Through the miracle of human flight, I am transported inside a day from the deep freeze of Calgary to the hot, humid, and smoggy world of Bangkok. Like a baby seeing, smelling, hearing for the first time, I felt as if I was being born into a new city.
My first awareness is of the insane traffic where motorbikes drive head-on towards you then cut sideways at the last minute and truck drivers maneuver like Formula One race cars.
Then my nose wakes up to intensely flavourful food cooked everywhere on the street: freshly barbecued satay, simmering beef pan-nang curry, and my local favourite: fresh ripe mango and sticky rice drizzled with sweet coconut milk.
Everywhere people treat me like an honoured tourist. The respect is often genuine, but sometimes it is desperate, and other times I am sure it hides despise.
Unlike a newborn however, I come clashing with my identity. Here in Bangkok, I become cognizant of my high economic status as a tourist. Whereas back home in Canada, I am immersed in my social strata; I run in my circle of friends often unaware that there are others who live differently. In Bangkok I cannot hide.
In the city, I find massive shopping malls complete with Christmas Trees and Frank Sinatra caroling for North Americans to browse presents marked with North American prices. But just down the street I can eat with locals and seasoned expats who eat feasts for five Canadian dollars. Then there are the construction workers piled into dump trucks who work for less than $5 a day. It reveals the inequality between “us” and “them”. It’s only in Canada I can pretend that we are all equal.
A culture is powerful though. It can subvert your thinking as surely as a patch to a computer system. The advertisements tell me who I should be as a tourist, where I should go, what I should see, and how I should buy. I play the role because sometimes it is just easier. I don’t speak the language. I don’t know who or what to trust. I want the adventure without the inconvenience.
The Starbucks and Seven Elven is meant to comfort me. The domesticated elephant show with British colonial music is suppose to activate my culture and identity. The floating market is a getaway tourist trap.
Only faintly in the background do I hear from locals about the failing health of a much loved King with a son perhaps unfit for the job, and bribery as a way of doing business because much of the economy is “informal”. I discover gems too. I learn with surprise about the world renown medical services provided in Thailand from an American couple visiting to access its healthcare. What more could I find if I just spend the time?
As a foreigner I am both blind and keenly aware. Blind to the subtle currents of life visible only to those socialized to live here. Yet keenly aware of the strangeness and contradictions of the customs here invisible to the locals.
Calling me a foreigner is misleading though. Not just because I am human and relate in that way. What surprises me most is how powerfully my Asian culture has been activated. I am comforted by the squid tentacles, beef tripe and prawn heads. The Thai conventions and occasional Chinese words resonate with me. Ironically I feel more Chinese in Bangkok than I do in Canada where I am clearly Canadian. In a place where I know little, I amplify the little I do know for reference.
As I leave my brief encounter with Bangkok behind for Sri Lanka, I am left wondering just how much of me was altered by my collision with another way of life. At the least, I’m hoping I can come back to my native culture and be just as curious and aware of it as I am on my travels.