Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The State of My Studies

I had an epiphany of sorts Monday morning while falling asleep during a conference lecture about the state of Buddhist studies that I had anticipated would be fascinating.  The problem was not the speaker's, who is a world authority on Pali and Sanskrit texts, but mine.  His talk and the beginning of the next, by a woman from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, bored me.  It seemed to be all about how many Buddhas can dance on the head of a pin, and I never cared for that kind of Christian theological nit picking when the subject was angels.  So I got up and left, less than two hours after the conference had begun.

"Know thyself," advised Socrates, and I've tried, lord I've tried.  But now in my seventh decade and running out of time, I am still a mystery to me.

One thing I've learned about myself is that I'm obsessive.  Once I get an idea in my head, I'm like a dog with a bone.  And earlier this year, after serving for the second time as secretary for an academic panel at an international Buddhist conference, I decided I wanted to be the bride and not the bridesmaid.  So I submitted a proposal for a paper on Buddhism to deliver at a conference in December and it was accepted.  I immediately dove into the research and collected a mountain of books and articles on the subject (metaphorically speaking, since almost everything is digital now).  It absorbed much of my free time.  Though I have a doctorate, I've had little experience giving papers, so I worried about it being good enough.  Increasingly I became distracted and temperamental.  Since I couldn't neglect my teaching, with classes now twice a week, the impact of my preoccupation and obsessiveness fell on my patient wife Nan.

Farang seem culturally predisposed to jai raan (a hot heart), the Thai term for impatience and upset.  This could be anything that upsets the delicate balance of the Thai social apple cart.  Advice offered to the worried and/or angry westerner is usually to cultivate jai yen (a cool heart) or, almost as often, to opine: "You think too much."  It's true, and I can often watch it happening through Nan's eyes, that volcano of emotion triggered in me by obsession, compulsiveness, frustration, concern and reaction.  I've written about this before, and I'm sure it's true for most of my expat friends, although many continue to blame the match rather than the fuel.

Loss of control is a convenient trigger.  The more time my obsessions require, the less wiggle room or down time I allow myself, and I get pissed at the noose I've tied.  The knot should be easy to undo if we've tied it ourself, but sometimes that doesn't work.  The trick is to see the connection.  This morning provided a great example:  I went down to buy a newspaper and forgot my key.  This is the first time that's happened in three years of living in this building.  Nan had just left for school.  I had money but no phone.  My first reaction, at the prospect of waiting eight hours for Nan to return, was shock.  But this loss of control didn't produce upset.  Shock was followed by laughter at the absurdity of the situation I'd created with my absent mind.  This was replaced by ingenuity:  I went to the office, communicated my problem, and a locksmith was quickly summoned who opened the door in a couple of minutes for about $13.50 (an outrageous fee here).

Last weekend, with yet another financial Sword of Damocles hanging over my head this month, Nan and I traveled to Pranburi on the coast south of Hua Hin in a car owned by her sister's boyfriend.  Surin speaks only a little English and his pronunciation is not easy to understand.  The original plan had been to go down Friday and spend two nights there since Nan and I needed to be home Sunday night.  But when Ann changed the days without telling us, and when I said one night was not enough, Nan felt caught in the middle and required some consoling.  So we stayed the one night and had to return to Bangkok by van.  The uncertainties and changes were a recipe for loss of control and I drifted in an out of jai raa, making both me and my wife unhappy.

Thais are much more accepting of disruptions in plans and the absence of control in a situation.  Loss of face (for example, by arguing passionately about something) is assiduously avoided.  I wanted Surin to know that it wasn't my fault that he had to pay for another night in the hotel room that we wouldn't use. At some point during the trip I told Nan that she was a person who lived by "faith" rather than reason, a low blow.  She, however, heard the word as "fake," and a little later told me with tears in her eyes that she was NOT a "fake person."  That required some unscrambling, and it also let me see how the carelessness of my words, particularly in this cross-cultural situation, can cause hurt.

