Friday, May 30, 2008

In the Classroom

After much anxiety and a bit of stage fright, I finally made it into the classroom yesterday. Here are my students hard at work on a quiz I gave them to assess their current level of English. Although I explained that the test would not be graded, that I was only giving it to help me determine how to teach them English, they were surprisingly serious about it. Long after I asked them to hand their papers in, some continued to write. There was some talking, and I suspect a few copied their neighbor's answers. From the results, I learned that many had problems with plurals and prepositions and a large number wrote "five-teen" for 15. They were quite good, but slow, in ordering a list of words in alphabetical order.

I have been hired to teach "Listening & Speaking English III" in the Department of Foreign Languages (Faculty of Humanities) at the Wat Sri Sudaram campus of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University, the major Buddhist educational institution in Thailand. My students are all monks in their twenties, most ordained and some still novices, from all over Thailand as well as Laos, Cambodia and Burma. All are fourth year students majoring in English and many will probably disrobe after graduation this year to find jobs in the secular world. My task is to help them communicate with English in this increasingly globalized world where my native tongue is the lingua franca.

Only about half of my 51 students showed up. "It's a tradition not to come during the first week," explained Dr. Suriya, a senior monk who heads my department. I am scheduled to teach two sections between 1 and 6:30 p.m. on Thursdays. Since another professor didn't show up for his class during the first period, students from both my sections crowded into the classroom. The afternoon classes (there are no morning classes, since the day begins after lunch) began after a short Buddhist chant over the PA system. Leaving the two doors open, I also opened the windows and turned on the two fans, but it remained warm in the room. I rolled up the sleeves on my blue dress shirt but did not undo the classy red tie that Jerry had loaned me. Thais expect their professors to look formal. The school term is 16 weeks but the start was delayed a week. Some of the students told me that they hadn't been informed of this fact, and showed up for class last week (obviously they were also unaware of the tradition).

It took me nearly two hours, by Skytrain, riverboat and taxi, to reach the school on the other side of the Chao Phraya River. I carried a heavy backpack crammed with books and materials to use. Arriving an hour early, there was no one in my department to explain the procedures. So, after a snack in the small cafeteria, I went to the office on the second floor that Pandit Bhikku had pointed out as administration (all the signs were in Thai). The monk behind the desk greeted me with "Dr. William!" and showed me where to sign in. He handed me two student rosters for my sections with all of the information in Thai. Obviously this wasn't going to be easy. He said the room numbers for the two sections had been changed from the earlier ones given me, and showed me where they were. Good thing, too, since the room numbers were also in Thai.

Before class started, I visited the library on the ground floor. There were numerous periodicals available, including the Bangkok English language press as well as Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. A number of monks were seated at an array of computer terminals. I saw a a group of shelves at the back of the room and learned later that the library contained a few of English language titles. There is a listening lab on the top floor of the school, a student told me, but it is never open. I'll have to see about that.

When the students started slowly coming into the classroom, I recognized several from the talk I had given to the English Club several months ago. I learned that the monks lived at different temples all over Bangkok and some had to travel a fair distance to get to school. My introduction had several false starts to accommodate late arrivals. I told them we were all students since I'm learning to teaching English, something I've never done before. Someone hooked up a microphone, which I didn't think I would need, but it gave me the opportunity to strut in front of the class playing the rock star. Next week I think I'll put the chairs in a circle for less formality, and less strutting.

I soon realized I'd over prepared and could never cover the grammatical material in the first unit of the New Headway Elementary text (the students will purchase a duplicated version from the school copy center for under $3). There were two breaks scheduled in the first section, at 1:50 and 2:40, but no one wanted to leave. So I continued to talk, about English language resources in Bangkok (watch movies in English, and listen to songs in English), grades (students are rarely failed in Thailand) and rules (no sleeping in class). My introduction took up the first period, the quiz the second (after which we sang in unison "The Alphabet Song"), and in the third I asked them to break up into pairs and interview each other. They each introduced their partner, giving his name, age, where he comes from, and his mobile phone number to test their pronunciation of numbers (which was surprisingly good). This activity energized them and some of the introductions were creative and funny ("call my friend at any time for money").

At the end of the section time I asked them to write something about themselves for homework and gave them a vocabulary list to memorize and use in five sentences. On the other side of the sheet were the words to "What a Wonderful World." I played them the song by Louis Armstrong on my iPod and asked them to fill in the blanks from a word list. They liked it so much they asked me to play it again. I asked them to give me the names of other English songs they would like to hear and learn.

During the session a number of students let me know that they were in my other section. This threw me into a bit of panic because I'd prepared for two similar sections, not one long five-and-a-half hour class. I went next door into the other classroom I'd been assigned to set up for the second section, but soon learned that I had in fact taught a combined class of two sections (what added to the confusion was that there were 25 students in the classroom, the number enrolled in the first section). So I learned abruptly I was finished for the day, a bit disappointed that I didn't get to hone my skills a second time through.

Downstairs, I looked for Dr. Suriya to get the two documents I needed to complete my application to convert my visa from tourist to non-immigrant "B" which will allow me to teach legally. I gave him the list of requirements two weeks ago after I was turned down by immigration at my first attempt. After a wait of 45 minutes, I discovered that the letter (no word about the requested employment contract) had still not been signed by the dean of Humanities. Pandit Bhikku, my mentor for all this, sent me a "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" email two weeks ago. So I've decided to stop complaining about the bureaucratic snafus and accept what comes. I asked Dr. Suriya to protect me if I get arrested for teaching illegally, and his laughter hid a multitude of responses.

Afterwards, I met Pim at the Central Pinklao Mall not far away, and, following dinner and a quick game at Major Bowl across the street, we went to look at an apartment for rent in the multi-storied Lumpini Place. Although about as small as our current one, it's divided into a living room and bedroom, and includes a tiny kitchen. The condo is owned by a British-Thai couple and rents for the same price as my current apartment. The furnishings include a comfy couch and a nice reading chair which tipped the scales in its favor. If all goes according to plan, we should move at the end of June.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Puppets Are People Too

I've been fascinated with puppets ever since an early exposure to Walt Disney's "Pinocchio." How can a lifeless stick of wood, albeit carved and painted, seem so life-like?

