Friday, June 24, 2011


Once when I was a hot-headed young man, I kicked a dent in my Volkswagen because it wouldn't start.  It felt good, for a moment.  But then I had many years of looking at it to remind me of the consequences of my temper.  "You've got to do something about that temper," my mother told me after I hit a neighbor boy in the head with a pipe, requiring a few stitches, when he refused to share a toy.  She said it again when I shot my younger brother in the stomach at close range with a BB gun which I thought wasn't loaded.  Frustration arises when the world doesn't work the way you want or expect it to work.  Sometimes this results in anger with awful consequences, and occasionally it produces emotions that harm only yourself.  "Holding on to anger," the Buddha taught, is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but you are the one who gets burned." Frustration impels you to pick up the hot coal.

In the election poster above, the candidate looks like I feel when I get frustrated.  Chuvit Kamolvisit is unhappy because politicians can't be trusted and are corrupt, and he offers himself as someone who will be honest. Chuvit boasts that he knows corruption intimately because he used to bribe the police to protect his string of massage parlors.  Frustration, as I experience it, does not lead to running for office. I'm not sure that Nan understands me when I tell her that I am frustrated.  Thais have words for helplessness, irritation, discouragement and disappointment, but not for the more fiery emotion that I call frustration.  And it might have something to do with their less aggressive sense of self.  They do not feel entitled, or stuck on the idea, as my father would put it, that "the world owes you a living."

I get most frustrated by inanimate objects (a kicked dog bites back), and the object of my despair last weekend was a computer program designed by Kobo, an online Canadian company that provides digital books, free and for sale.  A friend told me he bought Tyrell Haberkorn's new book, Revolution Interrupted: Farmers, Students, Law, and Violence in Northern Thailand from Kobo for only $13.  I've purchased ebooks from iBooks and Amazon which has a Kindle app for the iPad.  Kobo looked good.  It had reader apps for both the Mac desktop and the iPhone/iPad, so I downloaded them and they worked fine with a couple of free books that were included.  I set up an account and bought the book.  That was the beginning of my troubles.

For the next two days I struggled to find out how I could read the book I'd bought.  My Kobo account showed clearly that I had purchased the book and that it had been added to my library.  But neither of the Kobo apps I'd installed showed the book. I tried to delete the free books from my Kobo bookshelf in hopes that the paid one would be underneath, but that proved to be impossible.   I sent a couple of annoyed emails off to Kobo which were dutifully acknowledged by a computer which promised a reply soon. Numerous help pages at the Kobo site contained the information "content deleted by owner," not a good sign.  I searched the digital book and Mac forums online and found others had similar problems with Kobo.  As my frustration level rose, my ability to understand possible solutions fell, and it all seemed like gibberish to me.  Finally I resorted to planking on the bed and Nan fled our apartment with a friend for a less gloomy climate.  Over the next two days I learned about Adobe Digital Editions and downloaded the program which was able to read the book from Kobo's .acsm file.  Then I discovered the Bluefire Reader which could open the ADE file on my iPad.  Along the way I also collected Overdrive which will let me order digital books from the library back in Santa Cruz for which I possess a card and borrowing privileges.  Have I mentioned that a week later I've received no response to the half-dozen increasingly angry emails I sent Kobo?  I wasn't willing to pay for a phone call to their headquarters in Canada (and collect calls are impossible as I've discovered from a mobile phone in Thailand). After this, I deleted Kobo's apps from my machines and vowed to never set foot in their online store again.  But I'm cool.

The thing is, I knew that I was experiencing frustration and I could feel the anger bubbling close to the surface.  It was possible for me to watch it and to some extent control its expression.  Now that I no longer own a car, computers are usually the trigger.  I bought a new laptop recently with a more complex trackpad and I make frequent wrong finger moves that take me where I do not want to go.   But I'm too stubborn to buy a wireless mouse and keyboard like my friends.  So I swear a lot at the innocent machine.  Jai yen yen, cautions Nan from nearby when she hears my angry words, which means: "Cool it! (keep a cool heart)."  The opposite, jai ran, a hot heart, is the Thai expression for impatience, a state all too common for farangs.

