Monday, November 12, 2007

It's Easy Being Green

Thais seemed surprised that I did not know the day on which I was born. For them the day is more important than the date. So I went to the internet which knows all and discovered that my birth day was Wednesday. Ah! said the Thais. Your color then is green.

Whoop ti do. I've always liked green. It's the color of nature, the hue of an environmentalist. Does this mean I need a new wardrobe?

Thais color-code the week. You can almost tell what day it is simply by seeing what colors people are wearing. According to Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, "The tradition originated with astrologically-divined battle tunics before being taken up by the court and those who could afford a diverse wardrobe." Thai day names relate to the gods of the planets in ancient India astrology, each of which has a color.
Sunday is red for the sun god Phra Arthit. Monday is yellow for the moon god Phra Chan. Tuesday is pink for the Mars god Phra Angkarn. Wednesday is green for the Mercury god Phra Phut. Thursday is orange for the Jupiter god Phra Pareuhat. Friday is sky blue for the Venus god Phra Suk. Saturday is violet for the Saturn god Phra Sao.
I learned about yellow first because a large percentage of Thais wear yellow shirts on Monday to pay their respects to the King who was born on a Monday (his wife, the queen, was born on a Friday and Thais wear blue every Friday to honor her). The practice of donning yellow began two years ago to celebrate the anniversary of his ascension to the throne 60 years ago. Now it marks the King's birthday year, an event that will be culminated on December 5th. I decided to buy one and a week ago went to Robinson's, a large chain department store with an outlet on Sukhumvit. All the brands make yellow shirts for the Thai market. I opted not to pay over $30 to Arrow and bought a locally-made one on sale for around $10. Last Monday I went out in public for the first time in my new shirt. As I passed the massage parlor up the soi from my home, one of the girls said: "Oh, he loves our king too!" It felt strange to pass among the crowds of Thais not as a stranger, a farang tourist, but as a member of the community.

But an even stranger thing has happened. Last Wednesday, by all rights a green day, the king was released from the hospital where he had been recuperating from a blood clot in the brain. He wore a pink shirt and a pink jacket, and photos of this unprecedented sartorial event were prominently displayed in all the newspapers, Thai and English. Had he planned to be released the day before, Tuesday, a pink day? Thousands of his subjects were waiting outside the hospital to cheer him upon his release. Almost all were wearing yellow shorts. From the Bangkok Post:

Pink is the new yellow in Thailand as revered 79-year-old king sparks new fashion trend

"People across Thailand have started wearing pink shirts in tribute to their beloved 79-year-old king, who checked out of a hospital this week dressed in a blazer and a dress shirt of that color."

"Astrologers have determined pink to be an auspicious color for the king's 80th year... A royal emblem, using pink among other colors, was specially designed for his birthday. Pink T-shirts went on sale earlier this year, just after the emblem was designed. But business is expected to boom following the king's recent public appearance leaving the hospital."

Manufacturers report a run on pink material and stores quickly sold out of their existing stocks of pink clothes. On Sunday, Ajahn Amma, doyen of the abhidhamma class, was dressed in pink, and she explained that pink was exceptionally good for healing (the abhidhamma texts, Buddhism's equivalent of reductionist science, cover subjects of this sort).

Pink has never been my color, and I don't expect to jump on board this trend. But I am looking for a nice green shirt to mark my natal day.

It's not easy writing about politics in the United States while I'm living in Thailand. I'm too far removed to care as deeply about political issues (and the poor selection of candidates pandering for votes in the current selection campaign) as I did when living in Santa Cruz and participating in demonstrations against the Bush administration and its misbegotten wars in the Middle East (I include Israel where U.S. support has prolonged the misery of the Palestinian people). This photo, however, gave me pause. Last week Bush visited the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan reportedly receive better care than at Walter Reed, the military hospital racked by scandal when its poor treatment of veterans was publicized. I'd like to know what this badly scarred soldier is telling his commander-in-chief. In other photos, Bush can be seen with horribly mutilated vets. Does he have a twinge of conscience? Does he feel any responsibility? Is he human?

Last week I saw "Lions for Lambs," the heavily criticized film from Robert Redford who attempts, with the aid of superstars Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise, to make a strong case against politicians, the media, and alienated youth. Redford plays a college professor (would that I were he!), Cruise a smarmy Republican, and Streep is excellent as a journalist who comes to the realization that she has contributed to the present chaos. Opening in Bangkok the same day as it did in the U.S. (a rare occurrence), the film fails to engage the audience (me) as drama but talks and preaches what any thinking person must know, that politicians misuse the media for their personal ends, that journalists were complicit in the Iraq and Afghanistan fiascoes, and that while some college students pursue ideals (making sacrifices in vain), most of the others could care less about anything other than partying (my 18-year-old students at UC Santa Cruz largely lived up to the stereotype). At least Hollywood is trying these days to be relevant, with "Babel," "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah," "Michael Clayton" and others (I can only read the net, none of the newer films having come here yet). I respect Redford and it's a shame his collaboration with screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan (who also wrote "The Kingdom" which is showing her -- I have not seen it) does not tug at the heart as well as the head (recall "Network" which still resonates as criticism of the media).

