Posted by: koolwine | June 5, 2011

Thailand: Sightseeing

Seven short stories about Thai natives, tourists and transplants illuminate life in contemporary Thailand.

Country Focus: Thailand (Prathet Thai in Thai; known as Siam until 1939)

Sightseeing: Stories
by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Thai-American)
published by Grove Press, 2005.  247 pgs.

Acclaim: National Bestseller; winner of the Asian American Literary Award; finalist for the Guardian First Book Award

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Rattawut Lapcharoensap

Rattawut Lapcharoensap penned Sightseeing when he was only 26 years old.  Not surprisingly, the best stories in this collection feature boys on the cusp of manhood.  In “Farangs,” a hotel owner’s son falls for Lizzie, the latest in a string of American tourists who have broken his heart.  “At the Café Lovely” portrays an eleven-year-old trying to prove himself to his teenage brother.  A young man can’t admit to his best friend that his parents bribed the draft board in “Draft Day.”  A boy overcomes his own and his parents’ prejudices to befriend a refugee girl in “Priscilla the Cambodian.”

Only the final, (too) lengthy “Cockfighter” disappoints.  Lapcharoensap boldly attempts to tell the story from the point of view of a teenage girl named Ladda, but a convincing female character requires more than a feminine name and repeated mention of her boob size.

That criticism aside, these punchy, skillfully crafted, well-paced stories deftly tackle complex emotions and situations.  Lapcharoensap writes some of his most pointed lines in “Farangs”:

Ma says, “Pussy and elephants.  That’s all these people want. … You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca deserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between.”

Paradise is in the eye of the beholder.  Sightseeing reveals that Thailand”s residents are much less sanguine about their country than the tourists who arrive seeking banal amusements.

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How Lapcharoensap lets you know you’re not in America anymore…

  1. Your comb the beach for trash every morning*
  2. Whether or not you’re drafted hinges on drawing a red card (soldier up) or a black card (civilian life for you) at the local temple**
  3. You have a pinup of the “Native Chicken of the Week” hanging on your refrigerator door***

*Ni Han beach on the island of Phuket has 4.9 lbs of trash for every 1076 sq. feet.
**All Thai men who do not volunteer for military service are legally required  attend the conscription lottery at least once after they turn 21
***Over 200,000 people watch cockfights each weekend in Thailand

And then reveals that Thai aren’t so different after all:

"He's the best," I said. ... "Mister Eastwood is a first-class thespian."

"I had dreamed all week of hamburgers and french fries and a nice cold soda and the air conditioning of the place."

"That's when we learned about Priscilla's name. She was named after Elvis Presley's wife."

____________________________________________________________

In my book, or what Thailand means to me and maybe you, too:

Maria and the worms
Rain fell all morning and worms lay like pink spaghetti across the cement portion of our school’s playground. I was in first grade, outfitted in rubber boots and squishing worms with every step as I tromped over to my Thai friend Maria.  She was crouching over a particularly plump specimen. “Don’t step on it!” she said.  “Why?” I asked.  She said that her family didn’t believe in killing anything, even bugs and that she was going to spend recess protecting the worm.  “Oh,” I said, because what else can you say when you’re six and presented with a new and improved moral code?  I stayed there with her and the worm until recess was up.  Her concern, likely rooted in Buddhism (although I obviously didn’t know that at the time), made a lasting impression on me.  Whenever I ride my bike to work in the rain, I think of Maria and do my best to swerve around the vulnerable creatures.

The cats meow
“We are Si-a-me-ese if you plea-ese…”  Yeah, I sang that song along to my Lady and the Tramp record dozens of times.  When Si and Am, the two villainous Siamese cats in the Disney movie, meowed the line “we are former residents of Siam”, I had no idea that the country they were referring to was present-day Thailand.   In their native homeland, these elegant-looking felines are called Wichien-maat, meaning “moon diamond.”

One night before YouTube and al-Qaeda
So am I the last one to know that the 1984 Murray Head hit song “One Night in Bangkok” was part of a concept album for a musical called Chess?  And that the song is about chess?  Despite being completely ignorant of its subject matter, “One Night in Bangkok” was one of my favorite songs back in the 80s and I recorded it onto a mix tape.  I listened to it and wondered, “Where is Bangkok?  In Iraq?  Or is that Baghdad?  Which one is in Thailand?”  Remember when it was possible to not know that?

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Utopia’s a beach
“Thailand was only a paradise for fools and farangs [Westerners], for criminals and foreigners”, says a character in Sightseeing.  That quote immediately reminded me of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, set on a secret Thai island.  This Lord of the Flies knockoff trades plane-wrecked schoolchildren for college-age international backpackers.  I tore through Garland’s gripping tale of a paradise warped.

