Every morning at 6am, as the city raised its sleepy torso under a humid blanket, I would set out for a brisk walk on the campus of Srinakharinwirot University (try rolling that on your tongue), the fragrance of spices from nearby canteens and cafeterias wafting towards me on day-breaking slivers of light. Ah, it felt good to be back home in Asia. Never mind that I was in Bangkok, a city I had never visited, filled with people speaking a language I didn’t understand; there’s something about a teeming Asian metropolis that feels home to us who grew up on the continent.
I was surprised at how easily I slipped into the rhythms of the city, quite at ease stepping across drains (ignoring the whiffs of stench floating up) and darting in and out of human traffic, dodging cars and auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks here, after the sound they make), switching from road to sidewalk without losing a beat, comforted by the noise and bustle. One could get lost here, not inadvertently but because such cities are like wild rivers you want to explore until they engulf you completely and will not surrender all their mysteries unless you are willing to lose yourself in their embrace. It’s exciting to live on such a cusp, knowing that dangers lurk within those serpentine streets with their shops and stalls and their touts and hustlers. In the quieter moments every evening I wondered what it would be like to live here among this chaos, away from the ordered, anesthetized lifestyle of the American Midwest, returning to the womb of my origins to recover my lost youth. Or was it more than just my youth that I lost when I moved west, even as I gained much?
It was strange to feel as much a part of this city as I do in Chicago (maybe more so), not merely because persons of Indian origin are sprinkled more liberally across Bangkok, but because there’s an indefinable cadence in some Asian cities that reverberates deep within my soul, an almost-forgotten call from home. Perhaps the Buddhist (and Hindu) influence has something to do with it, although it did strike me as peculiar because my early Catholic upbringing had often held me at odds with the tenor of life in my native Bombay until my interest in Hindu mythology transmuted that alienation into a new perspective of India. The similarities between Thai and Indian cultures are perceptible in the food and manifestations of mythology—Buddhist symbols are ubiquitous in the artworks and architecture, the Indian epic Ramayana informs and inspires Thai puppetry as well as traditional Thai dances, and Bollywood’s influences are obvious in the pop culture of Thailand.
There is an incongruity in such cities that Europeans and Americans could find unsettling—a quasi-western style impinging upon traditional foundations. The outward look and feel of Bangkok as a global powerhouse (it is an important financial and commercial world center), masks the old-world dynamic operating beneath—a visit to the famous Floating Market can be overwhelming to anyone unused to the smorgasbord that characterizes most Asian bazaars and souks, a hodgepodge of goods sprawled in all their visceral splendor. You walk upon the covered long, narrow raised dock beside the river, past open carts jammed with the oddest mixtures of things—trinkets, computer jump drives and plastic-wrapped packets of large sardines, piles of squid, shrimp, mollusks, and other unrecognizables that are obviously edible (though it’s hard to see how), each with its own attacking smell as you tiptoe along, forcing down rising waves of nausea and ballet-dancing your way past the crowds on the slender pathway, afraid of toppling over into the river on one side and swerving to avoid the carts, trays, and people on the other!
A few miles away are multistoried steel and glass buildings with sleek department stores and products from every corner of the globe—capitalism cocks a snook at the restraining hand of Buddhist detachment and the plethora of shopping centers remind one that the world is rendered smaller and linked more by the diaspora of haut couture and its excesses than by anything else. Genuine and fake designer labels, record stores offering pop and hip-hop; McDonald’s and Coca Cola staring whimsically at street carts selling tender coconut juice straight out of the nut, massage parlors, and other stores hawking less savory wares. The bazaars and marketplaces (indoors and outdoors) are what make Bangkok such a popular shopping haunt—trinkets and ersatz knockoffs, multicolored Thai silk clothes and accessories, beautiful jewelry, handicrafts and elephants, elephants, and more elephants; I mean wood, ceramic, glass, cloth, and bejeweled elephants, for this noble beast is the symbol of Thailand and you find reincarnations of it everywhere, from topiary to tee-shirts.