After I began teaching at Mahachula Buddhist University, I encountered many unexpected situations that caused frustration.  Coming to school one day, I found that a a temple fair was taking place and all classes had been canceled.  No one thought to notify me.  The staff and faculty for the Foreign Languages Department speak limited English and simple requests are arduous.  Anything involving paperwork has been difficult.  Gradually I learned to expect the unexpected and my frustration lessened.  Until this term.  Now I teach at the new Wang Noi campus in an air-conditioned classroom with an excellent sound system and two wireless microphones.  The white board can be cleaned (at the other campus it was permanently gray).  I teach one day a week, two classes of "Listening & Speaking English," one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and am paid for 6 hours of work.

Usually I share students with another teacher who has class 1 while I teach class 2 and vice versa.  This year my partner didn't show up the first two weeks and I taught a combined class in the mornings.  Then I learned that a third class would be added for our students in the late afternoon which had the effect of shortening the morning class to two hours.  As it is, I think 2.5-3 hours a week is not enough to teach my subject.  Anything less is unacceptable.  So I complained, something Thai teachers almost never do (here are a group of them eating lunch).  I felt like a bull in a china shop.  Much discussion and activity took place; a new schedule was drawn up.  I thought everything had been straightened out.  Then the other teacher called a student to ask him to explain to me that I had perhaps misunderstood.  Now he will teach a combined class in the morning and I will have them for the longer afternoon session.  Fine.  Through these negotiations I was watching my frustration level, and noticed that it did not rise to the heights achieved by Kobo.  I think I am making progress.

While I'm on the subject of teaching and frustration, let me speak of the Sound Lab.  Students of English need practicer in pronunciation which can be quite difficult for Asians (just as their languages are almost impossible for Westerners).  When I was hired to teach English to 3rd and 4th year monks, I was happy to learn there was a Sound Lab available.  I soon found that the equipment was old and broken, and the only occasion I used the air-conditioned lab was to give students a final exam.  Imagine my joy when I heard about the new, modern Sound Lab at the Wang Noi campus.  Although it was locked, I looked in the window and saw 50 computer stations along with a large control panel.  I imagined that my students could spend an hour or two a week there and that their pronunciation would dramatically improve.

When I asked my department when the sound lab was open, I was told it was "broken."  Every time I went to the campus I would look longingly through the window at the brand new lab which had never been used.  A friend in the know told me that Thai universities, among other requirements, had to have a sound lab in order to be certified.  But that they work and were used is apparently not necessary.  I took every opportunity when talking with other teachers and administrators to urge that the Sound Lab be "fixed."  Finally, two weeks ago the door was unlocked and I was able to examine the equipment.  I soon realized that it was not being used because the instructions were in English and no one understood them.  I also believe it came with only limited instructional materials, audio and video (and no printed explanation of what or where they are).  Several hours of testing revealed a steep learning curve.  Last week I was unable to get in, so access is a big problem (giving me the key is out of the question).  Next week I was told I can take my class there.  At the very least, I discovered how to connect my iPad to the sound and projection system so I'll be able to show them some videos I found on YouTube.

Frustration is obviously relative.  On a good day, I am not bothered when the universe does not grant my request or recognize my importance.  I don't remember my mood on the day my Volkswagen wouldn't start but imagine that it was bad to begin with.  Sometimes we just need a trigger to release stress on an inanimate object.  Kind of like an earthquake relieves tension along fault lines.   When I get frustrated, I can sense clearly the shape of my ego.  Because I paid $13 to Kobo for a digital book, I deserved their attention.  Of course my upset was justified.  But, as the Buddha said, that hot coal of anger directed at Kobo burned me first, and drove Nan away for the evening.  At school I've learned to put my students first, even though I let my frustration show on the day all the schedule changes were announced, and then changed again.  It gave me a good topic for English conversation for that day: frustration.  At the memorial service last week for my friend Holly Dugan, who died at 71 of cancer, I was able to put my petty frustrations in perspective.  If Holly ever got frustrated with anything other than the idiocy of politicians, it didn't show.  All agreed on her equanimity of temperament.  The monks chanted her passing with passages from the Abhidhamma, we dinned on a sumptuous buffet supper at the Ariyasomvilla Hotel, and reminisced about her life among us.  A few days later, a group of her friends rented a boat and traveled down the Chao Phraya River to a spot that we figured would make a fine last resting place.  Using a plastic coffee cup from McDonalds, and led by her close friend Pandit Bhikku, we scooped out Holly's ashes and spread them on the water.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Am I an American?

