Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jai Yen Yen

I've never met a wall I didn't want to pound.

Thais are different. Unlike me, when they meet an obstacle, their inclination is not to smash it. Rather, they first determine if the battle is worth fighting. Often the decision is "mai pen rai" -- never mind, whatever will be, will be. "You can't fight City Hall" is American advice they could understand. Pim is constantly cautioning me to keep a "jai yen yen," a very cool heart. After a lifetime as a hot head, this is most difficult.

Bureaucracy pushes my buttons. And Thai society is loaded with it. Last week I picked up a letter signed by the dean of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (getting thoroughly soaked two different times in thunder storms) and took it along with other documents from Wat Si to the Immigration office where I hoped to alter my tourist visa so I could take up work as an English teacher. But the nice lady in the nearly empty upstairs office told me I was missing two documents. I also learned that the change requires that I have at least 21 days left on my current visa, and my count was 23. Pandit Bhikku, my guide and translator, was off meditating in Singapore. So I was on my own to solve this problem. Pim sent me a text message: "Jai yen yen."

The telephone numbers I had for the department chair at Wat Si and the assistant dean of faculty were either incorrect or not working. I called an Indian professor who will teach psychology next term but his English was not up to a phone conversation, even with the assist of a friend. Numbers for two different offices at the school went unanswered. So I had the bright idea of faxing the information I had been given about the missing documents (I even had the Immigration officer's mobile phone number to call for information) and I trudged up to a nearby office with a fax machine. But the fax at Wat Si did not respond. So I went home and took a nap.

In the late afternoon, Dr. Suriya, the head of the department of foreign languages, picked up the phone. "Dr. William," he said. I told him I had a problem with my visa and asked if I could fax the information to him. "Oh no, the fax is not working," he explained. A half hour later, wearing a dress shirt and tie (Thais expect their professors to look formal) in 95-degree heat, I was on the bus to Wat Si. Dr. Suriya listened to my litany of woes and said: "The dean must provide these documents. But he is in Vietnam." Suriya himself is off to Singapore next week. The term, which was due to start May 16, has been delayed until May 26 (Pandit warned me to anticipate frequent unexplained changes in schedule). My first class is May 29 and nothing much can be done before then. Mai pen rai.

One exception to Thai cool heart culture is television. Pim loves the soaps which are full of exaggerated drama, very similar to the Mexican soaps I used to watch in California to learn Spanish. The characters yell and scream at one another in very un-Thai fashion. In one, the bad son of a rich man raped his love object and the series ended with her happily giving birth to their baby. I must have missed something. The shows are either about wealthy hi-so schemers or virtuous villagers, all wearing their hearts and passions on their sleeves. And as in Thai films, ghosts and gangsters are frequently present. There are also a number of Korean soaps that have been dubbed into Thai, but the passions are the same. Last week I introduced Pim to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over a few nights we watched "Terminator 2" and "Terminator 3" as well as "Kindergarten Cop." She was a bit surprised to find that he was the governor or my former state (so am I, I explained).

Another film we watched on TV that I somehow missed in the theaters was "Idiocracy." This science fiction comedy has the premise that selective breeding (the smart don't procreate while the idiots multiply like rabbits) results in a population of dummies by the year 2500. Is this nightmare unrealistic? I suspect we are headed in this direction. How else can we explain the leadership of George Bush? In a passionate column about the president's recent Pollyannaish statement that everything in the Middle East will turn up roses, Robert Fisk writes:
Where does the madness end? Where do words lose their meaning? Al-Qa’ida is not being defeated. Hizbollah has just won a domestic war in Lebanon, as total as Hamas’s war in Gaza. Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon and Gaza are hell disasters — I need no apology to quote Churchill’s description of 1948 Palestine yet again — and this foolish, stupid, vicious man is lying to the world yet again.
The support that brought Bush to the White House, twice (if you accept the Supreme Court's ruling), can only be explained by attributing the dumbing down of Americans to a genetic slide. John McCain, or McBush as he is being accurately labeled, claims the war in Iraq will end with our side winning in 2013 (after eight years of his rule, I suppose). This is indeed delusion or madness. Bush is desperately describing Obama and those who would negotiate with Iran as appeasers similar to diplomats who believed talking to Hitler would have avoided war.

Bill Moyers, in a taste from his new book on democracy, tells it like it is:
The earth we share as our common gift, to be passed on in good condition to our children’s children, is being despoiled. Private wealth is growing as public needs increase apace. Our Constitution is perilously close to being consigned to the valley of the shadow of death, betrayed by a powerful cabal of secrecy-obsessed authoritarians. Terms like “liberty” and “individual freedom” invoked by generations of Americans who battled to widen the 1787 promise to “promote the general welfare” have been perverted to create a government primarily dedicated to the welfare of the state and the political class that runs it. Yes, Virginia, there is a class war and ordinary people are losing it.

But in California the courts have ruled that gay men and women can marry just like their heterosexual counterparts. Ellen DeGeneris is off to the altar with her partner. In Burma the generals are withholding aid from the starving victims of Cyclone Nargis, in China thousands of children were crushed in their schools by a killer quake, and in Israel Bush celebrates the country's 60th anniversary (60 years of oppressing the Palestinians whose land they stole to create a Jewish state) by tarring Obama with the Nazi brush. While I believe gays should be afforded all the rights and privileges of any other group, I wonder how the possibility of marriage can be counted as a victory in the face of so many defeats. How can one maintain a jai yen yen?