Last night Pim and I attended a performance of "The Myth of Rahoo and the Lunar Eclipse" by the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre at the Suan Lum Night Bizaar. Basing their works on adaptations of the Thai epic "Ramakien" (a version of the Indian classic "Ramayana"), here is the lovely Benjakai, the niece of a demon king and the apple of Hanuman's eye, with her two (of three) handlers and a member of the audience. The movements of the puppets, particularly Hanuman, the lustful white monkey warrior, were amazingly real. Each was operated in full view by three classically-trained khon dancers, their movements echoing the puppet's own. Thai theatrical puppetry was invented in 1901 by the legendary dancer Krae Saptawanit, but fell out of favor after World War Two under competition with the movies. Sakorn Yang-keawsot, the son of two members of the first troupe, carried on the tradition which was given a boost when the King in 1996 honored him as the custodian of a dying art form. Performances began at the Lumpini night market in 2001. Given the nickname Joe Louis, after the black American boxing champ, probably because of his Thai name "Liew," Sakorn died last year, but the theatre has been continued by several of his nine children. The performance in the 600-seat theatre was clearly aimed at the tourist market (seats were an outrageous 900 baht apiece), but the audience last night was filled with many Thais and their children. The story was accompanied by a large orchestra of traditional instruments and two singers. I followed the plot easily because an explanation in English was shown on two side screens. After the show, Hanuman and Benjakai socialized with audience members to the delight of all. Perhaps puppets surprise us with their humanness because all too often the humans around us are dead wood by contrast.

The food at the restaurant in front of the Traditional Thai Puppet Theater Company's auditorium was overpriced and mediocre, definitely aimed at ignorant farangs visiting Lumpini. We should have eaten at the Khlong Toey Food Fair. It was held in a parking area at the side of the Queen Sirikit Convention Center, a 15-minute walk from our apartment through the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly's complex of huge warehouses. We walked along the road beside the lovely Benjakiti Park, separated from it by a tall chain-link fence. For some mysterious reason, Thai officials restrict entrance to the park to only single gates at each end of the large rectangle, neither convenient for us. This is no doubt the reason so few people can ever be found inside. The Food Fair was full of yellow booths, chairs and tables, the color for Singha Beer's logo (and also for the King, which is probably no coincidence). On a large stage, a talent contest featured pre-teen singers belting out luuk thung melodies, Thailand's country music. I appeared to be the only farang in evidence. So I toured the grounds taking pictures of the food and the entertainers. Since we'd eaten a late lunch, I wasn't hungry, but I was fascinated by the food Thais eat. There was all manner of meat (plus the insides that do not appeal), including pork balls, as well as fish, crabs, clams, shrimp and squid. A lone booth was selling Indian food with a chicken biryani that looked quite tasty. Besides beer, drinks included coconut and sugar cane juice, all fresh. I even found pizza, but it was a strange breaded dish advertised as originating in New Zealand. The Food Fair was subtitled "& Travel" so besides the Indian booth there was another selling sushi. But there were few takers. From the Food Fair, we headed over to Lumpini, which, since it looked closer than it was, required a short hop on the MRT subway.

A friend from California has written to encourage me to set aside any doubts I may have about my relationship with a much younger woman, and to "go for it!" Acknowledging concerns about age and health which she shares, she suggests: "If we can grab a little happiness, we should." I know, she writes, that "we should get what we can, when we can as long as others don’t get hurt."
I remember reading James Baldwin, I forget which book, telling about love that may only last fifteen minutes but can be as fulfilling as a lifetime relationship. Not a direct quote, of course, but you get the point. Even fifteen minutes would be nice. But I think Willie you must have years.
Stop worrying, she writes, about how it looks or what a stereotype you might be. Sage advice from a wise friend.

Fresh mangoes have disappeared from the street carts, and with them the take-home delicacy of mango and sticky rice smothered in coconut sauce. This was the first year I have been to Thailand when mangoes are in season and they were the icing for me on this expatriate cake I am enjoying. But with hardly a fare thee well, they are gone, a short season indeed. Rambutans and Mangosteens, however tasty and exotic, are no substitutes. Even the delectable litchi (aka lychee) nut fruit which Pim brought home the other day can not take the place of the mango. Noel first introduced me to mangoes and taught me the way he learned growing up in India/Pakistan to cut open and eat them. Pim's method is quicker and simpler. But any way you slice and dice them, the mango is the undisputed king (or queen) of fruit. (I'm still endeavoring to stomach the smelly durian which Pim loves to eat).

I spent the weekend (no Memorial Day break here in Thailand) working on the syllabus and lesson plans for my class which begins on Thursday. I still do not have a working visa but I'm told the necessary documents should be ready when I get to Wat Si (for another trip to the immigration office the following day). After shelling out a considerable sum on printing and copies, I went to Office Depot in Silom on Saturday and bought a Lexmark x2550 printer which prints from the computer, and also copies and scans documents. It was ridiculously cheap, about $50, but the ink will probably cost me my wages as a teacher. I soon discovered that the Mac Image Capture program did not feature optical character recognition (OCR) capability, which is unfortunate since I want to import portions of my text, New Headway Elementary, into files for class handouts. So I'm on the prowl looking for a copy of OmniPage, a program I once had which will do just that.

The PAD anti-government demonstration yesterday drew either 5,000 or 10,000 people, depending on which English-language paper you read. This is the group whose anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 brought down that government and precipitated a military coup. Now they are threatening to take to the streets again until Prime Minister Samak resigns along with over 100 politicians from his party who are pushing a charter revision to protect Thaksin and the administration overthrown by the troops from corruption charges. Samak has offered to hold a referendum on whether or not the constitution should be amended, but opponents say that is an expensive way to delay justice. It's a confusing scene, and there appear to be black and white hats on both sides of the political fence.

There is an interesting article on gas, "Running Out of Fuel, but Not Out of Ideas," in the New York Times by Ben Stein, former speech writer for Nixon and Ford, and the actor who played the science professor on "The Wonder Years." I don't particularly agree with his free market solutions (get oil from coal, pursue nuclear solutions to the energy crisis), but any article that mentions Will Rogers, "Mad Max" Chuck Berry and Neil Young gets my attention. He says that during the Nixon years America got one-third of its oil from overseas. Currently it's two-thirds. And the sources are decidedly undependable (of course it doesn't help that we wrecked the Iraqi pipeline). He also cites America's dependence on huge vehicles, bigger than most third-world houses, for transport solutions.
After all, do we really need to have a 6,000-pound S.U.V. take a 100-pound high school student across town to buy a Diet Coke? Do we really need cars so big that they have flat-screen televisions for the children in the back?
I see few SUVs in Bangkok. Mostly the roads are clogged with taxis, buses, tuk-tuks and an incredible number of motorbikes. Of course we need to lower our energy needs rather than "to drill on the continental shelf, even near where movie stars live," which is one of Stein's suggestions. The Asian solution, at least for the majority, is the motorbike. Imagine, my friends in the U.S., your streets filled with motorbikes rather than SUVs (of course bicycles are better but they are only in the majority in Vietnam).

