The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 9)

Alcohol

My move to Thailand involved many changes, to say the least. One of those changes, though trivial, has been mildly difficult to cope with. I went from living in the land of IPA and microbrews, a state renown for its wines, and a city that quaffs itself with a certain elitist gusto, to a place where the best brews give Budweiser its imagined crown, wine selections award Yellow Tail an envied notoriety, and whiskeys elevate Jack Daniels to the top shelf.

Thailand has some tight restrictions on alcohol imports. The domestic beers are all terrible and terribly similar. To me, Leo, Tiger, Chang, and Singha could have come from the same vat, with Singha being only marginally better than the rest. San Miguel and Heineken stand out as the higher-end, imported prizes. With an alcohol content of around 5%, my IPA palette took some time to be convinced I wasn’t drinking sparkling water. And yet, despite the low alcohol levels, I manage to get a sober headache within two 40-ouncers, indicating to me that there are some additives that are quite undesirable.

The wine selection is no better. Given that Thailand has a very low production of domestic wines (hello, tropical climate), all wines are imported and taxed heavily, yielding some staggering prices for sub-par wines. I’m usually excited to pay the equivalent of $10 for a bottle of Australian Shiraz that would go for $5 in the United States, and could hardly compete with a Napa production.

Then there’s whiskey. Thai whiskey is hardly whiskey. I think it’s actually technically rum, as it’s made not with barley but sugar cane. The best American whiskey I can find is Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey. The best Scotch I can find is 100 Pipers. My whiskey consumption has reached devastatingly low levels.

It’s not that the finer alcoholic products are unavailable. I’ve purchased English ales, Irish stouts, and even IPA. I’ve also seen Glenfiddich and Glenlevit behind cages in the farang supermarkets. French, Italian, Californian, and Chilean wines decorate the shelves of many grocery stores. But the price for these large production gems is often too high for my humble teacher’s salary to accommodate. I guess I know what I’ll be lining my suitcase with during my next visit stateside.

 

Tropical Rains

Living in a tropical part of the world comes with a double-edged sword: warm weather year-round and a lengthy monsoon season. Many people, Thais and foreigners alike, find the rainy season to be a drawn-out nuisance. The constant flooding is enough to keep one from carrying out daily routines. And if your only mode of transportation is a motorbike, it can be tricky—and even dangerous—getting anywhere in the heavy rains. However, these inconveniences have yet to diminish my complete awe at nature’s power.

During the rainy season, nearly every day brings the most tumultuous tempest. Rain comes down in sheets, sometimes nearly horizontal from the blasting winds. Lightning rips through the black clouds overhead—clouds so dark that afternoons resemble dusk. Thunder cracks so loudly you can feel it shake the building and rattle your ribs. But despite the routineness of the rain, I always feel the urge to stand at the window or in the doorway and gaze with wonder at the spectacle.

I love watching the gargantuan drops of rain bomb the earth so rapidly that water seems to seep up from beneath the pavement. I love the symphony of cackling pitter-patter on the tin roofs all around. And as much as I loathe the inconvenience of ankle-deep floodwaters gathering around clogged drains, I am amazed by how efficiently nature’s meteorological messages hiss at us, saying, “You think you’ve conquered this planet? You think your combustion engines, perfectly perpendicular construction, and lightyears of electrical lines have me subdued? Think again! I’ll devolve your existence to the primitive stupor of your forebears. Leave you in the dark, soaking wet and treading water.”

This awesome display all at the price of a poncho, browned out electricity, and a delay of plans. It’s amazing to me that we’ve harnessed the powers of lightening, wind, and water, and yet these same elements render our innovations obsolete, even for an hour. It’s poetry in the making, if only I were a poet.

Happy Birthday to ME!

November 2015.

Despite my beard and stubborn little gut, there’s still an 8-year-old boy inside me that once a year wants to jump on the nearest table, put on a paper-coned hat, and shout, “It’s my birthday! What’d you get me?”

But my learned social composure and 32-year-old crow’s feet always keep me from making a scene. Luckily for the little despondent birthday boy inside, however, Thai people have cultivated a more subtle way to get attention.

“Anyone want pizza for lunch?” I blurted in the teacher’s lounge moments before morning assembly. A ripple of excitement flittered across the faces of a few of my fellows. B-r-r-r-r-ring! There was the bell that regulated the lives of student and teacher alike.

