Monday, December 28, 2009

Sidewalk Images #2

Wherever one travels, they are there. People who live on the streets exist in all parts of the world. Some are there by choice, others through misfortune. Whichever it is, they all have a story to tell, if we take the time to hear it.

These men crossed my path in Northern Thailand a year or so ago. I was out for an early morning stroll when I saw them pushing a cart full of recyclables, pausing now and then to play with their puppy. After a brief hello, we laughed as the pup raced through throngs of pigeons that exploded upward, then fluttered back down mockingly in the young dog's wake. The faces of the two friends told a tale of a hard life; the fresh scrapes and tired eyes betrayed a rough existence, but their laughter conveyed an as-yet-undampened spirit.

We spoke haltingly, using a great number of gestures: Names, country (or region) of origin, the small talk that first engages strangers. From the poor northeast, they had come to find work; recycling was their momentary career. Wide smiles appeared when they learned I am American ("New York, number one!"). They broke small pieces from their khao neeow (sticky rice) to feed their canine companion as we walked along the otherwise deserted plaza. They then asked me to take their picture, proudly posing with the puppy.

I offered to treat them to breakfast. They smiled and wai-ed low, we exchanged hugs, then I waved goodbye as they moved on to the nearby noodle cart, the pup trotting close behind. How many opportunities to learn more about people do we miss, out of fear, ignorance, or pride? Once in a while I'm blessed to have the chance to hear another story. It helps me understand humans a bit better, and to know that we are all pretty much the same; we just have drawn different cards of fate.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Philosophy of Being

Sitting in a leafy canopy's shade, I place my finger to hold the spot in my book, and turn my face into the breeze blowing across the lake onto the deck of a restaurant in the Bangkok suburb we call our second home. The location of the newly-opened establishment is brilliant, taking advantage of the atmosphere's obligatory observance of the laws of thermodynamics. Warmed by a San Miguel buzz, I bask in the pleasures of just being: this zen moment is nestled in the barks of distant dogs and the rustling of leaves overhead. Murmurs of conversation drift out from the bar where wide screen TV displays the Buffalo Bills-New England Patriots game, and wind chimes jingle in the trees.

Although our technological world has doomed us to an unpleasant ecological future, it nonetheless has afforded the willing to live in any corner of the world of one's choosing. How oddly comforting it is to sit in a tropical garden, conversations in Thai, English and French floating about, the NFL and Premier League playing simultaneously on TV screens, and in a strangely surreal twist, songs by The Monkees and John Denver begin to seep from speakers suspended overhead.

I watch airliners slowly descend into Bangkok's airport in the distance, one thread in the techno-web that physically links us in an increasingly global society.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


After three days of marking exams and getting caught up with my project and lab grading, I found myself rushing to finish and export comments today 35 minutes after the deadline. Students wandered by to check on final grades--they are not required to be at school once they have finished their exams--lingering a bit to chat with friends or teachers, and for seniors, to be sure they have all forms in for college admission. One can sense the deflating energy level as the hours tick by. Teachers exchange holiday plan notes over lunch at the deserted canteen.

I sit back and relax, part fatigue, part reflection, as my last comment speeds somewhere into cyberspace, seeking my class record online. I notice the most recent note left by a student in one of my biology classes, and smile. This break comes none too soon.

A questionable sentiment, but I'll take it!

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Best Schools in America?

US News and World Report just ranked the 100 "best" US high schools. In reading the demographics of each school, it's easy to see that many on this list are selective. Take the two schools in Tucson, for example. Coming in at #9 is a school that only accepts high achieving students, requiring--among other things--that everyone take AP courses. Tucson's University High School will only accept students who have scored in the top 5% of state tests. The top school (in a Virginia suburb) accepts students based on "merit;" they have 4.9% minority enrollment, and less than 2% of their students are economically disadvantaged. How tough can it be, then, to end up in such an elite group? How easy to teach at such a school!

Those aren't America's best schools! Check out #13, the IDEA Quest Academy in Donna, Texas, with 96% minority, 77% economically disadvantaged student body. Now that has to be considered a real success by comparison. The best schools are those that take on the challenges of its culture by including all those who struggle and devote resources to meeting the needs of all children. The best don't hide from the disadvantaged, but find ways to help everyone reach their potential in an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect.

Whenever some polling body decides to rank anything so difficult as America's high schools, I don't get overly excited about it. Usually they have some over riding or vested interest in the outcome. I seriously doubt that the lists would look anything alike if it were done by, say, the U.N. or the International Peace Institute.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Life in a Taxi

When one lives in a large city like Bangkok, much of the traveling is done by taxi. This city has five and a half MILLION registered vehicles (unregistered are probably many tens of thousands), and I must have seen most of them. Whether going into town, traveling to or from work, bringing a load of groceries home, or trying to get to a friend's house, taxis are one of the most popular and--by western standards--economical ways to get around.

Instead of attempting to describe the emotional roller coaster ridden when in the unpredictable Bangkok taxi, I am listing a number of texts sent by Kat and me to each other at various times in the past several months. I think you'll get an idea of what it's like:

  • "Taxi hasn't moved in 25 mins. Driver keeps opening his door to huck lugies into the street--it ain't pretty."
  • "Fell asleep...Oh no! Wrong turn!"
  • "Can I get a 'Sitting on my Ass in a Taxi' award?"
  • "Driver going wrong way and he won't listen to me!"
  • "Grid f***ing lock!"
  • "Can't find a taxi. What the hell?"
  • "Oh no! They're fixing the bridge, traffic galore, pouring rain, I'll never get home! Wah!"
  • "Just got kicked out of the taxi. Guy decided it was going to take too long and he had other plans."
  • "Wow, Sammakee is flooded, worst I've ever seen. I may have to walk. Sh*t!"
  • "Traffic crawling...trapped like a rat!"
  • "Got kicked out at Soi 72--I guess he picked up the wrong fare."
  • "This driver is 200 years old and babbling."
  • "Still babbling."
  • "Have beer ready."

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Special Place

Lately, I was thinking about sense of "place" and recalled a moment last summer during a trip to Iowa. As I relaxed on a friend's porch at sunrise, the cool night air still resisting the impending heat of the new day, I thought of how beautiful and serene the setting was and realized at that moment, it seemed perfect. Cares melted away as I watched a woodpecker going about its energetic business in the woods and ducks paddling on the glassy pond. I then pondered the question, "If I feel this good here, why did I ever leave?"

Perhaps we all spend most of our lives striving for that perfect place, our retreat, the sanctuary, a paradise. For some, it is a cottage nestled lakeside in the rolling Iowa hills, for others it is a cabin in the Cascades, a townhouse in Boston, or simply a home in the neighborhood of one's youth in a small town.

