Friday, May 16, 2003

First Impressions, two weeks into it....

Living in Thailand's remote northeast (Isaan) is . . . camping (cold showers, squatting over a hole, lizards on the wall, cooking on a Coleman-type gas stove, dodging very large bats at night out in the school parking lot, etc.)

...remembering what it's like to drink pop from a bottle.

...having a non-electric haircut: Scissors-only with a straight-razor trim at the hairline. Shoulder massage and hot facial towel included. Cost: $1 Best-looking haircut I've had in decades.

...desperately needing paper clips, but the word isn't in either of my two dictionaries.

...signing 50 autographs a day for giddy college co-eds who have no idea how tough my English tests are going to be. Someday my autograph will be framed on their wall next to portraits of Ivan the Terrible, or Ghengis Khan.

...seeing a broom cart vendor pulling his little cart down the road with a style of broom which must go back several hundred years. Reflectors on the back of his cart? A couple dangling CD's.

...watching farmers plow their fields behind water buffaloes, cell phone up against their ear (farmer's ear, that is).

...trying to describe a "dish drying rack" to the shop keeper at the local outdoor market. I think I've scored a point. He returns from the back of the shop with an iron.

...reminding friends back home that "Taiwan" is out in the ocean somewhere. "Thailand" is the location of that famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical that portrayed a Siamese monarch and English tutor, but may not be named here, because the movie is banned.

...being far away in miles from friends and family, but still close to their hearts.

Saturday, May 10, 2003

To Death and Back in Thailand

What does a "farang" (foreigner) say in front of a crowd 300 mourners at a Buddhist funeral? Try "Khop khun khrap" 300 times or "Thank you (for coming)" as you hand out a three-pack of perfume, booklet, and hard candies as souvenirs of the event. Souvenirs from a funeral?

Last Friday, Mr. Director, our college president, sent word by student-courier: "Mr. Director would like to invite you to attend with him the funeral of his grandmother on Saturday." I was taken aback: inviting a farang to such a personal thing? I had only arrived in Thailand a few weeks back, and I hardly knew Mr. Director (and he knew less about me). What if I was the bawling type? What if I made some awful cultural gaffe at the funeral? Nevertheless, I knew this to be a gesture of honor, so I sent word back: "Please tell Mr. Director I would be honored to accompany him to such an important event." I had no idea how prophetic the work "important" would become.
At the least, I thought it might be a good chummy time to get to know Mr. Director personally. I pictured us motoring up to Sakorn Nokorn (about three-hour's drive) in his private car, and making small chit-chat along the way. He speaks good English, and so communication wouldn't be a huge problem. Since my apartment situation was still in limbo, this might be an opportune time to bring up the subject of still needing a place to live--not a totally altruistic motivation.
I arrived at the school at 8:00 a.m. Saturday per Mr. Director's instructions. I was unprepared for what met me. An entourage of three vans, one transport truck, and 40 people--mostly school administrators, teachers, some 20 close friends, and a traditional Thai dance troupe (which rode in the open back of a two-ton truck--like an army transport). One entire van was crammed with white military-type uniforms, to be worn by tenured teaching staff.
Mr. Director's car led the way up the mountain, and I was crammed into a van of administrators three cars back. So much for my apartment problem. A bit of small talk in the van (and I mean "small"' taking into account my knowledge of the Thai tongue!), and then everyone fell asleep. Fortunately, I brought my class schedule and course descriptions along so I could prepare for my first classes on Monday. About halfway, we stopped at a vineyard while everyone tasted the banana and pineapple wines made there. I took a look at the labels: about 1% alcohol, and mostly sweet fruity content. I opted for the cold water jug in the corner. I would need 100% of my faculties for what might lay ahead (and that 1% just might strike the Achilles heel).
The drive was spectacular. Winding our way up a 1,500-meter heavily wooded mountain, on top was one of King Rama's many palaces. He stays at this one in only November of each year. Everyone spoke in hushed tones as we passed by the gates on the main road. The sign was in glittering pink marble with gold flecks in it. My how the Thai love their king.
We arrived at the Buddhist temple compound in Sakhorn Nakorn about noon. Having still not received instructions, I still had no idea what to expect, say or do. Only at the last minute, before leaving, I had contacted a Thai teacher to find out what to wear. "White or black" was all I got. OK. I opted for a white shirt with black pants, compromiser that I am. While white is generally the color of death in Asia, I'm wondering if the black is borrowed from Western tradition. Don't know that one as yet. We piled out of the vehicles and after removing our shoes, were ushered into a secondary building with all glass walls and ceiling fans stirring the humid air. We sat on the floor and a feast was set before us: fried noodles, many spicy-hot nameless dishes, sliced mangoes with an accompanying sugar/salt/chilis mix in which to dip the pieces, and bottled water.
Surprisingly, it was a relaxed, almost festive atmosphere. It was then I began to realize that this was no ordinary funeral. It was actually the funeral of Mr. Director's wife's grandmother, or his "grandmother-in-law" ("in-law" is not a common description of relationships in Thailand). I was introduced to some of the other guests: travelers arriving from Pittsburgh, USA; Beijing, China; and Australia. Someone whispered in my ear that The King of Thailand, himself, had sent a flame (like the Olympic torch) from the Bangkok palace, with which to cremate the deceased--one of the highest honors a Thai can receive at death. It turns out "grandmother-in-law" had spawned two provincial governors in her lifetime. Her grandchildren were sprinkled throughout higher education, government, and religious institutions at the highest levels throughout the country. This was a woman much admired and well-known by hundreds if not thousands of Thai.
After lunch, there was a three-hour break in which the funeral participants readied themselves. I wandered through one of the preparation rooms as the Thai traditional dance troupe applied white makeup (all had to look very white, very dead), and highly ornamental gold crowns rising 12 to 15 inches above their heads. Men and women both wore lipstick, drawn eyebrows and rouge, representing spirits of the dead, gods and demons. After make up and costumes, it was almost impossible to tell the gender of the dancers.
In another preparation room, the faculty and administrators from the college readied themselves. White military-style uniforms (hat and all) were donned. Each administrator and long-standing professor had medals on their uniforms sent to them from the office of the King of Thailand, representing years of service, special accomplishments, and levels of rank within the school. As I wandered among them, each proudly explained their medals and it made for great conversation to get to know them better.

