Some photographs from my trip this Fall to Five Islands, a fishing village on the island of Georgetown, along the Maine coast. I was drawn there by repeated reports of a bumper crop of lobsters this year and a consequent drop in prices to verily proletarian depths. Eager to reap the whirlwind and enjoy buttery yet prudent excess, I headed north out of Boston with some friends. We dined handsomely at the water’s edge under the rustic auspices of the Five Islands Lobster Company. If you would like to repeat the adventure then make sure to stop at the Five Islands Farm Gourmet Store on your way out to the shore so you can pick up a nice bottle, or two, of white wine and some local goat cheese.
When I was a young boy, my Uncle gave me his stamp collection as a gift. He had spent much of his childhood in Africa and the album was full of stamps from exotic places and many more were over a hundred years old. Sometimes I would open the collection and run my fingers across the embossed squares of paper and slip into day-dreams of times before my own and countries whose names had long since ceased to exist, like Aden, Ceylon and Sarawak! These stamps had come from these foreign lands, and times before, smelled spices in the air and heard river-boats depart in the steamy morning. They had been affixed to epistles by the banks of the Nile or had rubbed the coarse skin of an elephant along the dusty red-earthed road to a village. They had borne Kings and Queens and dictators and freedom-fighters and, with equal bearing, their successors. They had felt things I never knew and knew things I never felt. They had smelled fragrances so pleasing and beautiful that those that have never known those flowers have never known the true extent of happiness. In short, they were witnesses to great adventures and were respected as such.
How different it is today. While traveling through Asia I blogged, Twittered and Flickrd my way through tropical islands, jungle, permafrost and palace. I SMSd my thoughts to loved ones and these communications were received instantly. I recall a friend of mine receiving a photo I uploaded in Northern Thailand while she was in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia. That was amazing to me. But while the content of the photo communicated the message that I am riding elephants in Thailand, the thing itself had no meta-data. Indeed there was no thing – there was her cellphone and my photo on it but nothing else. There was no frayed edge because someone in Singapore had thrown my letter roughly into a ship. There was no bent corner where a customs official in San Francisco had stepped on the mail bag containing my postcard as he searched for contraband durian. There was no thing. It ceased to exist so that we could share a moment in an instant. Yet something extra was lost. And though I have saved the photos that I took and backed-up the Twitters that I sent, when I print them, they print on new paper. Ignorant, blank and stupid.
The best Peking Duck in Peking (or is it now Beijing Duck in Beijing?) is supposedly found at Liqun’s Roast Duck Restaurant on Beixiangfeng Zhengyi Road in the Qianmen district. Walking around with an address written in English in China is like walking around with a sieve to collect rainwater, so I stopped at the front desk in my hotel and asked them to write the address in Chinese characters. Inevitably, there was the five-minute exercise where the words in English are spoken aloud as the translator tries to imagine the sounds to which the English words might refer. Colleagues are consulted and often at least one telephone call is made. I find it’s best to have some tea at this point. For those of us without a tonal language it all seems quite opaque. “Be-xing-feng,” followed by a look of puzzlement. “Be-xiang-feng,” accompanied by a look of less puzzlement and mild satisfaction – no – now consternation. “Be-xing-feng . . .ah . . yes . . . Be-xing-feng.” The final combination is always spoken in a crescendo indicating that the exercise has reached its terminus. Of course, to me, it sounds like the same sound they started with but my role in the exercise is akin to that of an orchestral conductor, that is; to encourage diligence by leaning over the desk and looking perturbed until the end when I am supposed to pass through an appearance of relief to one of ecstasy. Using a wand does not help.
Although the address was at this point written in Chinese, the taxi-driver, the second movement in the logistical symphony, is compelled to repeat the central motif. “Be-xing-feng . . .Be-xiang-feng . . .ah Be-xing-feng.” In my experience, if he is under 40 you must have your look of relief in hand, but if he is over 40 it is unnecessary as he will not look at you but simply return the notebook. We were off. Beijing has broad streets and outside of rush hour the traffic moves swiftly. I sat back and listened to Johnny Cash sing Folsom Prison Blues on my ipod as government office blocks filed past the window.
