October in Bangkok is hot and rainy. I stared out into the city from the back of a pink cab in gridlock, the windows streaked with my own breath. I’d arrived in the capital after a ten-hour bus ride, and I had twelve hours to kill as I waited for another bus to take me further south, to the beach where my friends awaited. I’d spent the previous six months in rural Thailand mostly clueless, led around by my kindly hosts, and a friend had recommended that I check out a place called Siam Paragon while in the city. I had no idea what this Paragon was, but luckily the cab driver did, even in my stilted Thai.
As we approached, I understood why my well-meaning friend had thought I, as an American, would want to visit. A line to get into a newly-opened Krispy Kreme shop snaked around the massive shopping center, which billed itself “the Jewel of Bangkok.” Wat Pho, the largest temple in the city, layered in gems and housing a 150-foot reclining golden Buddha whose feet were inlaid with pearl, sat just across the city.
I’d just spent half a year living on sticky rice, the kindness of strangers and a hybrid of Thai-English that left plenty of room for miscommunication. I had come to teach English to teenagers in a northern rural farming community. In my lessons, I’d planned to avoid the topic of “America” altogether, as my presence alone already implied more cultural hegemony than I was comfortable with. So I focused on the finer points of English slang and weather jargon to students as they fell asleep. It wasn’t until I made flashcards from an issue of Rolling Stone a friend in Austin had sent me that it became clear that what the students really wanted to know about was America. Movie star, rock star, guitar. I held up a photo of Obama, prompting the students to shout president. Instead, my class of forty shouted “o-ba-MA!” He is neighboring Indonesia’s son, and to them really might as well be all of Thailand’s cousin. “He black, like me!” called out one of boys in the front row.
I’d never know what I was teaching them.
In Siam Paragon, while the American teachers I was on my way to meet were already busy sipping mango smoothies, snorkeling and probably sleeping with athletic Germans, I spent the afternoon wandering past Dior sunglasses shops and a Lamborghini showroom. In the food court, fleshy pink Europeans barked out orders for bagels. I’d been staring at the reflection of the sun in a flooded rice field for months, and the garish neon lights and marble floors quickly shook me awake, back into the world constructed solely of items for sale.
On an afternoon of transience in a foreign city’s gargantuan shopping mall, thousands of miles from any place where I could read so much as the bus schedule, an American movie seemed like the perfect indulgence. I found the cinema, emptied a can of Singha down my throat in the lobby and, comfortably buzzed, took a seat in the dark, empty theatre. A short clip filled the screen, a montage of the King of Thailand as a young man, dutifully dirtying his hands with farmers, then decorated regally and solemnly flanked by the rest of the royal family. It was a standard government-issued reel assigning Thailand’s wealth, good fortune and transition to modernity to the beloved monarch.
The national anthem began. I glanced around: the six other people in the theatre--the type of pale, khaki-ed men wandering the red light districts of every tourist town in Thailand--were on their feet. I jumped up to join them as a warning from an orientation instructor months before echoed in my mind, when she informed us that anyone who opposes or disrespects the king could be thrown in jail: “This is not your freedom country.”
The previews rolled for a slew of Japanese and Korean action films, sparser in military-porn and explosions than the usual Hollywood-minted sequel or remake, but making up the difference with hand-to-hand combat. The influence of Michael Bay is alive and well in East Asian cinema: quick cuts between bombs, bras and the obligatory slow-mo shooting spree comprised the majority of the clips. Alone in my seat in this dark theatre, I wondered if America’s most effective export is the slick, breathless glamour of cartoon violence.
Oliver Stone’s unwitting paean to the Wall Street excess of the 80's begat a sequel based on the financial collapse of 2008, and Wall Street II: Money Never Sleeps was the perfect choice for this hot afternoon: I could shake my head at the hubris of my nation from the other side of the world. The film belonged to a genre in which the frayed political anxieties of our age are smoothed, molded and projected onto a screen large enough to contain them, if only for ninety minutes. Our collective ire is temporarily vindicated, perhaps even slightly mollified by a director we vote with.
Glancing around the theatre, I questioned if my comrades in matinee could discern that I was American, that these were the sins of my nation broadcast as a clumsy attempt at morality tale, that Western tourism in Thailand began with entertaining American soldiers during World War II. That I attended the same high school as Oliver Stone, and that this school exists to maintain and perpetuate white privilege and wealth, and acts as a tidy express lane to Wall Street itself. Of course they couldn’t tell, but I tried to make myself smaller in my seat anyway.
Conveniently, it was the crash of 2008 that had rendered most of my generation disillusioned, listless and underemployed. We’d choose to be indebted to either grad school or opioids, while the Americans of color among us would have to make a case that they belonged here, or that their lives mattered at all. My “freedom country” felt more like a cratered dead-end. So I used the scholarship I was awarded at twenty-four and the white, Western, native-English-speaking privilege I was awarded at birth to board a flight to Thailand, and now sat alone in a movie theatre half a world from home, the luster of Hollywood fantasy reflecting off my retinas for an afternoon.
Oliver Stone’s film turned out to be one which, in the business, is referred to as “a flop.” No one understood derivatives, and rather than effectively denounce the con that was fashioning America into an oligarchy with alarming success, the film glamorized the shrewdness of the con-artists. Just as the lustful violence of a self-proclaimed anti-war film incites young men to enlist, unadulterated displays of wealth goad any viewer into desiring the spoils of greed. Ultimately, Gordon Gekko would be received as an aspirational character instead of a cautionary tale, just as the unmasked villains of American finance would be celebrated rather than imprisoned. Six years later, in fact, my freedom country would elect one such Gekko as president.
My buzz wore off and the credits rolled. I boarded a bus a couple hours later and headed further south. Thai pop blared over the bus speakers and raindrops trickled down the windows through the fog of my breath. I’d be at the beach soon.