The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

RETURN TRIP: Travel author Janet Brown channels Alice in Wonderland’s “tone deaf” adventures

While our writers take off on what they hope will be enchanting August breaks, The Displaced Nation will occasionally be reissuing some posts that, for one reason or another, enchanted our readers. Enjoy these “return trips”!
June was “Alice in Wonderland” month in The Displaced Nation, and the enchanting travel author Janet Brown came to our online tea party. She answered ML Awanohara’s questions on the curious and unreal aspects of her life in Thailand. Last time we checked in with Janet, she was in the process of moving back to the States. Will her counterculture shock prove to be another Alice adventure? We hope to hear back from Janet in the coming months.

As you may have noticed, The Displaced Nation has gone Alice-in-Wonderland mad since around the first of June. To take just a few examples:

And now, to top that all off, the extraordinary travel writer Janet Brown is paying us a visit. Brown could almost be a stand-in for the Lewis Carroll heroine herself, having published a book on travel to and life in Thailand called Tone Deaf in Bangkok, to much acclaim.

“Tone deaf” — it puts one in mind of poor Alice’s plea to the Mouse, “I didn’t mean it…But you’re so easily offended, you know!”

But if Brown sees herself as tone deaf, her readers regard her as anything but. Here is a sampling of her reader reviews on Amazon:

It has been ages since I have loved a piece of travel literature…, and so when I read TONE DEAF IN BANGKOK, I was thrilled. This is a good travel book, and it is a good book, period.

I am not a traveler, nor do I typically read travel books. Shame on me, I know, but here’s the thing: … The author brought Bangkok to life in a way that made me want to go there, yes, but it was her own story that captivated me and kept me turning the pages. Now I’d read anything Janet Brown writes!

Janet Brown’s TONE DEAF IN BANGKOK is a travelogue, to be sure. Yet it is more, so much more. It’s also an investigation into how dislocated we can become by ourselves, by our priorities and by all that we demand of the cultures in which we live. … That she has a gift for spotting the universal in the exotic makes this collection all the more profound.

Janet Brown has graciously agreed to answer some of my Alice-related questions. After that, dear reader, I urge you to chime in!

Before we go down the rabbit-hole, can you tell me a little bit more about your background?
My parents turned me into a gypsy before I was two, by taking me on their journey by jeep from New York City to Alaska when the 49th state was still a territory and the Alcan Highway was still an unpaved trail into the frozen north. I have wandered ever since, most recently in Southeast Asia with Bangkok as my home, writing down the stories I encounter as I explore. My books include:

Maybe because I’m so steeped in Alice-of-Wonderland lore this month, I think of you as Alice Personified. To what extent can you relate to Alice’s sense of disorientation? Going back not just to the first time you went to Thailand but also when your family dragged you to Alaska…
I was 18 months old when my family moved to Alaska from Manhattan. I coped with any displacement issues by making my mother read my favorite book over and over again — a truly saccharine Little Golden Book called The New Baby. The main character had the same name as I so that was the big attraction — all about me! My mother swears she can still recite it verbatim after having two martinis.

Alice came to mind constantly in my first months in Bangkok — and frequently thereafter. I knew I’d gone through the looking glass — or had entered the postcard — and asked myself often if that experience had been as painful for Alice as it often was for me.

Can you describe your worst “Pool of Tears” moment in Bangkok, where you wished you hadn’t decided on living there?
I’ve tried to make light of that time when I wrote about it in Tone Deaf in Bangkok, but it nearly demolished me. When the manager of my apartment turned me into Ryan’s Daughter by listening in on my phone calls and then entertaining the neighborhood with highly embroidered versions of my life — and when people fell silent when I walked down the street and began gabbling excitedly after I’d passed — I felt as though my life had been stolen from me and I shut down to the point of hypothermia. If my students hadn’t helped me find a new neighborhood, I would have gone home a gibbering mess.

Thailand is renowned for its distinctive cuisine. Was there anything that carried an “Eat me” label that you felt hesitant about at first, but then discovered you loved?
I’ve written about durian in Tone Deaf, how I thought its smell in the market was sewer gas and then how I was forced to taste it, with happy results. Fried grasshoppers were another thing I didn’t warm to at first sight and then liked as much as I do popcorn — they have much the same crunch and texture.

By the same token, were there any foods that you thought might be good but then didn’t acquire a taste for? (For Alice, of course, that was the Duchess’s over-peppered soup.)
One night I stopped to buy green papaya salad from a food cart to take home for supper. There was something in a little plastic bag that looked like a sort of relish, so I bought that, too.When I opened it at home a smell of rot filled the air, but remembering the delightful surprise that durian had proved to be, I took a generous spoonful. It was pla ra — fermented fish, a Northeastern Thailand culinary staple that is meant to be added and mixed judiciously with the salad, not eaten like peanut butter. There wasn’t enough toothpaste in the world to rid my mouth of that thoroughly foul taste.

