The Baby in Bangkok

I found myself last night as I was coming in on the shuttle trying to pin down Bangkok. In my head, “This part looks like Los Angeles, this bit Amman…” and so on. What is about us that makes us want to try so hard to catergorize everything around us? I eventually forced myself to stop. Bangkok is Bangkok. It’s not and can’t be a combination of any other city. Sure, there might be echoes and there might be universals that underly “city-hood”, but in the end, every city has its own personality. Trying to fit it into a box only guarantees that you’ll not see what’s truly in front of you.

As for what I’m seeing in Bangkok – it seems to me to be a city of contrasts. Layered, but perhaps not as finely granulated as Tokyo. It’s quite easy to see the ultra-modern right next door to run-down and abandoned. Multiple realities exist adjacent to each other. And that includes me and the other tourists. We occupy the same physical space, but the processes and interactions we undergo are different. My ticket on the river boat is not the same ticket as the Thai woman next to me. The door to the Reclining Buddha is different for foreigners than for Thai people. These are just manifestations, I think, of a deeper separation. I am a potential source of income that’s quite clear, but of something different too. I can’t put my finger on it yet though. Maybe it’s cultural, maybe class, a combination of the two with something else as yet undefined added in? I don’t know.

Not that there aren’t interactions between these realities. The Thai woman chatting about food with the family from France as we wait for the ferry. The man coming up to me to ask where I’m from – to talk about Jordan. But then that conversation is tainted by my suspicion that he wants me to buy something. In the end, he encourages me to visit a local site and bids me a good day. It’s sad, and I’m vaguely ashamed of myself. Not that people haven’t been trying to get my attention to buy something or to ride in their taxi. But it’s not been obnoxious. I don’t know where the balance is, and I think I need to learn it. If anything, I expect Phnom Penh to be the same (but different of course).

There was a woman beggin in the street, a baby in her arms. As I walked past, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the smallest of my change. 4 baht in total. After I walked a small distance I stopped myself. That was hardly anything at all, and I had two larger 10 baht coins. Why didn’t I give them to the woman? 20 baht is something like 75 US cents. I’d given more to mediocre street performers in London. So I went back and gave her the coins. Later in the day, I ran into more beggars. Not a large number – during the course of the whole day, maybe 7 or 8. But that’s the thing – the problem underneath that was bothering me – how much of yourself do you give away. I’m not necessarily talking about money. In the end, one person can’t save the world, and coming back to the balance – a person has to find a way to negotiate the emotional (and financial) drain that potentially exists when working with suffering.

Let me be clear, for the most part, Bangkok seems a prosperous city. But in peeking between the city’s cracks, I’m seeing where my own fault lines lay. In the end, I think I will set a limit. Each day, x amount is how much I will give away. As for the more intangible? I don’t think such a simple solution can exist. Or at least not in terms of limits. Perhaps boundaries? It’s a subtle difference, but that might be the key. I’m thinking ahead, of course, to what it will be like to work in places where the poverty is devestating. But then again, I don’t know what the future will bring, and in the end, I don’t want to lost sight of what brought to me this journey in the first place. Best to take each step at a time and not borrow trouble from the future.

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~ by Samer on July 30, 2007.

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