For me--and happily, for Kat too--it is the Maine coast woods. It is the only place where I have felt completely nurtured by nature's rhythms. But that is me. It is futile to extol the virtues of one's Nirvana in hopes of convincing others to love it, too. We probably do it for selfish reasons: We want those we care about to move closer to us. I think it is better to celebrate a sense of place and be grateful for the opportunity to live in our designated retreats.

The world is full of beautiful and fascinating places. How wonderful it is to have so many friends living in their chosen sanctuaries, and to have the chance to visit each other, sharing in the pleasure of friendship and enjoyment of each other's special place.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sidewalk Images

Every day I pass scores of people living a simple life in a not-so-simple city. Their stories are often told without words: In the way they live, in their faces, and in the day to day basics that help them survive with dignity. This man carries his shop with him, slung over his shoulder as he moves from street corner to street corner. Notice the eggs he is cooking on a woven basket! Bangkapi, Bangkok.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Visit to a Bhutanese Monastery

High on the mountainside of the Punakha Valley in Bhutan sits an aged monastery, which is home to one hundred boys of various ages. In this isolated setting, the boys attend a classical Bhuddist monastic school where they study to become monks. Surrounded by the lushness of the jungle slopes, the serenity is palpable; the silence a perfect backdrop for meditation, prayer and reflection.

As we entered the grounds, an air of peacefulness greeted us. Met by the head abbot, Guru Tshewang, we walked through the grassy courtyard where novice monks of all sizes flashed warm smiles and waved. Sitting in the reception room, we chatted for an hour or so with Guru Tshewang, getting a brief history of the monastery and learning about the school. Very personable, Tshewang paused often to ask us for the correct English phrase to use. Although Dzonga is the official Bhutanese language, few people like to use it, and all learn English from an early age. It is the language of instruction in Bhutan schools.

After a basic but hearty meal, we went to different classrooms to teach an English class. My class of advanced English speakers met in the sanctuary, whose walls were decorated with brightly painted murals of Tibetan guardian spirits and golden statues of Buddha. The class consisted of me answering questions about myself and America (“Tell us about your schools.” “What is New York like?” “Have you been to Los Angeles?” “Do you like Bhutan?”), and them relating to me what it was like to live in the monastery. They were even eager to learn a bit of Thai, meager though my level happens to be. It was a delightful hour and a half. Most surprising was the length of their workday. Up at 4:30 each morning, they spend 18 hours studying with time off for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a half hour of CNN and BBC news (a satellite dish sits incongruently on the side of the monastery). We slept comfortably on cushions in the reception room, awakened briefly in the middle of the night by a chorus of baying from the guard dogs. When I asked the abbot about it in the morning, he said, “Probably leopards. They come by occasionally, but won’t come near the dogs.” That was comforting.

I was awakened by a droning sound that my sleepy brain eventually interpreted as human. As I stepped into the soft morning light, I saw scores of red robed boys sitting cross-legged on the ground, their prayer books in their laps, and all chanting in that mysteriously enticing monotone of meditation. I was transfixed by the scene, and sat for a while, listening to the lulling sound, gently rocking like so many of the young chanting novices. A rich scent of cedar smoke and incense hung in the air as the sun rose out of the mist.

Later, we walked the grounds and observed the many chores and creative arts projects that the novices were engaged in each day, such as classical Tibetan Buddhist music and making mandalas from butter for prayer services. All too soon it was time to leave. Although brief, the visit left me with a greater understanding of Bhutan, its history and religion (Tibetan Buddhism is different than Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand). It endeared me even more to this peaceful and beautiful country. We most certainly will return.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Different Kind of "Call of Nature"

Combine a tropical climate, unregulated sewage systems, and the rainy season, and you can receive some rather unexpected surprises in your living space. Nearly every evening we receive a hard rain that cools this steamy country and floods the streets, which causes the storm drains to back up temporarily. After each storm, a deafening chorus of several frog species dominates the night sounds.

A few days ago as Kat lifted the toilet lid, a rather large frog was found splashing about the bowl. The ensuing shriek (it was not from the desperate amphibian) drew the dog in for a look, and together she and Kat watched the creature in fascination before it was scooped out and released into the comparatively safer environs of our fish pond.

Having a frog in one's toilet begs the question: What else is down there? I've never been completely sure of which outgoing pipe is actually connected to the sewer, and perhaps it's because I don't really want to know. With the knowledge that rather large cat-eating monitor lizards inhabit the lake a block away and have been seen crawling out of the sewers, I now take a precautionary second look before being seated. I've read too many Stephen King stories.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Turning 60

I made it to 60. A few thousand years ago, I would be considered ancient. At least the tribal young would seek me out for advice. To tell the truth, I really don't feel any different than I did at 30 or 40. Could be age delusion, I realize. Well, 60 is no longer considered ancient, and there are no lines of people waiting to hear my pearls of wisdom. But, Kat did ask me what I've learned in my six decades on this planet. At first, I didn't think I had anything earth-shaking to share, but after a few days, the question kept tapping on my mind, so here it is, for whatever it is worth.

  • This planet is incredible. Experiencing the awesome wonders of nature is a spiritual journey for me. One doesn't have to travel to exotic locations to appreciate the exquisite interactions of the variety of organisms; just take a look around!
  • We work too hard. In light of my first observation, we spend far too much of our waking hours unable to appreciate life in the fullest. Whoever decided that people must spend so much time at work must have been the recipient of the fruits of working people's labor. I've thought about it quite a lot. We definitely need more time to enjoy life, our friends and family, the wonders of Earth, and to rest; to do what makes us happy. And although my career has been fulfilling in many ways, it has not allowed me (or my students, come to think of it) enough time to just have fun.
  • Teaching is not only an honorable profession, it is not easy. Not everyone can do it, and in some cases, there are some teachers who can't do it very well. But bless 'em for trying. Most professionals that deal with people do it one person at a time, and they wouldn't last long in a classroom full of teenagers. Would I do it again if I had to do it all over again? Absolutely not! But it was the culmination of choices I made, and I am continually learning, usually from my students.
  • There are an awful lot of hypocrites in the world. Always have been, probably always will be. I blame a lot of it on religion. It amazes me how many people I've met who are so self-righteous and who say one thing but do another.
  • Science doesn't have all the answers, but what it does have should be paid attention to. If scientists have built up evidence for something over years of painstaking empirical research, then we have to accept it. For anyone who has any doubt about the truth of such overwhelming evidence for things like climate change or evolution, they either aren't willing to take a good look, or they have simply decided to ignore it if it clashes with their personal belief systems. You can't have it both ways: If you accept medical advice built on research, then accept the rest of scientific findings. And, by the way, a scientific theory is not a guess, as in our everyday use of the word. It is an explanation for a phenomenon that has solid evidence to back it up, and has not yet been proven wrong.
  • There are too many people in the world. Not only are there not enough resources to go around, we aren't using them wisely. People need to stop having so many babies. It isn't necessary. Adopt! There are lots of kids who need a home. My experience is that an adopted child is every bit as loved as a biological one.
  • The two most damaging ideas we hold are: 1. That we need so much "stuff." We don't. Simplifying one's life brings greater harmony to each of us and to the planet; and 2. That we can't do without credit. Credit cards are big business's way of keeping us beholden to them. Get rid of them if you can, and return to a simpler way of life.
  • I love Kat's aspiration, written during her high school years when most of her peers were writing about making a lot of money. She said, "I want to be able to tell a story, and have someone to tell it to." Those are words that a 60 year old should say, and I wish I had, but I don't mind borrowing, because it is a great message. So, let's build those stories, and share them!
There you have it. Tune in when I'm 70 and see if I've learned anything new.

