I wrote about Thailand.
I have never been to Thailand.
I might never go to Thailand.
No: I’ll go to Thailand.
I call this piece
“a longer history of darker corners”
(or, “until my thailand’s volume is impossible”)
by tim rogers
I want to go to Thailand. I have never been to Thailand.
I have never lived in a country where I could declare “I want to go to Thailand” without someone in my immediate conversational vicinity making a face. It is a judgment face. The gravity of this face originates from a combination of who I (the to-Thailand-want-to-goer) am, who they (the face-maker) are, and what Thailand is.
Put in terms whose scientific nature is cruel, I am a straight white college-educated American male in his mid-thirties. I am neither fat nor muscular. I am neither short nor very tall. I wear glasses. I have big dumb weird hair. I tend to dress in comfortable sportswear. I make a living telling computer programmers how best to make the thing I’d make myself if I’d studied what I should have studied.
If a person matching this description says “I want to go to Thailand” in a voice with any conviction, ten out of ten conversational listeners in any of the first-world countries where I in my lifetime have paid rent will with immediacy conclude that I am looking to bone a boatload of tiny shaven breastless hookers.
I use the word “hookers” because that is the word they always use. They don’t say “prostitutes”. They don’t say “sex workers”. They don’t say “whores”. They say “hookers”. Much as my spirit prefers to adhere to facts in my writing of this nature, some urge yanks at my conscience. It requires me to specify that “hookers” is not my word.
I do not want to go to Thailand for the hookers. I want to go to Thailand because I know close to nothing about Thailand. Information on the subject of Thailand has fallen through my brain in my thirty-five years of life. The action of its falling through my brain only deepened my affection for Thailand. I have been putting knowledge of Thailand off for thirty years, the way I’ve been putting off season 4 of “Game of Thrones” for a year: it will still exist when it is time, when I am ready, or when I need it.
I was twenty-two years old when I first told someone “I want to go to Thailand”. Maybe the sentence hadn’t been true until I spoke it. That’s a boring philosophical discussion waiting to happen. Let’s make a ruling: it wasn’t true until I spoke it. That ruling feels good.
When I was twenty-two years old, I moved to Japan. I took a job offer to teach English at a commercial school near Tokyo. The other teachers described the school as “The McDonald’s of English”. Anyone could show up, sign some papers, buy a book of lesson tickets, and get some English. The book contained more lesson tickets than a single student could use in a year. The book of lesson tickets expired in a year.
Our school’s students were old, young, and many ages in between.
I took the job because I liked Japanese music. I was twenty-two years old. My future felt bright. I was a published author of short stories. I thought I had a publishing deal in the bag for a novel I’d researched and written during my last two years of college. I saw a classified ad in the Indiana University newspaper. I sent an email. They asked for a personal essay. I wrote some nonsense about how I liked Japanese music. I mentioned that I’d studied journalism and linguistics. They called me up to Chicago for an interview. I put on a suit. It was a terrible suit. I got the job. I filled out visa paperwork. I got a three-year visa. I went to Japan. I suffered orientation at the company. A lady with a smoker’s voice and a huge blonde perm yelled at a room full of teachers for eight hours. They let us take a couple of breaks. A girl named Caroline gave me her phone number during one of the breaks. She had a phone already. The company had given it to her during orientation. She’d ticked a checkbox on her job contract. The checkbox had been next to the question “Do you want The Company to provide you with a cellular phone?*” The asterisk corresponded with a footnote. The footnote said The Company would dock the applicant’s first month’s pay to cover the cost of the phone. I didn’t want the company to dock the money I didn’t even have yet. Caroline, on the other hand, was more practical than I was and am. She got the phone.
I’d met Caroline at the airport. The same Australian man escorted us into Tokyo. He told us he’d been a teacher for the company for five years before they promoted him to human resources. I asked him if all he did was escort new teachers from the airport.
“Yeah,” he said.
Caroline and the other new teacher talked to each other. I kept quiet. I watched Chiba become Tokyo outside the window. I was in a place more different from my home than I had ever been.
“What brings you to Japan?” the other new teacher asked me. He was a timid, small, boyish individual. I learned he was from Toronto.
“I like Japanese music,” I said.
The Australian man shook his head.
“I can’t get into it myself,” he said. “All those screaming girls,” he said.
He further importanted his opinion: “They make all that noise. I can’t tell the difference between the pop music and the porno over here!”
One of this man’s front incisors looked like someone had twisted it with a pair of pliers while he was asleep one night. I’d been pondering the identity of the twister for an hour. I now reasoned it had been an ex-girlfriend.
“Well, I like rock music,” I said.
“Do they even have that here?” the Australian HR representative who had been working in Japan for a Large Japanese Company for seven years asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What are some bands I should check out?” Caroline asked. She was looking me in the eye.
I told her some bands. She had a pen and paper. She took notes.
“Well, there’s RC Succession if you want some 1970s classic rock sounds. There’s Happy End — they were huge in the seventies. They’ve got one album that’s got the band members’ faces on it. Check that one out. There’s The Blue Hearts. They’re a popular punk band from the 1980s. My favorite band right now is Number Girl. They’re a more alternative band. They’re really loud. The guitar parts are interesting and weird. Number Girl is pretty big. Also there’s Yura Yura Teikoku, which is a pretty popular psychedelic band.”
“You came here because you like the music?” the boy from Toronto asked.
“Well, that’s part of it.”
“That can’t be all of it. You can just listen to music back home!”
“Well,” I said, “I thought, maybe I’d come here and seem some of these bands play live. You know.”
“That’s not so hard to believe,” Caroline said in a “just to say something” tone of voice.
The Australian man scoffed. “I’ll allow it,” he said. “Besides, if he were moving around the world for women, he’d be in Thailand!”
Not twenty-four hours into my life in Japan, someone had mentioned Thailand.
Now I’m remembering my first day in Japan. When I wrote a novel-length memoir about moving to Japan, I left this part out.
My flight had a delay. I arrived at Narita Airport three hours later than the expectation. Today I’m thinking about the Australian man whose only job was to ride trains to and from the airport every day. He went to the airport to pick me up. He picked up two other teachers. He set me up a hotel room. A Japanese man who worked at the airport had my name on a sign. It was my first “My Name On A Sign In An Airport” experience. I walked up to the man. I said hello. He spoke fluent English.
“Your escort had to return to the city on business.”
He handed me a letter.
“I’m to show you to your hotel.”
He took me to a taxi stand. I got in the backseat of the taxi. It was so perfect and clean. The airport man talked to the taxi driver. The airport man talked to me.
“Open that letter when you get to the hotel lobby. There’s a note. Give it to the lady at the front desk.”
I’m listening to this conversation now: he knew the person at the front desk was a lady.
I did as I was told.
I spent the night in a tiny room. I flipped around the television channels. I found anime. It was Pokemon. I stared at Pokemon for ten minutes.
Also inside the envelope were two thousand-yen bills and instructions to use that money to pay a taxi driver. The instructions told me to show the taxi driver the small card that was also in the envelope. I pulled out the card. It was of firm stock.
Narita Airport Terminal 2
I’m looking at it now in my memory. It features no punctuation or grammar. It is words. The English translation was no doubt for my benefit. I couldn’t read Japanese — not really — though I could read Chinese. I knew what an airport was in Chinese: it was a Flying-Machine Building. This Chinese here talked about a Sky Port. My neurons were connecting. I was learning Japanese.
Today, I’m thinking about the lack of sentence structure on the card. It simply said “Narita Airport Terminal 2”. Japanese is a language of politeness modifiers, multipliers, and exponentiators. One must always take care to ask for and to talk about what they want to ask for or talk about in the most appropriate way possible. If I were speaking this Japanese sentence to a taxi driver instead of showing him a card, society would want to say, “Please take me to Narita Airport Terminal 2”.
My reliance on a card bearing printed words subtracted the necessity of poise from my life experience, that morning.
The phone rang in the morning. It was a wake-up call. The hotel had called a taxi. The lady at the front desk told me the taxi would take me to Narita Airport Terminal 2.
“Your company has paid for the taxi,” she said.
I looked at the money in the envelope. It was mine.
I got to the airport. I followed the instructions in the envelope. I arrived at the meeting place. I waited around. I drank a Japanese Sprite. I was sleepy. I liked Narita Airport. It felt like another planet. I’d been to Europe and most states in America. Japan’s biggest airport felt like a different planet in comparison to Europe’s airports and America’s truck stops.
I sat next to Caroline for a half an hour before the Australian man showed up and introduced us to each other. The boy from Toronto showed up. A half an hour later, the man from Australia mentioned Thailand.
Two days later, Caroline gave me her phone number.
She gave me her phone number because — well, common sense tells me she gave me her phone number because she wanted me to have her phone number. Our conversation constructed a good reason: she asked why I didn’t get a phone. I said I went to Japan to travel and experience the world alone for a while. I suppose my explanation might have been a prototype of the reality TV staple “I’m not here to make friends”. She asked if I planned on not making any friends. I said I had nothing against making friends. She said I’d need a phone if I wanted to keep in touch with my friends. I said I’d get a phone if I had five phone numbers to put in it. She wrote her number down. She said, “Well, here’s one.”
