The Siam Sequences
by Tiffany Midge
(This is the winning essay in Raven Chronicles' 2009 Travel Essay Contest. Tiffany was awarded $150 for her essay. We hope you enjoy it. --Anna Balint, judge & non-fiction editor.)
The King and I
My role as wife No. 6 means my sash is pink, I wear no crown, my feet are bare. This is all my father's idea. It started with his being cast in the Village Theater's production of The Music Man, followed by Brigadoon, and then it all flowered from there. Every three months we are in rehearsals for a new play: The Unsinkable Molly Brown; Bye-Bye Birdie; Li'l Abner; Camelot. One year my father borrowed one of my mother's old wigs to play Chief Bromden, the mute Indian in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
My costume is a poly-cotton blend stitched together from bargain fabric while Anna's dresses are pure flounce and flourish, epically and historically accurate: steel wire hoops, rib-crunching corsets, antique cameos and earrings, silk skirts and satin petticoats. She is the leading lady after all, she has her own dressing room, her own hair stylist and a private voice coach. The other wives and I are relegated to dressing shoulder to shoulder in a basement dungeon beneath the orchestra pit. We have to navigate a hazard of stairs shallow-stepped as a ladder. On stage, we're mere backdrops; our job is to exude quaintness, provide color, tiptoe across the stage, and endlessly smile, bow and wait in supplicant fashion. "Imagine you're a lotus blossom," the choreographer directed in rehearsals. "Become the arms of a night blooming orchid." I lose myself in this image. I am the Siam flower, the Siam flower is me. "Praise to Buddha," I sing during the Uncle Tom's Cabin sequence. I fly a blue river of transparent fabric over my head and pin it down with my thumbs as Simon Legree crosses its intrepid currents in pursuit of Eliza.
I have no official children, none written into the script, so I adopt Rosaria, a beautiful twelve-year-old Filipino girl who had attached herself to me like a starfish the first night of rehearsals. She wears a crown, she is the King's favorite, her sash is gold lame. Every wife covets three-year-old Amelia for their own; her father is a wealthy dentist in Mercer Island. She is blonde as Shirley Temple and never fusses or cries, even when the hair dye stings her scalp. I imagine her parents must drug her before performances or bribe her with treats, because she poses on the First Wife's knee immobile as a doll. Out of twelve children, only three are Asian. Among the children are four unruly brothers, all red-headed and freckled--some nights they go on stage with their hair a patchwork of black and red, like striped caterpillars. By the performance's end, their eyeliner is smeared like football quarterbacks down their faces.
I am an undeterminable ethnicity, tending to blend in more or less in any particular group. As a child I was assumed as belonging to a family of Japanese tourists while waiting for a raft to cross over at Disneyland's Tom Sawyer's Island. On several occasions I was denied to play with the children of bigots; was once chased off with a switch by the father of a schoolmate. I am repeatedly asked my cultural origins as if I'm an oddity or unfathomable puzzle. My mother was routinely suspected for fraudulent checks at our neighborhood grocery store. My sister was asked by a black man at a Husky game whether she ate a lot of hotdogs on the reservation.
I harbor a crush on Guardsman No. 2. He works days at Champion, a costume supply store in Seattle, where I imagine he can steal all the black hair spray he needs from the store's inventory. I also have a crush on the King, the only Asian male in the entire production. The King tosses pizza dough at Pagliacci's on Broadway; I hear he did Flower Drum Song for the Seattle Rep, and though he is definitely no Yul Brynner or Yun-Fat Chow, he's appealing to the directors for his exotic authenticity. He is topless throughout most of the performance and paints muscle definition across his breast bone with dark makeup to fill in for his modest physique. I think the director should have insisted he shave his head.
"Wah-stun peeple fuh-ni." I perform with the other wives, while Anna introduces us to alien hoop skirts and camisoles. "Too fuh-ni toobee twoo." Anna is teaching us to speak English, fold napkins, serve English tea and slowly, through her example, challenge the King's authority, our womanly place in society; eventually mayhem will break out through the walls of the peaceful palace and the King will storm and sulk like a petulant child commanding beheadings and banishments.
In the real Thailand, several thousand miles away from our amateur community theater, The King and I is outlawed, declared illegal due to a 1930's ordinance which prohibits any portrayal of the Thai monarchy. People are routinely flogged, not by police but by their fellow citizens, if caught not standing during Nationalist anthems. Unlike Great Britain's routine media lampooning of their monarchy, caricature sketches of the Thai monarchy in the local papers are non-existent. A citizen cracking jokes about the King at the local watering hole is unheard of, unless it's an expatriate like my father.
