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").

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Greatest Country?

They all said it -- Michelle, Barack, Bill -- at the Democratic National Convention in North Carolina this week, and no doubt every speaker at the other party's gathering in Florida echoed this claim: America is the greatest country on earth (adding the request for God to send a blessing that this sanctimonious country certainly does not need).  Obviously no one invited Jeff Daniels, the actor who plays the fictitious anchor Will McAvoy in Aaron Sorkin's new TV drama, "The Newsroom" that just finished its first year run on HBO.  In this clip, McAvoy, a self-proclaimed Republican who's heard enough and can't take it anymore, answers a trite question with a denial of that civil religious claim.  That a real TV celebrity might discover honesty is only a fantasy, but the well-researched facts from Sorkin's writing team made the "greatest country" trop sound ridiculous.  Does anyone still believe it?

Yes, judging from the scripted hoopla along with patriotism, jingoism and nationalism on display by the politicians, delegates for the TV audience.  Misty-eyed representatives from every significant demographic group could be seen in photos from the two events -- I live on the other side of the globe and have no cable tv to watch -- giving their all for the candidate of their choice.  A good friend told me on Facebook I was cynical when I posted a link referring to Michelle's studied stutter and slick sincerity, but I was hesitant to reveal my own feelings, that her highly praised speech was worthy of an Oscar but not the adoration heaped on her by liberal commentators.

The vast majority of my social network friends today are liberals and progressives, Obama supporters all.  But most of my friends from the high school we attended in Southern California who I am still in touch with are Republicans.  A few have shunned me; but at least one is tolerant of our differences and we play word games online together.  There is no accounting for political (or religious) tastes.  George Lakoff thinks that liberals represent nurturing mothers while conservatives emulate autocratic fathers.  Both sides love their children and pets but only those on the left seem to love the children of the Other; the right is more limited in their definition of who they care about (certainly not gays, Muslims, immigrants and abortion doctors).  The people in my high school circles came from the upper middle class and stayed there, while I early on yearned to associate with musicians who took drugs and often were of a different color.

A bit of a confession here: Even though I'd supported Democrats since beginning with Kennedy in 1960, I voted for Reagan to be re-elected in 1984 over the Democrat, Walter Mondale.  I did it because I figured another four years of his cartoon rule (an actor was president of the U.S.?) would hasten the revolution I fervently wished for America.  I was wrong.  And in 2008, after moving permanently to Thailand, I made no effort to get an absentee ballot because I was certain Obama would carry northern California where I remained registered.   An expat then for only a year, the doings back in the U.S. still concerned me personally, and it was easy to see that an Obama administration would be light years away from the devastation that George W. had left in his wake.  I rejoiced at his victory.

Patriotism for one's nation is a difficult passion to resist.  It's inculcated from an early age, passed down from relatives and neighbors and reinforced by civil religious ceremonies like the 4th of July with its parades, barbecue sacrament and fireworks displays.  Historically, nationalism is a fairly recent phenomena, as Benedict Anderson details so well in his masterly Imagined Communities. Before nations, there was loyalty to one's tribe which took the communal form of ethnicity and religion, or the flag waved would belong to the ruling dynasty.  Nations, as Anderson points out, required printing and newspapers, along with centralized education and military service.  Modern technologies like radio, film, TV and now the internet, hastens the process which glues disparate people together.

Which does not explain why some people are repelled by "the last refuge of a scoundrel," Samuel Johnson's definition of a patriot.  I feel as if I were born to rebel (which doesn't account for why my more conventional brother the lawyer has similar political views, even though our parents voted Republican and our mother loved her "Tricky Dick" Nixon.  The people I know who settled down close to where they grew up have leaned toward conservatism while those who traveled far afield seem more liberal in their opinions. My former colleagues from journalism, publishing, entertainment PR and education have broader perspectives I think which encourage tolerance for difference  (the reason why Democrats appear more tolerant of Republicans than vice versa; viz. Obama's numerous failed attempts at bipartisanship).  Most of all, I think travel gives you a unique slant on the rhetoric "back home" and mutes knee-jerk patriotism.

