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.

Plastic

When I was 16 I told my parents that I wanted breast implants. I asked them if it were possible to consider it an “investment,” kind of like paying for piano lessons or gymnastics or college: “But think of the opportunities! The opened doors! I could do anything!” They didn’t buy it. Like any good parents, they ignored it like my other long string of attention seeking stunts and chalked up to a phase.

As a child, I examined the Barbie dolls and imagined what it would be like to fully “emerge” as a woman. When I was a teenager, I stuffed my bra, a trick I continued to pull through college which came in handy in toilet-paperless barroom stalls and fraternity parties. I watched old movies, the women pouring out of low cut dresses, and held out hope through my mid-twenties that maybe I was just a late bloomer. I think it took turning 25 for me to accept that I had probably completed puberty, even if unsuccessfully. The butterfly metaphor just didn’t apply.

I envied women who could wear those ridiculous corsets, even if they were strippers and Playboy models. Any lingerie would do. I even wanted to be a burlesque dancer—something I was very close to pursuing in New York. After watching a show in the Lower East Side, I was sitting at the bar stirring my drink when the respected NYC dancer, Runaround Sue, came and sat next to me, propping her bare chest on the bar, like she was carrying around too many bags. I tried to look her straight in the eyes, not the nipples, as I told her that I wanted my own act. “Chest size doesn’t matter!” she said excitedly, “You should do it! Come meet me and we can find you a costume!”

I masterminded a routine in the event that I was ever ready to bare all. The routine goes like this: I am wearing an eye patch, a pirate hat marked with a skull and crossbones, and I have strapped on a wooden peg leg. I hop in from one side with my arms on my hips and kind of sway around on the stump. After some enticing hip movements and a wink at the audience, I kick my leg and the wooden peg leg goes flying at the same time I tear off the eye patch, fling the hat and let down my hair. Sexy right?

With all the practice and planning, the whole stunt just didn’t seem right without swinging breasts and flailing nipple tassels. I still wanted implants. Yes, Dolly Parton is one of my role models and I adhere to her shameless, yet, dignified pursuit of plastic surgery. Broaching this topic with anyone usually invokes some kind of heated response. For some reason, people have very strong opinions about what we should or should not do to our own bodies. Men will say, “But you are fine just the way you are,” as if I just needed their personal voice of approval to change my mind: “Yes, of course! What was I thinking? How could I change something about myself that you believe to be just fine. Thank you for the compliment and highly relevant opinion of my body. I no longer want to go through with this.” I think it’s cute that every guy thinks he is the first to try and dissuade me. When it comes to this particular issue, I am immune to flattery.

In the same vein, women will categorize plastic surgery as an affront. It is anti-feminist, it means you are insecure, not happy with yourself. They think you are a secret cutter. I felt the most resistance from women who were already big-busted, although this, I kind of understood, the same way that women with straight hair always want it to be curly. We want what we can’t have.

For me, it has always been very simple. To put it bluntly: I wanted boobs. Big ones. The kind that fell out of my shirt and made people look twice. The kind that I could take shopping and go swimming with. Boobs that screamed, “Hey you! Look at me, even though all I’m gonna do is sit here. And maybe bounce around a little. Either way, it’s FUN FUN FUN, til her Daddy takes the T-Bird away!” I thought of them as long-lost friends. The term “bosom buddies” didn’t come out of nowhere. It just so happened that we had not met yet. We were like estranged family members waiting to get reunited on Montel Williams.

Some things we can change and some things we cannot. Fortunately, in my case, change came last week in a Thai hospital at a discount price. I planned the surgery months before arriving in Bangkok, corresponding with some androgynous internet personality called “Nann.” I sent him/her pictures, medical records, descriptive prose about my desired breasts, which I am confident went ignored or untranslated.

One of the reasons plastic surgery is cheaper is because the entire process is streamlined. Instead of making an appointment, you basically sit in a line and wait until the doctor can see you. Same day consultations and surgery make the process even more efficient. I had a nightmare the day before my appointment. You might think it would have to do with some infection or botch job, but no, my subconscious fear was that the doctor would have to perform the surgery Friday instead of Tuesday, as planned.

The waiting room was packed and felt a little bit like that afterlife waiting room scene from Beetlejuice: we are all kind of messed up, looking around wondering what happened and what needs fixing. I kept thinking about that guy with the shrinking head and all the dead people holding numbers. Some of the patients are legitimate: a child with a harelip, the burn victim, and the row of lady-boys waiting for sex change operations. Then there are the rest of us: Europeans, Australians, and Americans who are either seeking nose jobs, facelifts, liposuction, or implants (insert me).

