Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Intro to Impermanence 101

My co-worker’s husband passed away in early December of lung cancer. He was really young, in his forties, and they have two kids in elementary school. They had a Buddhist funeral at a temple in Bangkok, with monks chanting and giving speeches in Burmese. A guy sitting next to me, a friend of the family, told me that the monks were talking about how life is impermanent and that we should be at peace with death.

At the end of the ceremony, a bunch of the male guests carried the coffin out to the crematorium, which was on the same compound. When I saw them carrying the coffin into the crematorium, my breath imploded into itself. It seemed so final, watching them go up the steps with the coffin, knowing that soon there would be nothing left of the guy except memories and photos.

It also seemed too soon. He had only passed away the day before.

I looked over at my co-worker, his widow, who was keeping it together really well. She and the kids just watched matter-of-factly. Maybe it’s because they are Buddhist, and when you’re Buddhist you know that cremation is part of how you die.

Even though a lot of people in the U.S. get cremated these days, I think the idea of burial and keeping the body around is pretty ingrained in us. I see it as one of the ways our culture tries to avoid the impermanence of everything in life, including life itself. At that moment, surrounded by all my Thai and Burmese co-workers, nearly all of whom are Buddhist, I felt like the least enlightened person in the crowd, with a knot in my stomach knowing that this guy was soon to be a pile of ashes.

Someone flipped a bunch of switches in the crematorium and there were these dramatic whooshing sounds, like pilot lights for a massive, industrial-sized stove. The fire was going. I think that most Asian cultures are all about not showing emotions, which added to the discomfort I felt with everyone around me watching almost impassively as the carriers slid the coffin into the, well, oven.

There was a tray of straw flowers at the foot of the steps leading into the crematorium. One by one we each took a flower and filed into the building. We put our flower into the fire next to the coffin, which was still intact except for a black spot that was starting to grow as one corner caught fire and burned. People wai'd the deceased as a show of respect, placing their hands together in front of their face in a prayer gesture. We continued out the door on the opposite side of the crematorium.

I asked another co-worker, our HR director, how long it usually takes for the cremation to be complete. I’m pretty sure I had to rephrase the question a few times. “How long does it usually take to burn the body? To burn away the coffin? How long does it take…ugh.”

“A few hours,” he said kindly. Thank God Thai people are so polite.

One reason I had asked was because even though the crematorium had been built with a tall chimney, I wanted to make sure to leave the compound before I started thinking there was someone selling barbeque from a food cart. Terrible. Terrible. Terrible.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Dogs In Taiwan

I was telling my parents about the proliferation of soi dogs in Thailand. At the risk of perpetuating stereotypes about alternative Asian cuisine, I'm following up my last post with my parents' response.

"Years ago, when I was still in Taiwan, you'd never see stray dogs anywhere."

"Why not?"

"People were hungry. They'd catch stray dogs and eat them."

"Really? I thought white people just made that up about Asian people."

"No. Even your dad, when he was in the military, his friends would catch dogs and eat them."

"No, no," my dad said. "Not everyone. Just the officers. They'd never share it with the regular soldiers."

"So, I mean, you'd catch the dogs and then grill them over a fire?"

"No," my mom said. "Stew."

"They'd catch the dog and then chop chop chop," my dad said, chopping at the air with his hands.

"But stray dogs are so skinny," I said, always being practical. "What's there to eat?"

"Better than nothing."

Now I'm in the mood to watch that episode of King of the Hill when the Laotian family moves in next door and their pet dog escapes from the yard. As the wife frantically calls the police to report their dog missing, Peggy spies on them through the window. She sees her strange Asian neighbor in the middle of making dinner, chopping meat while she's explaining the situation to the police.

"Dog!" she says into the phone. "Run out!"

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Miss List

I’m flying home! My five months in Thailand have also flown by, commemorated only by this rather spotty chronicle of my time here.

The last few weeks I’ve kept a list of things I’ll miss about Thailand.

The only things I felt like I left behind in Kenya were friends. Everything else I was happy to see becoming a progressively smaller dot on the African landscape behind me, getting more wavy and distorted through the trail of jet fuel from the plane as we barreled down the runway towards the US.

