A journal of narrative writing.
Memory of Water

After graduating from college, I spent five years working abroad in Bangkok. I had an absolute blast living there. Of course, I know I'm not supposed to say that. The disapproving looks you get after saying you have lived in Bangkok make for some awkward moments. But to be honest, when I lived there it was the best time of my life, really.

But this story isn't so much about Bangkok. It's about my friend Phil (not his real name), another American I met while living there. Phil does not know I am writing this, and hence he will not know I have told you this story.

We got along well because we were both about the same age. I think Phil was twenty-six or so when we first met through a mutual acquaintance. Soon afterwards we began hanging out together regularly.

Phil was a really bright person. He had an interest in Thai politics and culture. Like a genuine interest. He wasn't just some sex tourist who landed a job in town. He actually knew a lot about current events and local art and history, and all the things that most of the other expatriates you run into in Bangkok didn't know or care about.

While I was just another run of the mill English teacher in a city brimming with English teachers, Phil was actually a print journalist. He had landed a job as a writer and editor with one of Thailand's main English-language newspapers. It was a dream job for any young expat, and Phil was great at it. He was an excellent writer, and had a keen eye for interesting stories and angles about life in Thailand. He took to writing a lot of lifestyle and human interest articles, but would always find a way to work-in politics or social issues into his stories.

Other times he wrote travel articles about nearby tourist destinations in the region—a great opportunity to visit and write about places like Luang Prabang, or Hanoi. I would always congratulate Phil with envy after reading a new article detailing a visit to Angkor Wat, or the beach resorts of Brunei.

In many ways Phil had a lot to look forward to in his life. Not only did he have a great job, but his relationship with his Thai girlfriend was going very well. And Noi was a great girl too. She spoke fluent English, as she had been educated at an expensive private university. She was also gorgeous. Noi was quite a catch, and she and Phil made a good couple together.

As years passed, my friendship with Phil grew. When you live abroad as an expatriate, it can get lonely at times. It can be especially tough in a place like Bangkok, where there are few younger Americans, and most that are there are either annoying backpackers or oblivious missionaries. When you finally make connections with people, friendships can be close and bonds deep.

Phil and I, and sometimes Noi, would get together on Friday or Saturday evenings, sometimes even on Sundays too, for a bite at one of the nicer Indian places, or maybe a pizza parlor or another foreign restaurant in town. Together, we'd check out almost every new film that came to town. And late at night Phil and I would go out and hit the clubs or bars, doing things that would make the frat boys back home blush with embarrassment.

Yet some of the best times we had together were when we went out jogging. Both Phil and I were avid runners, and we would get together for a good run at least twice a week. Sometimes we'd meet at one of the tracks at a nearby university, circling around the young men playing soccer on the pitch. Other times it would be at a park or a walkway near the river, seemingly the only places in Bangkok where one could escape from the chemical smog that enveloped so much of the city.

Oddly, we both loved the sensation of sweat and salt pouring off our brows as we sprinted through the thick humid air of the tropics. Nothing short of a stint in a steam room did a better job of cleaning out your pores and making you feel young and alive. Phil's discipline and enthusiasm for running made him a great partner, and almost every time we met we would race each other for the sake of pride.

It was a great life, but a temporary one for me at least. I knew that my future wasn't in Thailand, whereas for him I think he had made his decision to become a permanent expatriate years before. Much of that decision was because of Noi, who he was clearly in love with.

I continued to sling it out in the trenches of teaching English with so many other foreigners muddling their way through Bangkok. By the time the financial crisis had hit, I had already established my escape route. Five years in Thailand was more than enough for me. I had a yearning to return to America, to start a real life with a real career. A free room at my parent's house awaited me, where I could work on my plans to go back to school, and eat burgers and steak and french fries. I still remember the day that the Thai baht reached its lowest point against the dollar, because that was the same day drunken workers at an auto plant rioted over their wages. It would be the first hint of social troubles that would pock much of the region for the next year.

It was an apropos ending for me, with my last week in Thailand being a chaotic flurry of quick goodbyes, awkward promises to write, and numerous trips to the post office to mail home all the belongings I had accumulated over the years. Phil and Noi held a small party for me at their apartment with a group of friends the night before I left. They gave me a nang kwak figurine as a parting gift—a statuette of a beckoning woman that Thai merchants believed brought prosperity and luck.

"She is calling you to come back some day," said Noi with a wide smile, her face flushed with alcohol.

We had too much to drink and too much to eat, stuffing ourselves with grilled beef cooked to smoky perfection on a fat-smothered hot plate on the floor of their tiny balcony. I would miss them both.

The next day, with only three hours of rest, a stiff headache, and missing a shower, I boarded a Korean Air plane to Seattle and slept almost the entire way home. Soon afterwards, I started law school in the Midwest. To this day I still have the nang kwak figurine they gave me.


A few years ago I returned to Thailand during a holiday break, to visit old haunts and catch up with friends I hadn't seen in years. I had remained in sporadic email contact with Phil, but we had not spoken since the day I had left the country. He was still working with the same newspaper, and only a few years earlier he had married Noi. They had finally received blessings from her father, who had initially balked at the idea of his daughter marrying a foreigner.

I had seen few photos of them over the years, and they always looked healthy and happy together. Phil and I agreed to meet up at an Indian restaurant off Sukhumvit Street. It was an old stomping ground of ours, and we thought it would be a nice place to meet up after so many years of not seeing one another.

When we finally met, I was shocked at Phil's appearance and demeanor. To make a long story short, it turned out that a few years earlier Phil had been struck with paranoid schizophrenia.

At first I had no idea what the problem was. I was just astonished at how drained and haggard he looked. Of course, a lot of expats who live in Thailand look disheveled and unkempt—the result of too many years boozing, lack of exercise, and a slovenly attitude towards grooming in general. But beyond his worn t-shirt, cheap pants, and beer belly, Phil had a blank, expressionless look on his face. He couldn't seem to focus a tired gaze on your eyes, and his reaction time was as slow as a punch-drunk boxer. From time to time, he would close his eyes and sway obliviously in his seat for a few seconds, like he was experiencing some sort of half-conscious dream.