For some reason, the long-anticipated nationwide vote that took place in Thailand early last week was not postponed so everyone could watch the Super Bowl. One has to question a country’s priorities when a the Amer-ican sporting event is not given the attention it deserves. How can the Thais ever expect to fully embrace democracy if they cannot be treated to the sight of huge American football players — some as large as the obese tourists wandering about on Sukhumvit Road — smashing into each oth-er with spinal-injury force?
It is of course a special source of pride for me, a former Seattleite, to see the Seahawks triumph over the Broncos, and in such convincing fashion. With my self-esteem so closely tied to the team’s success, I now have a convincing reason to feel better about myself. The street walkers and bar girls I’ve met since that marvelous victory have encountered a new me, someone no longer so shy and who can effortlessly engage them in rabid speculation regarding the development of the Seahawks’ quarterback and whether the team’s defense can continue their domination next season. But these exchanges have not gotten off the ground. When I introduce myself as being from Seattle, Washington, they first look bewildered, then say oh, Washington D.C. Mistaking the Emerald City, the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, with the nation’s capital. Again, these people need to learn what’s important.
Being confused with “that other Washington” and the lack of significance that implies has always been a concern to the denizens of my hometown, who for many years have been infected with a desperate need to be con-sidered “major league” in the eyes of the world. Apparently the formula to attain this ill-defined label involves building monster sports stadiums, which the civic leaders duly began in the late 1990s. And while the two grandiose structures have not exactly been overflowing with champion-ship banners, they do make a head-turning sight south of the downtown, large enough to be visible from the surface of the moon. The one for the Seahawks was partially paid for by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and someone who doesn’t need to collect grocery coupons. Since he was down to his last thirty billion dollars at the time, the taxpayers generously picked up the rest of the bill. I doubt if many of them this week are re-gretting that sacrifice with people everywhere (or at least outside of Nana Plaza) learning how to say “Se-a-ttle”.
The win is also a vindication for the leaders of the local S.O.S (Save Our Seahawks) organization. Back when the team was making noises about relocating without a new stadium, it was these people who stepped up and helped persuade Mr. Allen to open his checkbook. Too bad the group did not build on that success and tackle other, equally important, civic concerns such as the shortage of accommodations in Seattle for displaced youths and abused women. Something like Save Our Shelters, perhaps. Would not even have needed to change their acronym.
But mostly this victory belongs to the loyal fans. In particular those who continued to purchase tickets year in and year out back when the team managed to go almost two decades without winning even a single playoff game. (Most of those years the season was pretty much over by the mid-dle of October.) Theirs is a heartwarming testimony to the endurance of hope from which we can all draw inspiration as we wish for better under-standing and a more peaceful world in 2014. Or, failing that, at least a speedy, head-cracking defense.
As part of my annual U.S. vacation, I fly to Iowa, then down to Texas to play some serious golf with each of my two younger brothers. Growing up, our family had a lake house in Northern Iowa and during the sum-mers dad would take the three of us out golfing at one of the small town courses in the area. (Considering whan an exacting and frustrating game golf turned out to be, I sometimes wish our father had instead introduced us to bowling or maybe shuffleboard.)
My youngest brother lives in a town called Ankeny on the north side of the Des Moines metropolitan area. It’s a classic example of how a once self-contained, no-frills community became engulfed in the tsunami of suburban growth. Driving to the Otter Creek Golf Course — which used to mark the edge of town — a person now goes through or past multiple sub-divisions of box-like houses that have sprouted like mushrooms on what was once fertile Iowa farmland. Some of the more elaborate homes feature two car garages with an attached single car structure. It is nice to know that despite America’s homeless problem, the country’s vehicles (at least the ones owned by the well-off ) have a place to spend the night.
These treeless outposts hold little appeal for me. There are no restaurants, parks or bike trails within walking distance — things I’ve come to value from living in Bangkok. There’s just the lonely, sometimes biting wind coming off the prairie. Encircle these enclaves with a high barbed wire fence and guard towers and they would resemble a state prison.
