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Contemporary East Asian Fiction

The week he arrived in Bangkok in 1974, Rodney bought a moped. It was as risky as sleeping with a Thai streetwalker. His contract included a driver. The moped was a rebellion, to enable him to see Bangkok as a local.

The end of day was the best time, when temperatures dropped and the city neon was shrouded in smoke from the woks of the street stalls. Rodney turned his moped at the corner of Phran Nok. As an amateur entomologist, this first trip was a rite of passage. The only Thai food he had experienced back home in North London was a green version of chicken korma, in turn a bland version of Indian food adapted for the English palate to be a bit like coronation chicken.

The street stalls were snack bars on two wheels. They operated like mobile restaurants - small motorcycles fitted with trays lit from above with bare fluorescent tube lighting. Sometimes they whizzed past you at high speed. Riders or vendors were old tattooed men. Rodney waited for one to stop. The old men were insect pimps. They spotted potential punters who in turn spotted them back.

Rodney did not notice farang (foreigners). In these smoky alleyways, farang and greasy backpackers were rare. Firstly, these alleyways would only appeal to those who craved strangeness, in food, experiences, everything, and secondly, they would have to speak Thai.

On the trays was something like a natural history museum display. Insects. They were eaten almost everywhere in the third world but had been excluded by biblical tradition from the Judaeo-Christian civilised world. In Indonesia dragonflies had a poetic name-- they were called sky prawns. Insects were traditionally the poor man's snack. They were daily meals for the construction workers in Bangkok.

Finally an old vendor looked him in the eye and the bike slowed to a stop. The trays were filled with giant waterbugs and fried worms, lovingly called 'express trains'. Fed bamboo, the worms were slightly sweet peanut-flavoured. Fried silkworm cocoons, grasshoppers and cicadas were laid out like candy. The old man took a pink paper napkin (indigenous to the country) to wrap a giant water beetle (Cybister tripunctatus), absorbing the frying oil and providing a kind of ice cream cone-like handle. The old man removed an aerosol can from under the housing of the light fixture and sprayed on the water beetle a special sauce. Rodney bit into the beetle, which tasted of a salty banana with a caramel glaze.

From then on Rodney was no insect virgin. Something was sustaining and satisfying about the crunchiness and oiliness, filling you for days. A packet of ants was not equivalent to a packet of crisps. When times were hard, locals lived on red ant soup for weeks. He tried this too. He dined on ant soup for days, 'express trains' every afternoon after work teaching Chemistry in an international school for the wealthy and privileged children from Bangkok and the world. He also revelled in the eggs of sour ants which were like packets of pus that burst at the back of your throat, like the arresting surprise of wasabi to sushi beginners.

Rodney ate insects like a sin, in secret. Less embarrassing than entomophagy would have been to brag about beery sexual adventures with Bangkok butterflies of the night as his colleagues did. He had originally thought his gayness made him shy and reserved, but he actually might be asexual. He had got used to keeping to himself, his four H G Wells novels that be brought with him and his moped for exploring the city and the countryside.

He anticipated the explosive kick of the ants' eggs as a junkie did the next hit. The international school cafeteria was not a place for insects: sourdough bread, Italian watercress and rocket salad, tuna and sweetcorn pastas, an over-abundance of supposedly healthy mix of nutritious yet processed fresh familiar middle-class food. If a fly or cockroach appeared dead or alive, the whole place would be shut down, unable to trade while the exterminators were brought in and complete health checks done, forms filled and signed, certificates printed, laminated and issued, fines demanded and paid. The civilised world a safe one: the world that was exactly the same in the kitchen, whether in North London or South Chicago or central Sydney. The dangers of the street and street food would have to be left on the streets.

His colleagues were ignorant about insects except they were to be killed or ignored. He did not join in with them but listened with feigned interest to their post-public holiday (so many in a Buddhist and royalist country) exploits. He had three colleagues, Todd, Henry and Ed (Sir Posh Ed, third Earl of Patpong was what he was known as) who went on frequent benders in the nearby South East Asian countries. Recently, they bought an obscure tiny Indonesian island for 2000 US dollars. He forgot what the island was called. Two huts were included in the price (exclusively for their use). The inhabitants had welcomed the drunken three like they were royalty, rushing to prepare the crude paperwork.

Insects were a sustainable food source. They had as much high fat and high protein, vitamins and minerals, as fish or livestock. They were cold-blooded, requiring less energy to maintain their body temperature. But the more he became aware that entomophagy was the future, the more he found difficulty connecting the future to the present. He and his colleagues were living a parallel universe. The more conservative of them were still eating white bread ham and cheese sandwiches every day, and in Thailand too.