Caroline and the boy from Toronto lived in the same town. Their little town was a few train miles away from my little town. I went home. They went home.
At Follow-up Training 1 (or, “FUT1”), the boy from Toronto chatted me up during a break. He was smoking a cigarette on a balcony. I’d gone out onto the balcony because I wanted fresh air. It was raining. He was standing out there smoking a cigarette. He and I had been English teachers in Japan for a whole week. He had started smoking. I was still the same person.
“You should come by Yono,” he said. Yono was their town. “We have some crazy parties. Like, every Friday night.”
“I work Saturdays,” I said. “My days off are Tuesday and Wednesday.”
“Sheesh. Well, nobody at this company ever goes into work sober, anyway. It can’t hurt to party once in a while.”
“I don’t drink.”
“Well, come by just to hang out.” He was quiet for six seconds. “Caroline keeps asking about you.”
“Yeah. She was like, I bet that dude has been to see like four bands already.”
“Well,” I said, “I haven’t.”
I never saw Caroline again. She got drunk one night and died. She fell off her apartment building roof.
The boy from Toronto told me about it at Follow-up Training 2 (or, FUT2).
One of my roommates hated me. The other roommate liked the roommate who hated me. Both of my roommates acted like they hated me. The roommate who hated me more was from Philadelphia. His mother was Thai. His father was Filipino. He was thirty-two. He’d been a bike messenger in Philadelphia. At age thirty, he quit being a bike messenger in Philadelphia to become an English teacher in Japan.
“I was getting too fat to fit between the cars,” he told me, during the first conversation we had. He decided sometime during that conversation that he didn’t like me.
I was unraveling. I’d been in the country for three weeks. I hadn’t talked to anyone in America. I hadn’t talked to my family. I hadn’t emailed my girlfriend or my ex-girlfriend. I was alone. I took long walks. I started drinking coffee.
My roommate busted into my room one morning. It was my day off. He threw his phone onto my bed. It was a call from the secretary at the local branch of our English school. She wanted to know if I could come in and work a short shift. I said I couldn’t. I said I had plans. She hung up on me. I put my pants on. I brought the phone back to my roommate. He snatched it.
“Never again,” he said.
“I — hey, come on. How was I supposed to know they were going to call you?”
“You telling me you been through that orientation and didn’t come away knowing these people are psychopaths? Get a phone.”
“I don’t — I don’t think I want one. I don’t know if I’m even going to be here that long.”
“Get a phone.”
“Look, if they call you again, just say I’m not in. No matter what they say, say I’m not in and that you’re not a leash.”
“I want no phone calls concerning your faggot-ass whereabouts ever again. Get a fucking phone.”
He entered his bedroom. He slammed the door.
I went to work the next day. I got in early. Two teachers were in the lounge. They were looking at the textbooks. They were drinking cans of coffee.
“You’re in early,” said one of the teachers. He was British.
“How is the job treating you?” the other teacher said. He was from Canada.
“Well,” I said, “I don’t like it.”
Both teachers made little laughs.
“Not a bloke here isn’t planning his next move,” the British guy said. “What’s yours?”
“I just sort of want to quit. I mean, I took this job because I wanted a visa. I just want to hang out here for a while.”
“Don’t you get a six-month tourist visa?” the Canadian teacher asked.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with a tourist visa?” the British teacher asked.
“American tourist visas are only ninety days,” I said. “I thought maybe I’d want to stay longer.”
“That’s thinking ahead,” the Candian teacher said. “You can get another job. You can bum around for a couple years.”
“How long is your visa?” the British teacher asked.
“Three years,” I said.
“How about yours?” the British teacher asked the Canadian teacher.
“Three. How long is yours?”
“Mine’s only a year,” he said. He screwed up his lips. He took a drink of his coffee.
“Luck of the draw,” the Canadian teacher said. “You were saying — what are you going to do if you quit?”
“I want to see some bands,” I said. “I want to start a band. I have a little money saved up.”
“And then what?” asked the British teacher.
“I want to live in China for a while. Then I might go live in Thailand for a bit.”
“Thailand!” the Canadian teacher said. “My girlfriend’s been there.”
The British teacher grinned. “Thailand, eh? You always did strike me as a pedo.”
It turned out this British man had never been to Thailand. However, years of mentioning Thailand has taught me that one needn’t have been to Thailand to make insinuations of pedophilia in a person who expresses interest in living in Thailand. These insinuations affix themselves with tightness to the Velcro of the worldbrain. If I dig a millimeter into these insinuations, I strike upon an endless sphere of air.
I just Googled “age of sexual consent Thailand”.
It’s fifteen years old. That is lower than I expected.
I found the information regarding the age of sexual consent in Thailand in a Wikipedia article called “Age of sexual consent”, in the “Southeast Asia” section.
It turns out that the age of sexual consent in Cambodia is thirteen. If I were to say I wanted to go to Cambodia, no one would insinuate pedophilia. Cambodia is home to temples and poverty. Cambodia’s historical legacy is modern tragedy and horror. If you say you’re going to Cambodia, people might think you’re a weirdo, though certainly not a pedophile. Vietnam, meanwhile, was the home of a famous war. If you say you’re going to Vietnam, people might think you’re going for the food.
Here is what I know about Thailand.
I was nine years old when I encountered the Thai alphabet. When I was six years old, teachers at my school had decided I had a gift. They told my parents I had a gift. My parents allowed me to attend the “gifted” class. We moved between American states, cities, and military installations. I landed in the gifted class at every new school. The teacher at my elementary school in Wichita, Kansas was excellent. She was the smartest person I’d yet met in my life. She showed me big weird books. She put little reading glasses on her nose when she showed me these books. I saw Chinese. Chinese amazed me. She showed me Thai. It amazed me less than Chinese. I learned Chinese.
I have heard the spoken Thai language the way I have heard albums, symphonies, or stories. I arrived in Japan at age twenty-two with an ability to speak Mandarin Chinese with fluency, and less-sharp abilities to imitate Cantonese and Japanese. The Thai language was a mystery. I couldn’t conjure a Thai word from the pit of my auditory memory if you put a gun to my head.
I first saw Thailand in 1990. It was in the film “Kickboxer” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. My brother Roy is two years older than me. He was thirteen. I was eleven. Roy was into push-ups and Bruce Lee. I was into books and videogames. Roy got into Jean-Claude Van Damme. Roy rented “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer”. He copied the tapes. We watched them again and again. “Bloodsport” is terrible. “Kickboxer” is better, because it shows plenty of Thailand. The hero of “Kickboxer” is the younger brother of a kickboxer. This older-brother kickboxer wins a big fight in the United States. A journalist asks the kickboxer big brother what’s next. The big brother says he’s going to find a new challenge. The interviewer tells him he should challenge the champion in Thailand. The big brother, in a show of hubris, asks why Thailand. The interviewer says that Thailand is home of Muay Thai, the ancient, core-hardest of all kickboxing variations. Alright then, the big brother says to his little brother: let’s book two tickets for Taiwan. The younger brother — Jean-Claude Van Damme — corrects him: Thailand. This dialogue taught me several things: that Thailand is home of Muay Thai, that Muay Thai is amazing, and that American big brothers can’t tell the difference between the words “Taiwan” and “Thailand”. The brothers go to Thailand. The younger brother (again, that’s Jean-Claude Van Damme) sees Tong Po, the Thai champion, kicking a wall with shin-bloodying ferocity. The younger brother tells the older brother to reconsider. The older brother cannot contain his hubris. He walks into the ring and consumes his own destruction with a velocity of accidental eagerness. As I viewed this fight for the first time, I loved the atmosphere. They battled in a blue boxing ring in an arena with a high dark ceiling. There were words in a big weird script of an alphabet. The drums and horns sounded as though from another planet. The big brother ends up paralyzed from the waist down. The little brother goes out to seek revenge. Revenge requires him to learn Muay Thai kickboxing from an old man in the jungle mountains. This is when little brother Jean-Claude Van Damme removes his long-sleeved shirt. Now we see his muscles. They are much bigger than his big brother’s. They don’t expect an eleven-year-old to notice these things. The old man in the jungle mountains takes Jean-Claude Van Damme to “The Stone City”. It is a great craggy pointy temple of rock. Its courtyard is red bricks. To this day I do not know what that city is. I’m sure it’s a tourist attraction. I’d like to go there. I’d like some accident to take me there. Later Jean-Claude Van Damme finds a tiny Thai girlfriend. She’s his teacher’s relative. We see Jean-Claude Van Damme, in a montage, at the feet of a massive golden reclining Buddha. This was an image whose particulars stuck with me for many years. In the final scene, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Tong Po tape up their hands, dip their fists in resin, and then dip the resin in broken glass. Then they fight with cutting fists. A character (an Asian person) refers to this as “the ancient way”. They fight in a big dark loud wooden room whose sweat and heat I could feel. At the end of the story Jean-Claude Van Damme windmill kicks Tong Po in the head enough times to kill an entire NFL football team. My brother rewound and replayed this part a dozen times. This is interesting to me today as an aspiring creative director of satisfying interactive entertainment: my brother repeated that scene, during which the film editor replays individual kicks or punches sometimes four times in quick succession in preemptive service to the audience’s appetite for instant replay.
