Friday, April 17, 2009

Crips vs Bloods: Waiting for the End

Sondhi Limthongkul, wearing his trademark white garments, was

shot in the head today by people driving by in two pickup trucks. He

Sondhi has been a vigorous leader of the PAD "yellow shirts" and
this will doubtless only renew his vigour--and that of his followers.
Meanwhile the UDD "red shirts" will be more than willing to meet any
challenge that this new tragedy may present to them. And the
real victim will be their country.

I love Thailand. It's been painful and sad to watch all that has
happened here since I returned last October and just when I think
perhaps things may be improving, a new debacle erupts that is even more terrible than the one before.

Thai people are hurting each other. A slow and steady current of
deaths is sweeping their capital city. And tourist industry
spokespeople talk about maintaining the Thailand "brand" and
preparing for the next nationwide Grand Sale.

"Don't worry," they chirp, "We don't need foreign tourists--domestic
tourism will revive our economy." But domestic tourists are no
more eager than their foreign counterparts to pretend all is well
in this very troubled country and jump on the Titanic for a
pleasure cruise.

Red shirts, yellow shirts, what about a touch of black for a
recognition of those who have died in the past six-plus
months. A bit of mourning could do us all some good. There's
a little too much denial going on--and way too much violence.
Or maybe some saffron robes to lead a march and remind us of
Truths and Paths and the Middle Way. This is a Buddhist nation,
after all.

Hurry up please it's time....

Saturday, April 11, 2009

New Year Revolution?

Thailand has been proud of being the site for the Asean summit meeting, under the leadership of seasoned diplomat Surin Pitsuwan, well in advance of the event. Pattaya, the beachtown formerly known as Sleaze City was regaining some luster as the chosen venue, along with some desperately needed revenue--and then this weekend all of this was cancelled because of a crowd of people with dynamite (well, "giant firecrackers" the Nation reported), Molotov cocktails, and slingshots with bolts.

The Australian Prime Minister was airborne when the cancellation took effect, so he will arrive to find he embarked upon a trip that wasted both time and money. The businesses in Pattaya that prepared for a barrage of statesmen and journalists and TV cameramen will have to eat their loss--probably by stepping up the sleaze factor because that brings in necessary revenue. This is a sad way to end the old year.

I cringe when I think of what I posted here yesterday--true, there were no deaths. But thugs with slingshots and Molotov cocktails--maybe my cultural bias is showing but to me this is not a symptom of democracy in any form, in any culture. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

Red and Yellow Make Orange

I've never met Stanley Weiss but I would like to--his reprinted column in The Nation yesterday provided a very necessary perspective on the process of creating a democracy:
"What do you call a decracy in which women cannot vote, slavery is openly practiced, elected office is reserved for wealthy white landowners, and national laws define an entire race of people as three-fifths of a human being?
For nearly a century, we called it "The United States of America." It is fortunate that America's founding fathers  never had to defend those contradictions on the pages of the Economist or to the cameras of CNN."

As hard as it is to admit it, America did not invent democracy, nor is the variant we practice the only model in the world, nor is perfect. It did not spring up in its current form without a horrendous war for independence, followed 100 years later by a bloody civil war in which Americans killed Americans.  The idea of nonviolent protests came only just before the U.S. celebrated its 200th birthday, adopted from another democracy, India. It is still a principle that is occasionally ignored when "riots" (or violent protests) set our cities in flames.

Keeping this in mind, I have to give credit to the opposing factions in Thailand--red shirts, yellow shirts, taxi drivers, even politicians in exile. Although their actions are wildly inconvenient as the airport was shut down and traffic placed in gridlock the other day, and in my more cynical moments, I think that their motives are suspect, very little violence has taken place during the last year of almost perpetual protest.

Even when the flashpoint was perilously close during the airport occupation, there were no deaths. For that both red and yellow deserve full credit. Me? I'm going out shopping to find shirts in a shade of orange... 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sneaky Forms of Culture Shock

At a certain point, I began to think I was immune to culture shock. In my four years of teaching English, I'd logged in at least one-fourth of that time in bus-hours and had walked over countless kilometers of Bangkok. Elephants, chickens and water buffalo sharing the sidewalk with me, whole dead ducks lolling their limp heads over the side of a basket, a rat on a skewer for sale at a morning food stall in my neighborhood, people having their ears cleaned by the side of the street...these were no longer things that stopped me in mid-stride. 

