Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Animals are Fighting Back

An old friend from the music business daze in the 1970s has reinvented himself as an animal rights activist and posts wonderful links on his Facebook page to stories about animals who fight back, like the bear in a Russian circus troupe that killed its trainer, pet turtles that poison their owners with salmonella bacteria, an elk that attacked a woman walking her dog in Sweden, a chimp that mauled and maimed its owner, and a tourist who died while swimming with dolphins in New Zealand. Other links illustrate the amazing cruelties of humans to animals, like the town that sponsored a dead rabbit-throwing competition for children to inaugurate an annual pig hunt (forced by protesters to cease).

As a vegetarian for a week during the annual Chinese gin jae (eat vegetarian) festival which ended yesterday, I've been thinking once again about the morality of eating animals and their by products (eggs, butter, milk, etc.). I of course include our finned and feathered friends, but hesitate to extend such consideration to reptiles and insects which I tend to avoid anyway (Asians, however, have a much bigger menu of possible food). When I taught Environmental Ethics, I offered Peter Singer's arguments for including animals among the community of those we don't kill or eat. But I was raised to hate vegetables and love meat, so it's been an uphill struggle. As part of a prostate cancer study, I was a strict vegan for nearly three years and there is no question but that I felt better and healthier for it. But when I returned to a meat diet, it was with relish. I do love those rib-eyes! However, when Nan suggested we gin jae, I readily agreed. Food sellers dangled upside down triangle pennants to advertise their meat-free fare (unlike in India, this is a rare cuisine for Thailand) and the stores had displays of meat-substitute products ("Protein bread!" I complained to Nan). So for a week we had rice or noodles with carrots and broccoli along with fake pork, fake chicken and fake calamari. Properly seasoned, it was all quite tasty. Then I watched Robert Kenner's documentary "Food, Inc." and felt truly sick. There is no question that the factory-farmed meat laced with chemicals produced by a handful of huge corporations are harmful to America's health. I've read Eric Schlosser and Michel Pollan's books (both appear in the film) and have even passed along their ideas in classes I once taught about environmental issues. I am certain that a meat-based diet is harmful to the planet (McDonald's is the biggest consumer in the world of beef and potatoes). And yet I continue to indulge my food tastes. There seems to be little industrial agriculture in Thailand and I suspect there is less factory farming. Beef is not very common. And yet there are hundreds of McDonald's and other fast food chains in Bangkok which no doubt are contributing to an increase in obesity and diabetes.

In the lobby of my building this weekend, children and their families were learning to carve fruits and vegetables. It's quite an established art form in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. When I traveled in Vietnam a few years ago, every food buffet featured a a display of artfully carved goodies from the garden. Of course you can also buy beautifully carved soap from stalls on the streets and in the weekend markets. There is a long tradition of carving food in Thailand which originated in elaborate preparations for banquets held by the royal family. According to one story, the art of fruit and vegetable carving was originated in 1364 in Sukhotai when Lady Nang Nopphamat (Thao Sichulalak), who was the chief royal consort, decorated the floating lamp (krathong) with a profusion of flowers and birds, swans, rabbits and many other animals carved from fruits and vegetables. Another tale describes a fruit and vegetable carving contest during the reign of King Rama I when "squashes were elaborately carved to serve as bowls for presenting sweet young rice to monks, and the trays on which the bowls were placed were splendidly adorned with flowers of many sorts carved from papayas colored with natural dyes." Next Tuesday night is Loi Krathong, the holiday on the full moon of the 12th lunar month when Thais head for the water to launch small, elaborately carved and decorated boats to symbolically let go of past upsets in order to start life anew. I need that.

