Glowing Buddhas and Computer Screens

Event Scenes

Glowing Buddhas and Computer Screens

A Dispatch from a Digital Road Warrior in Southeast Asia

Regard this phantom world
As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp – a phantom – and a dream.

– from Vairacchedika, a Buddhist scripture

I’m in an enclosed limbo, somewhere on a long flight between Los Angeles and Hong Kong. A computer generated map on the video screens shows the airplane’s course: up the Pacific coast of the USA, past British Columbia and Alaska, then down the Pacific coast of Russia and Japan. The map has no tangible reality though – it’s black outside, but far in the distance lights wink. A number of smug-looking Asian businessmen in suits surround me, and it looks like they consider themselves to be the new Lords of the Air because they can afford to take this flight once a week to go take care of commercial matters.

We arrive in Hong Kong – I am en route to Bangkok with another engineer, who is Brazilian. In this modern era, national identity gets complicated – he has Japanese parents, although he’s never been to the land of his ancestors, but I was born in Tokyo and have British and American citizenship. And, because I have traveled a good deal, I can’t say I feel particularly American, or even, blindly patriotic to America.

We met another Brazilian at Hong Kong’s airport, and I offered to buy a round of drinks in the bar. In a moment that will disappear in July 1997, we drink Tetley beers, imported from Jolly Olde England, with a picture of a stout Englishman on the bottle. From what I’ve seen on my trips to Asia, the Europeans are worried about the handover of Hong Kong to China, while many Chinese are more pragmatic and think they can work with Beijing and make lots of money. In Hong Kong, money means status, and the airport duty-free shops feature an incredible assortment of very expensive luxury goods.

A couple of hours later, we arrive in Bangkok. I try to act nonchalant in front of the Customs men since I’m smuggling valuable material in my luggage. Nestled snugly in anti-static tubes are over a hundred EPROM chips subject to a large Customs duty. The Thai authorities seem to recognize that it’s not the value of the chips that matters, but the contents of them, their programmed digital DNA. I make it through Customs, but my Brazilian co-worker gets stopped by the Ministry of Health who think that he might be a carrier of Yellow Fever, because he’s Brazilian, even though he hasn’t been there in a long time. When we’re on the streets though, and he doesn’t have his documents laid out in front of him, the Thais get slightly offended when he doesn’t answer them. They think that he’s one of them, but he doesn’t speak a word of Thai.

The Thai language puzzles me immensely – I’m in Bangkok, a rapidly modernizing city with possibly the worst traffic jams in the world, and it seems that I am in a parallel world because I expect to see the familiar Latin script that lets me read the signs in Mexico City or Rome, but instead, I see the curvilinear Thai script everywhere. Some things I recognize, based on their context, like what appears similar to “ins” and is an abbreviation for telephone. I know this because that set of characters is always followed by a telephone number. I’ve tried to study the language, but it has 68 letters in the alphabet, and, in some cases, you have up to 5 letters that represent the same sound. To make matters more complicated, the language is tonal, not phonetic, and different tones, rising or falling, of the sound, mean completely different things.

We live at an apartment called “Ban Yoswadi,” but since it is full of expatriates, and is just down the street from IBM Thailand, I prefer to call it “Ban Farang” (the Thai word for foreigner). “Ban” is an interesting Thai word that means “village,” but in an example of how the Thai language works, the phrase “Ban muang” (literally “village city”) means country or nation like Thailand.

It’s a weird experience at some of the places I work as an engineer – you might have a rundown building, stained black with the mold from too many tropical rainy seasons, with mangy dogs outside, but when you get past the optical badge readers into the technical section, it’s full of the latest & greatest state-of-the-art equipment, such as Sun Ultra 6000s, Silicon Graphics machines, my company’s satellite communication equipment, etc. You do have to take your shoes off though, like you would in a temple. (Maybe these rooms are temples to a cybernetic god.) Thailand even has high speed connections to the Internet and Web sites, just like home. (I recommend Chana’s hip site.) In fact, the Thais have technology that we don’t have at home, such as the trucks outfitted with PCS (digital radio) equipment and ATM machines that make the rounds of the temple festivals.

The stereotype of Thai culture involves bars and prostitution, but that is only a very small part of the picture. Thai culture is a quirky mix of old and new, Western and Eastern. The Thai form of Buddhism is very popular and you notice, while traveling on Phahonythin Road, that all the taxi drivers have Buddha amulets and other ritual objects hanging from their rearview mirrors. Temples and shrines are everywhere, and at night, you will see Buddha statues lit up with colored fluorescent lights and twinkling Christmas lights. Thai men are expected to spend at least one month of their lives making merit as Buddhist monks. You can flip on the television, and see one of the most popular shows, which is a sitcom with characters dressed as royalty from the old glory days of Ayuddhya, but with a transvestite playing the queen. “Katooey” (“lady boys”) are also pretty common in the Bangkok bars. One unfortunate thing that has happened is that the American musical style of saccharine romantic ballads has been copied and you’ll hear them all over the radio, but in Thai. Personally, I prefer the heavy bass beat of the funky rock style from northern Thailand known as “country music”, which has nothing to do with Travis Tritt or other icons of American redneck culture, that fortunately, has not, as yet, caught on outside the US.

I’ve noticed a large number of American and Europeans of college age, who are tourists in Thailand, seriously interested in Thai history. They are easy to recognize by their habit of dressing like they just came from a Grateful Dead concert, and hanging out at various tourist sites, such as Wat Phra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha. I’m only a few years older than them, but I wish I could explain to them that there is a good possibility that they will end up like me, a technocratic representative of the New World Order, a bringer of profound change, that may not be the best thing for ancient cultures like that of Thailand.

Paul McGinnis works as an engineer in the satellite communications industry. He’s 33 years old.