Respected political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has written a new book, Democracy Incorporated, in which he coins the terms "inverted totalitarianism" and "managed democracy" to explain the perverted state of corporate capitalism in America. In his review on, Chalmers Johnson (who was a student of Wolin's at UC Berkeley) praises the book as "comprehensive diagnosis of our failings as a democratic polity." One of the tasks of managed democracy is to
keep the citizenry preoccupied with peripheral and/or private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of the public trust. In Wolin’s words, “The point about disputes on such topics as the value of sexual abstinence, the role of religious charities in state-funded activities, the question of gay marriage, and the like, is that they are not framed to be resolved. Their political function is to divide the citizenry while obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns of the general populace.”
Once again, a pundit points out the often hidden class war in America. Wolin believes that our political system, dominated by corporations and the military, is “shot through with corruption and awash in contributions primarily from wealthy and corporate donors.” Johnson concludes: "Many analysts, myself included, would conclude that Wolin has made a close to airtight case that the American republic’s days are numbered." This sounds like a book we should all read.

Here in Thailand I am fascinated by the sale of pink nipple cream. I spotted a jar promoting that outcome in a store at MBK, the giant shopping mall. Many Thai women, sentenced by genetics to life inside of brown skin, yearn to be white. There are almost no dark-skinned women in the advertisements you see. The shelves of pharmacies are filled with skin whitening agents. There was a story in the press of a girl who bathed in bleach because she thought it would make her white. As a side note, Thai women do not shave their armpits. They pluck out the hairs with tweezers, one by one. It's a national obsession. Another surprise: You can buy white bread in the stores here with the crusts cut off. Pim prefers it.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Einstein did not believe in God, according to a recently discovered letter written in 1954 to philosopher Eric Gutkind. In the letter, which sold at an auction in New York for $404,000, Einstein called the Bible “pretty childish” and ridiculed the notion that the Jews could be a “chosen people.” Richard Dawkins, leader of the New Atheist movement, was an unsuccessful bidder. In his voluminous writings, Einstein has led some people to think he is a believer, or sorts. He refers to God as a metaphor for physical law, and in a rebuke to quantum mechanics argued that "God doesn't play dice." His statement that "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind" has led some to call him as a witness for the religious theory of "intelligent design." But in the expensive letter, the scientist writes "the Bible is a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends," and says the Jewish religion "like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." Perhaps the most that one can claim now is that Einstein was spiritual but not religious (today's fastest growing sect).

The rambutan is in season and on sale everywhere. It looks like a hairy strawberry. Inside the soft outer shell is a delicious white pulp around a nut that looks a little like lychee. It grows only in southeast Asia and, along with the mangosteen (a purple fruit also seen in this photo) which is also in season, gives the street stalls in Bangkok an exotic character. Add durian and mangoes to the mix and you have a diet unparalleled elsewhere. I find the durian's rotten smell a bit off-putting (Pim loves them) but I could eat mangoes and sticky rice forever. I've recently learned that Thailand has limes but no lemons, even though the word for the small green citrus fruit is manaao which translates as both lemon and lime. Since I prefer lime to lemon juice, I'm sitting pretty here.

I've never met a social network that I didn't like, and I've joined a number of them to, as they say, "network and meet new friends." You can find me on Facebook, Tagged, Twitter, Friendster, Netlog, Tribe, a few local sites like Thailandsocial and ThailandFriends, as well as Yahoo 360 and Windows Live Space, not to mention some dating sites such as OkCupid and ThaiLoveLinks. I tried MySpace for a while but felt dreadfully over-aged. From my very first glimpse of the World Wide Web, I was convinced that this technology would change the way people communicated. It took me longer to grasp the significance of mobile phones, but now I'm a dedicated user. With the internet and cell phones, time and space have become irrelevant. Humans can connect anywhere and anytime (this same ease of use means that over-worked employees must be available 24/7). Many of my friends and three of my four children have not realized this. They think that I have gone to a distant place, like Gauguin to Tahiti, and have thus disappeared from their lives. Even though we used to chat regularly by email and phone when I was in California, now to be out of sight is to also be out of mind. This saddens me. No friend or child is replaceable. I haven't seen Pete for over thirty years, but we chat now by email as if time had stopped. And I've found other old friends through the social networks I've joined, particularly Facebook. Where is McLuhan now that we really need him to describe and explain the new hot and cool interconnectedness of humanity?

Technology is no free ride. I've been suffering from connection problems for several months. The folks in the office at Siam Court tried to convince me that it was my dependence on a Mac that was the problem. Apple is a discriminated minority here. But Pim's PC portable also had difficult with the Ethernet connection in our room. Finally, an "engineer" discovered that the router was at fault. It was tucked in the ceiling of the 9th floor, two floors above me. A new router did the trick and now I can download torrents day and night. I am also trying to understand the new technology that enables mobiles to become modems. It works with the Nokia Pim borrows from her friend, but my attempt to connect my Razr to the MacBook with Bluetooth produced connection speeds too slow to load web pages. The three major telecom firms here in Thailand are all developing new ways to connect laptops to the internet, but the explanations of how it all works (or doesn't) that I've found are still too technical for my limited understanding.

Back in California a few friends kept a no-shoe rule for their homes. Here in Thailand it's a general rule everywhere. Shoes that cannot be taken off and put back on easily are a pain. My new black loafers, aside from the blisters they've given me after being shrunk by the rain, are too sticky. At Wat Si I will need easily removable but suitably formal footwear. Flip-flops or Crocs, which I love, will probably not do. This pictures was taken one weekend at the Chulalongkorn Book Store where the children's reading room was packed.


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