In these three stunning short works, Thammika Songkaeo offers us variations on the art of the monologue.
In “Andy,” a young woman sits in a salon chair and speaks to her busy—and silent—hair stylist. What begins as friendly patter slowly grows more personal, her increasingly intimate admissions leading to self-revelation. In “Dear Dad,” the monologue is in the form of a letter—reminding us that all letters are monologues, aren’t they?—to a father; the composing of a letter, as yet unsent, allows the writer to speak certain truths she might not otherwise be able to say in person. Finally, in “Corinne,” we come to a phone call, but one in which we as readers can hear only one side, turning it, in effect, into a monologue. It’s as if we’re standing a short distance from the caller, only hearing her voice as she tries to unpack, delicately but also forcefully, the unconscious racism of her friend at the other end of the line.
Three monologues, three artful worlds.
(Woman, 32, at hair salon)
You know, Andy, I really wish I could tell you what haircut I’d like. But I’m also grateful that you’re not the stylist who I have to come to with something in mind. I mean, that’s why you’re called a stylist, right, Andy? I like your platinum grey hair. It’s because you know how to style. You know how to deal with something that seems so incomplete, so full of potential, and you can bring that out in your styling. I wish I could be like you, Andy. I wish I could see what was potentially there.
I mean, in a way I do, but there’s none of this looking-at-the-potential-without-seeing-the-past thing that you have, that I assume you have, you know. It’s like, it’s like, I can’t move forward thinking about how I want to look in the future without also thinking about how I used to look in the past. When I come to see you, or even just the thought of sitting in this chair and looking into this mirror, Andy—regardless of whether or not you’re here, no offense—I sometimes just feel this sense of dread, or sadness. It’s like I come here to try to salvage what’s lost. A little color here, a little wave there. The youth, the effortlessness of beauty for me, Andy, it’s all gone. I look at my daughter—she’s five—and sometimes all I can think is, “You bitch. You bitch with elastin and shiny hair.”
Isn’t it the dumbest, thing? Right? Resenting my daughter. I mean, I know that technically we’re both aging. No one doesn’t age, right, Andy? But she gets to be in the beauty of aging. There’s a limited time frame for that. About twenty-seven years, I’d say?
She gets to be so in it, that beauty of aging, that she doesn’t even have to be aware of it. I just want to tell her, “Don’t take it for granted. You’re not always gonna look like this,” but then she won’t get it because she does want to look older. She’s always saying, “Mama, I want to look like you.” And I’m saying, “I want to look like you.” And she doesn’t know that I really mean it.
I’m in my thirties. Many people are like, “Young lady, thirties is still young, very young,” but I don’t think they understand, Andy, that you can’t feel young if you’re thirty-something and a woman. All these ads, these models in their twenties, these online lists of celebs who “look like they’re seventeen when they’re thirty!”—as if the standard thirty would be just so comparably heinous—just hasn’t set you, set me, up to believe that right now, right now, I am young.
Sometimes I just want to ask them, these people older than me telling me I’m fine: “Where does your definition of ‘young’ come from? Is it just anything that is not as old as you?” It sounds spiteful. I mean, these older people, forties, fifties and all, are just people trying their best to make me feel good, and I’m sure a lot of it is sincere. They really don’t believe that I’m old.
Wait, maybe that’s precisely the problem.
These people falsely believe that just because I’m not old, I’m young. That’s precisely the disconnect between them and me, you see, Andy? What they don’t get, what they don’t consider, is that I’m in the space in between, where I’m being erased and redeveloped. I’m in the process of being rebranded as a human product. It’s there, this becoming, that hurts.
You see these crowfeet, Andy? Here, lemme show you. Gosh, I’ve been avoiding smiling for weeks now. I don’t want anybody to see these ridges at the edge of my eyes, but dammit, here, you see these, Andy? Look at that, look at that. No, wait, why singular? Look at them. What the hell is this? They even flick up, don’t they? On both sides. This reminds me of some kind of grammatical element. Shit, what is it? Commas… apostrophes… No. Shit! They look like quotes! I look like I’m fucking quoting my eyes when I smile.
Look at that fucking—
Oh shit! What is that? My face trying to quote the window to my soul?
Wouldn’t that be wild, to have, like, a face quoting your fucking soul?
Sorry I’m cursing so much today. I’m having a tough time. A really tough time. A tough time the world seems to think shouldn’t be a tough time. People still think I’m pretty. Young or pretty, or both. I mean, I think they’re conflated. They tell me, “You’re still young,” “You are pretty,” or some combination of the two.
