Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Goin' to the Thai Chapel of Love

Love and marriage, love and marriage,
Go together like a horse and carriage.
This I tell you, brother,
You can't have one without the other
--Frank Sinatra (Cahn/Van Heusen) 

Nan and I were married this week. It was a simple ceremony performed at the Registry Office in Bangrak (rak fortuitously is the Thai word for love), one of Bangkok's many sub-districts.  We'd been living together as man and wife for over a year.  I gave her an engagement ring last January and recently I've begun wearing a gold band on my left hand.  Nan's mother had given us her blessing.  Now, with my departure to the states only three weeks away and an uncertain future, we wanted to declare the permanence of our union to the world.

Goin' to the chapel and we're
Gonna get married,
Goin' to the chapel and we're
Gonna get married,
Gee, I really love you and we're
Gonna get married,
Goin' to the chapel of love
--The Dixie Cups (Greenwich/Berry/Spector)

Marriage in Thailand is a matter of state rather than religion.  While weddings, particularly outside of large cities, can be complicated social affairs that might involve the blessing of a monk or two, the glue that binds two people together here is paperwork and an army of clerks is required to perform the paper shuffling that constitutes the civil ceremony.  The process is similar to getting married by a Justice of the Peace in America, as I did with my first wife, but it involves many more layers of bureaucracy.  First, I went to the U.S. Embassy to get two documents that certified I was divorced and now single and free to marry, each simply an affidavit from me and officially notarized at a total cost of 3300 baht ($100 each).  These I took to a translator at a booth in the MBK Shopping Center and a few days later picked up Thai documents that had been stamped by a government office, for a steep fee of 4000 baht.  Early Monday morning we took a boat and taxi to the Registry Office only to learn there was a problem with one of the documents.  Ms. Wannapa, our translator, rushed to the rescue to smooth things over ("I know the Registrar," she said, "so please don't worry.") 

There were other couples waiting to be hitched alongside us, and the busy office processed two pairs of betrothed at a time.  Numerous additional documents were prepared, information was entered into a computer, and colorful marriage certificates were printed.   An eagle-eyed clerk scanned each paper carefully for mistakes.  We signed several of them.  Next we were passed to a higher official (I could tell this because he wore a uniform) who was even more careful about approving the growing pile of documents which I could not read.  The fee for all this?  Fifty baht, less than $2.  There were nice binders on sale, in blue or red, for 450 baht; we chose red.  The official assembled our copies of the documents into the binder and handed them careful to us.  "I wish you a long life together and a happy marriage," he told us, according to Nan.  This was at, the moment of marriage in the Thai chapel of love.  Tucked in the corner of the office was a rickshaw in front of the floral display that you can see above.  We asked a secretary to take our photo with the his-and-her marriage certificates.  "Happy?" Nan asked.  "Oh yes!" I answered.

Afterward, we took a bus to Wat Yannawa, a large Buddhist temple on the Chao Phraya River near Nan's office where in our courting days I used to meet her after work.  It's most notable aspect is a large cement junk that memorializes the Chinese merchant ships that used to ply their trade on the river.  More recently it has added a very tall statue of the Chinese Buddhist goddess Kwan Yin.  We offered a prayer to her on the occasion of our marriage, and then went inside the main hall to make an offering to the monk on duty which included some chanting, a copiously sprinkled blessing with water, and the pouring of now sanctified water from a cup into the bushes outside.  Next we also said a prayer in front of a large icon nearby of Ganesha the elephant-headed god, "remover of all obstacles," my favorite Hindu deity and one whose help I could use at the present time.  Then we walked outside and down to the dock to feed the fish with several loaves of bread, a form of symbolic generosity toward the natural world (the fat river fish cannot be all that hungry) that is one of the nicer rituals in Thai Buddhism.  

In the evening we met a dozen Thai and western friends at Baan Klang Nam 1, a picturesque riverside restaurant in an old wooden house not far up river from the port of Klong Toey.  Nan wore a beautiful dress she inherited from her glamorous aunt Ban Yen and she insisted that I wear my yellow shirt to match her with my yellow elephant tie.  It's the end of the rainy season and the river level is rising rapidly, so water was lapping at the floorboards as we dined.  Nan invited several of her co-workers, two with husbands and one single man.  One couple came with their two-month-old daughter and 5-year old son.  I invited my long-time friend Jerry along with Tony, a Canadian studying for a master's degree in Buddhist studies at my university, and his Thai girlfriend Renu.  The feast was magnificent, with all kinds of delicious seafood, from fresh fish and crab to scallops and shrimp

It turned out to be a stormy night, with constant thunder and lightning over the river and whitecaps on the water.  The open-air portion of the restaurant was closed but we stayed dry under a high roof.  The language barrier divided the table but bilingual Nan presided over our celebration and we were all united in our enjoyment of the good food.  The newlyweds were grateful recipients of the good wishes of all.  Nan's co-workers gave us this glass icon of two love birds and Jerry's wife Lamyai, who could not attend, sent us some beautiful material hand-woven by her family in Surin.  Jerry, a long-time resident of Bangkok and Surin whose friendship brought me to Thailand back in 2004, traded stories with my newer friend Tony who was a journalist in Canada as well as Korea before coming to Thailand three years ago for a serious study of Buddhism.

It's my third marriage and Nan's first.  She was engaged to marry once before but her fiance got another woman pregnant which soured her on young Thai men.  Her aunt had a child with a New Zealand sheep rancher but he was already married.  Because my tubes are tied, Nan cannot have children with me and she says that's not a problem for her.  She's keeping her full name rather than go through the trouble of changing her ID card, bank account and passport.  Some of her friends think marriage to a farang is a ticket to America, but I've told her I cannot afford to take her there and I have no intention to live anywhere now but in Thailand. My trip to California is under duress.   I've heard that the Embassy takes a dim view of differences in ages as great as ours and would automatically suspect something fishy were Nan to apply for a visa.  While there may be some benefits to marrying a foreigner for a young Thai woman, the difficulties and uncertainty I'm currently experiencing would make them moot.

After four months of indecision, I've finally purchased a ticket back to the U.S. and will arrive in San Francisco three weeks from today.  This afternoon I was reflecting on my current ride on the roller coaster of emotions and I noticed that the same imagined future event can be experienced in a variety of ways, depending on perspective and state of mind.  Occasionally a "what if" thought experiment leads to paralyzing anxiety and the inability to see straight.  But at other times the same possibility evokes a mai pen rai response, the Thai version of "whatever will be will be."  Dark impersonal forces are arrayed against me, determined to classify my life as a statistic and stamp out the felt sense of whom I am and any freedom of choice.  Inflexible rules reduce the power of compassion.  Am I a victim of fate or the pawn of chance?  I cannot believe in a God that pulls my strings or law of karma that reduces my particular bliss or pain to infinite cause and effect.  Unfortunate random things happen.  I do know that loving Nan has given me life in the midst of death, and that I no longer can be destroyed by the cancer I carry within or the bureaucratic and legal rulings from afar that have stolen our sense of stability and certainty.  Whatever happens, however long I'm forced to stay away, the rare and joyous love we have found together will endure.


Roxanne said...


Congratulations to you and Nan. Nan can translate this for you (if Google Translate got it right):


Nan looks beautiful in her dress and the photo of the two of you is lovely.

When will you be arriving in San Francisco, Will?

Janet Brown said...

You are blessed, Will, and I am so happy for you.

seua_yai said...

Wonderful story of love in the City of Angels...

Best of luck to you and your wife, Nan.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this fascinating post. I find much to agree with in your powerful conclusion.

All the best, Boonie

Anonymous said...

nice pictures & celebration.