If there is a train to Mexico you would think that the U.S. Marshals would search it from end to end pretty thoroughly – so I am not sure it’s the best way for Johnny to escape. My taxi came to a stop – because we had no more road. We were barreling down a four-lane concourse five seconds before but then the road just stopped and seemed to gaze up insolently at a huge apartment block standing in its path. The taxi driver looked at me as if I might have the rest of the highway in my pocket. Suddenly, a rickshaw driver appeared outside the window holding a sign with the words “Liqun Roast Duck.” Hmmn, that was a bit too convenient. The taxi driver looked at me and I felt we are both thinking the same thing, different languages but the same tone. The rickshaw driver said the streets of the old hutong neighborhoods where Liqun hung out were too narrow for taxis. It sounded like a classic opportunity to get into trouble and fresh out of Folsom I was seduced. In places the alleys were only about 5-6 feet wide and there were no lights whatsoever. The driver was in his mid-thirties and seemed fit so if it came to it, it would be a fair fight. I tried to keep my sense of direction as we twisted and turned through the warren of tiny lanes. The evening smog hid the stars. I moved my wallet to my right hip-pocket. Eventually we reached a sign that said “Liqun’s Duck.” The rickshaw driver asked for our agreed price but now said that he wanted it in U.S. dollars and not Chinese Yuan. I couldn’t help but laugh at him. I handed him the price in Yuan and told him that when we were in America I’d pay him in dollars. I turned my back on him and walked toward the restaurant with one eye on the shadows.
In the West, Liqun’s would be considered a dive but I like to think of it as authentic and I think they do too. The main room was about twenty by thirty feet and the décor could optimistically be described as shabby chic, but without the chic. There were other rooms too, around the back and apparently up the stairs. In the kitchen bald ducks hung on hooks, their heads bent low. There was an open-faced brick oven and the chef used a long pole to take the ducks, push them through the flames and hang them on hooks at the back of the oven. He does this to order and so when your golden brown duck arrives at the table it is literally fresh from the oven. And that is the trick with Peking duck it seems to me – its got to be piping hot. Duck is fatty and if it’s not hot – you feel the fat as you eat it. If it is hot, then you just taste and feel the succulent juices of the meat. Analysis complete.
My rickshaw driver from the restaurant was much more jovial. Faces of old women sitting on doorsteps emerged from the darkness as we wound our way out of the hutong. He dropped me off at Tiananmen Square. I headed to the Forbidden City, at the north end, figuring that would be the best place to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Ahead a crowd of about 30 Chinese men and women were gathered outside the tourist office and anticipating that they were the usual collection of hawkers and scam-artists I prepared myself to avoid eye-contact. The tourist office was closed and out of the corner of my left eye I could see my reflection in the darkened shop-front window as I moved through the group. Suddenly, there was a shout and half of the crowd turned on the other. In the window-glass I saw the face of a man, his arm in the air reaching for me. I instinctively ducked and turned towards him but he jumped on a neighboring hawker and wrestled him to the pavement instead of me. In an instant there was a sea of black cloth and red faces as everyone seemed to be wrestling with everyone else. Then it all froze. Apparently, this was a police arrest. About 20 plain-clothes police officers held about 15 men and women face down on the pavement. One refused to submit and two officers descended on him. Even though his body was struggling his eyes were vacant, staring and lifeless, as if he had just died. I thought of Liqun’s ducks hanging from their hooks. The officers darted frightened looks around the street as they shouted for the police van – no doubt fearing an escalation beyond their control. Because they were all dressed the same it was difficult for me to tell who was who, which was order and which was chaos. Violence pulsed in the air. The van pulled up. Everyone was rushed inside, the sirens were turned on and they all disappeared into the dark night. I alone was left standing, my orange jacket reflected in the window of the tourist office. The lights of Tiananmen Square appeared as faint and fading stars in the dirty window. New pedestrians soon filled the emptiness all around me. They looked at me standing there. They had no knowledge of what came before.
You know how it goes when people write about elephants. Something like – I looked into the eyes of this majestic animal and I sensed an old wisdom and a deep strength. Well I didn’t. I couldn’t make eye contact with them – the closest I came was when they looked intently at the banana in my outstretched arm. As I looked at these huge prehistoric-looking animals, chained and driven by a creature no bigger than its leg, I thought of a line from Macbeth:
Here lay Duncan,
His silver skin laced with his golden blood;
And his gash’d stabs look’d like a breach in nature
For ruin’s wasteful entrance.
This whole situation felt like a breach in nature. There were some 14 or 15 elephants and the mahouts could steer them this way and that with a single word. A crack of the whip and they would increase their speed carrying us across stream, river, mountain and forest. It was majestic and embarrassing at the same time.
As I swayed this way and that in the chair on top of its back I looked down at its huge head, perhaps some three or four feet in width. To my left was a deep gorge. All it takes is for this animal to have a single thought that it might do otherwise that it is being told and suddenly we humans don’t matter any more – nobody can stop this animal if it decides to do what it wants. All that would be left for humans to do is figure out where in the jungle they are headed and how many riders are left alive.
