I have been in Bangkok for nearly three weeks. I haven’t written anything about it because trying to get situated has taken up the majority of my time. The other night, however, was just plain weird, and I feel like it accurately captures my life in Bangkok thus far.
Six years ago, when I moved to Chicago by myself, I learned about Meetup.com. This site allows people all over the world to create groups that attract people with similar interests. There are art groups, hiking groups, knitting groups, let’s-just-get-drinks-together groups, etc. etc. I met some of my closest Chicago friends through Meetup groups. Hoping to have similar success in my new city, I jumped into the Bangkok Meetup world with gusto. I joined three writing groups, two expat groups, one international women’s group, a language group, a hiking group, and a wine group. (Remember that post about my inability to relax? I’m still working on it.)
In my first nineteen days in Bangkok I’ve tried out six of the nine groups. Most have been great. Some have been weird. I went to one writing group that can simply be summarized by saying some male writers make me want to shove a pen in my eye, or their eye if they’re within arm’s reach. I went to two separate expat Meetups and met some really cool ladies who I’ve hungout with since. Then there was the second writing group, which wasn’t having a Meetup anytime soon, but the organizer told me about another group that he runs–Dinner and a Film–which he thought I’d find interesting. I’ll try anything once so I signed up for the upcoming dinner in which six or so people would meet at the organizer’s apartment, eat, and watch Angelina Jolie’s film “First They Killed My Father.” (That sounds like an odd film choice for a dinner party, but each party is themed by a country. That night was Cambodia.)
The day before the Dinner and a Film Meetup I got a message from the organizer, Sid, asking if I could come over at three to help prepare food. I thought that was a bit strange (because I am not a cook and have never implied that I am a cook), but the message was worded in such a way that I thought at some point I must have volunteered to help. I told him I could come at four because the dinner wasn’t until six. Were we seriously going to cook for three hours? (Again: I DO NOT cook. Rice and sautéed veggies are the extent of my patience in the kitchen.)
I arrived at Sid’s building and waited for him in the lobby. While I waited, I wondered if I was being stupid for agreeing to come to this man’s apartment solo. I’d never met Sid. I knew nothing about him except he claimed to be a writer. I didn’t really know where I was in Bangkok, and, on top of that, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. A college friend of mine had a tragic experience with CouchSurfer a few years ago. I think about her each time I use sharing economy companies like AirBnB or Uber. Waiting for Sid made me think about what happened to her, but I blamed my uneasy feeling on the prospect of conversing with Sid for two hours before anyone else showed up. Still, awkward conversation jitters aside, I did have a small knife tucked into the front pocket of my shorts. Just in case, you know?
Sid led me up to his 32nd floor two-bedroom apartment. He gave me a tour, pointing out the view of the second tallest building in Bangkok: Baiyoke Tower II. “The top has a restaurant that rotates,” he said. “So, you know, you can drink and spin.” Sid was from India, looked about fifty, and told me that he’d recently separated from his wife, who had moved back to India with their daughter. My hand reflexively fingered the knife in my pocket. He showed me the kitchen, where everything was already prepared except for the soup. “That should only take about thirty minutes,” Sid said. Then why am I here? I wanted to ask. If the food is already prepared, why am I here at four? Why did you originally want me to come at three?
Sid showed me a book he’d published. He talked about another writing group in Bangkok–a group I’d joined, but hadn’t been to yet–and how the host of that group has everyone do minute-long free-writes, and then she collects the free-writes and publishes the writings as her own poetry.
The conversation turned to dating and Tinder. I told him I’d mostly been meeting guys from India (and one from Pakistan, but Sid said that that was basically India).
“Do you like Indians?” he asked.
“Yes?” I said. “I think it’s just a coincidence they’ve all been from India. I’m not specifically seeking out guys from one country.”
“I do not like Indians.”
I cocked my head. “Why?”
“There is a saying in Thailand,” he said. “If you see an Indian and a snake, you kill the Indian first.”
