I bought a t-shirt in Bangkok. It was brown with a red hammer and sickle on the front, the letters CCCP, also in red, printed beneath them.
I didn’t want to. I never buy anything with anything on – no logos or brands or jokes or band names – but I needed one, and that was the only one on offer I could bring myself to buy.
It was early, and I was hungover and confused, and with two people from my guesthouse who thought it looked cool, and I was too weak to argue against them – they probably didn’t want a history lesson, and I probably didn’t want to look like a dick. They probably had no idea what it meant anyway – they were barely in their twenties – and for a moment I think I thought that its coolness was a good enough reason to buy it. People would see the irony in wearing it too, if there was any irony.
Back in my room I looked at it and winced and tried to justify wearing it. I thought, yes, I could wear it ambiguously, promoting and subverting Soviet Russia at the same time – how I’m not quite sure. Or I could wear it simply as a reminder that Soviet Russia existed. And people needed to be reminded. You couldn’t whitewash history. They’d done it themselves. Or tried to. I was going to put it right back in people’s minds. There was the irony
The first time I wore it was about a week later. Despite trying to argue myself into wearing it, I still put it off for as long as possible and wore all my other t-shirts first. I was in Ayutthaya then, visiting the temples, taking photos of that Buddha head trapped in the tree. The second I put it on I felt awkward. It didn’t fit perfectly – it pinched a bit into my pits – and the hammer and sickle and CCCP were so bold, proud and glaring that I almost decided to take it off and spend the whole day in my room waiting for my laundry to be done.
I had never been so consciously aware of wearing something, and I felt that by wearing it I was meaning something I’d tried to understand and project, but which could be understood a million other ways, ways I agreed and didn’t agree with. Which, in turn, increased the awkwardness. I half-hoped the heat would melt the plasticy red off so I could go back to meaning nothing.
That day I was going to watch some Muay-Thai in the evening, but didn’t have any big plans for the day other than sitting about in internet cafes writing emails. I’d go to the market for lunch. Around nine I had breakfast – muesli, yoghurt, fruit and coffee – and then went out for a wander. I immediately knew I was there. I couldn’t avoid it. I’m tall, blond, a little over-weight, pale-skinned, and shiny and smelling of coconut from the suntan cream, but that day I was more than just a farang backpacker. I was a communist. At least a communist sympathiser, even if I tried to believe I wasn’t.
In the first internet cafe I walked into a guy flashed a gold-filling grin and said, communist, good, and gave me the thumbs up. I went instantly red. I wasn’t a communist. I didn’t support Stalin. I couldn’t even bring myself to say things like, say what you like about Uncle Jo, but in the all-time league table of mass murderers he’s got to be up there, hasn’t he. Hitler’s got nothing on him. And the moustache too. How that made him look so cuddly, I don’t know.
I didn’t wear the t-shirt for another month. I made sure I put my laundry in early enough so I could get by without it. I probably should’ve just left it behind in a hotel or thrown it in the bin, or used it as a towel or cut it up to make a bandanna, but my upbringing rebelled against me. It was like a shirt your Great Aunt buys for you at Christmas. You are thankful at the thought but leave it in a drawer until you take it to a charity shop. The only time you ever wear it is when you know she’s coming to visit, even though she knows and you know she knows you don’t like it.
The last time I wore it was in Kanchanburi. I was there to visit the Bridge on the River Kwai, the war graves and the museum. It was so hot one day that I had to have a shower at lunchtime and change into something new. The next morning I realised that the only t-shirt I had left was the only t-shirt I didn’t want to wear.
I reluctantly put it on. It was my last day there before heading back to Bangkok for my flight home. I ordered my usual yoghurt, muesli, fruit mix, plus coffee, and was happily reading the Bangkok Post when I heard a man in a German accent say, hey you.
I looked up from my paper and coffee to see an old man in a Bridge on the River Kwai t-shirt, his face pink and flaky, his hair bright white. His belly was formidable. I pointed at my chest, me?
He said, why are you wearing that t-shirt? Don’t you know what it means?
I went red again.
My family died because of that regime, he went on, his voice and anger rising, my mother and father taken from our home in Germany. Are you happy to wear that? Do you think it’s cool, like wearing a t-shirt of Mickey Mouse?
By that point everyone else in the place had gone quiet and were looking at me and the man.
I said halfheartedly, I’m wearing it so people remember.
He said, remember what? Mass murder? You want people to remember that?
I said yes pretty unconvincingly.
He said, and how many people here remembers that when they look at your t-shirt? They don’t see murder. They think it’s cool. What’s cool about my mother and father dying?
And he was right. I knew he was right, but I couldn’t help myself. I said, and you’re wearing that to remind people of everyone who died on this railway, are you?
For the first time that holiday, I didn’t finish my yoghurt.
Later that day I packed my bag and changed into jeans and another t-shirt for the bus back to Bangkok. I left the t-shirt on the bed, the ice I’d used for my black eye slowly melting into it.