Chapter 9

What the f*ck is a “modal”?

“Ding dong! Hello, welcome!” “Ding dong! Hello, welcome!” The motion-activated door chime at the 7-11 is beginning to get on my nerves. As I stand in line waiting to purchase yet another bottle of water, mostly happy to be inside the comfortable confines of an air-conditioned oasis, I hope that my appearance isn’t too off-putting. 

Just a few days before I had braved one last night and day of Chicago’s infamous winter weather. And now I am in hell. The temperatures are in the mid to high 30s Celsius, well over 90ºF for me, and the humidity is unbearable. My t-shirt is drenched with sweat, and the button-down dress shirt I have on over it is also beginning to show signs of swampiness. 

I find that I can almost tolerate walking down this long sidewalk on Silom Road as long as I stop at every 7-11 along the way for a cold drink and five minutes of cool respite. Occasionally, I spy a street dog laying directly in the middle of the main aisle, unconcerned about the humans pacing around him. Even the dogs hate being outside in the daytime. 

I have just finished my first day of the weekend grammar refresher course that Monica, the teaching trainer who had interviewed me online, suggested for me to take at the Bangkok campus of International House, before going to do the full course up at the Chiang Mai campus starting Monday. 

The office and classrooms for the Bangkok branch are near the intersection of Silom Road and Rama IV Road, two very busy thoroughfares in the downtown area. When I see the difference between the school here and the pictures of the school in Chiang Mai, I am convinced that I made the correct decision to do my course in the northern province.

Early this morning, I left my hostel and took a taxi to the school. I had come to scope out the area yesterday afternoon, and found out that trying to understand the bus system here was beyond the limits of my patience. The bus I was supposed to take seemingly never came. After a long wait in the heat, I started to give up. Sure enough, the 501 showed its face coming down the street. Unlike the CTA buses I was used to in Chicago, which were air-conditioned and had fairly comfortable seats, this one looked like it was straight out of the 1970s and had somehow survived several military conflicts. 

I followed other passengers onto the bus through the open middle door, looking for the little machine to put money into for the ride. It didn’t exist. After I found a bench seat next to a rattling open window, I was a little pleased to know that public transportation in Bangkok was at least free. 

But I was wrong. Not long after we started moving, a bus attendant began walking down the aisle with her hand out while she repeated “sibbah”, some unintelligible Thai expression. I watched as other riders dropped either a single coin or a combination of smaller ones into the attendant’s hand. Not knowing how much, I simply pulled out the metal discs in my pocket and held them out for the attendant to take from me. I learned later that what she was saying was “sip baht”, or “ten baht”. 

At any rate, being concerned about making it to class on time, I chose to go by taxi this morning. It was a pretty quick ride, and I got there long before the classes were to start. With nothing else to do for over an hour I first walked a couple blocks further west and found a collection of food carts on a side street. Still bewildered at the abundant variety of foods available, I chose the familiar foreigner favorite, pad Thai.

After consuming that awkwardly while standing, I checked the map on my phone and found a nearby green space, Lumphini Park, which I walked around, enjoying the beauty of the trees and small ponds traversed by wooden bridges. Many were out in the relatively cool morning air walking, jogging, or taking advantage of the outdoor exercise equipment placed along the paths. A few were doing group yoga, with mats spread out on the grass. 

When it got to be close to 8am, I started back down Silom road, passing street food vendors hawking their tempting wares. I couldn’t help myself, and even though I had eaten breakfast not long before, I ordered some meat on a skewer fresh off the grill. I think I paid “sip baht” for that bite of deliciousness. As I was continuing down the street, all of a sudden everything stopped.

People stood motionless on the sidewalk, though traffic on the street continued. Vendors quit doling out food and collecting money. My first reaction was “what the hell?” until I became aware of the music blaring from the loudspeakers on the light poles. Seems everyone here shows respect for the Thai national anthem. About 20 seconds later, movement started again and people went back to whatever they were doing before. 

There were about 10 of us in the class today, all from various countries. After a short period of introductions, our 20-something instructor informed us that we would be discussing modals for our first lesson. He said it like we should understand what he was talking about. I looked around to see if my classmates were showing any indications of having comprehended. The instructor continued to talk about how using modals changed the form of the verb following them and certain rules about how they were able to be used. 

