Friday, September 12, 2008

The Whole World is Laughing Thailand.

Newspaper headline writers across the globe are having a field day with news of the court decision last week that Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej must resign because he hosted a TV cooking show after his election nine months ago. Here's one from the Guardian in London:

Ready, steady ... quit!
Pork leg in Coca-Cola does for Thai PM

A friend sent me a clip from CNN coverage of the story and asked "Is this for real?"

Yes. And most reports have used the word "farce."

A constitutional court ruled that Samak and his entire cabinet must quit over the program, a long-running cookery show called "Tasting, Grumbling," that he had hosted for the past eight years while he was Bangkok's governor, but gave up in April two months after becoming PM. Wearing an apron, the passionate gourmet would prepare on camera traditional Thai recipes like pork leg in Coca-Cola, before indulging in a rant on a variety of topics. The grumpy right-winger was a frequent visitor at restaurants or food stalls, followed by photographers as he offered cooking advice. He also hung out at "wet" food markets in Bangkok and while visiting other countries, where he demonstrated an expert knowledge of produce. The judges ruled Samak violated a clause in the constitution, which was rewritten after the 2006 military coup to eliminate conflicts of interest that plagued the rule of the telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra (whom the coup overthrew).

"This is a complete farce," said Giles Ungpakorn, a Thai political scientist, in the Guardian article. "This law was drafted to reduce big business's influence in government. But here a cooking programme is being equated with big business and the minutiae of the law is being used to get the government out, and the judiciary's taking part in the farce. It should have been thrown out of court."

But the farce is far from over. While the court achieved Samak's ouster, the objective sought by thousands of anti-government demonstrators currently occupying Government House (and forcing 3,000 bureaucrats to work at a partially-used airport many miles away), the news today is that Samak's People's Power Party (a reincarnation of Thaksin's political party which was disbanded) will relect him prime minister, since the law stipulates no punishment for his misdeed. Even Thaksin apparently phone PPP members from his exile in London to dictate that his successor should continue in office. Members of the ironically named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), an organization that seeks to limit democracy to representives of the military, monarchy, middle class and Bangkok elite, are not pleased and vow to continue their disorderly sit-in.

It's hard to keep up with it all. And it must be reported that daily life in Bangkok goes on as before, despite the farce that has paralyzed government, and severely impacted stock market prices and income from tourism as the busy season approaches. I can't say that fewer farangs carry shopping bags on the streets will disturb me.

And if I decide to find a beach on which o relax over term break, there should be plenty of hotel rooms available in Krabi, Koh Chang or Koh Samui. Yesterday was my final class in the 16-week term at Wat Sri Sudaram. Here some of my students check the list of missing homework assignments that they must turn in before I give them a final exam next Thursday. They are all fourth-year students majoring in English at Mahachula Buddhist University with one term left to go before graduation. Yesterday I asked them to speak for several minutes on what they have learned in my class. Since they're studying "Listening [to] & Speaking English," the presentation will contribute to their grade. On a scale of 10, my marks ranged from 5 to 9 (only the teacher is a 10), so abilities vary considerably. The lowest mark was given to Phra Suwit, a sweet almost-toothless man of 42, who smiled and said little. It probably should have been a 2 or 3, but I was practicing compassion (with others as well). I told them of my daughter Molly who is a natural linguist and is able to easily mimic Spanish, Portuguese (and currently German). But most people (like myself) have to struggle to master the pronunciation of another language. This was to encourage their sometimes indecipherble mumblings. On the whole, I was quite impressed with their performances, and not because they were effusive about the wonderfulness of their native-speaking teacher, Dr William. And certainly not because they presented me with the gift of a coffee & tea cup set. I was happy because they genuinely seemed excited about learning English and happy because of the grammar lessons, opportunities for conversation, and songs I'd played for them on my iPod while they filled in missing words in the lyrics.

When the nearly 50 oral presentations ended (accompanied by the sound of a particularly heavy torrential monsoon rain outside), I told them of my pleasure at being their teacher. I said I had not intended to come out of retirement to teach in Thailand, but that when the opportunity came, I decided to give it a try. I knew even less about teaching English than they did about speaking it. So they have taught me how to teach them. From the presentations, I told them, I've learned that I should speak slower and provide more opportunities for conversations in English between students. I've also decided that next term I will spend more time on pronunciation and will design exercises to test comprehension of spoken or written information. I've enjoyed teaching you more than the students I had at the University of California, I said. Many of them were not interested in study and their goals were to graduate and make money. You are all serious about learning, I said, and I know that most of you will return to your communities after graduation to offer service to your people. Your Buddhist values, I said, make a difference. I think (emphasis on uncertainty) I will teach the same students next term, and so I have purchased the New Headway Upper-Intermediate text, because it begins with the future tense, and I'm beginning to prepare lesson plans. All my instructions about turning in grades are in Thai and so I am flying blind. But I've used the computer to come up with a points system that looks pretty good, and which will allow me to explain and discuss anyone's grade. But I don't expect to fail anyone. Even those who missed classes have explanations that involving temple work and not laziness. These monks do not oversleep; they are up before dawn to collect alms and to chant the suttras. I am incredible fortunate to have finally, after many missteps, found my vocation.

