Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Which way home?

19.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

When should I go home? Is it goodbye when I no longer appreciate the feeling of personal safety here, the affordable public transport, the laid-back national attitude? When I tire of the cheap massages, manicures and mangos? Maybe it will it be the prevalance of sleazy bars, being seated next to one too many dumb girlfriends at dinner, or the barking soi dogs that finally get to me.

The longer I wait the easier it is to postpone the decision. Home itself is gradually taking on a different meaning; it?s not exactly equated with a nation anymore. My Man spent several years growing up in each of Italy, South Korea and Japan; why is it he should feel a particular allegiance to the country of his birth? And now I?ve spent five years outside Australia; except for family, why would I want to go back?

I could happily shift to Italy next or I could find a well-paying job in Hong Kong. I don?t read the online Sydney Morning Herald as often as I used to, and many of my friends are now scattered around the globe, shooting emails off and seeing each other probably just as frequently as if we were all living in the same city.

We?re cast adrift: not quite aimless, but with the magnetic pull of ?home? weakening month by month.

?If you wait until you retire to go back to Australia,? some holidaying Kiwi-English friends cried, ?You won?t have any friends when you go back!? That may be; but if I leave now I?ll leave friends behind, and if I stay, many of those friends will simply leave me behind instead.

In his recent book The Global Soul Pico Iyer captures an idea I?ve been inarticulately mulling over for some time: that more and more of us aren?t slotting in to traditional notions of what it means ?to be from? somewhere. Iyer is Indian-born, UK-educated and now divides his time between the US and Japan.

Of himself (and me) he writes: ?A person like me can?t really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who?s generally posted abroad for a living); I?m not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition); and I?ve never been subject to the refugee?s violent disruptions: the Global Soul is best characterised by the fact of falling between all categories??

Being from multicultural Sydney, I?ve long known that a face doesn?t necessarily reveal where a body is from, or whether that body is Australian. Whether you?re born in Greece, Vietnam, Tonga or Latvia, if you?ve made it through the tortuous application process to become a migrant or a refugee to Australia, official policy welcomes you with open arms to join in being an Australian too. Australia ? or at least urban Australia ? is by definition a multicultural place today.

The opposite situation exists in Thailand. It?s not difficult for most nationalities to get a 15-or 30-day tourist visa. But if you want to live here legally ? whether you?re Burmese, American or French ? you?ll probably face similar amounts of paperwork and expense, but you?ll never be accepted as a Thai. Just ask an Indian whose family has been here for generations, a member of an ethnic minority group in the mountains of the north, or a German woman married to a Bangkok Thai. Where?s home for them?

The more money you have, of course, the more rights you have to be many places and the less attached you may feel to just one ? and you do need money to be Iyer?s Global Soul. With money, you can travel widely across the spinning globe and always feel right at home, with recognisable fastfood chains, beauty stores and supermarkets all arriving at your destination before you. It would be more foreign for many expatriates to head to the poor areas in their own home towns than it now is for them to arrive in Thailand and take a lease on an executive apartment.

But money or no money, bureaucracies are failing to keep pace with people like us. For reasons striking at the heart of what it means to be a nation in the twenty-first century, it still matters very much to governments and organisations where people are from.

Rebecca is an American-born teacher; her dad?s Thai, her mum?s Norwegian. She?s been in Thailand these past few months teaching, and would now like to volunteer with a US-based volunteer program. She can?t because she?s already here. Their forms don?t allow it.

Australian Guy and Thai Jen met while studying at university in Australia years ago; they married there. They moved to Thailand a few years ago and recently had their first baby. Guy still has to pay someone to take his visa out of the country every 30 days; the irony of living in a country where his child is a citizen but he?s not can?t be lost on him. (Although Guy does note that at least his child is entitled to citizenship, which may not always be the case in other countries.)

My first job here was at the Australian Embassy in the political economic section. I was ?locally engaged?, but also Australian – I had to be to acquire the necessary security clearance. I received local wages, had to pay tax in Australia, and could not be promoted anywhere because I was technically a local.

Now I might soon be earning most of my income from outside of Thailand, but there?s not yet an appropriate visa for that situation.

Bureacracies aside though, those with enough money and appropriate skills can still largely take advantage of the technologies of our time, skating along the gaps of categorisation and happily nesting wherever we happen to find ourselves.

But a Swede I met in Vietnam reminded me that not everyone wants to create new homes. She had lived uncomfortably in Johannesburg for a year, where she found it difficult to connect with any of the locals and longed to get home. ?I hate to go to a pub where there?s nobody who?s from my culture, who understands where I?m coming from,? she said. ?I need to have that connection.?

Indeed Iyer quotes Simone Weil: ?To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.?

The question remains, however, of what it is each of us should be rooting ourselves to.

No need for nirvana in paradise

05.07.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

It?s the tenth set of squats that sends a ripple of rebellion through the class. There are murmurs and soft but indignant groans as people try to catch each other?s eyes before rolling them behind the teacher?s back.

?And in your own time, twenty more. Remember to breathe and keep those ankles on the ground,? the teacher says.

The students from his studio in the UK glide easily into and out of the pose, palms raised together above their heads, knees bending elegantly at just the right angle. They?re wearing the right clothes, have golden tans and they glisten rather than sweat in the humidity. We shoot envious glances in their direction.

?He?s got to be kidding,? says Irish Meg a little louder than she should have.

?I really can?t take much more of this,? her friend warns sharply.

