Welcome to the Hotel Bangkok!
"This could be heaven or this could be hell," the Eagles sing in their hit song about that diabolical hotel back in California where "you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave."
For my second English class at Wat Si on Thursday, I gave the monks the lyrics to the song with 17 of the words blanked out. Then I played it on my iPod and asked them to fill in the blanks from a list of the missing words ("highway," "distance," "courtyard," "ceiling," "prisoners," etc.). It was a stretch for them. Last week I did the same listening exercise with Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," and they enjoyed it so much I thought I would try it again with "Hotel California" which one of the monks suggested (he knew a version by the Scorpions, a German band). For a reading exercise I included interpretations of the song from Wikipedia and Rolling Stone. Later, I had second thoughts about giving young monks a song that could be about hedonism and self-destruction on drugs, "the high life in Los Angeles," according to co-writer Don Henley. But they seemed to enjoy the challenge.
My theme for the two sections was families and I introduced the basic English terms. English is simpler than Thai which distinguishes between paternal and maternal grandparents and has different words for elder and younger siblings. The class broke up into pairs and interviewed each other about their families. Then they each described their partner's family to the class. This practice seems to help them overcome their shyness about speaking English. As fourth-year students majoring in English, their knowledge of grammar is (I think) substantial, but they have had little experience talking before native speakers. While errors abounded, I kept correction to a minimum, more concerned with boosting their confidence than with pointing out deficiencies. Most of them are in their 20's, except for one monk who is 42. They come from all over the Theravadan Buddhist countryside, mostly from rural Thailand but a significant number from Laos, Cambodia and Shan State in Myanmar which has, I believe, a bit of autonomy from the repressive central government. I learned from the presentations that most of the large families are involved in rice farming, but also found that a number of parents are working as school teachers. Many of the students themselves aspire to teach English. I hope I can provide them a good example.
Almost all of the monks have cell phones and quite a few email addresses. I would like to use the computer to extend our conversations outside the classroom, and I have received responses from nine monks who are excited about additional contact. Most of those on email, I discovered, also have profiles on hi5, a popular social networking site in Thailand. Recently, according to one report from Fox News, "a self-styled watchdog group — the Network of Civilians to Protect the Nation, the Religion and the King — said monks were using the social networking site hi5 to flirt with women. One user who called himself 'Monk Chat' sent a message to a woman that said '(I) miss you,' reported Thai Rath, Thailand's top-selling newspaper." In Thai Buddhism, monks, who vow to follow 227 strict rules, must maintain a rigid separation between themselves and women. The government said it would look into the allegation and threatened to block any web sites that "contributed to the deterioration of Buddhism." I trust that my students are faithful to the dhamma, online and off.
My nearly six hours in the classroom went by quickly, although my legs ached from standing up most of the time. I was energized by the experience. After picking up documents from the office I've needed for the new visa, I caught a bus on Bangkhunnon, the main road outside Wat Si and met Pim in Banglamphu across the river. But when we got home I discovered only one document in the envelope; the employment contract I'd been waiting for was missing. When I was offered the job nearly four months ago, I figured that was plenty of time to obtain work papers. Wrong. Thai officialdom is overly bureaucratic and inefficient. Rather than accept the unexpected like a good Buddhist, however, I chew on the bone of frustration. By morning I was ready to give up (again). Hell in the Hotel Bangkok.
Instead, I put on my formal clothes and bussed across town to Wat Si where I plunked myself down into a chair and resolved to stay until the missing document was produced. Everyone in the office was very solicitous. Supo, another of the English teachers, made me coffee. Dr. Siriwat from the psychology department and another gentleman whose name I did not catch looked over the list of requirements I'd been given at Immigration and examined the documents I had collected so far. Yes, they agreed, the employment contract was missing. When Dr. Suriya, the head of the Foreign Languages Department and my boss, arrived, they huddled together to discuss the problem while I stood by without comprehending their Thai. Finally, Dr. Suriya said: "are you free?" I grabbed my briefcase and we took a taxi across the river to Wat Mahathat where the main office of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyala University is located.
While Dr. Suriya went in search of the proper form, I was treated to a cup of iced coffee in the office for international students where I had an enjoyable conversation with Dr. Pramaha Theerapan Nanesuwan and his friend, Phra Bun Tam (whose longer name I did not hear). Both spoke understandable English. Dr. Theerapan is leader of the International Meditation Club along with a fellow named Tony and they regularly hold meetings and retreats for English speakers. Phra Bun Tam has lived and taught in Washington, DC, and San Diego where he studied for a TEFL certificate. His teacher, he told me, had instructed him to pronounce "own" as "ong." Was that correct?, he asked me. I told him no, and we speculated that the teacher must have been from the east coast. Later I was joined by Pandit Bhikku and he took me to another office where we examined forms for a work permit. I must file for it soon after receiving a visa that allows me to work, and it will be undoubtedly prove to be even more difficult and time consuming.
Luckily I'm going on a meditation retreat with Pandit and a dozen other members of the Little Bang Sangha next weekend at a resort on the River Kwai (pronounced "Kway" by Thais instead of "Kweye" as they did in the movie about the bridge). Quiet self-reflection will undoubtedly help me navigate the shoals of frustration. All in all, however, I had a fine day waiting for the document to materialize (after three hours we learned that the man whose signature was required was absent; it should be signed in a day or two). I met an interesting German man in his 70's named Ulrich who had recently retired from teaching Buddhist philosophy at Mahachula and who was now living in an apartment with a sea view to the south "where I have neither a desk nor a computer." He advised me to relax and never, ever act as though I know more or better than the bureaucrats. I'll take that into consideration. At the end of the day I felt that the Hotel Bangkok had once again turned into heaven.