Saturday, June 28, 2014

We're Not in Kansas Anymore

St. Thomas Aquinas: "Everything I have written seems like straw by comparison with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

Every few days the world turns, the poles shift, and I realize with a jolt that the certainties that formed the basis for my opinions were as worthless as straw.  Unfortunately, unlike the good doctor at the end of his life, nothing new has been revealed to me. The quest for wisdom has been a bust!

"The Wizard of Oz" was released a month after I was born and I've seen it many times; "Over the Rainbow" is in the soundtrack of my life.  I bought a copy of the film here with Thai subtitles for my wife's cousin Edward but he showed little interest in watching it during his last visit to Bangkok. It was the series of Spiderman movies that captured his attention.  The original Wizard book was written by a relative of a junior high school friend who has managed to turn Oz into an industry.  The ultimate message of the film -- "There's no place like home" -- is of not much use to someone whose home is a moveable feast.

This is the rainy season in Bangkok.  I can see the black clouds move across the sky from my 9th floor apartment.  Most days the sky darkens, thunder cracks, and a brief monsoon downpour sends pedestrians and sidewalk vendors scurrying for shelter. Most tourists avoid the rains by visiting Thailand in the dry season from November through March, unless there is political unrest which tends to scare them away.  I've learned to love this time of year.  Storms for some strange reason soothe my soul.  I am mad for thunder, lightning and the frenzy of rain drops.

Kansas is far away.  I crossed through it once on miles of interstate threading between corn fields probably filled with genetically modified crops.  Now the state is probably dotted by wells for hydraulic fracking.  Only a native like Dorothy could love that place.  Most of America seems just as strange to me now.  The sorry stories about surveillance, gun nuts and serial shooters, Tea Party craziness and another war in Iraq parade across my laptop screen and my eyesight grows dim.  I did not vote for Obama and I no longer care if he's beholden to the banks or a beacon of hope for the downtrodden masses still yearning to be free.  The news from the land of my birth is not good.  I blame the chemicals.

Now I'm living under a military dictatorship.  The civil war many feared after yet another coup d'etat in this once almost democratic country did not materialize.  After a month in power, General Prayut and his subordinates are now firmly in control.  There is little outward evidence that the new government is unelected, other than an occasional armed soldier or two, like the pair I saw yesterday on Phra Arthit near Khao San Road protecting the media offices of Sondhi Limthongkul, the yellow shirt editor. The malls are full of shoppers, the BTS and MRT trains are packed with commuters and the roads jammed as usual.  Stories in the news tell of those "invited" to "reconciliation" centers with the authorities to discuss their "attitude."  They invariably leave smiling, declaring their happiness and promising to refrain from political activity in the future.  Arrest warrants are issued for those refusing the invitation and not a few dissidents have gone into exile where they're trying to organize.

As mentioned in an earlier blog post, I'd expected something entirely different.  I've seen the movies and read the books about resistance and revolution.  In the first heated days after the coup, protesters, many of them students, employed symbolic signs of non-cooperation: banners in English, the three-fingered salute from "Hunger Games," passively reading Orwell's "1984" in public, and the final disruptive act, eating sandwiches while thinking about protest.  All of these acts were subject to arrest. After a week or so, even these protests disappeared.  Of course I have no idea what people out in the provinces are thinking and planning, but consulting the green tea leaves in Bangkok leads me to the conclusion that the overthrow of the last government has been largely accepted by the citizens as a good thing.  It will probably last a long time.

Since it's against the law to criticize the coup, my words are necessarily temperate.  But I must say that the widespread acceptance of military rule is depressing.  Criticism from outside the borders of Thailand has universal condemned the end of democracy (until the next election, now promised in October next year).  The response by some Thais has been to threaten a boycott of American and EU products and turn to China for support.  It's assumed that only a Thai can understand Thai history and politics.  This calls into whole question the social construction of "Thainess" and even the name of the country which was changed from Siam in the 1930s to appeal to western interests.