In the Bangkok Post this morning, the commerce minister floats a plan to patent the monthly full moon party on Koh Phangan when thousands of revelers take various drugs and stay up all night to bay at the moon. He said the idea had already been stolen by the Singapore government for a similar party on its artificial island of Sentosa. Intellectual property experts, however, cautioned that not everything can be patented. But then why, despite challenges from Santa Cruz does Hermosa Beach apparently hold a patent to the name Surf City? Another story in the Post tells of the tribulations of an Afghan journalist who was found guilty of distributing an article that questioned the Muslim practice of polygamy. The penalty? Death. Islam, at least as it is interpreted by numerous religious states, is fast loosing my support. And speaking of the Post, the above is a picture of the lovely lady, surprised by my camera, who sells it to me from her store down the street every morning (along with water, milk, bread and ice cream). She also throws in a Thai lesson for nothing. Mom & Pop stores like her's still thrive on the sois of Bangkok but their existence is threatened, as elsewhere, by the burgeoning chain of 7-11's which are owned by the largest corporation in Thailand. Here is her competition, not far up the soi.

Friday, May 23, 2008


Waiting for classes to begin, waiting for more documents to complete the visa process, waiting for news about the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the Kings were forced to evacuate from their Browns Valley home, waiting for Obama and Hillary to settle their differences, waiting for the diarrhea cure to kick in, waiting for the new coup, waiting for the Burmese generals to confess their inadequacies, waiting for Godot.

This week began with Visakha Bucha, which is Christmas and Easter all rolled into one for the Buddhists. The biggest religious holiday in Thailand (even the bars were closed), it is sometimes considered Buddha's birthday, but it actually marks his birth, enlightenment, entry into Nibamma, and death. Visakha is Pali for the second month of the lunar Hindu calendar, but the date varies because different traditions use different lunar calendars. The decision to agree to celebrate Vesak as the Buddha’s birthday on the first full moon of Vesakh was formalized at the first Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in Sri Lanka in 1950. In Thailand, it is a day to meditate, observe the eight precepts, eat vegetarian food, and give generously to the needy.

Pim and I took the bus across the river to Pinklao where we looked at a couple of apartments for rent in the 26-story Commonwealth condominium complex. The dingy studio apartment looked down on a luxurious swimming pool one floor below, while the two-bedroom one crammed with its owner's junk had a glorious view of the rain-swept cityscape to the west. In addition to the pool there was a gym, restaurant and even a putting green. On the bus back to Siam Square we listened to a monks chanting over the PA. We got off at Wat Pathum Wanaram, the temple nestled between the Siam Paragon and Central World megamalls. Like Makha Bucha in February, celebrating the Buddha's first teaching to his disciples, we marched in a procession, holding lotus blossoms, incense and candles, three times around a holy image, this time a "boat" on a pillar in the middle of an artificial lake on the temple grounds. There were tents on each side of the rectangle where it appeared people were making donations and perhaps getting their fortune told. A monk in one tent was delivering a sermon. Musicians in another were getting ready to play. Pim softly chanted a prayer as we walked. After three times around, we laid our blossoms on a pile and stuck candles and incense into the sand in a trough.

I am reluctant to move, having grown accustomed to my small room on the 7th floor at Siam Court where I've lived for nine months. But after next week, both of us will be commuting to jobs on the other side of the city. It makes sense to find a place over there, in Banglamphu or across the river where rents should be cheaper than here in the tourist paradise of Sukhumvit. I've had to convince Pim that we can't afford to buy a brand new place for two million baht in one of the spiffy Lumpini Condominium developments in Pinklao. I dream of a small two-story townhouse in a cozy Thai neighborhood, with security and an internet connection, a place for plants and a spot to park a motorbike. In Bangkok, however, furnished serviced apartments in huge buildings are more common. Having to buy a TV and a microwave might negate any savings in rent. Pim has a refrigerator in storage from her dormitory. In America it was common to pay 60 per cent or more of income in rent; here I've been paying about 40 per cent, so perhaps I can afford to upgrade. Something with a bedroom and a kitchen would be nice.

The many street stalls on Sukumvit, in addition to counterfeit DVDs and CDs, specialize in tee shirts, most with beer logos, geographical icons or cartoons to advertise that the wearer has recently visited Thailand. Often I see shirts which came originally from America. For some strange reason, I've seen a number of shirts that advertise Hollister, the motorcyclist capital of the world. The other day I was amazed to see a woman wearing a tee shirt that read "I am afraid of Americans." I reached for my camera but she passed by too quickly to get a shot. My usual walk down Sukhumvit takes me past the friendly kids with Amazing Thailand!, the official state tourist agency, who get paid 20 baht for every survey they can convince tourists to take (after three or four times, now I politely decline), and past the ladyboy prostitutes who cluster around the entrances to Bookazine and Starbucks. From my perch on the second floor of Starbucks, I can watch them put on their makeup and accost various unsuspecting men. On the corner the tuk tuk drivers flash wrinkled brochures full of naked ladies and solicit rides to a nearby massage parlor. Sometimes I watch the one-legged beggar drag himself along the pavement looking for coins. In addition to caffeine, Starbucks provides the daily English papers and I diligently try to understand the mysterious world of Thai politics.

For example, one of Prime Minister Samak's deputies is in trouble for remarks he made at the Foreign Correspondents Club last year which, in their Thai translation, have been thought by some to be disrespectful to the monarchy. And a 27-year-old Thai man who refused to stand in a movie theater during the playing of the national anthem was arrested recently and charged with lèse majesté, offending the dignity of Thailand's king. He insisted there is nothing in the Thai constitution that requires him to stand. The crime is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This morning's paper announced that a mass rally would be held on Sunday by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to protest constitutional amendments proposed by Samak's People's Power Party which they fear will absolve members of Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party, dissolved by the 2006 military coup, from corruption charges. According to the story, PAD charged that charter amendments are "detrimental to the country, religion and the monarchy, as well as the people." All politicians and parties in Thailand hide behind the lèse majesté law, accusing their opponents of questioning (or even mentioning) the monarchy. One of PAD's founders is right-wing newspaper publisher Sondhi Limthongkul whose pages have urged violence against anyone who refuses to stand for the anthem. Originally a supporter of Thaksin, Sondi turned against him and huge PAD rallies preceded the military overthrow of his government. But even Sondhi has been accused (unsuccessfully) of lèse majesté. Such nationalist and royalist flag waving reminds me of the anti-communist hysteria in America during the 1950s.

