Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, March 01, 2020

May You Live In Interesting Times

Not wishing to appear oblivious to the concerns of the coronavirus that has interwoven our global lives and been present in every country I walked upon, I start here at the intersection of my personal journey and the news of the day as it rose to meet me
Not to mention the political climate here in the States that has everyone abuzz with passionate intensity. It is indeed interesting times.

Keep Calm And Carry On

“Will you be getting any more masks?” I asked the Asian cashier at Walgreens already wearing a mask, “I’m going to Thailand next week and my relatives want me to bring some.”

“You might want to cancel your trip,” he said.

“I went to Asia during Bird Flu and SARS and I’m going to go now,” I said getting annoyed. “It’s only a 2% death rate,” It was late January and Santa Clara had just reported the first local case of 3 in the U.S. Thailand had 17 cases.

He told me a shipment was due in at 5 a.m. the next day and I should come early if I wanted a box. I did not wish to trouble myself for something so useless and was immediately annoyed at the level of panic the thought of this new pandemic was stirring. 

“Masks are useless anyway,” I told the clerk and stormed out. 

I was so mad I had to get a grip before I insulted more people after another relative messaged me to bring her a  box of 100 count 3M model 9001v masksSuch a specific request made it sound like a status item. They were nicely designed paper masks with valves. The price was rising as I searched for them online. I didn't order them as they were delayed in shipping and wouldn’t arrive in time. She expressed emoji despair and I expressed anger at her hanging her hopes on masks.

I knew my best remedy was to respond in my own way with a public post all my Thai contacts could see. I planned a satirical piece on protective gear to post to Facebook. This required that I make another visit to Walgreens the next day to buy white cotton wound care gloves and a stop at Pet Smart to buy a cone of shame (to keep the wearer from touching their face). I was very pleased to see it came in 3 fashionable shades of transparent plastic and chose the fuchsia in a medium dog size. It took me another day to take pictures and write my post which I presented at dinner time just as my Thai contacts were at breakfast. My "Dear Thailand" letter had my American friends rolling on the floor while my Thai friends acknowledged my polite assessment of their arising situation as a gesture of caring. 

Well done I thought as the fine line between gentle parody and insult across cultural boundaries was one of my biggest ongoing challenges.

I had booked my ticket four months before my trip and had gotten a decent price on my favorite airline; the one with the best food and a terrific offering of entertainment options in movies from all over the world. It routed through Taipei. I had in the past booked with the cheap Chinese airlines that had me layover in Guangzhou for hours so I was relieved that I had steered clear of those flights. They were likely cancelled now. 

My second clue that this story was going to be an international one was how quiet SFO was the night I left on February 4th. The line at baggage check was a shadow of the usual frenetic activity of Asian people struggling with oversize cardboard boxes and giant suitcases in their attempt to bring home all the tariff free goodies from the States. Security check was such a dream I forgot to collect my laptop and rushed back an hour later to get it. While trying to prove to the security foreman that it was indeed my laptop I showed him the picture of me dressed in a white hazmat suit striking a heroic pose with one foot on my duffel bag. He looked at me skeptically. He asked for something with my name on it. Luckily I found a downloaded copy of last years tax return.
Crowds keep me focused when traveling I realized and made a note to double check myself in this disorienting new environment of emptiness. It had its perks. I had a whole row of seats to myself on both flights. Taipei too was quiet with masked travelers who wore their masks quite carelessly I noted while I had winter gloves on and was became hyper aware of how much I was wanting to touch my face. But it was the emptiness of the Bangkok airport that shocked me most as I entered the huge hall for passport control. I snuck a picture of it during my short five minute wait for what would normally take over an hour to get through. Every Thai looking at that picture had the same thought. We are in for an economic meltdown (given the tourist industry that drives Thai economy). All tours from China had been stopped though individuals were still allowed in. 