But I digress.  Thailand is not Kansas and I'm not Judy Garland.  Most of my students are from elsewhere: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos.  I put together a handout on the coup for our first class this term and many of them found it mystifying.  Not that the governments where they come from are more democratic and less militaristic.  There are no Switzerlands in Asia!

This term I'm teaching two days a week.  In addition to my advanced listening and speaking class for senior English majors, I'm now giving a course in how to teach English to first-year students in a weekend English MA course.  As a self-taught teacher who invented his lessons from scratch, I approach this challenge with some humility.  How much do I know about the subject after only seven years of experience here?  I'm still uncertain how much I help my students to improve their facility with the language I absorbed easily from birth.  Only a few of them have progressed to thinking in English which allows them to appear fluent; most are struck dumb when asked to speak a meaningful sentence or two.

When I began teaching English, I borrowed themes and material from the Headway series of textbooks published by Oxford, including the one I'm currently using, American Headway.  For the MA course, I visited the wonderful DK Books and its many shelves stocked with English instruction books, and chose Penny Ur's A Course in English Language Teaching.  Published two years ago by Cambridge, it provides a guide which I hope to adapt for my class of 45 students from mostly other Southeast Asian countries.  In the first three weeks of the term, however, our classes have been cancelled twice for ceremonial events (Thai schools seem to favor ritual over education).  At our only meeting I learned that the students had been split into two groups and my three-hour lecture had been cut into two hour-and-a-half sections.  Less work for me, but also less teaching for the students.

In the teaching textbook, Ur, a British OBE who taught ESL class in Israel, makes some points I first heard when I prepared a lecture several years ago on the 10-country ASEAN group which is using English as it's working language.  English today is no longer a foreign language.  It's an international language and for the majority of those using it, English is a second language, "globish" according to one article I reprinted for my students. The primary method of instruction these days is based on the "communicative approach," in which understanding is more important than grammatical correctness.  Grammar now takes a back seat to vocabulary.  What this means is that the native speaker is no longer king of the hill. A non-native teacher of English is a better model for students because they've gone through the process of learning English.  If nothing else, however, native speakers like me are seen as models for pronunciation.  But our days may be numbered.

Despite the military dictatorship, despite the uncertainty I feel over ever being able to teach my students anything worthwhile, I continue to see Thailand as "over the rainbow."  Strange that I never dreamed it.  And it's not bluebirds but the dove that comes to sit on my windowsill that makes me feel at home. California was my Kansas but I doubt that I would have been as happy rounding out my days there sipping cappuccino near the sound of the Pacific surf.  Familiarity was never my thing. Thailand is exotic and strange and not a day goes by without a puzzle I cannot solve.  Some expats deal with these mysteries by complaining about them.  But from my first day here I found the uncertainty exhilarating.  The novelty of living here has pretty much gone but the delight I take in the sounds and smell and blooming buzzing confusion of Bangkok street life has not faded.  Thank the goddess I'm not in Kansas anymore!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Death Comes Calling

Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot
Dylan Thomas, "And Death shall Have No Dominion"

I met Michael three years ago on Facebook.  It was a meeting of minds over the political issues of the day.  He was an Australian, not that much my junior, with a long career in the theatre back home.  In Thailand he was a teacher, a connoisseur of art, and a lover of elephants.  Even before we met I was captivated by his way with words, the comments he made, the exchange of messages with me.  Here was someone for whom life was no guilty pleasure but an adventure to be savoured.

We finally met at an art exhibit in a school near the flower market. He was one of the organizers and had little time to talk between posing for photos with some of Thailand's notable artists, all of them his friends.  But he introduced me to his longtime friend Susan, the guru of laughter yoga in Bangkok, and we too became Facebook friends and co-admirers of the marvelous Michael.  Over the next few years, Mikhun (as his Thai friends called him) and I continued to commune on Facebook and occasionally to meet for a meal or coffee. A big man, he used his body to punctuate his many stories, particular his eyes which sparkled with enthusiasm and joy.  Not long into our friendship, he moved to Chiang Mai to help with elephants who had been found to animate children with autism.  Elephants were one of his many passions and kids another.  After that, he moved on to Yangoon to be a school administrator and then a teacher. When his internet was working, we stayed in touch on Facebook.