Last week we visited the October 14 1973 Memorial on Ratchdamnoen Road not far from the Democracy Monument which was erected after 1932 to celebrate Thailand's establishment of a constitutional monarchy. On that day the military turned its guns on a crowd protesting the expulsion of student activists upset over the dictatorial one-man rule of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachon, the prime minister. He was a staunch anti-communist and a loyal supporter of the American war in Vietnam. Over 200,000 had gathered near the Democracy Monument to call for a constitutional government (irony of ironies). In the violent response, a thousand were killed and the King even opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to protestors who were being gunned down by the army. Unfortunately, scenes of bloodshed like this were repeated again in 1976 and 1992. But the memorial stands as a reminder to Thais of what can happen when the fragile balance of nation, religion and king is upset by allowing the military to decide what constitutes "Thainess."

Jerry and I were sitting around the other day talking about friends. I've been reading Follow the Music, Jac Holzman's account of running Elektra Records during "the great years of American pop culture." Many of our mutual friends were interviewed by Holzman's co-author Gavan Daws, a good pal of Jerry's from Hawaii. There are comments by the late Diane Gardiner as well as my friend Pat Faralla who was publicist for Elektra on the west coast, and now, according to rumor, runs a restaurant in Portugal. I particularly liked the story of Paxton Lodge in the Sierras where producer Barry Friedman, aka, Frazier Mohawk, gathered a group of musicians and groupies, including a young Jackson Browne, to recreate the home studio ambiance of Big Pink where The Band made such great music. But the project sank under the weight of drug-fueled madness (Browne's rise began after he swore off drugs). Holzman lost thousands of dollars and Friedman, who helped Jerry find work in Hollywood, now runs a farm outside Toronto.

Corb Donohue, our friend who died of cancer last year, once told Jerry that "there are only 600 people in the world. The rest is all done with mirrors."

I like that.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Jai Yen Yen

I've never met a wall I didn't want to pound.

Thais are different. Unlike me, when they meet an obstacle, their inclination is not to smash it. Rather, they first determine if the battle is worth fighting. Often the decision is "mai pen rai" -- never mind, whatever will be, will be. "You can't fight City Hall" is American advice they could understand. Pim is constantly cautioning me to keep a "jai yen yen," a very cool heart. After a lifetime as a hot head, this is most difficult.

Bureaucracy pushes my buttons. And Thai society is loaded with it. Last week I picked up a letter signed by the dean of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (getting thoroughly soaked two different times in thunder storms) and took it along with other documents from Wat Si to the Immigration office where I hoped to alter my tourist visa so I could take up work as an English teacher. But the nice lady in the nearly empty upstairs office told me I was missing two documents. I also learned that the change requires that I have at least 21 days left on my current visa, and my count was 23. Pandit Bhikku, my guide and translator, was off meditating in Singapore. So I was on my own to solve this problem. Pim sent me a text message: "Jai yen yen."

The telephone numbers I had for the department chair at Wat Si and the assistant dean of faculty were either incorrect or not working. I called an Indian professor who will teach psychology next term but his English was not up to a phone conversation, even with the assist of a friend. Numbers for two different offices at the school went unanswered. So I had the bright idea of faxing the information I had been given about the missing documents (I even had the Immigration officer's mobile phone number to call for information) and I trudged up to a nearby office with a fax machine. But the fax at Wat Si did not respond. So I went home and took a nap.

In the late afternoon, Dr. Suriya, the head of the department of foreign languages, picked up the phone. "Dr. William," he said. I told him I had a problem with my visa and asked if I could fax the information to him. "Oh no, the fax is not working," he explained. A half hour later, wearing a dress shirt and tie (Thais expect their professors to look formal) in 95-degree heat, I was on the bus to Wat Si. Dr. Suriya listened to my litany of woes and said: "The dean must provide these documents. But he is in Vietnam." Suriya himself is off to Singapore next week. The term, which was due to start May 16, has been delayed until May 26 (Pandit warned me to anticipate frequent unexplained changes in schedule). My first class is May 29 and nothing much can be done before then. Mai pen rai.

One exception to Thai cool heart culture is television. Pim loves the soaps which are full of exaggerated drama, very similar to the Mexican soaps I used to watch in California to learn Spanish. The characters yell and scream at one another in very un-Thai fashion. In one, the bad son of a rich man raped his love object and the series ended with her happily giving birth to their baby. I must have missed something. The shows are either about wealthy hi-so schemers or virtuous villagers, all wearing their hearts and passions on their sleeves. And as in Thai films, ghosts and gangsters are frequently present. There are also a number of Korean soaps that have been dubbed into Thai, but the passions are the same. Last week I introduced Pim to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Over a few nights we watched "Terminator 2" and "Terminator 3" as well as "Kindergarten Cop." She was a bit surprised to find that he was the governor or my former state (so am I, I explained).

Another film we watched on TV that I somehow missed in the theaters was "Idiocracy." This science fiction comedy has the premise that selective breeding (the smart don't procreate while the idiots multiply like rabbits) results in a population of dummies by the year 2500. Is this nightmare unrealistic? I suspect we are headed in this direction. How else can we explain the leadership of George Bush? In a passionate column about the president's recent Pollyannaish statement that everything in the Middle East will turn up roses, Robert Fisk writes:
Where does the madness end? Where do words lose their meaning? Al-Qa’ida is not being defeated. Hizbollah has just won a domestic war in Lebanon, as total as Hamas’s war in Gaza. Afghanistan and Iraq and Lebanon and Gaza are hell disasters — I need no apology to quote Churchill’s description of 1948 Palestine yet again — and this foolish, stupid, vicious man is lying to the world yet again.
The support that brought Bush to the White House, twice (if you accept the Supreme Court's ruling), can only be explained by attributing the dumbing down of Americans to a genetic slide. John McCain, or McBush as he is being accurately labeled, claims the war in Iraq will end with our side winning in 2013 (after eight years of his rule, I suppose). This is indeed delusion or madness. Bush is desperately describing Obama and those who would negotiate with Iran as appeasers similar to diplomats who believed talking to Hitler would have avoided war.

Bill Moyers, in a taste from his new book on democracy, tells it like it is:
The earth we share as our common gift, to be passed on in good condition to our children’s children, is being despoiled. Private wealth is growing as public needs increase apace. Our Constitution is perilously close to being consigned to the valley of the shadow of death, betrayed by a powerful cabal of secrecy-obsessed authoritarians. Terms like “liberty” and “individual freedom” invoked by generations of Americans who battled to widen the 1787 promise to “promote the general welfare” have been perverted to create a government primarily dedicated to the welfare of the state and the political class that runs it. Yes, Virginia, there is a class war and ordinary people are losing it.