As the students lined up outside sucking in the moistening morning air, I gazed around in wonderment at how unremarkable the day would be. The sun wasn’t any brighter or dimmer. The students weren’t any more or less chipper. The sky was the same shade of pale blue with the same brownish overlays of pollution wafting here and there.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The bass drum counted in the national anthem. The flag-pulley’s irregular squeaks struck a dissonant harmony with the patriotic chimes of the xylophone no differently than any other morning. The tatters of the flag sighed apathetically in the light morning breeze.

On my last birthday, I had only been living in Thailand for a couple months, so it was the usual celebration—out to a bar for the night with any old acquaintance who could make it. The difference was that my acquaintances were new, not old, and there was actually cake. The Thais aren’t shy about carrying a cake into a bar and asking the service staff to help with cutting and plating. In a way, last year’s birthday was an official welcome to the Land of Smiles—a welcome to a foreigner using universal elements of birthday partying.

This year, my birthday landed in the middle of the workweek. That meant that I had to teach classes and get on with life as if nothing special was going on. It also meant I wasn’t going out partying that night or doing anything extravagant.

It’s only fitting, I told myself. Thirty-two is an unremarkable age. Tuesday is an unremarkable day of the week. Why should anyone make a fuss? I certainly wasn’t going to. Propriety had long taught me not to make a fuss, even on my birthday. However, honesty reminded me that I craved the attention.

So I went about it the Thai way. I ordered two large pizzas from my favorite pizza place. As the lunch hour neared its closing, my treat had finally arrived.

I carried the two giant boxes proudly through the canteen, feeling the heat of the students’ glares almost as viscerally as from the bottom of the pizza. As I crossed paths with students stumbling about as they’re wont to do during free periods, I had to stifle my laughter at how stunned and confused they were when they eyed my lunch. I became aware of a slowly rising mob of zombies salivating for the spoils of ambush. Don’t look back, I told myself.

I entered the teacher’s room, the beam of my smile lighting my way. “Oh, Lord,” uttered one British teacher.

The aromas of freshly baked dough and tomato sauce comingled and filled the room, betraying to all within nose-shot what repast we teachers were enjoying. I opened the box and felt a burst of steam flow through my face. My colleagues stood nearby, perplexed at what to do next. “Help yourselves,” I said.

They reached in and tried to manage the greasy cheesiness without the aid of plate, napkin, or fork. Eventually I brought A4 paper in from my classroom to serve as impromptu plates. And we all ate in satisfied silence. Compliments were given to the pizza restaurant, inspiring recommendations and a rough description of its location.

But in ten short minutes the tyrannical bell rang, and I left two largely uneaten pizzas on my desk in the staff room and proceeded to my next class. On my brief shuffle from staff room to classroom, rumors of “pizza” were being whispered among the students. They gazed at me with curiosity and supplication. A change was gradually infecting the students—some primal parasite prodding their mouths to water and their gait to limp. Pizzaaaa.

I finished my class without episode and reentered the staffroom. My pizza still sat there cooling. I grabbed another piece and chewed while contemplating the acute angles that marked it’s missing pieces. How in the hell was I going to finish this thing? No way was I bringing it home! I’ve become my mother—overzealous in preparation. It didn’t help that the other teachers had already eaten during the lunch hour, before the pizza arrived.

Then it occurred to me—I was in a building full of teenagers, whose appetites miraculously never wane even in spite of gluttonous gorging. I went back to my classroom and announced to the four girls milling about, “If you want a piece of pizza you may help yourselves.”

Beams of light shot from their eyes. “Really?”

“Yes, but keep it amongst yourselves. It’s a secret. I don’t have enough to go around.”

They each grabbed a slice and began chomping down on it. Immediately I realized I had made several mistakes. First, they were already late to class, and I was rewarding their tardiness with pizza. Second, there were teachers on other floors who should have had first dibs. Third, there has never been a time in human history when a teenager has been able to keep pizza a secret. Within minutes, other students were creeping out of their classrooms asking for pizza. I had to tell each student that other teachers needed to have a slice, but when the teachers have finished they could have the leftovers. That promise, however empty, was enough to keep the zombies at bay for another hour.

At afternoon break, I began visiting all the other classrooms. “I have pizza in the staffroom for all teachers, if you want a slice.” The Filipino teachers knew immediately what was up: “Oh, it’s your birthday today?”