And yet...when I went to eat sushi the other day and the set I ordered came with a small bowl of kimchee, I looked at it and almost burst into tears. I had until last October lived in a neighborhood that had once been Seattle's Nihonmachi and still has quite a few residents of Japanese descent and some really fine sushi bars. My sons and I would go to them as often as we could afford, and it was hard enough to look at my maguro sahimi in Bangkok and eat it without them-rather the way other people might choke up at the thought of eating their Thanksgiving turkey dinner alone. But to have it served with kimchee was not just wrong from a gustatory standpoint, it was a major political/cultural faux pas as well and I was unsettled by it.

"Maybe I'm missing something here," I told myself and when I'd eaten my sashimi and my miso soup I took a tentative taste of the kimchee as "dessert." Now like most people who live on the U.S. west coast, kimchee is something I've become familiar with. A friend whose wife was Korean would buy an ample supply at an annual  church fair and would always give me a couple of jars when she found out I liked it. If I ever develop an ulcer, I will attribute it to those gifts of kimchee, which was so pungent that the man I lived with pleaded with me to eat it only when he wasn't home. The tiny morsel I put in my mouth now was not the fiery, sour explosion of demented vegetables that I remembered. It was sweet and vaguely hot and mildly flavored and as I swallowed it quickly, my throat closed and I began to cough.

There are sushi bars near the Japanese community on Sukhumvit and a few days ago, I went to one with a friend, since I've discovered that I have to eat this in company and never again alone. The set I ordered came with some Japanese pickles and was blissfully devoid of kimchee.  My tastebuds were mollified and I began to plan a trip to a Korean shopping center down the street where I could have a meal where kimchee is part of the general scheme of things.

On that same day, I passed a beauty salon in a shopping mall that announced its services included Botox and Sliming---and yes I stopped and yes I gaped and yes I longed for a camera. And yes I realized that as long as I live in Thailand and as long as my native tongue is the world's lingua franca and as long as sugar and chili are put in every dish that enters Thai borders, yes I will continue to reel from bouts of culture shock.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Happy New Year--Third Time's the Charm...

My computer died at the end of last year at the same time that I had to leave the Kingdom. Its demise put me into a mood that was less than festive, so I decided I'd make this border-crossing into a small vacation and explore a small part of  Laos in a leisurely fashion with no firm schedule or date of return. 

Before I left, a sign went up in the elevator of the building I lived in, saying the office would be closed for the first several days in January, the housekeeping staff would be on holiday for over a week, and January rent would not be due until the 10th. When I came home on the 3rd, my building resembled a ghost town and my neighborhood was stripped down to survival mode, with many of the shops closed and barred. 

Finding food was a challenge, my laundry pile took up a large corner of my bedroom, and the silence of the soi seemed vaguely apocalyptic. I felt uneasy about the coming months, which held two more New Year celebration that were far more traditional than the imported one of January 1.

And sure enough, in February, when Chinese New Year rolled around, my neighborhood revealed its Chinese heritage by closing up shop. This New Year had a more jubilant feeling to it than the first of the year, with lots of firecrackers, and ceremonial offerings of oranges and incense and full meals placed outside of homes and businesses, and oceans of people wearing red, which for a few days lost all political significance. And it didn't matter if my neighborhood had less food for sale than usual, because the Chinatown neighborhood was crowded with food stalls and lion dancers and red lanterns and people having a very, very good time. Just as everybody in New York is Irish on March 17th, everyone in Bangkok is Chinese when the lunar New Year arrives--even me--and I loved this particular out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new turning of the year. 