But in California the courts have ruled that gay men and women can marry just like their heterosexual counterparts. Ellen DeGeneris is off to the altar with her partner. In Burma the generals are withholding aid from the starving victims of Cyclone Nargis, in China thousands of children were crushed in their schools by a killer quake, and in Israel Bush celebrates the country's 60th anniversary (60 years of oppressing the Palestinians whose land they stole to create a Jewish state) by tarring Obama with the Nazi brush. While I believe gays should be afforded all the rights and privileges of any other group, I wonder how the possibility of marriage can be counted as a victory in the face of so many defeats. How can one maintain a jai yen yen?

Respected political philosopher Sheldon Wolin has written a new book, Democracy Incorporated, in which he coins the terms "inverted totalitarianism" and "managed democracy" to explain the perverted state of corporate capitalism in America. In his review on, Chalmers Johnson (who was a student of Wolin's at UC Berkeley) praises the book as "comprehensive diagnosis of our failings as a democratic polity." One of the tasks of managed democracy is to
keep the citizenry preoccupied with peripheral and/or private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of the public trust. In Wolin’s words, “The point about disputes on such topics as the value of sexual abstinence, the role of religious charities in state-funded activities, the question of gay marriage, and the like, is that they are not framed to be resolved. Their political function is to divide the citizenry while obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns of the general populace.”
Once again, a pundit points out the often hidden class war in America. Wolin believes that our political system, dominated by corporations and the military, is “shot through with corruption and awash in contributions primarily from wealthy and corporate donors.” Johnson concludes: "Many analysts, myself included, would conclude that Wolin has made a close to airtight case that the American republic’s days are numbered." This sounds like a book we should all read.

Here in Thailand I am fascinated by the sale of pink nipple cream. I spotted a jar promoting that outcome in a store at MBK, the giant shopping mall. Many Thai women, sentenced by genetics to life inside of brown skin, yearn to be white. There are almost no dark-skinned women in the advertisements you see. The shelves of pharmacies are filled with skin whitening agents. There was a story in the press of a girl who bathed in bleach because she thought it would make her white. As a side note, Thai women do not shave their armpits. They pluck out the hairs with tweezers, one by one. It's a national obsession. Another surprise: You can buy white bread in the stores here with the crusts cut off. Pim prefers it.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: Einstein did not believe in God, according to a recently discovered letter written in 1954 to philosopher Eric Gutkind. In the letter, which sold at an auction in New York for $404,000, Einstein called the Bible “pretty childish” and ridiculed the notion that the Jews could be a “chosen people.” Richard Dawkins, leader of the New Atheist movement, was an unsuccessful bidder. In his voluminous writings, Einstein has led some people to think he is a believer, or sorts. He refers to God as a metaphor for physical law, and in a rebuke to quantum mechanics argued that "God doesn't play dice." His statement that "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind" has led some to call him as a witness for the religious theory of "intelligent design." But in the expensive letter, the scientist writes "the Bible is a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends," and says the Jewish religion "like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." Perhaps the most that one can claim now is that Einstein was spiritual but not religious (today's fastest growing sect).

The rambutan is in season and on sale everywhere. It looks like a hairy strawberry. Inside the soft outer shell is a delicious white pulp around a nut that looks a little like lychee. It grows only in southeast Asia and, along with the mangosteen (a purple fruit also seen in this photo) which is also in season, gives the street stalls in Bangkok an exotic character. Add durian and mangoes to the mix and you have a diet unparalleled elsewhere. I find the durian's rotten smell a bit off-putting (Pim loves them) but I could eat mangoes and sticky rice forever. I've recently learned that Thailand has limes but no lemons, even though the word for the small green citrus fruit is manaao which translates as both lemon and lime. Since I prefer lime to lemon juice, I'm sitting pretty here.

I've never met a social network that I didn't like, and I've joined a number of them to, as they say, "network and meet new friends." You can find me on Facebook, Tagged, Twitter, Friendster, Netlog, Tribe, a few local sites like Thailandsocial and ThailandFriends, as well as Yahoo 360 and Windows Live Space, not to mention some dating sites such as OkCupid and ThaiLoveLinks. I tried MySpace for a while but felt dreadfully over-aged. From my very first glimpse of the World Wide Web, I was convinced that this technology would change the way people communicated. It took me longer to grasp the significance of mobile phones, but now I'm a dedicated user. With the internet and cell phones, time and space have become irrelevant. Humans can connect anywhere and anytime (this same ease of use means that over-worked employees must be available 24/7). Many of my friends and three of my four children have not realized this. They think that I have gone to a distant place, like Gauguin to Tahiti, and have thus disappeared from their lives. Even though we used to chat regularly by email and phone when I was in California, now to be out of sight is to also be out of mind. This saddens me. No friend or child is replaceable. I haven't seen Pete for over thirty years, but we chat now by email as if time had stopped. And I've found other old friends through the social networks I've joined, particularly Facebook. Where is McLuhan now that we really need him to describe and explain the new hot and cool interconnectedness of humanity?

Technology is no free ride. I've been suffering from connection problems for several months. The folks in the office at Siam Court tried to convince me that it was my dependence on a Mac that was the problem. Apple is a discriminated minority here. But Pim's PC portable also had difficult with the Ethernet connection in our room. Finally, an "engineer" discovered that the router was at fault. It was tucked in the ceiling of the 9th floor, two floors above me. A new router did the trick and now I can download torrents day and night. I am also trying to understand the new technology that enables mobiles to become modems. It works with the Nokia Pim borrows from her friend, but my attempt to connect my Razr to the MacBook with Bluetooth produced connection speeds too slow to load web pages. The three major telecom firms here in Thailand are all developing new ways to connect laptops to the internet, but the explanations of how it all works (or doesn't) that I've found are still too technical for my limited understanding.

Back in California a few friends kept a no-shoe rule for their homes. Here in Thailand it's a general rule everywhere. Shoes that cannot be taken off and put back on easily are a pain. My new black loafers, aside from the blisters they've given me after being shrunk by the rain, are too sticky. At Wat Si I will need easily removable but suitably formal footwear. Flip-flops or Crocs, which I love, will probably not do. This pictures was taken one weekend at the Chulalongkorn Book Store where the children's reading room was packed.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I used to love the song "Tradition" from the classic musical "Fiddler on the Roof" until I listened carefully to the lyrics. Tevye, a Jewish milkman in a village in Tsarist Russian, has five daughters. They need husbands and the Jew-hating peasants who surround them need scapegoats for their poverty. Survival, Tevye sings, depends on obedience to ancient traditions, like patriarchy and Jewish insularity. But the daughters defy their father and marry for love and the village's Jews are evicted in a pogrom. So in the end, adherence to tradition is no life raft.

