Harvest of A Quiet Eye – by Craig Stevaux

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There’s a scene near the end of this poignant tale of Thailand where an erstwhile U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer finally persuades the student teacher he adores to join him at the movies. In traditional Thai culture, as practiced in the rural Northeast in 1972, a good girl does not venture out at night, especially not alone with a man, and especially not with a farang, a foreigner.

Nonetheless, here’s Orawan, a demure 20-year-old girl from the Teachers Training College, sneaking into the air-conditioned balcony of Udorn’s Amphorn Theater to be with Malcolm, the co-teacher and mentor she most respects. The so-called Sound Room with English dialogue piped in, is the special province of G.I.s with their tii-hak partners. The film is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 box-office smash “Romeo and Juliet,” salaciously advertised in Thailand as “Children Loving Each Other” and “Children Having Sex” even though Thai censors have cut out the passionate kissing and brief glimpse of Olivia Hussey’s breast.

The idealistic American teacher and the curious Thai student-teacher are Romeo and Juliet in the parched yet flood-prone Udorn in Northeast Thailand, or Issan. Her dirt-poor family, her poverty itself and her deeply held Buddhist values are the Capulets. Malcolm’s firm intention to not be like other Americans in Thailand, his desire to absorb as much Thai language and culture a farang is capable of absorbing, and his budding Buddhist nature are the Montague obstacles to this unlikely romance.

As the Bard might have said, if he’d been assigned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Udorn, “Never was a story of more woe than this of Malcolm and Orawan.” But I’m not here to speak of Love. I’m here to describe Ugly Americans in Southeast Asia.

As the American War engulfs the region – without touching Thailand – Ugly Americans are everywhere present in a two-fisted air-base town like Udorn. We find them on the sidewalks and in bars and restaurants, bowling alleys and massage parlors. They fling F-bombs and hurl curses at the locals with the utmost insensitivity, all the while escorted by perfumed and painted Thai women – bargirls, prostitutes and rent-a-wives – who are separated from their families, or perhaps supporting them financially. The American interlopers are prone to drunkenness, vomiting, and conking out on the ground.

The U.S. Air Force and the CIA’s Air America pilots are ardently employed in the prosecution of an air war against North Vietnam, America’s philosophical enemy and Laos, America’s ally, declared neutral by international agreement. As Thais go about their daily chores, eating constantly, and Thai students are engaged in mangling English, U.S. fighter jets and fighter bombers scream across the sky, and Jolly Green Giant helicopters chop through the air. It’s no secret that the Royal Thai Air Force Base at Udorn is in the thick of the fight, under American top-brass responsible for wreaking death and destruction on Thailand’s neighbors.

Nobody seems to care, other than our hero English teacher, a Belgian American from Green Bay. However his one-man antiwar campaign in the heart of darkness is meaningless, without sound or fury.

For me, the charm of Craig Stevaux’s tale lies in the lyrical recounting of how a newly arrived farang becomes accustomed to, and learns to love, the way Thais walk, talk and think, in keeping with Thai customs, culture, proverbs and the Buddhist Path.

The memoir style, the era, focus on culture and language, and the references to the Secret War in Laos all sync with the sentiment of “Hustle the East”, a novel about Laos.  Much of the action in “Hustle the East” takes place in Vientiane, about 50 miles from Udorn.

http://hustletheeast.com

Love Began in Laos — by Penelope Khounta, 2017

Lao-American Association brochure and students with teacher

The author of Love Began in Laos: The Story of An Extraordinary Life was my boss in Laos. For more than 40 years, I’ve been grateful to Penny Khounta for hiring me to teach English at the Lao-American Association. The director of the U.S.-supported school and cultural center, Mrs. Khounta was a very mature 34 when I was a soul-searching 25.

I’ve visited her splendid art-filled home in Vientiane, I’ve learned about her family from my friendship with her brother, and I’ve chatted with her while she was out jogging but I never imagined I’d delve into her extraordinary love story in her no-holds-barred memoir. And speaking of memoirs, I can’t imagine writing about my past with such elaborate and delicate detail. Of course I remember the highlights of my many life adventures but I really can’t recall details the way Penelope Khounta has spelled out the dates and details of hers.

Central to her life and book is her 25-year marriage to a patrician Lao man named Khounta. (He was named after Ban Khounta, a part of Vientiane on the way to town from Wattay Airport.) Before falling in love with Khounta, Penny fell in love with Laos. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, in 1962, she discovered that just across the Mekong River, Laos and Laotians were far more charming, far more cosmopolitan and far more accepting of farang (foreigners) than Thailand and Thais. That’s still the case.

