Vignettes From America
I am lucky enough to live in Las Vegas, a community that is as all-American as it gets. We are a bastion of good old-fashioned free market capitalism, and a community of immigrants, with all corners of the worlds represented – especially if those corners
happen to be Latin America or Asia. While growing up, most of my friends were of Asian descent- in fact, my soon to be step-father is Korean. As a consequence, I have had the luck to get acquainted with the Asian community here in Las Vegas. Last
night I went out and found myself in one of my favorite Thai restaurants- It was late and I was eating alone, so I got to thinking about my South East Asian connections here in Farangland. As I prepare for my move to Bangkok, I spend a lot of
time reading Farangs' analysis of Thailand, and many of the complaints of how hard it can be live in such a different culture. Though many have been insightful and helpful, I have read many characterizations of Thais and Asians that I have
found to be hilariously un-true or misguided (at least from my perspective). Few stories of Thais abroad are based on premises other than prostitution or illegal immigration. Perhaps this is not fair? I know too many prosperous Thais who have
assimilated into American society to believe much of what I read about the “Thai Character” or the “Thai Mind.”
1. THE RESTAURANT
Las Vegas is blessed with some of America’s best Thai food. In fact, many publications, including the very well respected Gourmet magazine, name “Lotus of Siam” as America’s best Thai restaurant. The reviews of it are absolutely glowing. The food is very good indeed, and does have many northern Thai and Isaan specialties (no bugs that I know about, at least) and at a very good price, but I hate this restaurant. It’s a bit shabby and a bit small, but most importantly, it is located in the seediest are of the seediest city I can think of. It is located in the Commercial Center shopping center which hosts the restaurant’s neighbors- A swingers club full of hookers, a Leather shop, a lesbian biker bar, a large pool hall full of guys looking for blood, a few liquor stores, an evangelical church, a gay bathhouse, Asian Karaoke parlors, a few Korean stores, and many empty shop fronts. Once night time hits, the parking lot lights do not turn on and the hookers and homeless and vagrants come out to play. I don’t like going to this restaurant. I resent that it is called America’s best Thai restaurant- just because it is unpretentious does not make it the best.
Instead, I go to a restaurant neighboring a travel agency and a Starbucks. It is owned by the Aunt of one of my friends when I was 14. He moved away to California at this point so that he could get into Berkeley or UCLA or whatever (I don’t know of any Thais here who are anything but top students, and certainly none that are cheaters). The food is very good, and is in my opinion, the best in the city. I show up 45 minutes before closing and am seated by a Thai guy. I try my pathetic Thai on him and he is very unimpressed. Nevertheless, he serves me a ‘bia Sing’ without checking my ID- I’m definitely not legally allowed to drink in the States. This is in a city with almost no liquor control laws save for massive fines for serving those who are underage. Go figure.
The menu is very short and features quite a few “Chinese” dishes so that the ugly American can eat his Orange Chicken without complaint and the Thai basics. It is best to ignore the menu and just tell them what you want- they’ll make it. Thai folks do not even bother with the menu here. They also have a very good beer and wine list- with MV Monsoon Valley wines getting plenty of promotion.
When you order, they ask you how hot you want you food, on a scale of 1-10. I said “mai phet.. hok.” We both had a laugh at my Thai and she asks (in perfect English) if I’ve been to Thailand. Clearly was not impressed with me. Whatever. White guys interested in Asian countries are more or less always creepy as all get out- why would I be perceived differently?
I got literally about 2 pounds/1 kilo of food and barely any rice. I also got an awesome buzz on from the Singha. It is definitely a malt liquor, but not a bad tasting one. I was very impressed that my beer was brewed a whole 8 months ago in Pathum Thani. That is quite awhile for a beer to sit around waiting to be sold for $4.
All said and done, after a nice tip (wait staff were students like myself), my bill was 800 baht for a meal and a beer. Thai food is definitely about, oh I don’t know, 90% less expensive in Thailand. I made breakfast out of the leftovers, at least.
To me this restaurant represents what is great about America. It was immigrant owned and prosperous. They catered to everyone and treated all guests the same- certainly no scoffing at the farang, just at his awful attempt at butchering a language they only speak with their parents when they’re in trouble. They shared the best aspects of their culture- their food, music, and art with a clientele that is largely not Thai. They played by the rules. This is just one of the experiences that makes me detest the racist generalizations about Asian society and psyche even more.
