Wearing the Wrong Skin (a tale in three parts)

by Erich Roby Sysak

Part 1: Wearing the Wrong Skin

“We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964.


When the tide is low the banks of the Bang Pakang river look like brown jelly.  Above the mud three or four Eucalyptus tree trunks are set in the crooks of V-shaped stakes to make walkways.  You watch fishermen walk over them bowlegged.  They wear long-sleeved, cotton shirts and flopping, wide-brimmed straw hats.  Kahn suan—a kind of striped shroud—are wrapped around their shoulders.  The shrouds cover faces and heads, necks, everything but their eyes.  The eyes are too dark to see from where you sit, and you want to know why they’re covered, if they are men or women, and why they would suffer the heat to avoid tanning already dark skin.  You would say it is simple.  They believe white skin is beautiful.  But it is more than that.  This is where your understanding ends.  The more is evasive.  You have much to learn.

They walk barefooted over the cut up trees and carry ceramic jugs on their shoulders.  Water sloshes out and stains their shoulders dark.  They set the jugs into the boats.

You could not walk over the thin Eucalyptus wearing shoes.  You cannot walk in the mud.  You would sink somewhere above the knees and only ropes and trucks could get you out.  The long-tailed canoes, surrounded by motionless blue herons, are half sunk in the jelly.  The bellies of the canoes are filled with dry, stiff nets.  It is too hot for fishing.

The river is murky, a milky-sick green and ominous as it moves.  Royal palm trees crowd the shore in knots.  They are as tall as men.  Between them the heat is hazy.  Above, there are towering beetle-nut trees that look out to a city pushing against the walls of the opposite bank.  From the city-side, on the dock of a floating restaurant, I watch lightning form at the top of the river.  The air smells like lemon grass.  A boy uncaps a Singha beer and pours it into a small glass filled with ice.

The beer costs less than fifty cents.  I could sit here while it rains and think nothing of it.  I’ve traveled halfway around the world, more than three days in my own milky haze of airports and planes. Moving farther away—becoming more and more the alien.  A man wearing the wrong skin.  Before this I’d never left the United States, and suddenly I am absolutely here and I’ve never been happier, more content, more enthralled than I am right now.  I haven’t even finished unpacking my one, small suitcase.

The woman across from me moves her lips as she reads the menu.  Maybe she’s saying snakefish and green curry.  She’s studied English in grammar school—from Peace Corps volunteers—and from the Internet most of her life.  She is twenty-three. I trust her to order food bland enough to keep me walking, but the smell of morning glory and chili and fish moves me to a strange hunger.  Earlier, I rode on the back of this Thai woman’s female motorcycle to the market for locks and razors.  She worked the brakes and gears while wearing three-inch heels.

The streets of Chachoengsao, a small city a few hours outside of Bangkok, are packed with motorcycles, pick ups, tuk tuks and pedestrians.  The gutters are steep and clogged with mud.  Stray dogs sleep there and dart, head-bent, through traffic.  There are no right or left lanes.  Just direction and current.  Her Honda Wave is a cross between a real motorcycle and a moped. Like a woman’s bicycle the frame curves down and leaves space in front of the seat. This architecture has never made sense to me. But this Honda is no bicycle. The 125cc 4-stroke engine easily makes 90 km/hour. The irony is ubiquitous.

The boy pours more beer.  The ice crackles as thunder rolls across the dark blue and black sky.  The river seems to swell.  Tahn orders in Thai.  The tones of her voice rise and fall, cutting syllables into pieces.  Her hair is dyed a reddish-brown and comes to just above her shoulders.  The style of it is only thrown back above the eyes, as natural as a jungle.  She looks more like the girl from Impanema than Sa Kaeo, a province in East Central Thailand, close to the Cambodian border.  Maybe the skin color does it.  Hers is a perfect tan, a coconut brown, creamed coffee—all of the old phrases.  The color makes her eyes more alive, her teeth whiter, and her lips softer. I realize that in America there is not one woman like her.  Not one.

