I didn’t make the most of the semi-utopic state that Thailand enjoyed amid a global pandemic, thinking it’ll last a few more months. Now, we’ve gone back into lockdown which is terrible but necessary. Thailand handled the pandemic quite competently that even when citizens (mostly the youth) were staging revolutions against the government throughout Bangkok and in some other provinces, there were no signs that a second wave of COVID-19 was imminent. I almost made plans to plan a trip to Chiang Mai, a place I’ve only been to once but claim to love. But the most I did was make reservations at nice restaurants and a café for which reservations didn’t seem necessary because few people were eating out. Being able to do things and being able to take that for granted – it was fun while it lasted!
I live with a lizard who has a child, a very tiny lizardette who scurries away upon sensing my presence. No matter where I live, there’s always a lizard who adopts me. I, like many others who cohabit with reptiles, do not mind sharing a home with the yucky-looking creatures. They are harmless and unaggressive. They’re wimpy, even. Lizards are fine creatures to live with, except for several traits some of them have that border on rudeness. What truly annoys me is that they don’t ever bother to announce their presence. They always wait on you to discover them, and every time you do, they always act shocked, which has the effect of shocking you, too. It’s a situation for which the term “mini-heart attack” was invented. It’s an endless cycle of mutually shocking each other until one of you have had enough of the other and resorts to doing something drastic and may or may not regret later. I’ve done some things to a lizard I’m not proud of. In one encounter with one in my old apartment, I sprayed water on the motherfucker until it choked (or suffer some sort of water-related torture) and left my sink.
The lizards at my current place, I just yell at or shoo away. Here’s some terrific news for them: they’re all guaranteed to never ever starve. I always have crumbs lying around the house: in my bookshelves, dining table, kitchen counter, the top of my refrigerator, the tiny shelf where the microwave is. The pandemic has turned me into a hoarder (mostly of coffee beans, digestive biscuits, almond milk, and Green Leafy Vegetables), so any lizard who thinks to visit or permanently live with me is guaranteed a steady diet of cookies and a variety of crumbs. They will not suffer the same fate that the lizards in my old unit did: die of starvation and dehydration from the lack of food and liquids. I remember one fat lizard whose name is Elizabeth Anne Salander who died unnoticed while hanging in the back of a vintage art frame in my old place. I’ll never know if that was an accident or a statement, but what a poetic way to die.
I regret using Facebook yesterday and this morning. I had a moment of weakness and was unable to resist the urge to troll certain Facebook “friends” whose opinions I disagree with/hate. I only posted tweets on my stories, but still, I wish I hadn’t. It served no purpose other than to tell people that I’m not a fan of the (our, Philippine) government, that I am on the side of those who despise the administration. And that was all. Some people I know who have superior, robust intelligence are not participating in all that mess. There are many good reasons not to, but mainly it’s that it’s a waste of time and energy. Unless one is sharing useful information, it’s best not to add to the noise (which is what I’ve done when I shared screenshots in my stories). That is I suppose what my robustly intelligent acquaintances have chosen to do — take a vow of silence.
Today, I turned off my phone for a few hours because I didn’t want to go on another social media downward spiral of posting stories, engaging with people’s content, and processing hundreds of people’s thoughts. It was a good decision.
There still are personal matters to deal with that even a pandemic of this magnitude could not erase. I still have to deal with health problems because self-isolation is necessary. I am mildly panicked that I might have to lead a hermit-like existence with a bitching toothache. This must be how it feels like when you’re pregnant and there’s a virus destroying your plans.
In the next few months, people will be waking up to the reality that they are living through a pandemic. They’ll be sharing their experiences to their hundreds of friends and followers. Some will write essays about what everyone should be doing, some will be writing three-word criticisms, and some will passively observe. Some will be obscene. Everyone will be right and at the same time, everyone will be wrong.
The last sentence in the previous paragraph sounds profound and at the same time, it sounds like nonsensical paradox.
I’ve decided to wear my weeks-old mask when riding the BTS because it feels shameful not to wear one when everyone is wearing one. Unlike Pinoys, Thais aren’t in the habit of giving people evil stares when they think someone looks or is being strange. Thais mind their own business most of the time. I’d rather risk getting sick from this unhygienic practice to put strangers at ease mainly because it puts me at ease too.
At the bookstore, plague-themed books appear to have run out like Albert Camus’s The Plague, the most obvious novel that Bangkokians thought to buy in the time of Covid-19. I didn’t check other plague- and plague-like-themed books like Max Brooks’ World War Z, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. I have enough books at home to last me two pandemics, and this may be the year I shorten my TBR pile.