A similar, though much larger, sprawl is unfolding near my middle bro-ther’s town of Frisco, a remote suburb of Dallas. As part of our golfing outings, we always play a round at a course we especially enjoy only fifteen minutes from his home. Along the way, off in the middle distance, are row upon row of lot-busting behemoths stretching towards the hor-izon. And for those Texans with a little extra money and a desire for privacy, there are immaculately landscaped, gated communities (if that is the right word) offering homes priced from three hundred thousand up towards three quarters of a million dollars. The American dream: nicely packaged and padlocked.
Passing by these fortresses, I cannot help but recall my ex-Thai girlfriend Rassamee’s modest home. You enter into a cramped but comfy-looking living room beyond which is a narrow, dark kitchen (whose roof used to leak during the rainy season). Off to one side are a pair of tiny bedrooms. Not very impressive, in fact probably borderline claustrophobic for most Americans, but a place where Rassamee has managed to raise her two children and send them both off to college. It makes one wonder if a third garage is really necessary for a happy home.
Welcome to Seattle, home to such world-famous companies as Amazon and Starbucks. A city with a proud tradition of liberalism and bold entre-preneurship, its gleaming skyscrapers and mammoth sports stadiums a source of wonder and awe.
Then there are the homeless… Walking a mere two or three blocks about the downtown core guarantees your coming across someone in need of help. Stop at a storefront window or an ATM, and sooner or later one of them will sidle up and ask you for money. It can be uncomfortable for a first-time visitor.
I am of course no stranger to panhandling, living as I do in an area of Bangkok frequented by rich tourists. At any time in the evening, there are maybe a three or four Thai beggars camped on the sidewalks along my street. Their spiel is well-rehearsed and effective: outstretched hands, pleading eyes…maybe even a barefoot, malnourished child who trails you for a few steps, rattling coins in a plastic cup held out in front of her. My least favorite of these performers is an emaciated elderly man who, when ignored, will bang his metal cup upon the curve to try to embarrass his target into making a contribution. Someday I’m going to swat that utensil right out of his hand and into the next district.
By contrast, the destitute in Seattle are not anywhere near as organized as their Bangkok counterparts. Some of them simply display crudely made signs soliciting contributions as they sit on public benches or lean against sheltered storefronts to escape the rain. Others merely amble about in damp, worn clothing, occasionally muttering to themselves or shouting profanities at invisible entities. From the perspective of the workers and shoppers hurrying by, they are largely indistinguishable from the dis-carded McDonald’s hamburger wrappers or Starbucks paper cups that blow along the pavements. This sad scene repeats itself in every medium to large-sized U.S. city, and it is both puzzling and shameful that the rich-est country in the world should have a transient problem which resembles a developing nation like Thailand.
Perhaps my aunt Ginny can shed some light on the situation. She is bi-polar and for a number of years after her husband left her, lived the life of a street person in various towns and cities in Southern California. From those locations she would often write or call my father, attempting to wheedle money out of him. The family eventually decided to fly Ginny back home to Iowa in order to provide up-front help, but this proved a failure. The “counseling” sessions turned into a wrestling matches as Ginny resisted well-meaning, but amateur attempts to get her to fly right. Soon everyone basically threw in the towel and Ginny once again drifted from one town to another, this time in-state, occasionally showing up at the doorstep of an embarrassed sibling.
The quandary was that we could not force Ginny to get help. There are understandably strict laws against involuntary committal, and she was adamantly opposed to any inferences that she should be seeing a pro-fessional health care worker. In other words, if she wanted to live the life of a vagabond and not take her medication, there was nothing we could do to change that self-defeating behavior. The same is generally true of homeless, mentally ill sufferers throughout America. There doesn’t exist a standard, reliable process to re-integrate them back into society.
Ginny’s story does have a happy ending, though. After returning to the West Coast, she entered halfway house and from what I’ve last heard, has begun putting her life back together. (My father’s passing removed all re-maining hope of obtaining handouts from the family.) Obviously a very patient person or persons at the house are providing the support Ginny so desperately needs. It’s too bad there aren’t more of these types of helpers. The desperate people left out on the streets and their myriad of needs will always be with us.
At Sports Academy Pool Hall
Rat (Chalking up her cue): You not say much today, kun-Montre**. You have girlfriends problems?
