Cowboys in Asia

My first night in Saigon, I haven’t slept in two days. I am past the point of being tired—wired, where no self-medication will suffice. The host at the front desk says I look weary and suggests that I go to the spa, “Ahh, night massage. Good for you. Help you get rest.” After cramming my Germanic body into a sleeper bus (the ergonomics clearly unsuited) for over 15 hours and the trepidation of arriving in a new country, I didn’t hesitate and scheduled an 11:30 (PM) appointment.

The ride is prearranged—on the back of a motorbike, through the night market and the back alley to a place called, “Entranced.” I climb off the back seat and return to the driver his weathered and cracked helmet. The tinted doors swing open to a bright waiting room with gold, green and pink floral wallpaper. I am greeted by an overly enthusiastic male and two soft-spoken women wearing long silk nightgowns, one slightly older, both half my height.  They bow,  the man hands me a cup of tea, and I am lead upstairs by the older woman who is now pulling me by the hand. Trying not to spill, I climb a winding dark stairwell, “Wat-cho step,” she tells me, anticipating the forthcoming trip on a piece of loose carpet.

On the third floor, she opens the door to a darkly lit room with four beds separated only by white linen curtains. There is steam unfurling from a bucket of hot stones and a loud fan that masks the sounds of honking motorbikes below. Before I can set down my purse, she points to me and gives me the directive, “You. Take off clothes.” She doesn’t look away and waits until my shoes are off, my pants are in a pile on the chair, and I am draping an arm over my chest, before she gestures to a bed, “Here.” I awkwardly climb on the table, lie down on my stomach and within seconds she is straddling me dumping oil from a jar on my arms and back. The massage is made up of quick, violent movements—fist pounding, lifting and dropping my limbs, cracking my toes and fingers, and a prolonged period of forceful kneading; in short, not relaxing–painful.

Wanting to leave, but having the suspicion that I had only been there about 20 minutes, I commit myself to the long haul, clench my fists and close my eyes. At some point, the younger woman enters and says something hurriedly in Vietnamese. The curtains are drawn closed around my bed and I hear the muffled sounds of a man outside. I recognize his American accent. The pitches of the women change, becoming more drawn out and sultry as they arrange his bed. I listen to him go through the same routine as myself, before he settles in and I am forced to endure the following conversation:

“How ohl ah-you?” she asks him.

He pauses and I can hear through his smile, “Forty six.”

After some hesitation, he asks, flirtatiously, “How old are you?”

“Nine-teen,” (giggles), then “You have fam-i-ry?”


“You married? You have wife?”

I can tell he is reluctant, wanting to avoid this conversation, but answers, “Yeah.” (Silence, then heavy breathing).

I then listened to a series of questions that I can only imagine were answered by head nods and gestures:

“You like?”

“You want dis?”

“Dis, good for youuuu?” the last word drawn out and punctuated by a slight moan. There is only a curtain between us and I am trapped between sloppy banter and slurping sound effects until my own massage finally ends. I am thrown a towel and whisked away, past his curtain, to the steam bath room two floors up, where the woman demands that I take off my underwear and closes the door. Looking around at the rotted tiles, the air so thick I can hardly breathe, I leave my underwear in place, and cling to my towel. I refuse to sit down. I am suffocated and the entire experience is becoming, not just a waste of money, but unbearable.

Abandoning the remainder of my “spa package,” I decide I want to leave. I open the door and start wandering down the hallway and the dim stairwells, looking for my clothes and purse. I hear her from a floor below when she yells, “NO! You go back in room!” I realized they took me up there so they could finish what was started with the American. She is intercepting me, when she yells, “You come here!” pulls me down  a flight of stairs,  and pushes me into a room without explanation, slamming the door in my face. I look around and realize, I am now, locked in a bathroom, standing in a towel (and my underwear, at least) waiting for this American guy to get off.


I jiggle the door handle and start knocking. First softly, then I am pounding. After a few minutes, the militant older masseuse opens the door smiling, as if nothing happened, and I say, “Just give me my clothes, I want to get out of here.” She understands, not my words, but my tone, and leads me back to the room where I quickly get dressed and grab my purse. The man has already been escorted out. Again, she takes my hand, holding it between hers, “My friend, my friend, you like me? You give me tip?” I hand her a five dollar bill just to end it all. She hugs me and says, “You are so beautiful. You very pretty,” a line I am certain she has used before.

