Sunday, December 30, 2012

Korea: The War is Over

When over 100,000 troops crossed the 38th parallel in Korea in 1950 to reunite their divided country under a communist regime, I was 10 years old and living in a small town in North Carolina. This aggression was the first move in a short but bloody "police action" or "conflict" between United Nations forces, mobilized by the United States, and an army supplied and supported by China and the Soviet Union.  I was old enough to realize the dangers involved and followed events in the newspaper and on our black-and-white TV.  Pictures and film of Korea as a devastated and colorless country are etched in my memory.

Last week my wife and I spent six days in and around Seoul, still the capital of the southern half of Korea.  The three-year war solved nothing.  Nearly sixty years after an armistice, the communist northern regime continues to threaten the democratic south, with tests of a nuclear weapon and, a week before our visit, the firing of a long-range rocket.  What changed for me during out visit to experience the snow of winter was my monochrome memory of Korea.

We walked around many areas of central Seoul and our friends Kim and Yea drove us outside the city to the north and the south. Evidence of the war's devastation was hard to find.  Now the second-largest urban area in the world, greater Seoul is thoroughly modern with wide freeways, numerous bridges across the Han River, a landscape of skyscrapers, and high-rise condominiums everywhere to house the exploding population.  Yet here near the new modern City Hall was a display thanking the 22 nations that joined the UN coalition to save South Korea.

In Jongno on the way to tour Changdeokgung Palace (which was large and rather uninteresting), I saw this poster for what looks like a play about the war.  When I looked at those few Koreans more elderly than me, I wondered about their experiences in a time when several million civilians were killed and bombs destroyed almost everything.  It was the same feeling I had when visiting Vietnam.  In Hanoi I met ladies who had worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and I apologized to them for the destruction caused by my country. Wars in both places were the result of splitting the world into Them (the bad communists) and Us (always the good guys).  The communists won in Vietnam and the world did not change.  No one won in Korea, except perhaps the southerners who benefited from 26 years of dictatorship which enabled authoritarian regimes to reconstruct and rebuild with inflows of capital from the West.  The day before we arrived, Park Geun-Hye, daughter of dictator Park Chung-Hee (assassinated in 1979), was elected president.  Korea today has the world's 11th highest GNP.  Since the early 1990s, however, it has been one of the freest democracies in Asia.

Our goal in Seoul was to enjoy snow, Nan for the first time.  We were fortunate.  The afternoon of our arrival it snowed in the city for several hours.  A couple of days later, the snow was refreshed overnight. Expat David A. Mason, author of Spirit of the Mountains, gave us a tour of Insa-dong while the white stuff was coming down and guided us through an excellent meal of traditional Thai cuisine at a superb restaurant called Jirisan.  He also took us to the inspiring Jogyesa Temple, headquarters of Korea's main Buddhist group which emphasizes Zen meditation, and we went across the street to the headquarters of the Temple Stay program which he helped start.

What made our holiday truly special was Yea, Nan's friend from Phayao, and her Korean husband, Kim.  They live in a small apartment in his parents' house in the suburbs with their daughter Soi-yoon and young son Ka-yoon.  The day after we arrived they picked us up at our hotel in their car and drove us to Nami Island in the north Han River.  Calling itself the Naminara Republic, it has been developed as a nature tourist site and is reached by ferry.  The snow made everything beautiful.  The following day, Yea and Kim took us south to the Korean Folk Village where aspects of the 500-year Joseon Dynasty are on exhibit.  There was also an amusement park and a snow slide where Nan got to complete her winter experience. On both excursions we enjoyed wonderful meals, particular the regional dish of dakgalbi cooked at our table in a restaurant on the banks of the Han River.  On Sunday evening we stopped at a Korean barbecue restaurant in their neighborhood and I enjoyed the delicious marinated meat called bulgogi (of course every meal include kimchi and numerous side dishes). To cap their generosity, we were invited to share Christmas dinner with the family at their apartment.

On Christmas Eve we shopped.  First, at the huge Namdaemun Market where everything is on sale at a proliferation of stores and stalls, followed by a dive into the crowds at Myeong-dong where brand name shops line several car-free streets and the Salvation Army competes with strident Christian evangelists for the attention of materialist consumers eager for a last minute bargain.  In the morning we had toured the traditional neighborhood of Bukchon and taken a taxi and bus up to the top of Namsen Park where the N Seoul Tower overlooks the city.  Nan was most interested in the wall of locks attached by lovers who then threw away the keys (signs warn that this is ecologically damaging to the park).  We ate Italian food for a change in an expensive restaurant with a hazy view of the city.

On our final morning we returned to Insa-dong which could perhaps be called the Greenwich Village of Seoul with its art galleries and shops full of traditional pottery, clothes and masks. At a tea room we shared exquisite drinks and "green tea chocolate," and at a restaurant down an alley we ate bibimbap (with a raw egg) and fish.  We bought handmade candy that melted on the way home, and souvenirs for friends.  I got a tee shirt and Nan dug dirt out of the ground at Topgol Park (where democracy was declared in 1919 despite Japanese rule) for one of her girlfriends who loves anything Korean.

