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Letter from Bangkok


By Scott Harrison

I shop at Trader Joe's. Although I love Whole Foods on Fourth Street, I don't go in much because I keep getting my fingers burned on the prices, but they do have such healthy food. And yes, I confess, I roll my cart around Safeway playing hide and seek with discount items.

I recall years and years ago, in fourth grade, going on a field trip to a supermarket. The man who gave us the tour took us into the refrigerator room, pulled the top off a box of big red apples, and let us each have one. We went up to the observation office, where we could view shoppers without them seeing us. The supermarket man explained how the store placed needed staples — you know, butter, bread, milk, sugar, and special sale items — all around the store in a confusing manner so that shoppers would walk as much as possible. He explained that the more they saw, the more they would buy. I thought it surprising that a store would work so hard to trick people, but I was young back then. I eventually learned that that wasn't merely the tip of an iceberg. It was the tail end of a whole continent of trickery.

When I'm at Safeway, I can't help but notice the balance of wholesome real foods and the sugar, fat, chemical, and salted pretend foods. I know very well that the bigger profits must be with the candy breakfast cereals, the packed-with-fat frozen pizzas, the potato chips, the cookies, and the shelf after shelf of Coke and all its bubbly cousins. I know the highly cooked, processed, canned, and flavor-injected foods must shovel in more profit than the fresh foods. I think it's very instructive to look into other people's carts to see how they are doing with the battle of fact and fictional foods. Those supermarkets! They lure you with goodness and load you up with trash.

When I’m walking around Safeway, workers say hello to me. That really irritates me because I think it is so phony. On the floor are advertisements, as if all the bright packaging everywhere wasn't deafening enough. Then they drop in more promotions over the PA. I notice they don't have many places to sit down. If I was tired enough, I suppose I could climb into my shopping cart and nibble on some crackers and cheese, then start the job of shopping again.

By way of contrast to all this, I've been sniffing around in Thailand's biggest semi-outdoor market, the giant Jatujak Weekend Market in Bangkok. I found it by accident. I was riding in a taxi, coming back from the Northern Bus Terminal (to see where ordinary people go), and on the way back the taxi driver said: "Market...look...over dare...big market. You want go see?" I thought he was trying to fool me into going to some gem store to see colored glass priced for the naïve, but I looked over and saw what appeared to be an outdoor flea market a couple of blocks long. The tour industry probably would prefer if we didn't know about this market, and I didn't see it even mentioned in any of the tours of Bangkok. Tourists might get a whiff of actual prices and that could spoil everything. I had him stop and went in.

You cannot see Jatujak Market in one day anymore then you can see the Louvre in one day. But there is a big difference between the two. One is expensive dead culture, and the other is living. One reflects the rich and privileged, and the other reflects the common and actual. The Jatujak Market is said to be the biggest weekend market in the world. Even if it isn't, it is big enough. It draws in people and items from all over Asia. Markets like this have been in these parts for hundreds of years. People and markets have been around since the dawn of humankind.

I'm not an anthropologist, but if I were, I'd be telling myself, “Jackpot! Apply for a Fulbright and spend a year here.” And I do think they should at least have self-guided audio, highlight tours like the Louvre: if you want to know the people and the life here and what people wear, eat, listen to, and put in their houses, this is where you can see it all in constant motion. Old men selling green cut mangos with pepper, setting up a business with a $15 investment. Hundreds of individuals carving little niches in the market. Families eating and talking in their shops. Mothers with small children in rainbow-colored silk shops. Puppies, tropical fish, birds, shoes, books, plants, fresh fruit, toys, jewelry, handmade papers, antiques from Thailand and China, rows of ready-to-eat food with tables to sit at, people visiting, talking, and laughing, buckets of soft drinks buried in ice, jeans, Buddha pictures and statues, lamps, dresses, furniture, sunglasses, carvings from Bali, crafts from Korea and Japan, household dishes and utensils, artists offering their paintings, handmade wood boxes, stamps and coins, metal heads, and on and on. I cannot even begin to list the thousands and thousands of things for sale, to say nothing of the theater of it all. Thousands of people swirling about. A museum of the living.

Of course there are pickpockets and swindlers (the obscenely overpriced shops near the big hotels never tire of mentioning that), but it's nothing a bit of caution can't handle.

I've been to the Jatujak Market several times, but still when I was there on Saturday, I got totally lost once again. I stopped a few minutes, sat at a little table having iced coffee, and glanced over a copy of the Bangkok Post. Later when I needed a break, I stopped for some chicken soup. For one dollar that included a tip.

What happened to the real markets in San Francisco? Yes, I know there is a little token thing at Civic Center where .0000003% of San Francisco food dollars are spent. Something of an artifact to tickle our unconscious collective memory. And there is always Safeway, isn't there? It gets me wondering if what we've made of our markets, we've done to our politics, too. And to nearly everything else. Clean, safe, uniform, sterile, and corporate, with employees wearing invisible tripwires that make them say, "Hello, how are you?" as you walk by.