Excerpt of Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski
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GOOD GOD, NO
WHEN HE WAS A YEAR out of Brown, my friend Josh OConnor won a Thai beach
vacation in a lottery in a bar. He spent two weeks on Ko Samui, decided that
Thailand was home, and never left. That was at least ten years ago, and since
then, Josh has done just about every sort of odd job a foreigner in Thailand can
do: He taught English for a while, and was part owner of a nightclub in Phuket.
He was a stringer for one of the wire agencies, and he took a few photos now and
again for Agence France-Presse. Josh played the trumpet in the marching band in
high school, and he parlayed the experience into a few years as the frontman for
a Thai ska band called the Kings Men. He founded a dating agency. He worked for
a time for an environmental group attempting to stop construction of a large dam
across the Mekong, and when the effort failed, he wrote publicity materials for
a cement exporter. He hinted that many years ago, in a moment of real financial
desperation, he smuggled a pound of hashish in his belly back to the States. Im
not sure that I entirely believe the story, but it was consistent with
everything I know about Josh. Yet to see him, one would have no idea of his
adventurous spirit: he was neither tall nor short but decidedly round; he was
chubby-cheeked, curly-haired, and round-nosed, with bulging eyes and an
oversized head. He had thick lips and a gap between his two front teeth which
whistled very slightly when he spoke and made his speech nervous and breathy.
His body was pear-shaped, with an enormous, protruding posterior: when he
walked, he waddled like a duck; and when he laughed, as he did often, his whole
body shook. Im attractive, Josh once told me, to a lady who likes herself a
big man. As it happened, there were a lot of little Thai ladies who did like
themselves a big man, and Josh was never lonely. He was one of the happiest men
Ive ever met. It was Joshs conceit that he could order a meal better than any
other farang in the kingdom.
I first met Josh when I was on vacation just out of college and backpacking
through Malaysia and Indonesia, long before Rachel and I moved to Thailand. Josh
and I were staying at the same hotel in Penang. He was on a visa run, down from
Bangkok. Within about five minutes of spotting me in the hotel bar, Josh had sat
himself down next to me and, in admirably direct fashion, informed me of his
plans to start a pornographic production company in Vietnam. He had the funding,
he said, contacts in the government, and an unbelievable star. These plans, like
so many Josh OConnor plans, eventually came to nothing, but his account was
sufficiently compelling that whenever Im in Bangkok, I always give him a call.
Now I was down from Chiang Mai, writing an article for a Singaporean arts
magazine about an up-and-coming Thai sculptor, and Josh and I agreed to meet
just after sundown in front of the Ratchawat market. I spent a long, sultry
afternoon teasing a few good quotations out of my sculptor; then, just as the
streetlights across Bangkok were flickering on, a motorcycle taxi deposited me
in front of the 7-Eleven opposite the market, where Josh was already waiting for
me, a goofy smile on his chubby face.
Plastic tables packed the narrow sidewalk. The sting of frying chili peppers
made my eyes water, and from the market, now closing for the day, the sweet
smells of jasmine, lilies, incense, and lemongrass mingled with the smells of
rotting fish, molding durian, sweat, car exhaust, and garbage. On the corner,
two competing noodle men served up bowls of guoy tieo in a ginger-and-coriander
sauce; a little farther down the road, the curry lady had set up shop with huge
vats of green curry and red, a jungle curry, a panang curry, and a spicy fish
soup. A pretty girl cut up fresh mangoes and served them over sticky rice in a
coconut sauce. There was somebody who grilled skewers of chicken over a small
open flame and which he served with a peanut sauce.
Excerpted from Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2007 by Mischa Berlinski. Published in February 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.