Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Expat or Immigrant?

Thai officials detain Burmese migrants and Rohingya Muslims in Nakhon Si Thammarat province.

Next month, if all my documents are in order (never a certainty!), I'll renew my "non-immigrant" visa and work permit for the 10th time. I call myself an expat, but this label has become controversial. An expatriate is someone who no longer lives in the country of their birth. An immigrant is someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. If permanency is the issue, I never plan to leave Thailand. But why can I call myself an expat while the dejected men in the above photo are referred to as migrants? Is it because I'm a white westerner and financially self-supporting? Has expat become a racist term to distinguish between haves and have-nots?

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have produced a flood of immigrants seeking refuge elsewhere, particularly Europe, the U.S. and Canada. Many are fleeing to save their lives and hoping for a new life in another country, preferably one with opportunities for work.  But no one describes the Muslim migrant in Indiana or Stockholm as an expat. Objections to the influx of immigrants and rising Islamophobia have resulted in conservative political movements that call for closed borders. But while I face irritating bureaucratic hurdles each year, no one in Thailand is calling for a ban on expats.

There are a variety of expats in Bangkok where I live. Some come for sex in the "entertainment" zones of the city, many for medical treatment in the upscale hospitals, and most have probably been transferred here by their companies or embassies. No one seems to know how many non-Thai resident expats are here on a long-term basis but I've seen the figure of 85,000 for Bangkok alone. Then there are the semi-expats, more than tourists, who come to Thailand every year for a month or two on a temporary visa. Expats have "Hi-So" status in Thai culture which may be one of the attractions. They feel at home in the high-rise condominiums and super-malls.

There may be several hundred thousand immigrants in Thailand, legal and illegal, mostly from Myanmar and Cambodia.  You can see them on construction sites and in the nearby shanty towns built for temporary labor.   Many beg on the streets.  Migrants have little status and are tolerated more than accepted. There is clearly a class difference between expats and immigrants.

I've reflected on these distinctions here before. There are many labels for the traveler who leaves home and goes to another place elsewhere. Some seek adventure and others leave because they have no choice. Their home has been destroyed and their neighbors are being killed. My reasons pale by comparison. California simply became too expensive on my retirement income. I received a small pension from the University of California along with health insurance (the minimum is $1,000 now which makes it only useful for catastrophic care), and a decent sum from Social Security because of a few high-salary years in the music business.  In California, I could afford a garage studio apartment and not much else.  In Thailand it is a princely sum.

I had a choice.  I came by plane and not in a leaky boat or after a trek through the jungle.  I didn't need to work but found a job by accident as an English teacher at a university for Buddhist monks. Though only part-time, it's become a calling, a vocation, and has brought me more satisfaction than any of the career paths I followed back in the U.S.

Still, I imagine my homebound friends asking, why become an expat? Why leave your friends and family and everything that is familiar and move permanently to a strange place where people look odd,  think differently and speak a language you cannot understand?  In retrospect, I believe that I was raised to be an expat.

Toledo, Ohio, was my birth home.  I remember little about it except for the Art Museum where I watched cartoons on Saturday and the girl next door who let me play doctor behind the tree in full view of my mother's kitchen window.  After the war when I was six, we moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, where my dad got a job selling plastics.  I remember vacations on the beach at Nags Head and in Florida where my father grew up.  After a couple of years we moved to Lenoir in the western part of the state where my dad sold glue for plywood to make furniture.  Moving so often meant it was difficult to find and keep close friends.  A year or so later we moved again to Atlanta where my father managed a lumber warehouse for a year.  Our final move as a family in 1953 was to the foothills of Southern California.  I couldn't have been happier to start my teenage years not far from Hollywood where I hoped to work someday as an actor (I know, some kids want to be firemen, but I was different).

For the next few years my only trips were up north to San Francisco where my aunt and uncle lived in Tiburon with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and to see an elderly cousin in Berkeley who lived in a lovely old turn-of-the-century house. I preferred the green of the Bay Area to the bone dry landscape in the south. A few years later, despite my poor high school grades (I flunked band!), I managed to transfer from junior college to the Berkeley campus of the University of California. Majoring first in English and later in journalism, I found student life difficult.  In the run-up to Christmas vacation, I lay in bed reading science fiction rather than attend class.  I wrote of my unhappiness to my father's gay twin-brother and he invited me to stay with him in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he lived in the winter months after working the summer as a maître d' at a hotel on Cape Cod.

