Strange days at Bangkok’s Business Day newspaper.
V‘s glassy eyes had me worried. It was getting late, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t made much progress on the editorial he was supposed to be writing. Not only was I going to have to edit it, but also lay it out and then proofread the rest of the copy on the page, all on deadline.
Several hours earlier, I had heard the telltale hiss of a beer can yielding to his ardor. A sound that sighed so sweetly in the ear outside of the office was far less pleasant in the workplace. V, the dissolute Thai boss of the translating desk at the Thai newspaper where I was working, had already started to rob me of the innocent esteem I had once held for the press. Was it possible he might also deaden my desire for beer? And of more immediate concern: What kind of state would his story be in when it finally landed on my desk?
It was getting close to 9 p.m., and I was starting to think that after only five months on the job, my life as an editor at the blandly named Business Day newspaper had already settled into a reliably crappy and booze-scented groove. I mean, the goofiness of my colleagues could be endearing, and our newspaper wasn’t great, so it was all kind of harmless, right?
And so as the sun set on September 11, 2001, I was disappointed in V, but I could also see the potential for comedy in his routine. Maybe this is just what journalism was like? And it’s not like there was any exciting news in the paper that day anyway…
I guess you can see where this is going.
Some background is in order. I was 25 at the time, and several months before my arrival in Thailand, I wouldn’t have been able to identify its elephantine outline on a map. But I wanted to move to Thailand to soak up some of the fellow-feeling and goodwill I had experienced on an earlier holiday visit. The country had a strengthening democracy and an economy that was gradually righting itself after being upended in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It felt to me like my own silliness and incompetence wouldn’t be punished because everything was going to be all right. I was going to fit right in. And I was going to try something I had never done before: work in the newspaper business.
Until then, I had exactly zero experience in journalism. I studied English and French in college, and before my arrival in Thailand I spent my days handing out books and CDs as the librarian at a French cultural center in Chicago. Most of my money came from a nighttime gig parking cars for fancy restaurants and nightclubs on the city’s Randolph Street strip.
Things were apparently going well enough in Thailand that my lack of experience was no barrier to entry, though. Here’s how it happened: A boyhood friend from northern Michigan had traveled to Thailand after college as part of a planned around-the-world trip. His horizons shifted after he met a Swedish girl on a beach and decided to stay; the rest of the world would have to wait. After trying his hand at teaching, he found his way into an editing job at the business newspaper via some connection made through his girlfriend, who worked for the UN. In what turned out to be a happy coincidence for me, the thrill of journalism, at least as it was practiced at this particular paper, had nearly worn off for my friend just as I was preparing to park my last car in Chicago.
I landed in Thailand on April Fool’s Day after an apocalyptic March snowstorm back in the City of Big Shoulders and a near fistfight with my brother, following a drunken farewell night at a boxing exhibition in Lansing, Michigan (surely a fitting prelude for a new life in the oft-debauched nation I was headed). I arrived bearing all the weight of regret for those last few days and plenty of apprehension about how things would work out for me in Southeast Asia. My friend warned me that I should expect a comedy of errors, but I didn’t care. I had $2,000, no firm prospects, and besides, I had recently decided that I always wanted to work at a newspaper. I can’t say that I had read very many of them in the years leading up my debut on the news desk. I was very much into punk rock at the time and, prior to securing the job in question, was certain that news—business news especially—was a disgusting lie peddled to protect the guilty and enrich the wealthy.
I didn’t mention any of that when I first called the editor to arrange a trial shift with the copy desk.
I was going to try something I had never done before: work in the newspaper business
I wore wool suit pants and a button-down collared shirt on my first day, having had no previous experience with the dressed-down world of the news editor. The air conditioner was broken in the beat-up taxi I hailed and, heat and humidity being two of Bangkok’s specialties, I was soon in something of a lather. I spent most of the hour-long ride out to the paper’s office nervously squirming to avoid turning my shirt transparent with sweat.