One by one, teachers stepped into the staff room to claim their slice. Being walled with windows on all sides, the staffroom was fully visible from outside. Thus, students gathered around the windows peering in, drooling over promised pizza, groaning whenever another teacher entered the staffroom.

I entered the staffroom after making my rounds, passing a panting, murmuring mob of hungry students on my way inside. “Teacher, now?” they inquired.

“Let me make sure every teacher’s had some.”

“OOOOOOHHHH!”

I examined the pizza when I entered. There were 4 slices left, and I had taken a request to bring one up to the head teacher. I grabbed a slice and looked up. Fog waxed and waned on the windows of the staffroom as students smeared themselves against the glass. I couldn’t possibly pass the famished throng unscathed. I darted left where there were fewer of them, and dashed to the nearest staircase. I glanced over my shoulder—they had begun limping my way. I had only speed and wits as my advantage over them.

After delivering the pizza to my boss, I cautiously crept downstairs. They students were still smudged against the windows salivating. I ducked quickly into the staffroom–the only safe haven from the ravenous teenage mob. The pizza had been wholly consumed, with only a mound of cheese and toppings in the middle of each box. I brought the boxes into my classroom, with the undead in tow. “Eat your hearts out,” I said.

Their eyes narrowed. They licked their lips. They stared gluttonously at the boxes. After a momentary pause, they attacked the boxes. Seeing its contents, they slowly looked up from their scavenged scraps as if to say, “That’s it?” But they simultaneously shrugged and tore up chunks of cheese and toppings and devoured them. And like a gust of wind, they were gone.

Only an hour later, when the final bell had rung, did some of the students appear to me, looking human again, and wished me a happy birthday.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 8)

Trash

Until I moved to Thailand, I didn’t fully appreciate how well ingrained into my values and habits environmental conscientiousness has become. Even those in the U.S. who scoff at environmentalism have a built-in sense of good stewardship when it comes to their personal trash. In the West, we’ve trained ourselves to keep our homes, neighborhoods, and parks beautiful by keeping them green. “Don’t litter! Put that trash in the refuse bin!”

Not so much in Thailand. So many times I’ve passed by an empty lot of land overgrown with brush, only to gaze in disgust at the tainted overlay of scattered plastic bags, straws, wrappers, bottles, cans, and papers. You cannot walk anywhere in the populated regions of this country without running across bits of litter sprinkled alongside the road or sidewalk.

You know that Texas-sized island of trash in the ocean? Thailand his it’s own county, to be sure. I often go to the seafood market to enjoy fresh barbecued shrimp and sit on the pier watching the sunset. But I have to will myself never to look down into the water for fear of being angered by the sullying scraps of Styrofoam and floating plastic.

I can think of two reasons for this. First, Thai businesses are obsessed with excess waste in packaging. The dauntingly proliferate 7-Elevens alone could lay claim to Thailand County, Trash Island. Every time I buy a bottled beverage—Coke, iced tea, water, even beer—they stick a few straws in the plastic bag. I always have to gesture and use rudimentary Thai to kindly reject both the straws and the bag. I want to have that recent video of marine biologists yanking a straw out of a turtle’s nostril on standby whenever I go into a 7-Eleven, just to shame them into ceasing the superfluity of straws.

But another reason for all the litter is a lack of waste management. Unlike in most American cities, there are no refuse bins dotted on every street corner. My best guess is that sizable portions of waste management budgets go into the pockets of key stakeholders and ministers overseeing the cleanliness of their country. It’s tempting to blame the litter on laziness. But I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that much of our awareness in the West is only activated by the hundreds of public trashcans regularly emptied by city personnel.

So while this can certainly be a beautiful country, its trash is a sad and disgusting, if not also embarrassing, problem.

 

Hygiene

On the other hand, it would be entirely unfair to accuse the Thais of being dirty people. Quite contrary. One of the things I really admire about the Thais is their hygiene. In part, it goes along with this general prioritization of appearances over everything else, but who can complain that no one smells bad?

I remember when I worked at Trader Joe’s how many times I would get choked by the stench of some weirdo who’s apparently never heard of soap…or deodorant. That foul, musty body odor—we all know it. I was tempted to cower behind the register or hurl insults at the person who had defiled my personal space with their toxic smell.