Six days in Korea did much to erase those desolate images I've carried with me of the war.  In many ways Seoul reminded me of Los Angeles with its car culture and miles of freeways (I noticed that nearly every vehicle now has a GPS device and learning directions is as passĂ© as multiplication tables).  If this is a first world country now, then Bangkok with its rough edges and poor underbelly is still struggling to develop outside of the tourist oasis of Siam.  Koreans seemed taller, louder, smiled less, and actually bumped into you on the sidewalk.  I saw little of the spitters I was warned about.  They appeared more serious than the sanuk Thais. There are no spirit houses as in Southeast Asia and little evidence of Buddhism away from the temples. Nan was thrilled by the cold and snow but I found it less convenient and felt like the Michelin man bundled in my layers of clothing and down jacket.  I loved the warm floor in our room at the GS ("good stay") Hotel and the warm toilet seat: luxury!  We only took one subway ride and our T-Money cards (a great idea, even taxis took them) went to waste, but noticed that the transportation system is vast, far superior in its reach of the city to Bangkok's BTS and MRT.  The MTA could learn a thing or two from Seoul. Some of the tourist sites had discounts for foreigners which is the opposite of the Thai strategy.  Overall, it was a terrific holiday, an appetizer for a longer visit.  It's main purpose, however, was to introduce Nan to snow.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Measuring Life With Coffee Spoons

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
T.S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

I used to hang out at Starbucks just inside the entrance to Central Pinklao, the upscale shopping mall up the street in my Bangkok neighborhood, but now I frequent Coffee World on the 2nd floor because of the comfortable reading chairs and free wifi.  I think the cappuccino is better, although I don't consider myself a connoisseur of the bean.  If truth be told, it's the foam that I like best.  Since using my finger is impolite, the spoon is for the foam.  I don't take sugar.

So I'm a creature of habit.  Routine hems me in, and predictability gives me purchase on the vagaries of existence.  Life might be boring had I not chosen to uproot myself from America and move halfway round the globe to Thailand where I count myself among the tribe of expats.  Every day brings surprise and mystery.  This is not my home and can never be.  I remain at the whim of the smiling bureaucrats in Immigration.   Just today I learned that a friend has been given three days to leave the country.  I don't know the details but it raises my hackles.

Each morning I rise before dawn and drink a glass of orange juice, one of the many small luxuries I allow myself.  Moving to California at 13, I used to pick oranges from trees on the way to school.  Now it comes in a carton and tastes almost as good.  I stand next to the washing machine on my tiny balcony and watch the sun come up over the spire of the Rama VIII Bridge: Dramatic cloud formations and a color palate of pinks, reds, and yellows, more often than not the subject of a photo (sometimes posted on Facebook).

Lately my blog posts have troubled a few friends.  "You are beginning to sound like an unhappy man," one told me, "longing for what no longer is and surely never will be again."  I try to reassure him, and myself, that such is not the case.  I've never been happier.  No one wants to be a sad sack.  We put our best face forward, even when the money is almost gone and the diagnosis is terminal.  Good vibrations and positive thinking are the norm for social intercourse, particularly in the western world where death is out of sight and beggars are off the streets.  I am not sure that happiness is so monochromatic as all that.

On the one hand, I have the love of a good woman, a comfortable place to live, and a reasonably dependable income.  I can maneuver without the aid of prosthetic devices, manage to exercise my intellectual curiosity, and continue to enjoy select pleasures of the flesh.  Is this the basis for happiness? In Bangkok I am surrounded by people with less: Burmese mothers nursing babies on the pedestrian overpass, tireless cooks selling roasted fish and meat on a stick from sidewalk carts, street sweepers bundled up against the sun's rays, the indefatigable laundry lady downstairs who works 10-hour days every day but one.  My lazy habits compared to their work regimens seem like needless extravagance.

"Rage, rage against the dying of the light," another poet suggested.  While T.S. Eliot equated timidity with regularity, Dylan Thomas, probably in a drunken stupor, threw his glass at fate.  My life falls somewhere in between.  What is a blog post in the face of the unending catastrophe presented every day to those who will listen?  The runaway train of climate change, Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, civil war in Syria and war threatened against Iran. The world is truly fucked.  Here in Thailand on the same day a man was eaten by a tiger and a woman was stomped to death by a wild elephant enraged by fireworks.

Why would anyone give up home (country) and family to live in a strange land among people whose customs often puzzle and mystify?  Humans are hard-wired to live in groups.  Despite the social Darwinists, cooperation is more beneficial for evolution than competition.  We demonize those who do not belong to our group and will die for those who do.  People with lovers and friends live longer than loners and outcasts.  Some are forced from their homes and become refugees, displaced persons.  Others, like me, expatriate.  T.S. Eliot preferred England to his native St. Louis.  Gertrude Stein from Oakland (where there is "no there there") settled in Paris along with a generation of expats.  Over 5 million Americans reportedly live outside the country of their birth.

There are infinite reasons for expatriation, ranging from economy to pleasure, not to mention the dark secrets that cause some to flee persecution or retribution.  In many cases the move doesn't work.  Foreign bloggers and retirees in Thailand grumble loudly on the internet about what they see as the natives' unsavory characteristics, their unholy religion, and the obsequious obedience paid to hierarchy.  I find their complaints tedious and wonder why keeps them here beyond the tourist-littered beaches, cheap medical services and easily obtainable sexual favors.  Thailand is not utopia.  Political troubles, flooding and recent reports of the numerous unexplainable deaths of visitors have put a dent in the tourism industry in Thailand.  But for expatriates these stories are unimportant.

I stay because after five years I have made a life here.  There is a gentleness to the living that soothes me.  I am familiar with a good chunk of the city and can get around easily.  I am aware of events and issues, and have the resources to research both the past and present of Thailand and the Southeast Asian context.  My circle of friends is smaller than back in California, but the internet has made it possible to stay in contact with those I care about, near and far.  Virtual conversations are no less satisfying than face-to-face interactions.  While I spend considerable time with my digital devices, nothing prevents me from going out the door, to the pool for a swim or across the city for a lunch date.  And it all takes place within an exciting and cosmopolitan city that offers views, smells and sounds that tantalize and please the senses.

