Country Focus: Thailand (Prathet Thai in Thai; known as Siam until 1939)
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
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.
How Lapcharoensap lets you know you’re not in America anymore…
- Your comb the beach for trash every morning*
- 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**
- 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:
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?
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.
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.
Next up: The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles (Brazil)