Wednesday, February 25, 2009


If one wishes to have a less biased look at American culture, I recommend living somewhere else for a while. As the influences from my home country gradually fade--some more than others--from my daily life, I find what used to be overlooked aspects of life in America suddenly revealing. On today's Yahoo home page, these were the top four "news" stories: "The Biggest Loser" trainer can't stop crying about something that happened on the show; Paula Abdul objects to the 4th judge added to "American Idol"; A mystery has been solved about a transparent fish; and Tiger Woods has a big return to competition. Further down the list were President Obama's plan for health care reform and his call for Wall Street reform.

If one looks at the popular press, it would appear that Americans are obsessed with celebrity worship and funny videos. This escapism has reached a high--or low, depending on how one views it--point in our times. I reflect now on how little I noticed it when I lived surrounded by the culture; it was simply backgound noise that was easy to tune out. Sometimes I long for connection to cable television, but most of the time I am happy to not be bombarded with irrelevant pieces of information interspersed with a lot of people trying to sell me things I don't need. I figure that if there is something really of importance happening, I will hear about it.

Meanwhile I am happy to live in a rich cultural mix, of traditional customs intertwined with the new: Water buffalo being herded across our paths as we leave the school; Comical English subtitles on pirated DVDs; Traditional Thai dancing near night clubs with loud techno-pop pulsating from huge speakers; A multitude of languages washing over me as I walk through the school grounds; Crowded weekend markets across the street from sparkling clean air conditioned supermarkets; Familiar car brands with unfamiliar model names; Cricket and Thai boxing making headlines, and the NFL on page seven of the sports section; Gleaming Palm Springs-style homes close to corrugated tin shanties with roaming chickens; Dogs sleeping undisturbed in the middle of the street; Swift, quiet elevated trains rolling across the city as vendors in flip flops and straw hats walk below, bamboo yokes across their shoulders, their baskets filled with fruit or eggs; Hollywood blockbusters sold out in huge movie theaters. In this interesting country, life is never the same day to day.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vacationing with Gratitude

I lie here on the beach of this lush tropical island, a tiny white spot among hundreds strung out under beach umbrellas, watching the promenade of jet skis, parasailors, and aging, obese European retirees. Topless, sagging women with folds of dimpled buttocks protruding from bikinis--ignoring the cultural norms of their vacationland--and men with jiggling bellies stroll in celebration of their escape from northern winter climes, as young dark-skinned Thais hawk overpriced clothing that flap in the breeze as they pass by, smiling and hopeful.

Instead of simply waving the beach vendors away, as most visitors do, we smile and listen to their pitches, then engage them in conversation, learning much about the economic as well as political climate of Thailand from their perspective: Most are from the poorer regions of Thailand, especially Issan in the northeast, here because no jobs are available where they live, and they need to make money to feed their families. On the lookout for the police (there is a 300 baht [$9 US] "fine" if caught), they sell beautiful skirts, wooden crafts and jewelry from dawn to dusk.

It seems very strange to be just one more "farang" (foreigner, literally 'French' but now meaning generally 'westerner') sitting on the beach, drinking Thai beer and slathering on sunscreen, spending in one day what most Thais make in two weeks. I feel quite out of place, emerging from my life among Thais and seeming to the casual observer more closely related to the Russian accountant under the next beach umbrella. I have an urge to stand up, clap my hands loudly, and announce to all within earshot, "I live here! I'm not a tourist!"

But why do I feel this way? Is it because I'm a wee bit embarrassed to be spending what must seem to Thais a frivolous amount of money? Or could it be that I feel I am compromising my attitudes about living in Thailand? Perhaps it is because that when I am living and vacationing with crowds predominantly Thai that it is less likely to be considered patronizing. I'm not quite sure, but I think it has to do with finding a way to be thankful to my host country and honoring its people.

Maybe Thais bear no ill will toward their rich guests from afar after all. Perhaps the presence of these westerners is accepted just as another aspect of karma, and we simply look for opportunities to respect and appreciate the positive fortunes that each of us brings the other.