But it doesn’t have that thought, though I can never say it didn’t cross its mind. How did it come to this? Somewhere in its head this mighty animal conceded defeat. And the reason was most likely food not whips. Whips and chains would be as affective as cobwebs if it really came down to that. This animal was beaten by its desire, defeated by itself. It made me feel sad.
And what about us? Are we so different? We go to the barricades and the courts to defend ourselves against whips and chains but our desires run wild. You can enslave a human just like an elephant – tell him about status, pride, nation, honor, wealth, possessions, duty, weapons of mass destruction, an invisible being or beautiful women, hell tell him 40% off all this week and he will do anything you want. He will turn away from his own will and haul people up and down mountains for a piece of paper. He will spend every minute of his life toiling to buy stuff he never wanted. He will even lay down his own life. And yet like the elephant, if we would only wake up. If one just allowed the thought of freedom to reside and take root in one’s head then nothing could stop the heresy. Forget the bananas.
Today was one of those days you feel your mind wrapping with a special piece of memory and labeling it, “to be opened when I am old.” I arrived last night in Chiang Rai under the cover of darkness and left early this morning. I headed north across the Mae Kok river and into the mountains bordering Burma and Laos. The national borders are permeable in this area, pierced by both forests and mountains. Consequently, the opium business flourished and the traders employing gold as their common currency, lent the region its infamous moniker; the Golden Triangle. Today, the opium trade on the Thai side of the border has faded away, though the police still arrest traffickers bringing in morphine-based amphetamines from Burma. The loose borders have also allowed nomadic tribes to make these mountains their temporary home. One of Thailand’s largest hill tribes, the Akha arrived here at the end of the nineteenth century. In recent years they have been joined by the Karen, fleeing from persecution in neighboring Burma.
The first village I entered today was predominantly Karen. The 9 families I met had just arrived in the area 8 months ago. I saw two subgroups within the Karen, the Padong and, as the Thai call them, “the shortnecks.” The Padong are striking for the practice among the women of wearing a coil of copper around their necks. In the Padong tradition, a long neck is considered very beautiful. The copper coils, which can weigh between 8 and 15 pounds, are also believed by the Padong to protect them from Tiger attack in the jungle. Each year, until she is married, a Padong woman earns an extra ring and a new coil containing the extra ring is fashioned. The practice has been dying out, but the increased interest of tourists has maintained the tradition for now. The “shortneck” Karen do not wear coils but instead distinctive large copper cylinders inserted in their ear lobes. The Akha I met did not have any body augmentation, but wore a distinctive headdress adorned with bells and plates of silver. There seemed to be no signs of animosity between the Akha and the Karen, the two worked side by side, the Karen almost exclusively weaving while the Akha seemed focused on silverwork.
It’s the dry season now and the surrounding land seemed parched and thirsty. It will be another 3 months until the rains come and this whole area will become unrecognizable beneath blankets of lush green vegetation. For now, the sole respite is the cool air slowly falling down the mountain through the small gardens of banana and papaya. I felt a beautiful quiet unthinking peace in this tiny collection of straw houses. Cats slept coiled up like a pair of warm socks while the women weaved and smoked tobacco. Young girls of five or six made fake looms in the brush and pretended to weave like their mothers. In reality of course, uncertainty was in the air and just beneath the surface. The slash and burn forest clearance is destroying the ecosystem. The initial years, during which the virgin forest soil produces abundant yields, soon pass. The earth grows tired and, devoid of tree cover, is washed down into the valley. The people move on. For the Karen there are additional concerns. Encroachments by the Burmese Army into Thailand are not unknown and just this week a Thai soldier was shot by the Burmese army. They presumed he was a Karen. Modernity ekes its way up from the lowlands offering the tribes either education and t-shirts or the role of professionally modeling the way they were. But this is yesterday and tomorrow. Today was a beautiful day spent with a gentle people and I was overwhelmed by a sense of undeserved privilege to have witnessed it all before it disappears forever.
As I looked out across the city of Bangkok this morning I marveled at how its many millions of inhabitants go about their daily business in a peaceful way. Of course one could say that about many cities, but it seems more pronounced in Bangkok because life is not easy for many people here and yet I have not witnessed a single argument or cross word in my nine days in this city. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Baghdad and the contrast between Baghdad and Bangkok leaves a marked impression on my mind. The Thai consider Buddhism to be one of the three pillars of their civilization (the other two being King and Nation). It started me thinking of religion in utilitarian terms and as analogous to a computer operating system.
