Well, I had quite an exciting and . . . different . . . vacation during the Chinese New Years holiday.

. . .

In October I'd attempted to purchase tickets to Taiwan in order to visit Dave and Leivin, but had been told that all flights to Taiwan had already been booked. (Which is probably for the best since knowing them, I would most certainly have ended up in jail or in some other compromising position.)

Lion Dancer

You see, Chinese New Year marks an annual exodus off the island. Overseas Chinese, Malaysians and Indonesians fly home in droves, and every expat takes the week to traipse around the area.

The flailing Asian economy makes 5-star resorts particularly affordable. The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, for example, has gone from 300USD a night to 50USD. If you are being paid in US currency, you are living on top of the world right about now.

At any rate, Singapore is a ghost town. Well, at least that is what I hear. I was gone.

Soy and Ped

Fortunately, since I'd looked into flights early enough, I was able to change my plans and book myself on a flight to Bangkok.

Although Soy would be working for a good portion of my trip (since the Thai do not celebrate Chinese New Year to the degree Singaporeans do) she could take off a couple of days to trek around Northern Thailand, the last area of the country I'd left to explore.

As it turned out, however, I was in for a bit more than the usual jungle jaunt I'd come to expect from recent travels in Southeast Asia.

The trip would begin by meeting (for the first time) a good portion of Soy's family (including mom and dad) over diner and would end disorientedly in front of a glittery rack of diamond rings.

But I get ahead of myself . . .

Longneck Keren Woman

The history of my relationship with Soy has always been an intriguing one, or at least one full of intrigue. It has also benefited from semesters of cultural sensitivity training afforded by a degree in cultural anthropology.

We actually met at the "Foggy Bottom" Metro Station underneath George Washington University. As it so happened, being new to D.C., and still unused to metros, transit cards, and the beltway, I was completely lost. So when I realized that I had no idea which train to catch to Arlington Virginia, I asked the first person I saw for help.

The first person I saw, of course, was Soy, who immediately panicked and started trying desperately to find the words to say, "I have no idea what you are saying, I'm only two weeks into my conversational English course!!!"

Okay, so it was not all that long before I realized that not only could this girl not answer my question but that she also seemed new to everything. So I asked a more likely candidate . . . Hmmmm, blond hair, blue eyes . . . woops, Norwegian. GW was certainly a globally - represented university. However, the Norwegian knew which train to take.

Anyway, the next part of the story actually starts three months earlier in a Parisian street café.

Hanging Out

I have to say that I found the French extremely kind. Well, I should say, I found them extremely kind to me. I saw them being standoffish to other American travelers, but I never had a problem. The key, I found, was to attempt to speak French right off the bat. Initially, whomever I spoke to would quickly realize that it would be more efficient for them to speak in English. However, they appreciated my attempt and that set the tone for he rest of the dialog. This was true in every country in Europe except Spain and Italy where I could actually communicate using Spanish.

Anyway, while in France, and particular at one café on the way to the train station where I was to frantically catch the last train of the day, I was greatly impressed with how kind and helpful people were. (In the case of the train, the shopkeeper actually ran with me in order to make sure I caught the train.) In fact, I was so impressed that I promised that when I returned to the U.S., I would pay back the kindness with some of my own. I mean, when you think about it, being helpful is trivial for the help giver. But the feeling of comfort and security given to the help seeker will be with them forever in their memories of being lost in a foreign place. It is quite a karmic gold mine with little lost and much gained.

So here was my first chance to even the score. The Norwegian had gone off to Maryland but the Asian girl (perhaps Chinese???) was sitting alone near the bottom of the escalator. I'd found out that we were on the same train so I went over and said hello.

No, I swear, it is true. It was not some cheesy, prosaic pickup. It really did start out that way. In the end, we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet sometime so she could practice conversation with a local.

Soon after, I phoned her to ask her out to a movie (Can you believe I chose Natural Born Killers?) She was cooking at the time and distractedly wielding several spatulas at once. As a consequence, she mistakenly thought I was someone from her English class rather than the nut case from the train. The misunderstanding worked to my favor and she agreed to go out. Boy was she shocked when she saw me, instead of Fan, at the door later that week (though she played it off well).

Hill Tribe Village

At any rate, the friendship grew over time and eventually things got more romantic. Of course the relationship caused Soy some personal turmoil.

Americans ("Farangs") are not considered particularly acceptable partners for Thais. After all, American representatives in Thailand are primarily military grunts, fat, old sex fiends, and Bay Watch.

Add to that my Japanese surname, given the fact that only 50 years earlier the Japanese were ravaging, raping, pillaging, torturing, enslaving and generally screwing up all of Southeast Asia, and you get a pretty bad family/cultural background.

Rice Planting

Hill Tribe Kid

Eventually of course, grad school came to an end and Soy returned to Thailand. We agreed to try to find our way back to each other and try to work things out but accepted the fact that we'd be apart for at least a year.