Five years later, the film “Mortal Kombat” was imminent. My big brother was excited because this film had Christopher “The Highlander” Lambert in it as an Asian god of thunder named Rayden. The film features a temple at some point. My brother read movie magazines. He had a movie magazine with “Mortal Kombat” in it. He pointed at a picture of the temple. “That’s The Stone City,” my brother said. “That’s totally The Stone City. That’s the same temple.” He read some of the article. “It says here they filmed parts of the movie in Thailand.” My big brother flipped through the feature forward and backward. “Thailand rules,” he said. My little brother was seven years old. “Thailand is gay,” my little brother said.
For a long while, this was as much as I knew about Thailand.
In college, during a weekend trip to Chicago, I discovered that I did not like Thai food. Me and my then-roommate and best friend Big Joe went to a Thai restaurant. Nothing there was vegetarian. The red curry had shrimp in it. The green curry had fish in it. If one asked for the red curry with no shrimp, the sauce still had fish in it. If one asked for the green curry without fish, the sauce still had shrimp in it.
I asked the waiter what on the menu didn’t have meat in it, or in its sauce. He told me that fish was not meat. I did not disagree with him. I knew better than to disagree with him. I then asked what on the menu didn’t have meat or fish in it, or in its sauce.
I swear I asked this without an attitude. I don’t eat meat because I don’t like it. I promise I have never put any politics into my vegetarianism. When I ask a waiter what doesn’t have meat in it, I try to ask it in a tone of voice that communicates a possibility that I might eat meat . . . just not today. This doesn’t always work. Sometimes I’ll say I’m in the mood for something without meat, and the waiter will go ballistic. Usually these people immediately curse vegans. They leave vegetarians out of it.
The waiter at this first Thai restaurant I ever went to in my life replied to my question with a snippy “This is not a vegan restaurant.”
Between the words “a” and “vegan”, he left a breath-pause of understood expletive.
“Oh, oh,” I said, “I’m not suggesting that it is. I was just in the mood for something without meat. Eggs and dairy are fine.”
“We have rice and water,” the guy said.
Now fifteen years later, I understand how it feels to have people ask me the same question ten or more times a day: I’m always on the edge of expectation of a reaction I will not enjoy. I can’t be upset with the guy.
I can, however, feel a little stupid in hindsight for not trying a Thai ice tea. Thai ice tea is great. He probably did not recommend a Thai ice tea to me because he hated me, or because he presumed I was a vegan despite my saying I was not.
I was twenty-one years old the first time I ever went to a Thai restaurant. I was old enough to let the details of the experience burn into my memory. Since then, I’ve encountered much vegetarian Thai food. I like it just fine. It’s no Indian food, or Chinese food.
That first time I went to a Thai restaurant, I ate rice and I drank water.
Big Joe took me to get a burrito later.
That was the first time I ever ate at a Chipotle.
The first time I ever ate at a Chipotle, it was because of Thailand.
One year later, I’d have a closer experience with Thailand. This memory floats up every time I consider the country of Thailand. Here it is: I was in Roppongi, Tokyo, Japan. It was around seven in the evening. The sun was down. This was in October of 2001. It was chilly. I was wearing a suit and an overcoat. I was wearing round black spectacles. My hair was gelled back. My hair was gross to the touch. I can remember my reflection in the TGI Friday’s window. I have an impression just now of how small my teeth looked. My face was chubby. I am young in this memory. I’d had a hernia surgery a year earlier. I’d fallen off the exercise wagon. My teeth look so tiny inside those chubbying cheeks.
It had been the last day of our English teacher job training. I’d been in Japan for only six days. I had not looked at my email in six days. I had Caroline’s phone number on a piece of paper in my pocket. I hadn’t dry-cleaned my suit yet. I hadn’t had time. I’d been out every day in that suit. The Company took training seriously. After our training was complete, some of the senior teachers offered to take the new recruits out drinking in Roppongi. Roppongi is where people say foreigners hang out in Tokyo. Roppongi is where foreigners hang out in Tokyo. Our group of twelve teachers split into two groups of three, a pair, and a group of four. I was in the group of four. Maybe that says something about my personality. My group of four split into two groups of two. One of the groups of two was two new teachers. I was in a group of two with an old teacher. He called himself a “lifer”. He’d been teaching English for seven years. He said he was getting tired of drinking every night. We went to TGI Friday’s. “It’s just like America here,” he said. We ordered a bunch of appetizers. He ordered a burger. We ate in the loud red darkness. I ate onion rings and mozzarella sticks. I ate fried bread with a spinach cheese dip. I ate a tall plate of french fries. This was the first big meal I’d had in Japan. All my meals before this one had been a slice of white bread and a slice of plasticky cheese and a hard steel can of Minute Maid blood orange juice. The french fries were hard with salt. The salt hurt. The older teacher talked about his life. He told me he found it easy to save money in Japan. Because everyone he knew was always drinking, he found it easier to quit drinking. He had a girlfriend. She had been the secretary at his branch. They were going to move in together. He was wondering if he should buy an apartment in Saitama or a house “back home”. I was too young to feel weird about asking or not asking where “back home” was. I let the guy talk. We finished eating. We went outside.
It was a clear night. The city was bright. Bars and clubs were alive. People were noisy in the streets. A tall sturdy young American man wearing an old New York Yankees cap and brand-new Old Navy everything else was talking to two girls wearing dull metallic silver ankle-length raincoats. Their hair was orange. Their skin was tan. Their eyeshadow was white. Their teeth were big. The American man’s hands were firm on the tops of his backpack straps. The girls looked at each other. They looked at the man. They looked at each other. The man pointed off down the street with one hand. He closed the hand around his backpack strap. The older teacher was talking about how the job can be boring. The man with the backpack approached us. He looked me right in the eye. I could tell he was military. He had a crew-cut under that old baseball cap. His look was intense. He looked clean through the back of my head. He spoke in a continuous unpunctuated Kentucky formalism.
“Do either of you gentlemen here mind if I ask you something?”
He wasn’t looking at the older teacher. He was looking at me. I was closer to his age. The older teacher looked maybe less American than I did. This was a year before Japanese people began to wield genuine surprise when I told them I was American: “I thought you were British?”
“Yeah?” I said to the guy. “I, uh, I’m not from around here . . .”
I’m looking at this guy’s prom-king cheekbones in my brain theater right now. I remember his face every time I ever hear the word “Thailand”. Here’s why:
“I was wondering and I’m sorry if this is real ridiculous. I was wondering if you all knew how I’d get to Thailand from here.”
“Yes sir Thailand.”
He shifted his weight. He squeezed his backpack straps.
My dad had been in the Army for almost thirty years. I grew up on United States military installations. I was always aware of cardinal directions. Here I let a bad joke slip out. I pointed to the south-southwest.
“I reckon it’s a couple thousand miles that way.”
The military (probably Navy) boy did not blink. His lips gripped one another. He shook his head an inch to the left and then an inch to the right.
“Yes sir I realize that. I was wondering how far it might be and how I might go about getting there.”
“You’d probably want to check out the airport.”
“Yes of course I’m just wondering if it might not be worth all the trouble. Do either of you know how far it is? How long it takes to get there?”
We were all silent. A man across the street yelled three times.
The older teacher spoke up.
“I’m, uh, I’m not actually sure how far it is, come to think of it. My girlfriend went there for the weekend a couple months back. I don’t think the flight was more than four hours. I think she got a package deal. I don’t suppose she paid more than 30,000.”
“That’s thirty thousand yen?”
“Yes, I think it was around thirty thousand yen to get to Thailand.”
“How much is that in dollars? That’s about three hundred dollars?”
“Y-yeah, I guess that’s around three hundred dollars.”
“Is that a flight out of Narita or Haneda?”
“I think it was Narita — yes, she went to Ueno to get a Skyliner ticket, she was saying. That would have been Narita.”
The Navy boy let go of one of his backpack straps. He shook the older teacher’s hand.
“Thank you very much for your help.”
He shook my hand.
“You guys have been a big help. Thank you.”
He gripped his backpack straps. He strode away from us with a straight back. I don’t know where he was going.
The older teacher and I looked at each other. We shared a small silence.
“Well, I should be getting back,” the older teacher said. “Were you wanting to stay out, or?”
“I’ll head back, too.”
“Do you need help finding a train?”
“Please, lead the way.”
We parted ways at the subway station. We waited for different trains. I looked around. I was looking for the Navy boy. I wonder if he ever got to Thailand. I wonder what he wanted to do in Thailand. Every time I hear the word “Thailand” today, I remember his intensity. I imagine he was on shore leave. Years of experience later, I wonder how he’d gotten so far as Roppongi. If his boat had landed in Yokosuka, he was a long way from there. Maybe some of his shipmates had come up with him. Maybe he’d spent a day in the city. I don’t want to judge his reasons for wanting to go to Thailand, though it’s clear it was for one of two possible reasons: either he wanted to go get with a woman (either a particular woman, or one of Thailand’s famous sex workers), or he was the hero of a 1980s martial arts action film, and he had a tournament to win. Culture has prepared me to consider no other options.
