I don’t know if now was the right time for Netflix to show The Serpent, a BBC miniseries about a fellow who preyed on Western tourists following the Indo-Asian “hippie trail” during the Seventies. Surely there are plenty of people in the States who are watching this and thinking, “Gosh, would I be willing to risk being drugged, tortured, and murdered just to get on an international flight right now? Yes, I would!” There’s also something profoundly depressing about seeing all these young people who were so eager to flee America and Europe during the Seventies. In retrospect it seems obvious that the era that started with Nixon and ended with George H.W. Bush was the last gasp of the economically and culturally significant West. I had the actual privilege of growing up in a society that valued children, (largely) despised pornography, and at least offered the pretense of a moral compass. We were mercifully free from: smartphones, the HTTP protocol, political street violence, electric cars, woke capital, Amazon, an additional 110 million “Americans” who don’t seem to have improved the country, and omnipresent jumbo mortgages. Our most serious national problem at the time was Ford’s Variable Venturi Carburetor; with the help of Ronald Reagan, the risen Christ, and the Lockheed Skunkworks, that was resolved in 1986 when the 302 went fuel-injected, causing the Soviet Union to inevitably collapse.
I’ve been to Thailand a few times but have always avoided Bangkok, not wanting to enjoy the company of, or suffer the perception of being, a farang — a Western man who is in Southeast Asia for the purpose of pursuing sex. While I’ve heard all the arguments for abandoning American women, in my heart of hearts I think that going overseas to meet girls is what they call “gamma behavior”. (As always, there’s an exception to the rule IMO, and the exception is a rough ellipse drawn around Scandinavia, Holland, and northern France.) The feminist argument against overseas dating and/or “mail order marriage” is that it often amounts to economic exploitation, and it is a compelling one. Should the same lens be applied to the overwhelming support expressed by Western women for a “refugee” stream composed mostly of young adult men? I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Not all “farangs” are contemptible, however. Let me tell you the story of the greatest farang I ever met: a man who deceived, cheated, manipulated, and just plain out-played the American corporate Moloch to live his life on his own terms and retire in the States at an age when most men are still facing thirty years of misery to come. This is the legend of Bangkok Joe, and it’s all true. I know, because I was there.
Six years ago, I was killing time working a tech gig for an insurance company during the day as I freelanced the letters off my IBM Model M keyboard in the evenings. One of their Vice Presidents had just given a speech to his people stating, rather amusingly, that “the outsourcing in this department stops with me”; he was Indian. At that point, every intelligent person in the building started calling recruiters. None of it bothered me, because I had a twelve-month gig and no expectation of renewal.
At some point a few years prior, this insurance company had decided to let a percentage of its employees work from home. Some of them were in the office two days a week; one of those people was my friend — let’s call her Jane. Others were permanent work-from-homes, and this included Joe, a mid-level engineer in server provisioning. In exchange for a mild pay cut, Joe was given permission to move anywhere in the country and work from home. Four times a year, the company would then fly him to the Columbus office for meetings. Joe chose Denver as his work from home location, explaining that he’d always wanted to live near the Rocky Mountains.
After two months after I took that gig, Joe flew in for one of his quarterly visits. I was a little taken aback at the delight expressed by Jane and her best friend — call her “Betty” — regarding Joe’s arrival. Jane and Betty explained that Joe’s visits were nonstop parties in which the three of them would get blackout drunk for multiple nights in a row. Would I join in? Nah, but I would go to lunch with them, and bring a Lamborghini, since I happened to be in possession of one.
Joe arrived in the office that morning and was revealed to be an exceptionally handsome, tan, and fit man in his late thirties, perhaps five foot ten. He was wearing an outrageous silk shirt under a close-cut Tom-Ford-style suit that shouted “Hong Kong” to my tailor’s eye. Oh, I thought, this fellow is a friend of Dorothy, that’s why the girls love him so much. I wanted to dislike him, but this was an impossible task. The man was clearly so happy to be alive that it was a bit infectious.
