Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Absence of Angst

"Kathy, I'm lost," I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
"I'm empty and aching and I don't know why."

The monks listened carefully as I played "America" for them, Simon & Garfunkel's ode to existential angst, Their task was to fill in the blanks with ten missing English words and mine was to explain what drove the two young people in the song to leave their homes and seek fulfillment on the road. It wasn't easy without cultural points of reference. I decided against mentioning Kerouac and instead talked about the backpackers they've seen in Bangkok, young wanderers from America and Europe in search of something in the mysterious East far from home. In Paul Simon's telling of the mythic journey, two companions decide to "marry our fortunes together" and, carrying "some real estate here in my bag," set out to look for America. More likely, they were looking for themselves, far away from the place where they felt they did not fit. Joseph Campbell popularized this undertaking as a "hero's journey," and seekers in the West have come to see life as a journey or pilgrimage which requires leaving home in order to achieve their goal.

My students were polite but uncomprehending. Why would anyone want to leave home and family other than to get an education or a job? All but one of the three dozen monks come from small villages in Thailand, Cambodia, Burma and Laos. The lesson that day from the American Headway 2 text I use was "The Way We Live," and for their weekly oral presentation I asked them to speak about their experience coming to Bangkok to study and what they missed from home. While they appreciated the conveniences of Bangkok, with a 7-11 on every corner and technological gadgets easily obtainable, they missed everything from their parents and childhood friends to their rice fields and buffalo. I'm learning about Southeast Asian culture through their stories and nothing is more different than the way children are raised. I was taught to be independent and to leave home in order to make my way in the world. Asians are taught to be interdependent and, at least metaphorically, to never leave home and family. I suspect that these young men, rooted in place, have never felt either lost, empty or aching.

I attempted to explain these feelings, so common in the west (the Dalai Lama was reportedly amazed to learn of the widespread condition of alienation in the West), with reference to the presence of dukkha, often mistranslated as "suffering," which begins the Buddha's analysis of the human condition. Suggested translations of the Pali word range from "dis-ease" to "angst" and "pain." The difficulties caused by birth, illness, aging and death are universal, but the numerous disstisfactions created by our minds I suspect are culturally varied. Asians truly care about, and for, their parents, even when they're gone. (Nan recently dreamt about her grandmother who died six months ago and we went to the temple the next Sunday to make a gift in her memory.) Westerners celebrate the cutting of family ties and rarely look back. After I left home, my parents were reluctant to invade my privacy, even by phone, and I was careless about keeping in touch with them. We want to create ourselves anew without any debts to the past, orphans in deed if not in geneology. Asians, on the other hand, embrace that debt to the pair who gave them birth, even when (I've heard of this often) their parenting was not very admirable.

I know well the mind-forged manacles of existential angst. My life has been a journey, often a flight, from stability and respectability, lured by the siren's call to adventure and occasional disgrace. Success I usually interpreted as a call to move on. My father lamented the fact that I switched jobs frequently (he grew up at a time when employee loyalty was expected). My two wives and four children suffered from the many unrealistic dreams I pursued, often under the cover of a spiritual pilgrimage. I've turned icons into idols and held on to ideas as if my life depended on them being correct. And I've frequently felt lost, aching and empty, unable to determine why. At my lowest point, I turned to drink and drugs to mask the pain. This misguided strategy killed my son Luke last year.

Despite all the wrong moves, all the fruitless seeking in the wrong places, and all the self-centered justifications that make friendship and interdependence difficult, I have someone managed to end up amazingly in Thailand. I thought about calling this blog post "Found in Translation" to indicate that different languages and experiences need not separate us (as in Sofia Coppola's movie "Lost in Translation" set in Japan), because I've found a home here in this Southeast Asian country, thousands of miles from the land of my birth, despite and maybe even because of the exotic strangeness that surrounds me every day. A month shy of my 71st birthday, and two months before I celebrate three years in Bangkok, I am reminded daily, every time I walk out of my apartment building into the blooming, buzzing confusion of the street, how blessed I am to be here.