If this were the ‘90s, people might drop by at video rental stores to rent videos before they hole up in their houses. Titles likely to quickly become unavailable would include movies like Contagion (which I know didn’t exist yet in the ‘90s), Outbreak, and apocalypse-themed films. It would be sad because video rental shops would probably be closed for a few days and the person who rents it would have to hold on to the laser disc-copy of the Contagion VHS for weeks, immersed and riveted by the life-like scenes unfolding in the Steven Soderbergh film. Or, people would rent something completely unrelated to doomsday scenarios like Wild Things, I Know What You Did Last Summer, There’s Something About Mary or LA Confidential. If this were the early ’00s, some people would drop by at a record store to buy VCDs or DVDs of movies they’d watch more than once. Some would buy a bunch of CDs because they’d need to soundtrack their lives while in quarantine.
Moleskin notebooks and bags were on sale in the lobby of the M floor at Emquartier. People should be snatching those Moleskins because they’re going to be trapped for a few days at home where they’ll be seized by the urge to chronicle their self-isolation, even as they go from app to app and watch Korean teleseryes ‘til their eyes bleed.
The virus could soon shut down Emquartier and other malls. That would then be a demonstration of the virus ability to cripple Bangkok institutions and establishments which provide everything anyone could possible need in this great city. Pharmacies and other small stores have already run out of masks, so you know it’s definitely starting, the demolishing of institutions. We are going to have to learn to fend for ourselves in the next few days, weeks, or months.
I was worried that I’d be the only person not wearing a mask at Muscle Factory, but I seem to have worried for nothing: not a single beefcake at MF was wearing a mask. What a relief. The Muscle Factory guys are made of the the tightest muscles, packed with protein, and are probably extremely healthy. Otherwise, what a shame for them. You couldn’t find a group of people more attuned to keeping one’s self healthy than at that hardcore gym, which I love and will miss. They eat clean, train (note: not “work out”) hard, and sleep early. Does the corona virus stand a chance against them? Probably not. The worst that Muscle Factory patrons could do is, probably, carry the virus and pass it on to those puny ones who don’t train as hard and don’t inject as much protein into their bloodstream. I hope to see them soon.
I was at a newly opened chichi Italian-French restaurant called La Casa Nostra when the official announcement was made. On my way there, people on the MRT were noticeably extra-attentive to their phones. That has always been how people behave in Bangkok trains, ie, glued to their phone, but on that afternoon the air was thick with worry, anticipation and grief.
La Casa Nostra is one of those restaurants that are annoyingly dim. The lighting is so minimal that you would have to squint your eyes to read the menu, and when the food arrives you’ll have to use your phone’s backlight to see if your food is as you ordered it. The restaurant’s design calls attention to its classiness and for a brief moment, I considered roaming around as there were only a few customers. That night, though, it was impossible to think about anything other than what Twitter already knew at least 3-4 hours in advance.
The staff were wearing all black but it could have been their normal uniform. I was halfway through my meal when Richard Barrow tweeted the inevitable. I was ready to be ushered out of the restaurant and be told to go home and respect the people’s mourning. I had expected a lot of unrealistic scenarios upon the announcement. I expected most of the staff to break into tears and kindly show the customers out, but even more people came in. The photographer who was taking photos of the neatly lined wine glasses on the bar counter seemed unmoved – a true professional. Despite the room’s dimness, we saw a waitress break into tears. Customers were not asked to leave but were left alone with their meal.
The king’s death reminded me of Cory Aquino’s death. I remember the collective sadness that swept the Philippines when she died. That was before the country was divided into ‘yellows’ and ‘rainbows’ (hindi yellow), which let the observance of her burial be peaceful and free from the ugly taint of politics. But that couldn’t possibly be the same as what just happened to the people of Thailand. They have just lost a king, the only one they’ve ever known and revered in their lifetime.
As foreigners, we are expected to behave in a strictly respectful manner during this period when the country is experiencing its greatest sorrow. That means refraining from engaging in any festive activities. Smiling in public might even be frowned upon. Black shirts should probably not contain any unsavory graphic.
It’s not uncommon to see expats expressing their sympathies online, although there are those that can’t be bothered. And because people want to know things, they are probably asking themselves and others like themselves these questions: Am I supposed to demonstrate full-on commiseration or should I take it easy with the sympathies? When going to Tesco, should I wear black or should I save those for the malls and office?
The last thing an expat would want to be seen as is unsympathetic, although it must be said, failure to show an aura of being deep in sorrow won’t likely to get one in trouble as long as the line between nonchalant and disrespectful isn’t crossed. It wouldn’t be outrageous to think that some expats are feeling the need to be extra-sympathetic and may be compelled to overdo it. They are in a very safe place. At a time like this, one never knows of one is in the company of a mourner who would look down on your refusal or inability to wear black. Some might not be too concerned about what color garment you wear, but some might be too concerned.
