April 30, 2013
It was the second semester of my freshman year at Pepperdine. I won’t say that the novelty of being a college student had worn off, or that living in Malibu was boring. But I had settled into a bit of a routine by January and I was in the mood to make some waves. Nothing was shaking on the dating front and club soccer was dormant for January, so weekends were a blank slate. I wanted something to happen.
On a Friday night at the student cafe, I realized my upcoming weekend was empty. I swiped my meal card for some extra food. I got up early the next morning, I packed my provisions into my backpack and started walking.
I’d never been north of the university. Without a car in Los Angeles County, I’d really only grown familiar with my college campus, and the route between it and the nearby Ralphs grocery store.
I crossed the Pacific Coast Highway and started marching up the shoreline, navigating the public access corridor between million dollar condos and the priceless crashing waves.
Before long, the sandy beach ended into rocks and I was led back onto the highway. As I continued northbound on a shoulder of the PCH, the passing traffic didn’t get any quieter. When I came to a road leading up to some portion of Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and I still couldn’t see any upcoming coastal escape route from the highway, I headed inland.
I hadn’t made it far up the canyon road when an SUV pulled up next to me. I noted the muddied mountain bike mounted on the tailgate.
“Do you want a ride?” the driver asked.
I don’t normally take unsolicited rides from strangers. But I saw no red flags. Just a guy on his way home from a bike ride, in a newer SUV.
We started to chat, but in less than a mile, I saw a sign for a trailhead. I had him let me out and I continued on my way.
By now I hope I’ve set the mood. Wandering and trying to let the world in.
I continued on to find a trail and spend another few hours alone in a spontaneous and solitary hike. Nothing but rolling mountains and their Mediterranean chaparral. Intermittently punctuated with a soothing ocean breeze. I was miles away from my last sighting of another person.
But as I entered the next turn, I sensed the murmur of a distant crowd. As I rounded the hillside, the semi-arid backdrop of stumpy dull greens and rocky browns gave way to lush palm trees, birds of paradise, and a waterfall. Lurking in the shade of the greenery, there was some kind of vast structure. And there were people everywhere, scrambling around this dense oasis. Families and other folks that couldn’t have managed the hike behind me.
As it turned out, I’d stumbled into the secondary entrance to a place called the Tropical Terrace. As the placards described it, it consisted of the rubble from a burned down home that was built by some grocery magnate of a bygone era. He’d imported a variety of tropical plants along with a collection of exotic animals, including camels and giraffes. Though designed with elaborate fire protections, it was destroyed by wildfire in the early 80s. It had been a kind of private manufactured paradise and time turned it into a ruinous public playground. Imagine that. Imagine everything you ever worked for going up in smoke as soon as you aren’t around to look after it. I certainly hope for a less flammable legacy.
A paved trail led away to a nearby parking lot, which explained the crowd.
After I was done poking around the home’s old floor plan, I retreated to the waterfall, had a sit with my journal, and ate my lunch.
At this point, I’m feeling like I’ve accomplished whatever unarticulated goal I had for the day. I came, I saw, I gave Mother Nature a kiss on the cheek, and that was that.
But it was all just a prelude.
As I headed out back through the scattered crowd, I noticed there was a kid heading right for me. As he got closer, I realized it was actually the man who had picked me up earlier. I hadn’t noticed his waify frame when he was behind the wheel of his SUV. And hey, that was hours ago and miles away. What was he doing here?
“Hi, I’m David.” He spoke so gently that I barely made out his words. His meager tone clashed quite a bit with his actions. There was nothing shy about tracking me down and approaching me.
As we stumbled through an awkward conversation, I noticed his eyes for the first time. He was an older guy. Maybe 40s? And when I really looked at him, I had no doubt that he was gay. I don’t know if it was the way he looked, or if it was the way he looked at me.
He offered to drive me to a different trail head further up the canyon road and go for another hike. I said, “Sure.”
I think my acceptance of his social invitation put him at ease. Our conversation got going from there and basically didn’t stop. He told me he was an architect but that his real passion was teenage gay rights advocacy. At a few different points early on, he also vaguely refers to someone in his life as “his teacher.”
