Chapter I

 

Part of my job is to read your face, and I think I know what your face says now. You are wondering something about me. Do I guess right? You wonder if I am like all Thai people. You wonder what bad things happen in my life. You wonder if I sell heroin, smoke opium—what it’s like to be me. And you wonder what I think about you, right? Sure. There’s no movie theater here. One video plays, but I think you see that one already, maybe in Bangkok, maybe in Chiang Mai, maybe in your home. That one plays everywhere. It’s making you feel bored. You have time to imagine. So please. Stay. I will tell you, no problem. Opium? Heroin? I’m sorry, no. But I can tell you about the bad thing. Something about danger. Something about love. That’s what you want, right? Okay. If you stay, I can tell you some story about me.

 

 

When I am small, I’m living in Kanchanaburi Province. My father is not the farmer anymore; he has one position in sugar factory there. Farangs always come to that place. They make American movie about that one, Bridge Over River Kwai. That’s the reason why farang tourists come. Also, we have Allied War Cemetery and Erawan waterfall that tourists like to see. My family’s not poor at this time, and we can go somewhere. When we go somewhere special to us—Erawan, Wat Tham Mongkorn Thong—farangs are always there. They go all over, even the poor ones, stinking, carrying their bags around, one strapped to their back, one strapped to their front. Even the girls do this. Of course, when I’m small in Kanchanaburi I already know about Bruce Willis, about rock music. Of course, somewhere in my mind I know that the poor farangs I see are not truly poor. They’re like electric guitars. Tough. Cool. So I’m always interested in farangs. I want to go somewhere. I want to go somewhere special to them, too.

All Thai boys must serve as monk for some time, maybe three months, that’s the traditional time, and all Thai men must go to military for two years, exactly that. When I’m twenty years old, I serve as monk for one week. When I’m twenty-one, I go to military. I’m stationed in the jungle near Cambodia. It’s not good time for me. Okay. So I forget that. My father wants for me to go to university, to make one good life, bring pride to our family, so my parents struggle too many years to get money for me. Kanchanaburi has no university, so after military I go to Bangkok, to Ramkhamhaeng University, very good one, to study for business.

The first day I live in Bangkok, before university is starting, I go to Banglamphu area to find Khao San Road. That’s where farangs go. That’s what I want to see. When I’m twenty-three years old, 1992, wow, I love it. This street crowded with tourists. Many, many guesthouses, restaurants, rasta bar. Now it’s even more like that. Now it’s Soi Ram Buttri, Tanoa Road, and Ram Buttri Road also. I love to see all these farangs. Young, like me, then. Some girls loose under their shirts. Some blond hair. Hairy arms. Stinking. Ugly beautiful, you know. Ugly sexy. Some of these girls are bigger than me. Big there, too. I hate it, but I like it. Maybe I love it—it tickles my brain. At that time I still have short hair. I dress like Thai. Some trousers, black shoes. One button shirt.

I notice on this street, full with farangs—they wear short pants, colored hats, clothes too tight or too loose; people in my village think that looks rude—on this street almost all Thai people sell to farangs. They set up stalls to sell cassette tapes, books, ugly clothing, things like that. And farangs buy. Buy buy. One girl tries on jeans right in the street. It’s one small street! Very many stalls! People—tourists and Thai people—bump into this girl while she tries on. You can hear loud dance music from cassette tape seller. Wow. She buys these jeans. I have never seen anything like that.

So I look. I see one Thai, young guy, with big clothes and hoop earring and long hair. He’s selling jewelry. Farang girls stand around him; he talks to them in English. I see those girls laugh. I see them buy. When they leave, I talk to him, and after some time I can ask him: What is this thing? How you do this? And he tells me that he got this jewelry in Indonesia. He travels there, brings it back to Bangkok, and sells it for triple, more, the amount he pays. He tells me this is what the farangs like, and he shows me his silver: some dangling earrings, some jumbled bracelets. At that time, I do not think silver is beautiful. In Thailand, we love gold. Everyone wants gold. But this guy, his name is Chitapon, he says to me: These farang buy from me here, then I get enough money to make studio recording with my band and still go again to Indonesia. Very cheap there. Many things there to buy, to sell, to see.