But I don’t really always believe what they say because sometimes they’ll tell it to me right after I say, “I don’t feel pretty. Anymore.”
They, they, they. I say so much “they,” don’t I, Andy? Who are “they” anyway? My friends who are older than me? Marketers of beauty products? Or just the people I choose to imagine are real?
Maybe they is me, maybe me is they.
I fell in love with an eighteen-year-old boy recently. Do you think it’s possible for me, with crow’s feet growing like this, to ever be able to get him? Of course not, right? Look at that. Look at them.
He’s my dance teacher. A very talented eighteen-year-old. So talented that by the time he was sixteen, he was at Blackpool—it’s the highlight of a ballroom dancer’s life—he was twirling, galloping, with the rest of the world’s up-and-coming ballroom dancers in England. He was big, he was tall. Six-foot something. He commanded the room.
He never felt eighteen to me.
He was surprised, too, you know, to find out that I was thirty-two. He did that rapid head turn when I said, “I’m thirty-two.” And then his jaw dropped, and he asked, “You’re thirty-two?” I confirmed, proud. I guess I did not look thirty-two the several months he had been teaching me dance.
I could have sworn there was something between us. There was chemistry. There were those signs of interest from both of us. He’d literally bump into me sometimes in the hall, and I asked Google what that was all about, and Google said that men can subconsciously touch you “accidentally” when they’re really burning to touch you. Once, I even found him looking at me from behind a pillar, and I asked, “Do you always stand behind pillars and look at women?” and he blushed and looked away.
That was right before I said, and now I feel stupid saying it, that I was thirty-two. It wasn’t like I wanted the number to mean anything.
No, I did. If I were honest, I did. I wanted the number to be plastered on me as a way to contradict how I looked. I wanted the number to let me say, “I’m thirty-two, and I still look like this.”
But he didn’t take it the same way. He stopped bumping into me and looking at me from behind pillars.
That must have been only a few weeks ago. The fucking crow’s feet appeared around the same time.
We still have to dance together, though. Every Saturday. I begin my weekends with him.
I do this sick thing now where, every time he smiles, I get happy if he smiles hard enough to have crow’s feet. I even think that I should make him laugh so hard, just to make every smile of his involve crow’s feet. My justifying logic is this: We’d be mirror images. It would no longer matter how old we were. Our mirroring crow’s feet themselves would attest to the fact that our age gap does not matter. We are similar, inside and out.
What, you find that funny? Are you giggling?
Stop it. Stop it. I said, “Andy, stop it!” You’re making me laugh, too. I don’t want to laugh, Andy. I don’t want to smile.
You know, there are two kinds of crow’s feet, if you want to get technical. Dynamic and static. The ones that we’re both having now because we’re laughing are the dynamic kind, caused by facial expressions, but shit, they can still contribute to the static kind in the long run! Those are the ones I do not want to have! So stop it! Shit, Andy, stop! Stop making me laugh!
Wait, let me try to smile without this happening. I just tried this at home this morning, but let me try again. You want to try it with me? Or you’re one of those people who don’t care about crow’s feet? You’re in a male body. That makes you need to care less, right?
Listen. I’m going to try to smile without the crow’s feet happening. Maybe it will work since I’m here. Maybe your mirror will give me a different result. Isn’t that why people come to salons? In here, there’s always a sense of magic.
So, let’s see, I will start by making my eyes really wide. Look at that, they’re like, golf balls now. And then I will smile by just cranking up the corners of my lips, and then I will try to stiffen the muscles around my eyes.
Let’s try to pause here for a while.
Oh gosh, that doesn’t look right either. It looks like I’m terrified instead of happy.
(Woman, thirties, writing desk)
This one’s overdue. I know you’re fluent in English, but I don’t know how fluent you really are. Like, will you get the nuances of what I’m trying to say? If I said, “I love you, Daddy,” for example, would you understand that it’s not exactly the same thing as, “I love you, Dad”? I’ve tried both versions in the past, and I don’t think you caught the difference. I don’t think you understood that I was putting myself in the shoes of a little girl when I said, “Daddy.” I don’t think you understood that I meant to show you that I’ve grown up, passed all the anxieties and fears you had, when I wrote, “I love you, Dad.”
Daddy, Dad. I’m an adult now. I made it. And my adulthood is pretty set. I’m secure, how you wanted my life to be when you aimed for me to know English.
