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.