Like a persistent cat who tries to burrow under the covers of your bed no matter how many times you throw it off, Pim has returned. But the situation has changed. I told her she was welcome to stay here until she finds another place. So after four nights away she came back and has slept for a couple of nights on the couch, her belongings still packed and stored in the living room. Last night she did not come here after work. Since we're no longer boyfriend and girlfriend, I told her, we do not have to keep track of each other's whereabouts. Since I see no way out of the impasse (I'm not getting any younger despite her laughing suggestion of plastic surgery), I am hopeful that we can be friends. I'm still not certain what Pim wants.

Actually, I did not throw her off the bed like the cat who came back; she left, three times according to my count, when the stress of leading a double life became too much for her. I always understood and was sympathetic. But we also seem co-dependent. My niceness makes it difficult for her to leave permanently. And I am addicted to her affection.

I have been taken to task by a number of people who found my remarks about withholding financial support "horrible" (according to one friend). I agree that I was letting my pain show, and my words were neither kind nor compassionate. But there is no way I can escape a cost benefit analysis; I'm a westerner and a concern for money is bred in my bones. When I thought we were a couple, I offered to contribute to her mother's support to keep Pim from having to get a second job. And when she told me that Thai girlfriends typically get 10,000 baht a month from their farang boyfriends, I offered her that amount (to include funds for her mother). My generosity went far beyond that girlfriend allowance, however, and I paid for everything when we were together, including dinner when we dined with her friends. But when she initiated a separation, for the third time, I felt enough was enough. No one has indicated how they might do this differently, given the same circumstances.

Another friend, a British monk, has a different perspective on my domestic troubles. He suggests that I could take this opportunity to "learn the lessons that pleasure will never equal happiness, and start looking seriously into a different way to find happiness than a woman to flatter you." He believes I should renounce my hedonistic practices "for the sake of something immeasurably more beautiful," what he calls (for his own path) "this Holy Life business." He hopes I can "get back to finding what is holy in your retirement and not squander this chance." He has been celibate for over 12 years and for him the path to wisdom and enlightenment transcends the physical, a domain that hinders more than helps. I also think he has a vested interest in celibacy that I don't share. Citing both Pema Chodron and Thomas Merton, I told him that "I think that my spiritual salvation is in the here and now, the messiness of life, the love of a woman and also her rejection of me." For some time now, I have been trying to articulate a spirituality that is inseparable from real life, one that does not look beyond, to a heaven or hell, or another life, one that dignifies and ennobles the mundane, the lowly, the physical. I don't offer it in competition to any other way, but only as a description and explanation of what I'm doing

We agreed, however, that my comments on meditation as a panacea to deal with the grief I've been suffering over Pim's rejection, was not a good idea. "It is always so sad," he wrote, "when I see folks get interested in meditation/God/spirituality when things go wrong, or they have a void to fill, and ditch it at the first entertaining distraction that comes along." Yes, certainly spirituality should not be yet another distraction, like TV, music, movies and girls. But, to avoid an intensified search when things go wrong would be to eliminate most foxhole conversions. Perhaps it's different in Buddhism, but in Christianity it is those who suffer most who seek and find consolation in what they perceive as God's love and forgiveness. Maybe what he means is that the world can always lure us away from what we know to be true. However, I resist the urge to split the world off from the truth.

But that's a decision in process.


Roxanne said...

Re: money spent. It's gone. Get over it. Do things differently for now on -- This is what I am trying to teach myself--your words just bring it home to me.

Re: Pim sleeping on your couch. I feel that the world is not kind enough. Kindness does not (at least, should not) cost anything--as long as you know and support your own boundaries.

[Perhaps it's different in Buddhism, but in Christianity it is those who suffer most who seek and find consolation in what they perceive as God's love and forgiveness.]

For myself, I find that I pray more, am more spiritual in times of happiness - in other words, when I am feeling most thankful. Suffering and sadness bring darkness and forgetfulness.

[Pleasure will never equal happiness]

Oooo, lots of food for thought. I've long been missing pleasure, thinking that I am unhappy without it. I wonder . . .?

[For some time now, I have been trying to articulate a spirituality that is inseparable from real life, one that does not look beyond, to a heaven or hell, or another life, one that dignifies and enobles the mundane, the lowly, the physical ... I resist the urge to split the world off from the truth.]

Will, this is just what I think and feel! We are here. Now. Make the best of it. Do the best we can. There are no do-overs. So how can we live with verity and integrity?

As usual, no answers here. Just thoughts stirred by your blog post. Will, I admire your ability to share you life with such openness. I don't think I could do the same. I don't have that kind of courage.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Hi Will,

Nice post, thank you again for sharing.

"No one has indicated how they might do this differently, given the same circumstances."

No one, surely, is suggesting you support her if you are not together. Only that you let go of the resentment and anger of having supported her when you were.

"He suggests that I could take this opportunity to "learn the lessons that pleasure will never equal happiness, and start looking seriously into a different way to find happiness than a woman to flatter you." "

If you need a woman to make you happy Will, then he is probably right! But you do have a spiritual path, right? That is where real peace lies.

As for meditation - yes, I agree with you, sometimes we actually need a little suffering in order to find God/the spiritual life.

After all, don't we take REFUGE in Buddhism? Isn't the very aim of Buddhist practice to escape this saha world?

Anyway, thank you again for your post and please don't take to heart any chorus of criticism and comment - this is your journey and you are living it your own wonderful way!

All the best Will,


ps......but you do know that there is no 'future tense' right?