That said, life may change at any minute.  At the moment I am facing the prospect of an upheaval to my late-in-life teaching career.  The administrators at my university are sending the message that part-time teachers are dispensable.  I have not been paid for my work in months.  An additional job I expected did not materialize.  This particular habit of weekly class preparation and teaching may end.  It was a gift anyway, the opportunity to teach, something that came as a surprise after my move here.  While I enjoy the identity of ajahn, I am more than the sum of my identities.  Retiring from teaching will give me new opportunities for living life in a strange land. Life is a dance between habit and change.  I might even give up coffee.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What, Me Worry?

No, this post isn't about Mad Magazine which is this month celebrating 60 years of looking satirically at American culture.  And it's also not about its icon, Alfred E. Neuman, who took up residence on the magazine's covers a couple of years after the first 26 issues were published as a comic book.  His stock answer to everything is the ironic, "What, me worry?"  My topic here, then, is worry, in particular and in general, something familiar to everyone born human.  I even think it  a better English translation for the Pali word dukkha than "suffering." This word is at the heart of the Buddha's dhammic analysis of our plight as living creatures who can reflect on their situation, recall the past, look forward to, and perhaps fear, the future.  Back in the New Age Sixties worry was condemned as a negative attitude.  And here in Thailand it's seen as an unproductive state of mind that gets you nowhere.  But I'm not so sure.  While I recognize that worry can be a tsunami of the mind that destroys everything in its path, I also believe that worry motivates, and that it is a spur to action.  Worry can also be seen as concern, for the messes we get ourselves into, the tragedy of the poor, the innocent victims of war, and the fate of the planet.

Perhaps I'm worrying more than normal these days.  I haven't been paid for the teaching I did last term for nearly four months, along with the other part-time English teachers. All we've been told is that there is an "accounting problem."  No, I'm not in Kansas any more.  Money, or the lack of it, is a definite trigger for anxiety about the future.  Speaking of that, how much of a future have I got?  It's amazing how fast the days go by now that I'm in my dotage.  While many Thais continue to tell me how strong I look (a euphemism for something, I'm sure), my body squeals otherwise.  The right knee, the left eye, my few remaining teeth, both ears, and the skin covering with its strange blotches and growths all cry out for expensive medical repair, but the budget says no.  A good friend has had bypass surgery and a pacemaker installed at a cost equal to the economy of a small country (even though half-price in Thailand for medical tourists).  My outstanding credit card debt would finance the start-up of a high-tech company.  You get the picture.

After my father died at 83, I learned from my mother that he had been a serious worrier.  I never knew.  For the last few years of his life he was proscribed Valium.  It helped him probably to forget two heart attacks, his emphysema, the table full of pills he had to take, and the tank of oxygen he had to carry with him to walk with the other old men at the Mall. During my wild amphetamine youth, I used to take doses of that drug to come down and sleep at night.  My first wife consumed Valium regularly, she said, to make her feel normal.  I've never tried any of the many new mood elevators and antidepressants like Prozac, et al, but I am suspicious that they mask rather the remove all the many causes of worry.  If the beast is knocking at your door, I don't think it wise to be wacked out on tranquillizers.  My son Luke's self-medication of choice was alcohol (although he also was quite fond of pharmaceuticals), and it eventually ended his life; no more worries.  I want to say, without sounding too Pollyanna here, that our task in life must be to learn to live with our worries rather than to make them disappear.  The wise Pema Chodron advises us to lean into them rather than to run away to the things that go bump in the night.

One of my biggest worries is that no one will like me.  This has gotten me in some serious trouble in my life with honesty and truth.  Right now I fear the Thai teachers and administrators at my university might shun me if I shout too loudly about not getting paid for my work.  Thais do not appreciate complaints unless they are couched in face-saving gyrations.  On Facebook, I'm discovering that my criticisms of Obama, U.S. policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and, especially, my blunt condemnation of Israel and its occupation of Palestine, have enflamed the antagonisms of a few "friends."  I've been insulted and de-friended and suspect others are simply blocking or ignoring my links and posts.  I try not to retaliate in kind, but it's difficult, and I feel sad that people I knew and worked with over 35 years ago think me a bigot, an anti-semite, and in general a not very nice person.  Even though we shared anti-Tea Party views during the recent election, many, mostly Jewish, connections on Facebook will not listen to any criticisms of Israel and hate those who are willing to speak out.  I try to explain that it's the present nation of Israel I detest and not Judaism or any who self-identify as a Jew; I respect Jewish spirituality and studied it in school.  But like abortion, the debate over Israel is less words than rocks thrown.

The people whose respect I seek the most are my three remaining children, and the fact that I've moved halfway around the world from them makes conversation especially difficult.  But not impossible.  The new technology offers innumerable ways to communicate while not residing in the same room, or country.  Yet judgments and attitudes stand in the way.  I was an absent and misbehaving father for much of my tenure with two different families, and forgiveness is slow to emerge; maybe it won't.  It's painful to hear your choices mischaracterized and demeaned, and to see your desire to stay in contact refused as unearned.  Part of not being liked (or loved) is the awful shock of realizing that others do not know you as you know yourself, a wonderful human being, and to realize that nothing will change their opinion.

So I worry, about money, about my degenerating body, about a lack of understanding and respect from others, and about the state of the world.  Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, has become my forum for finding out about the world and for expressing my opinions.  I scan the globe using email lists, a personalized and customized Google News, and Google Reader where I maintain a list of credible and interesting sources.  Despite my view that Obama is a moderate Republican (like the kind that used to exist but no longer do) in disguise, to the right of Clinton, whose foreign policies in most aspects duplicate those of the hated Bush II, I took pleasure in his visit to Thailand yesterday, kept track of his movements on Twitter, posted photos on Facebook as they became available, and watched video on the local TV stations and on YouTube.  Because I've chosen to stay here in Thailand, beside my loving and understanding wife, until I take my last breath, I'm vitally interested in the political issues at stake here between monarchists, militarists, true democrats (not the fascists who pretend), and Shinawatra partisans.  And living in Southeast Asia, I now take a close interest in the formation and actions of the regional association ASEAN.  What happens in Myanmar (I really prefer to call it Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia directly effect my life here.  There is much to worry about, and also much about life now that is exciting. To be concerned and also critical of the status quo is NOT to be negative and sad.