Our lunch stretched out to two hours and more, with the girls drinking themselves into an incautious, non-corporate state. There was some kind of inside joke between the three of them, something to do with Denver, which was mentioned again and again.
“Isn’t it hot in… Denver right now?”
“I bet you’re dreading that long flight back to… Denver.” Finally, with the gentle kindness that seemed stamped into his every gesture, Joe called a halt to the silliness.
“Listen,” he said, “you seem cool, so I’ll tell you this. Please don’t pass it along, it would cause me a lot of trouble.” Then he broke down the whole situation for me, and it went a little something like this:
Joe didn’t live in Denver. He had a presence in Denver, yes. Two presences, actually. The first was an apartment that he shared with various transient people, like flight attendants and whatnot. The second was a UNIX server in a rack north of the city. The purpose of the rack server was rather ingenious: it created the impression that he was connecting to the insurance company’s network from his home in Denver, when in fact Joe was connecting from his real home… in Bangkok.
Nearly eleven months out of the year, Joe lived in Thailand. He would connect via VPN to the Denver rack server, which would then connect to Columbus. The rack server also maintained a VOIP account for him: he would make phone calls from Bangkok that appeared to originate from a Denver exchange.
How had he gotten started in all of this? Well, in the beginning he really had wanted to move to Denver. Then he visited Bangkok and realized that he loved it. He was a smart man. There had to be a way to make it work. Thus the rack server and the electronic obfuscation.
The first few years had been uneventful. He took calls, participated in online chats, performed remote server work. When he needed to be in Columbus, he would fly to Denver from Bangkok on his own dime, then take the company-paid flight to Columbus. There was really only one problem: Bangkok was almost exactly opposite of Columbus, timezone-wise. So he had to be a night owl, working from 6pm Bangkok time to maybe 2am. It was fine. He loved it. And he could go out afterwards, donning an outrageous silk shirt and disappearing into the night as a wealthy and free-living farang.
Joe wasn’t gay. “We’re too fat for him,” Jane explained, the light six-pack outline of her abs visible beneath a crop top. Joe liked Asian women exclusively. He always had a girl in Bangkok. Maybe not always the same one.
The insurance company started to tighten its grip on work-from-home people, following the fad of the times. Jane was told she should be in the office three days a week, instead of two. Joe was told to come back to the office. He refused, and was told he’d never make Senior Engineer. This did not worry him. What did worry him: the new normal of Skype calls and meetings. How do you take a video call from Bangkok?
There was more work with the rack server, and then a brilliant idea: an American room. He set up a room in his home with American furniture, American paintings. No visible windows. A screen next to his primary screen informed him of Denver weather, Denver news. He installed a light to mimic the sun. His index finger was always ready to mute a conversation if something improbable happened around him: an argument in a foreign language, the sudden thump of noise from a nightclub next door.
He traded salary for vacation time, because he was starting to feel a wanderlust beyond Bangkok. He ranged to South America, Nepal, Europe. Always traveling on the cheap, of course. Because he had plans.
Joe might have had little love for Denver compared to Asia, but he could see what was happening there, particularly with regards to property values. His low-six-figure salary was not much affected by the demands of rent or food: American dollars are exceptionally powerful in Thailand, something I confirmed for myself a few years ago when I bought a brand-new guitar from a music shop in Hatyai for just under fifty bucks. Joe had money to burn. He spent it on property. He took out loans, bought houses one at a time, rented them out. If a house became unoccupied — well, he had all the float in his salary to cover it.
When I met Joe, I think he had four or five houses already. He was starting to spend more and more time in-country surrounding his Columbus visits, dealing with contractors and meeting tenants, that sort of thing. Which was useful, because our rather dim-witted boss was starting to suspect that something was rotten in the state of Colorado.
Maybe Jane or Betty had dropped one too many hints after one too many drinks. Maybe the VPN wasn’t quite as ironclad as he thought it was. But the jig looked like it might be up. I resolved to help him out. Whenever possible, I would insert him into a post-solution narrative: “Well, at that point I Skyped with Joe and we got that figured out.” If I heard the boss coming around a corner, I’d pick up my desk phone: “Yeah, Joe, I really appreciate you chipping in here. I gotta run, see ya.”