All this time, hundreds of guests streamed into the temple compound, taking their respective seats under a dark green canopy situated across a courtyard from the funeral pyre. The funeral pyre on which the body was laid, was a 75-foot-high temple-like structure draped in expensive purple and white silks with hundreds of thousands of fresh flowers adorning every exposed square inch of the structure. The event must have cost hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Red carpets seemed to roll out in every direction. In a covered structure to the left of the pyre, huge 30-foot gold statues of Buddhas sat as if supervising the whole affair with their straight-ahead gazes. Yellow-robed monks scurried in every direction with their own individual preparations. Anticipation began building for the event to begin at 3pm.
Ten minutes before the hour, Mr. Director, who seemed to be in charge of the whole affair, came over to my seat. "Mr. John, would you do the honor of participating in this most important ceremony for Grandmother?"
"Oh no!" I gasped inwardly. "Not at a funeral! I was just hoping to be a quiet observer. What if they expect me to chant to Buddha? What if they make me pick up the deceased's charred bones with chopsticks (a la Japanese custom)?" But I could see Mr. Director was intensely sincere in his desire to show me honor by this act of invitation. Mr. Director also knew I was not a Buddhist. I trusted that he would not put me in an awkward position. I followed him to the funeral pyre.
"Please stand here." He pointed at a large table laden with perfume, hard candy and a colored booklet which described the life and times of Grandmother. "At the end of the service, when the guests come individually to pay their respects to Grandmother, I would like you to give them 3 little gifts and thank them for coming. Would you please do that to honor me and the memory of Grandmother?
"Of course, Mr. Director, I will do my best." In my mind, I practiced my fledgling Thai words and the accompanying bow ("wai") with folded hands in front of my nose. How do I hand a gift and fold my hands at the same time? Would any guests be offended at this unnamed foreigner crashing their private event? What kind of expression do I wear on my face during the coming two-hour ceremony while standing at attention in the hot sun in front of this large crowd? Sad? Festive? Contemplative? Inquisitive? I arrived at "meditative".
In a few short minutes, I regretted not applying my 30 phf sunburn preventative to nose and ears before stationing myself next to the funeral pyre. The Thai tropical sun can burn North American white skin in just 30 minutes. The sweat began rolling off my face. My hair became dark and sticky-stringy. I knew big dark patches were beginning to blot my white shirt and pants. My tie started buckling with the heat and sweat. What a sight I must be.
Despite my own little tortures, the ceremony was fascinating. It began with the traditional dance troupe going through slow gyrations which I didn't know the human body could endure. Their white bodies of death sent shivers up my spine. The other-worldly music of deep drums and strange woodwind instruments added to the exotic air. I felt transported back to some distant place and ancient time.

This was followed by long stretches of chanting by the Buddhist monks. A kind administrator, Dr. S, came out to the pyre to stand next to me, explaining the ceremony. It was one of those rich on-site educational moments for which you'd give an arm and leg.
By twos, the hundreds of guests walked up the twenty or so steps to Grandmother's coffin to burn a white paper rose and place the ashes on her pyre. As they turned left and walked down the side steps, I placed a gift in their hand, did the bow-with-folded-hands thing, and thanked them for coming. Most broke into a wide smile and acted delightfully surprised that this foreigner would so willingly take part in the warp and woof of their culture. The privilege was immeasurably mine.