During the halcyon days of the Sixties, worries were so much simpler, although no less deeply felt.  We agonized over choices about work, lovers, music, and politics (I came of age with Vietnam), but there was always time and room for improvement.  At 73, I no longer anticipate an outcome I can oversee.  Back then, it seemed, we could change anything, even ourselves.  I've come to believe that our choices are much more limited by circumstances beyond our control, and that mantras and meditation are largely self-help illusions.  We humans are amazing self-replicating structures of living meat, and life is a one-of-a-kind adventure we experience through no fault of our own.  Given these restrictions, I believe we should make the most of it without resort to distractions that pretend an otherworldly wisdom.  "I put before you life and death," said God in the Biblical story.  "Choose life."  He forgot to mention that worrying is part of the process.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Broken Families, Lost Lineages

This decaying picture comes from a photo album my mother made for me about 15 years ago.  Some of the subjects are identified but many are not.  On the right are my father's parents, Helen and Ed Yaryan, and her sister, I think, is on the left.  It was taken in the early years of the 20th century.  I was taught about my family by my mother, who died 10 years ago, and by my father's older sister, my Aunt Margaret, who's been gone even longer.  That generation cared about lineage and were keepers of the flame of family, pasting photos in albums and noting names, making sure the past was kept in memory.  My children seem to have little interest in their ancestors.

These are my grandparents on my mother's side, Carly and Edmund Sheppard.  They were Canadians and my mom was born in Winnipeg but grew up in Montreal and Toronto.  On all of this, including names, my memory is hazy.  Long ago I put together a genealogy for both sides of my family but I think I left it in a box back in California. Now that I've scanned an album's worth of pictures, the legacy of my mother, into my computer, I don't know what to do with it.  My second wife and I were creatures of the age of equality and gave our two children double-barreled last names, a combination of our surnames; both hated it.  When she was young and rebellious, my daughter took a new name, that of her maternal great-grandmother, because she liked the sound of it better.  It's always felt like a personal rejection.  But, hey, what's in a name?

In the spring of 1953, my father took a job in Los Angeles and moved my mother, brother and I across the country.  After we'd gotten settled we drove up to the Bay Area where four of his five siblings were living, and his twin brother Ted came fout from Massachusetts for the unprecedented family reunion.  While growing up in Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia, I recall that every Christmas a huge box of presents arrived from our western relatives.  I only knew most of the from photographs.  At the reunion in Tiburon, I was the oldest of the many cousins and enjoyed my status.  Aunt Margaret took me under her wing and for the next few years she tutored me, not only in the family's history but also in literature.  She was a high school teacher and nurtured my interest in books and ideas.  She adored her younger twin brothers, particularly Ted, a character actor on Broadway, who shared her artistic and intellectual interests.  There were three more siblings who shared a mother, Frank, Mac and Nan, for my father's father had died young, during the flu epidemic I suspect, and his wife remarried a Mr. Duhme who preceded to squander much of the family fortune during the Florida land boom.

I'm mostly certain that this is my grandfather Ed with his twin boys, born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1908 but who grew up not far from St. Petersburg.  Homer, my father, and Ted were very close and very different.  Dad worked as a life guard and was a lifelong sports fan.  Ted aspired to play the piano. He only learned to play by ear, but was good enough to be the accompanist for Paul Robeson while working as stage manager for a tour of "Othello." That Ted was homosexual was never doubted (except by Frank's wife Mary who had a crush on him) but also never discussed by anyone in the family.  Dad didn't get along with his stepfather and was exiled to military school in New Mexico where he learned to play the drums in a roadhouse band.  Ted was a favorite of his wealthy grandmother in Toledo, and was taken under her wing.

These are my maternal great-grandparents on my mother's father's side,  both Sheppards whose full names I've forgotten.  My main genealogical interest was in exploring the Yaryan side of the family, because it was an unusual surname and probably also because I'm the product of a paternal culture.  The Sheppards migrated to Canada from the British Isles and were no doubt sheepherders. Perhaps the variant spelling was a way to put rural roots behind.  Mom was born Alyce Anita but changed her name to Peggy.  Her father was a successful architect who came to live with us in the early 1950s after his wife died.  Apparently he never knew how to take care him himself and he was helpless without her.  I recall him as a cribbage-playing, pipe-smoking, rather formal and taciturn man who didn't care much for teenagers.  After we moved to California he slowly slid into senility and was sent away to a nearby retirement home.  My one visit there was a horrible experience which put me off aging foreer.

Mom's only sibling was a considerably older brother named Ferris who left home as soon as he could.  Their mother apparently was exceptionally unaffectionate and didn't care much for the role.  Her daughter was sent away to convent school and they were lifelong antagonists.  Ferris led a rather secret life but I recall his son Kenny who came to visit shortly after I was born and helped take care of me, as did my Uncle Ted, when my mother was hospitalized for post-partum depression.  Kenny returned during the war years and I idolized him, but after the war ended we never heard from him again.

Ferris Sheppard, seen here with Kenny, went to California and we visited him once after moving there.  I recall little except that he was bald and everyone was a little tense.  My mother did not stay in touch with him.  Then six years ago I heard from his grandson who just happened to be living in Santa Cruz where I lived.  I got together for lunch with him and his mother, my first cousin, who lived over the hill in San Jose, and I shared a few photos I had of his father and grandparents.  I don't know how Barry found me but we were happy to connect.  Barry is a well-known cellist who has studied with Ravi Shankar and performed with the sitar player's daughter at the concert for George Harrison in London after the Beatle's death.  You can see my cousin in the DVD.

