Today I’ve been thinking about the intersection between tourism, affective work and economies of tourist affect, and memory/memorialisation. I’m thinking about it because of a particular clinic I visited in Thailand, where gender reassignment surgery patients were recovering in a kind of bubble. Outside the bubble was Thailand’s landscape: the main highway of a huge industrial town, a grimy smog-filled road only crossable by the pedestrian overpass, lined with scooter shops, mechanics’ workshops and the shopping mall with its imported chain restaurants. Inside the bubble — inside a pink, white columned building, appropriate colours, broadcasting both the feminised service economy operating inside and the objective of feminising its clientele — patients basked under air conditioning in tastefully decorated rooms, checking their email on the wireless internet service, exchanging tips about dilation. The patients are surrounded at all times by a bevy of female Thai employees, some nurses, some admin assistants, some present merely to fulfil the myriad needs of patients for cushions, water, check-ups, conversation, affection, support. There employees seemed to be on call 24 hours a day. The managers of the clinic (who were also women) described this arrangement as a family, and actually the atmosphere felt more warm and inviting than a ‘real’ family could ever be. However, the patients are all foreigners, and the workers are all Thai, with the exception of one manager.
The anxieties of tourists in ‘third world’ countries are manifold. One worries first of all about how much money one is spending and on what, and whether it will last. One worries about the intersection between money, ‘friendship’ and service: how low to bargain for the ridiculously cheap goods one buys, and how vociferously to bargain; how much to tip the people who serve one. One worries about how to manage the people who serve one so that they will be happy, because in making them happy the tourist is also rendered happier. But at the same time, one may feel resentment creeping in, a logic something like, Why should my happiness depend so much on giving these people money? If it’s mediated by money, does that mean our friendship is artificial? The marketing of Thai culture to farangsas a magical ‘land of smiles’ helps to allay such fears, but never entirely. So, Thai workers (like any kind of affective workers) are also responsible for distributing good feelings (smiles, affection, care, friendship) so that the economic exchange can be concealed, allowing farang tourists to pretend that the friendly relationships they have with people who supply a service are just that, friendships. Or, if you like, familial. Down this road one encounters a previous conversation about value, capitalism and affect, I guess, and how it works in the context of globality.
Many of the transpeople I’ve spoken to who have already returned to Thailand after having GRS describe their experiences as ‘magical’, magical adventures, and I think that relationship of tourist/service worker is structured at the clinics I visited to maintain that bubble-like atmosphere, of magic, adventure, as well as the immense bodily technicalities of going through surgery, recovering, healing and feeling something — satisfaction? contentment? or otherwise — with the result.And this is despite one particular clinic’s location in a grim, dank industrial town. It was still ‘Thailand’. Therefore, still magical.
It’s hard to know how to write about some of the ethnographic work I did in Thailand. Blogging is not necessarily the place for it any longer. I feel as if the work I did was very constructive, both for my thesis and more broadly. But it was not only ‘my’ work: I was also functioning in a situation where I relied on the services of others, not only people with whom I exchanged money but people with whom I exchanged something else. (Trust?) I had a lot of help. And I am immensely grateful to the people who helped — clinic staff who got me interviews with busy surgeons, the same workers I described above, one of whom found me a cheaper hotel than the expensive one I’d been marooned in. I’ve been working with transwomen who are eager to talk to me and share their stories and their ideas, and sometimes the bodily ‘results’ of their surgeries, with generosity and courage. So I’m feeling around for a way to write about all this in the thesis, the stories I was given, the people I met, in a way which takes apart the structures shaping their experience of the world rather than the validity of their experiences per se. This seems very important at the moment. I’m learning how to be careful, and it’s quite an education.