Sunday, May 17, 2009

Staying in the Land of Smiles

Probably coined by a PR man, "The Land of Smiles" (sometimes shortened to LOS) is an apt description of Thailand and reflects the fact that Thai people smile a great deal here, sometimes when they are happy but often when they are embarrassed or upset. Whatever the cause, a smile invites reciprocity. I smile more now that I live in Bangkok.

But smiles are in short supply at the Immigration office, my destination for tomorrow. No matter the hour, the large room is a zoo filled with harried and frustrated tourists and expats trying to negotiate the Byzantine (and frequently changing) requirements of the Thai bureaucracy. Many of the clerks are rude and flaunt their power. I have been reduced almost to tears by a curt dismissal for an incorrect signature on a document after hours of waiting. But if I want to remain in this Land of Smiles, I must endure the gauntlet at least once a year.

Many employers in Bangkok handle all the paperwork for foreigners, but not the undergraduate Division of Humanities at Mahachulalongkorn University where I am employed as an English teacher. So last week, Dr. Subodh, a colleague from India who teaches psychology, and I began to gather the necessary documents for extending our visas and renewing our work permits which all expire on May 31st. Our bosses turned us over to an administrator who speaks little English, so we called on other teachers to help us translate our needs. Documents, most in Thai, require seals and "outward" numbers in addition to the correct signature. We used last year's documents as models and corralled willing collaborators in the office to fill out the new forms in Thai script.

In addition to an employment contract, we needed an appointment letter which must be signed by the rector of MCU, a very important man who oversees numerous campuses serving the needs of thousands of monk students. Two weeks ago the Most Venerable Prof Phra Dharmakosajarn presided over a major three-day conference of Buddhists from all over the world. I figured he would be on vacation. But we were told to go to his temple, Wat Prayurawongsawas before 8 on Thursday morning. It was beginning to rain, and Dr. Subodh and I got into a taxi and battled heavy traffic on the first day of public school. Built in 1828, Wat Prayoon is a large and impressive temple complex across the river from the flower market, and we made numerous inquiries before being directed to the rector's "kuti," or residence, a nondescript two-story house. Entering through the kitchen, we sat in a cluttered waiting room with several monks clutching papers that needed to be signed. Finally the rector emerged. He smiled and apologized for keeping us waiting, and explained he had been upstairs working on his address to a convocation of students that afternoon. I had met him once before, at a conference of English teachers at the new Wang Noi campus near Ayutthaya which he had guided from conception to completion. He asked about my degree in history and said he eventually wanted a graduate department in history at MCU. Both a scholar and an administrator, Dr. Dharmakosajarn has established MCU as the preeminent Buddhist university in the world, host to the annual gathering of similar schools. He was very gracious, signed our documentaries quickly and offered Dr. Subodh an umbrella for the deluge outside his door.

The following morning Dr. Subodh and I braved the continuing rain storm to go to Wat Srisudaram to meet with Dr. Chartchai Phithakthanakhom, a layman and assistant to the rector at MCU. He also teaches Buddhist psychology in the Department of Education at the Wang Noi campus. Dr. Chartchai spent over an hour with us, helping us to fill out forms in Thai and signing those requiring official approval. His patience, courtesy and kindness in such a mundane yet for us necessary task was an example of Thai culture at its best. Although a rigidly hierarchical society, most superiors consider it a moral duty to help those lesser folk in need. Somehow this makes negotiating the bureaucratic mine field endurable. Dr. Subodh flies to India next week for an early June wedding and was anxious to file his documents quickly, so he left for the Immigration madhouse on Suan Phlu in the Sathorn district. That evening he called to say he'd been been approved for a temporary visa extension (I was expecting a full year) and would have to renew his work permit upon his return. I dread the trip tomorrow like a forced march to the dentist.

The annual (I hope!) visa boogie is stressful because of what I fear might happen ("Get out! And don't come back!") rather than what will probably happen (several interminable waits and a couple of official stamps). Good psychological advice, as well as Buddhist teaching, tells me that my perceptions are clouded by my feelings. I told Ellen during her visit earlier this month that I loved living in Thailand because I couldn't read the signs (literally and figuratively) and therefore everything was new and surprising. While I think this is true, I am also a creature of habit and fear change. How to reconcile this? In a climate of uncertainty, I take refuge in my tiny apartment where possessions are piling up but the furnishings remain the same. When I was young and had to share a bedroom with my brother, I would construct a private space in the garage behind curtain walls where everything was mine. The condo I rent at Lumpini Place feels like that space. From my bed on the 10th floor, I enjoy the son et lumière storms of thunder and lightening that are beginning a month early. My routine varies little. In the afternoon I take my cappuccino at Starbucks in Central Pinklao. The staff know me now and greet me by name, which feels wonderful.