Here in Thailand, that odor is so rare. And when you do come across it, it’s always a foreigner, such as British dudes who haven’t figured out they’re no longer living in a cold climate. And climate is a big reason for this obsession with cleanliness; it’s hot as balls in Thailand. By the evening, even the lightest activity leaves you feeling all swarmy and sticky, so if you’re a decent person you shower for the second time that day.

The bathrooms seem particularly equipped for the twice-a-day cleansing ritual. Most Thai bathrooms are tiled from the floor to the tops of the walls. The floors are slightly sloped downwards towards a drain in the corner. There is rarely a partition between the toilet and the shower “stall.” In fact, there’s rarely ever a stall. The only time I see this segregation of bathroom functions is in hotels that cater to Westerners. The lack of partition makes cleaning the bathroom delightfully easily.

Rarely do I come across a toilet in Thailand that doesn’t have a sanitary hose—or “bum gun,” as one of my colleagues calls it. These are necessary because the sewage systems in Thailand are usually incapable of handling too much paper waste. Anyone who’s been to a developing country knows the system of tossing used toilet paper in a small waste can next to the toilet. So the sanitary hose adds a bit of cleanliness to the process, and cuts down on the amount of feces-smeared waste sitting in the trash stinking up the bathroom. Plus, in keeping with the general principle of easy cleaning, the sanitary hose provides a good rinse when sterilizing the toilet.

While Thailand may feature a sordidly prolific littering of trash, while street vendors pour cooking fat down the street into the drainage systems, while flooding may bring up mud, sand, and all the ickies seeping into the pavement, at least the people smell nice, at least my bathroom is sterilized, and at least my ass is perfectly clean.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 7)

Saving Face

When I planned my first trip to Thailand, I came across Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet articles explaining an aspect of Thai culture that I found both intriguing and seemingly nonexistent once I came here. They talked about how Thais are often embarrassed to admit they don’t know something. So when you ask for directions, they’ll give you wrong directions instead of telling you they don’t know. And if you ask for mustard at a restaurant, they’ll say, “Yes, but ketchup.”

What these anecdotes are demonstrating is what we foreigners have termed “Saving Face.” It’s the idea that Thai people don’t want to “Lose Face” by demonstrating ignorance or incompetence (oh, the irony!). While I’ve rarely run into saving face in the minor, inconvenient ways described in tourist guides, I’ve seen it take most egregious turns.

Example 1. I had this student last year who, despite painstaking efforts on his part, just could not learn English. He wasn’t one of the slackers in class that just goofed off. For every task, activity, or assignment, he applied himself to the point of breaking a proverbial sweat. But he just couldn’t seem to advance. Since we were an English-programme school, and are now an international school, I began to realize that his inability to learn English could really hinder his academic progress; all his classes were in English, so he was failing all of them. What was worse, the school provided us teachers few resources to address students like him. I concluded that he’d be better off in a Thai school, where he could stick to mastering subjects in his own language and have a better shot at scoring well on the O-Net (Thailand’s SAT, if you will).

So I called his parents. This initial attempt to reach out was unsuccessful, as his parents were hopelessly incapable of understanding English—they couldn’t even understand the name of the school. So I involved the school principal, a well-educated Thai woman who is nearly fluent in English. She called the parents and explained the problem I had raised.

Concerned, they had their older son who was studying at a university in America call me directly. I explained to him the problem. He asked what I advised them to do about it. I told him that unless they could foot the bill for him to get an English tutor, they might want to consider transferring him to a Thai school. He scoffed, and that was the end of the conversation. As it turned out, the boy’s parents were completely satisfied with their son’s lack of progress. What mattered more to them was that the neighbors saw him coming home in the British-style uniform—plaid shorts and a necktie. For the neighbors to see him suddenly wearing the standard Thai uniform would be losing face. Outsiders’ opinion of their boy was more important than his actual academic success.

Example 2. A young girl moved away from her mother living abroad to live with her grandmother in rural Thailand. We’ll call her Dina. She’s 17 years old. Recently Dina has been skiving off from school and coming home well into the evenings. She claimed it was because her teachers were keeping her at school late.

But upon investigation, her grandmother learned that she was actually hanging out with some 22-year-old guy. And by hanging out, I mean sleeping with him.

Dina’s grandmother chastised her to no avail. Then she decided to have a sit-down with the young man’s family, and plead that they either talk some sense into their son or financially provide for her granddaughter, since she was skipping out on a basic high school education for this “love affair.” They essentially told her off and said their son was a grown man and was responsible for his own actions, and anyway her granddaughter was the one coming to him.

