Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fear Itself

I'm embarrassed to report how easy it was earlier this week to renew my visa and work permit for another year. In my last post, I described the terror that gripped me whenever approaching the Thai bureaucracy. Last year it took me almost six months to secure the necessary working papers. Submitting an incorrect signature would earn a stern reproof, reducing me to the status of a stuttering child. In Facebook, my son Chris described this as "typical Yaryan behavior - expect the worst and hope for the best." President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address during the heart of the 1930s Depression, expressed his "firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Well, I advanced this week, but not without feeling a little silly.

Maybe it was the uniforms. When I arrived at the busy Immigration office on Suan Phlu Monday morning a little after 9 I was surprised to find some empty chairs in the large waiting room. There was a noticeable lack of chaos. Was it the swine, er, H1N1, flu, or the absence of tourists due to recent political instability (not to mention the unidentified illness that killed two people in a Koh Phi-Phi guest house) ? I noticed that all of the clerks behind the various counters were wearing new dark green uniforms. I'd not seen these before during my many visits. My last had been two months before to report my address (residents must check in every 90 days). The clerks looked very efficient in their military garb. My number was called within five minutes and the woman at window 1 smiled at me, checked my documents quickly and collected 1,900 baht ($55). Less than a half hour later I retrieved my passport with its new stamp: May 31, 2010. No problems.

It took only a little longer at the Ministry of Employment. This office was also fairly empty, even though the school term is beginning and I expected to see more aspiring farang teachers. The clerk (this one in mufti) corrected the dates on my employment contract (my Thai colleague had copied an earlier draft from last year) and approved all the other documents. Dr. Chartchai's power of attorney, with the two 10-baht stamps I'd purchased earlier, was not even necessary. I paid a processing fee of 100 baht ($3), and then another 3000 baht ($87) before picking up the work permit with a new stamp renewing it for an additional year. It was not yet lunch time and I was finished, a legal worker in the Land of Smiles (where thousands work under the table, as undocumented teachers of English like myself, or in construction where the many illegal Burmese immigrants find jobs). The entire process had taken only a morning's effort. Heavy rain slowed the taxi on my way back home.

How do we tell the difference between unfounded fears and the the real threats that provoke a valid flight or fight response? In my life I've encountered very few events like the latter. Most of my fears arise out of worries about what might happen. The Buddha's first "noble truth" was about the ubiquity of suffering. But I do not think he meant simply the suffering that accompanies life, the pains inherent in the body's birth, illness and death. Unnecessary suffering is the product of the mind, of projecting our fears onto the world. For this, his teaching proposed a cure, the eightfold path. FDR had it right. This general, all-purpose, one-size-fits-all terror is "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified." But it is the suffering brought about by irrational fears that causes us the most pain. I'm not so afraid of death these days, but it's the pain that might accompany illness that sets my teeth on edge. Just shoot me, I think. But if dying is as easy as renewing working papers in Thailand, then: no problem.

The school term began last Friday with a convocation at Buddhamonthon I did not attend. But yesterday I did put on a new pair of pants (to accommodate my expanding girth) and a shirt and tie, and went to my first class. I'll be teaching 4th-year students this term, the same monks I had in my two classes last term, and was looking forward to seeing them again (you can see them on my Flickr site). I went to Wat Srisudaram, signed in and got to my classroom early. While the room had been cleaned since the end of school two months ago, the white board had not. I opened the windows and turned on the fans (no a/c here) and scrubbed the board as clean as it would get. I hadn't planned a lesson, but thought I'd get them to talk about what they did during their holiday. I brought a new syllabus to hand out, and had prepared song lyrics ("Home" by Michael Bublé) with blanks for them to fill in while hearing the music from my iPod.

But no one came (what if you gave a party and ... ?). I sat in the empty classroom for nearly an hour and read a newspaper. There were students in the courtyard down below, but I suspect this was their first term and they did not know the tradition of skipping the first week of school. Last year only two of my 40-some students came to the first class. But they were 3rd year students then and probably hadn't yet learned. A few other teachers I saw yesterday laughed when I told them my students were missing. I discovered that Asst. Prof. Kovid, whom I knew from last year, will be teaching again in the room next to me, but neither he nor his students (which we will share) had come to school. I experienced the same silly feeling I had when the renewal process failed my expectations.

The traditions are a little different at secular schools. On Tuesday I went with Mot to her dental appointment in the clinic at Prasanmit University. On the way in there was a large group of students wearing green shirts in a garden outside watching a lip-synced musical review in which the performers, as far as I could tell, were imitating the opposite sex. On the way out I saw several small groups of students sitting blindfolded on the ground while others taunted them. This episode of hazing or initiation during the first week of school was quite common at Thai universities, Mot explained, although she hadn't participated in it at Ramkamhaeng University where she studied general science (but now can't find work teaching in her field). To me, they looked like sad groups of refugees arrested by border guards. I think non-attendance is a less harmful and demeaning tradition.

Along with the monsoon rains in Thailand come fruit. Suddenly the sidewalk tables are heavily laden with piles of purple mangosteens, hairy red rambutans, the smelly durian, litchee nuts and the delicious yellow and green mangos (rose apples have mostly disappeared). The 24-hour minimart in my building stocks a wide variety of fruit juices, and, in addition to apple, orange and cranberry juice, I often buy kiwi as well as mangosteen juice (each mixed with grape). The fruit photos in this post were taken at the top floor market in Central World where there is also the largest selection of dried fruit I have ever seen, with taster cups for the curious like yours truly.

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