The office was on the 22nd floor. (I mention this only because I haven’t been able to shake the memory of the day, months later, the elevator broke down and I had to take the stairs. The sweat-drench I experienced then made the heat in the cab on that first ride seem downright salubrious). Upon arrival, I stood trying to cool myself in the air-conditioned lobby for several minutes before heading up and announcing myself. The receptionist motioned me over to a set of couches where I was to wait for the chief sub-editor. (We used the nomenclature of British journalism there; I suppose he would have been called a copy chief at a U.S. paper).
He appeared moments later—Joe, a Chinese Singaporean in his thirties, looking harried and important despite being dressed in shorts and running shoes. My sweat-soaked button-down seemed suddenly out of place. He led me through the office as I avoided the curious glances of the other workers, sat me down next to his terminal, and put me to work cutting up copy produced by the international newswires.
I was so engrossed in my work that I didn’t bother looking up to make eye contact with anyone. I felt like things were going smoothly enough, but I was also afraid to pass along the edited stories to a more senior editor for double-checking, simply because I didn’t know how long such work was supposed to take.
He quickly explained the proper procedure so I could un-fuck what I had done
The first embarrassment occurred that initial day, after an interminable tangle with a column of news briefs. Joe had told me to cut the stories to within a line or two of a red line that was generated after the story had been laid out and its space on the page fixed. I had not been told, however, that one needed to refresh one’s screen every time a change was made to the text. I assumed that the red line was a constant. So after spending upwards of 45 minutes cutting a few already short stories down to the barest of essentials and seeing no change in the position of the red line, I simply gave up and forwarded the stories onto their next stop in the production process.
Joe alerted me to my error with a dismayed “Fuck! What the fuck happened to the briefs?!” Sensing my embarrassment, he quickly explained the proper procedure so I could un-fuck what I had done.
That small disaster burst the bubble of concentration and gave me the chance to pop my head up and look around. I found myself amid a fairly jolly group of foreigners on the editing desk, and I’m sure the neediness that was so apparent in my attempts at striking up a conversation helped disarm them. The editors comprised Virgil, a very gay, pencil-thin Canadian; Bob, a second Canuck, good-natured and hockey-and-beer-loving; Marco, a foul-mouthed Filipino; Betty, a sprightly, giggly Filipina; and Paul, a stoic Brit. Later, a friendly Indian woman named Mona and an overly talkative Canadian named Chris also joined the staff (many of my coworkers are still kicking around the industry, so I’ve changed their names here).
After plowing through more edits, Virgil told me I was doing a good job and asked, with a studied insouciance, if I was also gay. Blushing and stammering ensued. Ah, the native forthrightness of the press! I said no, and thus began my relationship with my first newsroom mentor.
I missed the dinner order that first night at work and had to eat hot dogs and candy from 7-Eleven. I’m not much of a worker if I don’t get my three squares, so this wasn’t an ideal situation. Later, I would come to understand that when the cleaning lady shouted khao—literally “rice”—I was to give her my food order. She would then call it in to the cafeteria downstairs and go pick it up for us as we raced toward our deadlines.
My first several weeks I ate nothing but fried rice and the distressingly small candy bars from 7-Eleven
The cleaning lady couldn’t speak English and I knew nothing about Thai food, so I was stuck for my first several weeks eating nothing but fried rice and the distressingly small versions of favorite American candy bars from 7-Eleven. Later, I moved on to Penang curry, which came in a big plastic bag that I dumped on top of my rice, oil and all. Eating an entire serving of oily curry rather than picking out the nutritious bits had a most unpleasant effect on my digestive system. The cleaning lady would occasionally take the opportunity to see that my meals had inhuman amounts of chili on them, knowing that I felt honor-bound to refute Thai stereotypes about foreigners not being able to tolerate spicy food. I suffered dearly for my posturing.
The work system at the paper was not the most efficient, but it took me a while to figure out why. Much of the copy in the newspaper was plucked from the various newswires: AFP, AP, Reuters. The sub-editors (known as ‘subs’) tackled this stuff first, silently and passive-aggressively competing for the right to handle the non-business copy appearing on the world and regional news pages. They would do this by taking strategic smoke and 7-Eleven breaks just as the stories for the business pages—the ones that everyone loathed—appeared in the queue. A well-timed absence meant the difference between taking on a potentially confusing story about the bond market or a fun story about crime or war.
