Great Wave, Silver Lining

by Kenneth Champeon, Jan 12, 2005 | Destinations: Thailand / Phuket

For some reason disasters occur only when I go home to visit my family. It is as if the forces of stability and chaos wish to remind me that neither will ever vanquish the other, that yin and yang are depicted within a closed circle intentionally. But when I first heard the news that a tsunami had appeared in Asian seas my first thought was that calamities of this sort were a commonplace in Asia -- floods in Bangladesh, earthquakes in China, volcanoes in the Philippines -- and that if Asians were adept at anything it was coping with unrest.

But the news that the wave had obliterated the beaches of Phuket immediately raised my interest. I had been on those beaches. I had friends in Phuket. And I felt that as a five-year resident of Thailand one of my homes and indeed my people had been besieged. So that when Westerners addressed the superlative helpfulness and compassion they had been shown by Thai people, I thought, well, what did they expect?

Images began to roll in like the wave that had preceded them, images in which the hubristic inventions of humankind had been thrown around like so much trash by an indifferent Earth. Bangkok photographer and friend Marc Schultz forwarded scenes of upended mopeds, mini-vans tipped on their trunks; Thailand was no stranger to smashups but imagine if the wave had smashed into the raceway that is Bangkok? Or the bank that is New York?

Soon I noticed that nothing had been heard from Burma, whose capital Rangoon would have been vulnerable. The Irrawaddy magazine reported that a bridge had collapsed; somebody had called the magazine's offices presumably; and later I would hear rumors that the country's superstitious people might have taken the disaster as a portent of much-needed regime change and thus suppressed it. But the mainstream news offered little better, as reports were filed by overpaid journalists all of whom seemed to be on holiday in Phuket, thus making this the de facto epicenter of the tragedy until the cameras swung wildly to the havoc in Banda Aceh. Larry King mispronounced Phuket a few times before getting it right. I never did much like the man.

As had happened on September the 11th, audiences were to be subjected to the same few video clips ad nauseam, until virtually everyone in the world knew that the British family "had be'ah ge' ou' o' here" or that Thais and Indians smile even (and sometimes especially) when upset. I spent an evening watching hours of what was invariably and unimaginably described as "devastation", and I thought less about my own hide than of the folly of attachment. How petty it now seemed, my recent resolve to get a salary and a girlfriend to match my ego and my ambition; the tsunami was just one manifestation of the ruin awaiting us all. Americans in particular have a hard time with seemingly random tragedies, affronts to the project of subduing Mother Nature. The occurrences are almost puzzling, not exasperating -- interruptions of the main story line, which is us. No one noted the amusing fact that the main topic on everyone's mind had been and would continue to be Social Security, when it was our fundamental insecurity that had just been so amply demonstrated.

Instead the networks began their contemptible ritual of exploiting suffering for the sake of higher ratings; the search for the most heart-wrenching video of wailing Ceylonese became an obsession; the disaster soundtrack, not be confused with the war soundtrack, was replayed. There was only one thing happening in the world now, instead of four or five; the death of hundreds of thousands of Asians soon became less important than the precise number of Americans gone missing, which in turn was less important than CNN's battle with FOX or the condition of Anderson Cooper's hair.

The more I heard from people in Thailand who were not paid to concoct the most addictive cocktail of orphaned children and demolished fishing boats, the more it seemed that Phuket had weathered the tsunami rather admirably. All the networks were doing now was guaranteeing that the island's (and Thailand's) tourism economy would be demolished too. Cynics would eventually suggest that the island's people had not been warned of the tsunami's approach for fear that tourists would flee. But tourists fled anyway, and no doubt a sudden dip in tourism would impede Thailand's development and harm those whose livelihood depends upon your dollars, euros or yen. Expressions of concern for my well-being were appreciated and I paid them forward, and as in all disasters humanity forgot dissension for a while. But I couldn't resist the feeling that the news was only reinforcing a sense of our good fortune at having been born in the developed world, where nothing like this could happen without somebody being court-martialed or sacked.

Pretty soon the tsunami was followed by wave after wave of money, the irresistible anodyne. A ravaged region was now to be ravaged with ambassadors and presidential hopefuls, and did any of them know enough history to recall that the explosion of Krakatoa in Indonesia had precipitated an Islamic insurgency? Probably. The last thing anybody wanted was more of the desperation that leads people to bomb Bali discotheques. Meanwhile from average Americans I was hearing various conspiracy theories -- that the tsunami had been caused by a North Korean nuclear test, or by the geological tension created by hydroelectric dams. Doomsday was probably popular nowhere more than in America, a nation of optimists paradoxically hopeful for The End.

Slowly but inevitably the tsunami descended the ladder of priority at the New York Times, as editors remembered that people are dying and suffering everywhere, all the time, and often at each others' hands. Millions more died in Mao's China as a result of his delusions than will die as a result of this deluge, and as many died in Dresden or Hiroshima. The real tragedy may be that on such a crowded planet the thousands gone will be missed only by those close to them, as no doubt HM King Bhumipol of Thailand will mourn his grandson, victim to the wave's inexorability.

Philosophers from Cicero to Krishnamurti have maintained that one should treat every day as the last, though it is hard to tell whether chaos or harmony would ensue from such a prescription. There is, after all, a large probability that there will be a tomorrow. Yet after the tsunami friends in Bangkok and elsewhere spoke of revisiting what is truly essential or important. Maybe if enough disasters of this scale befall us we will return to viewing death as a part of life rather than as a refutation of it. Maybe if we have enough sadness and loss we will remember again what it means to be happy and whole.

- The End -