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Book Review: Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Places) by Janet Brown, Photographer Nana Chen

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I don’t read too many travel essays or travelogues, but when I heard about Tone Deaf in Bangkok, something made me want to give it a look. Fortunately, my instincts were solid and on target, because this is a delicious combination from two points of view. One, you experience Bangkok as a tourist. Second, the author decides to adopt Bangkok as her home and will assimilate over time. When she does her life in Bangkok is entirely different and we are the beneficiaries.

Janet Brown who goes to Bangkok to teach English. At first she is a tourist unable to see Bangkok, then in her words, “I slowly realized that Bangkok, with its peculiar mixture of hedonism and industriousness and joie de vivre was where I was meant to be.” This is the story in a series of vignettes of her life and observations as she transitions from tourist to permanent resident.

Janet Brown loves her independence and can travel alone or with a couple of friends. She will make plans and take you on day trips to visit Cambodia, and places of picturesque countryside that only few will ever see. It was sobering to read about her visit to The Killing Fields, leading me on a quest to research more information about this time in history.

Her biggest challenge is the language, a miasma of tonal changes so minute, her title, Tone Deaf in Bangkok, only begins to describe her difficulties trying to decipher the subtle changes that reflect meaning. She describes how using a word that sounds the same, except for a slight variance in pitch, will alter the meaning in a drastic and often embarrassing way.

I found myself laughing hysterically as she describes her first encounter with durian, a food that smells enough to make you nauseous but tastes so delicious the contrast is bittersweet. This and more fascinating foods await Brown. Ubiquitous deep fried foods like whole birds, rats and various other delights are served.

Janet Brown’s writing is humorous and honest. She writes from her heart as you come to understand her independence her animistic beliefs, her reverence for exquisite beauty in all she sees.

The road took us through flat,open fields that were a waterless under an unbroken sweep of sky. Grassland held haystacks that looked like giant wasps nests,small temples that were Grecianly chaste in their simplicity, and trees that were so picturesquely placed that it seemed as though they had been positioned by a landscape architect. Emerald green rice paddies were contained by borders as precise as picture frames, and a huge pond filled with lotus filled the horizon. (119

Bangkok has never been on my list of places to travel, but I certainly feel I have learned more about the culture and country vicariously through her. Perhaps her claims of being tone deaf are true, but her melodic phrasing and lyrical prose makes up for all her language learning deficiencies.

Tone Deaf in Bangkok is a collaboration that includes the remarkably candid and fascinating photography of Nana Chen, who captures glimpses of daily life in Bangkok with a talented eye for split second action.

Wisteria Leigh

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