Another big meal followed the ceremony (attended by all 300-plus guests). I met and talked to people from all over the world: doctoral candidates from the USA, government officials, the province's head monk, and several administrators from universities throughout Thailand. Despite having such accomplished backgrounds, the Thai maintain a wonderful attitude of humility and down-to-earth personableness. No one trying to impress anyone here. I like it. I feel right at home and among instant friends. Such bright people. Such warmth. What treasures to come across in my experience.
I was invited by Mr. Director to ride home in his car with his life-long friend, Dr. S, and Mr. Director's nephew who drove. What a change from the formalities of the funeral. We told stories, joked and laughed the whole way, Mr. Director undoubtedly being relieved that his funeral responsibilities were complete; and I , because I made it through without being lynched by an angry mob for doing something stupid; and Dr . S, because he had a chance to practice his English for an upcoming speech at the APEC-related events in May.
Oh yes, the APEC meetings. Foreign ministers from 71 countries surrounding the Pacific Ocean, all coming to Isan for preliminary planning meetings at the end of May. M University and our college have been chosen as the hosting bodies for special related events here in our city. On our long drive home, Mr. Director made a decision about a dilemma of his: He felt his English was not good enough to give the opening address, nor does he want someone with a Thai accent to try to communicate with all those foreign guests. I saw the wheels turning in his head as we discussed his dilemma: "Who from our province should give the short welcoming address to our APEC visitors? Ah, the person who speaks the best un-accented English at the school? Of course! There's this new 'farang' in my car from America who seems to thrive on challenges!" Or stumbles in where angels fear to tread.
Mr. Director turned to me with another one of those imploring looks: "Mr. J, I hate to ask you this, so soon after your favor of today, but would you do me the honor of . . ."
But that's another story in itself.
And the Adventure Goes On...

Post-story note (May 2005): Due to terrorist activity picking up in Thailand's south, security concerns moved the preliminary APEC meetings from Isan to Bangkok. My 15 minutes of fame will have to wait.

Thursday, May 01, 2003

First Day in My New World

[E-mail sent back home]

Hi Family,

Thanks again for smoothing my way to Thailand. All the help at the Saturday garage sales, follow-up cleaning at my house, taking me to the airport, etc. I hated to leave the departure lobby so quickly, but short and sweet was preferred to drawn-out and gut wrenching, wouldn't you say? I appreciate your tenderness, though. Just think of me as happy as a bug-in-a-humid-rug, getting to live a life I've only dreamed about for a couple decades. I am truly lucky and God-blessed.

I arrived in Thailand about 24 hours ago, fairly well-rested (slept about six hours on the flight). The plane was half empty, so I had a middle row of five seats I made into a bed with about six pillows and four blankets, plus my big winter coat I brought with me--oh yeah, like I'm gonna need that desperately!.

Because of the SARS epidemic, I went through 5 check-points at the Bangkok airport (interviews, taking my temperature, questionnaires to fill out, etc.). Apparently, I passed and don't have to wear the dreaded stuffy hot surgical mask (which I had to wear in transit at the Taiwan airport--miserable! Biggest hassle: it fogged up my reading glasses, so I couldn't enjoy my books I brought along!). Well, if that's the only trial I have to go through in this adventure, I get off pretty easy indeed!

Weather-wise, it’s not unbearably hot. I expected the high-90's (that was last week's weather, they tell me. Instead, it's about the mid-80's with high humidity. I'm sweatin' like the circus Fat Lady, but I believe I'll be used to it in just a few days.

The apartment for the foreign teacher, moi, is not yet ready (memories of Anna and the King movie), so I get to lay up in a three-star hotel for about $8 a night. Do-able, I'd say. Instead of shopping for bedding, a gas stove, and household items, I shopped for a bicycle (decided to wait on the motor bike), cell phone, and shirts for teaching. It's giving me a good chance to jump into the Thai language (today I learned my numbers 1-10 so I could start to understand the prices on unmarked items. Only a few thousand numbers to go!).

Tomorrow, I open a bank account, set up utilities, etc. All the stuff in reverse of what I've spent the last month doing back in the USA. I think my vocabulary will get a real stretch on that one. The student aide who met me yesterday in Bangkok, and has been tagging along on my excursions around town is already getting weary of all my questions and need for translation, so it is spurring me on to "get it on my own", and that's what I really needed (instead of relying on his brain).

As I jump into the culture, the thing most remarkable to me is how laid back everyone is. Even the negotiating for the bicycle price was a pretty docile affair. In just a few minutes, I got them to bring the price down considerably, they added fenders (nice for the coming rainy season) and a five-month guarantee. All with big smiles. No rancorous hard-driving debates. I wound up with an 18-speed mountain bike ("that's what the Mormon missionaries bought" I was informed by the helpful salesman), for about $90. Similar bike would have been $300-$400 in the states. I'm happy with it. It's blue with silver trim. Every place is flat around here, so pretty easy ridin'.
OK, not quite the Harley Davidson, leather and gold chains y'all had me pictured with.

I'm really, really enjoying myself already, and can't wait for school to open to plunge into a whole new work culture. Because I arrived with a few thousand dollars, I'm still living the illusion that I'm rich. Instead of taking the bus from the airport (which would have been agony, trying to haul my 200 lbs. of luggage on and off the bus), I rented a car and driver for the two-hour journey from the Isan airport to my town. Cost: $19. For lunch today, I bought for two people: very western spaghetti, chicken salad, orange juice, and two huge ice cream parfaits. Just under two dollars. For school, I bought two high-quality smooth cotton short sleeved dress shirts (one light blue, the other maroon-color) for three dollars each. I'm enjoying "living like a king" now, but I know reality will soon set in.

Take care everyone.

And the adventure goes on . . .