I'd like to write a love letter to Bangkok and to Thailand, but too often I get distracted by philosophy, psychology or politics. Besides, I could never top Janet Brown's wonderful Tone Deaf in Thailand for its earthy appreciation of the city that has charmed us both. Now that I seem to have burnt all bridges leading back to the place that produced me, I want to sing of the wonders of my new home and how every stroll through the streets and the shops and the byways of the city reveals some unfamiliar truth that enlightens my life, how even the messy sadness of urban poverty can inspire the very interdependence and compassion that escaped me before. If I were the poet that I wished I were, I would sing about the fluttering flocks of school kids in their uniforms (all in white shirts with boys in dark short pants, girls in short-short skirts), the waves of pastel-colored taxis, the slow saunter of pedestrians dodging motorbikes on the sidewalks, movable carts selling fruit and barbecued meat on a stick, vendors on the overpass with their small selections of flip-flops and phone chargers, the smelly canals that once ferried travelers but now collect garbage, multicolored buses disgorging and accepting passengers in the middle of traffic, flower sellers stringing garlands for Monk's Day, territorial soi dogs badly in need of a cleanup and a vet, indecipherable signs (for me at least) in that incredibly graceful Thai script, the broad waters of the Chao Phraya River clogged with the invasive water hyacinth and styrofoam, and toothpicks on every restaurant table. Failing that, I take pictures.

My life here is full to bursting. It's hard to remember that it once felt temporary. While I encounter the strange and mysterious every day, my apartment now is home and Bangkok is a place as familiar as anywhere I've lived. Nan has begun her classes at Bansomdejchaopraya Rajabhat University three days a week in the late afternoon and early evening. She is delighted to be a student again. This term she's taking an English class (of course I'll be her tutor) and one, I think, in Thai and global sociology. I'm not sure about the third, perhaps business computing which is her major. She's made new friends, and last weekend we bought her a desk and a bookcase for her study corner (mine is in the bedroom and we share a printer). I am teaching the same group of students for the second term and have been awarded with an air-conditioned classroom, one of the few in the temple building where I teach. But it's on the fourth floor, a sturdy climb, which almost cancels out the advantage. I could use additional work and have been contacting people at Mahachula and other schools, but I fear my age now is a disadvantage despite how much my current students seem to like me (and I them). Dr. Sman, a Thai man my age with whom I taught a Saturday class last term, has signed us up for a four Sundays English class at a temple south of the city in August. And at the Day of Vesak conference last month I met an Englishman who volunteers as a teacher at MCU's campus in Chiang Rai. He told me there is a bigger campus in Phayao near Nan's village that might like an English program. Now Nan and I are thinking that in the not too distant future we may leave Bangkok for northern Thailand and a much different experience of my new home.

The curious saga of Nan's cousins continues. To recap, Nan's late grandmother's sister, Sa, has two wayward granddaughters, Ben and Bo (far right in photo). Ben has a son named Bag, now two, , fathered by a boy five years younger than she. Ben's father has worked for many years in Taiwan, and while Sa and Ben's mom raise Bag, she's been working as a bar girl in Chiang Rai, and recently suffered a miscarriage. Her 17-year-old sister Bo ran away last September to Bangkok to become a lesbian, but Sa and Ben came to fetch her back (when this photo was taken) after Nan alerted them. A month ago Bo ran away again, stealing a selling a valuable necklace of her grandmother's, and the lesbian friend got her a job as a prostitute in a bar not far from our apartment. She told Nan was was taking ya ba (speed) and living above the bar. Her father called Nan in distress for help, and a couple of days ago Sa and Ben returned on the overnight bus from Phayao. They confronted Bo who had that day learned she was pregnant. She's certain the father is a 19-year-old boy from Ubon who works in another bar. Bo came back to our room with Sa and Ben for a tearful night of talking and little sleep. Yesterday, however, Sa was unable to talk Bo into returning to their village. She wants to stay with the father who said he wants her to have the baby. "Bo's life is very dark," Nan told me. Some people, I added, are just self destructive and no one can figure out why (thinking of Luke).


seua_yai said...

Thank you for another insightful and thoughtful post. Reading your blogs helps me to make sense of my life here in Bangkok. All the best to you. mja

Janet Brown said...

Thank you for mentioning Tone Deaf--your kindness has warmed me when I really need it.

steve said...

One wonders why on earth your Thai students became monks. Passing time till something else comes along? Sakyamuni, after all, left his "home and family" full of "angst," and similarly modern Americans turn to Buddhism out of dissatisfaction (dukkha). They pursue meditation like Sakyamuni did hoping for some resolution to life's unhappiness. No unhappiness, no motivation to turn to the Dharma (remember Four Noble Truths?).

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your sincere [and sometimes brutal] honesty, of your life and life around you.