A lonesome bookshelf sits nonsensically on the opposite end of [redacted] Demonstration School’s sprawling three-story open-air lobby, up against an echoey empty white wall. It’s stocked full of fiction and nonfiction English books no one will ever read, except me sometimes – passing time in my Windex©’ed display case, waiting for strangers off the street to inspect me from the other side…
In her informational guidebook Swallow Safely: How Swallowing Problems Threaten the Elderly and Others, Dr. Roya Sayadi lists possible causes of choking in humans: “mouth-breathing, loss of smell or taste sensation; lack of saliva, weak chewing muscles, painful gums, cheeks, poorly-fitting dentures, poor tongue control, part of tongue missing, impaired tongue control, sensory loss, absent or delayed reflex, muscle paralysis or weakness, diverticula, lack of coordination with breathing malfunction of upper and lower esophageal sphincters (achalasia, GERD), lack of esophageal motility, stiffness, stricture, or compression of esophagus.”
Millions of years of evolution, two dozen ways to choke to death on peanut butter.
When the for-real panic settles in, in full swing and I’m grasping for anything to hold onto, just for a minute longer, when I’m choking on certain-for-sure demise and there’s no way to not believe I’m not dying, right now – is when I feel the rawest empathy for what I’m looking at.
Empathy, when I pass through chaotic traffic, for the emaciated brown shoeless skeleton outside a 7-Eleven© stumbling around on the curb — hollowed out, waiting suicidal-like for a car to smash his skull into its windshield and ricochet messy wet brain shrapnel onto the sidewalk, drenching pedestrian onlookers in a fountain of bloody gray matter waterpark-splashy-ride-style, or for his liver to give out.
I get it. He drinks himself to death because it’s easier than turning around to face up to the cruel odds in favor of certain-for-sure death. Whether he, the alcoholic skeleton, is going out is a settled question; it’s for sure. Whiskey-gun to his lips, he’s taking that ride. We all are.
He’s a coward, but I get it.
I’ve got empathy, too, but more respect for the sunken-faced maid with bags under her eyes the size of plums across from me on rust-red Bus 84, holding onto her kids for life because they’re a single missed paycheck short of falling off the cliff into absolute, on-the-street-with-a-Styrofoam-cup-style poverty.
Stubborn perseverance is written in spades all over her worn-out leather face. She’s been a holdout against certain-for-sure demise for a long time, for sure.
Can’t breathe, volume muted. Vision distorted, doom impending. Fade-to-black-hyperbolic-melodrama-turned-literal, literally-for-real happening. Everything is slipping away.
It’s like, I appreciate the sand slipping through the hourglass. I know, for sure, there won’t be any sand left. It passes by slower, and you take it in for what it is, when you know, feel, it’ll disappear. Why is a moot point… titanic brass polish, etc.
Just hold on. For one more minute.
[redacted] University has constructed a new opulent school/shrine/monument to honor itself, the newest addition to its already expansive arsenal of opulent impressive monuments honoring itself – a so-called “Demonstration School” for young learners. I’ve been unable to get a consistent answer for what is supposed to be demonstrated here.
I ask questions sometimes because, still, I haven’t completely let go of a gnawing desire for rationality. How will the trains run on time?, etc.
I’m working real diligently on letting go. It’ll happen.
White foreigners (farangs) go insane here asking questions. I’ve seen them firsthand – the ones who believe with all their heart and soul that someone owes them explanations for things — throw their hands up in disgust and berate strangers. They’ll swear to God they’ll never step foot in this God-forsaken place again, that they’ll go back to where things make sense. Where drivers obey traffic laws and stray dogs don’t shit all over the street. They’ll leave and they won’t ever come back, they’ll swear to God.
As for me, I’m Alice. I stumbled down the Wonderland© rabbit hole on purpose; I like it here. I don’t ask why as much, anymore. Or if I do, it’s only in passing before I let it go…
Like the hours upon hours I’ve admired the three-story unlicensed stained glass mural of smiling Disney© characters of animated blockbuster Frozen© from inside my air-conditioned display case. It’s erected in the southwest corner of the sprawling lobby, and it’s terrifying. Smiling anthropomorphized animals and princesses with car-sized heads look down benevolently from stained-glass clouds like Gods in the Heavens, North-Korean-dictator-monument-style.