It was my first trip out of the country and the Tres Estrellas d'Oro bus took me from Tijuana to Mexico City where Ted met me. Mexico was surprising, scary and wonderful to this first-timer. Ted had a tiny apartment on a dirt alley and friends all over the city that included Helen Hayes and Barbara Hutton, as well as with numerous "remittance men" sent south by their wealthy families to avoid scandal. When his friend Alicia arrived from New York, we traveled south to the peninsula by bus and around to Veracruz and back again.  He had a writing table made for my Smith-Corona and I pounded out bad poetry under the jacaranda tree in his patio.

My next trip was to New York City the following fall, arriving by train not long before the Cuban Missile Crisis. First I slept on a mattress in Alicia's nephew's apartment. Then I moved to the basement room of an Italian lady's house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village and got a job with United Press International in Newark, New Jersey, that required an extended commute. Back in California, I met the first love of my life at a party and we moved to Berkeley where I went to work as a summer replacement reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle. At the end of the summer we got married and took a train to the east coast, but were delayed by a train wreck on the Texas-Louisiana border.  In North Carolina, where my parents lived once again, we all watched the events surrounding Kennedy's assassination on TV before the two of us continued up to Manhattan.

After a short period of poverty, my wife and I found subsistence jobs and enjoyed life in the big city. But wanderlust called again, and I set my sights on Europe. At the end of the summer in 1964 we flew via Icelandic Airlines, then the cheapest fare, to Glasgow, Scotland, where I had a pen pal from high school who promised to put us up. The day we arrived his wife went into labor with her baby and we had their house in Ayr to ourselves for a week. Down in London we shared a flat at first with a friend from New York and I talked myself into a work permit so I could get a job with a London publishing firm, writing about American TV shows for the television program journal in the Midlands. Our son was born the following year and we made plans to return to the U.S. where it seemed more normal to raise a family.

And that was it for overseas travel for the next 40 years. My wife and I had two sons we raised in Southern California.  After that marriage ended, I met my second wife in Northern California and we had two children, a daughter and a son who was born in Connecticut where were lived for a couple of years when I worked in magazine publishing in Manhattan.  We traveled several times to Florida to visit both sets of grandparents, and we also went to Hawaii to stay in a rain forest with an old friend. The tropical climate was wonderful and we considered moving there, but the living was too expensive.

Living outside the country as an expat was unthinkable during these middle years when the children were growing up. I worked for a music magazine, and later decided to return to university study. Through fits and starts, I completed a BA in philosophy with a concentration in religious thought, and began graduate study in history. My first interest was 19th century intellectual history in France.  But when it became difficult to find research money for the Ph.D. I switched to U.S. environmental study and wrote a dissertation about a social movement that saved redwood trees in the first California state park in the early 20th century.

My second marriage ended as I finished writing the doctorate and I taught a few courses in California history and environmental history. Going through another divorce turned my world upside down.  I slept in borrowed rooms and tried to reinvent myself as a single man in his mid-60s. The prospects did not seem great.  First my mother died in Florida, and then my ex-wife bought out my share of our house. I sold my mother's house, split the proceeds with my brother, and suddenly I had traveling money. I had been teaching a few classes but the students were more interested in partying than in reading books and I was fast losing any desire to help them. The road beckoned.

Without a wife and with children old enough to take care of themselves, there was nothing to hold me in California. I had been living in the same area for 20 years and it felt almost too comfortable. Friends were active in Habitat for Humanity, and my first trip on my own was to Guatemala to build houses. Next I decided to work on my Spanish and went with a group from the local community college to Oaxaca in Mexico where we studied for a month and lived with local families.  It had been over 20 years since my visit with Uncle Ted in Cuernavaca. My language skills improved a little, and so my next trip was with the same college program to Buenos Aires in Argentina for another month of lessons and delicious steaks at midnight (Argentines eat late). We took a couple of trips outside the city, one to visit poet Pablo Neruda's grave in Isla Negra on the coast of Chile.