2. THE LAOTIAN GIRL
I know a girl with a Laotian background. Her family came here just before she was born because they were persona non grata in Vientiane. She has never visited Laos, and probably will not be visiting the in the foreseeable future. Her family was wealthy in Laos- pale skin, and most of her relatives speak- get this- Lao, Thai, French, English, and most now speak Spanish. Her family is definitely very middle class here, despite very good educations and a past life of luxury. Life is tough as an Immigrant. If you want to bitch about being treated like second class citizens, talk to families like hers who picked up and moved to a strange country to avoid being put in jail. Ask them about the discrimination they faced, ask them about their confusion at the bureaucracy, and ask them about what it feels like to worry about to have to worry about being sent back just because INS didn’t like the lawyer they spent all their savings on. Then ask a family who did this without being able to speak English. Maybe you will take less offense when you’re discriminated against. It happens everywhere, and it’s never just.
I dated her when I was in High School. Now we are kicking it again, some years on. She has taught me a lot about South East Asian culture, and from a perspective I can understand. She is very honest about all the aspects of the culture, and chooses which parts of it she wishes to participate in. For instance, she is a Buddhist, and the first Buddhist who is willing to explain Buddhism to me. She has explained the wai, the difference between Thai and Lao wais, why it’s done, and who to do it to- all in a way that a book could only dream of. Her opinions on the importance of light skin is hilarious. Her skin is beautiful, and almost black, save for the areas that her bikini does not reveal. This is on purpose. She finds the value placed on pale skin and the money wasted on skin whiteners absolutely revolting. Did I mention that she has bright pink hair, and is into the indie rock scene?
Anyway, I find it terribly interesting that those who have multiple cultures they can identify with very interesting. They can pick the best from each. For example, my friend values traditional Lao culture, does almost all of her reading in French, and speaks enough Spanish to kick it at the swap meet and eat at the very best Mexican restaurants (she hates Lao food, especially rice and eggs). All the while, she is wholly American, and so much more assimilated than quite a few of the Farangs I have seen in Thailand. I find that Asian immigrants are much more willing to assimilate into western culture than westerners are willing to assimilate into Asian culture. Is this proof that Western culture is superior, or that Western culture is inherently prejudiced with an inflated self worth?
3. THE SWAP MEET
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the swap meet. There are quite a few swap meets in Las Vegas, almost all are inside, air conditioned and with a nice mix of cultures- primarily Mexican, Korean, and White Trash. I love them. This particular day, I went to the outdoor swap meet. It is the biggest (although nothing like JJ) and also the most Mexican. It’s located in the ghetto, or “Barrio” and not much English is spoken. If you’re not a meteorologist, Las Vegas is located in the desert, and it’s location in a valley causes high winds with almost no clouds. It’s hot, has a breeze that feels like a hair dryer, and the sun is relentless. There are very few outdoor places like this, and for good reason.
After two hours of wondering around, my eyes nearly bulged out of my head. There was a table full of all the tourist shit you see on the 5th (?) floor of MBK. Pillow cases, elephants, fans, key chains, Buddhas, whatever. 8,000 miles away in the middle of the desert sun in what is essentially a Mexican marketplace. My friends and I were a bit drunk at this point, and those of us who had been to Thailand before just stared in awe at what was, essentially, 5 square meters of MBK. We couldn’t believe it. The shop was run by a particularly sad looking Thai lady. Business was definitely not good for her, and I’m pretty sure that one does not work a table at the outdoor swap meet unless they really need the money. Nonetheless, I was about to strike up a conversation, and make use of my version of the Thai language. That is, until my very drunk friend put a stupid folding hat on and did his most obnoxious, nasal rendition of the word “Sawatdee.” At least this lady got a laugh as myself and his brother punched him in the head. We scurried away like schoolboys caught with our hands in the cookie jar.
This was really my first ever encounter with the other side of Asian immigrants. I have always “known” that Asians are very smart and very hard working and none of them are poor. I had never seen Asians outside this stereotype with my own eyes, and I had never seen Asian folks running such sad businesses. I always wonder what her story is- I wonder if she wound up marrying an American guy only for things to not work and she be left to her own devices. I wonder if she’s retired and just likes hanging out and hawking tourist crap her relatives send her.
Right next to beer garden is what I like to call “Food Poisoning Row.” This is a group of food stalls that sell foods of dubious quality and that are totally unsuited for 110/43 degree weather. One such restaurant is the Thai Chinese restaurant- It has a tiny front made of wood and a very small hole cut out for the purpose of ordering, paying for, and receiving your order. It has a very small menu in English, and a menu the size of a sheet of plywood written exclusively in Thai. I can’t see the need for this. The only Asian looking person I had seen today had been the poor shop lady we had harassed earlier. Perhaps there really were Thais who go to such a down market place. Perhaps my “positive” stereo types of Asians and Thai- Americans were not totally true.