The final New Year that will last the longest is the one that is truly Thai. Songkran is the holiday that has changed from a ceremonial bathing of Buddha statues and a respectful handwashing of older family members by their juniors to include a country-wide water battle. Plastic Uzis and Ak-47s have been for sale on my soi for the past couple of weeks and the most common conversational gambit is "Where are you going for Songkran?" "Straight into a wetsuit," is my interior response as I smile and say I haven't decided yet. 

My plan is to stay home, sunbathing in the yard, watching HBO and my favorite DVDs that I brought from the States, venturing out for food in my oldest and least favorite clothes to find whatever nourishment is available, and preparing myself for a thorough drenching at least once a day. With any luck at all, the sun and the heat will have returned, and the barrage of cold water will feel good. At any rate, last year at this time, if I could have been in Bangkok, relaxing and enduring the collateral damage of Songkran, I would have been blissful--and this year, here I am, waiting to celebrate my third New Year in four months.

Grey, Heavy, Still

The air is as thick as oatmeal and flat calm. It's been a day with no sunlight. A storm that struck our yard while I was out left a small forest of potted plants lying on their sides and panting for breath. As I made them stand upright again, I knew exactly how they felt. Even a visit with one of my favorite Bangkok people didn't give me the usual jolt of joie de vivre that I usually feel after chatting with her for a few hours. 

Last night when I went down for more water, there was a small frog hopping around the legs of the dining table. When I tried to persuade him to go back outside, he headed off in the opposite direction--obviously he knew something about the impending weather that I didn't.

I hope I don't see him later this evening, hopping out a forecast for further tropical depression to come--having the weather turn prematurely grey is much worse than broiling sunlight can ever be.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


The other day I was waiting for the SkyTrain and reading when suddenly I looked up and realized I was standing alone. All around me people were queued up in the fashion that the Skytrain's disembodied voice calls for sporadically and I was the only straggler. Meekly I joined the nearest line and felt a certain degree of terror.

What I've always loved best about Thailand is its pervasive jovial anarchy. It was annoying to wait in what I thought was a line at the Post Office, only to have people blithely usurp the clerk's attention without having served their time in the queue but that I decided is why Mailbox Etcetera existed and boycotted the PO in favor of the more expensive, less infuriating alternative. 

Bus stops were different--they were a game I couldn't avoid and had to learn how to play. When I first came here, I taught at a downtown bank and the class ended right in the middle of the evening rush hours. I would wait, and wait, and wait for a bus that would take me home, at last one would pull up, and then all hell broke loose. The scrimmage that took place as people shoved and pushed and scrabbled their way on to the bus would do justice to a hockey match in Detroit. It took months for me to stop waiting for a bus that I could board without receiving or inflicting mayhem, until I finally realized that in a society as rigorously polite as in Thailand, getting on a bus was a form of public therapy. Everybody, from sweet little old ladies to small children, could unshackle the tensions of their day for a couple of blissful, unregulated seconds--and when I finally gathered up the nerve to try it, by God it felt good. It was almost as relaxing as a dry martini and a cigarette, and I began to look forward to going home at night.

As I stood on line at the Skytrain station a couple of evenings ago, I wondered how the people around me were going to be able to get rid of the frustration that ten years ago would have been dissipated by crowding their way onto a bus. I looked at the smooth, polite, self-contained faces in tidy queues and suddenly I understood why lengthy and occasionally violent political protests have recently become such a popular Bangkok pastime.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Little Black Dress--or Maybe Not-So-Little...

You can buy anything in Bangkok, but sometimes the path to the purchase is a trifle circuitous.  Especially if you are not hovering around the age of nineteen, and if your taste runs towards garments that are black, and if you weigh well above ninety pounds. 

One amazing afternoon I did find a dress-- black, simple, and size L--that was four inches shorter than I like my hemlines to be. So yesterday, armed with a phrase book, I took it to have it copied in a longer edition, to a dressmaker on my street who promptly telephoned her daughter to serve as interpreter, which I took as a very encouraging sign of professionalism.

The daughter suggested that I buy the material myself so I would be sure it was what I wanted, rather than have her mother do it, so that launched an excursion to the Sikh section of Phahurat Road, which is a spot I need little excuse to venture off to. 