This wasn’t my first run-in with the sex industry in Asia. I went to “Soi Cowboy” in Bangkok, where the street is lined with strip clubs and brothels, the women free to rent for an evening, or plausibly, a lifetime. The women stand impatiently, lined up, smoking cigarettes with painted, pouting lips, and drooping fake eyelashes, faint peach fuzz belying the gender of the surreptitious ladyboy.

I also went to a karaoke bar in Chiang Mai which operates as a front, the women hike up their skirts and bat their eyes as we enter. I feel bad for them, they look bored, withdrawn, sex appeal sucked dry with their own disinterest, “Let’s have them come in and sing with us!” I suggest.

“If you want to pay $1000 bucks to sing with them, go ahead,” my friend replies. I decide it’s not worth it.

There are some cities that look better in the dark: Austin, Tucson, and New Orleans, I suppose, most desert towns, and the American south, generally. This is my experience in cities throughout Asia, where nightlife, incandescence and the glow of entertainment, hide the smog and dirt your feet will kick up in daylight.

One night in Ho Chi Minh City, I head out with an English guy I met over breakfast. We had spent the day at the War Museum, examining the Agent Orange formaldehyde fetuses and decide that drinking was a necessary antidote. After a few beers on a busy corner, we are carving our way through narrower streets with blinking signs, when he asks, “Want to go to a brothel?”

Here we go.

The brothel is lit in blue lights, and marked by the shadows of dancing women in tight dresses. They have surprising curves. There is a man getting a lap dance in the back. After some cursory broken English is exchanged, a few of the women who are unoccupied sit down at the bar with us and take a shot.

We compare breast implants (this makes them trust me).

I see that the woman behind the bar is crying on the phone. When she hangs up, I ask her if she is okay, what is wrong. She is clearing mascara from under her eyes as she tells me that the man on the phone was an American, from Pennsylvania. He got her pregnant 10 years earlier and was very, how should I say, unreliable, about sending any support money for their daughter. From what I gathered, he also has a double life going on in a suburb back home with a bonus round wife and three kids. I imagine middle-management sloth and pudgy children with names like Steven, Sally, and Grace. His wife has no clue that he has fathered a child in Vietnam or that he left this woman begging and tending brothel.

She is still beautiful.

After being in Thailand and Vietnam, I felt the increasing compulsion to protect Asian women from Western men. I start getting pissed that there are no international child support laws and (drunkenly) consider waging a campaign before the U.N. As it gets later, the white men start trickling into the brothel and I pretend we are at a normal bar, just to put them off. They do not expect a blunt, American woman to come up and ask, “Hey, where you from? How long will you be here?” No one wants to answer questions and they know I can see through them. I successfully force at least three back out into the street. I am not doing these girls any favors, but still, I feel accomplished.

After leaving HCMC, I am in Nah Trang, a beach town about 12 hours north. There is a divorced man in his late 50’s from Chicago working up a story about the younger Asian women he has bagged on his short trip: “I feel like I am dreaming,” he says, making me mouth-barf. He is short, bald and unattractive, the kind of guy, you know, couldn’t get it back home. I think, “You are dreaming, buddy. A nice poverty stricken, war wounded afterthought. Glad scarcity is working for you.”

We are both staying in the same hotel, so we cannot help the daily run-ins. One morning he comes stumbling into the lobby. His forehead is bleeding and is eye is purple and half-shut. He is dabbing blood from his face with a dirty napkin.

Before I even ask, he starts in, “I like nightlife,” he says, “I like to go out late, you know. Maybe I had too many drinks.” I ask him what happened. Apparently, after he left the “club,” he was attacked by three Vietnamese women who charged him, knocked him down and stole his wallet. I hide my smile when I turn away, thinking there was some poetic justice in this robbery.