The copy produced by our own intrepid reporters, which was infinitely more difficult to edit, came in later and consumed most of our time. The paper had reporters stationed at all of the relevant government ministries and usually dispatched people to the major press conferences for company news. The reporters wrote their copy in Thai and e-mailed it in to the chief of the translating/rewriting desk, who dished it out for translation to his small staff of translators. Once that was done, the story was passed over to the subbing desk.
In other words, stories generally started in the mouths of angle-spinning officials, got interpreted and organized by reporters who, like most in the business, probably felt a certain contempt for the mealy-mouthed prevarications the officials fed them, and then got e-mailed to the translating desk, where it was again interpreted and organized by translators who, by virtue of their bilingualism, felt a certain contempt for the monolingual reporters. Then it landed in the editing queue, where we sub-editors, who felt a distinct contempt for both the translators and the reporters, not to mention the officials, again interpreted and organized the material.
The potential for error was huge, and I kind of enjoyed the idea that we somehow managed to channel this cascade of mistrust and confusion into an actual newspaper.
Editors with questions about the stories turned to the translating desk for answers. I can’t say that I recall one of the translators ever calling a reporter to follow up on such a query. They were generally too embarrassed, drunk, or lazy to bother and just came up with answers on their own. We all thought it was kind of funny.
Vwas the chief of that desk. I was told he came from Thammasat, one of Thailand’s better universities and a wellspring of both political and business leaders and democracy-loving student radicals. The talk among some of the younger Thai staff was that V had earned his reporting stripes during the hey-day of the Thai democracy movement back in the 70s, down on the streets with students and soldiers. They called him acharn, or respected teacher, in the office, but it was around the time that I learned the meaning of that word that I discerned an element of derision in its use.
V was definitely past his prime. He passed out the stories as they came in from the reporters, occasionally taking one for himself before settling down to write some well-worn editorial about the promise of democracy or the threat of corruption. One had the impression that the financial crisis took as much out of V as it had the rest of the country. To me, he was emblematic of all of Thailand’s recent history: He came of age in the upheaval of the 1970s, matured through the prosperous 1990s, and then got rocked when things fell apart in 1997. The difference was that Thailand was starting to shake off its recent troubles, while V seemed stuck in stasis. He typically opened his first beer at 4 p.m. and by 10 p.m. was sauced enough that we had to prod him to finish his editorial by the very last deadline for the entire paper. I always called him by his name, never by acharn.
I started referring to Daeng as ‘the Warrior’ after that
V’s brother Daeng bore a striking resemblance to V, though it was clear that Daeng was never emotionally involved enough in his country’s trials for them to have much of an impact on his outlook. His only duty seemed to be “re-writing” press releases, which really meant typing the text from faxed-in corporate spin into our editing system and then putting his byline at the top. He had an impressive mustache styled to look like one of the Thai country music singers he seemed to admire, and he often dressed in camouflage fatigue pants that were too big for him. He tucked the bottom of his pant legs into tiny, toy-like combat boots that belied disproportionately small feet. He didn’t drink on the job and was quick with a smile or some impassioned hoots when football was on, so I couldn’t help but like him. The best thing he ever did was take one of the other translators aside and tell him that he was too timid, that he needed to have a warrior spirit like he—Daeng—did. I didn’t see how that applied in the office or to his journalistic output, but I started referring to Daeng as “the Warrior” after that.
Serm was a small, softspoken man with a pockmarked face, tiny, nervous hands, and chronic bad breath. He had studied Buddhism while in university and had served as a monk for many years. I never found out why he left all that behind in favor of work at a middling newspaper.
Suthep was a hotshot. His English was good, which showed in the stories he translated, and he was allowed to write the occasional editorial. He fancied himself something of a Young Gun, and it disappointed him mightily to learn that I was actually several years his junior. He talked big about one day running for parliament and once asked me if I had any information on how one could approach the CIA to look for a job. I looked on their website once, but that was the extent of our shared brush with espionage.
