POSTCARD # 486: Bangkok: There’s really nothing left to do, just waiting for the hours to pass before it’s getting-on-the-plane time – everything else seems kinda irrelevant. If you’re reading this on the day of publication, 02.09.22, I’ll be gone… hop, skip, jump, up and over to Northern Europe, where it’s around seven in the morning, local time, I’m still in Airplane Mode, but near to where I get off the bus. A significant moment in my childhood in Scotland; the bus would stop in the middle of nowhere and my mother, my sister and I would step down with all our bags, to the quiet of the countryside, watch the bus go rumbling off and it was the start of the summer holidays spent in my grandfather’s farm. A happy time, and I like to think of this trip back ‘home’ in the same way, remembering how it was in those childhood days.
We re-live our childhood through our children and although I never had any of my own, there was M our Thai niece. Some readers will know about M through reading the early posts – the first time she makes an appearance is in a post titled: “No more than this,” dated: May 10, 2013. I think she must have been 7 at that time and even then, there was a ‘conversational’ style about her English, skipping over vocabulary items she couldn’t reach with that spontaneity that seeks/finds creative solutions to problems in the here-and-now, and moving on.
The last time M appears in the blog is in a post titled ‘2021 looking forward,’ when she was 16 and had dyed her hair a yellow-blond colour. By this time, she was racing ahead in her ‘free-flow’ English style, disregarding errors. It was a direct result of the daily confrontation with English-speaking kids when she went to New Zealand for a few months on an exchange student program – liked it so much she went back a second year.
After NZ, she went to international school in Chiang Mai for a year, then she came to stay with us in Bangkok, just as the Covid lock-down happened and there was nothing to do, other than take on-line classes, and work on her GED and SAT scores. She’s on a ‘Gap’ year now, studying Japanese and planning to go to Waseda University, Japan next year. Maybe she has an affinity with the Japanese language because her grandfather was Japanese.
Nowadays, she is completely fluent in English and chooses to spend her time with my wife Jiab, who speaks English well. It amazes me that even though they are both Thai, their conversation is in English all the time. She speaks Thai with her mother (Jiab’s younger sister) and other members of the family, but she’s out there on her own in the English speaking world – not necessarily native English speakers but those in the South East Asia region who use English as a link-language.
Mostly she is quietly being her own self and surprisingly communicative at times – other times the earphones cable disappears in curtains of hair – sorry, she’s not available at the moment, plugged into two phones, watching YouTube videos while checking for messages at the same time… our questions addressed to her remain unanswered. She is becoming a person, a lengthy process. The whole thing dependent on the time needed to grow, of course – sometimes sleeps til noon then phones a food delivery from her room and appears downstairs to get it from the motorbike guy, goes back to her room to eat it there. Some of us might think this is a bit, well, antisocial? But here, nobody gets upset, it’s included in the Thai way, let it go…
I’ve included part of a post here ‘A kind of subjectivity’ March 30, 2014, that highlights M as an eight-year-old:
…being the only foreigner in the family, I’ve learned to go along with the preferences of others when it comes to food. As it was this morning, for example, faced with Korean kimchi at 10.30 AM because somebody thought it was a good idea to go to the Korean food buffet downtown, and if it were up to me, I’d have chosen something less exotic so early in the day, but Jiab thinks M, needs to eat something substantial so maybe she’ll like this. Okay go for it.
We get there, M tries the kimchi and tells me: not spicy, Toong-Ting, her name for me (key in Toong-Ting in the Search Box for all the M posts). She’s waiting for a response… I taste it, blood red and trailing strands of human skin and tissue – a vampire thing? But there’s nothing wrong with kimchi really, I’ve had things far more out-of-this-world than that. I nod with approval and give her a smile I think is convincing. But M can see kimchi doesn’t quite hit the spot.
She comes over and tells me quietly they have ice-cream here. I’m thinking, yeh… well, do I need ice-cream? But if I said I didn’t want ice cream, I’d lose all credibility; so, I say, Nice! I’ll have chocolate chip. M goes off to tell the waitress, who comes with the ice creams… 30 years further on in the journey and I’m eating ice-cream with a nine-year-old.
I’m amazed that she seems to like me and her English language is as it is, without any corrections from me or being told she got it wrong. The kind of thing Western people remember in their own childhood and may suffer from. Maybe M responds to this quality of improvised simplicity I’ve developed partly because I want to avoid the systems of thought I grew up with, besides M thinks differently from kids her age in the UK.
It’s fun to have M in the world with all her made-up statements and short-cut questions. Besides, she corrects my Thai pronunciation (the tones), has a continuous chattering bird-like dialogue with me and discovers useful-to-know things about my phone I never knew were there. M has a kind of subjectivity she shares with me, she is an empath – no words for it, maybe because she’s a child in a bilingual situation and has to find the easiest route to understanding what I’m saying, and composing what she’s going to say in her head, or maybe all children are like this to an extent, and because I never had any children of my own, it seems special to me.
Being part of her world means there’s less of me holding on to my Western ‘self.’ I am the odd-man-out here in Thailand, a largely Buddhist population and unique in Asia, in that it was never colonized by a Western power. I learned early on, the importance of listening to the local people. It’s not appropriate to be imposing my Western ‘standards’ here, creating supporting statements to prove what I’ve already decided is the correct way of going about things, and convinced about this simply because my continuing engagement with it somehow seems to confirm it has objective reality. In the East, the starting point and the answer are revealed in the interaction with the context of the question – inductive reasoning, it takes longer, it’s more revelatory, exploratory, open-ended.
It reminds me of M’s intuitive way of figuring things out, there is no structure to hold things together if it all falls apart – but all nine year-olds must have this inductive way of expressing their reflection on ‘the world,’ more so for bi-lingual kids who have to invent a bridge from one set of behaviours to another – it’s all part of the game.
To close, I’ve included part of another post at the end of one of our Bangkok/Chiang Mai flights titled: ‘Windows,’ and dated: March 14, 2014. We come in from the airport in a taxi to the Nontaburi house, put the key in the door and get inside. Nobody at home, M runs around discovering the familiarity of the last time we were here… her energy is noticeable and my attempts to keep up with it:
We’re in a corner of the room where she has her playthings scattered around. Everything lying in disarray after a particularly large creative frenzy of cutting out and the sticking of things with glue, scotch tape, adhesive coloured paper and bits of old Christmas decorations, recycled. And when every additional use these items might be put to is thoroughly exhausted, M moves to Minecraft videos on my iPad: “Look Toong-Ting, look…” she says.
I position myself so I can see the screen, participate when I’m needed, and otherwise pleasantly distracted by the surroundings; the world suddenly thrust into a clear, enhanced three-dimensional presence. Objects become somehow… known? All our bags and things just lying where they got dropped, extensions and extrapolations of the environment of rooms, the furniture, the plants and trees outside. A momentary happiness, bien-être, no words for it…