What is a man anyhow? What am I? What are you?
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

They call me a farang here, most often pronounced "fa-lang," a generic term that Thais use for all Westerners.  I don't mind the label, although some tourists and expats get incensed at what they perceive as racism (turn about, fair play, I say).  I also don't mind being stereotyped -- all farangs are rich and smell like a turtle (tao) -- because I also benefit for the respect automatically given in Thailand to teachers and the elderly.

National stereotypes are near universal, although less so today perhaps than in the 19th century when the Russian expat Alexander Herzen could speculate in his journal on the essential characteristics of the Germans and the French among whom he lived (never very flattering).  They're exemplified in the old joke about the nature of heaven and hell: Heaven is where the lovers are Italian, the police are English, the mechanics are German, the cooks are French and the place is run by the Swiss. Hell is where the lovers are Swiss, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the police are German and the place is run by the Italians.  Americans are just plain ugly wherever they go, obnoxiously loud and demanding that Cokes and burgers be included in everyone's cuisine.

I’m proud to be an American, 
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won't forget the men 
who died, who gave that right to me.
--Lee Greenwood, "God Bless the U.S.A."

Am I an American?  That's become an uncomfortable question.  I moved away from America, the land of my birth, not only because life for me is easier, cheaper and better now in Thailand, but also because after years as an angry leftist I could only vote with my feet.  "America, love it or leave it," said the bumper sticker in the 1970's.  I left.  If transsexuals can change their gender, why can't I cut patriotic platitudes out of my heart?  They're not me.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people,
all just as immortal and fathomless as myself, 
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.) 
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

I've met backpackers from America who sew Canadian flags on their packs so as to avoid unpleasant questions and accusations. But their accent gives them away.  They can't rhyme "about" with "butte." My mother was Canadian and I once made inquiries to the wife of an embassy official about switching nationalities, but it came to naught.  Here in Bangkok where I hang out, the rare Westerners scarcely look each other in the eyes.  They're traveling  incognito and don't want their cover blown.  There are places where Americans congregate, in search of a passable burger or to debate politics with the Democratic Club, but I steer clear of them.  I didn't even vote for Obama.  The U.S. Embassy doesn't know I'm here.

And yet...  In my visit to California last year I was once again impressed by the beauty of that place.  And the warmth and generosity of my friends was overwhelming.  Everything was familiar and comfortable, and I couldn't wait to leave.  I've claimed much of that country as my own: born in Ohio, grew up in North Carolina and Georgia, matured in California, transplanted to Connecticut and worked in New York City.  My parents retired in Florida where I went to visit many times.  I've traversed the continent from coast to coast several times by car, train and plane.  

While becoming a radical in Berkeley, I marched against the House Committee on Un-American Activities which attempted to perpetuate the red-baiting persecution of McCarthy after he had been discredited.  Their definition of "American" was clearly political, and I would have joined the Communist Party had I'd been able to find a chapter, but they had long gone underground.  I hated the Vietnam War (fortunately my asthma kept me out of it) and found myself on the progressive side of social issues, like abortion and homosexuality.  Most of my friends from high school went in the other direction, and now, over 50 years later, we still avoid political discussions (my Facebook postings are mostly ignored by old acquaintances).  From my perspective, the identity of "American" has been hijacked by politicians from Goldwater to Limbaugh.  Our side didn't fight back, and the label no longer fits.