Others in the family urged Dina’s grandmother to call the police, as statutory rape laws are about the same in Thailand as they are in the U.S. But Dina’s grandmother refused. Why? Because then the whole village would know her granddaughter was sleeping around. The family would lose face. So in interest of saving face, she has kept quiet about it.

Example 3. Some students at my school wanted to put on a Christmas fair. They petitioned the school owner for funds and were flatly denied. So they got creative. They sought sponsorship from local business on the stipulation that they would allow these businesses to advertise at their fair. When they approached the finance office to ask permission to put up banners around school property with the logos of their sponsors, they were expressly prohibited from doing so. The school manager stated that doing so would belie the owner’s lack of support. In essence, she’d lose face.

Luckily, the students eventually won this game of financial chicken. Since contracts were involved, the school is obligated by law to fulfill its end of the bargain and allow sponsor advertising. But this certainly isn’t the first time resources have been denied to enhance the education of tuition-paying students at a for-profit school. Much like this most recent event, those that have sought to solve such deficiencies using their own funds have been accused of theft and/or undermining the owner.

If these examples seem like isolated anecdotes, they’re not. Saving face is a destructive obsession that courses its way even into governance and administration. People refuse to admit errors, take advice, or learn something new. Anyone that would have the audacity to “defy” authority by suggesting a different course of action is castigated from that circle. It’s one of the many reasons for the inefficacy of government in this country.

To sum it up, it’s fucking stupid, and it perpetuates the ignorance and arrogance that wracks this country and keeps it from progressing out of the developing world.

 

Buddhism

One the other hand, Thai culture upholds some essential charms inspired by religious belief. It isn’t wholly consistent, but where it shows it shines.

For most of my adult life, I haven’t been much of a respecter of religion. But I find something completely charming and uplifting about Buddhism. In part, I think my fascination with the religion stems from an intellectual curiosity. However, I think there are aspects of the dogma that I find totally resonate with my worldview.

At its core, Buddhism provides a model for explaining and overcoming suffering. It emphasizes an upright lifestyle that seeks to transcend the trappings and foils of human experience. Buddhism holds that suffering is a part of life, and often comes from clinging to that which changes. Life is impermanent, so attaching oneself to anything is a guaranteed way to cause oneself, and others, mental and physical anguish. Craving and clinging to what is temporarily pleasurable and aversion to that which isn’t pleasurable leads to ugly results. By ceasing the craving and the clinging, one can free oneself from the ugliness—that is, the suffering.

In a way this explains why restaurants open and close freely, leaving foreigners accustomed to consistency and predictability frustrated. Buddhism would point out that I shouldn’t focus on the craving, that the inability to satisfy that craving allows me to transcend the craving altogether. It’s a nice thought, philosophically speaking.

So how does one put an end to the craving and the clinging? There’s an eightfold path, which includes developing wisdom through the right view and right intention, adjusting behavior in speech, action, and livelihood, and meditating to improve mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

There are other fascinating elements, too, such as karmic law and making merit. Merit making is inseparable from Buddhist society—especially Thai society. It’s literally the economy of the religion. Temples are built, alms given, monks’ bellies filled, royal projects funded, and more, thanks to the system of making merit. It has hypocritical expressions, such as wealthy elites trampling the lower class, only to “make up” for it by buying a large golden image of the Buddha or funding a temple upgrade. But overall, Thais are a generous people, often focusing more on altruism than selfishness.

Thai Buddhism in particular has other interesting elements. For one, Hinduism is inextricably part of the Thai cosmic model. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism take a particularly unique shape and role in the art, architecture, culture, and social hierarchy. For example, the king is both the devaraja and dhamaraja to his people. He’s a second Buddha, and a Hindu god. Merely being in his presence elevates one’s dharmic status, and he’s buried in a structure that symbolizes Mount Meru.

I am constantly exploring Thai Buddhism, trying to understand its idiosyncrasies and apparent contradictions. My discoveries continue as I read translated texts, visit temples, and partake in rituals, all with the sweet aroma of incense entering my nostrils. I don’t buy it 100%—there are certain eschatological elements that I find completely unfounded, even if they sound nice. But even where it’s wrong it’s still pleasant and nonjudgmental. Better than I can say of the religion I was raised in.