Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Measuring Life With Coffee Spoons

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I used to hang out at Starbucks just inside the entrance to Central Pinklao, the upscale shopping mall up the street in my Bangkok neighborhood, but now I frequent Coffee World on the 2nd floor because of the comfortable reading chairs and free wifi.  I think the cappuccino is better, although I don't consider myself a connoisseur of the bean.  If truth be told, it's the foam that I like best.  Since using my finger is impolite, the spoon is for the foam.  I don't take sugar.

So I'm a creature of habit.  Routine hems me in, and predictability gives me purchase on the vagaries of existence.  Life might be boring had I not chosen to uproot myself from America and move halfway round the globe to Thailand where I count myself among the tribe of expats.  Every day brings surprise and mystery.  This is not my home and can never be.  I remain at the whim of the smiling bureaucrats in Immigration.   Just today I learned that a friend has been given three days to leave the country.  I don't know the details but it raises my hackles.

Each morning I rise before dawn and drink a glass of orange juice, one of the many small luxuries I allow myself.  Moving to California at 13, I used to pick oranges from trees on the way to school.  Now it comes in a carton and tastes almost as good.  I stand next to the washing machine on my tiny balcony and watch the sun come up over the spire of the Rama VIII Bridge: Dramatic cloud formations and a color palate of pinks, reds, and yellows, more often than not the subject of a photo (sometimes posted on Facebook).

Lately my blog posts have troubled a few friends.  "You are beginning to sound like an unhappy man," one told me, "longing for what no longer is and surely never will be again."  I try to reassure him, and myself, that such is not the case.  I've never been happier.  No one wants to be a sad sack.  We put our best face forward, even when the money is almost gone and the diagnosis is terminal.  Good vibrations and positive thinking are the norm for social intercourse, particularly in the western world where death is out of sight and beggars are off the streets.  I am not sure that happiness is so monochromatic as all that.

On the one hand, I have the love of a good woman, a comfortable place to live, and a reasonably dependable income.  I can maneuver without the aid of prosthetic devices, manage to exercise my intellectual curiosity, and continue to enjoy select pleasures of the flesh.  Is this the basis for happiness? In Bangkok I am surrounded by people with less: Burmese mothers nursing babies on the pedestrian overpass, tireless cooks selling roasted fish and meat on a stick from sidewalk carts, street sweepers bundled up against the sun's rays, the indefatigable laundry lady downstairs who works 10-hour days every day but one.  My lazy habits compared to their work regimens seem like needless extravagance.

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light," another poet suggested.  While T.S. Eliot equated timidity with regularity, Dylan Thomas, probably in a drunken stupor, threw his glass at fate.  My life falls somewhere in between.  What is a blog post in the face of the unending catastrophe presented every day to those who will listen?  The runaway train of climate change, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, civil war in Syria and war threatened against Iran. The world is truly fucked.  Here in Thailand on the same day a man was eaten by a tiger and a woman was stomped to death by a wild elephant enraged by fireworks.

Why would anyone give up home (country) and family to live in a strange land among people whose customs often puzzle and mystify?  Humans are hard-wired to live in groups.  Despite the social Darwinists, cooperation is more beneficial for evolution than competition.  We demonize those who do not belong to our group and will die for those who do.  People with lovers and friends live longer than loners and outcasts.  Some are forced from their homes and become refugees, displaced persons.  Others, like me, expatriate.  T.S. Eliot preferred England to his native St. Louis.  Gertrude Stein from Oakland (where there is "no there there") settled in Paris along with a generation of expats.  Over 5 million Americans reportedly live outside the country of their birth.

There are infinite reasons for expatriation, ranging from economy to pleasure, not to mention the dark secrets that cause some to flee persecution or retribution.  In many cases the move doesn't work.  Foreign bloggers and retirees in Thailand grumble loudly on the internet about what they see as the natives' unsavory characteristics, their unholy religion, and the obsequious obedience paid to hierarchy.  I find their complaints tedious and wonder why keeps them here beyond the tourist-littered beaches, cheap medical services and easily obtainable sexual favors.  Thailand is not utopia.  Political troubles, flooding and recent reports of the numerous unexplainable deaths of visitors have put a dent in the tourism industry in Thailand.  But for expatriates these stories are unimportant.

I stay because after five years I have made a life here.  There is a gentleness to the living that soothes me.  I am familiar with a good chunk of the city and can get around easily.  I am aware of events and issues, and have the resources to research both the past and present of Thailand and the Southeast Asian context.  My circle of friends is smaller than back in California, but the internet has made it possible to stay in contact with those I care about, near and far.  Virtual conversations are no less satisfying than face-to-face interactions.  While I spend considerable time with my digital devices, nothing prevents me from going out the door, to the pool for a swim or across the city for a lunch date.  And it all takes place within an exciting and cosmopolitan city that offers views, smells and sounds that tantalize and please the senses.

That said, life may change at any minute.  At the moment I am facing the prospect of an upheaval to my late-in-life teaching career.  The administrators at my university are sending the message that part-time teachers are dispensable.  I have not been paid for my work in months.  An additional job I expected did not materialize.  This particular habit of weekly class preparation and teaching may end.  It was a gift anyway, the opportunity to teach, something that came as a surprise after my move here.  While I enjoy the identity of ajahn, I am more than the sum of my identities.  Retiring from teaching will give me new opportunities for living life in a strange land. Life is a dance between habit and change.  I might even give up coffee.

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