When talking to a younger Vietnamese man, I ask him what he thinks the older white men parading around his country, with young Asian women dangling like bracelets from their forearms. He thinks it is gross, especially when the men are really fat (he makes gestures of a swollen belly), but also concedes that he is not in their position. He says he doesn’t know what it is like to be a poor, Vietnamese woman: “They just want better life,” he says, “They want car, house, someone care for them.”

Not to glorify the exchange, but, these women are hard-asses, not to be pitied. They have been tried more than I can imagine or ever will. They are not  helpless victims of culture, though they are the victims of poverty, which could force any of us into making different decisions, including unleashing some battery on an ugly, rich, fat white dude trying to get laid.

The Asian sex industry is not so foreign, like most differences once you examine them closely: to quote an American hero and our old friend, Puff Daddy, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby.”

The Veteran

Bangkok is not the kind of place you want to spend any time trying to relax or heal. I found myself wandering down the more ancient, narrow streets where stray dogs roam the alleys and (I never understood this) caged birds hang from the streetlamps. Walking in the dark alone felt dangerous, only if you consider what you might step on. Coming out of surgery, it just didn’t seem like the best place for recovery.

I took the night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The ride is how I imagine a Russian party on the Trans-Siberian Railway, replete with hard-faced alcoholics and stumbling men. In the chaos, think Darjeeling Limited. I was the only woman in the bar car, but for, the Swedish girl who timidly ran in and out wielding bottles of Chang to share with her boyfriend. The bathroom has a door that only answers to a determined hip-forced slam and a heavy-handed turn of the lock. The toilet itself is merely a hole in the floor: I watch the train sail over the tracks, my entire body bumping around the stall, while I try to avoid the piss puddles at maximum speed. Most riders are in sleepers: the seats pulling down into beds where everyone kind of climbs in at the same time. This takes some organization (putting hundreds of drunks—who are like children—to bed at once) so you can expect that the staff, are not always very kind.

I close the curtain and put my pillow over my purse and my laptop, recognizing that, once asleep, I am an unconscious and easy victim. The sleeper is too short, and I spend the night, my legs and body bent into an oddly angled “Z.” In the morning, my back cracks, as we halt to our destination. I step off the train, feeling like a character in a 1940’s film, the surroundings unknown, but familiar, like black and white. The crowds swarm. I feel that perhaps I should be waving a handkerchief or kissing a soldier. The needed crisp air fills my lungs as I pull my heavy bags from the platform and towards the street, where I hail a cab and collapse into the backseat.

Chiang Mai is cosmopolitan, like Bangkok, but within close reach from the moat and over the bridge from the heart of the city, there is a nature preserve, a small enclave resort. The hostel operates like a hotel and is laid out like an old Veteran’s hospital; a structure that seems intended bring some kind of peace after injury or during wartime. It has long hallways with evenly spaced rooms. There are large gardens labeled with the species of trees, plants and flowers. Long walks can be taken around the premises, through the sprawling gardens lead towards the largest swimming pool I have ever seen in Asia. The buildings, and rooms, are clean to the point of being sterile, except for the leftover deposits of nature—the debris of dead leaves and the varying native bug species that appear on tables or in the shower. There are lizards hunting the smallest bugs beneath the lights that drape from stucco walls.

After checking in and finding my room, I am looking for somewhere to eat. Maybe there is a nurse on staff, I think, then, pause to remember where I am. I pass a man sitting under the shade by the pool, his arm tied in a sling and his leg, wrapped in bandages and propped on a chair. He is bouncing a ping pong ball against the wall, having the look of being simultaneously amused and strained by misery. When I ask for directions to the restaurant, he startles and looks up. Despite the toll of his injuries, he looks youthful, with full, blonde surfer hair, uncommon for a man in his late thirties. His blue eyes are penetrating, carrying the burden of stories held in silence. In this hospital like setting, I was convinced, weighing the stoicism in his eyes and the conspicuousness of his debilitating injuries, that he was a veteran.

“You missed it girl, you passed it,” he says plainly. He strains and points in the direction opposite the wall. He is either Canadian or American, it is hard to tell.