Monday, September 28, 2009

At the Market

One of the greatest joys of living in Thailand, or traveling anywhere in Asia, is the opportunity to spend time in neighborhood markets. For me, the experience of wandering through the narrow aisles is at the top of my must see list of cultural events. The energy, sights, sounds and multitude of aromas envelope the visitor like a friendly embrace and don't let go until long after one leaves the carnival-like atmosphere.

The "Pig Man," Rayong, Thailand

Wandering through the maze of tiny lanes is the best way to get to know a people, their customs, their cuisine, and their social network. Nowhere else can one learn first hand and intimately the fabric that holds the Thai society together. It is the markets, not the town halls, that are the center of Thai--and as far as I can tell by my limited travels--Asian life in general. In the U.S., outside of major cities, the fresh markets sadly have disappeared, displaced by the air conditioned supermarkets where fresh means having just been flown in from South America. The farmer's markets are a bright spot, but lack the spontaneity, chaos, and delightful organic essence of Asian markets.

Night Market, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

Forays to our local weekend market are always eagerly anticipated. Besides the vast arrays of fresh fruits and vegetables, we treat ourselves to special snacks and sample new food items that may ultimately be added to our shopping list, or in some cases, politely declined (some things just seem more suited to slithering through a natural area than ending up on my plate)!

Weekend Market, Rayong.

One of the most satisfying aspects of shopping at the market is the familiarity that evolves between vendor and patron. We are often teased about buying fruit at another stall, or waved over so that we can be shown the pick of the lot, the juiciest or freshest, a vendor remembering our special tastes. In addition, there is the non-food section in which treasures await our serendipitous passing by: New designs from the jeweler, a new carving, or that special T shirt with the amazing artwork.
We never fail to be surprised by some unique or amusing find.

Three cucumbers, a lettuce, and one cat, please.

People often ask, have I ever been sick? The answer is quite truthfully, not once in my five years of eating market food here have I ever caught a "bug." Food doesn't have to be wrapped in layers of plastic or sent through waves of radiation to be safe. Fresh from the gardens around Bangkok, food is the connection between people and serves as a social conduit. I love that part of being here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Parent Enabling to the Max

After a lab today with my senior advanced level biology students, I noticed that the supplies had been left out and unwashed. I stopped and said to the group, "Let me guess: You don't have to clean up after yourselves at home." Grinning sheepishly, they hurried over to wash the equipment and put away the specimens. For some of them it is their mothers who hover and run errands, for others it is the maid who is paid to tidy up after them. I then related a story of the most spoiled student I ever had, who, on a field trip to Chicago asked me to cut her meat because even at age 16, her father had always done it for her. Upon relating this, I noted that no one in my group of 17-year olds found it remotely as amazing as I had. In fact, one girl smiled and said, "My parents still do that for me."

"Actually, my mom feeds me while I'm working."
"What do you mean?"
"Well," she said, "If I'm working on my computer, my mom will feed me."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You are allowed to have the computer at the dinner table?"
"Well, yeah," she said as if I were daft. "If I have homework."
"And," I continued, "Your mother spoon feeds you?"
Nodding, she said, "My mom's awesome!"

I now have a new candidate for most spoiled teen, as well as most protective mother. It isn't unusual for Thais to feed their children until they are well into elementary school, often the maid acting as surrogate slave. But, I've never heard of anyone actually feeding their nearly adult child.

I think I've really made some strides by having these kids wash a beaker.
But I'm not going to feed any of them.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Newest Survey on Obama

Should the president make a speech to the children of America without parental approval? If "parental approval" means giving permission to the school for their children to watch it, which I think it is meant to, then I vote NO (Yes, parents should have a say). Here's why: Sometimes the things that my fellow countrymen and women become obsessed about make me shake my head. Lately, the "big deal" is the dissent by a few contrarians that the media have latched onto regarding the scheduled address by the president to the children of America during school. Apparently, there are people out there who have decided that President Obama has some hidden agenda in a speech that is intended to encourage students to work hard and stay in school.

Now, that's a pretty radical and--dare I say it--"socialist" thing to say. It must be, because obviously the president is here, compliments of a solid majority, to undermine the American way of life. There is something un-American about students staying in school! Why wasn't this speech thing a "big deal" when our cocaine snorting, convicted drunk driving ex-president made a speech to the youth of America on--get this--the dangers of drug use? Not a peep was heard from those who are making such a fuss now, and I think I know why.

First, let me say that I agree that parents should have a say in what their students hear in school. The things I've heard from educators in my nearly four decades of education would shrivel even the most hardy supporters of compulsory education, and parents are lethargic as hell. And yet, the fact that the president wants to make a simple speech has people in a panic defies logic.

The reason there are those who do not want their children to hear the president has nothing to do with his message. It has to do with who he is, and what he stands for. In other words, the people who oppose this address, do so because they oppose or fear something in the president's agenda, or quite simply, because of his genetics. The reason this wasn't a big deal when the former president, king of dishonesty, gave his address, is because typically, those who show such opposition to Obama are nearly, if not all, right wingers, and those on the left didn't make a stink about George II because they trust their children to take in information, analyze it, and make up their own minds. Conservatives generally want to tell their children what and how to think. They have no idea how resistant children are to this tactic, even though it may not seem obvious at the time.

So, how would I vote in this silly poll? If it counted at all, I would say that yes, parents have the right to have their children not hear the address: It is their right. But, I would add, that it would be a terrible disservice to their children, and undermine the confidence and respect that all citizens should have in the head of state, regardless of who it is.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Best College in America?

Forbes recently announced that the "best" college in America is The U.S. Military Academy at West point. Emphasis on Military. For the uninformed, that's the University of Army.