In the classroom, however, I speak American English.  This school term I'm using an American Headway textbook with the monks who study with me because I want them to know that my pronunciation is different from that of the English spoken by Australians and the British.  As I developed the lesson plans, it occurred to me that I could speak to my students of my ambivalence about being an American in order to show them the malleability and social constructedness of identity.  This is not an easy task since my students know who they are and how they fit in Thai (or Lao, Cambodian, Chinese or Shan) culture.  They do not apparently experience an identity crisis; to disrobe or not is as far as they'll go.  In our discussion this week, all of them, without exception, expressed a preference for living at home in their villages over the bright lights of Bangkok or the appeal of another country.  But as I think of myself as a window on the world they might not otherwise look through, I wanted to show them the questions that are possible.  And I'm doing that through songs, which I mentioned in my last post.  I've collected a load of music about America, both pro and con, and designed exercises to teach them vocabulary in the lyrics.  This week I played "This Land is Your Land" by Peter, Paul and Mary and talked about Woody Guthrie's pro-union politics.  I've got patriotic songs by Greenwood and Neil Diamond, but will also play for them "Buffy Saint-Marie's "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," Tracy Chapman's brutal tale of conquering "America,"  and for a finale, perhaps "Party in the U.S.A.," by Miley Cyrus.  My formative years were spent during the folk song revolution and I continue to think of music as a vehicle for radical and even unpalatable ideas.  

I had a voice for these matters when I lived in Santa Cruz, one of the most progressive cities in America, but despite the support we received for our marches and demonstrations, most residents were too well-off and preoccupied with their personal lives to try and change the direction the country has been moving for many years.  In Arizona or Alabama the right wing is dominant and fighting for peace, justice and a redistribution of the wealth is a real struggle.  In radical Northern California, despite the closing of many public parks and the evisceration of the educational system because of budget cutbacks, life goes on as if the crumbling of the infrastructure and the effort of fighting several wars abroad while cutting back on taxes is normal.  Revolution was not a subject for polite conversations that dealt mainly with sports and entertainment.  Bumper stickers were a substitute for bombs.

It's not easy being a citizen of the world with no flag and no anthem (unless it be "We are the World").  Now without a car, instead of bumper stickers I post comments and links on Facebook and Twitter and those that agree with me nod their digital fingers.  This post, however, was intended to be not about impotence but identity.  I wonder if they are connected?  There's strength in numbers.  Just ask a football fan, or a viewer of "American Idol."  Here in Thailand I am, despite any objections, a farang, an American.  Are we what others see in us?  Much identity is negative -- "At least I'm not one of them!"  The worst racists in America were white trash who comforted themselves with the knowledge that at least they weren't black.  There is always somebody on the bottom.

I tell my students that I love the American land and the American people, but I do not love the U.S. government.  I love the mostly unfulfilled ideals and aims that citizen philosophers put into the various founding documents of America after the English settlers, having rid their territories of the troublesome native people, revolted against the king and the corporations that had paid their way across the treacherous Atlantic Ocean and declared their independence.  What I don't love are the deeds of many Americans that have been uncovered in a history that is all too often the tale of conquest and destruction, of people and nature.  Howard Zinn documented this bloody story in his marvelous People's History of the United States.  I was radicalized as a student when I saw police use fire hoses to sweep protestors at the HUAC hearings down the steps of San Francisco's City Hall.  The hopes I felt after the election of John F. Kennedy were dashed by subsequent administrations from both political parties.  Despite the hopes many people felt in Obama, he has failed that promised.  American today is an Empire, the bully of the world, financed by corporations, directed by a bloated military, that wreaks havoc throughout the globe.  I cannot be an America if it means to represent this government and this history.  

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).
--Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Please, may the sun set on the American Empire, the sooner the better.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Knowing the Future

Much needless stress would be avoided if only we could foretell the future.  Fortune tellers at these tables in front of Wat Hua Lampong in Bangkok provide the answers for many worried Thais.  Unfortunately, I'm not a believer in precognition, however useful it might be.  My future as an expat in Thailand depends on annually renewing a visa, and, if I want to continue teaching (as I do), a yearly renewal of my work permit.  These renewal applications require an encounter with two different bureaucracies and each holds my fate in their hand.  Worrying about whether I'll pass the documents test ramps up the aging process and I have little time to waste.  This year I was saved not once but twice by my brilliant wife, Nan.