Still having no clue as to what this young man was talking about, I raised my hand. 

“I’m sorry, but what is a modal?”

He looked at me for a second, nonplussed, then turned to the whiteboard behind him and began to write with a blue dry-erase marker:


  • can/could
  • will/would
  • shall/should
  • may/might/must

Oh. Yeah. I knew those words. I also had a good working understanding of how they were used in a sentence, how they modified the following verb, how they were not to be used with an infinitive, etc. 

I just had never once in my entire existence heard them called “modals”.

I had a lot to learn about my language. 

During the lunch break, I invited some of my fellow student-teachers to join me at this cool food cart area I had discovered nearby. About five of us walked down the street and I did not see the food carts. Confused, I started looking around, thinking I had missed it somehow. But then I recognized a landmark from this morning, and I realized I was in the right spot. But the food carts had disappeared. 

Instead, the permanent food shops had raised their rolling doors and tarpaulins that had obscured their existence a few hours before. The entire street seemed to have changed with this development. I shook off my embarrassment and the five of us sat down at a table and ordered our lunch. I didn’t have pad Thai again. But I can’t remember the name of what I chose. I just remember that it was quite tasty. 

Now our class has ended for the day, and I find myself not wishing to return to the hostel for a while. It’s late Saturday afternoon and I am happy to explore the city a bit. If it weren’t for this damned heat. I’m hoping it cools off a bit when the sun goes down. 

As I exit the 7-11, I discover that I’m near the same side street where I ate my breakfast and lunch. But again, it has transformed into something else. Now I see a market with open tents full of t-shirts, knick-knacks, phone accessories, and lots of other items including carved wooden phalluses. Huh?

I realize that I want two things. Food, and a place to relax a bit. My feet hurt, and I’m uncomfortably sweaty. 

My first desire is pretty easy to fulfill. There is literally food available in every direction I look. More food carts abound, and there are many permanent restaurants, some now lit with big neon signs, some offering beer and cocktails. One of them curiously has the shape of a sexy woman, and I begin to notice that there is loud, thumping music emanating from somewhere down the street. This does not at all look like the same place I visited before. 

I spy a small ramen shop, with the stools along the counter just like I’ve seen in movies and television shows set in Japan. I love ramen. Back in Chicago I had a couple of favorite ramen shops that I frequented. But I have never had the opportunity to sit right at the counter on a tiny wooden stool while slurping my noodles. After taking a seat, I place an order for tonkotsu with soba. It is fantastic. 

Now, with my hunger sated, I step outside onto the brightly-lit street. The sun has set and the temperature is more bearable, for which I am grateful. My next goal is to get a relaxing massage, for which Thailand is famous. However, my last visit to Bangkok seven months ago included an embarrassing massage experience that I didn’t want to repeat. I had been propositioned by the lady while lying supine on the mat, and it was a very awkward situation for me to decide whether or not to decline her offer of “special massage”. 

Not wanting to relive that experience leads me to open my trusty Google maps, which not only shows me the locations of whatever type of shop I am looking for, but also includes rankings and reviews. I find a highly-rated shop just a few blocks further into the side streets. The reviews are glowing, so I walk over to take a look. 

Sure enough, this place looks nice. Not too fancy, but not seedy, either. There is a sign posted on the front offering a one-hour foot massage and one-hour oil massage combination for 650 Thai baht. Not a bad price for two hours of relaxation while being tended to by professional hands. I walk to the counter where two young ladies in traditional Thai uniforms sit. I tell the first woman that I wish to purchase the combination package. She smiles, takes my cash, then points me to an opaque sliding glass door and bids me to enter. 

Upon opening the door, I notice first that the lighting is minimal, much lower than the brilliance of the outside world at this point. It takes a second for my eyes to adjust, then I am able to make out a row of five brown leather reclining chairs. Four of these chairs are occupied by men, all foreigners, laying back in comfort while four young men, all Thai, are sitting in front of them on stools, massaging their feet. The fifth chair, closest to the door, is empty, and another young woman gestures for me to sit in it. Then she disappears. 

I do as I am instructed. I’ve already removed my shoes and socks outside the door. Now I am waiting for the young woman to return to cleanse my feet before beginning the first installment of the massage. However, she doesn’t return. Instead, another strapping young man, who looks like he could be a model advertising Axe body spray, appears in front of me with a basin of water. 