Religion determined the next trajectory. Influenced by the writings of Thomas Merton and Simone Weil, I'd converted to Catholicism in the 1980s. But I also retained an interest in Buddhism going back to high school. I began meditating in Connecticut and continued with a local sangha in California, a mixing and matching that I felt Merton would approve. I spent time at a monastery in Big Sur and read about an ashram in India founded by Catholic monks from Brittany and continued by a British priest. I learned of an annual tour to Shantivanam in Tamil Nadu, India, and joined them in January of 2004. It was an eye-opening experience and I returned several more times over the next three years, sometimes in a group and sometimes by myself.

By 2005 I was actively looking for someplace to live other than the U.S. Mexico and Chile seemed possibilities.  The sights, sounds and smells of India were exciting but the crowds and trash put me off. That year I took several tours, one to England to visit cathedrals, and another to Vietnam with a group of priests to celebrate the feast day of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs. Later, I went with one of the priests to Angor Wat for three days of walking around temples with the help of a car, driver and guide. After the cathedral tour I flew to the island of Menorca to stay with a friend I'd met in Mexico, and I took a boat to Barcelona especially to see the amazing architecture of Antonio Gaudi. From Barcelona I flew to Rome, walked around the city, and rented a car to sample the country, ending up in the mountains at the headquarters of the Camaldolese order, mother house for the monasteries in Big Sur and Tamil Nadu.

Finally Thailand, where ten yes ago I became either an expat or an immigrant, depending on your point of view.  My daughter had been an exchange student in Chiang Mai in 1992, bypassing Bangkok by changing planes at the international airport.  There had been demonstrations in the capital and people had been shot by soldiers. The north, we were told, was peaceful. She brought back a collection of straw hats and funny shaped Thai pillows that her Thai family had given her. I flew to Bangkok from Chennai after my first trip to India in 2004 and was met at the airport by an old friend from the music business days and his Thai wife.  From the taxi I could see huge photos of the king on the side of numerous tall buildings.

I stayed at a small guest house near my friend's apartment in the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok.  The city is huge and spread out with no clear center other than the shopping district of Siam, to which Sukhumvit led, and the backpacker headquarters around Khao San Road across the city near the Chao Phraya River. I was enchanted by the bird songs and the sweet smell of flowers, as well as the heat and the manic bustle of the city around me.  That first visit was followed by a few days in the country at my friend's farm in Surin.  Then I took the train farther west to Ubon Ratchatoni and spent 10 days at a Buddhist monastery, Wat Pah Nonachant, where I got to shave my head, long a bucket list plan, and wear all white clothes. What I learned most there was that becoming a monk was not in my future.

I returned to Thailand two more times after trips to the ashram in India.  Each journey was planned to see more of the country.  On the second visit I traveled by train and bus up to the north, stopping at Ayutthaya, the monkey city of Lopburi, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai with a side trip to the valley of Pai near the Myanmar border, a backpacker outpost.  For the third trip, I landed on the island of Koh Samui where I spent a week on and off the beach with a lady of the night.  It's amazing how much you can say without a language in common. That week I decided that Thailand was where I wanted to stay for the foreseeable future. I would return to California, dispose of my possessions and return for good within six months.

And that's what I did, arriving as a permanent resident in August 2007 and finding a furnished studio apartment not far from my Sukhumvit friend.  I stocked up on new and used books at Kinokuniya and Dasa Books on the history and politics of Thailand and Southeast Asia, and on how to learn Thai (a losing proposition it seems).  I set out to walk over as much of the city as I could, and learned the Skytrain, bus and river taxi routes for what I couldn't reach otherwise.  Bangkok, from the tiny alley sois to the penthouse of skyscrapers was my oyster and I wanted to learn all about it. I bought a yellow shirt (the color of the King's birth day) which impressed the women who did my laundry, and under my friend's tutelage I explored the underside of the city: Nana, Soi Cowboy, and Patpong.