The college rankings are based on five criteria: graduation rate (how good a college is at helping its students finish on time); the number of national and global awards won by students and faculty; students' satisfaction with their instructors; average debt upon graduation; and postgraduate vocational success as measured by a recent graduate's average salary and alumni achievement. (The ranking institute) "prize(s) the undergraduate experience and how well prepared students are for the real world rather than focusing on inputs such as acceptance rates and test scores." According to these criteria, the top five colleges are:

1. United States Military Academy; 2. Princeton University; 3. California Institute of Technology; 4. Williams College; 5. Harvard University.

What I'm wondering is, based on the criteria, why places 2-5 aren't held by the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and Quantico. Those four must tie West Point for graduation rate and debt upon graduation. And, looking at those four who trail West Point, they have to be at the opposite extreme for debt. That they even came close is amazing. One would think, though, that Princeton, CIT, Williams, and Harvard must have made up ground in the preparation for the real world.

Now, I'm not one to knock the military academies. Well, OK, not to their faces. I didn't serve in the armed forces; I worked in a classroom of behaviorally challenged misfits in a school for two years, making $148 a month as "alternative service" after being drafted. The closest I got to the military was competing against Air Force in college duel track meets. But, I was thinking, wouldn't it be nice if the U.S. government had a 6th college that was highly competitive in admitting bright young folks, required a U.S. senator's recommendation, and paid the applicants' tuition on the condition that upon graduation, they would have to serve for five years in VISTA or the Peace Corps, or some equivalent? Imagine what that would mean: Sending our best and brightest into the world to work for peace rather than prepare for war. Let's face it, as long as we are turning out military officers, we need to find them work, something our government has been very good at for the past five decades, whether it is in our country's best interest or not.

Peace Corps volunteers have been among my heroes for many years. They live under extremely impoverished conditions, often in dangerous situations, and establish positive long-term relationships with people in developing countries, all for no thanks, and no pension. I'd love to see a July 4th parade led by returned Peace Corps volunteers. They are every bit as patriotic as our service men and women. It's time we honored their service to the country as well. (Yes, I know about the pot smoking, but my ex-military service friends report that they certainly would give the Peace Corps crowd a run for their marijuana money.)

Back to the "best" college thing. I'm hoping that some senator or congress(wo)man will get to work on introduction of a bill to establish the first United States Peace University. If it passes, I will be first in line to contribute to their endowment fund. We need some balance in perspective as to our role in the world. Instead of sending young people to die for our financial interests, let's send people forth beyond even what the Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do, and establish long-term, high-level political ties for what the people of the world are more than ready for: A lasting peace.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Visit Kuala Lumpur: It's a Gas!

Needing to choose a destination to another country in order to correct a visa screwup by Kat's school, we decided on Kuala Lumpur. The capital of Malaysia is a comfortable two hour flight from Bangkok, so we hopped on an Air Asia airbus for a brief weekend stay. Upon arrival we immediately began making comparisons between "KL" and Bangkok. Despite being in neighboring countries, there were obvious differences.

First, it was possible to read every sign in Malaysia. Granted, we couldn't understand most of them, but Malay uses the same alphabet as we do in English. In fact, many English words have been adopted by Malay, probably due to British colonial influence. However, the Malaysians have converted them phonetically: teksi, immigresen, diskoun, ekspres, sentral. While we often struggle painfully to sound out each letter at a time in Thai script (provided we recognize one of their 44 letters), Malay is quite easy to pronounce.

In contrast to Bangkok's chaotic sprawl, KL is relatively compact. We easily walked throughout most of the city, which would be an impossibility in the Thai capital. Of course, Bangkok is about six times as large, but as big cities go (1.2 million), Kuala Lumpur was quite accessible by foot, monorail or bus. And, despite being closer to the equator, it is not as hot as Bangkok. Vehicular traffic was creampuff--one can actually cross the street there without fear of falling prey to waves of unpredictable traffic.

It is interesting that two countries that share a border can be so different; religion plays a huge part in determining cultural norms. While Thais always smile and avoid prolonged eye contact, Malays stare; Thai men jokingly flirt, Malay men leer; Thais greet with hands pressed together in a "wai"; Malays shake hands or simply nod; As Buddhists, Thais have no designated worship time or weekly holy days, Malays, as Muslims, follow a rigid prayer schedule; Kuala Lumpur has one major business area where skyscrapers reign, Bangkok's highrises are spread out indiscriminately across the cityscape; Thai food is much more flavorful and spicy than Malay cuisine.

While we appreciated the differences, we also enjoyed the similarities: Wandering through bustling street markets, riding the elevated trains, chatting with friendly shopkeepers, trying new dishes, and being greeted as we walked through residential areas. But then something wholly unexpected happened as we meandered through the delightful bazaars of Little India and Chinatown. As we perused the handicrafts and silks, I noticed a burning sensation in my eyes that gradually increased until the stinging elicited streams of tears. I noticed people walking hastily away with scarves and bandannas held over their mouths and noses. It didn't take long to know that we had encountered a rogue cloud of teargas. Teargas? In a market? We overheard people talking about a demonstration, but it wasn't to take place for another three hours. When we later happened upon the planned demonstration site, there were policemen everywhere, but no demonstrators. I asked about the teargas. One policeman grinned sheepishly and remarked that they had "tested" it earlier. "Well, it works!" I said to bursts of laughter.

Later, as we had lunch on a balcony overlooking one of the main mosques, 50 or so demonstrators grouped calmly beneath us with TV cameramen and news photographers recording the remarks of the leaders. It was a bizarre scene: Eating Chinese noodles, a Charlie Chaplin movie on the big screen, chanting demonstrators gathering outside, police helicopters circling overhead, interested bystanders--us included--watching, beers in hand. And then, the stinging sensation returned, sending everyone scurrying inside. It seemed to me to be an exaggerated overreaction to a rather benign gathering of people who didn't like something the government had recently done. But then, I was only a visitor. Relating the experience to colleagues who have lived in Malaysia, I learned that this was a typical response by the Malaysian authorities.

After a brief excursion in the opposite direction to check out Chinatown, we found ourselves too weary to walk back to the hotel, so we hailed a taxi (teksi). As we disembarked, we were once again met with what had become an all too familiar irritant. Weeping, we ran into the hotel and called it a day.

So, if you are ever up for an adventure to an interesting city, Kuala Lumpur just might be your kind of town. It may even bring tears to your eyes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Jet Lag Remedy

One of the banes of international travel is the debilitating effect of "jet lag." The sluggish disorientation that disrupts the first few days after a long flight through several time zones can make zombies of even the most experienced fliers. There are many suggested remedies for reducing the effects of jet lag, none of which ever had even the slightest effect on me: I found myself swooning into a deep slumber similar to a drunken stupor in the middle of the afternoon, then spending early morning hours wide awake without a single person to interact with (but I did discover some of the most inane TV shows imaginable).

