Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Goes Round, Comes

Will it go round in circles 
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky 
Will it go round in circles 
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky

These orphans are putting on a show for three busloads of condo residents on a Sunday field trip who descended on their group home, SOS Childrens Village, in the province of Samut Prakan recently to make merit and see the sights.  Making merit, or tamboon in Thai, is the central practice of people's Buddhism in Thailand (as opposed to what monks do),  and it essentially means "doing good."  It's quite similar to the Hebrew mitzvah, a moral deed performed as a religious duty.  After the hula hoop dance, one elderly woman handed out 20 baht notes to the kids, which they dutifully gave to their teacher.  While some Thai Buddhists may do good in order to get something in return (a winning lottery number, happiness, a good rebirth), my perception is that cultivating the habit of giving to those in need, which is on display everywhere here, results in a culture of generosity.

After lunch at a seaside restaurant, the bus caravan continued on to Siri Wattana Cheshire Foundation home for developmentally disabled adults where the residents put on another show for us.  This performance included these three ladies in wheel chairs who danced with their hands to a karaoke song sung by one of their guardians.  The graceful dancer in their middle is a katoey.  With that smile and without the chair she could have been the star of the famed Calypso ladyboy show in Bangkok.  While some of the other residents clearly required care, her disability was nowhere on display.

The day trip began with a visit to the Erawan Museum with its giant three-headed elephant, the heavenly Airavata of Hindu mythology.  The large building on which the statue rests contains art and sculpture commemorating all religious faiths, and it is surrounded by a lovely garden featuring numerous statues of Asian religious figures.  Part tourist attraction and part Buddhist temple, before going into the museum we lit candles and incense and lay flowers on an altar outside.  The culmination of our journey was a visit to the Crocodile Farm, an aging and somewhat seedy combination zoo and croc hatchery where thousands of them are bred for leathery items.  The elephant show featured pachyderms demeaning themselves (riding a bike, standing on two feet, gorging on bananas supplied by audience members), while the croc show was unexpectedly thrilling.  First, the handlers showed the ferocity of crocodile jaws slapping shut with a loud "pop," and then they tempted the creatures with hands and heads to bite.  I suspect some kind of hypnosis was involved.

School's out for summer!  Summer in Thailand, that is.  I finished giving final exams to my two classes and will turn in grades for them on Saturday.  Here is a video made by my 4th year students majoring in English who will graduate after this term. I taught them English for two terms, and this term I taught a new class in translation.  Since the native language for up to half of them is not Thai, it was a challenge. Because the source language for the translation was a mystery to me, I did my best to help them produce a smooth version in the target language, English.  I'm told they enjoyed the class.  I encouraged them to keep in touch after they graduate.  One monk from Laos plans to disrobe and become a policeman in Luang Prabang and I said I hoped I could visit him someday.  I love his city.

Teachers and students now have a two-month vacation.  Not Nan, however, who plans to take three evening classes in summer school at her university.  My goal for the vacation is to prepare a 15-minute PowerPoint presentation for my talk on "Big Tent Buddhism" at the Day of Vesak conference on June 1 at my university.  Since the paper I wrote is two dozen pages, shrinking it won't be easy.  Dr. Dion has been trying to convince me to ordain with him as a monk for the month of April, but I had to explain that my knees would no longer permit me to sit or kneel in meditation.  His point is that ordaining is tamboon, an act of merit which can be dedicated for the wellbeing of others.

Others certainly need it.  My friend Bev tripped on uneven pavement and broke her ankle in three places. Ian and I visited her at the BNH Hospital on Convent Road the other day where she is recuperating in a luxurious room from an operation to pin her bones back together.  She must spend the next six weeks confined to her apartment to allow the bones to heal.  Yesterday I dropped in on Jerry and borrowed one of his walking canes which is becoming a necessity.  I found him sorting pills, a 10-day supply, to keep his pacemaker in good order and avoid another heart attack.  An old friend from my music daze surfaced on Facebook and mentioned she had MS.  Another is battling leukemia.  It's a war zone out there.