Some of the best protests against the terrorist wars are contained in documentaries which have reached a new standard set by master protester Michael Moore. Among the best have been "Gunner Palace," "Iraq in Fragments" and "The War Tapes." Recently I saw "No End in Sight," an excellent film about Iraq written and directed by Charles Ferguson, a former political science scholar at M.I.T. (and a millionaire) turned documentarian because of his disgust for the war. The film focuses on events after "Mission Accomplished" when the U.S. was supposedly stabilizing and reconstructing the damaged country. In it, Ferguson documents the catastrophic decision of Bush appointee L. Paul Bremmer to de-Bathify the government and disband the military, thereby putting a half million men, many with guns, out of work. Ideology trumped expertise. The insurgency gained momentum which has yet to stop with that disastrous policy, one which was universally criticized by Americans working in Iraq and even by the U.S. military, as Ferguson's film clearly shows. From this distance, it is difficult to understand why Americans do not seem to respond to the greatest threat to freedom and democracy since the Civil War. A country pacified by infotainment and technological toys rolls over and plays dead. But then, as Howard Zinn has amply documented, "freedom" and "democracy" are pretty much myths in a land where greed and corruption prevail.

Far away, under the watchful eye of the military, Thais watch as the election campaign builds up steam. The bewildering number of parties and politicans has me baffled. The other day at Bumrungrad Hospital, as I waited to have my chloresterol levels checked, I watched what looked like a game show on the lobby TV, with lovely ladies taking numbers out of a box and data being posted on a large board. I learned from the paper the next day that it was a process whereby candidates were given places on the ballots in provincial elections. At least I think that's what was happening. I was distracted at Bumrungrad by the Christmas music on the PA system, "chestnuts roasting," and all that. Why do the Thais love "our" holidays so much? Halloween was a big deal, particularly in the department stores. I saw a giant Christmas tree being erected outside the Emporium yesterday. Christmas music can also be heard at all the Starbucks branches (there must be thousands in Bangkok alone) where they are selling "Pass the Cheer" special concoctions. Stores are putting up colored Christmas lights (or are they just a version of the weekly colors?).

One thing you notice about the Bangkok Skytrain, besides the total absence of graffitti, is that no matter how crowded the cars might be (and I rarely get a seat), no one pushes. Crowds are amazingly polite. I think touching is a no-no in Thai culture (public displays of affection, outside of park lawns, is rare), and so passengers make a great effort not to jostle and prod their neighbors. People stand politely on the platform to the side of the doors until all of the car's occupants leave. I took this for granted until last week when I ran into several Indian women in saris while exiting a car. They were determined to get on before I got off and smashed into me with a vengeance. Remind me to never take a subway in Delhi.

Very Thai is full of good information about Thai street culture and urban legends. Besides explaining the colors of the week, author Philip Cornwel-Smith unravels the mystery behind little pink napkins, drinks in a bag, insect treats and power drinks. He discusses Muay Thai and katoeys, the sniff kiss and amulet collectors. It's a wonderful book, full of great photos by the author and John Goss which put my humble efforts to shame. I would keep it in my bathroom for meditative reading if it weren't for the fact that the room gets soaked whenever I take a shower. But every now and then I uncover a mystery that Very Thai does not seem to notice. For example, why can I not find a scotch tape dispenser? Tape is widely available, but never with the little plastic dispensers you find in the States. No one I've asked can give me a good answer. Another mystery is the absence of paper towels. Where you usually find it in America, next to the toilet paper in the markets, it is missing. Instead, I buy paper napkins, but they're not the same. What sort of cultural or economic prohibition might prevent the sale of paper towels?

This morning, while waiting on the sidewalk at 6:30 for a taxi to take my friend to work, a couple of monks came walking up Soi 4 with their begging bowls. I had not seen monks on pindabat in the neighborhood before, since there is no Buddhist temple I know of nearby. I had no sticky rice to give them, and it didn't look as if they were having much luck. So we stuck 20 baht notes in their bowls while kneeling and wai'ing. They were amazingly grateful and treated us to a chanted blessing and some dayglo orange wrist bracelets. It turns out they are trying to travel south and we were the first to offer them money. In the deep south of Thailand, however, Muslim separatists are assassinating school teachers and policemen. I pray their journey is a short one!

1 comment:

littlebang said...

Funny - I went with a green theme, including a frog (which looked inquisitive) on littlebang blog too.
How were the cholesterol levels ?