Coming next:  Why was I voted Expat Rookie of the Year for 2008 by my Bangkok friends? Why would a farang want to live in Thailand the rest of his life? What's to like and what's not to like about Bangkok life?

Monday, April 03, 2017

Won't you spare me over ‘til another year?

"I grow old ... I grow old ...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I began writing this blog when I was 65. Nearly two years ago I stopped posting here, as I felt that I had no longer much to say beyond the short bits I put on my Facebook and Twitter sites. Photos, taken and found, had become more interesting to me than words. And after eight years as an expat in Bangkok, it seemed as if I'd seen and photographed everything. The last few posts in 2015 were a kind of summing up of my life.

But I'm not dead yet. Life goes on and my mind spews forth a litany of thoughts, views and opinions on a daily basis, too much for the social media outlets to which I subscribe. Who wants to read about death anyway? Often I feel like the last elderly man standing, and social media is a game for the young. One lovely lady I knew in junior high school is here, but the rest of my early school cohort are either lost to Alzheimer's or using their tablets as chopping boards. They know what aging is about but the others don't care.

Aging is not for sissies, Bette Davis supposedly said, and Tolstoy spoke of old age as life's biggest surprise.  I've seen it coming for a long time and it doesn't take much work.  I'm 77 now and I've enjoyed those numbers since I always thought 7 was a lucky one and it's doubled.  In a few months I'll turn 78 and see nothing auspicious about that.  It's too close to 80.

When I started this blog several years after my second marriage ended and I'd retired to travel the world to collect adventures, I chose a name to mark out my domain of controversy.  "We don't talk about those topics, dear," my mother would say to me when I asked uncomfortable questions.  No one ever talked about the sexual orientation of my father's twin brother until long after he was gone.  As for politics, my family was solidly middle class and Nixon supporters.  An aunt warned me that communists were teaching Shakespeare in Berkeley where I was going to study.  My own post-marriage sexuality a few years after a diagnosis of prostate cancer was an open question.  Religion was the easy one.  I was an enthusiastic participant in the Catholic mass and a meditator in a couple of Western Buddhist traditions.  In short, my thoughts on religion, politics and sex were homegrown and developing. The trick was to articulate them in ways that would help me understand myself.

Like most of the elderly, I read the obituaries, thrilling when the dead are older than me and cringing when they are not.  The words "after a long illness" are especially troubling.  My closest friend in Bangkok has been in the process of dying for the last year after he turned 80 with a big party in a ladyboy bar.  The heart is his Achilles Heel as it was his father's.  He's had open heart surgery and a pacemaker installed, and now it's the ebb and flow of edema and lung congestion.  Muscle tissue wastes away.  But as long as he can find someone to push his wheel chair up the street, he's happy.

My father had two heart attacks when he was my age.  During the last years of his life he lived in close proximity to an oxygen tank to assist his breathing.  When young my father abhorred doctors and refused to ever admit he was sick.  At the end he was often in and out of the hospital and took his many medications faithfully as if they were sacraments.

I can still walk and breathe almost like a young man.  But my body is infused with arthritis as was my mother's.  She taught me that sitting can cause more pain than walking.  Recently I came down with bronchitis, and when a pesky cough refused to go away I was given a dose of prednisolone.  Years ago I took this drug and it cured a terrible asthma attack in hours.  But it's a steroid and carries risks. A friend died of a fungus infection that was connected with too much prednisone.  So I was cautious but hopeful.  My cure wasn't dramatic and the cough lingered before going away.  The surprise was the effect the drug had on my body.  Almost all the arthritis pain disappeared and I was able to sprint out of my chair after sitting.  When I stopped taking it, the old familiar aches and paints of aging returned.  

I told my son recently that my death of choice would be to keel over while teaching English to a roomful of monks at the university where I've worked for nearly ten years.  They would be shocked and sad, but understanding, for death is a part of life to those growing up in the farming regions of Southeast Asia.  As monks they believe that one's life is only in transition between one rebirth and another. I long ago lost my faith in metaphors and consoling stories, and although I'm certain my future is only ashes I would avoid encouraging any believers to share my unbelief.

