Old Money Gone Not Getting Any Younger
In my final piece on my return to Asia, I come to understand the depth of community and family as I take possession of my Thai identity and see my American life anew.
While I was in Bangkok I made a second attempt at establishing my status as a Thai national. In order to have the legal right to own land, specifically the family land left to me in my father's will, I had to be a Thai national. Foreigners could own land, but only if a Thai person owned a controlling interest in it. And this could change at any time with the whims of each new government.
In my father's will (which was read in Aunty Lily's room with all of us present) I learned that he had left nearly everything to his third wife. Said wife sat in the room with us looking downcast. She now owned a quarter interest in all the family land holdings in Thailand, shared with each of Ah Padt's two children and me, as well as two houses in the US. It was all I could do not to run screaming from the room. His Bay Area house, alone, would have assured me a comfortable retirement. There was also a two-bedroom rental, in Colorado that my father had been in the process of gifting to me, but that too was left to her.
"It's not right," said my Aunty Lily to me in private after the will was read. Yes, it was so not right that I was beside myself for a year, but there was nothing I could do about it. "Your father was very stubborn", my Aunty Lily continued, "He never listened to anybody." Aunty Lily explained that my grandmother was already going to split the land between my Aunty Ah Padt, my father and me. Ah Padt's piece had already been formally registered as a separate property; my father had only been married to his third wife for 5 years. What right did she have to the family land?
Had he been afraid his wife would leave him and so had promised her so much? That was the only sense we could make of it. He was also intent on denying his half sister, my Aunty Ah Padt, the right to ownership of the land, convinced that the reason my grandmother was no longer wealthy was because Ah Padt had finagled a controlling interest in the venetian blind company his family had created, and thus the profit. That my aunt had saved the company from bankruptcy through her dedicated hands-on management did not figure into the equation.
Before our trip, I called my stepmother to ask her about accommodations in my father's house since my mother would also be with me. It felt more like her house than mine. She had picked out the furnishings, the artwork and nick knacks that filled the built-in bookcase. Since she was my senior, and a Thai woman of equal class standing to my father, I deferred to her out of respect. She had kept her word on the Colorado house and continued to gift it to me. I had just received it in full this year and was grateful for the little rent it received; it was what was keeping me in the black in this recession year.
She gave me permission to sleep on the couch, preferring not to let me have the use of her bedroom, which she kept locked. My mother would sleep in my room (also used as a guest room by my stepmother). I felt slighted, but the couch turned out to be quite comfortable and I liked the living room. It had windows that allowed me to see into the servant's quarters in one direction and out towards the driveway and Ah Padt's house in the other. I was able to watch all the comings and goings of the compound. Despite the development around us on this now highly desirable and valuable land, very little had changed on our compound largely because of our family disintegration.
The upshot of my father's legacy was that we were all disempowered to do anything with the land to further our own wealth. Ah Padt couldn't build the condo she envisioned, I couldn't rent out my father's house which stood empty most of the year, and my stepmother complained to me that she was being asked to pay bills that should be paid by the profits of the venetian blind company. We were frozen in time gathering cobwebs. In the end, it might be our saving grace that it was not developed. This garden living was so pleasant and the fate of high tech urban living uneasy.
It was Pryoon who worried most about my status as the rightful heir to my family's land. She had worked and lived on the compound since I was 9 and she was 15. She had looked after my grandmother until her death, raised her daughter to cook for us too and looked after the household. She herself was a landowner, now that her mother had passed away. She owned a farm just outside of Bangkok that her mother had tended her entire life. Last year I joked that I could work for her, farming it. I was half serious, too, and it must have made her wonder about my state of affairs.
My Aunty Lily's maid, Wel, was also looking out for my interest and would counsel me on how to talk to my stepmother so I would remain in her favor. Where Pryoon was modest and humble, Wel was vivacious, talked loudly and was a dramatic storyteller. Capable and energetic, she was the perfect caretaker to keep an elderly lady entertained. She was also our chauffeur.