Soy started working for a British - Thai joint venture called Nakornthon Schroder Bank doing investment analysis. In short, Soy does research on companies listed in the Thai stock market and prepares reports on their stability, promise or problems. These reports are then used to determine buy- sell-hold actions within the larger funds managed by the bank. In recent months she has moved from energy to the entertainment and information technology sectors so her work has become more and more accessible to me.

It was an incredibly promising position with great opportunity for growth, education and eventual mobility. And the fact that Nakornthon and Schroder are both stable and prominent companies, and that she has performed beyond expectations, meant that she has been one of the talented and lucky few in her industry to keep her job during the economic downturn in Thailand.

I, on the other hand, went off to Silicon Valley to work for Microline Software that was soon bought out by Neuron Data.

During the next year, we had an active and expensive phone relationship and saw each other twice. She came to San Francisco once and I went to Thailand once.

However, I was still officially a closeted skeleton. I say "officially" because I figure news must have slowly filtered into closed-door conversations. The phone bills alone must have been too obvious a clue.

Elephant Trek

I am sure that not admitting anything was a family strategy along the lines of, "perhaps if we ignore it, the problem will go away and no one will lose face permanently." In fact, my suspicion was confirmed when Soy tried to tell her mom who conveniently fell asleep during the discussion and could continue to maintain a veil of naiveté.

Certainly Soy played her role in the game but was often laid low with deep pangs of guilt and forced to continually lie about whom she talked to, where she went, and what she was doing.

And so that is how things have stayed . . . until last week.

. . .

It was good timing for me to go to Thailand.

Hill Tribe Kid

Since I'd come to Singapore, things in Soy's family had softened up some. I had been to Thailand several times and had met a more significant portion of Soy's 12 siblings. Most importantly, I'd met Soy's mom's favorite daughter and had had a decent meeting which, though, somewhat awkward, was a success in my mind. I felt as if I had an important ally.

I think that my move out east signified a greater commitment than they had counted on. But whatever the case, things seemed better than Soy had ever thought they could be.

At any rate, since all previous interviews had gone well, Soy thought it was time that I met her mom. So, I began preparing. I would meet the mom, and if that went well, perhaps she would run defense for me for a couple of months until I met the father and the brothers who would be much more difficult in terms of winning over.

So I started thinking of a good present for the mom and prepared a short speech that I had translated by coworkers into TeoChou (Soy's mother and father's native Chinese dialect). Though Soy's parents actually speak Thai and most of the kids do not speak TeoChou, I decided that I wanted to do the speech in native TeoChou instead of Thai. In the end, I don’t know if it mattered.

Hill Tribe Woman

The speech was, "Hello my name is Eric. I am happy to meet you. I have known Soy for three years and in that time she has said great things about you and the family. I wish I could speak to you more in TeoChou but I have not had an opportunity to learn the language."

The present went through several conceptual iterations. It is tough to buy something for a person who has everything. But I finally settled on a traditional basket of oranges (a symbol of good fortune given on Chinese New Year) and a basket of goodies for the household.

So with my little translated speech in hand, I got on the plane for Bangkok on Tuesday morning.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Soy worked since the Thais do not celebrate Chinese New Years to the degree the Singaporeans do. (Actually in Singapore, we got a double holiday because the Malaysian New Year fell conveniently next to Chinese New Year this year)

During the days I went shopping. No let me make that clear . . . I went SHOPPING. Thailand right now is one big sale. The depreciation of the Thai Baht has gone from 1USD for 25 BAHT to 1USD for 54 BAHT. Since inflation has not yet set in, everything is instantly 50% off due to exchange rates. But it gets better . . . er . . . uh . . . from my perspective.

Since everyone is out of work or has had their salaries effectively halved, people are being much more conservative with their money. Thus, department stores are forced to run major sales in order to keep their businesses running. Thus, most things are on sale from between 40 - 80 %.

In short, swank outfits that would cost $400.00 in the US were selling for $50 in Bangkok.

Since I have been swing dancing a lot, I was out looking for slacks, shirts, ties and suspenders in the swing genre. Slacks which cost $200 Sing Dollars (150USD) were selling for $15 USD and could be altered in 20 minutes for free.

So I shopped, and shopped, and shopped.

After Soy got off work, we hung out and I was happy to see some of her friends who I'd met in D.C. I even got to give some Dear Abby advice to one of her friends Eet.

Hill Tribe Working

On Wednesday night however, Soy dropped the bomb.

There was not going to be a simple, quiet, stress-free meeting between her mother and me. Instead there was going to be a Chinese New Year family dinner with siblings, nephews and nieces, cousins, mom AND dad. Worse yet, I would now have to concern myself with a host of food etiquette which I had not prepared for.

So I took a big breath and agreed. Soy agreed to pick up a basket of oranges for me on her lunch break and I set upon the mission of putting together something for the family. Fortunately, Mai's fiancée Ek, who I knew from D.C. agreed to go with me to help me pick things out and navigate the Thai markets with only a Lonely Planet Phrasebook.