But no more. About a year and a half ago, on a flight from Iowa to Asia, I ran across an article in the on board magazine that summarized recent research into jet lag. According to scientists who conducted the research, it is not change in sleep patterns--usually suggested by "experts" that one take herbal supplements along with increased adjustments to bedtime before the trip--that upsets our internal clock. Instead, it has to do with eating patterns. The researchers suggested that before traveling, if one were to fast for 18 hours before departing, the effects of jet lag would be minimized. I figured I had little to lose, since normally I was so incapacitated by jet lag that I was disoriented for at least two days after my arrival. Fortunately, the first time I tried it, my flight was at noon, so it was rather easy to fast for 18 hours, having a hearty meal the evening before.

The result was nothing less that miraculous (in my view). I have since flown between the U.S. and Thailand six times, and six times I fasted before leaving, regardless of which way I was traveling. Each time I was able to transition into the destination time zone with no ill effects of jet lag. No kidding, none. I arrived fully able to function immediately without awakening at 2 AM wondering where the hell I was. I am living proof that this system works. I have been slightly bemused by friends who decide that they cannot possibly go without solid food for 18 hours and are willing to wrestle with jet lag for two days (each way).

If you plan to travel across time zones, or know someone who is, my suggestion is to try the fasting method. If it works for you the way it did for me, you will be pleased with the days you save not stumbling around in a fog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Remembering Chekov 1994-2009

Good ol' Chekov. Born nearly 15 years ago in northern Thailand in a litter of pups all named for Star Trek characters, and traveling twice around this planet, our handsome Bangkaew simply wore out. Buffered by 12,000 miles, receiving the call from a Bangkok neighbor seemed so artificial, yet feelings of grief, sadness, and relief bubbled to the surface, mixed with varying waves of guilt, as we were not there to comfort him in his final days. Was he depressed at not seeing us for two weeks? Was he confused? Or was it simply his time? Of course, we can never know.

Mingled with the sadness were happy memories of "Pooper" that had accumulated over the years: Foremost was the "Pooper Speedway," the full throttle dash around people, furniture, buildings and trees after enduring his hated baths, or upon the return of his pet humans--especially Kat--after a prolonged absence. The memory of him head down, fluffy coat streaming in the wind, is one of pure joy.

Other behaviors, not uncommon for dogs, but given Chekov's unique stamp, included the excitement of a ride in a car--any car (he was known to jump in with complete strangers)--and particularly the drive-through for a hamburger. I don't think he ever figured out the difference between McDonald's and the bank. I suspect that the reason he never liked Milk Bones from the bank tellers is due to the disappointment he must have felt when expecting a meat patty. A dry, crumbly piece of fiber just couldn't measure up to a juicy quarter pounder. Our car held a cache of uneaten dog biscuits in the back seat.

But most of all, as pet owners know (or is it we who are pets of human owners?) it is the fierce loyalty and deep unconditional love that he gave us. Lying next to us as he watched our backs, or defiantly stepping between us and unfamiliar dogs, even those many times his size, his priority was his adopted pack. Some people never adopt animals because they know they cannot emotionally deal with the pain of a pet's inevitable death. Would we hesitate to again take home a ball of fluff that will one day die? Not for a minute. To us, the friendship that develops is more than worth it.

Our anxiety about what was to be done with Chekov's body in our absence was quelled when we were told that our house cleaner, next door friend, and the gardener all contributed to giving him a proper burial. He was first gently washed, then wrapped in a sheet, and laid in a grave in the front yard, the spot marked with planted flowers. How touching it was to learn that they knew how much he meant to us, and that they helped him exit this world in dignity and with a tenderness appropriate for the love we had for him.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Thai Conservation Incentives

We got our water bill today, and as it has been since my arrival in Thailand, we owe nothing. In order to encourage conservation, the Thai government waives any monthly fee for use that is under a certain amount. Other government incentives include the recent implementation of a policy under which all Thai citizens may ride any train throughout the country free for a year. Unfortunately, that is not extended to foreigners, even tax-paying residents. Occasionally, subway or skytrain routes are operated free to encourage more eventual customers, and last fall, the standard non-air conditioned buses were free for several weeks. This is the upside of government-run utilities, the opposite of what one might expect a monopoly to do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Corporate Incompetence

Living halfway around the world from the American scene does not guarantee immunity from frustrations resulting from the staggering incompetence of corporations based in the home country. Two exemplary examples of corporate idiocy recently experienced by expats living in Thailand are Verizon and Bank of America. I sincerely wonder if corporate protocols for hiring of persons working in customer service are intended to recruit morons whose sole "raison d’etre" is to offer nonsensical replies to inquiries that are being made at the cost of overseas calls.

For several months I attempted to correspond with Verizon due to their decision to stop allowing me to pay a bill online. The decision was never explained, so I reverted to sending a check after receiving the bill each month. I noticed that when the bill arrived, it was always after the due date, which of course incurred a late fee tacked onto the next invoice. To correct the error-laden address that they were using, including the omission of the name of the destination country, I sent the correct information, accompanied by personal letters along with the monthly payments. The address was never changed, and yet the invoices miraculously arrived at my house in “Bakgnonk” (Remember, no country) about three weeks after being posted. I credit the delivery to clever postal employees in both countries who are likely as intelligent as the Verizon representatives are dim. After several months of dealing with the pride of Verizon, I sent a cancellation payment with an explanation. To date, I still receive invoices, sent to the apparently unchangeable address that they have chosen to enter permanently into their database.

The experience with Bank of America is similar, but these geniuses have chosen the “Let me transfer you” method of dealing with a customer’s problem, which they have not been properly trained to solve. Last night, as we tried to explain why the address in their database needed to be changed, we were transferred no less than nine times, and this was after the new information had been entered. Apparently, the standard three-line address space was insufficient for entering overseas information. What they absolutely could not understand how to do was look up the information associated with an overseas resident American citizen holding a U.S. credit card, and connect it to their rewards program. All we wanted was information about how to use the rewards! After a full half hour of being put on hold and transferred between representatives, there was the sudden and aggravating click of a disconnected line: The ultimate problem-solving pass-the-buck technique, exhibited so well by B of A. I could imagine the representatives at corporate headquarters staring dumbly at their screens, unable to process the information, before sending the hapless customer on to another zombie.

It is little wonder that huge corporations cannot solve the small problems. The front lines are manned by bottom-line fodder who are good at clicking on established links, but have little or no problem-solving skills. It is after experiences like these that one better understands why so many corporations fail. What is amazing is that they can exist at all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Walk Through a Thai Flower Market

While on our way to Chinatown's fabric bazaar, we happened upon the famous Bangkok flower market, which lasts all weekend long, each night well into the wee hours of the morning. It is absolutely mind-blowing to walk through the narrow lanes surrounded by explosions of color and the fragrances that lie in layers, the scents lingering in the air and briefly clinging before being left in your wake, giving way to completely new sensations that wait for your passing. I find it difficult to imagine that each of the hundreds of flower merchants are able to profit, but then Thailand is a land of flowers: They are wanted daily by hotels, shops, department stores, temples, and restaurants. So enchanted were we by the flowers that we didn't make it to the bazaar before it closed.

