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.

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