Nan is going home to Phayao for Songkran in two weeks, the traditional Thai New Year which is celebrated as a secular water-throwing festival.  I was introduced to it in 2008 when I went to Chiang Mai and spent three days in the streets with the crowds.  I got soaked and ruined a camera, but it was lots of fun.  Last year we stayed dry by vacationing in Hong Kong.  Nan told me that although there would be a big tamboon in the temple, the holiday in her village is celebrated by drinking and partying and I might feel uncomfortable since I might be asked to supply the whisky.  So I'm staying home.  She will see her brother for the first time since the motorbike accident that put his girlfriend in the hospital.  Nan had to sell her gold to pay for the medical bill (140,000 baht/$4,600), which did not make us happy.  In Thailand, family comes first and she was the savior.  Since our trip to Phayao during the floods last November when we celebrated Loi Krathong, the other secular Thai water festival, the possibility of eventually retiring in the country is looking less likely.  The house I thought was ours really belongs to Nan's cousin Edward, and my fantasies of the rural life have dissipated.

I'm not convinced that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds punished. but most religions seems to recognition this basic moral transaction.  I side with Ivan Karamazov who rejected a god that would permit peasant children to be torn apart by a master's dogs, or (to update) rogue soldiers in Afghanistan who would slaughter women and children.  A brain trauma, or bad chemicals, is not a satisfactory excuse.  Americans at least are up in arms at the murder of a black teenager wearing a hoodie in Florida who was shot by a voluntary security guard in a gated community.  Although the older vigilante claimed self defense, the teen's only weapons were a bag of candy and a bottle of green tea.  In other depressing news from the U.S., former veep Dick Cheney got a new heart (many thought he never had one), the Republican party has declared war on women in its attempt to control reproduction (read Frank Rich, "Stag Party"), the filmmaker of the viral video Kony 2012 had a public mental breakdown as did a pilot for a JetBlue flight to Vegas, the Sierra Club was discovered accepting money from gas firms engaged in environmentally destructive fracking, the Supreme Court is about to rule against Obamacare, and "Mad Men" has returned to TV for its fifth season (when the present is too horrible, retreat to the 1960s).

Here in Bangkok, life goes round in slow tropical circles.  I've written little about the politics of Thailand recently because most of what I hear or read are rumors and innuendo.  Will Thaksin return or won't he?  Why won't the Pheu Thai party, brought into power by the red shirts, stop imprisoning people for speaking (not slandering) about the monarchy?  Will Thailand ever have 3G service (more suggestions of corruption behind the scenes)? Twice this month I've gone to listen to the guru of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, once at a conference on "Democracy and Crisis in Thailand" at Chulalongkorn University along with Thongchai Winichakul whose book, Siam Mapped, I spoke about at the last monthly meeting of our IDEA discussion group. Both academics gave me the idea of researching the ideology of "Thainess" and its role in political strife and change in Thailand.  Aside from such weighty subjects, this month we attended the elaborate engagement party of Tony and Chuti and went to see "Mirror Mirror," the semi-successful satire on Snow White.  Oh, and I enjoyed reading Robert Crais' The Sentry.

In my last blog I wrote about identity and my experience of being "un-American."  I didn't speak of religion which is a powerful badge of identity (trumping even one's favorite sports team).  Here was a group of Muslims I stumbled upon this month in the large shopping mall down the street from my apartment where they had chosen to perform their daily prayer amongst the shoppers, a very strange sight.  Thainess is based on the trilogy of: Nation, King, Religion.  Since Buddhism is the dominant religion, Muslims in the south along with Christians and Taoists in the northern hill tribes can never be fully Thai.  I once felt the need of a religious identity and became a Catholic Christian because of the influence of the writings of Thomas Merton.  It was an on-again, off-again affair, with several intense periods, but when I moved to Bangkok and stopped going to mass, I dropped it.  Despite my fascination and appreciation of Buddhism, I doubt that I will ever adopt the label of Buddhist.  I no longer feel the need of describing myself in that way.  Another identity I'm resisting at the moment is that of elderly.  When Nan saw me walking with Jerry's cane she was shocked, and said "you look old!"  Too true, but that's what's come round this time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Being Un-American