It doesn?t matter that we?re standing on a near-deserted beach in southern Thailand. We don?t notice that the sun is dipping towards the horizon, leaving a sky streaked with baby pinks and blues behind, nor do we listen to the wind as it rustles through the palm trees swaying just behind us. We can?t smell the salt in that fresh seabreeze. And we certainly don?t care about those fish splashing offshore. We?re in pain. This yoga sala may as well be in the middle of Bangkok.

It wasn?t supposed to be this way, some of the students tell me later. They thought yoga would be fun, maybe a little spiritual and definitely relaxing. ?It?s boring, he?s making a lot of money, and I?m more stressed than when I arrived,? Meg summarises. ?Animals run around in the ceiling of my bungalow at night but I?m too sore to get out of bed and see what they are.?

I?m not quite in the same boat, being a ring-in from Bangkok staying on the island?s sole resort for a few days. The others are a group of fifteen travelling from the UK, attending yoga classes with the same teacher every morning and evening for ten days. I?ve joined them just as the reality of the squat-school of yoga they?ve chosen kicks in.

This is not how I was introduced to yoga in Thailand. I attended classes in a smaller sala on the much more developed Ko Samui. At a resort squeezed between two others on crowded Lamai Beach I learned what it is that draws people ? ordinary, non-Gwyneth and Madonna types ? to yoga.

The teacher, trained in a squat-free school, taught just one morning class to whoever turned up. She had a knack for picking up on what people?s personal physical problems were, and would run an entire class around them while keeping everyone else challenged too.

?Look at Carla!? she would cry when somebody was doing well in a pose. ?Carla, you?re really in your body today!?

It would have been laughable or corny from anyone else, but from this teacher, it meant something: Everyone could see that Carla was really ?in her body today?.

Some students undertook cleansing fasts at the resort running the classes; I read about their programme in a piece published in Australia later on, written by a sceptical journalist who trivialised the whole beads-in-the-hair health experience.

I stayed elsewhere and thought switching from coffee to tea was a sufficient dietary overhall, and I didn?t put any beads in my hair or cleanse my colon. But I?d still go back to my bungalow after class and fall into a deep sleep for an hour, awaking refreshed, energised and ready to commit to yoga for life.

?Practise,? the teacher told me. ?Practise. And have patience.?

Back in Bangkok, I undertook a search to find a teacher from that same school of yoga. Bangkok is a big, cosmopolitan city; I thought it would be easy. But there are few schools of any type here compared to many places much further from India, and it took weeks before I finally found someone.

This teacher?s studio, a five-minute walk from the BTS, has airconditioning rather than a seabreeze, and a view of the high-density neighbourhood rather than the ocean. Traffic and the occasional barking dog form the background hum, rather than the splash of waves on sand. But these classes are just what I need to avoid turning into a flabby, knotted-muscle, grouchy mess.

Despite a bad back and advice from doctors to exercise, My Man refused to come to a class. He persists in calling it yogo.

?What?s the point of doing yogo in a polluted city where you can?t breathe properly anyway?? he?d retort when I issued my almost-daily invitation to come along. ?What?s so spiritual about standing around in a sanitised, airconditioned box? Why fight living in Bangkok??

Then he conditionally relented. ?I might come for a class if we go back to Samui.?

We weren?t back on Samui, but this beach further south was prettier and the air even fresher. Things were looking promising. We sat in the restaurant and a hornbill flapped by while the sun made pretty patterns through the thatched roof. The yoga teacher pulled up a chair and started to chat.

?So you don?t practise yoga?? the teacher asked My Man.

?Maybe in a few years?when I?m seventy,? he smiled to someone who didn?t smile about yoga. ?Yogo?s not really my thing.?

?Well, that?s the beauty of yoga. You can start at any age,? the teacher replied soberly. ?But it would be better for you to start now.?

He serenely headed off towards the sala on his own with his practice mat tucked under his elbow as Irish Meg joined us for a sunset drink.

?I need to dull this pain,? she said. ?I?ll have a double gin and tonic.?

?So are you enjoying the yogo classes?? My Man had to ask.

?No,? she said. ?There?s too much squatting. I?ve had enough of squatting. I don?t want to squat anymore. And I?m sick of the people who can squat.?

Would she do such a trip again? ?Well, this place is alright. This place is beautiful,? she said. ?But I?d bloody well do a bit more research on the yoga next time.?

She was right; there was too much squatting. I didn?t even want to go back to class. I saw any hope of My Man picking up a yoga mat that weekend evaporate as quickly as Meg was downing her drink.

We ordered another round. And I looked forward to getting back to Bangkok for my next squat-free class.

Cutting through red tape

21.06.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

"No! I don’t want any of your stupid little dangly conical hats. I didn’t yesterday, I didn’t this morning when I passed you, and I didn’t when I passed that woman selling the exact same thing five metres back there. Thank you."

That’s what I wanted to say to the hawker in Hanoi. I really wanted to say it, and I was aware that just wanting to say such things made me a hypocritical, nasty and socially insensitive redneck. Instead I smiled. "No, thank you!"

Vietnam was breaking me. I had been there for nearly a month, travelling overland from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on an extended holiday – I was using Bangkok as a base for travel at last! I had two assignments to complete while I was there, both related to that most curious of north Vietnamese traditional performing arts: water puppetry.

I’d seen the water puppets on a previous visit to Hanoi, where the best troupe is reputedly based. They were pretty cute. The wooden puppets are mounted onto a float, and are manipulated underwater by puppeteers who stand behind bamboo blinds hanging from an indoor pagoda built over a pool. The music is feisty and loud, and both tourists and Vietnamese children love them.