I speak the language of opportunities. And three more. Fluently. I’m certified. I haven’t told you, but I’m certified.
Here’s a thought, however, Daddy, Dad, Papa, Too-san, Khun Po. Today, for the first time, I realize that I might be angry, very angry—en colère, okotteru, krote—that we don’t share the same linguistic wavelength, and you might not know at all how that makes me suffer because my strongest language and yours, not the same, make me feel like I have a father only in concept. A great one. But I don’t know how to connect with you.
I also don’t know if you even want to connect with me. You’ve given me so much, and I’ve always felt like some linguistic project of yours, but I have no clue what you wanted for me besides for me to speak English and have security. We never spent that much time together. I remember that when we did, it was at a bookstore or reading books at home. We had so many books that Mom had to call a carpenter in to give us built-in bookshelves. She was afraid that anything standalone wouldn’t withstand the weight of our books, and I might hurt myself one day with a bookshelf fallen on me.
Other than this, I don’t remember much of you. Most of my memories are of you at the doorway, entering or leaving the house in your office clothes, holding a briefcase.
You were out, hustling, trying to find dough—do you know what that slang means, dough?—for my school fees. And you didn’t believe any child should be an only child, so you fucked yourself over by having two children. Double the school fees.
I can say “fucked” because I won’t really be reading you this. Will I?
You know what I just came out of, Daddy, Dad? A show: and so we dance: a social project by migrant workers in Singapore, Dapheny Chen & Serena Ho. You know who I saw on stage in there, warming up to perform? Men who looked like you: as young as you were when you were figuring your way out of the southern village, as poor as you were when you came to Bangkok with just spare change, as unable to speak English as you were when you were trying to find your first job. Next to them, there were women who looked like me. A few were my age. A few were older. But they all looked like me. If I didn’t speak English, Daddy, it would be hard to differentiate me from the maids. Tan, small, when I see them, I know where else I could belong.
I could easily have become one of them if you didn’t get out of your village and find a way for your daughters to learn English. What else do we poor Thais do besides manual labor or offer our body to foreigners?
The usher walked us, me and my friend, to seats in the front row. My friend said to me, “Nice seats, thanks for getting them,” and I said, “It was all randomly assigned.”
So there I am in the theatre, the national theatre eighteen minutes away from my home, on foot. I’m sitting cross-legged in a pair of fashionable pants inspired by tradition and a sweater that falls just effortlessly off my shoulders. The only accessories I’m wearing are a simple, timeless black-leather-strap watch and a pair of glasses that touch my face lightly, as if a feather is caressing my skin. I looked worldly-Bohemian—elite, Daddy. Dad. It was quite a look. But my friend was also a fashion designer, with her own line; in fact, she had helped to alter the clothes I was wearing, so that they’d frame me well.
Here’s another thing, besides language certifications, that I haven’t told you: She recently asked me to join her team, to head her business growth into Europe, Japan, and Thailand, and I said, “Would be honored. I’ll give it a serious thought.” I haven’t told you this because telling you this in Thai wouldn’t feel natural to me. I don’t tell stories in Thai. I transact in it: “How much is that curry?” “How much for the fare?”
The Thai language has never heard my story. In English, I’ve told it several times, in several ways: resumés, fireside chats, LinkedIn, lectures, icebreakers, even my own website: my first name dot com.
Was this how far you saw me going when you told yourself you’d give your future children the gift of English?
While I was sitting in that front row and the maids and construction workers were standing before me on stage, I imagined that if, at that very split second, there was a great earthquake and all the atoms of privilege dislodged from where they were and resettled into new places, the maids and I would switch places, and one of them would point a finger at me and say, “Mop!” and I would immediately begin to mop.
They look so much like me that when one of them tells me to mop, it wouldn’t seem like a great world order was reversed. This isn’t like visualizing white people in shackles and Africans packing them into ships. This isn’t like visualizing that all Barbies in the world were Asian and a white child in Toys R Us was staring at her ideals of beauty.
This role-reversal, between me and any maid standing on the stage, would not be as shocking as that. To any eye in Singapore, and if I slipped out of my clothes and wore just an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt, she could easily be my employer and I could be the mopper.