Rodney had taken on the job because he wanted to teach abroad, learn new skills, eat new food. Since encountering the buzz of insect-eating he had lost appetite for standard issue international food in the cafeteria. In his condo, Rodney gradually invented an extremely tasty DIY supplement or condiment to add to his cafeteria food, to create more nutritious and edible meals. He began grinding toasted cockroaches to a fine powder to use on toast. They were made from cockroaches he found crawling around his kitchen. All he needed was to grab them and grill them. He pulled out their antennae (somehow he did not think he would like to eat those, too much like dental floss). When they were crispy, he crushed them in his coffee grinder until they were a coarse powder, to which he added chilli, coriander, onion, ginger and garlic seasoning powder. Why had no one invented this free fantastic garnish before? He never got ill and in fact he looked better and better, said his colleagues. He, of course, did not divulge his home experimentation.

After a few times of being asked and demurring, Rodney had to accept that he had to do a ‘lost weekend’ with Todd, Henry and Posh Ed on the obscure Indonesian island in the middle of the Java Sea that they now owned, do being the operative word, a chore, in fact. They had been talking about the trip for about two months, since frenzied drunken purchase.

Rodney had been reticent because they were straight and did not know he was gay. All they talked about was women's body parts though they were teachers. At least, they did not talk about body parts when they were teaching.

'Too late to say no, mate,' said Posh Ed. 'I've already done the bookings.'

They had to wake up at 4 am and get to Bangkok airport by shared taxi, followed by a short flight to a tiny airport with just a runway in the clearing of some jungle, and transfer to a minivan to take them to a nondescript jetty in the middle of the Java Sea. A mysterious boat would arrive to pick them up. The night before he left, Rodney managed to spend a few minutes grinding more cockroach powder to take with him in a small Ziploc sachet for adding to his meals on the island. Recovery was required as this term break and long weekend was bound to be totally decadent and debauched. Not wanting to offend Todd, Henry and Posh Ed, he never let up his dread. The trio were like a mini hive, buzzing and efficient. Henry turned up with an attache case stuffed with visas and forms. Todd kept showing Rodney the activity programme he'd devised.

***

The village, nothing like what he thought, was stuck somewhere in the 19th century. Maybe at a push 1910. In meetings after meetings, the male islanders would welcome them with long lists of financial, transport and infrastructure problems and what the island really needed. Prayers lasting at least two hours, dancing, trancing, duelling filled the day. The trio were viewed as wise kings or gods, essentially the same thing. After all the villagers were so poor they sold their island and their women. After welcome drinks, sexual activities were also offered, as gifts to the 'gods'. They had no idea that the white men were not in fact rich. They were just school teachers.

'Even better,' said the headman of the island's village, 'that means you can teach and bring us educational material.'

After an entire day of meetings came opportunity for liaisons with the women. They would not take no for an answer. Rodney was humiliated by a woman who forced him to have sex and when he wouldn't, he was slapped repeatedly by more women who came into the hut. They taunted him in their own dialect and he thought they must have assumed he was a nutcase. They got another woman to 'try things out' on him but he was really angry and asked them to get out. He'd had enough abuse but he'd never hit them back. He would not have any sexual favours forced on him. Not back in England and definitely not here. He had been able to say no by running away since he was kissed by two boys in a public toilet in London. Here he was a prisoner. Rodney finally told the women he wanted to leave and they took him to see Posh Ed.

Posh Ed said 'No way. We've just got here. Anyway, where is the speedboat now?' he said. 'What about the big feast tonight?'

Rodney was unable to wake up from this colonial nightmare. He finally came out from his hut, exhausted from being slapped. Everyone was sat outside in big tables and huge dishes had been laid out. Todd, Henry and Posh Ed were looking resplendent in their post-coital relaxation mode, sitting with their 'dates' or the women they had been with earlier who now were like human boas, giving his colleagues non-stop coiling and fawning treatment. And food. Repulsed, Rodney sat next to the headman who was well-dressed in some kind of ceremonial feathers and beaded combo outfit.

The headman spoke to him through a local interpreter. 'The women said you are not a man. What is this about? We brought you here to have a good time. Did you not know that? Can you be appreciative, at least?'

'I can't.'

'What?'

'I said, I can't,' said Rodney. 'I would prefer to be left alone.'

The headman laughed so hard Rodney surreptitiously glanced at the rolls on the man's belly quivering, rising and falling repeatedly. 'Don't be a girl. Please.' he said, gasping between his hysterical laughter.

'I want to go home,' said Rodney, plaintively like he was a child.

'You can't. I'd have to call the boatman. And he is having his dinner at the feast too. Can you not just enjoy yourself? I cannot believe it. Your friends thought this would be the best weekend.' Hearing this from the interpreter sounded odd, but quickly, Rodney got used to the three-way conversation.