In the war-fogged middle of an anxiety attack, when I’m holding onto miserable life by a miserable lonesome thin thread that I can’t make myself believe isn’t about to snap – is when I see clear.
Clear. For sure. Everyone’s holding on by a thread, against unwinnable odds. They know it too – it’s written all over their faces, especially in the eyes. All around me on rickety, beatdown Bus 84, I can see the human condition clearer than usual. Underneath flimsy papier-mâché masks of calmness and control, thinnest-veiled, there’s pressing existential terror. It comes from the inside out, from the soul or whatever you want to call it, into the world through the eyes.
Paper tigers, all of us.
Really, for sure, I don’t know much. Except pressing existential terror is the only real birthright we get on arrival. The rest is imagination run amok turned into cliché catchphrase – Bill of Rights©, Created Equal©, God’s Saving Grace©, etc.
Pressing existential terror is all we are born with a right to. The UN Human Rights Commission says different, but they don’t know shit. Mouthy bureaucrats with the office-cubicle-audacity to issue of wordy proclamations about this right or that right like they hold weight against nature – they’re paper tigers, too.
Some take their birthright in stride better than others. But, for sure, I don’t trust a soul that isn’t genuinely goddamn deer-in-headlights terrified, at least from time to time, by its own delicate position teetering on oblivion — one flip of the wheel one terrified tenth of a second away from the end.
For sure, though, I don’t respect a soul either that won’t face up to it, at least from time to time, in defiance against unwinnable odds.
The hours and hours I’ve spent in awe under the omniscient gaze of stained-glass Frozen© gods — these are on account of my job in the as-yet-unopened Demonstration School, almost totally empty and so much emptier-looking because the lobby is three stories of open air.
Voices boom and bounce around. Everything echoes. A pen drop is a minor explosion in the massive open silent air. Footsteps boom in succession like carpet bombings.
Parents of children, in the free market for an educational institution, pass through automatic doors under the three-story palatial ceiling in twos or threes, sometimes with a grandma in or aunt or some other concerned relative. They either got an email or a phone call or some old-school snail-mail invitation from [redacted] asking them to visit for tea and propaganda.
I know for sure [redacted] does the snail-mail thing because, once a week or so, the Thailand Post© mailman comes to drop off buckets full of hundreds of return-to-senders mailed to recipients that are dead or never existed.
The real-life parents that still exist and got the letters, though — [redacted] staff greets these parents at the door and welcomes them into the air-conditioned office lounge, where I sit in my exhibit with good posture behind a Windex©’ed Glass partition, well-groomed, smiley white face toward the audience, exotic-imported-zoo -animal-style.
Here the parents are courteously served tea and a half-hour of blatant lies. Truly remarkably blatant lies, even by Thai standards, like that [redacted] has a comprehensive, unique, specially-designed curriculum in three different languages – Thai, Chinese, and English – and fully trained, qualified staff on hand to administer this curriculum.
[redacted] University has none of these.
No one has explained what I do here.
In terms of our working relationship, retired-menopausal-banker-turned-head-administrator Khun Ta and I got off to a rocky start, on account of a question I shouldn’t have asked about her socks. Khun Ta inexplicably wears highlighter-yellow Spongebob Squarepants© socks under her dress heels at least once a week — which, in combination with her adult braces and advanced age, merge the totality of her appearance into a visually stimulating, massively unsettling lolita-grandmother vibe. Or grandmother-lolita vibe, whichever.
Out of sheer honest-to-God bewildered curiosity, within ten minutes of meeting, I asked her why, innocent-small-talk-icebreaker-style, in regard to her choice of socks — a mistake I’ve been real diligent not to make again.
Nothing sets Khun Ta’s menopausal fury ablaze like her subordinates asking questions about things. Especially why. I know this now, lesson learned.