Gathering a bit of background information about the puppets and their history would be a snack. I brushed aside my daily experiences in Thailand of having to leap immeasurable obstacles to extract the most basic information from people (in English – so yes, it’s my fault).

A typical Thailand example: I want a brief comment from a stock analyst to include in a story.

"Well, my manager is the only person allowed to make comments to the press," the woman it takes a half dozen transferred lines and repeated explanations to reach says.

"Can I speak to your manager?" I ask.

"He doesn’t cover that area," she laments. "I do."

"Well can you ask your manager if you might be allowed to make a comment in this case?" I prompt. She puts down the phone and comes back in a few moments.

"Look, I’m very busy. Can’t you call someone else?"

Twenty-five years of living under communism would probably make those sorts of calls more difficult. But mere inanimate puppets? They’d be a cinch.

To err on the side of caution, however, I had tried to prepare by calling the puppetry theatre while still in Bangkok. Incredibly, I found the right person within two quick calls.

"Just give me a call when you arrive!" she said. "No problem!"

"I won’t have much time in Hanoi. If possible, could I arrange times to speak to people now? I could send you a fax or an email with what I’d like to know," I said helpfully. You gotta have that fax or email fallback in Thailand – a name to quote at least, but a piece of paper is always a better bet.

"No, just show up!"

In Hanoi it was drizzling. It was enough to make the light for photographs rotten and your clothes continually damp, but not quite enough to get the ubiquitous postcard sellers and shoeshiners to stay indoors. I was unnecessarily grumpy and tired; the charm in those dilapidated old shopfronts eluded me and I just wanted to be back in Bangkok. Only the puppets stood between me and my flight home.

I called the theatre, but they hadn’t heard of the woman I had spoken to. "Miss Tan," I repeated with some desperation to a voice that kept breaking into hysterical giggles. "Is there someone else there I can talk to who deals with the press?"

"No, no one else!" he giggled joyfully.

I physically went to the theatre, where someone called the director on my behalf. He was available for an interview the next day.

At the appointed hour my interpreter Jim and I we were led to seats in the foyer. A few of the attendants appeared and whispered apologetically to him. "The director has a very important party to attend," Jim conveyed. "He cannot make his appointment."

We made another appointment for the following day. "If the party was so important, why didn’t he know about it yesterday?" I whined rhetorically to Jim on the way out. Jim explained politely that the director was an important man, and it wasn’t unusual for such people as us to have to make repeated calls in order to meet with somone like him. Communism hadn’t quite managed to make everyone equal after all. I was in familiar territory now.

The next day the man with my assignments in his hands appeared. He sat on the edge of his chair, fingering his gold watch and tapping his toes impatiently as Jim translated questions.

"When did the theatre open?" Jim asked.

He smiled, tapped his toes noisily and embarked on a seemingly intriguing and lengthy anecdote. He laughed, Jim made a few encouraging remarks. He was really quite personable after all! Finishing with a drum of his fingers on the table, he smiled at me.

"1985," Jim translated.

And so it went. "We want to take Vietnamese culture to the world," was one complete sentence I did manage to write down. Could he give me any references to works in English on water puppets? Any materials at all? No, there was nothing- just an out of print book we might track down. Could I interview some of the puppeteers? He would have to check and let me know the next day.

We didn’t track down the book, but I did attend a performance that night where I discovered that there was an English-language program that did in fact contain plenty of good information in English. It also completely contradicted much of what the director had said. I was ready to conclude that puppets sucked.

The next day I planned on heading north for a three-day trip, giving me just enough time to squeeze in some interviews before flying back to Bangkok. Jim emailed me to let me know he had made arrangements to interview puppeteers right in the middle of it. I explained that I had said I couldn’t make that time; he was obviously reluctant to cancel the appointment.

"I made up an excuse," he told me eventually. "Don’t tell them it was because you had paid for your ticket to go away – that is an unacceptable excuse to a Vietnamese."

A few days later, I interviewed the puppeteers and got Jim to delicately ask the director how it was that some of his facts conflicted with the program.

"The program says the troupe began in 1969. I was wondering what exactly it was that began in 1985?"

The director looked at his watch, he tapped those toes and drummed those fingers, before nodding sagely and launching into an explanation. The history of the theatre was clearly complex; there were nuances and shades of meaning that he was quite clearly taking the time to explain to Jim.

"Yes, those dates are different," Jim translated.

On the way back to my guesthouse for the last time one of the hatsellers approached me.

"Looking, looking! You want to buy, yes, yes?"

"How much?"

"One dollar." I handed over the money and took the red-stringed hats, planning to hang them over my computer screen. They sit here, reminding me to appreciate how easy – relatively – information is to access here in Thailand. And of how easy it is to misdirect your temper.

The grass is always greener

03.05.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

Until landing at swish, efficient Changi airport last weekend, I never realised that Don Muang was such a dump. Sure, I’ve gone to other flash spots from Don Muang before, but usually they’ve been further away – there’s been a few drinks and a nap between my hazy memory of the Thai immigration officials taking half an hour to stamp my overstay receipt (in between watching death wrestling), and the sudden reality of whatever gleaming transportation hub I’m ejected into. The glow of the present tends to rub off on the past.

But not this time. If Changi is a hunky spunky brainy guy wearing a tux waiting to take you to town in a limo, Don Muang is but a festy old bloke with a really big beer belly who might take you to Patpong for a drink if you’re lucky. Changi’s a winner.