 

 

My study of business at Ramkhamhaeng University, some things about it interest me, but I also study English. This is more interesting, and almost every day I go to Khao San to practice speaking. I go to sit in guesthouse restaurant. Maybe I go to Hello Guest House. Big one. Fifty rooms. They play American movie all the time. It’s good one for practicing English, not so good for sleeping. Those rooms smell. Very dirty. Dirty sheets. Hello Guest House 57. When I’m there, I order hot coffee. Thai people don’t like that, but now I love my hot coffee. Thai people don’t like to be alone in restaurant, but now I am, to help my goal. I want to meet some farang friends, and this is no problem. “Excuse me!” I smile at them. “I’m one Thai student. You have some moment to talk with me? I like to learn about your country, speaking English.” Sometimes I listen to them talk to each other. If I can help them, I interrupt. I say, “Excuse me. I can tell you how to get to Weekend Market. I can tell you what bus goes to Patpong. You need to take bus number 15 to get to that one.” I’m dressing more like one farang, now. I wear Levi’s jeans, Bob Marley T-shirt. I wear silver jewelry that Chitapon loans to me: silver bracelet, silver ring. If some farang friend gives me compliment on these, I say, “You like this one, I show you where to get.” If Chit makes good sale from that person, he’ll give me something. Sure. Because I study, soon I’m speaking English better than him.

Farang girls like to talk to me. Some do. I learn which ones. Not ones who look like Kim Bassinger, but pretty, of course. I could not be with the girl who’s not pretty. “Excuse me, miss,” I say to the certain kind. I look better than those farangs.

With English language and with my hair grown down, it’s easy for me to make something with the farang girl. But I don’t want to sleep in Khao San guesthouse like they do. Hello Guest House, Gypsy Guest House, none of them are clean. They have thin walls, like this, you can hear everyone. Wow. And my own clean bed, no, I won’t take the girl there. If farang girl want to make something with me, maybe she can rent one nice hotel. Star Hotel is my favorite one. On Larn Luang Road, not Banglamphu. For seven hundred baht you can get clean room with air-con and hot shower.

When I have been in Bangkok two years, money is gone for me to study at Ramkhamhaeng University. I don’t tell my parents, because Khao San is free, and I can learn something for my future there—how to make business, how to make something international. At the same time, I can earn some small money for living, to send to my parents. Sure. Why do I need Ramkhamhaeng? Some shop, restaurant, tailor, ganja seller, guesthouse owners know me. At Star Hotel, they know me. They know I’m like one farang, that I have many farang friends. They give me money if I tell my friend, go here, go there, it’s good one. They give me one hundred baht, one fifty, maybe more. I don’t tell farang to go somewhere bad, so it’s good for them, good for me, too. I don’t tell my parents their plan for me is happening different than they dream. Good for everybody.

 

 

Star Hotel has one lounge—not like guesthouse restaurant, this is nice one, for relaxing. I relax there at nighttime when I’m with one farang friend. I order drinks. She gives me money to pay. Daytime, we don’t go in lounge, but maybe we sit in the lobby. I sit in the soft chair, watch the TV, watch the people come in. Some farangs come, sometimes one whole group, but mostly it’s Thai people doing business and some African men in the Star Hotel. The Africans have black skin, and I have never talked to anyone like this. In the beginning, I have the stereotype. I think they’re athletes, from America or somewhere like that. I think they’re some boxers or some basketball players. They’re very tall next to Thai people. Big shoulders, big hands. Especially one of these men, the most tall. First time I see him, this big one, I feel fear. He’s strong. He’s one boxer, not from this country; what if he gets angry? But over many months I take farang guests to Star Hotel, and these men become my friends.

“How’s it going, man?” they say to me. “I see you have a new lady friend.” They say this softly while my friend is at that entrance desk, copying numbers from her passport. Now I know they are not athletes. They are three businessmen from Africa. One day they walk into lobby wearing the clothing of their country—material hanging down, bright colors. The big man smiles when he sees me. He says, “We’re meeting with some new Russians tonight. Do you think they will respond best to this African ensemble or to the clothing of a transnational businessman?”

It’s hard to look at my friend’s face, because his clothes have too many colors. I smile. “I don’t know any Russian people.”

“But you know how to dress! You present yourself as the real Thai, and the ladies come to you.”

