Review: Peter Blair's poetry about the PC experience – Farang

Tony Zurlo understands a little about being a “farang” from his own experience as a “yang gui zi” (foreign devil) teaching in China (1990–91). He has published several books on nonwestern cultures and history, including books about China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. His newest books of poetry are now available: Go Home Bones published by Pudding House Publications, about the effects of war on families and society; and Dali’s Clock, Schrodinger’s Cat, and a Pair of Dice published by Big Table Publishing Co., about the chaos of life in this new age of quantum and string theory.

by Peter Blair (Thailand 1975–78)
Pittsburg: Autumn House Press, 2009.
65 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)

LIKE MOST PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEERS, Peter Blair had a passion for absorbing the culture of his host country. In Farang, a collection of thirty six poems, he offers a perceptive narrative in lyrical poetry about his experiences in Thailand.

“Farang” is a word used by the Thai people in both a neutral and derogatory manner to refer to white foreigners. In “Up-country Dream” he is “a farang as always / sitting in a deserted dirt-floor shop /” but he dreams of his grandmother “in a blue sarong [stirring] / fried rice in a wok” (ll. 1, 4). However, Blair is unable to shed his identity as a farang. The poem concludes: “Grandma, I take refuge in the Buddha, I yell. / My face in pillows, I hear the slow turning blades / of my ceiling fan: farang, farang, farang” (ll. 25-27).

More than half of the poems relate the narrator’s friendship with his students and fellow faculty members. He learns Thai from a student who is also his girl friend (“Between Daylight and Twilight”). Blair often writes with subtle humor about adjusting to the culture. In “I Fail the ‘Real Thai’ Test,” the narrator tries a Thai meal consisting of fruit, streak, onions, and peppers. When he takes a bite,

[the pepper] spills seeds and juice. Is good?
He wants me to smile, jump up,
fan my mouth with a frantic hand,
yell for water, a good sport.
But I sit still, and angrily
turn away in a cavernous silence (ll. 20- 25).

Predictably, Buddhism supplies much of the ambiance in the poems, from concepts such as Dharma, Karma, the eight-fold path, and non-attachment, to the practices of Thai Buddhist monks. One of his best poems is “By the Hundred-Foot Reclining Buddha.”

I am an inch-long farang.
The Buddha’s knowing
smile, the ant’s mandibles
articulate a delicate contrast:
Do I know everything,
or nothing? His huge toes
tower over me as my toes
tower over the ant. (ll. 9-16).

In another poem, a Thai professor who has returned from a retreat in a Buddhist monastery, attempts to explain the concept of Dharma: “Dharma is the empty / bowl.… The sky’s blue, like a bowl / overturned on market stalls and bleached / white buildings” (“Discussing the Dream of Culture with Professor Kwaan”).

Several poems present the sensuality of his relationship with his Thai girl friend, Siripan. Her  father is Chinese, a refugee who escaped from the “Red Chinese” as a teenager (“Siripan’s Father” l. 11). In “Dancing the Ramwong with Siripan,” he describes her as “graceful, like the dance itself, / a formal stylized courting, spinning / through all the positions that turn / a man and woman into blossoms” (ll. 11-14). From Siripan and his other Thai friends, he senses the ethereal quality of Thai culture. In “Goodbye Party” he describes the exquisite grace of another student’s dancing to “an ancient Thai song”:

[She] dances around me singing a prayer to Buddha
to keep my khwan from straying.
Her arms sweep candle-perfumed air;
her curved fingers unfold like fans
from her wrists. Circling me in the circle
of her classmates, she teaches me the grammar
of the spirit, the way candle smoke strays
up beyond her twirling hands into the sky
while her hips sway in a silk sarong
and her smile stays serene, unmoving. (ll. 22-30).

However, no matter how much he tries to blend in, the narrator never escapes his foreign identity. In the title poem, the narrator dodges stones thrown at him by Thais who shout out “farang” as an insult while he walks through a market after a night of visiting local bars (“Farang”).

In the poem “Two Farangs” he describes someone walking in the street:

He’s naked except for flip-flops
and frayed jeans cut-off
above mid-thigh and tight
around his bulging belly.
Look, at that farang strutting
down the sidewalk, I think,
sweaty, hairy chest and shock
of frizzed, blond hair bright
in sunlight. Ragged pants,
no shirt, that beard.
I’m about to cross the street
to warn him we Thais
find big white bodies unsettling
as ghosts, until I glimpse
my pale reflection in a store
window, my round farang eyes
staring back at me in wonder.

Although these poems can be enjoyed individually, they can best be appreciated as a lyrical narrative read in one sitting. The book provides insights into why RPCVs find themselves encountering Reverse Cultural Shock upon returning to the U.S.

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