A great introduction to Singapore, at least. I enjoy heading overseas because I know I’ll appreciate the many things I’ve started to take for granted about living in Thailand when I return. But during the initial honeymoon period with a new city, there’s excitement and passion with everything fresh and unusual about the place. It’s plain old infatuation.

This time, I fell in love with Singapore’s fresh air, quietness and greenness. I don’t really notice, breath by breath, that Bangkok’s air isn’t good; beyond keeping the grime off my book collection, it physically doesn’t present problems for me. The sudden contrast with Singapore, however, left me, well, breathless. The air actually tastes cleaner.

The busy yet quiet roads are another enigma. The cars are well-oiled, well-washed, and well-behaved for the most part. Drivers do have to pay in the vicinity of S$30,000 for the privilege of having a car in the first place, but oh the efficiency! Let them catch buses! Motorbikes are few and far between, but rickshaws still squeak around in parts. There’s just not enough pollution to kill off their drivers.

And the trees were elegant and shady. I had thought the gardens under the skytrain were starting to come along, but now I see them for what they are – a feeble, pathetic attempt to make it more difficult to jump over those anti-jaywalking wires.

We took a shared taxi from the airport, swept along the shaded boulevards past the colourful high-density housing. ("Well, sure, there’s eighteen buildings in my block, but you can pick mine, it’s purple, and has a yellow stripe across the 12th floor") and smoothly arrived at our hotel.

I dashed to the loo and was shocked – but, yes, rather pleased – when the toilet automatically flushed. Then I dashed off for a meeting, asking the concierge to call me a cab. "Take the MRT, it will be much quicker," he advised in perfect English. "Down the block, cross the road, it’s under that building over there."

So I headed there, lined up for my ticket, was told to re-line up to get change, re-lined up to get change, then re-lined up for my ticket again, and sped down the escalator to the suicide-proof MRT. There was a method to all those queues, which were far longer than those at Bangkok Bank at lunchtime but moved faster than a senator with a vested interest.

It was then reality started to hit. I had to pay Bt150 for a coffee far worse than what you’d get at any big chain here – or at least, the editor I met with did. Later I really did need to catch a cab, but couldn’t just hail one – I had to walk out of my way to get to a rank. A taxi rank!

Bangkok began to take on a slight nostalgic glow, but the honeymoon was not quite over; I marveled at the orderly queue moving steadily and without any cheats into taxis that automatically turned on their meters. I’ve been stung in queues before – always by very old and unapologetic ladies with khunying hairdos in banks – and I liked this idea of respecting whoever arrived first.

Then there was the essential Singaporean cultural experience: shopping. I hate most shopping, particularly clothes shopping in Bangkok, because being six-foot tall I can’t fit into anything here, period. And it’s physically dangerous: I once nearly lost a hand in an overhead fan in a dressing room that had no grill covering it. The sales assistant just didn’t understand when I smiled and said that hey, maybe that could hurt someone (like me!).

In Singapore I had to ask for a smaller size at one stage, nobody laughed in my face when I asked if they had size ten shoes (nevertheless, they didn’t have them) and there weren’t three sales assistants hanging around outside the dressing room door waiting for me to come out. I almost had fun.

Things even got exciting at one stage when we were involved in a crime. My Man stepped in some gum on the footpath, a victim, clearly, of civil disobedience. The equivalent in Bangkok might be stepping on a tab of Ecstasy. We’d clearly just been part of something big.

As is well known, Singapore’s economic success and sanitised streets have come at the cost of reduced social and political freedoms. But some, it seems by reading between the lines, don’t even get a taste of the money.

As we sat on our couches at Changi late Sunday afternoon – even the humblest of economy travellers are supplied with couch space to curl up on at Changi – we read the local paper (which, sure, we could have done anywhere) which put things into better perspective.

One feature reported on how much employers lose financially if their (usually Filipino) maid runs away; yet there was no matching story explaining just why it is maids run away, and where perhaps they could go for help if they needed it.

Then there was the hysterical-if-it-wasn’t-true story of the biscuit tin thrower, an in-brief titled "Man who hurled killer litter jailed". A man who had thrown an empty biscuit tin out of his second-storey apartment had confessed to acting rashly and endangering other people by doing so. He was jailed for eight weeks. How did the police manage to catch such a menace? Luckily, a vigilant citizen had seen what he did and telephoned them. This guy was lucky – he could have been jailed for up to three months and fined S$250. A lesson to biscuit tin throwers everywhere.

Getting onto the plane, we picked up a copy of this paper, which carried a front page report on a pro-democracy rally held the day before in – Singapore. The government had given permission for the rally, but there hadn’t been a word in The Sunday Times about it.

Emerging from Don Muang we took a breath of thick, fume-filled air, elbowed our way through seemingly every passenger who had arrived since midday, got grunted at by one of the grouchy public taxi assistants, argued with our driver to get him to put the meter on, explained to him – all in Thai – that it’s not necesssary to cross the Chao Phraya to reach Sukhumvit Road, got to our street, jumped out and over the potholes, swum up the driveway leading to our block while beating off the barking dogs and let ourselves into our apartment. Home sweet home.

Singapore might be a hunky spunk, but I like my men with a beer belly.

Thailand, the Italy of Asia

05.04.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

A little piece of Italy lived in our home every Thursday night when I was growing up in Australia. Dinners were Mum’s spaghetti bolognaise (spag bol in Australian); it was our one night’s respite from meat and three veg, except for Sundays when we’d eat McDonalds, tinned soup or cheese on toast (whatever Dad could handle).

