By Jim Benning
Tales From Nowhere (Lonely Planet, 2011)
It was hot and humid when I set out for dinner in the small city of Hat Yai in southern Thailand, and I felt the world expanding and shrinking around me. On one rutted old street, two men led a wrinkled gray elephant down the sidewalk, pausing in front of a shark-fin soup restaurant to read the menu. Around the corner, as though in a parallel universe, a well-lit 7-Eleven illuminated the road, and a couple of young women in blue jeans chatted behind street stalls, their tables lined with knock-off Oakley sunglasses and World Wrestling Federation T-shirts.
I had just stepped off the train from Malaysia and I was hungry. I’d been dreaming of my arrival in Thailand, and of eating the fragrant coconut-seasoned dishes I had enjoyed at Thai restaurants back home in Los Angeles. But here in southern Thailand, I wasn’t finding much. I’d passed Chinese restaurants and a few kitchens serving the same Malaysian-style curry I’d been eating for weeks. Then I spotted a familiar red and green sign: “Sizzler: Steaks, Seafood, Salad.”
When I began my five months of travel in Asia, I made a pledge to avoid Western chain restaurants, which I saw as contributing to cultural homogenization. Instead, I told myself, I would dine only in local establishments, exasperating waiters as I butchered their language, struggling to pronounce dishes like moo goo gai pan. As many travelers like to point out, the word “travel” is rooted in the French word “travail.” It’s work. You get out of it what you put into it, and it shouldn’t be too easy.
But after I’d walked several more blocks and still hadn’t found a restaurant serving anything new, the promise of crispy fresh vegetables from a salad bar, something I hadn’t come across in months on the road, sounded alluring. I headed for the Sizzler and put my cultural travels on hold. Or so I thought.
The Sizzler was packed. Outside, well-dressed locals sat on benches, waiting for tables. Soft-spoken Thai dinner conversations spilled out the front door, along with the buttery aroma of baked potatoes. I added my name to a waiting list. Those around me studied menus on display, pointing to glossy photographs of chicken sandwiches and fries. They turned the menu pages slowly, as though leafing through an exotic wisdom text. Their eyes gleamed. I’d never seen such quiet anticipation at a Sizzler. After a short wait, a slight young woman opened the front door and carefully enunciated my name: “Mr. Jim?”
Once inside, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by pastoral images of California, my home state. Colorful wall-sized murals depicted sight after familiar sight. In one, the Golden Gate Bridge spanned the blue waters of San Francisco Bay, giving way to Marin County’s rolling hills. In another, Santa Barbara’s whitewashed Spanish-style courthouse looked out over the city’s inviting red-tile roofs. Yet another wall featured the famous Hollywood sign beaming forth from the Santa Monica Mountains. The scenes brought back warm memories, but they also struck me in a way I wouldn’t have expected. How dry and desert-like California looked, how brown and dusty and sun-scorched, through the prism of the lush, green Southeast Asian countryside I’d been traveling in for weeks.
A visit to the Sizzler in Thailand was more complicated than I had imagined. I was suddenly seeing the familiar as deliciously exotic, and the exotic as oddly familiar. In a way, the Sizzler offered the perfect chance to see America, or at least one idealized version of California, through Thai eyes.
A waiter smiled and handed me an English-language menu, and I studied my options: steaks, fried shrimp, salads. The Malibu Chicken Supreme caught my eye. The menu lovingly described its features, raving that it was a “favorite of the stars.” A favorite of the stars? The message to these Thai diners was clear: Thousands of miles away, in the shadow of the real Hollywood sign, Tom Cruise probably stopped by the local Sizzler for a bite of Malibu Chicken after a long day of filming. Even more seductively, the description seemed to imply that by ordering the dish, anyone, anywhere in the world, even in a small town in southern Thailand, could enjoy the sweet taste of Hollywood stardom, or at least a glimmer of celebrity glamor.
I decided on salad, and as I ate, I looked at the diners around me, sipping Cokes and munching burgers, surrounded by California scenes. Did they know that their chances of spotting Tom Cruise at a Hollywood Sizzler were about the same as mine were of meeting the Buddha in a Bangkok nightclub? Did they care? I suspected not. They were devouring a vision of the American dream.
I could relate. Back home, I hadn’t eaten at a Sizzler in at least a decade. But I drove right by one each week to eat at my favorite Thai restaurant, a delicious hole-in-the-wall in the middle of a Thai immigrant neighborhood. How often I had sat inside, filling myself with panang curry and coconut soup, studying photographs on the walls of wild-looking Buddhist temples and Thai markets, nursing my dream of one day sampling my favorite dishes in their Thai homeland. Now, here I was, in just that place, surrounded by Thais eating my native food, surrounded by images of California, perhaps dreaming the same dream I had been, only in reverse.
What drives us to jet off to a foreign country where we know not a soul and can’t speak the language? At least in my case, it can be something as simple as a photograph in a magazine, a song whose lyrics I can’t understand, or a savory dish served up at an ethnic restaurant. However innocuous they may at first appear, these images, sounds and flavors can plant seeds in our imaginations. Sometimes, days or months or even years later, those seeds take root in our dreams. When they do, we find ourselves on wide-bodied jets, crossing oceans or continents, burning to explore the world on the other side.
But when we finally arrive in that other place, we rarely find just what we had expected. The world is far more complex, and people are more complicated, than most of our imaginations can accommodate. Never would I have imagined, sitting back home in my favorite Thai cafe, that I’d spend my first night in Thailand searching in vain for panang curry but settling for a Sizzler. My dream never would have tolerated that. And I never would have guessed that I’d actually enjoy it.
After dinner, I walked back onto the streets of Hat Yai, and I saw the traditional Thailand I had dreamed of back in Los Angeles. It was visible in the ancient buildings plastered with squiggly Thai writing, in a dark, musty shop selling bee products, and in that same wrinkled elephant lumbering down the road. Yet I also saw a distinctly more modern Thailand, one that I hadn’t fully envisioned. It was embodied on a nearby street corner, not far from the 7-Eleven. There, a band of young, long-haired Thai musicians plugged in a guitar, bass and microphone. Counting off a few beats, they launched into the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” It was an anthem from another place and another time, resurrected here for a new generation of dreamers nurturing their own visions of a faraway land.