Everyone but my father is in this picture of his five siblings so perhaps he took the photo.  Ted is on the right.  He welcomed me into his small home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, when I dropped out of Berkeley to find out who I was, and we traveled around the country together.  Later he moved to San Diego with his long-term partner but after becoming disabled by emphysema he took his own life.  Margaret, standing next to Ted, was married late to a lovely man who also happened to be an alcoholic who used to go on long benders.  They had one son, Ted, who became a master carpenter; he died last year.  In the middle is Mac, a corpsman during the Pacific campaign who was forced to collect dead bodies and broke under the strain.  He was an alcoholic for many years, and after his nurse wife died of cancer, his three daughters were raised by Frank on the far left.  Frank and his Catholic wife could not have children.  He was a real man's man who fished, loved Hemingway, and who kept a copy of Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian on his bedside table to rattle Mary. Nan, the only surviving sibling, married a pilot and had a slew of children.  They became fundamental Christians and spoke in tongues.  Ted told a story of attending a meeting with them at their church where most of the worshippers were black, contrasting starkly with the blonde, blue-eyed family.

This is the oldest photo in the collection my mother sent me.  It was probably taken in the 1890s in Toledo where my great-grandfather Homer T. Yaryan, seen on the left, built a room on his mansion to hold seances in order to investigate spiritualism.  He was a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was also passionately interested in it and who stayed with my relative when he traveled to America with his family during a respite in the Sherlock Holmes narrative.  I'd seen this photo when I visited the Society of Psychical Research in London where great-grandfather had donated his papers.  Supposedly the bald, mustachioed man is Homer's long dead brother and the large man is the spirit medium.  Homer T. was a successful inventor who heated the sidewalks of Toledo to melt snow.  He also set out to expose the unscrupulous mediums but in the process found some, like this one, whom he believed were genuine.

Here is my family in about 1952.  We lived in western North Carolina where my father sold glue to plywood manufacturers.  My brother Geoff is three years younger and now has just turned 70.  Life was so different back them.  I had a very comfortable middle-class life and a happy childhood.  But I grew up in the 1950s and learned toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. The generation gap was wide.  After I discovered music, art and literature, I found much to criticize in the tastes of my plebeian parents.  They were Republicans and hated Negroes (before they were called blacks).  I wanted to become an actor but I'm sure my father feared I would become a fairy like his twin brother, and forbid it.  He wanted me to finish college because he didn't and thought it limited his employment opportunities.  I wanted to go on the road like Jack Kerouac.  As soon as it was possible (with a couple of false starts), I left home.  Though we stayed in touch and visited over the years, I rarely felt close to them and I think they never knew me very well.  I now know, at the age of 73, that it was my loss.

Geoff and I stay lightly in touch, but our disagreements in the past were so angry (he enjoyed them because he is a lawyer and good at it, but I didn't) that our relationship is somewhat distant. I am presently estranged from my two youngest offspring who took sides with their mother when our marriage collapsed, and who find more to criticize than like about my current choices in life.  My oldest son is responsive but not very curious about my current whereabouts.  I think he remains angry over how I abandoned him and his brother to a crazy woman when they were quite young.  It may have been a contributing cause of my second son's alcoholism which eventually took his life a few years ago.  Strangely enough, probably because of some problems in my own life, I felt closest to him, at least when he was sober.

I'm sure there are many people with worse stories than mine about broken families and lost lineages.  After all, I am a product of privilege, middle class and white.  Here in Thailand, as a farang I am considered "Hi-So" and can wander the halls of the expensive supermalls without embarrassment (poor Thais are very shy about intruding into the shopping palaces of the upper classes).  Much of my experience with family has been disappointing, and I accept my share of responsibility.  Not that there weren't good years, the 1950s out west, the late 1960s in southern California, and the last years of the 21st century in northern California.  But it mostly ended badly with bruised feelings and damaged egos.  Certainly I shared the experiences of my parents whose relationship with their siblings was often rocky.  They seemed to care more about the ties that bind, however, as my mother's loving construction of the photo album shows.  She would be very pleased to know I've made contact with her brother's long lost family.

They say your family has to take you in when no one else will, but that's not particularly true in the west where children are encouraged to be independent of their parents, and old folks are shuffled off to a retirement or nursing home.  Here in Asia, family is worshipped and elders are respected even when they don't deserve it.  I've become "Papa" in Nan's family and I believe they will care for me lovingly whenever the time comes that I no longer can do it all myself.  Of course there are benefits in having a foreign son-in-law, but these are calculations that take place on both sides.  It's sad that the story I've told here about my family, sketchy as it is and no doubt full of errors,  will have no audience in the future.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Liberating the Whale Within

I've made a number of bad choices in my life and have regrets to match. Sometimes the weight of my guilt feels like that famous whale with my old name (although I used to spell it "Willie" rather than "Willy"). I was socialized to accept the burden of free will (oh the irony!) and pay the consequences for any mistakes that were made.  We blame people for their faults, their errors in judgment.  But sometimes there are causes other than willful blunder when things go awry.

This was an important and anxiety-provoking issue during the years of dealing with my son's alcoholism.  What was the degree of his responsibility for the bad choices he made that ultimately killed him?  Did my absence as a father play a role, or his mother's addiction to valium and wine?  Were chemicals in the brain the prime culprit, or was it insufficient nurturing by parents who missed the cues provided by his youthful druggy misbehavior?