In Thailand, however, tradition rules. Yesterday morning, as an armchair tourist, I watched on television the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony on the field of Sanam Luang across from the Grand Palace. A tradition which may (or may not) go back to the time of the Buddha in India was reenacted before Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn and his wife, and a very select audience. Two sacred white oxen were led around the field by the Phraya Raekna ("Lord of the Plough"), coincidentally the secretary of agriculture, who scattered rice seed that had been blessed the night before from gold and silver buckets carried by four consecrated "angels" (four female employees of the Ministry of Agriculture). Astrologers had chosen the day and time of the Brahman ceremony. After the symbolic ploughing, the two beasts were offered a selection from seven different bowls of food and their choices enabled soothsayers to predict the future. Because they picked rice and grass, it was determined there would be an abundance of food this season and bountiful rice yields. The Phraya Raekna also chose one of three folded pieces of cloth of different lengths. Because he picked the one of medium length, it was announced that this signified an average rainfall this year. At the close of the ceremony, members of the public who had been kept at a distance (hence my decision to watch it on TV) raced into the field to pick up some of the sacred seeds which might help them with the double threat of falling prices and food shortages that economists, using more mundane evidence, are predicting.

Historians cast a jaundiced eye on the notion of "tradition." Most traditions are historical; they had a beginning in time, and were usually developed to preserve the power of elites, either males in the case of patriarchy, or governments like the one in Thailand where to question the alliance of military, merchants and the monarchy is a punishable offense. On the other hand, state rituals like the ploughing ceremony are colorful and fascinating, a field day for cultural anthropologies, even armchair ones. I recall studying political rituals with Tak Fujitani at UC Santa Cruz 17 years ago. Our text was The Invention of Tradition, a terrific collection of papers on the topic edited by Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm. Tak's field of study were the rituals that defined and protected the Japanese Emperor. The Royal Ploughing Ceremony (which is also celebrated in Cambodia) was a big event in 16th century Sukhuthai, but it was discontinued by King Rama VII in the 1920s. It was revived in 1960 by King Bhumibol Adulyadej during the military dictatorship of Sarit Dhanarajata who attempted to unite the country under his "Nation, Religion, King" motto. Elaborate rituals that inspired awe and obedience were the glue that held them together.

If Burma had a king, perhaps the military might be more tempered in its oppression of the people (it is believed that King Bhumibol, AKA Rama IX, has restrained his soldiers several times, in the 1970s and 1990s, from a wholesale slaughter of his subjects). But the last king of Burma was deposed when the British took over in 1885. Now that sorry country not far to the northeast of here is suffering under the double whammy of a repressive military regime and a major natural disaster made worse because of the government's secrecy and ineptitude. In 1989, the ruling junta changed the name of the country to Myanmar a year after thousands were killed in a popular uprising. Much of the world, including the UN, has accepted the name change, but Britain and the U.S. avoid it to support Burma's now almost invisible democracy movement. The generals are currently promoting a sham referendum on a constitution designed to legalize their 46-year domination, but voting is delayed in the Irawaddy delta where a large percentage of the land is now under water after the destruction force of Cyclone Nargis which has killed probably over 100,000 potential voters. The UN and the EU and Asian states should take over and liberate that poor country. But that's about as likely as Bush admitting that Iraq was a mistake.

Claudia had just returned from Burma when our Little Bang(kok) Sangha met on Thursday for a talk by Steve and Rosemary Weissman at the Baan Ari Library. During the Q&A session, she spoke of her anger at seeing the devastation there and the government's inability to cope, and asked the popular vipassana meditation teachers how to handle her feelings. "There is a form of righteous anger," Steve said, "which we call 'wise aversion' to distinguish it from aversion caused by fear and hatred." I was happy to hear them approve of strong feelings provoked by witnessing injustice wherever it is found. This is the teaching from the dhamma that motivates the engaged Buddhism that I like, one that encourages active compassion for others rather than a retreat into nirvanic escapism. Steve from the U.S. and Rosemary from Australia have been leading 10-day meditation retreats for twenty years at Wat Kow Tahm (Mountain Cave Monastery) on the island of Koh Phangan next to Koh Samui (it's no doubt popular with full moon ravers who moderate their partying with a dose of spirituality). Steve spoke to the Bangkok English group about the 10 qualities or perfections: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving kindness and equanimity. And Rosemary emphasize the necessity to balance compassion with loving-kindness, and vice versa. I found their teaching full of simple truths which bear repeating, and the presentation was obviously one they had given many times in the past. The experience of meditating on a Thai island with them would undoubtably be more inspiring than a talk in the big city.

Quite by accident last week, I turned on CNN just after Barack Obama had just won the North Carolina primary. I haven't been very interested in the primaries in America. The seven-year reign of George Bush has made me ashamed to be an American. And the lack of enthusiasm for regime change (why aren't Americans undertaking mass, non-violent protests as they did, successfully, during the Vietnam misadventure?) has convinced me that hope is no longer alive in the country of my birth. Hillary is a clone of Bill, a pro-business, pro-globalization politician who does not have the best interests of the masses in her heart. I didn't think much of Obama, particularly after he disowned his pastor, a man whose right on, anti-American sentiments reflect my own. But I was impressed by the speech I saw after winning in North Carolina. He called himself an "imperfect messager," a wonderful admission to hamstring the mud slingers.
The other side can label and name-call all they want, but I trust the American people to recognize that it is not surrender to end the war in Iraq so that we can rebuild our military and go after al-Qaida's leaders.

I trust the American people to understand that it is not weakness, but wisdom to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did.
That's terrific stuff, coming from someone who has to beat the despicable John McCain to take back control of America from the neo-cons and their ilk.
Somewhere along the line, between all the bickering and the influence-peddling and the game-playing of the last few decades, Washington and Wall Street have lost touch with these core values, these American values. And while I honor John McCain's service to his country, his ideas for America are out of touch with these core values. His plans for the future, of continuing a war that has not made us safer, of continuing George Bush's economic policies that he claims have made great progress, these are nothing more than the failed policies of the past. His plan to win in November appears to come from the very same play book that his side has used time after time in election after election.
It looks like I will register to vote after all.

