Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reprise


We didn't separate, at least not yet at any rate. Last night we were as close as ever. Tonight we're going bowling, and a week from Sunday we'll have a birthday party for Pim here in our apartment. Boy has promised to cook. So we've returned to our previous theme of love and domesticity.

It may just be an interlude between the storms. This is the monsoon season, after all, when Bangkok, ever sinking, is threatened by inundation. Can a relationship drown from an excess of love? Certainly the whining and grasping of one partner can be a sure sign of disaster. Pim is delaying the inevitable decision; she is torn by morality and desire, between saving face and financial security with a dubious choice.

Today I am wondering about the cultural differences of romance. In America we bring flowers, write poems of love, hold doors open and buy gifts like jewelry or furs. But these are only tokens of romance. Romance encompasses all the different forms that care for the beloved can take. I have been trained to recognize certain signs as expressions of love: a smile, a touch, a sigh, the catch of a breath. I know how to give them, and I expect similar coin in exchange. Our body language is a rich resource for romantic communication.

But what if the signals vary from culture to culture, as I think they do? Thais are very romantic. Their popular music is lush with lyrics about love, and dramatic plots on TV and in films highlight the dance between the sexes. Romantic comedies and chick flicks are the favored imports from Hollywood. But Thais are also restricted by a severe public morality. Kissing on the streets is forbidden (although the rules are broken more often in Bangkok than in the hinterland). Even holding hands can be suspect. Sex before marriage is still unacceptable in polite company (urbanization and globalization is fast breaking down those walls).

What this has to do with the signals I receive (or don't) from Pim is hard to explain. When we met, she was recovering from a broken heart caused by an American IBM salesman who jilted her. Her profile at the time on an internet site carried the headline "Love is Suffering." She loves American pop and knows the words to many romantic songs. But often she is strangely cool when I expect a warm response to something loving I have done or said. Gifts more often produce not gratitude but a quiet acceptance. Then she will surprise me, and deliver a "sniff kiss" on the cheek, or a passionate hug, when I least expect it. Our day to day existence in the apartment is very prosaic; this morning she spent over an hour washing dress pants for work and a dozen pairs of tiny undergarments. Sometimes she ignores the obvious (flowers in a vase, my upset) only to impress me a minute later with an acute sensitivity to cues I didn't know I'd given. Some of our differences can be attributed to age, but I think most are the results of different acculturation.

To add insult to injury, the five pepper plants that Pim rescued from the aloe vera plant that Jerry had given me have all died. I resist finding any significance in that.

Today, while the threatened separation with Pim has been postponed, I am at loose ends. Classes have once again been canceled. I received a call from one of my students last night to tell me this, but it took additional calls and text messages to determine why. Apparently the vice president of the university has died and his funeral will be held today at Wat Mahathat. But it is also the occasion of a sangha ceremony to honor, and pay respects to, older monks. All students from Wat Si will attend. Ordinarily, my Thursday classes would be moved to Saturday, except that tomorrow is Wan Phra which means that Friday classes get moved and mine get canceled. I miss interacting with my students. Many are sending me their writing assignments by email so I have work to do making corrections. The term is already half over by my reckoning (although I do not know the exact end date) and some students are woefully behind. I must readjust my expectations. But I do not plan to fail anyone.

I'll resume my attempts to get a work permit next Monday. Dr. Subodh, whose visa expired today, managed to complete his paperwork yesterday and he was awarded a year's work permit and his visa was extended accordingly. I should be so lucky. At least I have his example to follow. He did have a Thai friend accompany him to the Labor Ministry on numerous visits and I have yet to find a translator from the school to go with me (nor have I made my first visit to the office). In order to avoid a fine, he told the officer that he hadn't begun teaching yet and I shall have to do the same. But since my visit does not expire until September 11, I do not yet feel a sense of urgency. I still have not been paid yet for my services and sometimes fear they thing this farang is a volunteer rather than a paid employee.

Yesterday I learned that Delta Airlines will not refund the unused portion of my ticket from San Francisco to Bangkok. I paid $1100 back in May for a round-trip journey, and in November I paid an addition $500 to extend the return for a year. Now the ticket expires on August 6th and if I decide to ever return it will be at additional expense. The "customer service" agent I phoned in the U.S. only said it was a "non-refundable ticket," and could not explain further. As far as I know I paid the going rate and nothing was said about refunds. Certainly the additional premium I paid should be refundable. But with airlines we are up against City Hall. Because of the rising price of oil, they are going broke. American and perhaps others now charge for baggage. Meals have been reduced to cardboard snacks for $5. I suspected I would have trouble, and save for an angry email to "customer service," I will let the money go. As we say here, "mai pen rai" (translation: fuck it).

