A neighbor has reinstalled our baby gate for daughter number two. At ten months she crawls, pulls up, and climbs; her gate protects her only slightly, as it blocks a “down” stairway next to an “up” one, and not even Mommy crouched at the gate diverts her from ascent. Something in us doesn’t love a gate. We want up.
Bangkok has lots of gates. Our suburban expat community and its subdivisions have entrances manned by guards, many of whom salute and click their heels as if we were commanding officers. Homes inside the community often have waist-high gates at the end of the drive, with the doorbell at the street. Outside this area, local homes have gates twice as tall, many with spikes at the top. Some are simply solid, moving walls.
The gates and walls mark gaps in income, starkly evident here as in so many places. Look one way from our apartment, which edges the expat burg, and you see Benzes and BMWs, palatial homes, live-in drivers and housekeepers; look the other way and you see local houses with tall gates, and a short drive from these, a shantytown. We in our teacher housing feel like paupers looking one way, kings looking the other. This may be why we stay in our sliver of “middle,” often interacting with families whose income matches ours. But I check notice boards at the expat supermarket for items on sale in the big houses, drooling over an elliptical trainer, deluxe joggers, shelving. An executive’s wife tells me teachers are great customers. We are not unlike the local deal hounds who rush our gate when it opens for the teacher housing yard sale each year. We all want up.
I have discovered here that many things pass over income-walls: sounds, yawns, information. I learned about takraw, or kick volleyball, by watching a man keep a ball aloft with his foot for several minutes, training in a building site just over our wall. I smiled at the breastfeeding wife of a laborer on the same site who looked back when I peered from our living room. Our wall (with spiky top) lets us hear calls to prayer, vendors’ jingles, karaoke marathons, national songs broadcast on speakers at eight and six. We’ve heard the sounds of dogs, cows, goats, and chickens on the other side. Aromas from cooking travel to our grounds, making us hungry.
But income does not hurdle walls, and this truth paralyzed Bangkok two years ago in April and May, when after occupying a central commercial district — analogous to Times Square or Shibuya — for weeks, a group of “red shirt” protesters clashed with troops in fighting that led to more than ninety deaths, numerous arson attacks, looting, and fear. One core issue was economic inequality.
At that time, no nationality or income level prevented worry. I made coffee for a U.S. embassy wife who thought her husband could not come home due to security measures, and listened to a Thai school staffer describe people on her soi trying to douse a bank fire. I emailed a colleague of Japanese cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto, who lost his life covering the conflict. My husband and I took precautions, stocked up on food, and obeyed curfews. We watched our city “trend” online. I prayed with a church group and listened to Psalm 23 with new ears; dropped raw eggs on the floor after seeing plumes of smoke over downtown; and ate a meal with shaky hands on hearing a cinema nearby was burning (it wasn’t). I begged off planning a conference for a few days; wrote emails to reassure friends and relatives. I gave thanks that our daughter, then two, was oblivious, and read picture books as entertainment for her and a slow-down, be-present liturgy for me. Our toddler single-handedly kept me grounded, taught me I could pry myself from the news and believe what I was imparting: Our family was safe.
But many others weren’t, and their suffering related to walls. It was hard to tell which ones. Some said the fighting was about rich versus poor: the poor were opening a gate. Another view was that one elite was attacking another by co-opting an underclass: rich using poor as battering ram against rich. We expats knew the conflict was more complex than some foreign media portrayed, but were in no position to tell the world. And it was hard for anyone to know who won in the end; for a while, all we knew was that Thailand had lost.
One thing I saw clearly when burning ceased: the walls still stood. The torched end of an upscale shopping center was rebuilt. Shantytowns remained. The political party associated with the protesters took power, but the prime minister is wealthy. Many Thais still live in privilege or entrenched poverty, huge gaps between. We expats comply in this. We participate in systems that let a band teacher have a furnished apartment and annual overseas leave, and his wife write and translate while a sitter helps with the children twice a week and cleans house at naptime.
We see all this yet do not drop everything to change it. As obvious as our privilege is, we think not just about down but about up. We are like our baby who, though not literate, leaves her board books to claim her big sister’s picture books. She sets aside her toy cell phone and grabs the real one; she bats at my laptop. She climbs stairs and risks falls. She shows me that even from infancy, we want up, and this is both natural and dangerous. I wonder what event in her life will teach her this — and what, if anything, can teach us all.