I left America not so much because of my dissatisfaction with "Democrapublican" politics and the expansion of Empire and its wars for oil but because it was cheaper to live abroad and I could survive better outside the U.S. on my Social Security pension.  Abandoning family and long-time friends was no easy decision, despite the convenience of the internet which today allows us to keep in close touch.  If my second marriage hadn't failed I would probably still be there.  The need to reinvent myself led to several years of travel which opened my eyes and doors of opportunity.  Never in my youthful dreams had I ever imagined moving to Asia (Paris was the goal of choice in the 1950s, Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s).  Once ensconced in my expatriate palace in Bangkok, I joined the local branch of Democrats Abroad (who still send me email despite my lack of attendance at their meetings) and discovered that Google News and other sources kept me fully informed about the American scene. There are two English newspapers here with adequate coverage of overseas activities (although strongly biased toward the Thai military royalist elite). Even without TV cable news in English, I can get live telecasts from Russia Today and Al Jazeera on my iPad (which I trust more than similar digital offerings from BBC and CNN).

The longer I lived away from the "greatest country" rhetoric, the more dissatisfied I became with American politics.  Obama has been a huge disappointment.  He quickly sold his soul to the bankers and corporate CEOs, not to mention the military industrial complex and the Jewish lobby.  His policies resemble those of a modern Republican before that party was abducted by aliens.  Of course, Clinton before him was not much better.  In fact he set the trend of abandoning the base for the goals of his corporate backers.  It's a clichĂ© to say that America has the best government money can buy, but it's true.  The rank-and-file in each party blunder along, swallowing the mythical American dream (try selling those lies to the Native Americans and the Mexicans that owned California and Texas before the Europeans took over).  Following the news that is so profoundly and continuously disturbing is clearly an addiction, one that is very difficulty for this long-time news junky to shake.  Time and again I've vowed to break the habit.  I'm an active Facebook user and post frequently, but I've tried to avoid items about the conventions and the upcoming election, choosing to focus instead on stuff of interest about Thailand, Asia and the world in general.  But the monkey on my back keeps biting and refuses to let go.

America Anonymous:  I will not now nor will I ever again vote in another American election, not for Obama and not against Romney/Ryan.  A plague on all their houses.  Since 1960 I've been told to vote for the lesser of two evils.  While I wouldn't call Obama evil, he is clearly a fraud, a snake in sheep's clothing.  That he is clearly a better choice than R/R who wil revisit Bush's efforts to strangle government in a bathtub makes no difference to me.  The Empire is rotten to the core and ultimate doomed (although not, hopefully, until I am gone from the scene since I depend on the continued existence of Social Security).  I'm neither an investigative reporter nor a very wise man, but I've participated in the political process since 1960 and I don't see much change.  Sure, blacks are a little more equal as well as women, but the fat cats are firmly in charge now and the U.S. is the most dangerous threat in the world to global peace.  Democracy and the politics that pretends to sustain it is a failure.

No, America is not the greatest country in the world.  And if I thought there was an Old Testament God, I am certain that he would curse rather than send his blessings.  Hell has a very special place for those politicians who have trashed the American dream. (Thank you, Howard Zinn, for educating me!)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012


My first job was working for a toy store during a Christmas season when I was 12. The store was near our home in a northern suburb of Atlanta.  In addition to wrapping presents, I put bikes together out of the box and performed various assembling chores as needed.  I don't recall my salary, but do remember that I used it to buy copies of digest magazines like Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  I was crazy for scifi and read everything I could find, from Asimov to Bradbury.  I think the money also enabled me to buy a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.

Memories of early work are inspired by the variety of jobs I've done in the past month which will (when I get paid) earn me nearly the equivalent of $1,000 in Thai baht, a princely sum.  In addition to my regular job of teaching English to mostly monks two days a week, I edited a book of essays written by Thai English teachers and a conference paper for another professor, and I spent one day as a model on a stock photos shoot along with a gang of kids, some younger men and women and a couple of grey hairs like me (oh, and there was also a dog in the pictures).  A few years ago on the advice of a friend I signed up with a talent agency.  Although I turned down a film or two that required too much time and travel, I did a job with the same photographer a year ago that was fun and paid actual cash for my looks.  Others on the roster had gotten walk-on parts on "Hangover II" and other Hollywood films shot in Bangkok.  And last but not least, last weekend, I participated in an "English Camp" for 4th year Humanities studies, some of whom could speak a little English but most could not.  This enjoyable two-day job brought a a handsome remuneration and two excellent free lunches. While my survival income is courtesy of U.S. Social Security, the additional funds come in handy and tell me that my working days are not yet over. This expat's not ready for full retirement!

