Mall things considered
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Mall things considered

In my high school history class, when we couldn't avoid paying attention any longer, we would half-heartedly thumb through battered textbooks with broken spines, turning pages so stained with oil from generations of hands that they had become translucent as fast-food burger wrappers.

I don't remember much of what we learned.

This was partly because my teacher, an immense woman named Mrs Jones, had the classroom management skills of a tree stump.

Largely, though, the blame lay with me, a student who spent the majority of class writing crude poems in the style of Dr Seuss.

I do recall that our textbook contained stark photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island, shabby throngs hunched into interminable lines. These were drab images of bearded men and gnarled women, ready to start new lives in America.

This recently came to mind inside the food court of Bangkok's newest shopping mall, as I watched people wait for what must have been hours to place an order at a Taiwanese restaurant that serves hunks of fried chicken larger than aggressive tumours. I suppose you can't quite equate dinner with the freedom or the endless possibilities that lay ahead of the huddled masses. But hey, when you've got to eat, you've got to eat.

After receiving their food, diners hoisted the sizzling monstrosities over their heads, victorious, as though they'd just received citizenship papers.

I've never seen people more excited in a mall, such ardent emotion stemming from a nascent middle class. This mall in particular was cause for near-revelatory fanfare — a luxurious monolith called EmQuartier, further clotting the arterial Sukhumvit Road. Squint hard enough, they say, and you can see it from outer space.

Walk through the sliding glass doors of EmQuartier's entrance and you're hit with blast of conditioned air forceful enough to shuck off your first layer of skin. I thought I was being deloused.

Revealed is a sterile interior, a dystopian landscape of marbled floors, illuminated by the antiseptic glare of fluorescent bulbs. The words "facility" and "complex" come to mind. The overall impression is of a dead thing reanimated.

Cold and alone, I became lost in an H&M so labyrinthine I expected to peek through a display of double-knit scarves and come face-to-face with Hipster Minotaur wearing skinny jeans and a deep V-neck.

I spent an inordinate amount of energy dodging the store's employees — you could call them zealots — overbearing young men and women who seemingly would have been happiest perched upon my shoulder, like parakeets.

What disturbed me most wasn't the egregious display of mass consumerism. Neither was it the prohibitive cost of clothes, and knick-knacks, and food.

No, what really did me in was the sense of pervasive joy — everyone was happy. Too happy; unbearably so. Some might say gleeful, a word that makes me shudder.

I prefer my social outings tinged with sour notes of resentment. If people are grumpy, I'm that much more content to return home, double-locking the door behind me and heaving a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, here I was, ensconced in saccharine, nauseating cheer.

Draped in finery, bejewelled in the glittering and gaudy, shoppers walked hand-in-hand, chittering, like mice beneath floorboards. They beamed Stepford smiles the shape of orange wedges. 

As her boyfriend took a photo, a teenage girl wearing a dress appropriate for a quinceanera twisted into a yoga pose, supporting herself on a dapper mannequin in a bespoke suit.

The mannequin looked mortified.

There's something about the proximate combination of a cinema, retail establishments, fine dining, electronics and toy shops.

Stand-alone, each might send a few hearts aflutter. Bring them together, bookended by a flagship Estonian shoe outlet and an Iraqi frozen yoghurt franchise, and you've created a symbol of the cosmopolitan — an image Thailand desperately wants for itself.

But sophistication doesn't start with the outfit, nor the handbag, nor the Michelin-starred entrée. That's simply playing dress up. Take it from someone who's gone the past four Halloweens as a New York Yankee — costumes are (unfortunately) not self-fulfilling.

Meaning perhaps the people of this country — of any country — should shift their focus:

Animal rights.

Corruption, xenophobia and a lack thereof.

Free speech.

These things aren't flashy, no. You can't physically show them off, and they sometimes come at quite the price.

But they do hint at worldliness. And they are one-size-fits-all. And they never wear out.

Adam Kohut is a subeditor in the Life section of the Bangkok Post. 

Adam Kohut

Sub-editor for Guru magazine

Adam Kohut is the sub-editor for Guru magazine of the Bangkok Post.

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