Spag bol was exotic and eagerly anticipated; garlic was the pungent and unusual ingredient that made it so. There’d be one clove on a normal night, or maybe two if Mum was feeling adventurous. And we could all certainly taste the difference.

This was my first exposure to "foreign" food, and I recalled it when I finally got to travel to Italy a few years ago. It was immediately apparent that the key to Italy was Italian food, and I then easily comprehended how, despite the fact that there were Greek-, Indian-, Lebanese-, Chinese- and Polish-Australians in the neighbourhood, it was Italian food that first penetrated all the way into the heart of our Anglo-Australian kitchen. How could such fervent passion for a cuisine not drive it there?

Later I came to Thailand. The comparisons between countries were immediate. Most obviously there was the utter disregard for traffic rules and regulations. I was contemplating the Castel dell’Ovo in Naples when I was first surprised by a Vespa intent on getting home quick via the ancient stone footpath; I was observing an Emporium window display in Bangkok when a Honda first did the same over a crumbling asphalt one. Then there are the frequent changes of governments and the fickleness of MPs. Governments change with the seasons in Italy; they change with the monsoons in Thailand. And fashion? Italians are slaves to labels just as devotedly as their (rich) Thai counterparts.

It was clear from the start that Thailand was the Italy of Asia. Or Italy the Thailand of Europe.

What really clinched the comparison, however, was the food. Just as in Italy, eating is at the forefront of every Thai’s mind, all the time. Vendors line the streets seemingly wherever a group of twenty or more people might be around. They fill the air with the aroma of barbecued chicken and fish, the sound of pok-pok as papaya is transformed into som tam, and the sting of frying chilli as a wok sizzles on a bright blue gas flame. In every office, people share their food and comment critically on whether or not it’s delicious; in every home, ingredients lie in wait, ready to be whipped up into a feast. "I’m Thai, Sam," a friend admonished once when I asked if bringing an extra person to dinner was all right. "You don’t have to ask that."

Stomachs rule. I’ve been thirty minutes away from a 10-hour bus trip’s destination, but I’ve stopped and eaten a meal because the driver’s stomach demanded it. Recently I left an office over an hour late to go on a photo shoot and interview. As we desperately pulled into traffic to begin our two-hour journey, the organiser clapped her hands gleefully. "Right! Let’s go eat!" And she didn’t mean takeaway. We had a proper meal in a restaurant that was out of the way but very good, and she didn’t even have an expense account to slap it onto.

Call me over eager, but even the ingredients in Thai and Italian cuisines are comparable. Pasta equals noodles. Risotto equals fried rice. Fresh herbs reign supreme in both. Sundried capsicums equal sundried chillies. Bread dipped in salsa equals fresh vegetables dipped in a nam prik. (Italian La Cadolora wine equals Chateau de Loei? Yes, over eager.) Grappa equals lao cao. Seriously. A friend of My Man’s father ran a jeep on home-made grappa for two weeks during World War II, and I’m sure that most lao cao could power a Honda for at least that long.

I learned before going to Italy that one or two cloves of garlic in real Italian food was conservative. Add half a dozen to flavour a memorable sauce; crush a few more to mix through your olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing; slowly oven-roast a cluster to eat alongside thinly sliced roast beef. But it wasn’t until I came to Thailand that I realised it was the done thing to just toss a dozen raw cloves over your khaa muu khao, or to eat a few bittersweet cloves along with your Chiang Mai sausage. We might have Thai restaurants in Australia, but they’re not that authentic yet.

A chef I interviewed once confided that top chefs fear staying in Bangkok for longer than a few months. "If we ate Thai food every day, we’d ruin our taste buds. We’d go back to France and people would laugh at our new version of cromesquis." But it wasn’t the garlic he was concerned about; Thai chilli, his theory went, would obliterate a good chef’s ability to detect fine French nuances of flavour.

Italians wouldn’t be quite as fussed. Fine Italian chefs may disagree, but to me there has always been something more homespun and hearty, more honest and exuberant about Italian food than French; sure, there are French restaurants around town, but perhaps this is why Italian has really taken over here. Italian food demands that you enjoy it loudly, that you ask for more; French food wants you to be humbled by its excellence, startled by its innovation. Which do you think a Thai would prefer?

On a trip back to Sydney recently my brother took me to a suburban pizzeria run by an Italian-Australian with a broad Italian-Australian accent. He asked what we were having, and I asked for the Napoli.

"The what?" he said.

"The Napoli," I said. "Olives, anchovies and cheese."

"The Napoli?" he repeated, incredulous, crooking his head to one side. "You gotta be kidding me!"

I shook my head.

"You mean to tell me, you wanna order a Napoli pizza?"

I nodded. He slapped down the teatowel that had been thrown over his shoulder.

"I don’t believe this. For twenny years, I been running this pizzeria, and I have sold maybe one Napoli pizza, and then today, this woman," he said, gesturing to me and speaking to my brother as if I couldn’t hear him, "she just comes in, and she orders like that, a Napoli. I don’t believe this. Why you wanna Napoli?"

"I just like them."

His belly grew rounder and his smile widened into a slow chuckle as he shook his finger at me. "Alright! I make you the best Napoli pizza you ever had."

I felt smugly like that spag bol I grew up had given me a pretty good pedigree.