In his weekly column in the Italian newspaper Espresso, the Italian writer Umberto Eco in 1994 famously declared that the world was divided in two: users of Macintosh computers and users of MS-DOS computers. He argued that the Mac was Catholic, cheerful, friendly, employing sumptuous icons and helping the user by taking them step by step towards “if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed.” Eco argued that DOS was Protestant, allowing for free interpretation of scripture, asking the user to make difficult personal decisions and taking for granted that not everyone will reach the Promised Land.
Since that famous observation much has changed in the world of technology. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend who was about to start at a company that specializes in virtual computing. A virtual computer is just like a normal desktop or laptop but the user chooses which operating system the computer will use depending on what he or she wants to do. For example, if you want to make music, then you might choose the Mac operating system so that you can use the Garageband program. On the other hand if you want to do some engineering drawings you might choose the Windows operating system and one of the various computer-aided-design programs available on that platform. Apple computers can now switch between the MacOSX and Windows operating systems as needed. They have thus become virtual computers.
Staying with Eco’s analogy, what is the religious equivalent to virtual computing? It’s not syncretism, though it shares the syncretic openness to new influences. Syncretism attempts to reconcile and combine disparate or contradictory beliefs. The word syncretism comes from the Greek word synkretismos meaning a union of communities. Virtual computing does not argue for a union of the MacOSX and Windows environments. It keeps them separate but allows you to use either. The religious equivalent to virtual computing, for which perhaps the term virtual religion will have to suffice, would envision all religions as schools of human technology and users as free to use any religious practice at will. Thus if you find yourself perpetually distracted, use Buddhist meditation and reduce your levels of attachment; if you think killing animals is cruel use some Jainist beliefs; if you need to motivate yourself at work use the Protestant work ethic; if you have difficulty reconciling religion and sex use Tantra; if you feel the need for mystical fulfillment use Taoism or paganism. But the active verb is always use because the perspective is utilitarian not dogmatic.
If there is a polemic underlying this thought exercise it is this; we must reach a point where we say that a religion has failed. If people are killing one another in the streets because of religion, not defending the freedom to worship, but merely because their religion has directed them to kill another human being, then that interpretation of that religion has failed. If, as many believe, the purpose of religion is to make man more divine, then if he descends into barbarism doesn’t that mean that there is some corruption in the code? Shouldn’t we at least examine religions with the same common sense that we examine computer software by asking – does this work?
Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. There has also been no period of self-induced national amnesia, no cultural revolution, no sweeping away of yesterday for the sake of tomorrow. Instead, Thai culture, imbued with Buddhist tolerance, has evolved in layers, each one an incremental negotiation between the needs of the present and the traditions of the past. Exiting Bangkok airport you float along the most modern of these layers. Large elevated concrete motorways writhe over and under each other like giant earthworms petrified for my automotive convenience. Two sets of toll-booths, two newly constructed mosques and tens of the largest billboards I have every seen punctuate my progress towards the tangerine smog-haze that is Bangkok in late afternoon.
As you get closer to the city center, the taxi leaves the modern elevated highway and you drop down to street level. Mopeds are everywhere, traffic lights are merely suggestions and signs offer gems, silks, hotels, massages, import-export and all the paraphernalia of a working trading city. However, unlike Singapore, where large monolithic modern buildings replaced the native housing stock, in Bangkok the skyline is generally three to four stories high. The houses are the traditional combination of shop on the bottom floor and home overhead. There are skyscrapers interspersed here and there but the majority is concentrated in the business district. As a consequence, and despite the common description of Bangkok as vast urban sprawl, to me Bangkok feels very human, neighborly and welcoming.
It’s Monday and I can’t help but notice that about one out of every three people I see in the street is wearing yellow. I half-dismiss the observation until I enter a bookstore and the shopkeeper is also wearing a yellow t-shirt. She explains that last year, in order to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of King Rama IX, the government sold yellow t-shirts and gave the money generated from the sale to the King and his many charities. Almost everyone in Thailand bought a t-shirt. On September 19, a bloodless military coup, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, replaced the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In light of these events, she told me that the people have recently taken to wearing these yellow t-shirts every Monday (the day of the week on which the King was born) to communicate their support of the King. Thus the celebratory garb of last year has this year become a political statement.