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Muy awesome Muay Thai
Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai moves in Ong-Bak: Muy Thai Warrior knocked me out.  Jaa’s stunts are all-natural – no wire work or CG effects included.  Thailand’s national sport, Muay Thai or the “Art of Eight Limbs” throws elbow and knee strikes into the mix of de rigueur punches and kicks.  The Protector, my favorite Tony Jaa movie, includes one of the longest no-cut action sequences in movie history.  In a scene running over four minutes, Jaa takes on 40 opponents and three flights of stairs.  The Protector opened in the top 10 at the American box office – the first Thai film to claim the honor.

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Next up: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles (Brazil)

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed reading all of the stories in “Sightseeing” very much. I was interested in each of the stories and I think the good writing was what kept me interested.

    “Farangs” made me aware of the influence of western culture on Thailand. A pig named Clint Eastwood is a grabber.

    I was moved by the bond between the two brothers in “At The Cafe Lovely”. I didn’t have the same bond with my brothers but we did not have a similar situation with an ailing mother.

    “Draft Day” reminded me of the sense of alienation I have felt when someone I knew surprised me with behavior that revealed to me how little I really knew them. A quote that I liked, “The officer spins the urn. I think I can hear the cards fluttering in there like so many birds. Black, black, black, I think. Wichu reaches into the urn, pulls out a card, hands it to the officer. “Red”, the speaker system says, and I can almost see Wichu’s shoulders slump from some invisible weight.”

    I thought the burden of responsibility weighing upon the shoulders of the son in “Sightseeing” as he contemplated the oncoming blindness of his mother and the change to his future was engaging. The scene where his mother barters for the Armani sunglasses was very entertaining. I liked this passage, “I open my eyes this time as I rush to the bottom, kicking hard against the surface. I see soft shafts of sunlight slicing through a thick , bleary haze. Clusters of blue, clusters of yellow, clusters of green disperse all around me, moving as if suspended midair, little pellets of color swimming through a depthless tapestry of light. I hear my feet kicking, my heart beating, the warm water rushing around me. An indistinct sea floor rises up to meet me. I crash into the sand. Perhaps, I think, this is what Ma must feel in the grips of her oncoming blindness. These indistinct visions. These fragmented hues. This weightlessness.”

    The xenophobia expressed in “Priscilla The Cambodian” reminded me that fear is universal. I thought the author portrayed Priscilla and the Cambodians sympathetically, especially in Priscilla’s mother’s forgiveness and Priscilla’s generosity. I was glad to see that.

    “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place” had me laughing at the grumpy old father and then smiling as the family adjusted and accepted him and he them. Throughout all of the stories I felt that the author had a genuine touch for writing about family relationships. That came to the fore in this story, I think.

    “The Cockfighter” had me in its grip from the beginning. I thought it was the best of the stories. The father’s descent into obsessiveness and the harm that caused to the family and then the looming threat of sexual assault to Ladda were suspenseful to me. I can’t speak to the authenticity of Ladda’s character like you can but I felt a palpable fear for Ladda, both from Little Jui and from her father’s slide into compulsive behavior. The family’s reaction to the final tragic event was Buddhist-like and Ladda’s seemed Zen-like.

    I know little about Thailand and this book expanded my knowledge of it somewhat. I didn’t know it was such a popular tourist destination. I have never known anyone that said they had gone to Thailand for vacation. I think the Thai people are the most beautiful people I have seen. Their facial structure and features are so handsome in the men and women. I think Adam and Eve must have been Thai. There is something that seems pristine about their appearance to me.

    It was another very enjoyable read for me. Next for me is “The Hakawati”. Thanks again for your recommendation and your wonderful review and comments. Always interesting.

    Like

    • Although I wasn’t a fan of “Cockfighter”, I did write down this quote that I liked:
      “Papa kept losing with his cocks. He’d bring them home every Sunday evening quivering inside their traveling coops in the Mazda flatbed, beady little eyes wild with chicken-terror, bold brilliant feathers wet with their own blood. Mama and I would pluck the dead ones. We’d blanch them. We’d bleed them for sausages, feed entrails to the strays, and then we’d roast them because after all, as papa would often tell me, a chicken was still a chicken no matter if it’s raised to lay eggs or crow at the sun or fight like a gladiator. I knew it broke papa’s heart to kill those chickens, though. The way he ate his dinner – picking each bone clean, licking his lips and fingers – you’d think he was trying to teach me something about indifference. I, too, tried to make a show of eating, put on my bravest face, for in those days we were nothing if not a family of brave, ridiculous faces.”
      Am happy that you liked it! Good luck with The Hakawati!

      Like

  2. I liked that, too. “…brave, ridiculous faces” says so much.

    Like


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