In the Village Theater's production of The King and I most everyone is Caucasian. They cover their heads with black hair spray, paint elongated and exaggerated lines across their eyelids, and lavish their skin with ethnic-colored stage makeup. The wives are properties of royalty but conversely are costumed in the tackiest and cheapest of fabric. I carpool with a Japanese woman whose husband is a Chinese jeweler and owns a reputable shop in an upscale shopping mall in Bellevue. Her little daughter's favorite food is escargots--not McDonalds, certainly not dim sum, but snails.
All of this is years before Jody Foster and Chow Yun-Fat were banned from filming in Thailand. Years before I imagined my father would live twenty-two air hours away in Southeast Asia, and years before I even knew where and what Siam was.
My first morning in Pattaya I was lifted from sleep by an argument in halted, rudimentary English between a Thai prostitute, her pimp and a john. It was five in the morning, the light just beginning to rise, a pale wash of pinks and oyster-grays in the sky outside my window. Initially, I thought the disturbance was a fatigued dream aroused from my twenty-two hours of travel, but as the argument in the hallway grew louder and the drunken john more unruly and insistent, I tumbled out of my lucid dream into the shock of the new day. They were arguing about money, or rather the drunken man was trying to worm his way out of paying. The pimp sounded like an oriental wise man dispelling ancient Chinese secrets or fortune-cookie proverbs; he was so reasonable and calm, almost smug. "You pay girl 1,000 baht, this is what you agree to."
The john continued to protest in a garbled English I could barely make out; when he spoke he sounded like he was swallowing his tongue. Intermittently the Thai girl would pipe in with her protests, a mix of Thai and English. It was easy enough to make out her argument, she just wanted her damn money. The wise man pimp intoned in his caramel-calm voice, "You fuck her, you pay." It was comforting to know the word fuck crossed all barriers of country and culture; it was a universal and all-purpose word, like McDonald's golden arches, instantly recognized throughout the world.
I was staying in a very nice hotel, very clean, in fact just newly built and conveniently located across the courtyard from my father's apartment. My room had auspicious amenities: leather couch, gleaming tiles, lovely draperies, full sized fridge, thirty-inch television, blessed air conditioner. It was more expensive than the original hotel my father led me to the night before, but I refused that arrangement for its shabbiness, its unclean look, its lack of an elevator. The newer, $12 a night hotel with its bright, shiny interiors wasn't the sort of place one would immediately associate with prostitution, yet most of the tenants were prostitutes or foreign johns on holiday. The rooms didn't have that seedy underworld panache because in places like Pattaya, a city that was originally founded to entertain WWII servicemen on leave, there is no underworld, nothing to hide. What you see is what you get. I've never had very strong convictions against prostitution, yet I'm not ignorant to its perils either, especially in third world countries, where the reality is more along the lines of white slavery and not the almost noble-sounding, "world's oldest profession." Of course my father's take on prostitution, being the misogynist and unabashed bigot that he is, borders on the profane and absurd. He once married his long-term Thai "girlfriend" for permanent citizenship. She was totally deaf and moonlighted in professional female wrestling. Most of my father's peers have also married Thai prostitutes. They don't view themselves as imperialists and corruptors, they view themselves as furthering a depressed economy, helping the peasants, delivering the hill-tribe girls from lives of hauling water and harvesting rice.
The hallway voices seemed to have reached some agreeable arrangement, because I heard doors slam and footprints clip down the hallway. I showered in the tiled room, amazed at its abundant ergonomics and practicality. I dressed and spent the early morning hours touring the city streets near my hotel. It was still morning-dark, people were moving about at neither a brisk pace nor at a languishing pace, but somewhere in between, like sea anemones, or ribbons of seaweed waving in shallow pools of water. Bar girls fled home on motorbikes, throngs of them dotted the pavement, appearing as wilted prom flowers in a dilapidated parade. I captured a photograph of barefoot monks in flowing orange robes selecting their breakfast fruits from the open markets. They made polite attempts to barter for star fruits and mangoes but I noticed the vendors smiled at them and refused their money. It is strictly prohibited for women to touch them and it is customary for all young men to practice a monastic life as a rite of passage in much the same way as young men in the latter American mid-century were expected to serve time in the military.
