Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Absent Fathers

Sunday was not Father's Day in Thailand. They celebrate that occasion in December on the King's birthday. I spent the day in blissful ignorance, recovering from a hangover resulting from an expedition to Nana with Jerry and Nan the previous night, eating a hamburger at Sizzlers and watching "Up" in 3D (the late night misadventure made it difficult to concentrate, but it's a cute film with lots of dogs). When I came home there were messages by email and on Facebook from three of my four progeny. I know it's a Hallmark moment, but it still warms my heart to be remembered. Over the years I've felt much guilt for the times I was absent as a father, working and playing too hard away from home, pursuing my intellectual curiosity alone, or losing my compass on the internet, all to the neglect of my kids.

But at least I could always be found. Edward has never known his father. He'll be eight in August and he lives with his aunt in Phayao, a northern province of Thailand. His mother died of cancer a few years ago. Edward has been told that his father, Johannes Somers, was from the Netherlands and raised sheep in New Zealand. He and his mom met during a vacation in Thailand, and he returned several times. According to the letters and postcards he wrote, they were in love. But back in New Zealand he was married to a Maori woman with whom he had several children. After telling his wife not long after Edward's birth about his Thai family, a "descent into hell," he wrote, the letters stopped. I learned about Edward from his cousin, Nan, who says he's a "lovely boy" who has just started school. She asked me for help in finding his father and gave me the only letter with a return address which was unreadable. "My mother loves taking care of him," Nan said, "but he would like to know his father." All I had was a name, Johannes Somers, which I suspected was not very uncommon.

Google brought quick results. A Johannes Somers was involved in a Maori court action in 2005 along with Erna Karan Somers. And a search under her name came up with a blog posting that announced her women's bowling team had won a tournament at the end of 2006. I emailed the blogger and he quickly sent me her email. There were not many other hits for Johannes Somers but I did find a man with that name who ran a sweatshop (over 700 workers who made various kinds of clothing) in Vientiane, Laos. The firm's web site gave his email address. Despite the warning of friends that I was poking a hornet's nest, I sent what I thought were diplomatic and tactful emails to each address without giving many details. The blogger had actually talked to Erna so I knew her address was good. I figured that a quick denial would send me looking elsewhere but no response could mean (but not necessarily) I'd struck pay dirt. It's only been four days, but I've not heard back yet.

I can't imagine having a child somewhere and not wanting to know about it. Biology does count for something. And then there is the moral responsibility for bringing new life into the world. Given the availability of birth control, there should be no "accidents," but there is no accounting for passion. I do believe in the "what goes around, comes around" truth of karma. We will pay for our mistakes somehow. I wonder how many illegitimate children there are from the liasons between Thai women and GIs during the Vietnam War when thousands of Americans were either stationed at Thai bases or came to Bangkok and Pattaya for R&R. They would be in their late 30s or early 40s. I've not met any during my forays on Thai dating internet sites, but I suspect they exist. Thais seems to find Thai-farang children quite beautiful so I suspect there is not much discrimination.

Graham Wills was a doting father when he and Pen had twins, Michael and Helen. He was the divorced father of two grown sons and had met Pen during a visit to Pattaya where she worked in a bar. In England he had been a butcher. They went to live in her village in Surin, and he commuted back and forth to Europe where he could find periodic work. But at a processing plant in Norway he cut off part of his thumb, and the expected compensation never materialized. He was unable to find work in Thailand and the injury healed slowly. So he finally returned to his home far away and effectively disappeared. Pen, already the mother of a married daughter, struggled to make ends meet. Google didn't help and a lawyer who volunteered to make inquiries in London fell ill and couldn't make the trip. When I met the twins during a visit to Surin for the marriage of Jerry's stepson, they were almost feral, running naked around the dusty yard before cooling off in the fish pond. You can see the mixed parentage in their faces. How many children are like this in small Thai villages, many being raised by a grandmother or aunt while their mothers seek employment in Bangkok? Their absent farang fathers, who came to Thailand in search of easy sex and a woman unaware of the demands of women's liberation in the West who would care for them, now hide far away.

My children have accused me at different times of abandonment. It is true that I walked out on my first wife and left my two sons to be raised by a clearly disturbed woman ("eccentric" is too weak a description). I was present more often in my second marriage and stuck around until the kids were almost grown. But while my wife was reveling in motherhood, I fell in love with the intellectual life and spent over a dozen years at the university. With only a part-time job, I was home and on duty more often, but my nose was all too often stuck in a book. And now I am an expatriate in Thailand, far from my old California home. The children again feel abandoned by me. Although I have no plans at the moment for a trip back, eventually I will no longer be able to afford the luxury of a periodic visit. What will draw me back? Marriage? The birth of a grandchild? (I'm beginning to give up on that dream) I argue that I'm just a key click away on the internet, but that doesn't seem to satisfy. Maybe we are all potentially absent, locked in our skins of separation. Of course, it happens that mothers sometimes make it impossible for fathers to perform their duty. It wasn't my idea to break up my last family. And the Thai mother of Marcus's son Joseph took him away and has denied him any contact. There are also cases of absent mothers, but I have no stories about that.

