Concepts have gender too.*
Few people realize that the roads of Bangkok change gender on a daily basis. But not the killer pollution!
(*according to psychologists, linguists and your pipe smoking French nanny, Jean-Paul Sartre.)
Few people realize that the roads of Bangkok change gender on a daily basis.
You’ve probably heard of the famous language experiment that linked noun gender and cognitive processes. The study concluded that concepts can lead to speakers of different languages having varying reactions to the same noun or concept. I’ve recently realized I too have varying reactions to the concept of traffic in Bangkok.
Key is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish.
German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys.
The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering. (Source: Masculine or Feminine? And Why It Matters)
If only they had tested words like snake, death or toxic. What would they have found I wonder?
World renowned destination and leader for gender change operations. On Mondays Bangkok is most definitely a man. And a grumpy old one at that.
He hustles me to a standstill almost as soon as I’m out of my canal side flat. Wearing old, dusty, smoke blackened clothes, like some scary bouncer with neck rolls, he doesn’t want to let me pass. My name still isn’t on the get to work in a jiffy list. It never is for anyone on a Monday, unless you’re awake at some ungodly hour before even the sun has had its morning coffee.
I drive out to the main road on my motorbike and politely take an imaginary queue ticket from the person sat in front of me in their stinky car. I find a space to wait and move along with the crawl, the way it moves is like a baby learning to be drunk before it can walk.
Shoe queues and Pan flute playing police dancers.
I remember sputtering out a dry laugh the first time I realised driving here is similar to actually queuing in Bangkok. You’ve never truly lived in Thailand until you’ve found a pair of shoes being used instead of tickets whilst waiting.
Thick black noisy smoke surrounds everyone on the road. Horns honk like that’s the solution to the problem. Roads teeter on meltdown daily. If a broken watch is right twice a day so too you can set your watch to expect lots of traffic at rush hour. Twice, daily. Policemen rather than automated systems choreograph the chaos with whistles that might as well be flutes, using their arms to move and stop traffic, when they might as well be using their legs to dance and hop, Pan-like, half-man half-goat leading us all to hell in forty-degrees Celsius.
Fumes from buses, taxis, motorbikes, cars, Tuk Tuks and quasi-fantastical contraptions put together, apparently to carry brooms, threaten the staggered wrangle of cars and reach the staggered tangled lungs of all the early morning travellers.
School children, elderly grandparents, street food vendors, the flute playing policemen directing traffic (it’s only ever -men) and just about everyone else breathes in the grime. Made worse by the never ending construction projects that litter the city with dust and dirt.
But then a truly amazing transformation takes place.
At night-time Bangkok becomes a beautiful woman. Once dusty routes transform into fragrant tarmac that lets me zip from one end of the city to the other.
Wide open four lane roads are all but empty, hopeful taxi drivers looking for late night custom barely filling the emptiness. At night, it’s only the fresh air, empty open spaces, and her graceful curves that invite me in like a friendly bar owner, reminding me of all the places I once fell in love with her.
In the evening Bangkok becomes a beautiful woman. Just stubbing her cigarette out politely as I approach.
Speeding through the outskirts driving along the straight roads running north to south at 150Kph was always amazing. I have a son now, so I don’t do that sort of thing any more. But I could, because night-time means freedom from all the evil that the daytime brings.
Then on Tuesday the female to male transformation repeats. And then it changes back. And Forth. And Back. And Forth, all the way through till Friday.
But the pollution. The pollution is slowly killing me.
At the beginning of the year here in Medium I wrote about how Bangkok now regularly encounters a monster of harmful smog that settles upon us like a new in-law with BO settling into your life. It’s nasty. Schoolchildren are ordered to be kept indoors. It was unexpected the first time. It was brown. Just like when a baby (my baby) decides on a whim to give an unsuspecting parent the gift of a diaper full of warm oozing kaka. The pollution smacks all of us here in Bangkok for a month or so, with the occasional guest visit appearance on and off afterwards.
Large cities are not supposed to be hit by smog. Ever.
For me this shows us something so incredibly important that it needs revisiting.That’s something so dreadfully Victorian that I cannot begin for a moment to fathom why it even needs explaining as to why smog is not good.
For a few days back in February there were no signs of the pollution easing up. It was unbearable, and everybody was talking about it. As I sat there silently judging it, I’d occasionally turn my head back to look at my baby, is it time to change the nappy yet? Not yet. OK. Relax. I should have been asking is it time to change city yet.
And it’s not getting better. It’s only getting worse.
Why I’m angry about smog. And how this is not OK.
This smog is new to me. Since that one peak period it has been back to almost normal. But now even normal isn’t great.
Managing to live in Bangkok’s air is similar to bathing a baby; it gets easier with practice. But it shouldn’t be something I or anyone else should have to practice at all. I wanted, I had to find out, what was creating this mess.
We need to talk about the pollution panda in the room
Old articles praised what a bang up job Bangkok was doing in the past with its attempts to clean up the air. Bangkok could be the template for other cities in Asia so the piece claims.
The thought that we’re heading the way of Beijing as the air is getting increasingly toxic scares me.
Over in China smog has been around almost as long as rice. In fact its rumoured that smog has been throwing sleepovers in Chinese households for almost as long as Hugh Hefner was throwing tea parties in American ones.
As has been well documented the pollution levels in Beijing can reach the sort of toxic extremes that would make the Bajau fisherman or the Guinness world record free diver rub their hands together at the challenge of surviving a day in the city centre.
On a particularly bad fireworks night the PM2.5 levels incresed to a record 994 micrograms per cubic meter. Take that in for a moment. Spell it out. Nine hundred and ninety four. For many westerners that’s a little bit too rich for anyone’s taste.
A final word and the ‘Big Space Fuck’ by Kurt Vonnegut was prophetic.
In a collection of short stories, Kurt Vonnegut in The Big Space Fuck posits a future America so heavily polluted — “Everything had turned to shit and beer cans”, in his words One of the characters in the story was the president of the US, and was always saying fuck and shit due to the ‘ permissiveness’ of language. Pollution affects every city dweller in the world, even with the increase of green power more than one third of global air pollution deaths occur Asia according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cities should not look like they’ve been hit by forest fires.
That’s what Bangkok looked like for those terrible days. Smoke enveloped the city and beyond. Poor transportation practices are actively affecting the environment here in Bangkok. There is currently no light at the end of the smoke filled tunnel. Sadly it’s too smoggy outside to see an end in sight.