Overall Thailand has been much more livable. I didn’t have the same level of cultural immersion as I got from living in an African village, but I also didn’t emerge with the frayed edges of sanity poking through my sweater at awkward angles.

Things I’ll miss about Thailand:

1. I won’t dwell on the obvious: friends. I met some really great people and each of them touched me in their own way. Like all good friends should.

2. The way Thais treat animals. In the States we’d want to vomit a little, because many Thais treat their pet dogs and cats like kids, combing them daily and even dressing them up in barfy clothes with ruffles and ribbons. I came here with the expectation that Thais, like people in many Asian cultures, value animals for their utilitarian worth and not for the companionship and affection they can provide. I assumed that they believed that dogs and cats belong outside and should be grateful for scraps to eat.

In Kenya most people treated dogs and cats like, well, animals. Beating the family dog, keeping him chained up all day, feeding him household waste destined for the garbage pit, beating orphaned kittens on the head with a metal spoon, and throwing rocks at any animal that wandered into a human dwelling were all appropriate ways to treat things with four legs.

So in contrast, seeing Thai people carry puffy toy dogs in their motorcycle basket or letting them ride standing with their hind legs in their owners lap and front paws on the handlebars was pretty heart-warming. Most pet dogs and cats don’t cower and shuffle away when you lift your hand over their head, because they don’t expect to get beaten all the time.

Also, most people in Thailand can claim to have “soi dogs,” or strays that hang out on the lane (soi) where they live. It’s not clear whether these dogs technically qualify as strays since many of them are fed and taken care of by people who live on the soi. No one will claim ownership for the dogs or allow them inside their houses, but everyone makes sure the dogs are well cared-for. At the same time, they bark and fight all night, spreading mange and doggy STIs to each other. One of my first observations when I got to Thailand was that the country needs public health for dogs. Part of the problem is that people feed their soi dogs, so they stay healthy enough to reproduce, ensuring future generations of mangy but loveable strays sleeping like speed bumps on your street all day.

One of my friends says that her soi dogs are really intelligent. I suppose it makes sense if you’re going to survive as a stray in Bangkok. She says that when her soi dogs walk out to the main street, which is a two-way multi-lane thoroughfare, they look both ways before crossing the street. How can your heart not melt seeing that?

I think it puts their IQ higher than some American politicians we’ve known lately. Look both ways before invading a foreign country.

4. Cheap stuff. I suppose it’s not hard to beat out New York City when it comes to having cheaper stuff (or more charm, smaller rats, and friendlier people for that matter).

This was a mixed blessing, though. You usually get what you pay for in Thailand. If a bowl of noodles is 30 baht ($1), it’s not enough for a decent meal. If a pair of flip flops is 59 baht ($2), it won’t survive more than a week of hoofing around in Bangkok. If a cotton shirt is 180 baht, it’s not cotton. But, hunt around for awhile and you start to learn where the bargains are. Plus, $580 gets you a really nice, furnished one bedroom apartment in a centrally-located neighborhood, with a real kitchen and space to lay down a yoga mat in front of the TV or have drinks with a friend or two on the balcony. Three thousand dollars doesn’t even get you that in New York.

5. Obviously, the food. Although I’m a bit tired of Thai food for now, and just asked my mom to have a pot of spaghetti sauce waiting for me when I get home tomorrow, there are certain dishes that just won’t be the same back in the States. One of them is pad thai. The only thing that makes pad thai worth eating, in my opinion, is the sliver of baby banana and sprigs of Chinese chives that come on the side. In the States, they only give you bean sprouts.

Also, Thai food in the States isn’t properly spicy. I’m not even sure if most American Thai restaurants have that four-flavor spice rack that every self-respecting food establishment in Thailand has, the one with 1. chili powder (hot), 2. chilies in vinegar (sour), 3. sugar (sweet), and 4. fish sauce (salty).

And finally, Mahachai was THE place for cheap, fresh-off-the-boat seafood. One night I bought two fat crabs and devoured them both all by myself. I have to admit, though, it was a bit difficult to hear them tapping frantically inside the pot as I steamed them to a sweet, rich tenderness.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Protests

The protests are over. Tomorrow at 10am, the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have agreed to vacate both airports in Bangkok. Cargo flights are scheduled to resume, and passenger flights within the next few days.