After the socks why question mistake that I’ve been real diligent not to make again, Khun Ta instructed me in broken English to sit behind the Windex©’ed glass on the black leather porn-style couch and “look smart”, so that’s what I did. For emphasis, she pointed at me accusingly and then at the leather porn couch behind the Windex©’ed glass for emphasis, so that’s where I went and that’s what I did and then I shut the fuck up.
I’m aware that I don’t know much, but I know enough now to know that asking why in Thailand is totally-hundred-percent-pointless. This is what I’ve learned.
Ninety-five percent of visiting Thai parents don’t speak a word of English. For these ones, I just smile and nod in agreement as Khun Ta and her submissive, eager-eyed assistant propagandize them North-Korean-tour-guide-style with sweet Thai nothings about our non-existent specially-designed unique English curriculum and non-existent certified team of English-teaching professionals.
For the ones that know enough English to ask me anything and poke their heads around the inhumane Windex©’ed glass exhibit, I assure them politely that I have studied the non-existent curriculum and the non-existent accompanying textbooks.
In my professional white opinion, I tell them, they’re absolutely up to the highest, whitest standards.
After tea and propaganda, the parents are then whisked away on one of the leather-seated fifteen-thousand-dollar [redacted] golf carts for a tour of the facility, still under construction by slave-wage Burmese immigrants on the verge of heat stroke, to be courted harder and treated to sightseeing and more propaganda. This is the homestretch.
When the terror is so deep I think it’s all I can feel, is when I feel the rawest unbridled empathy. I can see the birthright terror in others real clear, so close to naked, just barely underneath the surface. I can see it in the humans around me because I feel it myself the most in those moments when I feel, for sure, it’s all over, this time.
Existential terror in the face of insurmountable odds, sometimes checked sometimes not, is the perpetual burden of living. We carry it around like an albatross until we die… right until the insurmountable odds catch up and the house wins anyway.
On its face, it’s black humor — the blackest. That’s how I used to see it, at least. I’d wonder what the point could be to plow on accidental-like as a broken-spirited donkey, the cosmic punch line of some cruel elaborate joke, until the barbaric charade ends mercifully the only way it can.
But lately, I’m not so inclined to believe it’s a cruel joke. Lately, I’ve seen hardened stoic poise etched into the crow’s feet of too many stubborn mothers’ faces on Thai public transportation, the ones who won’t give up… terrified and staring grim reaper fate in the face anyway.
I’ve mostly given up trying to figure things out here. Like, as in, asking why like I expect some kind of satisfying answer.
I’ve seen farangs lose their white minds asking why, right out on the street in daylight, enthusiastically yelling at ethnics minding their own business in European languages they don’t understand about problems they don’t share.
Trivial problems, really. The only real problem wrapped up enigmatically there-is-no-spoon-Matrix©-style inside these farangs’ invented problems is that there isn’t a readily apparent reason why.
Just totally losing their fucking minds, for God and everyone to witness, kicking street signs and screaming obscenities at pregnant street dogs with erect National Geographic©-style tits hanging down to the ground. It happens everyday.
Really, over problems that weren’t really problems.
Like because Bus 84 isn’t running, for some unannounced reason, and no one sent them an email notification or a Tweet© or whatever of the schedule shift. Or, like, because another Thai is driving his motorbike through a crowded sidewalk in total disregard and direct violation of the illustrative signs with the big red circle and strike through a little stick figure guy on a motorbike.
Farangs — lots of them, the touristy ones who came for cheap thrills with the cheap bargirls or for the affordable titjobs or exotic resorts or whatever and don’t know what they’ve gotten into– they feel like someone owes them an explanation. For why. Always with the tired old demands for an official explanation from some official in a position to know, to explain the official, documented explanation they’ve assured themselves must exist.
No one here shares their passionate commitment to reason, least of all a government official. Thais don’t torture themselves the way the West does.
It can be dangerous, expecting answers for things like God keeps them alphabetical-tab-like in a celestial filing cabinet. I’ve seen the danger firsthand a good bit, hysterical-farang-meltdown-street-circus-style.
I’ve been real diligent to let it go, and hold on. For one more minute.