This Old Navy Navy Boy guards one gate of My Thailand. Whenever I consider the country — whether it’s a glance at a billboard advertising “Thai Food” or an active consideration of Bangkok as a vacation destination — my mind must traverse through his memory. Next, I remember every person I’ve ever known who has been to Thailand. In my memory, someone has only been to Thailand if they’ve both been to Thailand and told me about their experience. It’s possible I know someone who has been to Thailand without telling me about their experience in Thailand. In my strict, selfish definition, these people have not been to Thailand.
I’d like to tell you about everyone I’ve ever met who has been to Thailand.
The first time I met a person who had been to Thailand I was twenty-four years old. That strikes me as too old. Oh well. Maybe that says something about the first twenty-three years of my life. Maybe it says something about the twelve years of my life that followed that point.
It was March of 2004. I was in Korea for the second time in three months. I had accidentally voided my three-year working visa: I had gone on a trip to the United States without first procuring a one-time-use reentry permit. The multi-use reentry permit was only a thousand yen more than the one-time-use permit. If only I’d had a thousand yen extra in my pocket that one day I went to the immigration bureau in 2002, my life story might be a lot different. With no working visa, I could only live in Japan in three-month stretches. I had to leave every ninetieth day on the dot. The closest country was Korea. I’d gone to Korea in December, for Christmas. When I came back to Tokyo, my apartment was locked. I had a weird couple of months. I found some money. My friends and I had found a place to live together. We all moved into a big weird house. The house was far from the train tracks in a town far from the center of the city. We liked it there. I spent the first night in that house with a friend. We laid on futons in the otherwise empty living room. I told her I had to leave the country in a couple of days to reset my visa. I said I was thinking of going to either Korea or Thailand. I’d been to Korea, I said. Now I was thinking I might as well check out Thailand.
“Don’t go to Thailand,” she said.
“Just, don’t go there.”
She was one of the very best friends I’d ever have. A future girlfriend would later mishear her name as “Funako”. I’ve been calling her “Funako” in writing ever since.
Funako’s voice grew dark. Her English continued into darkness.
“Once, there was a man. He went to Thailand. And he was maybe, looking for something.”
“You know what something! He was looking for something.”
“And he found something! And when he tried to leave, something says, you can’t leave! Something says, you made me a promise.”
“Do you know what I am saying? Are you listening to me?”
“I’m listening to you.”
Funako’s dark voice shook its head.
“This, this, this Thailand is not where you want to go.”
“To be honest I don’t even know anything about Thailand.”
“No, no, to be honest, you are not being honest. What is this honest! You are being dishonest.”
“I’m telling you the truth.”
“Not, it is I’m telling you the truth. Listen to me: Thailand: I have been there.”
“Oh! You have? Was it nice?”
“Don’t ask me if it was nice. Listen to me: it is filthy. It is dark. It is terrible. Let me tell you. It is dangerous. You should let me tell you.”
“I was . . . I was robbed.”
“You were robbed!”
“I was on the train. Listen to me tell you.”
“I was on the train, and a woman! There was a woman. She robbed me. She approached me. She said to me, something like ‘Good evening’, and she took . . . she took . . .”
“What did she take?”
“She took . . . she took . . .”
“What did she take?”
“She took my penis!”
We were silent. She cackled.
“She didn’t really take your penis, did she?” I asked.
“Of course not! Why? Would you be my friend if I was a New-Half?”
“Of course I have never been to Thailand! Why would I go there!”
It turned out tickets to Korea were cheaper than tickets to Thailand. I went to Korea. My college friend said she didn’t want me to stay with her and her parents anymore. She was now engaged to a pastor. I stayed with a reader of my blog. His name was Oscar. I’ve written about Oscar before. Oscar was a short guy who wore a newsie hat. Oscar was from Boston. He was teaching English at a little school in Incheon, near Seoul. Me and Oscar had some good times in Korea. We ate a lot of Dunkin Donuts. The night I arrived, Oscar disposed of the introductions with a champion’s virtuosity. He was a people person through and through. Seriously, if you leave that guy for two seconds to go to a public bathroom, when you get out, he’s made a new friend. Oscar took my to his place. I dropped off my suitcase. I splashed some water on my face. I changed my shirt. Oscar took me to a bar where foreigners hung out. This also means it was a bar where Korean girls wanting to meet foreigners hung out. Some of Oscar’s fellow teachers were there. One of the teachers was a charming Irish girl. One of them was a leathery tanned hulking blonde man with a receding hairline and an eyepatch. His biceps were huge and veiny. He was wearing a white button-down shirt and a dark tie. He had rolled up his shirtsleeves. He had two gold canines. I don’t think he’d brought a jacket.
Oscar introduced me to the teachers. The Irish girl’s name was Claire. I didn’t catch the big guy’s name. Oscar didn’t throw the big guy’s name. He was about to, when the big guy spoke up.
“An Ozzie, eh?”
He shook my hand.
“Uh, uh, no? I’m Tim.”
“Acka-Dacka,” he said. He pointed to my shirt. It was an old AC/DC tour shirt.
“Oh, yeah, I got this in Tokyo, of all places.”
“Hmm. American, eh?”
“Well, if you know Acka-Dacka, you’re alright by me.”
I sat down.
“Well, a lot of people in America know AC/DC.”
The big man made a fly-swatting motion.
He pointed his big index finger at me.
“You know why that band is as popular as it is?”
Oscar came back with a beer.
“What did I miss?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “it’d be Angus Young’s guitar playing.”
The big guy shook his head.
“No, no. It’s the vocal.”
“Oh, Bon Scott.”
“Not him! The other bloke.”
The big guy slapped the table.
“That’s him! That’s him. That man’s voice gets in your brain and stays there.”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Are you taking the piss?”
“Uh, yeah? I mean, Brian Johnson’s voice is like — like he tried to imagine a voice no one else sang in, and picked that one, just to be original.”
“Don’t ever go to Australia with that opinion, mate.”
“Brian Johnson is British,” I said. “Whatever.”
“You know, a lot of Americans just presume AC/DC is American.”
“Well, it’s a compliment, in a way.”
“In what way?”
“For an American to suppose something is American is for the American to judge that thing is better than if it had been of literally any other country.”
The big man didn’t say anything else. He finished his beer. He ordered another beer. The bar was dark and quiet. The lights were red. It was nine in the evening. I didn’t see any Korean girls. I didn’t see any girls at all, except for the Irish girl at our table. The big guy’s next beer came. He took a sip.
“You new here?” he said to me.
Oscar spoke up.
“No, that’s Tim. He’s visiting from Tokyo! I know him from the internet. He’s got a website!”
“A website, huh.”
“He writes about his adventures.”
The big guy sipped his beer.
“What brings you to this dump?”
I wasn’t glad someone had put it into words: Incheon was a dump. The Korea I’d seen at Christmas had been the richer, shinier, happier downtown regions of Seoul. Incheon was dark in a way that made it feel far away from itself.
“I needed to leave the country for at least twenty-four hours to reset my visa.”
“Are you an illegal?”
“Nah, I just — I had a problem with my visa. I’m just here for four days.”
“Oh. So Oscar here is going to show you a good time?”
“A good time or something like one!” Oscar said. “Guaranteed!”
A silence passed.
“It was either here or Thailand,” I said. Something about this huge scary man with an eyepatch made me feel the need to fill silences. I do not often feel this feeling. I recall this feeling, of course, whenever I hear the word “Thailand”.
The word “Thailand” got the big guy’s attention.
“You should have gone to Thailand.”
He lit a cigarette.
“The ticket to Seoul was cheaper,” I said.
The big guy took a long drag of his cigarette. He blew smoke. The red lights made the smoke red.
“I used to really clean up in Thailand,” he said.
A short silence grew longer.
Another teacher showed up. A story happened. That story is not this story. I didn’t talk to the eyepatched man anymore, nor did I ever see him again.
That’s the end of the story of the first time I met someone who had been to Thailand.
The second time I met someone who had been to Thailand, it was someone I already knew. That is to say, I met a person who had not been to Thailand. That person went to Thailand. That person told me about their trip to Thailand.
The person happened to be one of my three roommates. I lived with those three guys in a big house in a weird place outside Tokyo for all of three months before I realized I couldn’t keep paying the rent. I withdrew. Another eager tenant swept in. All was well. I often went to the house to hang out. I slept on the sofa sometimes, when no one had a girlfriend over. Other nights, I slept at Funako’s house. Other nights than those, I slept in the park, or in cheap karaoke boxes. Some nights, I stayed up. I walked. I listened to music. I kept to myself. I had a good year in between the bad moments of my worst year. Many nights of that year, I stayed up until dawn, boarded a train before rush hour, and slept between commuters. I had a fever maybe every day for six solid months. I had an air-conditioning sore throat for the entire summer. Maybe those train air-conditioners damaged something deep inside my brain or soul. We’ll never know what it is (my apologies for inviting you into the process of diagnosis).
