Made in Thailand

The excellent music/lit blog Largeheartedboy allowed me to create a Currency play list for their Book Notes feature. I’ve always seen western music as playing an important part of Piv’s identity, and it certainly has been an important part of mine, so this was a fun assignment. For one of the entries, the song “Made in Thailand” by the Thai band Carabao,  I found I had a lot to say. I edited it down for the play list, but I’m reposting the full thing here, because it gets at a lot that’s important to me—the super-vivid memories I still have of my long-ago trip, the differences between the wifi present and the analog past, and the tension between east and west that I tended to see everywhere, whether or not it was unambiguously present.

“Made in Thailand,” Carabao

When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn’t expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there’d often be a segment where they sang Thai songs and the foreigners just listened. It was a relief, in a way—a relief not to have to strive for the universal, not to feel the taint of cultural imperialism in the fact that universal meant John Denver. And I thought I detected relief in the Thai voices as well, surer singing in a native language. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contained an English phrase, “Made in Thailand,” and it listed the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya, which gave me a thrill. I could recognize them! I’d been there! I liked the song’s sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask the Thais around the campfire about the lyrics’ meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lyrics that were telling my kind to sod off.

The way I heard it sung,  “Made in Thailand” was the antithesis of the warbling synth pop that was commonly heard in shops and restaurants and busses, and it became my mission to find a recording of it, to add a local band to my trip’s soundtrack, which otherwise consisted of the three tapes I carried in my backpack to play on my Walkman on long bus rides: PM Dawn, Freakwater, and Pavement. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San, backpackers’ row, didn’t have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a series of little streets filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. Just being there made me feel hipper myself, and the tapes and CDs were sold in an air-conditioned shop, not a market stall. With the sales clerk’s help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.

Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see they’re not an admonishment of tourists; the song could care less about tourists, and my belief that Carabao was singing about me reveals the narcissism that’s a frequent companion to liberal guilt. They lyrics are more an admonishment to Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. He wants to master foreign ways, to win over foreign women, that’s where he sees his fortune rising, the arena in which his dreams will come true. The Thais are known for being such nice people. Pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there’s a knowingness, as well. I liked this song because it captured that.

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Currency on TV

Last night, my excellent editor Gina Frangello was a guest on the TV show Chicago Tonight. Along with home-grown lit stars Audrey Niffenegger and Brigid Pasulka, Gina was supposed to recommend summer reads. Mark and I recorded the program, and I was all atwitter to see my friend and my book on the little screen. But we didn’t fast forward to the books segment. I haven’t watched TV in a week, maybe two, and I haven’t watched a local news broadcast like Chicago Tonight in who knows how long. It was relaxing and fun to sit back and be presented with the local take on local events, with the gentle host Phil Ponce setting a tone and pace not often seen on MSNBC or the Comedy Channel. I can see why people used to do this, I thought.

And then, it was time! Gina looked great, sitting there with a neat stack of half dozen books by her elbow. And there was Currency, in a dignified position at the bottom of the pile because of its generous trim size, title nicely visible on the out-turned spine. Mark and I were drinking glasses of Grand Marnier, and we clinked them. But within moments of the segment, I began to worry. There was no way no how these three authors were going to have time to tout five or six books each, not with the leisurely retro mode of the show. What, there needs to be all this literary banter? (“Is there an optimal length for a summer read?”) And why was Audrey Niffenegger chatting so relaxedly about God’s Behaving Badly. Just give a soundbite, lady! Phil Ponce was pitching the titles to the guests, and the first one he tossed at Gina was Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie. Oh no, I thought. Oh well. Maybe they’ll show them all at the end, said Mark consolingly. Brigid Pasulka had a lot to say about Josh Wilker’s Cardboard Gods. Would they get a chance to mention even two books each?

Why, yes, they would. Yes, they did. And there was the handsome host whose countenance I had admired on the sides of buses saying, within earshot of rock star Audrey Niffenegger, “Tell us about Currency, by local author Zoe Zolbrod.” Look, I’m not going for blase, here. I’m collecting authorial thrills, and that was one. Gina knocked it out of the park.

Just in case you don’t believe me, a video of the books segment can be found here.

And below I’m listing of all the books on the docket. Actually, I think I’m going to pick up Bad Marie. And Cardboard Gods sounds sort of brilliant. I already know Stations West and Some Girls are great to get lost in—and I’ve had the privilege of reading with both authors as well as with Marisa Matarazzo, another of Gina’s picks, on my book tour. Who has time to watch TV?

Gina Frangello’s Picks
Bad Marie– by Marcy Dermansky
Currency– by Zoe Zolbrod
Commuters by Emily Tedrowe (coming July 1)
Stations West by Allison Amend
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren
Drenched by Marisa Matarazzo

Audrey Niffenegger’s Picks
Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips
Misfortune, Wesley Stace
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G.W. Dahlquist
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Time and Again by Jack Finney

Brigid Pasulka’s Picks
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker
The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson
Collected Stories by Flannery O’Connor