Airline Friends

suvarnabhumi_05

GOLDEN LAND | Sunisa Nardone.

 Read the story @ Atlas & Alice.

This is a story of inversions, of reversals: a sudden relationship between two women becomes incredibly deep, then reverses into surface-level acquaintanceship. Cultures are exchanged, reversed, in constant flux. The story’s psychological, intercultural, and interpersonal dynamics achieve a scale far greater than the story’s fairly mundane–even impersonal–situation would suggest.

In fact, this story’s central movement is really as mundane as talking to a fellow traveler on an international flight. What’s your name? What do you do? Will you move in with me and let me take care of you?

The physical action is quiet, but the emotional stakes on both sides of this impermanent friendship are palpable. I like when a subdued story, just two people talking with one another, can achieve that sort of crisis-level tension.

A few words on plot: Our narrator, a 30-something Thai expat now living in Australia, finds herself in conversation with a less worldly Thai woman whom we learn at the end is named Tip. That we don’t know the woman’s name till then reinforces the impersonal nature of this relationship, despite the narrator/protagonist’s sudden feelings of connection, of big-sister responsibility for this woman. So they’re having a conversation as they wait for their flight, and our protag gives her new acquaintance a shawl because she’s profoundly under-dressed for winter in the Southern Hemisphere. We learn that Tip (the “friend”) is moving to Australia to live with her lover, escaping a difficult life in rural Thailand. Our narrator, who describes herself as fat and unattractive to men, is nonetheless far more experienced with such things as Australia, air travel, and etiquette. At least, that’s what she tells us.

In truth, the narrator is very judgmental of Tip, talking about how she’s dressed like a floozy, a naive Thai girl’s attempt at western chic, and wants to protect Tip–her attitude a strange sort of demeaning compassion. Consider the story’s intricate second paragraph:

A foreigner would no doubt mistake her for young and foolish but as a Thai woman myself I can tell that this long-limbed girl is actually in her late 30s, just about my age. Up-cut shorts showing a crescent of ass flesh befits no respectable lady. And here we are at the gate for Thai Airways to fly us to Melbourne in June, hot season in Bangkok but the beginning of real winter Down Under.

Before we talk about the inner or psychic tensions that make this such a compelling narrative, let’s open this story up a little bit to explore its wider implications. The above expression of the narrator’s concerns highlights her understanding of the rift between Westernized/industrialized culture’s norms and judgments and the traditional provincial (read: less Westernized) culture of her own and Tip’s Thai upbringing. As this story makes clear, modern Thailand is sharply divided between cosmopolitan modern Bangkok and its outlying rural communities. As we see in so many other nations and stories about them, the transition from traditional to modern is often a painful one, and divisive.

Ultimately, any sort of culture clash like this boils down to some personal issues, and this is where the story proves an insightful character study. Beneath the narrator’s sense of duty to her transcontinental charge (this self-imposed duty marked in equal parts by fondness, compassion, and condescension) there is a deep sense of shame, as if Tip reminds her of her former life, her humble roots, from which the narrator is trying to escape.

But the story’s psychology is even more complex than this (and there’s no doubt more to unpack than even this): we also have to consider the role of emotions like envy , since we already know the narrator’s airplane buddy has her beat in the looks department, not to mention the relationship department. All in all, it’s impossible to say who is the dominant participant in this brief relationship, since power seems to be exchanged numerous times over the course of their conversation. All in all, this dialogue shows how a conversation can really be (on one level) a competition, a polite subtextual battle.

Other than this story’s tour de force demonstration of a high-stakes conversation, this piece also shows the power of the switchback narrative approach (i.e. intercutting of various scenes or between past and present). I think this form works especially well in a first-person story, like this one, since there’s a greater fluidity or seamlessness between one scene or memory and the next. It is through this technique that the author shows us all sorts of things about the narrator’s family history, her self-esteem issues, and her deep religiosity (which we infer has as much to do with her shortcomings in other areas of her life as it does with spiritual aspiration).

Yeah, all in all, our poor narrator is kind of a mess, though no one knows this–not even her.

 

 

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