But beneath the present there is yet another layer. The Thai names for each day of the week come from those of the Gods in ancient Indian astrology. Each one of these Gods is associated with a particular color. In the past, divine astrologers would refer to this color scheme and pick the most auspicious colors for battle tunics for any given day. Two centuries ago the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu wrote the Sawasdi Raksa, a guide to princely conduct and behavioral rectitude that is still taught in Thai schools today. In it he referred to the ancient Indian tradition and recommended colors for each day of the week, Sunday was red, Monday yellow, Tuesday pink, Wednesday green, Thursday orange, Friday blue, and on Saturday – violet. The practice of wearing particular colors on a given day was subsequently adopted by the royal court, then the wealthy merchant class, and finally the people.
This uninterrupted layering of Thai culture has thus created a rich semiotic palette through which meaning can be communicated but also obfuscated. How should General Boonyaratglin interpret these yellow t-shirts every Monday? Are they merely a quirky manifestation of an old tradition or a very personal message directed to him in response to events barely six months old?
I enjoy the guilty pleasure of a late breakfast. I defend myself by citing to the old refrain of Noel Coward that “only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” You can then well imagine my surprise this morning in finding none other than an Englishman seated in the breakfast room. “King calls for understanding” was his defense and he had it published on the front page of the Bangkok Times. As I sat down, he lowered his newspaper. I could see from his cleric’s collar that he was an Anglican vicar. He gave me a grandfatherly smile and I said good morning in return. He looked at me, suspecting perhaps from my accent that I was European. I answered by ordering tea instead of my usual coffee.
I would avoid the milk, he said leaning over, it’s a little off.
Darjeeling is best without, I replied and he concurred.
He introduced himself as “the Reverend Donald Kingsley,” which made me want to ask exactly how many other Reverend Donald Kingsleys were currently vying for the title. He was from Oxford, and in Thailand for an ecumenical conference on inter-faith tolerance. He came south from Bangkok for a little R&R, “as the Americans call it.” He had been here four days at this point and was getting a little restless. I told him of my plans that day to take some photographs at the Thai boxing gym in town and that he was welcome to come along. He accepted, eagerly. He seemed harmless, a big white whale gasping for air on a beach full of blackened Swedes. Our Cantonese landlady cleared the tables and having overheard my plans offered to call someone she knew at the gym to fix us up. A few minutes later I was standing in the lobby while the Reverend went to wash up.
Sawatdee Kaa, ka, Hotel Amanta, . . . ka . . . I have guest want to come to gym, ka? Ok . . . Don’ Kingla . . . ka . . . you know him? . . . Ok . . . maybe 30 minutes . . . ka, also photos . . . Khawp khun kha.
Cries of “welcome, welcome” washed over our red tuk tuk as it slid into a casual repose by the side of the road in front of a bar. I confirmed with the driver that the gym was in the back. The Reverend and I made our way past the charcoal grills at the entrance and through the sea of pretty girls, nodding and apologizing as we went;
Sorry, no money, we go boxing, muay thai, no boom boom, holy man, maybe tomorrow, etc.
Once past the darkened bar we could see three boxing rings, each singularly illuminated by a bank of precariously suspended florescent tubes. There was no real division between the bar and the gym. The place smelled of beer, metal and rubber with the occasional drift of cheap perfume. An old man, with a face like knotty pine, approached us and went straight to the Reverend. He shook the Reverend’s hand. He shook it whole-heartedly.
Very glad to meet you Don’ King’ – I show you best fighters – only the best – you pick winner – these guys best in Thailand.
We were escorted to the raised bench seats set against the far wall of the gym. They looked down on the three rings and towards the bar. One of the bar girls brought us each a bottle of Singha beer. The old man went to talk to two fighters and they replied to him with punctuated glances at the Reverend. I tried to figure out the best setting for my camera.
The younger of the two boxers, dressed in blue Nike shorts, began warming up in the corner of the center ring. He danced from one foot to the other, bobbed and weaved and threw shadow punches. Behind him, I could see, by the light of the exit, the bare midriff of one of the girls as she leaned backwards across the bar. Someone stood in the doorway and she disappeared again into the shadows. In the other corner the slightly older fighter, in black Hilfigger shorts, was standing still. He moved his gloves up and down to his face, his eyes focused on Nike’s feet. Then he turned and looked at the Reverend. The Reverend sat beside me, oblivious in his own midriff and wiping the brown snout of the beer bottle with his cloth handkerchief. I told him that I needed to get closer to the ring because of the light. He nodded, dabbing the beads of perspiration from his brow. The boxers moved towards each other. One of the girls moved from the shadows towards the Reverend.