“Excuse me, sir, but in the countryside, along the Burma border, or in the Northeast, maybe some man there will wear the phaakhamaa.  That’s possible. But me, no. You never see me like that.” I smile again.

“But the white ladies think you have the Thai style. That’s the important ingredient.”

Now I can laugh with this African friend. His name: Abu. “Oh!  Excuse me, sir! I didn’t know you were asking about the Russian lady.”

We laugh together at this joke. The person they meet is Russian man, and they wear their business suits when that time comes.

 

 

Sometimes, one farang friend must leave Star Hotel to go back to Switzerland, or Australia, or America, but she still has too much baht left. Maybe she’ll give this to me, or maybe she’ll pay for me to stay in the Star Hotel one night or two more. Or if Star Hotel is not crowded, maybe the manager, Saisamorn, will allow me to stay for free until I bring another guest there. Why should I rent one room anymore? If I need somewhere to sleep, I can go to Chitapon’s room, but most nights I sleep at the Star Hotel. Slowly, I know these African men better—Abu, Yoke, Jomo. I want to know these men, because I think they do international business.

I sit with them in hotel bar when they drink Johnnie Walker Red. I order one Coke from Resit, bartender, but they say, “Come on, man.” They put one hand on my back, and they give me one glass, some ice, some Johnnie Walker Red, and I say thank you, not bad, even though to me it’s too strong. They ask me about Thai girl, farang lady friend: what are they like, do they have money, do they need money. They ask me how long do they stay before going back to their country. I say two weeks is the shortest before they go back. Two months, sometimes. Sometimes more. I tell them my friend Chitapon has the farang girlfriend who lives in Thailand. Her mother is married to General Sivara, and they have big house in Ladprao suburb. Abu likes to hear this. He lifts his whiskey to my eyes. “To those unions that bring together people of different nationalities,” he says. We all touch our glasses.

Then I ask my friends about Kenya, their country. I want to know what’s the language there. What’s the business there. What’s the tourist attraction. I learn that Kenya’s language is Swahili, but these men also speak English from the time they are small. They tell me their country is poor, but it has riches.

“They say one lion brings in seven thousand tourist dollars a year,” Abu tells me. “So it stands to reason that if that lion is going out, its cost increases greatly. It’s worth a great deal.” These men, my friends, come to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia to do business something about that.

One time these friends tell me they want some ganja. I get them ganja, sure, no problem. Abu, whose skin is shiny, hard and bright, not soft like Bob Marley’s skin, says, “Thank you, Piv. You’re a good man.  Are you with a lady friend, tonight? Tell Mr. Saisamorn to get you a room tonight, on our bill.” He takes out one thick fold of money and gives me one five hundred baht bill, another five hundred baht bill. These are purple and sharp.

“No,” I tell Abu. I push one bill back. “You are my friend. I take only what the ganja costs. I take cost only because at this time I do not have it myself.”

“Take it,” he says. He looks over his shoulder. The hotel bar is dark, the window facing the street is colored green, the lights outside look like they’re underneath deep river water. “Take it. From a friend. Maybe someday we’ll do some business. Maybe one of your lady friends, from Australia or from America, could help us with some business.”

I feel disappointed when he says this, because this is not what I want to learn. I tell him I’m not in the woman business; farang girls are my friend. It’s not my business to sell ganja; I get him one small portion because he’s my friend.

“I know, friend. We do not sell drugs, either. We do not sell women. We’re businessmen.” Next day Abu, Yoke, and Jomo leave Thailand, but Abu tells me he’s sure we’ll see each other again at the Star Hotel. Way he says that, I look forward to that time.

 

 

That’s how I meet some Kenya friends and think to do business with them. But when I meet NokRobin in 1996, I don’t think of Abu. No. I see her for herself, sure. I’ll tell you about me—but with the bad parts, the romantic and dangerous parts, it’s also the story of her.

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ZOE ZOLBROD's first novel, Currency, won a 2010 Nobbie Award. She was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania; went to college in Oberlin, Ohio; and got a MA from University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in educational publishing and lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband, the artist Mark DeBernardi, and their son and daughter. She's currently at work on a memoir.

14 responses to “Currency: An Excerpt”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely excerpt.
    What a fantastic voice you have captured here.
    I look forward to reading more of your work.