I should stop here and remind anyone reading that at this time, I’m barely 19-years-old and a very recent cultural refugee from a conservative suburb of Dallas. For me to be hiking around with a homosexual follower of some untitled spiritual leader is pretty exotic.
Our conversation racks up all kinds of awkwardly memorable quotes:
“What was it like coming out in high school?” – I had to make it clear that I had no such experience because I was straight. I had to make an effort to sound casual when correcting his assumption. I had incorrectly assumed my sexual orientation was as obvious to the world as his was.
“Have you had a thorough and proper sexual education?” – His intro to some warning about STDs… He’d had some scare with AIDS himself, apparently.
He also made a point of mentioning his hot tub, the spare trunks he could lend me, and so on. It only got more awkward as the offer got repeated multiple times.
He’d been married to a woman once. He’d only come out later in life.
Eventually we got past the basics and got into a long discussion about religion/Christianity and society and its acceptance of homosexuality. He was asserting some facts about the New Testament that weren’t accurate. The Christian part of me was always looking for opportunities like this. Chances to share the Gospel. To witness. They filled me with a sense of purpose. I’m guessing he felt the same way about the truth he had to share. And that was the part I struggled with. The way he referenced “truth,” it was a temporal, relative notion. A value which had cultural and chronological boundaries. Whatever somebody believed in their “heart of hearts” was true. I came from a more dualistic, absolute tradition.
Regardless of our differences in philosophy, he was an interesting person to talk to. He told me that he’d worked on Steven Spielberg’s property. Learned Spanish as part of his construction background. Was plotting a midlife career change into gay advocacy. Developed into a competitive mountain biker. Seemed like I really met a bona fide Californian. And it was rare for me to have such open conversation with someone so different from me.
He claimed to know the trails well, having used them frequently as he immersed himself in mountain biking. His expertise didn’t spare us from a few wrong turns and we ended up not making it back to the SUV until after 5 p.m. For me, that meant I’d been walking for almost 9 hours. I never intended to be out that long. I was too far up the mountain to make it back to my dorm before dark. I felt like I had little choice but to accept David’s offer to drive me back to campus. But it came with a condition, I had to pay a visit to his home, which he had designed. My evangelical energies had been exhausted, I would just as soon gone home. And despite our hours of shared conversation, this man was a stranger. And taking a walk in public with a stranger is quite a different thing from going to a stranger’s home. But I didn’t see a polite way out of it. And it felt a little hypocritical of me to reject his invitation after hours of talking about how accepting and open my God was. Religion certainly gets folks out of some bad situations, but it can get folks into them just the same. So I agreed to the house visit, and quietly planned to make it as brief as possible.
It’s embarrassing to think back on it, but as I entered the house, I was very conscious of the fact I was entering a “gay house” for the first time. And that drove my experience. All the details I observed got processed through that fact. When I crossed the threshold and I was hit with a bit of a musty odor, my first thought was that it might be “what gay smelled like.” When I saw an unfamiliar spread of fashion/design magazines on the coffee table, I wondered if they were gay in some way. Upon arrival, I got to see the portrait of his swami and he showed me pictures of the compound where his spiritual group had retreats. Soon he was offering me a glass of lemonade, which I attempted to decline.
“Really? You can’t tell me that you aren’t thirsty,” he insisted. How could I? I’d just spend the entire afternoon hiking by his side and he knew I’d run out of food and water hours ago. So I agreed to the lemonade. He reached into the fridge and pulled out the carton. It was pink lemonade. Somehow that seemed fitting.
Sigh. So there I was, in a gay man’s house drinking pink lemonade.
Next he offered food. He had some apple pie that he wanted to share with me. Again I attempted to decline.
“Really? You can’t tell me that you aren’t hungry,” he countered. It was true. I couldn’t. So I accepted a slice of pie and he directed me to a table on the balcony.
Sigh. So there I was, sitting on a gay man’s balcony. Drinking pink lemonade. And eating apple pie. Which now somehow seemed to have a gay quality to it. Fruity, even. My in-and-out game plan wasn’t working out so well.
For a moment I was alone and had a chance to take in the incredible mountain view. The house must have been a seven-figure property. To my left, I saw the hot tub to which I had been politely declining invitations throughout the afternoon.