Suchin was a jolly drunk and did nothing to disguise it. He once emptied several beers into a plastic bag, which he tied to the handle of his desk, a straw protruding from the top. Drinking out of plastic baggies is something of a southeast Asian specialty, but I had never seen it applied to lager. When work got the best of him, he leaned down for a refreshing suck. He was so pleased with the arrangement that he performed each drink with a conspicuous flourish, perhaps hoping that someone would share a laugh with him. I always did.
Jack was the same age as me and still a student at Thammasat. He was a big kid and always smiling. One day we were smoking cigarettes out in the stairwell and he asked me if I also smoked weed. I laughed and looked nervously around and wondered why he would ask. In an overture of weed-related friendship, he made me a CD of audio clips from Cheech and Chong’s film “Up in Smoke.” That clinched it. Over the next few weeks I met up with him and his soap-star buddies, all of them mixed Thai-foreigner models, for evenings of food, wine, song and video games.
At the conclusion of one pleasant evening, we decided to drive over to a nearby grouping of street-food stalls for a snack. Just as we were getting out of Jack’s car we noticed what looked like an altercation between a motorcyclist and two guys in a luxury car, right in the middle of the street separating us and the food carts. A most unwelcome obstacle. Suddenly, the motorcyclist geared up and sped off down the road. One of the men in the car stuck a handgun out the window and blasted two un-aimed bullets down the middle of the busy street. I was back behind Jack’s car quickly enough to treat myself to a chuckle watching him maneuver his big body back to safety. The gunman’s car sped off, and Jack and I quickly crossed the street to reward ourselves with stewed pork and eggs on rice.
Jack eventually left the paper, and the last I heard from him he had given up his prodigious drug-taking because he had begun to experience intense bouts of paranoia.
That crew formed the heart of the copy and translating desks, which were the nucleus of my experience in the office. There were many other people employed there, as the company had numerous publishing interests (including, I had heard, the responsibility of putting out Vietnam’s yellow pages).
Fai occupied herself in applying some kind of skin whitening product and picking her nose
The production desk, where the paper was actually laid out, ran perpendicular to the subs’ desk, and was its own source of chaos and amusement.
Matthew, one of the production managers, was an ethnic Chinese Thai who was approaching middle age but took boyish pleasure in outfitting his mobile phone with lights and various and sundry other attachments, including humorous ring tones. He would call out “Excuse me!” in a high-pitched, heavily accented voice when he needed the attention of an English-language proofreader and would sometimes use the burner on his computer to copy porn VCDs for his colleagues.
Fai was also ethnically Chinese and generally occupied herself in applying some kind of skin whitening product or softening lotion to her arms and face, or picking her nose. I don’t know what her duties were, but she and Matthew argued constantly with a screwball intensity straight out of “His Girl Friday,” and she occasionally brought in large boxes of lotion so she could take inventory for a beauty supplies company she ran on the side.
Late at night, a man named Dom came to collect the discs containing the day’s paper to take them over to the print shop. He was friendly, though I quickly lost my taste for his company after the first time he unleashed one of his guttural burps while slurping down noodles two desks over from my own. Fresh gurgling monstrosities followed. This was a ritual he repeated nightly. This is the thing about a truly international workplace—it’s not just language barriers or cultural peccadillos, but also the wildly different ways we hold our bodies in a confined office space. Westerners blow their noses, lick their fingers, and are prone to violating personal space. All of which could be quite distressing to the Thais, who for their part introduced me to wildly different nostril and eating etiquette than what I was used to in the Upper Midwest.
The receptionists at the front of the office were saucy, however, in a sort of transnational way. They answered phones, ate snacks, and flirted aggressively with the male employees.
Gift seemed like the ringleader. She was probably in her early 30s and was clearly used to having men fawn over her. She was highly flirtatious, with thick lips and wide hips, and used to give me suggestive looks over her shoulder as she bent over to tinker with the copier. She once went so far as to bend far over my desk while reaching for something that could easily have been grasped by walking around to the other side. She made it clear to some of our colleagues that she wanted to tear me apart, but I was too shy to act on her offer. Combine my red-faced reticence with my sweaty foreign-ness, which I personally found quite disgusting about myself, and I just sort of wilted at the thought of taking her up on her advances. I later heard that a sporty new Canadian who started at the paper after I left swooped on her, causing me a small pang of regret.
