When I was a kid growing up in Florida, people used to always talk about how the United States was a great big melting pot. Some preferred to describe it as more of a tossed salad — a combination of unique flavors that didn’t quite blend into one so much as co-existed separately and (occasionally) harmoniously — but the idea was pretty much the same.
The U.S. is a country that was built by immigrants, disparate groups who came to the so-called new world for disparate reasons, whether they be social, economic or religious, by air, by land, by sea or, sadly, by slave ship. It took 220 years for the U.S. to finally elect a black president, but when we did, it seems fitting that he would be one with a white mother, an African father, and a name that’s led some idiots (I’m looking at you, Hank Williams Jr.!) to insist that he must be Muslim.
Nowhere is the blended American social fabric more complex than in New York City, a place where I lived for 15 years and one that I’ve always considered to be the most diverse place on earth. It’s taken me 16 months from my first arrival in Bangkok to realize how it’s most like NYC. As melting-pot metropolises go, Bangkok might actually be New York City’s stiffest competition.
Not to take anything away from NYC’s diverse populace. Manhattan is an island made up of, as the Robert Palmer hit from 1978 goes, every kinda people. But on a weekend night out in, say, the East Village, you might meet an assortment of people from various states within the U.S., maybe a tourist or three, but the majority of folks you encounter will likely live in one of the five boroughs and identify themselves as New Yorkers.
When people say there are eight million stories in the naked city, although they’re usually referring to New York, it could easily apply to Bangkok, too. Last night I went out to DJ Station for what will be one of the last times, and I couldn’t believe the diversity that surrounded me. And it was only a Thursday night! It made Saturdays at Starlight in the East Village circa 2004 look positively homogeneous.
I went to DJ Station to meet up with my friend David, who is from Barcelona and who was there with his Indonesian boyfriend. “The place is full of farangs [Thai slang for Westerners],” he wrote in a text message before my arrival, and boy, was he not kidding.
In the span of 30 minutes or so, I made small talk with several Thais, a Swiss guy who remembered me from his time in Bangkok last year, a flight attendant from Estonia, a 30-year-old tourist from Sydney, a 36-year-old Yankee currently living in Singapore (a nice coincidental encounter, though I could have done without his insistence that I have a New York accent because I’m pretty certain I don’t), and my favorite, Aidan, a 22 year old who had just flown in solo from a town I’ve never heard of in the north of Scotland with whom I bonded over our shared love of Edinburgh and his declaration that I don’t look a minute over 29, among other things. I’m pretty sure I’m leaving out a few guys and a few countries.
Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Thailand is such a huge draw for tourists, expats and wayfaring strangers, but I can’t think of a country that hasn’t been represented by at least one guy I’ve met in Bangkok since July of 2011. At the Peel in Melbourne, I was lucky if I met two or three people on any given night who were from anywhere farther flung than Perth!
There were at least half a dozen black guys other than me sprinkled throughout the crowd, too. That’s about four more than I ever saw during any given week in Buenos Aires or Melbourne. Yes, even in Bangkok, the stereotypes and silly questions about black guys persist, but when I leave, I’ll miss knowing for sure that I’m not alone.