Uncertainty about permission to stay in the Kingdom may be affecting my relationship with Mot. Her visits are a regular feature of my life now, although her room and office located across the city and her six-day work week restrict the time we spend together. Her sister, with whom she lives, is beginning to suspect that the "friend" she stays with some nights might be a man, the same person she talks with on the phone in English. "But you are my best friend," Mot assures me. She says that she cannot be my girlfriend, that her family in Roi Et would not approve, and she worries about who will take care of me when I get old(er). We spend less time outside than I did with Pim, who ended our relationship for much the same reasons Mot gives, and find refuge from the world together in my room. As my 70th birthday draws near, and my body continues to remind me that aging is progressive, I wonder how long I can I can find solace in romance. Mot's delight in discovering the permutations of two bodies in space gives me hope that illusions might last. But that damned winged chariot keeps hurrying near!

Everyone here seems waiting for the shoe to drop. The Red Shirts held a big rally but rain disrupted any talk of revolution. The Yellow Shirts talk about forming a political party (which is odd, given that they believe in a mostly appointed rather than elected parliament). Despite Abhisit's talk of moderation, web sites are censored and lèse majesté charges are filed for merely mentioning the monarchy. There is much hand-wringing over the decline of tourism, but two tourists died of mysterious causes on Koh Phi-Phi and a foreign woman was strangled in Krabi. The English press is full of angry letters about the 150-baht ATM charge for foreign cards. Next door in Myanmar the generals continue to persecute poor Aung San Suu Kyi and fellow ASEAN members gently urge them to stop. Yet there is a new political awakening in Thailand, writes Malaysian journalist Philip Golingai. He reports that Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a lecturer in politics at Chulalongkorn University, believes that the elite consensus that held Thailand's government together for many years is breaking down and something new is emerging. "Thitinan likened the Thais’ political awakening to a westerner’s first taste of sticky rice and mango. 'If you never had it, you would never miss it. But once you’ve had it, you might want another bite,' he said."

But in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher writes that the Thai smile "has become a grimace." In the 1990s, Thailand was seen as the major developing democracy in the region and Indonesia was a basket case. "If Thailand seemed to represent sunrise in South-East Asia, Indonesia appeared to be the region's nightfall." But now the tables have turned. Indonesia is stable and tolerant, while "Thailand is now a wreck, suffering a constitutional crisis, emergency rule and an investment strike." Thailand's trajectory changed with the 2006 coup, Hartcher says. "The essential difference is that Indonesian power elites universally respect the legitimising power of democracy. The Thais have not."

I've just finished an excellent history, Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom, by Maurizio Peleggi in which the professor of history from Singpore applies postmodern categories of analysis (both culture and "official" histories are determined by power relations) to the Land of Smiles. Democracy, he writes, is "the official ideology of the post-absolutist state." Military dictators called for "Thai-style democracy, which, says Peleggi, was nothing more than paternalism. Whether determined by "money politics" (i.e. Thaksin) or the military, Thai-style democracy, with the King as head of state (the claim continues to be made today) , seems to leave the rural poor out of the picture. Democracy is "an especially malleable ideology," Peleggi writes, and it "continues to be defined by the power holders as much as by those who seek power."

I'm also reading Thailand: A Short History by the late David Wyatt of Cornell University. His is a more conventional political and economic history tacked onto to a slight social history. It's interesting that both historians use the modern name which came into use only after 1932 when Siam became a constitutional monarchy. Both paint a picture of an extremely malleable environment before borders became defined and races essentialized. Various tribal people mingled and intermarried. Armies led by semi-divine rulers traversed the landscape of Southeast Asia, kingdoms rose and fell. As elsewhere, the historical chronicles, more literary than factual, only report the deeds of kings and not the views of illiterate common people. Eventually, Thais came to be those people who were Buddhist (which created problems for Muslims in the south as well as Chinese immigrants who were treated like Jews) and submitted to the Chakri kings (after 1782) within physical boundaries largely determined by treaties with the French and British who held all the cards. Today Thailand is 95% Buddhist ("Christian America" has no such majority) and its residents are united (and identified) by their love for the King. Any changes to the religion or the monarchy would be unimaginable. But, as Buddhism teaches, nothing is permanent.

This is a very exciting time to be living here. If everyone keeps smiling...


Janet Brown said...

Best of luck tomorrow--I need you to stay here so you can continue to jump-start my brain with your online essays--

Anonymous said...

I was at immigration last week and believed the place needs more space and personnel. Tempers easily flare if these two are lacking no matter how "chai yen" you are, whether you are farang or Thais. I noticed they hired students as part-time workers but only at information desk.