Tum was probably ten years younger than Gift. She was cute whereas Gift was overtly sexual. (Gift would wear tight-fitting skirts; Tum would wear tight-fitting white pants that showed off her cartoon character underwear.) She once cornered me in the hallway to say I was handsome, but I just blushed and ran away. She stopped being friendly to me after that.
His pieces were pretentious and generally quite confused, which could be funny or exasperating, depending on one’s mood
Once I became used to the way things worked, I was allowed to start laying out the opinion and editorial page. One of main pleasures of handling this section involved editing a Sunday column by a Thammasat scholar. His pieces were pretentious and generally quite confused, which could be funny or exasperating, depending on one’s mood. When I realized that none of the other subs would touch his work, I took it upon myself to do it all. I became familiar with his style and pretenses, which made it fun to anticipate where his screeds would meander.
One of my favorites involved a complaint over Thailand’s intellectual establishment. The scholar wrote that Thai intellectuals were slaves to Western ideas and that any time one of their number came up with an original or unorthodox idea, the local establishment criticized him for being a rebel. That he had himself in mind was pretty clear. In this same piece, ostensibly a rallying cry for original Thai scholarship, he made several of his points in Latin, an unintentional irony I greatly enjoyed.
That such ingredients—the personalities, the misunderstandings, the alcohol—made for an odd, if enjoyable, family was clear. That we were able to respond to the stomach-turning situation on the evening of September 11 was kind of a miracle.
Someone turned the TV on at some point in the evening. I was already having a hard time concentrating on my work because I kept locking eyes on V in an attempt at willing him to complete his story before it got too much later. Now I would also have to contend with the sound of whatever game show Daeng the Warrior decided to watch.
I heard some distressed-sounding “oohs” and “ahhs,” and forced myself to turn around. Maybe, I thought, I’d be able to summon a mighty sigh and indulge myself in some much-deserved outrage at whatever buffoonery had drawn my colleagues into a tight circle around the screen.
An enormous smoking hole had been rent in the surface of the World Trade Center in New York. The commentator was saying something about a potential navigational error on the plane involved when a second plane tore into view and crashed into the other tower.
I got up and joined the circle. It became evident we’d have to rethink our front page. I distinctly remember watching the TV and feeling something like relief because something was happening that would break the monotony of proclamations from the local finance ministry. But then the nature of the event sunk in. At that point all I wanted to do was check in with my mom, and then I became worried about the phone lines being tied up as people all over the world scrambled to find out what the fuck was going on.
There was a sudden, office-wide surge of journalistic purpose. The editor-in-chief stormed out of his office. Several editors were to start watching the news wires, others began searching for dramatic front-page pictures, and others still began draw up special banners and labels for the related stories.
It was cathartic to have something to do, to be—in the best possible sense—newspaper people
I was sad to note that V had remained slouched heavily in a chair in front of the TV, the spirit of the breaking story apparently having foundered against the wall of his drunkenness. I cursed him as he gaped open-mouthed at CNN while news flashed that another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. Finally, Suthep was quietly told to get an editorial ready for me.
That this was terrorism eventually became clear. We put together our paper with as much dramatic imagery and stitched-together wire copy as our final deadline would allow, and the editor rounded up several of us for post-production meal and beers at a nearby restaurant. It wasn’t a tremendous act of journalism that we created that night, but we did our best. It was, more than anything, cathartic to have something to do, to be—in the best possible sense—newspaper people.
That night after the close we talked importantly about how bin Laden had to have been behind the deed, and I agreed whole-heartedly even though I had no idea who bin Laden was, save for a hazy sense that someone with that name had been involved in a previous bombing attempt in New York.
The editor told us about Thailand’s coup in 1992, about how they slept in the office and sent out aides to ensure an endless supply of coffee. Eventually we were all drunk and the talk seemed silly to me. I went home, left a message on my mom’s answering machine, and passed out.
[Top illustration by S. Eddy Bell, who is author and illustrator of Lulu & Mitzy: Best Laid Plans, which is pretty much the most entertaining comic about undocumented sex workers in San Francisco ever.]