Accompanied by both Pryoon and Wel, I sat waiting at the office while the two translated for me and worked on my strategy. After three hours of waiting we went back another day and waited another three hours. I had no confidence that this would come together. I was just going to be tortured by the waiting, but because Wel and Pryoon were on a mission I was obliged to go along. On the third day my Ah Padt came and waited with me, as a witness. When I was finally approved to proceed, I was sent to the next desk, where I was confronted by a ruthless senior clerk who refused to process my ID card without a Thai passport. Again we would have to come back. I updated my Facebook page that I was ready to shoot myself.
Pryoon and Wel assured me that I need only be patient. My Thai friends sympathized with me. They had all been through this business of getting ID cards. Americans fought against such identification, against a too powerful government ready to arrest and strip citizens of their rights, followed by torture and concentration camps; why give them another tool? But I was not concerned that the Thai government would strip me of my rights; I just wanted them to acknowledge them.
I began to feel a shared identity with my Thai peers that I had not felt as a naturalized American citizen where anti-immigrant sentiments taunted me whenever conservatives voiced their opinions. And though I had once been proud to be British (and part of the Empire where the sun never set), the only time I felt accepted as a British citizen was when I was in the dentist chair benefiting from the national health program as a child.
I felt myself succumbing to the draw of Bangkok. We spent our evenings being wined and dined by friends, swallowed up by the round the clock offerings of entertainment and food. To succumb seemed the only sane response. I met a celebrity runway model who had been a childhood friend; she had 2,468 Facebook contacts, but she still wanted to see me.
I saw myself rolling back the years on my face with plastic surgery, hanging out in high end night clubs where I would be an attaché to my well connected friends, become a character of intrigue myself, leading a double life, escaping to a country getaway whenever it got too much. In my head I was constructing a tawdry novel filled with mysterious high society characters of hidden political affiliations, chasing sexual intrigues against a backdrop of a city ready to pop with civic unrest.
There was just one problem. I could no longer afford to live in Bangkok. While my peers had created businesses and income streams using their inherited land as leverage, they had also created an expensive lifestyle frequenting the latest restaurants and shows. It was a problem that had frustrated my father, who would return from a visit home complaining of how expensive it was to take people out to dinner. To live frugally would be to be found lacking, unable to keep up with my class obligations. Not to mention the travel back and forth from my home in the States. (This trip financed as it was by my publisher.) I was momentarily angry at this impotence to live out the status of my class standing and at my peers for having created this high end life. To fight it I would be setting myself apart again.
On the final day at the registry office even my mother came, the only foreigner in the entire building. My grandmother's government friend, summoned by Wel, showed up and vouched for me (though we had never laid eyes on each other before). I was asked to state my religion (Buddhist) and profession (writer prompted Ah Padt), I didn't know my blood type. My fingerprints were taken and photographed. I signed my name in Thai, in triplicate (in front of the stern senior clerk), which I could only do by copying what my Ah Padt wrote for me. Then a short wait to be photographed next to a height chart and finally, with fingers still purple from the ink, I had my prize—a brand new laminated card with a gold emblem containing a microchip holding all of the above information. Pryoon was ecstatic, Wel was triumphant and my Ah Padt pleased that something had gone well. My Aunty Lily was relieved and happy.
"You can do whatever you want, now, buy whatever you want," Pryoon said, meaning property. I thanked her for her perseverance. Had I waited much longer all the witnesses might well have been dead. My newly confirmed identity began to heal the pain of severance from my childhood roots. I could come home again and stay as long as I wanted. And I owned this home too. There was some security in this.
I was used to spending my days filled with righteousness at the global issues I touted, a sense of purpose informing my activities. Now it all felt like nothing more than a shield against intense loneliness in the world's loneliest country. What exactly was the point? There was the belief in the States that it was up to us, the ordinary citizens, to do something about our deteriorating planet, yet our efforts continued to seem futile; a mere cultural exercise, while others in the world had far different priorities. And by aiming to reduce my carbon footprint I shortchanged my visits to see my aging relatives. I wanted to continue flying back and forth and more often, even if I had to give up my status as a tree hugging doomer (and make more money to fund the trips). What then would I have to inform my life? I decided to float for a while and find out. Let serendipity guide me. Beef up my Facebook presence.