Then he emerged from the other set of sliding doors on the balcony. He was wearing a towel and stepped up to the hot tub. He whisked off the towel and then…
Then I was no longer just sitting on a gay man’s balcony. Eating apple pie and drinking pink lemonade.
Instead, I was on a gay man’s balcony. Eating apple pie. Drinking pink lemonade. With a naked gay man in a bubbling hot tub. With his shoulders square to me, legs uncrossed. Eyes looking right at me. So yes, this story went exactly where you thought it was going for the past two pages.
David carried on our dialogue without skipping a beat.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Uh, yeah, one sister.”
“Oh you have a sister? Is she as pretty as you are handsome?”
In defense of 19-year-old Austin, I hope his actions thus far have established him as an open-minded, adventurous person. A person motivated by faith who wants to hear what the world has to say. But at this point, he has no choice but to assume a defensive posture. To any reader who is particularly sensitive to expressions which might resemble homophobic comments, I just want to assert that the world we live in has certain norms surrounding whipping out your cock out in front of houseguests. And my new friend David had chosen to deviate from those norms. Now the only thing between myself and his wang was about five feet and some Jacuzzi bubbles.
“All right, you’ve succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable,” I blurted out, with an apprehensive tone.
He nonchalantly dismissed the notion that he was coming on to me. I probably should have countered that he wasn’t wearing pants. Before I said anything else, he skipped right back into our family history conversation as if nothing had happened. With my eyes now averted to the mountainside, I kept conversing, albeit with abbreviated responses.
So the family talk brought up my half-Asian heritage, which I felt I had to qualify by mentioning my self-imposed estrangement from my Lao father. He responded with judgment. He declared that, based on his interaction with me, my father must be a good person and it was wrong that I didn’t maintain a relationship with him.
Emotionally, I reacted with quiet anger. This guy doesn’t know my story. He has no right to impose his value structure and tell me how I should live my life.
And that was the moment to which my entire day had led. To this moment of personal contradiction. I spent miles taking the side of absolute truth, and here I was internally refuting his judgment (which was essentially the 5th commandment) with my “your rules don’t apply to me,” “you don’t know how it feels to be me” mindset. I’d spent the day trying to argue against the post-modern “personal truth” and here I was clinging to it. And now our roles were reversed, I was crying foul. And at the end of the day, I had no more basis for my beliefs than he did for his. As I’m sure most debates of this nature go, it just ended in a faith stalemate.
The balcony encounter didn’t escalate. He retreated from his advance. I was spared any further insistences of David’s hospitality. (Really? You can’t tell me you aren’t horny”) When my little adventure was over, and I was kindly delivered back to my Christian college campus bubble. Inhaling the musty gay air, sipping the pink lemonade and eating the fruit pie and bearing witness to the gay dong didn’t seem to faze my heterosexuality. I was given a phone number that I promptly discarded.
Whatever that experience was, I think it was a step toward the sophomore year epiphany I captured in the book.
At one point I considered making that writing project a chronicle of the major changes in my worldview that occurred during my college and traveling years. In the end, I thought the likely audience would appreciate a work more directed at the traveling/Asian/heritage component. This is an essay that was omitted with that decision. It was always a story I resisted writing down, since I preferred to tell it in person, so that I could adjust the way I told it to the audience. Because to me it isn’t about the more scandalous components but about the questioning to which it leads. And the idea that intention is the only thing separating a person from an adventure, of one kind or another. That there are can be fascinating places like Tropical Terrace waiting to be discovered, and colorful characters like David waiting to introduce themselves. I find the story itself to be a tricky one to document. I’m sure some readers find David’s actions to be obscene and predatory, and mine to be naïve and reckless. Others may take offense to my thinking at the house. But however you read it, I hope you find some value in the fact that it’s a true story. And after walking out my door with hope and energy, I came back with a solid hike under my belt, some memorable sights, and a substantial social encounter.
The story is a decade old now. Back then, I remember wanting to believe that there was a chance that I got it all wrong. That David didn’t lie to me on that balcony. That he was just a lonely divorcee and eccentric spiritualist who enjoyed my company and offered me refreshments and friendship. And the whole exposure incident was just incidental to his comfort with his body and his assumption that I should be similarly comfortable. Or maybe he just viewed his balcony as an extension of the YMCA locker room. I tasted that idea, but I could never swallow it. And as I’ve aged it’s only gotten harder. For one, as I’ve gotten older, I tend not to find people half my age to be very compelling conversation partners. Even as I am pushing 30, I couldn’t imagine talking to a random college freshman for more than 30 minutes. And thanks to the Boondock Saints, I’ve also become more aware of gay culture and the existence of “twinks”: Young slender males with little to no facial/body hair, who are apparently consumed like unhealthy, phallic, Hostess snacks?