Nike threw the first punch, a light right-hook teaser to Hilfigger’s head, just to gauge his reaction. Hilfigger merely stepped back. Nike was lean, swift on his feet, his face younger than his body. Hilfigger looked like he had been carved with a hatchet, was slightly shorter than the other, stocky. His arms seemed disproportionally large for his body and made him look like a cross between a bull and a crab. Nike lightly stepped to move to Hilfigger’s right. Hilfigger hit him with a solid hard right to his ribs to keep him center. Nike moved swiftly to the left and out of range, smiled, but moved his left arm slightly to defuse the pain. Hilfigger lowered his brow and took note. Nike danced, threw another punch to Hilfigger’s head – this one connected. Hilfigger, indifferent, turned his shoulders like a Greek galley, faced Nike broadside and framed him into the corner. Nike’s gloves were up but Hilfigger undeterred laid seige. Each punch was louder and heavier than the previous, each one aimed like a steel wedge trying to cleave open Nike’s arms and give Hilfigger access to the soft guts inside. Given the pounding force, it was inevitable that Hilfigger would eventually break through. He interspersed the body blows with fakes to the head but then a single direct punch cleaved Nike’s arms, hit him solid in the chest and threw his body back against the padded corner. Nike instinctively raised his arms to counterbalance the backward momentum and Hilfigger went in for the stomach. 2, 4, 6, 8 – Nike felt each and every strike. Hilfigger leaned in, his shoulders preventing any defense by Nike, 10, 12. Only the sight of the muscles moving like pistons along Hilfigger’s back could tell Nike when to prepare for the next blow to his stomach. 16, 17, 18, the rhythm was now that of single heavy deadweight punches and it became almost soothing to those of us that merely watched. Time stood still, beads of perspiration moved, slowly, vividly, on bodies, faces, bottles, lips.
Awareness slowly returned. Hilfigger pulled back, looked at the Reverend. Nike hung now on the ropes like wet washing. The Reverend was in the shadows talking to the bar girl that had shuffled up beside him, her fingers thumbing his collar. Hilfigger returned to work. Nike had gotten to his feet but his arms, eager to stop the body blows were now too low. This was a set up – this was not a fair fight – this kid knew nothing, only pain. The Reverend seemed preoccupied. Perhaps amidst the onslaught, Nike realized that his role in this whole affair was to suffer. He threw a punch that connected directly with Hilfigger’s face. Hilfigger, surprised, now returned to script. Nike’s head did not behave like you would think a head should. His face became a sea of seemingly malleable flesh, absorbing each punch, rippling, punch, blood projected from his nose, smeared across his chest and ran down into his groin. Just before the last one, the one that knocked him out, Nike faced the Reverend, peering through a riverlet of blood streaming from above his left eye. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend too. The Reverend was now watching. Hilfigger slowly turned his entire body along an axis that ran from his left heel to his right shoulder. His fist met Nike just below the temple.
As Nike lost consciousness we all gradually floated into the ring, the boxers, the old man, the girls, the Reverend. We were all together in the ring beneath the florescent lights. Flies buzzed among the bright fluorescent tubes and you could see the pock-marks on the faces of the girls beneath the heavy make-up. Everybody was squashed against everyone else like we were all becoming one mass of limbs crushed togther like scrap metal in a junkyard. There was the smell of underarm, fresh blood and charcoal. Hilfigger looked at the Reverend.
You see I’m the best.
The Reverend looked down at Nike creamed across the canvas. The old man looked at the Reverend – a big white whale gasping for air. Everyone was breathing deeply the smell of cheap perfume and violence. The Reverend moved to speak.
I interrupted and laughed. I put my hand on Hilfigger’s shoulders and said;
Too fast, you too fast, we make no money.
He laughed, the old man laughed, but not the others. I moved towards the light of the exit, put my arm around the old man and kept the Reverend in front of me. We were about 10 feet from the door. Its white light seemed so pure and clean. The momentum of the room and its occupants followed me. 8 feet. Nike remained on the canvas. I asked the old man for his phone number and told him that it was a great fight, one of the best we had seen in fact. 4 feet. He asked me for Mr. King’s number. I pretended not to hear and confirmed with a look of concern that the piece of paper he gave me was in fact his direct number. The Reverend was already outside, standing like someone in a shower, washing himself clean in the white light.
Yes, that my number so you call me okay?
I looked at him and said that I would definitely call him. I then put my hands together in the traditional Thai greeting and raised them high to my face to indicate that I held him in great esteem. He smiled, slapped me on the shoulder and then turned and went back into the bar.