I decide that the hospital, in general, is way too colorful and bright. Also (this is my favorite part)…. the nurses are on roller skates. They are wearing those tight suits like flight attendants from the 60’s gliding by holding documents, medication… SYRINGES .There is techno music playing in the background as if the whole experience should say, “Plastic surgery is fun! Let’s do it again!”

Throughout the hospital there are advertisements that say things like, “Be happy. Be beautiful.” On the posters there is a running list of procedures you can undergo to make this happen (beauty and happiness both start to seem like suspect outcomes). I find myself unintentionally holding my breath at several points: when I hear my mispronounced name and stand, weighing the implants in my palms, standing nude in front of the doctor while he took pictures and made incomprehensible comments in Thai, laying down on the operating table, arms spread eagle, a split second, right before I inhaled the anesthesia.

The good thing about general anesthesia is that you are fully aware that, in what seems like seconds, you will wake up and it will all be over. The bad thing is that when you wake up, you will have been sliced open, prodded, stuffed, and sewn back together like Thanksgiving dinner. I don’t remember much except for yelling at one of the roller skating nurses to rub my arms because I couldn’t feel them. This is one of those anesthesia horror story moments, although they reassured me in broken English that everything would be fine in a few hours.

So, in less than 48 hours, I landed in Bangkok and woke up with breasts. Big, swollen, tightly wrapped, fake breasts. It is one of those moments in life that makes no sense and you know that nothing you have ever experienced or will experience can compare. It’s like coming out of a coma or The Matrix only you have new body parts. And I don’t mean this in a positive or negative way… just that lying there, knowing that weight of what seemed like 50 pounds pressing down on my chest was now my own body is definitely a WTF moment.

I stay in the hospital overnight and within a few hours after waking up, I am trying to prepare for departure. I knew I had to go back to the creepy old Bangkokian hotel alone and take care of myself for a week before the stitches come out so I do my best to conquer the surgical feat with minimal angst. Everything hurts: sitting up, bending over, lifting, reaching, picking up the phone… reading. I start to feel like a good primate when I use my feet to pick up my purse. I had to learn to sit up on my own. Not to keep referencing movies, but I just watched Kill Bill and I was channeling Uma Thurman in the backseat of the Pussy Wagon. Instead of saying, “Wiggle your big toe,” I was like, “Just sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up. Sit up.” Mustering only strength from my lower-abs and using some leg momentum, I lift my chest and throw my legs over the side of the bed. Success. I practice walking around the room but am off balance, because I am holding the new weight up with both my forearms.

After packing up my things, I throw some cash for my new tee-tas at the check-out, step out to the curb and hail a cab (unable to lift my arm, I give a low-five wave). Up in the room I was prepared: Luckily, pirated DVDs cost less than a dollar in Thailand and I learned that there was at least one guy in the kitchen who could take room service orders in English. I was in air conditioned recovery and spent the next few days reclining in a king sized bed, trying to avoid the ubiquitous Bangkokian smells of street meat and cat piss.

In a few days, I am out and about. Another thing I like about Thai health care is that you can pretty much get whatever you want from the pharmacy. They even have a Botox counter where you can walk up and they just start poking needles in your face. Be wary though: the guy behind the counter is so tight and shiny, he looks like robotic Jude Law in AI. Thai health care is pretty much a free for all. When I show the pharmacist the painkillers I was prescribed, she says, “Das for kindergarten pain! You need dis!” She throws me what I suspect to be some concoction of Oxycodone, Percoset or Vicodin, I am not sure what. She throws in a pack of Valium and says, “You jus take easy and relaaaaaa-AX, ” (winks and smiles).

The million dollar questions: How are they and how do I feel? My friend warned me about body dysmorphic disorder and the psychological dangers of plastic surgery. For me, there was no dysmorphia because (well, maybe this is dysmorphic), I believed they were supposed to be there the whole time. Like I said…. reuniting with old family… and just in time for Christmas. My only complaint is that they may not be big enough. The doctor laughed at me today when I asked if he could make them bigger. Since he does not speak English very well, he made a series of gestures and sound effects, which I interpreted to mean that the implant would overflow from the side, implode (or explode) beneath the muscle and potentially collapse and come out my mouth. Really, I have no idea what he was trying to indicate, other than something really terrible might happen if I tried bigger implants.

Maybe he is right and I should just get used to these. I already kind of have this feeling that I am auditioning for porn when walking down the street. Okay, to be fair, I have an active imagination.

I got my stitches out today and we are all healing on schedule. When I fully recover, I am thinking of putting that pirate routine back together… possibly integrating a talking parrot and a flute.

But, first things first: I am taking my new boobs and getting the F— out of Bangkok.