One of my former roommates texted me to say that he was going to Thailand for the weekend. If I wanted his bedroom, it was mine. This was in the middle of August. I could choose to sleep in a hot room on a private bed in proximity to a toilet and a faucet with drinkable water, or I could choose to sleep upright on an air-conditioned train, and wake up with a sore throat. I chose the bed.
I slept on the living room sofa the night before my friend went to Thailand. We stayed up late. He got a little drunk. He gave me his key. I drank a Coke. He said he was going to Thailand with his girlfriend. His girlfriend wanted to take a massage class. A thing for Japanese girls to do at that point in 2004 was to take a massage class in Thailand. Only after my friend told me his girlfriend was going to take a “Thai Massage” class did I start noticing how few “massage” places weren’t “Thai Massage” places.
My friend cheated on his girlfriend a lot. They barely ever saw each other. Right when he’d moved to Japan — and before we found that house — he lived in her company apartment in Setagaya. After he moved out of there, he saw her maybe every other week. I get the impression they saw each other around once a month. They did day-trip things in Tokyo. They went to an indoor hot-spring theme park. They took a bus to Osaka and Kyoto. They went to Hiroshima once by airplane. And that one time, they went to Thailand.
I met this friend because he read my website. He moved to Japan to teach English. Eventually we were roommates.
I met his girlfriend three times. She was nice and clean. I didn’t overhear a single line of conversation between them on any of those occasions.
My friend went to Thailand.
I slept a lot that weekend. I wrote a couple of essays and magazine articles. They didn’t have internet access in that house. I put the files on a memory stick and took them to an internet cafe in Ikebukuro. I taught a few freelance English lessons. I played drums in a band. My friend texted me. He asked if I could meet him back at the house in two hours to hand over the key.
Of course I ended up sleeping on the sofa that night. My friend came back late on the last train. He was full of stories about Thailand. We talked about Thailand. He drank whiskey. I drank a Coke.
“So yeah. The last day, dude. This morning. Holy shit, this morning. She was at the massage class, and I was like, fuck it, I’m going for it.”
“You went for it.”
“I went right for it. I just got out on the street. I was in my flip-flops, man. I was in my Aloha shirt and my swim trunks. I had my fuckin’ . . . beach towel, man. And I was just — you know. I was just sniffin’ for it. I had no idea, man. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I didn’t have no map or nothing. I just went to some bar. Ten o’clock in the morning.”
He threw back his whiskey. He slapped his two palms into his forehead. He ran his hands back through his curly hair.
“Two of ‘em. Just, two of the hottest, filthiest women I ever saw in my life. They took me to their room. I put my flip flops and my beach towel on the chair. Dude. Didn’t even pay ‘em shit. Didn’t even ask my name.”
He poured another whiskey.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I fucked a girl in the ass?”
Yes, he had.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
He said her name. I have to admit, I just accidentally typed her real name. Then I deleted it. I tried to conjure a fake name. Her real name came out again. This is auspicious. I will not name her.
“She was the hottest girl in that class, man. She was like, she told me she’d never been fucked in the ass, and she was like, ‘get me drunk and fuck me in the ass’ and I was like, hell yeah, baby. So that Saturday night, we did it. We just stepped away from the party and did it. Guess where we did it?”
A baseball dugout.
He snapped his fingers. “Baseball dugout.”
He put his hands up over his head. He mimed gripping a pipe, or some other horizontal ceiling-mounted structure.
“Next day in class — she was wearing sweatpants.”
“Sweatpants are comfortable,” I said.
“Sweatpants, with the school logo on her ass. Heh. I looked at that and was like, yeah, I hit that.”
He later married his girlfriend. He didn’t invite me to the wedding. He unfriended me on Facebook after the wedding. I suppose he never gave me full forgiveness for giving him as much guff as I gave him.
That’s the story of the second person I met who had been to Thailand.
Two years passed. I was twenty-seven years old. I had a job. I lived alone in a nice little apartment in Minami Senju. I made a lot of money. I had nice furniture. I wore nice clothes. I had a good haircut. I played guitar in a terrible band. I had an attractive and educated girlfriend who happened to be a professional lingerie and swimsuit model. I learned a lot of lingerie and swimsuit vocabulary from her.
It was fall of 2006. She was getting ready for a work trip to Thailand. They wanted to shoot her wearing a swimsuit on the beach. She wanted to go to Shibuya the night before she left. She wanted to buy some makeup. She wanted to eat a good meal. We passed a Thai restaurant. I made a joke: “Want to eat some Thai food?” She replied with a joke that was also true: “My manager is going to take us all out to sushi in Thailand, so why not? That guy could find sushi anywhere.” This was before Yelp, or even the first iPhone, so that manager’s ability was in fact quite psychic.
A stumbling drunk guy grabbed my girlfriend’s arm. He pulled her away from me. I’d only had a light grip on her forearm. He pulled her away with such force that he spun on one heel. He fell back and down. He pulled her back and down. She planted her feet. Her big Gucci purse swung. The counterweight kept her standing. Her foot rose off the ground. She clacked the heel down. She thrust both of her hands at the drunk guy’s back. Her purse swung. The purse thudded into the drunk guy’s back after her palms. My girlfriend finished a single complete spin. The drunk guy had fallen over onto his bum on the pavement. His palms were on the street. He looked up at us. He was staring at me. He was showing me all his teeth. His teeth were all biting each other.
“Fucker,” she said.
“Fuck you!” he said.
My girlfriend kicked the bottom of the guy’s shoe.
“Fuck both of you!” he said.
I kicked the bottom of the guy’s other shoe.
“Die in a fire!” I said.
My girlfriend fingertipped her hair. She took my arm. We resumed walking.
“Well, it’s nice to know that won’t be happening for a week.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean. You know. I’ll be in Thailand.”
“Guys actually hit on me more when you’re around,” she said.
If she was saying that to make me feel better about myself, then right now, writing about it, I feel worse about myself.
“They just don’t hit on you at all in Thailand.”
“Oh, so you’ve been there before?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I went for work once or twice.”
Whether it had been once or twice is a fact detail that bothers me even now. That was the last she ever said about Thailand. I’m sure her manager found sushi there.
The Green-Haired Girl was the most important person to ever enter (and exit) my life. I am grateful for the experience of knowing her.
The Green-Haired Girl had been to Thailand once. I had known the Green-Haired Girl for four years before she told me that she had been to Thailand once. It turned out she had been to Thailand two years before she told me about it. As important as the Green-Haired Girl was to me (and I to her) we didn’t always tell each other everything that was happening in our lives. Sometimes we saw each other every day for six months. Many times a week passed without our exchanging a text or an in-person cup of coffee. The Green-Haired Girl went to Thailand during one of those latter times.
The Green-Haired Girl told me about Thailand at the tail end of a year during which we had seen each other literally every day. We were in a taco cafe in Koenji. She had travel brochures in her backpack. They were brochures for Turkey. She was looking at photographs of Istanbul.
“Are you going to Turkey?”
“Yeah,” she said.
A silence passed.
“I’d invite you,” she said, “if this weren’t me, my mom, and my twin sister’s yearly overseas trip.”
“Oh. Hey, yeah.”
“Hmm. You know, this is going to be the first time I see my mom and my twin sister all year.”
They lived in Shikoku. Shikoku is a little island south and west of Tokyo. I had never left the island of Honshu. Shikoku was as foreign to me as Thailand.
The Green-Haired Girl’s face contained worry.
“I don’t like this trend,” she said.
“Last year, I only saw my mom and my twin sister twice — once for my brother’s wedding, and once for our yearly trip.”
“I’m wondering if at some point our yearly trip will become the only time I see my mom and my twin sister.”
“Are you afraid it has become that already?”
The Green-Haired Girl tilted her skull to one side. She adjusted it back to center.
“Well, it’s still summer. I can make an effort to see them for the end of the year.”
“There you go.”
“That’s probably not going to happen, though.”
“Isn’t the whole point of a yearly trip to guarantee that you see each other at least once per year? Isn’t the whole idea that you’re busy people and that you make time to enjoy time together?”
“It’s different from that,” the Green-Haired Girl said. She took a sip of her beer bottle. “It’s a bonding experience, to be sure. Though it’s also tourism. We’re not focused on one another. We’d need to be in our natural environments for that to be the case.”
“Do you consider your mom’s house in Shikoku your natural environment? Would your mom feel at home in our house in Koenji? Maybe you don’t have a mutual natural environment.”
“Hmm. You might be right. Oh, well.” She looked at the brochure in the middle of the table. “Istanbul.”
“I’d hang out there,” I said.
“It looks beautiful. Of all the places on the Mediterranean, I’m least familiar with Turkey.”
“Actually, Istanbul is on the Black Sea.”
“‘Actually, Istanbul is on the Black Sea,’” The Green-Haired Girl repeated in a deep voice. She gripped the right side of her glasses and shifted them up and down with each syllable.
“Hey, I totally don’t touch my glasses when I talk,” I said.
The Green-Haired Girl sipped her beer.