So what does all this have to do with my epiphany during the boring conference lecture?  It was the realization that I have neither the time nor inclination to be the scholar at this late date in my career and play the game which my professor friend at the conference called "bullshit." Another scholar there said an expert in the field of Southeast Asian Buddhism had called a book I found stimulating "no good."  Such intellectual condemnation is commonplace in a profession where competition for right ideas can be cut-throat.  I remain curious about many things, not the least of them Thai Buddhism and its morphed twin in the west, but know now that I have neither the background nor the drive to explore a comparison in depth.  When I was 17 and recovering from a serious car accident, I sold my clarinet and alto sax after realizing that I would never become as good a musician as I wanted to be.  That goes for academia these days, although it's the accident of age that has prompted this reflection.  Now, with that mound of research material set aside, I might again find pleasure in reading novels, watching movies and snuggling with my wife.

We enjoyed our short trip to Pranburi.  The high point was eating, for Surin is very knowledgeable about the best restaurants where you can find the freshest fish and the tastiest cuisine.  We had an incredible lunch on Saturday in Cha-Am on the wharf beside the fishing fleet while a group of customers watched Muay Thai boxing on TV.  Dinner was at a place on the beach in Pranburi, a long strip beside the water dotted with luxury hotels, and a recommendation from Surin's friend got us a fabulous meal for four for under $30 with three additional dishes for free.  Again it was seafood, fresh from the water, and cooked to succulent perfection.  I wish I were a food writer who could adequately describe it (or even cook like that).  On the way down we visited the oversized statue of the famous monk Luang Por Tuad at Wat Huay Mongol, a place of pilgrimage where sacred amulets sell like hotcakes.  We stopped at a faux Fishing Village where no one fished and boated but lots of stuff was on sale, and in the evening we strolled through old town Pranburi where hundred-year-old shop houses are being restored for antique stores and coffee shops.  We swan in the pool of the Pattawia Resort and Spa, a large hotel catering to tour groups that has seen better days, and we spent a morning on the lovely beach at Khao Kalok where we  relaxed in the shade of a large cave-dotted cliff until the rains came.

Studying one's self and learning how to avoid suffering and hurting others requires a lifetime.  There doesn't seem to be a short cut.

And now for something completely different:  Lunch today.


Anonymous said...

pleased to hear you had a good time and thanks for your perspectives on emotion


Janet Brown said...

Will, don't abandon your work. You need that as much as you do the snuggling and the movies. Just step back a little from it and don't think about your audience of academics. It's the work that keeps us alive. Just not 24/7--

Sam said...

I'm sure it's true for most of my expat friends

I still have the occasional eruption of anger, though since coming to Thailand from England (and retiring from teaching) they are increasingly rare, short lived and very mild by my former standards, though sufficiently big in Thai eyes to cause me much shame for lack of self control.

But when Ann changed the days without telling us...

But this is what Thais do. Best never to expect things to go according to plan if a Thai is involved then you won't be disappointed. You must have read "Thailand Fever" in which case nothing should surprise you.I try to avoid situations that I don't personally control and if I can't avoid them I usually have something in reserve to occupy me during enforced dead time.

I have neither the background nor the drive to explore a comparison in depth

When I was younger I enrolled on an acting course. I remember being prostrate on the floor of the stage together with the rest of the students when the acting coach said: "If you've got nothing to say, why say it?" He may have been talking to all of us but I took the message to heart and gave up my pretensions to act.

ash said...

I like this post , interesting! It made me realize not to speak when I'm angry.As what Lawrence J. Peter says,"Speak when you are angry–and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.
Congratulations on your expat life.Make sure you are covered with an Expat Health Insurance 

Catherine said...

I'm a planner. A project manager. I organise. For me, the lack of organisation amongst Thais has always been difficult to handle but I'm getting there. Slowly.

I have two lovely Thais I spend many hours with, running around Thailand, seeing the sights. And I've found that the best way to deal is to not.

Sometimes together and sometimes just me, a destination is decided upon. After that point, all I require is that we head in that direction and arrive home sort of around a decent hour. The rest is up to fate.

We've had some not so interesting trips and we've had some amazing times. All are good. And I do realise that if I lived in the west, only hearing about each experience, any of the trips I try to not take for granted would be considered wonderful.

For the surprise show of frustration... well... I'm still having to work on that. I can go weeks/days/months not getting my feathers ruffled but eventually it all adds up and I blow over something stupid.

I often hope that Thais, when seeing a foreigner show frustration, know that it's not them exactly, it's the pileup of the same going back sometimes days/weeks/months and that what they've done is merely a trigger setting it free.

And I often wish for them to please be patient with us... because we are desperately trying to be patient with them... even if it's not the Thai way.

(Although I've known about some HOT HOT HOT Thai tempers...)