Four dozen roses: $1.15

Trying to describe the mile-long market is rather like trying to paint a picture of a sunset; so difficult, as it is the shifting of hues that makes the experience memorable. Click on the video below, and walk with us for a few minutes through this incredible market. Better yet, come see it for yourself!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

End of School Year

I sit in my classroom surrounded by relative peace and quiet; the only sounds come from the twittering birds outside the window, and the ubiquitous hum of the air conditioner. With the exhausting scramble of finals week and exam marking behind me, I reflect on another school year's completion. I am surprised by how swiftly it has passed. Now ensconced in my own classroom, I still worry about the mental state of the incoming science faculty member who has been tabbed as next year's "floater." It appears that there may be a silver lining, a result of my "diplomatic aggressiveness" in advocating for an end to such unprofessional practice: Talk is that rooms have been secured for the incoming teachers who would otherwise have arrived full of hope and excitement before being blindsided by what others have gone through for many years. We'll see.

So, what have I learned this past year? Well, the thought that comes immediately to mind is how fabulous the students here are. They are cheerful, bright, creative, and for the most part, mature. They work hard to complete assignments, and think nothing of giving up weekends to study for tests, despite my pleas to enjoy themselves. I now know that I never have to worry about students being prepared for our discussions or presentations; with few exceptions, they are often better prepared than I am. The faculty is, as in most international schools, a delightfully diverse group of talented educators. I am continuously impressed with the quality of education that students receive here. Oh, sure, there are those who are here for other reasons, but that is true everywhere. I enjoy the banter and intellectual discussions, as well as the ongoing clever practical jokes that they play on one another. More intimately, the science department is wonderful. A mix of educators from four countries (five next year), my colleagues are collaborative and supportive. It is by far the most colleagial group of teachers I've had the pleasure to work with, much like my recent consulting job. My biggest regret is that in an international school, each year a fairly large proportion move on to other places around the globe. Of course, that means that an interesting batch of "newbies" arrives, all with a unique story to tell.

The staff are incredible. Anything that needs doing they lend a hand, and with a smile. Always a smile. I am not surprised, as I have come to embrace the Thais as some of the friendliest people on the planet. I am often amazed at how a person working in another building will greet me by name. I feel fortunate to be working here, despite the relatively traditional approach to education. Although concerned about falling behind ongoing research into best practice, I am supported by the high school administration to implement those practices that support student learning effectively. One can stand in a boat without rocking it, if care is taken.

Finally, I have to say that I love not spending half the year trying to keep warm. I don't mind the snowy climes one bit, but I'd rather take them in smaller chunks. Although many people here complain about the heat and humidity (frequently the young Thais), when I consider the alternative, sweat isn't all that bad.

So now I ease into the mindset of rest, of reflection and preparation for next semester. It is sometimes difficult not feeling guilty on a weekday, or feel that I just have to DO something instead of read a book or take a walk. I know that I need to decompress and refresh. I don't mind having a job that pays me for only ten months out of the year. It is unfortunate that others do not have that option. Of course, I couldn't just let it go. I have to stop now: My summer school class begins in a few minutes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Confusing English

If one is not convinced that English is a bewildering language, try explaining to a non-English speaker the terms used for the front and rear compartments in a car. This morning, I wanted to learn the Thai terms for a car's "trunk" and "hood." When the driver asked what they were called in English, we amused him by attempting to sort through the differences between British and American terms for the same item: "Trunk" in American English (I guess originating from the trunks affixed to early cars) is called a "boot" in England (and Australia), while "hood" is the "bonnet" in England. To complicate matters, my friend Tracey from Newfoundland, noted that in Canada "boot" and "hood" are used. The driver just chuckled.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


It's easy to forget the cultural and environmental underpinnings of one's homeland when away for a while. Last week we flew to the States for a short visit, to celebrate our son's university graduation. Following is a list of those things that surprised, delighted, or shocked me:

1. The variety of people in America is stunning. Immediately upon arrival in San Francisco, I was struck by the many shapes and sizes (especially the large sizes) of people in The U.S.! After living pretty much as a giant among a whole lot of short dark-haired people, I blended in right away. No one had a clue that I lived 10,000 miles away in a land where spoken English is an ongoing struggle, even more than it is for many Americans, where shorts are the norm, and shoes an option. I just stood in the airport concourse and stared at everyone, a goofy smile of wonder on my face.

2. Driving isn't scary at all. It was just plain fun driving around streets on which only vehicles travel. No dogs sleeping in the passing lanes, no handcarts to avoid, and no motorcycles weaving through stalled traffic. It was a pleasure humming along the roads in an over-priced rental. I didn't care! It was great!

3. I actually ENJOYED going to a mall. Prior to my return to Bangkok, I avoided them at all costs. But compared to the crazy cacophony of Thai malls, they are convenient and quiet! I could read with no distractions, and get a meal with no rice. Admittedly, I did crave Thai food toward the end of the visit, but it was nice to have western food in something other than a fast food restaurant. In Bangkok, it is difficult to carry on a conversation at a mall due to the madhouse atmosphere of computer games, shouting salespeople, and high-pitched girls in miniskirts sending a sales pitch out into the aisles with the aid of a huge sound system; at a mall in St. Louis, I can shout from one end of the cavernous enclosure to the other and be heard.

4. How nice to sit in the sun and have a drink without dripping sweat down my chest into my waistband. The weather was absolutely perfect, with temperatures lower than Bangkok ever sees. We sat at a corner sidewalk cafe, sipping Long Island Ice Teas and petting a parade of well-behaved pooches who were out walking their owners. Here, I carry a stick the better to keep my ankles free of dog teeth marks. When walking our dogs, Thais smile in an amused sort of way. I know what they're thinking: "What is that strap you have attached to your dog?"

5. I felt like I was eavesdropping all the time. In Thailand, my limited knowledge of the language allows a certain kind of audio veil to envelope me. I hear people talking, but it's just background noise, and I am not distracted. Last week, I couldn't NOT listen to conversations all around me, even though I tried. It was impossible to tune them out because I understood every word. There were times, though, when I wanted to turn to people who were blathering on about inane things and say, "Do you mind? Your moronic discussion is driving me crazy!" The Thais may be saying the same things, but I don't know they are.