“Isn’t it what they’d call a Mediterranean Climate? I mean, that’s Mediterranean to me,” she said.
“That’s fair enough. Still, I don’t want you embarrassing yourself over there. You might point at a boat and say, ‘That boat sailing on the Mediterranean sure is beautiful!’ And then the cops overhear you and you spend the rest of the week in prison.”
“I should have talked to you before we went to Thailand,” the Green-Haired Girl muttered.
“You went to Thailand?”
“Two years ago, yeah.”
“Oh, cool. How was it?”
“The beaches were gorgeous. We saw some huge Buddhas.”
The Green-Haired Girl flipped open her phone. She opened the photos folder. Her eyes stayed on her phone for many minutes.
“How long have you and your mom and your twin sister done this yearly trip thing?”
The Green-Haired Girl “Hmm”ed. She was still staring into her phone.
“This’ll be nine years,” she said.
“Where are some of the places you’ve been?”
“Madrid, Paris . . . Buenos Aires! Peru, Mexico, Greece, Thailand, and Hong Kong.”
“Asia two years in a row, huh?” I said.
“Yeah. That’s why we all agreed to go to Europe this time.”
“Actually, Istanbul is a transcontinental city. It exists in both Europe and in Asia.”
“‘Actually, Istanbul is a transcontinental cityyyyyyyyyyyyy . . .’ Oh! Look here.”
She laid the phone on the table. She rotated it around with two hands. She pushed it forward with two hands. I leaned toward it. There on the screen was The Green-Haired Girl, standing next to a black-haired alternate universe version of The Green-Haired Girl, their bodies fitting inside a pair of golden Buddha feet in the background.
“Kickboxer,” I said.
“It’s a Jean-Claude Van Damme film,” I said. “He goes to Thailand in the film. He visits this Buddha statue during a training montage.”
The Green-Haired Girl turned her phone around. She took her phone back. She was looking at the photo.
“Well, I’m not any kind of kickboxer at all, and my twin sister isn’t, either.”
That was the Green-Haired Girl’s last word about Thailand.
Oscar moved to Tokyo in 2009. I hadn’t seen him since 2005. I went to Korea in 2005 to reset my visa one last time. I went to Korea one more time in 2006. I emailed Oscar to say I was going to be in town. He replied that he was back home with his sister in Boston.
“I’m thinking of moving to Thailand,” he said, in the email.
“What are you going to do there?”
“The world needs plenty of English teachers,” Oscar said.
Oscar emailed me in 2009 to say that he had moved to Tokyo. He had a job teaching English. He asked if I knew any “hot spots”.
“This being your town and all,” he said.
I told him to come check out a show my friends’ band was playing. He came to the show. It was in my neighborhood. He said he wanted to drink at a little bar. We went to a little bar. We went to a little restaurant after that.
“So where were you before you moved to Tokyo?”
“Oh, I ended up going to Thailand!” Oscar said. He seemed really excited about having executed on his plan to move to Thailand.
“How was it?”
“Oh man. Oh baby. Oh baby, Bangkok! What a town! What a scene.”
“Sounds like you got up to some trouble!”
Oscar slammed down his tiny beer glass. I ate a piece of a potato. The restaurant was dark. The dim lights were orange. The glass windows glowed amber. The highway outside was dark. The glass made the highway glow.
“I tell you what . . . Thailand, man! Bangkok, baby!”
“I’ve always wanted to go there,” I said.
“Look out for the ladyboys!” he said. He snickered. He looked at his empty, beer-bubble-soapy glass.
“Lots of ladyboys about in those parts,” he said. He stared at his glass. He was quiet.
He looked me in the forehead.
He blasted out a high-pressure snicker.
“Ladyboys! Lots of crazy nights in Bangkok, man, I tell you what . . .”
Oscar told me a story. The story wasn’t a story no one else could have told. I hate to say that. I feel cheap saying that. It’s true. Anyone could have told the story Oscar told me. Oscar reminded me that human memories are heartless. Should we wake one morning with a changed mind, our obsolete emotions will find no material. Our old love occupies no molecules.
I’m getting to the heart of this piece.
I’m not going to tell you the story Oscar told me. Instead, I’m going to tell you the story my heart finds on this occasion.
By the time I was nine years old and beginning my relationship with obesity, my big brother was eleven years old and eardrums-deep in martial arts. My parents offered to sign him up for martial arts classes. He went a few times.
“Those classes are gay.”
My brother did push-ups in the backyard. He read books. He watched Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee on rented VHS tapes. He developed technique. He’s thirty-seven years old as of this writing, and he is a martial arts instructor.
I watched all the martial arts films my brother watched. I can’t say nothing about them appealed to me. The martial arts films offered me an opportunity to see people I would never be, doing things I would never do in places I would never go. I can recall the sensation of these feelings all these years removed. I will carry these sensations until I disappear. A child enjoys the creeping fringe of immortal ignorance. In the adult this becomes shame.
My parents sent me to the martial arts classes at the youth center at Fort Meade, Maryland when I was eleven. The year was 1991. The class name was “Tae Kwon Do”, though I’m not sure our teacher was the strictest proponent of the style. The teacher’s name was Duncan Williams. Duncan Williams was a six-foot-tall black man with a bushy mustache and a medium-sized afro. He spoke in a stern drill instructor’s voice. He taught us to do pushups on our knuckles. He showed new students his massive first two knuckles.
“Look at this. This is what your knuckles are going to look like.”
Duncan Williams had served in Vietnam.
“Your punches will land on these first two knuckles. Have you ever seen a face after someone has punched it? These knuckles cut the face apart. A face after a punch is a bloody mess.”
He also told us that chest muscles after pushups were a bloody mess.
“As you descend, the muscles tear. They’re stretching and ripping. You’ll be sore tomorrow. That’s your muscles taking inventory. They’re getting ready to rebuild themselves bigger, stronger, and faster. If you could see your chest muscles after you did pushups, you’d be looking at a bloody mess.”
“So why do we have to push ourselves back up?” one kid asked.
“That’s to teach you fighting spirit,” Duncan Williams said.
Three months passed. Everyone was still a white belt. We had learned how to punch while in horseback-riding stance. We had learned to abandon shame and scream like stab wound recipients with each snap of our punching elbows.
Duncan Williams had two assistants. They were his children. They were teenagers. The younger teenager was a boy. To this day, I’m not sure if this older teenager were male or female. This older teenager was a Michelle-Rodriguez-like individual. They were half-Asian and half-black. This teenager was a spirited martial artist.
Once, the teenager brought a boombox into the larger gymnasium in the community center. They turned the boombox on. It was Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was before the members of Red Hot Chili Peppers had had any children or, I presume, nephews or nieces.
“Today we’re listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers!”
We did a lot of jumping jacks while listening to the loud music.
Duncan Williams couldn’t be present that day.
“He’s getting some award,” his teenage child told us.
“Teach us how to kick!”
“Yeah! Teach us how to kick!”
“Oh, you mean like this?”
Duncan Williams’ androgynous teenage child threw many fast side kicks, front kicks, hook kicks, and spin kicks.
“Yeah, teach us to kick like that!”
Duncan Williams’ assistant and child shook their head.
“I’m sorry. My dad — Master Williams says I can’t teach you how to kick.”
“He says none of you are ready.”
“My dad — Master Williams told me a story once, about this Muay Thai master in Thailand.”
The teenager told us the story. I didn’t disbelieve it.
Three years later, Master Duncan Williams told my Tae Kwon Do class the same story.
This was a different Tae Kwon Do class in a different place in a different state. It was the Tae Kwon Do class at a YMCA in Indianapolis, Indiana.
It was also a different Master Duncan Williams.
This Duncan Williams was a white man with a beard. My brother expected that Duncan Williams grew the beard because he wanted to look like Chuck Norris.
Duncan Williams cautioned an overzealous student about head kicks.
He stopped the whole class. He told us not to kick each other in the head.
“We’ve got helmets!”
“I know you have helmets. I don’t care if you have helmets: you don’t kick each other in the head.”
Sparring resumed. Minutes passed. Sparring is difficult exercise for a chubby fourteen-year-old.
Master Duncan Williams’ voice shattered the hushed excitement of group sparring.
“What did I tell you! I told you don’t kick him in the head.”
“I didn’t hit him — I just — I was just kicking.”
“You were just kicking. You were just kicking. Alright everyone, listen here. Everyone at attention stance. Everyone listen here.”
Duncan Williams told us a story of a great martial arts master. This man was sixty years old and had been teaching martial arts for most of his life. One of the exercises he enforced on his students involved kicking and holding the kick out at full extension.
Duncan Williams threw a side kick. He stopped the kick in mid-air. The kick hovered at the height of his hips for the next minute of his story.
Students had to hold their kicks out for many minutes at a time. If their foot dropped, the teacher would make them do twenty push-ups.
One day, a student complained. The student did not see the point of that much pain. The student claimed that it was not a practical exercise.
The master had prepared for these complaints. In his repertoire, he had just the teaching tool to silence these complaints. He asked the student to come forward. He asked the student to stand perfectly still.