As someone who lives each day with one foot planted in real life and the other in the grave (I didn't really mean that above about metaphors), the main difference I see between the me who started to write this blog in 2006 and the me who may or may not continue writing it in 2017 is that I no longer make plans.  By that I mean long-term plans, like finally writing that novel I was always meant to write. Short-term plans, sure. My friend and I make an appointment for lunch next week. I write in my calendar the dates for Songkran and our trip to Nan's village in Phayao. Since I have to renew my work permit and visa every May 31, that is a date I don't forget. Or the day of my 90-days report to the Immigration Office which happens to be tomorrow.

What I mean is I make no plans for 2018. I watch the slow construction of the overhead rail system that I can see from my window. There is construction for the transit system going on all over Bangkok which has one of the worst current public transportation systems in Asia. Some day it will be easy to get around the city by the BTS or MRT, but I don't expect it will be by me. Completion is too far in the future.

I don't exercise, beyond a few laps in the pool every few days because I like it, and I don't think much about what I eat, the excessive intake of ice cream and Oreos, because this body I've carried around for 77 years is not going to improve. Improvement involves thought for the future and the uncertainty that tomorrow brings. My days are directed mostly by habit, since habitual behavior is known to save on brain energy which I need to understand the threats and crises faced by the planet these days. Going to the pool at 10 and up the street for cappuccino at 5 leaves my brain free to keep track of the Apocalypse.

Yes, I could die tomorrow and the odds are in favor of it. But today, right now, I'm alive and the fan across the room dries my sweat. Outside the sun is shining through the morning mist over Bangkok. The traffic on the highway has passed its morning peak. And I have things to do, thoughts to think, and even places to go.  I might even write another blog post, or two.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Teaching English to Monks in Thailand

"It's a very ancient saying,
but a true and honest thought,
that if you become a teacher, 
by your pupils you'll be taught."

"Getting to Know You" from the musical The King and I

I never wanted to be a teacher.  My first ambition was to be an actor, and when that looked to be not too promising, it was to play clarinet and alto sax in Stan Kenton's jazz orchestra.  All through high school I honed my skills by playing my woodwinds in groups and even leading my own combo which won a battle of the bands contest (the group coming in second included Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, a prodigy at 17).  When a car accident after high school laid me up for six months and nipped my career in the bud, I sold all my musical paraphernalia and turned to books.  I had decided to become a writer.

Only moderately successful, I penned some unpublished poetry and wrote mostly journalistic fluff for magazines and newspapers for many years. When I gave up the working world for academia, I wrote scholarly papers about philosophy, religion and history (you can even read some at I only produced one book, the text for a volume about the history of California's first redwood park, The Sempervirens Story.  You know what they say about those who fail to realize their ambitions: Those that can, do; those that can't, teach.  I didn't stay a student at UC Santa Cruz for 18 years because I wanted to be a teacher.  I loved study, writing and research, for its own sake and the pleasure it gave me to pursue my curiosity. Since I was already past my prime I didn't expect job offers after the Ph.d. But my then wife was disturbed by this non-utilitarian attitude (thinking of the huge salaries that professors might make) and so I tried a few semesters of teaching at the California campus.  

From "Goodbye Mr. Chips"
Teaching the core course, a reading, discussion and writing class for 1st year students, at Stevenson and College VIII, was a delightful experience with mixed results.  I got to pontificate about the great books, and even lectured on the Bhagavad Gita. At College VIII the theme was ecology which tied in with my study of the redwood preservation movement.  The students were smart but lazy.  Their curiosity had been diminished (I decided) by leading a privileged life style provided by mostly wealthy parents. They were more interested in partying, the opposite sex and smoking dope, and few students put much effort into reading and writing about Plato, the Iliad, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Freud, Marx, various ecology exposes and manifestos, and Malcolm X (among others).  I also taught courses on writing, environmental history and ethics, and the history of California.  But my experience was the same. Either I failed to inspire them, or their lack of interest in "higher" education made them immune to the curiosity bug.  After four years of post-graduate teaching, I gave up on my lackadaisical students and took up long-distance travel (Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina and Chile, Europe and India).