He started assembling the pizza in front of us. "You see this?" he asked, twirling a big silver spoon around a bowl full of mellifluous golden oil before drizzling it across the pastry. "This is my secret. Every year my wife and daughter, they go have a vaccination for the flu. But me? I just eat pizza with lots of this. And, well, I drink a little. But this, you take some olive oil, you crush the garlic, put in some fresh parsley – beautiful! "

Italian restaurants really hit Australia in the 1970s while Thai restaurants didn’t mushroom until the 1990s. We might have motorcycles that stay on the road, stable government and people who dress really badly in Australia, but at least now we have a fantastic array of cuisine. And if I ever have children they’ll grow up with a little piece of Thailand or Italy for most nights of the week.

Keeping back with the Jones’

22.03.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

Anyone who’s been backpacking has heard or participated in these sorts of conversations. Not the ones where you compete to see who got to that small town in Vietnam when the children still cried to see a strange face on the street, or who arrived at that beach in southern Thailand before it had a single bungalow on it and you could live there on free pineapples and coconuts.

It’s those conversations about who stayed in the most atrocious accommodation I like best. They always start with "Now, where was I?" and a scratch of the head, while the tale-teller stretches their mind across the many, many towns, countries and continents they must have been to. Then comes the recognition. "Oh, it was Pushkar. Rajastshan. That’s western India," the tale-teller will add.

It will continue: "I was staying in a glorified concrete dog box perched at the top of a three-storey condemned firetrap. There were two blue, wooden doors at the entrance," (shudder, distant look in the eyes) "and there was a chain that you put through two holes to lock them together when you were out. There were hooks on the inside, so when sleeping, you could just wrap the chain around them and you’d wake up if anyone tried to open the doors.

"On the first night monkeys came down from somewhere and shook the doors until the chain worked itself loose and fell off. I was lying in bed when they all came running in, over my pack, my bed and my clothes. They grabbed all the food I had. It was terrifying. From then on I had to padlock myself inside the room so they couldn’t get in. But they would shake the door… all night long. Still, it was only US$1.50 (Bt63) a night."

Animals – vermin, more usually – will often feature in this genre of story-telling. In a creaking guesthouse in Pak Beng, Laos (that’s northern Laos) My Man went to the loo downstairs one night and came back shaking. "I saw a rat and it was the size of a beaver. It flashed its teeth at me. And it smiled." That, I suppose, is why they had chamber pots. Until then we had thought they were ashtrays.

Another friend stayed in a "really hideous place" in Luang Nam Tha (far northern Laos) where rats woke him up as they ate through the sealed cigarette packet lying next to his head. "They ate from the bottom so they didn’t get the filter. *$%#^&?$ clever rats in Luang Nam Tha."

Fast forward to when it’s time to start working in Bangkok: then it’s the Khao San Rd guesthouse with perpetually damp mattresses, dining room/dengue fever treatment centres, share tinea-infected bathrooms, and various characters whom idle away their days talking about well, the above. But this will be where you find your launchpad out of backpacker land back into Real Life. That is, somewhere to live.

Now you’ll expand your social circle beyond those who think leaving Khao San Rd is an adventure, and rub shoulders with freelance photographers, journalists, subeditors, English teachers, self-employed and other locally-engaged staff. You’ll find that something of a transformation has taken place: the favoured topic of conversation has now become who’s got the best place. Who can get the best bang for their buck? Who managed to find a place for under Bt10,000 a month with a direct line and normal rather than fluorescent lights?

Most aren’t that lucky the first time around. Take Rufus. The first place he moved into was a one room hovel he had to share with his travelling companion. "The building was a falang ghetto, full of very low-paid English teachers and, well, Bangkok scum. Down the hall was this English teacher/male model who regularly beat up his girlfriend. Then there was a guy from Lima (that’s the capital of Peru), a big ugly bald guy who looked like John Voight, who did nothing but sit in the lobby drinking beer all day. Other South American friends would drop off mysterious packages, so he was probably a drug dealer. But we can’t be sure about that. Upstairs there were at least four katoeys who would come home at 4am drunk, start fighting, and run screaming through the halls.

"It cost Bt4,000 a month, was serviced and had a filthy, slimy pool. But the English teachers would sit around it and drink beer between classes. They’d get drunk and go swimming. I stayed for six months. It was horrible."

Eventually, you might mix with the expats who are on packages. When you tell them excitedly what you’ve found after looking for months, they’ll smile knowingly, condescendingly or, if you’re lucky, sympathetically. Actually, it’s better to keep your mouth shut to listen to their stories. I tried to smile empathetically once when someone told me how he couldn’t get his airconditioning right despite paying double my average monthly salary in rent (and I don’t do that badly). He checked into a five-star hotel and sent his landlord the bill. I think my eyes widened too far though and gave the game away.

We got what we thought was a fabulous deal on our place when we moved in a couple of years ago. We had been paying a small fortune for a terracotta tiled cupboard, and couldn’t believe our luck when a departing friend offered us first option to move into a place half the price for quadruple the space. And even though when it rains the driveway becomes a knee-deep swirling pool of mud, the dogs are mean and the security’s dodgy, the place is clean and there’s only the occasional bar girl who turns up to ask us if we’ve seen our downstairs neighbour lately.

But when we recently started hearing more tales about better places – Rufus is in one now -we decided to check some of them out. Alas, the ones shown to us were never as fantastic as what the person we knew had snared. Feeling adventurous, we also headed into apartments that looked promising, despite knowing they’d be way out of our price range.

Now, if you’re stuck in a place like Rufus once was and aspire to much greater things, let me temper your enthusiasm. Of the expensive places we saw, not one was worth a job in accounting for; boxy, airless and awfully designed, they provided fodder for their own kind of horror tales. "The built-ins that made me want to cover my eyes in horror, and the pink glass panelling was enough to make a normal human being gag. Sure, there were plastic wooden floors that you could rollerblade across, but they were asking Bt70,000 a month for it."