Is a question I should have prepared for but didn’t. I’ve always had an idea of a typical Thai as aloof to the idea of a foreigner. I’ve always thought of them as unlike most Pinoys whose hearts melt when asking foreigners about their estimation of the Philippines and upon hearing something that vaguely sounds like affection for the country, pass out from a wave of tremendous patriotic pride. I think that when a Thai asks me that, it is really just out of plain, unobtrusive curiosity. But then of course, Thais would be unlike most Pinoys in that regard because in the first place, there really is no one in the world quite like Pinoys.
There is nothing wrong with Pinoy Pride, I know it, but I’ve always been unable to relate to this raging nationalistic fervor. It’s fine, though, because I can just feel that the Philippines also doesn’t care about my lack of love for it, and maybe my indifference towards it may not be intense enough as to seriously wound the quite fragile Filipino Pride.
Maybe I never bothered to think about the answer to that because the question ought to be Why did you leave the Philippines? because that is really what I did. Maybe I would have had better responses to that question had it been phrased differently, say, ‘Why did you decide to get away from all the horrendousness brought about by a Manila existence?’ or ‘Why did you think it was smart to leave Metro Manila, shitty Metropolis?’
But Thais are not like that. They’re so great and kind and so they would only ever ask about moving and not about the leaving.
Had the questions been phrased differently, I would have had to prepare a pageanty answer because as much as I would love to point out the positives first (ie, ‘Because I simply love Thailand!’ etc.) I wouldn’t want to be perceived as a shit-talker of his own country and of shitty things, in general. Talking behind the Philippines’s back, even though it sometimes deserves it, does not feel good, knowing that not all people who migrate feel the same way as I do. Also, it would feel very silly and embarrassing if I talk ill of a country I know I would have to go back to sooner or later. If it’s any consolation I have Palawan Pride. I think Palawan makes all other beaches look like swamps.
That is maybe why I never bothered to devote an hour or so of my life to list the plentiful reasons why I decided to move to Bangkok, Thailand — because the question needs to be rephrased. But every time I get asked that, I am tempted to give the following stock answers:
1. Because there’s nothing in this world I would rather be than here.
2. Because the trains here are so great. So great that I would never shut up about their greatness, ever.
3. Because I love spicy food and it feels so great to be eating them here instead of some ‘Authentic Thai Food’ restaurant in Rockwell, Makati.
4. Because you can mall-hop abandonedly thanks to the wonderful, great trains.
5. Because I’ve read in some tourist brochure or magazine that Bangkok is a city where ‘culture meets commerce’ or something and I wanted to soak up that culture-commerce atmosphere aura.
6. Because I hate our trains and 80% of our roads.
In short, I moved here because it’s so great being here, which I know tells the interrogator nothing. Noticeably, however, hate will have a major role behind the reasons.
It’s not an easy question to answer. If I say something about ‘loving the culture’ and be asked to be specific, I wouldn’t be able to articulate the *culture love* because my idea of culture is hazy and will always involve thoughts of the DVDs being sold at Lido Theater. Great variety of DVD titles would always mean, for me, an act of culture fortification, because making available to the masses these wide variety of movies, not anymore accessible in the Philippines, could only mean that the ministry of culture, specifically the DVD-importing and printing department, cares to have its people have access to these cinematic (and musical) treasures. The DVD and CD selection in a lot of Bangkok stores are truly remarkable and, like the rest of Thai culture, so great.
But I know that that is not what makes a city so highly cultural.
In some faint way, I could say that this is a city that wouldn’t make you feel as if you’re only doing these cultural things as a duty but because there’s actually so much culture to take. And because the trains, those great, great trains, and the boats, let you hop from one place to another without feeling contemptuous of the sickness that is the modern day transportation.
You go to museums because they’re pretty, they’re very accessible, and the restrooms are gleaming works of architectural marvel. You don’t go to Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre because you feel like your Instagram needs to have its periodic culturification because in the last few days all you’ve had are pictures of your photogenic meals and you feel like the commerce-culture balance must be achieved.
I could say that I love the people, but which people exactly? I could support the *people love* claim by saying that the people who make this city so thoroughly livable deserve all the love it can get and so I am professing and freely giving my love to those people.
I could tell them that I love not being impelled to treat the whole office to lunch when it is my birthday, resignation day or baptismal day which is what sometimes happens back home. But deep down I would know that that’s not really it.
Maybe, Why did you move here is a question asked by anyone who has encountered a Pinoy anywhere in the world and it is in fact one of the most common questions ever asked. Maybe there is an idea of a Philippines, especially from those who have never been in it, that is filled with images of fun if over-crowded, party beaches and bountiful coconut trees, and smiling, charming locals, that the idea of someone moving away from all that could only mean insanity. I go to work every day not having poisonous feelings about life, ie, with a song in my heart, but when I dig deeper, I find ‘great trains’ as not being a very compelling reason for loving where I’m now living.
Next time I get asked that, maybe I’ll just say, Because the internet is fast, which I think could perfectly capture the essence of my real answer which is ‘I’m not sure’.