Guilt has long been viewed by our modern generation as an unproductive emotion, but it is not so easily abandoned.  In retrospect, our memories are rarely clear of it.  We all believe that had we done something else, somewhere, sometime, things would have turned out differently.  Free will is a cornerstone of our self image and the basis for morality and the law.  Without it, we lead lives directed by conditions and circumstance.  And if our choices are a mixture of determined and free, as some "compatibilists" in the field of neuroscience now believe, how are to we choose between them to apportion blame and praise?

A dilemma only for philosophers, you say.  And maybe you are right.  I've been stimulated by the revival of a group of Bangkok expats calling themselves "BuddhistPsychos" to explore connections between the latest psychological theories and Buddhist teaching.  This month the topic for our meeting was thinking, and I dove into a pile of online research to discover current thoughts about, well, thought. On the face of it, thinking is a mysterious process somehow related to the brain (which one  writer called a "meat computer").   How does sensory input, converted into electrical signals in the brain, become mental food for thought? I am quite familiar with the discursive chatter that goes on in my head (or my heart, as Thais would say), but it may be quite different from your experience.  A monk in our group claimed that he was able at will to replace ordinary thinking with thoughtless awareness, but I suspect he was playing with definitions.  Thinking, it seems to me, is coexistant with consciousness.

My friend Jerry echoes my wife who often says "you think too much."  He's a thinker as well but not about such lofty intellectual topics.  The subjects of the current book he's writing are "whore lovers" and this weekend he's attending a ladyboy volleyball tournament in Pattaya.  While I puzzle over the relationship between the brain and free will, the topic for next month's BuddhistPsychos meeting, he's thinking about the pleasures of the flesh.

The conflict between determinism and free will may simply be a category mistake, a misuse of language to speak about incompatible domains, an apples to oranges error.  This explanation is unlikely to sit well with those who cling to the belief of a "ghost in the machine," a homunculus who sits in the head (or heart) and drives the vehicle of our body.  For these believers, an eternal soul is obvious. Buddhist blogger Stephen Schettini posed the question "What if everything doesn't happen for  reason?"  This leads to some very interesting conclusions, such as a psychological chaos theory that eliminates humans as the center of creation.

It's the doldrums now between school terms so I have the time and inactivity to ponder such questions.  Despite a vow to withdraw from an obsession with U.S. news, I've timed my days to coincide with the campaign debates.  And I engage in Facebook disputes over the trouble caused by Israel in the Mideast and the tragedy of Burmese Buddhists killing Muslims in retaliation for Islamic violence against Buddhists across the border in Bangladesh.  I've been labeled an anti-Semite for my criticism by an old friend from high school as well as someone I once worked with in Hollywood forty years ago.  Another one-time friend blocked me after I wrote that it was nonsense to believe Jews and Arabs had equal rights in Israel.  Here in Thailand, cautioning against revenge and urging compassion for Muslim terrorists is not always welcomed.

The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma is a good example of "otherisation," a term for the demonisation of the other proposed by Kathleen Turner in her book on cruelty which she discusses in a new three-part British TV series with Richard Dawkins, "Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life." Dawkins was at his best in the first program when arguing for a secular morality based on the human disposition of empathy.  We don't need a god and eternal reward or punishment to ground morality, Dawkins says, because humans are hard-wired for kindness.  All it takes is a widening of our circle to include empathy for others beyond our tribe.  The old tribal exclusions can be abandoned in a secular world.

Perhaps.  But I never thought the conflicts today were primarily about religious differences.  It's mostly fighting over land.  The establishment of the state of Israel was done at the expense of the previous owners and the residents of Palestine have struggled for 60 years to right this fundamental wrong.  At the last presidential debate, Obama and Romney argued over who loved Israel more.  Just as in the first debates, no one mentioned the poor, in the final debate no one defended the occupied and oppressed Palestinians, perhaps the key to why the Middle East remains a powder keg and Americans are universally hated there.

But that's the news junkie talking.  Here in Thailand the rainy season is almost over without any signs of the devastating floods of last year when Nan and I were forced to escape to Phayao for several weeks.  My wife has completed the internship required by her BA program and has only to submit a dissertation to graduate.  The ceremony will be sometime in the new year and family members from upcountry will come to Bangkok to celebrate with gifts of flowers and stuffed animals.  Nan was invited to participate in another ASEAN student exchange (she went to Brunei last December), but was bumped from the Bali list and then told that accommodations could not be found for the next choice in Penang, Malaysia.  So we have a month to gather warm clothes together for our Christmas trip to Seoul, Korea.

It certainly seems like I can choose from among the alternatives life presents.  Granted, the last divorce was not my choice, but probably my misdeeds made that inevitable. And the result was certainly favorable for me.  I chose to visit Thailand back in 2004, to move here permanently five years ago, and to marry the woman with whom I now share a life that is wonderful beyond my wildest dreams.  That our age difference has upset my children to the point where they no longer wish to stay in contact was beyond my control.  I cannot fathom why they fail to share my joy.  Choices that I made to neglect my knee and teeth are coming back to haunt me.  In general, aging is a downhill slide and it's futile to fight it.  It must be enough that I swim several times a week and that my wife feeds me healthy meals.  Living forever is not an option.

Nevertheless, I lean toward the view that will and the mind are imaginative byproducts of a brain that developed because humans who told satisfying stories of explanation were more fit to survive.  Plato was wrong.  It's the poets and storytellers (and we're all scribblers) who make life worth living.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Death of Tolerance

Despite predictions that globalization would break down the walls between different cultures and religions, the opposite seems to be happening.  In the West, conservative Christians charge that secular governments have declared war on religion, while in the East, Muslims and Buddhists are burning each other's houses of worship.  My position has always been that there are truths in the beliefs and scriptures of time-tested religions alongside errors that result from translation as well as the attempt to apply ancient dogma to present conditions.  The troublemakers are literal fundamentalists and extremists who believe their particular truth makes all other beliefs false.  These religious radicals want to unite the world under their banner.  The worst of them want to kill all heretics.

