I stroll with our two-and-a-half-year-old under a display of flags at the international school. She seeks out the flags of Japan and Bangladesh, enjoying the circles of scarlet against fields of white and green. I point out the flag of the US and identify others as best I can. She asks which flags I “like,” as if they were stickers or outfits, and I admire the image of the cedar on a flag of Lebanon. She selects the Canadian flag for its maple leaf.
The display of flags helps students find the banners of their passport countries and notice others, as well. Our elder daughter, also at two-and-a-half, pored over flags-of-the-world books due to this display and recited names of countries as if tasting them.
I confess I have never viewed the display with a toddler’s zest to admire and identify. Most flags correspond to few or zero experiences in my life, while one summons a childhood of memories—songs, fireworks, pledges of allegiance.
I know that interest in the other flags can be acquired. Two years spent in Oman lead me to seek out its flag’s signature khanjar (a decorative dagger), and I look around for the Thai flag’s stripes. But though I live here and have seen those stripes daily for seven years, I know that Thailand is not my own—not nearly so much as it is someone else’s. A recent tragedy here in the capital brought this home to me.
On April 2, 2014, a World War II-era US bomb exploded in Bangkok, taking the lives of at least seven adults and a girl of about four. The 200-kilogram ordnance was unearthed at a building site, taken to a scrap shop, and cut, in hopes of selling it for a reported 10 Thai baht (about 30 cents) per kilo. Neither the construction workers who hauled it nor the shop employee who cut it apparently knew what it was.
The result was a crater 3 meters deep and 8 meters wide, and body parts flung some 200 meters. (The fragments of the child were found later, so that she was not included in the initial death toll or news stories.) During the Pacific war, a US plane dropped the explosive in a campaign here against the Japanese military. The bomb ultimately killed Thai and Cambodian civilians, in a chain of events driven by poverty.
My shock and surprise over this incident first centered on its strangeness—I had no idea bombs from the forties are still found undetonated in Asia. My heart also sank when I considered the deaths and the bereaved families, who will each receive 10,000 baht, or about $300, from the Bangkok government. I then grew angry when I checked US media and found the blast had been ignored by several news sources I trusted. Moreover, viewer comments on one news site brushed aside the deaths to highlight the “brainless” act of cutting the object, and the “high quality” of World War II explosives—still powerful after 70 years! Comments even mocked the dead:
“Their last words were ‘Ohhh sCRAP’!”
“Were in the money [sic] . . . Were in th . . . BOOM!!!”
I cannot prove these horrid comments were made by Americans. The authors may be generous souls whose words misrepresent them. At least one of them posted an RIP for the deceased.
But the words themselves, and the media silence, show such robust disinterest in Thai deaths that they make me wonder: deep down, do we care only for the lives of countrymen? Does the noise I make about empathy as a writer and mom only conceal a core of implacable self-interest? Of national interest?
I would not have noticed the April 2 blast had I not been here in Bangkok.
And though I live here, I know next to nothing of Third World poverty. The latte I sip as I write this cost the same as 10 kilos of scrap metal.
And I know but a miniscule amount of history that casts America in a negative light. I have lived in Bangkok for seven years, but did not know the US bombed this city.
That’s right, I am an American married to a Japanese living in Thailand, who did not know the US bombed Japan in this country, until an explosive from the conflict killed people 20 minutes from our apartment.
I have, in the past, taken US troops stationed in Japan to visit an exhibit about the Tokyo firebombings. I have translated a historical novel that depicts the incineration of Shibuya. But I knew nothing of the Bangkok air raids.
It forces me to ask if I really can love one nation, yet connect to another. For 20 years I held no passport and lived beneath the Stars and Stripes. The US flag was all there was; it just was, an ensign so ubiquitous as to be invisible. It stood at school and university and even near the altar at church.
Our church here welcomes citizens of everywhere, but does not fly national flags. Instead we have a bamboo cross. A few weeks ago, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo stood near it and cried a song of thanks because, after years of uncertainty, church members had arranged for her asylum in Canada. As she sang, a Filipino on guitar and a Korean on piano joined in, accompanying her by ear. She planned to leave soon but appeared again in just two weeks, having been denied her exit from Thailand over a transit visa. She swallowed sobs to worship and even raised both hands to bless a Filipino-American couple who were about to move to Ethiopia, and I thought: this can be done. We can look beyond nation and just be people together on this earth.
But really, can we?
The blast, the bodies, the barren response to April 2, my ignorance tell me I still have to ask the question. And the beating hearts of dual citizen daughters tell me the answer must be yes, or they face a life at war with themselves.
I cling (how moms cling!) to the happenings at church. And I cling to how, at school, behind the flags, sits a wall devoted to outreach projects: students of various countries cooperating to help the elderly, disabled, and poor. The wall serves as a backdrop for petition drives and bake sales, and as HQ for disaster aid campaigns. I love that unlike the flag display, the wall is dynamic, reflecting evolving needs and issues. I love that it was built by adults, but finds its completion in the efforts of youth, who run the projects. Finally, I love its central location and its emphasis on looking outward. It has a single line of text painted at the top in all caps: “We can. We will.”
To raise our children here, I guess my husband and I must constantly ask Can we? And then pledge, in a new vow of allegiance, We can. We will.
Can we live differently to honor the little girl who died here this month? We can. We will. We simply have to.