Krung Thep (City of Angels) is the formal name of Bangkok. Actually, its full name is:
Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Loosely translated, this is how it appears in English: “The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (of Ayutthaya) of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarn.” Even Thai students couldn’t learn it easily until a pop singer cast it into a catchy jingle; my friends sang it for me, grinning all the while. Here’s a youtube version of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGjb0hGOX-Y
Thai cuisine is a sumptuous mystery of spices, flavors, and surprises designed to titillate all your senses. And Thais, like most Asians, are unsparing in their indulgence; a meal is a lavish spread of several dishes—meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and fruit soaked in curries and sauces, washed down with soup and juices; with our hosts it was difficult to pace oneself because you didn’t know what was coming next. Coconut is a central ingredient in much Thai cuisine, which was perfect for me who grew up on the west coast of India among coconut palms, fishing villages, and rice paddy fields.
Food, of course, defines Asian countries in ways that you see nowhere else in the world. It seems to spring from the heart of the culture; in so many ways it IS the culture, for you smell it in the air, see it spilling out of restaurants, and watch it dispersed as garbage in the streets. Bangkok is perched on the Chao Phraya River, not far from the Gulf of Thailand which eventually finds its way into the Indian Ocean; hence the seafood is multifarious and fresh—huge prawns steamed in their orange shells, giant crabs, squid, sardines in sweetened soy sauce. We visited a seafood restaurant outside Bangkok, a vast span of spaces combining large outdoor tents and indoor air-conditioned rooms filled with long tables—so popular that Thais drive 90 minutes to eat the fresh seafood. Hundreds of diners and virtually no waiting time as plate after plate of aromatic offerings floated across our palates. Thai cuisine is very Asian in that it is sweet and sour, pungent and simple (depending on the combination of spices), multi-textured, and constantly surprising—just like the country, sprawled by the ocean, almost unfairly blessed with magnificent beaches, forested hills and valleys, sprinkled with waterways, and possessed of a climate you cannot ignore—hot, humid, demanding.
We were there to teach Acting to young Thais with dreams of film careers. After the first day of my two-week workshop I realized that their exiguous knowledge of English demanded a different approach, so I had them perform short scenes and scenarios in Thai—in so many ways Acting is its own language and when the intention was clear (which was often the point of these exercises) I was able to follow easily what was happening before me (with a little help from a student translator). It’s an exciting way to teach Acting, allowing me to focus for a moment on body language and vocal intonation rather than on the words and their meaning; I learned so much in two weeks, which is all a teacher could want.
I was struck by the similarities and differences between Thai students and their American counterparts, but not always in the way I expected. I anticipated a traditional society, polite and deferential, and was not disappointed, for they greet elders and teachers with a courteous bow, yet I found their bold willingness to take risks unexpectedly refreshing. They were open to the point of being matter-of-fact about such things as sexuality and relationships, which led to an astonishing vulnerability and honesty in their work. Many Asian societies are somewhat conservative, strongly familial, and tied to tradition. These students were no different in that respect, but maybe because they were fine arts “provocateurs” they also struck me as being ready to try anything. Despite having to attend a three-hour workshop at the end of a long day for two weeks, they were focused, eager, and forthcoming.
I happened to see some thesis films (in progress) made by graduating seniors and was fascinated by the raw and frank explorations of identity and relationships; some of it was undoubtedly prompted by a juvenile desire to shock (deletions were suggested by their committees), but they were unafraid to draw deeply from their personal lives and society, confronting demons and searching for answers. One particular group of students spent a month living among the poor, immersing themselves in the lives of those unfortunate creatures just so they could document their experiences on film.
The wonderful part of the trip was seeing how successful our former students have become; all of them hold top administrative and teaching positions in Bangkok’s most prestigious university and are in the process of leading a new college of innovation and technology into the forefront of the Southeast Asian academic landscape. We were the recipients of magnificent Thai hospitality, which defies description and has to be experienced. It is a sensuous land of succulent food and vibrant cultural encounters, which included a beachfront sojourn, a boat trip through the Floating Market and out on the open river, a restorative deep-tissue Thai massage that lasted two hours, an unexpected visit to a drag show (this is, after all, the playground of Asia), bargain shopping, temples, museums, and, best of all, daily encounters with Thailand’s youth, the architects of Asia’s tomorrow.
Sawatdee Khap, Krung Thep. Goodbye, Bangkok. Khap Khun Khap. Thank you so very much.