Then there are her sloped eyes and high cheekbones.  She is Siamese.  The lines of her small face are at once soft and triangular.  But it is the deep-black color in them and an infectious, pretty smile that make her extraordinarily beautiful.  The smile is in her eyes too.  She closes them partially and pulls you in.  Her expression takes everything in your mind away and you see the milky river, hear the dock pillars sloshing beneath you and know the river there is very deep.

“Tahn,” I say.  “The rain is coming,” and move my fingers over my head to imitate drops.  She laughs so loud and so long I am laughing too and empty.  I don’t understand this Thai happiness.  It is everywhere.



Part 2: This is a True Story

“During our last year in the mountains new people came deep into our lives
and nothing was ever the same again.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964.

Frank showed me his green card.  It is not green, but just a regular white card like a driver’s license with an old picture from when he was thin next to a seal of the government.  He told me this story and I believe it is the first story I heard that had me thinking I could do it with the right reasons.

A man in his early thirties left a good job as a flash animator in Raleigh, North Carolina, as well as a pretty girlfriend who probably believed in an old idea of marriage (which is very rare now), and even a Himalayan cat with big, imploring eyes for an adobe house on the side of a mountain near the city of San Pedro in Honduras.

Not long after arriving he lucked into a job writing for a very popular Honduran soap opera.

“I was drinking in a quiet bar when a strange man wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, who was on vacation, etc . . .”  He was practically the only American in town.  He was asked to create a character, an American of course, or more of an American idea.  A cross between a pirate, a mobster, a sensitive wimp, a cowboy and a pimp.

For a week, he tried writing.  In the heat he paced the tiles of his adobe and looked out at the dark slope of the mountain unable to write a plausible version of himself that he could stand.  So, with the deadline approaching, he tossed together a portrait of a friend he’d left in Raleigh.  This friend was a Ph.D. student at a large university. He was easy to remember and describe because of two important features: a prominent scar the width of a pencil across the bridge of his nose and a small, diamond earring in his right earlobe.  In truth the scar was the result of a childhood tricycle accident and the earring a desperate, dated attempt to be younger.

The actor who played the character on television was the son of a British plastics salesman and a Honduran bar girl.  His face, sixteen times bigger than life, appeared on billboards everywhere next to creamy banana drinks.  He played a James Bond character for a telephone card commercial featuring an Audi Roadster, two dark-eyed women and a Rottweiler.  The commercial ran for six months. The actor’s face, the scar a bright pink, was well known all over Honduras as the western TV Casanova, bookstore owner, ex-pat, soap star.  Women adored him.

The young man who had invented the character thought about the parties and restaurants and clubs guarded by dark soldiers he’d visited.  He remembered the jungle plazas frequented by prostitutes who were beyond the realm of prostitution through the sheer force of their beauty.  Strange notions of strength—a rich man throws a Brandy Alexander into the pretty face of a waitress.  Everyone at the table laughed.  Men who wore white, silk capes.  Actresses, producers, writers—all of the wealthy elite of Honduras he knew.  In a word, he was always at the festival and so, for that time, was ecstatic and appalled and intrigued every day and night.  He was still bewildered by the idea that he could have spent the last year designing flash banners, sifting through days as dull as cement rather than what he was really doing.

So that day he mailed a year’s worth of videotapes to the American friend on whom the soap character was based.

The American, enthused by the exotic postage, tore open the box, then quickly plugged the first tape into the VCR.

He could not speak or translate much Spanish, but he instantly recognized the crescent-shaped scar, the diamond and even some of the broad, over-dramatized gestures.  As he fast-forwarded to his scenes he grew more and more disgusted with the satirical portrayal.  He’d never had so many women or treated them so poorly.  He’d never been pistol whipped by a jealous, Honduran mobster husband of a woman with whom his (character’s) affairs had been so torrid and even perverted.

By the time the American had finished the tapes he’d decided to never speak to his friend again.  He was thoroughly disgusted with his cartoonish portrayal, his ridiculous, garish style, and so on.  He never wrote his writer friend.  He tossed the tapes into a Daisy Dumpster in the parking lot of his apartment complex.  Somewhere in a college town.

