THE SOUTH’S BIGGEST JUSTIN BIEBER FAN
By Andrew Biggs
Her name is Arena and she accosts me on the front lawn of the Songkhla resort.
“You’re Andrew Biggs!” she cries. “I used to watch you on TV when I was a little girl!”
Yes, dear reader, I am blessed to be greeted with such a comment, though it is very much a double-edged sword.
While it is nice to elicit a reminiscent smile, that sword is also rusty and painful as it plunges deep into my ego, reminding myself that this woman is all grown-up now, and if she enjoyed me as a “little girl”, then indeed I am not the spring chicken I used to be.
Sheepishly Arena asks if it is possible to get a photo with me. I wonder if my “yes of course” was way too fast, as is usually the case with ageing delusional spring chickens accosted by the real thing.
She is with the young hotel PR manager who will take the pic. Arena stands next to me, smoothing down her dress and trying to stand as tall as she can.
“I know, I’m too short,” she says.
“No you’re not,” I say. “It’s just that I’m 186 cm tall. Anybody next to me resembles a dwarf.”
“Yes, that’s right. I am a dwarf.”
“No that’s not what I meant to –“
“Okay, the both of you, smile!” says the resort manager as she holds up her tablet and snaps a picture of Arena and me.
“I’ll be uploading that to Facebook right away!” Arena says with the eagerness found only in an 18-year-old. “My friends will be so jealous!”
She rushes over to look at the picture. The winning smile turns upside. “Oh no, no, that will never do. I look so fat!” Delete.
“You’re not fat,” I say as Arena resumes her place next to me.
“Yes I am,” she says. “And that pic made me look even fatter. One more time … please!”
“One … two … Go!” says the resort manager, a joke that Thais used to make often when taking photographs (a reference to the airline One Two Go, a joke you don’t hear that often these days owing to a One Two Go plane crash at Phuket airport in 2007, rendering the airline non-existent).
Arena is short with eyes that resemble acorns, a round face and a gorgeous smile. People in the South of Thailand are a little darker than their compatriots to the North.
She is pleased with that latest picture, as pleased as an 18-year-old can be about a picture of herself when she is bombarded with TV advertisements telling her only tall light-skinned thin people are beautiful. She is none of those things, but she exudes beauty and the seeds of poise already at the age of 18, more so than any skeleton I’ve seen on a Sunsilk ad.
Arena is at the hotel as an intern. She’s in her final year of a hospitality degree and this requires three months’ slave labor at a hotel. Excuse me, work experience at a hotel. Arena’s into her third month and loving it.
“So you’d like to work in a hotel after you graduate?” I ask, warming to Arena’s smile, not to mention her enthusiasm and innocence.
She nods. “Well yes, but I don’t think it will happen. I have to look after my mother. She’s all alone when I’m here. I could never leave her alone for a long period of time.” This is said without the slightest hint of regret.
I enquire as to siblings, but they have all married and moved away having started their own families. Arena is the last child, and the onus is on her to be a constant companion to her sick mother, who lives 150 km away. I have no idea where her father has gone.
“So how does your mother manage without you while you’re here?” I ask.
“I go home every weekend,” she says proudly, and I imagine little Arena sitting on those rickety old inter-provincial buses chugging 300 km up and down the highway each weekend.
I launch into my spiel about the necessity for her to explain to her mother that she needs to gain a career and experience, so that she can provide for her mother comfortably in the future. Arena nods, but like so many others before her, I suspect my sage words of advice are falling on deaf ears.
“I think I’d miss her, too,” says this little Songkhla pearl. Her cellphone springs to life; her ringtone a Justin Bieber song. When I later ask her if she likes Justin Bieber, her face gets even more excited than when she spotted me on the lawn, which is probably healthy.
“I LOVE Justin Bieber!” she squeals. When I explain that he’s coming to Bangkok next month for a concert, she gasps and those acorn eyes turn to paste. I promise that if she can get herself to Bangkok, 960 kilometres away, I’d buy her a ticket, which is not on the cards since 150 kilometres is already a long distance for her.
It is time for Arena and her manager to move on. I say goodbye, and I am aware she has put me in a good mood.
Later on in the day I run into Arena again and she asks for another photo since the one on the lawn had her squinting and she “still looked a little fat”. Lightening creams have a lot to answer for in this country.
“Did you mean it about the free ticket to Justin Bieber?” she whispers in between photos.
“Absolutely,” I say. “Just make sure your mother approves.”
And Arena was gone.
That is where we have to leave her, dear reader.
Short, dark-skinned Arena, radiating beauty, worried about her weight and height and skin, obsessed with Justin Bieber, and at one with her smart phone. She could be a teenager from anywhere in the world, and with her ailing mother’s best interests at heart, she is the kind of daughter any parent would be proud of.
And with the exception of her round face and almond eyes, she was covered from head to toe in her hijab.
Little Arena comes from the heart of Yala, one of three provinces where Thais, both Muslim and Buddhist alike, rip each other apart on a daily basis with bullets and bombs, decimating families and rendering them fatherless, motherless, or even obliterated altogether. In the name of religion. In the name of politics. In the name of a separatist state.
Whatever. I can only pray Arena’s rickety old bus sticks to the main roads.
And while we consider the situation in those three southern provinces somewhat distant and alien, this week I came face to face with the goodness, the aspirations and even the fan-crazed devotion of a typical teenager who could have come from anywhere in the world, save for the clothing.
She reminded me of the goodness in people wherever they may be. So let’s pray for peace in the South, while I quietly pray Justin Bieber gets to see Arena at Impact Arena.