The Power of a Book

IMG_0218Today I am sharing a short memoir piece that I wrote about five years ago but never published. It was inspired by thoughts of one of my all-time favourite books, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, pictured at right on my bookshelf today. I was lucky to find this book at the right time in my life (or maybe it found me). It gave me the confidence to forge a new path and be true to myself (including becoming an editor and writer!), and I will always be grateful for the day I came across it.

 

All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

“Greed is good.”

I tucked my chin back to read the rest of the T-shirt’s navy-blue script. “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed will not only save the Faculty of Commerce, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the University of Manitoba.”

It was September 1992, the start of my senior year as a capitalist-in-training. The shirt I held was the hot seller at the student union sales table. Taking slight liberties with the speech of Michael Douglas’s character in the movie Wall Street, its words were part jest, part motto of my alma mater — and of the era in which I came of age.

“I’ll take one,” I said.

For the rest of the year I wore the T-shirt with jeans and a backpack and thought its words were witty. I wore it to classes where lessons of free markets and maximizing shareholder value and supply-demand economics made me think its message might be wise. But mostly I wore it without thinking at all. And when I graduated the following May and headed for Thailand on a one-year work exchange program, the thin cotton shirt was in my suitcase, just another practical staple of a hot-weather wardrobe.

 * * *

Bangkok greeted me like a punch in the stomach. Its hot soupy air made me catch my breath when I stepped outside the airport and sucked it in for the first time.

On the taxi-ride into the city’s core, the traffic slowed to a crawl and I got a close-up view of Bangkok’s contradictions. Tall gleaming office buildings, radiant shopping centres, and fountain-fronted condominiums overlooked corrugated tin shacks, the exhaust furls of outdoor cook stoves, and legless beggars paddling by on makeshift skateboards. Dirty children in flip-flops crisscrossed the lanes of idling vehicles and rapped on car windows, their beseeching eyes and heavily laden arms offering tissues, newspapers, Buddha amulets, and flower garlands in exchange for a few coins. The scents of jasmine and rose petals mingled with gas fumes and ripe fruit. I thought I might be sick.

The next few weeks were a blur of settling into an apartment — a 150 square-foot room I considered a haven solely for its air conditioning — and starting my job at Bangkok Securities. Usa, my supervisor, was a pleasant woman and I was eager to please her. She assigned me to write a detailed English-language profile of BS — the irony of the acronym escaping me at the time — and I approached my task with the full weight of my trained corporate enthusiasm behind me.

My Thai workmates offered friendly smiles and the bravest among them occasionally invited me to lunch or for an after-work outing, but language barriers slowed the pace of those fledgling relationships. Mostly I made friends with other young westerners who had come to Thailand as part of the same exchange program I had: Chris from Ontario, whose gung-ho enthusiasm for everything Thai was infectious; another Ontarian named Richard, whose damp shirts and sweaty brow didn’t seem to make him uncomfortable; tall, sophisticated Stéfan from Belgium; a vivacious dark-haired Colombian named Claudia; and Klaus, a bespectacled Austrian who started every sentence with “Yes, but…”

Every Friday after work, the group of us met at Garaweg, a restaurant owned and operated by a gravelly voiced Swiss woman. The food was lousy — neither Swiss nor Thai, but a failed attempt to fuse both — but the local Sangthip whiskey was strong and cheap and the pop music played by Yai the Thai, as the restaurant’s entertainer called himself, made us laugh and feel at home.

We farang — foreigners — were equally delighted and frustrated, bemused and bewildered by our crazy new home, and the bonds between us grew quickly. Garaweg was a respite where we could vent about how confusing everything was — and how exhilarating. Compared to Canada’s sedate pace of growth, Thailand’s economy was increasing at an annual clip of close to 10 percent. Like me, Chris worked for a finance company, and we were jointly amazed by the rise in Thailand’s stock exchange index — up 30 percent in only two months.

No one talked about what we saw on the sides of the road or roaming between the traffic. And though in my letters home I included newspaper articles about water shortages, dangerously high levels of lead in the air, and the uneven distribution of wealth within Thai society, I still sometimes wore my greed T-shirt. I was just a twenty-something having fun.

  * * *

One Friday night about six months into my Bangkok experience, Chris, Richard, and Stéfan didn’t show up at Garaweg. The next Friday they were back, full of stories about the evening they’d spent at a five-star hotel the previous week. Its bar was frequented by expatriate executives, and the suddenly chummy trio boasted of the contacts they’d made. Words like “opportunities” and “leads” and “lots of money” peppered their excited sentences. The rest of us nodded and congratulated them before calling for more Sangthip and another song from Yai.

Over the coming weeks, Stéfan and Chris successfully agitated for raises at their companies — Richard was already making more — and they encouraged the rest of us to do the same. Most of us had come to Bangkok under contract at standard Thai wages — my monthly salary was 13,000 baht, or about $650 Canadian — but it was well-known that expats could make five or ten times what Thai workers earned to do the same job.

When the three came to Garaweg now, they arrived in taxis. On their bar tabs, Sangthip was replaced by Scotch. They took a week’s holiday at a resort on Phuket Island and came back with pictures of catered beaches, glistening seas, and a few Thai girls who made me wonder about the boys’ girlfriends back home. Klaus suspected they had started doing cocaine, and I regretted he might be right.