I thank him and turn away, finding the arched wooden entry hidden by vines and find a seat at the restaurant. Immediately, I start digging in my bag to find a notebook, a novel, a pen, something to occupy my breakfast solitude. Within minutes, I see the Veteran hobbling through the restaurant, the heaviness of his left leg carrying his right, stepping unevenly, but carefully, to avoid knocking into the chairs and tables. I am the only one in the room and he sits down across from me. As if the conversation needed no introduction, the invitation to share a table unspoken, and without the socially conditioned goading of small talk, I bluntly ask him, “So what happened?”

“Hit by a truck,” he says casually as he sweeps the long hair from his face and behind his ear, with a swift motion that seemed hardened by habit.

“You know in Canada, we drive on the right and here they drive on the left. Even though I have been living here for about five years, man, it was just, like one instant and the second I stepped out I realized I fucked up, but it was too late, I looked up and, bam! A fuckin truck. It blew me out of my flip flops. I woke up in the ER tied down to a bed. Four days in the ICU, surgery, broken shoulder, and this fuckin shit.” He gestures to his leg with an open palm, then, pulls up his swim trunks and unwraps the bandage to reveal a thick wound that covered most his inner thigh. It was a rainbow of dead to dying flesh—greens, reds, pinks, yellows framed by blackened sinking edges.

“Dude. I think it is infected,” I said. “You really should get that cleaned out.”

“Nah, it just looks bad. It’s been like this for a while.”

“What happened to the driver?”

“He just took off. That’s what they do here. It’s not like he’s going to wait around. And the locals won’t report him. Paying off something like that, he would lose his house. I don’t care, man, fuck it, it’s Thailand. The whole thing only costs about 2500 dollars, and that’s without insurance.”

I only had my stiches removed the day before and I am swollen from carrying all my bags, a feat that I was directly told to avoid: “Don’t lift heavy objects.” Since we are sharing battle wounds, I ask him to examine my incisions. With the precision of a doctor, he looks closely and says, “Dude, that’s fucked up.” I can tell from the look on his face that my own healing process may have been stifled.

Our similarities were circumstantial, but we clung to them: we both speak English as a first language, we both like afternoon drinking, and far more bonding, we were in recovery (though my condition, he constantly reminded me, was voluntary). Fair enough. In any case, the entire encounter starts to feel like a scene from an Ernest Hemingway novel.

It takes only a couple days of what we called convalescence (poolside, beer delivery and various concoctions of prescription medications) to learn that this is not the type to settle down, even though he is turning 40 this year.

He even talks like a war vet. Over the course of weeks, his stories unravel. Among them are the following:

1) He singlehandedly took on eight Canadians who he believed were giving his country a bad rap. They were wanted for a series of random and vicious assaults throughout Thailand. Despite his efforts, he again, woke up in the hospital after being hit over the head with a broken bottle.

2) There is a warrant for his arrest in the United States having something to do with a misdemeanor drug charge and an escalated felony charge for fleeing. He won’t be able to reenter the U.S., even though he tells me, “Fuck it, I’m not even scared of jail, man. I like it. Sit around, watch T.V., talk to awesome dudes. I’ll go back if I have to.”

3) In Korea, he and a buddy decided they should steal the ATM out of a convenient store. When the cashier is in the back, they roll in with a dolly, unplug the ATM and roll it out to a truck.

WB: How much did you get?
V: Not sure, maybe a couple thousand bucks.
WB: Did you ever get caught?
V: Nah, but it was all over the news.
WB: Where is ATM now?
V: Don’t know, probably still in our backyard where we dumped it.

4) The Veteran was an actor in L.A. and a runner up to play Edward Norton’s character in American History X. As part of what he calls “getting pumped” for his screen test (including shaving his head), he walks into a bar, goes up to the first black guy he sees, gets up in his face and calls him a nigger. He gets punched out, and, from the floor, the black man picks him up and says, “You okay man?” The Veteran apologizes and says, “I’m not racist. Sorry about that.” He then explains, “I was just getting into character.” Graciously, the black guy says, “It’s cool dude,” and buys him a drink.

5) After some urging from his family and friends, he agreed to, not only attend, but host an AA meeting. He made a confessional, heartfelt speech, bonded with fellow addicts, and sent around the basket for donations. When the money came back, he sealed it in an envelope and put it in his pocket: “I just kept thinking, I should do this AA shit more often! I partied all night for free!”

