Sunday, April 03, 2011

May You Live in Interesting Times

Is this a curse?  Or encouragement?

When I was a boy growing up in Ohio and North Carolina, struggling to breathe through asthma attacks that sometimes required hospitalization in an oxygen tent, I dreamt about another life, one filled with adventure.  It could be in the wild west, within the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or on another planet.  Where the excitement occurred made little difference, so long as it was away from the familiar.  I took my cues from books about heroes, radio drama, the movies and Saturday morning serials at the YMCA.  "Interesting times" was anything that carried me away from the dull and unhealthy present.

Dreams do come true.  Today I live in one of the largest capital cities in the Orient, surrounded by exotic sights, sounds and smells.  My wife speaks another language, and monks call me professor.  In my long life I've been a journalist in several countries, a press agent in Hollywood on intimate terms with celebrities, and a student and teacher at universities in California and Thailand.  My children lead equally interesting lives.  The elder son is a successful pioneer in e-commerce, my daughter is a singer and dancer currently designing and making clothes in Bali, and my youngest son recently played drums with rising star Hanni El Khatib in Austin, Paris and London.

Speaking solely for myself, I want to say that I had little to do with the architecture of my life.  That it turned out well is an accident, the result of a series of blunders.  My successes are public, but my mistakes are hidden in the closest.  Buddha was right: the outcome of one's life is determined by the habit of fleeing unpleasantness and racing towards pleasure in all of its many forms.  That I'm now a survivor is a matter of luck.  I'd like to say that I regret nothing, but that would not be entirely true.  The personal, however, is the political, as feminists pointed out in the 1970s.  My choices and my triumphs are due to privilege.  I am a white man who grew to maturity in California in the 1950s.  Only a tiny percentage of the global population can make such a claim, and most of them are probably long dead.

In the Chinese curse (which may be apocryphal rather than traditional), "interesting times" is a disaster resembling the Biblical end times with wars and rumors of wars.   You would not wish this scenario on even your No. 1 enemy.  But for most of the world, the 20th century was just such a time, and the 21st is turning out to be worse.  In North Africa and the Middle East, the poor and powerless are rebelling against oppressors and tyrants, some successfully while others are slaughtered.  The United States, either the chief bully or policeman of the world depending on your ideology, has just begun its third regional war.  Japan last month was shaken by one of history's most severe earthquakes followed by a devastating tsunami, with tens of thousands dead, wounded or displaced, and out-of-control radioactivity from a damaged power plant is poisoning a large area, perhaps for thousands of years.  Radically conservative politicians in Europe and the U.S. are drastically slashing social programs while cutting taxes for the rich and boosting corporate profits. A movement is growing in response to protest curbs on union bargaining and the gross inequality of rich and poor. Even in Thailand, the dreaded 2012 is arriving much too soon: Unseasonably cold weather this "summer," coupled with earthquakes in the north and deadly floods in the south, has troubled the country.  Recurrent rumors of a military coup are preceding a national election planned for May (which some predict will never happen).  Politics in Thailand is driven by an inequality of wealth between the elite in Bangkok and the rural poor almost as great as that in the U.S., or Egypt.  Americans, however, seem more anesthetized than angry, at least outside of the city limits of Madison, Wisconsin.

The political is also personal. I didn't feel the quake on the border with Burma (Nan's family were shaken in their northern village) but I was disturbed by my friend Jerry's second hospitalization in two months.  This time he lost consciousness and fell in his apartment.  The cause of this and an earlier fall was determined to be an irregular heart beat and a pacemaker was quickly installed in my bionic pal's body.  His face was severely bruised in the fall and I advised him to pretend he'd been mauled at muai Thai.  Jerry's wife Lamyai rushed from Surin to his side to take care of him, as is the custom here, and a swift recovery is predicted (although their bank account was severely impacted).  The illnesses and disabilities of my friends affect me. I feel older and I worry more.  Despite having medical insurance (an as yet not fully tested policy), the prospect of the need for medical intervention scares me.  Am I imagining the slight pain in my left jaw, or the ache in a wobbly knee?  Our health, or lack of it, can determine our attitude toward the world.