I walked. I passed bookstores for faranges, the Thai word for foreigners, which interestingly enough is the same word for the horrible-looking creatures with the over-large ears in Star Trek's Next Generation. My father expressed astonishment when I purchased new paperbacks. They are the only commodity that is not priced obscenely low, they cost nearly the same as books in America. I bought weathered copies of Angela's Ashes and The House of Sand and Fog for my father from an outdoor vendor. I had to unearth the copies from beneath a pile of comic book digests, the main literary diet among the locals. I passed open stalls and small air conditioned grocery and sundry stores. Cyber cafes are all the rage and they're on every corner, along with 7-Elevens. Stray dogs dominated the streets, especially at the early hour, fucking and scavenging. There were massive piles of coconut husks; it was someone's job to spend twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, cracking them open, extracting the firm white meat and discarding the unwanted husks. Someone's failed business was literally going up in flames; they did not waste time demolishing the stick, rubber and tin constructions, but just set it on fire to make room for something else. I watched it burn, smoke stretching its arms into the hazy sky. I crossed the streets, a tricky negotiation against a delta of small diesel engines, a wager in blue smoke and peril. In Arab Town an albino child played tag while nearby a black crow of a woman in full burqua demanded my attention. I walked for nearly two hours up Soi Baukao, my clothes stuck to me, the morning lush as rising cream.
I soon discover that my dark hair offers me passport among the locals. There are two prices, a sliding scale, one for natives and one for faranges. I can ride the blue pickup taxies for 5 baht, the bus routes for 50, depending how far I'm going. One late evening at my hotel, a drunken Brit surprised me from behind, grasping me around the waist, confusing me for his rented companion. At the time I was trying to secure a plunger from the night desk clerk. It was 2 a.m., and I was gesturing wildly, scribbling cartoon commodes on tourist brochures, playing a late night game of charades. I hadn't bothered with buying a translation book. I didn't have the foggiest notion of the Thai word for plunger, and from the desk clerk's puzzled expression it seemed such things did not exist. It was crucial I get one. My toilet was backed up, an embarrassment to say the least, because at 2 a.m, with no simple word for plunger, the courtyard populated with motor-scooter cabbies, a night watchman I nicknamed Cockeye for his lazy eye, and a drunken Brit who thought I was his girlfriend, the big one caught in the plumbing like a walleyed pike wasn't exactly my crowning glory in that moment.
I am an American. Everything I know is mega large, super-sized: big trucks, big talk, big bombs, big money and, in that moment, everyone in the courtyard and in the two neighboring hotels that faced each other knew, big stools. The desk clerk shouted across the courtyard to the Lake Apartments' clerk, the Lake Apartments' clerk shouted back. They called back and forth across the courtyard, the Asian piazza, in ning nan nong vowels for what seemed an eternity until someone was presumably woken up to unlock the custodian's closet. The desk clerk assured me, five minutes, five minutes, and I returned to my room where just moments later Cockeye was standing in my doorway, smiling and prepared to pull double duty. I waved and brushed him away, my face heated, mouth pursed.
There were nice times to blend in, like when I was riding the taxi, or unnoticed by the bogus jewelry salesmen on the lookout for easy marks, but this was not one of those times. I over-tipped the night watchman. My big fat American dollars went far.
Lessons In Thai
How much? Tow rye (ka)?
In the market tent she holds out her calculator, exacts your baht to the shilling. Her wares include a basket of yellow kittens.
Smile? Yim my (ka)?
Too often they scowl at you, so contrary to the guidebook's assertions that you are in the land of a quaint people, the land of smiles and good will. This was undoubtedly written pre-9/11.
Thank you. Khorp khoon mak na (ka).
The pannier cook, the peasant shack lady, the bar girls who shared their fermented baby crabs, the housekeeper, the laundry girls, the coconut ice cream vendor and the waitress at the Cheers bar.
Along the Waterfront Promenade
I am convinced anything's for sale. I eye the Nazi helmets, assorted skinhead paraphernalia, brass knuckles and steel knives. There are Bin Laden T-shirts emblazoned with his image as if he's some kind of hero or god.
"I dare you to wear that through the airport ," my father says.
Hidden in the back of the reproduction painting salon is a poster-sized canvas of Hitler framed in walnut-stained wood.
My father waxes nostalgic for the good ol' days, fifteen years before, when the beach front boardwalks and promenades, the famous Marine Bar hosted snake charmers and fire breathers, circus dancers and nude contortionists. A time when certain clubs served to the most heinous of appetites: public defecation served on platters, a fetish smorgasbord, a regular isle of Hades before the morality police ruined everyone's good and perverse fun.
