Interviewing David Letterman once on his PBS show, Charlie Rose asked what the best part of fame was. That people treated him well, Letterman answered. That people treated him the way people should treat each other all the time: with respect and courtesy.
My second evening in Bangkok, I commented to my nephew that I had spent the entire day without witnessing one single incident of anger or impatience or rudeness. It was a day I had spent at Siam Square: a downright mad shopping area which included four malls ranging from MBK, which was basically five floors of bazaars in a futuristically-designed building, to Paragon, which housed the familiar upscale stores: Louis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, D & G. On the streets in between these malls were street vendors of every possible thing imaginable that was cheap and expendable, plus, of course, food carts, food stalls and restuarants. On the pedestrian walkway overpasses connecting the malls was one of only two places I ever saw beggars in Bangkok. And, of course, all of this was happening inside the roar of the ever bumper-to-bumper Bangkok traffic. And, as if it were an afterthought, they was a square to one side - Siam square, I presumed. Almost empty. With a fountain in the middle.
This was possibly the highest concentration of people in a city already populated by twelve million inhabitants - plus tourists. Yet, no child was smacked or even yelled at. No bumping or shoving was not accidental and promptly apologized for. No merchants and customers traded insults.
David Letterman would have been impressed.
Throughout my time in Thailand, this lack of aggression was the single thing that most impressed me.
This is a not a submissive people. Nor do they make up a model society: they are definitely class-stratified and the way they treat refugees fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries, typically hill tribes - the Karen from Myanmar, the Hmong from Laos, for example - is less than exemplary. And they are not nice in that way that Canadians are reputed to be (but, so often, aren't).
It was simply that they didn't feel entitled to impose their personal issues onto the world around them. I believe the word for that is: respect.
On the public transit systems, young people listened to their music at a volume low enough to keep it out of the universe of anyone around them. If you've ever ridden the subwayi n Toronto, you know what the opposite of that is. At the same time, that self containment never prevented a young person from leaping up to offer his or her seat to an elderly person or a child.
In a month travelling through Thailand, I literally witnessed two incidents of people vccally angry in public. Both by Thai women. Both because they had been pissed off by men. Once it was a gorgeous, scantily-clad young woman who wandered into the reggae bar I hung out in while I was in Chiang Rai. She was in combat mode because a male falang - a white foreigner - had mistaken her for a whore. And once it was a tirade on a Bangkok street where the man said nothing, but gripped tightly the handlebars of the motorcycle he had been rideing, with his helmet still on his head. It being a Saturday morning, my conclusion was that the woman was his partner and that he hadn't gone home Friday night.
This was less anger than I witness on my forty-minute subway ride to work on most days here in Toronto.
I don't know why this is the case in Thailand. At first, I thought it had to do with the fact that Buddhism, with its accompanying consciousness of the consequences of anger and ego, were so deeply integrated inot Thai society. I also thought that it may have to do with the fact that Thailand has never been colonized and, therefore, has never had its soul corrupted by the need to process the arrogance of outside nations burrowing into its history.
But then it occurred to me that the real question wasn't why Thais are this way but why the rest of us aren't. Cue David Letterman.
And nowhere is this more apparent than in the way Thailand accomodates gender bending.
To preface this, it bears acknowledging that Thai women are typically quite attractive and take very good care of themselves- the sexualization of their beauty, though, an unfortunate result of the Vietnam War when American GI's spent much off-time here. Thai men are, also, typically quite attractive, following their king's lead in being particular about their dress and their hairstyles. But that is aesthetic that still gender differences. It was the details and the precision of the aesthetics of the gender bending that left my soul with its jaw dropped open.
The first indication I had of this was when my nephew's girlfriend, Tiya, after the two of them picked me up at the airport, told me: "If you see girls who are really, really pretty. Then they're boys." Once in a mall, both of us bored because we dislike shopping, Tiya and I played 'boy or gril?' I missed every single time. "But that has to be a boy," I protested once. "If it was a boy," she explained patiently. "He would have been much prettier."
Over the course of a month there, I ran into any number of tourists, mostly European, inevitably males, who insisted they could tell the men from the women. It's in the jawline, they explained to me. It's in the eyebrows. In the veins on the hands and the size of the feet. It's in the size of the waist and the knobbiness of the elbows and the suggestion of facial hair. Maybe it is, I thought. Maybe it's all of those things. But why do you feel the need to look so closely? I imagined them staring at people to pick out the 'lady boys' as they called them. Nothing invasive about that.
But I, myself, was stunned at a restaurant in Ayuthaya, a place where I ate most of my meals and where I hung out in the evenings during the three days I spent there. Around my lunch time, there would be a crush of fourteen-year-olds playing post-lunch hooky from school. They're the young people in the pictures above. Boys and girls, I assumed, until John, a friend I was having lunch with on the first day and a good friend of people who owned the restaurant, told me: "You know those are all girls, right?" At that young age to invest the time and effort they had invested stunned me. And they were completely happy to let me take pictures of them.
At first I credited Buddhism for this because of its focus on kindness and pacificism. But Buddhism is still male-centred (women cannot be monks, for example) and is practiced in places other than Thailand, places I would not credit with being this advanced.
In the end I decided to give credit for this to the fact that Thailand has never been subjected to the Christianity of European colonizers, which means it has never been subjected to the prejudices that go hand in glove with what that religion considers morality.
I wonder what David Letterman would think.