The only thing that differentiated us was luck: who we were born to and how they decided to best navigate our lives. Which is why, first and foremost, Daddy, I want to thank you. Thank you for getting me out of everything that life as a full-time, live-in maid involves. It’s not all just purely imaginary that my life could have ended up like theirs. When they were each telling us their stories, of how they arrived in Singapore from their villages, the backdrop showed us pictures of them at their homes. It’s the same sort of place that we visited when we visited your parents when they were still alive. There’s the rice paddy, the water buffalo, the path that isn’t a road, but a yellowed line of land where grass doesn’t grow because repeated footsteps have made a road out of their journey. The women tell us about how there’s not enough food, not enough money, and so they came to Singapore. Like you when you left for Bangkok. Except, for some reason, you strategized further than most people: you didn’t want me to have money in the Thai system; you wanted me to be able to escape from it, entirely. And so you got me to learn in English, and so I never really learned Thai or integrated into its society, and now I’m also far away from you, who is still inside.
I’m sure you could understand a bit of this if I read it out to you. You were able to fill out the International Student Financial Aid form with me for college. You had no clue how to help me with the SATs, but you could help me answer questions about your salary for the financial aid form. We converted the amount into US dollars. That felt like crossing borders.
In English, you understand many things and know many words. Sometimes I don’t give you enough credit. There are words like “loving-kindness,” which I didn’t know was a word until you asked me to edit an article you wrote for work recently, but you knew it—and yes, I mean in English—because the English texts you read often have to do with Buddhism. You’re still so Thai, so Buddhist, even when you venture into English.
I don’t know if you’ll understand what I’m talking about if I would show this letter to you. It’s not loving-kindness or Buddhism that I want to talk to you about. I want to communicate to you updates about my life.
I’m not always loving-kindness, and I’m always not Buddhist. I’m a lot of languages, a lot of theatergoing, and a lot of work.
Do you understand, Daddy? Dad, do you hear me?
What does it feel like to listen to me in English? I feel lost in Thai, but there, you would probably better find me. I used simple English here, nothing too poetic, to try to reach out, as I imagined you.
Here’s my English without too many nuances, English yielding facts.
Having gotten this out of my system, I’m not so mad anymore. But I miss you.
Google me. Google me, Dad. The internet has visuals of the things I do, the things I’m involved with every day. You’ll see my face, and me in my beautiful clothes. There’s stuff about the businesses that I work on. Plenty of pictures.
I earn in Singapore dollars now. A good, strong currency. I’ll send you some, Dad. I’ll really send you some.
(Woman, early thirties, on the phone)
If we weren’t just on the phone, Corinne, I’d want to give you a hug. Aw, it’s okay. It’s okay. Look, I’m a tan, dark Asian here, and I don’t think what you said was racist. Next time we’re together, you can tote me around, let them see how we interact, and the club people will be able to tell you’re not racist.
So they said you’re racist because you said the Indian Pilates trainer would be cheaper than the white Pilates trainer?
Well, I don’t think what you said was racist because you were not describing ideals. You were not saying that the Indian Pilates trainer should be cheaper than the white Pilates trainer. If I understand correctly, you were describing to the Sports Committee that for the next term, the club would save costs by hiring an Indian trainer. So that was a would, not a should statement. It was positive, not normative.
I understand. As a lawyer who has worked a lot on contracts, you were considering only the ramifications—financial—of any new hires. You were thinking: White trainers would be more expensive because they would need to be on Employment Passes1. To hire them, the Club would have to dish out Employment-Pass-level salaries, whereas that would, or might, not be necessary with an Indian trainer, who could be on the cheaper S-Pass. The Indian trainer would cost, I don’t know, three thousand dollars? That would be enough for an Indian trainer, right?
Wait. Let me back track. Why would white trainers need Employment Passes? If you hired an Indian trainer, he could be on an S-Pass, so why would a white trainer need an Employment Pass? Is it something like: White trainers would just feel weird if they had an S-Pass because that’s associated with, I don’t know, waitresses, masseuses, more blue-collar people? And they’ve never seen any white person do those jobs here?
Uh-huh. And so, what you’re saying is that you, from the side of the employer, you, the Club Management, would feel weird offering a white trainer a salary that would qualify them for only an S-Pass?
Like, it’s just not done.
I’ll put this bluntly—we’ve been friends for long enough for you to trust I’m only trying to understand. [Nervous rant-like] Excuse me for asking. Again, I just want to understand. You know, when I tell you my problems, you always ask, “And what’s the other person’s side of the story?” You know, hopefully we have that kind of relationship where we’re the brain the other person is hoping she needs in tough times. Our kids have grown up together, and so have we. Please trust in my sincerity when I ask this, only very sincerely, in my attempt to understand what’s going on.