There are many other ways of being absent. Nan's parents have been divorced for many years and now her father "drinks too much." He was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago and she went home to see him and ask him, "many times," to stop drinking. The other night her uncle called to tell her that he was drunk again. "I don't know what to do," she said, her eyes full of tears. My ex-wife's father was also determined to drink himself to death, pursued by imaginary demons. She asked him to quit, but he wouldn't, and was taken to the hospital many times before he expired, his dark wish fulfilled. My son Luke suffers under the same black cloud. It's impossible to know whether alcoholism is an incurable physical addiction (a genetic blemish) or the result of poor choices. One of my uncles was an alcoholic and my son's mother has an addictive personality. Those of us standing helpless on the sidelines can only throw up our hands and cry, "Why? Why?"

Yesterday I met at a Thammasat University coffee shop with three Thais involved in the Buddhadasa archives project. Santi is a former investment banker who now raises funds for the facility. His wife Oraya teaches in the English department at Thammasat and showed me the ambitious texts she is using for a class in media studies. Both studied at institutions in Massachusetts and speak excellent English. Accompanying them was Kai who is the general manager for the archives which will hopefully be moved next year from Buddhadasa's monastery at Suan Mokkh in the southern province of Sura Thani to the new location near Chatuchak Park in northern Bangkok, more accessible for researchers. We had a wide-ranging conversation about Buddhadasa's impact on Buddhists in Thailand (mostly on the educated and the elite) and around the world (he remains relatively unknown in America, despite the work of his disciple, Santikaro, at Liberation Park in Wisconsin). A major influence on engaged Buddhism through his student, Sulak Sivaraksa, I find many parallels between Buddhadasa and Thomas Merton, the monk who reinvigorated modern Catholicism (and the current gate keepers have been trying to close the doors ever since his death in Bangkok in 1968). I offered my help with English translations and with spreading the word about the archives to expats in Thailand, and my Buddhist contacts in America. What is urgently needed is a good collection of Buddhadasa's key thoughts for an English audience, similar to the volumes of writings by Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah that his admirers in America have produced.

We were joined by Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, assistant rector for student affairs, who had a lively discussion, in Thai, with Oraya and Santi about creating a class in morality or ethics for incoming students. Prinya was a student leader during protests against the government in 1992 that led to a bloody crackdown. A frequent visitor to Suan Mokkh, Prinya now teaches constitutional law at Thammasat. Santi and Oraya would like to see Buddhadasa's teachings offered to students. After all, the monk was a friend and adviser to Pridi Banomyong who founded the university in 1932. But there are some objections about the possibility of religious indoctrination, which is odd given that "church and state" are not separated as they are in the U.S. I told them about how the religious students department at UC Santa Cruz was disestablished in the 1980s by academics who felt religion could only be taught with scientific objectivity and believed that faith has no place in the classroom, either for students or teachers.

I am following the events in Iran with intense interest and have noticed the criticism that Obama has not been vocal enough in his condemnation of what may or may not be evolving into a revolution, one that would certainly serve U.S. interests in the region (although Mir Hussein Moussavi may be every bit as conservative as Ahmadinejad). I like that he's holding his tongue (something Bush would never do). America has blundered more often than not whenever it meddles in conflicts in other countries. For the truth about America's crimes against Iran, read Chris Hedges powerful article "Iran Had a Democracy Before We Took It Away" on Common Dreams. It's up to Iranians now to decide their fate. They do not need our guns or our cheerleading.

Here in Bangkok, momentous changes are in the air. The all-powerful Electoral Commission has just banned 16 senators for violating the constitution by holding shares in companies that do business with the government. This may mean that 66 members of Parliament, similarly charged, could lose their positions. If so, the fragile coalition keeping Prime Minister Abhisit afloat, will sink dramatically and new elections might be called. But over the weekend the candidate in Sakon Nakhon for the Thaksin-backed Puea Thai Party defeated her opponent by a landslide in a by-election. The loser was a member of the rival Bhumjaithai Party which was founded by former Thaksin associate Newin Chitchob who himself been banned from holding office by the EC. This continuing support for the fugitive PM in the northeast of Thailand must have the power brokers in Bangkok shaking in their shoes. Would they encourage yet another military coup to avoid letting Thais yet again attempt to elect a government of their own choosing?

Further to my post of last week, a continuing critique of the government of Israel. Historian Tony Judt, who in the past has argued persuasively for a "one-state solution" to the problem of Israel and Palestinian (which would remove the nation's Jewish character), has written a brilliant op-ed column in the New York Times, "Fictions on the Ground," in which he explodes numerous myths perpetuated by the Zionists and challenges Obama to "break with two decades of American compliance, acknowledge publicly that the emperor is indeed naked, dismiss Mr. Netanyahu for the cynic he is and remind Israelis that all their settlements are hostage to American goodwill." Anything else "would be the worst possible outcome of the present diplomatic dance. No one else in the world believes this fairy tale; why should we? Israel’s political elite would breathe an unmerited sigh of relief, having once again pulled the wool over the eyes of its paymaster. The United States would be humiliated in the eyes of its friends, not to speak of its foes." This from one of the few Jewish intellectuals to challenge the reigning rhetoric is a must read.

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Matthew Tripp said...
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