"Now it's all baby strollers and Walt Disney. Family values. They've cleaned up the streets to be palatable to dimple-bottomed Norwegian ladies on holiday."
There was a time I argued with my father over this kind of thing. My sympathies used to cry out for the poor girls forced into prostitution, mere children, fleeing from the hill country to earn money for their families. He denied all reports, the British documentaries I'd viewed in cinema houses in the University District were always slanted and exaggerated in his estimation.
"They enjoy the lifestyle. They're hustlers and thieves. They get off on it. They know how to take advantage of a lonely farange. They can get him to go through his travel funds and then disappear before the poor slob figures out what hit him."
I see the girls everywhere. So often they are paired with the homeliest of men. Men without teeth, brash-voiced Aussies, the over-loud Germans; the jaundiced and decrepit, men with copper hooks for hands, men with spinal injuries. And half of the prostitutes aren't even girls, but beautifully made-up trannies--a very lucrative industry of the area but one that makes my father livid.
In the tourist district the shop girls crowd the customers. They disrupt my shopping haze with concerned and overly helpful expressions. They hold out assorted oddities: ashtrays shaped like penises, framed monarch butterflies, cheap satin robes touted as silk, live hamsters and the occasional offers of gold.
One day I disappear to Arab Town. I meet the limbless woman who sits all day at the gates of the shopping mall. A faux airplane is staged as a crash into the neck of the building, a marquee for Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum. I buy a coke and rest from the heat, sitting on a bench along a stretch of Saudi restaurants. An Arab man joins me, even though there are other benches available. His body is uncomfortably close, too close. His voice calls to a colleague across the sidewalk court, his butt maneuvers for more of my bench. He is touching me now, bullying me from the bench. I ignore him and leave, I stroll up the street.
My father, who is not discriminate in his racial bigotry but who pretty much thinks everyone deserves his contempt, had warned me about Arabs. He tried to convince me that only a few years ago, Thais posted NO ARABS ALLOWED signs like some kind of Jim Crow law, prohibiting them from select restaurants and clubs. I don't believe it. Yet, I never bothered to research it either. He tried to convince me that if you meet an Arab on a crowded street he will deliberately challenge you by not acquiescing to the right of way, and in fact will attempt to run you off the sidewalk in a callous game of sidewalk chicken. I noticed the two Arab men in my hotel pool vying for the attentions of their Thai companion. I mentioned it to my father, thinking it odd that they'd rather share a girl than spring for their own. My father told me that it's sex with each other they want and that having the one girl between them makes them appear legitimate in their manhood.
This is all much too strange for me.
The man who took over my bench. The limbless woman begging for rice. The hamsters that appear otherworldly. The colliding heat, exhaust and disco music spilling out from the quarters of Boy's Town. The young Asian women who look part feline, not for their eyes or for their ebony-black hair, but for their impossibly long, thin bones; how they appear double-jointed in the hips and knees, the way they glide and slither carrying armloads of flowers or sweets; their easy banter with the pannier cooks as they select the choicest cuts of pork, pick out the pink egg shells nestled within fresh noodle salad.
At Nong Nooch Tropical Gardens
The Ukrainians climb the tigers like playground seesaws. The big cats are too fat too care; what's a spike heel pressed to its rib, just another day in the mines. What bother can an infant's head be offered at the jaws of a lion, it's all the same to her, meat on a stick or something to paw, a round, blonde toy that drools and coughs.
Here, the elephants must earn their keep painting preschool art for the tourists. I suppose the chimps must get jealous, they're the ones with the opposable thumbs after all, what good is a sloppy trunk when they can play Tchaikovsky with their feet? Hammer away like a nickelodeon for one thin ticket, or a cluster of ripe bananas.
There are places on this Earth so magical that they have the power to irrevocably alter your DNA--re-sequence your helix coils until you resemble a large egg, or the fine, soft down slick on the face of an orchid. Some people think Disneyland holds this key, others think a condo in Maui, or the Sistine Chapel. But on this day, I fell madly in love with an orangutan. He listens like no one else ever did; he makes me laugh! I want to bear his little orange children, eat tamarind and butternuts, swing like a lemur from gum trees forever.
My father chain smokes Chinese tobacco beneath an umbrella of palms. He says the difference between Thailand and yogurt is that yogurt has culture. He enjoys being provocative. It used to rile me up, but not any longer. I just pretend that I'm vacationing with Hunter S. Thompson and it all works out in the end. What he means by culture is high art, a western aesthetic, not comic books and lounging Buddha's drenched in acres of gold, but relics from the Age of Enlightenment, baroque artifacts, Grecian texts, the Renaissance.
