PREFACE FOR DREAM OF A THOUSAND LIVES
(2001 American edition of Touch The Dragon)
It’s strange for me to have this book published in America. It was first released in Canada in 1992, but it has also seen the light in Britain, Australia, Thailand, Taiwan, and Germany. In those places, the publication felt quite normal to me, expected and logical. But America is different, as both place and possibility.
This summer, I will be in the U.S. for the first time as an adult, to speak at a conference about teaching the concept of global citizenship to high school students. There is an ironic but satisfying logic in going to America to speak about living well with the rest of the world. The rest of the world is increasingly all around us, in our schools and our neighbourhoods, in our food, our music, our religions, our hearts. Both Canada and America have been built with the labour (and the blatant degradation) of many different peoples, but it is the Canadian fate to be worried in a very particular way about America itself, because not only are you loud and powerful, but you are also right next door. America is frightening. Therefore—though most of us will never admit it—very attractive.
Just between us, I think Canadians, who are so vocally anti-American—at least among ourselves--so insistent upon how different we are from them, would benefit greatly from becoming more American. Canada is a good place to live, but I always feel as though I have to be very well-behaved here, and quiet, and undemanding. Thus my Canadian life is filled with failure. As a nation, it would not hurt us to be louder, less apologetic about certain things, more celebratory. You know, more like Walt Whitman. Or Pablo Neruda, that other deeply American poet.
Please do not misinterpret. This yearning for more American-ness is not a request for a George Bush clone with a Canadian passport, or for an imported draft of that medieval Californian law--you know the one--three-strikes-and-you’re-in-prison-for-the-rest-of-your-life because you stole a piece of pizza. Not to mention the Pentagon, prisons-for-profit, Jerry Springer and the N.R.A. Some sacred things should remain uniquely your own. Please.
Dream of a Thousand Lives is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who wins a Rotary Exchange Scholarship and is sent to live in rural Thailand at the age of seventeen. The raw bulk of it was written in real time, when I was a teenager in Denchai in 1986, scribbling letters and journal entries at every opportunity, trying to capture the strange beauties and enfuriating contradictions of a culture profoundly different than my own. Over the next five years, living in different places in Europe, those letters and journals became my constant companions, because I was intent on capturing fully and coherently in language what had been so elusive, so paradoxical, in lived experience. As I sifted through bits of paper and reread my elaborate scrawls, I grew steadily, quietly amazed by the young woman who’d lived in Asia and written with such unabashed enthusiasm about her world there.
Since living in Thailand at seventeen—because of living there--my life has been formed and reformed by other places, but Thailand remains a crucial geographical point in my landscape. Whenever I go there now, I feel as though I have returned to the centre of the world.
In the last five years, my work has focused on the struggles of people who live under dictatorship in Burma, and I have used Thailand as a base for my explorations of its neighbour country and for the long, refugee-filled border that both separates and unites the two nations. Needless to say, the Thailand of 1986 does and does not exist anymore. Many things have changed. After talking to certain Thai friends, I fear that many cultural practices and artefacts, in their natural and unself-conscious form, have been lost forever, and lost very quickly, given over to culture-as-product, Thailand for sale to the tourists and wholesalers who go there for brief visits, content to buy what pleases them.
The teak forests are mostly gone now, as are many of the working elephants and water buffalo, two animals which still defined rural Thai life when I first lived there, experiencing daily life as it unfolded, vibrant and mundane, around me. I was treated as a daughter by my Thai families—a peculiar, over-protected, difficult daughter—and my world was mostly confined to the narrow yet deep world of family and school. Therein lies both the strength and the weakness of this book. Whenever I am overwhelmed by the ugliness around us, I return toDream to relearn how to be open, again, to beauty. And when I feel dishonest as a writer, I read this young writer’s work and remember what it is to tell one’s own truth without hedging.
Of course, as we get older and continue to learn, the truth becomes more complicated. In the last fifteen years, an increasingly articulate and angry generation of Thai artists and political activists have taken unrestrained development as their theme and their cause, protesting the high human and environmental casualties of the “economic miracle” that Thailand has become since the mid-eighties. As in other poor but “developing” countries, the price of change has been very high, and is not visible in nice hotels, air-conditioned airports, or factory production figures. In the words of Dr. Kua, a Thai demographer at Chulalongkorn University, “Arguments that occur abstractly in the West… have a starkness and directness here because it is all so much more visible. We can see the costs of our “economic success” because they are etched upon the faces and bodies of our people.”
Rapid industrialization has led to rapid urbanization has led to varying degrees of poverty and social disintegration in a country where, along with the monarchy, the family has always ruled supreme. Many Thais, from cab drivers to street vendors to teachers and office workers, talk gladly of kwam jalern—the quality of development, of growth--but they also will describe, in the next breath, how quickly life in their country has changed, how city children have lost respect for their elders, how young people are now vulnerable to drug addiction, how their countryside and cityscapes have become almost unbearably polluted.