I couldn’t have told you exactly why I was so determined to protect Bangkok Joe and his innocent fraud. Maybe it was just this: After nearly two decades of watching companies break every rule, betray every trust, and endanger every bit of customer privacy in order to drink from the intoxicating fountain of Indian off-shoring, I found it morally repugnant that Joe could have lost his job for the simple offense of being offshore. Yes, his dual-VPN setup was a threat to our company’s security, but was it any more of a threat than letting people with fake CompSci Ph.Ds manipulate our data from Hyderabad every night while we slept?
Joe’s real crime, if you could call it that, was simple. He’d gone overseas and kept the savings for himself, rather than letting the company send his job overseas and apportion the savings to itself. The hundred thousand dollars’ worth of salary that separated him from some Accenture halfwit went to his rental homes, instead of funding various Woke Capital initiatives designed to express our insurance company’s contempt for its actual customers. Our employer intended to steal from its shareholders to worship the new golden calf of corporate activism, but Joe had gotten there first and taken just a bit for his own purposes.
In 2017, I left the insurance company and went to a bank. I missed Joe. When I heard he was coming into town, I met him out with Jane and Betty for a rather expensive evening. He told me that he was spending more and more time in Denver, looking after his little real estate empire. The rest of time, he was traveling for real, around the world. He had a variety of strategies to keep his employer from knowing this. It was impossible to say how effective they were.
We asked the bartender to take a picture. I look shambolic next to him in his silk shirt and narrow waist, a couple of beautiful women between us, me a perpetual housecat and Joe a sort of sleek human panther, eyes bright and always looking for what comes next. That was the last time I saw him.
Their insurance company decided to go full Bangalore right before COVID hit. Jane was let go, finding a home at a funky tech startup. Betty got a bit of plastic surgery, becoming so visually perfect that her bosses found a job for her outside of tech. Joe had the most seniority, so the company offered him an option: Come into the office full-time, or leave with a buyout. He took the cash. Which he didn’t need, because the rents in Denver had gone through the roof. He’d built millions of dollars in equity, had tens of thousands of dollars in difference between rental income and his expenses. So he retired to become a full-time landlord.
This, then, is the Legend Of Bangkok Joe, a man who turned a mind-numbing tech job at a sleepy insurance company into a multi-million-dollar real estate empire, all while living an intensely sybaritic and dissolute life in Asia’s most depraved city. A character straight out of ancient folklore, the Trickster who took all the tools the corporate Uniparty uses to drain the life out of us — omnipresent tech, “remote work”, insane urban real-estate pricing, a total human disconnection between the officers of a corporation and the human sheep they shear — and used them against the Beast to his own purpose. He said No! to American women, American dreams, the American lifestyle of running on a treadmill against the Joneses. He traveled the world in secret, amusing himself with no master to whom he must answer.
Every story has a lesson, implicit or explicit, so what’s the lesson of this one? I think it has to be about the power, the value, the almost-necessity of turning away from what the System offers. Find out what they want you to say, or do, or believe; then indulge yourself in the opposite. You know what the modern gospel is. It is all around you. There is power in a secret rejection of its tenets, in a private decision to bleed the beast for your own benefit, in a solitary determination to read the Bible or lift weights or start a nuclear family.
Every time you read Epictetus in an airport instead of listening to the blathering of CNN or the siren song of social media, every time you help a neighbor, every moment you spend with your children instead of your corporation — well, in those moments you’re honoring Bangkok Joe. More importantly, you’re honoring yourself. They cannot touch Bangkok Joe any longer. As for the rest of us, I’m reminded of the sign that supposedly stood above the spaceport at Arrakis, but was in fact carved into an Afghani stone during the time of Shamyl and the Tsar:
O you who know what we suffer here, do not forget us in your prayers!