He is my learned father, my genetic sire, fingerprint of all my thoughts, every breath's spectacle. He is an unabashed imperialist, Caliban's keeper and Friday's Caruso. He is a firm believer in a superior race and nothing I can ever say or do will save him.
Ever since I received the e-mail that my father had died, I have been carrying around his high school graduation photo. In it he is wearing a wool houndstooth jacket--a jacket that holds some sort of spell over him. Perhaps it represented finer times, those moments before disappointment overtook his worldview. I find myself showing the photo to strangers. "Look, this is my father," I'll say as if I'm awaiting absolution for loving him. "I used to wear that suit coat in my teens." And I'll add, "with legwarmers and a sequined headband." As if that makes it all the more significant.
The last time I visited him in Thailand he asked me to take the jacket. I knew why he wanted me to take it. I knew he didn't have plans to stick around much longer. I didn't want to acknowledge that sobering possibility--the idea that he knew something I didn't. My mother had just died, and my grandmother only three months following her, and I was much too wrung out to be burdened with anticipating another's death. He knew that. And sought to protect me.
The last time I saw him we were saying goodbye in an airline taxi at dawn after we'd stayed up all night watching American late night talk shows and waiting for a pizza that was never delivered. I sat weeping in the plane, waiting nearly two hours for takeoff until our delay was finally announced--the baggage handlers had earlier collided into the loading door. We spent the rest of the afternoon wading through customs, relinquishing our passports to authorities, foregoing our luggage, dosed with restaurant tokens and herded into a five-star airport hotel for an overnight stay. I tried phoning my father several times but couldn't get a hold of him. I wanted so much to spend more time with him.
One more night. I wanted one more night.
All of his burdens and life disappointments I corralled onto my own shoulders during my three-week visit. Pity is not an emotion that is easily relinquished. I told myself that he made his choices, that I couldn't impose my own values upon him, that he lived life according to his own conditions, made no compromises; that he swung from chandeliers, lived like a king and a hedonist, and examined more of life's intricacies and fallacies than most people ever have the fortitude or curiosity for. But I still felt pity.
Even now, when I've removed myself from the minutiae of his passing; when the hospital will inevitably follow some protocol for itinerant ex-pats and unceremoniously incinerate the remains, I am removed from all that. I am removed from any decorum or ritual.
Just three months prior to receiving the overseas e-mail I had a dream: I arrived at my home and my father had packed up all my belongings for a move I vehemently did not want.
"But, I'M HAPPY. Don't make me leave!" I grievously protested.
I finally put my father's ashes into my storage locker after almost two weeks of entombing him in the trunk of my car. I don't like picking up the box . . . an odd mix of revulsion and sorrow there. I have been having a delayed reaction regarding his passing. Initially, in April, I was so wound up emotionally in other things that it didn't faze me. Now I have time for it to faze me. And though I'm not overwhelmed particularly, I am feeling stabs of regret that are best described as, F U C K F U C K F U C K.
A month from this day, a coconut ice cream vendor will be wearing Dad's houndstooth jacket during the flash of a rainstorm. He will pull the collar up against his neck, ride his operation beneath an awning, and reach for the front pocket for a package of cigarettes. He will light one up, and inhale the smooth smoke into his lungs. He will look for the portentous shapes in the cloudburst. He will imagine the dark loaves of his wife's thighs. He will examine his life, give praise to Buddha, and he will be content even without reminding himself to be content. A quick smile will play across his mouth, as the unbidden image of an elephant in a rain slicker crosses his mind. When the rain lets up, he will visit the waterfront promenade. He will buy a red rose for his daughter. And tomorrow he will teach her to pray.
Outlaws, Renegades and Saints:
Diary of a Mixed-Up Halfbreed (Greenfield Review Press). A recent chapbook is Guiding the Stars to Their Campfire, Driving the Salmon to Their
Beds (Gazoobi Tales, 2005). Animal Legend and Lore: Buffalo, is her first children’s book (Scholastic). Publication credits include Growing up Ethnic in America, Viking/Penguin; Identity Lessons: Contemporary Writing About Learning to be American,Viking/Penguin;
Reinventing the Enemy’s Language, W.W. Norton; Blue Dawn, Red Earth: New Native American Storytellers, Anchor Books. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Idaho and lives in Moscow, Idaho.
is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux and grew up in the Pacific Northwest.
She is the recipient of the Diane Decorah Poetry Award from The Native Writers Circle of the Americas for her collection,