While it feels as if I spend too much time in my apartment on Facebook and Twitter, life in Bangkok this past month has been a full plate.  I went to the Foreign Correspondents Club with friends from my political discussion group to hear Steve Crawshaw, co-author of "Small Acts of Resistance," and Bangkok Post columnist Voranai Vanijaka talk about revolution in the Middle East and Thai politics.  Michael, a new Facebook friend, invited me to ArtBridge 2011, a fascinating exhibition by local and international artists at the Poh-Chang College of Art, where I met Susan, another Australian, a proponent of "laughter yoga."  After turning in final grades for the term, I was asked to be the moderator of an English debate at my university between monks and students at Bangkok University.  My job was to introduce the teams and their members  (for three semi-final rounds and a championship match) and clap my hands twice when the speakers were almost out of time.  In the middle of March, Bob and Vivian stopped off in Bangkok on their way from the islands to Santa Cruz and we took them to dinner at a huge outdoor barbecue restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River  ("Real Thai food," I claimed, but a Thai friend corrected me and said the popular DIY barbecue places were brought here by the Chinese). As if to test this, Nan and I met one night last week after she got off work and took the bus to Chinatown where we joined a few thousand others at one of the many sidewalk restaurants for dinner and a stroll.  The food seemed very Thai (no barbecue).  Later I tried without success to find some Chinese sausage for which the district is supposedly famous. 

How do our mundane daily activities relate to the momentous changes in the world, the natural and the political upheavals?  Some commentators think the new social media distract us from communal involvement and siphon off our energy for challenging the systems that belittle us.  Others believe that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt would not have happened without Twitter.  Certainly many citizen journalists on Twitter kept me apprised of events during the insurrection in Bangkok last March and April.  In the doldrums, I find the tweets a bit boring.  Nan is much less addicted to Facebook than I (and has not yet tried Twitter), but she plays a game whose Thai name translates as "Happy Pigs."  When not doing homework during the current summer intensive session or watching the latest lakorn (soap opera) on TV, she tells me "I have to feed my pigs," and I can hear their squealing as I post another political link on my Facebook page.  I worry about the New York Times pay wall that was erected last week but have yet to encounter it.  A large number of my links come from NYT stories.  "It's more like a pay fence," claimed one commentator in a podcast, and a hacker has already figured out how to build a ladder to climb over the 20-article limit imposed by the newspaper to make a profit out of its digital contents.  Like most of the digerati, I'm used to getting my content (news stories, columns, music, videos and movies) free, although in principle I believe content providers should be reimbursed.  But the Times monthly/annual fee for internet viewing is outrageously high.

I recently read a blog post by an expat in Thailand that told the story of a neighbor for whom "the novelty of living here had worn off."  So he left his wife, kids and home for greener pastures.  The blogger was appalled by this behavior, as was I.  And yet the idea of "novelty" sounded uncomfortably similar to "interesting times," at least if you look at it as encouragement and not a curse.  I would rather not think of my current life as containing novelties that might some day wear off.  "Interesting" does not have to mean only "stimulating."  Nan is already planning our retirement in her village in Phayao where we will live in her aunt Ban Yen's house.  Recently her mother installed a water heater for us in the house which is next to hers.  The closest big city is Chiang Rai three hours' drive away, and Central, the big shopping conglomerate, just opened a new mall there complete with a Starbucks.  The only kink in our early planning is the difficulty of getting a high-speed internet signal, without which I would be uncomfortably isolated.  But that is far in the future.  In the interim, we're preparing for a trip, our third honeymoon, to Hong Kong on the 12th of this month for a five-day holiday.  Nan has been doing a little shopping.  In addition to an expensive bar of soap that guarantees to turn the user's skin white, she has purchased a pair of blue contact lenses along with new shoes and a few outfits.   We're getting excited.  From one perspective, at least, this might seem to be yet another novelty that one might someday tire of.

But it's certainly an interesting life!


Anonymous said...


It is always a pleasure to read your Blog as well as VB's. Both writing styles are similar? maybe the interesting part is the similar part.



Roxanne said...

Why does Nan want white skin and blue eyes? She is so lovely just as she is.


Sam said...

Always interesting. You forgot to mention Project Gutenberg. How do I know? Because wherever I go on the internet you have already placed your flag (Scott and Amundsen?)

This post prompted me to unearth "Everyday Zen" by Charlotte Joko Beck which I brought with me from England. It addresses many of the issues you raise in a very straightforward and practical manner.

On another point, do you feel a different vibe when you walk into a Chinese Thai section of the city? Isn't there more of a buzz, somehow?