4. THE SON OF A BAR GIRL
When I was 12, before I knew what a luk kreung was, I had a luk kreung friend. David and I were friends because we both liked to look at porn (he had stolen some from his father’s closet and I was one of the first kids with cable internet) and because we both liked to skateboard and swim in our pools. I always hated going to his house, despite the fact that it was a bit nicer and had a better pool- just because his home life was so shitty. David had a Thai mother and an American Father. They met in a bar in Thailand. He must not have known exactly what this meant yet.
He loved both of his parents very much- probably because he never saw either of them. His father was a ‘professional’ gambler and was successful enough that he was able to live in his Mother’s house. He effectively left his kids to be cared for by his mother, who was, luckily, quite sharp and quite wealthy.
David’s mother lived in California. She dealt cards at an Indian Casino after she left David’s father for being a total scum bag. Thanks to family court, David’s dad was seen as a more suitable parent despite his lack of a day job and countless personal problems. Was David’s mother less fit of a parent, or are our courts biased against “mail order” brides?
Either way, David’s family situation definitely represented the perils of marrying a bar girl. I stopped being friends with David when I was 13, mainly because he just crazy and doing all sorts of stupid shit.
When I was 14 he had a new sister. His father had gone ahead and brought a Chinese mail order bride over with her daughter, who was the same age as David. Luckily his mother had a house big enough to accommodate these new additions to the family. All that I know is that this poor girl was sent to our very suburban, very wealthy, very racist, and very unfriendly school with almost zero knowledge of English. David pretended to not know who she was. I suppose that he realized what a dirt bag his dad was at this point.
Last time I heard about him was from my brother. He was selling drugs and he was one of the few dealers who delivered. Who would think that a childhood friend would sell your younger brother a dime bag when you’re away at college?
I’ve always felt bad for David- I remember him as a nice person with real crap circumstances.
This is one of the reasons Thai women get such little respect in this country. Most Thai women married to white guys are incorrectly labeled as ‘mail order brides.’ These relationships are seen as quite illegitimate by many, and perhaps with good reason.
5. THE BRAHMA STATUE
Las Vegas is a city that I like to compare to Bangkok. There is lots of glitz and sleaze for which hordes of tourists come for. But underneath this shell are an amazing number of hidden treasures. Some are more obvious than others.
Caesar’s Palace is one of my favorite properties on my beloved Las Vegas strip. I have been to this casino countless times, be it for some shopping, a meal, or an Elton John concert (even if you’re not a fan, the red piano show is worth the baht). I know it well, and I even know the apian way and entire pool area. I did not know about the brahma statue until just a few months ago. Right out in front of the casino, in its own secluded garden, lies a Buddhist shrine. It is the four faces of brahma, meant to bring luck to the hotel and its patrons. In fact, it is a replica of the same shrine at the Erawan hotel in Bangkok- the same shrine that ended their bad luck.
The statue was donated by Kamphol Vacharaphol, a Thai newspaper tycoon and Yip Hon. The story of Yip Hon making his money back and winning the Rolls happened at Caesar’s. In fact, Caesars still has a large segment of Asian gaming market, primarily from Asian Buddhists. Others such as the Bellagio, Wynn, and Venetian have a very difficult time convincing Caesar’s whales to come over despite much nicer amenities and better organizations.
There are troupes of elephants surrounding the statue, decorated with garlands. On each of the four sides there is a personal prayer kneeler with facilities to burn the provided joss sticks. Donations are collected and sent off to children’s and AIDS charities in Thailand. For those interested, I have taken a few photos, beginning with:
I hope that you have enjoyed my little vignettes. They represent an aspect of Thai and Asian society not often represented on Stickman. We all know that many Thais wish to move abroad, and those who do move abroad almost always maintain a good portion of their culture. Perhaps this is a portion of Thai society worth examining, and maybe even in a more positive light. We may even be able to learn something from or Thai brothers and sisters who make the same move we do- just in reverse. Writing these has made me very curious to explore the other sides of Thai-American culture. I know that there are Buddhist temples tucked away in the neighborhoods, and I know that there have to be a few Thai women working in the ubiquitous “Asian Massage” parlors that dot my fair city. But then again, do I really want to tango with a real sex slave?
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