As already mentioned, Alice finds it’s easy to offend the creatures in Wonderland without even trying. Why did you choose the expression “tone deaf” for the title of your book on Bangkok?
“Tone deaf” can be taken quite literally. Thai is a tonal language with five different tones giving meaning to every word. Use the wrong tone and at best you’re incomprehensible, at worst shocking. The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck. Another pitfall is confusing the word “near” with the word for “far” — they are the same sound, differentiated by a crucial tone.

But travelers to Thailand can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style. As a Thai-American friend has observed, the important things are what remain unsaid. “You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dogfood and ought to go home and rectify that at once. Subtlety is the hallmark of Thai communication, and is often expressed through a quirk of an eyebrow or a famous Thai smile, which has at least one hundred different meanings — including disdain or outright menace.

Describe the biggest faux pas you’ve made since settling in Bangkok.
Oh, how to choose — it’s impossible not to make faux pas every second because Thai etiquette is demanding and complex. The one that makes me cringe most is in my first week when I set off on my first solo bus ride. I was clutching a twenty-baht note, which like all bank notes in Thailand bears the countenance of the King. He is revered to the point of near godhood in his kingdom and his picture is always elevated to the highest spot in a room — nothing is above the King. But I was fresh off the boat and when I dropped my money and it was caught in a little breeze, I put out my foot (the lowest and most ignominious part of the body) and stepped on the picture of the King’s face to secure my bus fare. I was too clueless to pick up on the ripples of horror that this caused others at the bus stop, but now I writhe when I remember this.

“Off with her head!” as the chief royal in Alice’s story is wont to proclaim. Actually, never mind your head. Your mention of your foot makes me think of how physically awkward Alice feels around the creatures in Wonderland. As a farang in Bangkok, do you often feel self conscious?
I’m short and dark in a family of pale-skinned people, so I was used to being an anomaly from early childhood. In Bangkok, if I dressed like a Thai woman and wore sunglasses and walked slowly, I felt as though I blended in. But one day I walked down a quiet street on my way to a class, and someone looked up and said, “Look at the foreigner.” “How did she know?” I asked my class of teenage girls. “Your hair,” they said. “No, lots of Thai women have dyed their hair brown,” I replied — to which they responded: “Your nose.” It was my big American nose that gave me away every time — and since I hate pain and surgery, I just had to accept that.

Have you tweaked your personal style at all so as to fit in better?
Yes — I adopted the conservative “Don’t show your bare shoulders” school of dressing that prevailed in Bangkok when I first arrived and slowed my pace to that of the women around me. I learned to keep my facial expression as bland as I possibly could to achieve the quiet Thai “public face,” and I ironed everything, including my Levis. Now women are much more casual in the way they dress but I’m still stuck in the cultural mores of the 90s. To foreign women who live here now, my introductory years in Bangkok seem like fiction — things have changed so drastically in the past 16 years.

Time for a quote from the Cheshire Cat: “…we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” Can you relate?
Riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi down a crowded city sidewalk, buying a glass of Shiraz to take with my popcorn into a movie theater, being drenched to the bone during Thai New Year’s — this is actually the most difficult question you’ve asked so far because at this point it all seems normal.

If you were to hold your own Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Bangkok, whom would you invite, and why?
Anais Nin, because she would love the unbridled hedonism of this place, Evelyn Waugh because he would satirize the expat scene so well, Ho Chi Minh because he could help put together the revolution that is needed here, Emily Hahn because she has always been my role model since I first read her when I was twelve, and Elvis because in Bangkok he is still the king.

Alice becomes aware that Wonderland is turning her into a different person, unrecognizable to the one she used to be. Has your identity has shifted in fundamental ways since living in Bangkok?
This is a very complex question — I’ve written one book about it and am working on a second one, Almost Home. I’m always drawn back to the US because my children are there. Seeing them for two weeks a year doesn’t work for me. Once I get back to the US this time around, I’ll return here but plan to spend the bulk of my time near family in the Pacific Northwest. I won’t know how much I’ve been changed by this recent incarnation in Bangkok until then. Ask me again in several months.

Can you offer any advice for newcomers to Bangkok, who aren’t sure who they are any more?
Tone Deaf in Bangkok and my next book, Almost Home, are where I directly address the challenges of feeling like an Alice in Thailand. In addition, the recently published Lost and Found Bangkok, for which I wrote the text, may be helpful for newcomers. It’s a book in which five different photographers — two American men, two Thai men (both from Bangkok), and one Taiwanese-American woman — show the city they live in. New arrivals can look at the photos and see some great places to get lost — and find out who they are — in this Wonderland-like city.

img: Janet Brown with friends at an all-you-can-eat DIY barbecue at a huge restaurant under a bridge in Bangkok, by Will Yaryan.

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One response to “RETURN TRIP: Travel author Janet Brown channels Alice in Wonderland’s “tone deaf” adventures

  1. Pingback: QUESTIONS OF TRAVEL: Ticker tape from the newsfeed of Janet Brown, author of Almost Home and Tone Deaf in Bangkok | Frivolous Universe

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