6. I could read books in bookstores, and not just look at pictures. That was enjoyable!

Even though I am an American, I still sometimes feel like a stranger when I return. It is kind of nice, though, to be able to be inconspicuous, even though I often feel out of place, because I'm the only one who knows.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Learning About "Jai Yen"

Once in a while I have the opportunity to put patience to the test. In Thailand I get the chance to practice the art of "jai yen yen"--keeping a "cool heart" more often than in, well just about anywhere else.

Today is a school holiday; a great day to get done those things I have to do. I have a number of tests to correct, some labs to go through, and planning for the rest of the semester. Normally, I would do that at home, but with two bored dogs and the cleaning lady around, concentration is not guaranteed. No problem, I think. Just go to the cafe, enjoy the air conditioning, have some coffee, plug in the ol' iPod, and cruise on through the day. In addition, I'll stop by the bank and apply for a new ATM card to replace the one eaten by a machine on Friday, which was a national holiday.

My first stop is to a nearby educational book store where I can get online and check email, as my computer has decided to not link up at home, possibly because our new puppy chewed partway through the power cord causing a number of strange things to happen on the screen. No problem, I'll buy another cord--someday--when I can find my way into the city and visit the Apple store. Meanwhile, I'll use the computer at school, and at the internet cafes. As I pedal up to the book store, I find to my great dismay that it is closed. Upon closer scrutiny, I notice that it appears to be permanent. Oh, well, I'll go to my next favorite spot, which I discover opens at 11:00; in three hours.

Mai pen rai. No problem! The air is cool as I pedal along the busy thoroughfare, going the wrong way next to the curb rather than cross six lanes of traffic, only to have to do it again in less than a mile. I swing into the bank parking lot and casually stroll upstairs to speak to a customer service agent. Of course I can get a new card, she says smiling (always smiling, and they always mean it). May I have your passport and bank book? Uh... I say. Loosely translated into English, it means; "Uh..." They are both safe at school, securely locked away in the finance office. Will a copy be OK? I ask hopefully. Still smiling, she replies, "No." OK, I'll bring them tomorrow. "Oh, sorry sir, closed tomorrow--holiday." Of course; we are taking the day off today to lengthen the weekend. "But the branch at the mall will be open." I make a mental note to get the passport and bank book then travel to the mall tomorrow after school, and move on to my next destination.

Naturally, the little cafe where I can sit and do my work is not open on Mondays. Mai pen rai. No problem. Glancing across the street, I see something I have never witnessed since moving here last July: An empty seat at the internet shop. I hurry across the street and grab the last seat. As I settle in, the sounds in the tiny cramped shop begin to build, assaaulting my ears with loud, excited childish chatter and the clakking and bursting of soundtracks from 20 video war games. I check the time: only two hours until the ADULT internet cafe opens closer to home. I sigh and reach for my iPod, which I find to my increasing concern I have forgotten.

This is the ultimate test of Jai yen. I wonder if this is how monks test their mettle?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gender Protocol in Thailand

When Kat and I are involved in a conversation with Thais, there is an obvious difference in protocol depending on the general age of the person to whom we are speaking. If the person is middle aged or older, we settle into a predictable methodology. Despite Kat's very obvious superiority in use of the Thai language, and despite my very obvious attempts to deflect or steer the rapid fire questions in Thai to her, older folks nevertheless face me and address their inquiries my way. My strategy to lean or move toward her so that we are at least both in the line of vision does not seem to make a difference, nor my quizzical looks to her when I have absolutely no idea what has just been said. I am still the person to whom the conversation is directed. This is just the way things are in Thailand: It is traditionally a male-oriented society, and even though one from the west may feel a bit awkward in such a situation, it is something that one must learn to take in stride. Younger people are beginning to show less deference to males when in such a situation, but the tradition remains strong.

This situation is not all that different among more conservative westerners, certainly in the United States, and was the norm just half a century ago. With the global connection through computers and movies
well underway, as well as more frequent travel, I am sure that this trend will continue.

A Thai student of mine suggested that the Thai may make an assumption about the educational status of the people he is speaking with, based on his own situation, and apply it subconsciously to the conversation protocol. She went on to say that Thais still create in their minds a hierarchy based on social or educational status, but that it is definitely changing among the younger generation.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Songkran: Thai New Year

April 13 is "Songkran;" New Year's Day in Thailand. Songkran is a time for Thais to mark the occasion through actions involving the pouring of scented water: Cleaning Buddha statues, rinsing the hands of elders, and the gentle pouring of water on heads and shoulders, all acts of respect and renewal. Another Songkran ritual is the dabbing of white powdery paste on cheeks to ward off evil. This tradition is still carried out over many days, but added to the gentler nature of Songkran is a revelry in which people carry the tradition to an extreme in a party atmosphere. It involves a LOT of water, the vessels of which range from bowls to garden hoses to super soakers to large ceramic jars carried in the beds of pickup trucks. To increase the merriment of the festival, large quantities of beer and loud music are added. All of this generally occurs in the streets and at all hours for several days, a happy way to cool off during Thailand's hottest month. Below are photos and a video from the Songkran party in Hua Hin.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bangkok Unrest: Songkran Update

Yahoo news reports "Bloody Protests Spread Throughout Thailand." Not true! From watching Thai news coverage and talking to Thais, this is simply false. In fact, the scene has quieted, as many of the protesters have left the area, or returned home. The conflict has been confined to a few scattered spots in Bangkok. Two persons are reported dead, but reports are that it was not from army actions against the protesters; it occurred in confrontations by other citizens not associated with the protests. Apparently, both tried to intervene to stop the protests and in the ensuing scuffle, were killed. The exiled ex-prime minister has accused the army of killing red-shirted protesters, but that has not been verified by independent sources.

Yesterday I took a taxi--or tried to--to the southern bus station to head down the coast for a beach holiday. Kat had gone with a friend two days before. What should have been a relatively uneventful trip turned into something else. The first indication that it wouldn't be so simple was when the taxi was turned back by red-shirted protesters as we approached one of the bridges that went over the river and out of town. As the taxi made its way toward another bridge, we found ourselves blocked yet again in the middle of the city and right in the center of the protests. Exiting the taxi, I decided to catch a minivan, but as I walked toward the van stands, I noticed crowds of people above me at the skytrain walkway looking down the street in the direction of my destination. A few blocks away, I saw a thick plume of smoke rising from a pile of debris near a blocked intersection and several abandoned city buses. When I asked a bystander what was going on, he indicated that there were skirmishes and I shouldn't go there. He also chuckled when I inquired about the minivans, and he shook his head. "Not running today!" Naturally, I took the cue and reversed my path. At that time, I saw no evidence of any demonstrations or police presence, but was to find out later that it was actually one of the isolated areas where clashes with the army had taken place.