So in the meantime, I might be paying more than Bt63 a night, and even more than Bt4,000 a month, but I don’t have to put up with monkeys or screaming drunken neighbours. I’m not paying Bt70,000 for the privilege of faux marble in the bathroom or leopard skin carpet, either. Instead I’m living in an accommodation twilight zone. Package expats sneer at my address, new arrivals think it’s nondescript, and backpackers don’t believe for a second that it compares to that place in Mahalibalipuram … (that’s southern India).

Dogs, dumpers and a damsel in distress

22.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

Our apartment lies a good few hundred metres from a main road, so to the casual observer, it seems remarkably peaceful for Bangkok. It’s not.

Sure, most of it’s typical neighbourly noise, but working from home, I get it all. There’s the driver who regularly pulls up into our dead end soi, turns up his car radio (which is just off the station) and settles in for a few hours’ snooze. We’ve gotten fairly used to the neighbour’s maids, who sit under our windows and chat, scream and giggle while washing both clothes and yapping dogs. We’ve learned our fruit vocabulary from the phonlamai vendor who uses a very expensive amplifying system to let the masses know they can buy "Sapparot! Malakor! Ngo! Mamuang!"- or whatever, depending on the season. I truly do like the shouts from the Ratchaburi potseller (how many repeat sales can he have?) because he rolls his R really well. And of course, there’s the Walls motorcyclist whom every Bangkokian knows and fondly loves. Isn’t multinationals making music what this global village thing is all about?

But things have gotten worse. I’ve started muttering "air-conditioning" like a mantra these past few days. It was TE Lawrence who once wrote that "A man hates to be moved to folly by a noise", and it’s true, I hate to think that this daily cacophany might lead me to do something as silly as purchase an air conditioner. Air-conditioners lead to sniffles and sore throats, unnecessary clothing and unnatural coughs.

But they let you close your windows.

Consider, for a start, the televisions of the people downstairs. During the day, they like to watch, I believe, horror movies set in waterparks filled with thousands of screaming teenagers, a kind of NJ Saturday gone horribly wrong. In the evenings – I’m sorry, the late evening – they prefer to watch English football, a basic variation of the former. It’s relentless.

Then take the dogs. Out the back lurk at least two gangs of ferocious and muscular canines the size of small horses, with fangs bigger than elephant tusks that drip copious amounts of saliva, speckled with the blood of whatever neighbourhood animal they’ve just captured and heartlessly mauled. Can’t see them at all, but pretty sure that’s what they look like.

Out the front live the Motley Mob, a bedraggled bunch of around two dozen strays who don’t need any reason at all to start barking other than a dirty look from another dog. Soi Barking Dog friends like to call our street, as whenever they telephone they can’t hear us over the racket in the background. These friends used to actually come around to visit, but they got tired of having to be escorted safely down the street on their way home.

The dogs are fleabitten and sorry-looking, and they don’t look like they have the energy to rifle through a garbage bin, let alone actually attack someone – but they have, rather gruesomely, bitten through the skin of our next door neighbour. She has since developed an aversion to the mutts that extends to no more than a pulled face and a rush up/downstairs and in/out the gate. That’s a very mild aversion, considering.

Unlike someone who once lived in our apartment and had his sanity tested so severely by the Motley Mob that he procured poison, syringes and meat, ready to purchase back some peace with a touch of murder. He never garnered the courage to actually do it, but I bet it felt good carrying home goods that would have led to a few hours tranquility. Instead he used those slingshots that cost about 20 baht, and took aim at them from the safety of his balcony whenever they started up a ruckus.

Of course, he lived here before the construction of the twin towers a block away began, so a few hours tranquility was a realistic possibility. Currently the noise – around the clock – from that site is basically "BANG" followed by an echoed "bang" about every 1.2 seconds, but there have been numerous variations to that pattern over the past two years. The essential sound is something like a hammer hitting a piece of corrugated iron, a useless, unproductive sort of noise that, given the pace of actual construction over the past two years, it may well actually be.

A crane fell off one of the towers some time ago, killing the poor driver, provoking several investigations (right!) and giving us all some sleep. Newspapers reported that locals had been complaining for some time about the late night noise, but when the construction started again, it was back on, twenty-four hours a day.

So it can’t be true that Thais don’t really notice noise (except for karaoke), nor that they are reluctant to complain about it. They complain. But bugger all gets done.

I wonder then, about the most recent neighbourhood development. Every evening for the past fortnight or so at 9pm a convoy of dump trucks arrives, engines roaring and axels squeaking, at the vacant block next to ours but one. Then they dump. Then they take their shovels and spread the dirt out. Think of somebody taking a sharp metal shovel and running its edge down a big rock, again and again, continuously, for around six or seven hours while you’re trying to sleep.

Last night I reached breaking point, and at 1.30am got out of bed after My Man refused to (well, he did offer to go down to Seven to buy some ear plugs). I prepared to storm down the road and demand that they shut up. Then I thought, wildly, that it would be preferable to just shout anonymously out the window instead. What I actually did was root around in the bathroom to find a crusty old pair of ear plugs before going right back to bed.

Now we live in a high-density neighbourhood, and it can’t be possible that I’m the only one being bugged by these midnight dumpers. Why isn’t anyone else complaining?

Hey, why aren’t I complaining? I’ve now called the tourist police because I knew they’d probably speak English. And I sounded silly.