One night, we go to a club where, upon entry, everyone knows him. The bartender tells me that the last time the Veteran was here they had to kick him out because he tried to climb from the roof and scale the walls of the next building.

I sense that with the truck collision, came the smack of mortality. This is the kind of person who has probably never thought about his own death or the consequences of his actions. Now, he is bound up wandering the halls with his leg leaking pus, borderline gangrene, his good arm rendered useless, not to mention the internal, more hidden ailments. In between stories of his reckless past, his rhetoric starts to shift. He starts making serious life plans—maybe he could open bar in Italy or build a home back in Canada. At some point he considers the possibility of children: “I could have a baby. I love babies, man, it’s like having little drunk people running around.”

One night, he asks me to marry him, offering the ring of a peanut shell. I know he is kidding, but there is something that makes me think he wouldn’t be, if it meant finality to his injury and recovery, momentum or change and some stability in his otherwise raucous life.

“Come on man, I’ll get money. I got money. I inherited a crypt back in Italy.” I like that he calls me “man.” Also, who owns a crypt? I ask him to explain. He comes from a deeply rooted, old school Italian family, many of whom still live near Sicily and he actually inherited a crypt, near his father’s hometown. He is supposed to be buried there. How symbolic, I think, that he wants to sell it: he still thinks he is immortal.

Every day I find out about another injury:

“Oh, you didn’t know my liver was lacerated?”

“Didn’t I tell you about the broken ribs?”

One day, while poolside, I notice that his nipple looks misplaced. I make a face and point this out. Irritated, he sharply answers, “Yeah, man because it got fuckin ripped off. This whole side of my chest. I got hit by a fuckin truck. That’s what happens when you get hit by a fuckin truck.”

When he drinks too much, he forgets he is injured and starts dancing, pumping his arm like he is at a Rage Against the Machine concert. He is moody and sometimes I worry he suffers from some confluence of a TBI, PTSD and alcoholism. Every day we have to go back to the emergency room to reset the bandages. Recovery is not on course.

What seems like two years is really less than a few weeks. We are both becoming restless and increasingly irritated with each other, like an old couple trapped in a nursing home, or, in sticking with a metaphor, like veterans stuck in a hospital, though I have now taken on the role of counselor and nurse. One afternoon, to combat our agitation, we decide to take a tour through Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle (the Mekong River in Northern Thailand that meets the border of Laos and Burma).

On the slow boat, he stands in front of 45 tourists and sings a song we made up about riding in a tuk-tuk. It is terrible and goes something like, “I took a tuk-tuk, I took a tuk- tuk, from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai. I took a tuk-tuk! He took a tuk-tuk! She took a tuk- tuk! We took a tuk-tuk!” There were other, longer, verses I have now forgotten, but, anyway, everyone cheers and asks for another round.

In addition to a protracted adolescence punctuated by criminal acts, the Veteran has also spent years volunteering at a Burmese refugee camp. He teaches English to children in Thailand. He makes jokes with the Laos border patrol officers. At his core, it is evident, that he loves people and, though he sticks out, the locals seem to embrace his audacity. There is nothing hidden or contrived about this man. Once when talking about education, he says to me fiercely, “Ph.D’s, M.Ds., J.D.s, MBAs, DDS, ABC, whatever, who needs letters. I have a Ph.D. in MAN.” In his world, the one I have been absorbed into, I smile, because, he is right.

While the tourists are making Visa runs to Burma and buying cheap clothes in the market, we wander down to a bar that looks over the river on the border. We are literally sitting under the border patrol where children are playing in the river they cannot cross.

He orders us two beers and steadily pours into each tilted cup he balances with his sling arm (he has mastered this technique over the course of his recovery). After taking a robust swig, he wanders over to the refrigerator, signals to the waitress that he is helping himself and grabs a Coke. There is a small boy waiting at the riverside looking up and smiling. He shows the little boy the Coke can and pretends to throw it so the boy can prepare. After the kid assumes a diving position, the Veteran tosses the can overhand, it arches and lands with a splash. The water is not so deep, so when the boy comes up, he sees the can floating above the surface. He grabs it and waves thumbs up.