Not far up the street from our apartment is a new store serving espresso with the intriguing English name "At Thirty-Six." I watched its construction as I passed by each day on the way to the newsstand to buy the Bangkok Post and up to the Central Pinklao mall where I drink cappuccino at Starbucks and read the paper. There is little wasted space on the Bangkok sidewalks, and this tiny shop was built right in front of a DVD rental store and next to a restaurant. Even with tables inside (where it is air conditioned) and out, At thirty-Six can hold no more than a dozen customers, and I wondered if there was enough interested traffic in this neighborhood with few farangs to support another espresso stand (there is no lack of competition). So we stopped by when the place opened and found the owner delightfully optimistic. She explained its name by saying "I'm 36." It doesn't have the cozy comfort of my favorite stuffed armchair at Starbucks where I can read for an hour, but it is an excellent alternative on those days when it's too wet to walk very far. And her cappuccino is a third the price, definitely a selling point.

After three terms of teaching English to monks one day a week, I've been tempted to up my work load. Dr. Sman Ngamsnit asked me to "join his team" teaching English to monks and laypeople studying for a master's degree in education administration. Last year I was a substitute teacher one day for him and enjoyed the change of pace. There are two classes, one on Thursday afternoon for just monks who've studied for no more than a year, and the other on Saturday morning for more advanced students. The department's classroom at Wat Srisudaram (where I teach undergraduate English majors on Wednesdays) is air conditioned and outfitted with the latest technology; I can develop PowerPoint lectures and use a computer and the overhead projector instead of the white board to give examples and instructions. The main problem is that computer program instructions are all in Thai. I taught by myself last Thursday and did my best to get the shy and reticent monks to speak up in English. On Saturday, Dr. Sman and I co-taught the morning class and we worked well together. He's the same age as I but manages a heavy full-time work load. His English is very good, since he studied and lived for 15 years in America where he received his doctorate, and he currently teaches communication and public administration at four different campuses around Bangkok. The evening after agreeing to teach with Dr. Sman, I was offered a job on Saturdays in the new Language Center at Mahachula's Wang Noi campus for twice the pay, but I had to turn them down until next term. Being popular at any age is nice.

A week ago, Nan and I went to the huge book fair at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center. I used to live within walking distance of the hall and had attended several book fairs there. I've been told that Thais don't read and you certainly see few people with a book or newspaper on the bus, subway or Skytrain (in stark contrast to, say, New Yorkers). But they love books. Bookstores are nearly always full. The exhibit at the convention center on a Sunday afternoon was packed with readers of all ages, and they were buying sale items in bagful quantities. With Nan's help, I managed to find two works in English translation by Thailand's epic poet, Sunthorn Phu, that I'd been long looking for, and she took home over a dozen books, one autographed by its author. Another place you encounter crowds in Thailand, I've discovered, is at skin clinics. There are several at Central Pinklao mall and the waiting rooms are jammed with people in need of a good dermatologist (a whiter skin is probably the goal of many). I took Nan there a few months ago to have two birthmarks on her face removed. The one on her nose easily disappeared but the other one high on her right cheek has so far resisted treatment. She's been back three times with more appointments scheduled. One Monday evening she was 35th in line for the single doctor on duty. The next night was not quite so bad. If I were a Thai parent, I would advise my kid to become a dermatologist.

After watching Bruce Willis in "Surrogate" last Sunday evening (the popcorn was good), we went shopping at Tokyu Department Store in the huge MBK mall. I couldn't find the short-sleeved dress shirts, or brown towels, I wanted, so I bought Nan a pair of Levi jeans. She was delighted, since she buys most of her clothes at street markets, and these were the first expensive pants she's owned. We went across the street to the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) where I was pleased to see the beautiful new building finally had some tenants, mostly bizarre art-themed shops. Outside we noticed a demonstration underway and discovered that young Muslims were marking the fifth anniversary of the Tak Bai massacre and the 6th anniversary of escalated violence on both sides of the conflict in southern Thailand. A young man came up to me and said they were praying for an end to the killing. Separate groups of men and women knelt in prayer on signs in Thai and English calling attention to the bloodshed. It brought tears to my eyes. While they prayed a group of police on guard duty took photos of each other. After we left I'm sure the rain storm drove them away. I resolved to learn more about the centuries-old struggle of Muslims on the border of Malaysia against rule by Thai Buddhists. Recently Prime Minister Abhisit announced he would seek advice from Sri Lanka, whose government butchered and drove into exile thousands of Tamils, on how Thailand might control its "terrorist" Muslim population. This is not good news.

