Jet Lag Diary

by Kenneth Champeon, Jun 28, 2004 | Destinations: Thailand / Chiang Mai

The Chinese woman sitting next to me on the flight from Tokyo to Detroit just can't stay in her seat. I can feel her agitation mount before she once again disturbs my already limited tranquility to request that I move my legs, or stand, and then she makes a circuit around the lavatories to fuss with some baggage or other. The fiercely Scandinavian air hostesses of Northwest Airlines have already lost patience with her, as she blithely disregards the Fasten Seat Belts indicator or makes insistent petitions for food or beverages, which she always consumes as if her life depended on it. On one occasion when she signals that she needs to get up again, I drop the pretense of the anonymous, obliging passenger and smile at her. She understands my meaning. "Too much," she says. It takes this little to humanize someone, and I am left wondering -- the woman may be in her 50s -- what in the history of modern China, if anything, has made her so skittish and so preoccupied with making the most of her food.

After two days of nearly foodless drinking, a friend had all but heaved me on to the plane from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and at around three the following morning I found myself hurtling down an almost deserted Bangkok motorway to the city's Don Muang airport. There comes a time in almost any traveler's life when his patience with the foreign country he happens to be in has been exhausted, and for me, with Thailand, that time had come. Become the very epitome of the Ugly American, I was shouting at shiftless and incompetent vendors, unleashing torrents of English against people I knew were ignorant of it, and cursing everything from Thailand's traffic to something as general and fictitious as the Oriental Mind. It was go, or become a monster.

So it didn't help that the windows of the Bangkok taxi were jammed and had to be forced down by hand, or that the taxi driver found this malfunction amusing, when in several days I had slept for only a few hours interrupted by mild panic attacks brought on by fear of returning to the often merciless confines of the developed world. Only later, arriving in the states, would I be reminded that the average American is just as incapable of living in the Third World as the average Third World expat is incapable of returning to it.

And it's not just a matter of the irreconcilability of East and West: arriving at Tokyo's Narita airport, I was horrified to see that I was being herded into a Disneyworld-esque queue of hundreds of transit passengers, most of them American, most as chipper and as impossibly clean as that breed often is. When in airports I instinctually look for the exit doors, not just because I am addicted to nicotine but also because I am stricken with claustrophobia, and the prospect of being indoors involuntarily for eighteen hours fills me with an unspeakable dread. The line barely moved, and my respect for Japanese efficiency markedly declined. The Americans around me were similarly unimpressed, so already I felt back among my own kind, who place efficiency above almost everything else.

The flight's offerings in the way of film were typically asinine: they included Scooby Doo 2 and some Ben Affleck vehicle, but I found myself watching, sans headphones, with rapt interest. I had brought books but was in no state to read them, and even felt nothing but repugnance for the Asia that most of them described. But neither did I feel particularly drawn to the American air hostesses, who were forever losing their tempers in a way that no Asian hostess would, and who were speaking English, as I had recently been speaking English, as if it were the only language in the world and several billion Asians had better get used to it. The majority of the passengers on the Detroit flight -- no surprise, given the automotive connection -- were Japanese, and almost every time the PA system would warn passengers to remain seated, several would misinterpret this as a signal to rise. In the right frame of mind, I might have found it funny. Instead I just scowled. I scowled a lot on that trip.

When the plane finally spat me out in Detroit, I was scraped up by the harsh spatulas of US officialdom. As I wrote, "Thailand, Burma, Laos" in the space provided for countries visited since last in the United States, I knew I was causing some flag or other to go up somewhere. That I had only one backpack as luggage didn't help matters, and the mustachioed official who noted this unfortunate combination was less than nice about it. I've found that as a rule Americans are profoundly suspicious of people who spend significant periods of time outside of America, a suspicion often hard to distinguish from envy. Anyway, my bag was searched, my so-called career as a freelance writer called into question (as if I didn't question it enough myself), and I was discharged as the earnest, book-loving wanderer that I usually am. Only later would I realize that the correct answer to the insinuating question "What kind of stuff do you write?" is, "Whatever sells" (or "puts rice on the table", as we like to say back in Thailand.)

In Detroit I was to discover the extent to which living in Thailand for five nearly continuous years had made me into a Thai. Hoping to accelerate the last few deadly hours before my flight to Bangor, I slouched into a sports bar and was overwhelmed at how fast, big, loud and pale were most of its customers and workers. Women guffawed with wild abandon, chairs were slammed and scraped, and everyone was speaking so quickly and in such seemingly coded language that I found myself shriveling up into the space bounded by me and a pint of Sam Adams. Safety in making oneself small: very Thai, I thought, but the woman next to me was so brimming with athletic energy that she kept elbowing me as she gesticulated, and finally she did what I most feared. She turned to me to chat, unloading the whole story of her delayed flight and related matters upon my weary shoulders. Like a Thai I nodded repetitively out of courtesy but I felt thoroughly intimidated. An unquestionably large-hearted woman, no doubt, but one who could probably pick me up and snap my spine across her knee.

It had been almost two years since I had last set foot on American soil, so there were times when a Culture Shock! America book would have proven handy, and over the next few days I would notice several obvious differences. I was reminded, first of all, of the -- to me -- inordinate emphasis Americans place on being, or trying to be, healthy, whatever that vague and overused term may mean. (Healthy people, as the joke goes, die every day.) In Thailand, behind the counter of even the smallest convenience store will be rows upon rows of whisky bottles; in Detroit I was confronted with nearly football-sized bottles of fruit juice and Gatorade. Americans walk with determination; Thais walk with grace. Americans get tired; Thais get sleepy. As I was standing at an elevator in the Detroit airport, a harried businessman dragging a suitcase darted up to the button console and just missed a lift down. Panting, veins standing out on his beet-red forehead, he quipped, "Are we having fun yet?" Well, I thought, you're not. And again I was reminded of this curious habit of roping strangers into sharing your travails. Back in Maine, the proper response to the question, "How are you?" is, "Not too bad". In Thailand it's something like "Comfortably well."

The beers in the sports bar had failed to sedate me to the degree hoped for, and perhaps this was because behind the bar were several televisions and even a marquee showing the latest news and stock market indices; I had come from a country with an almost desperate need for relaxation to a country that seemed to think the more revved the better. I put on an enigmatic Thai smile and wandered through the throngs, wondering why everyone was in such a hurry, but knowing that ultimately the answer was probably money, or perhaps it was the exhilaration that children get when they run around in circles until they get sick and fall down.

There comes a point in sleeplessness when you actually could not sleep if you tried, and I had reached that point well before I left Thailand. By the time I touched down in Bangor I was positively manic, almost in tears, as I re-entered the world of what I deemed to be explicable things. But asleep by one, I was up by four -- wide-awake and already trying to determine whether Thailand existed any longer, when scarcely all I could imagine of it were thousands of stolid faces beneath black hair, a hauntingly silent place that yet held so much power in reserve. I didn't miss Asia yet, far from it, but there was comfort knowing it was still there.

- The End -