“It’s there for the taking,” Chris said to me one night about the rich extended contract he had negotiated at work. He had also started making leveraged trades on the Thai stock exchange, already netting a few thousand baht. “You can do it too,” he laughed, lighting another cigarette. “They’ll let anyone make trades here. There’s so much money and opportunity to be had, it’s fucking fantastic.” His eyes shone.

In the coming days, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Chris had said. As I rode the crowded bus to and from work. As I looked around my one-room apartment and knew that a whole family occupied the one next door. As I jostled along the slim line of clear sidewalk between the street vendors and the motorbikes and choked on the black smoke coming from their exhaust pipes. And as I wore my T-shirt.

Greed was good. Remember?

Money and opportunity were apparently mine for the taking. According to my training, I was supposed to want both. I was supposed to be excited. But all I felt was depressed.

  * * *

In the journal I kept at the time is an entry that asks: “Where is my ambition?” Another entry: “Maybe I’m not smart enough to want this.”

I had a finance degree, had graduated third in my class, had believed in globalization and unfettered commerce as the answers to all the world’s problems. Before coming to Bangkok I had happily pictured myself working in a bank or an investment firm or the finance department of some big multinational corporation. Yet now I dithered, my confidence and self-esteem in rapid decline as I confronted doubts about that envisioned future.

Meanwhile, my friends continued to cash in. Chris, Richard, and Stéfan ditched their one-room apartments and signed a joint lease for a sprawling house with maid service, a goldfish pond, and a cool breeze blowing through the gated compound. The place also came with a rent of 50,000 baht per month, almost four times my monthly salary.

The first time I visited, I sat on a leather couch and tried to participate in their corporate banter. I accepted a gin and tonic and pretended to have a good time. I complimented them on the house, on the pond, on the unseen woman who made their beds and washed their clothes. But their joviality was now more chafing than infectious, and I couldn’t wait to leave, to be alone.

In March, I went with Chris and Richard to the Bangkok Hilton Hotel to see former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark speak at a Thai-Canadian Chamber of Commerce luncheon. He congratulated Thailand on its impressive economic growth, suggesting Canada might have something to learn from this particular roaring tiger. The North American Free Trade Agreement, signed a few months earlier, was, he said, a step in the right direction. He urged the assembly to keep on trading and keep on prospering. During question period, a singular uncertainty echoed in my head: “Isn’t there another measure of success and quality of life than GDP, Mr. Clark?” But I couldn’t summon the nerve to voice the question.

Instead, I told the guys I thought the speech was really good and went with them to shake Joe Clark’s hand. But after that luncheon I started avoiding Garaweg, feeling less and less comfortable with my expatriate friends. All I wanted to do was read, write in my journal, or pen long letters home.

  * * *

On my way home from BS one day, I stopped in at Yaohan, a massive department store near my apartment. I was out of reading material — a must-have for the three to four hours I spent on a bus for my daily twenty-kilometer commute in Bangkok’s gridlocked traffic.

Yaohan’s thin English-language book section offered two main choices: new bestsellers from the likes of Grisham and Crichton that I could finish in one day and forget the next, or classics by Dostoevsky or Tolstoy that took at least a week to read and would stay with me forever. Books were a luxury on my salary so I needed the most bang for my baht. I ran my hands along the spines of the classics, finally pulling Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham from its place. I guessed by the volume’s nice weight and small type that I might even be able to stretch it out for two weeks.

I ran my hands along the spines of the classics, finally pulling Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham from its place.

During the Thai New Year’s festival at the height of the hot season in April, I took a solitary holiday to Phi Phi, an island shaped like back-to-back crescent moons in the Andaman Sea. For five days, I swam and I read and I wrote. I walked along the beach and sat alone in restaurants, watching other tourists — westerners, mostly — play.

It was during that trip that I finished Of Human Bondage — and a passage toward the end of the book was like a switch turning on the light inside my dark brain.

Like I had been doing for months, the main character, Philip, questions the meaning of his life and the adequacy of his ambition throughout most of the story. Late in the narrative, an older character named Cronshaw gives Philip a woven rug, explaining that everything the younger man seeks can be found by looking at it.

After Cronshaw dies, Philip gazes at the rug’s intricate weave for hours. And then, in an instant, he realizes what Cronshaw had wanted him to see: that the unique pattern of the carpet was like a life. Where one individual might produce a simple design that meets many people’s expectations, another might create a more complex pattern, beautiful only to a few. The value of a carpet — or a life — wasn’t tied to someone else’s approval of it, but by how true it was to its designer’s intent.

Suddenly I could see the answers to my own questions, too. My ambition and success couldn’t be measured by a singular result — wealth — but by the efforts I made to live according to my own principles. There was a different way to achieve a happy life — a happy society — than by living the mantra I’d been taught in business school and wearing on my back as a souvenir.

I have no idea when I lost that lousy T-shirt, but I do know when I rejected its stark values and started thinking about my own.

Later that month, I left my job at BS. I booked a train ticket south and several weeks later another heading north, wanting to see the Thailand that lay outside the expatriate bubble I’d existed in. I returned to Bangkok in June to say goodbye and best wishes to my friends. Then I boarded a plane back to Canada. It was time to start working on my own pattern. Twenty years later, it’s far from perfect and far from finished, but the design’s all mine.