Letters From Bangkok: To San Francisco From Abroad
5th October 2018
I read the poetry you sent me last night. You’re so good at stretching my imagination for poetry. You’re in California, in the Bay, fourteen hours behind me. That concept, alone, seems unbelievable to me. How can someone be living a life more than half a day behind my own?
My accommodation in Bangkok has a few receptionists who work around the clock. One is a ladyboy who never really speaks much. I don’t think he (she) knows a lot of English. The other is quite friendly and I really enjoy her being in the lobby every time I come home.
Her name is Yao. I met her on my first night in the hotel. She works the night shift. She knows my name, too, and greets me by it every time. She always has a smile on and always asks me a question about my day. I appreciate it. She’s a friend on the lonely days in Bangkok.
Last night, I had to print a letter in the lobby so I paid Yao a visit. It was late, maybe 2 A.M. She was sleeping at the desk. I gently tapped on the faux granite and it startled her awake. She put on a smile as soon as her eyes opened and invited me behind the desk to print my letter.
I could tell she was not very well-versed using a computer. After all, she’s probably pushing her seventh decade of life and has learned how to live without the technology we use. I took a seat next to her and showed her where to click.
Soon, we started having a chat. A lot of Thai’s I’ve spoken with come for work from outside of the city. Bangkok is where the opportunity is, therefore, most families have to send a family member to the city to earn a living. Yao doesn’t live with family, though. She lives alone.
Yao rents an apartment two hours away from Bangkok. She has kids, but they’ve moved away. She had a husband, but four years ago he became deathly ill and passed away. Now, she has no one and had to get a job in the city to provide for herself. At her age, opportunity is limited. Fortunately, she speaks English okay.
She tried running a tattoo shop on the busiest tourist street in Bangkok. However, after one-too-many drunken idiots scheduled appointments with her at night and never showed up the next day, she knew she couldn’t rely on the business to make a living.
That’s how she ended up in my hotel making 9,000 Thai Baht per month ($281.25). She hasn’t had a day off in four months.
She doesn’t have a car, either, so she takes the bus to work every day. Yao spends four hours a day on a bus just to get to work and back. Twelve hours on, two hours home, six hours of sleep, two hours back to work, and then the whole routine begins again.
The bus fare runs her 60 Baht per day to and from. If you multiply that by 30 days, that’s 1,800 of her 9,000 Baht per month spent just so that she can get to the city. At sixty-years-plus, twenty percent of her salary and two-thirds of her life are spent on the daily work grind of Bangkok.
I asked her why she doesn’t just move to the city. But it’s not that simple. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for Thai’s to find accommodation in Bangkok if they don’t have family already living here.
Most new apartment buildings are being built to pamper western expats seeking a cheaper life in Southeast Asia. Although rent may be cheap for westerners who come here, most of the time these buildings are not affordable according to local wages.
But Yao told me even if she could move closer to her job, she wouldn’t. After her husband died, she became so attached to their family dog that she can’t give it up. She told me it’s like the only family she has left. Finding affordable housing that allows dogs is even more impossible for a Thai local.
And her dog doesn’t just eat dog food either. She told me it eats what Yao cooks and won’t eat dog food even if it means starving itself to death. Of course, human food isn’t as cheap as dog food. This runs Yao an additional 1,500 Baht per month. That leaves her with 5,700 Baht per month ($178.13) to feed herself, pay rent, and save for potential emergencies.
After I spoke with her, I ran upstairs to my room to do all of this math. It’s inconceivable to me. I really couldn’t believe it. I wanted to hug her. I never thought I’d gain such a perspective, but now that I have, I wish I hadn’t. I’m finding it difficult to live with myself and the luxuries I take for granted here.
On my way home from today’s touristy walk, I got lunch and a fruit smoothie from a street stand. I spent less than $2. I took a taxi home the rest of the way and bought an extra shirt from a vendor outside of my hotel. I spent ten dollars in total. That, on top of the six I spend nightly for my hotel room. That’s $16, roughly nine percent of Yao’s monthly budget and I haven’t even had dinner yet.
I don’t know what point I’m trying to make with all of this math, but I hope you understand where I’m going with this.
Yao shared a heart-wrenching part of her life with me last night, but you wouldn’t ever know it by the way she carries herself. Her smile means so much more to me now. It makes me happy. One day, I want to help people like Yao. She deserves someone’s help.
It seems every day here brings a new perspective and I’m kind of enjoying it. Bangkok has been so much more than I expected. I wonder what you’d think of it.
Don’t bother responding to this, I’ll probably be long gone from here by the time it gets to me. Congratulations on winning your conference’s Player of the Week, good luck the rest of the season, kick some ass like usual.