It is the end of the rainy season and in the evenings there is usually a downpour for an hour or two. So I sauntered around the theatre district, keeping a vigilant eye open for a restaurant or café where I could hang out while the rains passed. I stopped at a place called Three Nations that serves Chinese, Indian and Indonesian food. I walked up to the hostess and told her that I was not going to eat but that I just wanted to sit and have a drink. She steered me to a table that was already occupied by three other Westerners. One of the three, dressed warmly in a waistcoat, pulled out the remaining empty chair and offered it to me. I nodded, smiled, and sat down.
In front of me was a tall bearded man wearing a plastic medieval breastplate and a blouson shirt. To his left was a sallow-faced individual in a crushed linen suit and a Panama hat. The guy with the Panama hat must have seen the curious look on my face because he responded:
Before you ask – we’re performing in a play at a local theatre. It’s about a Chinese guy who travels to Broadway and meets fictional characters from books he read and films he saw when he was a kid. – I’m supposed to be Humphrey Bogart, that’s Don Quixote, if you can believe it, and beside you is none other than Jimmy J’s Leopold Bloom. ‘Course see we really don’t exist, we’re just figments of this kid’s imagination. So that’s our story and we’re here grabbing a bite to eat before we head to work. What’s yours?
I pursed my lips and nodded my head to acknowledge both the unusual nature of the circumstances and the plausibility of his explanation. The waitress arrived. She didn’t seem at all phased by the three unlikely characters arranged around the table, but quickly, and sans various consonants, asked for their orders. Quixote leaned towards her,
What would you recommend that’s typical of the Indian food in Singapore?
The waitress leaned away from Quixote, pointed towards his menu and recommended either the mutton Hyderabad or the Apollo chicken masala. Quixote asked for both with a bowl of saffron rice and some garlic onion kulcha. As she quickly scribbled his order, he asked if she was sure that was authentic Singaporean Indian food. She rolled her head from side to side as she confirmed that his order was very spicy, very authentic. She then turned to Humphrey Bogart. Bogart without looking at the menu ordered five Indonesian dishes; Rendang Daging Sapi, Gulai Singkong, Sambal Teri Tempe, Kari Kamping and a Tiger beer. Quixote turned to me and began to ask me a question but stopped and apologized for interrupting Bloom. Bloom asked for the fried oyster omelet but the waitress said she had just sold the last one to someone else. She asked if he liked chicken; he said he did; she recommended the Hainanese Chicken Rice and Bloom agreed. Bloom asked for water, Quixote a Kingfisher beer. I got an avocado and chocolate drink – it was the weirdest thing I could find to drink and I could always grab a beer later. Ordering the food had apparently helped to break the ice and Quixote, folding his arms in front of his breastplate and leaning across the table, began to question me again;
What have you discovered in Singapore? How have you found the people? Have you tried each of the cuisines? Did you go into the neighborhoods to try the real deal? Runs through you like liquid fire but tastes great right? The problem with me you see is that my curiosity is bigger than my stomach. I want to try everything, to taste everything, but I have to eat fast, as you will see because of the anxiety you see, it kills my appetite after the first 5-10 minutes. I get bored – want to try other things but then I have this large amount of food in front of me – its very annoying, and expensive on an actor’s wage I can tell you. The funny thing is I begin to resent the food that just minutes before I was lusting. There’s something profound in that don’t you think? About man and desire and everything?
Bogart slowly raised his beer bottle with a languid air that seemed to mock Quixote’s introspection. He looked at me and asked
So when are you leaving?
Before I could answer, Bloom asked me if I liked fonts.
Before you leave you should go to the malls and check out the fonts. If you want to know a people, look at their ads – they are designed to appeal to what they value – its all in the fonts. You should check that out – if you’re interested that is.
The first of many small bowls began to arrive. Without waiting for the others, Bogart began tumbling his Indonesian curries onto his large rice plate. Don Quixote tossed back his Kingfisher as the waitress began pouring rice onto the banana leaf in front of him. She served Bloom last, placing a glass of water beside an austere looking plate of steamed chicken and rice. Bogart pointed towards Bloom’s glass;
You should have told them no ice.
Quixote pointed at me with his now masala-stained finger;
Never get ice. The drinks come straight from the bottlers, our friends in Atlanta and elsewhere, but God knows where the ice comes from – never order ice.
There was a large clash of metal cymbals at the entrance to the restaurant. Bloom dropped his chicken and Quixote stopped feeding mutton to his mouth. A group of young men, dressed as a Chinese dragon, were dancing at the front of the restaurant as part of the Chinese New Year’s celebrations. The dragon rocked from side to side, front to back and then knelt before a brass bowl of oranges on the floor. Everybody watched at the beginning and then slowly, as there seemed no end in sight, each turned back to his food as the clattering continued loudly in the background. Quixote pushed back from the table, each of his dishes half finished. He looked at me and smiled. I nodded in return acknowledging our shared understanding of his intestines.