Oh, okay. 

While I’m not homophobic, I generally would prefer my body being touched by a member of the female sex. But, I’m not going to make a fuss and request that I be granted my preference. I simply grit my teeth and close my eyes as his strong hands grip my feet and begin to scrub them. I’m quite ticklish, and it usually takes a minute or two before I can begin to relax and not reflexively kick the person handling my tootsies. 

I have to say, this kid really knows how to massage feet. It doesn’t take long before I am completely enjoying the strong, pinpointed pressure he is applying to my heels, arches, and toes. I’m simply hoping that the next stage of the massage is going to be delivered by one of the ladies I saw working at the front counter. 

No such luck. At the end of the hour, the young man taps my leg and motions for me to follow him. We go one flight up a staircase, where he opens a door to a room with a single mat on the floor. He says in his best English, “This massage room. After shower, you back here and you lay down.”

He then leads me to another door where there is a toilet and shower head. After handing me a towel he says he will return in a few minutes. I turn on the water and use the body wash provided to clean the sweat and city grime off of my neck and the rest of me. After using the towel to dry, I don my boxers and wrap the towel around my waist to walk the short distance to the room with the mat. 

I lay down prone and wait for his return. I have conceded that I will be receiving my oil massage by this guy instead of a woman. It’s okay. I’ll be fine. 

There’s a discreet knock on the door and the young masseur enters. He lowers himself onto the mat, with his bare knee directly between my lower thighs. I now feel one finger at the small of my back. It slides under the waistband of my boxers and quickly lifts and lets it snap back to my skin as he asks, “you want to keep these on?”

“YES!” I reply, perhaps a little louder than necessary. It is not until this moment that I realize that I have entered a gay massage parlor. 

When I tell you that I’m not homophobic, I should also let you know that this is a relatively new attitude for me. In the religion that shaped my values and outlooks, homosexuality is deemed a grave sin, something “detestable”. And not at all tolerated in the Jehovah’s Witness organization. 

They may seem to have toned their views on what causes a person to be attracted to another member of the same sex, in the past declaring it a satanic ‘choice’, but now begrudgingly admitting that it “might” be something that a person is born with.

Nevertheless, they drill into their followers that it is wrong in God’s eyes, and if a person has homosexual tendencies, then they are required to keep them buried inside, never to act upon them or even admit them to others. The religion teaches that when God’s promised paradise comes and humans are raised to perfection, then the homosexual defect will be “fixed”.

My view of homosexuals had been one of disgust when I was growing up. I’ll admit to having used slurs and hurtful language when talking about them. My friends and I would regularly use the “f” word when taunting each other. 

After leaving the religion behind, I began making new friends. I soon realized that some of my new acquaintances were gay men and women. It struck me that they were no different than me in almost every facet of life that really mattered. My views started to change rather quickly about the LGBTQ community. I rid my vocabulary of the derisive language I had used in the past.

I now champion gay rights. The right to marry, the right to non-discrimination, the right to be treated as any other member of society. The right to not live in fear because of others’ bigoted prejudice. 

Before leaving Chicago, I attended the Pride Parade, and also accepted an invitation to a drag show by a good friend who was going to star on the catwalk. While I was there, one of the waitstaff handed me a gin and tonic, then motioned at another man, indicating that he was the one buying the drink. I simply raised my glass and nodded back. I wasn’t offended. Honestly, it was a bit nice to be noticed. 

But I’ll admit that this situation has made me confront some of the fears that still lay hidden, deeply entrenched in my psyche. 

The young man acknowledges my dissent with a simple, “up to you”, and begins the massage. My senses are now on full alert, and I’m hyper aware of where his hands are at all times. But after a few minutes, in which he hasn’t tried any intimate touching, I begin to relax a bit. Eventually, because of his expert knowledge of muscles and technique, I find myself completely immersed in the experience and I almost go to sleep. 

Before I realize it, the hour is over. He taps me one more time and says, “Okay, finish.”

After he leaves, I dress and walk downstairs where I am offered a cup of hot tea. I sip at it and decide in my head that he deserves a nice tip, because it was a great massage, despite my earlier misgivings. 

I’m now ready to go home to my hostel. It’s been a long day, and I have another class tomorrow.