Loafing in Pattaya
Expats flock to Thailand for various legitimate as well as questionable reasons. Little legal work is available for those without an inheritance or a retirement income.  Teaching English is an enormously popular alternative to living underground, and there are numerous schools offering teaching certificates to westerners who lack other credentials, or even an undergraduate degree.  I resolved not to go down that road, and assumed my Social Security would provide all the income I needed to live comfortably in the Big Mango, Bangkok.  But a few months into my new lazy lifestyle, a British Buddhist monk challenged me.  "What are you going to do here?" he asked.  "Nothing," I replied (leaving out any details of my non-monkish life style).  You should teach, he suggested, and arranged for me to speak to the English Club at the temple where he had studied for a bachelor's degree.

Students at my 1st talk, 2008
A roomful of orange-robbed monks with close-shaved heads listened intently to my rambling talk about the high points of my life as a native-speaking American.  Their previous non-Thai teacher of English, an Australian named Kevin, had recently departed.  I was invited to teach "Listening and Speaking English" to 3rd and 4th year students at the Buddhist university and for several years was referred to as the "new Kevin."  After my California experience, I had little interesting in teaching, and as someone who learned his language in childhood, I had no idea how it should be taught to a Thai speaker in his 20s.  I accepted the job because I had nothing else on my plate, and it did come with a work permit and visa (the difficulty I had in getting those is another story). My British monk friend advised against much preparation and said I should just sit and chat with them.  But how could I fill three hours of class time with just chatter?

Thus began my odyssey to learn how to teach English, which is still ongoing seven years later.  Last year I even taught a graduate course in "Methods of Teaching Effective English."  My 48 students, most of who hoped to become English teachers, were from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, India and Vietnam (two were laymen, the rest monks). In the beginning the prospect of an unprepared class terrified me, and I purchased several of Oxford's Headways series of textbooks to use as a guide.  The elementary and American texts have served me well.  Using the lesson topics as a base, I've slowly developed my own methods of teaching.  Most classroom come with a sound system and I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed strutting up and down with a microphone in my hand.  In a former life I was surely a stand-up comedian.  And from the first class I created exercises with song lyrics and played music while my students struggled to identify the blanked-out words.

It took me years to pronounce my university's name: Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. It's the largest of the two Buddhist schools with numerous satellite campuses around the country. When I began teaching, the Faculty of Humanities was located in the classroom building of Wat Srisudaram, a temple close to my home in Pinklao on the west side of the Chao Phraya River.
The main campus was across the river at Wat Mahathat, but within two years facilities began moving to the larger new campus in Wangnoi outside Ayutthaya, an hour and a half away.  Now I teach in the weekend MA program in English at Wat Sri and one day a week in Wangnoi where I continue to teach intermediate and advanced Listening and Speaking English to 3rd and 4th year students majoring in English.  There are a growing number of lay students now and like my graduate students there are more from outside Thailand than from within. Almost all my students come from small villages and becoming a monk is the only way they will ever get a university education.  Many disrobe after graduation without criticism.  Graduate study is also growing in popularity as the Southeast Asian economies mature and require knowledgeable white-collar employees, and I am often asked how one can get into a western school for a Ph.d. degree (most Thais get this degree at an institution in India).

I've been incredibly lucky.  This is the most rewarding job I've ever had and it comes at the tail end of my working career.  Most of my students are very enthused about learning English and respond to my often fumbling attempts to help them with grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation with amazing grace and gratitude.  Despite mobile phones, chatting with friends, reading Facebook on a laptop, and the occasional ladyboy putting on makeup, there are few discipline problems (other teachers tell me it's worse at the non-Buddhist schools).  There are frequent annoying problems with audio-visual equipment, and surprise cancellations of class for rituals or the rector's lecture, but the centerpiece of the job -- my encounter with a student trying to speak and understand English words -- is priceless.