Newly arrived in Vientiane, Penny met her future husband on a blind date. Khounta was 15 years her senior and very established as Inspector General of the Royal Lao Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. Think of a Lao version of Ezio Pinza, the Italian opera singer who played the French planter in “South Pacific.”

Penny’s quest to marry Khounta is a textbook case of culture clash and culture shock. She writes in her cover notes:

“With no one to answer my questions or sources to guide me, I jumped in. No American woman had ever married a Lao from a broken family educated in France. I didn’t know what to expect or what to do. I lived in a jungle of ignorance, misunderstanding and confusion to the end.”

In a sense the book is a painful, painstaking catalogue of miscommunication and cultural miscues that would have scuttled a love of lesser commitment. She spoke English but not much French or Lao. He spoke Lao and French fluently and not much English. He seldom translated anything for her so she shared nothing with the family and friends he held dear.

Khounta lived by a code of behavior infused by his high-born, half-Cambodian half-Lao family, and by Lao Buddhist and French Catholic morality. To the young American’s dismay, Khounta never revealed his rules of how he expected her to behave until she transgressed them.

In August 1968, Penny had just been hired by the U.S. Information Service to work as director of courses at LAA. Khounta took her for a ride in his Mercedes-Benz 190SL luxury roadster. He asked, Was she sure she wanted to marry him, given the differences in their background? She seemed nervous, he said. Under Khounta’s questioning, she became teary, something few people including her beau had ever seen. A man of few words, Khounta told her: “You think too much.” She realized it was true, she was behaving like an American.

“I think, I was, and am, a typical American, who likes to hear words of appreciation, compliments and reassurances of love, and affection. Khounta, on the other hand, as I came to learn, said something once, and saw no reason to repeat it.”

One of the most painful examples of their mismatched expectations and outcomes is the chapter on her longed-for wedding, two years after first laying eyes on the unpredictable Lao man.

Penny was visiting Khounta on his study tour in Paris. On a gray December morning he woke his fiancée and told her: “We get married today.” She was indignant and angry and did not want to get married with five minutes’ notice. Luckily she had brought along the ivory-colored mini-skirt dress she wanted to be married in. She relented and they sped off to the Lao Consulate to be wed. All the formalities were in Lao language.

“I understood nothing, I felt embarrassed. The Consul teasingly smiled at me and asked in English ‘Do you love Khounta?’ Yes, I said. No other questions. No vows. No kiss. Only infants and small children are shown affection in public in Lao culture.”

On the way back to the boarding house, Khounta bought a pot of white azaleas. It was his grand gesture in lieu of a wedding bouquet and a wedding party surrounded by her American and Lao friends.

Their wedding night was New Year’s Eve. Khounta spent the night playing Lao card games with his Lao buddies. The bride was ignored and isolated by her inability to speak their language. She was angry because the fact that it was her wedding night and the countdown to a new year meant nothing to the old married men playing cards.

At the ceremony that morning there had been no witnesses to sign the marriage certificate. In the style of high-level Lao officials who weren’t much concerned with official regulations, Khounta later found some Lao Army officers to sign the document and finish the marriage formalities.

After a lifetime of hardship and exile — their family split at times between Iran, France, America, and Laos — Penny writes that it was mutual love, respect and commitment that kept them together. It seems that to survive in a marriage with someone so culturally different, she had to learn to be a little less American.

 

 

The Beach – directed by Danny Boyle

 

The Beach – directed by Danny Boyle, 2000 

I was over 50 when I saw this movie and that may be one of the reasons I hated it so much.

Even at 50, it’s easy to fantasize about finding some downtime on a gorgeous tropical beach with some uptime for sex on the beach with a gorgeous French partner. But it turns out that life on The Beach is no bed of roses even for the young and feckless. For these sons of beaches, it’s more about guns and doses.

To get to The Beach, we follow the exploits of a hedonistic English backpacker played by Los Angeles-born Leonardo diCaprio. DiCaprio was fresh off the boat (the SS Titanic) when Hollywood paid him $20 million to bring the antihero of English author Alex Garland’s 1996 novel to the big screen.

Quaintly the tale begins when the diCaprio chracter Richard the Backpacker comes upon a map believed to lead to a fabled lagoon on an island in Thailand that has yet to be ruined by tourists (Obviously a fable!). This map is not your usual Robert Louis Stevenson treasure map that leads to buried gold. This one leads to an ever-growing trove of green; all the marijuana you can smoke in several lifetimes. Wowee!

Richard joins untethered American surfers who seek unfettered freedom and unending highs on the island. Happily, the new arrivals are accepted into an international backpacker (nee hippie) community of Swedish and assorted stoners ruled by a self-empowered American woman.