I've had a lot of jobs and even careers in my life.  My father suffered through the Great Depression and saw work as something sacred since he knew what life could be like without it.  Loyalty to an employer was important for him and he changed jobs rarely.  Working in the factory for Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass in Toledo, Ohio, he lost three fingers when his hand was crushed in a machine.  The company put him to work as a salesman for its Plaskon division in the south selling plastics and chemical products including glue for plywood. He stayed at that job throughout my childhood until, when Plaskon was sold, he moved into lumber products, a job that took the family to California.

My second job was sweeping the floor of a record store in the suburb of Los Angeles where I went to junior high school.  I played the clarinet and sax in the band, and browsing in the stacks between sweeps introduced me to the world of jazz (the rhythm and blues records I preferred were not sold at respectable outlets in our all white community).  I also watered yards for neighbors on vacation, and mowed their lawns. I tried delivering newspapers but getting up before dawn was not then my style as it is now. During those years, and while in high school, I worked at a succession of menial jobs, sweeping floors and washing dishes, before graduating to flipping burgers and, finally, selling men's clothes one Christmas season.  My long-term plan was to become a famous band leader (like Stan Kenton) or an actor in movies (I auditioned for the role of Benny Goodman's son in his biopic), so the thought of any less exalted career was anathema.

This all changed when my jazz combo, that had been playing for student parties after football games, won a talent contest at my high school.  We defeated a group that included Bobby Hutcherson, today a legendary jazz vibraphonist, but only because there were more white parents in the audience applauding.  Our prize was an appearance on a radio show put together by two teachers.  This grew for me into a regular spot as a record reviewer and, when the teachers bought a weekly page in the local newspaper for a teen section, I became the music columnist.  My mentor at the paper was a grizzled veteran reporter who wrote a jazz column and collected hundreds of records for free from music companies.  Together we formed a jazz club for teenagers that met on Sunday afternoons to listen to famous jazz performers like Chico Hamilton and Red Norvo.  One night he took me in his convertible with the top down to the all jazz station KNOB on Signal Hill in Long Beach where he was the midnight DJ.  On the seat beside us was his copy of Jack Kerouac's On the Road which had just been published.  My path was set.

Dropping out of Berkeley after a few unsuccessful semesters, I got a job as a copy boy on the Pasadena Star-News which grew into a position as a city desk reporter and arts reviewer, with a weekly column that allowed me to accumulate free tickets and records.  Writing took me many places: to Newark, NJ, as a reporter for UPI, to New York where I wrote for Radio-TV Daily, a trade paper, and to London where I wrote about American TV programs seen in England for TV World. I freelanced articles on music to Sing Out! and the Los Angeles Free Press. Just as I'd given up my earlier ambition to be a musician, it became clear to me that I was not going to make it as an author.  So I switched first to entertainment public relations in Hollywood and then to strictly music PR with Atlantic Records, Fantasy Records in Berkeley and MCA Records in  Universal City.  As a rock and roll flack in the 1970s, I courted writers for interviews and good reviews and dispensed free tickets and records.  While it was an exciting time, I covered over the sleaze factor with booze and illegal substances.

After escaping to northern California from the clutches of incipient addiction, I wrote for a weekly free classified advertising paper, set type and laid out the pages.  When I learned of a position available at Guitar Player Magazine, I applied for it and was hired to paste up the issues for the printer.  Over a four-year period, I advanced to art director, circulation director and then associate publisher.  Taking my publishing skills to the east coast, I worked in circulation for Billboard's non-music magazines and then as general manager of Theater Crafts where I supervised the business side of the magazine that had started by Rodale Press to promote plays about vegetables written by the owner editor of Organic Gardening.   Returning to California, I saw that I'd run out of options in publishing, and after a year on unemployment, I reinvented myself once again and got a job maintaining the alumni database at the University of California.  The next step was to reenroll in school where I remained as a student for the next 17 years.

After finally receiving a doctorate in U.S. environmental history, I taught a few classes before deciding that I didn't really like the privileged and spoiled students in my classes who exhibited very little intellectual curiosity.  So I retired from the fray and traveled the world.  Who knew that I would once again become a teacher in Thailand, inventing classes I'd never taught before in the hopes that I could help my students, who truly loved learning English, to improve their abilities.  And now it looks like my horizons might be expanding, that I might discover more work as a model and as an editor of English manuscripts.  The world is my oyster! (or at least this corner of Thailand).