Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Long Live the King

My first week in Thailand passed in a whirlwind of activity. At first, it was sensory overload – deep fried bugs sold by every other street vendor, taxi scooters where women ride sidesaddle, shopping malls on every corner, pictures of the King posted everywhere. Somehow, everything seemed very familiar yet foreign at the same time. I’ve begun to adjust, and while I think I am still a far cry from trying some crispy critters, other everyday parts of city life in Bangkok are beginning to feel normal to me. Scooter taxis, for example. My second full day in Thailand I had to start my new job, approximately two weeks early, as some important work came up that they needed help on. My aunt, An, was going to escort me so I didn’t get lost, and my jaw dropped when I saw her flag down two scooters. I was wearing a knee length pencil skirt and three and a half inch heels… was she serious? Yes, she was. So I hopped on, sidesaddle as I had seen all the other Thai women in skirts do, and held on for dear life.  I knew from observation that when you ride a scooter taxi, you are not supposed to hold on to the driver, but rather just balance on the back seat as he weaves in and out of traffic, occasionally grabbing the back handle for support. Seeing as I have trouble balancing on my own two feet, I though it probably more important for me to place value on my life rather than on local customs, and I clutched on to my driver’s waist and shoulders with an iron grip. By the time I made it to work, I was feeling slightly more comfortable on the scooter, and had even taken one hand off my driver, although he may still have some bruising. Over the next couple of days, I began to think myself a real expert and I got better and better at holding on to just the back handle, keeping my seat even through speed bumps, sharp turns, and dips in the road. I might not be chatting on my phone or smoking a cigarette, as many of the locals are apt to do when ridding the scooters, but I could hold my own.

Then my aunt threw a wrench in the works again. Coming home from a giant day of shopping, traffic became too congested to stay in our taxicab. Hopping out, my aunt flagged down two scooters again, and turned to my little cousin Nicky and asked, “Who do you want to go with?” Being his new house mate and friend, of course Nicky wanted to go with me. I gave a look of horror to my aunt, who laughed and told me just to hold him on my lap. So sitting sidesaddle on my scooter again, my little cousin climbed onto my lap. This time, I clung to him with an iron grip, my other hand holding the back handle of the bike, praying that I wasn’t going to kill my cousin less than a week into living with my aunt and uncle. Somehow, we made it home alive, but I have a feeling the experience was not a one time off sort of thing.

My first week in Bangkok passed quickly, and I was definitely ready for the weekend when it came. Work had been very busy, the days had been very hot, and I was very tired from jumping full on into my new life. Friday night my family all went out to meet some friends of my uncle for a few drinks, but the loud 70s and 80s music started to really get to Nicky, and we called it an early night. Saturday night we headed over to central, to the food court at the top of one of the giant malls there. I was a bit skeptical on how good a food court could be, considering the fact that I had recently been an employee of one, but this “food court” defied all my expectations. High end restaurant would be more accurate. Upon entering, each customer is handed a card with a 1,000 baht ($30 US) limit, and is then faced with the multitude of choice meals. There are sections for every food imaginable – Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, sandwiches, soups, salads, desserts, cocktails – you name it, it was there. Not only is the food of the best quality, but it is also dirt-cheap. Most of the meals were between 100 and 200 baht, or $3-$6 US. After placing your orders, the eating area is literally a beautiful restaurant style area, outfitted with fountains and live music.  After our fantastic dinner, we decided to head over to the Michael Jackson movie This is It, as it was supposedly only playing for two weeks. The nearest movie theater was at the top of the Paragon Mall, which is apparently the largest mall in the entire world. Designer stores I’ve never even seen in San Francisco – Versace, Christian Dior, Escada - every designer you can think of was there. It’s a strange contrast to the street market going on directly outside of the mall’s front doors.

Every movie in Thailand begins with the King’s song, and no one is allowed in the theater after the song has begun. The song is a progression of images displaying the King, and Thai people doing good deeds, such as coming together to push a broke down bus out of an intersection, under the gaze of His Majesty. The truly astonishing thing is that the images displayed in the song are not too far off from the truth. Thais practically worship the King.  Every household, by law, must have at least one picture of the King at eye level, yet I would be shocked to find a single household with only one picture. Posters are displayed around the country of the King, and it is near impossible to walk 10 feet without seeing his face looking down at you. It is almost as though Thailand is an alternate universe for Jesus freaks, who dedicate their lives and moral compass towards a royal figure as opposed to the son god, with crucifixes replaced by posters. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, the King is one who deserves to be revered, and has done much good for this country. It is simply the best way to describe the dedication that Thais feel for the head of their country. So as the King’s song began in the theater, everyone stood up, and all the non-foreigners sang along with gusto.

While experiencing the King’s song for the first time was a cool experience, the rest of the movie was an experience of a different kind. I’m not speaking of the actual movie itself, but of my experience in the theater. The lights went down and the previews began, and I felt as though my ear drums had been blown out of my head. I had heard that the sound is turned way up in Asian theaters so people can talk on their phones, but this was ridiculous. I don’t know how any person could possibly enjoy sitting through two hours of earsplitting noise, regardless of how good a movie is. I seemed to grow more used to it as the movie progressed, but my head was still ringing as I left the theater. However, the most memorable aspect of the movie was the man sitting next to me. Our theater had assigned seating, but as the theater was practically empty, we sat two seats off of where we were supposed to. Five minutes before the King’s song, a dumpy Asian man in his mid thirties comes to our row looking for his seat. I watched, wondering if he was going to make us move, as he looked at his ticket, looked at the seat number, and looked at his ticket again. He even went to look at the seats the row below us before coming back up to question whether or not we were sitting in his seat. Indeed, we were, so we all shifted down one, and he sat down next to me. I should have known this wasn’t the only disruption I would have from our friend. Turns out he was a Michael Jackson fanatic. Within the first five minutes of the movie starting, I was already more focused on my neighbor’s rocking, fist pumping, finger pointing, and seat dancing than on the film itself. Every time a really famous Michael Jackson song began (which, honestly, was every song) he would grab his hair, give himself a nice big rock in his chair, before pointing at the screen and fist pumping with one hand in the air. I could tell he would then get self conscious and stop for about 10 seconds, closing his arms around himself before the music would just be too much for him and the whole spectacle would begin again. While there may not have been many of us in the theater, I think the man sitting next to us definitely had enough excitement and love for Michael Jackson to fill all the empty spaces. At least I know now that however foreign Bangkok might feel, it has at least one thing in common with the rest of the world- no matter where you go, the King of Pop can bring us together.

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