At 19, I fit the physical profile pretty well, minus the gay part. The gay male equivalent to a teen cheerleader, according to Urban Dictionary. And my later unintentional forays into the more colorful parts of Bangkok confirmed the popularity of the “Asian twink” among older white gay men. So given that this kind of sexual appetite is popular (and subsequent personal encounters I’ve had with it), it’s become that much harder for me to give David the benefit of the doubt.
I imagined that that day gave me some insight into what it must be like to be a pretty young woman. Men want you and it’s hard to separate what’s genuinely platonic interaction and from the gentle coercions of someone looking for a tight fit. And a stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met, who also has some genitals to show you.
February 21, 2012
Here’s an essay from my time in Thailand that didn’t find its way into the book…the events it describes took place while I was in Chiang Mai to experience the country’s famous Songkran New Year’s festival…
I had shown up alone and but quickly became part of a collective, unpunctuated celebration. I had immersed myself in the crowd. Our unchoreographed parade of bodies flowed along the road that lined Chiang Mai’s square-mile moat. We alternated between wet and hot as we were cleansed with murky moat water by revelers and slowly roasted by the tropical April sun. The mood was irresistible. Under clear skies, music blasted from promotional displays, a rainbow assortment of plastic pails and Super Soaker-style water pistols colored the streetscape, and smiles were everywhere.
Together, we transcended social restrictions. Beneath us, the mores faded into specks. Nobody was spared from playful splashes of water or a smear of dampened talcum powder. Not the uniformed policeman monitoring the madness. Not the elaborately costumed and made up woman marching in the processional. Not even the saffron robed monk whose band followed behind her. And certainly not the lone, unarmed foreigner taking it all in.
Together, our impulses went unchecked. Booze flowed and booties shook. Women and men alike managed to make me feel wanted. Alas, I had no phone number to give out, I still wasn’t gay, and I wasn’t taking you to my hotel room. On another day, maybe the propositions would have been off-putting, but today they were benign and titillating at best.
Maybe you are hoping that this is the part of my story where I lead a Thai girl someplace private and come of age, or where a latent bi-curiosity opportunely awakens within me. If so, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. I can at least offer that this atmosphere did eventually lead to a partial cure of my lack of attraction to Asian women. (I hadn’t considered it much of an affliction, until I happened to bring it up in conversation with male Westerners I met. In these instances, I experienced an immediate distancing, a kind of subdued bafflement I would expect had I claimed to be a eunuch.)
At one point the traffic slowed and our parade stalled. One of the cars or trucks nearby was belting out a pulsing techno beat. In front of me in the street, some young thing found it dance-worthy and was putting her back into it, as they say. Between the sway of her hips and the bounce of the beat, I was mesmerized. My eyes practically crossed and a switch inside me flipped. Was it drunken exhibitionism? No, it was easy to look past the 20 oz. beer bottle in her right hand. There was a purity present, a genuine joy through movement. It was practically mystical. My nineties-era network television upbringing forces me to compare myself to a Saturday Night Live host being entranced by the gyrations of Chris Kataan’s “Mango” character, while Everything But the Girl’s “Missing” loops in the background. Sorry if the allusion eludes you. Mango was an exotic dancer whose magical sex appeal overwhelmed all who experienced it, regardless of gender, age, or orientation. Observe:
Such was Songkran. Such was Thailand’s annual baptism and communal renewal.
As we rounded a turn and hit a straightaway, something about the mood was gradually changing. The most recent set of speakers faded away. And suddenly our flow divided around a disruption.
There was yelling. A man was on the pavement. Half upright. Two younger men stood on both sides of him. But he wasn’t looking at them. One of them ran up to him and kicked his head like a soccer ball. If this had been a fight, it wasn’t exactly a fight anymore. This dazed man lay silent, as if to get a grip on himself. A woman screamed and ran to his side. The yelling was too angry and too fast. I couldn’t understand the words. But their tones were clear. They taunted him. She pleaded for mercy.
