My roommate and I refer to the house next door to ours as the “Squat House.” It’s a strange one-story light blue house, with a large banner attached to the front depicting the King of Thailand and some thai script. For all uses and purposes, it is clearly residential and its occupants have changed a number of times during our six months here. Originally, it seemed to be a house with a lot of random men living in it. For a while after the rainy season, it was completely empty for weeks at a time. As of late, it houses mostly mothers and children. Despite the thai on the door, I’m pretty sure the people passing through here have been Burmese, because of their clothes, language and general appearance. There was also a time when I saw a few foreigners dropping by. In any case, we’ve never really cracked the case, as far as the Squat House goes. What remains is the impression that the place is a bit sketchy, but overall friendly, with some underlying organization involved in it.
What brings me to talk about them now, is an anecdote from earlier today. The “incident,” as it were, was hardly worth noticing. As the day cools down and we get a nice sunset glow in our street, I’ll often settle down with a book on my outer “porch.” When I say porch, it is worth understanding that I mean this semi-outdoor room at the front of the house, directly behind the front gate. Somewhere between a garage and a porch, it’s a common feature in Thai houses. On the other side of the wall, I can often hear the inhabitants of the Squat House going about making dinner and talking, though it usually blends into a background noise, as I don’t understand anything they’re saying. Not this time, though.
As I’m going about my usual reading routine, a boy next door keeps humming the same tune, over and over again. It ends up grabbing my attention and I try to place the song, which sounds familiar. It takes a whole of about 5 seconds for me to realize he is singing the jingle for the Coca-Cola Happiness Factory ad. I sit there wondering why this kid is chorusing a Coke commercial. How is he even exposed to it? Maybe it’s quaint of me to be surprised that a Burmese child in the middle of nowhere, Thailand, has heard the Happiness Factory song to the point of memorizing it and absently singing it on a lost Sunday evening. I feel like I’m sitting on the edges of western culture and watching fragments of it washing up on the shores, with no traceable explanation of how it got there. And then, I begin to question myself.
How can I assume that he is singing a Coke song at all? Is he a product of consumer culture for humming the Happiness Factory jingle, or am I one for identifying his song as such? For all I know, his music is coming from a completely different source (his imagination, even) but I cannot read him through anything other than my own cultural references. And I start to think of all the times we do this. The public radio system feels either like Disney or the Soviet Union, depending on what they’re airing. The music of the ice-cream scooter that goes down our street is straight out of Mario Kart. The dog next door has eyes that look like Nicholas Cage’s (yes, these are all real examples from here). The night market guy who sells Pad Thai looks like a Pirate; the omega dog at school is like a heroin junkie in withdrawal; roty is a type of desert, thicker than a crepe but not quite like a pancake. The list goes on.
Our minds are associative and we compare experience. But this also comes at the cost of failing to understand the alternate as anything more than other. We conveniently place newness under known labels, mapping it to our existing construct of reality. The two cultures remain hermetic to each other. There is no communication from one side to the other. Even as I acknowledge this, the boy humming the song, will never be more than a character in this story. The wall from my porch will always be there and while I will not know any more of him, he will not so much as imagine that his white neighbour wrote a whole article revolving around him on the Internet. Who he is is not really important, just as who I am is not really important to him.
In lack of empathy with another human being, all I am left with is consumerism, a safe common denominator to reduce any otherness to. So it is with the Squat House, a space we never managed to understand, as it has no place in our understanding of the world. All we can do is throw labels at it, converting the homes and lives of these people into narratives we can digest. We project our stories onto them and they naturally do the same for us. I think this is one of those times when you have to accept there will always be more world outside of you and that not all connections will be made, at the endpoints of two cultures.