Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Significant Milestone

Behold the gold in the visa boogie sweepstakes, a non-immigrant "B" stamp in my passport. It may only look like messy bureaucratic ink, but it is my entry ticket for the next race, an equally Byzantine application process to get a work permit. After a short wait in the Immigration office last Monday, the clerk unceremoniously handed me back my stamped passport. I expected to hear trumpets and see dancing girls. But the heavens remained silent. Nevertheless, I skipped a bit on the walk back to Silom and the Skytrain. The visa is good for three months and my exit date is, ironically, 11 September. So I now have eight weeks to get the work permit which will in turn allow me to extend the visa for a year with annual renewals. But getting a work permit is by no means certain. Everyone says the school must file for me, and so far they've been relatively clueless when it comes to hiring farang teachers. With the new visa, I can now open a bank account, I learned from our new landlord Roger last night. But I have yet to receive a paycheck from Mahachula and I'm not sure when, or in what form, it will arrive.

So on Tuesday I gathered together a packet of information on the permit process from the internet and took it to Wat Sri Sudadram to prime the pump, so to speak. But school was closed and classes canceled for the week to make way for a temple fair. Pandit Bhikku had warned me that this could happen without notice. The few bewildered monks walking around the campus had obviously also not been so informed. But I encountered a teacher and an administrative secretary in the office and explained to them my mission. I was told the material would find the proper hands when classes resume next week. And the teacher asked if I wanted to teach on Tuesdays as well as Thursdays. The 3rd year students could use a native speaker, he said. He also knew a medical doctor look for tuition in English. Was I interested? It might be hard to stay retired.

Each week I have a theme from the New Headways text. For the third week it was "The World of Work," and I talked with my students about jobs, brainstorming the English words for various occupations, and I asked them what their family members did for work and what they might like to do after graduation. They broke up into small groups for discussion and then each individually reported back to the class, a method to insure full participation. As I expected, most come from farming families with a few the sons of teachers, and almost all said they wanted to become English teachers. There were a couple planning to disrobe and go into business, and one monk said he wanted to be a tour guide. All are majoring in English and plan to graduate this year.

Last week, during "Take it Easy," we talked about what they did in their spare time. I used a prompt from the text material to encourage small group discussions which asked "How often do you...?" followed by possible leisure activities: play computer games, go to the cinema, go running, listen to music, watch TV, cook, go swimming, sunbathe. When they began speaking, I immediately realized how inappropriate the prompt questions were for monks who follow 227 strict rules governing conduct. But all watched TV (except for one who said his temple did not have a TV set), many listened to music, and most confessed to enjoying computer games. I tried to imagine them running in their saffron robes. A number told me they did exercises in their rooms. The cinema was out-of-bounds, but I expect they see movies on TV and one admitted he bought DVDs. Swimming also is difficult, although when they go home upcountry for visits some said they swam in a lake or river. Sunbathing was an entirely foreign concept to them. Thais avoid the sun and usually swim fully clothed. (Yet last weekend I saw the end of a Sunbathing Marathon in front of the large Central World shopping mall with contestants sitting in deck chairs; at least one farang was among the winning bathers). Only a couple of monks admitted that they liked to cook in their spare time, but all said they were fond of food. One earnest young monk said he liked to engage in "discussions about the Dhamma" in his free time, and also liked to "give sermons." Not a few said they liked very much to shop.

My song for the last class was "Colours" (explaining to them the British spelling) by Donovan. I thought about telling them of my acquaintance with the folksinger, but his glory had faded long before any of them were born. The week before it was Leo Sayer's "More Than I Can Say," a song I did not know suggested by one of the monks. I blank out some of the words and ask them to guess the word from hearing it sung. I'm trying to encourage the students who listen to hip hop in their spare time to suggest some songs for this exercise. This week the class was to be held on Wan Phra (Monk's Day), a religious holiday which coincides with the four phases of the moon each month. I had planned to move class to Saturday, an accepted practice, until I learned of the temple fair taking over the campus. So the students are on holiday for a week, which makes it a little easier for me to move this weekend.

Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whose office has been under siege by thousands of protesters for the last week, is facing a brutal grilling in Parliament from his critics. The proceedings, televised non-stop, will end with a vote on a motion of no confidence on Friday. While I cannot understand the words, I learn much from the body language of the adversaries. Leading the opposition is the youthful and handsome Abhisit Vejjajiva, head of the Democrat party (a Kennedy or Clinton in the making), who accused Samak of mishandling the economy and failing to ease the impact of soaring oil prices, interfering with freedom of the press and violating national interests. "Even after four months in power, the administration massively mismanaged the country, with no unity, no direction and no efficiency," Abhisit said during the parliamentary debate. Others called him a puppet of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup. One member, a medical doctor, said "The behavior of the prime minister is considered both verbally and mentally dysfunctional." Samak, an aging politician whose face, detractors say, resembles a pig's, replied, "I am medically fit and I get my checkup every three months."

But the biggest stick they have to beat up Samak is a national sovereignty issue that may be enough to topple the prime minister and his cabinet. At the center of the current flap is a thousand-year-old temple on the Cambodian border that has been an object of contention for nearly a hundred years. Built by the Khmers to honor Hindu deities, Preah Vihear is situated atop a 525-meter cliff between the two countries. In 1904 the French who ruled Cambodia got together with Siamese officials to map the border between the two countries, following the watershed line of the Dângrêk mountain range. The map, perhaps incorrectly, showed showed Preah Vihear as being on the Cambodian side. Thai forces occupied the temple after the French withdrew in 1954, and in 1962 the World Court ruled in The Hague in favor of Cambodia, since Thailand had never protested the map. After much objection, Thailand appeared to accept the ruling. The site was occupied in the 1970s and 1980s by the Khmer Rouge and many mines remain in the area. In recent years the countries had agreed that only the temple was in Cambodia while the surrounding grounds are in Thailand. The main entrance is from Thailand, and if you enter from Cambodia you have to climb a steep cliff.

The Samak government had approved Cambodia's recent application to request World Heritage status for the temple from UNESCO. But when the PAD street demonstration began to falter, after Samak apparently agreed to many of their demands, the leaders played the nationalism card by claiming that Samak had given away national sovereignty in order to benefit Thaksin's business interests in Cambodia. Suddenly the press here is full of outraged national pride. Samak's explanation that previous governments, including the military coup leaders, had supported Cambodia's claim, simply did not wash. The opposition wants his head and will settle for nothing less. As Jonathan Head wrote for the BBC in a very perceptive article, "Democracy in Thailand has always been messy. Perhaps never more so than now." Cambodia has closed the temple and has reportedly sent troops to the border. According to a Reuters story, "Fears of a major fallout over Preah Vihear are not fanciful, given that a nationalist mob torched the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh in 2003 over purported comments from a Thai soap star that Cambodia's Angkor Wat actually belonged to Thailand."

Dr. Holly and I had coffee the other day with our friend, Richard Rubacher, from Little Bang Sangha, and he brought with him a chilling show-and-tell. For five years in the 1970s, Richard was a pen pal of Charles Manson, and twice visited the convicted mastermind of the Sharon Tate murders at his California prison. He showed us a couple of the letters and although I didn't read much it was apparent that Manson was in charge of the conversation. Richard has written a couple of plays about his subject and is working on a screenplay. He told us it took him 30 years to realize Manson had been more forthcoming in his letters than in any of the other published sources on him. For a brief time Manson and Timothy Leary shared adjacent cells and apparently the two icons did not get along. Richard has a letter Manson wrote to Leary and asked him to forward, but which he kept instead. He also received a letter intended for Sandra Good, a member of Manson's diabolical family. Richard is a bon vivant who chose to retire in Bangkok where he dances the tango and goes to foreign films (current he is attending the Italian Film Festival).

I've decided to boycott Starbuck's. I know, you're saying it's a little late. The Seattle coffee giant, like a number of American fast food franchises, has blanketed the Bangkok metropolitan area. You can't turn around without seeing the Colonel or Ronald, or the unappetizing picture of a cardboard pizza. I went into a new Grill & Chill in the Siam Discovery Center only to discover it was owned by Diary Queen. The food was absolutely tasteless and filled with carbohydrates. An obesity epidemic should hit Thailand any day now. But I needed something quick and so I succumbed to the urge. There is no denying that Starbucks provides a comfy environment to sip cappuccino and read the newspapers, and I have been willing to pay the 70 baht price ($2.25) for a regular cup. But now that they've raised the price to 75 baht, I will take my business elsewhere. I actually had a cappuccino (50 baht) at one of the trendy McDonald's McCafés the other morning. Most of the other franchise cafés (Danube, True, Black Canyon and Coffee World) charge 60 baht for a regular, although I learned last night that whipped cream on an iced cappuccino costs an extra 15 baht at Coffee World. I've thought about writing a letter to the English papers on Starbucks' price gouging, but then I thought the tourists who usually sip there probably will not even notice. I should probably either give up caffeine or start buying it from street vendors (where I expect it's dirt cheap).