She crouched over her man and tried to shield him from the attackers with her frail body. She cradled him like a child and protectively asserted “mine.”
One of the men, not ready to let go of their triumph, continued yelling. Perhaps encouraged by our collective gaze, he made another run and added another kick to the head.
Together, we watched. We looked away. We turned our backs. We continued on.
As I walked away, I felt an uneasiness in my stomach. Whatever I might have believed about the desensitizing effects of violence on TV and videogames didn’t mean much anymore.
As my thoughts moved past the quiet shock of witnessing brutal violence, I slowly sensed my own regret that we hadn’t done anything. Why didn’t we do anything? I imagine most of the crowd was like me. We hadn’t seen the entire episode. We didn’t know who said what, who hit who first. But at a certain point, isn’t there some obligation to intervene in a thing like that? Perhaps this man was the instigator, the antagonist. But now he was now just a man on the ground having his brain knocked around in his skull. Those attackers were likely powered with adrenaline and possibly emboldened with alcohol or other substances. Still the two of them would be easily subdued by a willful crowd.
It changed my perception of the whole event, and of what it means to become a crowd. One minute, all you see is liberty, passion, communion, and harmless hedonism. And right around the corner lies excess, rage, conflict, and wanton violence. The crowd helped me step outside of myself and experience the moment. But while it dampened by inhibitions, it also diluted my individual instincts.
Together, we were bigger than ourselves. Together, we were smaller than ourselves.
May 30, 2011
(from 50% Falang: 50 Stories from a Half-Breed Abroad in Southeast Asia)
It didn’t register at the time, but stepping onto that airplane in Dallas was like a kind of death. But not like some linear Christian death to be followed up with gnashing of teeth, eternal harp-strumming, or Purgatory, but more like a cyclic Buddhist death that redirected me straight back to the womb. Only instead of the womb, I gestated within the fuselage of a Boeing 777. And after three connection-delimited trimesters, I emerged onto a jet bridge leading to Wattay Airport in Vientiane and was born again in the baggage claim. An immigration officer certified my birth with a passport stamp and life started over.
The next hour blurred with new experiences: meeting my Uncle Wa outside the airport, the hordes of motorbikes puttering through the streets, the candy cane-style paint job on the curbs, the controlled chaos of the traffic, the dust and the noise and the heat, the truck bed loaded with young factory workers that I mistook for a joyless school bus, the bumpy dirt alley road that led into Uncle Wa’s urban neighborhood, the decommissioned Citroën sedan aging in his driveway, the tour of my new home, meeting everyone who lived in the house. Finally, Uncle Wa delivered me to a silent room and left me there to rest from the flight. Once I was alone, the world slowed down again. I tried to rewind and absorb everything that had happened so quickly.
The household. I now shared a home with Wa, his mother, his sister, his nephew, his niece, and his two housemaids. I’d never met this family before, but through my father’s second marriage, I was living with my step-aunt, step-uncle, step-grandmother, and step-cousins. Five step-dogs patrolled the gates.
The house. The house was like no place I’d lived be-fore. The bathroom was an oversized shower that contained the toilet and sink. The lawn boasted a gazebo and a small fish pond. The living room window presided over neighboring rice paddies. There was no central heat or air conditioning. The entire house was elevated on cement stilts. Were we on the shores of the Mekong, I would have assumed the stilts were employed solely to avoid flooding. I later gathered that this traditional aspect of Lao homes was also incorporated to avoid insect infestations, catch breezes, and create a storage space for grain and animals. The shade created by this house helped preserve the Citroën parked underneath. The car maintained a lingering aesthetic appeal, but functionally, it was as abandoned as the French colonial ideals to which it alluded.
The city. An hour before, my mental image of Vien-tiane was little more than a starred word on a map. Now Vientiane had become a real place with dimension and texture. The Lao capital (pronounced in Lao as “Vieng-chan”) was the first city I’d ever visited for which a motorist truly benefited from having an SUV. The unpaved road we traversed was more a dirt bike course than an urban alley. Beyond the visual smorgasbord of Lao, Vietnamese, English, and French signage, there was something else giving Vientiane a distinct feel. It was the first post-socialist, pre-industrial city I’d ever seen. It juxtaposed the heat and dust of an Arizona ghost town with cosmopolitan civic bustle.