Honduras became a strange dream he sometimes had when he was sleeping very intensely and more often than not the dream had to do with what is real and what isn’t.


Part 3: Charlie’s Funeral

“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person
who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast, 1964.


Ajahn Charlie was dead.  The Thai professors’ voices had the same inflections as in the cafeteria or the office.  The silly behavior of students, hours worked, extra classes.  I sat in the front row of the Toyota commuter van behind the bar with my shoulder pressed against the door. I didn’t think they should be solemn or serious.  I was only listening for familiar words (I had so much more to learn), and watching.  We’d driven away from the roads I knew and entered new territory.

A strong smell of menthol and camphor mixed with the close air (in a country where the heat can give you vertigo menthol inhalers are more popular than perfume).  The driver’s bald head bobbed just below the white caps of bottled water.  The narrow street hooked left and right.  My view was suddenly blocked by a whining motorcycle.  The van stopped.  Silence.  The motorcycle sputtered by safely.  The conversation started up again.  I turned to see her.  Tahn sat quietly in the back of the Camphor Express.  I wanted to sit next to her, but we were hiding the surface of our affair (because everyone knew what was really happening) from the discerning eyes of our co-workers.

Flanking the street, rows and rows of coconut trees.  Between them, motes filled with soupy water.  Mud had broken off in chunks and the banks of the motes were jagged, shiny in spots and in others covered with a soft, green mold.  Packs of brown birds, no bigger than teacups, exploded into the lighted angles in the shrub surrounding the groves.  They darted and crossed then just as quickly vanished.  I checked my watch—forty minutes of driving—and watched for signs of a Catholic Church. We were driving to the funeral of a man I’d never met, but of whom I knew more about than all of his coworkers. All because of a sickness on his part.

It was an old place we drove through. The conch-shell blasts of Revolutions and Royal decrees once sounded in Bangkok only one hundred kilometers away.  The Japanese had invaded the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodians had flooded the borders to escape Brother Number 1.  And what did this mean to the tiny village in the jungle outside the garrison city of Chachoengsao?  A few sons, a few daughters wed to junior officers.  But of this world news (revolutions and wars): nothing.  Coconuts, papaya salads, sticky rice, muddy stairs and houses made of teak once, then eucalyptus, with pointed corners (an old trick to keep evil spirits on a  slope).  The small, dilapidated spirit houses overgrown with bush, joss sticks stuck like spears from an old attack, the rain-washed, soft and polished shutters. A patina.   A film over my eyes, sometimes hazy from heat (hence the camphor and menthol) that must have filmed over the thickly-lashed, dusty eyes of the missionaries.

Because they were here too.  And they built a church of bricks.  It appeared suddenly above a court of paved road—a clean scoop out of the jungle.  A monument pressed against an inky sky (thunderstorms coming), diffused orange light and the slightly staggered tops of trees.  Better than a painting.  But as real as mud. What was left of the once prodigious building: Copper bricks, grey bricks, brick dust and chunks of walls leaning into each other.  An archway and an old plaque—a soft-wooded carving of the Virgin Mary.  It could be anything now.  But I knew the pose: supplicating hands, bent head, shawl.  Unmistakable to a farang.  How much the face on that plaque had looked down upon.  Those same people.  That mud.  I’ve come all this way, I thought as I stepped out of the van.  A circular courtyard with patchy grass.  Small houses just outside the tree line.  Dark children kicking a deflated soccer ball.

I let the crowd of Thai professors form ahead of me.  Against the heavy silk dresses, the din jok of Sukhothai, I saw the onyx pillars of the new Church built only yards from the first brick fortress.  A stairway of gray marble, rows of mahogany pews, stacks of leather bound hymnals, oil paintings in candlelight (there are no electric lights, just windows along the roof line with wooden frames—the same brown birds dart in and out of the wire screens, flutter against the glass and disappear.).