History students will find the situation reminiscent of Western missionaries and self-interested traders claiming a God-given right to usurp Asian lands.

Unhappily for the backpackers there are hungry sharks in the blue lagoon, and before long, the clear water is red with blood. And that’s before the farangs do battle with Thai drug lords who are defending their own turf with real bullets. Inevitably, in this mess of a movie, the hedonistic Utopian island turns into a beachside Killing Fields with few lessons to be learned.

\In the end, Richard The Backpacker, like drifters and grifters before him, can’t escape from civilization. His presence on the idyllic island, like the snake in Eden, brings an end to the heavenly garden. It is his behavior that precipitates hatred and violence, toppling the casual social organization built by drug-idled squatters, dragging them down into the real world of deception, machine guns and murder. This serves as a reminder that Paradise is hard to find, even off the coast of Thailand.

 

Brokedown Palace – directed by Jonathan Kaplan

Brokedown Palace – directed by Jonathan Kaplan, 1999

Midnight Express – directed by Alan Parker, 1978

In Brokedown Palace, we’re back in Thailand, with two more Americans seeking escape from what they know of Western Civilization. This time the drama involves two young women, fresh out of high school, who decide to spend their summer vacation in Thailand because it’s cheaper than Hawaii and way more exotic. They’re game for almost anything except telling their parents where they’re going.

In the Land of Smiles, it’s all smiles for the good-looking blonde Alice (Claire Danes) and the good-looking brunette Darlene (Kate Beckinsale) — until they are arrested as drug smugglers.

Of course, Alice and Darlene are not really drug smugglers. They’re typical American girls in the mold of Cyndi Lauper who just want to have fun. Leaving their roach-infested hostel, they pretend to be guests at a posh resort, ordering poolside cocktails that cost more than they have on hand. Mai bpen rai. No problem for our girls gone wild. A charming Australian software designer bails them out. Before long, he’s making Goo Goo Doll eyes at the ingenues, and offering to take them both on a jaunt to Hong Kong. Unlike the American girls on a lark, the charming Australian is a drug smuggler, and when the girls arrive for their flight to Hong Kong, they are the ones packing six kilos of heroin in their bags.

For the next 60 minutes of the film, there’s no smiling as the Americans are charged, interrogated and jailed in Thai-language proceedings they can’t understand. We see them as innocently unwitting smugglers, dumber than a mule. But the Thai court system sees them as guilty and sentences each to 33 years in a harsh women’s prison nicknamed Brokedown Palace.

The New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden hit it on the nail: “In Brokedown Palace, Claire Danes embodies an all-too believable, contemporary version of ‘The Ugly American.’” Rather than give the girls a pass for their naivete, Holden sees Alice as spoiled and selfish. He notes that in seeking her own instant gratification, she takes defiant pride in being compulsive and dishonest.=

Alice is the face of the new Ugly American. Unfortunately for the girls, teenaged petulance and tantrums may work in Bloomington but they don’t work in Bangkok. As Holden concludes in his review, being “a willfully ignorant ugly American abroad” can have serious consequences.

The efforts of Darlene’s blustery upper middle class Midwestern parents to free her are toothless. They try to get her out of her Asian jam with help — and very little of it — from a U.S. Embassy flunkey who seems more eager to please Thai officialdom than free Americans from prison. Finally we meet Henry “Hank the Yankee” Greene, a greedy Bangkok-based American lawyer played by Bill Pullman. Unscrupulous as he is, Greene rides to the rescue. Married to a Thai woman, he can work the corrupt Thai system better than Americans who don’t know the territory.

The story and prison of Brokedown Palace are fictional. To movie fans my age, the cautionary tale calls to mind another movie, “Midnight Express” about an American who did the crime and did some time, in real life, under intensely inhumane circumstances.

In 1970, Billy Hayes was a 23-year-old Marquette University student when he was arrested in Istanbul for attempting to leave Turkey with two kilos of hashish taped to his body. Hayes was initially sentenced to four years in prison for drug possession, only to learn he was to be charged with drug smuggling, which carried a life sentence. In 1972, Hayes was transferred to a psychiatric hospital he described as “a lunatic asylum.” He escaped from the hospital in 1975 and lived to tell the story in a 1977 autobiography.

The book was a powerful page-turner and the movie was a thriller of the first rank. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Editing. It won two Oscars, one for writer Oscar Stone for Best Adapted Screenplay and one for Giorgio Moroder for Best Original Score. The book and film are recommended for those who want to experience how ugly life can be for an American in a Turkish prison.

A footnote: I had just finished reading Midnight Express when I bumped into the actor Brad Davis who played Billy Hayes in the movie. We met at a Honolulu bar called Bully Hayes.