"Um, they bring these trucks full of dirt, and they dump them, and then they spread the dirt out. But it’s loud. And, like, I can’t sleep." They said that they’ll take a look, bless ‘em.

But if those trucks come back tonight, I think I’ll take my chances with an air conditioner.

The perils of sitting in a dentist’s chair

01.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

The tears erupted as soon as I saw the long chair, surrounded by shining, sharp instruments whose only possible purpose could be pain. My fear surprised me. I’m normally quite tough when it comes to pain – I was one of the few girls in my peer group who could handle using an Epilady when it hit the shelves during my teens. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because it was some sort of medieval torture device dressed up as a modern way of removing hairs from your legs. It had a revolving spring that caught hairs between its coils before ripping them out, follicle and all. It didn’t last long.

My Man looked helpless as I sunk into the chair, whimpering. He took up the observation position in the corner. Tried valiantly to look like a stalwart. The nurse bustled around me, tying a bib around my neck (so I was supposed to act like a baby?) and making as much noise with the sharp instruments as she could. The tears kept springing forth. Finally the dentist appeared, his mouth already covered with a clean white mask to hide his malevolent smile.

Despite having had braces and attending an orthodontist’s surgery for what seems like my entire adolescence, I was afraid. Very afraid. I’d never had anything done in a dentist’s chair before. No fillings, no extractions, no caps. The gum around my right bottom wisdom tooth had swollen up the night before and it hurt. I’d popped into the hospital to see if they could suggest a dentist to see as I’d never had cause to go to one in Bangkok. They had their own dental clinic; they told me to come back at 4 o’clock. 4 c’clock! But it hurt now!

I’ve become far too used to Bangkok’s excellent drop-in services that range from getting your shoes fixed under Skytrain steps to your hair cut in your favourite salon. An appointment! In Australia, making an appointment is the norm. A friend had a tooth of his flare up just before Christmas in Australia. They gave him aspirin and told him to come back in mid-January.

My dentist ignored my tears as he prised open my mouth and stared. His breath made a laboured noise through the woven cotton. Inhale, exhale, inhale.

"X-ray," he said.

"I had x-rays in October and the dentist…"

"You have the x-rays?"

"No, but he said…"

"You need x-rays."

I took a bunch of tissues and headed into the x-ray room. I stopped crying. Had the x-rays. Went back to the chair of torture, where the dentist was looking at them already.

"Extraction," he announced. I looked wildly around the room.

"When?" I said weakly.

"Now."

He was unimpressed with my questions. I wanted to ask what was wrong with the tooth. Did it absolutely have to come out? Was it growing crooked? Was there a cavity? Should I just have all the wisdom teeth out at once? How long would this take? Didn’t people normally get knocked out for this sort of thing?

I didn’t ask a thing. Somehow along the way we westerners have been taught that it’s good to ask questions about any procedures you’re having done to your body. It’s your body, after all.

But in the face of this dentist’s shortness I withered, shrivelled to nothing. I was utterly at his mercy, and I was annoyed with myself for being intimidated. I wanted to know things. Was this an example of the sort of high-handed arrogance that I have often heard Thai doctors accused of? There are certainly western doctors who behave this way, but somehow it’s not the same. They know the deal. They’re expecting you to ask questions, even if they think they know all the answers.

I started crying again, closed my eyes tightly and opened my mouth widely, surrendering. Cotton wool soaked in anaesthetic deadened the gum before I was given needles – two and a half, My Man said – and the tooth was ripped from my gum. It took less than twenty minutes.

I didn’t feel a thing. Not even those needles. The worst thing was the string pressing on the corners of my mouth while the stitches were being tied. What a pathetic drama queen! I was so pleased I forgot to say thank you as I skipped out, hitting my chin and feeling amused at how I still couldn’t feel a thing. I wondered if my smile was crooked, tried to feel my lips.

My Man was not quite as sanguine. Pale-faced, he told me that if he ever got a sore wisdom tooth, he’d rather put up with the pain than have that happen to him. I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope being a birthing partner should we have children. At least he won’t have to worry about ever falling pregnant himself.

Other People’s Horror Stories started flowing right from the moment we rang to let a friend know we couldn’t make his party that night. "The only thing I can imagine that could be worse than getting your wisdom teeth out is being castrated," he said. "I was laid up for a week in agony." I looked forward to my anaesthetic wearing off.

Another friend told of having all four out at once and not being able to eat a thing; then there was the student hospital where a dentist pulled out the wrong – unanaesthetised – tooth. Others said they were certain they hadn’t got the anaesthetic before the needle – maybe it was a good thing that I had openly demonstrated that I was petrified. One friend, however, insisted she’d had hers pulled out without anaesthetic while she was in high school. "And then I went to the movies."

I recovered within a week. Many painkillers and mashed potatoes were the keys.

But spare a thought for the dentist. Sure, he could have been a bit nicer, a bit chattier. In fact in my humble western opinion he would have been more of a professional had he encouraged some dialogue.

But dentistry must be the absolute worst profession in the world. How frightening to have a petrified patient shaking and moaning and blubbering as you try to make an exact incision in their pus-filled gums. How rotten to have to break people’s jaws, sew up their gums while they swim in pools of blood, deal with their stinky breath. I know it’s not a simple cause and effect thing, but I’m not surprised that I’ve read dentists have one of the highest suicide rates among occupational groups, (along with physicians, lawyers and military personnel – I know, the lawyer thing seems strange).

I went to university with a friend who had really wanted to be a dentist. I don’t understand why. But I’m glad that there are some people who do.