The Asian Reporter 19th Annual
Scholarship & Awards Banquet -
The Asian Reporter's
Sightseeing offers new view of Thailand
By Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Grove Press, 2005
Hardcover, 250 pages, $19.95
By Pamela Ellgen
Many Western tourists know Thailand for its quaint villages, crystal clear seascapes, and beautiful women. In Sightseeing, award-winning author Rattawut Lapcharoensap explodes this romanticized vision of the country with gritty, provocative tales of elemental human struggles — growing up, finding love, aging, and death. This poignant collection of short stories also explores the struggles inherent to the Thai people — social and economic disparity, government corruption, and a love-hate relationship with Western tourists, a.k.a. farangs.
The opening story, titled simply "Farangs," is a brilliant and charming account of an adolescent boy’s love for a bikini-clad American tourist. It illustrates in no uncertain terms the flaws of an industry that both stimulates the economy and rapes the people who support it.
"Pussy and elephants, that’s all these people want," Ma laments. "You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls."
Her disdain is deeply rooted in painful events of the past that resulted in the half-Thai, half-American boy who now hungers for the beautiful farangs circulating through their hotel. His unrequited affections further illustrate the disparity between farangs and the Thai they patronize.
Along with the weightier topic of Western consumerism’s effect upon Thailand, Sightseeing offers a candid portrayal of generational relationships.
"At the Café Lovely" is a heart-wrenching coming-of-age story in which two boys neglect their grieving mother after the death of their father. The elder finds solace in huffing and prostitutes while the younger discovers for the first time the delights and sins available to adults and the grave costs of those pleasures.
In contrast, the story from which the book takes its name, "Sightseeing," is a beautiful depiction of a young man’s caring for his mother as she goes blind. This is by far the most romantic of all the stories in the collection. It paints a glowing picture of a son’s devotion and Thailand’s splendor.
"I walk toward the sandbar, across the beach, my eyes fixed on the flame," Lapcharoensap writes. "The black sky turns a deep indigo, night slowly relenting to day, and I can make out Ma’s small shape sitting beside the flickering lantern. I’m walking onto the sandbar, warm waves licking up across my bare feet, out to watch the sun rise with Ma, and then to bring her back before the tide heaves, before the ocean rises, before this sand becomes seafloor again."
Lapcharoensap’s poetic writing style in this chapter will resonate with readers, as will his garish realism in others. Both have brought him extensive praise from the literary community.
Though none of the stories is autobiographical, the characters’ struggles with social and economic inequality derive perhaps from the author’s own struggles with these issues. Born in Chicago in 1979, Lapcharoensap grew up there and in Bangkok with his Thai parents. The contrasting worlds made a strong impression on him. He resented the shame of poverty he faced in the U.S. and enjoyed the comfortable, middle-class lifestyle he experienced in Thailand. This disparity is represented in many of the stories in Sightseeing.
In 1995 Lapcharoensap moved back to the U.S. to finish high school and pursue higher education. He did his undergraduate work at Cornell University and later earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Currently, he lives in Norwich, England on a fellowship from the University of East Anglia. There he works on a novel tentatively titled The End of Siam.
Readers will have the opportunity to meet Lapcharoensap on an upcoming book tour that will bring him to Portland and Seattle this week. Visit Powell’s on Hawthorne, 3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd. this Thursday, February 17, at 7:30pm. For more information, call (503) 238-1668 or visit <www.powells.com>. The next day, February 18, the author will be at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Books, 101 South Main Street, also at 7:30pm. For information, call (206) 624-6600 or visit <www.elliottbaybook.com>.