Some friends, however, believe that Islam is an inherently evil religion which wishes to dominate the world.  This is a position taken by the New Atheists who damn all religion but Islam in particular.  Tolerance even for moderates is rejected because it just enables the extremists.  I have long argued against them in defense of tolerance and moral relativism.  Live and let live is my motto, but it's under attack. At the end of last month, a mob of Muslims in Bangladesh burned four Buddhist temples and over a dozen homes because their religion had allegedly been insulted by a photo on Facebook.  At first, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, among them many of my students, protested peacefully. (Here is a video of the Buddhist temple burning from Al Jazeera.)

Last week, however, a mob of Buddhists in Myanmar’s Rakhine state burned down a mosque.  Whether in retaliation to what happened in Bangladesh or as part of the ongoing war against Rohyinga Muslims in their midst, the violence is a horrible tit for tat that can only escalate.  Last month, Muslim homes were burned and Rohyinga people killed by Burmese Buddhists after a rumor that a Buddhist woman had been raped by a Rohyinga man (facts are disputed and the central government has been accused of spreading the rumor in order to rid the country of the unwanted Rohyinga).  (Here is a video of the mosque burning in Sittwe.)

Then two days ago, the Taliban in Pakistan shot a 14-year-old girl in the head because she had been outspoken about the necessity of educating women in a country where Muslims routinely deny that right.  Optimists are hoping that this despicable act might be the turning point for moderate Muslims to confront the extremists in their midst.  (Read yesterday's New York Times editorial; here is a CNN update.) As for me, this attempted assassination of a courageous young girl has finally brought about the realization that Islamic fascists and terrorists are categorically different from extremists of other religious stripes.  Christian anti-abortionists burn clinics and kill doctors, but the only mobs I know of confine their activities to protesting movies like "The Last Temptation of Christ" or "The Da Vinci Code"; they haven't killed heretics for hundreds of years.  While I am not yet ready to agree with Samuel Huntington's thesis of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, I am now much less tolerant toward any Islamic teaching that divides the world between followers of Allah and heretics liable for beheading. (For an excellent discussion of the issues, view this video debate on the question, "Islam is a Religion of Peace.")

I've always thought freedom of expression must be universally protected, except for crying fire in a crowded theater.  Or hate speech directed against persecuted minorities ("nigger" or "fag," for example).  And I've even supported political correctness in the search for gender-neutral terms ("spokesperson," etc.)  On the other hand, I've been a moral relativist when it comes to protecting the cultures of groups threatened by global homogenization and the tyranny of the universal.  The toughest question here is what to think about female genital mutilation, a practice engaged in by northern African peoples even before they converted to Islam.  But if we declare FGM universally unacceptable, then must we also outlaw male circumcision, a more benign operation but one no less ardently advocated by Jews and others as part of their religion?

The problem with being even slightly critical of Islam and its history and current practices, like its treatment of women, is that it can be dangerous to one's health, as evidenced by these signs at a Muslim rally in Britain.  It's no longer adequate to argue, as I have in the past, that we must be tolerant of differences in beliefs and values; rather than criticize, we should seek to find common interests and goals (like economic wellbeing and world peace).  The public face of Islam, however (for which the media no doubt may be partly responsible), is of an intolerant and violent religion that seeks to silence differences of opinion through threats and mayhem.   While extremists may be relatively few, they have managed to stifle the moderates from speaking out against them. It took a Reformation to get rid of the Inquisition in Christianity.  Perhaps it will need an equally earth-shattering change for Islam to become a religion of peace.

How free can free speech be?  Here in Thailand, all speech about the royal family is strictly curtailed with severe penalties for any transgression.  There is a Thai Buddhist web site strongly critical of of manufacturers and companies that turn icons of the Buddha into commercial items.  My students, most of whom are monks, are very upset by the photos displayed widely on the web of Buddhist temples and statues destroyed by fire in Bangladesh.  They seemed not so disturbed by news that Buddhists had burned homes and a mosque in Burma or that monks in Yangoon were demonstrating in favor of expelling Rohyinga Muslims from their country.  The killing of tens of thousands of Hindus in Sri Lanka during the civil war there is out of sight, out of mind, as is the blessing by Japanese Buddhists of suicide planes during World War Two.  Christianity has the medieval Inquisition to live down, not to mention the persecution of gays by Christian leaders in Africa who advocate the death penalty for homosexuality.  Intolerance has been the rule down through history.

The books of authors from Henry Miller and James Joyce to Salman Rushdie have been banned for saying what some believe should not be said, although none had to live in hiding for ten years like Rushdie when a sentence of death was issued by an Iranian cleric after the publication of his novel Satanic Verses.  Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was assassinated by a Muslim for criticizing treatment of women in Islam. Cartoons critical of Muhammad were printed in a Danish newspaper and violent demonstrations irrupted all over the world.  And most recently, a deliberately provocative film about the Prophet that never got farther than YouTube sparked hundreds of protests by Muslims which resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya. It's easy, from the perspective of the west, to believe that "sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me," a rhyme I chanted as a child when others were hateful.  If you're white, the word "nigger" can have no sting, nor are you bothered when the languages of minorities, native Americans and immigrants, are banished from public discourse.  Was the Russian group Pussy Riot insulting religion by singing and dancing in an orthodox church or were they just protesting what they thought was an unholy alliance between church and state?

