Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

The New Silk Road
The Daily Yomiuri, Aug 2002

Standard Deviations: Growing up and Coming down in the New Asia, by Karl Taro Greenfeld

“I came looking for God” says a young man in Karl Taro Greenfeld’s new book, “ and found nitrazepam methylmorphine.” He is more or less typical of the characters in “Standard Deviations”, a rollercoaster tale of hedonistic Generation Xers discovering Asia in the late eighties.

Greenfeld, currently editor of Time Asia, is no stranger to wild rides. His first book, “Speed tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s next generation” chronicled the sub-culture of Japanese gangsters, bikers and drug addicts. Standard Deviations is a sort of cross between Alex Garland’s “The Beach” and Jack Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums”, except far racier and funnier.

Half Japanese but raised in California, Greenfeld moved to Tokyo in the late eighties to teach English and break into writing. At the time, he was twenty-three and fascinated by tales of the drugs, sex and money to be had in Asia. Hooking up with a motley crew of “cool kids”, he rides the “circuit”: the term for the triangular route between Tokyo, Bangkok and Goa awash with Westerners partying, working and looking for meaning in their lives. Greenfeld consorts with transsexuals in Bangkok, does drugs with ravers in Koh Phangang, hangs out with pimps in Roppongi, plays soccer in Kathmandu and visits the godman Rajneesh’s ashram in India. He ends up addicted to methamphetamines and leaving Asia for rehabilitation in the US, eventually kicking the habit.

Greenfeld is at his evocative best when writing about the “raging dissatisfaction” of youth, the agonies of self-doubt, the hunger for new experiences, the dread of boredom. “The essence of the circuit is movement,” he says of the peripatetic lifestyle. “There is this relentless swirl of cool places, great-looking boys and girls and toxic substances, somehow the idea that if you just keep swirling, don’t stop the dance then you will be young and pretty and clever forever.” He is also wonderful at describing the rapacious greed of Asia during the boom years and the manner in which “everyone was busy getting theirs”. As one character says of Indonesia in the boom years, “This is the kind of growth that happens when a few hundred million people suddenly realise they want their MTV.”

He has an impish, almost malicious, sense of humour and a jumpy, racy style that goes well with his subject. Commenting on a Japanophile American, he writes “Nathan Applesworth is one of those Americans who come to Japan and get super into everything Japanese. Sake. Sumo. Flower arranging, tea ceremony, kabuki, no, regional wasabis and exotic bean pastes, this guy has become a Japanophile to the point of becoming uncomfortable whenever the rape of nanking comes up.”

Greenfeld also has a keen eye for the ridiculous, though one can’t help wondering if the tales here are entirely true. There are some hilarious anecdotes, such as the one where the arrival of twenty-four Amazonian strippers in Tokyo triggers a war between two rival strip clubs desperate for foreign talent. In another, the earnest instructor at Rajneeshpuram assures devotees clad in the mandatory magenta robes that they also have magenta condoms, dental dams and rubber gloves available. His characters leap off the page, from Russian pimps in Bangkok to privileged Indonesians called “Tommy” in Jakarta.

Still, by the end of the book, the reader may end up jaded and queasy. The frantic pursuit of sex, money and drugs portrayed here may be realistic enough, but it gets pretty banal after a while, like watching the initiation rituals of a particularly crude fraternity. Precious few Asians appear in these pages, except as bar girls, touts or brief conquests. Greenfeld’s no-holds barred style also jars at times. His various conquests of the flesh are written about in graphic, almost pornographic detail (most of it unprintable here), reminiscent of locker room bragging.

The one likeable character is an American stockbroker and former classmate of Greenfeld’s called Laney, who arrives in Jakarta determined to grab his share of ‘rented female flesh” but ends up falling in love with a Chinese woman. As anti-Chinese riots break out and Suharto is toppled, Laney risks his life to rescue his love, but finds she has already fled to a former boyfriend. Laney then returns to hustling bargirls and chasing money.

Eventually, as the Asian bubble bursts and economies collapse overnight, Greenfeld begins to belatedly realise that he has exchanged one set of shackles for another. “What was the point of leaving my old life and those pressures of conforming if out here I just discovered a new dress code and required set of behaviors? Warrior tattoos. Long hair. Teva sandals. Versace camouflage shirts. Oakleys. Get something pierced. If I want to ride the circuit, will I have to succumb to a new aesthetic every bit as constricting as tweed suit?

Despite setting out to be a paean to self-indulgence, the book ends up warning against the pleasures of the “circuit”. “Of the crowd who gathered in my Tokyo apartment,” says Greenfeld of his fellow meth smokers, “I was the only one who ended up clean and sober.” Elsewhere, he writes, “They were capriciously peripatetic, these international ravers, but I had also begun to think of them as a bunch of smug, self-centred Ecstasy swallowing morons.” The reader may well ask, “What took him so long?”