Readers' Submissions

Where Am I And What Am I Doing Here?

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • July 15th, 2006
  • 11 min read


By BKKSW

I was asked a question today about why I choose to live in Thailand and specifically Bangkok. I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets the winks and the ‘understanding’ nods from people in my home country when I tell them I live in Bangkok, after all with the media attention Bangkok gets in the western world sex=Bangkok like Casino=Las Vegas. Their sum total knowledge of Thailand and Bangkok is maybe a 60 Minutes special on the bar scene or suggestive ads in the back of men’s magazines. And of course when you return to your home country everyone “knows” you married a bar girl who’s after a green card and your money and cares nothing about you. I’ve had people at parties and other gatherings, men who think they know about Thailand and even men who have visited a few times, ask my wife if she’d like to earn extra money on the side when my attention is turned elsewhere. I’ll give her credit for taking it in stride though as she’ll often ask the men (rather loudly) why they can’t find a local woman to sleep with and try to offer her money for sex instead as the offender lowers his head and slinks out of the party rather embarrassed. Even though my wife has never been a bg I’ll admit to having similar thoughts about the ladies origins (that I keep to myself) when we attend the stateside Thai gatherings and there are the 20-40 year age differences between husband and wife. Having lived in Asia most of my adult life and more than a few years now in Thailand total I know better than to assume all Thai women are ex-bg’s but I can’t help myself from thinking they probably were when the age differences are so huge. I suppose that makes me sort of a bigot, but more it makes me a realist. How can we expect the image of Thailand to change when most of what they read and hear is true? There’s so much more to Thailand. However, it seems Thailand is more interested in keeping the tourist dollars flowing in than improving their image.

And then you get the “why did you marry an Asian girl” questions, but most of these are coming from men who believe in the greatest myth of all time, that Asian women are submissive wives who want nothing more in the world than to please their husbands, take care of the house, care for the children, and cut their toenails while they drink beer. Some people watch way too much television. Even my own brother at one time was convinced he needed “a good traditional Asian woman” and when I tried to talk him out of it he asked me why I married two of them? Easy answer, when I married my Korean wife I was living in Korea and that’s all there was to date for the most part. And guess what? Yep, when I married my Thai wife I was living in Thailand and for the most part Thai women made up the dating pool. I followed that up by saying I dated only the exact same time of women I’d have dated in my own country, same age, same looks (level of), same interests, same everything. Coming to Thailand and marrying a lady based on a myth is nothing more than living a fantasy and fantasies as we all know are only temporary..

The other day my son and I decided to just take a walk. No driving or taxi to malls or palaces or any attractions, but rather just a long walk around the neighborhood outside of the walls and security guards that surround our complex. As we walk down the entry soi to the complex it didn’t take long to encounter the Thai stores, food venders, dogs with mange, and the stench of inadequate sewers and standing water. We live within walking distance of a Justco, McDonalds, Hospital, Toyota dealer, and several other major retailers. But as we wander down the thanon and head further away from the complex and the shops that were built to support its residents the true neighborhood takes shape.

What are we seeing? For the most part old broken down cement buildings that haven’t seen paint since they were new, dirty restaurants that the health department back in the world would shut down and not only close the doors but surround with a huge tent and fumigate or maybe condemn altogether. Metal bars on metal tracks slide across the entrances as the shops close and the occasional dark entrance that threads back between buildings where Thai men are actively headed for whatever interests them, and more dogs with mange. The sidewalks are full of holes and other hazards and even after a short time in Thailand you learn to look down where you’re stepping as well as forward where you’re going. Everything is in a serious state of disrepair.

Feeling adventurous I lead my son off the main thanon and down a small soi which is half dirt and have old asphalt which is a real Thai neighborhood. Less than a few hundred meters down the soi the small tin shelters next door to more modern homes which are next door to homes built 30-40 years ago. If there’s a vacant lot it’s quickly filled up with the tin shelters, work trucks, or just garbage. Clothes are outside on racks drying and the smell of Thai cooking is everywhere and inside the doorways and windows without curtains you can see families sitting on the floors watching television and eating and drinking. More dogs with mange and more garbage and I ask myself with labor so cheap in Thailand why no one can afford to clean the vacant lots next door to their house which is piled high with years worth of garbage and trash dumped and forgotten? The bugs and rodents that inhabit these lots surely only use it as a base in which to launch their assaults on the nearby homes. 1000 meters or so into the soi my son thinks we should probably head back to the main street. But not yet.. There’s more I want him to see.