George Carlin, R.I.P. The comic, who dared to say the dirty words that couldn't never be said on radio or TV, has died at 71 of a heart attack. “By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” reads a message on Carlin’s web site. "In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language," according to the New York Times, "he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of American life — politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes." In 1973 he won a grammy for his comedy album (in the days before CDs), "FM & AM." It was released on his Little David Records which was distributed by my employer, Atlantic Records. Carlin was appearing at a club in Lake Tahoe the night of the Grammy ceremony in Hollywood and I was deputized to pick up his award if he won. He did, and I went on stage at the Palladium in the non-televised portion of the awards show to pick up his Grammy from presenters Burl Ives and Leslie Gore. I was in my electric blue Carnaby Street suit and had hair down over my shoulders. Later, not a little drunk, I hung out the window of my friend's car, waving the Grammy statue at all the hippies and down-and-outs on Hollywood Boulevard. This one's for you, I shouted. According to my friend Lee, here are some words from Carlin's last interview:
There is a certain amount of righteous indignation I hold for this culture, because to get back to the real root of it, to get broader about it, my opinion that is my species -- and my culture in America specifically -- have let me down and betrayed me. I think this species had great, great promise, with this great upper brain that we have, and I think we squandered it on God and Mammon. And I think this culture of ours has such promise, with the promise of real, true freedom, and then everyone has been shackled by ownership and possessions and acquisition and status and power.

And perhaps it's just a human weakness and an inevitable human story that these things happen. But there's disillusionment and some discontent in me about it. I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word "cynic'"has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. "George, you're cynical." Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist. And perhaps the flame still flickers a little, you know?
I expect that Carlin is up there in Heaven now trading words with that recently deceased icon of the right, William F. Buckley.  Until Gore Vidal passes on, Carlin should prove a worth adversary (take a puff, Bill).

My Boulder Creek friend Nick Herbert has finally entered the realm of the bloggisphere.  If there is anyone better able to analyze the passionate reality of it all, I would be surprised.  Nick, poet and physicist and lover of creation, calls his blog Quantum Tantra: Investigating New Doorways into Nature.  Take a look.

Now that I'm almost a legitimate (working) resident of Bangkok, let me count some of the ways in which I am constantly surprised here.  By public bathrooms, for example.  All of the new shopping malls have European toilets, but there are only two stalls at Wat Si so appointed.  The rest have squat toilets and my bones just won't bend that way.  At the upscale Siam Paragon, there are sinks and soap for washing but no paper towels and not even one of those annoying hand blowers which are so common.  Sometimes you can find ordinary tissue paper for drying one's hands, the kind that disintegrates upon touching anything wet.  And most surprising of all, there is nearly always a cleaning woman in the men's rooms I visit.

Bangkok is a shopper's paradise.  Everything is on sale here, and usually with a multitude of choices.  Take white out, the liquid paper for erasing mistakes.  At the stationary store in Siam Paragon I found an entire aisle devote to various kinds of white out, in different shapes and sizes.  I looked up and down for a clip board and eventually found dozens of them, but in unrecognizable shapes and sizes (mostly plastic).  Sometimes I can't find the simplest things, like file folders.  I'm not sure what substitutes, but they're hard to find.  Abundance and scarcity, a dynamic duo that preserves surprise.

That America's are more religious than anyone else (save the Islamic terrorists) is well known. But that they are exceptionally tolerant about the beliefs of others is not.  A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that while an overwhelming majority of Americans claim a belief in God, they also believe in large numbers that other religions might "lead to eternal life," including majorities among Protestants and Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus.  According to the New York Times, the findings "seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are."  Michael Lindsay, assistant director of the Center on Race, Religion and Urban Life at Rice University, told the Times:  It's that we believe in everything.  We aren't religious purists or dogmatists."   Perhaps it's the gatekeepers, the priests and pastors, who want to tell their devotees  that their particular religion has an exclusive claim on the truth.  And they are just not being followed anymore.

"Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters."  --Bob Dylan

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