After getting my doctorate in history in 2002, I never thought I would use it.  But "Dr." before a name has tremendous cachet in Thailand.  I needed no teaching certificates to get hired, and though the retirement age at universities here is 60, I continue to be given an annual "special" contract (not sure what that means, but it works). There are few western teachers at MCU but our presence I'm sure helps to polish the "international" aspects of their programs.  For the non-international programs like the undergrad major in English, classes are taught in Thai which monks from outside the country must learn quickly.  I have my doubts that you can teach English by giving lessons in Thai, but there is now some evidence that English learners benefit from teachers who have themselves had to learn the language.  The future of English is with non-native speakers around the world who use it as a lingua franca to communicate with users of the language from another country.

After eight years, I still have my doubts about teaching.  It's very difficult to measure improvement over a four-month course.  They enter my classes with a wide range of facility.  The best students might not even need my instruction.  The worst can neither speak nor understand spoken English and it seems impossible to penetrate their language barrier.  Asian students are normally shy for fear of losing face by make a grammar or pronunciation mistake.  It takes all my efforts to encourage them to forget their fears and speak. For some, speaking is easy but writing is impossibly difficult.  Others surprise me with their articulate sentences and essays when they remain mute in their seats.  In the beginning I focused on grammar because it's simple to teach rules and easy to grade exams for them. But I'm now persuaded that vocabulary and pronunciation are more important.  You can understand a student with poor grammar if they have the words to say something meaningful and pronounce them correctly so as not to be misunderstood. The buzzword in English teaching today is communication.  It's of primary importance to teach them to communicate with both native and non-native English speakers, to use their language skills to say or ask about something essential.  But this ability is very difficult to examine and grade (my end of semester oral exam cannot measure the two-sided nature of communication).

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to teach.  But at 75, there is one permanent Thai faculty member a couple of months older than me, and another not far behind.  Age is not a problem, then, but health can be. Earlier this year I broke my wrist in a fall outside the classroom, but it didn't put me out of commission for long. Walking up and down steps has become more tiring and I look for easy ways to maneuver the hallways in our large six-floor classroom building. I detest sitting down while I teach so each class involves several miles of pacing.  On the pink commuter bus home I'm usually exhausted.  My fellow teachers often comment on how "strong" I am, but they know I'm married to a much younger woman and I think their meaning is metaphorical. My wrinkles and pot belly are on full display, but sometimes I'm inspired in the classroom to forget them and rage like a young Robin Williams urging my students to seize the day and speak English!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Something About Religion

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

John Lennon, "Imagine"

Jim, my faithful interlocutor on Facebook, rarely fails to comment when I post something about religion.  We almost never agree.  He's an accomplished writer and musician and he hates religion in any shape or form.  For the most part, he's in sympathy with the outspoken "New Atheists" (though he hates that label) -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris.  Though our dialogues are often frustrating, I appreciate the challenge of his persistent attempts to push over my dominoes.  I have been engaged for some time now in saving the appearances (using Owen Barfield's phrase) of religion.  For me, this means searching for value in the human questions that receive a variety of answers from the cultural traditions that are called religious.  These questions, rarely scientific, are also my own.

In Marx's well-known analysis,
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Marx believed that politics could erase the conditions that brought suffering, but that has not been the case.  The suffering of humanity, however, is real.  It is the central point of the Buddha's teaching. Religious explanations for this fact vary enormously and solutions to the problem of suffering, the "opium" offered by the numberless sects, range from "love your neighbor" to the "Last Judgment" and Holy War (jihad).

Is it possible for a materialist, who believes that the body and brain are all we have to survive in this world (and not for long), to affirm the importance of the question of suffering without accepting most of the answers that the different religions have proposed?  This is my project.

To begin at the beginning, I call into question the very term "religion."  The latest scholarship in religious studies argues that this word has come into use only in modern times.  Most languages do not distinguish religious from ordinary behavior.  The study of "world religions" arose with the discovery of non-Christian religious practices and was developed and defined by western scholars, many of them linguists in the employ of colonial enterprises.  Today, it's a classic case of reification, where an invented word becomes a thing ("unicorn" is another).  Religion, according to Jonathan Z. Smith, consists simply of the activities of human beings. In other words, it's an aspect of culture. According to anthropologist Clifford Geertz, religion is
(1) a system of symbols (2) which acts to establish powerful, pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations in men (3) by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.
You might say the same of dancing, or of playing sports.