At the top of the stairs, Charlie’s Thai family.  Three women, one very tall with chopped, short hair, another, shorter woman with small eyes and graying temples, and finally a young woman.  Her blonde hair pulled tightly across her high scalp.  Worried eyes scanned the arrivals.  We locked glances for a moment.  Charlie’s daughter.  Her face looked Western.  The longer slope of chin, fuller cheeks, heavy bones around the sides of the eyes.

I watched Tahn weaving through the onyx pillars.  A connection.  Her copper dress fluttered beneath the fans.  The daughter’s hair a copper blonde.  Barefoot nuns in gray habits collected candles and woven wreaths to place at the base of Ajahn Charlie’s casket.

His three women handed out pieces of white string.  The Thais believed the string protected them from ghosts.  Tahn tied the string around a button on her dress and waied to the tallest woman.  Between the pillars and the opened shutters I saw the bronzed statue of crucified Jesus.  Ten times life-size, it hung above the altar, suspended on a dark cross, the bloody hands and feet, the muscular, hungry farang chest.  The thought came to me: in this place Jesus is a Westerner.

Charlie’s golden casket rested outside on an uncovered porch just outside of the pews.  It was surrounded by tall, Buddhist-style candles, flowers, and a large photograph.  The photograph was framed with Gardenia.  The first time I saw Charlie’s face.  Late fifties, unsmiling, heavy jaw, fat neck and heavy shoulders.  Probably six foot or more with a weight problem, though the picture cut off below his shoulders.  He reminded me of an aging wrestler, someone very local and despised.

It wasn’t his fault.  When I had arrived three months ago, he’d already left the university because they had found cancer in his liver. He’d checked into the hospital and checked out only once when he’d tried to settle into his old bed and die without success.

All I knew of Charlie is that he got sick so fast that he didn’t have time to wipe out the files left behind on the computer.

Five farangs shared the office with one Thai professor.  I was new and curious about the group, especially Charlie, whose absence was amplified by his cluttered, vacant desk and his signs: I Do Not Suffer Fools Gladly and No Karaoke Zone.  Every bit as ridiculous as the sentiments the signs expressed.

One afternoon, on the office computer that connected to the internet, I found a strange collection of materials from Charlie’s life: a digital diploma from a suspicious Denver State University, a strange certificate of gratitude from the CIA addressed only to Air America, US Infantry insignia (JPEGS), a fake international driver’s license, a program that generated credit card numbers, pornographic photos of young Thai or Cambodian girls posed on deserted beaches, and perhaps most surprising of all—a special program that recorded all of the keystrokes on that computer.  Charlie was reading everyone’s emails.  A killing offense.

Until he died he had been deliriously telling his daughter there was a secret somewhere, but never clearly, never where or what or how. The cancer had kept him from returning to work and erasing the evidence.  I knew the real Ajahn Charlie, and I knew a little about the Charlie on the outside.  Because despite the way the Thai professors talked and laughed, they loved him.  Even Tahn.  Charlie had helped her learn English.  She smiled when she said his name and laughed a little because, she’d said, he was cranky and old—the way a funny, kindhearted uncle might be.

Ajahn Charlie had lived in Thailand more than twenty years.

Tahn pulled off her heels, walked on to the mat in front of Charlie’s casket with her hands held in prayer.   She would forgive him any sin.  And I would never tell her the truth.  She would never read this essay.  She kneeled in front of the flowers and the picture and bowed her head to say good bye.  I imagined it was me inside the casket.  The magic string had failed, and I was my own ghost.  I imagined I’d raised children with Tahn, that I had lived, like Charlie, a whole life here.

It was then, in the pews of a Catholic church in the Thai country side, that I found myself simultaneously at the beginning and the end.  I knew it would be impossible for me to leave Thailand.  I was caught in the middle of myself; I was hardly a professor, hardly Thai, and hardly American.   I was fitting into my new skin and learning what it really meant.

Erich Roby Sysak is an adjunct professor of English at Webster University Thailand. He lives on the western coastline of the Gulf of Thailand in Hua Hin. His recent work has appeared in the Oxford Magazine, Bangkok Post, The Nation, Rare Book Review and Knot Magazine.