Next week is crunch time in the race to get a new non-immigrant B visa which will allow me to work and to begin the complicated application process for a work permit before the school term begins at Wat Si (full name: Wat Srisudaram Worawiharn). On Wednesday Pandit Bhikku and I met at the school for undergraduates of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (try saying that with your mouth full), the Buddhist institution that seems to think a Ph.d. from California will be a feather in its cap. Since it was between terms, the campus was like a ghost town, with only a few orange-clad student monks about. I've now got an offer of employment from Dr. Suriya, the head of the foreign language department, which invites me to teach two three-hour classes (or perhaps three two-hour classes, it's not clear) in "Listening & Speaking English III" on Thursday afternoons. After a long wait, the faculty dean at Wat Si signed a letter asking the Immigration Office to convert my tourist visa into a working visa, but the final letter must come from the dean of the university which is headquartered across the river in the precincts of Wat Mahathat. He was not in the office that afternoon and the school would be closed for a four-day weekend to honor the Buddhist quarter moon holiday. Besides, the letter we presented for him contained two different dates. After having the letter retyped and the offending date removed (it was all in Thai so I couldn't read it), we gave it to a typical power-hungry administrative secretary who asked me to call next Tuesday to see if it had been signed (hopefully, with Pim translating). Apparently some students recently have encountered difficulties in trying to convert a tourist visa to a student one, and it's possible the university dean may decline to sign the letter, Pandit advised me, in order to save face. And even if he signs it, the Immigration Office may decide not to honor it. In which case, I must quickly return to Vientiane where the visa application should be successful (though nothing is certain the Byzantine world of Thai bureaucracy). With the visa in hand, then I can seek a work permit. But since I'll probably begin teaching before it's granted, I'll ultimately have to pay a fine.

Since the school term begins at the end of next week, my first class should begin May 22nd. But Pandit, who got his undergraduate degree at Wat Si and who has taught there as well (I've apparently taken his bread-and-butter job away from him this term), warns me that many students frequently fail to show up for the first couple of weeks. In addition, classes are frequently cancelled for the many Buddhist holidays. No matter. I purchased a set of the New Headway (3rd edition) Elementary course books, published by Oxford University Press, for teaching English to non-English speakers, and now I am attempting to turn the 14 units into a 16-week lesson plan, with a midterm and final exam, with points and percentages for grading. As usual in putting together a course syllabus, I waver between improvisation to encourage spontaneity and surprise with the students and a rigid outline which will protect me from indecision and, perish the thought, failure (the west's version of loss of face). Sangha member Mark, who is studying with Pandit, lived in Japan for many years and he gave me a variety of techniques and games to play with students. One that appealed to me involved playing hip hop songs on my iPod and getting them to recognize the lyrics (even I will have trouble with that). Whenever I start to worry, Pandit and Dr. Holly counsel me on staying loose and letting my teaching career be led by the Thai mantra: "Mai pen rai" (which can be freely translated as "never mind, whatever...").

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Self and Sunglasses

Selflessness is the goal of Buddhist practice. The acceptance of no-self leads to liberation from suffering, from the pain caused by the ego's demands.

Pim returned from Kalasin last week without her new sunglasses. "I gave them to my mom," she told me. "She thought they looked nice and asked me for them." I bought them for her not long ago at MBK for about $20 to replace another, cheaper, pair she had lost. That she could give them away so easily I found amazing, and admirable.

"Any other guy would be angry," Jerry said when I told him about it. We both knew, however, that Thais have been socialized differently than we western individualists. That it was her mom whom she gave the sunglasses to was important, but I think Pim would have done the same for a good friend. I think her self has less of a hold on her than mine. I can barely be generous to beggars.

Pim's relative lack of self-interest came up in another way last week. She told me that her mother was going to divorce her step-father after ten years of marriage. Neither of the sisters like him; he speaks little and gambles too much. Her mother has a large house in a small village, left her by the husband who died when Pim was 12. After the insurance money ran out, Pim told me, times were hard. Her mother "sold things" from a street stall. Now that she will be on her own again, she has asked Pim to contribute 6,000 baht for her monthly support (she currently gives her mother 1,000 baht a month).

This means, Pim told me, that she will have to get a second job, like the one she had two years ago when she worked as a cashier in a Khao San Road bar/restaurant, making 200 baht ($6) for an eight-hour shift from 6 pm to 2 am six days a week. She would only get five hours of sleep a night before getting up to go to work at the Thailand Post, and would have no time for anything, much less me. She told this to me as if it was a fait accompli, with no second thoughts. "I don't have a Ph.d.," she once told me. "I can't get any kind of work like you."

I am unable to solve the problem of the world's poverty, but I can have an impact here. I told her I would give her 5,000 baht a month for her mother so she wouldn't have to take another job. This donation, according to Pim's account of the conversation, was accepted gratefully. But the gift was not devoid of self interest on my part. I want Pim's mother to know and accept that we are living together. Pim thought the contribution would show my love and intention, but she has not yet said anything yet behind the bare bones of "I have an old farang man as a boyfriend. He loves me and I love him."

We're not out of the woods yet. Pim returned from Kalasin thinking that she should move back into a dormitory room because he mother would be upset if she knew her unmarried daughter was living with a man. Support from me was a possible way to get around this (with a promise of marriage in the future). Although her mother and sister now know about me, she has yet to tell any of her friends and fellow workers at the post office. She told me she is too concerned about what they might think of her, of losing face by revealing her secret love affair with an old man (the self has to find a foothold somewhere). This morning her aunt, who lives several streets away with her Japanese husband and three children, saw us walking together to the motorbike taxi stand. Pim has long been worried this might happen and sent me a troubled text message after she got to work. "I have to think," she said.

The self is "all in a tangle," David Holmes told the monthly gathering at the World Buddhist University in Bangkok last Sunday. The Canadian teacher and author has lived in Asia for many years and has been an editor for the Buddhist Publications Society in Sri Lanka since 1986. He quoted the Brahmanasamyutta, in which the Buddha is addressed by a brahmin:
A tangle inside, a tangle outside
This generation is entangled in a tangle.
I ask you this, O Gotama
Who can disentangle the tangle?
This is a question that can be asked of every generation, Holmes said, and indeed of every so-called self. The reason "the mind gets all enmeshed and entangled in feelings and thoughts" is because we see things "as other than they actually are," and get attached to our perspectives. Lust and hatred are among the cravings that result, but it is in the idea of self-importance that much energy is exerted, he said.
If people could only see themselves as they actually are, they would know that all their lusts and desires and hatreds are all delusional, and based on the idea of 'self' having certain rights to enjoyment in the world without considering the rights of others.
The method of deliverance is a process of total discipline, the Buddha's Eightfold Path, on which I frequently stumble. The training in virtue, meditation and wisdom leads, Holmes said, to disentanglement, to "liberation and deliverance from this world." That I am not yet ready to leave should be apparent, and perhaps explains why I remain selfishly attached to so many beautiful facets of this world, like Pim.

My self is dug in with both feet. I don't want to lose her. I'm aware of the absurdity of our position, a young Thai girl and a very old farang man who has less money than the general run-of-the-mill expatriate in Bangkok. The "bride price" Pim's mother would require to save face in her village would likely take a third of my dwindling savings, money I want to keep for medical and dental emergencies as well as travel, necessary and for pleasure. Right now Pim and I live in a bubble, insulated from most of her world. Either she will be able to come to terms with the displeasure of others who find me unsuitable, or we will have to separate.