I stared at him.”Because they are…?” I tried to think of what stereotype could possibly prompt that saying. Since coming to Asia I’ve realized that I don’t know that many Asian stereotypes (which I think is a good thing?). At least not country-specific stereotypes.
Sid launched into a long story about how two of the biggest (and wealthiest) criminals in Africa are Indian. In Thailand, the richest people are Thai, but the second richest are Indian (possibly Thai-Indian? I wasn’t clear on that detail). Then he talked about a time he and his son were waiting to catch a train at one of Bangkok’s busiest terminals. “My son doesn’t really know what it’s like to be Indian,” Sid said. “My wife and I left India when he was five.” He said that he and his son were queued up to board the train. In Bangkok, there are arrows on the ground signifying where passengers board and depart (Chicago would really benefit from this system, but I doubt anyone would actually abide by it). “My son and I were lined up on the arrows just like the Thais,” Sid said. “The platform was crowded, but quiet. Then this loud raucous came up the escalators. It consumed the entire platform.” He slowly raised his hand, mimicking an escalator. “It was a big group of Indian men. There must have been twenty of them. Then the train arrived and the doors opened. Not many people departed and the cars were packed so everyone waited to board the next train. The Indian men, however, went into India-mode. They ran up and down the platform, yelling in Hindi, pushing and shoving, and they did not stop until every single one of them was in a car.” Sid nodded as if he’d just made his point. “My son looked at me and asked, ‘Is that what it means to be Indian?'” Sid nodded again. “That is why I do not like Indians.”
The extent of my food preparation finally happened around 5:30: I blanched and cut six tomatoes, then filled a pot with six cups of boiling water. That was it. At six p.m. another person finally arrived: a retired man from New York City. Sid poured wine for the three of us. The retiree and I sat in the living room. We swapped stories about traveling in Iceland. Sid made some finishing touches to the dinner.
I felt weird being the only woman there. The atmosphere wasn’t threatening, but I just felt strange, as if I was somewhere I absolutely did not belong. Perhaps comparable to walking into a Masonic temple? A writing teacher of mine once told a story about traveling in Europe, accepting a cookie from two men, and then waking up having been drugged and rob. “The female travelers I know wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that situation,” he’d said. “They’d be more on guard and smart enough not to accept food or drink from strangers, especially strange men.”
Sid offered to pour me another glass of wine. As he walked into the kitchen, the retiree winked at him. My hand once again felt for the knife in my pocket. I don’t really know why I carry this knife. It was a second year anniversary present from my ex. When he gave it to me I said, “You could have just gotten me earrings.”
“Everyone should have a knife,” he said.
“So I can shank someone?”
“It’s just a good thing to have. They’re useful. You can cut something if you don’t have scissors, you can use it to clean your nails, or, yeah, you can shank someone.”
Now I mostly carry the knife in my purse out of habit. It has come in handy from time to time (although I’ve never shanked anyone) and, especially when I’ve gone on Tinder dates, it’s just made me feel more at ease having it. In reality I doubt I’d ever actually use it for defense, but it’s nice to have the option.
Sid handed me the second glass of wine and took a seat in between the retiree and me. “Is anyone else coming?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible. I really wanted to say: Seriously, is ANYONE coming? And are any of them women?
“A Thai guy said he was coming,” Sid said. “And some woman is bringing a man with her.” Finally–a lady.
Still, another half hour went by and no one else showed. Sid and the retiree each shared a story about Cambodia, and then we ate the soup and beef curry that Sid had basically made by himself with barely any assistance from me.
We started to watch “First They Killed My Father,” a movie about the killing fields in Cambodia, but the retiree found it (understandably) too upsetting. Sid mentioned a TV series he liked called “The Night Manager.” The show stars Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, and has to do with war-mongering and the Arab Spring. While he scrolled through his Google Chrome choices, I got a text from a girl I’d met at an expat Meetup. She asked if I wanted to go out for dinner or a drink. This was such fantastic timing because I still hadn’t thought of a polite way to finally excuse myself from Sid’s apartment.