There’s a certain vacant lot the local children his age have staked out to play soccer and other games that involve nothing but cheap balls, sticks, rocks, and the sort of things I remember growing up to play with when I was a kid. My son with his Playstation and laptop computer and closet full of nice clothes has never known the sort of life I grew up in but now he’s seeing it with his own eyes. In the states we’d label it a ghetto or public housing or “that neighborhood you don’t want to take a wrong turn in”, but in Bangkok this is pretty much the norm. As we stop and watch the kids an old lady comes out and gives me a chance to practice my Thai and ends up offering us inside to join them for dinner. My son gets a horrified look on his face afraid I’ll accept but I make an excuse and we head back to the thanon. We don’t get far when her husband joins her and they practically drag us inside the house and welcome us warmly. Dinner is almost ready and some kids come running through the door and are made to greet us with the proper respect. The kids were fascinated with my sons half Asian appearance and wanted to know what country he came from. My son is half Korean and as he’s only 13 I haven’t yet exposed him to the savage racism and treatment he’d receive in Korea but plan to soon, but here in Thailand he’s started to connect in a way to his “Asian half” and appreciate some of the differences. A TKD blackbelt by 11 and already earning his 2nd degree by 13 at least he has some exposure to his heritage. We didn’t stay long, just enough to be polite, but long enough for him to see that real people lived in these places and they were nice people. They weren’t the people he was used to accosting him at MBK or the malls trying to get his baht. Even as poor as they were they brought him in their house and offered us food and drink and talk. The part of Thailand the people I talked about in my opening paragraph never get to see.

Driving home from almost anywhere we often pass by this major intersection where young kids run through the stopped cars trying to sell all kinds of goods and as we often pass by I noticed he was always looking for one certain young girl his own age who was a cute little thing and always tried to sell us dried flowers threaded on strings. He commented how dangerous it was for the kids and how late they worked and asked “when do they do homework or play with the other kids” and I could tell this bothered him. Heck, it bothers me. But he never failed to look for that one little girl who had caught his eye. A few weeks ago he was reading the Bangkok Post and I noticed he looked shocked. He brought the paper over and showed me a story where a girl at this intersection of the age this girl probably was got crushed beneath a big trucks wheels and died. The story went on to say how the person doing the story interviewed the locals and learned this girl was made to work from noon to eight at night every day of the week and had to meet a quota or her parents would beat her. They told how this girl was very bright and would beg to have time off to do her homework or eat and the parents would keep her working. Both of us knew this had to be the same girl the article as they even described the flowers she sold. He went to his room and shut the door and didn’t come out till the next morning. I think this was his first major lesson in life, something worse than his parents divorcing or the normal sort of problems he’d had to face in his life. During breakfast the only thing he said was the truck was only going 2.5kph in that busy intersection but the driver was cited for “reckless driving” while the parents were still free to send out their other kids in the same intersection. We both agreed things should be better than they are. Since I’ve made it a point to drive around that intersection when he’s been in the car with me, maybe in his mind there’s some hope it wasn’t this certain girl. I’ve driven through by myself though and the girl is no longer there. Another part of Thailand those in the first paragraph don’t see.

A week later we were in Cambodia and the intensity and number of kids begging and trying to sell things is quite a bit more than in Thailand but he took it in stride and we had a good time. The last day there however there was one more thing I wanted him to see. We visited the landmine museum and the exhibits were mind numbing. Later we went out and I photographed some UN workers (from a distance) deactivating mines in a field and after we visited the children’s hospital. Why am I exposing him to these things? He’s doing great in school, he works hard around the house, does chores, and overall has a pretty good life even for a western child. However, the world is a big place and I’d rather he not be as ignorant about the world as those I described in the opening paragraph of this submission.

Next year we’ll visit the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the AIDS hospices set up at the temples in Thailand and maybe the year after I’ll finally take him to Korea where he’ll face the first severe racism of his life and be able to deal with it because he won’t be as ignorant about the world as those who are being racists or as ignorant as those in my opening paragraph. More, as he looks through the work I do here, sees the pictures, reads the stories, he’ll never have to ask me where we are and why I’m here. He’ll know I’m trying to eradicate ignorance in the same but different way I’ve educated him through our travels and exposures to different cultures.

Why do I live here? Because I can do here what I can’t do living a comfortable life in my own country. Where am I? Exactly where I want to be. After spending most of my adult life in Asia I can’t really say I’m “home”, but I found I couldn’t say that when l was living in my home country either.

Until next time…