    • zoe zolbrod says:

      Thanks, Zara. I’m really appreciating these kind words right now; after so many years with it close to my chest, it feels strange to have the book out in the world.

  2. Greg Olear says:

    Looking forward to reading the rest of this, Zoe, and to meeting you at the TNB Book Bash on Wednesday.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    A brilliant personae’d writing, Zoe! Your keeping faithful to the Thai identity kept to a private revelatory feeling throughout.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    I can see I’ll have to get your book right away, not just to read it for pleasure, but to explore how you render speech patterns.

    Much of my work (not seen on TNB) involves dialogue between people whose native languages are different, but who can be speaking one of three languages they have in common.

    In your excerpt, you seem to be giving your guy fluent but not completely idiomatic English, and letting him drop into awkward phrasings that I assume you know to be typical of Thai English. That works for me.

    But — because I haven’t seen the entire book yet — what do you do when (if you do) you have Thai speaking to Thai, presumably in Thai? Or, if it happens, when non-Thai are speaking to Thai in Thai?

    I’m sure there’s no general solution to this (a la subtitles in films, when to use them and when not) and I’ll be very interested to see yours.

    What I’ve been doing is that when the native English speaker is speaking the local language (Nagovisi) with a Nagovisi, I render it in standard English, much as I’d write dialogue about two Americans talking. I made the decision that the native English speaker has become fluent in Nagovisi so that his speech and their speech don’t differ significantly, although sometimes he has to ask for a word, or isn’t properly subtle.

    Sometimes I have a Nagovisi addressing my character in English, and I also made the decision that any Nagovisi who speaks English speaks it competently but not fluently (this was how it was in the place and time I’m writing about), and so I render their English in a choppier manner. I don’t have them stringing out long complex sentences, even when they are talking about complex matters. This resembles what you’ve done in your excerpt, I think.

    Finally, there’s the lingua fraca/trade language that everybody speaks fluently, but it, as a language, is limited (as are all trade languages) in comparison to English or Nagovisi. I have not found a way to signal that this is being used, except to declare it. I don’t think there’s a way, although it certainly could be that I just haven’t found it. If I render it in simple English, then the reader will probably think that they’re speaking English along the lines I described, and that wouldn’t be what I wanted.

    And then there’s the issue of how to render a situation where a listener is getting everything that’s being said in his non-native language, but isn’t confident enough to respond in that language, and so uses another. The Nagovisi I knew clearly differentiated between what they called “can understand it,” and “can speak it.” In the real world of my fieldwork, people would often talk to me in Nagovisi, but I would be more confident of not being misunderstood if I replied in the trade language or, and I’ve never worked out any way to render this, in a combination of the two.

    So I’m looking forward to your book, which I have just now ordered from Amazon. Only three copies left! Now only two!

  5. zoe zolbrod says:

    Don, it pretty much made my day that someone who has been so thoughtful about rendering different languages in their own book ordered mine on the basis of this excerpt. I’ve been working on CURRENCY for a lot of years, giving me plenty of chance to hand-wring and experiment with how to present people’s voices, including the Thai-to-Thai. I didn’t want the Thai-to-Thai to read as smooth American English, because word order is different, phrases used are different, etc; the languages don’t say exactly the same things, which sometimes is the point. For awhile I got bogged down in a study of Thai language, but I’m not gifted linguistically, and trying to be too accurate just hamstrung me. One solution, or partial solution, I alighted on was to omit quotations for the Thai-to-Thai, which signals that Piv is retelling these conversations in English to his English-speaking audience.

    Your work sounds fascinating. Have you read FIELDWORK by Mischa Berlinksi? I can’t remember how he deals with the language issue, but it might be worth a look if you’re writing about some of the complications of anthropological study.

  6. Matt says:

    Wow. This is great. Can’t wait to read the rest!

  7. Don Mitchell says:

    No, I somehow missed Fieldwork. I’ll get it. Thanks for the tip.

  8. Rosemary says:

    Wow, Zoe! This is incredible! You have captured a beautiful voice and powerful characterization. I can’t wait to read the rest!

  9. zoe zolbrod says:

    Does anyone now how I get my picture to show up with my comment? It used to, but now I’m just a white silhouette.

  10. tiffney says:

    Such a nice post. waiting for the next. Great job.Thanks for the tips.
    ———————
    Best Currency Rate
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    tiffney

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