Michael Jackson died three years ago this month, but fans can snap a photo with him at a branch of Madame Tussauds here in Bangkok. He has also been featured in traditional, bunraku-like Thai puppet shows, manipulated by artists trained in classical Thai dance, which may explain their precision at imitating his moves.
I met MJ long before expat-hood, and adulthood: I missed the Thriller release, being pre-K age, but learned Al Yankovic’s “Just Eat It” in grade school, and worked out as a teen to Dangerous. When living in Oman as newlyweds and driving a 4WD with tape deck, my husband and I bought a Number Ones cassette at a Muscat shop and listened to it on drives through mountains, desert, and seascapes.
It was in Oman that we got closest to Michael himself: selling school t-shirts at an expat bazaar in a luxury hotel, we learned the King of Pop was eating upstairs. The daughter of the wine charm vendor next to us got an autograph through a guard.
That was as close as I got to MJ. But I knew when he died: We were between the Japan and U.S. legs of summer leave, and I remember stepping into a CD store in Kamakura to hear his music playing in commemoration; hours later, I watched at the Seattle airport as CNN rolled tape of the last rehearsals. In Kansas, my family picnicked by the TV to watch part of the funeral. Finishing my U.S. shopping list, I realized everyone at a Wichita Old Navy was singing along to “Billie Jean.”
That November, in our first movie date as parents, my husband and I watched This Is It at a suburban Bangkok cinema. I experienced a delayed MJ fandom then, visiting the theater again to ask for a Thai-language poster and enjoying the footage of “Bad” run-throughs that looped on a TV monitor. At home I watched trailers and listened to the Fresh Air review and MJ tunes, which got me to write and sort the silverware drawer. I attended the movie again alone, on a weeknight in an empty theater. After the credits rolled, I scuttled by the usher, flashing my notebook like a badge of normalcy. Yes, I was in there writing, trying to figure out what it was about This Is It.
It was partly the performance: the bass line on “Smooth Criminal” that my husband uses to teach ostinato; the ecstatic movement, like improvised thrilled swoops in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It was the creative camaraderie: the keyboardist following MJ like a concertmaster and dancers howling at his moves, as members of my college wind band shuffled feet after good solos. I also enjoyed watching an artist exercise his talent when few were watching, an act familiar to people who work behind-the-scenes, like parents. All of this was set to a beat and ended on “Heal the World.” What not to love?
But there was something more basic. I got a clue about it late one night in a Kobe hotel the next summer, stuck on an essay draft. Flipping on YouTube, I viewed “Thriller” tribute dances performed en masse in various public places, including a Nagoya train station I knew from my Fulbright year, and a Bangkok commercial district where we once priced baby furniture, which had since become the scene of bloody urban warfare and arson. Seeing those spaces overtaken by dancers doing identical moves from the ’80s, I got it. Of course. Jackson was a constant; he linked my days in a sweaty basement in Kansas, a rehearsal room in Minnesota, an SUV in Oman, a multiplex in Thailand, and a business hotel in Japan, and reminded me those places were part of one world.
Children as well as adults love to see their worlds connect. Our older daughter noticed early when a couple of her cultures crossed: at two, she pointed a finger at a knot of teens speaking Japanese in Thailand. They understand that, like me! she was saying. She loved it when Ojiichan and Obaachan in Japan introduced themselves to her in English once, and goads Grandpa in Kansas to say go-chisosama deshita after meals.
I worry about this child who loves to see worlds merge, yet lives apart from her home cultures in a high-turnover expatriate town, where friends and shared experiences come and go quickly. She just said goodbye to some departing preschoolers and a trusted librarian as the international school’s term ended. She will grow up in a scattered, not geographically fixed, community, and needs reminders that say, like the MJ hit, “You are not alone.”
How can we help her? One way is to introduce her to the growing world of “third culture kids”–people raised among cultures due to corporate, diplomatic, military, and mission work. Another way is to serve as her historians, proof that someone knows she made up names for the fingers our baby proffers, ET-like, and that she combined Japanese peek-play with Pinkalicious in the phrase “inai inai, pink-a-boo”!
We must also help her find constants–reminders that our world is one and some songs are heard everywhere. She will need reminders that go beyond global brands and celebrity culture, however, to the sources of awe that inspire that culture. She will need to see not only that people moonwalk (or try) everywhere, but also that the moon turns its phases, seasons cycle, pizza dough rises and tomatoes grow almost everywhere; and wherever you go, reading deepens the landscape, music lifts you from the terrain, and love criss-crosses time zones and postal codes. We can never pretend to her that distances, differences, and departures have no meaning. But we can attune her ears to a beat, to the ostinato of the unified world we’re trying to groove in. We hope that someday she will hear the rhythm when she needs it, and dance.