I'm riding the Shanghai metro on the way to dinner. A man and wife, who probably rode the train from the main railway station, are standing beside me. Their thick, farmworker fingers are gripping the large, plaid fiberglass bags of the countryside that probably hold all that they own. And between them they're holding hands.
They look terrified - too afraid to speak, and totally unable to comprehend the sounds and smells and faces surrounding them on that train. It is as if they have been lifted from another planet and stuffed into that subway car. This is not a wide-eyed look of wonder, it is one of confusion and fright. I smile at them, and this seems to upset them even more.
I kept remembering that image last night, as I sat up late reading a story called 'The Good Cook,' written by Barbara Demick in The New Yorker. It's an unsettling tale about a woman who tries to feed her family in North Korea's period of famine in the 1990s. She is a resourceful cook, a loving wife, and a budding entrepreneur. Despite her best efforts to sustain her family, cooking with food scraps and finally foraged weeds and tree bark, she loses her husband, her mother-in-law, and finally her 25-year-old son to starvation. It's an incredible and awful sort of story, and in that woman's fear and fake belief my mind kept turning to the couple in the subway car. I'm not sure why, besides the fact that maybe those two Chinese people were realizing that life outside -- like Ms Song, the North Korean woman in the story who ends up in Seoul -- was played with a completely different deck of cards than the ones they'd been dealt.
As the world fixates in China's rise, on Olympic Games and World Expos, the frightened couple on the train seems less relevant. But they're still there, hundreds of millions of them, struggling to figure out how they benefit from all of this.
Cut to Bangkok. Over the past month or so, the so-called 'rural hordes' have descended on the city. This Red Shirt movement (the UDD) is largely criticized for its overly simplistic understanding of Thai politics. And they have a deeply flawed figurehead in Thaksin Shinawatra. There are many reds that are Bangkok-born, too, and highly educated, but I'm going to focus on the country folk here, because that's where the memories last night led me.
What strikes me about Thailand's democracy is that, while it is maligned on all sides, there is a growing awareness that people's voices count, and someday might count just the same. It is an encouraging, empowering ideal. There is a growing awareness that there are ways to effect change in what has been a largely stagnated, class-based society. People from the countryside can march on this cosmopolitan city of 12 million, they can shout for change and even pull smiles from office workers shuttling to lunch in their tailored suits. They don't look afraid, they look confident.
And this is exciting, and should be mentioned more. North Korea's Socialism, or even the far freer Chinese model, serves to alienate people from the state by drawing them so close to it that they can't see its form. Here in Thailand the reds march, yellows shut down airports, Newin's blues trade sides, newspapers and radio stations exchange barbs and insults, and it all seems pretty damn dysfunctional. But people know the hand that they've been dealt, and they can at least try to reshuffle the cards.
It's a heck of a lot harder for other people, in other parts of Asia.
Update: I wrote this post not to defame China, which has done wonders to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the last three decades. I wrote it because I think a lot of people in Thailand, and particularly in the English language Thai media, and even more specifically the Thailand-based foreign pundits that populate discussions on the web and elsewhere here, lack any sort of real world perspective and/or appreciation for what they've got. This isn't North Korea. Or China, for that matter. It's a young democracy.