Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Daily Grind

In the mornings I walk Pim a short distance to the motorbike taxi stand for the beginning of her commute across town to work at the P.O. I wonder what the security guards at Siam Court and the taxi drivers waiting for tourists outside the Woraburi Hotel next door think of the old farang and his young girlfriend who, because she is dressed in pressed black slacks and a yellow, pink or red polo shirt, is obviously not a lady of the night. We do not hold hands because she is still concerned that a relative who lives not far away might see us and ask embarrassing questions. Even though her mother and best friends now know about us, we are not yet fully public.

Daily life for me in Bangkok is no grind, not in the sense of a struggle to polish the stones one is given. It is more of a joie de vivre, like the bump and grind of an erotic dancer, a celebration of possibilities.

After Pim leaves, I saunter back down the soi (trying to master the distinctively slow stroll of a Bangkok native) to the small store where I buy a copy of the Bangkok Post and, if needed, bottled water, milk and bread. I am now a regular customer, and she listens to my fractured Thai with good humor and helps me to master at least the prices (today it was roi yee sip et, 121 baht). I nod sawasdee kap to the man opening the food stall in front of Siam Court. He told Pim he saw me every day but was too shy to say hello. This morning he laughed and responded in kind. As I passed the pool, I noticed a family of Indians I had not seen before. The pool is rarely used in the morning by regulars. We had intended to go to the small gym on the second floor this morning but woke up too late. This month, in a quest to counter the effects of too much ice cream, we've been twice to use the treadmill, stationary bike, and weights. But regularity in the exercise realm is a challenge.

I'm going to miss this neighborhood when we move in less than three weeks. In the nine months I've lived on lower Soi 4, I've grown accustomed to the people I see most every day -- selling, working and walking -- and the landscape of tall buildings interspersed with the large mansions of the very rich, all which seem like home. I'll miss Nong who cuts my hair, the women across from the Omni who do my laundry, the hand-in-hand Thai-farang couples, the vendor who sells me sliced pineapple, the sidewalk seamstresses (male and female) who take care of my sewing needs, the girls by the bar doors with their "Hello! Welcome!," the home-brewed whiskey seller and the curbside restaurants, the beggar who always gives me a smile and a hi5 even when I contribute nothing, and the convenience of the 7-11 (there are now two of them on Jerry's Soi 8). I'm sure I'll find similar facilities and faces in Pin Klao, but it will take awhile to recreate the comforts of home.

This is an employment contract. And even though I can't read the fine print (or any of it, actually, save for my name), I signed it. Pim tried to translate it for me but the technical lingo, even in Thai, defeated her. It does say, she told me, that I've been hired for a year at a salary of 12,000 baht a month. At 6 hours a week, that works out to about 500 baht an hour, more than twice what the average laborer makes in a day, and a couple of hundred more than Pim's salary for six days a week. Finally my Ph.D. comes in handy. At a minimum it will pay for rent (not including internet, TV cable, electricity or water). One of my fellow teachers, an Indian, was horrified and presumed I lived in a huge apartment. No, I said, but it's furnished. I wrote the other day about the special trip to the head office of Mahachula to get the contract. Tuesday I discovered it had finally been signed and was awaiting pickup. I collected the assembled documents and rushed in a taxi to the Immigration office across the city. The hall outside Room 303 was full of people standing, sitting and sleeping. But my room was almost empty, and soon I sat opposite a grim-faced man in a pink shirt who gave my papers a cursory look and demanded the fee of 2000 baht to convert my visa from tourist to "non-immigrant B" which will allow me to work. After an additional wait, he handed me a receipt and told me to return in two weeks to retrieve my visa stamp. Oh joy! The worries that had kept me up nights were dispelled in an instant. But knowing my mind, there are always frets and fears waiting in the wings. For example: As soon as I get the visa, I will have 90 days to secure a work permit, and I've been told this is a much tougher and time-consuming process.

My students are beginning to use email to contact me and I think it will help them to extend their conversations outside the classroom. Of course, the flood of stories and requests for advice may inundate me like the villagers in China threatened by the earthquake lake, only this is a quake of my own making. Ven. Sam writes to tell me that he's one of six children from Luang Prabang, Laos. He likes English so much, he says, that he wants to study for a master's degree in linguistics. A little later, he sends me Robert Frost's famous poem, "Fire and Ice," and asks my opinion of its meaning. I tell him that it might resonate with the Buddha's teaching on the dangers of desire and hatred. Phra Sukon gave me a handwritten story of his life (it was my first writing assignment). This 22-year-old monk is also from a village in Laos and he writes of the death of his mother, after which he put on the robes of a novice. When he came to Bangkok to study he had to go door to door from temple to temple to find a place that would take him in. Foreign students, even monks, are apparently not always appreciated in Thailand. The Ven. Loiherng Pannapawga, from Shan State in Myanmar, sent me an essay he's written about a "Chanceless Children Development Center" in Nyaung Shwe township which includes the large Inle Lake, and asked my help with his English. I hadn't heard the expression "chanceless children," but a quick internet check uncovered numerous uses of the phrase to describe children at risk in foreign places. Phra Loiherng, who is 28, wrote that the center was established in 2001 by a group of abbots and laymen to help poor children continue in school past the government primary education. The current economic situation in his distressed country makes it difficult to take the 12 children who have applied this year, he said. The essay is designed to appeal for funds from NGOs in Thailand.