My girl cousin was on time to pick me up in her family size luxury SUV. She did not have a mask on. I asked her how she felt about the Wuhun virus. 

“I don’t look at the news”, she said, “it has made me much happier”. 

“Good for you,” I said. Being a mother of two preteen boys was challenging enough without adding to their lives the burden of the world filtered through an anxious mother. 

“Do you have masks?” I asked. 

“We still have them from the last time,” she said referring to SARS and bird flu. No worries then for the wealthy. She more wanted to share with me her latest alternative health exploration and gave me her much rumpled copy of The Emotion Code. I handed over to her (once we arrived at my family compound) the magnetic bracelets she had mail ordered to my California address for me to bring. Magnets are the tool of choice for releasing stuck emotion according to this healing practice which used muscle testing to find the stuck emotion. I was intrigued.

I also had for her a fishing vest for her eldest boy who had taken up skeet shooting. A development I found intriguing and creative for a boy who has no unscheduled time at all in this world where free play is an antiquated notion. Skeet shooting was offered in Bangkok in a controlled indoor environment park-like setting. All of middle and upper middle class Bangkok conduct their lives in indoor environments. That is how one lives in a city where the air quality is constantly in the red zone of unhealthy. This was what enraged me about the panic around masks. It was for the wrong reasons I wanted to shout. 

I had myself become an aficionado of non-disposable masks and had invested quite a bit of money into finding the best fitting, vented mask with replaceable 99micron filter (available in a wide array of fashionable colors and prints) designed by a contractor. These had become my most prized gear for woodworking sawdust, California fires and the smoke of the burning season in Asia known as PM 2.5 (parts per million sized at 2.5 microns).

I duly checked that everyone on our household staff had masks. In Prayoon’s kitchen where I took my meals I saw a good quality 3M one in a storage box. No one was wearing them at home, but they had them for going out. Online my contacts were posting every update on the virus and China’s response including a video showing officials apparently shooting a man trying to escape the lockdown city. 

Commuters on the BTS (Bangkok Transit System) were almost all wearing masks and I learned from a post by an expat culture watcher that there was a social context for masks. In Europe only those who are sick wear masks to protect others. In Asia masks are worn as an act of communal cooperation and solidarity (and because the government was telling them to)I read more discussion online about why masks don’t help.

While traveling on the BTS with a mask wearing cousin (the one who wanted the 3M box of 100 count 9001v), I sneezed (due to change in air pressure) and she urged me to put my mask on. She was a doctor’s wife and was wearing the usual pleated ear loop masks so I put on mine and she took a picture of us together to post to FB urging people to be safe for both virus and PM 2.5. Killing two birds with one stone and appeasing both our mask agendas.

Prayoon’s daughter Aun ever entrepreneurial was looking at home sewing masks to sell. At night they watched the news which would calmly update the number of cases along with instructions about washing hands, not sharing utensils when eating and using hand sanitizer now available at entrances to stores and just about everywhere including the subway stations. The news is controlled by the military government so was designed to keep everyone calm and informed. No amped up CNN style coverage here to instigate chaos and possible political unrest. There was good news too. On February 3rd Thai doctors successfully treated a Chinese patient in critical condition with a cocktail of HIV and flu meds. She recovered and was delisted as having the virus. 

This news was not part of your CNN coverage. One might well wonder why. Clearly the panic element of the news cycle had far to go to keep eyeballs. A cure would dampen this interest. And besides it wasn’t a white first world male doctor who came up with this treatment so was hardly viable. The best mention was a generic “some are trying various meds, but nothing has been corroborated”. I had blamed todays increased fear factor on social media, but it was more the fault of CNN that 24/7 pipeline in constant need of news fuel with which to douse the public with whatever would keep their attention and fear was the most addictive elixer. (CNN coming on line in the late ‘80s was when parents started to put their kids on house arrest due to all the child abduction stories. We are just now beginning to come back from that with the “free range” child movement having to legislate the right to allow children to walk the streets without getting arrested.)

