Monday, October 24, 2005

Flashback: The Emergency Space Pirate

Several years ago, in Seattle, I was waiting for a friend, sitting in my parked car in a temporary waiting area in front of a busy downtown building. A shiny black Cadillac SUV (that screamed "I'm having my mid-life crisis") drove up behind my humble working-poor Ford Taurus and parked in the EMERGENCY ONLY! space. Oh no. One of my worst pet peeves. It just drives me nuts when people act like they own the city.

Out gets Mr. Cool in his flashy sport coat, open-neck silk shirt, gold chest medallion, sunglasses, the whole bit from the 70's. He hits the remote button to set the alarm and lock the SUV, then struts into the office building. After about ten minutes, I had a feeling he'd be awhile. So, with nothing better to do, I decided a little entertainment was in order. I rummaged around in my glove box, and found an official-looking slip of bright-pink paper with no personal information on it. It would double nicely as a look-alike parking ticket.

In a dark black pen, I scrawled a note on the inside, folded it, got out and placed it under his wiper, and then got back in my car to watch what might transpire from my rear-view mirror.

It was definitely gratifying.

The minute Mr.-It's-All-About-Me exited the building, he stopped dead in his tracks--fixated by the bright-pink "ticket" that fluttered on his windshield. I couldn't hear it, but I could clearly see the curses escaping his now-snarling lips. He bolted the 60 feet to the SUV, and still panting, snatched the bogus citation from its spot. Head turned toward my mirror (yes!) he unfolded the note. I watched anger turn to relief, then to embarrassment, then back to anger as he read:

"No it's not a $75 parking ticket, but you should hope to God, next time, it's not YOUR loved one who needs a medic, ambulance, or firetruck real quick. Now MOVE IT, LOUNGE LIZARD!"

I couldn't resist a satisfied smirk. He had been outed and didn't like it one bit. However, the pricked conscience quickly scabbed over and rage now took control. He took a couple of menacing looks around the area, looking like he'd like to pummel the first suspect he laid eyes on. At this point I thought it wise to hunker down a bit in my seat, but still maintain a good vantage point via my mirror.

Seeing no one to vent his hostility at, Mr. Cool now definitely lost his cool. He turned the air blue with every expletive in the book (this time I could hear him) while he tore the note into a dozen pieces, and threw the confetti into the wind--which promptly blew back into his face and littered the hood of his $80,000 road toy. He ripped open his door, jumped into padded luxury, roared the energy-guzzler to life, and jack-rabbited out into traffic, nearly side-swiping another vehicle.

My last visual memory was watching him burn rubber for 70 feet down the avenue.

Immaturity confirmed.

OK, call me a gutless little trouble-maker, or a jealous piece-of-crap-Taurus driver, or assume a cretin like this guy seldom changes his self-centered behavior...

...but it can sure be fun making a point.

ou're asking: What does this have to do with Thailand? Ah! I read your mind! I was just over at reading one of Wit's blogs about the "mai pen rai" mindset of the Thais. This phrase has only about two dozen translations, but basically centers around concepts like "chill out, dude," "don't worry," "take it easy," "no problem," and "relax and let it go."

Recalling this Seattle experience, it hit me how much I have personally changed since my move to Thailand. In the US, I wanted to fight every battle that came along--especially if there seemed an injustice to correct--however small or large. That's OK if you're a full time crusader, but it sure takes a toll on one's peace of mind and emotional reserve.

There will always be jerks in this world. I'm not going to change them all. Probably won't even change a few. I also have to remember that whatever they sow, they will usually reap--with or without my help. Even more realistically, I have to admit that I'm a jerk sometimes. Amazingly, not all the decisions and behaviors that emanate from me are pristine examples of wisdom and selflessness, either.

I watch my Thai friends carefully in situations like the above. Most of them are much more generous with a "live and let live" frame of mind. Most of them are pretty realistic about things they can change and the things they can't. They hotly pursue the former and leave the latter battle for others more capabable or more powerful to fight. Their reaction often comes out as a "mai pen rai" utterance. "Take it easy." "Time will tell." It frustrated me for a solid year, until I began contemplating the motivations behind it.

No, Thailand isn't turning me into a wuss. I haven't given up the battle against injustice and trying to right the wrongs of life. But, I'm learning to pick my battles more carefully. As an average human being, I only have so much mental energy and emotional stamina. I need to focus on what's the most important, and pursue that. Jesus concentrated on twelve men in the span of just three short years. That focused investment in time and energy changed the world and billions of lives. A model to follow. A teacher who knows how to replicate redeeming values in the lives of others, and centers on that, at the expense of nearly everything else.

Win the smaller battles but lose the war?
Lose a few battles but win the war?

Two questions. Two mind-sets.
A fork in the road of daily life.

My sojourn here is helping me to evaluate the road I take with a little more reflection and reserved determination.


Mr. Cool/Lounge Lizard picture for illustrative purposes only. No, I didn't get a snapshot of my victim before he blasted off down the road.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ah, So THAT'S Why I'm Here...