Monday, February 9, 2009


People lying in coffins for blessing

Today is a Thai national holiday known as "Makha Bucha Day," the Buddhist Day of Lent. The story goes that this celebrates the gathering of 1,250 of Lord Buddha's ordained followers to hear his sermon nine months after he found enlightenment; they all showed up at the same time with no prior intent. On this day, the faithful gather at temples to pray, give alms to monks and participate in many rituals. On my way to a river taxi, I walked into the middle of a busy scene of merit-making at a local "wat" or temple.

Fortune teller machines--One for each day of the week

People gave gifts to chanting monks, laid garlan
ds at statues of Buddha, laid in coffins and were covered with linens (yes, you read that correctly) to be blessed for good luck (and cheat death,perhaps?), and in keeping with their traditions, the fortune tellers--both human and mechanical--did a brisk business. Novice monks spoke over loudspeakers and incense wafted thickly over the plaza. But the most fascinating sight was something I had never seen before in my nearly four years in Thailand: A Monk Alms Carousel. Take a look at the video:

Since taking this video, I have learned that this is indeed an alms collection, in which real monks are supplanted by mannequins, perhaps to streamline the process. The little girl in the video is an orphan, who lives at the wat and will be educated there until she is an adult. Her job is to help out where ever she can, and that day it was to empty the alms bowls from the "Merit-go-round" and put the empty bowls back in the hands of the inanimate surrogate monks.

Friday, February 6, 2009

OTC Opium?

One of the experiences in Thailand that adds to the exotic nature of this country, is visiting a pharmacy. Often surprising, a seemingly simple purchase can take on the aura of a covert operation. Many medicines that cannot be had without a prescription in most western countries are many times available over the counter. Take Valium, for instance. Not long ago, one could simply walk into a pharmacy here and leave with a small bag of the potent anti-anxiety medication. That practice was abolished recently, apparently because, as our neighborhood pharmacist tells it, too many "farong" (foreigners; read "Westerners") were walking around in a haze of the stuff. And not just teachers, although I'm sure there were a fair number of them. One now must have a prescription for the antidepressant. Note: In a recent conversation, a colleague assured me that yes, you still can get it without a prescription if you know where to go and who to ask!

If one has a sore throat, a trip to the doctor is not necessary. Your local pharmacist will load you up with antibiotics (as many different kinds as deemed necessary), antihistamines and fever reducers, throwing in one or two types of lozenges for good measure.

A recent trip by Kat (For some reason, these things happen to her a lot more than to me) to the pharmacist for lung congestion went like this:

"Do you have anything for a cough?"
"Certainly." Pulling out a variety of small boxes, "These lozenges are good for coughs."
"I don't want lozenges. They don't work well enough."
"I have these cough drops."
"No, I need something stronger. Do you have cough syrup?"
"Yes, this may work."
"I need something strong enough to help me sleep."
A pause, then leaning forward and whispering, "Ah, you want the Brown Mixture."
"Brown Mixture." Nodding slightly toward a shelf, looking briefly around the shop to see if others were listening.
"I don't understand."
"You want to sleep? Then get the Brown Mixture. Over there."
Picking up a small green and red box with a leopard and five stars, she reads the label, or tries to, as it is in Chinese and Thai, except for the ingredients, which includes: OPIUM TINCTURE.
"Seriously? You can sell this?"
Continuing to speak in low tones, the pharmacist replies, "Well, so far, yes, unless too many people buy it. Then, it might have to be by prescription only, like others."
Leaning forward and whispering in response, "I understand." And then, flipping sunglasses down a la James Bond, "I'll take it."

When one lives near the famous "Golden Triangle" where the poppy trade still flourishes, and in a region where opium was the only pain relief for centuries, when thought about, it shouldn't be unusual to find such products available legally in low doses.

By the way, Kat reports that the Brown Mixture works very well.

Monday, February 2, 2009

What is It?

Every now and then I see something here that is totally alien to my experiences anywhere else. The first time I saw a row of water-filled plastic bottles along the curb, I was befuddled. Drinks for the workers? Some sort of inexpensive sidewalk decoration? Modern sculpture? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't think of a plausible explanation. Finally, I asked my neighbor what they could be. Her reply surprised me. Take a look, and see if you can guess what they're for. Share your ideas in the comments. I'll post the answer after you've had a chance to respond! OK, as of 11 February, I have posted the answer in the comments. Check to see what this is all about!