[Voice is focused and controlled again] Is the only way for a white person to exist in Singapore also to be making a lot of money? I don’t mean that normatively. I mean: by any chance, is there a perception among your—to put it bluntly—Caucasian circles that an Employment Pass is the only thing they, you, they, whatever the pronoun is, should have?
Uh-huh. Is it your expectation as the potential hirer? Is it the white trainer’s expectation? Or is it both?
Well, since you ask. For what it’s worth: Many Asians here—I think earlier you said, “Regional people,”—Regional people, when they try to find a job, assume the possibility of an S-Pass. We think, “That’s what the government will give us by default. It’s what they think we deserve.”
You know, in my case, when I first moved to Singapore, the only reason I had an Employment Pass was because so many Thai people had taken the “Thai quota” for an S-Pass already.
Yeah, yeah, you’re right, for jobs like waitresses and stuff.
Well, no. The job I eventually got an Employment Pass for wasn’t to be a waitress or masseuse. It was to be a writer, for a magazine.
[A little annoyed] Cuz the S-Pass quota was filled. My employer would have preferred to pay less for me. It’s assumed Thais will just take an S-Pass and feel grateful for the opportunity to earn in Singapore dollars. But then the government was like, “No. Enough Thais with low-to-medium-income, dude.” Lucky for me, my compatriots had already taken up space in the band of cheaper labor, so that pushed my case automatically up.
How does it work for you guys, you, non-regional people? You… don’t even consider that your salary would be anything less than five thousand dollars a month? Even if you’re a… Pilates trainer? I don’t mean that looking down on Pilates trainers. I mean that, you know, candidly wondering, how does a more European mind work?
What? The club manager just sent you an email saying that? Really? He’s filing a report against your racism to upper management?
Calm down, calm down.
Here, let me try to be helpful. I know we both have emotions, but let’s also compartmentalize and listen to the part of us that is also intellectual and logical?
Let me Google something. What I’ll try to do is see how you can move forward and rectify the situation. I know, I know. Right now, your reputation is being ruined. No, I know nobody wants to be branded as “The Racist.” “The Racist of the Club.” Let’s start with understanding:
(Types while staying on the phone) Who is an Employment Pass for? “Employment Pass: For foreign professionals, managers and executives. Candidates need to earn at least $5,000 a month and have acceptable qualifications.”
The reason we needed to understand this is that: perhaps if we can trace the reason why white people assume that they should get Employment Passes, then we could also maybe unravel your assumption that you, as a Sports Committee member, would have had to pay the white trainer more.
So… where does the Pilates trainer fit into that definition of an Employment Pass holder… professional, manager, or executive? The closest thing I could get if I tried would be… “a professional.”
Let me Google ‘professional’. Define, colon, professional. Professional: relating to or belonging to a profession; engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime; a person engaged or qualified in a profession. Okay, yeah, fair, I can see why he, the white trainer, would think he was a professional. If he’s engaged as a Pilates trainer for his main job, and he’s qualified to be one.
But actually, to be perfectly honest, a Thai masseuse should be able to say something similar about herself, too. She’s engaged as a masseuse for her main job, and she’s qualified to be a masseuse.
And the Indian Pilates trainer… He is a Pilates trainer professional…
Now, let me check what an S-Pass is for, in case there’s anything that might suggest that what I said was untrue.
I’m Googling S-Pass.
“S-Passes are for mid-level skilled staff. Candidates need to earn at least $2,500 a month and meet the assessment criteria.”
Okay, hmm. Calm down, calm down. Shh, shh.
I wish I could be there to hug you.
I’m trying to integrate what I just read with the reality we have to deal with, for you to not be branded the Racist of the Club.
A Pilates studio is not somehow a more inherently superior milieu du travail than a massage bed. And a white Pilates trainer is not somehow more inherently superior than an Indian Pilates trainer…
What? Did you mean that positively or normatively?
1 One of the more prestigious Work Passes in Singapore, where all foreigners are required to have work passes in order to work.
Thammika Songkaeo holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Based in Singapore, she is producing Changing Room, a dance film that asks,“What does time spent with physical insecurities in changing rooms have to do with climate change?” She was a Penn Social Impact House Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and Bread Loaf Environmental Writers Nominee and Scholarship Recipient. She is an alumna of UT-Austin, UPenn, and Williams College. www.twoglasses.org )