Within seconds, there are two more boys down by the river, stripping down to their underwear, ready to dive in. The Veteran walks over to the fridge and grabs a sling full of Coke, Sprite, Orange Crush and starts tossing them into the water. It is a feeding frenzy, and one after the other, the cans are flying while the group of boys are diving in. He is running back to the fridge as fast as he can throw them and the kids are stacking up the cans like treasure on the riverbank, yelling up to us, “One mo, one mo.” The Veteran is laughing and giving commands in their native language I do not understand, but, like everyone else in the restaurant, we are watching this game, as if it were simply a backyard pool party. Even their parents lined up on the bridge to watch. By the end, there are nearly twenty kids diving and he has spent about thirty U.S. dollars on Coke.

It was good we got out of our little hospital. I was leaving in only two days and it brought a kind of peace, if only that I knew he was going to be okay.  He is immortal, after all.  Although, I learned that his leg was, in fact, infected, and he will have to return to Canada for some good old western medicine.

It’s not everyday you meet a man who survives getting hit by a truck, but more interesting,  is watching him come back to life.

Same Same

World travel, backpacking culture, and tourism, in general, breeds a certain type. Take the guy sharing a sleeper on my train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. He is wearing Thai pants and has matted blonde hair, grown stringy past his shoulders. His eyes are kind, but shifty, casual, as if to say, “I’ve done this before, and I might be slight and vegetarian, but don’t mess with me.”

He carries books about world religions and talks about cultural difference, name-dropping cities, countries and world wonders he has seen, as though he has assimilated into each landscape and frame effortlessly. He even has tattoos written in different languages written up and down his arms. His dirty feet are halfway up the ladder to the sleeper when he makes it known to me that the swastikas painted on his blanket are a common symbol in Hindu art meaning “good fortune and luck” not having anything to do with the Nazis. Incidentally, I had this knowledge previously, but thanked him for the clarification, as though I had been examining his blanket in the first place.

The world citizen must blend in, anywhere he goes. And he makes his efforts known, not unlike a host of travelers I have met along the way. Casual references are made:

“Oh have you been to…?”

“…. is just amazing, you must go there if you are going through…”

“If you stop in…, don’t forget to…”

His gestures are calm, as if he just spent 10 years on a yoga retreat. Nothing can phase him, because, as he so fervently implies, he has seen it all.

I don’t mind the helpful travel hints, but I sense a constant justification, as if the experience alone should lend itself to some kind of accomplishment and self-worth; that braving the East gives purpose and entitlement to experience, not only in the world at large, but the lives we live at home.

There is a group of Westerners on a yoga retreat where I am staying in Chiang Mai who meet routinely at 7:00, 12:00, and 6:00 (their unbending meal hours). On several (accidental) occasions, I have endured conversations from a nearby table where they discuss the importance of Eastern medicine, detox, bodily cleansing, and massage. There is one American woman from Portland who talks louder than the rest and says things like, “I know not everyone is a vegetarian, so I cannot order for the table, I mean, I am not that controlling. Just because I care about my body doesn’t mean I can tell other people what to put into theirs.”

(Across the table, eyes roll)

In another conversation she mentions this anecdote: “My friend suggested that I read a book about entitlement. She said I had this attitude of ‘entitlement.’ I didn’t want to read it, but I like to evolve, so I did. I guess she was right. I think maybe I do travel with a sense of entitlement.”

My favorite line: “I like to evolve.” We come from all over the world, but everyone leaves wearing beaded bracelets and Thai pants. This must be her definition of evolution: trading in Versace for market pants she probably bartered down from 5 dollars. Bragging about how little we can live on a day, as if choice makes the whole thing fun.

I can’t deny, we are all tourists, and I am not immune. There is something sad about the emptiness of it all. I wonder, can we ever really connect through travel? I was walking through Bangkok in a highly populated tourist area, and everyone was sort of floating along blindly. Maybe the Westerners were mesmerized, but they seemed bored with their own attempts at the exotic, bored with their purchases, bored with escape.