Graham Greene reflected on landing in Saigon in his fifties-era Indochina War novel, The Quiet American. He wrote, “They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived. They say whatever it was you were looking for, you will find here.“ My first few minutes in Laos passed by and my second life as a Lao began. I had a new home to settle into, a new family to bond with, a new city to navigate, and even a new moniker. I promoted my middle name and became Saysana, “victory” in Lao.
November 18, 2010
May 4, 2010
(from 50% Falang: 50 Stories from a Half-Breed Abroad in Southeast Asia)
On my most recent recruiting trip to the university with Mesa, I was waiting outside near the campus border when a middle-aged man stepped off of the road and began to speak English to me.
By his dress, accent, and features, I knew he had to be a traveler from Korea or Japan. This was quite unusual to me, as we were in Dong Dok, about eight miles from Vientiane’s tourist center. And he was the first foreigner to actually talk to me. All the others hardly managed a nod or a response to my smile when passing me in the streets.
He was in search of the nearest restaurant and I was able to lead him to the cafeteria. In transit, I had to offer an apology, as I had just eaten at the cafeteria and it was an awful meal. Honestly, they served the worst bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup that I have ever had. Unless I just don’t know what pho is supposed to taste like. Or hell, maybe it wasn’t even Vietnamese noodle soup.
But my mysterious new friend was not in a discrimi-nating mood, it seemed. Once he had ordered his meal, I began to hear his story. His voice was so raspy and his intonation so oriental, I felt like I was having a conversa-tion with Master Splinter, himself.
“I am one-man NGO,” he declared with a smile. NGO stands for non-governmental organization and the term is associated with poverty aid programs, environmental programs, and the like.
He explained that he was a retired Korean professional who received a government pension of $180 each month.
“$80 I spend on myself. The rest I give to the poor people.”
On that day, he had visited a nearby elementary school, where as I understood, he made balloon animals for the children. After that, he met a street vendor and offered to cut the man’s hair. His offer was accepted and he gave the man a haircut right there on the sidewalk, using the kit he carried with him in his bag. He also mentioned occasionally distributing medicine.
“This is my duty,” he affirmed.
I looked at his bag. I imagined the balloon assortment, the haircutting kit, the unlabeled pill bottles. What else was in there?
He had come from as far as Sri Lanka, passed through India and who knows where else in between. He told me briefly about the tsunami-hit areas he visited: “No houses, just flat.” He extended his hand and cut a line through the air.
Despite the ambitiousness of his travels, I was under the distinct impression that he spoke no languages other than his native Korean and his endearingly choppy English. He confirmed this, and I quietly wondered how he got around a country like Laos. But he did, and did it blowing balloons and cutting hair all the way, it appeared.
But with much regret, I only spent those five minutes speaking with him. I had to return to my duties assisting the private school salesman. So there I left him to finish his meal and continue on his way. We hadn’t even had time for a proper introduction.
I wanted to go with him. To join him. I wanted to leave my little cage in Vientiane and watch him wander, to hear more stories. My mind played a video montage of my future adventures as his sidekick: trekking into a remote village and being greeted by a rapturous mob of barefoot children, blowing up balloons and handing them off to him for transformation into elephants and giraffes, listening to him introduce us with, “We are two-man NGO,” translating his halting English sentences into my halting Lao sentences. Perhaps once I would get ill after eating an exotic dish and then watch him dig deep into his bag for a magical Korean elixir. Oh, the times we would have!
After all, this roaming philanthropist was exactly the kind of person I had looked forward to meeting in Laos. Not offish, unshaven backpackers. Not my wannabe MBA boss running some crackerjack academy. Not the vendors and taxi drivers who saw me as a dollar bill with arms and legs.
But I didn’t go with him. It probably wasn’t a good idea. I wasn’t wearing comfortable shoes. My shirt was too formal. I wasn’t carrying much money. I wouldn’t have made it very far before eventually returning to my room.
So here I am.
Meanwhile, somewhere, some delighted and confused Lao is holding a balloon and receiving a free haircut from the Korean One-Man NGO.