Catching another taxi at Victory Monument, which was all but abandoned since being taken over by the "red shirts" a few days earlier, we successfully made our way onto the expressway, assisted by a helpful red shirt who removed a barricade at the expressway entrance. We sped over the bridge, and twenty minutes later I was dropped off at the bus station, which strangely, is inside a bustling department store. When I eventually found the ticket window, I was told that my bus was departing immedately. I rushed to the dock where the driver was busy splashing buckets of water on the overheated radiator. Not a good sign. But, we left on time anyway and I resigned myself to the possibility of not reaching the destination on time. At least the air con was working on what I later named the "Kidney Jam Express."

During the three hour drive, I watched the festive scene of the Thai New Year, or "Songkran" unfold (Thailand celebrates three new year's dates--Roman calendar, Chinese, and Thai). This day of celebration involves a carnival-like atmosphere during the hottest month where immense amounts of water are splashed, squirted, or dumped on passersby, many of whom drive around in pickup trucks with huge barrels of water, merrily dousing each other. The further south I went, the more festivals I saw. It was a very strange feeling to see people completely unaffected by the events in Bangkok. This important holiday went on as if nothing unusual was happening in the capital city. Perhaps they are used to periodic political unrest, or maybe it's simply that nothing was going to prevent them from having "sanuk" (fun) on New Year's Day.

When I was dropped off in the seaside resort city of Hua Hin, the energy level was high. Thais and foreigners alike walked or drove through the city, most completely soaked, enveloped by the festive atmosphere. A motorcycle taxi took me to the hotel, weaving in and out of the nearly stalled traffic, avoiding curbside water tossing as best he could. "Don't worry," I told him. "I expect to get wet today." Me and my big mouth. Upon arriving at the hotel, we were definbitely not dry.

I switched on the TV to watch the updates, and was amazed at how the situation had deteriorated. The red shirt (anti-government) demonstrators showed a great lack of control, quite in contrast to their political counterparts (Yellow shirt opposition to the ex-prime minister ousted two years ago) during their demonstrations in November when they took over the airport. Then, they left the airport virtually undamaged, and it was able to open soon after. This has been much different, as the international and Thai news agencies have reported. It is a great disappointment to see this unfold. One side note: I discovered that the most complete and balanced news agency to report the clashes was--not BBC or CNN, and Fox? Don't make me laugh)--Al Jazeera. If you want to see unbiased reporting and interviewing at its best, go to their channel or site.

We participated in the lively Songkran street festival last night, and returned to the hotel wet and caked in pasty powder. The revelry lasted well into the night, long after we had fallen asleep. Today, the Thai stations are showing contnuous coverage of what seems to be relative calm in the city. I hope it's the end of the storm. What lies in wait for Thailand's political future is anyone's guess. But for now, the Songkran holiday continues unabated. I will post some photos and videos of the celebration once we get back to Bangkok later in the week.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Anti-Government Protests Scene 2

Anti-Government protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok once again. While in November the protesters were yellow-shirted royalists representing the country's elite--professionals, military, middle class--this time it is the red-shirted supporters of Thailand's ousted prime minister, who in exile commands a great following. Both groups claim to be pro-democracy, but the definition is muddled. Ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was certainly corrupt (Yellow shirt argument), but instituted many popular programs for the rural and urban working class (Red shirt argument). After the votes were counted last year, Thaksin's party won, but the party was then declared illegal by the courts. The current prime minister (Supported by the yellow shirts) was appointed by parliament. This is the conundrum.

A similar scene as the yellow shirt protests in November is today's action by the red shirts. A friend witnessed yesterday the incapacitating of an army armored vehicle by the red shirts who, he said, "swarmed all over the vehicles like ants." The riot closed a major street while the police stood by. The police are simply outnumbered, and generally do not carry weapons. Likewise, the protesters do not carry guns. By and large, such protests are non-violent, as Thai law enforcement personnel are reluctant to harm fellow citizens who are not endangering lives. There have been exceptions, of course, but few, and no deaths. The army has been called out to contain important areas of the city, but can they? Certainly the police and army have splits in their ranks concerning loyalties. 

Causing further confusion is the fact that the king is the head of the military. As Thailand struggles toward a vision of true democracy, the roles of the monarchy, military, and elected ministry are blurred. This is truly an important transition period in Thai politics. A colleague who has lived in Thailand for many years notes that each time the country hits a rough spot like this, it comes through shaken, but with tangible change toward greater stability.

While Thailand goes through yet another difficult time, the effects on us personally have been minor, as they were in November. Life goes on in most of Thailand as if nothing were happening. Maybe it is because this happens so frequently in Thailand, and eventually it will be sorted out, possibly by the military. But is seems more difficult now as people have become more openly polarized. It may not be so simple this time around. We remain vigilant, and monitor the news reports, as well as avoiding areas where there may be trouble. The news reports may make it seem as though the streets of Bangkok are awash in anarchy, but that is not the case. We are safe, and life goes on. Meanwhile, the tourist beaches are virtually empty, so that is where we are headed today, leaving this troubled city behind for a few days, as the country celebrates the Thai new year.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Thai-Chinese Cuisine

The very large proportion of Chinese Thais here influences many aspects of Thai culture: Medicine, finance, festivals, and, of course, food. While traditional Chinese food is quite different than Thai food, there is some overlap, but for the most part, it is easy to distinguish the two. Yesterday, as I walked through a part of the city where I lived twenty years ago, I came across a tiny corner open-air restaurant that I used to pass each day on my way to and from work. Unobtrusive, yet located in one of the most upscale tourist areas in Bangkok, in the shadow of gleaming five star hotels and beneath the sleek elevated skyway, it seemed to be unchanged by time. Rickety chairs nestled under plain wooden tables, handmade shelves piled with various utensils and food tins, lighting provided mainly by the daylight, and an ancient, shuffling owner, scowling and mumbling as we ordered from the menu that I know had been unchanged through the intervening decades (On its frayed and faded pages it still lists a beer that no longer exists in Thailand).

While the ambience may give a certain rustic charm to the dining experience, it is the menu itself that is the draw for me (Proclaiming Chinese, Thai, and European food). If one claims to be adventurous, and will "try anything" (You know the type), sit them down at this humble establishment and watch as they read through the "specials." For your gourmet enjoyment, have them try the "cow's stomach soup" or perhaps the "fried deer gut with red sauce." For those who prefer pork, there is the "fried pig bowel," or the "pig's ear salad." I am not making this up (And you thought it was only on "The Addams Family!"). If one is still undecided, I suggest trying the "Fried Eight Things."

So, the next time you are in Bangkok, drop in to the Yonglee Restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Soi 15. And if you happen to give it a try, please let me know the identity of the "Eight Things." (I was tempted, but, no, I didn't.)