Sid, the retiree, and I watched one episode of “The Night Manager.” When Tom Hiddleston started having very sexy sex with a gorgeous woman, all while I’m being flanked by Sid and the retiree, I just wanted to crawl into a hole. Before we could start another episode I made my excuses and bolted, but not before Sid gave me a copy of his book and a to-go bag of Indian food.
The expat girl (I’m going to call her M) and I had drinks at a rooftop bar, and then we went to a popular clubbing street. M was dressed super cute and ready for a night out, but I was in partially ripped jean shorts, a workout top, and flip flops. Just to add to the package, I had a medium sized purse, which was jam-packed with my large wallet, writing journal, Sid’s book, and two Ziploc bags of beef curry and palak paneer. So, needless to say, M and I didn’t know if I’d even be allowed into any clubs. Thankfully everyone’s standards had been lowered and I got into a Cuban club and an Australian club. I love dancing and I will happily (and sweatily) dance until dawn, but doing it with a purse full of books and curry was…well I certainly did not feel like the sexiest thing on the dance floor. Hell, I felt like the least sexy thing in all of SE Asia at the moment, but whateves there was Latin music to dance to!
After dancing, M and I went to McDonald’s (don’t judge). When I thanked the cashier a woman beside me asked where I was from. Because I thought she was some random person who I’d exchange two sentences with, I said Chicago.
“I’M FROM MINNESOTA,” the woman said. I turned and pointed to M as she also exclaimed, “I LIVED IN MINNESOTA.” The three of us had a Midwestern gush fest. M and the lady found out they’d lived right down the street from each other in Minneapolis. The woman was pretty drunk. She started to tell us about a bar she and her fiancee owned in Bangkok.
“Are you two lesbians?” she asked.
“No,” M and I both said. “Heteros and single.” (M and I had originally bonded over sadly similar breakup stories.)
We swapped numbers with the woman and she said we should all go walking sometime. She grabbed my thigh and squeezed it hard. “This is a runner’s thigh,” she said. She squeezed again. “Just like my thighs.” Then she left, and M and I finished our food.
M lived close enough to walk home. I stayed on the corner and hailed a cab. When I gave the driver my address, he kicked me out of the car saying, “Much too far, miss.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Too far. Too far.”
I got out and tried again. And then again. And then again. After three cabs and a motorbike turned me down, and one Uber just flat-out didn’t show, I wondered what the hell I was supposed to do. It was 2:30 a.m. The trains stopped at midnight. My apartment was nearly sixteen kilometers away. I leaned against a light pole for a bit, watching pretty, young prostitutes calling out to older men.
The whole night felt like a weird culmination of my first two weeks in Bangkok. There was the awkwardness of meeting new people and wondering if I made a wise decision by going somewhere solo. There was the theme of putting myself in odd situations with strange men (I’ve gone a tad overboard with the Tinder and Bumble dates because I didn’t know how else to meet people for a while. Some of those dates may get their own blog posts.). There was also the part of the night where I enjoyed being in Bangkok, meeting new and interesting people, being back in a big city again, clubbing, etc. I was having fun, but also felt out of place (in real life: because I’m a foreigner in Bangkok; that night: because I was dancing in clubs with a purse full of curry). And then there were the plain what the fuck do I do now? moments, such as standing on a street corner, wearing clothes I normally reserved for hiking, surrounded by beautifully dressed prostitutes, without a bloody clue how to get home other than walk.
I tried Uber one more time. When a man in a black Toyota appeared I could have kissed him. I’d had a fair amount to drink so I thanked him a bit too much. When he offered me a free water bottle I nearly said I loved him.
I finally made it back to my tiny pink and white studio apartment around 3 a.m. I opened my purse and found that the curry had spilled all over Sid’s book. I also saw that the Minnesotan thigh-squeezing lady had texted me her life’s story, which included her excitement over finding hairstylist in town who apparently does good dye jobs. I shoved the book and the food into the fridge, called a friend in the States and said, “You will not believe the weird damn night I just had.”