Read up on it here.

It’s a complex situation with a political history that goes back for years – arguably a decade or more.

It’s been tense the last week or so, and although someone could easily change their mind, I feel like after tomorrow things will settle down for the most part.

Mostly I’m left with the observation that the way a country asserts and responds to civil disobedience is such a window into their culture. In many ways I found the protesters’ behavior, and the government, military, police, ordinary citizens and opposition groups’ responses to it to be very Thai.

What struck me as very Thai was the generally non-confrontational nature of the whole protest. In nearly five months of illegally occupying government buildings and essential transportation infrastructure, only two people were killed. This is of course two people too many, but considering the number of people involved, and the fact that the police and military were repeated called upon to do something to disperse the crowds (but didn’t), this is quite impressive. This is not to say that things have been peaceful. Just not as violent as they would be in most other countries.

But this is what also strikes me as very Thai: Throughout the protests, the armed forces were reluctant to do anything. The government would issue a weak order for the military to do something, and in response the military would issue a statement saying they weren’t planning to use force anytime soon.

It was similar with the cops. The (now former) prime minister told the police to shoo protesters out of the airport, and the police announced that the protesters should leave the airport, but nothing happened.

My favorite headline, from The Nation, reads, "Police to launch psychological warfare to weaken public support for PAD."

Psychological warfare? Some friends and I had a good laugh about that.

“You mean everyone’s going to be very passive aggressive from now on?”

“Yeah, everyone’s saying, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore, so there.’”

“Or they’re like, ‘Hehehe. I’m going to tell them yes when I mean no.’”

It turns out police were just going door-to-door telling ordinary citizens not to get involved with the protests. Still, this is what they refer to as taking action?

In some situations, Thai people are known to react calmly, or not very much at all. When you’re backpacking around the country on vacation, this is called The Locals Are So Friendly And Laid Back. When they’re your work colleagues, this is called Cross-Cultural Frustration.

Thai people strive to achieve or maintain jai yen, or a cool heart, based on the Buddhist principle of acknowledging the impermanence of all things in life and therefore remaining detached from things that ultimately don’t matter, like replying to emails or meeting deadlines. It’s a very enlightened view of the universe, but not very practical for working with unenlightened Westerners who want to get things done every once in awhile.

All judgments aside. Well, some judgements aside. Despite some very tense moments, especially during the last week, and a few explosives-related casualties, the overall mood of the protest seemed very jai yen. No one was really itching to physically harm anyone else. The police weren’t too interested in getting injured in the name of defending the rule of law.

There was also the reaction of the general populace during this whole conflict. In the beginning, PAD had a lot of popular support, especially among the educated elite and urban middle class. Bangkok, basically. A pro-government (anti-PAD) group organized itself and became vocal in the past week, with a lot of support from rural areas of the country.

As PAD’s airport occupation wreaked havoc on broad sectors of the economy without appearing to achieve anything, they started losing support. Thais who formerly supported PAD for their anti-Taksin and anti-corruption stance began to get irritated. They had viewpoints that weren’t represented by either PAD or the pro-government protesters. But where was their voice? I didn’t hear of anyone trying to organize a third movement. Maybe something was brewing and I didn’t hear about it. Oe maybe everyone was jai yen. Get pissed off, but then detach. All life is impermanent.

In contrast, how would this have played out in the US? A group of armed citizens take over an international airport and demand that the president step down? I’d say the city’s mayor would speed dial his riot police, and in 45 minutes they would’ve cleared the scene of every last protester and their farts. What does this say about American culture? That we’re results oriented? That we like to throw our (rather obese) weight around every chance we get, especially when it involves firearms? Or that we value the rule of law – and not getting sued – above most everything else?

Oh. Maybe you should scratch all that. Here’s a much more insightful, well-argued explanation, which got this issue of the Economist banned in Thailand:

A Right Royal Mess

And the response that appeared in the Bangkok Post:

An Open Letter In Reply...