Getting a non-immigrant "B" visa and a work permit took over four months of bureaucratic hassle the first year I lived in Thailand.  But renewals, I was told, were easier.  And they were, until this year.  The problem was caused by the move of Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University from Bangkok to its large new campus in Wangnoi, Ayutthaya province, an hour's commute away from my condominium in the Pinklao section of Bangkok where I had also moved from one apartment to another a year ago.   Last year I was told I must file a change of address with the Ministry of Labour.  Thinking this could be done at the Autthaya MOL office I went with Dr. Subodh, my colleague from India whose permit expires at the same time as mine.  After our documents were carefully scrutinized, we were told a renewal could not be done in less than seven days, and we only had six.  So the next day I went with Nan as my translator to the Bangkok MOL office and everything went fine until they asked me to draw a map of Ayutthaya and the new MCU campus.  Without a pause, she asked me how many buildings there were.  I said eight, and she quickly roughed out a totally fictitious map which miraculously satisfied the clerk.

From there we took a taxi to the Immigration office in the cavernous Government Building B in Chiang Wattana to get the visa renewed.  After a three-hour wait that included lunch when all offices in the huge structure shut down so the hundreds of clerks can eat, I went into the cubicle with Nan to get what I thought would be an easy stamp in my passport.  Unfortunately, I'd given two copies of my work permit to the MOL and was unable to provide the necessary original for immigration.  We were told to come back with it.  A few days later, after picking up my renewed work permit with its changes of address, we returned to Chiang Wattana and sat before an unsmiling immigration clerk.  "This can't be done here because you live in Ayutthaya," she told Nan in Thai.   The MOL had changed both my work and residence addresses to the campus address.  Nan quietly and diplomatically convinced the clerk that we still lived in Bangkok.  After being told we must return to the MOL to correct the mistake before next year, I was given the renewed visa.  Total cost for all renewals and changes:  about $200 (and I'll probably have to pay $28 to correct the mistake), plus another $30 in transportation costs.

My anguish over the renewal process was assuaged somewhat by the purchase of a new MacBook Pro laptop to add to my family of Apple products.  My old Macbook was over four years old and showing signs of age.  For the third time the battery had begun to swell up; the first replacement was covered by AppleCare but the second was about $125 out of pocket. I'd never repaired the screen when I had the chance after a thin blue vertical line appeared a half inch in from the right.  The only practical reason I can give for this purchase was: it's time.  And, thinking it will be the last I ever buy, I bought the best.  The trackpad is a little tricky and I've gotten upset at accidental misdirection, but I think there's a learning curve.  I had to buy a new cord for the TV to make use of Thunderbolt and the MiniDisplayPort, but since my Philips flatscreen lacks an HDMI plug, I'm using a VGA connection which offers an acceptable picture (but without sound since I can't find the correct audio inputs).  I should also be able to use my laptop at school with the office projector to show PowerPoint lessons and YouTube videos to my students.

After saving my life, twice, Nan flew to Chiang Rai to visit her family in the small remote village in the province of Phayao where they farm corn.  She took with her my old MacBook to give to her brother Nok who is studying electricity at a vocational college.  He plays guitar and I thought he would particularly like GarageBand.  I bought Nan a Sony point-and click and she brought back photos of where we might someday live.  This is her rice field which is fallow this season, and when she graduates in a year or so, after working for a couple of years we might relocate north.  It depends partly on my health.  If I can't get around easily, living in a tiny village nearly an hour's drive from the nearest store (and three hours from the mall in Chiang Rai) will not be such a problem (unless a hospital is needed).  A house, built by Nan's aunt, Ban Yen, is waiting for us next door to her mother.  It looks very comfortable, though we'll need to add a bedroom for her young nephew Edward who will live with us.  There's a European toilet, a hot-water heater for the shower, and Nan bought her mother a washing machine which will live in our house.  Mobile phone reception is hit-or-miss, and I'm hoping for advances in technology that will allow me to keep plugged in to the internet with my growing family of devices (Nan has put her foot down on the idea of an iPhone but I haven't given up yet).