I feel incredibly lucky to have blundered into this job where I can see into worlds I only faintly knew from the news. I've been reading Little Angels: Life as a Novice Monk in Thailand by a former monk from England, whose name when he wrote it was Phra Peter Pannapadipo. It details the lives of mostly teenagers whose poverty forced them into the temples for an education, and to save their families the expense of raising them. Like my students, their parents were mostly rice farmers, or, occasionally, teachers. Most disrobbed following graduation from high school to take a secular job, but a number of them continued on in university where they used their education to help others like themselves. Of the 37 students in my classes I have polled so far, 16 are from countries other than Thailand: 4 from Cambodia, 6 from Laos, and 6 from Shan State, Myanmar.

This is definitely the monsoon season. The daily storms come from the southwest, driven by winds over the Andaman Sea towards Burma and Thailand, although the dark storm clouds I see out my window usually form to the north of here. Every day seems to feature at least one downpour, and sometimes a torrent so heavy that umbrellas are useless. The cloud formations can be gorgeous (with sunsets and dawns to die for), and when the sun shines out of the pale blue sky it's very hot. Last night there was yet another spectacular display of thunder and lightning. I stood on our small balcony and gazed at the natural sound and light show, wondering if the electricity was the cause of the euphoria I've been feeling (or whether it's just the fact that I've jumped another bureaucratic hurdle in my pursuit of working papers).

There's a major football event going on in Europe, and the Thais are big fans. But the matches at Euro2008 in Switzerland and Austria take place after midnight here. A big screen was erected by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to increase attendance at their rally which has closed a major bridge across from the UN headquarters. More than 10,000 come in the evenings to hear speeches denouncing the (democratically elected) government and watch football. I have the dates for the Olympics in August marked on my calendar. I've never been much of a jock, but I do like to see singular events, like the World Cup and the Superbowl. Gerry got me interested in track & field when we were runners together a few generations ago, and I especially like the winter sports events, watching them from the comfort of my home.

What keeps us glued to the screen these days is "Academy Fantasia 5," a reality show cum singing contest in which the audience votes (many times, I suspect) for their favorites. The show is sponsored by True, a communications conglomerate which owns a cellular service as well as the main TV cable company and assorted spin-offs. The contestants live together and their activities are televised 24/7 on channel 20. At meal times we can watch them eat in the well-apportioned mansion where they live and at night see them sleep in their dormitory rooms. We watch them swim in a huge pool and rehearse in the house's studio. Every Saturday there is a televised performance in a large auditorium. None of the current crop seem especially talented to me. They sing well-known Thai songs and each production has a theme Last week it was ensemble numbers with lots of dancing. Next Saturday it will be traditional Thai love ballads. The sets are extravagant and the costumes, to my eye at least, tacky and vulgar (but colorful). So why am I hooked? There is something appealing about a talent show, even if the participants are not destined for greatness. I'm fascinated by the diffusion of the American entertainment aesthetic and how it takes root in different cultures. In Thailand, generosity and enthusiasm somehow dilute the corrosiveness of competitiveness. (Thanks to YouTube for the samples above and below).

After extensive auditions, the season begins with 16 young entertainers, and each week one or more (the low vote getters) are removed. Last week it was Wahn, a sweet young man with buck teeth. Each of the performers has a nickname and number and legions of fans at the show carry mass-produced signs and wear the singer's colors. Academy Fantasia was created in Mexico and is now franchised around the world. Unlike "American Idol" and the ilk, there seems little competition, and the losers are bid farewell with hugs and tears by the remaining contestants, and cheers from the audience. This is week 5 and we're down to ten. Pim likes Tab, an uncommonly large young man (in the hip-hop number above), and I like Green (singing the ballad in the sample below), a girl who is willowy and unusually tall. Last night we heard she had been taken to the hospital for an undefined ailment. In order to vote, we had to buy a True sim card for our mobile for 100 baht. For more on this phenomenon, see the Wikipedia site or the home site for the show.

And now for something complete different: "The Iran Trap" is another incisive piece by Chris Hedges, this time arguing that the Democrat nominee has dug himself a hole with his support of Israel from which it will be difficult to get out.
Obama, in a miscalculation that will have grave consequences, has given his blessing to the widening circle of violence and abuse of the Palestinians by Israel and, most dangerously, to those in the Bush White House and Jerusalem now plotting a war against Iran. He illustrates how the lust for power is morally corrosive. And while he may win the White House, by the time he takes power he will be trapped in George Bush’s alternative reality.
And Josef Joffe , a columnist in the Hamburg weekly newspaper Die Zeit, observes that
The zeitgeist is blowing for Obama -- even if not as strongly in Asia, Africa and Latin America as it is in Western Europe. But an optical illusion may be influencing our opinions: the comforting idea that the real problem is George W. Bush and not America. Out with cowboys and in with change and hope, and then we'll be able to love America once again.

So, why is this a mental delusion? First, because anti-Americanism is older than the younger Bush. Second, because Obama (probably) comes, but the superpower stays. America, this modern steam hammer of a nation, is fundamentally a destroyer.
I am very cautiously optimistic about the Obama miracle. Is America really ready to transcend racism and elect a (half) black man for president? Can he preside over the dismantling of the American empire (which is the only act that will satisfying critics outside the U.S.)? Will he be a Gorbachev, or just another Clinton?

And finally, if you want a concise overview of Thai politics today, check out this piece by Jonathan Manthorpe in the Vancouver Sun. He says things that can't be printed here or discussed publicly.

After my class Thursday, I'm off for a meditation retreat on the River Kwai not far from where the famous bridge was built by prisoners of the Japanese during WWII. Unless I get blissed out for good, the next blog will appear next week with pictures and bits of post-retreat wisdom.

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