“Don’t move a muscle,” Master Duncan Williams told us the teacher told the student.
The master then threw a side kick at the student’s face. The kick hit the student’s face. The student’s neck snapped. The student fell dead to the canvas.
The other students screamed.
The master was arrested. He was executed.
Of course, the student had moved a muscle.
Master Duncan Williams was from Kentucky. His delivery of the phrase “Don’t move a muscle” indicated to me that any single muscle would have locked the student’s death.
The student wasn’t supposed to die. The old master had done this exercise a thousand times in his life: he stops the foot a millimeter from the student’s face and then, while holding the foot at such an amazing distance, loudly lectures all students on the necessity of control and balance.
Anyway, that martial arts master is dead now. The government of his country executed him for murder.
I’m not sure if it was Thailand. I think it was Thailand.
I’m sorry I lied to you. I told you that at the taco cafe in Koenji, Tokyo, Japan in 2009, The Green-Haired Girl had spoken the last words she’d ever speak to me about Thailand. I wanted to surprise you in this section. Now I feel bad about my attempts at an ingenious structure. Oh well: here it is, anyway.
It was August of 2010. I was in Hawaii. In July, the Japanese government had summarily rejected my plea for reentry across the Japanese border at Narita Airport. They put me on the next flight going to my country of birth. That flight happened to take me to Hawaii.
I’ve spent most of 2014 writing a novel about my time in Hawaii. I call this novel “a conspiracy of miracles”. I hope to finish it before the end of the year. By the time I finish this essay, I’ll be able to finish my novel.
The Green-Haired Girl came to Hawaii after I had been in Hawaii for a week. We spent two weeks together there. She asked me to marry her. I said no. She said she’d move to America to live with me. She said that wherever I wanted to live would be good enough for her. I told her it would be stupid for her to give up her fashion brand and her chain of stores. She said that someone else could run the stores. She’d still be the owner. She could visit from time-to-time. Besides, the thrift stores in America were where she got most of the items she remade into dresses. She could still remain culturally relevant without going to all the parties in Tokyo. It was an interesting argument. She was the most important person in my life. I didn’t want to be the most important person in hers. She cried in the hotel on the first night. She cried in the hotel on the third night. She stopped crying after the ninth night. She didn’t cry at the airport when she left. I saw her again in two months in Oakland, California.
The thirteenth day, we went to the north shore of the island. We checked out some Goodwill stores. We were driving a rental car. Two of the Green-Haired Girl’s fans were with us. She’d mentioned on Twitter that she was in Hawaii. Two fans — they were a couple — said they’d love to meet her.
“Normally I’d ignore these people or tell them I’m busy, though I know if you were me, you’d hang out with them. So let’s hang out with them.”
The kids were very polite.
The Green-Haired Girl’s business partner mentioned that somewhere on the north shore, Johnny Depp was shooting the next “Pirates of the Caribbean” film. If we went to a specific location, we could see the pirate ship. We went there. We saw the pirate ship.
“There’s a nice beach near here,” one of the kids told us. “They shot some scenes of ‘LOST’ there.”
“Isn’t that that stupid show you watch?” The Green-Haired Girl asked.
“Yeah. Let’s check it out.”
It was a beautiful beach.
“I thought for sure when I saw that show ‘LOST’ that it was set in the Caribbean.”
“Actually, it’s set on a fictitious deserted island in the South Pacific.”
“‘Actually, it’s set on a fictitious deserted island . . .’”
“I seriously do not touch my glasses that much when I talk.”
We were quiet for a minute.
“I like this beach. It’s too bad no one knows about these beaches.”
“How is that too bad?”
The Green-Haired Girl shrugged.
“Besides,” I said, “we found it. People probably find it all the time.”
The Green-Haired Girl was looking at the ocean.
“It’s like another universe,” she said. “It’s like another universe crawled into our universe. That’s how it feels to be here today. That’s how these past two weeks feel. The past two weeks feel like this beach. I feel alone at the end of the world.”
“You’re not alone.”
“I am alone.”
“You’re not alone.”
“I am alone. You’re not here.”
“You’re not here.”
I lost the will to argue.
“No one’s here,” The Green-Haired Girl said.
The waves went on whispering.
“I like it,” I said.
“I don’t mean in that way. I mean no one is anywhere. I’m alone anywhere.”
“I know how you feel.”
“No you don’t. No you don’t. You know how you would feel. You don’t know how I feel right now.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t know.”
“Then why do you say you know how I feel?”
“I feel one general fear,” I said. “I think it’s part of everyone.”
“Did you ever look at a photo of the earth from space?”
The Green-Haired Girl sniffed.
“I think everyone gets scared when they think about space.”
“I think it’s an animal fear. A few words can trigger it. Once you learn what ‘heat death’ is, something changes in your brain.”
“I think dogs and cats and insects are born knowing what heat death is.”
“We’re all chemicals,” the Green-Haired Girl said. “We’re just flowing with the laws of chemistry. My dad told me once that everyone is already dead and that nothing is alive.”
“I’ve never heard my dad talk about that,” I said, “though I don’t think I’ve ever seen friends smoke marijuana and not talk about that. At any rate, I think he’s right.”
“I don’t,” the Green-Haired Girl said. She repeated it in a quieter voice: “I don’t think we’re dead.”
I don’t believe she didn’t think we were dead.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re alive or dead,” I said.
“You don’t mean that.”
“You’re just going to go back there? It’s not even your home anymore. Don’t you know how much I love you? I love you more than myself. You’re going to ruin my life.”
“Bullshit. You’re not sorry. If you were sorry we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You wouldn’t know love if it kicked you in the balls.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I know love.”
The Green-Haired Girl shook her head. “I’m not convinced.”
We were silent. The sun was moving. Palm trees whispered. The ocean whispered. Sand crunched behind us.
The kids wanted to go. They were polite about it.
The girl asked, “What are you two talking about over here?”
The Green-Haired Girl looked at the girl. She smiled. She gestured to the ocean.
“We was say, is very pretty beach. I was say, beach is beautiful. More beautiful is beach in Thailand.”
The Green-Haired Girl looked at me.
“More beautiful is beach in Thailand,” she said.
I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “More beautiful is beach in Thailand.”
I meant it when I said it. The beaches in Thailand are more beautiful. I know this because I had drawn them myself.
Mrs. Baldwin was my eighth-grade social studies teacher. I should say she was my “first” eighth-grade social studies teacher: we moved halfway through the school year. My second eighth-grade social studies teacher was named Mrs. Nichols. Mrs. Nichols was ninety-two years old. She called her students “morons” and “idjits”. Mrs. Nichols had bad arthritis. Her right hand was swollen with bad arthritis. Her handwriting looked like a clown accident. She hand-wrote and xeroxed her test questions. Her diagrams were insane. Her lesson plan was all over the place. She made every student memorize and then recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. I was exempt from this assignment, because I was mute. She yelled at us about the Greenbacks and the Gold Standard and about The New Deal. She often drew a series of concentric circles with dozens of squiggles emanating out of it. She pointed at it: “So this all brings us back to . . .” No student spoke up. “The Hairy Eyeball Of the Government, you idjits!” Sometimes she’d stab the chalk on the board a dozen times or more with her elephant hand. “Who’s this country for?” she’d ask. No one would speak. She’d gesture at the filthy dots. “The Pipples, You Moron!”
This isn’t about Mrs. Nichols, however. I’m only telling you about Mrs. Nichols because she was the exact opposite of Mrs. Baldwin.
Mrs. Baldwin was in her forties. She had curly bleached hair. She spoke in what hindsight tells me was the leisurely accent of a regal Bostonian.
Mrs. Baldwin’s social studies class was more of a geography test. She never talked about governments or history. She had a lot of maps. She hung the maps over the blackboard. She pointed at the maps. Our textbook was a book of maps. We were to study six units during the two semesters. That’s three units per semester. Each unit covered one continent. The first unit was Europe. The second unit was Africa. The third unit was Asia. The fourth unit would have been South America. My family had to move before the fourth unit began.
Mrs. Baldwin often used a slide projector. She showed us photographs of landscapes or city skylines. They were photographs of countries in the continents of our current unit. She ticked through the slides one at a time. She spoke a few words about each photograph: “This is the Eiffel Tower. It is nine hundred and eighty-six feet tall. It was built in 1889.” Mrs. Baldwin was a breathing, walking Wikipedia prototype. Her quizzes and tests involved multiple-choice regurgitation of facts concerning countries inside the continents we were studying during the given unit. She promised a cumulative final exam that drilled knowledge from all units.
We had to memorize the names of every country in each unit’s continent. We had to memorize the countries’ locations on a map. We had to memorize every country’s unit of currency, official language, and popular religions. For some countries, we had to memorize the names of their current president, prime minister, or monarch. For some countries, we had to memorize their government structure, or whether they had a president, prime minister, or monarch. Mrs. Baldwin’s dream was that all children would someday be Wikipedia.
The most important facet of the class was maps. We had to memorize each country’s location on a map of its respective continent.
