Many years ago, a prominent Adelaide family invited me for dinner at the Adelaide club. It was like one of those exclusive, private London clubs for the powerful and rich. By that time I’d already lived in Thailand for six years and this was my first trip to Australia. Inside the door of the club, someone in a suit ushered me to a stand on which was a large book. I was given a pen. Inscribed on the front of the book were the words: Strangers’ Book. I was asked to write my name and the place where I lived. I distinctly remember that inside the book, I was pointed to the box with word Stranger hovering like a death sentence over the place where I was supposed to write my name. I thought better of asking my host, “Did the aborigines have a Strangers’ Book for your ancestors to sign when they arrived?” Strangers and hypocrisy often lurk inside the same mental neighborhood.
Last evening I was reminded on the Strangers’ Book as I sat perched on a stool, leaning over my small patch on a long counter outside a bar in Soi Cowboy. It occurred to me after even after the passage of many years, I was no less a stranger in Thailand. As I looked at the people working on the soi, many of them were strangers, too. Indian, Burmese, Tamil vendors circulating with fake Rolex watches and wooden boxes with little compartments filled with various kinds of nuts. They hawked the kind of goods that made it easy to close up shop in an instant and run. The Thais sold everything else on the soi. But in this small niche market, the outsiders had a chance to make money for food.
Newly arrived tourists were their best customers. People on a holiday were in the right mood to buy fake watches and eat dodgy nuts. And they couldn’t distinguish a Burmese refugee from an Isan peasant. This class of vendors, mainly illegals, cast a weary eye at the expats, knowing these men were a hard sell. In any gathering of exiles, forced and self-imposed, these kinds of judgments are made, looks exchanged, as if they were looking into a distant mirror.
Most of the girls working in Cowboy are from Isan, the Northeast part of the country, and they walked around the soi in polyester robes with the name of their bars stitched on the back like Chinese bowling shirts from another planet. For most of them, they, too, were strangers in this backwater. While Cowboy is known widely among foreigners, most Thais might have heard about the soi like someone hears about an access road in some remote place people talk about but almost no middle class Thais visit. This merely proves that the ranking of strangers gives some more privileges and status than others. The Isan bargirls are, in their mind, as Thai as the next person. But their mind isn’t in the skull of the Bangkok bred Thais who would have been signing the Strangers Book right along with the Tamil peanut vendor and the American born bar owner.
A few minutes of observation and the strangeness of the soi grows. The bar where I sat had taco night. No more than a couple of meters away, a vendor with one of those third-world cobbled together carts made from bicycle wheels, duct tape, a platform with an umbrella, sold a large assortment of fried bugs. One day there might be a fusion: tacos with fried grasshoppers. But that moment hasn’t arrived.
A stranger, who turned out to be a manger of a cargo service at the airport, pulled up the stool next to mine. He was from Germany. We fell into a conversation about the takeover of the airport last year and he told me about his first hand experience of getting out of the airport as it had been closed down. Normally this is the kind of conversation that I relish as a writer; the inside moment to moment play as thousands of people sweep through an airport not to catch a plane but as part of a political demonstration.
But that isn’t the story that I’ll remember. It wasn’t political; it was more personal. Most of the people I know don’t have jobs, or for that matter, children, or if they have children, they’ve lost track of them in some distant place. My new German friend had a job, a German wife, and a couple of kids he clearly loved. The fact that was strange to me said a great deal about how my life had taken a different path, and along the way, were a succession of Strangers Books, each one with a suited man, holding a pen, and waiting for me to sign in. He told me the year before, he and his son who shared an avid love of football, had returned one-week end for an important game in their hometown in Germany. The father bought two tickets. On the Friday, he told his son to pack, that they were going to Germany for the game. On Saturday, before game time, outside of the stadium, the son had the team colors painted on his cheek. Once inside, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker system and the huge TV screen that seemed a mile long, was filled with their two faces. The father pointed to the screen and the son smiled, seeing himself as tens of thousands of fans stood on their feet and gave a standing ovation as the announcer said the father and son had flown all the way from Bangkok, Thailand just to see the game.
No one had asked them to sign a Strangers Book. They were at home. They had gone back home. The people of that place recognized something in the fact of their presence. Their applause was a validation of the pull of home as a personal gravity that stops most people from ending up as strangers in a foreign land.
I thought about the boy and his moment of glory at the side of his father. How could any boy of twelve ever forget such a moment? No matter what happened afterwards, that kid would never become a stranger, an outsider, an expat watching Tamil and Indian vendors trying to earn enough to eat by selling watches. Nothing remotely similar had ever happened to me during my childhood. It is in the absences, the silence, that we discover things about ourselves.
Thinking about the boy and his father, made me come around to words, our language was the one thing we all took into exile as a pillow, a torch, a weapon, a friend, a lover, a betrayer. I write because words are a way to light lamps to throw a pattern of light into the dark sadness that is the world. Words are the place where writers shelter, and ask others to squeeze in, a place of visions, terrors, fears, hope, dreams, and courage. We light the lamps. We ask others to seek the patterns and draw meaning. For a fleeting moment, we see our destiny in the eyes of the other strangers whose lives, like their second hand clothes, show the wear and tear of living on the outside. No giant stadium screen to show their faces to thousands of applauding countrymen.
What if the lighting of lamps with words fails the writer? What then of that balance between disappointment and despair? No one ever quite knows what is inside the mind of another. When I think of someone like David Foster Wallace, I think he left an important clue behind after he committed suicide. He’d been working on a new novel for years. His chronic depression left him unable to complete the book. He no longer could find the words or cared enough about the words to continue. So he left the manuscript, computer disks, and drawers and file cabinets with the bits and pieces of the work that he could no longer figure how to assemble. The ability to light the lamps had abandoned him. He left what he had been working with for others to fix the lamps, and relight the flame.
That is the risks of believing that forming patterns with words is our salvation. When the belief vanishes, so does the energy and spirit to work with words. Stranger. Outside. Expat. These are words of identity. Phantoms. Shadow play. Sitting in the cool night, looking out at the soi, the people mingling, the thought of the football stadium cheering a dad and his twelve-year boy, I had a glimpse of what it meant to belong. And how belonging is something difficult to reduce to words, and how much easier it is to write your name in the book of Strangers.