Ek turned out to be brilliant. I had decided that I should get gifts for the 6 little kids who would be at the diner and then one basket type thing for the house. Ek knew exactly what to do. We first went to a toy store and picked up a bunch of B1/B2 toys. B1/B2 are banana cartoon characters from Australia that are currently all the rage in preschool circles. The niece got a Spice World Barbie.

At the Golden

After that, Ek and I hit the supermarket to create the basket of goodies. That turned out to be pretty fun. You can imagine two clueless guys carting up and down the aisles dumping things in according to their color (red for Chinese New Year) and "correctness". We got Tea, booze, chocolate, health supplements, herbs, cookies and other stuff. Ek served as a cultural ambassador very well and was honest in saying, "no, this is totally inappropriate" or "Yes this is good".

In the car on the way back, I started getting nervous. For one, I practiced my speech for Ek, who speak some TeoChou, but who understood not a word of it. This was a bit demoralizing, but I decided that would go ahead with the speech anyway.

Ek had to go to his own party so he dropped me off with Soy.

We were first to the restaurant and by the time people started showing up I was really sweating it. Fortunately, the first to arrive were sisters that I already knew like Mai, Ped and Gai. What's more, the next couple to arrive were Laek and her husband Samart who both studied in Fresno, California for several years. Samart was very friendly and quickly got me into a conversation that made me feel much more relaxed.


And then Soy's mom arrived. Wow, did I feel the blood rush to my head. I performed the customary "wai" (a type of bow, pronounced like "why"), but I think I waid to quickly. I smiled, but probably smiled too nervously.

At any rate, she remained stone-faced, but greeted her children.

Fortunately, I still had my comedy routine in reserve. Actually, she understood the first half my speech and then I think I started getting so nervous that I sped up beyond comprehension. However, the incomprehensible second half had the unexpected but excellent result of causing her to laugh at me as I fiendishly mutilated the tones and accents of her native TeoChou.

This was good. Things got much lighter after that and I felt quite relieved.

Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that I shaved my goatee off before the meeting. Soy had recommended it and as it turned out it was quite a stroke of genius because as another sister told Soy later, her mother had just minutes before said that she "hoped I did not have a beard, because if I did, she would hate me."

I here publicly scold all of my Chinese friends here in Singapore who did not warn me of this when I was asking for hints.

Elephant Trek

However, all went well even if I looked really dumb and 21.

Soy's dad remained stone-faced the entire meal however. I think I did everything correctly, but everyone told me that he was always like that so I should not worry.

So in the end, the whole event was a great success and I went home feeling very good about things.

The next day we left for Northern Thailand, the Chiang Rai Province with Soy's sister Ped.

Chiang Rai was okay. The area is most famous for hill tribes, opium plantations and wilderness treking but to tell you the truth, I can't really recommend it considering the brilliance of Southern and Western Thailand.

Treking through the hill tribe villages was more depressing than anything else. The people are poor, dirty, and generally treated as animals in a zoo for tourists. Much of the culture has been wiped out by development and I got a general feel of hopeless submission while traveling around.


Visiting the Golden Triangle was equally blah. The Golden Triangle is where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It is also where the majority of Southeast Asian Opium is produced and smuggled out by huge multinational drug cartels including powerful TeoChou clans in Thailand, the KMT of Taiwan, the CIA, and the military/mercenary successors to Khun Sa. Of course, most of the Opium production has moved out of Thailand because of changes in the Thai political climate, so I did not get to see any Opium fields.

The one really fun thing we did was to boat up the Me Kong (yes the same Me Kong that we boated up in Vietnam) and ride elephants around the countryside which is quite beautiful when you don't consider the state of the human population which lives there.

We returned to Bangkok on Sunday night.

One thing that was discussed over diner one day in Chiang Rai was the fact that Gai had a friend whose parents were jewelers. Her friend's parents had said that the price of diamonds in Thailand was about to inflate due to Baht devaluation and that if one wanted to buy a diamond, it was the right time. They had told Ped because Mai and Ek are getting married next month and Ek is looking for an engagement ring. (In Thailand they give the engagement ring the week or day before the wedding.)


At any rate, having just been paid for a huge block of advertising on my web site, and feeling particularly rich, I decided that I would buy a diamond and keep it for some later date when I might want it. So on Monday, Ped arranged for me to meet with her friend's parents and they showed me their inventory of diamonds.

And, in fact, I bought a 1.1 Karat diamond ring for about 3,000USD. I went to a jeweler here in Singapore and compared prices for similar stones (clarity, size, and flaws) and found out that I really got a great deal. They are selling a similar ring here for 8,000USD.

So now I am sitting on this ring and Soy knows that if she wants it she has to learn how to do an 8 count Lindy Hop.

As for the concept of marriage, I still feel the same as I always have about it being an anachronistic institution, but circumstances might make me the first of the slacker crew to eat his words. We will just have to see how things go in 1999.

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