In Gold by the Inch the narrator returns to Thailand after a long period spent abroad in America among other places. Part of this time was spent with one or more foreign boyfriends as well. Once home he becomes enamored with a young male prostitute named Thong. In this dynamic, the narrator acts much as a typical western sex tourist would in Thailand, which he finds highly disconcerting because he tries to identify with Thong. As the story unravels, we see more and more how he was treated as a commodity by his former lover, the American Jim. He sees in Thong pieces of himself. Thong is someone with a value attached to him, and he begins to realize that in his relationship with Jim, he was commodified as well. In Thailand, treats Thong as something akin to a valued pssession. Thong allows this, even claims to love the narrator just as he claimed to love Jim, and yet when Thong brings him home to meet his parents, it is clear that the relationship is still uncertain (Chua 32).
In many ways, the narrator acts as a westerner indulging in the sex tourism industry of his old home. He speaks English well, and he has money which he can afford to lavish on Thong as he was once lavishly provided for by his own American lover Jim. He sees the landscape of his home as alien. Finally, he is forced to admit that "in the end, you are just an American darker than the rest, doing things in Thailand you can never do at home" (Chua 201). This statement leaves no room for ambiguity in the narrator's own thoughts as to what he is, in relation to Thailand. He realizes that while he has the skin of a native Thai or Malaysian, he is American in every other sense. He is not returning to it as a citizen, though he may wish he could. What he has discovered is that he has no claim to that heritage. While he can play the part of a Thai native as he does when he tricks a Danish tourist, he knows he is far removed from the life of a Thai citizen (Chua 114-115). Indeed, his poor grasp of the language prevents him from convincing any Thais of his own authenticity. Essentially, he is a tourist, using Thailand to fulfill his desires for sex and identity, but in the end neither of these pursuits are especially satisfying.
Chua, Lawrence. Gold by the Inch. New York: Grove Press, 1999.
Last modified 8 January 2005