Excerpted from Tone Deaf in Bangkok: And Other Places, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Thailand is a country where there is no autumn. Its endless cycle of bud, blossom, and a rapid fade is unprefaced by the brilliant colors of fall. Flowers are either in bloom or they carpet the ground, and hundreds of others burst into perfect replacements.
The sense of beauty here is agrarian. Buds imply promise and receive attentive scrutiny; fruitfulness is honored; that which has faded is useless and ignored.
More than one Thai man has told me that women are most beautiful at fourteen. It takes an acute eye to recognize this when pubescent girls are swaddled in loose-cut sailor blouses that whisk bosoms and waists into invisibility. Hips are covered in boxy, bulky navy blue pleats, and hair is chopped into bobs that are no longer than mid-jaw. Clumpy shoes and thick white socks obliterate their ankles. These are girls who have been slip-covered.
During their summer vacations, it's easy to see why. Freed from school regulations, the girls let their hair grow to their shoulders, they tuck their T-shirts into their tight jeans, and they are slender and gleaming and delectable.
They grow into the right to have waists in high school, happily abandoning the sailor blouses, and they tie their hair back with white-ribboned bows into swooping ponytails. They gain university status in demure white blouses and black skirts that are so tight and narrow that the girls who wear them walk as though they had recently undergone foot-binding. They are impossibly slender and slight, they murmur when spoken to, and few of them will allow their boyfriends to hold their hands in public.
Most of them are beautiful. They are all obsessed with beauty. One of my friends once was bitterly disappointed with a set of engagement photos because in one of the pictures her hands were posed in a way that wasn't beautiful. There is a beautiful way to walk, to gesture, to gaze out of windows. Features are endlessly and ruthlessly studied for imperfections, and on the morning of university graduation, girls are awake at 4 a.m. to have professional make-up artists spend hours applying cosmetics to faces that are beautiful when bare.
They get jobs, and become relentlessly fashionable, aware of a new style the minute that it erupts in Paris and tracking it down in the street markets where copies can be immediately found. Passionate about designer name brands, they are rarely elegant, after having lived most of their lives in school uniforms, but they are always trendy and very lovely.
They are still girls. They attach Hello Kitty accessories to their Prada knockoff handbags. They hold their hair back with teddy-bear barrettes and carry papers in plastic cases that are emblazoned with the icons of Sesame Street. They have special softened baby voices that they use for their boyfriends, and they pride themselves on being unable to go anywhere alone. They wear pink and ruffles and cartoon characters on their tiny pastel T-shirts. They are soft and sweet, like small tinted marshmallows, and Irving Berlin must have had them in mind when he wrote his hit song from the 1950s,"The Girl that I Marry."
Married, they become mothers, and drape themselves in huge parachutes of material that envelop their pregnant bodies. They turn into women and gradually they let their beauty go, with such finality that it must be with relief. They are impeccable matrons, well-kempt and without the slightest trace of style. They dress in joyless pastel suits made of economical fabric, and their hair is styled in a way that no breeze could ever ruffle. Eventually they resemble little walking bricks, and they look comfortably happy.
It's unusual to see a Thai girl who isn't beautiful, and it's rare to see a woman over forty who is. Ripeness is all, and then it's gone. What replaces it is power.
Aging women officiate at ceremonies, with an authority that has emerged with their years. Squat, sagging women extinguish clusters of flaming candles by putting them in their mouths. They sing in clear, confident voices, as they wave scarves that are far brighter than any they would have worn when young, their thickened bodies dance without self-consciousness, claiming a hard-won place upon the earth.
Now in the States, as my waistline loses definition and my breasts succumb to gravity, as my stomach protrudes and my thighs thicken, I think of the diet regimens and the hair color that promise to transform me into a stringy, aging woman, with wrinkles increasingly pronounced by artificially brightened hair, and I shudder. I turn away from the chic black garments that once made my closet a Temple of Gloom, and I reach for blazing colors that will transform me into a gaily painted brick, dancing my way into old age, laughing and joking and singing with the beautiful old women of my other country, that place where summer's heat changes suddenly to the warmth of a cheerful winter
To read more excerpts from Tone Deaf in Bangkok, click here.
To read more of Janet's reflections on Thailand, click here.
Published on 2/7/09