Two girls sat and had their hair braided by Thai women, their eyes unfocused, staring into the market, their dirty sandals kicked off, their posture, deadened, like unused puppets. They were resting, feeling self-satisfied, paying pennies for what would turn out to be at least an hour’s work. They seem disinterested, as if they are somewhere distant, glazed over, probably thinking about how to cleverly update their Facebook status. Even here, things do not change so much.

We cannot help being Westerners in the East, but I question the form of tourism that so cheaply and carelessly rips off cultures and habits, making the experience as disposable as the unused coins we find at the bottom of our backpacks. I understand the, “When in Rome…,” concept, but really, this appropriation of minority Eastern cultures by the West seems to have gone awry, especially when none of us will ever really know what it is like to live on 8000 baht a month. Most of us travel on European, American, or Canadian passports, another advantage, which we cannot deny or trade, even with a smile.

That is the privilege isn’t it? The passport that brings knowledge, and the knowledge that comes from “experiencing” cultures and people like studying caged animals at the zoo, without stopping to think, they never can or will have the money or freedom to “study” us. I laugh at the Fodder’s headings in the travel books, “Meet Your Minorities!” and tour offers to “Eat With the Locals!” It is not that the locals don’t want to sell these commodities or that they don’t want you there, it’s that they don’t give a shit. And the “exchange” has nothing to do with culture.

On my last night in Chiang Mai, I wanted a picture with the hotel waiter, Sum Chai, a man we had grown close to over the course of three weeks. Though he didn’t speak much English, we learned his name, traded whiskey and cigarettes and learned about his family. We always asked him to sit down at our table, but he graciously bowed and always brought back the change that we intended for his tip. He finally began to understand when we shout, “We LOVE YOU Sum Chai!” He would laugh and shake his head, turning away, bashfully.

I have spent more time with this man than my own family in the past six months and I will probably always remember him, so I didn’t think it inappropriate to ask for his picture. I stand next to him, posing in a clichéd arm-around-the-shoulder-because-we’re-so-close-way, looking awkwardly large next to his feeble frame. The flash goes off. He stands still for a second, and then runs to the other side of the camera lens quickly, wanting to see the results in the window. When I look at the photo later, his posture is stiff, his eyes look empty and cold. He is not smiling. I feel bad, like maybe I scared him.

Later I showed the picture to a friend who has been living in Thailand for 5 years. His only response was: “Well, what was he supposed to do? How many pictures do you think he has had taken? Do you think he even owns a camera? Do you think he has a bunch of photos lying around the house of him posing with his own family?”

I instantly feel silly, withdrawn, and a bit naïve for trying to capture this brief encounter in a way, I now see as presumptuous and possibly insensitive. Similarly, I am sickened, while I watch the others from the boat to Laos, hover and snap digital photos of a woman and her children as they are begging for food: moments to remember, and then tuck into the files of our desktops we will label, “Thailand” or “Laos, January 2011.”

I was sitting with a kid from Burma while at a bar in Northern Thailand and he told me about being a refugee. He had seen his own parents slaughtered, then, he and his sister escaped, following the mass exodus, running until they reached a refugee camp. After living years on the border of Thailand, he was finally able to gain refugee status and immigrate to the United States. Now he is in college in Tucson and lives less than two blocks from my old apartment near the U of A. We laugh at the coincidence, though I am still shaken by the warfare story, one that he revealed so casually and seemed so far off from anything close to my own quaint, suburban childhood.

It was New Year’s Eve and he was in Thailand to visit and find some old family and friends. We both sat at the same bar and shared a large bottle of Chang. After the count down, and the clock struck midnight, we all raised our glasses and cheered.

In Thainglish (Thai-English) there is a ubiquitous expression “same same, but different” which basically translates into, “same thing, but different in some ways.” You will often hear this shortened into, “same same.”

As the minutes pass, the laughter dies down, with blurry vision, I watch this boy, who through his smiles, has seen so much. I think about “same same.” I think about “same same, but different.” Even though we are both in Thailand, at this moment, at this table, same 2011 new year, same hotel patio bar, it is still clear to me, in muted words and passing eyes, there is a difference: I am merely a tourist, and he, is trying to come home.