First lesson learned: Do not go to sari shops in search of black jersey--amid the sequins, silk, chiffon , and glorious colors there is nothing so basic as black. I almost weakened and succumbed to turquoise shot with glittering gilt threads--but obstinacy trumped aesthetics and I persisted. Just as I was wavering towards having a salweer kameez made instead of a Manhattanesque fantasy, there was a friendly, turbanned elderly gentleman who knew exactly what I wanted, had it produced from the nether reaches of his shop, and sold me five meters of jet black  cotton jersey--which is enough fabric to construct a small yurt.

If you are in Bangkok and desperately seeking black, don't hyperventilate in sari shops--go straight to Nai Leck Chai Dee R.O.P. and throw yourself on the mercy of the presiding figure whose name I have most unfortunately forgotten. But I have the address: 380-382 Phahurat Road, in the middle of the block.  And someday I'm going back there for that turquoise and gold fabric for the sari I've always wanted, because--when it comes to fabric-- this is a shop that has it all.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Outrageous Thai

Apparently the reputable and esteemed house of Tuttle has come out with a new dictionary for those who are grappling with the Thai language--Outrageous Thai: Slang, Curses and Epithets--which is raising no small apprehension among Old Thai Hands. This is a book that ranks right up there with The Anarchist's Cookbook as one that shouldn't be allowed to fall into the possession of the newly arrived, the irresponsible, or the immature --words that can get you in a rousing John-Wayne-style bar fight in America , OTH claim, can get you killed in the Kingdom.

Let's leave aside the fact that for decades Tuttle has come out with a series of books called Making out in (Thai, Japanese, Tagalog) that have a healthy selection of words that can easily get the unwitting user in, as they say in oilworker bars, " a world of hurt." And if the curses and epithets don't provide enough danger to human life, there are a generous number of break-up phrases in these best-selling little volumes that are easily as dangerous to use as slang, curses and epithets.  And as far as I know, there has been no significant number of slaughtered foreign innocents found with copies of Making Out among their personal effects.

In Thailand, what will save users of Outrageous Thai from certain death are those same tones that render their requests for khao pat gai and a Coke completely unintelligible to native speakers. If a faulty tone can turn an innocent phrase into an obscenity, then certainly foul language can become endearments under that same alchemy.

When I first came to Thailand, I was told to yell "Fire!" and not "Help!" in Thai if I found myself in any sort of danger on the street, because people will respond to the first and ignore the latter. Even as fresh of the boat as I was at that time, I knew full well that my attempts at yelling "Fire!" could just as easily result in shrieking "Pipe wrench!" or "Chastity belt!" (Luckily for me danger on the street is about as rare as a farang who has mastered all of the tones in the Thai language.)

It also occurred to me  that there is a built-n safety measure that comes with learning another  language while living in the country where it is spoken. All of the truly offensive phrases that come to mind during the first years of living here--and in my case there were many as I wallowed in culture shock and frustration--are ones that you only have the ability to use when you understand the weight that lies behind them.  And with Thai, tones provide an added kill-switch.

The day that I learned that I could manage a sarcastic phrase in my new language was a day of shock and awe for me--fortunately during the yawning gulf of time that it took to be able to do that, I had also developed a new perspective that kept me from using this achievement very often.  By the time the purchasers of Outrageous Thai have mastered the tones that will make their slang, epithets and curses intelligible and offensive to Thai people, they will either have moved on to another global neighborhood or will have lived here long enough to know the hazards affiliated with their use. Tones--can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em--but sometimes you just have to be grateful for the damned things.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Feeling Fragile

Beer Chang and good conversation can be a lethal combination and after several hours of both with Bangkok author Jerry Hopkins last night,  I'm feeling a trifle delicate this morning. So apparently was one of the banana trees that presides over our yard--weakened probably by the storm of two nights before and a considerable load of ripening bananas, it snapped mid-stalk and forms two sides of a dismal-looking triangle From the look of the tiny banana plantation against the corner of the wall that shields our house from the street, this has happened before with other trees in the past. In my mildly hung-over state, I mentally mutter someting about impermanence and wait for my nagging little pain at my temples to succumb to that noble truth.