What is good news to Thais was the appearance of their ailing king at Siriraj Hospital last week, even if in a wheel chair. He was hospitalized over a month ago, apparently with pneumonia, and the announcements about his condition have not been very detailed. Rumors about the seriousness of his illness had caused the stock market to drop dramatically before one of his daughters, on a visit to Europe, told television audiences he was much better. His appearance, on Chulalongkorn Day, the holiday dedicated to his ancester, Rama V, was the occasion for rejoicing. Nan and I had visited the hospital several weeks ago in the area where the king was wheeled around to pay his respects to statues of his mother and father. The king is not very animated at the best of times and it was difficult to tell much about his present condition from the many photos and videos. There have been numerous articles recently speculating on his illness and (no matter what happens or when) the eventual problem of Succession for Thailand. In Asia Sentinel, Pavin Chachavalpongpun discussed the future of all Southeast Asia's royalty. "At a national level," he writes, "the monarchy's endurance is intricately related to its alliance with the military, as exemplified by the Thai military's role in bringing down Thaksin and making sure the deposed prime minister's Republican supporters didn't come to power and bring him back." Shawn W Crispin, writing on the succession in Asia Times, says that, "Whether the monarchy can maintain its current central role in Thai society after Bhumibol's eventual passing will depend largely on how much of his moral authority is perceived by Thais to have been transferred to his heir." Corruption is the "ghost of Thaksin past" that haunts Abhisit, according to Seth Kane's essay in Asia Sentinel. A guest contributor to the web site Political Prisoners in Thailand writing on "The Rule of Law" calls this country a "land of ‘make believe’ democracy with a European fascist will to control every aspect of life as a national security issue." Although the ASEAN conference in Hua Hin and Cha-am last weekend was a success for Abhisit, it required 36,000 security troops to prevent violence from the anticipated protest that never materialized. Freedom of assembly is threatened by such a response. On a slightly different topic, Tim Meisburger, The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes based in Bangkok, has written an excellent defense of the much maligned and misunderstood Thai voter whom conservatives here believe is incapable of understanding democracy. "The Thai people long to participate in politics, but right now feel left out of the process," he writes.

Jerry told me yesterday that Graham Willis, the dead-beat dad, has been found by an investigator in England. I wrote about Graham in June ("Absent Fathers") along with a story about the New Zealand dad that abandoned Edward, Nan's cousin . Graham came to the village in Surin where Jerry lives with his wife Lamyai, and he fathered twins with Pen whom they named Michael and Helen. But Graham lost his job in Norway when he cut off part of his thumb and the money dried up. A few years ago he disappeared. I met Helen and Michael when I went to a wedding in Surin and they were two wild children growing up with little supervision. When Graham was confronted a few days ago, he said the kids might not be his, although Jerry says he was a doting father before he left. But last night Pen called Graham and talked to him on the phone, and Lamyai told Jerry that she was very happy. The investigator said Graham was out of a job and broke, and perhaps drinking heavily, so there can be no real happy ending to this story. I guess Pen is just happy that the father of their children is alive.

It hasn't rained much for a couple of days, which may mean the monsoon season is ending. November is traditionally the beginning of the dry season when tourists flock to Thailand, at least by December. Everyone is waiting with baited breath to see if the global economy and the local widely-publicized political struggles will impact tourism, and how badly. The Chao Phraya River is retreating from its annual high water mark which requires sandbags at every pier and elevated walkways. Nan's shoes got soaked last week. The tour buses down below our room continue to rev their engines too late or too early to be acceptable, but we've decided to remain in this apartment for another couple of months, at least until Nan knows where she will be going to school. Aside from the exorbitant rent, compared to what we know is available, I like it here. This weekend is Halloween and I've learned not to be surprised to see Thais adopt this holiday as their own. Maybe we should stock up on some candy.

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