Here in Thailand where I now live, there seems to be no divide between secular and sacred activities. Thais pay their respects to altar images (many of them Hindu), ancient trees, and go to the temple regularly for a blessing from a monk without calling attention to these activities as something special. Taxis and new shops are inaugurated with ritual ceremony.  People wear amulets featuring images of popular monks and are symbolically tattooed as a form of protection from unhappy ghosts.  Is this superstition or religion? Even Buddhists are unable to decide definitively.  How do you tell the difference?

These days cognitive scientists are turning to religion to understand the popularity and spread of metaphysical ideas.  They have discovered a tool-kit of mental faculties that evolved to make life easier for humans 10,000 years ago. They have verified in experiments that young children are born with perceptions and instincts enabling them to detect unseen agents and predict what they're thinking.  These new theories explain the possibility of religion (I'll use the word for human activities with particular characteristics) without predicting what particular forms it will take. God, of course, is the unseen agent writ large, and we (or the theologians) know what he's thinking.

Vocal atheists and haters of religion are reacting to real circumstances.  Christians in America campaign against abortion and homosexuality, Muslims in Syria and Iraq slaughter those who they deem threatening, Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka persecute Muslims, and Jews in Israel bomb Palestinians back to the Stone Age.  Not so long ago, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland were at each other's throats.  It seems that Holy War is the dominant conflict in the 21st century. Others look behind the religious curtain and see conflicts over land and power, the same political struggles humans have engaged in since the dawn of history.

Religious activities have historically been organized and controlled by authorities, a priestly caste. Replete with all the harmful characteristics of institutional structures, these religions have declared their followers a "chosen people," defined the dogma they must affirm, and punished heretics for blasphemy and other deviations in belief.  Their prophets have demanded obedience and promised rewards or punishment in a life after death, whether in a heaven or a hell.  Scribes who claim to take dictation from a deity have written books to be worshipped that contain stories glorifying suffering, hatred of the body, subjection of women, and practices of purification that include genital mutilation. Missionaries carrying their holy texts have accompanied armies for the forced conversion of subject peoples.  The whole sorry history of what we call religion gives the lie to any notion of human progress.

And yet...  Religious believers have given hospitality to strangers, healed the sick at a great cost to themselves, and forgiven debts from horrible crimes as well as loans.  Soup kitchens, schools and hospitals have been inspired by different religious messages. I was raised in the 1940s on a radio version of "The Greatest Story Every Told," a retelling of the life of Jesus, and the love and kindness in the parables brought me to tears.  I am still moved by the core message of the Gospels without its institutional cloak.  The Buddhists around me in Thailand, raised on a message of compassion in the Buddha's teaching, are incredibly generous to the beggars and fund raisers I see on the streets every day.  Religious art and music can lift the heart to new heights.  For me, the impetus for these activities that bring humans and communities together is at its root a response the the awareness of the suffering of the other.

So this is my dilemma.  At their best, human beings can transcend the barriers that divide them and see themselves in another who might in fact be a member of group they traditionally hate, like the Samaritan in the Gospel story.  Fear of the other is a legacy from the days when people lived in tribes and struggled for scarce resources.  Today we're locked into identities of nation and religion, but occasionally we can break out of these cages and find that we are bodies with brains and this is all we have, so we need to stick together.  Perhaps the "kingdom of God" is right here on earth, right now. Religious myths and rituals that permit and encourage such cross-cultural unity are to be treasured and encouraged.  Those institutions that promote division and intolerance are to be condemned.

Theologian Don Cupitt has proposed a religion of ordinary life in a series of books that just might coexist with a secular or even an atheistic philosophy.  For Cupitt, God is a symbolic vehicle for common cultural values, and religion gives us a shared vocabulary.  There is no heaven or hell in Cupitt's theology.  For him life is limited, transient, contingent and temporal, and also bittersweet (is this the Buddhist dukkha?).  His most radical claim is there is no stable real world and no enduring self.  All experience is mediated by language.  Cupitt's theology is life-centered.  Religion is expressive and we become ourselves only by expressing ourselves.

This sounds a lot to me like John Lennon's vision.