Since I started working as an exporter years ago, developing close ties to Japanese and Korean expatriots living in the USA, I always asked myself if I could do it. That is, live abroad. I marveled at my customers' abilities to pick up on the language, customs and culture, and often fit right in. They seemed to relish being able to move freely and easily between two very different ways of living and thinking. From a business standpoint, alone, it was a huge advantage.

Not only was I curious about my ability to adapt, long term, but I wanted to "get below the surface" of cultures I had only observed from the outside. I wanted to get in on the inside. What little I had learned up to that point with my foreigner-friends had become the most mind and soul-expanding knowledge I had ever happened upon. I wanted more.

Traveling as a businessman and tourist to 30 countries didn't satisfy the urge, only deepened it. Finally, desire, time and opportunity married and I took the plunge into a foreign culture. Among the seven or eight cultures I had been closest to, I knew the least about Thailand. Therein lay the challenge I wanted.

Three years later, in retrospect, it was the best decision of my life. It has been like being "born again." New ways to talk, read, eat, think, sleep, bathe, keep house, shop for food, relate to people, work--and the list could go on to include all the variety of human life. Yes, it's mind-expanding and deepens the soul. Yes, it shows one how very limited his world and life view has been up until then. Yes, it's sometimes frustrating. Yes, it's sometimes exhilarating.

Have I rejected my old culture? Of course not. My students are eager to have that "foreign" contact, and I need to preserve that opportunity for them. Rather than rejecting my native culture, I have simply embraced a new one as well. I am becoming a child of two cultures. Both cultures contain things to embrace and things to reject. I hope to be wiser for integrating the best of both, and jettisoning that which doesn't edify.

The zenith of this experience is to really "connect" with other human beings from diverse ways of life. In some ways they seem like absolute extra-terrestrial aliens. Especially when caught by suprise in an unfamiliar situation, you often think you've landed on another planet.

Yet in many more ways, you are reminded that the Family of Man has undeniable traits that are shared by all. They appear to all be made in the image of a central alpha figure. You get below the exterior and you find the same dreams, fears, hates and loves you've known since childhood. Amidst all the strangeness, it adds a familiar comfort.

Karen Conelly, in Dreams of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand, says it best:

"I now conceive of travel, and more particularly of living abroad, as responsibility, neither a right nor a privilege but a profoundly human act. To slow down, to listen more carefully, to watch the surface until we glimpse what is underneath, to learn from people who know well what we do not know at all: these are choices, steps towards dismantling the barriers that separate not only nations and strangers, but neighbors, too."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Livin' It Up On a Shoestring

Living in Central Isan, I cannot possibly spend all of my meager teacher's salary in one month! Here's my monthly expense breakdown in Thai baht. This supports two people minimum, although I’m often treating more than one friend at mealtimes. (U.S. dollar equivalent in parentheses.)

Spacious, new, clean duplex apartment: 2500 ($60)
Utilities (water/electric--including air con): 1200 ($30)
(that's on a hot-weather month)
Phone, including high-speed internet service: 750 ($20)
Food (three daily meals in restaurants): 3000 ($75)
Clothes: 500 ($12)
Toiletries: 250 ($6)
Household supplies: 500 ($12)
Motorcycle gasoline/petrol: 200 ($5)

When I first moved here, it cost me about $1000 USD to completely furnish an apartment: TV, clothes washer, stove, refrigerator, beds, desks, sofa, two floor oscillating fans, wardrobes, kitchen sink and counter (yup!), and three floor-to-ceiling wood bookshelf/cabinet units. All new.

Another $1000 USD bought my transportation (a new 125cc Honda motorbike), and I was set!

If one thinks about living in Bangkok (BKK) costs are many times the above. A BKK friend rents an apartment about one-third the space of mine on a 9th floor for a whoppin’ 6000 baht. From there, it's an inconvenient one-hour bus commute to his job in the central city. Monthly rent 10,000 baht and upward for an equivalent apartment to mine is the norm.

However, even better than BKK, here the air is clean, the water is purer, the horizon more spacious, people smile more, and no traffic jams. Rural living is very peaceful and laid back. (That might drive some foreigners crazy, I admit). BKK is an overnight bus ride away when you get lonely for the big city lights. Two nearby airports make it even quicker: a 45-minute flight for about $40 USD, Thai Airlines. ($20 discount airlines).

But please-- don't tell anyone else about how good it is here. We don't want it to get too crowded!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Thai Names, Tongue Purgatory

Did you take phonetics in primary school? It finally paid off for me in my old age when I have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. My first day of teaching in Thailand, May 3, 2003, I faced the daunting task of deciphering the class list.

Unmercifully, it was in Thai script.

Mercifully, I passed around the list and the students transliterated their names into English script.

Unmercifully, I was no better off.