[** “Montre” is the way my Thai friends address me, which is the closest their language allows them to pronounce my name without twitching.]
Me: No. President Obama want Americans to not be angry about Zim-merman, so I am quiet.
Rat (Preparing to break): Zimmer-man? What is Zimmer-man?
Me: Hispanic man. In America he shoot black man (mimic a gun firing in conjunction with Rat’s energetic break). Kill him. But not get trouble.
Me: Family from Mexico; come work in America. Some Americans not like.
Rat (Smartly banking the one ball while still looking puzzled): What you mean?
Me: Same-same Cambodians come to Thailand.
Rat: Ah, kao jai. (Thai for “I understand”. The Thais, like many Ameri-cans and perhaps most people in the world, look down their noses at their neighbors.)
Newt: Why Americans angry?
Me: If Hispanic man shoot black man, or white man shoot black man, not good.
Newt: If black man shoot black man, Americans angry?
Me: Ahh, mai ben rai. (Thai for “not a problem”. Might as well try to be honest.)
Newt: Are you angry?
Me: Yes! I miss easy Eight Ball shot last game. Very stupid.
Rat: Let’s have another tequila round! Make you feel better about Eight Ball and the Zimmer-man.
And so life manages to go on for me here in Thailand’s capital despite the verdict, though CNN seems determined to keep the controversy sim-mering. Living overseas, it’s harder to grasp (much less explain), the way cross-racial violence and justice continues to be a flash point in the U.S. and the manner in which it detracts from more serious concerns. While many Americans are outraged over the shooting of an unarmed black by a Hispanic, each year over thirty thousand of their countrymen (Hispanic, black, white) are in fact killed by guns. Yet nobody gets upset, aside from the occasional schoolchildren massacre, and even then the resulting out-rage is fleeting. Far easier to let CNN define what one should be angry about.
Why are so many Western men becoming romantically involved with As-ians? Put that question to some of my American countrywomen and you can get some provocative responses:
“They just want their own little slave.”
“They cannot deal with an independent woman.”
“No American lady will have them.”
The first opinion makes a nice starting point for this discussion: the no-tion that Asian women are docile and submissive creatures. Indeed, it is this misguided impression that often initially draws unknowing men into the fold. What they don’t understand is that their new, exotic girlfriend, while on the surface appearing to accede to their every wish, actually has her own agenda along with some subtle means of pursing it. Far from being a master/slave relationship, it’s more often a case of the man ex-periencing the illusion of control even as he scours the fresh produce at the local market on his way home after work, searching for some out-of-season tropical fruit that his loved one has shyly requested for that night’s dessert.
The second and third viewpoints imply that Western men seek out Asian companions due to personal problems or deficiencies. While there’s some truth to this, I think it’s also a case of them wanting a more traditional partner. Less opinionated, perhaps. Asian cultures, with their emphasis on family, education, and aversion to take-no-prisoners confrontation there-fore have something to offer. For many “nice” guys, who often struggle to decipher the expectations of the fairer sex in their home countries, this can be an intriguing alternative: a woman from a stable background with a degree, who does not expect her husband to have an opinion about Hillary Clinton. Someone with a genuine appreciation of kindness and sensitivity in a man, while offering in return an enticing sexuality.
Which brings us to what is probably the biggest motivation for men to longingly gaze East: appearances. Almond-shaped eyes, raven-black hair and lithe bodies…well, sometimes. Regardless, the gene gods have cer-tainly been kind to what has been described as the world’s most feminine women. At the same time, their Western counterparts (read: Americans) have become super-sized — a condition for which they have only them-selves to blame. Happily, McDonald’s is attempting to level this playing field by opening cholesterol-saturated eateries in every Asian country this side of Inner Mongolia, though the West retains an imposing, belt-bust-ing lead.
Ultimately, it’s a tradeoff. Yes, a lonely western man can hook up with an Asian girlfriend whose looks cause traffic pileups, but she will require a special kind of caring and understanding. In return, a whole new world can open up for both people. One complete with unusual cuisine, comical misunderstandings and fresh, thought-provoking perspectives. It’s also an opportunity to discover a few things about oneself, perhaps emerging as a more flexible, self-aware person.