Now that I know I can teach for another year, I'm able to relax and enjoy my classes.  The commute is not bad (lots of time to listen to podcasts), although now my teaching day is 12 hours rather than the 7 when I taught at Wat Srisudaram which is closer to my house.  The Faculty of Humanity office is in the lower right of the MCU classroom building pictured here and my room is on the second floor above the Sound Lab which is, unfortunately, not working (trying to find out why has so far been fruitless).  I've decided to benefit from my origins and am using the American Headway 2 textbook.  I collected songs about America for a weekly fill-in-the-blanks exercise and began with Ray Charles singing "America the Beautiful," continued last week with Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," and have prepared "America" by Simon and Garfunkel for this week's class.  I'm not sure yet about exposing the monks to "American F*k Yeah" by Team America or "American Idiot" by Green Day.  I told them that I love much about America, the land and the people, but I am profoundly unhappy about politics in the country of my birth.  Also teaching down the hall from me on Wednesdays is Elsa, a middle-aged lady from the Philippines, whose challenge is to teach pronunciation to 3rd year English majors.  At least I think that's her job, since I cannot understand her English very well.  She told me that she's an evangelical Baptist and was sad that I turned down her invitation to attend her church.  I told her I was a Buddhist now that I lived in Thailand, and she promised to pray for me.

A week ago Nan and I celebrated the second anniversary of our first meeting at a coffee shop near her office followed by dinner at Sizzler's with a celebratory meal at the same restaurant followed by a visit to the scenic bar on the 64th floor of the State Tower above the five-star Labua Hotel.  It's called the Distil, and the couches were more comfortable than the standing-room-only Sirocco bar on the other side of the roof where scenes from "Hangover 2" were filmed last year.  The views of Bangkok and the Chao Phraya River below were incredible and the high price of cocktails was offset by problems they had with the credit card machine which resulted in our drinks being made complimentary.  Sometimes malfunctions can be beneficial!

The night of Nan's return, we met her friend Aui (pronounced "we") for dinner at our favorite Rimnam barbecue joint on the Chao Phraya not far from our house.  Aui went to school with Nan in Phayao for two years and now is a caregiver for an old man in Bangkok.  She doesn't get out much and after eating she wanted to find a karaoke place, get drunk and sing songs.  We got a taxi driver to find a few for us and entered the most promising one by climbing up the stairs to wake up the proprietor and convince her to start up her machine.  She brought us towels to wash our hands, and Aui picked out songs she wanted to sing from the karaoke menu.  The women drank wine coolers and I had a beer (with ice, of course) and the service was terrific.  The only other customer was a heavyset Thai man who sat in the corner with a hostess on his lap.  Nan's cousin Bo worked in one of these places and she was more than a waitress.  Aui sang well and even Nan tried out her voice.  I sang the one song that came up with English lyrics but I had to make up the tune since I'd never heard it before.  Not half bad.  When it came time to leave, the proprietor presented us with an outlandish bill of over 500 baht ($16.50).  She charged 20 baht each for the towels, 100 baht for a plate of potato chips (not even a full bag's worth), and over 100 baht for each of the drinks.  I paid without a quibble and Aui gave me her share.  That's one karaoke place that won't get our business again!

My son Nicky sent me an IM on Facebook this morning.  He was writing it on his iPhone in the pool at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas.  What a life!  He's playing drums with Hanni El Khatib and they've begun a two-month tour that will take them to Bonnaroo on Friday, followed by a string of dates with Florence and the Machine, as well as shows with Bass Drum of Death in the midwest, east and Canada.  I only got a taste of that intensity during my travels in the 1970s with Eric Clapton, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Bad Company, Elton John and Led Zeppelin.  I think being a musician in that scene is infinitely better than being a PR man.  He and Hanni were recently on Fuel TV and a commercial they did for Nike's "Just Do It" campaign is currently being aired.  Nicky has little time to write now and I look forward some day to hearing about his adventures.

It's the monsoon season in Thailand and I'm enjoying the daily deluge, almost always accompanied by thunder and lightning.  The views from my window are spectacular.