My time in Thailand’s winding down; I’m mentally sorting the shit I’ll take from the shit I’ll leave behind, prioritizing and initiating remaining travel-destinations, and monitoring Kayak notifications for flights back to the US.
I’ve planned this much in advance two or three times in my entire life and, honestly, it makes me really uncomfortable, as if I’m wearing my pack backwards.
As it often goes, forethought has become accompanied by backthink (and, apparently, a love for neologisms). I still have more than two months before I return to the States, but I cannot help but reflect on what has been—not really in a halcyon or heavy way, but rather in a what-the-hell-just-happened way. Besides, the number of people who’ve insisted on my “adventure”—not scare quotes, but quote-quotes—have consequently sparked some kind of reflection.
At the top, at least for blog and self-amusement purposes, has been trying to determine the moment when I felt most foreign–incontrovertibly farang.
The language? Don’t be silly.
The height and size differences? More like a self-high five.
The poverty that screams from under a bridge or within a hut? That stabs more than isolates.
The ubiquitous trans-community? Nope; have you seen my Halloween costumes?
These things, along with many others, were expected to be different. For example, if you come to Thailand and don’t expect another language, I hate you. These differences, rather, are things around which one begins to adapt. They’re part of the list of things of things that one knows will probably be strange. They’re known unknowns.
What got me, rather, was an unknown unknown (or maybe an unknown known, but let’s leave that alone for these immediate purposes):
William Faulkner in Thailand.
From 15 – 16 December, I participated in the Third Annual International Conference on Linguistics and Communication in Bangkok. For two days, I got to nerd out and listen to academics (some alleged) do academic things. I miss grad school terribly sometimes, so an academic conference sounded great. Plus, giving a paper at an international conference probably wouldn’t hurt the C.V. if I ever decide to apply to PhD programs.
Fast forward to my paper, “’Smelling the Bright Cold’: Benjy’s Linguistic Synaesthesia in The Sound and the Fury.” (I should have said Semantic Synaesthesia, but whatever.) The actual reading of the paper somewhat flustered me; the original 30-minute allotment changed to 20 minutes when the conference started, but ended up being 15 minutes when I actually read the motherfucker. As a result, I had to go off-script to compress and wing the final 70% of the paper. So it goes.
But then came the questions.
Ten minutes into the conference, I realized I did not belong. Most other papers were about statistical analysis of phonemes, grammatical structures, and inter-language differences. Conversely, I read a book and blathered about it—even throwing in a subtle crack about love juices. Therefore, I wasn’t really expecting any questions—at most, maybe something generic from the panel chair—who’s supposed to read the panel members’ papers and have a question or two in her/his back pocket—about semantics.
Nope. Instead, I got one about the author.
Panel Chair: “So, I have a question. This author—“ (Pause)
Me: “William Faulkner?”
Panel Chair: “Yes, him. Is he a very unknown writer? Where could I find his books? a rare bookstore?”
Let me explain my relationship with Faulkner: at least one of his books has been on my Top-5-Books List since high school; I’ve written a paper about him at every macro-level of my education since high school, including my capstone for my MA, which took more than a year total to research, compose, recompose, and argue. He’s even had stints as my desktop image. I may be as familiar with him as I am with many members of my extended family.
What’s more, I come from America and a mostly conventionally American education system, with an emphasis on literature. To imply the rarity of William Faulkner, for me, is like asking, “Does everyone have these opposable thumbs? They’re crazy useful.”
Thank the gods above, below, without, and within that I’m quick on my feet and have a poker face like a dead person. After shrouding my shock with a veil of contrived contemplation, I fired off a quick answer about probably finding him in backpacker and English-language bookstores since he probably hasn’t been translated into most Southeast Asian languages.
True or not, a string of pearls pulled directly from my ass.
To be clear, my shock wasn’t because of Faulkner’s merits as an author and examiner of the/a human condition. I’m not nearly arrogant or closed-minded enough to think that any author, let alone one of my favorites, deserves such acclaim, particularly globally. Rather, yet somewhat related, I was taken back because of my presumptions about Faulkner’s proliferation. “Of course his name rattles around the ivory tower. I could walk into any physics department, drop his name, and expect a rant about the increasing speed of entropy as evidenced by the American South,” I used to think.
My problems, as you can see, began with ‘the’ ivory tower; there isn’t a ‘the’ anything—I think.