Some of the most devastating alterations have taken place in the span of a single decade. When people talk about this, the painful bewilderment in their lives becomes palpable in their voices. I have had conversations about how Thailand has changed with Ajahn Champa, Ajahn Peroontip, Ajahn Yupa, Meh Dang, Paw Teerug, Beed and Samat and their parents: these are the names of “characters” in Dream of a Thousand Lives , but they are also living, breathing individuals who still live in the north. I think it was Ajahn Champa who told me, a couple of years ago, that the suicide rate in Thailand increased by over fifty percent in the early nineties. That, too, is part of Southeast Asia’s economic miracle.
Tourists, travellers, and people (like me) who live abroad for professional and personal reasons play a part in the economies of developing countries. I have read but not affirmed the claim that tourism, after weapons production, is the most lucrative industry in the world. Whether or not this is true, tourism certainly is a key industry in Thailand, so much so that it is now common to hear loud complaints from foreign visitors about how the country has been spoiled by “them”, meaning other travellers, or tourists, meaning themselves. It has become popular for travellers and tourists—I no longer distinguish between these two words—to go out of their way to find “real experiences” of culture, as if the very roads they walk, wherever they are, were not constantly offering such opportunities. Just a few months ago, on a street in Chiang Mai, I saw a sign that made me laugh out loud: Come. We will take you to hilltribes where there are no tourists for authentic experience. I still wonder if the clause was misplaced or intentional.
Recently, a neighbour mentioned travelling in Vietnam and Burma, “but I didn’t even go to Thailand, because Western tourists have ruined it. I just wasn’t interested.” The comment was hilarious, reprehensible, and very common: I have heard people say this sort of thing many times before, about Greece and Spain, too, as compared to Turkey and Portugal, about East Europe compared to West. The neighbour was, of course, a Western tourist himself, off tramping through the more virgin (and military-ruled) territories of Southeast Asia, apparently without leaving any trace of his white self or his ruinous money and mores behind him. In dispensing with Thailand, he wrote off a fascinating history, several languages, a great distance of fields, rivers, mountains, seas, not to mention over 60 million human beings, including the most remarkable motorcycle taxi-men on the planet. I wanted to reply, “I am sure Thailand wasn’t interested in you, either,” but I just gave him a lips-stretched-over-teeth smile and a tentative Canadian nod.
This brings me back to you, America, and the awesome power of Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Levis. Canadians are not alone in their twinned fear and attraction. While American cultural influence in the world has come to be regarded as an invading empire unto itself, I believe that people often underestimate the flexible, mutable strength of older and often wiser cultures, including Thailand’s. The histories and languages of other countries are deeply rooted in very old soil, ensuring them an organic tenacity that is not so easily displaced, even when entangled with plastic bags, consumer capitalism, and long, blonde hairs. It is true that old cultures and languages are fragile, but they are powerful, too, particularly when we make ourselves vulnerable to them. We must believe in that power if we want otherness to survive and thrive in a world where so many people, bizarrely enough, enjoy reruns of Baywatch.
Before I first lived in Denchai, it was almost impossible to find a book about Thailand. Now there are many books, many voices, and our planet is increasingly crisscrossed by travellers, immigrants, tourists, migrants, foreigners of all shapes, purposes, and colours. For most North Americans, for most Westerners in general, travel has come to be regarded as a right, not a privilege. Chosen to go and live in Asia for a year, I was the precocious daughter of a working-class single mother, and I knew myself to be remarkably privileged. But even privilege carries with it many layers of expectation and entitlement. I now conceive of travel, and more particularly, of living abroad, as responsibility, neither a right nor a privilege but a profoundly human act. To slow down; to listen more carefully; to watch the surface until we glimpse what is underneath; to learn from people who know well what we do not know at all: these are choices, steps toward dismantling the barriers that separate not only nations and strangers, but neighbours, too.
On a recent trip to Mae Sot, a Thai town near the Burmese border, I went for a walk at dawn and came upon a man training a fighting cock in an empty field. He repeatedly lifted up the extravagantly plumed bird and let it plunge down very quickly, where it regained its fierce balance in the dust. It was like walking directly into the past of an evening fifteen years ago in Denchai, on my way to visit a monk at the monastery. Though one moment occurred at dusk and the other at dawn, even the light had the same gold filter in it, and I stood transfixed, watching the man, the red-tailed bird, the flurries of dust, knowing that nothing and everything had changed. Many years later, I was still an awestruck initiate in the country where my true education began.
Middle-of-nowhere Denchai opened the world for me, and this book tries to describe that opening. Of course, it fails—it is not equal to the experience itself—but it is an attempt, the record of a time that awakened every possibility of growth in me. I hope this book conveys the reality of such possibilities to those who read it.
Thailand came to me like a gift. Dream of a Thousand Lives is one way of sayingthank you.