I can remember the exact moment that my worldview changed.  It was on May 13, 1960.  After watching a movie at a theater on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley where I was a student at the University of California, I walked outside to find the next morning's San Francisco Chronicle on sale with this photo on the front page.  It showed students being washed down the steps of City Hall by police with fire hoses.  Their "crime" was protesting the hearings being held by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  Many were seriously injured.  They were students from Cal, Stanford and other Bay Area colleges.  Notice the headline: the battling cops are the subject and the "mob" the target.  There was no sympathy for anything radical back in 1960.

I was shocked.  How could this happen?  I knew little about HUAC and even less about politics.  Eight years before I'd proudly worn an "I Like Ike" button.  My mother loved his chosen successor, Richard Nixon, and affectionately called him "Tricky Dick," the moniker given him by his enemies.  I would turn 21 in July that year and the 1960 presidential election would be the first in which I could vote.  I had assumed I was a Republican since I was middle class and white.  My parents had voted for Eisenhower's reelection in 1956 against the swarthy Democrat, Adlai Stevenson, who was not considered quite "our kind," whatever that was.  I lived in a new suburban town north of Los Angeles where ranch houses had replaced orange groves and most on my block had swimming pools in their back yards.  But our house was the smallest on the street and my father was a plywood salesman.  I was a teenager in the Fifties, a self-identified "juvenile delinquent," and life couldn't be better.  Until I saw that photo.

Thus began major changes in my life, an exodus from thinking of myself as "American."  I switched my major from English Literature to Journalism and joined the Daily Cal.  And I became a member of Slate, the radical campus organization that laid the foundation for the Free Speech Movement which would take place after I was gone.  We organized an all-night vigil on the steps of Sproul Hall and I was the publicity coordinator.  And we demonstrated against war at a military parade in downtown Berkeley.  I met students who claimed to be communists or Maoists and I was encouraged to attend the Helsinki Youth Festival that summer sponsored by the Russians, but my father refused to fund the trip.  With veterans of kabbutzim in Israel I learned to dance the Hora (in those days all the Jews I met were radical socialists).  My best friend and former roommate distanced himself from me (he later claimed to have worked with the CIA in Asia even though he was only a Navy dentist in the Philippines).  While passing out fliers at Sather Gate for some political activity, a former fraternity brother (I pledged Sigma Chi but quit before initiation) asked me if I was volunteering for the Young Republicans.  That's as radical as he could conceive. I was pro-Castro and anti-Dulles.

America was motherhood and apple pie, baseball, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, and the waving flag, Old Glory.  Americans believed in God, freedom and democracy, and the right to make a financial profit any way possible, which included crushing the competition.  In the Fifties it meant short hair, a crew cut.  But JDs wore their hair long and greased back in a duck tail. I sported pegged pants, white bucks, and a pink shirt that disturbed my mother.  When I expressed the desire to become an actor like my Uncle Ted, they were afraid I might become a (gulp) homosexual (although that word was never uttered, even around Ted, my father's twin brother, who was as gay as they come I learned much later).  I stayed out after curfew with my friends and was twice brought home drunk by the cops.  This may all sound like a typical rebellious teen, but when I got to college and became radicalized by that photo, I determined to reject my white bread roots.

Music was my mode of escape.  I played the clarinet and alto sax and dreamed of joining Stan Kenton's orchestra, until I discovered black jazz and rhythm and blues.  Norman Mailer's essay, "The White Negro," was about me.  I wanted to inhabit jazz clubs and smoke tea.  At night I listened to R&B with sexually-charged lyrics played on radio after midnight, and even visited Huggy Boy's show at a record store in the LA one night to make record requests.  We danced the "dirty boogie" at parties where the alcohol had been stolen from the liquor cabinet of the host's parents.  After Jack Kerouac published On the Road, I read it and became an instant beatnik.  Driving down Grant Street in San Francisco's North Beach with my parents one night, my mother rolled up the windows and locked the doors for fear we sightseeing straights would be attacked by rampaging beats.  I was appalled and ashamed.