I told Jerry yesterday that I am becoming a full-fledged hedonist in Thailand, letting my ascetic spiritual practices atrophy. I know it would be better for Pim to find a younger man, one who could give her children. If I love her and want what's best for her, I should encourage her to leave me. But it is also possible that she would not find anyone. She is in her late twenties, over the hill for a Thai woman, and her preference for farang men, with whom she can speak English, narrows the field considerably. There are alot of unprincipled sex tourists in this city looking for one-night stands (her previous "boyfriend" was one of them). Until her sister graduates from college, Pim will be the sole support of her mother and will have to work all the time. She is neither glamorous nor conventionally beautiful. She thinks her breasts and legs are too big, and it will be another year before her braces are removed. I find her naturalness and simplicity attractive. She doesn't paint her toenails!

Somehow the situation will have to be resolved, and soon. Last week, when I feared she would move back to a dormitory room, I was distraught. A brain storm of the first magnitude. But then the dark clouds passed. They could come again.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Emily Post in Bangkok

How did I ever live without tooth picks? You find them along with napkins on every restaurant table in Thailand (and in most of the countries outside of the U.S. I have visited), and we have a small plastic container of them on our shelf of essentials at home. On my first visit here, Jerry taught me how to properly pick teeth in public by discreetly covering the mouth with the other hand. Openly picking one's teeth is very un-Thai, like licking your fingers or blowing your nose at the dinner table.

Understanding and assimilating cultural differences is the expat's constant duty. Thais are celebrating Labor Day today, at the beginning of their summer season rather than at the end as the U.S. does. May Day began as the Celtic Beltane and morphed into Walpurgis Night in Europe. When I was a kid we danced around a may pole, which I later learned had phallic undertones. The socialists turned May 1 into International Worker's Day, and much of the world now, like Thailand, celebrates the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. Salaried workers take the day off, but the street stalls are open for business, and the friendly lady who operates a small grocery and newsstand near my apartment sold me a Bangkok Post this morning. She is open every day. Most stalls are closed on Mondays (by law, not by choice). Originally, Labor Day was established to mark the eight-hour day. According to the headline, 5,000 "angry workers" will rally today for a raise in the minimum daily wage to 223 baht ($7). Wages currently range between 144 to 195 baht a day, without any eight-hour protection. America, always different, declared May 1 in 1958 to be "Loyalty Day," a day set aside for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom. Ha! Since it's not a federal holiday, however, most Americans do not even know about it.

Pim has returned home to Kalasin to attend a friend's wedding. She drove to the remote northeastern Isan province in a friend's car on a rainy night, a trip that took them over 10 hours. She has learned how to connect her small portable PC to the internet by mobile phone and we can communicate with each other on MSN Messenger by text and video cam. Yesterday she took me via the cam through her large family home and into her mother's lush garden. Will technology's cornucopia of wonders ever be exhausted?

The big news in our relationship is that I am no longer a secret. A week ago, Pim confessed to me in tears what a heavy burden it was to continually tell lies, particularly to her mother. I encouraged her to speak the truth about us. After we met last September and began living together in January, she chose to hide from family and friends the fact that she had a much older farang boyfriend. But a month ago when her younger sister Song came to Bangkok, Pim brought her to meet me. And Song apparently gave the game away by giggling when her mother said that Pim's grandfather long ago had predicted that her sister's soul mate would be an older man. Mom called Pim to pointedly ask if she had a boyfriend, and in a long conversation that night she told her about me, omitting the little detail that we are living together. After arriving in Kalasin, Pim introduced me to Mit, her ma, on the phone (not easy, as she speaks little English), and later we looked at each other over the video link. I put on a nice shirt and brushed my hair.

So our summer-fall romance has entered a new season. When she first heard, Pim's mom spoke of coming soon to Bangkok to meet me, maybe even this week. I'm not sure if that's still in the cards. Song, who had gotten in trouble with her relatives for living with her boyfriend, is now on her own, having broken up with him over another woman (or two). It's a big family. Pim's maternal grandmother had nine kids and her paternal grandmother, eleven. Her father's family are mostly teachers and are more conservative than her mother's relatives who are primarily farmers. Going public means that we are on track to be married. Living in sin is not an option in Thai culture. Of course, mom, who is younger than my last ex wife, may decide I am not a suitable son-in-law (either too old or too poor). In which case Pim, as a dutiful daughter, must bid me goodbye. The next few months will indeed be interesting.

Intense negotiations are going on at a distance between my sponsor, Pandit Bhikku, and the administrators at Wat Si and Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University over my appointment as a "special" professor, with the task of teaching English to young monks in the undergraduate foreign language department at Wat Si. As soon as paperwork is completed, I will need to apply for a new visa, one which allows me to work, either with another trip to Vientiane or at the Immigration Office in Bangkok. Concurrently, I need to also apply for a work permit from the Thai Labor Department, which will require a so far unknown quantity of detailed backup documents. All of my sources, online and off, seem to have different ideas about how this should be done. My confidence in it all coming to pass waxes and wanes. But I did buy two more pairs of slacks, another belt, and two more dress shirts at MBK the other day. Today I may go looking for a nice shoulder bag to hold my books. All for a job that will take six hours one afternoon a week. Pandit has also cautioned me not to expect timely paychecks.
I am deep into subversive literature. I'm reading A Coup for the Rich: Thailand's Political Crisis by Giles Ji Ungpakorn, professor of politics at Chulalongkorn University. It was taken off the university's bookshelves recently when police discovered a footnote which linked it to another banned book. Thailand's modern history, and the domination of government by the military since the Vietnam War era with the blessings of the monarchy, is a fascinating subject. Since the 1930's, that history has been punctuated by military coups and rewritten or abolished constitutions. Thai democracy has been redefined as a political system led by a Chakri dynasty king (or queen). His majest is adored by Thai people, and all factions seek his support. Criticism of the monarchy, or lèse majesté, carries harsh penalties in Thailand. Recently an activist was prosecuted for not standing up during the national anthem which is played in all cinemas before every film.

I like His majesty's "sufficiency economy" which owes much to E. F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful (whose chapter on "Buddhist Economics" which HM translated into Thai). And I've always been partial to royals that played the clarinet and saxophone. Ascending unexpectedly to the throne in 1946 after his older brother died of a mysterious gunshot wound, the King is certainly a complex person, the product of many unique experiences, whose real thoughts are shrouded in elliptic pronouncements and mystifying rituals which treat him as a deity. The history of modern Thailand is his history. But the family of the King, who turned 80 last year, presents future problems. After him, the Deluge.