I don't know what the limits of free speech might be, or if there should be any at all.  As a white man from America, I have rarely experienced any restraints on my ability to speak my mind, although I have often tried to be both polite and diplomatic where my views might cause distress in a listener.  Unlike my friends during the free 1960's, I have never felt that honesty and outspokenness should be absolute. I once asked an overweight woman when her baby was due and was shamed into watching my words more carefully.  Viewing the Edwardian reticence on display on "Downton Abbey" and the occasional challenges to social verities in the aftermath of World War One is instructive.  Now that I'm an oldtimer, my received values are challenged daily by several generations of young and even middle-aged people who utter "fuck" without a thought, even though it often continues to be spelled "f*ck" in print.

For me, the ultimate moral value is to avoid hurting others, in deeds and even in speech.  This makes criticism of Islamic absolutism difficult.  But if Muslims shared my prime value, then perhaps there would be less sensitivity and violence, and more tolerance.  At the moment, this does not seem likely.

Here is a 2009 documentary by Adam B. Ellick who profiled Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl whose school was shut down by the Taliban.  Ms. Yousafzai was short by a gunman on Tuesday.  Her outspokenness and courage made her a target for the Islamicist fanatics.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Sweet Life of an Expat in Thailand

An internet group called InterNations contacted me about featuring my blog on their web site.  They asked that I put their badge on my blog (you can see it on the right, a bit too big for my tastes), fill out a questionnaire and send them a photo.  I spent a bit of time thinking of answers to their questions and began to ruminate on a post about expatriation in general and my experience specifically.  The photo I picked is above; Here is the rather simplistic questionnaire and my attempt to describe this adventure I'm on.

1.    Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Thailand, etc.
Born in Ohio in the U.S. Midwest, the son of a plastics salesman and his Canadian bride, I grew up after World War II in the south and as a teenager in Southern California in the 1950s. I was married twice and helped raise four kids, now grown.  My working life included careers in journalism, entertainment public relations, and magazine publishing. Twenty-five years ago I redefined myself as an academic, got a Ph.D. in environmental history and taught classes in philosophy and U.S. history.  After retiring, I traveled the world and five years ago settled permanently as an expat in Thailand.  Now I teach English several days a week to monks.
2.    When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
In the spring of 2006, I began writing an opinionated blog about my travels and thoughts on spirituality and world events, not to mention the perils and pleasures of aging. I chose for the title "Religion, Sex & Politics" because I was taught these were topics that should never be discussed in polite company.  But they happen to be the categories of life that interest me most.
3.    Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
All of them (and none).  I've written more than 500 posts and almost never go back to read over them.  The most popular have been posts about the conflict over ordaining women as nuns in Thai Buddhism and the playground for sexpats in Pattaya. It's more of a sequential memoir than a travel journal, but my life in Bangkok always provides food for thought.  I'm happiest when I've succeeded in saying something honest about myself. Quite often these are confessions of failure and hope for acceptance.  As for religion, I've traveled a path from practicing as a devout Catholic (with social justice leanings) to a deep respect for the Thai mix of Buddhism, Brahmanism and magical animism.  Mostly the spirituality I affirm is all about being a good person in this world with no thought for institutional rules and an afterlife.
4.    Tell us about the ways your new life in Thailand differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
Before I left the U.S., I was a elderly, retired bachelor living in a converted garage in northern California whose major daily event was a trip to the cafĂ© for cappuccino.  Now I'm married to a wonderful Thai woman and we live in a 9th floor apartment with a spectacular view of the city I have come to love. I took to expatriation like a duck takes to water and never experienced culture shock.  This is perhaps because I visited Thailand three times before moving here for good, and an old friend living in Bangkok and Surin schooled me in the ways of Thai culture.  At the end of my first year, another friend nominated me as expat rookie of the year, which pleased me enormously.  I am fascinated every day by the life I lead here and the adventures that take place all around me.
5.    Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Thailand? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
When I was younger I traveled to many foreign places, living in London for two years in the 1960s, and in the years after retiring from teaching I spent extended periods in Buenos Aires and in Tamil Nadu, India.  Although I never dreamed of expatriation in Asia (Paris or Mexico was a more likely choice), on my first visit to Thailand, a side trip after India, I became quickly hooked and never looked back.  If I had it to do over again, I would have moved to Southeast Asia at a younger age.  Learning Thai when I still had my hearing and memory would have helped.
6.    Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
At first, it was impossible for me to figure out why Thais, even in the big metropolis of Bangkok, walked so slowly. I constantly found myself rushing to get passed them, like the broken field running of a quarterback.  Eventually I had an epiphany: The real goal is not to get anywhere quickly but to stroll leisurely and enjoy the sights. Thailand taught me this.
7.    Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Thailand?
First, stop thinking in dollars, Fahrenheit temperatures, the 12-hour clock, distances in miles and weight in pounds; Thailand and the rest of the world do it differently.  Second, don't try to sit on your heels or eat food as spicy as the Thais like it; you have to be born here for that.  Finally, keep an open mind and jettison your preconceptions about differences between human beings.
8.    How is the expat community in Thailand? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Expats come to Thailand for work, retirement, the beaches, or sex.  And too many of them constantly bitch and moan about Thais and Thai culture on the expat Internet discussion boards, or in letters to the editors at the two English newspapers in Bangkok.  Politically, they side with the upper-class royalists against the democratic aspirations of the majority of Thais who live outside the capital.  I've found that many of those who move here to retire and/or come to find a life partner generally keep an open mind and are curious about their new home.  My friends read articles and books, and attend talks on politics, Buddhism and culture organized by the Foreign Correspondents Club, the Siam Society, Little Bang Sangha, Bangkok Art & Culture Center, and the National Museum Volunteers.  Bangkok is a big city; it has something for everyone.
9.    How would you summarize your expat life in Thailand in a single, catchy sentence?
The sweet life in Thailand is just a bowl of mangoes -- "Don't take it serious, life's too mysterious" (borrowed from the song by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, sung by Ethel Merman in  the 1931 musical "Scandals").