At the train station in Chiangmai arriving passengers on the sleeper train frequented by foreigners were greeted with welcoming smiles and hand sanitizer dispensing nurses, an infrared camera and a doctor. Once in the country side there were no masks at all. Time had stood still there. We went about our business. (Much to report in my next post on my adventures learning about a probiotic technology from Japan and what a game changer it is for animal husbandry, farming and garbage collecting.) Two weeks passed and I was once again back at the near empty airport. It was eery. The hugeness of this shopping mall airport empty on a Friday afternoon. It felt like there had been a die off. Would this be the end of globalization I wondered? Perhaps all that frenetic travel before the virus was quite unnecessary. And we could finally transform to a localized economy. I could get used to this I thought.

May You Live In Interesting Times

Upon entering the U.S. there were so few returning residents that they switched us to the visitors side as a long line of travelers from Taiwan awaited processing on the other. Why would they want to visit Trump’s anti-foreigner, anti-everyone America I wondered? I guess they got tired of wearing masks. Heh. We had all been screened at every airport with infrared cameras before boarding (to spot a fever). It would be the only reassurance I could offer to my State side family that I had not brought back the dreaded bug.

The customs officer questioned me sternly about what I was doing on my trip and what I brought back. Air freshener and kitchen utensils I said. I forgot about the 3 bags of shrimp and chili flavored Lays potato chips. I didn’t want to mention my rattles because they had seeds in them. He let me pass.

The America I returned to had shifted noticeably into a mood I hadn’t experienced—ever. A sort of collective holding of its breath as though awaiting disaster yet the weather was lovely. The streets seemed noticeably light in traffic, but the conversations both in person and online was a chaotic, noisy battle of wills. I was back to being mad again. Mad at the panic after traveling through the relatively calm territory of a people living with the epidemic. Mad at the political wrestling of the primaries and the arising horror of the “liberal” media to the specter of Bernie Sanders. The chaos of it made me wish to dispense with democracy altogether. Here in the land of “make your own reality” the battle was on for control as pundits tried desperately to mitigate the horror of an old man who represented so much change to a society so invested in incremental baby steps. Yet completely ignored the one woman who was speaking sense. I’d come home to vote for Elizabeth of the House of Warren, mother of dragons flaming Bloomberg right off his golden perch. 

My flashes of insight informed by having just returned from a country whose democracy had gone terribly wrong yet was still quite functional informed my commentary. I wondered if Americans would learn quickly enough how to handle the unrest I saw waiting to erupt. Democracy requires much of its constituents and there had always been smart, well informed politically savvy people who saw clearly what was happening, but the narrative would have to be well enough understood by those who were only reasonably and superficially informed. But here was a new challenge—the people I was used to taking my cues from—the informed classes of older white liberals who had always called the shots for us in the media and in our local leadership appeared to have overslept and missed the movement I’d been a part of and had been watching since the last election. It gave me the worse case of culture shock. I sharpened my pen on Facebook on every platform offered. Some would hear me and be so shocked it shut them up. Some in turn wanted to shout me down. I took solace in political satire—the territory of subversive, veiled opinions. It was best not to get too invested. And hold open for what could still arise in the unexpected—what unnoticed pangolin might MacGuffin us right off our righteous perches. The Black Swan of our time. Anything could happen.

As a writer the famous Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” is my version of “surf’s up” in my taste for adventure. Though I now felt that real change (in terms of how we choose to live preferably sustainably and in harmony with the earth) was coming from outside the U.S. this is where I’m planted and by rights should bloom and have bloomed. I would be a witness either to its continuing collapse or to its passage through. 

Meanwhile I checked online for cheap tickets to elsewhere. Those empty airports had been a tonic. And this was after all a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the world without either Americans or Chinese. Two classes of tourists so huge that without them the world would be empty and left to its own self. How cool was that? Perfectly normal things could happen. 

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