For some countries, we had to memorize the rough location of their capital city. Mrs. Baldwin tested this knowledge with a blank map. Either we had to draw a star where the capital city should be, or we had to circle one of numerous blank city dots, and then write the name of the capital city next to it.
On day one of a unit, Mrs. Baldwin handed each of us a blank map. This was to be our worksheet for the duration of the unit. We were to look at the map during our studies. While looking at the map, we were to drill ourselves into memorizing the names of each country. We were to keep our textbooks handy. If we forgot a country’s name, we were to open the textbook to a bookmarked map page to refresh our memories (“Do not dog-ear your books,” Mrs. Baldwin said, many times; “A dog-eared book is grounds for detention”).
During a unit we had numerous warm-up quizzes. These quizzes did not contribute to our final grades. The quiz was a blank map. On the blank map, we wrote the names of the countries we remembered. Sometimes, the warm-up quiz was a map with letter icons on the countries and a numbered list of a handful of countries on one side. These were the quizzes everyone preferred.
On the last day of a unit, Mrs. Baldwin wanted us to turn in our maps. The maps would count for half of the unit grade.
By the end of a unit, our maps were to be “Hard and Shiny”.
Mrs. Baldwin wanted us to love the maps. Mrs. Baldwin wanted us to love the maps with colored pencils. During a unit, Mrs. Baldwin colored a blank map along with us students. Her rules were simple: the coloring must be consistent, the consistency of the coloring must be Hard and Shiny, one must never use the same color for two adjacent countries, and all coastlines must be a fringe.
A “fringe” meant we were to draw tiny, hard, shiny, tight light blue lines perpendicular to every pencil-point-wide segment of coastline. As coasts bent and curved, so did our fringe. Mrs. Baldwin berated a boy’s European fringe in a way that made the boy cry. She held up his in-progress map. She told him she should start over. She illustrated the proper technique for the manyth time.
“Bring the point down. Straighten your eye. Visualize the line. Strike evenly. Lift the pencil. One, two, three, four. Keep it Hard and Shiny.”
Europe was hard. My map was hideous. I’m looking at it in my head right now. My Africa was harder and shinier. Africa’s fringe was gentler than Europe’s. The coasts were long and straight. It strikes me that I struggled as a child to replicate Mrs. Baldwin’s obsessive compulsion. It strikes me that as an adult I would not struggle to replicate Mrs. Baldwin’s obsessive compulsion.
Asia’s coasts were difficult to fringe. The Chinese Bulge was simple. The archipelago of Japan was more complicated. Fringing Indonesia was taxing. The map only showed a fraction of the many Indonesian islands (over 1,500, as the unit exam would need me to remember). It was still too many islands.
The coats of Vietnam and Myanmar and Thailand and Malaysia were impossible. The impossibility was mostly my problem. The map was an assignment meant to last the duration of a unit, yet I wanted to finish it in one week. That was me all over: if I knew I had to do a thing, I’d just go ahead and do it. I suppose that’s still me all over. Mrs. Baldwin must have intended the map-coloring exercise as a slow-burning engagement technique: it kept us looking at the map long enough to find comfort in Mrs. Baldwin’s “patented” memorization exercise for learning the names of the countries.
“Look at the map. Point at a country. Ask yourself what country that is. If you know the name, say it. Point to another country. If you know the name, say it. If you’re not sure the name is right, look it up. Now start with the first country again. Every time you have to look it up, start over. Start over every time you have to look it up. You’ll know all the countries in no time.”
This was gibberish to me: I knew the name of every country within thirty seconds of first looking at the textbook map. I’m not bragging. I’m telling the truth. Mrs. Baldwin’s lengthy explanation of the best technique for memorizing the names humans have given pieces of the world struck me as obsessive and insane. This was before I realized I was as different from everyone else as I now know I am.
Well, I fringed Thailand. That map sat in my Trapper-Keeper for many weeks while Mrs. Baldwin droned on about Southeast Asia, and how the unit of currency in Malaysia was the Ringgit (RM, Ringgit Malaysia). Mrs. Baldwin expected us to take notes. I didn’t take notes. I thought about space. I got an A+.
Mrs. Baldwin was showing us slides. She showed us Buddhist temples in Indonesia. She showed us Catholic churches in Indonesia. She showed us the coasts of the Philippines. She showed us a wall of trees: “This is a rainforest in Indonesia.”
“My husband and I went to the rainforest in Indonesia,” Mrs. Baldwin said. “It was very hot and humid there. Very hot and very humid.”
“Was it raining?”
“Yes. The rain was thick. The rain was hot and humid. It was like being inside a hot shower.”
“Are there rainforests in America?”
“No,” Mrs. Baldwin said.
Mrs. Baldwin went on.
“My husband and I went to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. That’s in South America. South America is our next unit. We went with a tour guide. Just the three of us went. We went in a jeep. It was so hot and so humid on the way to the rainforest. The jeep had no roof. We were sweating in the jeep. The jeep was driving over an open field. We weren’t driving on a road. The jeep was rattling and bumping a lot.”
Mrs. Baldwin’s voice entered the darkness.
“On the horizon we saw a wall of trees rise up. The rainforest was as tall as skyscrapers. The sky was bright blue above us. There weren’t any clouds in the sky. The sky was the brightest blue. It was the brightest blue I have ever seen. We neared the rainforest. Over the tops of the trees we could see another sky. The sky was black. It was blacker than night. It was a . . . shelf of black clouds over the rainforest.”
Mrs. Baldwin’s voice was now in deep space.
“There was a line in the sky. The black clouds made a line in the sky. It was a perfect straight line. It was like God had drawn that line with a ruler.”
Mrs. Baldwin pressed a button.
“This is the Merlion. It’s half fish, half lion. It’s the country mascot of Singapore. Singapore is a city-state. You can’t see it on your maps.”
Mrs. Baldwin clicked a button.
“This is Istanbul, Turkey.”
“Isn’t Turkey in Europe?”
“Istanbul is a transcontinental city. It exists in both Europe and Asia.”
Mrs. Baldwin clicked a button.
“This is the reclining Buddha of Thailand.”
I thought of the film “Kickboxer”.
My family moved before I could turn in my hardest, shiniest map of Asia. The map was still inside my Trapper-Keeper in my backpack when I arrived at my new eighth grade in Indianapolis, Indiana. I threw that map away in the trash can in the cafeteria of Northview Middle School on Monday, November 22nd, 1993. I dropped my empty carton of chocolate milk atop that map. The carton was too light to push the map down to the bottom of the new trash bag.
Every time I hear the word “Thailand”, I remember the line in Mrs. Baldwin’s sky. I remember the fringe of the South Pacific. I think about being alone and friendless in an ocean of memories. I think about the two sides of every moment. I remember that I will die someday in silence. I remember that silence is the soul of this universe. I know through mathematics that ignorance is more powerful than knowledge, and that we will die in a silence of knowing less than we do not know. I know that love is silent, and invisible. I know that adventure is love. I know that to put one life down to rest is one of love’s more powerful directions. Time is deep; love is a long history of dark corners. Aliveness is the pain-friction of knowing that each future fixed interval of waiting we must endure is increasingly shorter than All That Has Come Before. What if language were currency? What if to use one word shut off its utility in all further conversation by all our fellows? How would we write our history? I feel that time and love are like that. I think about my most dead friend; I can see her face and feel her shrieks of laughter at the worst world news. The chemical ghost of her opinions arises from time to time in my modern life outside of beyond and away from her. I think about other peoples’ near-death experiences. These stories are nothinger than a wind in an imaginary grove. They tell you that you figure out everything in those last moments in which you ponder your invisibling from the world. They tell you you see everything you need to see when you realize you are not fit for survival, and that you continue to see everything when by some miracle you indeed survive. You can hardly do anything more meaningless than listen to someone’s near-death experience story. Maybe the more meaningless adventure is to hear the same person tell their near-death story to you a second time. This happened to me recently, and it is why I am writing about Thailand: someone told me their near-death story. Months later, they told me the story again, in a tone of voice that told me they had forgotten they had told me the story. I can hardly be sadder than I was then. I have a near-death story of my own. I don’t think I’ve ever told it as such. My friend died and I mourned her. I spent nine days without eating or drinking or sleeping. I collapsed in a train station. A woman from Thailand saved me. I threw up in her house. She tried to have sex with me. I cried. She didn’t have sex with me. I called her a year later. We had sex. It was beautiful. I did indeed figure out everything on the floor of that train station. I’m not going to tell you about that everything. Let’s not ever talk about that everything. Mrs. Baldwin didn’t talk about everything when she told us about the line in the sky. This black and white is not before and after. This black and white is not past and future. Asleep inside us is a light colder than time. It awakens if it is ever ready. It is awake in me. I cannot use it. If I could find my Swiss Army Knife (this is a euphemism) I could give literature these ingredients. I could find purpose. I want it to be too late for that. She and her husband and her children and her grandchildren and her students and their (our) clones now flood into and fill up My Thailand until My Thailand’s volume is impossible. Each ray of My Thailand’s coastal fringe shines onto and through many conspiracies of miracles which continue beyond me and die outside of me as I continue beyond myself and die outside of myself.
Thank you for listening.