'I need to get back. To Bangkok.'

'No.'

Just then the food arrived on their banana leaves. Looking good was a curry of some description, though torches and tilly lamps and no electricity made seeing the food a little challenging. Some strong tasting drink was poured into his bamboo goblet.

He sipped and gasped. His throat was on fire and his eyes began watering.

The headman roared with laughter again. Rodney discreetly took out from his pocket his Ziploc sachet of Rodney's Super Dust.

The headman stopped laughing and mumbled something to the interpreter. 'What is that?' the interpreter asked.

'Rodney's Super Dust. A nutritious accompaniment that I sprinkle on meals to spice it up. You've heard of LSD-'

'No-'

'OK, nevermind. Well, this is RSD.'

The headman put some on his tongue with his finger. 'Oh, excellent! I want! I want it all. Can I have more?' He snatched the sachet from Rodney's hands.

'Sure! Of course! There's plenty more in my condo.' He said truthfully. As he tried to pour the dust on his meal, 'Not so fast, may I?' cried another local. Soon there was not enough to go round. Everybody, the ministers, the headman and the three teachers wanted some of the dust which had almost run out. After sprinkling, they snatched the sachet from each other.

'My turn, my turn, please.'

'This is delicious!'

'I think you need to bring over several crates of this.'

'The chef will be impressed.'

Rodney was surprised at the popularity of his culinary invention. He glowed. He was also relieved they were temporarily not giving him a hard time about his disinterest in women. 'You are truly the new gods!' Said the headman, bowing to Rodney and his trio of colleagues. The villagers were about to toast to them with the bamboo goblets filled with the toxic-tasting alcoholic beverage when suddenly, Todd was clutching his throat. He fell to the ground, twisting in pain. 'Quick, fetch the doctor,' shouted Rodney.

The doctor came out from the crowd instantly but was some kind of witch doctor.

His diagnosis of Todd's acute illness was in pronouncing it as an evil spiritual attack, requiring serious praying and dancing around for about four hours to drive out the demonic possession. Todd's throat, eyes and were swollen and red. He gasped in pain. His eyes were rolling back. Rodney immediately realised that this was disastrous.

'Call the boatman,' cried Rodney. 'He needs medical attention in the nearest city. I don't know where that would be.'

'I thought you know everything, you are teachers and gods.'

'No. We don't know everything. We are teachers and we are not gods. Fetch the boatman, please, now be quick,' said Rodney in his strange new colonialist voice. 'Hurry!' He screamed. Rodney himself practically flew into his hut to fetch his and Todd's passports, clothes, everything. After several hours' travel, Rodney got his colleague to a local hospital in a small provincial town. Too late.

Rodney cried for a long time, all the way back to Bangkok. Todd was already unconscious when they got to the hospital. ‘Those who had an allergy to shellfish, like Todd, would have the same reaction towards entomophagy,’ said the doctors. Rodney said nothing about his crunchy, crunchy special dust, now not so special but in fact lethal. He returned to Bangkok and recovered from his grief and the horror of having to take Todd's body back with him, a process called repatriation. From expatriate to repatriate. With great sadness he remembered the worst weekend he ever had.

***

One evening a week after the funeral, as he ground his RSD, now only for his own consumption, he received a call from Posh Ed who did not want to mention at the funeral that someone had to take the place of Todd. Rodney had been nominated by everyone on the island because he'd shown tremendous respect to the people and left early to save Todd's life. Rodney had been made the third owner of this godforsaken island. 'Don't worry about the $2000,' said Posh Ed, as though that was what Rodney had been concerned with. 'Todd had already been paid his share.'

It was stupid that Rodney was teaching all these privileged children of wealthy, spoilt adults. They did not need education. They already were far too educated and too intelligent. Being born was all that was required for them to be in the best schools and top jobs. Rodney accepted the position of education minister. One caveat. He did not want women and they'd better get that in writing. He would teach these poor people. They only forced women on him because they were uneducated. He would help them help themselves, since they saw him as a god.

That was how Rodney ended up owning an island in the Java Sea. He need not grind RSD from household pests anymore. The chefs made whatever he wanted for him. He enjoyed at least a sky prawn a day. Since there was no shortage of insects, he studied them, researched them and wrote about them over the next 40 years or more.

Eventually on the island, though not all at the same time, came to exist an entomophagous boutique hotel, a helipad, quinoa, lentils, internet, celebs, gin cocktails. No bamboo goblet and no toxic brewed-in-the-bag diesel. Climbing, crawling, flying, each was a fascinatingly nifty machine. Every insect is divided into three-- head, chest, stomach. No bones, no noses. Some have brains. But all have a heart.

February 27, 2021 08:20

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