Most of my junior high school and high school friends found their way back to the American mainstream by the time they married and had children.  I took my first wife to England to live in "swinging" London during the Carnaby Street period.  I read books from the Holburn High Street library on occult religions and politics, and was particularly interested in learning about the troubles in Southeast Asia that included the French defeat by Vietnamese in 1954 and the current (it was 1965) entry of Americans into the conflict in an attempt to stop the spread of communism.  By the time we returned to the U.S. with our young son in the late Sixties, the hippies had risen from the ashes of the beatniks and were spreading from the Sunset Strip in Hollywood to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. I desperately wanted to be part of it but was a reluctant member of the married middle class.  So I refused to vote Republican.  I campaigned for Gene McCarthy, the progressive senator from Minnesota who wrote poetry.

These days, I am an expat in Thailand.  I left America more for financial reasons than political (it's cheaper to live here on Social Security).  But the un-American identity I assumed after seeing that photo in 1960 on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle remains.  It's affirmed in my exchanges on Facebook with friends from the past.  Why did so many from the Pasadena area become ultra-patriotic conservatives?  I've been de-friended by more than one for my criticism of American politics, war mongering, and support of Israel.  There are times even when I think of giving up my American citizenship (which might throw a monkey wrench into my retirement income).  I tell sympathetic friends online and in Thailand that I love the American land and the people, although lately the 50% that espouse and support fascist ideas and causes gives me pause to reconsider the latter.

I've been thinking about issues of identity while rereading Thongchai Winichakul's wonderful book about  the discursive construction of Siam (Thailand since 1941) by means of the technology of geography and mapping.  Yesterday I gave a PowerPoint synopsis of Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation (1994) to our political discussion group.  Tongchai has been a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin since 1991 but speaks here frequently, twice in the last month, about "Thainess," the political ideology of nationhood.  "Thainess" is the equivalent of "American" but it carries more urgent weight in Thailand where the government is described as a "democracy with the King as head of state."  With the succession looming, the monarchy is seen by some as requiring a strong defense (not from un-Thainess but from a perceived Republican conspiracy, which is much the same).  Thongchai describes these supporters from the miltiary and elite classes as representatives of "royalist democracy," and describes their efforts to inculcate "Thainess" by means of "hyper-royalism," a series of invented rituals and traditions that serve to strengthen devotion to the King.

Living in a foreign country, without speaking the language very well, prompts the outsider to question their identity, and to even wonder why identity seems necessary.  Who am I?  When I was younger, while  traveling abroad, there were times when I claimed to be Canadian to avoid any criticism directed at Americans (which is half true since my mother was born in Winnepeg).  The "ugly American" is a cliché, but I've seen enough loud-mouthed, obnoxious American tourists to see its truth (these days, particularly in Pattaya, it's the Russians).  All Westerners in Thailand are called farang by the natives.  Some expats object to this as racist but it's never bothered me (it probably originated with the Indo-Persian word farangi for foreigner).  It describes me but it doesn't feel like an identity I can embrace.

Well, for starters, I'm an elderly male, possessor of a certificate which allows me to preface my name with "Dr." (or append "Ph.D" to my surname).  Getting a doctorate was a stroke of brilliance which seemed hard work at the time.  Here in Thailand it gains much respect.  I know my superiors are proud of having an American doctor on their faculty.  And as a farang, I'm wealthy in the eyes of most Thais.  It's true, since my retirement income is over four times the average wage of a Thai clerk or salesperson, and vastly higher than that of a day laborer. I'm married to a younger Thai woman and we live high up in a condo building. I can afford to visit Starbucks every day.  It doesn't matter that, never having invested in property or putting much savings away, I feel poor compared to the folks back home.  "Home"?  There is a sense that in my consciousness I will always be an American far from home.