18 July 2019

Re-Imagining Bangkok

I always knew I’d go back.  When I moved to Bangkok four years ago to teach research and writing at Stamford International University, it felt like being shot out of a cannon.  One day, I was in San Francisco hanging out with friends.  Three days after that, I was on a plane. 

Sometime between those two points, I had a brief interview on Skype, which ended with “Okay, see you on Monday.”  I swallowed hard and said, “You mean, this Monday?”  My three interviewers nodded, smiled, waved, and the Skype call ended.  Apparently, that was exactly what they’d meant.  Ten minutes later, I was making lists, looking up last-minute flights, and sending a barrage of emails.

But it was all good.  And by that I mean I’m not exactly a beginner when it comes to picking up and relocating to another country on short notice.  Still, working out all the arrangements and preparations within 72 hours entailed a certain amount of stress and concentration.  It always does. 

By the time I got on the plane, I was ready; though, I felt like I’d lost five pounds just from stress.  The more mobile you are, the more flexible you need to be, and the longer you live.  That’s what I tell myself, anyway.  I also vow every time that I will sleep on the plane, but I never do.  A friend of mine who lives in Japan swears by Dream Water, but I don’t know.  There always seems to be an abundance of lousy Tom Cruise movies demanding my attention.

When some westerners arrive in Bangkok for an extended stay—i.e. not just for a week of malls, Singha, and the Sukhumvit tourist bubble—they feel like the city is perpetually trapped in the middle of a grand mal seizure: the crowds, the concrete, the heat, the colors, the sheer speed of the place in a time zone where everything has already happened and is probably happening again right now.  Sometimes, it’s too much.  But if you can adjust, if you can assimilate enough to fall in love with the place, it will change your life in ways you might never have anticipated.

You soon discover you’re a day ahead on the news.  You spend as much time navigating the dense
streets and commuter trains as you do anything else (an experience that cannot be adequately explained to anyone who hasn’t lived there and struggled with it on a daily basis).  You start to eat differently, breathe differently, think differently.  In Los Angeles, you feel like the city has bitten down on a live wire.  In London, you feel like you’re standing in the capital of the world.  And in Paris, everyone seems to want to discuss and compare their perspectives on everything.  In Bangkok, you get all of that from the moment you arrive and it does not stop.

I not only fell in love with the place, but when I returned west, first to the States and then to England, I felt haunted by it.  The adjustment period was difficult.  I would walk the beautiful tree-lined canals of Oxford and watch people moving in slow motion.  Everything seemed denser, heavier, requiring methodical consideration.  To a certain extent, that is just the nature of Oxford, but the contrast between the two places couldn’t have been more striking. 

I will miss the green spaces of England and the friends I made here.  I will definitely miss the good-natured weirdness of London, the art and culture, and spending afternoons reading in the Embankment gardens.  But it’s time to move on, not back, which means the Bangkok before me will necessarily be different from the Bangkok I experienced four years ago.  That is what stimulates my curiosity the most.  That and seeing some of the friends I've kept in touch with over the years—Facebook has at least been useful in that sense.

Soon, I will have lived more of my adult life outside the United States than in. And I’m certainly not the same person I was at age 18 in southern California, obsessed with getting away from home and into the world. Well, maybe I’m still a little like that, having lived and worked in so many different countries since then. One thing is for sure, I’ll be writing about it as I go.

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