With Susan and Banlu
Michael would return to Bangkok on visa runs and medical checkups and his cheap guest house of choice was in a backpacker alley not far from the river (during the flood of 2011 he messaged me frequently to hear about the rising waters). Earlier this year he left Burma for good and was recuperating following treatment for swollen ankles.  We kept in touch during Songkran when he was unable to go outside because of the water play.  At the end of the holiday I took him some books to read and we drank beer in the guest house restaurant close by a fan which blew the smoke away from his ever-present cigarette.

With Susan at our last dinner
Michael was obviously very seriously ill; the sparkle in his eyes dimmed. Where are all you friends, I asked?  Most of them are yellow shirts, he said, and don't like my politics now.  He tried to explain his departure from the school in Yangoon but it seemed a bit mystifying.  Now, he told me, he wanted to heal first and then return to Australia where he would have to live for two years to qualify for retirement before he could return to Southeast Asia.  Susan and I took him away from the guest house for a sidewalk dinner around the corner.  It was painful to see him walk so slowly with his cane.

Not long ago, Michael tripped and fell, and he lay two days in his guest house bed before the ambulance was called.  At Phramongkutklao Hospital the doctors examined a painful lump in his leg (that he'd been complaining about for weeks) and discovered a mass in his lung.  They diagnosed him with pneumonia and perhaps TB, maybe cancer.  I visited him in the 17th floor intensive care unit and saw the bruise on his head from the fall. His long-time partner Unn was with him when his heart stopped for several minutes.  And his sister in Australia was contacted and came to supervise treatment.  A feeding tube prohibited conversation and the last contact Michael had was through his eyes which could be quite expressive.  He died with a friend by his side who was playing recorded music for him. Before the day was out, his account on Facebook was filled to the brim with messages of sadness and love from his many friends in Thailand, Australia and Burma.

I didn't know Michael for long or very well and I regret that now very much.  It's not often you find a conversation partner so sympatico, even on Facebook.  No one has yet written his obituary (better yet, eulogy) so there is much that I do not know about his life. The many messages on Facebook speak of adventures going back years, of his love for food and drink, and, as I noticed so soon after we encountered one another, his passion for life.  He didn't speak all that much about his illness and I suspect was unaware of the prognosis.  In other words, he was the opposite of a hypochondriac. Our last conversations were about books.  Confined to the guest house by his swollen legs, he worried most about running out of something to read.

With Susan and his partner Unn
When Susan mentioned Unn to me I didn't recognize the name and thought it a friend from Yangoon.  When I brought Michael a couple of cartons of juice that he requested to the hospital, I asked who Unn was.  He turned to me, his face lit up with the biggest smile I'd seen from him in months, and said: "He's my partner!" When I was unable to help, Unn spent a day renewing Michael's visa with a letter from the doctors.  He was there when his friend's heart stopped.  Tonight is the third and last night of chanting at Wat Apai Tharam (Wat Makok), the temple behind the hospital where Michael died, and the cremation will be there on Saturday afternoon.

The death of a friend is always unsettling because it reminds us of our own mortality.  Next month I will celebrate my 75th birthday and am thankful for every day I've outrun the Grim Reaper.  My parents are gone, my son Luke, and Peter, my oldest friend, long dead from the same cancer I've now survived for a dozen years. I think about my young wife and worry that she will grieve for too long after I go.  But present worry about an uncertain future situation does little besides stir up unpleasant juices.  The present joy I take in living each day is no doubt related to its tenuousness.  Dr. Holly's death in Bangkok a few years ago helped me to sense that exquisite connection between life and death.  Without death, life would lose its ecstatic edge.  Death, even from those heartbreaking tragedies that so absorbed Dostoevsky's sleep, is not only the great equalizer but the finalizing event that animates life.