomponent” player, which, together with whatever you put in it, takes up a space about four by eight inches. A medium-sized market for audio devices has been built by the Japanese—three times a day, after meals, advertisements for the things raise the dead—to the point where CD players like this one glut the market. I let myself be affected by this and bought one like everybody else. I like to listen to music in the late evening before I go to sleep (it makes me have good dreams). For the price of a CD I could get twelve packs of American cigarettes, or five bottles of Mekong Whisky, or two-and-a-half boxes of powdered milk.
Dreams: Stories you see when you’re sleeping. The subconscious spirit at work. You can divide them into two types: A good one is where you dream you fall down to hell, then you wake up and find you’re in Bangkok. A bad one is where you dream you ascend to heaven, then you wake up and find you’re in Bangkok.
“Last night I had a weird dream. I dreamed that Bangkok had become a utopian city. There wasn’t a single car. The water in the canals was clear and pure. There was no black exhaust smoke. The plants were a verdant green . . . ” I told the dream to my wife.
“Crazy! A fantasy! You get over here to bed. Tomorrow you’ve got to get up early again,” she responded.
I turned off the light by the bed and closed my eyes, letting my confused thoughts run off like muddy water, the murky dregs sinking down to the sullen riverbed of my mind. Not long, and I’ll be off in the land of dreams . . .
Tomorrow isn’t Sunday yet . . . .
Alarm Clock: a tool invented by humans for self-enslavement.
The sound of metal striking metal five times rushes out of a little alley through the darkness toward my ear at a speed of eleven-thousand feet per second . . . .
© Win Lyovarin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Peter Montalbano. All rights reserved.