The political scene here is crazy. Troops are gathering on both sides of the Thai-Cambodian border while angry citizens egg them on to defend national sovreignty. I've written about the dispute over Preah Vihear, an ancient Khmer temple that was ruled by the International Court of Justice in 1962 to be in Cambodia (based on a perhaps faulty French map from 1907), but which Thais still believe is on their territory. Camodia recently successfully applied to have the temple listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But pro and anti government forces in both countries are using the issue as a stick with which to beat their opponents. ASEAN officials meeting last week avoided any discussion of the problem which has now been sent to the UN Security Council.

The other political storm in Thailand is even more difficult to understand, or even to report. This issue is lèse majesté, the crime of offending the diginity of the monarchy. It is prosecuted almost nowhere else except in Thailand these days, and it too is now being used as a stick with which to thrash one's political oppontents. Not only has a member of a pro-government group, United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), been jailed on a charge of lèse majesté for remarks she made at a rally, but a member of the anti-government group, People's Aliance for Democracy ( PAD), has been charged as well for simply quoting her speech. I've read translations of her talk and I can't figure out what is offensive. Perhaps just mentioning HRH The King is a no-no. Even discussing the issue can be dangerous. Any comment about the monarchy or its members is off limits. Which means everyone is suspected. In the past the King has usually pardoned anyone convicted of lèse majesté, but little has been heard from the 80-year-old monarch lately (except that at a ceremony in Hua Hin last weekend he maybe gave his backing to Samak's government; interpreters disagree). It's a very Orwellian world these days.

With a bit of time on my hands, I've begun reading books again. Dr. Holly gave me Mark Haddon's wonderful novel about a dysfunctional British family, a spot of bother. It's easily up there with Jonathan Herzen's The Corrections, an American version of the same endlessly fascinating theme. After finishing bother, I immediately bought a copy of Haddon's more celebrated work, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a totally different find of novel with events seen from the point of view of an autistic protagonist. Haddon cut his teeth on children's literature and his entrance into adult fiction is to be celebrated. I'll watch out for his next book. Holly also gave me Mark Salzman's The Laughing Sutra with high praise for it. I've been wanting to read Salzman's Lying Awake about a nun with visions that are traced to epilepsy, calling into question the validity of mystical experience. And Jerry has loaned me The Bangkok Secret by Anthony Grey which attempts to give a fictional answer to the mysterious and unsolved death by gunshot wound of King Rama VIII in 1947. The book was published in 1990 and the author would certainly be accused of lèse majesté were he to release it today (can I be accused for simply reading it?).

The most interesting addition to my growing book collection came in the form of a birthday gift which arrived this week from my friend Shirlee in Santa Cruz. Her sister in Hollywood is a close friend of the woman once known as Georgina Spelvin, star of the porn classic "The Devil in Miss Jones." Calling herself an "erotic icon of the Seventies," Georgina has just published her memoir The Devil Made Me Do It. And I have an autographed copy. Knowing the book was coming, I downloaded from the internet the 70s classic film which was one of a camp trilogy of trendy porn hits including "Deep Throat," "Behind the Green Door" and "Debbie Does Dallas." What Georgina lacks in beauty (she's no Marilyn Chambers), she more than makes up for with enthusiasm. Her scene with the snake is, well, unforgettable. And her book is well-written and even funny.



Pinklao, my new neighborhood, is quite a bit different from Sukhumvit but it contains much to see and interpret. Like the tatooed man who begs daily on the pedestrian overpass to Tesco Lotus, or the jazzercizers (99 per cent women) who work up a sweat outside the store every evening. In the food courts at Central and Tesco Lotus I buy tasty lunches for $1-3, and a decent cappuccino is available at any one of a half-dozen coffee stands. The other morning I watched three monks being led into a massage parlor down a soi not far from here. They were carrying the ceremonial leaf behind which a monk will expound the Dhamma, so I'm sure the visit was purely ritual. There are fewer fruit carts and many more selling different kinds of meat, or fried bananas, on a stick. Fish or pork balls are very popular here, but I don't recall ever seeing them on the menu of a Thai restaurant in the west. Spicey Isan food is also underrepresented (or missing) from the cuisine celebrated in American restaurants. I learned from Pim the other day that the word in Thai for asparagus means "farang bamboo," which I found amusing. And finally, the halls of Central Pinklao, the neighborhood supermall, are lined with game machines, their bells and whistles adding to the noisy din typical for the Thai shopping experience (loud speakers from numerous locations jockey for dominance). In the food courts at Central at Tesco Lotus I buy tasty lunches for $1-3.

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