We need to get out of here, said Bogart.
Bloom checked his watch and reached for the bill to work out everyone’s share. As I reached for my wallet he stretched out his arm and told me not to worry about it. I asked if he was sure and he said that I had had so little it would only complicate the calculation to consider it. All four of us walked out together into the wet street. The rains had passed and the sun was setting. I turned to them;
It was a pleasure to meet you guys – good luck with the play.
Quixote shook my hand. I patted Bloom on the shoulder and Bogart raised his eyebrows as if this was just the beginning. I turned to head in the opposite direction even though I didn’t know where I was going. People walked by talking on cell-phones. I found a sign for the subway and headed in that direction.
I am generally in favor of political correctness. It has helped to create a new code of manners and etiquette that at the very least points the way to a more inclusive and respectful society for all. But it has also had a prophylactic effect, preventing an acknowledgment and discussion of the differences between social groups and cultures, a confession of our inner thoughts and ignorance and the consequent growth to a more thorough and educated view of the differences that make us unique and interesting.
With that by way of apology, let me proceed to confess my perspective. The biggest difference that I see between Western cultures and those that I have experienced to date in Asia relates to the role of the individual in society. It is not an extreme difference but one of degree. I was most recently reminded of this today when reading an article about Singaporean literature. The article made the general observation that Singaporean literature in Malay, Chinese and Tamil concerns itself with issues of daily life and interweaves these into the fabric of larger nationalistic, patriotic and social events. By contrast, Singaporean literature in the English language is described as concerned with the individual and extrapolating human experience. I have a feeling that this distinction is an urgent one, because given the economic rise of China, the West is going to have to work with China as a partner to develop a global consensus on complicated issues such as international human rights, bioethics and privacy rights. These discussions will take place in the space between these two different views of the role of the individual in society.
The Western viewpoint is that, as Lord Acton put it, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The West feels this has been the lesson of our history from the tyranny of Roman emperors and medieval kings to the great evils of Nazism and slavery. Individual rights, and the individualism that they reflect and encourage, are seen as a check on the dangerous accumulation of power by government and bureaucracy. This perspective of the central role of the individual owes something to the religious traditions of Western society. The Judeo-Christian tradition (greatly influenced by the Persian Zoroastrians), views the world from the perspective of the individual, his relationship with God, and his path through a life of choices between good and evil. The actor is the individual, choice is his script and society is the backdrop.
The Asian perspective to me seems different, at least at this point in my education; society is the actor, harmony is the script and the individual is the backdrop. While walking in a classical Chinese garden yesterday I came across a statue of Confucius, on the side of which was written an excerpt from his dialogues. It stated; “[w]hen the Great Way prevailed, every person was a part of public society and public society belonged to everyone. The virtuous and the able were chosen for public office. Fidelity and friendliness were valued by all. People not only loved their own parents and children, but loved the parents and children of others as well. The elderly lived their last years in happiness; able-bodied adults were usefully employed; children were reared properly. Widowers, widows, orphans, the childless aged, the crippled and the ailing were well cared for. All men shared their social responsibilities and all women have their respective roles. Natural resources were fully used for the benefit of all and not appropriated for selfish ends. People wanted to contribute their strength and ability to society for public good and not for private gain. Trickery and intrigue could not occur in such a society. Robbery, larceny and other crimes all disappeared. Gates and doors were not locked, no one ever thought of stealing. This was the Age of the Great Commonwealth of peace and prosperity.” What is clear from this description of the ideal society is that the perspective is not the individual first and then society but society first with consequent benefits for the individual.
Both the West and the East share the same goal of “the good society” but they differ in how they think it can be achieved. I think the difference in viewpoints is cultural and not the function of economic development because I have also noticed this difference in perspective in Japan, a country that has been one of the wealthiest countries in the world now for almost two centuries. As a Westerner, I am concerned that the unchecked accumulation of state power, gathered in the guise of perpetuating social harmony, will lead to a corruption with a terrible toll in human life. I can imagine that the Asian perspective is that the rampant individualism of the West has led to a disharmonious society, riven by unlimited greed that will end with a terrible toll in human life. I think that we can each learn from the other – it is true that individual rights without economic growth may be poor consolation, but it is also true that economic growth depends on individual rights. As technology and trade bring once seperate civilizations into common society, there is much to be gained from a dialogue between our different persepctives, for the sake of both harmony and freedom.