When the list came back to me, I faced the most confusing combination of vowels and consonants I'd ever laid eyes on. It must be a cruel joke. No one has a name this long. Up until that point, I thought "supercalifragilisticexpialadocious" was The King Tongue-Twister. Well, I hadn't been to Thailand yet. I stared at the list. The drops of perspiration belied my faked calm. My students had that "Now watcha gonna do?" smirk.

Hope you finally learn one difficult last name, and at least there will be a few repeats? (Like Smith, Jones, Wilson in the USA?) Dream on. Nearly every last name in my classes is unique, unless more than one student is from the same village (rare). In many villages many, and sometimes, the majority of the inhabitants have the same last name, which identifies their geographic origins. (Imagine every couple in a little Washington State town having the same name: "Mr. and Mrs. Duvall", or "Mr. and Mrs. Moses Lake").

Fortunately, the Thai like to go by their first names in conversation, and there are repeats. Still, three-syllable first names abound, so I had a BETTER idea--ah, the NICKNAME!

Thank God, most Thai also go by a one-syllable nickname (and they are sometimes very strange: Beer, Golf, Dung, Wit, Nit, Cat, Rat, Pooh, etc.). One syllable, even if it's a bit strange? I can handle that! Ah, pitffall ahead! Read on...

So after staring at my English-script class list until the students thought I'd turned into stone, I sent it around again. I cleverly had the students add their nicknames to their never-ending real names, and knew I’d licked the problem. I was now smirking.

Nope. False victory.

Now, with their "simple" one-syllable nicknames, I had to master the tones and dipthongs (vowel combinations). At least one girl in every class had the nickname “Koy”. OK, so I said it like it looked. Every day at roll call, my classes erupted into gales of laughter at my "Koy", and none of my mischievous little darlings would divulge the reason. Somehow they wanted me to keep this up. Normally, they talked and laughed with each other during the calling of their other nicknames, but when I came to Miss Koy, they hushed, edging forward in their seats, in eager anticipation of hearing the Farang Teacher botch her name once more. I hesitated every time, the proverbial pregnant pause, but couldn't think of any other way to give birth to it. "KOY" I would finally blurt out, in resignation. Their exuberance at my verbal offspring never diminished. Howls of delight could be heard up and down the halls of academia. A couple of times a nearby teacher would stick her nose in the open door to see what the ruckus was about, only to see 50 students gesticulating and guffawing, repeating my "Koy" to prolong the entertainment.

And only two silent human beings in their midst. Only two red faces. Mine and Miss Koy's.

After three months (I know, too patient), I’d had enough. One day, while having lunch in a crowded noodle shop with one of my Thai teacher friends, I loudly inquired, “So why do my students always laugh at "KOY" during roll call?” I thought I was going to have to perform the Heimlich maneuver on him as he gagged on his mouthful of noodles. Wiping half-chewed noodles off his shirt, and hastily looking around with a red face, he hissed the explanation to the farang in a tone that said, "Don't ever say that again in public!" Oh.

Well, because my tone was a little off, my “K” wasn’t soft enough, and my dipthong didn’t come through quite right (it should have sounded more like “Gawy”), I was daily calling the sweet female student a part of the male anatomy—the genitalia family, to be more specific--and to make it worse, it was the slang rendition. OK, so I had an x-rated roll call everyday. What’s a poor farang teacher to do?

Go to lunch with a Thai confidant early-on, and keep your voice down.

If your name is John or Jane Doe, count your blessings. If your nickname is a meaningless "JJ", double blessings on you. And to prove it, wrap your tongue around these twisters...

Miss Kittiya Buahom
Miss Yanan Woraphaibun
Miss Tanyarat Nasui
Miss Teeraporn Kaewpiw-Ard
Miss Nipaporn Noichan
Miss Nutsara Jaijumnong
Miss Sophita Sokaokha
Mr. Suradetch Amornsitticharoen
Miss Khanungnit Ariyatugun
Miss Pratana Somnongbua
Miss Phiraya Sinphromma
Miss Phiangphit Rungrotchawalit
Miss Rompruek Hanwongsar
Miss Wilaiwan Junpratak
Miss Sayamon Unboonruang
Miss Suwincha Thoranong
Miss Kritsana Nakhowong
Miss Thanyalak Somprasopsuk
Miss Patcharamas Singhol
Miss Monthakan Saenpradit
Miss Sirilak Chansaengsri

That's a typical class list (and multiply this times seven or eight classes...). Notice the only male in the class wins, hands-down, with a nine-syllable first and last name combination. Well, nearly three years later, I now use their more formal first names to bring a bit of decorum back to the class atmosphere, and even once in a while take a stab at a last name, thanks to those phonetics lessons way back in the Dark Ages.

~ God bless my first grade phonetics teacher, Mrs. Peterson ~

From Your
"Forever-Grateful JD"

P.S. Did I tell you I was going down to Phayakhapoomphisai Village to visit a friend this weekend? You're thinking the same thing? Yep, you can drive through it faster than you can say its name.